Best nonfiction I read in 2018

2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).

The Gene: An Intimate History

1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson

Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.

This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)

Known and Strange Things: Essays

3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?

This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)

Gravity and Grace

4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners

5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser

This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.

Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.

This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen

Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.

Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.

It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt

American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  3. Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
  4. How to Write an Autobiographical  Novel, Alexander Chee
  5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  6. Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf
  7. Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax
  8. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  9. At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman
  10. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott
  11. Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson
  12. Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
  13. Calypso, David Sedaris
  14. Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
  15. The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
  16. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell

Previously: The best poetry I read in 2018. Up next: The best fiction I read in 2018.

Best poetry I read in 2018

I continue to have no idea how to talk about poetry, but here are the collections of poems I liked best in 2018.

Stag's Leap: Poems

1: Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

2: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Hayden Carruth

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

3: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

New Collected Poems

4: New Collected Poems, Tomas Tranströmer

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

5: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Leaves of Grass

6: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Grace Notes: Poems

7: Grace Notes, Rita Dove

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

8: Worshipful Company of Fletchers, James Tate

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

9: Passing Through, Stanley Kunitz

Our Andromeda

10: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction that I read in 2018.

Who you were

Abby (Childhood)
My young self, enjoying athletics like a natural.

On a whim, I bought a domain for this blog because the ads are so awful. I despise chum boxes in all instances and thoroughly dislike the fact that anyone who comes here (however tiny the number may be) is unwillingly subjected to such garbage.

Upon doing so, however, I was revisited by the uncomfortable feeling I get when I find posts I wrote here seven or eight years ago. Strong waves of nausea and embarrassment wash over me when I uncover them. I sound very childish, and I feel very different from who I was then. (I have also shifted the way that I think about writing here; now I am far less personal and open.)

I am reminded of the ludicrous notion, which we often cherish when we are young, that we are fixed entity. I was BORN this way, we like to think. I have always been an INDIVIDUAL. This is deeply false. We change so much, by the year, by the week, almost. We are not who we once were. And that is OK.

Sure, there are some constants in my personality (I have loved words since I was tiny, I have always been bossy, etc.), but I have changed a great deal. And I expect I will continue to. This prospect, of lifelong personal change, is pleasing to me.

. . .

“I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.”

— Anne Carson, Plainwater

Anne Carson, patron saint of my aspirational mental state.

. . .

7 writers to read now

I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.

Image result for clarice lispector

1. Clarice Lispector

Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.

Where to start? The Complete Stories and then The Passion According to G.H.

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2. Anne Carson

What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.

Where to start? Eros the Bittersweet and then Glass, Irony and God and then Autobiography of Red

Image result for joy williams writer

3. Joy Williams

There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).

Where to start? The Visiting Privilege and then Escapes

Image result for yukio mishima

4. Yukio Mishima

His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.

Where to start? Spring Snow and then Confessions of a Mask

[not pictured]

5. Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.

Where to start? My Brilliant Friend and then the rest of the Neapolitan novels

Image result for simone weil

6. Simone Weil

This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.

Where to start? Simone Weil: An Anthology

Image result for penelope fitzgerald

7. Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.

Where to start? The Blue Flower and then Offshore

Who are you reading and loving right now?

How light, how loose

IMG_4025
One of the two dogwoods in the front yard.

Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.

A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.

Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.

“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float

Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.

Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.

I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.

Best nonfiction I read in 2016

The best nonfiction I read in the past year.

1. Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson

Brilliant. What, I wonder, must it be like to have Anne Carson’s mind? What does she think about while eating breakfast or tying her shoelaces? Perhaps eros and every shade of its meaning from Sappho to the present. This perfect little book of criticism seems to be just skimming the surface of Carson’s genius. It is a sublimely measured and controlled product of literary theory, exploring why and how eros has been a motivating force for poets and writers, and an important book for all writers and readers.

2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

A gorgeously written and riveting portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and the Western doctors who are trying to save their child. Fadiman’s skill lies in her ability to create a tremendous sense of sympathy for both sides: the anxious and independent Lee family trying to help their daughter amid a culture they don’t understand (or trust) with a language they do not speak versus the smart, hard-working American doctors who are continually frustrated by the cultural barriers to delivering effective care. It ought to be required reading for health professionals (and probably often is), but it’s also a heart-opening look into the Hmong people in the United States, the myths we hold dear about Western medicine and indigenous medicine, and the challenge of trying to understand someone whose worldview is entirely separate from your own.

3. The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon

An utter delight. Lady Shonagon is the Heian era (circa 1000 AD!) predecessor to Lydia Davis. I devoured this beautiful book of poetry, court gossip, fragments, and little stories. It is moving and strange and eerily modern.

