The best narrative nonfiction books about people dealing with mayhem, madness, and misadventures

Who am I?

I have spent most of my career writing features for magazines and newspapers. In fact, I’ve gone gray writing them. The key components of almost every good story are invariably a combustible mixture of colorful characters, interesting places, and dramatic situations. The ultimate dramatic situation is one that puts life and limb in some degree of danger. How do people respond when stakes are that high? Do they exhibit some heroic/inspiring variation of what Hemingway described as “grace under pressure”? I chose these five books because I think they hit all those marks. (If you disagree, we can still be friends.)


I wrote...

White Knights in the Black Orchestra: The Extraordinary Story of the Germans Who Resisted Hitler

By Tom Dunkel,

Book cover of White Knights in the Black Orchestra: The Extraordinary Story of the Germans Who Resisted Hitler

What is my book about?

Before and during World War II, a small group of German government officials, career military men, and civilians are trying to undermine the Third Reich from within: reporting troop movements to the Allies, feeding disinformation to the Nazi high command, plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and more. The Gestapo nicknames this shadowy confederation of traitors the “Black Orchestra.” Its players include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a dissident Lutheran pastor, and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, a staff attorney at the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service.

These “white knights” and their families face constant danger of being exposed and executed. Hitler’s SS and the Gestapo are fast closing in on them as the end of the war approaches and lives hang in the balance.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Tom Dunkel Why did I love this book?

David Grann “stumbled upon” this sordid mystery, in the process reviving forgotten crimes committed in the 1920s. Killers of the Flower Moon centers on lucrative oil rights pegged to reservation land out West owned by the Osage Indian tribe, whose members begin turning up dead under suspicious circumstances. Questions go unanswered for years until J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI takes over the investigation.

The closing chapters are a coda of sorts about lingering racial injustice. Grann enters the narrative, but pulls it off without becoming a distraction. Killers of the Flower Moon is a compelling, important read and now would be a good time to dive in. The pandemic-delayed movie—directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Robert DiNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio—hits theaters this spring.

By David Grann,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Killers of the Flower Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. As the death toll climbed, the FBI took up the case. But the bureau badly bungled the investigation. In desperation, its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. Together with the Osage he and his undercover…


Book cover of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Tom Dunkel Why did I love this book?

Depression-era Dust Bowl storms and economic calamity are the villains of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, which won the 2006 National Book Award for nonfiction. Cattle go blind and choke on swirling sand. Lives turn so relentlessly bleak, distraught parents give away their children. Egan superbly documents the many miseries in Oklahoma and the strength of character needed to endure, but that state may not have gotten the worst of it. I wrote a book about an integrated baseball team that played in Bismarck, North Dakota during those grim days. So many inhabitants fled, it wasn’t until 2011 that the population of North Dakota recovered to its 1930 peak.

Think of The Worst Hard Time not simply as history, but as a harbinger of what natural-disaster travails might lie ahead with climate change.

By Timothy Egan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Worst Hard Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

In a tour de force of historical reportage, Timothy Egan’s National Book Award–winning story rescues an iconic chapter of American history from the shadows.

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Timothy Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, he does equal justice to the human characters…


Book cover of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

Tom Dunkel Why did I love this book?

After soundly losing the 1912 presidential election to Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt wants to cleanse his mind and spirit. Rather than take a cushy ‘round-the-world cruise, he attempts the first unmapped trip down a rapids-choked, piranha-infested tributary of the Amazon. The name “River of Doubt” perhaps should have deterred him. But Teddy and his mates press on and persevere through disease, drownings, starvation, death, and Indigenous Indian attacks; providing Candice Millard with fodder for her wonderfully gritty book.

How hair-raising an adventure was it? Shortly after a frazzled Roosevelt returns to the comforts of home, two expeditions set out to duplicate his feat. One group quickly gets spooked by Indians shooting poison arrows and bails. The other expedition? Millard notes, “Its members were never seen again.”

