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
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
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!