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
Four Recommended September Releases
Here are four enjoyable books due out this month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are memoirs that are linked by a strong theme of mothers and children, though one has a primary topic of mental illness; the third is a quirky bibliomemoir partially written in letters; and the last is an elegant poetry collection. I’ve pulled 150–200-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love, by Zack McDermott
(Coming from Little, Brown [USA] and Piatkus [UK] on the 26th)
As a public defender in New York City, Zack McDermott worked with seemingly crazy people every day at Legal Aid, little knowing that he was on his way to a psychotic break himself. Soon he’d covered the walls of his apartment with marker scrawl and fully taken on his stand-up comedian persona, Myles. Convinced that he was in a Truman Show-style reality show, he ended up half-naked and crying on a subway platform. That’s when police showed up to take him to Bellevue mental hospital.
McDermott takes readers on a wild tour through his life: from growing up with a no-good drug addict father and a Superwoman high school teacher mother in Wichita, Kansas “a baloney sandwich throw from the trailer park” to finally getting medication and developing strategies that would keep his bipolar disorder under control. His sense of pace and ear for dialogue are terrific. Despite the vivid Cuckoo’s Nest-style settings, this book is downright funny where others might turn the subject matter achingly sad. It’s a wonderful memoir and should attract readers who don’t normally read nonfiction. (An explanatory note: “Gorilla” is McDermott’s nickname and “The Bird” is his mother’s; she’s the real hero of this book.)
Landslide: True Stories, by Minna Zallman Proctor
(Coming from Catapult on the 19th)
This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of Proctor’s life: losing her mother, a composer – but only after three bouts with cancer over 15 years; the importance Italy had for both of them, including years spent in Tuscany and her work as a translator; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. She ponders the stories she heard from her mother, and the ones she now tells her children. “We all have totemic stories. The way we choose them—and then choose to tell them—is more important ultimately than the actual events.” Proctor provides a fine model of how to write non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
Another favorite line:
“I was never good at making stuff up; I’m much more interested in parsing the density, inanity, confusion, and occasional brilliance of life around me.”
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks, by Annie Spence
(Coming from Flatiron Books on the 26th, and in the UK on Oct. 13th)
Dear Annie Spence,
You’re on your way to being the next Nancy Pearl, girlie. Your book recommendations are amazeballs! How have you read so many books I’ve never even heard of?! Thanks to you I’ve added 13 books to my TBR when I’m desperately trying to cull it. Argh!
Anyway, gotta be honest here: I wasn’t digging the snarky, sweary style of the letter section of your book. True, it’s super clever how you use the epistolary format for so many different purposes – to say sayonara to books weeded from your public library’s stock, declare undying love for The Virgin Suicides and other faves, express mixed feelings about books you abandoned or didn’t get the appeal of, etc. – but, I dunno, the chatty, between-girlfriends style was irking me.
But then I got to Part II, where you channel Ms. Pearl and the authors of The Novel Cure with these original suggestions for themed and paired reading. Here’s books to read after making various excuses for not joining a social event, recommended sci-fi and doorstoppers (aka “Worth the Weight”), etc. I freakin’ loved it.
When’s your full-length Book Lust-style thematic recommendations guide coming out??
Happy reading until then!
Panicle, by Gillian Sze
(Coming from ECW Press on the 19th)
Gillian Sze is a Montreal poet with five collections to her name. Panicle contains many responses to films, photographs, and other poems, including some classical Chinese verse. Travel and relationships are recurring sources of inspiration, and scenes are often described as if they are being captured by a camera. There are a number of prose paragraphs, including the “Sound No. 1–5” series. As lovely as the writing is, I found few individual poems to latch onto. Two favorites were “Nocturne,” which opens “When I can’t sleep I think of the lupines that grow in the country, their specific palette, a mix of disregard and generosity” [the line breaks are unclear in my Kindle book], and “Dawning.” My favorite lines were “memory is a wicker chair that creaks in the wind” (from “To the Photographer in the Countryside”) and “I age / as it is typically done: slowly / unconsciously / surprisingly” (from the title poem).
In case you’re curious, here are some September releases I can’t recommend quite as highly, with links to my Goodreads reviews:
- bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward [poetry]
- Afterglow (a Dog Memoir) by Eileen Myles
- George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl