Best nonfiction I read in 2017

I feel like I covered a lot of ideological ground with my nonfiction diet in 2017, but maybe that’s not true; maybe I read the same kind of thing year after year after year. In any event, here are my favorite nonfiction books from 2017.

Simone Weil: An Anthology

1: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles

Perhaps embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with Simone Weil, French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, a stylish genius who died at the age of 34. This anthology was the perfect introduction to her radical, refreshing mind. Weil’s observations of her own time (as a French Jew in the heat of World War II) strike me as startlingly relevant to our civic life today. It’s energizing and challenging in all the right ways, and I am looking forward to reading her more deeply. My in-laws gave me Gravity and Grace, her first published work, for Christmas, and it’s at the top of my list to tackle in 2018. (Amazon)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

2: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond

The deserving winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Evicted is a serious, moving accomplishment of ethnography and inquiry into evictions, one of the leading causes of poverty and homelessness. Matthew Desmond’s work spans years and provides an intimate portrait of the men, women, and children struggling to keep their homes in Milwaukee. It is heartbreaking and goading all at once; I read it quickly, like a novel, over the course of a few days. Highly recommended. (Amazon)

Coming Into the Country

3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee

I’ll read John McPhee on any subject. This book, an adventure through Alaska in the 1970s, is a fantastic perspective of the land, its history and politics, and the deeply curious and strong people who inhabit it. (Amazon)

Glass, Irony and God

4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson

If I read Anne Carson in any given year, she’ll be on my top 10 list. This is just how it is. A brilliant mix of poetry, essays, and casual philosophy, this book held my breathless attention from start to finish. I think “The Glass Essay” is a masterpiece, even though the certified poets in my life (husband, Celeste) were less than impressed. I will not yield: I’m a Carson fangirl till my dying day. (Amazon)

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

5: In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caren Zucker

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name—and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails—has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present. That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

While there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been—thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved. (Amazon)

Chekhov

6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat

I have loved Anton Chekhov for years, and this biography made me love him even more. His unwavering devotion to showing life as it is, not as we want it to seem, and his sincerely good nature, continue to endear me to him and to his body of work. I am not typically one for biographies, but this one was completely delightful: Henri Troyat writes beautifully and clearly and presents a riveting portrait of the literary genius. I read it quickly, eagerly. (Amazon)

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

My husband, who is a total gem, gave me this book for Christmas 2016, because Lydia Davis told him to. Davis, Queen of My Heart, was a visiting scholar at the university in our town, and gave a series of lectures, all of which I was unable to attend, because of work duties, and I was devastated. My husband went to all but one of them and took notes for me. When he gave me this book, which I had not previously heard of, he said that in Davis’s talk on writing, she referenced Artful Sentences as a favorite resource. She said she liked to turn to it for examples of the marvelous variety of sentences that could be created and find inspiration therein.

And inspiration abounds! Virginia Tufte is like an industrious scientist of English syntax. She shares more than 1,000 sentences as examples of all the types of good and beautiful ways that one can fashion language, and she divides the book logically by grammatical types. It is a delight and a refreshing study of the gorgeous variety of English. It now sits on my desk at work, and I hope to return to it and read it every year. (Amazon)

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

8: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

A complete delight, in only the way that DFW can be. Sharp, memorable, brilliant, funny essays. It is a pleasure to return to him after taking a few years off; I think he’s the kind of writer whose impact is preserved and amplified if I don’t binge read him. (Amazon)

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

9: Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

They don’t make nonfiction like they used to. Marvelously researched and riveting from start to finish. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. (Amazon)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

Powerful and extremely relevant. It was a galvanizing pleasure to read her work back to back; I had only ever read snippets before. And of course I am not the first or the last to say that this book, and Audre Lorde’s work in general, is an essential component of the American feminist canon. I was also reading this while reading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, so I found the interview between them, which is included here, particularly fascinating. We white feminists have a lot to learn from our foremothers of color. It’s a good time to shut up and listen. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, Eleanor Perényi
  2. The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson
  3. Hiroshima, John Hersey
  4. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald
  5. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
  6. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller
  7. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  8. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen
  9. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  10. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles
  11. Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Scott McClanahan
  12. The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood
  13. The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka
  14. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017. Up next: Best fiction I read in 2017.

