My Favorite Nonfiction of 2022

My 2022 list (nonfiction books I read but were not necessarily published in 2022) is made up of an even dozen titles. All of them are about women, and all but one were written by women. This is not unusual for my reading preferences. What is unusual is the number of memoirs included. What is not unusual about the memoirs that made my list? Most of the authors focus on aspects of their writing lives.

So here they are, roughly in the order that I adore/admire them.

The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an America Family by Kerri K. Greenidge. An eye-opening account of the Grimke sisters, white women from South Carolina, who became outspoken advocates for abolition. Greenidge uses her expert historical skills to show the limits of the women’s understanding of and support for racial equality as they acknowledge their Black nephews, a side of the family that flourished after the Civil War. It’s a marvelous family biography wrapped around essential racial and gender history.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland. A luminous mixture of memoir and biography. I didn’t know much about McCullers going into this book and found Shapland’s approach to writing about the famous author innovative and intriguing.

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun. Another unusual memoir, this one intertwined with the biographies of poet O’Hara and of Calhoun’s father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl. A great story of a complicated father-daughter relationship.

Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes by Devoney Looser. Jane and Maria Porter were bestselling novelists in England with a literary fame that spread around the world. Looser revives their reputations via a narrative as enthralling as anything Jane Austen wrote.

The Ruin of all Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill. Gaskill brings to life the realities of eking out a living in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and the power of Puritan beliefs in witchcraft to upend the precarious lives of the settlers. The story of Hugh and Mary Parsons is bone-chilling.

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour. About as moody and atmospheric as Gaskill’s book, this literary biography delves into Rhys’s Caribbean background and its influence on her writing.

To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Phyllis Joyner by Carol Emberton. Historian Emberton uses the life of Joyner, born in North Carolina shortly before the Civil War, to explore how formerly enslaved people experienced the (sometimes limited) freedom of emancipation. This is a great example of how the life of an ordinary, “unknown” person can illuminate key periods in American history.

Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood by Hilary Hallett. If you want to know anything about the evolution of the modern early twentieth-century woman, this is the book to read. Glyn started writing scandalous novels to make up for her husband gambling away most of the family fortune. And she ended up in Hollywood!

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous. This memoir of a real-life author and Twitter personality is a surprisingly touching and sometimes funny work about dealing with grief and depression. I don’t know who Duchess Goldblatt is, but that really, really doesn’t matter.

Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski. I picked this up on whim at the library, expecting that it would mostly be about rescuing animals. There’s some of that, but it’s woven around Zaleski’s tale of her rocky childhood and it all blends together in a very pleasing way.

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maude Newton. In this multi-generational story, Newton tracks down the truth behind the tales told by and about various family members over the years. It’s an eye-opening account of the power of genealogy.

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay by Shanna Greene Benjamin. A fabulous exploration of the public and private lives of McKay, a writer and literary scholar who helped create the academic field of African American literature.  

What do you think? Have you read any of these? What are you looking forward to in 2023?

My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2021 (and an announcement)

My preference for nonfiction continues to be driven by my academic training as a historian (with a specialization in American women’s history). I gravitate toward serious narrative nonfiction written by women about women–and I’m especially interested if those female subjects are not well-known historical figures. My nine top nonfiction books of 2021 (read in that year, but not necessarily published in it) reflected that. All nine were by women about women, including two memoirs. As a bonus, because I hate to present fewer than ten, I also included two others that I liked very much.

File:Portrait of a woman by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard - 1787.jpg
(Portrait of a woman by Adelaide Labille-Guiard c. 1787)

These four were especially wonderful:

Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. The unforgettable, haunting story of Milwaukee native Mildred Harnack.

Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. A National Book Award winner.

Julie Flavell, The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America. Provides a much-needed, different perspective on conventional military and political history.

Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. An insightful and incisive reminder of the limitations of the Nineteenth Amendment.

This book went back to the roots of the women’s rights movement:

Dorothy Wickenden, The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights.

Two books that will keep you on the edge of your seats:

Catherine Prendergast, The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America.

Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.

Two thought-provoking memoirs:

Rebecca Carroll, Surviving the White Gaze.

Jacqueline Winspear, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

Also not to be missed, especially because they recover important people and events largely forgotten:

Scott Borchert, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America.

Marcia Biederman, A Mighty Force: Dr. Elizabeth Hayes and Her War for Public Health.

Now, for my announcement!

My latest book, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans, is due out in April. To encourage you all to think about reading the book (and recommending it to your friends, family, mail carrier, etc., and maybe even pre-ordering it), I will be launching Queen of the West Wednesdays on February 2. Every Wednesday, I will post the opening sentence of a chapter (or chapters–I’ve got to fit them all in by mid-April!) and explain just a little bit of what was happening in Dale’s life.

So pull on your favorite boots over these next Wednesdays and join me!

File:Dale Evans pink sparkly cowboy boots.jpg
(Pink rhinestone cowboy boots, worn by Dale Evans, from the collections of the University of Pennsylvania.)

