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
Maggie Nelson is the author of four volumes of poetry and five wide-ranging works of nonfiction that delve into the nature of violence and sexuality. From what I’d heard about her writing, I knew to expect an important and unconventional thinker with a distinctive, lyrical style. As of early June, Vintage has made some of her backlist, including The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial and Bluets, available for the first time in the UK.
I read The Red Parts for The Bookbag. Here’s an excerpt from my full review:
Nelson’s aunt was murdered in Michigan in 1969. Thirty-five years later, just as Nelson had completed writing a poetry collection about her, the case was reopened when new DNA evidence emerged. Most authors would quickly zero in on the trial itself, giving a blow-by-blow of the lawyers’ questioning and witnesses’ statements. Although Nelson does document important developments in the month-long trial, and describes autopsy photographs in blunt detail, her account is much more diffuse than one might expect. Interspersed with Jane’s history are other dark memories: Nelson’s father’s sudden death, her sister’s wild years, aborted love affairs. The title phrase tangentially refers to the words of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally printed in red, so it has a sort of dual meaning: this is a (futile) search for the gospel truth about her aunt’s death, and also a conscious dive into the parts of life that frighten us. This fluid, engrossing narrative is no ordinary true crime story, but a meditative reflection on loss and identity.
Bluets is a fragmentary record of Nelson’s arbitrary obsession with the color blue. It’s composed of 240 short numbered essays of about a paragraph each; some are just one or two sentences. At one point Nelson refers to these as “propositions,” but really they are more like metaphorical musings. Blue takes on so many meanings: with the connotation of “depressed”, it applies to her loneliness and sense of loss after the breakdown of a relationship (she continues addressing her former partner as “you” here) and a friend’s serious accident:
Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?
Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
Then there’s blues music (Billie Holiday), seedy sex (“blue movies”), Joan Mitchell’s 1973 abstract painting Les Bluets, Novalis’ blue flower (which gives the title to a Penelope Fitzgerald novel), and so on. Nelson likens herself to a male bowerbird lining her nest with blue – sometimes literally, as with the collection of “blue amulets” that she keeps on a windowsill so sunlight can pass through the glass and illuminate the stones. I recalled that Sarah Perry lists Bluets as one inspiration for The Essex Serpent, in which the character Stella is fascinated with the color blue and keeps a similar trove of trinkets.
Bluets is a difficult work to characterize, but it seems closest in style to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is also built on loosely linked aphorisms. The problem with books like these is that individual lines may stand out as profound but don’t contribute to an overall story line or argument. Moreover, Nelson’s forthrightness about sex, which edges towards crassness and feels out of place in this dreamily academic text, took me some getting used to.
Two more favorite lines:
I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.
If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.
Many thanks to Cat Mitchell of Penguin Random House for the free review copy.
The Red Parts was the more straightforward and satisfying read of this pair, but Bluets is certainly an original and artful bedside book. I would certainly read more by Nelson; I’m particularly interested in The Argonauts (2015), a memoir about forming her unconventional family – her partner, Harry Dodge, is transgender.