Nonfiction November Week 2: Nonfiction / Podcast Pairing

Nonfiction November Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing (Sarah’s Book Shelves): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I only read nonfiction nowadays, with one or two exceptions each year. So I’m a pretty poor fiction advisor, and am repeating what I did last year: if you love this book/podcast, here’s more stuff to read/listen to. These are mostly true crime; with so many podcasts in this genre it’s worthwhile to recommend good ones. (Do you know how many awful true crime podcasts are out there? For every good one there are like 12 insufferable ones. Let me help you avoid them.)

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I wanted to highlight podcasts that I didn’t last year, but Last Podcast on the Left is such a constant delight that it was impossible not to include it. Ben, Marcus, and Henry tell stories of the strange and unusual, including but not limited to crime. I couldn’t care less about aliens or the supernatural, but I love their episodes on things like cryptids, high strangeness, hauntings, and all manner of spooky scariness. Their stories are massively researched and punctuated with plenty of levity.

A caveat is probably necessary: although they’ve adjusted significantly recently, it is not politically correct. They’re not crass and crude like standard shock-jock fare, but they’ve got some eyebrow-raisers, especially in older episodes. But they don’t lack sensitivity either, and they’re just so irreverently funny. It has immeasurably lightened so many of my days.

Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Countryby B.J. Hollars – Henry is a proud member of the Mutual UFO Network, and as a passionate if somewhat idle MUFON investigator he loves a good UFO sighting story. This book looks at various myths around UFOS, cryptids (including the Mothman, featured in a regional monsters episode), and high strangeness in Midwestern locales with healthy skepticism and consideration of historical, cultural, and economic context, which usually leads to logical explanations. Which is how Last Podcast handles such stories too, so it’s a must-read.

Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saintsby Sam Brower – They recently did the history of Mormonism, including the FLDS polygamist offshoot run by pedophile creep Warren Jeffs, who Brower helped bust. They based that episode on his book (and on Under the Banner of Heavenwhich I haven’t reviewed but highly recommend).

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, by Douglas Smith – Their multi-parter on the mysterious holy man was something of a departure from their usual fare, and was partially based on this recent mythbusting biography.

In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond, by John Zada – There’s nothing I love more than Henry on a Bigfoot tangent. I never would’ve picked up a book about Sasquatch without Last Podcastand this exploration into the cryptid legend in the Pacific Northwest includes illuminating sections about brain function and psychology, as well as Native American legend and natural history connected to supernatural beliefs.

American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Centuryby Maureen Callahan – The boys used an older book about terrifying serial killer Israel Keyes for their episodes about him (he’s made less menacing thanks to Henry’s spot-on impression of his whiny voice). I wish they’d waited to use Callahan’s book, as she tells some intriguing stories that they didn’t mention.

Which brings me to a sticky issue from an entire podcast about Keyes.

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True Crime Bullsh** is named after Keyes’ request that investigators hold back details about him because of the popularity of “true crime bullshit”. But he’s dead now so he doesn’t get to decide anymore. Keyes left a heap of mysteries in his wake, like how many victims he actually had, and the extent of his methods. Now the issue: one of the creepiest details in American Predator was that Keyes might’ve gotten gastric surgery so he could go longer without eating, enabling him to travel more efficiently or spend more time burying kill kits around the country to dig up and use later. Josh Hallmark, host of this serialized ultra-deep dive, argues that it was most likely Keyes’ partner, Kimberly, who got the surgery. Twist!

This podcast is mesmerizing, if occasionally tough to follow. It’s researched to the point of getting lost in details but that’s almost understandable because there’s so much information, and the host makes an impressive effort to organize, timeline and connect dots on this thing — I can only imagine his Pepe Silvia wall. I’m not sure I’m sold on every point — I think we tend to overestimate how prolific some serial killers are because what we know is so horrifying that they seem inevitably capable of much more. But if even half this stuff is true, my god.

