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 2019 Nonfiction Reading

For my final installment of reviewing my 2019 reading, I turn to nonfiction. I don’t keep a tally of how many nonfiction books I read in a given year because there are simply too many of them.

(photo via LitHub)

Between research for my own writing and all the books I’m assigned to review for a national book publishing magazine, I think my study always looks like that photo above. It’s a real treat when I get to read a work of nonfiction just because I want to.

From 2019, three really stand out–so much that I find myself thinking about them from time to time.

Saidiya Hartman’s lovely prose, flawless research, and imaginative approach make this history of the lives of young black women unforgettable.

If you’re inclined to write this off as another rehash of the Jack the Ripper story, don’t. Hallie Rubenhold’s focus on the five murdered women makes for a fascinating look at the lives of English women in the late 19th century and a compelling  examination of the city of London.

Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s revelation of white women’s participation in the institution of slavery is stunning.

If nonfiction is your thing, consider joining the Nonfiction Fans discussion group on Facebook. I’m one of the co-moderators.

Here’s hoping 2020 is a great reading year for everyone!


Women’s History Month New Book Recommendations

For those of you interested in women’s history in book form, I have four recommendations of new releases, two nonfiction and two novels.

First, the nonfiction.

I’ve been talking about this book for a while now, so it’s probably no surprise that I’m leading with Pamela Toler’s Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. It’s smart and funny and very much worth your time.

The other, released today, is She the People by Jen Deaderick. It’s an illustrated history of the women’s rights movement, and it, too, is very smart.

Now the novels.

Also released today is Greer Macallister’s Woman 99, described as a historical thriller, about a woman determined to rescue her sister from an asylum.

Finally, for anyone interested in women’s rights history, there’s Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts. The story focuses on Maud Gage Baum, who married the man who would write The Wizard of Oz, and whose mother was the famous women’s rights activist Matilda Gage.

Next up, the life of an African American artist.


Coming Soon to My Bookshelf

This may be the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a book. (And the whole “pre-order” thing still confuses me. If you put something in your cart, pay for it, and arrange for it to be shipped, haven’t you, in fact, ordered it?)

I wanted to make sure I was among the very first to get a copy of Pamela Toler’s latest:

The cover alone makes me want to read it. The image is stunning and the title is strong. This book is about women–not girls or wives or daughters. And the “Unexpected History” points out that women have been left out of so much history.

In about two weeks this will be added to my bookshelf. I hope you consider adding it to yours. You can find it on Amazon, Beacon Press, IndieBound, and Barnes & Noble.


What I Read in 2018, Part 3

Happy 2019 everyone! I wish you all good things in the new year.

Image result for 2019

To finish up reviewing my 2018 year in reading, I turn to my favorite nonfiction books. Remember, these are books I read in 2018, though they may not have been published that year. Mostly absent from this list are the books I read for discussions on Nonfiction Fans on Facebook. (If you read a lot of narrative nonfiction, please join us over there. It’s a great group.) I have to learn to keep better track of those books.

Most of the nonfiction listed below is historical and most are written by women. Here they are, in the order in which I read them:

Gay writes beautifully about difficult topics.

A page-turning historical mystery.

A first-rate historical biography.

I hate cold weather but can’t get enough of stories about polar exploration. And in case you’ve missed Shapiro’s book, it’s now out in paperback.

A fascinating story, though I wish it had been more tightly edited.

The historical story of Barbara Follett was particularly interesting.

Reading this is the best way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women.

This is a beautiful book. Anyone who loves books and libraries will want to read it.

A highly readable account of the history of Jamestown.

Another fascinating book for book lovers, this one focuses on the history of paper.

Now, on to more books.