Best fiction I read in 2017

As far as fiction is concerned, 2017 was a year of returning to authors I now consider to be old favorites (or, at the very least, I was refreshing my opinions of those previously encountered). I read slowly and sometimes fitfully this year, but I was especially grateful for these top 10 highlights from my year in fiction.

The Rings of Saturn

1: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sleeper hit of 2017! I’m surprised by myself, picking this as my favorite, but there it stands. I read Austerlitz some years back and found it inscrutable and frustrating, but this brilliant, dreamy novel hit me in all the right ways late in the year. It is an exquisite pleasure to wander around history and the English countryside with W.G. Sebald. I feel grateful, to have encountered a mind like his. The Rings of Saturn is so fragmented and yet it all holds together in this ineffable way. The perfect novel for an unusual year. (Amazon)

The Complete Stories

2: The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

My obsession with the weird, beautiful, mind-bending prose of Clarice Lispector knows no rational bounds. Her marvelous strangeness is a never-ending delight. I read these stories with deliberate slowness, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. I loved the common threads (a simple object or a stray glance hurtling a character into existential distress; chickens, dogs, and horses, but never cats; a woman ready to do something dramatic with her life and then she just goes home). I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory logic. In all the excruciating darkness of the world, at least we still have these stories; at least we still have Lispector. (Amazon)

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

3: The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t love it just because it has a German shepherd on the cover. Marvelously strange, gorgeously written. I am smitten with Joy Williams. This is a dense and delightful collection of her stories, old and new, and it contains manifold and unexpected pleasures. Her characters are at once familiar and foreign, transforming between sentences, subverting human behavioral conventions. And, of course, I loved the prevalence of dogs throughout. Color me a mega-fan. (Amazon)

Lincoln in the Bardo

4: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

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

My Struggle: Book 5

5: My Struggle, Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard

Perpetually riveting, in all the same mysterious ways that the prior installments have been. This might be my second-favorite volume of My Struggle, after Book 1. They’re always in my top 10, in whatever year I encounter a volume. His plain prose has a mystically addictive property. I cannot describe it. (Amazon)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

6: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

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

The Sportswriter

7: The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

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

Giovanni's Room

8: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a fated couple in Paris. Baldwin has such range and impressive economy of language. I am grateful to be reminded of his gifts with each encounter. (Amazon)

The Question of Bruno

9: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon

Marvelous, inventive prose; dark stories with a comedic edge. It’s almost impossible to believe that he moved to Chicago with a marginal grasp of English and then, a few years later, published a work with this much style and sophistication in his newly learned language. (Amazon)

The Afterlives

10: The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce

Thomas Pierce brings all the components of a good story to the table: humor, empathy, and ingenuity. I lapped up this creative and touching novel, flying through it as I was flying home over the Pacific Ocean. Jim and Annie build a life together and wander through a future that does not feel too far away from us now. The future of American fiction, honestly, feels brighter to me, knowing that it is buoyed by writers like Pierce. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
  2. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
  3. Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey
  4. Bear, Marian Engel
  5. 10:04, Ben Lerner
  6. The Progress of Love, Alice Munro
  7. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  8. The Street, Ann Petry
  9. Collected Stories of John O’Hara
  10. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  11. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017 and best nonfiction I read in 2017. All Best Books lists are here.

Best nonfiction I read in 2017

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

Simone Weil: An Anthology

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

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

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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

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

Coming Into the Country

3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee

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

Glass, Irony and God

4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson

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

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

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

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

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

Chekhov

6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat

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

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

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

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

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

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

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

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

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

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

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

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

Honorable mentions

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

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

For more from this yearly series, see Best Books.

10 best books I read this spring

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

01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

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

02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

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

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

03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

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

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

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

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

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

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

05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

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

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

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

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

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

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

08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

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

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

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

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

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

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

10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

Image result for femininity susan brownmiller

“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

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

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

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 fiction I read in 2016

And here, at last, is the best fiction I read in 2016.

The Passion According to G.H.

1. The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

Utterly wild, incantatory, and absorbing. I was wholly drawn into G.H.’s vision, even when I didn’t totally understand it. The translation is beautiful and smooth, even with Clarice Lispector’s unusual grammar and style. There is something eerie and almost superhuman about her prose. It is a sincerely engrossing and magical novel about a rich sculptor who finds a cockroach on the floor and is thus ushered into a world-altering vision of herself, time, and the divine. Color me a Lispector fan. I’m desperately eager to read everything else. (First up in 2017: The Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector.)

