Nonfiction Recommendations from Carolyn Oliver

I ‘met’ poet Carolyn Oliver through her much-missed blog, Rosemary & Reading Glasses. (She’s on Twitter as @CarolynROliver and Instagram as @carolynroliver.) Back in 2017 I asked for her top fiction picks; this year she’s contributed another guest blog listing the best nonfiction she’s read this year. It’s a fascinating selection of memoirs, essays, science and nature, and current events. I scurried to add the ones I hadn’t already heard of to my TBR. Which ones tempt you?


My favorite nonfiction reads from this year (though many are backlist):


The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris: Fascinating medical history of Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.


Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Reflective ecology from the perspective of a Native botanist. Probably my favorite essay collection of the decade.


The Book of Delights, Ross Gay: Just as the title says. Mini-essays on myriad topics. When you’ve finished, pick up his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (poems).


Atlas of Poetic Botany, Francis Halle: Bite-sized excursions into the worlds of unusual flora, with drawings. Meant for adults, I think, but a huge hit with my eight-year-old.


Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: Just as the title says. Incisive, eye-opening, necessary.


The Art Detective, Philip Mould: A romp through the art world with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide (Mould is the co-host of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune).


How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones: The bildungsroman America needs. Beautiful writing.


In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado: The most formally inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Brilliant and necessary.


Coventry, Rachel Cusk: I was entranced by Cusk’s voice, even when I didn’t share her conclusions; reading this collection (with the exception of the book reviews added at the end), I felt I was witnessing the writer’s mind in the act of thinking.

12 responses

  1. The Book of Delights would suit my non-fiction butterfly mind very well, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can struggle with essay collections, so the idea of mini essays appeals to me as well.


  2. […] In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I’ve heard that this is an amazing memoir of a same-sex abusive relationship, written in an experimental style. It was personally recommended to me by Yara Rodrigues Fowler at the Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony, and also made Carolyn Oliver’s list of nonfiction recommendations. […]


  3. Braiding Sweetgrass appeals most to me. A great selection!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds so interesting, doesn’t it? I already had it on my TBR (not sure how I heard about it), but now I’m very keen to get hold of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I heard Ross Gay on a recent episode of On Being and he gave a wonderful interview:

    I’d love to read his book of essays!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Saeed Jones and the Kendi are both on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You probably know Saeed Jones won the Kirkus Prize for this memoir, which has convinced me I need to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Much-missed indeed! Just putting this on the pile of reasons I need to read Braiding Sweetgrass…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems to be one of the two biggest draws on this list!


  7. I think the first two books are the ones I’d go for.
    I miss Carolyn!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Butchering Art was the only one of her picks that I’d already read — it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2018.

      Liked by 1 person

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