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.

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

10 Best Fiction Books I Read in 2014

And again, I have to say that this was a very difficult, painful list to make. It seemed cruel, not to rank everything in the top 10 for this past year. But I have made my choices. And I stand by them.

1. The Stories of Paul Bowles

The Stories of Paul Bowles

How do you talk about something that left you consistently gasping for air? I was introduced to Paul Bowles in 2011 with his novel The Sheltering Sky (which ranked on my Top 10 list for that year). For all his brilliance, he is under-read and gravely underappreciated; when I found this copy of his stories at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and proceeded to devour it with unflagging fervor. It’s a thick, dazzling, astonishing collection of stories about human nature, particularly its darker and weirder representatives. Many stories involve Morocco, where Bowles lived for most of his adult life. Most, if not all, stories hinge on a complicated, compelling character, perfectly animated by Bowles’s vivid, incisive prose. And all of the stories will render you a bit breathless.

2. Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar

Alexis

Marguerite Yourcenar is the heavy-hitter that hardly anyone talks about. She was a total genius (first woman to be inducted into the Académie française), and I think it’s criminal that we aren’t talking about her all of the time. This unbelievable little novel, for instance, was her first. She wrote it when she was a mere 24 years old, in 1928 (published in 1929). And this is Alexis: A confessional letter from a gay man to his ex-wife, about his childhood, internal struggles, hopes, and fraught ambitions. And it is so gorgeous and riveting. I can’t get over it. There are shades of Proust here too (the insightful inner examinations of a frequently ill, shy gay man who is extremely intelligent), but the short of it is that Alexis is incredible and worth every minute.

3. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

This is the second time I’ve read Pale Fire, but it’s so good that it would be a crime not to rank it so highly in this roundup. I read it again for church book club (promoted to the list because of my gushing recommendation), and everyone hated it because the narrator was “creepy” and “unlikable.” I felt like all I could say was, “Well, naturally. But that’s entirely, utterly missing everything. Just everything.” (I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.) The novel is deliriously funny and wickedly sincere and plays tricks on you from the beginning to the end. Here we have a delusional professor (or is he?), a masterful poem, a fake Slavic kingdom, a murder mystery, an allusive treasure trove. You cannot ask for much more, but if you did, Nabokov would give it to you on a silver platter.

4. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga

I decided to read the enormous Forsyte Saga because a visiting preacher raved about it, noting how underappreciated Galsworthy is, and structured his sermon around the novel’s story of grace and redemption.* John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, primarily for this book. The Nobel committee usually gives the prize for a lifetime of work, but in their decision, they specifically noted that Galsworthy deserved the prize “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.”

Well said, committee, and I agree with your judgment. Accordingly, I’m fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone has read this book. Or by the fact that no one really talks about it. One factor could be the length (my edition topped out around 960 pages). Yes, it’s not as brilliant as Tolstoy, who can write 960 pages and never be accused of having taken excessive liberties, but The Forsyte Saga is brilliant by degrees and should be read much more than it is.

I love sprawling family dramas, and the Forsytes are an excellent subject. All of the familiar themes of the English upper class are here — money! Class! Preventing unsavory marriages! Gossip! Hating on the less fortunate! Art! Wit! — but Galsworthy presents them with a fresh, engaging, and sometimes unpredictable style.

As Galsworthy intended, Soames Forsyte is particularly fascinating. Soames is deeply unlikable to everyone who knows him, even (especially?) to his own family. As readers, we follow him quite closely and receive his inner monologues with regularity, and we have no good reason to like him either. So Soames is such an interesting and therefore perfect choice for a complex, distasteful protagonist.

All in all, this is a splendidly written novel. There are some moments of real beauty here. And enough interludes to make you pause, lift your head, and think deeply about your own extended family.

*Upon finishing the novel, I realized that the visiting preacher just watched the BBC miniseries version and didn’t actually read the book, because the miniseries deviates grossly from the text and fabricates an entirely new ending. Shock! Brief indignation! But. I’m still obviously very glad I read it. So, no harm done.

5. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

2014 is the year I discovered Lydia Davis and had my life subsequently changed by her. In my reading life, the mark of a very special book is one that forces me to slow down and savor every line. I’m usually speeding through books at a voracious (if often uncomprehending) pace, but not so with this collection, which includes all of the stories from Break It Down (1986) to her penultimate collection, Varieties of Disturbance (2007). As I’ve mentioned before, something about Lydia Davis sticks with me, long after I’ve read the last little story, and echoes in my mind throughout my day. She isn’t easily forgotten, and I love her for that. If you need someone to shake you by the shoulders and tell you to READ LYDIA DAVIS, give me a ring. I’ll come over.

6. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't: Stories

I wasn’t kidding. 2014 was the Year of Lydia Davis. This is her most recent collection, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who has eyes capable of interpreting text.

Here is the titular story, in is entirety:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

7. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King

“Hell, we’ll never get away from rhythm, Romilayu. I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.”

I wasn’t sure about Saul Bellow, but Henderson convinced me completely of his brilliance.

Henderson is the perfect narrator: flawed, humorous, fascinating. His continual refrain — “I want, I want, I want” — rings throughout the book and echoes a bit in all of us as we read his story. It’s a quest, an archetypal journey of rebirth, and at the same time, a journey into the darkest part of the self: the hidden psychosis that lurks beneath the surface.

8. Light Years, James Salter

Light Years

What can you do with prose like this except bow down?

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

This is a novel about a dreamily disintegrating marriage. It sounds odd to say that a marriage could fall apart in a “dreamy” way, but this is an odd novel, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Viri and Nedra live in the countryside outside of New York City with their daughters, Franca and Danny, and they might all love each other. Or they might not. Salter’s style is lush and impressionistic and everyone seems very beautiful and very confused but not quite devastated. There are no dramatic scenes; everything happens quietly. There is a pony in the grass at dawn; light reflected off wine goblets; half-finished art projects on the kitchen table; loose conversations with quasi-intellectuals at night; oblique moments of love-making. I was completely entranced by this book, mainly because of Salter’s gorgeous prose, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Except that it was lovely and strange.

9. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Three-quarters through Americanah, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.”

And yet I think that is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has accomplished with this book. This is a large, beautiful novel with engaging, complex characters. Adichie is constantly reminding the reader of the promises and pitfalls embedded in the American cultural landscape — pitfalls especially if you happen to be black.

Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the United States to pursue a university education and hopefully, better job prospects. The novel moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s past (girlhood in Nigeria to young adulthood in the United States) and present, as she prepares to return home to Nigeria — for good.

Even though I am a white, non-immigrant, US-born citizen, I never felt boxed out or uninvited to the conversation that is going on in Americanah. The characters are accessible, complicated, delightfully human; they held my rapt attention throughout this large and yet swift-moving novel.

Through the medium of Ifemelu’s blog about being a non-American black in America, Adichie expresses cogent, relevant arguments about the complexities of racism in America, exposing just how little progress we’ve made, even when we pat ourselves on the back for our sense of having overcome, for achieving civil rights, for electing a black man president, for parroting the line that white conservatives enjoy, that “racism is over.” It’s far, far from over. Americanah is that strong — and readable and compelling — reminder: Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. So, round of applause for Adichie, for teaching us something about ourselves that we are always unwilling to learn.

10. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

It is rare to find a book like this: a thriller — an adventure novel, in a sense — that also happens to be extremely well written. It’s a story of murder and intrigue — salted with delicious dark humor — in North Korea, where Adam Johnson actually spent some time working and doing research for this novel, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for its energy, precision, and probing action.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  3. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
  4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  5. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, Virginia Woolf
  6. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
  7. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
  8. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander
  9. Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner
  10. Fools, Joan Silber
  11. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
  12. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  14. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
  15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  16. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  17. Out, Natsuo Kirino
  18. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

What were your favorite novels you read in 2014?

Previously…
Top 10 Poetry Books I Read in 2014
Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

2014 was a banner year for me in excellent nonfiction, so this was an extremely challenging list to make. It’s worth noting that every book in the honorable mentions category is also fantastic. Without further ado…

1. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

I write the worst reviews for the books I love the most. I have nothing coherent to say; all I can do is gush. And just say: Read this book, if you do anything at all.