For more from this yearly series, see Best Books.

10 best books I read this spring

I read less in the spring than in other seasons, mainly because I start obsessively monitoring my garden, but I still got through an enjoyable assortment this year. Here are my favorites from the past few months.

01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

Can anyone, really, compare with Seamus Heaney? I think not. You can drink of him all day and never have your fill.

02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

“A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it.

03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. George Saunders is able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character.

04. In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name — and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails — has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present.

That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

I’ll admit that I harbored a good deal of fear about autism (and receiving that diagnosis for a potential child), but a lot of that misinformation I was carrying was been addressed by the thoroughness of this book. And while there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been — thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved.

05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

I first read this novel when I was a teen, years ago, and I liked it so much more upon a second reading this time around, about a year away from 30. I re-read it in preparation for a book club in which all of my fellow members bailed, citing there was “too much sex” in it. Cue eye roll.

The Handmaid’s Tale shocks me less than it did then, and that’s perhaps the depressing element. But I’d forgotten how enjoyable and incisive Margaret Atwood’s prose is. It is somehow skillfully plain but never boring; she embellishes at all the right moments.

In the tradition of a slave narrative, Offred is a complicated and compassionate narrator, and I enjoyed listening to her.

Could this happen now, in the United States, or even in the future? Doubt it. (Atwood can seem a little high-strung to think that this is where we could be in the 1990s, but it makes sense that this is what she was thinking about, because she wrote the novel while living in Berlin in the early 1980s.)

But some aspects of Gilead don’t seem that far off. Obsession with women’s bodies and controlling reproduction has always been a hallmark of any fundamentalist religion. There are whispers of Gilead-like policy even now.

(No, I haven’t seen the Hulu series yet; yes, I’d like to.)

06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

All the darkness and heaviness of a Christianity built on a foundation of guilt and shame. God bless James Baldwin and all he went through to bring us this tidy, transformational masterpiece of American fiction.

Read for the second time, again for book club, but this time the members actually showed up, and we had a lively discussion.

07. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

“There is so much that clings to us, and wants to keep warm.”

Breathtaking, marvelous poems. I have always enjoyed Charles Wright, and this was a far-ranging and enjoyable collection of his later work. It is a pleasure to merely live in the same town as Wright, to know that a poet of this matchless caliber lives in my county.

08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

“I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that’s visible at the tunnel’s end.”

I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs.

09. Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

They just don’t make journalists like they used to.

Marvelously researched. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia.

10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

Image result for femininity susan brownmiller

“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”

For women readers, this book doesn’t contain much new information, but it’s a thought-provoking collection of all the ways that femininity is impressed and enforced upon us.

I appreciated the moments when Susan Brownmiller divulged that she too, despite being a pants-only, makeup-less feminist, is sucked into the femininity vortex (obsessing about her hair, modulating her posture to appear smaller or more deferential, etc.); it makes you feel less alone, and just as confused as every other thinking women about what to perform and what to eschew.

The book left me feeling the same as I always do when I contemplate the masculine-feminine binary, which is, simply: frustrated. Useful to have a collection of all of these cultural rules in one place, though, I suppose, if only to wonder about their origin and how to rebel against them.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • Simple Matters, Erin Boyle
  • The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Tuesday Snax

Long weekend = totally awesome and relaxing and filled with dogs and girlfriends and films. (Unrelated side note: Our romantic peach orchard shoot with the great Kristin Moore was also featured on her blog this past week.) My mind escapes me right now, so here are some distracting links.

Snax:

One Hundred and One White Women. Findings: Danish people age really well (see especially the men once they get into their first century). And they have great skin. (The Hairpin)

Read Some of the Meanest Book Reviews of the Year. Maybe it’s just the curmudgeon in me, but I really love reading a snarky book review. (Flavorwire)

Marianne Breslauer. A selection of German photographer Marianne Breslauer’s equally lovely and masculine portraits of women from the 1930s. (Miss Moss)

Sennett Bathing Beauties, 1915. They are so cute in their modest rompers! (Retronaut)

