Books of the Year: Non-Fiction

It’s almost the end of 2009 so it’s time to talk about books we loved this year! Today we’re talking about our favorite non-fiction books from 2009. (Next week we’ll do fiction.)

Here are a few of my recent faves.

Columbine by Dave Cullen is the most captivating piece of non-fiction I’ve read in years. Insightful, enlightening, and very, very scary. This book made it nearly impossible for me to focus on work or parenting or anything else for about three days. Kudos to Dave Cullen for his decade of in-depth research and his powerful prose. I’ve always wondered what really happened at Columbine High School that April day in 1999, so this book drew me in and didn’t let go until long after I’d finished the last page.

I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly fearful person but Fearless by Max Lucado showed me how much of my life is actually marred by fear, and reminded me that there is no need for fear in a life of faith. Lucado writes engagingly and simply, bringing home a message I think many of us need to have reiterated. “Fear is unwilling to share the heart with happiness.” He asks, “What if faith, not fear, was your default reaction to threats?” and then he shows us how to cultivate that approach to life. An encouraging and inspiring read.

Angry Conversations With God by Susan Isaacs has a terrific subtitle: “A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir” and it’s exactly that. Susan is hilarious and sometimes a bit on the irreverent side, but it’s all in the name of asking the hard questions about God and faith. In this book she takes God to couples counseling to hash things out. It’s never easy, but the results are worth it. I loved this.

In the course of working on a screenplay for his previous book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller learned about the elements of telling a good story (something most of you know something about). A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is a look at life the same way many of us look at story. I thought it was brilliant to turn fiction technique on its head and apply it to real life. In a story we always need forward movement or it’s not interesting; we need a proactive protagonist or we lose interest; we need it to mean something. And as it turns out, Miller discovered, we need these things in real life too. An engaging read.

In the past I’ve enjoyed memoirs like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love where people go to Italy and have a fabulous time. They make me want to go to Italy, but they always seem so remote and removed from my life. I’m not single, I’m not rich, it just didn’t seem realistic. Halfway to Each Other by Susan Pohlman is the year-in-Italy memoir I’ve always wanted, because it’s about a family (dad, mom and two kids). In fact, the marriage was on the rocks and the move was a harebrained scheme to try and shake things up, do something different, see if Susan and her husband could find each other again. In a beautifully written account, she shares their Italian adventure and how the entire family came to know one another in ways they never had before. I couldn’t put this book down and loved every minute of it.

What were your favorite non-fiction books published in 2009?

P.S. For my end of the year wrap-up posts, I’m deliberately choosing books not written by my clients. Those, of course, are all my very favorites! And I’ll be talking about them in a separate post.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. Anonymous on December 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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  4. Anonymous on December 14, 2009 at 3:04 PM

    >Hi there,

    I wanted to invite you to a webinar hosted by Donald Miller next Thursday morning on the subject of his new “Convergence” DVDs for small groups (mostly). Convergence is Miller at his best: doing honest talk about faith. On the first dvd set he talks to Dan Allender, Phyllis Tickle, Lauren Winner. He just recorded the next set with Randy Alcorn, Henry Cloud, John Townsend. You can listen in Thursday, Dec. 17 at (11 am PT, 12 pm MT, 1 pm CT, 2 pm ET). Go to to RSVP for the webinar & we'll be sure to send you a reminder.
    You can learn more about Convergence at If you have any further questions please feel free to email Monique@Lovell-

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  5. Dave Cullen on December 13, 2009 at 11:50 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. Much appreciated.

    BTW, GM is the publisher of the book he's pimping up there. For some reason he never mentions that. LOL. Apparently he has a google alert on my name. Interesting approach.

  6. Rachelle on December 13, 2009 at 10:59 PM

    >To gm and Lisa: Thanks for pointing out that Columbine is not without its detractors. I believe the whole tragedy at Columbine was so complex that we will never get a single definitive account that everyone will agree is the truth. I am well aware of the various opinions about the book; MY opinion is that it's the best book I read this year.