Read American Predator before listening, because I could imagine being completely lost here if I hadn’t read it as a foundation first.

Speaking of theories that I can’t decide whether I agree with or not, Root of Evil.

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Dr. George Hodel has long been a suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. I’ve never found the Black Dahlia story all that interesting, and it’s basically a footnote to the shocking, sheer awfulness of what went on in the Hodel family. Sisters Rasha Pecoraro and Yvette Gentile are Dr. Hodel’s great-granddaughters, who trace their knotty, ugly family history in the podcast, including their mother Fauna’s troubled childhood and their complicated grandmother, Tamar Hodel. It’s a dark mess of a family story, and the Black Dahlia is just one small part of it, but they do make a convincing argument for Hodel’s involvement.

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But then again, so does Piu Eatwell in Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder. She makes a persuasive case that the killer was a former mortuary assistant who knew things about the murder he shouldn’t, inserted himself into the investigation, and was connected to a room where something gruesome happened and seems it could’ve been the unknown site where Short was killed. I don’t know what to believe, but it’s interesting to see such different historical interpretations.

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Caliphate is a stunning example of audio journalismRukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter covering terrorism, gets up close and personal with ISIS members, meets Yazidi girls freed from enslavement, and interviews a Canadian convert returned home whose story doesn’t add up. She was on the ground during the fall of Mosul, and her reporting is gut-wrenching and illuminating. Although this is highly informative and can be heartbreaking, she finds moments of levity as well, like recounting how she had to explain to an incredulous 911 operator that ISIS might be at her front door.

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, by Azadar MoaveniMoaveni reports deeply on women from the UK, Germany, Tunisia, and Syria who became radicalized and traveled to Syria to join the caliphate or undertook enforcer roles. It’s a unique and gorgeously written look at women’s reasons for joining.

The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, by Dunya Mikhail – Mikhail interviews a beekeeper in Sinjar province in Iraq who ran an escape network for Yazidi women who’d been enslaved by ISIS. His heroics, and those of others who helped, are astonishing.

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic StateThe best book I’ve read on ISIS and for understanding something about theology and interpretation. What could’ve been a dry, dense study becomes readable and has its Jon Ronson-like moments when Wood interviews extremists about their basic reasoning.

I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihadby Souad Mekhennet – Like Callimachi, Mekhennet is a fearless badass who’s done some scary things in her work reporting on terrorism for the Washington Post. She’s also a compelling storyteller and parses her experiences meaningfully.

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My favorite podcast discovery this year has been RedHanded. Brits with delightful accents Hannah and Suruthi have nailed the deeply researched-with-hilarious commentary format. They tell stories of general weirdness, like possessions, in addition to true crime, and my favorite topic: they often highlight mysterious, inexplicable or unsolved cases. I feel like these are what podcasting is best for, letting good hosts ruminate over possibilities and theories instead of just parroting stories.

They cover many lesser-known cases too, although some can be macabre or gruesome. So be warned, but their storytelling is tasteful, as far as that’s possible. Their argument is that the details are necessary for context, and they handle it respectfully and intelligently.

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield – I found RedHanded when looking for something to listen to about North Korea after being blown away by this incredible biography of Kim Jong Un. Episode 84 addresses the oddities around Otto Warmbier’s death, and Hannah taught in South Korea so has fascinating insights into culture and relations.

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult , by Susan Ashline – Hannah and Suruthi love creepy cult stories, and is this ever one. Ashline gives an intense narrative look at a church-turned-cult in upstate New York, enhanced by members’ obsessive documentation of their lives and indoctrination, and, sadly, the descent of some into mental illness that ends with murder.

Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood, by Julie Gregory – One episode covers the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a victim of Munchausen’s by proxy who had her mother/tormentor killed. What I love about RedHanded is how they handle nuance, and this episode is a great example of that, as they consider Gypsy’s perspective. In Sickened, Gregory hauntingly recounts her childhood as a victim of her mother’s Munchausen’s by proxy abuse.

