Ten Chilling Non-Fiction Books to Read in the Heat This Summer

Photograph by Gallery Stock

Trashy fiction might be fun beach reading, but with so much debauched non-fiction out there, maybe it’s time to broaden your horizons. Below, here's a summer reading list of truly juicy, absolutely true-to-life books. John Grisham and Dean Koontz can wait.

1. Start with a breezy tour through the history of the car bomb; "Buda's Wagon" by Mike Davis takes you from 1920, when an Italian anarchist blew up his horse-drawn cart on Wall Street, to the present day. After you read it, you'll never feel safe in urban infrastructure again. (But it's worth it.)

2. Speaking of a fragile urban infrastructure, "Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault" by John Dvorak makes San Francisco seem like a house of cards waiting to blow over. (Or up.) Dvorak casts geologists and seismologists as the unlikely heroes of his book as they uncover the fault lines crisscrossing California in a desperate attempt to figure out where The Next Big One will hit.

3. What would summer be without World War II? "After the Reich" by Giles MacDonogh focuses on the suffering of the German civilian population after the Nazis surrendered. This well-examined take feels like a fresh perspective on well-trodden ground.

4. OK – Let’s take a breather from the total doom and gloom. "Nureyev: The Life" by Julie Kavanagh is a biography of Rudolph Nureyev, the first major USSR celebrity to defect to the West in the 1960s. It’s hard to imagine a ballet dancer casting such an international spell these days, but at the time he was truly a superstar: crowds (and the KGB) followed him everywhere, performances caused riots, and he socialized (and slept with) movie stars and the international beau monde.

5. Another artist biography worth reading is “Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War,” a biography by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Arguably the most famous writer in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, D'Annunzio has the dubious distinction of helping to drive Italy into the First World War, subsequently occupying the Yugoslavian city of Fiume as its titular dictator and introducing Fascism to the Italian public.

6. The 2008 housing crisis was six years ago, but new, excellent narratives are still emerging. A recent contribution is "Other People's Money" by Charles V. Bagli, which details the breathtaking cronyism and tunnel-vision that lead to a $5.4 billion sale of Stuyvesant Town in New York. The project was doomed from the start -- the real story is who set it up to fail, and who was stuck with the check.

7. We know the story of the men who built Las Vegas, but what about the industrialists who supplied its energy? "Unreal City" by Judith Nies is a four-decade long investigation into a battle for the rights to 21 billion tons of coal beneath Black Mesa in Arizona, an area that was once divided between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. The story of how the government evicted the Native Americans to power the cities of the Southwest is a gripping, occasionally nauseating insight into how Las Vegas was made -- and how it just might be undone.

8. "The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century," by William Rosen, is an equally chilling look at what happens to human resources in an age of climate change. The book charts the economic and social devastation wrought by the end of what was known as the "Medieval Warm Period," when one-eighth of the European population lost their lives.

9. The most famous casualties of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 were the Russian tsar and his family, gunned down in a basement in Yekaterinburg. But what happened to the rest of Russia's glittering aristocracy? "Former People: the Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," by Douglas Smith, is a hauntingly written chronicle about the methodical annihilation of an entire class of people.

10. Let's end on a warm note. Joan Didion's book "Miami," written in her trademark incredulous-cum-breathless style, flutters with an anthropological fascination through the Cuban elite down to the criminal underworld (and sometimes both at the same time) of the iconic American city. The book is almost 16 years old and reads like it was written yesterday.

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