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 books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

Best nonfiction I read in 2015

I consumed a lot of excellent nonfiction this year, and this was a particularly difficult list to make. So many gorgeous, mind-expanding books!

1: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia

An enormous and spellbinding work of art, history, and memoir. Rebecca West travels to the former Yugoslavia with her husband in the late 1930s, on the cusp of World War II, and produces this gigantic and gorgeous book of her travels and observations. West, who is brilliant and yet endlessly entertaining and quick, sees the clouds gathering over Europe from the vantage point of the Balkans and produces this remarkable record of that pregnant historical moment. Their travels are chaperoned by Constantine, a Slavic Jew, who is a fascinating character in himself, and they are often unfortunately joined by his appallingly horrible German wife, Gerda, who is an outspoken Nazi sympathizer (which surely makes for a horrific marriage between them, at the very least). West is game for any adventure, however, even with such a dizzying array of characters and cultures.

Her style is breathtakingly beautiful and can win over even the most lax armchair historian (like myself), and she’s also devilishly funny and eloquently sarcastic. She, like most people of her time period, can be prone to racial stereotypes and overgeneralizations of people (she loves to use the word “sluttish,” for instance, to refer to people or art or cultures that she finds distasteful), but I think, on the whole, she comes down on the side of fairness and humanity more often than not. I will rave about this massive, unexpected treasure to anyone who will listen. It was worth every minute spent in its jam-packed pages.

2: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Gut-wrenching and terribly, beautifully composed. Essential reading for all Americans, especially us white ones, because we are still steeped in such shameful ignorance. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s repeated refrain of “the body,” in this letter to his son, was especially powerful and eye-opening to me, to consider the ever-present threat to the only thing you truly have, your physical self, if you are a black American. Until we so-called white Americans can acknowledge and bear our mutual, omnipresent complicity in perpetuating racism in a systematic, universal way, nothing will change in this country.

3: H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

The main thing that needs to be said is that this book is as incredible as everyone says it is. Helen Macdonald comes to terms with her beloved father’s sudden death in an unusual way: She adopts a goshawk. Goshawks are, I learned, one of the bird world’s finest killing machines, and training one to hunt with a human is no easy feat. In this marvelous book — half-grief memoir, half-hawk-training-narrative — Macdonald wrestles with the belief that animals can heal us, and finds that they can, but also discovers that animals can invert us, revealing our most dark, sad selves; a relationship with a wild thing can make us wild, a creature foreign to other humans and to ourselves.

Her prose is perfect, luminous; I couldn’t get enough. (It’s evident that she is also a poet; she knows how to make language bend and sing for her.) H Is for Hawk is gorgeously written and smart and heartbreaking; it elicited tears from me, and wry grins, and a hopeful, thoughtful perspective on the mystery of death and of the connection between two living things.

4: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Having recently lost a beloved grandmother and now watching my parents (and parents-in-law) wrestle with end-of-life care decisions for their parents, Atul Gawande’s book was very relevant and poignant to me. As a general surgeon, he writes with medical context and experience, but he also writes as a son watching his father die. Gawande is willing to ask the hard questions and to do so with grace and eloquence. What is important toward the end of our lives? Is there a better model for elderly care? How can we improve the quality of our lives when the years ahead are few? Gawande addresses these questions with sincerity, tact, and feeling, and I think this book ought to be required reading for any child with aging parents.

5: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you think the US justice system is fair and not implicitly racist, think again. Michelle Alexander’s well-researched and devastating book argues that the War on Drugs has created an enormous prison caste system, composed primarily of black men. The United States is 5% of the world population but 25% of its imprisoned population, and the majority of those prisoners are minorities. Increasingly, white Americans have had to come to grips with the fact that we live in a foolishly innocent parallel universe, in which we are largely ignorant of the racism and widespread unconscious bias that permeate law enforcement and the courts. We naively believe that (a) if someone ends up in jail, he deserves to be there and (b) that there is a sense of colorblind fairness in policing, sentencing, and convicting. Nothing could be further from the heartrending truth. (It is particularly sad and notable that this book came out five years ago, before the well-publicized spate of grotesque police violence against black people. What does it take to make us pay attention?)

