While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.
10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)
9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.
8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.
7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton
Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.
6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.
5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.
4. Dog Years, Mark Doty
Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.
3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.
2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.
1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.
For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton
#5: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Jonathan Safran Foer
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, I’ll be sharing some brief thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
I am not very well-versed in contemporary literature and so, as a proper literary snob, I always approach modern novels with trepidation. This novel was no different. It’s not exactly fresh or new to be into Jonathan Safran Foer and rave about him on your Tumblr, but I’d never read anything he’d written, so I decided back in February to figure out what the hype was all about.
The hype is about a novelist who keeps one finger on the pulse of the 21st-century reader and the other on the voice of his swift and witty self.
The story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is clearly designed to pluck your postmodern heartstrings. Oskar Schell is 9 years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on Earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. Oskar is probably the most precocious child you’ve ever met in a novel (perhaps excepting Charles Wallace) and it’s often a bit difficult to swallow the fact that this kid is supposed to be only 9 years old. However, we enjoy his adventures and his emotional odyssey through New York and through this powerful, collective memory of the tragedy of 9/11. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.
Much of what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare–or greatest challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more Foer convinced me that he knew what he was doing.
Even though I was quite affected by Anis Shivani’s scathing critique of Foer (“Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a-twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer”), it’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that. Foer probably is guilty of “gimmick after gimmick,” as Shivani says he is. But, Shivani, I’m giving him #5 on my list because he made tears fall from my eyes and because it was pretty beautiful. Whether that makes him a circus-like panderer to the masses, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let you decide.
Courtney convinced me. I think I want to re-read and lead a discussion on Beloved for the October book club. She makes a good point that people generally only read it when they have to (e.g., in AP English Lit. in 11th grade or whatever), and it deserves far more attention than classroom reading. I think it’s a gorgeous, chilling book and it brings up so many difficult (and confusing!) issues. I’ve always thought of Morrison as a grittier, bloodier Woolf–the American Woolf, if you will–and so you can imagine my self-assured smile when I found out that she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. It shows: in the best of ways.
This was the most interesting thing I read today: Huffington Post writer Anis Shivani’s list of the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. And wow, he knows how to write where it hurts! But as the Guardian book blog points out, he isn’t just blindly slinging insults; these are carefully planned–if occasionally just mean!–take-downs. I was thrilled to see Michael Cunningham–soulless hack-author of The Hours, which I couldn’t have hated any more (ripping Woolf’s working title of Mrs. Dalloway and then trying to mimic her style and failing grotesquely at it)–on his list. And I know Guion was only too thrilled to see poets Billy Collins and Louise Gluck included.
I do, however, enjoy Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of whom made Shivani’s hit list. Even though I really enjoyed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I still couldn’t dismiss Shivani’s critiques of them. Of Foer, he writes, “Each of these writers has a gimmick, and gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment.” And of Diaz: “His manic voice describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking. Seems to work with a checklist as he designs his plots–the dictator Trujillo, the projects, drugs, family secrets, grandfather in prison, yep, everything checked off. Has no clue about the rhythm of language, just strings together discrete sentences until he has enough for a book.” Ouch. But, wow. If you’ve read Diaz and Foer, it’s all kind of true.
I reluctantly agree with his choice to include Jhumpa Lahiri; like Shivani, I think she is a good writer, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want us to know that she is. And he’s also right about this: She doesn’t have to write anything except stories of privileged, disillusioned Indian/Bengali immigrants to America to get widely lauded. It gets old after a while.
My dilemma is that I still enjoy reading Foer, Diaz, and Lahiri’s novels. I think Shivani is making perfectly astute–if harsh–observations about them. And I guess someone has to call out the literati every so often. Shivani writes in his introduction:
If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.
I’m particularly interested in what my fiction MFA friends–Angela and Rachel H.–think of this (as his intro piece somewhat denigrates creative writing program culture). As for everyone else, what do you think? Do you agree with his list? Anyone you would add to the list of overrated contemporary authors? Or defend?
From “20 Under 40 Fiction Q. & A.”, The New Yorker:
Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?
Did I ever. Do I ever. For a long time, I thought I would like to be a doctor. Such a good profession. So explicitly good. Never a waste of time. No obstetrician goes home at the end of a long day and says, “I delivered four babies. What’s the point?”