I love book lists, but I also kind of hate them — I always think other people’s lists are wrong.
So when the good folks at the Power of Storytelling narrative conference in Bucharest, Romania, asked me for a list of great nonfiction, I pounced. Finally, I thought. A list that will be right! (And then, after sending it, I continued to tinker. Because it wasn’t quite right; no list can be.)
This is not a top 10 list, just a list of 10 great books of narrative nonfiction.
A summer spent reading these books would be a wonderful summer indeed.
1. Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot.” On Coney Island, Frey spent a year with black teens who believed that a professional basketball career would be their way out of poverty. For just one of them — Stephon Marbury — it was.
2. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family.” The writer spent a decade hanging out with a family in the Bronx, observing how years of poverty grind people down and affect generations. This is immersion journalism at its finest.
3. Anything by Erik Larson, the former Wall Street Journal reporter who now writes narrative books of history. His new book, “Dead Wake,” about the sinking of the Lusitania, is fascinating, but probably his most entertaining book is “Devil in the White City,” a true story about a serial killer prowling the 1893 World’s Fair.
4. “Mountain City” by Gregory Martin is a beautiful memoir about the quirky people in his tiny hometown, now a ghost town in Nevada. Quiet, understated, but carefully and lovingly observed.
5. Tracy Kidder won a Pulitzer Prize for “Soul of a New Machine,” about the invention of a computer. But I am partial to “House,” his book about the construction of a family home, which he writes as a page-turner drama. He starts with the clients, then the architect, and moves on to the builders, whom you will grow to love.
6. Anne Fadiman: “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.” A look at the clash of two cultures: American and Hmong, illuminated by the serious illness of a young Hmong child.
7. I wanted to include “Toast,” by Nigel Slater, one of my favorite childhood memoirs, but instead I am going with Emily Fox Gordon’s “Are You Happy?” another memoir of childhood, which is evocative and melancholy and brilliant.
8. In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” New York Times journalist Isabel Wilkerson traces the personal stories of three black families who made the migration from the South to the North. A powerful blend of history and narrative reportage.
9. Norman Mailer, “The Armies of the Night,” his personal account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Mailer is a character in his own book, and he comes across as bombastic, foolish, jealous, a drinker, a worrywart, a bit of a buffoon — all deliberate, of course. Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
10. The travel writing of Eric Newby. Any of it. All of it. But especially “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.” This book is not just an exploration of 1950s Afghanistan, but it’s also a lesson in how to write about oneself in a modest and self-deprecating way. Oh, heck, read Newby’s “The Last Grain Race,” too, just because it’s so much fun. And now I will stop, although I could go on and on.
Disagree? Have other suggestions? Wanna fight? Send me an e-mail.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks