WSIRN Ep 204: Nonfiction that reads like a thrilling novel

WSIRN Ep 204: Nonfiction that reads like a thrilling novel

To all our new listeners, welcome aboard! What Should I Read Next can be listened to in any order backwards or forwards—although our producer Brenna assures readers that backwards is best. If you find the idea of bingeing 200 episodes daunting, we’ve made a Spotify playlist of my 30 favorite episodes to give you a place to start.

Today I’m talking books with David Krohse, an Iowa reader who’s woven a love of literature into all aspects of his life — the waiting room of his chiropractic practice, the bar with a group friends, and quality time spent with his wife.

David loves larger than life nonfiction, especially if it reads like an intense thriller, so today I’m hooking him up with exactly that. 

Let’s get to it!

You can join David’s Inspired Book and Brew Crew on Facebook!

Click here to read the full episode transcription (opens in a new tab).

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More fun book recommendations happen on our Instagram feed where we use the hashtag #readerrecs to gather your recommendations for a reader who’s looking for a little literary inspiration.

Books mentioned in this episode:

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Books mentioned:

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie
Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life, by Anne Bogel
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, by Gary Chapman
The Shawshank Redemption from Different Seasons, by Stephen King
Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King
Chop Wood, Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great, by Joshua Medcalf
The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins
The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues, by Patrick M. Lencioni
American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, by Gary Kinder
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson
You, by Caroline Kepnes
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
Me Talk Pretty Someday, by David Sedaris
Calypso, by David Sedaris
We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter
The Real Odessa: How Person Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina, by Uki Goni
Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell
Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, by Ryan Holiday

Also mentioned:

● True Crime podcasts Dr. Death and Dirty John.
The Inspired Book and Brew Crew on Facebook

Thanks to this week’s sponsors:

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What do YOU think David should read next? And tell us — what book are you most thankful for?

56 comments | Comment


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  1. Chelsey says:

    So I DO love Erik Larson, but I also related so much to everything this guest said. I think nonfiction that reads like fiction is my favorite subgenre. Here are some of my favorites:
    Bad Blood
    Midnight in Chernobyl
    Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11
    The Indifferent Stars Above
    These were all 5 star non-fiction books for me – ones that I found so compelling all the way through.
    (I’d also be curious to know his enneagram number. I’m a 6w5 and I feel like we might be the prime consumers of this subgenre.)

    • It sounds like we do have very similar tastes!

      Yes, Bad Blood was the fourth one I mentioned that it was hard to leave off my list of three favorites!
      Midnight in Chernobyl was good – Val and I listened to it while hiking and roadtripping through Washington this summer.
      I’ll look into the 9/11 book. I listened to the Looming Tower and it was not written in an engaging way.


      • Kelsey says:

        I was going to recommend “Fall and Rise” too! I read the entire 461 page book less than 24 hours: I just couldn’t put it down and I knew there was no point in trying to do anything else :).

      • Amy Snyder says:

        Fall and Rise is amazing (and heartbreaking) on audio. The Only Plane in the Sky and The Day the World Came to Town are also excellent 9/11 books (both good on audio).
        You might like The Barefoot Bandit by Bob Friel.

        • David Krohse says:

          Ha, I’m definitely already a Colton Harris Moore fan and have intended to read a book on him! I lived in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle shortly before his escapades on the islands nearby. This past summer when my wife and I were exploring Western Washington we listened to a podcast episode on his story since she wasn’t familiar with it. It’s definitely “unbelievable nonfiction”

    • Oiseau says:

      I’m a six with a strong 5 wing – and a counter-phobic six. So I run straight toward the source of my anxiety. I love both dystopia and disaster stories!

  2. Emily says:

    A great audiobook that will make you laugh and will also inspire you is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. The audiobook is read by the author, and I found it to be very fun and engaging. Seems like it’s a bit outside of your typical wheelhouse, but it would definitely be worth trying!

    • Thanks! I read that one and it was decent. I think I came into it with a bit too high expectations and never felt it reached a true climatic moment so ended up feeling it was decent but not awesome.

      • JennSev says:

        So you mentioned Goodreads on the podcast and I just went shelf stalking…
        Hatchet and Power of One were two standouts of my grade school/high school years.
        Creativity Inc was one I would have rec’d- your have it marked read but didn’t give it a rating, what did you think?

        My rec’s:
        •Into Thin Air by John Krakauer-I am assuming you have read this being outdoorsy but it isn’t on your GoodReads shelf so I am including it.
        •Alive by Piers Paul Read- same caveat as above.
        •I see Lincoln In the Bardo on your to-read list, be sure to do the audiobook for that one.
        •The Family That Could’t Sleep by D.T. Max. Misfolding prions will freak you out.
        •Timeline by Michael Crichton
        •The Moscow Rules by Antonio J Mendez. Cold War spy tactics
        •The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend
        •The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. This was fascinating.
        •In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. Have Kleenex nearby.

        • David Krohse says:

          Hatchet was definitely a defining book of my childhood. I read and enjoyed most of Gary Paulsens work.

          Creativity inc didn’t connect with me too much.

          We are reading Into Thin Air this month for the Inspired Book Club and I have read Alive.

          The rest of these I will look into! Thanks!!!!

      • Ashley says:

        I also really like non-fiction that reads like a thriller and like to listen on audiobook. I would second Just Mercy (I could not stop listening, it’s so moving) and Into Thin Air (or pretty much anything by Jon Krakauer is amazing). Some others I’ve loved are:
        The Glass Castle-memoir about growing up with extremely dysfunctional parents.
        Hillbilly Elegy-another memoir about growing up in the south.
        It Came From something Awful-about the rise of 4chan and the role it played in the 2016 election
        The Deepest Well-about a pediatrician who started universal screenings for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores. I think every medical professional needs to read this one, it’s fascinating and very fast paced.

  3. Kacie says:

    David might like another book by Robert Kurson, Rocket Men. It is about the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. Well researched and told in an engaging narrative, with tense moments that kept me turning the pages.

    Also wondering if he’s listened to Born a Crime by Trevor Noah? Funny, sad, informative memoir.

    Last, wondering if he’s read Unbroken, or maybe the autobiographical version of his story?

  4. d says:

    Into the Wild. It’s older now but I like that it’s very engaging and reasonably short.

    I have also paired The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot with Next by Michael Crichton as a great way to explore the implications of what happened to Ms. Lacks with some other creepy possibilities.

  5. Caroline says:

    I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but two books that I’ve read recently and can’t stop recommending are “The Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann and “The Lost Kingdom of the Monkey God” by Douglas Preston. Both are action-packed and tell unbelievable true stories. The Grann book is a real life murder mystery and the story of the beginnings of the FBI, but also tells a deeper and sadder story about the treatment of indigenous people in our country. The Preston book tells the story of an expedition into Honduras to uncover ancient ruins. It features deadly snakes, controversial imagining technology and flesh-eating parasites. Both are fantastic reads.

    • David Krohse says:

      Funny you mention those two! I was strongly recommended to read Killers of the Flower Moon and.found it boring and not engaging. I came across the Monkey God one and quit in the middle of that one as well. So ultimately I would encourage you to try the three books I mentioned and Bad Blood as I think you will find them truly a joy to read of you enjoyed those two.

      • Chelsey says:

        I also found Killers of the Flower Moon sooooo boring. I was super intrigued since it was a topic I knew nothing about and I was curious about the FBI component, but I struggled through.

  6. Janet K says:

    One book that I read, and loved, that read like a novel was The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

  7. Callie says:

    I was going to recommend Bad Blood, which I see has been mentioned above. Also, if you haven’t read it already, check out Endurance by Alfred Lansing, and maybe Columbine by Dave Cullen? Those were the two books that made me realize I like this “thriller-like non-fiction” genre.

  8. Torrie says:

    I enjoyed the conversation so much! I came to recommend Bad Blood, but I see David has read it. Here are two more…

    The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers- This is a narrative nonfiction about a young Yemeni man who grew up in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco and envisions a better future for himself. He starts a coffee import company with a mission to help Yemeni farmers. It’s a rollicking adventure! There’s a lot of cool behind the scenes info about the coffee business, historical info about Yemen, and a compelling family story. I love this book.

    A book that made me laugh out loud is called The Journal of Best Practices, by David Finch. The subtitle is “A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband.” (Note that this book came out before the DSM IV got rid of the Asperger label) David Finch is hilarious. He trained as a comedy writer at Second City and this book is so funny. Since David (the WSIRN guest) is interested in people and clearly values and invests in his marriage, I think he’ll enjoy it! I have no idea if there is an audiobook version, but it’s a quick read and would be a good nightstand “get a few pages in before sleep” book.

  9. This is the first time I’ve ever heard Erik Larson described as textual and boring and I’m HERE for it! I’ve never read Larson but I also held similarly unpopular opinions about The Perfect Storm (snooze for me) and Ghost Map (DOUBLE snooze).

    My recs would be:

    1. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel – this is the mildly creepy, outdoorsy, hermity Elon Musk read-alike you need in your life. It would be GREAT for your long walks
    2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson – absolutely not suspenseful but DEFINITELY inspiring and great for fans of the Serial podcast (also recommended if you haven’t already jumped in that particular pool) This would be a great one for your book club!
    3. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – Again, not suspenseful but HILARIOUS and such great writing. (This is the antithesis of “plopping something on the page.”) If you don’t laugh out loud, see a doctor. You might need an attitude “adjustment.” (See what I did there? lol)
    4. American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse – really great true crime writing, with a bit o’ suspense and a lot of OMG’s
    5. Columbine by Dave Cullen – Be prepared to stay up late aching over this one. This one isn’t so much sensational, as it is heartbreaking and eye-opening to the misconceptions that get cycled through the media

    I would second Anne’s nod to Calypso. I’m an unapologetic Sedaris fan and I’ve read it all. There are some of his that I like more than Calypso, but I think Calypso has the widest appeal. There are two stories, one about a tumor and one about poop. Both had me CRYING with laughter.

  10. Susanna says:

    So I guess if you don’t like Erik Larson, you won’t be interested in Isaac’s Storm, about the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, but I found it riveting and very informative–
    In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, classic.
    Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Very readable (and listenable, this is actually the only one I’ve heard on audio, but all of these are on audio, except Wild Ride.)
    In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, about the whaleship Essex, true story, very very good.
    If you want funny, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen, of Hatchet fame, but this is true story about his amateur attempts to train sled dogs—“can’t breathe” funny.
    Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc by Anne Hagedorn, about the famous stud farm and it’s appalling fall. My father recommended this to me, not because he cared about horse racing, but he was a CPA, and found the business end of it fascinating.
    Anything by Bill Bryson!!

  11. Jennifer says:

    These are my type of books! Thanks for the discussion. Others not already mentioned:
    Ben Macintyre (eg Operation Mincemeat)
    Bill Browder, Red Notice
    Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
    Norman Mailer, Executioner’s Song
    Joe McGinniss, Fatal Vision
    Jill Lepore, Secret History of Wonder Woman (fascinating biography of William Marston)
    Sam Anderson, Boomtown (new to me history of Oklahoma City)
    Mentioned and I second:
    Jon Krakauer
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    Maybe too history professor or political:
    Michael Isikoff
    Barbara Tuchman
    Timothy Snyder

  12. Michelle L says:

    Second vote here for River of Doubt, I couldn’t put it down and couldn’t believe anyone survived. That and Bad Blood are my go to recommendations for exciting non-fiction.
    BTW, this guest had my heart with his summation of Erik Larsen’s style. I’ve read him twice because Book Group. Cannot understand the love …

  13. Stacy says:

    I would recommend Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo. The author really made the time period and the events come alive.

