June 7, 2012

Though I write lots of nonfiction, I tend to read more fiction–I know, it’s weird.  That said, I’m absolutely trying to incorporate more compelling nonfiction into my reading diet, so I would love your suggestions…please comment away!


Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Victoria Findlay)

I have been recommending this one for a while, because I think it’s the perfect example of what well-done nonfiction can be.  Color may or may not be a subject you’re intrinsically interested in, but you will be by the time you get even just a handful of pages into Findlay’s world travels in search of the origins of pigments.


Consider the Oyster (M.F.K. FIsher)

A seminal work of food writing, before anybody called it that.  You don’t have to love oysters to love this slim, finely wrought book.  Also, one of the most delightfully snobby narrative voices ever.


For the Time Being (Annie Dillard)

What is this book about?  Well, it’s about birth defects, the philosopher Teillhard de Chardin, clouds, traffic, life, death, and making meaning out of, between, and within all of these things.  Unforgettable lines and a stunning, inventive (for its time) structure.


Founding Gardeners (Andrea Wulf)

I’ll bet you didn’t know, did you, that all of America’s founding statesmen were also passionate gardeners?  Wulf deftly draws connections between the Founding Father’s passion for horticulture and their passion for the new nation they worked so hard to create.


Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King (Hampton Sides)

Sides is a Memphis author, so I’m biased, but this book stands on its own.  Written in the style ofIn Cold Blood, this examination of the events leading up to MLK’s assassination and the fascinating, frightening personality of James Earl Ray is a powerful read.


Losing Mum & Pup (Christopher Buckley)

A fugue of a book from a square-jawed author. Incredibly touching, especially as someone who has experienced the loss of a parent myself.


My Life in France (Julia Child)

As you probably already know, this book was the basis for the Julia part of the movie “Julie & Julia.”  The book recounts Julia Child’s discovery of French cooking and her subsequent talent for it.  This memoir not only captures descriptions of delicious meals but also the spirit of joy that cooking brings to those who love food.


Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman)

Jill ordered this after we read the authors’ Newsweek cover article, Is Your Baby Racist? a few years ago.  Urgent arguments, substantive research, approachable tone.


Regarding the Pain of Others (Susan Sontag) 

Regardless of whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard not to enjoy losing yourself in the way Sontag’s mind works.  In this work, she examines the effects that visual representations–newspaper photographs, television images–of death and suffering have on us in the modern world.


Running in the Family (Michael Ondaatje) 

This may well be the memoir that has influenced my own writing the most.  Ondaatje, best known for being the author of The English Patient, is from Sri Lanka, and he recounts stories of his most eccentric family.


The Global Achievement Gap (Tony Wagner)

I had the pleasure of seeing Tony Wagner speak at an education conference last year, and he dynamic, compelling, and–in this teacher’s estimation–spot-on in his arguments about the profoundly broken nature of our education system.  In this book, he outlines just why what we’re doing isn’t working, and how we can do better.


The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee)

The author advertises this monumental book as a “biography of cancer,” and indeed it reads like one.  From the origin of the name “leukemia” to the development of the modern cancer research movement, Mukherjee details nearly everything associated with the disease.  While his precision and detail can be at times exhausting in their exhaustiveness, the stories that emerge are full of fascinating drama.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken from her without her knowledge, and then used in some of the most important medical advances in the modern age.  In this book, Skloot traces the path of Lacks’ cells, their impact, and the history of Lacks herself, and her descendants.


The Looming Tower (Lawrence Wright)

Heady and important, this book tells, in remarkably readable fashion, the story of Osama bin Laden and the rise of al-Qaeda.  Wright makes astute observations that contextualize the events of 9/11 and gives his reader much to think about.


The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Thad Carhart)

This one has been around for a while, but absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t already.  When the author attempts to enter a Parisian piano shop, he is treated coolly, for he lacks a proper introduction.  Once he obtains it, and befriends the craftsman behind the shop, the author’s childhood love of the piano is rekindled.  A fine read for anyone who once loved to play, too.


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)

Simply put, an astonishing read.  Strayed, who recently became very well known for her memoir Wild (which you will find on the “Book Club Favorites” list), also writes the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus.  Wise and compassionate beyond belief, Strayed’s voice and insight are valuable regardless of your past or present life experiences; some of these columns took my breath away.  This book would, I think, make a wonderful gift for a high school or college graduation.


White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brenda Wineapple)

So, this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a compelling book, but it gripped me thoroughly last summer.  Wineapple is a deft writer, making her academic content easily relatable and engaging.  She paints a very different picture of Dickinson than the pale, pasty, frail one we conventionally know, and in Higginson, opened my eyes to the lives of fiery, impassioned American Abolitionists.




  1. My two favorite books are:

    1) The Glass Castle
    2) The Things We Carried.

    I adore fiction, but somehow two memoirs take the top spots on my list. I’ve read both multiple times- they are the kind of books that just sort of sit with you a long time after you’ve finished.

    I’m on my way to the library right now, to pick up a few of the titles that I jotted down from your lists. Thank you for the suggestions!

    Comment by Meg — June 11, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  2. edited to add author’s names!:

    1) The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
    2) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

    Comment by Meg — June 11, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  3. Meg–those are two great ones! thanks for adding, and let me know what else you end up reading.

    Comment by Blue Jean Gourmet — June 14, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  4. I second Meg’s suggestion of The Glass Castle. Don’t give up on it – you’ll be rewarded. Also:
    1.) The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby. It’s a must for anyone from Memphis!
    2.) The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant.
    Thank you for your lists. I always enjoy knowing what books others have loved.

    Comment by Kristen — July 2, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

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