The Days of Abandonment

2. The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

Now that I have read all of Elena Ferrante’s published fiction, I’ll declare this as the darkest and most frightening novel among them (and yet the ending, ah, it is nice). Sheesh. She plumbs the depths of domestic discord and a jilted wife’s unraveling in this slim and horrific narrative. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that jazz: Ferrante really knows how to turn up the volume on that platitude. The banal terror of The Days of Abandonment brought to mind David Lynch, in Ferrante’s creation of a world that is so scary precisely because it is still tied to the mundane. It’s an everyday life full of domestic horror. (And, naturally, as the mother of two German shepherds, I was very drawn into and grieved by her extensive portrait of Otto, the shepherd who belongs to the narrator. I did read in Frantumaglia that Ferrante herself has had German shepherds, and I feel extremely gratified to know this.)

Blow-Up and Other Stories

3. Blow-Up and Other Stories, Julio Cortázar

I felt totally unhinged by these breathtaking, wild little stories. Not sure why I waited so long to read Julio Cortázar. The language is so beautiful (immense credit to the translator, Paul Blackburn), and the stories themselves are so strangely suspenseful and lush and lyrical all at once; I have no idea how he does it. There is a playful absurdity that ripples through the shorter stories, which were my favorite, and Cortázar shows himself to be a stylist with remarkable versatility (he made me think of George Saunders, whose stories I love for the same reason, in that they all seem as if they could have been written by 10 very different writers). Really tremendous collection with a lot of staying power.

The Friendly Persuasion

4. The Friendly Persuasion, Jessamyn West

Terribly beautiful and sweet without ever dipping into sanctimony or saccharine stereotypes. Every chapter, or story, was so enchanting and gorgeously written. I was so startled by the excellence of West’s style, especially because I have never really heard others praise it before, and I found it so deeply praiseworthy. Eliza and Jess are complex, lovable, and generous characters, and I look forward to sharing this book with others, as it was shared with me. The Friendly Persuasion is simple and good enough to delight children and yet deep enough to please even the most high-minded adult.

The Wallcreeper

5. The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

What delights the strange, variegated brilliance of Nell Zink has to offer! I think she’s a genius, and I delight in the fact that so many other people don’t. I chewed through this tiny, bizarre novel in about a day, and I felt disappointed when it ended. I can grasp how The Wallcreeper could be frustrating, if a traditional narrative and likable, formally relatable characters are important to you. But Zink forces you into a separate realm, where people seem to be somehow more and less human all at once.

As her correspondent (and long-distance patron) Jonathan Franzen says, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.” I can’t decide if I liked this or Mislaid more; they both contain manifold pleasures. Zink writes in a way that does not give a fig for my opinion or yours. As she reminds us in her choice of an epigraph for this novel: “I kill where I please because it is all mine” (Ted Hughes). She won’t let you forget it.

The Leopard

6. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

A meandering family story overlaid with lush prose is perpetually my favorite thing. Sometimes the threads fall apart too soon; sometimes Tomasi, the last Prince of Lampedusa, does not know when to rein himself in, but the overabundance of the novel is absolutely one of its primary pleasures.

Fates and Furies

7. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

People seem to either love or hate this novel. “Love” may be a strong word for it on my end, but I was entirely seduced by the prose. I have strong memories of the immersive reading experience it gave me; I tore through it in January. I remember reading it in huge gulps, perched on the edge of a bed. Lauren Groff writes in this dreamy, fragmented way that makes me swoon (I am such a sucker for stylists), and Lotto and Mathilde are wholly enthralling. Mathilde, in particular, is a creepy gem of a character. Very absorbing, even if it might not entirely hold together.

The Association of Small Bombs

8. The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

This is an active novel. Karan Mahajan provides a lively portrait of young men and their families in Delhi and the aftermath of a bombing in a market. It is fast paced and yet sensitive and compelling on an emotional level, which is always a hard balance to strike. And yet Mahajan does it effortlessly.