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood – An episode called “How Not to Fake Your Death” relates the story of John Darwin, a British man who temporarily faked his death in a canoeing accident. Playing Dead looks at different cases of people who fake their deaths and the whys and hows of it, Darwin included.

To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder, by Nancy Rommelmann – RedHanded has covered multiple infamous cases of mothers who kill their children, like Darlie Routier (maybe?) and Andrea Yates. Rommelmann examines the background and psychology around Amanda Stott-Smith, a Washington mother who harmed her children during the breakup of a toxic relationship.

Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake – Having covered another Alpine mystery and plenty of suspicious deaths, I so wish they’d do this jaw-dropping story of a Canadian hockey player who disappeared on an Austrian ski slope. His body melted out of the glacier decades later, only heightening the mystery. His parents always sensed something amiss, and journalist Leake gets close to the bottom of it with some unusual forensic analysis.

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – Episode 22, “How Ancestry.com Solved a 32-Year-Old Cold Case” is about the Bear Brook bodies in barrels case, a twisty-turny story whose victims were only identified this past year. (Which has its own rabbit hole of a podcast, Bear Brook.) DNA matching solved part of the mystery before these last identifications, which is the story RedHanded tells. The Skeleton Crew is a look at amateur sleuths trying to identify the missing and murdered using technological advances and databases.

Mysteries around the unidentified dead brings me to my last recommendation, Death in Ice Valley

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This BBC podcast investigates the Isdal Woman, who was found burned near Bergen, Norway in 1970. Everything about her was strange: she was memorable for being foreign at a time when not many foreigners were in Norway, she had no real identification but documentation for multiple identities, and her death was bizarre. This being the Cold War, it seems she could’ve been a spy, but so much doesn’t make sense.

Norwegian investigative journalist Marit Higraff and BBC radio documentarian Matt McCarthy explore the story as it unfolded back then, including oddities around the investigation, interview those who remember the Isdal woman or were connected to the case, and examine new evidence, coming a little closer to something about her past.

All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black – Anthropologist Black shows how human remains can confer identity, often in surprising ways (she identifies a rapist through vein patterns). She’s assisted on murder cases and at natural disasters to give people back their names.

The Spy Who Was Left Behind, by Michael Pullara – This new investigation into the mysterious murder of an American CIA chief in Soviet Georgia is fascinating, if complex. But it’s a good look at Cold War spy culture and political machinations during this surreal, confusing time.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French – Another baffling mystery of a murder while abroad,  with a similar noir feeling to the storytelling. The murder of teenager Pamela Werner in China gets murkier the more the story unfolds, and doesn’t have a straightforward resolution, but the historical context is enlightening and the writing is so engaging.

Out of Thin Air: A True Story of Impossible Murder in Iceland , by Anthony Adeane – BBC reporter Adeane tells the compelling story of two still-missing men in Iceland, with false confessions making for an even stickier case, in another unsolved crime story with an eerie northern backdrop.

Are you already familiar with any of these? What podcasts are you into lately?

50 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 2: Nonfiction / Podcast Pairing

Add yours

  1. RENNIE. Come ON. How am I supposed to find the time to read every single one of these books AND the podcasts I haven’t already listened to!?
    Root of Evil was the darkest most effed up podcast I’ve ever listened to. I’ve been holding off reading American Predator but at this point it’s coming to me in some way every other day so I clearly need to just get on with it.
    Have you listened to To Live and Die in LA? I just started this morning and I am HOOKED.
    So now I’m off to download a bunch of these podcasts and see what the library has by way of this list. Just going to bookmark this page…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The problem is that I’ve been adding to this post for the last few months as I thought of things and it just got wildly out of control!