  7. Aimee on December 13, 2009 at 5:58 PM

    >I really loved INTROVERTS IN THE CHURCH by Adam S. McHugh. Great insight for introverts and extroverts alike.

  8. Africakid on December 13, 2009 at 12:40 AM

    >Favorite nonfiction of the year:

    "Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder– about a young man who escapes from Burundi and finally flees to the US. This book tells how Deo copes with his nightmarish past and eventually returns to Burundi to build hospitals and help his people (of both tribes). Inspiring, sad, and finally joyful!

  9. Homemaker, MD on December 12, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    >Many of the nonfictions books I read this year were parenting-related, seeing as I have a now 1year old, my first, to learn how to raise. Of all of them, my favorite was "Babywise" by the Ezzos. It helped me get my little one to sleep through the night by 8weeks, and develope a healthy routine for her which keeps me sane!

    Best cooking book i read this year: "Putting up: a year-round guide to canning in the southern technique" by dowdney. I joined a CSA this year so had TONS of fresh produce, and learning to can was a necessity. Of course I use pH paper since i'm a nerdy MD (safety first!).

    The best spiritual book I've read, other than the Bible, is by eminent Christian philosopher JP Moreland, called "In search of a confident faith". It is absolutely amazing. I'll review it on my blog in more depth later, still digesting it, but WOW.

    Oddly enough, even though my WIP is fiction, this past year I've read just as much non-fiction as fiction! Usually the fiction wins out. Anyway, thanks for shareing about these books Rachelle, I think i might pick "fearless" up.

  10. Sharon A. Lavy on December 12, 2009 at 7:36 AM

    >Just a suggestion Rachelle, that you remove the spam sent by Anonymous twice.

  11. redqueen1 on December 12, 2009 at 6:10 AM

    >I'll have to check out Fearless. When I read Max Lucado's book He Chose The Nails years ago, it changed my life but I don't know that I've picked up one of his books since (weird now that I think about it). Oddly enough, I was just thinking about him the other day.

  12. Rachel on December 12, 2009 at 4:02 AM

    >I came here to recommend The Girl in the Orange Dress — delighted to see it's already on here twice!

    Also, Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must be Reinvented in Today's Church by Christine Colon and Bonnie Field.

  13. Dave Cullen on December 12, 2009 at 3:03 AM

    >Ellie, lol. That's dedication.

    I couldn't get interested in the Julia/Julia book, but saw the film on a plane and had a similar reaction to you Rachel: Julia Child was really interesting; the Julie character got annoying fast.

    Lisa, thanks for pointing out that not everyone loves my work. You are right: Randy Brown and I disagree.

  14. Tina M. Russo on December 12, 2009 at 1:49 AM

    >Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter

    The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein (2008 hardcover but 2009 softcover)

  15. Mira on December 12, 2009 at 1:00 AM

    >Yay for non-fiction. Thanks for all the recommendations, Rachelle. I'm especially interested in Angry Conversations – looks great.

    I've heard this is unoffical agent appreciation day. So, thank you, Rachelle, for your graciousness, integrity and all the information you give writers. It's appreciated. 🙂

  16. ~Ellie Kings~ on December 11, 2009 at 11:55 PM

    >I love Max Lucado! Thanks for all these recommendations. Gotta get more reading done. Have a great weekend!

    Dave Cullen~ Early risers? or … It could also be they never went to sleep. 🙂

  17. Kim Kasch on December 11, 2009 at 11:25 PM

    >The Last Lecture

    So good


    So sad

  18. Rachel Hauck on December 11, 2009 at 9:57 PM

    >I've read a bunch of foodie books this year:

    Cherries in Winter by Suzan Colon
    My Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
    The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones

    Julia Child's memoir — going blank on the title.

    I did not like Julia and Julie. While the author is witty with an engaging voice, her "witchiness" toward life got to me after awhile. And when good people with values are called evil while she embraced and applauded and S&M Dungeon and friends who slept with married co-workers, I had to put the book down. I found her to be unlikeable and narrow-minded.


  19. Susan on December 11, 2009 at 9:53 PM


    I am so honored to make your list that I am rendered speechless. (A rare condition among writers!)

    Thank you.

    Many blessings to you and your family.


  20. Lisa on December 11, 2009 at 9:41 PM

    >Rachelle, about the book "Columbine" by Dave Cullen. You should know that the book isn't without controversy. There are several people who have found great fault with it, chief among them Randy Brown. Mr. Brown is the father of Brooks Brown, who attended Columbine High School at the same time as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and was a friend of theirs as well.

    Mr. Brown has spent a great deal of time extensively studying the events surrounding that day at CHS in April 1999, as much and probably even more so than Mr. Cullen has. In a review of "Columbine" he gave it a 1 star review and all but called it 'a work of fiction', so distressed was he at the book and its errors and inaccuracies contained within. "Columbine" does dispel some rumors and mistakes that have endured since 1999 but it creates and sustains some of its own. It is by NO means the definitive book on Columbine. I urge you to read Mr. Brown's insightful and negative review of "Columbine" at Amazon. Here's the link:

  21. Roxane B. Salonen on December 11, 2009 at 7:25 PM

    >I love non-fiction — memoir especially. I love fiction, too. 🙂 It's the reporter in me on one hand, and the dreamer on the other. Thanks for all these great titles. I'll be playing catch-up here at year's end, and into the new year. One of my favorite books of 2009 just came out. I had a chance to read it while in manuscript form, just prior to publication. It's written by my friend, Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle. Donna-Marie had a ten-year friendship with Mother Teresa before her death, and after authoring several other books, has finally written one about this relationship called "Mother Teresa and Me." I also had the privilege of endorsing the book. My bound copy will be here any day now and I can't wait. 🙂

  22. Ian Acheson on December 11, 2009 at 7:17 PM

    >Rachelle – "Fearless" was a beauty. I also got great inspiration from:

    "Jesus Culture" by Banning Liebscher, a cry for revival from a young man wonderfully besotted by God; "Experiencing the Cross" by Henry Blackaby. I love Henry's books as they always touch my heart. "God dealt with sin radically – the Cross – how could it be less in our lives?"; and my final one, an oldee but a goodee, a small but very powerful book on individual worship and transforming your prayer life – "Prayer: Conversing with God" by Rosalind Rinker.

  23. T. Anne on December 11, 2009 at 6:07 PM

    >Happy agent appreciation day Rachelle! (Next time I'll try and consolidate my thoughts into one post, lol)

  24. jleigh on December 11, 2009 at 5:57 PM

    >i enjoyed don's book and also mad church disease by ann jackson

  25. Jessica on December 11, 2009 at 4:35 PM

    >I don't really read non-fiction but those sound really good. I guess I've been missing out.

  26. T. Anne on December 11, 2009 at 2:45 PM

    >Back to add, I threw in "Sound of Sleigh Bells" just because I enjoyed it it's not N.F.

  27. Dave Cullen on December 11, 2009 at 2:38 PM

    >You guys are fast, BTW, and early risers. A dozen comments by dawn? Wow. (Though I'm on mountain time.)

    Marla, I understand the apprehension, especially after a situation like that. (That gives me the shudders.) The book is probably different than you think, though: pain and grief are in there, but also hope and inspiration.

    It may or may not be for you. I'd suggest trying a toe in the water with a short excerpt at, or the 3-minute book trailer, which will give you a good sense. (One of the SouthPark guys did it, and he's a great filmmaker. I couldn't believe he could distill my blabbing down to three thight minutes like that.) Both have icons at my homepage at

  28. Dave Cullen on December 11, 2009 at 2:31 PM

    >Rachelle, thanks for such kind words for my book (Columbine). I am really touched to make your list.

