Nonfiction November Week Two: Pairing

This week, we are invited to 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.”

China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017)

Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights & Measures, a novel which unfolds in the decade following, when the revolution feels both fresh and far-away

Admittedly, part of the appeal for me with Miéville’s book is that he is a novelist and a fantastical novelist to boot.

So he’s got world-building skills designed to bring another time and place off the page. History told like this? Who could ask for more.

This should be the perfect set-up for understanding the world in which Jocelyn Parr’s characters were coming-of-age and preparing to step onto the stage of her novel.

Unsurprisingly, Miéville intends for the work to be accessible and immersive. There is an interesting interview with him by Samual Goff on “The Calvert Journal”. And there is a clip of an interview with Verso Books in the sidebar below.

“I’t’s completely chimerical to hope to tell the whole story. It was never intended to be an academic book,’ he tells me. ‘The aim was to give you some sense of what an extraordinary story this was. On that level it’s that most straightforward thing: a narrative history.’”

Just the thing!

Ironically, however, but perhaps predictably, I read Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights & Measures first (it looked like Miéville’s book was going to take awhile to arrive in the library for me – then, there it was)!

I was curious about Parr’s novel because of its shortlisting for the 2017 Governor General’s Award for Fiction in Canada, but it was the first sentence which sealed the deal for me:

“Before Lenin was dead and before my life had properly begun, I used to spend all my time in a bookstore down on Nikitskaya.”

You could find the Moscow bookstore on the pages of a history book, but not Tatiana’s story. Her work as a scientist is just one of many state-sponsored positions, designed to create the opportunity for discovery and exploration (or the impression of it, at least).

“Science was a raised skirt or a missing button, concluded Bekhterev in one of his lectures. You always hope for a nipple, but even its suggestion will hold your attention for a very long time.”

Not only does one catch a glimpse of the excitement and anticipation of scientific discovery through this analogy, but also the atmosphere in which Tatiana studies and works. She is passionate about the possibility of understanding the genesis of genius.

It’s not all tiny slices of people’s brains, however. And it’s also not all about discovery, which is how Tatiana has imagined it would be.

“At the institute, the silence persisted for the first few months of 1928, so that work sounded like the shuffling of papers, the pouring of tea, the clinking of glass jars meeting each other in the sink. Drawers, cabinets, and catalogue trays slid open and closed. The typewriter cartridge shunted back to the beginning with a familiar ding.”

She has overlooked the importance of politics, the need to produce particular results, the kind of results which support a ruling power.

“Somehow, the city had shifted just enough to make us dizzy. As if the streets and buildings and parks had been lifted up off their grid and then given a sharp kick before being laid back down, so that they were now ever so slightly askew – north not so north anymore.”

There are some very pressing questions. People disappear. Key people. And Tatiana’s lover, Sasha, who was uncomfortable early on (when they met – yes, in the bookstore) becomes inconsolable.

“This is when the new feeling started, though at the time I wouldn’t have described it as such. It wasn’t fear exactly, but fear’s beginning: stranger seen once too often.”

The love story – another kind of discovery – is prominent but not sentimental. Their bond offers a kind of security otherwise lacking in their everyday lives in this time of flux and realignment.

“Historians and archeologists know this: war, natural disaster and sudden regime changes are the best thing that can happen when it comes to preservation of the past. A volcano erupts and sends its lava flowing. In its path, everything is captured exactly was it was. How else would we ever have known about Pompeii?”

Well, yes, how else would we know. About its complete and utter devastation. And is that really knowing? Is that not only knowing that it has been obliterated?

What do we do when that’s the only kind of history we have?

Well, we turn to stories. And to storytellers.

2017-11-08T10:16:06+00:00

21 Comments

  1. whisperinggums November 16, 2017 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Fascinating pairing Buried, and love your explanation. These books make me feel like I feel I should revisit the October Revolution. I can see, too, why that first sentence got you in.

    BTW I have yet to read Mieville.

    (PS I’ve just resubscribed to your blog from my preferred email address which means I’ll be notified of your new posts on my laptop, not my mobile devices! I like to keep the email addresses separate, but it does cause me problems some times.)

  2. […] Buried in Print Pairing: the Russian Revolution and aftermath […]

  3. iliana November 9, 2017 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Great pairing suggestions! I still haven’t read anything by Mieville but I get the feeling I’m missing out!

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 5:03 pm - Reply

      You and me both. And, seemingly, a few others here too! Always nice to have company!

  4. Stefanie November 9, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    What a great pairing! I like Mieville’s fiction quite a lot and I didn’t know he had done a nonfiction book. I hope my library has it! going to go look for it now 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm - Reply

      I know! I was surprised as well, especially given how established his fiction writing is. It’s not like he’s just “finding his niche” or something!

  5. annelogan17 November 9, 2017 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Oh nice pairing! Both books sound lovely, I’ve never read any of China’s books before, perhaps I should check that out.

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 4:54 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Anne. He’s got a lot to choose from now. Which I say, having dashed over to the bookshop today… looks innocent

  6. lakesidemusing November 8, 2017 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    I finished reading A Gentleman in Moscow last week, so Miéville’s book sounds especially appealing right now.

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      I’ve not read Towles yet, but I’ve heard good things. Hopefully I can catch up with him before he write too many more!

  7. Naomi November 8, 2017 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    I’ve been intrigued by the cover of Parr’s novel, but didn’t know what it was about until now. Another one for the holds list!
    Great pairing! You’ll have to let us know how October is once you’re finished. I’m afraid I haven’t read much about the Russian Revolution, and probably don’t know as much about it as I should.

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

      This is one that I think you’ll enjoy even more than I did, actually. And, hey, 1917 (or, the ghosts of it anyway)! I’m actually super tempted by his fiction too… ducks head

  8. A Life in Books November 8, 2017 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Such an interesting pairing and, of course, very timely!

    I have only just noticed the very fine Carol Shields quote on your side panel. I’m very fond of The Republic of Love but I don’t think it’s much read here in the UK. Her popularity kicked off here with Larry’s Party. Still much missed.

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm - Reply

      That’s a favourite of mine too. Well, I guess each of them is a favourite, in its own way. Did you know they filmed it? It’s not easy to find but I thought they did a fine job, in keeping tone-wise with the novel. Maybe it’s time for a reread of that one… [No, wait, non-fiction, non-fiction, non-fiction!]

  9. Angela November 8, 2017 at 11:08 am - Reply

    I was a history major in college, so I read my fair share of dry textbooks. History written like a novel is what I really look for these days. You get the facts, but it’s still interesting to read. And the Russian Revolution is a great time period.

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      I would imagine that books like this make it much easier to assemble a syllabus to entice students into wider reading on a subject, especially this one!

  10. kaggsysbookishramblings November 8, 2017 at 10:33 am - Reply

    You are in for a treat! Mieville’s book is masterly and I’m still trying to work out how the hell I can do it justice in a blog post! 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      If you haven’t already checked them out, there are a few interesting videos about his writing process for it. Maybe that would be an interesting “in”? (I know just what you mean, even though I haven’t read this one yet.) Have you read any of his fiction?

      • kaggsysbookishramblings November 8, 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

        Yes, I’m just starting to check out the videos – he has much that’s interesting to say! I haven’t read any of his fiction yet but my Eldest Child rates him very highly!

        • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 3:42 pm - Reply

          He’s got so many interesting ideas. That sounds like such a throwaway statement, but, really, his interviews and talks are thought-provoking. I sniff a new reading project in the works!

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