Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2019

Nonfiction November 2019: Fiction Nonfiction Book Pairings

This is the week in Non fiction November that I always struggle with:

Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. 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.  (See Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

Karen at Booker Talk has done it here (and #It’sACompliment I’ve copied her format) and Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best has done it here but *sigh* as usual I couldn’t think of anything until I realised that I had already done it, quite by accident, in my review of The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard. 

Life amid unimaginable hardships in the Soviet gulags

The Diary of a Prison Guard by Ivan Chistyakov (translated by Arch Tait) is an authentic account of a soldier assigned to guard prisoners at work on one of Stalin’s infrastructure projects in Siberia.  Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov (translated by John Glad, see my review here) is fiction from the other side of the wire: it’s a series of short stories based on Shalamov’s real life experience in the gulags.  Unlike many, he lived to tell the tale and was released in 1956,  but his book had to be smuggled out of the USSR.  Zuleikha, a novel, by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C Hayden, see my review here) on the other hand, is post-Soviet writing, based on the real-life experiences and opinions of the author’s grandmother—which is what makes it so interesting because being deported to Siberia is shown to be an experience not entirely negative.  It’s a rare example of a ‘gulag’ book by/about a woman, and it shows that the life of a brow-beaten kulak wife could be transformed into a life of agency and independence.

Inspiration struck again as I scrolled down my list of what I’d read this year:

The singular malevolence of apartheid for women with long-absent husbands

As I said in my review of Sisonke Msimang’s The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela: If you hold an opinion about Winnie Mandela and you’re not afraid to have your assumptions challenged, I recommend reading this book, alongside The Cry of Winnie Mandela, a novel, by Njabulo Ndebele. This novel tells the story of four descendants of Penelope in Homer’s Ulysses who share the same plights: they have long-absent husbands because of the pernicious effects of apartheid, and they are expected to put their own lives on hold for indeterminate lengths of time out of loyalty and fidelity to their man and the institution of marriage.  Winnie’s response to them challenges this view of these expectations that any feminist would recognise as unreasonable.  As I said in my review: ‘She is different to them anyway because her waiting is over, but she is also different because she refuses to play the role assigned by society.  She will not be what other people need her to be.  She has been shaped by Nelson’s commitment to a great cause and like him, wonders if it was enough to justify leaving her.   She denied culpability at the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission because she won’t take responsibility for things that have multiple causes’. As Sisonke Msimang says, ‘We like our heroines to be courageous, but we don’t want them to be messy‘.

Finally, my reading of a non-fiction book about art in my own city takes me to Italy and New Zealand in fiction.

Art commissioned to commemorate famous people and sculpture which comes from the heart

I discovered Mark Holsworth’s Sculptures of Melbourne quite by chance and as you can see in my review I enjoyed his take on sculptures old and new in my city.  But for a glimpse into what’s involved in the creation of sculpture rather than the finished product up for judgement, there are two novels I read this year that had quite an impact.  Both are by Kiwi authors and both come from the same micro publisher Cloud Ink in New Zealand, but Alana Bolton Cooke’s A Splendid Sin is subtitled Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair and as you can see from my review, it illuminates how Michelangelo’s relationships with young men informed his art practice, (and caused him some trouble too.) Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (see my review) features a sculptor in distress after the death of her lover. She sculpts his image endlessly and forms a one-way attachment to another man, equally vulnerable, because of his resemblance to her lost love.  These novels demonstrate the difference between art commissioned to commemorate famous people and sculpture which comes from the heart.

So… much to my own surprise, this year I’ve managed to come up with three pairings, two of which are trios!

Thanks to Sarah for hosting.


  1. What a good idea. I will have done it too, if I look back. Fiction (especially historical fiction) often leads me to non-fiction.


    • Yes, some of mine are historical fiction, but not Beneath Pale Water, and not The Cry of Winnie Mandela.


  2. Well done! I don’t read enough non-fiction – just occasional memoirs – to be able to come up with any such pairings at all.


    • I’m feeling quite pleased with myself because I do find this hard.


  3. You’ve upped the ante doing trios!


    • Fear not, I’ll be back to my bad old ways next year!


  4. Beautiful book pairings, Lisa! Thought you might include ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ too :)


  5. Very serious list of works on topics I haven’t thought much of. Thank you for the recommendations. My week two pairings


    • Hi Anne, sorry I can’t comment on your blog… but yours are serious topics too!


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: