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.

A few of my favorite things

I am going to deviate from my typical attempting-to-be-serious-and-thoughtful fare and take a page from the Cool Lady Blogger (CLB) playbook here. CLBs love to make lists of their favorite products and then tell you why you should buy them. Unlike many CLBs, however, I was not paid or asked to write any of these reviews. I just like these things and use them every day.

Something that I used to keep secret that I am not keeping secret anymore, Interwebs, is that I really like makeup. (Feminists, recoil!) I love playing with makeup. I love shopping for it, even though I am very cheap and could never justify spending $65 on a tinted moisturizer, for example. The small irony is that I actually don’t wear a lot of makeup. But I love it just the same. So, from a now-outed cosmetics devotee, here are the things that I have found and loved.

Aveda’s Flax Seed Aloe Strong Hold Gel

Aveda’s flax seed aloe strong hold gel, $16.

I am a fervent evangelist for this product. I have been using it for more than 10 years now (just like my mom) and I will stockpile it like a crazy person if Aveda ever stops making it. If you have curly hair like I do, you also probably have your “magic product” that you can’t live without. This is mine. Most products marketed toward people with curly hair are greasy and not very strong. A nickel-sized amount of this stuff goes a long way. I use it every other day, right after I shower, and scrunch it through wet hair. Without it, I wouldn’t be presentable in public.

Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmers

Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmers, $5.

My mom’s store started selling these lipsticks from Burt’s Bees and ever since then I’ve been trying to collect them all. (College roommates routinely teased me for my weird, sprawling collection of these identical-looking yellow tubes.) But they are the best, and here’s why: Lipstick dries out your mouth and makes you feel chalky and heavy. These lip shimmers glide on smoothly, add a perfect dab of color, AND feel light and refreshing–producing the cooling effect that Burt’s Bees traditional lip balm has. I haven’t found a shade that I don’t like and I will probably be using these forever and foisting them on my friends. Favorite shades: Rhubarb (nice deep pink); Fig (my go-to fall color); Peony (very light effervescent pink); Papaya (rusty); and Raisin (deep red).

MAC Studio Fix Powder + Foundation

MAC Studio Fix Powder + Foundation, $27.

A pressed but simultaneously lightweight powder that magically smooths and finishes your complexion–and keeps the shine away for a long time. For $27, this stuff lasts me for about five or six months, and I think it’s totally worth it. I don’t like wearing foundation, so this is a wonderful compromise. Brush it on just like you would powder and you’re done for the day.

Sonia Kashuk Hidden Agenda Concealer Palette

Sonia Kashuk Hidden Agenda Concealer, $10.

Concealer is a bummer. I wish I still didn’t have to use it… but I do. And when you do need it, I recommend this set by Sonia Kashuk (at Target). Your skin tone changes with the seasons and your eye area is usually yellower than the rest of your face and so one color of concealer usually can’t cut it. This is where Sonia Kashuk comes in. This set also lasts me for months and months. Definitely worth the $10.

Boots No. 7 Mineral Blush

Boots No. 7 Mineral Blush, $10.

I looked for lightweight, non-glittery blush for what feels like ages (even though it was probably only a year), and I finally found what I was looking for with Boots No. 7’s mineral blush (sold at Target). Best blush I’ve ever used and I’ve tried dozens and dozens. Will never try another one for as long as they keep making this stuff.

Benetint by Benefit

Benetint, $29.

While shopping for wedding makeup, I knew that I had to find a lip stain for the big day. Guion flatly refuses to kiss me, ever, if I have anything on my lips (even chapstick makes him wary). We were advised to try Benefit’s well-known and widely lauded stain Benetint and so we did. It is wonderful. It is the perfect pink color and it lasted all day long. And best of all, Guion would kiss me at the altar! This reminds me that I need to save up and buy some more…

Essie nail polish

Essie nail polish, $8.

My friend Courtney is the queen of nail polish and she once gave me sage advice about it: If you like to paint your nails, buy high-quality nail polish. One bottle of good nail polish is worth more than 30 bottles of cheap stuff, which applies in globs and streaks and chips off in about three minutes. I finally took that lesson to heart and threw out all of my cheap polish. I’ve been exclusively buying Essie–gradually, slowly–and it is definitely worth it. It just makes me happy.

Mrs. Meyer’s Hand Soap

Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap, $4.

A bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s by the kitchen sink even makes doing dishes a pleasant experience. Favorite scents: Lemon verbena, geranium, and basil.

Whew. Is this what real CLBs feel like?

Why I didn’t like “The Help”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I just finished reading The Help. So many people read it and raved about it. I was always a little suspicious, but when my boss offered me her copy this past week, I thought I might as well give it a try. I admit that I liked it more than I thought I was going to. There were moments of insight and emotionally riveting sections. The maids especially tug at your heartstrings. Overall, however, I wouldn’t recommend The Help to anyone.

I am tired of reading books where white people are acting as the saviors for black people.

I am tired of reading books in which characters are either 100 percent good or 100 percent evil; people are not that plainly defined in real life. With the exception of a few minor characters, everyone in this book is either a hero or a villain. That gets very tiresome very quickly and it makes for two-dimensional, predictable characters. (Not to mention that Stockett never addresses the fact as to why her hero is close friends with the top villain. Somehow this is rational.)

I am tired of white people appropriating the voices of black people and using bad grammar and slang to do it. This is 2011, Kathryn Stockett. Your chance to be Harriet Beecher Stowe has long passed. There is, of course, the question as to whether the young, rich, white Stockett can tell these stories. She can tell them–she is from Jackson, after all–but should she? I lean toward the fact that she shouldn’t. This is an ethical and theoretical dilemma that could lead to all sorts of philosophical, critical tumbleweeds, but I’ll just say that, for me, I mistrusted Stockett’s representation because of who she was. This, perhaps, is not fair. But what, really, does 42-year-old Stockett know about being a black maid in Mississippi a full decade before she was even born? Her presumption sets a hurdle that is nearly too high for me to climb.

It is a breezy read, but it is not a new or meaningful novel. (And don’t even get me started on that lazy ending.) At the end of the day, The Help is just another book about Southern white people patting themselves on their backs for what they did and didn’t do for black people. It’s high time we stopped repeating variations of that fable.

The goodness of Nettles, aka bragging on my husband

Last night, Stephanie of The Charlotte posted a generous and brilliant review of local band Nettles–aka Guion and friends. We were really excited about it! Naturally, I think Nettles is incredible, but people take my opinion with a grain of salt, owing to my conflict of interest (i.e., being married to the front man). It was thrilling to hear Stephanie’s opinion, particularly since she and her husband, James, have such refined and carefully cultivated tastes in music. All that to say, enjoy her review here at The Charlotte.

And if you’re in town this weekend, you’re in luck: Nettles is playing at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar this Saturday night, July 30, at 9:15. $7 at the door. Hope to see you there! If you can’t be there, listen to some of the new tracks on the Nettles Band Camp page here.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #1

The Corrections

#1: THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen

For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

It’s been a year of dysfunctional family epics: Ada, The Man Who Loved Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I guess I have a thing for this genre.

I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedom came out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.

Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?

Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.”  The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.

To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.

One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.

In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:

No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?

With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.