Posted December 15, 2014 by in Book Lists

Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction

2014 has been a great year for nonfiction, especially for memoirs. Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, a memoir in graphic novel form, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Kirkus Prize for nonfiction, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is the first memoir to ever win the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. It will again go head-to-head with The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, another of the year’s best memoirs, for the Costa Biography Award.

Here, in no particular order, are our 10 nonfiction choices for the best books of 2014:


Rebecca’s Picks:


Iceberg CouttsThe Iceberg by Marion Coutts

“Something has happened. A piece of news. We have had a diagnosis that has the status of an event. The news makes a rupture with what went before.” With these plain, unsentimental lines Coutts begins her devastating yet mysteriously gorgeous account of her husband Tom Lubbock’s decline and death from a brain tumor. Coutts’s language is a rather astonishing mixture of understated narration and artistic whimsy that pitches it perfectly between the twin pitfalls of dull reportage and mawkishness.


Tour of BonesA Tour of Bones: Facing Fear and Looking for Life by Denise Inge

Facing a basement full of bones and later a diagnosis of inoperable sarcoma, Inge toured some of Europe’s notable charnel houses, pondering what remains of us after life and how to approach death with humility and awe. This splendid posthumous book – a true memento mori but, more importantly, a timeless celebration of human vitality and collective memory – will long outlast the author’s too-short life (she died on Easter 2014).


H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

In an original blend of memoir, biography and nature writing, Macdonald reveals how raising Mabel the goshawk helped her heal after her father’s sudden death. Throughout, Macdonald compares her own falconry experience to that of T.H. White, who, in the 1930s, was a lonely schoolteacher and closeted homosexual. If this was only a nature book, it would be a classic. Yet it is also a profound meditation on grief and recovery. H is for Helen, her hawk, and a haphazard healing process. “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”


Answer  to the RiddleThe Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

October 17, 2002: MacLean suddenly ‘wakes up’ at a train station in India. He isn’t carrying a passport; he has no idea who he is or why he’s there. This is MacLean’s quirky account of his temporary amnesia, triggered by anti-malarial drug Lariam, and the emergence of a mosaic life as it started to make sense. Scenes in an Indian mental hospital, where he hallucinates that Jim Henson is God, are unexpectedly hilarious. He also interweaves the fascinating history of malaria treatment.



Brad’s Picks:


Can't We TalkCan’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Ms. Chast’s story of dealing with her parents as they age and, eventually, die is astonishing. This graphic memoir goes from being gut-bustingly hilarious to heartbreakingly sad—sometimes on the same page. Chast draws in a loose style, which works so perfectly with the accompanying prose. The colors, the words, everything—it’s so good. Try to find a more honest piece of literature this year. Chances are high that you’ll come up short. (See Brad’s full review here.)


Bad FeministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay

2014 is the year of the new literary rock star, Roxane Gay. Her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is a work that analyzes so much of American culture. Whether it’s politics, technology, or entertainment, you can bet that Roxane Gay has something insightful to say about it. Her words are intelligent, insightful, and incredibly entertaining.



mollie pic2Mollie’s Picks:


The BohemiansThe Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

I teach American literature, so I often read biographies and other accounts of the most famous American writers, and honestly, is there a more famous American author, past or present, than Mark Twain? Bret Harte, another of my favorites, is also featured prominently in the book. However, I had never heard of Charles Warren Stoddard or Ina Coolbirth. The book is carefully researched and wonderfully executed. I now have some fun new stuff to teach my students!


English MurderThe Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley

The book jacket says the book covers everything “from Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.” I was sold on reading the book on those points alone! However, the book details much more than the most famous cases, characters, writers, and directors. It includes details about other crimes I had never heard of before reading the book. Although it’s nonfiction, it plays right into my favorite genre: murder, mystery, and suspense. (We’ll highlight that genre next week. In the meantime, see Mollie’s full review here.)



Rachel StoreyRachel’s Picks:


Forgetting to Be AfraidForgetting To Be Afraid: A Memoir, Wendy Davis

This filibustering hero spent 13 hours on her feet, with no break, to stand up for women’s rights. It takes great strength and fortitude to take a Democratic stand in Texas politics, and Wendy Davis has vast amounts of both. In her memoirs, she shares how her life experiences led her to where, and who, she is today.


As You WishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Laden

The movie The Princess Bride is one of the great fantasy movies from my generation, and will remain timeless for generations to come. Actor Cary Elwes shares his personal experiences before, during, and after his life as “The Dread Pirate Roberts.” Elwes, along with anecdotal cameos by various cast and crew members, brings a warmth and humor to his stories that make the movie that much more magical.




What were your favorite nonfiction books of 2014? Let us know in the comments below!

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.