The best non-fiction books written by women

Who am I?

I am a writer, researcher, and sometimes curator and I have a passion for history and great storytelling. While my own research has focused on the First World War, I have worked on exhibits and reports on a wide array of topics. I continue to be inspired by new ways of understanding and depicting history, and especially by the work of fellow women writers and historians. This short list is a glimpse into some of my favourite works of non-fiction writing out there that has been produced by women and that have inspired me.

I wrote...

Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

By Teresa Iacobelli,

Book cover of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

What is my book about?

Soldiers found guilty of desertion or cowardice during the Great War faced death by firing squad. Novels, histories, movies, and television series often depict courts-martial as brutal and inflexible, and social memories of this system of frontline justice have inspired modern movements to seek pardons for soldiers executed on the battlefield. In this powerful and moving book, Teresa Iacobelli looks beyond stories of callous generals and quick executions to consider the trials of nearly two hundred soldiers who were sentenced to death but spared by a disciplinary system capable of thoughtful review and compassion.

By bringing to light these men’s experiences, Death or Deliverance reconsiders an important chapter in the history of both a war and a nation.

The books I picked & why

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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Book cover of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Why this book?

This Republic of Suffering is a highly readable book that vividly describes the scale of death in the American Civil War and the impact that mass collective and personal grief had upon a young nation. This is not only among the best works on war that I have read, but also one of the best cultural histories. The prose is beautiful and the work is impeccably researched and incorporates the voices of those who witnessed and suffered – soldiers, wives, and mothers, doctors and nurses. My own interest in war stems from its impact on society, culture, and individuals, and this book covers these topics through the lens of mass death, collective grief, and the struggle for a nation to find meaningful ways to memorialize a civil war and its fallen. This work is highly impactful and frankly, I wish I wrote it.

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

By Samantha Power,

Book cover of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

Why this book?

I think every historian should read works by journalists in order to see how good writing can elevate a topic. Samantha Power's work on the history of genocide and the response of American foreign policy to various global incidences of genocide takes a dark and complex topic and makes it highly engaging and readable. Power’s work is informed by her past experience as a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Her work is important in that it is not simply a history of genocide from an observer’s standpoint, instead, she takes a moral position and makes a strong case for intervention in the face of mass atrocities. With that in mind, not only a book for every historian to read, but every politician as well.

Auschwitz and After

By Charlotte Delbo, Rosette C. Lamont (translator),

Book cover of Auschwitz and After

Why this book?

I first read Auschwitz and After in a university course focused on the Holocaust. Toward the course’s end, in a section focusing on memoirs, this book followed Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. While Weisel and Levi’s works are both undeniably masterpieces, Delbo’s work stood out to me because of its form and its feminist perspective. Delbo, a French partisan who was captured and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, lays bare in her work the ways in which gender affected the camp experience. It illuminated to me the different and similar ways in which men and women responded to the horrors of the extermination camps. Furthermore, Delbo’s work is not a linear narrative. Instead, it combines poetry and other non-traditional forms to create a memoir of an experience that Delbo readily admitted language was not equipped to capture. I recommend the work for the ways in which it completed uprooted me and changed my perspective of what I thought was a familiar subject.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

By Lauren Redniss,

Book cover of Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

Why this book?

This book broke open all my ideas of what history writing can be. Beautiful and imaginative - Redniss’ work is unlike any other. It combines biography, archival and oral histories, and visual art to tell a story that skips through eras and topics, but is always rooted in the life of Marie Curie. While exploring the personal life of Curie, Redniss also writes a history of science and culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Honestly, words can not adequately describe this work, Radioactive must be picked up and savoured by the reader.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot,

Book cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Why this book?

There is a wonderful world of science writing out there, and this book is a great entry into that world. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part science journalism, science history, and biography. Skloot introduced the world to Henrietta Lacks, a previously unknown woman whose cells have been responsible for some of the leading research and advances in medicine. In introducing the story of Lacks, Skloot, with obvious affection for both Lacks and her descendants, poses a number of important questions regarding race, ethics, and medical research.

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