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

Books for escape

Living by Fiction

10 books:

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

Angle of Repose

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Crossing to Safety (#5)

Crossing to Safety.

#5: CROSSING TO SAFETY, Wallace Stegner.

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

The more I read as a child, the more my dream of being a novelist died. This seems contradictory for a born bas bleu, but the more I read about great writers’ lives, the more I came to believe that I could never be one. Or even wanted to be one, judging from the dark, harrowing lives they typically led. To be a great writer, I started recognizing, you were extremely likely to be terribly marginalized, depressed, suicidal, suffering from childhood abuse, mentally ill, hooked on drugs or women, and so on. And then you went on to write these vast, gloomy masterpieces. That’s how it was done and I resigned myself to preferring a happy, unremarkable life over a melancholy, genius one.

All this to say: I never thought I would meet a genuinely great novelist who wrote hopeful books and was also a happy, stable person. Until I met Wallace Stegner.

Crossing to Safety is the first Stegner I’ve read and it is the last novel he wrote. It was published in 1987, when he was 78 years old, which is a serious accomplishment itself, not to mention that the novel is actually wonderful. Stegner tells us a semi-autobiographical tale of the lifelong friendship between two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Larry Morgan is our narrator, and he begins the story by telling us of his move, with his new wife, to Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1930s for his English graduate work at the university there. The Morgans are quickly introduced to the quite different and notably wealthy Langs and a friendship blossoms between them.

Perhaps surprisingly, that is all I need to say about the plot. It is a story about friendship, devotion, communal living, and communal dying. Crossing to Safety is a simple love story, or, more accurately, a simple life story. There are no explosions, no affairs, no drug overdoses. Who wants to read a novel like this? I was pleasantly surprised that I did and marveled at Stegner’s perfect prose, his gentle observations, and his commanding grasp on this gem of a novel. Nothing escapes his attention; he leaves nothing out.

Larry Morgan himself is trying to be a novelist, and as he struggles with writing, we get this especially self-referential passage:

How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are the speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

Morgan’s questions are the questions we imagined Stegner was asking himself as he wrote this novel. I’m so glad he was. We “recognize ourselves” in this book, despite its lack of “speed, noise, ugliness,” for it flawlessly captures and celebrates the rare joy of the realistic novel, the strong connection we feel toward characters we understand and strive to be.

What I’ve read recently

Brief thoughts on what I’ve been reading lately…

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz. It’s a rare event when the New York Times reviews a dog book, but they did when Inside of a Dog came out in 2009. Horowitz studies and teaches animal cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University. This is a delightful and very well-written account of the various behavioral and anatomical things she’s learned about dogs. I loved it, of course, and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in dogs. I wrote a more complete review of the book here.

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark. In an effort to prevent myself from buying any more books, I have been trying to read through all of the books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet. Memento Mori was one of them. I think I bought it at a library book sale for 25 cents and it’s been sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, unremembered. I was not very impressed with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, despite all the hype around it, so I was hesitant to attempt another Muriel Spark novel. But I liked this a lot more than Jean Brodie. Memento Mori tells the story of a circle of elderly British friends and acquaintances who are haunted by an anonymous caller who tells them, “Remember you must die.” As the mystery unfolds, these witty, well-imagined senior citizens are forced to reexamine their lives and their buried scandals. Occasionally funny and touching, Memento Mori is not a great book, but it is a very good one.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Egan cast doubt on my theory about women writers by winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I think many people were surprised that it beat out Freedom. Freedom, after all, just looks like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel: It’s very thick, daunting, and a family epic in the model of a modern Tolstoy. A Visit from the Goon Squad is surprisingly slim and enjoyable. Who knew Pulitzers were so fun to read? With wit and delicacy, Egan channels thirteen interconnected characters over the course of a few decades. By the end of the novel, I was fully convinced that she deserves every ounce of praise she’s been receiving.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. I am trying to learn more things and so I’ve decided that I need to read more nonfiction–particularly nonfiction that I might not necessarily agree with or know anything about. During my senior year at UNC, I was an intern at the University of North Carolina Press. One of the editors there asked me to work on a project in which I had to scour all of the top literary publications (the New Yorker, NYT, New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the Atlantic, etc.) for their lists of the best nonfiction books over the past 10 years. This sounds like a daunting task, but I loved it, because by the end, I had culled a highly recommended reading list. The Evolution of God was one of those books from that list. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer when it came out in 2009 and there was a lot of hype surrounding it. Wright’s argument is that God, like humanity, has been evolving over time and essentially getting “better,” or more tolerant and humane. While I don’t necessarily buy his whole argument, he did make a lot of points that I think are really relevant to consider. Even though it’s clear that he’s not a fan of God in general, I appreciated his caveat at the end of the book, in which he discounts many frothing neo-atheists for jumping on the “anti-God” bandwagon. All in all, interesting. And very long. Wright is prone to generalize, but I guess when you’re talking about God, what else can you do?

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Lulu, one of Guion’s MFA colleagues, suggested that we read this book together and I’m so glad she did. We met last Thursday to discuss it at The Local. I had never read any Stegner before this but had always heard him mentioned with appreciation and fondness. Crossing to Safety is apparently regarded as one of his best novels and, interestingly, it was his last (published in 1987). In it, Stegner tells the semi-autobiographical story of the love between two academic couples in Madison, Wisconsin, and later, around the country. He accomplishes something with this novel that I have always wanted to accomplish myself: To write a truly great novel about “ordinary” people. It is a novel without your standard fare of infidelity, addiction, divorce, or melodrama–and yet it is a novel full of life. I loved it. I hope to read more Stegner soon.

A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor

A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor. I’m reading this now for the next “Christ Church Classics” book club discussion. Taylor was a professor of literature here at UVA, and so his name is occasionally circulated in cultural conversations. I was looking forward to reading this book, because it makes an appearance on Francine Prose’s list, Books to Be Read Immediately, which I have been trying to complete for a few years now. I’m a big fan of Southern literature, but I haven’t been very impressed by A Summons to Memphis. As far as I can tell, it’s a nice, inoffensive story about one family’s mania for preventing each other’s marriages. Not especially interesting, which is somewhat surprising, considering that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. I haven’t finished it yet, but from where I stand now, I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone.

Right now, I’m reading Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and really enjoying it. I may talk about it later, once I’ve finished.

What are you reading? Anything you’d recommend?

The world’s most contented couple

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

In my experience, the world’s happiest man is a young professor building bookcases, and the world’s most contented couple is composed of that young professor and his wife, in love, employed, at the bottom of a depression from which it is impossible to fall further, and entering on their first year as adults, not preparing any longer but finally into their lives.

Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner