Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairing

I’m thrilled to be your host this week for Nonfiction November Week 2: Book pairings!

This used to be my least favorite week since I don’t read fiction anymore. Once I started hosting, out of necessity I began pairing nonfiction books and podcasts, and this year tweaked the prompt a bit to give you some ideas for other types of storytelling to link up with nonfiction you’ve loved.

Here’s our prompt:

Week 2: (November 7-11) – Book Pairing: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title (or another nonfiction!). 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. Or pair a book with a podcast, film or documentary, TV show, etc. on the same topic or stories that pair together. (here with me, Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction)

One of my favorite reads last year was British journalist Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, a heart-pounding work of narrative nonfiction detailing a group of students led by Joachim Rudolph, who, in the summer of 1962, excavated a tunnel between East and West Berlin and organized a group of East Berliners to escape through it. Unbeknownst to them, their group had been infiltrated by a Stasi spy.

This couldn’t have been more like a movie if it had been written as one, and yet it’s true. As much as I loved the book, I wasn’t sure how much the podcast would differ and I’ve felt meh about other podcasts/books that just rehash the same material.

But the BBC Radio 4 Intrigue: Tunnel 29 podcast (which I think pre-dated the book) was outstanding. It was wonderful to hear the voices of the figures I’d gotten to know from reading it, and even knowing how it ended, I still got chills. It is just that excellent of a story. I ended it in tears of happiness.

Tunnel 29 was one season of Intrigue, but the previous year’s season was around The Ratline, the so-called network which included Vatican officials that allowed former Nazis to escape to Argentina. Otto von Wächter, an Austrian lawyer who would commit a litany of crimes as an SS officer, governor of Galicia, and overseer of the Krakow ghetto, was one such Nazi who benefited from the Ratline.

Author Philippe Sands, whose East West Street was another favorite last year, researches and tells this story, which interweaves so many other elements: von Wächter’s mysterious death, Nazi hunters, nefariousness in the Vatican, Cold War espionage, and all the complexities of lives during the Second World War, as told from reams of family correspondence and the cooperation of von Wächter’s son Horst, who still believes his father was a good person who was murdered (Horst also lives in a castle outside of Vienna. This story has it all).

In East West Street, Sands showed how adept he was at piecing together complicated historical mysteries using many sources and the benefit of hindsight and logic that’s become evident in the meantime, and Sands’ next book The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive is another such historical detective story. I never recommend books I haven’t read yet, but I just picked up my library hold on this one and I’m confident recommending it based on how excellent the podcast and East West Street are.

Cold War intrigue brings me to my favorite podcast this year (it actually came out in 2020, I’m slow): Crooked Media’s Wind of Change.

Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe investigates a simple but pretty shocking question: Did the CIA write a power ballad that ended the Cold War?

He hears a rumor from inside the CIA that the 1990 power ballad “Wind of Change” from West German heavy metal band the Scorpions had actually been penned by the CIA to stoke revolution behind the Iron Curtain and possibly end the Cold War.

As he digs into the history of the song and the environment that created it, things get fishier. The Scorpions had an album called Virgin Killer; political statements weren’t exactly their forte. Not that we can’t all contain multitudes, but this just wasn’t really on-brand.

I had never heard of this song: I know of The Scorpions, but only Rock You Like a Hurricane (and to be honest, I know it best from Aqua Teen Hunger Force). But when I asked my husband, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, if he knew Wind of Change, he smiled widely and patiently told me that yes, of course he knows this song. So there’s some anecdotal evidence of the cultural impact this song had in Iron Curtain Europe.

I haven’t read anything by Radden Keefe yet, but I instantly understood why his books are so mega popular. He’s an excellent journalist and storyteller. What I loved about his investigation was how far-reaching it was, and throughout listening I kept being reminded of books where I’d heard bits of these stories before.

Here’s my reading list for stories that involve Russian spies, CIA machinations, including their confirmed use of both Dr. Zhivago and Nina Simone as tools of manipulation, weird US army and CIA experiments, conspiracy theories, the complexities of sunken submarines, and the wild stories of US-Soviet spycraft and meddling, including the uncomfortable realization that the behavior of these two countries is not always so different (Radden Keefe highlights this excellently in the podcast with very current examples, including why the truth of the songwriting remains murky).

Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic, by Daniel Stone

Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt For Putin’s Spies, by Gordon Corera

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

A Little Devil in America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance, by Hanif Abdurraqib

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent, by Sarah Kendzior

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

Jon Ronson’s podcasts are always stellar, and his latest, Things Fell Apart from BBC Radio 4 is no exception. It’s a calm, nuanced look at the culture wars: what Ronson identifies as the values we’re fighting about, including race, abortion, trans rights, and cancel culture. Each episode finds the genesis of one of our current cultural conflicts: “the pebbles thrown in the pond, creating the ripples that led to where we are today,” and explores “the strange, unexpected human stories” behind them.

The stories include “filmmaker Frank Schaeffer, whose debut documentary triggered the explosive abortion rows that still rage over 40 years later; AIDs activist Steve Pieters, who prompted a crisis of conscience for televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; Kelly Michaels, a day-care worker embroiled in America’s ‘Satanic panic’; and Brad Templeton, who shared a joke on a message board in the early days of the internet – and became the very first person to be publicly shamed for something they did online.”

This was so good I’ve listened twice. Ronson is such a wonderfully sensitive, compelling, and thankfully, considering the subject matter, sweetly funny storyteller. He has such an interesting way of making people think about their own stories too. If you’re not familiar with him and want to understand more about where our current culture wars began, it’s just perfect.

Some books that cover similar ground:

Of course, Ronson’s own So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is the best look at the beginning of what would become cancel culture and a deep-dive into why things were moving in this direction.

Hysterical: A Memoir, by Elissa Bassist

Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory, by Colette Brooks

The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and our Place in the Middle, by Sarah Krasnostein

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, by Ijeoma Oluo

Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, by Kelly Weill

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr

The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays, by Elisa Gabbert

And, because Ronson is nothing if not hopeful in how he frames stories, my favorite book on how humankind and our culture by extension isn’t always as atrocious as it sometimes feels: Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman and translated from Dutch by Erica Moore.

What nonfiction pairings did you come up with this week? Make sure to link up below!

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70 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairing

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  1. Tunnel 29 was one of my favorites as well in the area of nonfiction. I started They Knew, but what I was trying to get away from, presented itself in the start of the book so I abandoned that one. There are some wonderfully sounding books that you listed. I need to investigate which ones my library has.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry it dragged you right back to where you didn’t want to be! I promise it’s worth sticking with if you ever feel up to coming back to it. Very happy I could give you some more library suggestions! 🙂


  2. I used to find this week’s theme tricky but now I create it through the year when I come across good pairings, so I’ve managed to come up with a few! Learning every time I do NonFic November. I’ve posted mine and now added my link to you – I’d scheduled it then it published before I had time to find this post and add the link!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My post for this week is linked. Frank Schaeffer had a dramatic change of heart. His Calvin Becker Trilogy is a hilarious send-up of his parents. He’s also written a book on his change of heart.


  4. I think I lost my comment. My post is linked. On your post: Frank Schaeffer had a big change of heart and wrote the hilarious Calvin Becker trilogy about his parents. He also wrote a nonfiction book on his change of heart on all things fundamentalist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ok, there is a lot to process in this post …I skimmed it but will return after I listen to some of the podcasts! Book pairings…I never participate in week 2. I read 2x non-fiction as fiction so connections are hard to find. Love the idea of linking NF with podcasts. Great job! Thanks for hosting

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nancy! Hope you find some good ones to listen to! I never enjoyed this prompt either, so I tried to adjust it a bit for others who are more nonfiction-focused and may feel similarly. Hopefully it helped give people some different ideas for this week 🙂

      PS did you see the recent news from Berlin – a woman was killed on her bike after rolling under a cement mixer. It happened in the district where we have our apartment. So sad and makes me so angry – the drivers in Berlin can be so aggressive and bike lanes merge suddenly without any warning into car lanes, it can be really scary and as much as they push it as being a bike-friendly city, it’s really not when you have to ride behind buses and huge trucks. Of course the right wing has turned it into an issue about emergency vehicles not being able to reach her because of a climate protest going on nearby, although that wasn’t actually a factor. It’s a total mess.


    1. I love linking them up too – when you find a topic you’re interested in it’s so fun to keep going with it 😊

      If you liked Ronson’s book then definitely get into the podcast! It’s the closest content-wise and he even references the book at one point. It was really interesting, I love his journalistic style.

      Wind of Change is amazing – I couldn’t even capture all of it in the post, it’s just so, so good and covers so much ground that’s surprisingly still relevant. He got interviews with really interesting people too. Such a weirdly compelling story!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard so many recommendations for Empire of Pain, and his journalism impressed me so much in the podcast that I’m sure his books must be worthwhile. Lots of people seem to find this a tough topic, that’s why I tried to give some more options to share different kinds of storytelling – maybe it helps 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like the sound of Tunnel 29. The best nonfiction tends to be even more amazing than the best fiction and this could be one of them. Didn’t you live in Berlin for a while? I wonder if that inspired you to pick up the book, it’s always interesting to read history from the place you are located.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tunnel 29 is definitely one of those nonfiction titles that reads like fiction while still teaching you so much and being just an incredible, truly unbelievable story. I do still live in Berlin, actually! We live part of the year in NYC and part in Berlin, thanks to the mixed-up Covid era and my husband’s long-extended greencard procedure 😂 We had found a home we loved there and decided to keep it. I’m sure I read a lot that’s Berlin-centric for that reason. But I think it’s a captivating story regardless – I felt I’d read a lot about that time period but there was still information that was new to me or better explained than I’d encountered elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it hard to find the time too, my listening has definitely decreased over the last few years. I generally only do it when cooking/cleaning. I think if you drive you have more options 🙂


  7. I think it’s a good idea to pair up films and podcasts as well as books, gives more options and more forms of storytelling to consider. I think I watched a movie that was based on the Staring at Goats book … it was weird. You’ve assembled quite a list here, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tunnel 29 sounds so intriguing. And an accompanying podcast makes it all the better! We recently visited the International Spy Museum in DC, so this book also sounds very interesting to me, “Russians Among Us.” Thanks for sharing so many great titles and for hosting us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh I would love to visit the one in DC! Spy books aren’t generally my go-to, but that one was so outstanding and such a page-turner. And very relevant right now too, in terms of Putin’s mentality.


  9. Every year that I think I have a good pairing, you put me to shame in the best way possible! This is a deep dive. I feel like this could easily be the syllabus for a class. I am in awe!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are too kind!!! I think it’s just because I tend to read a lot on similar subjects. Maybe somewhere there’s a class on Soviet spies and CIA deviousness that can use my reading list…how I hope!


  10. Tunnel 29 is one of the best books I’ve read this year – thank you for putting it in my way! Though I am already oversubscribed to podcasts and have enough to sustain me through my walk to work for about a year. I’m glad you’ve tweaked the prompt this year as I had several ideas, but none of them connected to novels! I’ve gone for a Youtube channel in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It was a surprise to me that he had a podcast as well, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t about it earlier. Especially after listening, because it’s really so good – very well done and an intriguing story. Excited to hear what you think of it if you listen!


  11. Tunnel 29 has been on my TBR list since last year’s Nonfiction November, but I’m adding the Intrigue podcast.

    Loved Winds of Change – I’ve read a few of Radden Keefe’s books – you will not be disappointed. Say Nothing about the Troubles in Ireland was my favourite book the year I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like I’m mentioning Tunnel 29 constantly, but it really was such an outstanding book.

      Glad you enjoyed the podcast too! I just haven’t felt so compelled by any of his books although they always come with such glowing recommendations. I think Say Nothing was by far the most recommended nonfiction book the year it came out. Maybe I’ll try to tackle it one of these days!


