Best nonfiction I read in 2021

So much good nonfiction consumed this year. I learned so much! I will talk your ear off about all of it!

1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe

An American tragedy and capitalist parable of how worshiping money will turn you—and your entire family, if you’re the Sacklers—into monsters. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s capable hands, this book reads like a thriller, and yet it’s admirably researched and brilliantly told. Highly recommended.

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2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

A slim, humbling book with the much-needed call for us to be people adept at the art of thinking (especially the kind of slow System 2 thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow). This is not the kind of thinking that humans are particularly skilled at, preferring to dwell on the instinctual System 1 brain, but slow thinking is a facility needed now more than ever. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes with compelling clarity, and I picked this up with a great desire to be refreshed by his own clear thinking after enjoying his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead (review of that below). Mission accomplished. I feel humbled and challenged by his wisdom.

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3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker

Riveting, gut-wrenching account of a family unusually afflicted by mental illness. Robert Kolker shares the Galvin family’s story with restraint and skill, blending their personal histories with the history of schizophrenia. Two takeaways I had while finishing the book: (1) There is still so much we don’t know about the human brain, and accordingly, the treatment of schizophrenia has changed very little since the 1960s, and (2) women bear the enormous load of a family’s emotional and physical needs, time and time again.

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4. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine

An unreal and singularly compelling history of Soviet Russia. Yuri Slezkine unites the rare capabilities of a scholar and a storyteller in this appropriately epic-length history, which pivots around the House of Government, the massive housing complex for the socialist/communist faithful. It is a massive book, but incredibly readable from start to finish.

Slezkine is particularly adept at zooming in and out on his subjects. At one moment, he relates the intimate thoughts, letters, and diary entries of individual people; at the next, he pans out and assesses human history, religion, and culture in broad strokes. Along with direct quotations and painstaking research, he spends a great deal of time analyzing Soviet literature, showing us what it reveals about ascendant revolutionary beliefs.

Throughout this history, Slezkine argues that Soviet socialism and its attendant fantasies of true communism were the latest in a long line of millennarian sects (mimicking many features of Christian apocalyptic cults, among other religions). This was a revelatory lens for me through which to better understand Russian communism. The Russian insistence on the coming utopia and the abolishment of the family and private property as the path to social enlightenment can be found in every chapter of the revolution. Slezkine makes it easy to understand how such a charming-sounding fundamentalist vision could result in the brutality, inhumanity, and absolute disregard for human life that characterized the Russian revolution.

Recommended especially to young progressives who think Marx is a cool avatar and that socialism is super-rad, bleating it’ll be different this time…

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5. In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

In a series of essays focused primarily on art, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on artists and moments that have affected him profoundly, including a number of provocative American women photographers, Knut Hamsun (always), Ingmar Bergman, short stories from the Old Testament, Kierkegaard, and Emma Bovary. Knausgaard writes with his characteristic openness, an honesty that often veers into uncomfortable realms, and this is perhaps why I enjoy him as much as I do. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his style and self-deprecating wisdom is refreshing to me, time and time again. My only small quibble is that the format of the book—square with heavy glossy pages, so as to display the photographs well—makes for an awkward reading experience for a book with so much text. I am happy, however, that I bought it, as I hope to return it in time.

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6. Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs

“Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.”

An impressively slim book that packs a powerful argument for attending to books of ages past. Why? So that we may have character, grace, and foresight; so that we may resist the high informational density of our time in favor of greater personal density for ourselves. Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor, writes with tremendous sensitivity and wisdom, and I was struck by how deftly he weaves together a whole host of quotations and references, spanning from the Aeneid to Frederick Douglass to feminist literary theory. An incredibly worthwhile and challenging book and one that I hope will stay with me for a long time, keeping the temptations of screens at bay and pulling me deeper into the words of men and women who are no longer with us.

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7. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell

“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

I am not smart enough to read straight philosophy, but I am glad that Sarah Bakewell is, because she explains ideas so well, with such fluidity, poise, and mastery. In this book, Bakewell gives us a tour of the existentialist movement in Europe, principally through the biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and gives us a brilliant primer on the philosophy itself, as expressed through some of its other luminaries (such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty). I feel more educated, having finished it, and also more thoughtful. Warmly recommended.

