Best nonfiction I read in 2015

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

1: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia

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

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

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

Between the World and Me

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

3: H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

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

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

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

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

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

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

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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

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

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

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

9: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

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

10: The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays

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

Honorable Mentions

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

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

I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be

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In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I wanted to say in my previous post. This is long, but it’s great, and it gets at the heart of my intention. The entire essay (and this book) is luminous and wise, and I recommend it highly. Robinson is American Christianity’s greatest treasure. Without further ado:

There is an implied religious rationale or impetus and obligation behind very deplorable trends in contemporary society. The arming of the fearful and resentful and unstable with military weapons, supported by the constant reiteration of tales that make mortal enemies of their fellow citizens and elected government, is pursued with a special passion in regions that claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian, and well mannered, to boot. Biblicist that I am, I watch constantly for any least fragment of a Gospel that could, however obliquely, however remotely, cast all this in any but a satanically negative light. I am moving, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.

In any case, how is it possible, given this economics of dark grievance that has so benefited arms manufacturers, cable celebrities, gold mongers, and manufacturers of postapocalyptic grocery items, that they can not only claim Christianity but can also substantially empty the word of other meanings and associations? I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be. As a matter of demographics, of heritage, of acculturation, of affinity, identification, loyalty. I aspire, with uneven results, to satisfying its moral and spiritual standards, as I understand them. I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example. To political democracy. These loyalties are either implied by my Christianity or are highly compatible with it. I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels. Persons of my ilk, the old mainline, typically do object just as strenuously, and on these same grounds. But they are unaccountably quiet about it. And here we have a great part of the reason that these gun-touting resenters of the poor and of the stranger can claim and occupy a major citadel of the culture almost unchallenged.

From “Memory,” in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson.

Books for escape

Living by Fiction

10 books:

  • Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard
  • The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
  • The Wisdom of the Desert, ed. Thomas Merton
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky
  • Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  • Close Range, Annie Proulx
  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose

The soul finds its own home

Click for source.

“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

— Home, Marilynne Robinson

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And with that, today I am headed to my old home to watch my sister get married to one of my good friends. What an unexpected blessing! The weekend will be one crazy, happy whirlwind, and I can’t wait to celebrate with and for them. See you next week!

A wolf in the house

She looks fat when she's laying down.
Yes?

A wolf in the house

“Isn’t it strange,” Guion said, looking at Pyrrha today, sprawled out on the kitchen floor, “that an animal THIS BIG lives in our house? With us?”

It is. It is also extremely delightful. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of her, slinking into another room, and think for a split-second, “We adopted a WOLF.” Albeit a very timid, sweet wolf. I love her a lot already. She has so much to learn and so many fears to conquer, but I have a lot of faith in her.

Breaking up with Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve more or less regained some of my reading momentum. I just finished, for the second time, the thoroughly wonderful (and surprisingly funny) Madame Bovary, in Lydia Davis’ new translation. I started Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and finished the very disappointing Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest.

Here’s my beef with Lahiri: Lady, you write so well and you write so clearly. I gravitate toward your stories, because deep down, I really and truly love unexciting domestic narratives about relationships, dishes in the sink, and building ennui. (This is why Jonathan Franzen will always have my undying affection.) BUT. You keep reusing the same story, every time. I’ve now read all of your published work. It is a formula and it is so tedious and predictable: Bengali family immigrates to America; their children have tension with their traditional parents, because they want to be American; kids go to Ivy League colleges; kids fall in love with Americans; parents forbid it, try to arrange a marriage with a Bengali; kid marries American anyway; marriage disintegrates into boredom and unrequited longing for some vague thing. BLEH. It is narrow and it is dull. Over it.

The Practical One

I have a great, patient husband. Last night’s revelation: I want to be a dreamer, too, but I say that I can’t be, because I’m The Practical One. However, in reality, that title is just a disguise for what’s really lurking: Fear. I am practical because I am afraid of the unknown, afraid of risks, afraid of starting a brewery with my friends, afraid of quitting a job and becoming a dog trainer. And yet I am content. I like where I am. But is that a cover, too?

Singing for the pleasure of the song

Click for source.

“Learn the psalms and ponder the ways of the early church. Know what must be known. Ancient fathers taught their ancient children, who taught their ancient children, these very things. Puritan Milton with his pagan muses. It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it, too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations. Then, why singing? Why pleasure in it? And why the blessing of the moment when another voice is heard, dreaming to itself?”

Home, Marilynne Robinson

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Your uncertainty is God’s will

Click for source.

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A long quote, but a very good one: How uncertainty can be God’s grace to us. (I saw so much of Marilynne Robinson, Harding’s former professor, in that book.)

I haven’t been around here much lately, and my postings will probably be more than usually sporadic, since the month of May is pure madness for us. But everything in May will be good and new and exciting, even if just looking at my calendar makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I am trying to read many things, even though I feel like all of it is skimming over my head. I am spending a lot of time with Eudora Welty, one of my all-time favorites, in preparation for next month’s book club. I have missed you, Eudora. When I was about 14 and said I wanted to be a writer, Dave gave me a copy of her collected short stories and told me to read them closely. It was very, very good advice. I am so happy to return to her.

I also just started Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which is powerful and mind-opening. I think Guion would like it a lot. And Grace. Most people, for that matter. Anyone who’s ever looked at photographs before.

Talk to you soon.

A full week

Dinner with Stephanie (+ Baby Fishwick) at Monsoon.

Girl time = so good. Stephanie and I grabbed dinner on Wednesday night at Monsoon and talked about many things over our virgin strawberry daiquiris, including but not limited to street harassment, babies, and conflicts of etiquette. She is so lovely and bright.

Downtown at dusk.

It’s not exactly a gorgeous skyline, but I always like walking over the bridge toward downtown. The view always makes me remember, “Oh, I live here now, in this town where we once arrived as strangers.”

The photo is from Friday night, taken on our way to meet Guion’s beloved professor and mentor Alan Shapiro at South Street to watch the UNC vs. Ohio game. He is delightful company–so brilliant and kind and warm–and we talked of many things. I bonded with him particularly on our mutual love of Marilynne Robinson* and Wei Tchou. (*Somewhat out of the blue, Shapiro announced, “Housekeeping is probably one of the greatest novels in the English language.” And then I felt really justified in my unmitigated praise of that book. It is the greatest. Shapiro says so.)

"Mad Men" party at Colin and Rita's. (Mary Boyce + G)

Last night, Colin and Rita hosted a “Mad Men” season premiere party, in which we were supposed to wear our best “Mad Men”-esque outfits. For men, this just meant wearing a tie (or parting your hair with lots of pomade, as Colin displayed); for women, pearls + dress + pumps seemed to be the easy formula.

Rita, industrious housewife.
In our "Mad Men" best.

Very fun gathering (with great cocktails), but did anyone else think the premiere was kind of… boring? It was funnier and lighter than the closing episodes of last season (Stan always helps with that. And we were all humming zou bizou bizou afterward), but I felt like it was lacking some spark, some solid Draper broody moments. Or maybe the episodes will necessarily be duller in the absence of the incarnation of maternal evil.

Fragments

Click for source.

For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when are are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Off to Chapel Hill for a long weekend to see sisters, old friends, and Nettles and The Hill and Wood play! Very excited. Be back on Monday with photos and various thoughts.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Housekeeping (#1)

Housekeeping.

#1: HOUSEKEEPING, Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.

Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gilead a few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.

When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.

Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.

Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.

Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:

In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.

How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:

We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.

And this:

Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.

Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.

A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.

There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.