My Struggle: Book 4

9. My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard

I read this during our summer in London and have memories of reading it alone, at our circular dining table, during the week Guion was on tour in Germany. It is an account of the 18-year-old Karl Ove, who haphazardly teaches at a little school in a fishing village in northern Norway, becomes a semi-functional alcoholic, and pines desperately (mostly unsuccessfully, despite his pretty face) after girls. Again, I’m not sure why I find these novels so compulsively readable, because they are fundamentally dull on the surface, but Knausgaard is brilliant and fresh and I can’t look away. I liked this better than Book 3 but less than Books 1 and 2.

Troubling Love

10. Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante

Can never get enough Ferrante. The main character, Delia, investigates her mother’s sudden, somewhat lurid death and uncovers, uncomfortably, her mother’s hidden life and loves. This is Ferrante’s first novel, and it sets the stage, thematically, for all of the issues she later explores with such depth and acuity in the Neapolitan novels: domestic violence, the vulgarities of Naples, troubled maternal relationships, and the vacillating but intense connections between family and friends. It is less captivating than the novels about Elena and Lila, but it is still excellent and strong and different and deserving to be read.

Editor’s Note: I have also made a strategic decision to no longer list or rank books I’ve re-read in the past year. So even though I re-read Mrs. Dalloway (for the fifth time, apparently), Swann’s Way, and Persuasion in 2016, they do not appear in the list. Even though they belong in the top 10 of every conceivable list.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
  2. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Loving, Henry Green
  4. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Raymond Carver
  5. Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett
  6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  7. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  8. Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki
  9. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  10. The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
  11. The Seagull, Anton Chekhov
  12. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders
  13. Notable American Women, Ben Marcus
  14. Collected Stories, Katherine Anne Porter
  15. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
  16. Summer, Edith Wharton

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2016 / Best nonfiction I read in 2016

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

Best books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

Black in America: Essential reading list

We read to broaden our minds, and nowhere does this seem more vital right now than for white America to read black America. Following is a list of books that have challenged, enlightened, and inspired me.

Have read and heartily recommend

James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.
James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.

Nonfiction

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
  • White Girls, Hilton Als
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Beverly Daniel Tatum
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.

Fiction

  • Go Tell It on a Mountain, James Baldwin
  • Another Country, James Baldwin
  • The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  • The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Passing, Nella Larsen
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • Cane, Jean Toomer
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • Native Son, Richard Wright
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.

Memoir/Autobiography

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.

Poetry

  • Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis
  • Selected Poems, Rita Dove
  • Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove
  • Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney
  • Against Which, Ross Gay
  • Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  • Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
  • Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

And I still have a good many books that I want to read, including the following.

Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.
Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.

On my reading list

  • Collected Essays, James Baldwin
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
  • Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin
  • Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
  • Blacks, Gwendolyn Brooks
  • The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
  • Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, Peniel E. Joseph
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
  • Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter
  • Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas
  • The Street, Ann Petry
  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright

What would you add to either of these lists?

Favorite books from November

The best things I read in November, in no particular order.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis. Good grief, everyone should read these poems. Really so pleased and delighted that Lewis received the National Book Award for this. Very well-deserved. (With thanks to Wei for giving us a copy.)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Hold Still, Sally Mann. Difficult and beautiful and strange all at once. I felt a particular bond with Mann, owing to the fact that she lives about an hour from here, in the green, rolling paradise that is the Virginia countryside.

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Why did I wait so long to read these letters? Silly of me. Should be required reading/inspiration for writers.

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. Greene always surprises me. I tend to expect something stuffy from him, which is unfair, and then he eludes me.

As We Are Now

As We Are Now, May Sarton. An unflinching and yet moving portrait of a dying woman, locked away and seemingly forgotten in a nursing home, who is striving to stay human and sane.

The Charterhouse of Parma

The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal. What a crazy, unexpectedly fun romp through the Napoleonic era! We follow the air-headed romantic Fabrizio, who is constantly saved from death/torture/exile by women.

What did you read and enjoy in November?

Favorite books from October

The best things I read in October, in no particular order.

The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever. What is wrong with me that I waited so long in my life to read John Cheever? Good grief. These stories wrecked me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thrilling and perfect collection of short stories. They stuck with me; I think about them still all the time.

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

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander. This came out a few years ago, but I’d still consider it vital reading for all Americans. It is shocking and grim.

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively. Despite the title and cover, I was thoroughly enchanted by this novel, a multifaceted portrait of a British historian’s life and loves.

2666

2666, Roberto Bolaño. I felt breathless and tired, having finished this emotionally and (literally) physically heavy novel. But also proud. And grateful.

What did you read and enjoy in October?