Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

Week 3 of Nonfiction November time! I love combing through people’s posts to get recommendations on this topic, it’s such a favorite.

Here’s a reminder of our prompt, courtesy of Christopher @ Plucked from the Stacks:

Stranger Than Fiction (November 14-18): This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

But as much as I love it, this was an unbelievably tough one for me to do after last year. I used up all my good recommendations then, so you’re probably better off visiting that post.

I went through what I’ve read within the last year and managed to pull a couple that sort of fit, although I was disappointed.

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland – I should have included this in my pairings last week, because it pairs perfectly with Tunnel 29 and The Ratline as a thrilling, hard to believe, reads-like-fiction story from WWII/Cold War-era Europe.

Freedland always remembered the story told by the Slovakian-born Rudolf Vrba in his appearance in the monumental documentary Shoah. Vrba, at only 19 years old, was the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz, and one of only four Jewish people to accomplish it at all.

Along with his partner escapee, Fred Wetzler, they undertook a dangerous trek through Poland back to Slovakia, where they produced a detailed report of the atrocities that were taking place at the death camp – “first full account of Auschwitz the world had ever seen.”

Although Vrba was undeniably a hero, Freedland doesn’t turn this into an exercise in hero worship, instead creating a portrait of a person with all his flaws. It’s still an incredible story, and I appreciated his realistic handling of it. It also had one of the most beautifully written, gripping introductions that I’ve read in recent memory – I got that kind of chill you get when you realize you’re about to read something truly special (how I wish I could quote from it but I left my copy in Berlin! Just trust me, I promise it’s exceptional).

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney – This account of the global trade in biological material was almost constantly jaw-dropping. It’s not only organs, but things like blood and hair as well. The majority of this is happening in India and China. It’s extremely sad because it’s a world designed to exploit the poor and impoverished. So often while reading this I was shocked that I hadn’t heard more about this kind of trade (aside from the child trafficking chapter). Even learning about the medical systems and practices in other countries was enlightening.

Carney is an excellent writer and investigative journalist and his long-term, on-the-ground experience in various Asian countries makes this feel like much more than just a report. It may sound pretty grim but I think this is something worth knowing about the world.

Will Storr vs. The Supernatural: One Man’s Search for the Truth About Ghosts, by Will Storr – Another plug for one of my recent favorites, which I read for Frighteningly Good Reads. To be fair, this isn’t quite stranger than fiction because Storr works diligently (and hilariously) to debunk the strangest aspects of his investigative encounters with the paranormal and supernatural, including ghosthunters, poltergeists, demonologists, and many other weird and spooky folk in the world of ghost believers. But in the end, he admits to some happenings that don’t have logical or scientific explanations. I love a good skeptic’s story that also leaves room for some of the mystery of the world, although I do hew to the belief that the unknown is science we haven’t learned to understand yet.

What were your favorite Stranger Than Fiction reads this year? Don’t forget to link your picks up with Chris all week!

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30 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

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  1. Investigative journalism is the genre that really appeals to me and produces often “jaw dropping books”. Last year I read “The Jakarta Method” (V. Bevins) about US involvement in Indonesia’s politics in years past. “Atomic Thunder” (E. Tynan) was also a shocker from an Australian writer…”jaw dropping” reckless policies in Australia concerning atomic testing in their country. Not really into ghosts…but your highlighting `’The Red Market” intrigues and repulses me. I must read it no matter where it takes me. I’m not doing a week 3 post…but the book that made MY jaw drop this year was “Empire of Pain” by P.R. Keefe. Opioid crisis….created by big Pharma for profits. #Eye-opener. Thanks for sharing your books this week!

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    1. Those all sound fascinating! I’ve been avoiding tackling empire of pain because it just seems like so much but I loved the author’s podcast so may try it. Will storr’s book isn’t about ghosts but rather the science and logic behind these beliefs and incidents. That feels important to clarify 🙂

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  2. Oke..I should first read your review of Storr’s book before I make any snap judgements.
    P.R. Keefe’s book was amazing…page-turner. The Red Market…hesitant to read about the dark side of life…but it should be known. Collecting books during November for 2023 reading challenges. There are SO many to read….not enough time!

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    1. That’s what everyone’s said, that it’s a page turner, but I’m so intimidated by it! Also because I tend to get bored with legal books that get too into the weeds (I do too much legal editing and copyediting to enjoy it in my spare time, apparently!) I promise the Red Market will feel worthwhile. I was constantly googling the things he brought up to see if any developments or legislation had been made in the meantime (it’s maybe 10 years old or so). Just insane.

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  3. The one book that intimidates me at the moment is TOXIC by Richard Flanagan about the salmon industry in Tasmania, Australia. Just don’t want to be confronted with, I fear, shocking information.

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    1. This one can be a tricky topic if it’s not really your usual reading area. I’m sorry it caused you to miss out this week! But I hope you’ll find some good reading suggestions regardless!

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  4. I was worried about returning participants using up all their best ones last year, but you (and everyone else) honestly crushed it again this year.

    The Red Market sounds horrifying and fascinating and it’s immediately getting added to my TBR pile, though I know I’m going to have to be in the right mindset to actually read it.

    And I really do need to get around to Will Storr vs. the Supernatural. I am all about skeptics working through the paranormal. I share your view about science being the explanation, but dang. It makes for fun stories.

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    1. I’m glad you thought so, I really struggled as much as I love this topic!!

      The Red Market is indeed horrifying, but I really appreciate how this journalist/author works. He has a great way of putting the information in context and weaving a narrative, especially from an individual perspective. It can feel sad but not overwhelming, if that makes sense. And there is some hope as he weaves in some policy and topics around that.

      Totally agreed about the skeptics reporting on the supernatural – this one was by far the most fun I’ve read in this genre! I know Mary Roach’s Spook is the go-to here but I thought this one was much more fun and even laugh-out-loud funny. I think you’d really enjoy it.

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  5. Good choices about extraordinary people. And in different fields. I like the ghost one, a little bit outside the extraordinary. I am still to find something stranger than fiction for this week.

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    1. Outside the extraordinary is such a great phrase! That’s definitely it. I like “ghost” stories that acknowledge that the truth of a “haunting” is usually much scarier, and he does that while making this quite funny and even scientific. It’s just great. I hope you can manage to find some good suggestions among the posts – it’s definitely a tough topic if that’s not your regular reading area!

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  6. These are great ones still! I don’t remember what I used last year but I found four, in a bit of a hurry, myself (I had prewritten the previous week as I was going to be away, but thought I could get this one done in the day between coming back from holiday and wanting to post it!).

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    1. Thanks Liz! Prewriting them definitely seems to be key in putting together a post you like for this event, doesn’t it? I was kind of dreading this one because I already knew I’d used up all my good suggestions last year and I hadn’t read much in this area this year!

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