    It did take me awhile, but it sure feels worth it now. It meant the world to me to make your list.

  29. Liesl on December 11, 2009 at 1:36 PM

    >FEARLESS looks interesting, and I always loved Max Lucado, so I'll check that out!

    My favorite non-fiction this year was OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell. Fascinating! I don't think I'm an "outlier" by his definition of the term, but the book made me reflect on my own life with gratitude for the people and opportunities that shaped me. I hope I can do the same for my kids and others.

  30. T. Anne on December 11, 2009 at 12:12 PM

    >I enjoyed Fearless by Max Lucado too. "Is God Good" by Randy Alcorn, also I enjoyed "The Sound of Sleigh Bells" by Cindy Woodsmall.

    I'm looking forward to the post regarding your clients books!

  31. Gina on December 11, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    >Thanks for the recommendations, Rachelle!

  32. Sharon A. Lavy on December 11, 2009 at 11:57 AM

    >My fav non-fiction for 2009 is PUT YOUR DREAM TO THE TEST by John C. Maxwell. I am still tweeting tidbits from this book almost daily.

  33. gm on December 11, 2009 at 11:44 AM

    >On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    "Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." –Janet Maslin, New York Times

    "A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it in Columbine: A True Crime Story. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." ——-Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

  34. Shelby on December 11, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    >Great cookbook published this year by a local (Birmingham) chef…
    Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef's Love Affair with Italian Food.

    Try it 🙂

  35. --Deb on December 11, 2009 at 11:04 AM

    >Well, this is almost embarrassing. Except for a plentitude of knitting and spinning books, I barely read ANY non-fiction published this year. Even Mark Frost's "The Match" was a reprint, and the others were new paperback editions to hardcovers that were published last year.

    Except for Quinn Cummings' "Notes from the Underwire," which was published this summer and is wonderful and funny.

    Otherwise … would you like to hear about the knitting books?

  36. David Teems on December 11, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    >SHAKESPEARE AND MODERN CULTURE by Harvard Professor, Marjorie Garber. THAT MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE, by John McWhorter.Also, Melvyn Bragg's THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH. Great medication for logophilia.

  37. Janet Reid on December 11, 2009 at 10:43 AM

    >COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen is at the top of my list (the list that excludes clients of course)

  38. Jessica Scott on December 11, 2009 at 10:42 AM

    >The Good Soldiers by David Finkle. Incredible narrative about Iraq surge from the ground troops' point of view.

  39. ed cyzewski on December 11, 2009 at 10:41 AM

    >The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox was a fascinating read, even if I didn't agree with his take on Christian history.

    I had all of these other books to recommend, but they were all published in 2008…

  40. Dara on December 11, 2009 at 10:21 AM

    >Not sure since I don't read non-fiction a lot and most that I've read this year was research related. And most of them were published before I was born 😛

    But these look really good! I may have to reserve them at the library now 🙂 Thanks!

  41. Matilda McCloud on December 11, 2009 at 10:01 AM

    >CHASING MOLECULES by Elizabeth Grossman–About the chemicals in everyday products we use, how they linger in the environment and cause disease, and the promise of green chemistry. Sounds boring, but it was incredibly eye-opening and readable–like a SILENT SPRING for our time.

    WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE by William Stolzeburg: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators. Another eye opener–I couldn't put this book down. Basically deer are taking over…

    ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN by Temple Grandin. I love her unusual perspective on the relationship between people and animals.

    THE GIRL IN THE ORANGE DRESS: Searching for a Father Who Doesn't Fail by Margot Starbuck. Memoir about identity–how the author searched for her birth parents.

  42. Marty Coleman on December 11, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    >I read non-fiction almost exclusively actually. But most of what I read this year was not published in 2009.
    The one exception was 'Do You Matter? – How great design will make people love your company' by Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery.
    It isn't the usual social commentary, history or bio fare of non-fiction but it does an incredible job of explaining how and why design is intrinsic to everything from customer service to product design.