  14. Leslie says:

    Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, and Killers of The Flower Moon by David Grann fit the description of nonfiction books that read like thrillers to me.

  15. Megan says:

    I am not normally a nonfiction fan, but I picked up Dead Wake by Erik Larson and LOVED it! After that I grabbed The Devil in the White City and hated it. If I had picked that one up first, I never would’ve read Dead Wake. Dead Wake reads like fiction and I had to go online multiple times to check that it was a true story . . . so maybe some of his stuff would work for you, too?

  16. Donna says:

    I would recommend Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers, by Mary Roach, for a funny non-fiction about what they use cadavers for. A little off the beaten path but very interesting yet entertaining.

  17. Diane says:

    David and Anne, thank you for this episode!
    David, I just finished listening to Devil In the White City… creepy!
    I do like the droning stories he writes but also understand your opinion.
    I would love to recommend a true story called
    The Stranger In the Woods: the Extraordinary Story Of the Last True Hermit. Michael Finkel.
    This guy left his car in the woods after hs graduation and goes missing for close to 30 years in the woods of Maine. Of course he has to eat and stay warm while avoiding the authorities.
    I hope you give it a try🙂

  18. Cindi says:

    I think this is still on topic for the guest…I always recommend to listen to Davis Sedaris on audiobook. Also funny non-fiction I recommend is ‘Yes Man’ or ‘Join Me’ by Danny Wallace. They are laugh out loud for me.

  19. David Krohse says:

    Thanks for all these comments! Will definitely research the suggestions and add many to my list. Obviously Anne is a very sweet and genuine person but I was so impressed that after we finished recording she chatted for a bit as she wanted to recommend a couple other books for me.

    The Know it All was a LOL book she thought I might like.

    The Wild Trees by Preston was another “unbelievable nonfiction book” that she thought I’d find fascinating even if I didn’t think I was interested in trees.

  20. Megan says:

    I agree with David that Dolores Claiborne is a great listening experience. It is one of my favorites on audio—not too scary, but a good read for this time of year. I listened to it a few years ago on October evening dog walks.

  21. Laura says:

    Try The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko- it’s available on audio book, too. It’s the most insane adventure story of rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, while simultaneously, engineers are frantically trying to keep the Glen Canyon Dam from failing and sending a massive flood down the Colorado.

  22. Abigail M says:

    Wow, a couple things I really connected to here. First, I find Erik Larson incredibly tedious. I put down “Devil” after a few chapters. I did make it all the way through “Isaac’s Storm” but did not like the writing. Second, “Ship of Gold”. I’m from Columbus and one of my our neighbors invested with Thompson. I read the book when it first came out, and I don’t believe they had received any money at the time…we moved away and I don’t know if they Ever did. I had forgotten about the update until I googled. Third, Assasination Vacation makes me think about “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard. I think it would work well on audio (assuming it is on audio…). I feel I must stand up for “The Looming Tower”. I think it’s a very well done and (she said pretentiously) important book, but I can see that it would not work well at all on audio. Very dense. 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn was much more narrowly focused (on the towers collapsing) and more engagingly written.

    Great comments! I love discussing non-fiction.

  23. Sue says:

    I love this category! My top 3 in nonfiction that reads like fiction are Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Berndt, and Seabiscuit and Unbroken by Hillebrand

  24. Stephanie S says:

    I laughed out loud and wholeheartedly agreed with your description of Eric Larson’s writing style. It’s definitely not for me either.

    I don’t see him mentioned here and based on titles you’ve read I’m assuming you’ve read something by Timothy Egan, but if not, he might be a good choice for you. The first one I read was The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. It was a book club pick I thought I’d hate, but loved. I had no idea I could be so wrapped up in a non-fiction story of the Dust Bowl. If they had taught history like that in school, I might have paid more attention. I also really liked The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America which is about Gifford Pinchot and the beginning of the US Forest Service.

    Thank for adding to my TBR list! I’ve already got American Kingpin requested from the library.

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