The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” commonly refers to events that happen in real life that it seems even the most imaginative authors couldn’t dream up. It explains why I love true stories. However, it’s not so much that they’re stranger than fiction—although I do enjoy when true events contain improbable occurrences. It’s more that, often, true stories are more compelling than fiction. Even nonfiction stories devoid of fantastical elements resonate with me strongly, whether they pique my curiosity with intriguing facts, or pull me in more fully with their authenticity as I become absorbed in others’ lives. Impeccably researched and expertly written, these ten thought-provoking nonfiction reads are just a few nonstop page-turners.
10 Page-Turning True Stories You Must Read to Believe
In March 1984, the commercial fishing boat Wind Blown left Montauk Harbor in easternmost Long Island with a four-man crew. The Wind Blown ultimately encountered a nor’easter, and the boat and the crew were never found. Years later, as Montauk changed from “a drinking town with a fishing problem” to a haven for the rich and wealthy, the town’s residents still grapple with the ramifications of the Wind Blown disaster. In THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK, Amanda M. Fairbanks utilizes the Wind Blown story as a focal point to explore themes of class, grief, memory, and legacy among Montauk’s residents.
An immersive account of a tragedy at sea whose repercussions haunt its survivors to this day, lauded by New York Times bestselling author Ron Suskind as “an honest and touching book, and a hell of a story.”
In March of 1984, the commercial fishing boat Wind Blown left Montauk Harbor on what should have been a routine offshore voyage. Its captain, a married father of three young boys, was the boat’s owner and leader of the four-man crew, which included two locals and the blue-blooded son of a well-to-do summer family. After a week at sea, the weather suddenly turned, and the foursome collided with a nor’easter. They soon found themselves in the fight of their lives. Tragically, it was a fight they lost. Neither the boat nor the bodies of the men were ever recovered.
The fate of the Wind Blown—the second-worst nautical disaster suffered by a Montauk-based fishing vessel in over a hundred years—has become interwoven with the local folklore of the East End’s year-round population. Back then, on the easternmost tip of Long Island, before Wall Street and hedge fund money stormed into town, commercial fishing was the area’s economic lifeblood.
Amanda M. Fairbanks examines the profound shift of Montauk from a working-class village—“a drinking town with a fishing problem”—to a playground for the ultra-wealthy, seeking out the reasons that an event more than three decades old remains so startlingly vivid in people’s minds. She explores the ways in which deep, lasting grief can alter people’s memories. And she shines a light on the powerful and sometimes painful dynamics between fathers and sons, as well as the secrets that can haunt families from beyond the grave.
The story itself is a universal tale of family and brotherhood; it’s about what happens when the dreams and ambitions of affluent and working-class families collide. Captivating and powerful, The Lost Boys of Montauk explores one of the most important questions we face as humans: how do memories of the dead inform the lives of those left behind?
Scholarship on Sylvia Plath is abundant, with works such as RED COMET by Heather Clark, MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG by Andrew Wilson, and PAIN, PARTIES, WORK by Elizabeth Winder depicting all facets of the famed poet’s life. Now, Gail Crowther’s THREE-MARTINI AFTERNOONS AT THE RITZ provides a fresh angle as she depicts the friendship and rivalry of Plath and fellow poet Anne Sexton. Having met at a workshop at Boston University, the two talented and ambitious writers commenced weekly meetings at the Ritz, filled with martinis and wide-ranging conversations. Immaculately researched and compulsively readable, THREE-MARTINI AFTERNOONS AT THE RITZ is a compelling account of the parallel lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton that humanizes the triumphs and struggles of these two prominent American poets.
A vividly rendered and empathetic exploration of how two of the greatest poets of the 20th century—Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—became bitter rivals and, eventually, friends.
Introduced at a workshop in Boston University led by the acclaimed and famous poet Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton formed a friendship that would soon evolve into a fierce rivalry, colored by jealousy and respect in equal terms.
In the years that followed, these two women would not only become iconic figures in literature, but also lead curiously parallel lives haunted by mental illness, suicide attempts, self-doubt, and difficult personal relationships. With weekly martini meetings at the Ritz to discuss everything from sex to suicide, theirs was a relationship as complex and subversive as their poetry.