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8. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders

In this charming collection, Saunders shares his favorite Russian short stories and reflections on why and how these stories work, much in the form of his lectures at Syracuse. He is personable, funny, and thoughtful, and I felt like I got to take a mini-MFA class with him. I’d already read most of these stories before, but it was such a pleasure to revisit them again with Saunders, benefiting from his careful attention and instruction. It is perhaps neither here nor there, but Saunders also strikes me as incredibly kind and wise, as a human being, and there’s good life advice buried in here, alongside his sage counsel about writing better stories as we learn from the masters. Recommended for all writers.

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9. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Grisworld

Impeccably, patiently researched. Eliza Griswold writes in that detached, traditional style of third-person journalism that I miss so much these days (it is a rarity). Griswold is barely in the book at all, admirably; she writes so that she can get out of the way and tell the tragic story of the Haney family, whose lives and livelihoods were ruined when fracking came to their tiny Pennsylvania farm. Through much suffering, sickness, and lawsuits, Griswold tells the larger narrative of what fracking threatens to do to similar families and towns across Appalachia.

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10. What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, Marilynne Robinson

“So, beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong. And it does this freely, within the limits it finds—cultural, material, genetic. Another paradox, perhaps, a discipline that is itself free, and free to make variations on such limits as it does choose to embrace. Beauty is like language in this. It can push at the borders of intelligibility and create new eloquence as it does so.” — “Grace and Beauty”

If I trust anyone to tell us what we are doing here, it may be Marilynne Robinson. Her wise, far-ranging mind considers American history, Christian theology, redemption of the Puritans, and a smattering of politics in this heady collection of essays. (Her tribute to President Obama and their sweet friendship was a particular delight.) It was a pleasure to read someone with her depth of thought, wit, and high vocabulary on topics that are dismissible at first glance as dry and unappealing. In her talented hands, everything becomes a subject of wonder.

(Buy)

Honorable mentions

  1. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter
  2. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman
  3. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
  4. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe
  5. Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney
  6. Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, Daniel Medelsohn
  7. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon
  8. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland
  9. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, Natasha Trethewey
  10. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer
  11. Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  12. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, Primo Levi
  13. Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday
  14. The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Emily Anthes
  15. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
  16. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener

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?

Top 10 books I read in 2013

And here are the top 10 best books I read in 2013 (comprising novels, short stories, poetry, and plays).

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my second time with Anna Karenina but my first time with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lauded translation — and my first time to read this novel as an adult. I was pleased to discover that I love this novel as much now as I did when I first read it, when I was probably 16 or 17. And I feel that I love it in a deeper, sincerer way now. Because this is not a novel about an adulterous woman or about rich Russian people from the mid-19th-century. No. This is a novel about what it’s like to be human. That’s why it will never wither or fade, and that’s why I will always love it.

2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

This book broke me. After I finished it, closing the back cover on the 1,079th page, I felt like weeping — and like running away. I didn’t read any fiction for months after I finished Infinite Jest. In a creepy way, it was almost as if the film of its title produced a similar effect on me as a reader as it did on its fictional viewers: I was so completely engrossed by the pleasure and complexity of Infinite Jest that I was dead to everything else thereafter. I don’t really know what to say about it, except two things: 1) This is a book for people in their twenties, and it could be utterly meaningless to you if you’re not, and 2) This is one of the most important novels I’ve ever read.

I won’t say anything more, except to close with the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing about David Foster Wallace in GQ:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

It’s important. And I think I will still consider Infinite Jest important, even when I’m no longer young and have neither the spirit nor the energy to re-read it.

3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

2013 was a year of re-reading greats for me, because this was my second visit with The Sound and the Fury. I first read it as a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I rushed through it and ended up deciding that I just couldn’t ever get into Faulkner. Then, last year, Absalom, Absalom! changed my life and the way I looked at literature, and I became a Faulkner fan. And so I decided a reattempt of The Sound and the Fury was in order. Faulkner wrote, in a later introduction to the novel, that he was always writing “to escape and to indict” the South and that in The Sound and the Fury, he felt that he had finally accomplished both. Quentin’s section was still my favorite, but this time around, I was especially struck by the women in the novel. Faulkner is sensitive to them, and shows you how horribly, horribly trapped they are, and how their lives are shown such scant mercy. It’s moving and dark and beautiful, and I am thankful that I returned to it.

4. Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, #7)

2013 was also an important year in reading for me, because this was the year that I finished my beloved In Search of Lost Time. It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading Proust for six years now and hard to believe that he has passed from my life — but never completely. Because once you’ve gotten into Proust, he never really leaves you. His words and descriptions and incomparable insights haunt your life — your real life, your life with dirty cereal bowls and Twitter and road rage — like a joyful specter. I did actually cry when I finished Time Regained, because I am very emotional about books, one, and two, because Proust had become a companion, an annual visitor I looked forward to every summer. But enough of that. I’ll let Proust tell you what this 6,000-page novel was about:

And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like the seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.

And what a good and true and inspiring vocation, indeed. I’ll always love you, Marcel.

5. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

I begin to discern the profile of my death.

I’m flabbergasted by this novel — mainly that more people don’t talk about it or haven’t read it. Marguerite Yourcenar spent nearly 30 years writing this quiet masterpiece. It is serious, pitch perfect, and exquisitely researched. The Emperor Hadrian is nearing death, and here he reflects on his life, his accomplishments, and all that he has seen and learned in a letter of sorts to his successor. Her writing! Oh, it is gorgeous. Like this passage from Hadrian:

Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

I particularly enjoyed the appendices, especially Yourcenar’s collection of notes and asides from while she was writing and organizing the book. As Yourcenar writes about the novel and the challenge of good historical fiction (in a subtle compliment to herself for her laborious work), “Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.”

6. Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December

People are not kidding when they talk about how wonderful George Saunders is. This collection of short stories is the first thing I’d read from him (aside from a totally amazing/obscene rip on Ayn Rand in the New Yorker; I love anything that mercilessly mocks Rand), and it just blew me away. The stories are deeply funny and weird, and each one is wholly unlike the next. In some ways, Saunders made me think of a modern Mark Twain, but somehow a touch darker and touch closer to the specific strangeness that permeates all of our lives. It’s so good. I want to re-read these stories all over again right now.

7. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz before she could finish this novel, but the book that she left us is beautiful. In general, I dislike war novels, but this book is about people — not war. Suite Française does not dwell on the violence and trauma of war but rather on the lives of the people who had to endure such violence and trauma in their daily lives. The book is filled with complex, engaging characters who deal with WWII in their own ways during the German occupation of Paris. It’s gorgeously written and enchanting. I hope to revisit it in the years to come.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You have to read this play. You just have to. Even if you’ve seen the excellent film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. You have to read it. Tennessee Williams is an incomparable master, and one of the few playwrights whose work is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is to see performed. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is thrilling to read, and it sizzles with heat, emotional treachery, and complexity. It’s heart-rending and complicated in all of the right ways. You put it down and still wonder, With whom does my allegiance lie?

9. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot

God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

During my summer Colorado, I went hiking with a guy who was reading The Idiot. On our lunch break on an icy boulder, he read aloud to my friend Sonya and me, and I remember saying, “This is surprisingly hilarious.” And it is. I finally got around to reading The Idiot this year, my second book of 2013 that was translated by the great Pevear and Volokhonsky. In his introduction to the novel, Pevear writes: “The Idiot is built on that eschatological sense of time. It is the desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered — and worse than that — abandoned.” Yes, it is a dark book, maybe one of Dostoyevsky’s darkest, and it is also a funny book. Dostoyevsky wonders what it would be like if we knew a person who was as pure of heart, noble, and good as Jesus Christ. How would he live in the modern world? How would we regard him? Like Prince Myshkin, we would probably just call him an Idiot.

10. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems

These are not poems for the faint of heart. Anne Sexton is the real deal. I went through this phase last year in which her name kept popping up everywhere, and I felt that I finally had to commit and get to know her, and so I went and bought her complete works. I appreciated reading this giant volume, as it provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and courage. And for that she is remembered and cherished.

Honorable Mentions

  1. On Love, Alain de Botton
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  4. The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  6. Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  7. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  11. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov

Previously: The top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013.

What about you? What were your favorite books you read this year? I’m always looking for hearty recommendations.