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
A Saturday Jaunt to Bath
We heard that The Bookshop Band would be playing at a free seasonal concert on Saturday night, so on something of a whim we planned a daytrip to Bath. Even though it wasn’t exactly on the way (my husband’s regular, feeble refrain), I take any opportunity of being in the Bath/Bristol area to make a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International. This was a delightful surprise since I’d been in late July and never thought I’d get to go again this year.
This turned out to be our best trip yet. We were unrushed for once, so had plenty of time for browsing. I had particularly good luck in the orange-spined all-Penguins section, and even found three books I wanted from the “Unsorted” shelves, which was something of a miracle. We finally tried out their newish café and got a darned good cup of coffee and a cake each.
All told, we came away with a better haul than on any previous visit: 13 books for me, 10 nature books plus a River Café cookbook for my husband, and eight books to give away as presents. And for all that (books + refreshments), less than £40. Add on a couple of books from a charity shop in Bath and I got some real steals – no book more than £1.
I’m particularly pleased with:
- Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde
- Writers & Company, a collection of Canadian radio interviews with authors
- A signed copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
- An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas – I love her memoirs so have been looking forward to trying her fiction.
This was my fifth trip to Bath, which was looking lovely and golden in the wintry afternoon light but was certainly bustling, to put it politely. More accurately, you could barely move through the main streets, particularly around the Christmas market. At one point we weren’t sure we were going to get any hot food for dinner – it had never occurred to us to book ahead, and the brasserie and pub we tried were both full. Luckily the Real Italian Pizza Co. had a table for two, and I enjoyed a gloriously doughy calzone before we headed up to St Swithin’s Church for a holiday concert featuring Songways Choir and The Bookshop Band.
St Swithin’s has had a church on site since the tenth century, a sort of age we Americans can barely get our heads round. Jane Austen’s parents married here; so did William Wilberforce. It was something of a bittersweet occasion because the couple who make up The Bookshop Band are moving to Wigtown, Scotland’s town of books, in January and expecting their first booklet in May. So this was most likely my last chance to see them for quite a while. They only played a mini-set of five songs after the choir performance. Most of these I’d heard before, but “Wagons and Wheels,” based on Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival (which I have on my Kindle and have been meaning to read), was new to me and a highlight.
Earlier in the evening we’d had a chance to stop by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, the independent bookshop in Bath where the band got their start. It’s such a cozy and welcoming shop, and I added a goodly number of books to my wish list while I was there. It’s something of a shame that we never got to see them perform in situ (though I don’t know how more than 20 people could fit in the upstairs space!), but I’ve managed to see them live three times and by funding their 2016 recording project have had excellent music streaming to my computer the whole year.
Thanks to last night’s holiday concert and the university carol service we’ll be attending tomorrow evening, I should certainly be feeling in the Christmas spirit. Look out for my two posts on seasonal reading coming up this week.