Based on in-depth research and unprecedented archival access, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz is a remarkable and unforgettable look at two legendary poets and how their work has turned them into lasting and beloved cultural figures.
Shannon Leone Fowler’s TRAVELING WITH GHOSTS is a brilliant exploration of processing grief in the aftermath of unimaginable tragedy. In the summer of 2002, Shannon Fowler, a marine biologist, is on a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip across Asia with her fiancé, Sean. In a freak accident, when swimming off the coast of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, a box jellyfish stings Sean, killing him instantly. To cope with the loss of Sean, she returns to their shared passion of traveling, and finds her way toward healing through visiting landlocked countries, countries with tumultuous pasts, and, ultimately, to Barcelona, where she and Sean first met.
A “rich, unblinking” (USA TODAY) memoir that moves from grief to reckoning to reflection to solace as a marine biologist shares the solo worldwide journey she took after her fiancé suffered a fatal box jellyfish attack in Thailand.
In the summer of 2002, Shannon Leone Fowler was a blissful twenty-eight-year-old marine biologist, spending the summer backpacking through Asia with the love of her life—her fiancé, Sean. He was holding her in the ocean’s shallow waters off the coast of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, when a box jellyfish—the most venomous animal in the world—wrapped around his legs, stinging and killing him in a matter of minutes, irreparably changing Shannon’s life forever.
Untethered and unsure how to face returning to her life’s work—the ocean—Shannon sought out solace in a passion she shared with Sean: travel. Traveling with Ghosts takes Shannon on journeys both physical and emotional, weaving through her shared travels with Sean and those she took in the wake of his sudden passing. She ventured to mostly landlocked countries, and places with tumultuous pasts and extreme sociopolitical environments, to help make sense of her tragedy. From Oswiecim, Poland (the site of Auschwitz) to war-torn Israel, to shelled-out Bosnia, to poverty-stricken Romania, and ultimately, to Barcelona where she and Sean met years ago, Shannon began to find a path toward healing.
Hailed as a “brave and necessary record of love” (Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth) and “as intricate and deep as memory itself (Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World), Shannon Leone Fowler has woven a beautifully rendered, profoundly moving memorial to those we have lost on our journeys and the unexpected ways their presence echoes in all places—and voyages—big and small.
Awe-inspiring and full of hope, I AM A GIRL FROM AFRICA will persuade you to find a way to make a positive impact on the world. Born in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Nyamayaro faced tremendous hardship at the age of eight when a severe drought hit her village. After being given a life-saving bowl of porridge from a United Nations aid worker, and hearing the wisdom of her beloved grandmother, Gogo, Elizabeth sought to dedicate her life to giving back to her community, her continent, and the world. Decades after this life-changing encounter, Elizabeth has served as the senior adviser at the UN, launching the gender equality initiative HeForShe during her tenure, and has since held leadership roles with the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and UN Women. Now the Special Advisor for the United Nations World Food Programme, Elizabeth continues to pour her passion into making the world a better place, grounded by the African concept of ubuntu: “I am because we are.”
A “profound and soul-nourishing memoir” (Oprah Daily) from an African girl whose near-death experience sparked a lifelong dedication to humanitarian work that helps bring change across the world.
When severe drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, then only eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life’s purpose. Unable to move from hunger and malnourishment, she encountered a United Nations aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life—a transformative moment that inspired Elizabeth to dedicate herself to giving back to her community, her continent, and the world.
In the decades that have followed, Elizabeth has been instrumental in creating change and uplifting the lives of others: by fighting global inequalities, advancing social justice for vulnerable communities, and challenging the status quo to accelerate women’s rights around the world. She has served as a senior advisor at the United Nations, where she launched HeForShe, one of the world’s largest global solidarity movements for gender equality. In I Am a Girl from Africa, she charts this “journey of perseverance” (Entertainment Weekly) from her small village of Goromonzi to Harare, Zimbabwe; London; New York; and beyond, always grounded by the African concept of ubuntu—“I am because we are”—taught to her by her beloved grandmother.
This “victorious” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir brings to vivid life one extraordinary woman’s story of persevering through incredible odds and finding her true calling—while delivering an important message of hope, empowerment, community support, and interdependence.
Those looking for an uplifting true story will find joy in JULIET’S ANSWER. After having his heart broken, English teacher Glenn Dixon packs his bags and travels to Verona, Italy, the setting of Shakespeare’s timeless ROMEO AND JULIET. There, Glenn joins the Secretaries of Juliet, a volunteer group that responds to every love letter sent to Juliet. Through answering letters and studying the historical and cultural impact of ROMEO AND JULIET while in Verona, Glenn begins to cope with his own heartbreak and brings his newfound insights back to the classroom in his lessons about the play.
Eat, Pray, Love meets The Rosie Project in this fresh, heartwarming memoir by a man who travels to Verona and volunteers to answer letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet, all in an attempt to heal his own heartbreak.
When Glenn Dixon is spurned by love, he packs his bags for Verona, Italy. Once there, he volunteers to answer the thousands of letters that arrive addressed to Juliet—letters sent from lovelorn people all over the world to Juliet’s hometown; people who long to understand the mysteries of the human heart.
Glenn’s journey takes him deep into the charming community of Verona, where he becomes involved in unraveling the truth behind Romeo and Juliet. Did these star-crossed lovers actually exist? Why have they remained at the forefront of hearts and minds for centuries? And what can they teach us about love?
When Glenn returns home to Canada and resumes his duties as an English teacher, he undertakes a lively reading of Romeo and Juliet with his students, engaging them in passions past and present. But in an intriguing reversal of fate and fortune, his students—along with an old friend—instruct the teacher on the true meaning of love, loss, and moving on.
An enthralling tale of modern-day love steeped in the romantic traditions of eras past, this is a memoir that will warm your heart.
For fans of memoirs about dysfunctional families, in the vein of Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, THE ESCAPE ARTIST explores the ramifications of long-held family secrets coming to light. When Helen Fremont is disinherited from her father’s will, it prompts her to dig into the web of secrets entangling her family. She unpacks growing up as a Catholic when in it turns out her parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors; her family’s attempts to hide her sister’s mental breakdowns from the world; and her own struggles with disordered eating and exploring her sexual identity.
A luminous new memoir from the author of the critically acclaimed national bestseller After Long Silence, The Escape Artist has been lauded by New York Times bestselling author Mary Karr as “beautifully written, honest, and psychologically astute. A must-read.”
In the tradition of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and George Hodgman’s Bettyville, Fremont writes with wit and candor about growing up in a household held together by a powerful glue: secrets. Her parents, profoundly affected by their memories of the Holocaust, pass on to both Helen and her older sister a zealous determination to protect themselves from what they see as danger from the outside world.
Fremont delves deeply into the family dynamic that produced such a startling devotion to secret keeping, beginning with the painful and unexpected discovery that she has been disinherited in her father’s will. In scenes that are frank, moving, and often surprisingly funny, She writes about growing up in such an intemperate household, with parents who pretended to be Catholics but were really Jews—and survivors of Nazi-occupied Poland. She shares tales of family therapy sessions, disordered eating, her sister’s frequently unhinged meltdowns, and her own romantic misadventures as she tries to sort out her sexual identity. Searching, poignant, and ultimately redemptive, The Escape Artist is a powerful contribution to the memoir shelf.
High school dropout turned Indigenous scholar Jesse Thistle lays bare his exploration of his Métis-Cree identity (an indigenous people in Canada) and his struggles with addiction and mental health in the aptly titled FROM THE ASHES. Abandoned by his parents as a child, Jesse and his two brothers were placed into the foster care system and were eventually placed with their paternal grandparents. Under their care, Jesse struggled with their tough-love approach, frequently rebelling while also dealing with the ghosts of his father’s addiction. Soon, Jesse found himself in a cycle of drug and alcohol addiction while living on the streets and committing petty crime. FROM THE ASHES is not only Jesse’s account of his adversities, but also his story of how his embrace of his Indigenous culture and family gave him strength to overcome his obstacles.