Arctic Dreams is a masterful account of the natural, scientific, historical, and cultural landscape of the Arctic. Lopez writes beautifully and conscientiously and yet with a researcher’s painstaking attention to detail. The book was published in 1986, and so I’m late to the party, but I found it just as moving and relevant as if it had been written yesterday.

Essentially, I think it’s perfect; all I could ever want in a book of nonfiction. From a passage near the end of the book:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be where one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of a contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Riveting, brilliantly researched and written. The Unwinding may be the truest portrait of post-financial crisis America that we have, and as such, it should be cherished and honored. By taking a simultaneously macro- and micro-level view of a deconstructed America, George Packer shows us what this country is made of. I still feel as obsessed with this book as I did when I finished it, many months ago. Highly recommended to all US residents.

3. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say;’ but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

A gorgeous collection of essays and lectures on poetry, meaning, and inspiration. Mary Ruefle’s style combines many of my favorite elements in an essayist: mystical asides, plenty of literary allusions, mini-anecdotes, and snippets of history and fact. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Her lecture on reading (“Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”) had me in total raptures. I started writing down quotes from it and then slowly realized that I was just copying the entire piece verbatim. (We read Proust in the exact same way—one volume a year, in our twenties, because an older man told us it was the only thing that mattered—I feel that we might be soulmates, Mary and me!) I also loved her joint lecture on Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank; her meditation on fear; her lecture about theme and sentimentality; an exposition of the irreverence of art.

Read it; savor it; thank God we have poets such as these.

“Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicated things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there?”

(With gratitude to Celeste for telling me about this book and lending me her much-loved copy.)

4. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon is an important, comprehensive, compassionate book about depression, the seemingly ubiquitous plague of modernity. As always, Andrew Solomon is gracious and thoughtful in his portrayals of real stories (continually and gently humanizing the face of the illness, both with his own experience and the experiences of others), and thorough and incisive in the sweeping scope of his research. After chapters of the various methods of reckoning with depression (whether physically or philosophically), the book ends with powerful, raw honesty and light.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

5. The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

I first read this book many years ago, and I finally bought myself a copy, because I loved it so much. Re-reading this book — Thomas Merton’s collection of the proverbs of ancient Christian hermits/mystics in North Africa — brought a renewed sense of pleasure. This little book served as a powerful reminder to me, in my general throes of doubt and mistrust, that Christianity was and is beautiful and mysterious and humble.

6. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

For many years now, this elusive little book has haunted my to-read list. A handful of my favorite writers and critics were always dropping oblique references to The Poetics of Space, but the library didn’t have a copy, and so I kept putting it off. Foolishly, I now acknowledge. I finally bought myself a busted old copy and read it with a great deal of reverence and delight.

In this charming and surprisingly readable text, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard discusses the intersection between poetry, imagination, and buildings — and does it in such a way that makes you want to constantly scope your surroundings for hidden meaning. He draws inspiration from nature, dreams, Rilke, Baudelaire, a great deal of lesser-known French literature, smatterings of Thoreau, and his own experience.

I am often intimidated by philosophy, but here Bachelard fashions it into a welcoming arena. Nothing is too minor or mundane for him. As he says, “I am moreover convinced that the human psyche contains nothing that is insignificant.” Images, after all, are simple; we experience them every second and no weighty scholarship can improve their reception. Bachelard is concerned with this topic, how the imagination processes space and transfers it to memory, to art, to awareness.

It’s a beautiful book, and upon finishing it, I wish I had read it more slowly.

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am admittedly obsessed with the poet Mark Doty, particularly after his memoir about dogs and grief (Dog Years), and so I was elated to find this slim volume at the library.

I read the entire book while on a train to DC, and I don’t think I looked up once. I was completely engrossed. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty commands his notable powers of language to discuss a small Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. And from there, how this painting stirred his heart and mind regarding art, life, and death.

It is a difficult book to recommend, because everything I say about it seems distant and disengaged, but it is tremendously beautiful and moving. I’d like to read it again right now instead of doing anything else.

8. How Fiction Works, James Wood

How Fiction Works

Sometimes you read a book and you can’t escape this constant refrain: This book GETS me.

James Wood, at the very least, gets me, and this little book on the art of fiction was tremendously charming.

For literary nerds like myself, Wood provides a great deal of delight in How Fiction Works. Honestly, I enjoyed it for a few vain, puerile reasons: (1) It’s deeply confirming when a respected writer and critic shares your taste, (2) the way your brain lights up when you actually get all of the allusions, and (3) the sense of reassurance that comes from knowing you are a snob, utterly.

But it’s pleasant and very readable, and the book made me pay attention to fiction in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore, outside of English classes at college. In short, recommended to anyone who reads.

9. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Now America has among the highest percent of working mothers of any country. They work among the most full-time hours. They clock the most extreme paid work hours. They do so despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth. And, compared to mothers in other countries, American mothers spend among the most time with their children, sacrificing sleep, personal care, and leisure time to do so.”

This book is essential reading for every American woman.

Let’s hear it for US moms. No wonder they are so strung out all of the time.

I had no idea how truly backward our country was, when it comes to workplace policies for women and families, until I read Overwhelmed. I had an idea of the injustices, but not how deeply they extended.

Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling utterly overwhelmed, all day, every day.

I was riveted by this book, and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it even now. Schulte provides fresh, honest examples of the state of American working moms, along with insightful research and interviews. She paints a frankly horrific portrait of the state of family policy in this country. (Her time with Pat Buchanan also left me with the strong feeling that he might, in fact, be very evil and that the GOP is, at the very least, living in a fantasy America that does not exist and perhaps never existed.)

Politics aside, every US woman who has children or is thinking of having children ought to read this book. It’s a rousing call to improve both our family policies and our family lives. High praise to Schulte for her research, authenticity, and important message.

One can only hope and pray that our governments and our corporate cultures take notice. Immense change is needed in the ways we work, love, and play, and Schulte has — significantly — hit a nerve here.

10. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I still talk about this book all the time, and yet part of me wishes I hadn’t read it, because I like seafood. And now I have all of these deep, ethical qualms about eating it at all.

Paul Greenberg likes seafood too, but his interests extend beyond mere taste. Rather, in this excellently written and deeply researched book, he explores the future of fish, namely the four that we fish and eat the most: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna.

Without some drastic policy changes, the fate of these four fish looks rather grim. Greenberg is a great storyteller, on top of being a first-rate reporter, and this book will change the way that you think about and eat fish.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
  2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
  3. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  4. Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  7. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  8. My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel
  9. Citizen Canine, David Grimm
  10. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul
  14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  15. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
  16. The Control of Nature, John McPhee
  17. Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
  18. Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman
  19. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder
  20. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior
  21. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs
  22. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
  23. A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans
  24. Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg
  25. Just Kids, Patti Smith

What were your favorite nonfiction books you read in 2014?

Previously: Top 10 books of poetry in 2014. Coming up next: Top 10 books of fiction I read in 2014.

Best Poetry I Read in 2014

For 2014, a new category in my top 10 book lists: Poetry! I seem to be reading more and more poetry each year, which is a trend that I enjoy, but I also don’t think I have the slightest idea how to write about poetry. So, here’s my top 10 for the year, sans review.

1. Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman

Every Riven Thing: Poems

2: Some Ether, Nick Flynn

Some Ether

3: The Shadow of Sirius, W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

4: Once in the West: Poems, Christian Wiman

Once in the West: Poems

5: Collected Poems, Philip Larkin

Collected Poems

 

6: Actual Air, David Berman

Actual Air

7: Astonishments, Anna Kamieńska

Astonishments: Selected Poems

8: Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido

Stay, Illusion: Poems

9: Incarnadine: Poems, Mary Szybist

Incarnadine: Poems

10: Against Which, Ross Gay

Against Which

Honorable Mentions

  1. Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser
  2. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück
  3. The Wingless, Cecilia Llompart
  4. Metaphysical Dog, Frank Bidart

What books of poetry did you enjoy this year?

