Nonfiction November 2021: Stranger than fiction

Week 4 of Nonfiction November … rolling right along …

Nonfiction November, as you surely know by now, is hosted by several bloggers, with week 4 hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks:

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.

This is a new addition to the Nonfiction November weekly prompts, which is exciting, even for me who hasn’t done this month assiduously in the past. But, how to respond?

What comes to my mind when I think “stranger than fiction” are those coincidences (and the like) that happen in real life that a fiction writer could never get away with. Christopher, though, has taken a broader view, including things like “overcoming massive obstacles”. My problem is that although I’ve read the same amount of nonfiction this year, as last, none of it really seems to fit his description, but I’ll see what I can do about fitting my reading to the theme.

Stranger than fiction: 1, Overcoming massive obstacles

Wendy and Allan Scarfe had to overcome many political, personal and cultural obstacles in supporting a poor Indian village,particualrly in terms of improving educational opportunities, in their memoir, A mouthful of petals (my review).

But, when I think about overcoming obstacles in my reading this year, I have to go to Marie Younan, and her memoir A different kind of seeing (my review).

The story of how she lost her eyesight – the coincidences and lack of knowledge, among other things, that resulted in her losing her eyesight when a young child, and then the ongoing ramifications of this which meant that she did not get the right treatment, later, which may have restored some of her eyesight – is a tragic story.

The story of how she finally managed to migrate to Australia to join her family, having been rejected more than once because of her blindness, is a disgraceful indictment on Australia’s immigration system.

The story of how she, as an adult, found a person (or, he found her), who recognised her needs and who nurtured and gently pushed her into becoming literate – to learn Braille, mix with people, learn English – so that she eventually found employment and became independent, is an inspirational story.

So, yes, Marie Younan had to overcome massive obstacles to get to where she is today. It’s a story that would be hard to make believable in fiction.

Stranger than fiction: 2, Diary as therapy?

Thinking about this topic, though, I realised that Garner’s diaries are perfect, besides the irony of reading her actual diaries when her novels, her fiction, have been criticised as “just” her diaries. Does this make the point moot?

If I soldier on, though, I am a little anxious about what I’m going to say next, because I am presuming to criticise another person’s life choice, in this case Garner’s “strange” relationship with “V”. He is the man who becomes her husband during the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this (my review). I feel anxious, but I also feel it’s ok because Garner wrote about it, and because we know the outcome, so I’m not exactly saying anything new.

The point is that the relationship turned out disastrously for Garner, and anyone reading the diary could surely see that coming. If this were fiction – besides Garner’s of course, her diaries being the stuff of her fiction, says she cheekily – I would have been hard-pressed to believe the relationship. There just seemed to be too much angst, too much difference between them, for it to work.

However, here’s the thing. What do we write in diaries? Mostly our angst? Of course, diarists will occasionally write the really happy stuff, and, those diarists who are writers, will also often jot down ideas, observations and inspirations. Mostly, though, we write out our angst. We get it out of our hearts and onto the page, which makes us feel better. Diary as therapy, in other words. Taking Garner’s diaries in this context, and knowing too that she’s edited them, we cannot presume to know the whole of her relationship with “V”. However, looking at it purely on the basis of what we read, the fact that they ever married does seem “stranger than fiction”. I think that’s fair enough for me to write.

And now, I’d love to hear how YOU would answer this question. Sock it to me! I’ll believe you!

55 thoughts on “Nonfiction November 2021: Stranger than fiction

  1. “a disgraceful indictment on Australia’s immigration system” – why are we like this ? Why do we have Peter Duttons pulling the strings ? – there is no sane answer.
    One of my favourite books of all times – Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter or Time” – is non-fiction posing as fiction, which is pretty clever (her research never ceases to amaze me). She disguised it in order to have people read it, but also because it pleased her to portray truth dressed up as a story.
    But perhaps too many people didn’t believe it .. and why the Richard III Society has put it aside is beyond me.

  2. I keep meaning to compliment you on the revamp of the blog, and then by the time I finish reading the post I’ve forgotten all about it and barge right into the conversation with my two-bob’s worth!
    Fortunately I have no idea how to answer the question you pose with this post, so I’ve remembered! It looks great:)

    • Haha, thanks Lisa. I know what you mean about forgetting things you want to say.

      My theme had been retired years and years ago and I’d been feeling I really should change it to a current one so that if I had problems it wouldn’t be do to an “old” theme. Every time I looked for a replacement, it would lack something but this one, has pretty much all I wanted. One major thing worse, but one biggish thing better!!

        • The fact that the categories and tags are only displayed when you click on a particular post, and not on the home page when you scroll down posts. And the presentation of the tags overshadows the categories. But I have been looking for years for a theme I like.

        • Ah, I thought that was because you’d chosen not to display them. I wonder about displaying tags and categories. I tag so that the post shows up in Google searches, but I doubt that anyone ever uses the tag cloud to browse the blog. The categories, OTOH, are for me. I use them all the time to find stuff, but I only show them as a drop down menu because I don’t think anyone ever uses them except me.