The evidence Alexander presents to back up her case is vast and impossible to ignore. And the historical and legal context that she provides is very valuable and eye-opening, particularly for readers curious about the implications of court cases and criminal justice legislation. I think the book could have benefited from clearer framing. She mentions this a few times, but Alexander is not talking about the entire criminal justice system; rather, she focuses on the War on Drugs and its vast implications for creating our age of mass incarceration. This is a strong, readable, and important work of scholarship that demands sweeping policy change.

6: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

A perfectly expressed treatise on the theology of craft, specifically the characteristics of Japanese and Korean folk art. This book had been on my to-read shelf for years, and I am pleased to say it did not disappoint. Yanagi elevates the artistic and spiritual merit of wabi sabi work, especially pottery, and draws on Zen Buddhism (with dashes of Christian mysticism to appeal to Western readers) to form his philosophy of art. It’s clear, cogent, and elegantly simple. All I could think when finishing was, When I go back to Japan, I’m taking a whole suitcase just for ceramics.

7: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This is probably the first nonfiction horror book I’ve read. And it’s worth the existential dread and terror, because that might be the only thing that will make humankind act at this point. (The part of humankind who cares about science and what it’s been telling us for decades, i.e., how can any intelligent person possibly vote for politicians who deny climate change? But that is neither here nor there.) Here, Elizabeth Kolbert presents well-researched and solidly written accounts of extinction — and displays the considerable evidence that we are careening toward the sixth great episode of the decimation of biological diversity on Earth. The Sixth Extinction will make you sad and will make you begin to preemptively mourn the death of all the beautiful life on our planet, but it may also make you want to stand up and shout about it. Happy to hear that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

8: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Superbly researched and written. This book won the Pulitzer when it was published, in 2006, and although that was nine years ago, it is still incredibly relevant and helpful as we watch the rise of ISIS (Da’esh). I marveled at the depth and breadth of Wright’s research.

9: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

What a lovely book of wisdom: for writers, specifically, but for human beings, in general. Rilke shares thoughts on writing, art, grief, love, and solitude with his characteristic blend of honesty and power. It is a shame it took me so many years to get to this little book. It will be a pleasant thing to return to in times of discouragement or confusion.

10: The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays

In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I want to say about being both a free-thinking progressive and a self-identifying Christian. Five stars for a handful of the essays, which are luminous and so wise. A few I found a bit dry and tedious (the obsession with John Calvin is something I don’t totally understand), but overall, recommended particularly to American Christians, especially the ones who want to use their minds.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt (a quote here)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
  3. Women in Clothes, ed. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
  4. Hold Still, Sally Mann
  5. The Diary, vol. III, Virginia Woolf
  6. Oranges, John McPhee
  7. A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov
  8. A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West
  9. Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  10. White Girls, Hilton Als
  11. No Good Men among the Living, Anand Gopal
  12. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz
  13. On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss
  14. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves
  15. The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
  16. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
  17. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum
  18. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon
  19. The Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig
  20. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
  21. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  22. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso
  23. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
  24. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
  25. The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits
  26. The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey

What were some of the best nonfiction books you read in 2015? I’d love to hear about them.

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2012

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, spread out across a broad range of disciplines. Here are my top 10 favorite nonfiction books I read in 2012, starting with my favorite.

