Recommended Works of Creative Nonfiction for Sonya’s CNF students
This is not an exhaustive list but I do add to it pretty often; I use this with my creative writing students for book-length presentations. This is not every book I enjoy, just the ones I use in my teaching.
The thumbnail descriptions are not book reviews, just notes on subject matter for my students. If you want to read a book not on this list, you must have it approved by me first. Just to warn you in advance…I’ll probably say no and steer you back to this list. *Books with * at the end have proven frustrating for students, so that’s just a word to the wise.That doesn’t mean they’re bad books, maybe not friendly for “first book in the genre.” + Books with a + at the end have a healthy helping of research and are good models for incorporating an involved or immersed narrator into a research project. I also have another list of books about theory and practice of creative nonfiction and memoir.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Adventures of a wildman fighting environmental destruction.*
Abdurraqib, Hanif. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Fantastic essays on music, pop culture, race politics, gender. Short, snappy, generous… great stuff.
Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Life among sharecroppers in the South of the 1940s.
Allison, Dorothy. Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Growing up poor in the rural southeast.
Almond, Steve. Candyfreak. Hilarious search for the chocolate heart of America.+
Arnett, Marvin V. Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt. A beautiful portrait of life in African-American Detroit before and during World War II from a child’s perspective. Beautiful description and approachable narrator, told in linked mini-essays.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand. A memoir about growing up Chicano in the Southwest, losing the guidance of his parents, finding his way into and out of jail and into poetry. Vivid and compelling.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son (collection of essays by noted African-American writer)
Barber, Charles. Songs from the Black Chair. A memoir on mental illness and friendship from the point of view of a social worker.
Berry, Wendell: many books (mostly on environmental issues)
Broom, Brian. Punch Me Up to The Gods: A memoir about growing up Black and gay in Ohio, an urgent and beautifully-structured book.
Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets. The author traces her reactions to learning that her father, noted writer Anatole Broyard, was born in an African-American family and that he hid this from her and her brother. A fantastic meditation on passing and on white and black identity with extensive research.+
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood, the first “nonfiction novel,” about murders of a family and the trials of the murderers.+
Carr, David. Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life–His Own. Addiction, reporting.
Cary, Lorene. Black Ice. An African-American girl confronts culture shock at an elite New England prep school.
Chee, Alexander. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. A collection of essays in a rough memoir-ish shape about writing, identity, and community engagement. Great writing!
Chin, Staceyann. The Other Side of Paradise. Poverty and sexual identity in Jamaica, voice of a young woman who became one of the stars of poetry slamming.
Christman, Jill. Dark Room. Growing up with hippies, meditations on memory, violence, and family legacy.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, an essayistic memoir in the form of a letter to the author’s son on the struggles of being a Black man in America.
Coke, Allison Hedge. Ghost, Rock, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival. Beautiful tale of a Native American poet’s childhood, difficult relationships.
Cowser, Bob. Scorekeeping: Essays from Home. A story of family and interrogation of a rural Tennessee childhood. Also Greenfields, a search for the impact of a childhood friend’s murder and a meditation on the death penalty.+
Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. Memoir by a woman who lost her parents, two children, and husband in the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year after the death of her husband; Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of influential essays on the United States, the West, American politics.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood. Environmental explorations.
DuBois, W.E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. A classic meditation on race in America.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickeled and Dimed, immersion reporting on the minimum wage.+
Ehrlich, Gretel. The Solace of Open Spaces. Essays on silence and wilderness in the U.S. West.
Elliott, Alicia. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground: The Mohawk phrase for depression can be roughly translated to “a mind spread out on the ground.” In this urgent and visceral work, Alicia Elliott explores how apt a description that is for the ongoing effects of personal, intergenerational, and colonial traumas she and so many Native people have experienced.
Erem, Suzan. Labor Pains. The story of a labor organizer in Chicago trying to survive in her work.
Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Immersion journalism with the Hmong community in Minneapolis.+
Finneran, Kathleen. The Tender Land: A Family Love Story. A masterful exploration of a family’s response to a young son’s suicide from a sibling’s perspective.
Galeano, Eduardo. The Book of Embraces. A book of snippets, prose poems, memoir, news, and artifacts. Challenging and thought-provoking reflection on Latin American history.
Gay, Peter. My German Question. A noted historian tells about growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.
Ghosh, Amitav. Incendiary Circumstances. Essays on international politics, a focus on southeast Asia+
Goldberg, Natalie. Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. Zen meditation and writing.