This #1 internationally bestselling and award-winning memoir about overcoming trauma, prejudice, and addiction by a Métis-Cree author as he struggles to find a way back to himself and his Indigenous culture is “an illuminating, inside account of homelessness, a study of survival and freedom” (Amanda Lindhout, bestselling coauthor of A House in the Sky).
Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers were cut off from all they knew when they were placed in the foster care system. Eventually placed with their paternal grandparents, the children often clashed with their tough-love attitude. Worse, the ghost of Jesse’s drug-addicted father seemed to haunt the memories of every member of the family.
Soon, Jesse succumbed to a self-destructive cycle of drug and alcohol addiction and petty crime, resulting in more than a decade living on and off the streets. Facing struggles many of us cannot even imagine, Jesse knew he would die unless he turned his life around. Through sheer perseverance and newfound love, he managed to find his way back into the loving embrace of his Indigenous culture and family.
Now, in this heart-wrenching and triumphant memoir, Jesse Thistle honestly and fearlessly divulges his painful past, the abuse he endured, and the tragic truth about his parents. An eloquent exploration of the dangerous impact of prejudice and racism, From the Ashes is ultimately a celebration of love and “a story of courage and resilience certain to strike a chord with readers from many backgrounds” (Library Journal).
Oskar Schindler is one of the most well-known figures from World War II, his story immortalized in the novel and film Schindler’s List. Less well-known is the story of Irena Sendler, a social worker who in 1942 was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health specialist. Anticipating the fate that would befall many Jewish families unable to leave the ghetto, Irena went door to door and asked families to trust her with their children. Utilizing a network of local tradesmen, ghetto residents, and her lover in the Jewish resistance, Irena was able to smuggle thousands of children past the Nazis, while recording their names in hopes that their families might find them after the war.
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot comes an extraordinary and gripping account of Irena Sendler—the “female Oskar Schindler”—who took staggering risks to save 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
In 1942, one young social worker, Irena Sendler, was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health specialist. While she was there, she began to understand the fate that awaited the Jewish families who were unable to leave. Soon she reached out to the trapped families, going from door to door and asking them to trust her with their young children. Driven to extreme measures and with the help of a network of local tradesmen, ghetto residents, and her star-crossed lover in the Jewish resistance, Irena ultimately smuggled thousands of children past the Nazis. She made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through secret passages in abandoned buildings.
But Irena did something even more astonishing at immense personal risk: she kept a secret list buried in bottles under an old apple tree in a friend’s back garden. On it were the names and true identities of these Jewish children, recorded so their families could find them after the war. She could not know that more than ninety percent of their families would perish.
Irena’s Children, “a fascinating narrative of…the extraordinary moral and physical courage of those who chose to fight inhumanity with compassion” (Chaya Deitsch author of Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family), is a truly heroic tale of survival, resilience, and redemption.
Unbelievable true stories of little-known historical events is one of my favorite subcategories of nonfiction books, and THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY is a shining example of this genre. Denise Kiernan’s compelling narrative focuses on Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town shrouded in so much secrecy it appeared on no maps, despite its population of 75,000. During World War II, as part of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb, thousands of mostly female civilians were recruited to work in Oak Ridge. These women knew they were contributing to the war effort and they were making solid wages, but they had no idea what the result of their efforts would be until the war’s end. Drawing upon the voices of the women who lived and worked at Oak Ridge, THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY illuminates a previously unknown chapter of World War II.
Intimate and detailed, Denise Kiernan explores the untold story of the thousands of young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in American history: the creation of the atomic bomb.
Fans of true crime and investigative journalism will devour THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, a hunt for a serial killer in the hills surrounding Florence, Italy. When Douglas Preston moved his family to a 14th century farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, little did he know that the olive grove in front of the farmhouse was the site of the most infamous double murders in Italian history, committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. As Preston and investigative journalist Mario Spezi attempt to find out the identity of the Monster of Florence, they themselves become the targets of a police investigation.
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