This post is a participant of Nonfiction November; this week’s topic is hosted by Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves. You can see her post here. All book title links will take you to their information on Goodreads. While you’re there, go ahead and follow me! (Insert winking emoji here)
I think book pairings are just the best. Reading a really great fiction book will inevitably inspire me to know more about the topic of discussion in that fictional book. Almost immediately prior to (or during) reading, I’ll do a quick Google search, read a few web pages and scan the Google images, but if that doesn’t sate my need for greater knowledge, I’ll look for books on the topic. There’s no better way to get a comprehensive understanding of a real-life topic than reading a good nonfiction book!
Of course, sometimes it might happen in the opposite way. If I read a nonfiction book I really enjoy, I’m likely to seek a fictional account somewhere, just for a more readable experience. Here are some of my favorite pairs!
Book Pairings By Topic
If you haven’t heard about Beartown yet, you’ve probably been living under a rock. Or in a very secluded classic-lit-only cave. Regardless, this is one of my all-time favorite books– I even loved the sequel (if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that’s incredibly uncommon). This fictional novel about rape and athletics in a small town will inspire you to create change; if you follow-up by reading this John Krakauer nonfiction piece, you will be even more moved to action. It’s one thing to read a fictional account of violence. It’s another entirely to read about the fall-out of violence in real-life events.
The thing I love the most about Beartown (when considered in this regard) is that it doesn’t demonize athletics as a whole. While the adoration of athletics certainly stigmatizes certain characters of the novel, it portrays the world of hockey in a beautiful way. I appreciated that it didn’t simplify the situation in that way. In Missoula, there is this same obsession with athletics, but it isn’t necessarily given that romantic angle; the obsession with athletics at the University of Montana caused many of the real issues addressed in the book, and the book itself calls for justice.
These are both SO good. In fact, I felt so strongly about the first that I worked chapters of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime into my 12th Grade curriculum last year; it’s such a readable approach to the political and social climate of South Africa, and I think most humans (not just students) could benefit from reading it. I heard very little buzz for Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, but it was one of my absolute favorite books from last year.
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is set prior to Trevor Noah’s memoir, in the middle of Apartheid. Trevor Noah recounts a childhood based slightly later in history, as Apartheid is concluding. However, both of these books share a very important commonality of describing the injustices of an unfair racial political system, Trevor Noah being an actual, real-life product of that system.
Educated/The Sound of Gravel (Nonfiction) and Devoted/The Book of Essie (Fiction)
I wasn’t sure how to adequately pair these, so we just have a big ol’ book party of mash-ups. I really love books about cults and religious cults and just weird groups of people; is it a purely American trait to be obsessed with the tragic and bizarre? Just curious. I digress.
I must pause briefly before describing the next few books and explain that they are not about cults– they are both about families who exist in radical religious communities. In these books, the families are members of established groups of faith that have become oppressive in their lives.
Educated is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read–full stop. It is shocking and engaging and horrifying and inspiring. I will use the all-too-frequent cliche: “It reads like fiction.” The Sound of Gravel is also amazing, just different. Unlike Educated, it doesn’t have the over-arching theme of hope, so I think that’s the missing element. Maybe. Anyway, there are two fictional books that I think would pair really well with both of these nonfiction selections.
The Book of Essie is basically a fictionalized version of the Duggar Family. Essie Hicks (the main character) is a daughter in a very conservative religious family, one that happens to have their own television series. When Essie reveals that she is pregnant (and unwed), secrets are revealed. The second fictional book attending our party is Devoted. Much like The Book of Essie, the main character (Rachel Walker) belongs to an extremely religious family, one that allows virtually no freedom for daughters and monitors their behavior with extreme rigidity. When Rachel begins to have questions about her faith and the world in general, she is met with no answers and anger. This curiosity leads her to seek answers outside of the faith, and her life changes dramatically as a result. In my opinion, Devoted has a more YA feel than The Book of Essie, but they are both quite good.
Book Pairings By Author
I also think it can be really helpful to look at the nonfiction and fiction works of one individual author; the nonfiction works often give you actual real-life background for the fictional works of the same author– effective for a well-rounded reading experience. Below are a few of my favorites.