      Wasn’t Root of Evil so nuts!!! I would be doing something else while listening to it and realize at some point I’d just been staring into space in horror for awhile. Those poor kids. It did make me feel better that the two sisters were so close and loved their mom so much…I’m glad that her family was so loving and happy by the end and that Fauna got to know and experience that.

      American Predator is excellent but so, so scary. Just the detail of it…it’s chilling. And it’s really well written, I’m just questioning everything now because the podcast comes to some different conclusions than the author did. I kind of think the podcast might be overestimating him a wee bit, but it’s still interesting.

      I’ve seen To Live and Die in LA on the podcasts app but never listened to it, I’m adding it now, thanks for the recommendation!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was listening to Root of Evil on the treadmill one day and couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on in the complex gym – I was running in the dark with my back to the door. I almost jumped out of my skin when I thought anyone was coming in. No one did and the whole time I was TERRIFIED. It was an emotional listen, definitely not one I can recommend to just about anyone!
        I really don’t know if I can actually read American Predator. I only know broad strokes about this one and even what I know terrifies me. I could only read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in bright sunshine and NEVER alone or before bed.

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      2. That sounds terrifying just thinking about it! Stories like theirs are so scary to me because they really happen, people really do these horrible things to each other and get away with it. It’s that idea of there being monsters among us. That podcast is definitely not for everyone but I liked how they did it, that they allowed it to be transparent and emotional instead of shameful.

        American Predator felt similar to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that sense, and I don’t think it was WORSE per se, just the same effect. And I did the same as you – I only read it on like, weekend mornings. Neither of those are nighttime books!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. What a thorough post for this week. Mine seems a little paltry in comparison! (No worries.) There are loads of good suggestions so thank you for that. Looking forward to seeing what you write for week 3 and week 4. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m behind on comments, sorry! Your posts this month were outstanding, I feel like I learned SO much from you! This one was overly long because I’d been adding to it over the whole year, so it got a bit out of control 🙂 I’m glad I could give you some good recommendations!!

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  3. Just go ahead and add all of these to my TBR – and podcast library! I love a good podcast, especially true crime and supernatural type things. I am definitely going to listen to Redhanded, that sounds amazing. And my brother has been telling me to listen to Last Podcast on the Left for years. It sounds like I need to get on it. They are actually touring here very soon!

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    1. Redhanded is amazing, they are so funny and highlight really interesting cases that you don’t always come across elsewhere. I love that. Last Podcast is definitely not everyone’s taste, it took me awhile to get into it, but I completely love it now. They manage to be both really enthusiastic about crazy supernatural and mythical stories but still debunk them or hold people to account. The older episodes can be a little offensive, I’m not sure how else to put it, so you definitely have to be prepared for some non-PC stuff. I feel like I have to be careful recommending it for that! I would love to see them on tour at some point, other people have said they do such a good show!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am definitely going to watch them both! I had not heard of Redhanded before, and my brother would probably be glad that I finally listened to him on Last House. Lol. Thanks for the warning though! I totally get it – I always feel like there are certain things I recommend that I need to preface with a little extra “warning.” 🙂

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      2. It’s more fun when you have someone to discuss them with, I think! So it’s great that your brother listens too 🙂 And I’m so glad I could introduce you to Redhanded, it’s really been my favorite new one in the past year. Let me know if you listen to it!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You mentioned in your last post that you’ve been reading more medical non-fiction than normal this year, so with that and the deeply-researched-with-hilarious-commentary podcast recommendation, you might like Sawbones? It’s a medical history podcast (and more recently they address medical pseudoscience from the news) – it’s been going for several years. I think it was at its best 2014-2016, but it’s still pretty great.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I freaking love LPOTL. We saw their live show this past March and we’re seeing them again in December. If you get a chance to see them live near you, I highly recommend it.
    They have caused me to add to my TBR so much, it’s ridiculous. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember you got to go see them, I was so jealous!!! I’ve been living abroad so it’s harder, I thought of going to one of their shows in Berlin or London but just always had too much work at the time to manage it. I’m back in the US from December and I think it’ll be easier to catch them now. I’m glad to hear it’s worthwhile!!