Gonzalez, Ray. Memory Fever: A Journey Beyond El Paso Del Norte.
Gornick, Vivian. Fierce Attachments. Essays on growing up in New York, family relationships.
Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda +
Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. Growing up with a facial deformity, cancer.
Griffin, Susan. A Chorus of Stones. Gender, family history, and military reflections.
Gwartney, Debra. Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love.
*Handler, Jessica. Invisible Sisters. A beautifully researched and constructed story of the author’s loss of two siblings and the after-effects.
Harrison, Kathryn. The Mother Knot.
Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories. Essays ranging from Catholic girlhood to literary criticism.
Hocking, Justin. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir. Skating, surfing, love, research, Moby-Dick, spiritual seeking, and honesty. What’s not to love?
Cathy Park Hong. Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning. Beautiful and thought-provoking essays on identity.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima. Immersion reporting after the atomic bombings.+
Hill, James Tate. Blind Man’s Bluff. Vision loss and acceptance of a diagnosis, with great humor and reflection.
Horton, Randall. Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays. Compelling reflections on incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and what it means to be branded a felon.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.
Jaouad, Suleika. Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted. A young author navigates cancer treatment.
Karr, Mary. The Liar’s Club. Growing up as a wild girl in poor, rural Texas. Also Lit, a story of writing, alcoholism, and recovery.
Khan-Cullors, Patrisse. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. Personal and moving literary account of a leader of the BLM movement, including scenes and reflections. Fantastic story co-written by asha bandele.
Kidder, Tracy. Among Schoolchildren and many others. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World is a fantastic and inspiring chronicle of the work of a committed doctor working to cure infectious diseases among the world’s poor.+
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. Immigration and identity, Antiguan & American identity, colonialism, family relationships.
Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tucson: essays on a wide range of things, concern for the environment, history, and social justice combined with the dilemma of raising kids. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; a year of farming for environmental sustainability.+
Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men and The Woman Warrior. Chinese-American immigrant experiences, using mixed-genre imagined reconstruction of family stories.
Kittredge, William. A Hole in the Sky. A family memoir and meditation on a family’s multi-generational ranching business, and the author’s personal meditation on writing, passion, and the healing power of narrative.
Kuusisto, Stephen. Planet of the Blind. Growing up without admitting he was blind.
Lanham, J. Drew. The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Beautiful writing!
Lamott, Anne. Operating Instructions. Life as a single mother—very funny.
Lavender, Bee. Lessons in Taxidermy. A life in the Pacific Northwest with chaos, accidents, and cancer.
Laymon, Kiese. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Sharp and insightful essays, told in a moving and engaging way, about race, region, politics, and manhood in America. Also his memoir Heavy: An American Memoir.
Link, Aaron Raz, and Hilda Link. What Becomes You. Sexual reassignment surgery, transgender identity, a memoir co-written by a mother and son.+
Livingston, Sonja. Ghostbread. Childhood perspective on growing up in poverty, told in short segments.
Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A “biomythography” of a noted lesbian African-American activist. *
Lowry, Beverly. Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir. The author’s story of losing her son to a hit and run and then unexpectedly developing a friendship with a female death-row inmate in Texas.
Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. An memoir of environmental activism by the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement by the first African woman and first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Machado, Carmen Marie. In the Dream House, a stunning memoir of intimate partner violence told through an experiment in forms.
Mackall, Joe. The Last Street Before Cleveland. Working-class Midwestern memoir, addiction. Also Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish.
Mailhot, Teresa. Heart Berries. Mental illness and Native American identity, very strong and compelling voice.
Manguso, Sarah. The Two Kinds of Decay. Exquisite reflections on illness told with poetic compression and economy. Trust me, you’ll love it.
Martin, Lee. From Our House. A memoir about a midwestern, rural boyhood; Turning Bones: generations of a Midwestern family researched and imagined family life history.+
Marquart, Deb. The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. North Dakota, adolescence, identity.
McPhee, John. Coming Into the Country. Environment and wilderness.+
Mendelsohn, Daniel. Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. A literary critic searches and travels the world for traces of members of his family who perished in the Holocaust.+
Millet, Kate. Flying. A noted feminist’s struggle with manic depression, activism, lesbianism, and academia. Also by Millet: Sita, the story of a love affair in the ‘70s. *These are non-traditional, so if you’re looking for an involving narrative, you might steer clear!*
Monroe, Debra. My Unsentimental Education. Crossing class lines, life in the Midwest and the South.
