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I love nonfiction! Life is so messy, beautiful, tragic, and wonderful that sometimes nonfiction can really find meaning that would seem contrived in a novel. For me, nonfiction can be a better place for the unresolved endings of real life. In no particular order, some of my favorite nonfiction books by women include:

Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, Patricia Volk: Using her mother and designer Elsa Schiaparelli as guides, how will Patricial Volk become a woman and writer? Well, with humor, a beautiful eye for detail, and New York City like you’ve only dreamed!

Book of Ages, Jill Lepore. Ben Franklin’s sister Jane lived out her years in Boston. What separated her from her brother? You pretty much know how a biography of an 18th century poor woman will end, but I still cried for Jane Franklin, and all of the forgotten women of history.


Random Family :Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s masterpiece of narrative nonfiction is still one of my favorite books of all time. LeBlanc spent 11 years living with the subjects of her book, and her research shows in her care and compassion for her subjects.

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, wrote a memoir I found completely engrossing. It’s called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and it’s about a period of time in which she and her husband were living in France, and she found out in the ninth month of pregnancy that her baby died. It’s incredibly sad, obviously, but also beautiful.

Speaking of science, I was pleasantly surprised by Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Science was always my worst subject – it’s like my brain just doesn’t speak that language. This short book actually helped me to learn some of the basics, and the writing is incredibly lovely and a pleasure to read.

I really like reading about history, but not the dry facts and figures we got from our history books. I’m interested in what it was actually like to live in other time periods, and Ruth Goodman’s book How To Be a Victorian is a great example of that type of writing. It was a lot of fun to read!

One of my other favorite books about history is The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. She brings the story to life so vividly you can easily imagine that you’re right there with this strange and fascinating family. I learned so much about the family, their friendship with Rasputin, and life in Russia in that time period.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is an amazing non-fiction narrative account of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London and the scientific quest to discover the truth about how it spreads. I was absolutely riveted from start to finish. Johnson has a talent for weaving the social and political facts together with the scientific, and the pacing is perfect. I was skeptical about being able to enjoy a book about a horrific disease–but I learned so much, it was completely worth the occasional cringes.

Ooooo…children’s non-fiction is some of our favorite reading in children’s literature. Happily, children’s non-fiction is no longer the simple, boring “just-the-facts” manuals of former years. Non-fiction authors have laced together stories, facts, photographs, oral histories and more to create a magical genre of things that are real. Here are some favorites…

More in the animal series is the “ Scientist in the Field” series. Again, each book features an individual animal with amazing photos but each story is told through the lens of a scientist/specialist that works with and studies the animals. Look for: Octopus Scientists, Tapir Scientists, Polar Bear Scientists, Spider Scientists and many more.

Russell Freedman was an eminent biographer and the originator of “photo-biography” for children. His stories of prominent figures include letters, charts, and photos – all original documentation. The text is thrilling and interesting as Russell Freedman is an excellent story teller.

For some grisly and gross history, pair Laurie Halse Anderson’s ficitional account of the early American Yellow Fever epidemic ( Fever, 1793) with Jim Murphy’s non-fiction account ( An American Plague) – actually, read anything by Jim Murphy. ( Great Fire, Blizzard, Invincible Microbe)

Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzi Lee – A series of entertaining vignettes of women throughout history from all over the world, with illustrations for each broad. Lee tells these women’s stories in a conversational humorous tone.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming – This was the first nonfiction book I read that compelled me to keep reading as much as a novel does. The story of the Romanov family took as many twists and turns as any mystery novel I’ve read and kept me riveted the whole time.

How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France – Despite the horrific subject matter, France’s writing compellingly humanizes the struggles people with AIDS went through from the very beginnings of the plague through the discovery of the right combination of drugs that produced what was known as the Lazarus Effect, bringing people with AIDS back from the brink of death. I only listened to the audio, so I’m not sure if it would have been as easy to read as it was to listen to. The narrator was fantastic though, so the audio version comes highly recommended!

What is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko – A manga (graphic novel) detailing the life and imprisonment of an artist in Japan who was locked up for making art based on a part of her anatomy that was deemed obscene by the authorities. A funny fascinating look into what is considered “appropriate” and the artist’s experience navigating the Japanese legal prison systems.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors asha bandele – Khan-Cullors moving account of her life experiences with police violence from childhood through the founding Black Lives Matter and beyond.

Oh my gosh. Ten years ago I would have struggled to come up with any; now I have too many to list! Sarah Vowell is hilarious and informative (with a definite slant to the left); try The Wordy Shipmates. Steve Almond – a local! – is fantastic; I read Against Football in a day, and my husband loved Candyfreak. I thought Erik Larson’s Dead Wake was his best yet, with almost suspense-like pacing (especially impressive given that you know from the beginning that the Lusitania is going to sink). I also love memoir – Ann Patchett’s essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Maggie O’Farrell’s recent I Am, I Am, I Am, and of course Tina Fey’s Bossypants. There are some really funny parenting books too, like Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt and Emily Flake’s Mama Tried. There is so much great nonfiction out there!

Three new prints being added to the collection today have an interesting history, having made their way to the Harvard Museum of Natural History by a circuitous route. The artist, Rosalba M. Towne, painted the flowers and plants from the work of Shakespeare when she was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, basing her work on the treatise “The Plant-Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare” by Rev. Henry N. Ellacombe. She offered the paintings to the Shakespeare Museum in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but received no reply in her lifetime, and died in 1909.

Her manuscript made its way to a bookshop in Paris, where a professor of botany at Harvard acquired it, and later donated it to the Botanical Museum at Harvard. In 1974, the manuscript was reproduced as a book, but until recently, the unbound plates sat in the attic. Now, they are for sale to visitors to the museum – which, incidentally, is free to Massachusetts residents before noon on Sundays. Go visit and pick up a print yourself, or borrow one from the library!