My Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
The Best Books from the First Half of 2017
Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.
My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.
And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Three Theology Books for Easter
If you’ve been celebrating Passover or gearing up for Easter this past week, you might be interested in picking up one of these three recent (or forthcoming) theology titles I’ve encountered. (See also the more extensive Easter reading list I compiled two years ago.)
Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor, Jason J. Stellman
Stellman is a former pastor who runs a podcast called “Drunk Ex-Pastors” with his best friend and agnostic cohost, Christian Kingery. His book suffers a bit, I think, from an unclear aim: it started off as an apologia for his conversion to Catholicism after an unchurched upbringing and fervently Evangelical teen years. What it turned into is more of a theological ramble about how to see God and the world anew. For instance, God is Father, but also flesh, so we don’t need to condemn the secular: “embracing a Christianity that reflects the Incarnation by validating the physical world rather than vilifying it.”
With (dated, geeky) pop culture references, Stellman encourages a rejection of xenophobia and an embrace of narrative and ritual, which Roman Catholicism perhaps makes more space for than your average Protestant tradition. The last few lines of the book are a wonderful plea for openness, hearkening back to the very definition of ‘catholic’ – broad and inclusive:
Is misfit faith about love or suffering? Feasting or fasting? Divinity or humanity? Heaven or earth? The answer is yes, to all of it. And yeah, I want it all: the now and the later, the spirit and the flesh, the head, the heart, and the stations of the cross. I would rather embrace way too much than way too little, because something tells me that as wide as I can open my arms and heart, God’s are always open wider.
I’d recommend this to readers of David Dark and Rob Bell.
I received this e-book from Blogging for Books (via Edelweiss) for this review.
What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything, Rob Bell
Speaking of Rob Bell…this is one of his stronger books. Not as fresh and vibrant as Velvet Elvis, but it will have a big impact on teens and twentysomethings starting to question the narrow interpretations of the Bible they’ve grown up with in conservative churches. Bell stresses the importance of reading the Bible literately rather than literally: always looking deeper than surface facts to see what’s really going on here; striving to understand the background of Jewish practice and Roman occupation at the time of Jesus.
Bell emphasizes that the Bible is a disparate set of books written by fallible people who were defined by their own historical context, yet if you ask why they wrote down these stories of their interactions with the divine in this way – why they mattered to them then – you might get a glimpse of why they might still matter to us now. The “haphazard humanity” of the Bible, then is for him stronger evidence of its reliability than some rigid perfection would be.
He chooses a number of the more unusual incidents in the Bible to illuminate with a closer reading, such as Jesus writing in the dust, Ehud assassinating tubby King Eglon, and the Book of Revelation. Part 4 is usefully structured around FAQs (e.g. “So how would you define the word of God? The creative action of God speaking in and through the world, bringing new creation and new life into being”). This is like listening to a really good sermon series. (Releases May 16th.)
My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, Abigail Pogrebin
One thing Bell stresses is that Jesus was Jewish, so you can’t understand the stories about him apart from their Jewish context. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
Like many an American Jew, Pogrebin marked a limited set of holidays: Hanukkah, the Passover seder, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat. She circumcised her son, and hosted bar/bat mitzvahs for him and her daughter. Yet she had a nagging feeling that she had never genuinely locked into her own religion, and longed to go beyond the beginner stage.
So from September 2014 to September 2015, she celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, seeking to move beyond clichés and simplistic interpretations; interviewing rabbis and scholars of every stripe and reading Torah commentaries to discover meanings she’d missed before. Yom Kippur isn’t just a day of atonement; it’s for pondering the fact of your own death, taking stock of your life and asking what must change. Hanukkah, uncomfortably, is not just about persecution but about Jew-on-Jew violence.
There are opposite strands running through the Jewish ritual year: gratitude for survival (Purim) versus sorrow at tragedies (Holocaust Remembrance Day); feasting versus fasting. I was consistently impressed by how Pogrebin draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
“[I]t’s a quintessential Jewish act: seeking, grappling. If you’re reaching, it’s because you believe there’s something to grab hold of.”
“I’m beginning to think that Judaism is obsessed with brevity and instability. But rather than finding the message depressing, it’s clarifying.”
“Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.”
“Judaism reminds us not to run from transitions, but to consecrate them.”
The 2017 Releases I’m Most Excited About
2017 hasn’t even begun and already I’m overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of new books to be released. This is by no means a full picture of what’s coming out next year; it’s only 30 titles that I happen to have heard about and/or know I want to seek out. The descriptions are taken from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Edelweiss. Some of these I already have access to in galley form; others I’ll be doing my darndest to get hold of! (Within categories, titles are in alphabetical order by author rather than by publication date.)
English Animals by Laura Kaye (for the blog tour) [Jan. 12, Little, Brown UK]: “When Mirka [from Slovakia] gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her.”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (for BookBrowse) [Feb. 7, Grand Central]: “Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in [the] early 1900s. … [A] sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history.”
No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Watts Powell (for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) [Apr. 4, Ecco]: “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South: a powerful first novel about an extended African-American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream.”
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (for The Bookbag) [Mar. 28, Tinder Press]: “A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel … Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.”
NOVELS (all by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past)
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett [June 15, W&N]: “Cass Wheeler [is] a British singer-songwriter, hugely successful since the early 70s … Her task is to choose 16 songs from among the hundreds she has written … for a uniquely personal Greatest Hits record”
The Idiot by Elif Batuman [Mar. 14, Penguin]: “1995: Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. … With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood.”
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler [Mar. 7, Ecco]: “Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. … [A] sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity”
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier [May 16, Hogarth]: “The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers.”
Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro [June 6, St. Martin’s]: “It is the summer of 1992 and a gypsy moth invasion blankets Avalon Island. … The Gypsy Moth Summer is about love, gaps in understanding, and the struggle to connect: within families; among friends; between neighbors and entire generations.” – Plus, get a load of that gorgeous cover!
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin [June 6, Bloomsbury USA]: “Grief Cottage is the best sort of ghost story, but it is far more than that—an investigation of grief, remorse, and the memories that haunt us. The power and beauty of this artful novel wash over the reader like the waves on a South Carolina beach.”
The Evening Road by Laird Hunt [Feb. 7, Little, Brown & Co.]: “Reminiscent of the works of Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and Marilynne Robinson, The Evening Road is the story of two remarkable women on the move through an America riven by fear and hatred, and eager to flee the secrets they have left behind.”
The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal [May 4, Chatto & Windus]: “In a Victorian terraced house, in north-west London, two families have united in imperfect harmony. … This is a moving and powerful novel about the modern family: about starting over; about love, guilt, and generosity; about building something beautiful amid the mess and complexity of what came before.” – Sounds like Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth…
The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion [Feb. 9, Penguin]: “The Best of Adam Sharp is about growing old and feeling young, about happy times and sad memories, about staying together and drifting apart, but most of all, it’s about how the music we make together creates the soundtrack that shapes our lives.” – Sounds a lot like the Barnett!
SHORT STORIES (also by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: [May 2, Little, Brown & Co.]: “Full of the keenly observed, mordant wit that characterizes his beloved, award-winning novels, the stories in The Dinner Party are about people searching for answers in the aftermath of life’s emotional fissures”
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley [May 16, Harper]: “Hadley has proven herself to be the champion of revealing the hidden depths in the deceptively simple. In these short stories it’s the ordinary things that turn out to be most extraordinary: the history of a length of fabric or a forgotten jacket.”
NOVELS BY AUTHORS NEW TO ME
A Separation by Katie Kitamura [Feb. 7, Riverhead Books]: “A mesmerizing, psychologically taut novel about a marriage’s end and the secrets we all carry.”
Hame by Annalena McAfee (Mrs. Ian McEwan) [Feb. 9, Harvill Secker]: “Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.”
Poetry Can Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky [June 13, Atria]: “[A]n unconventional coming-of-age memoir organized around the 43 remarkable poems that gave her insight, courage, compassion, and a sense of connection at pivotal moments in her life.”
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford [May 2, Harper Collins]: “Ford brings his trademark candor, wit, and empathetic storytelling to the most intimate of landscapes: that of his love for two people who remain a mystery. Mining poignant details of his life in the American South during some iconic periods of the 20th century, Between Them illuminates the writer’s past as well as his beliefs on memory, relationships, and self-knowledge.”
The Mighty Franks: A Family Memoir by Michael Frank [May 16, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “A psychologically acute memoir about an unusual and eccentric Hollywood family.”
Sick: A Life of Lyme, Love, Illness, and Addiction by Porochista Khakpour [Aug. 8, Harper Perennial]: “In the tradition of Brain on Fire and The Empathy Exams, an honest, beautifully rendered memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery that details author Porochista Khakpour’s struggles with late-stage Lyme disease.”
A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life by Lauren Marks [May 2, Simon & Schuster]: “Lauren Marks was twenty-seven, touring a show in Scotland with her friends, when an aneurysm ruptured in her brain and left her fighting for her life. … [A]n Oliver Sacks-like case study of a brain slowly piecing itself back together”
Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick [May 2, Pantheon]: “Fresh, intimate, and radiantly meditative, Homing Instincts is the story of one woman’s ‘coming of age’ as a first-time parent on her family’s rural Ohio farm.”
My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin [Mar. 14, Fig Tree Books]: “Although she grew up following some holiday rituals, Pogrebin realized how little she knew about their foundational purpose and contemporary relevance; she wanted to understand what had kept these holidays alive and vibrant, some for thousands of years. Her curiosity led her to embark on an entire year of intensive research, observation, and writing about the milestones on the religious calendar.”
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) by David Sedaris [May 30, Little, Brown & Co.]: “[F]or the first time in print: selections from the diaries that are the source of his remarkable autobiographical essays.”
How to Make a French Family: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Faux Pas by Samantha Vérant [Apr. 4, Sourcebooks]: “When Samantha is given a second chance at love at the age of forty, she moves to southwestern France, thinking she’s prepared for her new role in life as an instant American wife and stepmom. It turns out, though, that making a French family takes more than just good intentions and a quick lesson in croissant-baking.”
NONFICTION: poetry, biography, essays, travel
Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta [Mar. 21, Roost Books]: “The twenty-five inspiring poems in this book—from such poets as Marge Piercy, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield—are accompanied by seventy-five recipes that bring the richness of words to life in our kitchen, on our plate, and through our palate.”
Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt [May 16, Little, Brown & Co.]: “A charming story of Mozart and his pet starling, along with a natural history of the bird.”
More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers by Jonathan Lethem [Mar. 14, Melville House]: “[C]ollects more than a decade of Lethem’s finest writing on writing, with new and previously unpublished material, including: impassioned appeals for forgotten writers and overlooked books, razor-sharp essays, and personal accounts of his most extraordinary literary encounters and discoveries.”
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack [Feb. 14, W.W. Norton]: “American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and their 4 million people—are often forgotten, even by most Americans. … When Doug Mack realized just how little he knew about the territories, he set off on a globe-hopping quest covering more than 30,000 miles to see them all.”