Two Is Better Than One: Pairing Fiction with Nonfiction

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Unfortunately, I missed the first week of Nonfiction November, hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Becca at I’m Lost in Books, and Leslie at Regular Rumination. I had a pretty good 12 months of nonfiction since last November, with 16 books read. That’s an increase of 266% over the previous year—put that way, it sounds pretty awesome, don’t you think? My favorites were The Train to Crystal City and The Sixth Extinction. Honorable mention goes to the biography of Ethyl Paine, which gave me a unique look at the Civil Rights Movement.

Now that we are in Week 2, we are asked to pair up fiction with nonfiction. That’s right up my alley. I love reading the authors’ notes that tell me which books inspired their writing. And often, especially when I’m reading historical fiction, I want to know more about a subject and seek out additional books. Actually reading them is a slightly different story, so I haven’t read all of the books I’m listing here, but one day I will!

Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost is about a 12-year-old orphan who becomes convinced his mother is the movie star Liu Song. Set in Seattle between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, the reader gets confronted with racism, segregation, prejudice, and social restrictions for women. Ever since reading this book, I’ve wanted to read Graham Russell Hodges’ Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Wong is mentioned several times in Ford’s book, and her experiences must have been similar to those faced by the fictional Liu Song.

Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway is set in a small Quaker community before the abolition of slavery. Honor Bright is drawn into the actions of the Underground Railroad and has to eventually decide how much of a personal cost she is willing to pay for her actions. While not my favorite Chevalier, I think it would pair up wonderfully with Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Helen Dunmore’s The Siege takes place during 1944, when German soldiers encircled Leningrad and cut off all food and fuel shipments to force the city into submission. It is an emotional read, very evocative and beautifully written. Not surprisingly, I’d like to read Anna Reid’s Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941 to 1944 to find out more.

While I was not a fan of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, I enjoyed reading Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. Not only did it introduce me to two strong women, but it is also stuffed with the type of historical facts that I am a total sucker for.

And finally, if you enjoy Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan series, you might like to read Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. The 262 bodies might not be as gruesomely disfigured as a lot of the ones Brennan has to work with, but it is just as entertaining to read about them, or rather the medical examiner who has to handle them.

Do you have any pairings to recommend?

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32 comments

  1. This pairing of books is a great idea. I have been doing it on and off for years, mostl recently reading German history combined with Weimier era novels by German writers like Hans Fallada and Irmgard Keun

  2. Ack! I don’t read nearly enough nonfiction to be a well-rounded reader, and here I am in the education system supposedly touting all things nonfiction so the children are Common Core prepared. It isn’t a natural inclination for me, so I have to push myself into that genre. But, posts like yours inspire me.

    • I’m glad you like my suggestions, but in the end, life is too short to read something you might not enjoy. And nonfiction is not for everyone. But sometimes, you just need a little luck to find a topic and nonfiction style that works for you. (I’ll keep my thoughts about Common Core to myself…)

  3. You have some great book pairings there. I loved The Last Runaway, so I’ll definitely have to pick up Gateway to Freedom. I’ll also take a look at The Siege and Leningrad, since Russian history has become an interest of mine recently!

  4. I’m glad to hear you loved The Train to Crystal City…that is the last book on my Nonfiction Nov TBR list and I’ve been having trouble pushing myself to start it…only because it’s 4th in a line of 4 serious nonfictions and I’m feeling a little burned out. Next year I’ll have to remember to work in some lighter nonfiction!

    • I saw you mention that you had a bit of NF burnout. I hope you feel like reading The Train to Crystal City later this month, it’s really interesting. And some of the situations that some of the people found themselves in were quite absurd, to the point where you ask yourself how that can happen in real life.

  5. I like this list! I haven’t read the Last Runaway but I’ve loved some of her other books. Onto the list that goes! I really like the Temperance Brennan series, I think I might have to check out working stiff.

    Have you read Madonnas of Leningrad? I really enjoyed that one to go with the topic of the Siege.

  6. These posts are killing me!
    I liked The Last Runaway, because I like reading about the underground railway, so I suspect I would like Gateway To Freedom. I think my favourite pairing on this list, though is The Siege and Leningrad. Now that I’ve just read about them, I want to read them both right away! Sigh. I have to keep telling myself that the books I’m reading right now are also good. They’re all good!

    Huge increase from last year! I’m pretty sure I read more nonfiction this year, too, but not that much – probably only coming in around 10 (or even less), but it still felt like a lot for me. Nonfiction November has been tempting me, but I went for Novellas in November this year instead. And, even then, I’ve only read one so far. Ha! The good thing about novellas, though, is that they’re short, so i should still be able to catch up a bit. 🙂

    • I felt exactly the same way when I read your post about The Voyage of the Narwhal and the follow-up books you came up with. And that reminds me, I wanted to ask you if you know TC Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done. I just found it in one of my boxes the other day, and it sounds like something you might like.
      And yes, as we already “lamented,” November is chock full of wonderful events! I think you’ll be able to read more novellas this month, if they are calling you. They ARE nice and short.

      • I didn’t know When The Killing’s Done, but I do now and I’ve added it to my list. This sounds especially interesting since recently listening to an interview on the radio about the book ‘The New Wild’, which explains the author’s ideas about how we view invasive species!

  7. Interesting pairs! Eighty Days was a good one; it’s been ages since I read the Verne but I thought the real-life story was fascinating. I wasn’t fond of The Last Runaway, as I found it too research heavy — sometimes straight nonfiction is preferable. I read another book about the Siege of Leningrad this year, Symphony for the City of the Dead, which I would also recommend (it centers around the creation of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony).

  8. What a fun way to look at non-fiction.
    Anna May Wong is a big part of Lisa See’s China Dolls too.
    This always happens to me – I read something in a historical fiction context and have a hankering for the real thing. It leads to some great books, usually.
    That IS an impressive upswing in reading non-fiction! Once you get in the groove of non-fiction you wonder why you never read it much.

    • China Dolls has been on my list for a while, and since it mentions Anna May Wong, I am even more curious to read it now. I also found my copy of Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America. Maybe I should do a themed reading month some time next year…
      I think once you find the kind of nonfiction you like, it’s easy to get into a groove. I’m certainly glad I started reading more of it.

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