Coming up next: Top 10 books of nonfiction and fiction I read in 2014.

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.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #2

The Museum of Innocence

#2: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, by Orhan Pamuk

The Turkish Proust! This is how I keep describing Pamuk to myself and to other people when they ask who he is. Proust and Pamuk don’t really have that much in common, really. One is a long-dead Frenchman, the other, a very alive Turk; one writes monolithic odes to childhood, the other, properly modern novels on a variety of themes. So, why do I keep calling him the Turkish Proust? I don’t know. It’s just this… pervasive sense that I get from reading Pamuk’s novels; I believe that he and Proust share deep sensibilities.

I mean, how can they not? Read this paragraph from Pamuk on the pain of true love, from the perspective of his melancholy narrator, Kemal, and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like Proust:

The pains of true love reside at the heart of our existence; they catch hold of our most vulnerable point, rooting themselves deeper than the root of any other pain, and branching to every part of our bodies and our lives. For the hopelessly in love, the pain can be triggered by anything, whether as profound as the death of a father or as mundane as a piece of bad luck, like losing a key; such elemental pain can be flamed by any sort of spark. People whose lives have, like mine, been turned upside down by love can become convinced that all other problems will be resolved once the pain of love is gone, but in ignoring these problems they only allow them to fester.

I mean, don’t you see it, too? So Marcel.

The English translation of The Museum of Innocence came out in 2009 and people started talking about it. I had heard Pamuk’s name before (he won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for Istanbul) but didn’t know much about him. I picked this 600-page tome up from the library when it was still relatively new and had no idea what to expect.

I like coming to novels with this perspective of blankness, of utter ignorance. I refuse to read dust jackets and forewords and simply jump right in. The Museum of Innocence lends itself well to this type of approach. I think if I had known what it was going to be about, I might not have attempted it. But to prevent you from that same reaction, this is what I will say about it: It is a massive book, but a very beautiful one. (I did, after all, think it was the second-best book I read in 2010.)

The story follows one unlucky lover, Kemal, for many years as he more or less unsuccessfully woos his distant cousin, Füsun. Nothing is accomplished. Kemal begins to obsessively collect trinkets and love paraphernalia from his few, precious moments with his beloved and starts to file them away in an empty apartment, which, naturally, becomes the Museum of Innocence. Years pass. Füsun gets engaged, but not to Kemal. Kemal starts hanging around her family, hoping for some chance to win her back. Upon closing the final page, you may get the sense the novel is just 600 pages of emotional turmoil with a few mild climaxes and little resolution.

So, why read it? Here are two reasons:

1.) Pamuk writes with more skill than you or I could ever hope to have. Therefore, when you read The Museum of Innocence, you may simply enjoy the pleasures of a masterful novel. I don’t know a word of Turkish, but if Pamuk is even half as good in Turkish as he is in English, we have a brilliant author on our hands.

2.) But even more than that, it is always beneficial to read about Real Life. Woolf said that good fiction must be attached to reality at the corners, like the edges of a spider web. Not many novels accomplish this today. Most are difficult to believe, with characters–like Oskar Schell–who seem like nothing more than pure fantasy. We cannot recognize anything of the world we actually know in them.

This is why I stand behind The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk refuses to give us a fairytale. Because that’s how life is. The prince doesn’t always win the princess. And maybe the princess isn’t trying to be won after all. We don’t live in some rosy-edged bubble that obeys the predictable laws of the romantic comedy universe. Thankfully, Pamuk realizes this, too, and refuses to stoop to Nicholas Sparks’s level.

And beneath the simple futility of it all, the story holds together with the thin beat of hope. Because even though life rarely pans out the way we want it to, we still believe in our coming triumph. This is the motivating force for our downtrodden, love-weary narrator. After he remarks that an afternoon spent with Füsun was the “happiest moment of [his] life,” he qualifies that statement with this observation, which captures the spirit of this novel so well:

In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it. It may well be that, in a moment of joy, one might sincerely believe that they are living that golden instant “now,” even having lived such a moment before, but whatever they say, in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come. Because how could anyone, and particularly anyone who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could only get worse: If a person is happy enough to think he has reached the happiest moment of his life, he will be hopeful enough to believe his future will be just as beautiful, more so.

