Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings

A couple weeks back, I posted a list of read-alike book recommendations, and had a lot of fun doing it! So, I thought it would be fun to do the same again this week, but with a twist. This time around, I’ll be recommending books in fiction/non-fiction pairs. I’ve tried to pick books that approach the same topic or theme, but from different directions. And these recommendations are coming to you in just the nick of time for Non-Fiction November! Here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction book pairings…

My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings - Text Overlaid on Distorted Greyscale Image of Library Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Fiction) should be paired with I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Non-Fiction)

Let’s start with the big stakes, right up front: these books both deal with the fragility of life, the ever-looming spectre of death, and how the smallest moments in our lives can have very big consequences. Life After Life is a novel that tells the life stories of one young woman growing up in the 20th century. Every time she dies, her life begins anew, and her decisions lead to different versions of her life each time. How could that possibly be paired with a non-fiction book? Well, I Am, I Am, I Am is the memoir of Maggie O’Farrell, and it details seventeen (count ’em!) close brushes she’s had with death, each focusing on a different part of the body.

Read my full review of Life After Life here.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Fiction) should be paired with The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (Non-Fiction)

These two books offer two very different perspectives on our brains, how they work, and what happens when they stop working the way that they should. Lisa Genova’s break-out novel, Still Alice, tells the story of a successful, happy woman who is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and details her slow descent into a horrible fate. Genova really cleverly shows the reader the way that the disease affects perspective and eats memories – bring tissues! The Brain That Changes Itself, on the other hand, is an accessible but clinical look at the way our brains adapt to trauma and damage, revealing the untold potential of our thinking meat if we learn how to train it properly.

Read my full review of Still Alice here, and The Brain That Changes Itself here.

Bonus book recommendation: I really took issue with the way that Doidge described animal research in The Brain That Changes Itself. For an alternative perspective on that subject in fiction, you should pick up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Fiction) should be paired with A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold (Non-Fiction)

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at one time or another, been moved to tears by news of another mass shooting in America. It’s an ever-present threat to the lives and safety of children in that country, and it has been approached a number of different ways in literature. Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a fictional take on a mother’s relationship with a school shooter, and the various ways that family relationships can become tangled with terrible results. A Mother’s Reckoning is the real-life story of the mother of a Columbine shooter, Sue Klebold. She talks with heart-wrenching honesty about living in the aftermath of the tragedy, and her struggle to piece together what happened.

Bonus book recommendations: If you enjoyed Shriver’s fictional take on this subject, try Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. If you want to learn more about the real-life events of Columbine, check out Columbine by Dave Cullen, who uncovered some horrific truths.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Fiction) should be paired with Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Non-Fiction)

The Hate U Give was the young-adult read of 2017. It put racism in today’s America, particularly in terms of police violence, on the agenda for many a reader who might not have otherwise considered the issue in their daily lives. Just Mercy will take your understanding of this issue to another level; it follows the story of a young lawyer defending a black man of a heinous crime, a la Atticus Finch, and in so doing it highlights issues of race within the criminal justice system. You will find both of these books challenging and confronting, but in the best possible ways.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Fiction) should be paired with The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (?)

OK, fine. Technically The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictionalised story… but(!) it is very firmly rooted in the real-life experiences of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, Holocaust survivor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist. So, I say it counts! Morris spent hundreds of hours interviewing this incredible man and researching minute details, originally envisaging a screenplay about his life but in the end writing a book, thinly veiled as fiction. It’s a great accompaniment to Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, a fully-fictional story about a young French girl and a German orphan boy, and how their lives weave together over the course of the Second World War.

Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Fiction) should be paired with One Summer by Bill Bryson (Non-Fiction)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really, really didn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby, and I happen to think it is one of the most over-rated books in the world… but, for better or worse, it’s held up as the defining novel of the Jazz Age in America, and people continue to read it in their hundreds and thousands each year. While I’d prefer to recommend Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as an alternative, it is fiction, so if you’re looking for a more factual version of events from that era you should check out Bill Bryson’s One Summer. Even though he sets out to describe one specific summer from that period (thus, the title), in his trademark folksy style Bryson manages to work in a lot of fun facts and interesting anecdotes from across the 1920s.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Fiction) should be paired with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Non-Fiction)

These two go together like bread and butter. Like wine and cheese. Like books and shelves. You really can’t have one without the other. Both The Color Purple and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings take place in the segregated American South of the 1930s, and both are written by incredible black American women. The former is a fictional epistolary novel about the bonds of sisterhood, while the latter is an autobiographical account of overcoming trauma and racism through strength of character (and a love of literature). Both very worthwhile reads, whatever your bent!

Looking back over this list of recommended fiction and non-fiction book pairings, I realise they’re all incredibly heavy and emotional. So, let’s end on a happier note, shall we? Just for fun, try pairing The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with A Brief History Of Time. The true nature of our universe, as described by Stephen Hawking in the best-selling popular science book of all time, will blow your mind in wonder. And then, just when you find yourself in need of a laugh, you can turn to Arthur Dent’s misadventures through space and time in Douglas Adams’ hilarious novel. You can find my reviews of Hitchhiker’s Guide here, and A Brief History Of Time here.

Wondering which ones to start with? Check out this post I pulled together about what I call the “literature wars”: fiction versus non-fiction, which is better? If you’ve got another good pairing to suggest, please leave it in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

6 Comments

  1. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but I like the idea of your pairings. I would probably be more interested in reading a non-fiction book that was paired with a fiction book I enjoyed. Great idea.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 26, 2019 at 4:32 PM

      Oh fantastic – hope one or two of these caught your eye, then! There’s plenty of really creative non-fiction out there that reads like fiction, that’d be a great place to start ❤️

  2. Some inspired pairings here – especially Colour Purple and Caged Bird Sings both of which I’ve loved.
    I Am IAm was a tremendous memoir but I strongly disliked Life After Life and in fact couldn’t finish it.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 27, 2019 at 8:32 PM

      Completely understand the struggle – it got really repetitive! You certainly weren’t alone, judging by the Amazon reviews 😉

  3. I have All the Light We Cannot See and The Tattooist of Auchwitz on my shelves right now staring at me. Now I’m going to read them back-to-Back! This is a really fun post idea, I love it!

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