Nonfiction November: Book Pairings


Whew! It’s been intense hosting the second annual Witch Week, which you can read all about here in case you missed it. And now it’s already the second week of Nonfiction November, which for the second year in a row is being hosted by the lovely bloggers at Doing Dewey, Sophisticated Dorkiness, I’m Lost in Books and Regular Ruminations. They have wonderful weekly discussion topics, post link-ups, and a readalong on offer. I hope you’ll join in!

This week’s topic is Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairings, and I had a great time putting some recommendations together for you. All of these are from books I’ve read within the past year, and I was surprised at how many perfect pairings I found from that limited selection. If you think nonfiction is not your thing, try some of these! You might find that it complements your fictional reading better than you had imagined. (Likewise, if you’re not interested in fiction, some of these might change your mind.) My review, if I did one, is linked from the book title.


Fish  Hat

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Bellos’s book was one of my favorite finds from last year’s Nonfiction November. Witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, it illuminates the importance of translation and how it extends into many different aspects of our lives. For a practical application, see how the English translation of Laurain’s brief novel used three different translators to interpret the diverse narrative voices that emerge as an iconic black felt hat makes a roundabout journey through France, changing lives along the way.


Devil  Grace

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Larson reconstructs the chilling career of an early serial killer against the backdrop of the incredible achievements of the builders of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a turning point in American cultural history. Atwood takes a real murder case as the starting point for a sly and subversive narrative that brings up many questions about gender, mind, and identity, but gives us few answers.


Duke  Armadale

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Mystery and Intrigue by Piu Marie Atwell
Armadale by Wilkie Collins

As I read about a real-life melodrama in Piu Marie Eatwell’s stranger-than-fiction saga, I kept thinking “This would be a perfect plot for a Wilkie Collins novel.” So why not pair it with one of Collins’s deliciously over-the-top sensation novels, in which a strangely sympathetic villainness plots to get her own back through marriage — or murder.


Reba_9780385682848_jkt_all_r3.indd  Hollow

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

An account of a modern-day shepherd’s life in the beautiful, stark country of England’s Lake District is perfectly complemented by Jane Gardam’s quietly hilarious linked stories of a native-born Cumbrian family and the visitors who come to love the place as much as they do.


Royal  Wolves

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III by Janice Hadlow
The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken

Janice Hadlow’s biography reveals that King George III tried to break his family’s cycle of parent/child oppression and misunderstanding…but he didn’t do very well. Pair that with Joan Aiken’s fantastic adventure stories of an alternate England governed by the Stuarts instead of the Hanoverians (with supporters of Bonnie Prince Georgie lurking in the wings). Bad history, perhaps, but great fun.


Victorian  Sibyl

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Ruth Goodman’s meticulous research — which includes not washing with water for four months and making historically accurate condoms — gives a fascinating glimpse into what Victorian life was really like. Follow it up with Patricia Duncker’s neo-Victorian pastiche of love and publishing in nineteenth century Berlin, centered around the literary giant George Eliot and her great, late works.

What nonfiction/fiction pairings do you have to suggest — from this year’s reading, or any other?

33 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Book Pairings

  1. Such a great list! Sophie and the Sybil sounds delightful and I’m absolutely fascinated by The President’s Hat – I had never heard of that and it sounds so cool. Plus it reminded me that Is That a FIsh In Your Ear? is on my list from last year!


    1. Make this your year to read it! And The President’s Hat was great fun (I read it on the plane to Switzerland, which was perfect). The author’s next book, The Red Notebook, sounds lovely as well.


  2. Great pairings! I read The Dead Duke a few months ago and it reminded me of a Wilkie Collins novel too. Armadale is one of my favourites. And I enjoyed Alias Grace, so I’ll definitely think about reading The Devil in the White City.


  3. How To Be Victorian sounds like a fun read! I’m curious to hear about the rest of her research. Lots of good ones. This pairing challenge is hard on my tbr list!


  4. What a great collection of book pairings! So many intriguing titles. The approach to translation is intriguing with The President’s Hat. I’ve only read Atwood’s The Blind Assassin which I liked, but did not love, and would like to try another. Though I’d heard the title, I didn’t know what Alias Grace was about. The Shepherd’s Life is already on my to-read list, but I like the looks of its fiction companion. And both books in the final Victorian pairing are tempting!


    1. I don’t think I’ve read any other books with multiple translators like The President’s Hat. It was an interesting way to deal with the different narrators. I’m glad you like the sound of The Hollow Land because I adore Jane Gardam and find she’s been a bit overlooked. It’s a lovely book.


  5. I really like this idea. It is getting the gears working in my own head coming up with my own pairings.

    I particularly like pairing the George III book with The Wolves Chronicles.

    I generally like alternate histories. That one sounds really different and I will try to get to it in the coming months.


    1. I hope you like the Wolves Chronicles! They are absurd but imaginative and fun. The first five books (in which I include The Whispering Mountain) are definitely the best.

      I’d love to see what pairings you might come up with.


  6. Ooooh – I LOVED Devil in the White City and now to see it paired with an Atwood, an author that I haven’t read yet, but is #1 on my “legendary authors to try” list!
    And – I’d like to read the Duke, Corpse book as well! Great pairings!


  7. Oh I’m glad you mentioned the George III book! I’ve been meaning to read more about that guy. I feel like I have a generally okay grip on some portions of English history, including much of the Plantagenets, all of the Tudors, and the Victorian period on forward, but the Georges are more or less a complete blank to me. Need to be better!


    1. Yes, I had a very vague concept of his reign, derived from a mix of simplistic history classes on the American Revolution, and Regency novels. The book definitely helped to fill in some large holes in my knowledge of the era.


  8. Not washing with water for 4 months? Oh my! Did she use another method instead, or just cover the smell with perfume? (I’ve heard you can “wash” your face with oil, but have never tried it, for example.) I may have to read that one, just for the historically accurate condoms. 😉


  9. You always have such fascinating recommendations! As I settle into my job of teaching reading to 7th and 8th graders who have yet to fall in love with reading, I have been spending most of my reading time with YA novels and recent releases. The books you discuss are the type of books I read before I had kids, when I still had actual brain cells to use in my reading. I keep bookmarking your suggestions and hope to read at least a few in the next year! I’m also thinking I’ll steal this idea for my blog sometime.


    1. Ha ha…well, as your kids get older hopefully the brain cells will grow back. When my son was younger I certainly couldn’t do anything like this amount of reading. Fortunately, the books can wait!


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