When I was in college, I had a summer session class completely devoted to the works of Michael Chabon. When I signed up for the class, I had no idea this is what we would be studying (it was titled American Literature— seems misleading), but I actually really loved it. I was also in a course titled Jane Austen and Politics simultaneously, so it was the summer of interesting reading combinations. Also the summer I watched an entire season of Game of Thrones each day while I read my assigned novels. Sorry, I veered; back to main thought. We read roughly one book every two days, and then spent the remainder of the week discussing the material. Some books I loved (Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Maps and Legends), some I liked (The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road) and some I really didn’t like (Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys).
Maps and Legends is a collection of essays, primarily about writing and literature. I really loved it; it was the first essay collection I can remember reading and really enjoying. His voice is just so distinctive. Anyway, this book works really well with any of Chabon’s work simply because it tells you how he feels and thinks as a writer; it also explains the folklore that inspires his stories. I chose to recommend Kavalier and Clay with it simply because I think it’s Chabon at his very best. It reaches you on so many levels: family relationship, historical relevance, love, etc. It also has this really cool genre blending of comics and narrative. It’s just amazing; highly recommend.
Flannery O’Connor is my favorite, and I might actually mean that literally. I proudly displayed my Friends of Flannery sticker on my school bulletin board and not-so-casually worked her into every curriculum that I appropriately could. She was brilliant, and even that feels reductive. If you’ve ever read Flannery O’Connor, you know that her work is based largely on faith. I love her because she writes about faith not from a judgmental or simplistic angle, but one that understands the complexity of it. She can mock the hypocrites and point out the injustice because her own faith calls her to recognize the unremarked-upon sin of those around her. A Prayer Journal is SO BEAUTIFUL. This was written in years prior to her more popular fiction work, but it retains the exceptional language and tone as work done later in her life. It was so relatable and vulnerable; it felt genuine. I don’t know that I would ever have wanted my own personal journals, my conversations with God, released to the public, but I’m thankful that her journal was. It was rewarding to read both as a literary text and also as one that supported and enhanced my own faith.
So, yeah. I love A Prayer Journal. BUT. The Collected Stories is one of my favorite books of all-time. I love her sharp-witted approach to the American identity, her simultaneous tongue-in-cheek critique and appreciation for the Christian faith. Knowing how she pursued Christ in her way, the relationship that she had with him, makes the effectiveness of her fictional work even more powerful.
She’s amazing. That’s all. Read both of these and then spend at least a week in a reading coma, because her work deserves it.
Here is the link to the New York Times review of her prayer journal, because it’s pretty wonderful.
Books About Other Books
If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, what are you waiting for? Honestly, it’s time. And if you aren’t reading it out of principle, or because you think you won’t like it, then quit thinking from that mindset. Even books that you don’t like contribute to your ever-expanding thought system; even bad books can make you better at thinking and processing and feeling.
I won’t say much more about that great American classic because, frankly, we should all have a basic knowledge of its plot already. I read The Mockingbird Next Door as an audiobook, and it was, in my opinion, a good audiobook. It is both interesting and a little tricky to talk about these two books together. Marja Mills writes the biography with the voice of a friend: she isn’t obtrusive, and she recounts her experiences with the Lee sisters as one who knew them closely. To read the book, one would think that she had a relationship with these women.
However, after it was written, Harper Lee released multiple statements claiming that she did not cooperate with Mills and, basically, felt that Mills took advantage of her sister in the guise of friendship to obtain this insider perspective. You can read Harper Lee’s statements and a brief description of the controversy here. Similar articles can be found from the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, if you feel like really delving into the topic (I see you, fellow Enneagram 5s).
Regardless, this book provides a view of Harper Lee that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It looks closely at the Lee sisters and their life in Alabama, and as someone who recognizes To Kill a Mockingbird as a legendary work, I appreciate that.
Introverted Mom and Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, PRide and Prejudice, and The Little House books
I’ve talked about this Introverted Mom so many times on this blog (it’s just that good). I won’t provide another summary or description, but I will describe why it works with these classics. A core section of this book is dedicated to describing introverted fictional characters and the authors (authoresses?) of those books in which the characters appear.
I don’t think it’s essential that the readers of this book have read all four of those above-mentioned books, but I will say that it did make the reading more effective. Because I was familiar with those elements, it was easier to fully understand the intent of the author in comparing and examining them. Also, it’s cool to feel a kinship with the one and only Louisa May Alcott, am I right?
This was so much fun! I hope I’ve given you a few options to pursue as you formulate your TBR and consider your next reads.
Until next time, happy reading!