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!