The best books that are stranger – and funnier – than fiction

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling Author Of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town
By Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Who am I?

As a journalist, I’ve often been frustrated at the sense that I am preaching to the choir – those who take the time to read about a serious topic don’t need to, and those who need to, won’t. I’ve learned to spread awareness by packaging serious information inside a “Trojan Horse," one so fun to read that it reaches people who can actually benefit from the educational bits. These brilliant books, and many others, show that a spoonful of sugar can help us easily swallow information about social justice, endangered species, the U.S. military, and American history. I happily make these books Christmas gifts, knowing they are joys, not obligations.

I wrote...

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

By Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling,

Book cover of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

What is my book about?

A tiny American town's plans for radical self-government overlooked one hairy detail: no one told the bears.

Once upon a time, a group of libertarians got together and hatched the Free Town Project, a plan to take over an American town and completely eliminate its government. In 2004, they set their sights on Grafton, NH, a barely populated settlement with one paved road. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is the sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying tale of what happens when a government disappears into the woods. Complete with gunplay, adventure, and backstabbing politicians, this is the ultimate story of a quintessential American experiment -- to live free or die, perhaps from a bear.

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The books I picked & why

American Hippopotamus

By Jon Mooallem,

Book cover of American Hippopotamus

Why did I love this book?

This book doesn’t just read like a novel – it reads like a great novel: A battle between two compelling characters set against the absurd backdrop of an effort to establish a hippo population in America’s swampland. Mooallem’s understated wit showed me that sometimes the best way to understand history is by tracking the people we’ve never heard of, and the initiatives that never succeeded.

By Jon Mooallem,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1910, the United States—its population exploding, its frontier all but exhausted—was in the throes of a serious meat shortage. But a small and industrious group of thinkers stepped forward with an answer, a bold idea being endorsed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and The New York Times. Their plan: to import hippopotamuses to the swamps of Louisiana and convince Americans to eat them.

The only thing stranger than the hippo idea itself was the partnership promoting it. At its center were two hard-bitten spies: Frederick Russell Burnham, a superhumanly competent frontiersman, freelance adventurer, and fervent optimist about America’s…

Book cover of Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

Why did I love this book?

This is a fantastic dive into a tangle of interrelated subcultures in a part of America so foreign to me that I felt like I was reading about another country. Richard Grant unlocks the secret of how to talk about deep-seated patterns of social injustice in a way that I found to be, not just educational, but a riveting read. This book taught me that sometimes the best way to spread awareness is by getting off of one’s soapbox, and simply allowing the facts – funny, sad, and maddening to speak for themselves.

By Richard Grant,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dispatches from Pluto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Adventure writer Richard Grant takes on "the most American place on Earth" the enigmatic, beautiful, often derided Mississippi Delta.
Richard Grant and his girlfriend were living in a shoebox apartment in New York City when they decided on a whim to buy an old plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. This is their journey of discovery into this strange and wonderful American place. Imagine A Year In Provence with alligators and assassins, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with hunting scenes and swamp-to-table dining.
On a remote, isolated strip of land, three miles beyond the tiny community…

Book cover of The Men Who Stare at Goats

Why did I love this book?

When I picked up this book from a yard sale for a quarter, I had no idea that Ronson was such a master of the absurd. I still marvel at how he went into one of the most staid, tightly-run organizations in the world, the US military, and found a story that was so off-the-wall bananas. I don’t know whether it made me more hysterical with laughter, or hysterical with fear, but I appreciate his ability to employ both subtle and broad humor to keep me turning pages. 

By Jon Ronson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Men Who Stare at Goats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Often funny, sometimes chilling and always thought-provoking, journalist Jon Ronson's Sunday Times bestseller The Men Who Stare at Goats is a story so unbelievable it has to be true.

In 1979 a secret unit was established by the most gifted minds within the US Army. Defying all known military practice - and indeed the laws of physics - they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them.

They were the First Earth Battalion. And they really weren't joking. What's more, they're back and…

Book cover of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Why did I love this book?

In this absolute classic, the author describes his efforts to hike the Appalachian Trail as a pudgy, past-his-prime Dad. It functions as a master class in how to present reality with precision-engineered comic timing (and even more perfect grammar/sentence construction). Bryson also demonstrates his rare ability to enliven a dull setting by delving into its history to find those nuggets of weirdness that bring a place to life. Some of his other books are more ambitious, more educational, and at times funnier, but the clean framing makes this the quintessential Bryson read.

By Bill Bryson,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked A Walk in the Woods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of "Notes from a Small Island" and "The Lost Continent" comes this humorous report on his walk along the Appalachian Trail. The Trail covers 14 states and over 2000 miles, and stretches along the east coast of America from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. It is famous for being the longest continuous footpath in the world. It snakes through some of the wildest and most specactular landscapes in America, as well as through some of its most poverty-stricken and primitive backwoods areas.

Last Chance to See

By Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine,

Book cover of Last Chance to See

Why did I love this book?

Douglas Adams didn’t leave us enough books before he died, and so I find it strange that many Adams fans have somehow overlooked this gem, in which he applies his famously quirky wit to a real-life environmental cause. I’m recommending this one now because it perfectly exemplifies the idea that, in order to be truly sad about the plight of an endangered creature, you first must have a good long laugh at the creature’s expense. Adams makes me feel as if a Komodo Dragon is, not just majestic, but a friend that I’ve gone pub crawling with. 

By Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Last Chance to See as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Descriptive writing of a high order... this is an extremely intelligent book' The Times

Join Douglas Adams, bestselling and beloved author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and zoologist Mark Carwardine on an adventure in search of the world's most endangered and exotic creatures.

In this book, Adams' self-proclaimed favourite of his own works, the pair encounter animals in imminent peril: the giant Komodo dragon of Indonesia, the lovable kakapo of New Zealand, the blind river dolphins of China, the white rhinos of Zaire, the rare birds of Mauritius island in the Indian Ocean and the alien-like aye-aye of…

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