    I highly recommend it for people who are interested in growing their own business as a writer or artist, as well as for those of you who are in companies and institutions that are struggling to connect with clients and customers.

  43. Valerie Geary on December 11, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    >Zeitoun by Dave Eggers… couldn't put it down… and that's something rare for me with non-fiction.

  44. Billy Coffey on December 11, 2009 at 8:58 AM

    >LOVED Donald Miller's book. I finished it and then read it again. One of my favorite authors.

  45. ginny martyn on December 11, 2009 at 8:49 AM

    >I LOVED Waking the Dead by John Eldredge and Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist for the same reasons. They both provided relevant ways to navigate our veiled, contemporary lives.

  46. Marla Taviano on December 11, 2009 at 8:48 AM

    >Three of the five are already on my To Read List. (Halfway to Each Other is at the top!)

    I'm nervous about reading Columbine. Last week, 2 girls (14 and 11) in our smallish city suburb were murdered by their father in their beds. I didn't know them at all, but it's really been getting to me. As a mom, I find it so hard to read books about children being killed.

  47. Richard Mabry on December 11, 2009 at 8:32 AM

    >I rarely read non-fiction, but this year I had the privilege of reading and reviewing FEARLESS by Max Lucado. I have to agree with you–I found it both encouraging and inspiring.

  48. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought on December 11, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    >I've been wanting to read Miller's latest. Angry Conversations looks like something I'd enjoy too. My favorite has to be Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson. My kind of writing. My kind of thinking.

    Katie, I got my hands on Bird in college…I've read it three times since. Good, good stuff. Lamott is an inspiration. I think you'd like Flashbang.

    Have a great weekend, Rachelle.
    ~ Wendy

  49. Jenni on December 11, 2009 at 8:07 AM

    >Awesome! I'm putting Fearless on my library hold list right now!

    Thanks so much for all the recommendations, Rachelle!

  50. Cassandra Frear on December 11, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    >Thanks so much for these recommendations! I will be checking them out. Quite a few of the titles are familiar, having been recommended by others.

    I really do love nonfiction. There's something about true stories and real lives that grips me. I mean, "it really happened", you know? And not in someone's imagination, either.

  51. Timothy Fish on December 11, 2009 at 7:25 AM

    >I sort of fell into a black hole as far as reading last year. All of the non-fiction titles I thought of to say were my favorites were published sometime other than 2009. Unless the DiscipleGuide Sunday School Quarterly counts. They were published in 2009 and were excellent.

  52. Krista Phillips on December 11, 2009 at 6:54 AM

    >I'm kinda like Katie, I don't read a lot of non-fiction. I know I should read them a little more, but fiction is my favorite:-)

    The only book I started to read (and intend to finish) that is non-fiction was Captivating by John and Staci Eldredge… but that wasn't published in 2009:-) What I've read of it, I highly recommend!

  53. Katie Ganshert on December 11, 2009 at 6:05 AM

    >I don't read much nonfiction other than writing craft books. I'm more of a fiction gal. But I MUST read Donald Miller's new book. I've read Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What at least three times each.

    Right now I'm reading Bird by Bird, which has me laughing quite often. It's sort of random musings on life and writing.

  54. Kimberlee Conway Ireton on December 11, 2009 at 2:34 AM

    >Thanks for these book recommendations, Rachelle! I've not read any of them (yet).

    I realized I didn't read a lot of new books this year, but the two non-fiction books published in 2009 that I liked were Margot Starbuck's memoir The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail and Keri Wyatt Kent's Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity. Margot's book made me laugh and at the same time ache for the pain of children who feel abandoned or unloved; Keri's reminded me why I choose to live the way I do and strengthened my desire to live slowly and with attention.

    (I have an interview with Margot and a review of Rest on my blog.)