Cuppow. Would totally use this, although I looked at that photo and instantly thought, “Gross, who wants to drink JAM?” I don’t like drinking out of plastic and I should stop using paper cups at work, so this is the perfect solution. It makes mason jars so much more usable on a daily, travel basis! Now hipsters won’t look like doofuses drinking out of mason jars and spilling all over themselves. (Linda & Harriett)

Icebergs. Thoughts, poems, and paintings on the sublime (beautiful, haunting, terrifying) nature of the iceberg. (Ill Seen, Ill Said)

Valentino. Sometimes I just like to look at pretty dresses. (Ill Seen, Ill Said)

The Best Time I Almost Bought a Falcon. I think Nicole Cliffe is the funniest. I definitely LOL’ed at this one, mainly because I’ve probably been tempted to get a falcon myself? (The Hairpin)

Monday Snax

I decided to send a few belated Valentines and used my copperplate nib so I could go all-out with the flourishes. Happy V-Day from the two of us!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Guion and I have enjoyed a particularly laissez-faire holiday and went out for dinner on Saturday and then tonight, he’s promised to make me filet mignon with fingerling potatoes. Who needs chocolates and roses when you have the best husband ever? That’s what I want to know.

And this week’s Angela quote, even though it’s not true about me:

(ALSO WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT MY LIFE-LIST? THERE ARE ONLY TWO THINGS ON IT (YOU INSPIRED ME TO MAKE ONE, BUT THINKING BACK ON IT, ALL OF YOUR ASPIRATIONS ARE LIKE ‘GET PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORKER AND DONATE EARNINGS TO CHARITY’ WHILE MINE ARE LIKE ‘EAT 10 HOTDOGS IN ONE SITTING WITHOUT THROWING UP”)
–E-mail from Angela

That said, here are some Snax on a bed of red rose petals:

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Making Valentine’s Day Plans. Still don’t know what you’re doing yet with your lovebird? Let Mint’s sarcastic flowchart help you out. (Mint)

Google Art Project. If you use the Internet at all, then you already know about this, but I’m posting it here because it BLEW MY MIND. Google Art Project. OMG OMG.  I just went to the MoMA on my lunch break, and then I strolled around the Palace of Versailles before checking out a few paintings at the Met. Yes. This is basically Google Street View for art museums. It’s not without its drawbacks, but it really is an amazing prototype. Have fun! (Google)

Missing Summer. Sad about how cold it still is outside? Then these photos might make tears come to your eyes; they certainly made my eyes get misty (even though today we’re going to enjoy a high of 61!! This calls for a garish number of exclamation points!). (Clever Nettle)

Fly Me to the Moon. Danielle has a conversation with one of her students about what it is that astronauts actually do. Hilarious. I miss getting to hear these stories around the dinner table at 208. (Gallimaufry of a Girl)

Period Films! Um, yeah, I’ve probably seen all of these. At least three-quarters of them. And I’d watch them all again today. A collection of stills from period films, just because. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

John Stezaker. An artist who merges vintage photographs of people with vintage landscape postcards. Sounds dull, but the results are actually quite fascinating and beautiful. (Freckle Farm)

Princeton, 1969. Great photographs from a Life magazine feature from 1969, which was the year that women were admitted to Princeton. I loved the images of these young women and their fashion aesthetics, but it also made me think about how little college students have changed in 40 years. (Miss Moss)

Sadie North. Another gem Miss Moss found from the Life magazine archives. I hope I’ll be just like this woman when I’m her age. Look at her on that bicycle and mowing her lawn and snuggling that baby! Who says that old age has to slow you down? Not Sadie North. (Miss Moss)

Reviewers on Reviewing. Interesting and clever thoughts about the state of book reviewing today, considering Zadie Smith’s new post as the book critic for Harper’s. (The Book Bench)

Six Expressions that Hollywood Will Turn into #1 Movies. Because you know they will. (Best Week Ever)

Rifle Paper Co. 2011 Sneak Peek. Really love the palette and design for this stationery/notebook line. (Rifle Paper Co.)

Sights & Sounds: Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. Did you know that Sam Beam did all of the cover art for his albums except for “Creek Drank the Cradle”? I didn’t. That’s one talented, bearded, whispery musician, and here’s his interview with the ladies at Design Sponge about his artwork. (Design Sponge)