Pamuk will tease you–and Kemal–with hope throughout The Museum of Innocence. He immerses you in Kemal’s universe as you begin to realize that it is all very real and very beautiful.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #4

Pale Fire

#4: PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be talking about #4, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

It should be rather evident by now that I am a Nabokov fan. (His Ada was, after all, my 10th favorite book I read all year). I picked up Pale Fire a few months after I had read Lolita and was dazzled… and confused. This is one of the most ambitious and strange novels I’ve read and yet I do not think Nabokov would want me to call it a novel.

So what is it exactly? Pale Fire is many things. It is the title of a 1,000 line poem by the fictional poet John Shade. It is a murder mystery. It is the long-form annotated guide to the aforementioned poem. And it is quite elaborate and beautiful and confusing.

After a foreword, the book begins with “Pale Fire,” the long poem by John Shade (which, of course, Nabokov wrote himself). I don’t know very much about poetry, despite being married to one who makes it, but I think it’s a pretty decent and interesting poem. Particularly considering that English was the third language of its author. The New York Times book review from 1962–when Pale Fire was published–puts the issue of Shade’s poem quite well:

[“Pale Fire,” the poem] is about on a level with the work of Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as Poet Laureate, who also had a bent for conversational verse: not bad, but also not good, not, in the strict sense, a poem at all. The reader, having plowed through it with mild interest, is likely to be afflicted by the disproportion between its merit and the apparatus that surrounds it. For the author has to keep up a pretense that Shade was a great man, and the poem a great poem. Yet it is also part of the joke that he does not believe this for a moment. He is carefully building a farce, assuming the mask of pedantry in order to point a grimace at his readers.

Behind this farce we meet the person of Charles Kinbote, an obsessive literature professor from the imaginary country of Zembla (Nabokov has a thing for fictional nations). Kinbote is the author of the annotated guide to the poem, which we are now reading and which consumes the rest of the novel. It is fair to say that Kinbote worships Shade. He regards “Pale Fire” as the greatest poem ever written and managed to get the rights to the poem and to publishing this annotated guide after Shade’s mysterious death.

In the hands of the witty and sly Nabokov, Kinbote’s fanaticism is a wonderful and frightening thing to behold. His love of Shade borders on pathological, once he moves in next door to Shade so he can watch him all day long. He is deeply envious of the poet’s purported talent, for as Kinbote says of himself:

I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation*, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.

Kinbote’s warping of the web–the fabulous series of artifices that Nabokov has created–captivates utterly. Pale Fire was certainly the most interesting and thought-provoking book I read in 2010. I do not know if it was the best, but it was deliciously strange. As Kinbote–or is it just Nabokov himself?–says in the end:

I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.

(*Side note: Just in time for this review: The New York Times reveals that Nabokov’s theory on butterfly evolution has been proven. Lovely!)

Top 10 Books of 2010: #5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

#5: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Jonathan Safran Foer

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be sharing some brief thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I am not very well-versed in contemporary literature and so, as a proper literary snob, I always approach modern novels with trepidation. This novel was no different. It’s not exactly fresh or new to be into Jonathan Safran Foer and rave about him on your Tumblr, but I’d never read anything he’d written, so I decided back in February to figure out what the hype was all about.

The hype is about a novelist who keeps one finger on the pulse of the 21st-century reader and the other on the voice of his swift and witty self.

The story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is clearly designed to pluck your postmodern heartstrings. Oskar Schell is 9 years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on Earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. Oskar is probably the most precocious child you’ve ever met in a novel (perhaps excepting Charles Wallace) and it’s often a bit difficult to swallow the fact that this kid is supposed to be only 9 years old. However, we enjoy his adventures and his emotional odyssey through New York and through this powerful, collective memory of the tragedy of 9/11. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.

Much of what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare–or greatest challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more Foer convinced me that he knew what he was doing.

