10 best books I read this winter

Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.

The Complete Stories

01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Stories with deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilege is dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.

War and Peace

03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

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

If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. 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.

A Streetcar Named Desire

05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.

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

06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.

Giovanni's Room

07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

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

They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences when she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde

A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.

It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

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

Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

2014 was a banner year for me in excellent nonfiction, so this was an extremely challenging list to make. It’s worth noting that every book in the honorable mentions category is also fantastic. Without further ado…

1. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

I write the worst reviews for the books I love the most. I have nothing coherent to say; all I can do is gush. And just say: Read this book, if you do anything at all.

Arctic Dreams is a masterful account of the natural, scientific, historical, and cultural landscape of the Arctic. Lopez writes beautifully and conscientiously and yet with a researcher’s painstaking attention to detail. The book was published in 1986, and so I’m late to the party, but I found it just as moving and relevant as if it had been written yesterday.

Essentially, I think it’s perfect; all I could ever want in a book of nonfiction. From a passage near the end of the book:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be where one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of a contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Riveting, brilliantly researched and written. The Unwinding may be the truest portrait of post-financial crisis America that we have, and as such, it should be cherished and honored. By taking a simultaneously macro- and micro-level view of a deconstructed America, George Packer shows us what this country is made of. I still feel as obsessed with this book as I did when I finished it, many months ago. Highly recommended to all US residents.

3. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say;’ but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

A gorgeous collection of essays and lectures on poetry, meaning, and inspiration. Mary Ruefle’s style combines many of my favorite elements in an essayist: mystical asides, plenty of literary allusions, mini-anecdotes, and snippets of history and fact. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Her lecture on reading (“Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”) had me in total raptures. I started writing down quotes from it and then slowly realized that I was just copying the entire piece verbatim. (We read Proust in the exact same way—one volume a year, in our twenties, because an older man told us it was the only thing that mattered—I feel that we might be soulmates, Mary and me!) I also loved her joint lecture on Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank; her meditation on fear; her lecture about theme and sentimentality; an exposition of the irreverence of art.

Read it; savor it; thank God we have poets such as these.

“Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicated things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there?”

(With gratitude to Celeste for telling me about this book and lending me her much-loved copy.)

4. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon is an important, comprehensive, compassionate book about depression, the seemingly ubiquitous plague of modernity. As always, Andrew Solomon is gracious and thoughtful in his portrayals of real stories (continually and gently humanizing the face of the illness, both with his own experience and the experiences of others), and thorough and incisive in the sweeping scope of his research. After chapters of the various methods of reckoning with depression (whether physically or philosophically), the book ends with powerful, raw honesty and light.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

5. The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

I first read this book many years ago, and I finally bought myself a copy, because I loved it so much. Re-reading this book — Thomas Merton’s collection of the proverbs of ancient Christian hermits/mystics in North Africa — brought a renewed sense of pleasure. This little book served as a powerful reminder to me, in my general throes of doubt and mistrust, that Christianity was and is beautiful and mysterious and humble.

6. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

For many years now, this elusive little book has haunted my to-read list. A handful of my favorite writers and critics were always dropping oblique references to The Poetics of Space, but the library didn’t have a copy, and so I kept putting it off. Foolishly, I now acknowledge. I finally bought myself a busted old copy and read it with a great deal of reverence and delight.

In this charming and surprisingly readable text, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard discusses the intersection between poetry, imagination, and buildings — and does it in such a way that makes you want to constantly scope your surroundings for hidden meaning. He draws inspiration from nature, dreams, Rilke, Baudelaire, a great deal of lesser-known French literature, smatterings of Thoreau, and his own experience.

I am often intimidated by philosophy, but here Bachelard fashions it into a welcoming arena. Nothing is too minor or mundane for him. As he says, “I am moreover convinced that the human psyche contains nothing that is insignificant.” Images, after all, are simple; we experience them every second and no weighty scholarship can improve their reception. Bachelard is concerned with this topic, how the imagination processes space and transfers it to memory, to art, to awareness.

It’s a beautiful book, and upon finishing it, I wish I had read it more slowly.

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am admittedly obsessed with the poet Mark Doty, particularly after his memoir about dogs and grief (Dog Years), and so I was elated to find this slim volume at the library.

I read the entire book while on a train to DC, and I don’t think I looked up once. I was completely engrossed. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty commands his notable powers of language to discuss a small Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. And from there, how this painting stirred his heart and mind regarding art, life, and death.

It is a difficult book to recommend, because everything I say about it seems distant and disengaged, but it is tremendously beautiful and moving. I’d like to read it again right now instead of doing anything else.

8. How Fiction Works, James Wood

How Fiction Works

Sometimes you read a book and you can’t escape this constant refrain: This book GETS me.

James Wood, at the very least, gets me, and this little book on the art of fiction was tremendously charming.

For literary nerds like myself, Wood provides a great deal of delight in How Fiction Works. Honestly, I enjoyed it for a few vain, puerile reasons: (1) It’s deeply confirming when a respected writer and critic shares your taste, (2) the way your brain lights up when you actually get all of the allusions, and (3) the sense of reassurance that comes from knowing you are a snob, utterly.

But it’s pleasant and very readable, and the book made me pay attention to fiction in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore, outside of English classes at college. In short, recommended to anyone who reads.

9. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Now America has among the highest percent of working mothers of any country. They work among the most full-time hours. They clock the most extreme paid work hours. They do so despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth. And, compared to mothers in other countries, American mothers spend among the most time with their children, sacrificing sleep, personal care, and leisure time to do so.”

This book is essential reading for every American woman.

Let’s hear it for US moms. No wonder they are so strung out all of the time.

I had no idea how truly backward our country was, when it comes to workplace policies for women and families, until I read Overwhelmed. I had an idea of the injustices, but not how deeply they extended.

Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling utterly overwhelmed, all day, every day.

I was riveted by this book, and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it even now. Schulte provides fresh, honest examples of the state of American working moms, along with insightful research and interviews. She paints a frankly horrific portrait of the state of family policy in this country. (Her time with Pat Buchanan also left me with the strong feeling that he might, in fact, be very evil and that the GOP is, at the very least, living in a fantasy America that does not exist and perhaps never existed.)

Politics aside, every US woman who has children or is thinking of having children ought to read this book. It’s a rousing call to improve both our family policies and our family lives. High praise to Schulte for her research, authenticity, and important message.

One can only hope and pray that our governments and our corporate cultures take notice. Immense change is needed in the ways we work, love, and play, and Schulte has — significantly — hit a nerve here.

10. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I still talk about this book all the time, and yet part of me wishes I hadn’t read it, because I like seafood. And now I have all of these deep, ethical qualms about eating it at all.

Paul Greenberg likes seafood too, but his interests extend beyond mere taste. Rather, in this excellently written and deeply researched book, he explores the future of fish, namely the four that we fish and eat the most: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna.

Without some drastic policy changes, the fate of these four fish looks rather grim. Greenberg is a great storyteller, on top of being a first-rate reporter, and this book will change the way that you think about and eat fish.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
  2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
  3. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  4. Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  7. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  8. My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel
  9. Citizen Canine, David Grimm
  10. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul
  14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  15. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
  16. The Control of Nature, John McPhee
  17. Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
  18. Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman
  19. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder
  20. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior
  21. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs
  22. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
  23. A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans
  24. Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg
  25. Just Kids, Patti Smith

What were your favorite nonfiction books you read in 2014?

Previously: Top 10 books of poetry in 2014. Coming up next: Top 10 books of fiction I read in 2014.