    1. If you’re fascinated by Berlin history, Tunnel 29 is absolutely a must-read! I also really enjoyed Sinclair McKay’s new book Berlin this year, although it is a little limited in scope. You should enjoy the podcast as well, it has some fun bits of German history too 🙂


  12. Thank you for the podcast tips. I have listened to Wind of Change. Fascinating story. I like Keefe’s way of questioning himself in order to see the story from different angles, including his own. I remember this song, it is beautiful and I have been humming it ever since I started the podcast. I am now going to listen to The Ratline and Tunnel 29.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh I’m so glad you listened and enjoyed it! Isn’t it a compelling story? Did you end up having an opinion one way or another? I went back and forth but I think there was something there. I really appreciated his journalistic style as well, I think that’s the best way to be objective too…that willingness to question himself.

      And was the same for me, that song was constantly in my head!

      I’m almost finished with the Ratline book, it’s fantastic too. I want to relisten to the podcast after I’m done. Hope you enjoy that one too!


      1. There is certainly something suspicious behind this story. All through the episodes I thought that the story was true. However, after the interview with Klaus I felt he was sincere as Keefe himself pointed out. His action after the interview also pointed to an innocent man.
        Although, I think that if I heard such a statement for the first time, I would be much more upset, and certainly follow up with a few questions of my own. It is quite a statement, and you think that his reaction would be one of anger, being upset etc.
        I was thinking that when Klaus was out on the boat that night, coming up with the lyrics, and possibly the music, he might have discussed it with someone (from somewhere?) who added a few lines, or suggestions, to the lyrics. That might be all it takes to think you have influenced the song.
        I am not so familiar with the Scorpions’ music, but understand they are heavy metal (which I don’t like). That really makes this song stand out as well, being more of a ballad, and not the usual type of songs they were singing.
        I guess we will never know. In the end, it is a beautiful song.
        I am now on to the BBC podcast starting from the beginning, and now on to the Ratline. Fascinating stories and they do it so well, keeping the interest up from beginning to end.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had a similar impression. I find it hard to judge Klaus’s behavior though – people do react so differently to stressors, and maybe he’s just not concerned about it at this point either way. But I think you present a very plausible scenario – that perhaps there was someone involved with that tour who was intended to influence them (there almost certainly were Soviet handlers, or I think at least the one guy was confirmed to be one, so it makes sense that the CIA would’ve wanted some control over the situation too).

        I really liked the interview with their Russian tour guide, who gave such good insight into US-Russian relations and why the song was significant to them and she hoped that it wasn’t written by the CIA. I thought that was such a great section.

        Enjoy the BBC podcasts, they’re so often my favorites! They always find such fascinating stories. I just finished the Ratline book and want to relisten. It’s quite the story.


  13. Just started listening to the Winds of Change podcast. Your blog is invaluable. I see you haven’t posted in a while. Hope you are simply enjoying a break and plan to return. I’ve come to rely on you Rennie. You are an inspiration and I love the way you think and write.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also loved this podcast, so great. I have also been wondering about the lack of posts recently. Hope all is well, and as Carol says, you took a well deserved break from posting. We do miss your insightful reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for checking in! I’m thrilled you enjoyed the podcast, wasn’t it such a gem? I’m sorry I’ve gone dark here — life has been so busy these last months (a very unsmooth apartment purchase, overburdened with work, partner likewise overworked, etc.) and the mental energy necessary for blogging has been completely absent! I hope to make a return eventually though, I’m really trying to find the time and mindset! I hope you’re doing well and I can’t thank you enough for thinking of me!


    2. Hi Carol! Thanks for checking in 🙂 I’m so thrilled I could convince you to listen to the podcast — it was such a favorite and I need a relisten! How are you liking it?

      And thank you so much for your incredibly kind words — truly, that means a lot to me. I’m taking a break out of necessity, life got overwhelmingly busy with a bumpy apartment purchase at the end of last year (that got even bumpier once we got into the place), both my and my husband’s work being busier than reasonable, a death in the family — a bunch of things like this. The thought of blogging after being at my desk all day and a household falling apart around me just hasn’t been appealing! But I’m hoping I can pull it together to make a return eventually.

      And I hope you’re doing well too! I have a lot of catching up to do on your wonderful posts, I miss hearing what you’re reading and your insightful analysis into all things French 🙂


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