My Favorite Novels of 2021

I read forty-two works of fiction in 2021; forty were new and two were re-reads. (I also read ten novels as a PW reviewer, but none of those are included in this roundup.) For the second year in a row, I’ve read considerably fewer novels than in pre-Covid years. It’s hard to tell if this is only because of Covid. I also spent the last two-plus years writing two books, which occupied a lot of my attention.

Woman Reading Book Paintings | Fine Art America
Painting by Charles Edward Perugini

Fortunately, as in past years, I read many good books. I know that a “Top Ten” is standard for “Best of” lists, but I had to stretch to eleven for 2021. And a reminder, this list is for the books I read in 2021, but not all the books were necessarily published that year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

I’m not sure what I expected when I started this novel, but it certainly exceeded every expectation I had about the story.

2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I put off reading this for awhile, and while I was reading it I had to set it aside for days at a time because of the subject matter. But it really is a beautiful book.

3. We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker. I picked it up on a whim from the New Books shelf at the public library and had a hard time putting it down. Wonderful characters and a great structure.

4. Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. A fabulous generational story about Cuban women.

5. House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly. I read a lot of mystery series, and historical ones are my favorite. (Jacqueline Winspear’s newest addition to her Maisie Dobbs series was also one of my favorite reads of 2021.) Hambly’s Benjamin January is one of the genre’s most unforgettable characters.

6. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. Inventive and stunning.

7. A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. A riveting drama of a teenage girl who longs to know her mother.

8. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson. This is a sensitive exploration of the kinds of realities faced by enslaved women in the antebellum South.

9. Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I can’t resist reading about characters who are academics. It has a time-travel twist.

10. Outlawed by Anna North. This alternate history of the American West contains one of my favorite opening lines: “In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.”

11. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.

Wow! There’s time-travel here, too, as well as some ghosts. Totally different from what I usually read but I couldn’t stop reading it.

My 2022 reading is still very new, but I’ve started the year with two stunners. One I began late last month and didn’t want to rush through it to finish before the end of the year. I know both will be on my “Best of 2022” list, so stay tuned until next January for that!

Up next, reflections on my 2021 nonfiction reading. Then some other new stuff, especially about my forthcoming book, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans.

Happy New Year everyone.

Reading Nonfiction in 2020

My nonfiction reading for 2020 was typical in terms of amount–too many to count. A lot of them were assigned for book reviews so I can’t include any of those in my best-of list. The other chunk was research reading for my (still) book-in-progress about Dale Evans.

(Dale Evans c. 1939)

The books for research reading usually don’t make it to my year-end list because I like to keep my work reading separate from my leisure reading. (The same goes for the book review books.) But I made an exception for a book I picked up because I thought it might provide some helpful background on women in 1940s-1950s Hollywood. It did, to a certain degree, but The Lady From the Black Lagoon turned out to be much more than that. Mallory O’Meara brilliantly writes about Milicent Patrick, an animator at Disney who went on to create one of the most iconic movie monsters. I kept thinking about the book, and about the many women ignored despite their achievements, long after I turned the final page.

Paperback The Lady from the Black Lagoon : Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick Book

O’Meara’s book did well, garnering reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a great example of how the life of an “unknown” woman can be made into a fascinating story.

I also loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir about growing up in New Orleans that’s infused with history and current events.

Hardcover The Yellow House Book

Broom’s debut was a New York Times bestseller, and it won the 2019 National Book Award. The writing is lovely, the story compelling.

My third favorite nonfiction book from 2020 was also a memoir, one first published in 1945 and quickly forgotten. Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jewish woman who opened a French bookstore in Berlin in the 1920s. Pushed out in the late 1930s, she spent years fleeing the Nazis.

A Bookshop in Berlin

Another “unknown” woman, another important story. There seems to be a theme here with books I like to read–and write.

Dale Evans is the most famous woman I’ve ever written about, though she’s much less well known today than she was in the mid-20th century. Many of my blog posts in 2021 will center on that writing and publication journey. Stay tuned.

The Happy New Year Reading Roundup

2021 has finally arrived. When I woke up this morning, everything looked remarkably like it had the day before–the biggest clue that any changes that might happen won’t happen overnight. Still, fingers crossed for a really, really good new year.

(from The Bookwyrm’s Hoard)

My 2020 was unimpressive in terms of numbers of books read. Not counting the books I read for professional reviewing and the ones for research for my own current manuscript, the total was 46. That’s an all-time low for me. (Last year: 64) Of course, 2020 was a pretty strange year, and that strangeness had an impact on my reading, especially because I couldn’t access the library as much as usual. And moving (in-state, but still….) took up a big chunk of my spare time.

I reread several of my favorite books in 2020, mostly because I had them right in the house. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a long time, and I was once again knocked sideways by its greatness. I revisited Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, still one of the best books I’ve ever encountered.

Of the new-to-me novels in 2020, here are the stand outs. I found the first four exceptional:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom : A novel

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Up next, reading nonfiction in 2020.