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    1. You must try podcasts! I really only highlighted crime ones here, but you can find a podcast for everything.

      I know, reading only nonfiction doesn’t seem too common, but I just can’t really get into fiction anymore! Glad I could give you some recommendations 🙂

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  6. Agree with you about Death in Ice Valley – compulsive listening. I hadn’t heard of All That Remains however but that’s now gone onto my wish list.
    Two programmes I’ve come across you might be interested in
    – Body on the Moor. via Apple podcasts. This was a BBC programme tracking a police investigation to try and put a name to a body found on open moorland in UK with no identity, just a pocket of money

    – Shreds, Body in the Dock – a series about a miscarriage of justice in Wales 30 years ago. 5 men wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a prostitute. The series via Apple podcasts revisits the investigation and the campaign to free the men

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I could introduce you to All That Remains! Wasn’t Death in Ice Valley fascinating? What do you think – she was a spy from East Germany, maybe?

      Thank you for those two podcast recommendations, I hadn’t heard of either of them and both are right up my alley. Excited to start them!!

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  7. Okay, this post could not have come at a better time. I’ve recently started listening to a few podcasts and it’s been … an experience. I won’t name names, but there was one true crime podcast that was so rough it was embarrassing. So thank you for all of these recommendations!

    Definitely starting with RedHanded, though. Heavy research mixed with a bit of hilarity sounds perfect right now. I Was Told to Come Alone was such a powerful read, so Caliphate is tempting, too, but I think I need to be in the right mood for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could give you some good recommendations when you needed them! What is it with so many awful true crime podcasts? I guess just the glut of them in general means more bad ones, but some are hard to believe. One where the hosts loudly shriek-laughed constantly and I never heard them actually tell a story, another where it was clear not one of the three or four people discussing a complicated case had bothered to do even the most basic research come to mind. I cringed through some.

      RedHanded is so good. My only qualm with them is that they sometimes do cases that are a bit grisly for me. But on the plus side they cover lots of rabbit hole-type mysteries I haven’t heard about elsewhere, and they’re really funny and do their research thoroughly.

      Caliphate is incredible, and although it has its intense moments it’s more informative than dark and heavy. I love the host, she’s so sensitive and compassionate and even funny and all while being a total master at her work. She lightens up what could be a much grimmer topic, like by describing how Isis tried to fat-shame her. I Was Told to Come Alone was similarly powerful and very illuminating!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a really good point about true crime podcasts. With so many of them, there are bound to be a few rotten eggs. But OH the shriek-laughing! While discussing murder, missing people, and all other awful actions … I’ve come across it so many times, and I don’t think there’s any problem with having levity—it’s practically needed to get through something so horrific—but there seems to be too many that start veering into mocking territory. Well, assuming you can hear what they’re saying … Awesome to hear that RedHanded seems to find the right balance.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know, it’s so disrespectful and inconsiderate! Not to mention grating. I think they miss the point of the whole endeavor. The really good hosts find ways to bring humor and levity into other aspects of the story without crossing that line into becoming flippant and insulting to victims.

        I was listening to an early RedHanded episode the other day where they talked about really one of the worst crime stories I’ve heard, and Suruthi said that as hard as these kind of stories are to hear, it does a disservice to the victims to ignore them and never talk about them. They went through the worst things and forgetting about it or pretending it never happened isn’t helpful. So they’re really sensitive and find meaningful ways to dissect this information. I hope you like it, let me know what you think once you’ve given it a try!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh, I love this post! I probably said this last year too, but this is such great twist on this topic. I’m really impressed by how specific you managed to be with your recommendations, connecting books with themes much more specific to each podcast than just all being true crime. I’ll definitely be checking out some of these books and podcasts 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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