By Candice Millard,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The River of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1912, shortly after losing his bid to spend a third term as American President to Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt with his son Kermit, a Brazilian guide and a band of camaradas set off deep into the Amazon jungle and a very uncertain fate. Although Roosevelt did eventually return from THE RIVER OF DOUBT, he and his companions faced treacherous cataracts as well as the dangerous indigenous population of the Amazon. He became severely ill on the journey, nearly dying in the jungle from a blood infection and malaria. A mere five years later Roosevelt did die of related issues.…


Book cover of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Tom Dunkel Why did I love this book?

Jon Krakauer lives to tell and write the tale of two misguided climbs up Mount Everest taking place the same weekend in May 1996. He’s there on a magazine assignment that morphs into a powerful book about bravery and also the hazards of hubris. Two world-class mountaineers (New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer) take the risk of escorting commercial clients up Everest, some of whom have no business being there beyond the ability to pay about $60,000 apiece. Eight people perish in wicked weather, including Hall and Fischer. Seven others have to be rescued.

I recommend the paperback edition, which has an afterward not included with the hardcover. The book resonates on a personal level. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on a Fischer-led trip two years before. Scott invited me on this expedition. I couldn’t go, so instead received a chilling phone message from his assistant at 2 o’clock that Sunday morning: “Give me a call. I’ve got some bad news.”

By Jon Krakauer,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Into Thin Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The epic account of the storm on the summit of Mt. Everest that claimed five lives and left countless more—including Krakauer's—in guilt-ridden disarray. 

"A harrowing tale of the perils of high-altitude climbing, a story of bad luck and worse judgment and of heartbreaking heroism." —PEOPLE

A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that "suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down." He was wrong. 

By writing Into Thin Air, Krakauer may have hoped to exorcise some of his own demons…


Book cover of Hiroshima

Tom Dunkel Why did I love this book?

The book surprisingly lacks a gut-punch ending, but Hiroshima is a masterpiece of narrative reconstruction, beginning precisely at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. That’s when a uranium bomb flattens Hiroshima, Japan, killing 280,000 people and ushering in the Nuclear Age. Nine months later, John Hersey secured permission from the U.S. military to enter the city. He was on the ground only two weeks, but manages to recreate in riveting detail the lives of six survivors, hoping “readers would be able to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain.”

I own a 1946 first edition; the pages yellow, the scene sets and anecdotes still fresh. The book is only 30,000 words, a reprint of the article that first ran in The New Yorker. Try reading it in tandem with “Hiroshima: The Aftermath”, which appeared in the July 15, 1985 issue of The New Yorker and has Hersey revisiting those six transformed lives on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing

By John Hersey,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Hiroshima as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of the great classics of the war" (The New Republic) that tells what happened in Hiroshima through the memories of survivors—from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. 

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey's journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic "that stirs the conscience of humanity" (The New York Times).

Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search…


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Book cover of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

Marianne C. Bohr Author Of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

New book alert!

Who am I?

I married my high school sweetheart and travel partner, and followed my own advice to do graduate work, and started my career working for the French National Railroad in New York City, mapping itineraries for travelers to Europe. Travel means the world to me and if I don’t have a trip on the horizon, I feel aimless and untethered. I worked in book publishing for 30 years and dropped out of the corporate rat race to take a gap year abroad. I wrote about our “Senior year abroad” in my first book Gap Year Girl. I returned to the US to teach middle school French and organize student trips to France. 

Marianne's book list on by women about outdoor adventure

What is my book about?

Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica — the GR20, Europe’s toughest long-distance footpath — to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.

From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an “I’ll show them” attitude. But hiking GR20 forces her to transform a lifetime of hard-won achievements into acceptance of her body and its limitations.

The difficult journey across a remote island provides the crucible for exploring what it means to be an aging woman in a youth-focused culture, a physically fit person whose limitations are getting the best of her, and the partner of a husband who is growing old with her. More than a hiking tale, this is a moving story infused with humor about hiking, aging, accepting life’s finite journey, and the intimacy of a long-term marriage—set against the breathtaking beauty of Corsica’s rugged countryside.

By Marianne C. Bohr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twenty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Great for fans of: Suzanne Roberts's Almost Somewhere, Juliana Buhring's This Road I Ride.


Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica-the GR20, Europe's toughest long-distance footpath-to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.


From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an "I'll show them" attitude. But hiking The Twenty forces her to…


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