I had such grand plans for pairing week, a Nonfiction November favorite, this year. But then, as you already know, 2020 happened, and for some reason I was barely even listening to podcasts, so that went out the window.
A reminder of this week’s prompt, hosted by Julie @ Julz Reads:
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.
Since I don’t read fiction, I pair books with podcasts. Although my attempts to branch out in new and unusual directions this year failed miserably, I did follow a few favorites, and discovered one glorious new-to-me podcast.
Every year I try to spotlight shows I haven’t before, but since Last Podcast on the Left is a continuous delight and better than mostly everything else, they always deserve attention. (Sadly, I was only so-so about their book, which came out earlier this year.)
Here are a few more books connected to their favorite topics:
They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper – I’m not 100% sold on Bruce Robinson’s theory of the Ripper’s identity and Masonic connections, but is this ever a wild, entertaining ride worthy of one of Henry’s most fired-up conspiracy theory rants.
The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained – In the wake of the 2016 election, with its outsized influence of conspiracy theory and all that came after, Colin Dickey began investigating many of our fringier beliefs and where they originated — the Loch Ness monster, the Lost Continent of Lemuria, Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction, among others. Dickey is a meticulous researcher and debunker, and this is so smart and readable that I already know I need to read it a second time to absorb everything. It’s outstanding.
Fringe-Ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable – And Couldn’t – I doubt I’ll review this, too much time has passed since I read it without getting around to writing about it, but it’s worth mentioning. Journalist Steve Volk looks at new agey, fringey topics like near-death and out of body experiences, UFOs, hauntings, the afterlife, and lucid dreaming. Volk advocates for a middle ground between science and spirituality — namely, there are some things we’ll never be able to explain. It’s an idea I can sort of get on board with, although I’m more skeptical than he is. It gives interesting perspectives on topics that LPOTL frequently covers (and debunks).
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties – Journalist Tom O’Neill spent decades obsessively researching connections between the CIA and the Manson family, and could barely write this thing because there was just so much. The result is a mesmerizing trip. Lots of oddities in the official story, including missing files and bizarre behavior from people close to Manson, including Hollywood types. If even a fraction of this is true, it’s already insane.
The Mothman Prophecies – I don’t think LPOTL’s done a full Mothman episode, just included him with regional monsters, and the author, John Keel, in their multi-parter on the Men in Black. Did you know that the Men in Black were connected to the Mothman? So much to learn in this world, isn’t there? This was distracting, entertaining, deeply weird, very much a product of its times, and not always believable, even while it’s obvious that Keel VERY MUCH believes it. A lot of bad or menacing things happen via landlines, which is so funny to consider. Can aliens interfere with cell phones? It’s much less scary than the classic cliche of a ringing phone with a mysterious voice on the other end.
Four New Hampshire-based journalists and authors with backgrounds in public radio and true crime/crime fiction writing host this podcast about journalism, media, and true crime. If you want more recommendations for podcasts (mostly nonfiction) and shows, both documentaries or scripted, it’s a treasure trove. It’s mostly crime-related, but not only. They skewered Netflix’s abysmal-sounding remake of Rebecca last week, for instance, and frequently cover politically-themed media.
They’re wryly hilarious and have a great blend of personalities (two are married to each other) and they’ve helped me in how I think about critiquing, since they have impressive ways of parsing what works and what doesn’t and arguing their points and opinions with each other. I even like listening to them discuss podcasts I know I don’t want to listen to and shows I have no interest in watching; it’s that good.
One host, author Toby Ball, has a Patreon bonus podcast, Toby’s Deep Dive Book Club. I haven’t made the leap to their multiple Patreon spinoff shows yet, only because see above, I’m not even caught up on free podcasts yet. But I may yet do for this one. They sometimes tease what book will be discussed with his guests and we share tons of reading interests.
Some of his book club picks:
The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington
Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker (Bonus on this one – LISK: Long Island Serial Killer is the first good meaning actually researched and thorough podcast about this rabbit-hole of a case I’ve come across, and Kolker is interviewed!)
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi — I read this before I started book blogging so no review, but it’s a gem: reportage about an unsolved serial killer in Italy active between 1968 and 1985. The prosecutor from Amanda Knox’s case is involved, blaming his old favorite standby, Satanic cults. Preston and Spezi even get accused of being the murderer.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
Finally, my favorite podcast discovery this year: Radio Rental. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Payne Lindsey’s podcasts (see Crime Writers On for more of why he’s pretty dickish, and gets things wrong or skewed in his reporting) but I’m obsessed with this one. He’s barely involved; the premise is people telling their own stories of the worst things that happened to them — real-life horror stories.
It’s hosted with commentary from Rainn Wilson, in character as a video store rental clerk sharing his vaults of creepy tapes. He’s irreverently funny, which makes the gasping shock of some of the stories easier to take. If nothing else, listen to “Laura of the Woods”. I listened to it while doing some mindless work and no joke, I was sitting at my desk biting my fist and silently screaming/deep breathing at the end. If you like a twist, it’s a mind-blower.
Although scary, sometimes very much so, it’s in a true-life way. They’re not murder or ghost stories, they’re the scary turns life can suddenly take, including mental illness, drug abuse, stalkers, plane hijackings, scary memories that you’re not sure are real, and near-misses with murderers. So it’s often sad, and can be triggering, but if people are willing to tell their stories of terrible things they’ve lived through, they deserve to be heard. Wilson’s jokiness is necessary comic relief and never disrespectful. And some are more just bizarre and twisty, not so devastating.
In that vein, some books of weird happenings with strange twists, suspicious circumstances, things not being what they seem, trusting your instincts, and Russian spies (this podcast truly has it all):
An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman – Like Radio Rental stories, this one, about an eerie incident that’s indeterminable as murder, suicide, or accident will haunt you. (It’s also covered on Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries reboot.)
Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies, by Gordon Corera – One Radio Rental story has a surprising twist involving a maybe-Russian spy. This look at deep-cover sleeper agents and the significance of modern spycraft under Putin’s regime is page-turningly fascinating and chilling.
Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake – I recommend this constantly, but it’s terrifying, an injustice, and should be better known. A young Canadian disappeared on an Austrian ski slope, and things only get stranger and darker from there.
The Case of the Vanishing Blonde – Mark Bowden’s long-form true crime stories cover some of the twisty-turniest cases I know, perfect examples of things not always being what they seem at first glance.
The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence, by Gavin de Becker – Many of Radio Rental‘s survivor stories involve trusting your instincts to get out of a situation that just doesn’t feel right. This is the bible for learning how to do that. Some of the stories are unnerving, but this book helped me so much and I regretted not reading it sooner in life.
Have you read or listened to any of these? What good podcasts have you been listening to?