4. The Journals of John Cheever

What a perfect writer; what a tormented human. His journals read beautifully and show themselves to be intended for publication (which they were, and which fact lessens that stinging feeling of voyeurism you get from reading dead people’s diaries). The journals present a stirring and often heartbreaking window into his life and his demons: alcoholism, a lifelong and covert wrestling with homosexual desire, and his tireless ambition to be great, to be remembered. The entries are undated, except for the year, which creates an odd but pleasant sense of seamlessness. He is always harder on himself than he is on other people (even with his frequently desired/despised wife, Mary), and there is a touching humility and brokenness that marks these pages.

The Argonauts

5. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers so much ground (love, pregnancy, childbirth, queer family identity, death, feminism, conformity, space) in so few pages. I felt hooked by her prose, and I am looking forward to reading more from her. She has a poet’s enviable precision.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

6. The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon

I am not a cook and may never be very interested in making food, but if anything could bring me close to that aim, it is this book. How delightfully bizarre and dramatic and wonderful. I really love the funny, florid styling of American men writing in the 1960s; for all their inherent sexism, there is something about their (à la James Salter, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, by turns) elaborate delight in the world and the expansive adornment of sentences that charms me. Capon is eminently charming and a great joy to read — even if you have no interest in making lamb stew or in its sacramental analogs.

7. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

An impressively incisive and concise history of America’s involvement in Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. With his characteristic mix of deep research and excellent interviews, George Packer presents all the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. I feel grateful for it as a history lesson, as I was relatively too young to understand all of the intricacies of the war while it was happening (and yet some could argue it is still happening). Particularly, I came away with a better understanding of how murky this war was to begin with and how it did not cleanly divide people along party lines. George Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

The Souls of Black Folk

8. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

Powerful and chastening, considering how many challenges still lie ahead of Americans with regard to racial equality. The battle is not over. Du Bois’s style is moving and affecting, occasionally flowery, but his mix of history/policy recounting and personal anecdotes is very effective.

What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy

9. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Robin DiAngelo

Particularly after this devastating election season, this thoughtful and wise book should be required reading for all white-identifying Americans. What tremendous progress could be made if we could authentically and humbly reckon with all of the ways that we support the system of white supremacy in our country — and then work to dismantle it, following the lead of people of color.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

10. Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter provides the much-needed, hard-hitting response to Lean In — one that is, notably, grounded in reality. Sheryl Sandberg’s call to women to be ambitious in the office was respectable, but 99% of American women aren’t going to become Silicon Valley billionaires, and “leaning in” doesn’t actually do anything to change the miserably biased, inflexible conditions that the vast majority of working mothers find themselves in. Slaughter is calling for a social overhaul, not a capitulation to the patriarchal corporate order. Unfinished Business is grim — and it further makes me doubt my ability or desire to have children, recognizing again and again how deeply penalized working mothers are — but it is necessary. This is also a book that I’ll call required required reading for all American mothers and all CEOs.

 

Honorable Mentions

  1. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick
  2. Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner
  3. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos
  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  5. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  6. Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey
  7. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante
  8. Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  9. Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck
  10. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
  11. The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
  12. The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney
  13. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
  14. Basin and Range, John McPhee
  15. The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, James Wood
  16. The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich
  17. On Writing, Eudora Welty
  18. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag
  19. The Fire This Time, ed. Jesmyn Ward

Best poetry I read in 2016

This is all the poetry I read in 2016 (make a sad face), but all of it was good. In order of delight:

Autobiography of Red

1. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

Black Zodiac

2. Black Zodiac, Charles Wright

The Father

3. The Father, Sharon Olds

4. The Collected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz

Head Off & Split

5. Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney

New Selected Poems

6. New Selected Poems, Philip Levine

Thrall

7. Thrall, Natasha Trethewey

What poetry did you read and enjoy this past year?

Coming soon: Best nonfiction and fiction I read in 2016. Stay tuned.

There is no person without a world

Pink dogwood
View from the living room.

By all accounts, spring has been emotionally tumultuous for us, but I feel like we are now on firmer ground. The sun shines on a regular basis, even if the wind blows cold.

Things that bring me joy these days:

  • Those dogwoods
  • Anne Carson
  • Planning our little excursions from London (I love booking places to stay but I hate booking flights; I make Guion do that)
  • Not thinking about the election
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Taking on the write_on challenge again this year
  • Preparing my packing list for the summer and scheming about how minimalist I can make my wardrobe
  • A silk pillowcase
  • Post-work walks with the pups
  • Guion’s face
  • Throwing or giving possessions away
  • Broad City, always and forever Broad City
  • Chopping my hair off again (see sleepy proof of second-day, less curly hair below)

(c) abby farson pratt

“I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.” — Gertrude Stein