Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

12 Amazing Non-Fiction Books By Women

Looking back over the books I read and reviewed this month, I realised: it’s been wall-to-wall amazing non-fiction books by women. That wasn’t exactly by design, but looking over my shelves I can see how it could happen! It would seem that non-fiction books by women – particularly ones on niche subjects, or ones that take a unique approach – really pique my interest. Here are a few more of my favourites…

Let’s kick off with an amazing non-fiction of my own: when you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, this woman will earn a small commission.

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every person who talks about the most devastating day of their life invariably says the same thing: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. She asks the questions we all silently wonder when we’re watching for the news. When you have a life-changing near-brush with death, does it actually change your life? When you lose loved ones in the most unimaginably horrible ways, how do you learn to love and trust again? This is one of the most compelling and fascinating non-fiction books by women of recent years, and (sadly) given the increasing rate of life-changing events in our world, it is ever resonant and relevant.

You Daughters Of Freedom by Clare Wright

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This might seem baffling to my American Keeper-Upperers (given that voting is voluntary in your homeland), but I really dig participating in democracy. Put it down to watching Mary Poppins too much as a kid (Well Done, Sister Suffragette!). Every time I line up to the ballot box, I feel immense gratitude for all of the women who fought and died for my right to do so. That’s what drew me to pick up You Daughters Of Freedom – a testament to the Australians who won the vote for women, comparatively early. The trailblazing (though, it must be said, white) women who won the vote served as inspiration for the rest of the world.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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You know that voice in your head that says: you’re a bad feminist if you fangirl over Mr Rochester when you read Jane Eyre? Or the one that says you’re a bootlicker if you like the colour pink? Roxane Gay shines the spotlight on that nasty, mean little voice in Bad Feminist. In this series of at-times hilarious and at-time searing essays, she looks at the ways in which the culture we consume reflects who we are, and what we want it to say about us. I have never felt so validated and affirmed as I have reading this incredible book (unless you count reading Roxane Gay’s Twitter feed). Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

Victoria by Julia Baird

Victoria - Julia Baird - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was skeptical (to say the least) when I heard that there was a new biography of Queen Victoria forthcoming (and with such a creative title, too). Victoria is surely at least the hundredth book about a dead British monarch published this past decade. And yet, the more I heard about it, the more interviews Julia Baird gave about her process and her approach, the more my curiosity was stoked. There’s no shortage of biographies in the category of non-fiction books by women, but this one is surely one of the best.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order To Live - Yeonmi Park - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Conceptually, North Korea still blows my mind. In this age of unprecedented globalisation and connection, how has one country so brutally and efficiently cut its people off from external influence and insight? If any of their citizens do get a sniff of the world beyond the borders, how could they possibly find within themselves the courage to run? In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park is one woman’s story of doing just that. Facing dangers the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine (relying on Chinese smugglers for escape, then navigating across the Gobi desert with no more than the stars to guide her), she made it to South Korea and, as if her survival alone wasn’t testament enough, shared her story with the rest of the world.

The Killing Season: Uncut by Sarah Ferguson

The Killing Season - Sarah Ferguson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I might be showing my age when I say this, but what the hell: the first Australian election in which I felt properly and politically engaged was the one that elected Kevin Rudd’s government in 2007. Shortly thereafter, he was usurped by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Then, in a move shocking to every non-Australian in the world (seriously, we change leaders more frequently than we change underpants down here), Rudd resumed the leadership before a spectacular election defeat in 2013. Obviously, everyone behind-the-scenes has a very different version of these events – each of which Sarah Ferguson investigated when making the documentary program The Killing Season. In the book version, she recounts details she couldn’t put to air at the time. Heck, maybe I’m the only one who cares, but this is the first of the non-fiction books by women about Australian politics that truly gripped me.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

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Ever heard of the Rosenhan experiment? A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication. This outcome changed the course of psychology and psychiatry forever, and it has had significant real-world impacts on the lives of people living with mental illness today. Susannah Cahalan took it upon herself, having narrowly escaped misdiagnosis and institutionalisation herself, to uncover the truth of this experiment and the man who instigated it, in The Great Pretender. It is a fascinating, and terrifying, read.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story, but until you’ve read She Said, I can promise you that you don’t. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

See What You Made Me Do - Jess Hill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The all-too-common refrain when it comes to domestic abuse is “why didn’t she leave?” or “why did she stay?”. See What You Made Me Do is the first book I’ve read to turn that on its head. The questions Jess Hill poses are more along the lines of “why did he hit her?” and “what ‘counts’ as domestic abuse?”. I’ll admit, this book will turn your stomach – Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer horror of lives lived in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the very worst of where and why it happens. That said, I’ve made it my personal mission in life to make sure more men read this book. I want “nice guys”, “good blokes”, “wonderful fathers”, and all the rest of them to read this one. Can you imagine what would happen if they did?

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are (at best) guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served people with uteruses for far too long. This is an amazing, personal account of the patriarchal assumptions that undermine the health of half the population.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women - Lisa Taddeo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating. Three Women is not an erotic book, but a clear-eyed account of women’s sex lives and the experiences that shape them. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo investigated the sexual histories of three women: Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Her meticulously detailed reporting evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, drawing upon thousands of hours of interviews and documentation to verify the truth as she presents it to you. This book is controversial (inevitably, given its subject matter and Taddeo’s frank treatment of it), but in that lies the beauty of its premise: finally, finally, non-fiction books by women are triggering conversations about the lived experience (and sex lives) of women. Hurrah!

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A young inner-city women loving Helen Garner is somewhat of a cliche, but I’m steering into the skid – it’s a cliche for a reason. All of her books are worth reading, of course: fiction, diaries, true crime, and everything in between… But my personal favourite, and possibly her least lauded (ironically enough), is her essay collection Everywhere I Look. Most of the essays have been previously published elsewhere, but there’s something especially wonderful about having them all back-to-back on paper. She applies her keen insight and acerbic wit to topics as varied as making a house a home, true crime, heroes, grandchildren, and Russell Crowe movies.

2 Comments

  1. Great list, adding a few to my TBR pile. I’ve had In Order To Live on my shelf for years – really need to get around to reading it! Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman is another interesting (and upsetting) insight into how the medical system deals (or, doesn’t deal) with women’s pain. See What You Made Me Do was SO GOOD and SO HORRIFYING but it took me SO LONG to get through it. I could only read about 30 mins worth at time before having to take a mental break. Harrowing. Jane Gilmore’s Fixed It is another great one – looking at how violence against women is represented in the media. Hooray for non-fiction women writers!

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