Lit: A Memoir

1: Lit, Mary Karr

Mary Karr gets drunk, gets sober, and finds God — all against her best intentions and expectations. She is funny, clever, and heartbreakingly honest; essentially, everything we want out of a memoir. We want it to be lurid. We want it to fulfill every voyeuristic hope that we hold. But we don’t always expect memoirs to be so beautifully written or so incisively honest. Karr writes with disarming humility and power. This is a memoir for everyone and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I didn’t want to put it down for a second. (Buy)

The Emperor of All Maladies

2: The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee

This book is the complete history of the most well-known killer of people: Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a decorated cancer researcher, but you wouldn’t expect him to also be a gifted historian and storyteller. The Emperor of All Maladies is the most engaging scientific narrative I have ever read. It is supremely readable and clear, even for a non-science background layperson like myself. Mukherjee tells the important story of the mysterious, elusive disease that will reach us all, sooner or later. This is an important book that begs to be read and reckoned with. (Buy)

The Second Sex

3: The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir provided us with the complete word on what women are and how they could be. This book, an essential text of feminist philosophy and the genesis of second-wave feminism, is extremely long and it is not for the faint of heart. Beauvoir starts at the beginning, and I mean the beginning — we are talking amoeba communities and frog mating practices. From there, she launches into a dizzying array of topics and disciplines and histories, exploring all of the reasons why women are the way they are and why the progress toward gender equality has been so slow and hindered. I was impressed by her humor and by the perpetual relevance of this book. This is not out of date. Women are still lagging behind men in many of the same areas (notably the workplace) that they were in 1949. But Beauvoir gives us hope, even if it is a mere glimmer, that the “curse” of womanhood may no longer rest on our heads. (Buy)

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

4: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans

It is remarkable to me that, until this book, ballet did not have a consummate history. So along came Jennifer Homans, NYU professor, dance critic, and former professional dancer. Apollo’s Angels contains the complete story of ballet, through its various phases and transformations, and is written in a beautiful, sincere style. History books are often hard for me to read, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. Homans is a skilled and careful writer and she treats her subjects with keen attention. This book will give you more information about ballet than you probably need, but it is so delightful and inspiring that I would recommend it to anyone. (Buy)

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

5: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch

I will already admit that this is a book that I need to reread. Clocking in at 1,184 pages, this is a SERIOUS TOME. As it should be, I suppose, regarding its ambitious scope: A complete history of Christianity. Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history is a remarkable achievement. I can’t imagine ever knowing so much about one topic. Yeah, I read the whole thing, but I feel like I only skimmed the surface of his vast knowledge. This is the book to read — to tackle, more accurately — for the complete, definitive introduction to church history. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life and I didn’t know half of the things he talked about in this book. I’d say it’s essential reading for most Christians. It’s good to know where you came from. (Buy)

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

6: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas G. Carr

Nicholas G. Carr’s short, incisive survey of Internet history and its corresponding neuroscientific research is quietly terrifying. I almost expected it to be scarier. But here I am, typing my thoughts into a blog, on the Internet, so I guess it didn’t scare me as much as I had hoped. It did reinforce, however, my desire to spend less and less time on the World Wide Web. I have certainly felt the sense that he describes, the truly great horror, that the more time we spend online, the less human we become. I feel better about myself when I’m not online: Clearer, simpler, happier. Living unplugged is a rapidly diminishing lifestyle, but I’d like to pursue it, to the best of my ability. This book will reinvigorate that desire — to sit outside, to read a thick novel, to think in a deeper, clearer way than the Internet allows. (Buy)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

7: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick

Why do we, as human beings, so deeply desire to know, to catalog, to archive? James Gleick examines a range of familiar scientific innovations, corresponding mathematics, and the resulting cultural implications. We live in the supposed “Information Age,” but what does that mean? And how did we get here? He writes beautifully and this is an incredibly engaging account, even if most of it was over my head. The Information is a relevant, scientific memoir of our civilization’s undying passion to record, remember, transmit. (Buy)

The Liar's Club

8: The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

Yes, this was the year that made me a Mary Karr fan. I have never read a sadder childhood nor a purer memoir. After I devoured and loved Lit, I thought it would be a good idea to backtrack and read Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, the story of her violent, traumatic, and yet humorously heartbreaking childhood in Texas and Colorado. It certainly does not disappoint. At times, I found myself getting confused by its parallels with The Glass Castle (Jeannette Wells’ very similar-sounding memoir of her own girlhood among destructive, poor, alcoholic parents — both Wells and Karr have mothers who are constantly drunk painters, for example. BUT Karr did it first. And better, if you can make tragic childhood memoirs a competition. Wells came out with her memoir 10 years after this book was published). Anyhow. Read it. Love it. Feel like you might have a chance at being even a mildly decent parent, because at least you’re not these people. I liked Lit better as a whole, but this, wow, equally great. (Buy)