Even though I was quite affected by Anis Shivani’s scathing critique of Foer (“Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a-twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer”), it’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that. Foer probably is guilty of “gimmick after gimmick,” as Shivani says he is. But, Shivani, I’m giving him #5 on my list because he made tears fall from my eyes and because it was pretty beautiful. Whether that makes him a circus-like panderer to the masses, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let you decide.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #6

Wives and Daughters

#6: WIVES AND DAUGHTERS, Elizabeth Gaskell

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’d like to introduce #6, Elizabeth Gaskell’s beautiful novel Wives and Daughters.

Rachel and Emily Hylton are responsible for simultaneously introducing me to two great loves: BBC period miniseries and Elizabeth Gaskell. During a luxurious winter weekend in Asheville a few years ago, we watched the brilliant, 301-minute epic film of “Wives and Daughters.” It was perfect, light, and funny; just about everything one could hope from a rendition of a great novel. The only thing was that I hadn’t actually read Wives and Daughters at the time.

I had heard of Gaskell before, but frankly, by the time I watched “Wives and Daughters” with the Hylton sisters, I had long since read all of Austen, all of George Eliot, and all of the elder Brontës to convince myself that I had exhausted my appetite for 19th-century English women novelists. I had no plans to start reading Gaskell’s novels (even though I did subsequently devour the other BBC reproductions of her novels Cranford and North and South, which are really excellent, particularly during exam week).

My mind was changed after I’d been assigned to read Wives and Daughters in a class on the British novel at UNC. I had bought the thick paperback copy for the class, but our professor ended up dropping the book from the reading list, saying it was too long and we wouldn’t have enough time to finish it before finals. While announcing this, however, she noted that Wives and Daughters was, in her opinion, “one of the most beautiful and masterful novels in the British tradition.” I raised my eyebrows, somewhat surprised, and decided to save my copy and return to it some day.

“Some day” turned out to be two years later, once I had graduated university, married, and moved to a new town. I read Wives and Daughters this past summer and quickly became enthralled with the little universe Gaskell had created. The novel follows the life of young Molly Gibson, who is raised by her doctor father after her mother’s premature death. Molly is intelligent and sweet and possesses an unwavering devotion to her father. She develops a friendship with the Hamley family–particularly with Mrs. Hamley, the invalid matriarch–and the Hamley’s sons, Osborne and Roger. Life seems to be happening at a pleasant clip for Molly, until her father brings home a new wife.

Dr. Gibson abruptly marries an attractive but unbearably vain and garrulous widow, Hyacinth Clare. Molly feels hurt and betrayed and, naturally, strongly dislikes her stepmother. Hyacinth might have fallen neatly into the evil-stepmother archetype were it not for the complicating influence of her daughter, Cynthia.

Molly is an interesting heroine, but her stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, is perhaps an even more interesting one. The professor who wrote the introduction to my edition of the novel noted that Cynthia Kirkpatrick was perhaps “the most complex female character” he’d ever met in a 19th-century novel. A tall order, perhaps, but she seems to fit the description. Cynthia is very beautiful and very aware of the power that her beauty gives her. She arrives to the Gibson household fresh from a French boarding school and filled with pretentions and secrets. Molly and Cynthia take a bit of time to warm up to one another, but after a few chapters, they have come to care for one another as true sisters. Cynthia, however, does not operate in a way we would expect. We expect her to be silly and flirtatious–which she sometimes is–but she surprises us with her ability to transcend her stereotype of the glamorous, desirable single girl. While mired in a romantic trap that she has created for herself, Cynthia exhibits both great lapses of judgment and bouts of the deepest insight and self-awareness. Gaskell never fully lets us make up our minds about her–and that is, perhaps, the true genius behind the character of Cynthia Kirkpatrick.

Wives and Daughters was not the most beautiful and lyrical book I read all year, but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable. Gaskell writes with brilliant humor and keen eye for the intricacies of middle-class life. Once you enter her universe, you will be quick to laugh and loath to leave. She holds a firm grasp on her readers and manages to keep them–to keep us, rather–grounded solidly in the reality she has created for us. And that’s why it’s worth reading another 19th-century English woman novelist.