Monson, Ander. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. Essays that experiment with the form of the essay itself. Hilarious and strange.
Moore, Dinty W. Between Panic and Desire. Experimental and linked essays with a good dose of humor.
Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years. A blend of Chicana lesbian theory with personal stories, poetry and scenes.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. An exiled Russian author (who wrote Lolita) writes about memory and childhood (beautifully).
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. A female professor’s experiences in 1980s Iran.
Norman, Abby. Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain
Obama, Barack. Dreams From My Father.
Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Orwell’s adventures and trials in the Spanish Civil War.
Páramo, Adriana. Looking for Esperanza. A fantastic immersion research with personal involvement, this book explores the world of women Mexican migrant agricultural workers in the U.S. Also My Mother’s Funeral, a weaving of life story and imagined scenes.
Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda. The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. A Black Jewish physicist on science, quantum and particle physics, race, ethnicity, gender and access to science. Really remarkable and moving.
Ray, Janisse. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Southeastern Georgia ecology and working-class family history.
Reeza, Sema. When the World Breaks Open. Short poetic prose pieces narrating the disintegration of a marriage and other loss; so honest and fierce.
Rodriguez, Luis. It Calls You Back. Wrestling with adulthood, children, and the aftermath of addiction by a noted Chicano poet and activist.
Rodriguez, Richard. The Hunger of Memory. and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father.
Roorbach, Bill. Summers With Juliet. Essays about the author and his then-girlfriend, now wife. Temple Stream, a segmented love letter to a river and to the relationship between humanity and wilderness.
Sanders, Scott Russell. The Paradise of Bombs, Staying Put, A Private History of Awe, many other collections, all exploring place, ethical engagement, and the effect of childhood on what one becomes.
Santiago, Esmerelda. When I was Puerto Rican. Engaging child’s perspective on a girlhood in rural and urban Puerto Rico.
Schwartz, Mimi. Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, an honest and fiesty look at a marriage; Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village, a gripping retracing of family lore to recreate the experience of a small German town during the Holocaust.+
Shah, Sejal. This is One Way To Dance. Interlocked essay collection.
Shumaker, Peggy. Just Breathe Normally. A memoir in prose poems about a near-fatal accident.
Sheff, David. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction.
Skloot, Floyd. In the Shadow of Memory, The Wink of the Zenith, and other essay collections dealing in part with reconstructing his life after a brain virus destroyed parts of his memory.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The story of African-American woman whose cells made possible the most prevalent cell lines for research. Very moving.+
Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses, an exploration of the author George Orwell’s life and political engagement entwined with his love of plants. Also Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Stack, Megan K. Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War. A fantastic first-person account of a journalist covering war in the Middle East. Not your typical embedded account; this one reaches for honesty and explores the personal and emotional impact of these experiences and is forthright about the author’s views.
Sullivan, Robert. The Meadowlands. Urban ecology and immersion reporting.+
Tall, Deborah. A Family of Strangers. A memoir in short bursts of prose about a 1950s family as the daughter searches for a lost past and her Jewish extended family.
Trachtenberg, Peter. The Book of Calamities. Meditations and research on the nature and meaning of suffering. Woven narratives.+
Tretheway, Natasha. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Pulitzer Prize winning poet writes soaring and thoughtful nonfiction on the meaning of Hurricane Katrina, its impact specifically on Mississippi, and the meaning of memorialization and erasure of natural disaster, woven with memoir about the storm’s impact on her family and on the area where the storm had landfall.+
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Essays on her writing and life.
Walker, Jerald. Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.
Wamariya, Clemantine and Elizabeth Weil. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After. Account of a girl who lived through the Rwandan genocide, came to the US, with compelling reflections on the nature of trauma and memory.
Wang, Esmé Weijun, The Collected Schizophrenias. Essays on living with mental illness.
Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. A moving reflection on the life stories of four Black men in the south, all friends or family members of the writer, whose lives were cut short.
Wilentz, Amy. Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. Journalism, commentary, history and insightful personal reflection.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge. An environmentalist looks at her Utah family’s struggle with breast cancer.
Wolff, Geoffrey. Duke of Deception. Tobias Wolff’s brother, the other perspective on a split family with a con artist father.
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life. Remembrances of a boyhood, abusive stepfather.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. African-American boyhood and politics.
X, Malcolm, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley.
And here are a few other great book lists (not approved for my students’ assignments but for reference)