        • I use both for me, Lisa, to organise my blog. I use them quite a lot on other people’s blogs: if I read a post that’s interesting and I want to quickly find what else they’ve written on that person or topic. I have the categories in drop down at the side just because they are too long otherwise, and the tags in a cloud because I like the look!! The cloud only shows the top 75, I think it is, most used tags.

          I would click on your categories and/or tags a few times a year. Not a lot, but every now and then.

          Every time I research SEO, I tend to find that categories and tags are not used much by search engines like Google, but who knows? It’s a bit of a mystery to me.

        • It may be possible to reduce the size of the tag cloud by customising it, I’ve done this to mine, to reduce it to showing only 25. But I did it so long ago, I can’t remember how I did it.

    • Thanks for pointing this out, Lisa. I hadn’t noticed! (In my defence, I read the initial release in my email client, and from there I zip to the comments, so I don’t really look at the heading. Sorry, Sue 😔 )

  3. I haven’t done a post for this week because I wasn’t sure what I could use. Maybe Toxic by Richard Flanagan as I was certainly shocked and upset by the salmon industry in Tasmania?

    I have Tey’s book on my TBR shelf, M-R’s comment has reminded me of it. It was recommended to me a while ago and I cannot remember why….

    • I’ve seen many recommendations for it over the years Brona because it’s one of those “modern” historical fiction classics. I don’t know who suggested it to you though! I read it in my teens or early twenties.

      I think you could make anything that shocked you stranger than fiction – I think these memes are about having fun! No-one’s going to grade us! That said, I had to think a little while about how I could fit it into my reading!

  4. At the risk of eliciting groans at the familiarity, antiquity, and male-centricity of this…”All The President’s Men”?

    Actually, yes; I can add a little more supporting evidence for this (or the aftermath of it): the Nixon White House tapes. I recall reading that Harold Wilson, who was prime minister of Britain at the time (for a second time, in the hung parliament) was asked by an interviewer what he thought about the recorded evidence about what Nixon had had people doing at the Watergate building and everywhere else. He is supposed to have answered, “Well, I wouldn’t have been such a damn fool as to bug myself.”

  5. I had trouble fulfilling this one and it still seems weird to me that I ended up using the last two books I’d read, out of the 80 or so nonfiction titles I’ve read since last November!

  6. The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. Quantum physics=mind blown. It was like reading scifi, especially when he talked about all the different dimensions and the possible shapes of the universe. I read it years ago and I still think about it and get boggled.

  7. Danny Trejo’s new memoir is mostly unbelievable, but an interesting read. From prison to drug rehab counselor to Hollywood’s scary tough guy, he’s done a lot.

    Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger also comes to mind. She made up letters from famous writers to each other, taking on their tone and quirks and using typewriters from the time period during which the famous writer was a live to make the whole thing believable.

    • Thanks Melanie … they sound like excellent answers. I’ve heard of Israel’s. Would be interested to read that if it ever came my way. Some people’s trajectory like Trejo’s are unbelievable. Probably Frank McCourt’s in Angela’s ashes could be seen that way too. I found his description of poverty almost unbelievable, let alone his trajectory to best-selling author.

  8. I’m not brave enough/or I’m too fixed in my ways to change my theme. And you tell me it’s been discontinued! I hope WP don’t force me off it.

    I have shelves of nonfiction, but from years ago. My philosophy dates back to uni days and my science/philosophy of science likewise mostly though I have some more recent Cosmology – Stephen Hawkins for instance. Is it stranger then fiction? I couldn’t say. And I have DIg, some Ernestine Hill, and mountains of Lit.theory and biog.s

    • You do have to steel yourself to change your theme, Bill. I think mine was retired before you started blogging so it doesn’t seem like they force you off. However I got to the point that I felt it would be hard to discuss problems with the “happiness engineers” with a retired theme tho I’ve done so before.

      I think you can make many things stranger than fiction if you can argue a case. Dig is a good one. Cosmology is so incomprehensible in a way I reckon you could argue for it too.

  9. I am not sure whether what I am going to say is relevant to this post. Here goes. I think that truth IS often stranger than fiction. And then I think that fiction is often an attempt to make sense of the strangeness of truth, to give the elements of the matter a pattern, to reveal a meaning in the truths of everyday life. Just a thought.

    • I like very much what you have to say Carmel, and think it’s perfectly relevant. I relate very much to the idea of fiction being an “attempt to make sense of the strangeness of truth”.

  10. Truth is for our purposes made up by all the decisions of everyone in the world, some more imaginative than others, but all with their own imaginations and motives. It is no wonder if billion imaginations generally beat any one novelist working solo.

    Huma Ubedin has brought out a memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, which of course covers her marriage to a man anyone could have told her not to marry–whom many probably did tell her not to marry. I am not planning to read it–one could spend one’s life reading political memoirs, but I’d rather not.

  11. A Different Kind of Seeing does sound like an incredible story of overcoming obstacles that seem nearly impossible! I ended up picking all books related to medicine myself and I’m wondering if there’s a reason that so many books in that category fit this theme so well. Perhaps a bias in what medical stories are told?

    • That’s a very good question Katie. It probably is a bias in what medical stories are told because they are both the more exciting ones (build up, crisis, resolution) and the most hopeful ones?

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