Speak, Memory

9: Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Another memoir, I know, but this is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, waxing on and off about his childhood and life. We weave between his lush, florid descriptions of familial interaction; a parade of names; a barrage of places and vivid memories. The flow of his language almost makes us feel as if we were chasing butterflies alongside him. And then there is the sudden and beautiful insertion of “you” 200 pages in, referring to his wife, Vera, his only audience, the only one who matters. Oh, Nabokov! Always leaving me breathless. (Buy)

Flaubert and Madame Bovary

10: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller

A perfectly written and extremely readable double-biography of Gustave Flaubert and his fictional alter ego, Madame Bovary. This was the ideal companion for my re-reading of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this past year, and I recommend it heartily to anyone with even a passing interest in Flaubert, French literature, or the process of writing a great novel. Well done, Steegmuller. (Buy)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
, Adrienne Rich
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas

Coming soon: Top 10 works of fiction I read this year.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #9

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude

#9: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Gabriel García Márquez

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, we reach number 9: Gabriel García Márquez’s expansive family chronicle, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I feel like I had this book on my “to read” list for one hundred years. It’s been staring me in the face forever and I never had the wherewithal to pick it up. Quite frankly, I’ve never enjoyed much of the South American fiction I’ve read, but this could be because I’ve read comparatively little of it. Fair or not, I never had much enthusiasm to read García Márquez. This could also be because I once watched The Worst Movie Ever Made, which was an adaptation of his novel Love in the Time of Cholera. So. Bad. Don’t watch it. You will regret your life if you do.

All that to say: I finally picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude from the library in July and I was glad I did. I’m a sucker for family epics (much like Ada, actually, or Anna Karenina) and this is one helluva family epic. The novel tells the long, fabled story of the Buendia family through seven—yes, seven—generations. It’s difficult to keep track of what generation you’re in, because everyone in the story shares the same pool of names, sometimes slightly rearranged in order. For example, we have the patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia, who names his sons Jose Arcadio and Aureliano. Aureliano goes on to name one kid Jose Aureliano and then has seventeen more named… Aureliano. It gets very confusing; just take a look at this family tree that some crazy person made. But maybe that’s what García Márquez intended. This family is supposed to swallow you whole.

I have a distinct memory of reading and really falling into the novel while waiting through a wedding rehearsal. Guion was playing in the ceremony and I had the forethought to bring the book while he was practicing for an hour. I remember trying to stop myself from laughing or gasping too audibly, lest I disturb the militant wedding director. It’s funny and crazy and often totally unbelievable. I liked the impossibilities of the story. García Márquez demands the constant suspension of belief. You must believe than an entire village did not sleep for a decade and that the ghost of the matriarch’s husband really is living in the yard, tied to a tree. These are not fairy tales; all of this really happened and these people are not crazy. I think of it like what Toni Morrison did with Beloved: At no point in the narrative are you led to believe that anyone has lost his or her mind. All of these seemingly supernatural things have indeed happened. You just have to have the faith to believe it.

García Márquez goes back to what feels like the beginning of time to tell the Buendia family’s story. The people who orbit in the world he’s created seem so primal that, at first, they appear barely relatable. But that’s the magic of García Márquez’s skill: Suddenly, you realize that this manic, superstitious, unethical, ambitious family is not all that different from your own. (I mean, hopefully, they’re a little different. I hope your family doesn’t routinely kill each other off or become hermit alchemists or speak to other dead relatives at the dinner table.) But you catch my drift. Maybe you do. What I’m trying to say is that García Márquez can really write about the human condition with characters that barely seem human at all. They’re magicians or temptresses or liars or warriors, but they all carry the same hopes, ambitions, and wishes that we do, we who are so far removed from the earth.