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I love the idea of pairing nonfiction and fiction titles about a particular subject and reading them successively. For example, I know of a book club that read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain together with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Or, you might read a fictionalized account of Anne Boleyn’s life together with Alison Weir’s brilliant nonfiction title, The Lady in the Tower. You could tackle a more serious subject by reading We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver together with Dave Cullen’s Columbine. There are many more fiction and nonfiction titles that would pair nicely as a way of thinking about or discussing interesting and important topics. I discovered another pairing by coincidence this past month—Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table and Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster.
McMillan’s book explores the topic of food—how it is farmed, transported, prepared, and sold—from the inside. Similar to Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, McMillan works undercover in the produce fields of California, at a suburban Wal-Mart, and at Applebee’s. Among other things, she wanted to know and understand how those who provide us with our food eat. Did they have access to and could they afford fresh and healthy foods? What she discovers in her year-long experiment is unsettling, but not all that surprising. It has certainly renewed my attempt to make more sustainable choices at the grocery store, but it’s also inspired me to prepare more food at home. It’s a really compelling and fascinating read.
Along with The American Way of Eating, I would suggest Stewart O’Nan’s little gem of a novel Last Night at the Lobster. O’Nan highlights the often anonymous and invisible, everyman people who are responsible for feeding so many of us. This equally heartbreaking and humorous story takes place over the course of one day at a Red Lobster, which is slated to close. The manager, Manny, shows up to work as normal and wants to have a successful final day, but a blizzard moves in and the restaurant is virtually deserted by dinner service. Manny is a wonderful character, both admirable and deeply flawed. Like so many of us, his identity is wrapped up in his work, and the loss of his restaurant affects him deeply. This lovely passage reflects Manny’s inner world:
He notices an ornament on the floor by the live tank, an ancient pink-and-cream striped bulb cracked in pieces like a bird’s egg. . . It’s something that might have come from his abuelita’s tree. Someone must have brushed against it and not heard it hit the carpet: The Irony bothers Manny: Something so delicate that had survived so many Christmases; one more day and it would have made it.
O’Nan allows us to glimpse all the usual suspects in the restaurant world—the entitled women with an obnoxious toddler, the large party that fails to make a reservation, the pleasant regulars, and the couple trying to use expired coupons. We also see the interactions behind the scenes among restaurant staff—the gossip, stealing, competing as well as the loyalty and camaraderie.
What nonfiction and fiction pairings would you recommend?