Choosing my non-fiction favorites of 2017 was hard, y’all. I had a difficult time narrowing it down to ten, and then picking my favorite top three was damn near impossible. It was just a really fantastic nonfiction year! My top three (I think?) are listed first, and everything else is listed in alphabetical order.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (2017)
Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78; he wrote 78 essays and 78 poems to work through his complicated grief. It’s beautiful and devastating (Alexie actually stopped mid-book tour for his own mental health and will not be doing readings from this book anymore). I read it in one long sitting.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore (2017)
Young women in New Jersey and Illinois went to work in watch factories, painting a radium on watch faces to help with the war effort. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. They were informed that the radium was safe; in fact, it was one of the healthiest things to handle. Then they began dying in horrifying, disfiguring ways.
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (2007)
At the age of four, Danticat was left in the care of her aunt and uncle in Haiti while her parents immigrated to New York City. They sent for her when she was twelve, so she came of age in a foreign land. Back in Haiti there was dangerous political unrest, and her father kept urging his brother to join them in the States. What happened when he finally did left the family shattered.
In 1963, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book about race in America. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward soberly reflects in her introduction, “It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
In The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Claudia Rankine, and Isabel Wilkerson pick up where Baldwin’s book left off. Most of the essays look to the past, several consider the present, and a couple look to the future. Considering we’re living in a period where it’s still considered radical to insist that black lives matter, the publication of this collection couldn’t be more timely.
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Publisher/Year: Knopf, 2013
Narrator: Robin Miles
Length: 7 hrs, 3 minutes
What it is: Claire Limyé Lanmé (Claire of the Sea Light) Faustin is a little girl growing up in the fictional fishing village of Ville Rose, Haiti. Her mother died in childbirth, and on Claire’s seventh birthday, her father, Nozias, decides to give her to a local shopkeeper so that she can have a better life. The book all takes place on this one day that the shopkeeper comes for her, though it dips into the past as it highlights the lives of several of the villagers.
Why I listened to it: I just wanted to (Danticat has long been on my to-read list), and the cover called out to me. It’s pretty.
What I thought: This is not your traditional novel; the book is more like a series of related vignettes that have been strung together. The book begins and ends with Claire, but the chapters in between are told from the perspective of people only tangentially linked to Claire’s life. It was a little confusing at first, especially since I was listening on audiobook. I sometimes wasn’t sure if the book had skipped a few chapters; that’s how different the plot could be from one moment to the next. At first, I went, “Hey, what happened to Claire?” Danticat gets you emotionally attached to her, only to set her aside for most of the book in order to focus on a handful of other characters’ lives. But it works. In the end, you only have glimpses of lot of different characters, but you feel for all of them. It’s a slim novel that leaves you wanting more, and yet it’s perfect the way it is.
Asunder by Chloe Aridjis
Publisher/Year: Mariner Books, 2013
What it is: Marie works as a guard at the National Gallery in London. She enjoys the silent atmosphere and the responsibility of watching over the artwork. Doing so keeps up part of her great-grandfather’s legacy: he was the guard on duty when a suffragette sliced apart a famous painting at the beginning of World War I; he fell and wasn’t able to stop her. But after nine years of working at the National Gallery, Marie is also stuck in a rut.
Why I read it: I enjoyed Aridjis’s debut novel, Book of Clouds.
What I thought: Like her first book, Asunder is oftentimes more atmosphere than plot. Large chunks go by where not much happens other than Marie’s meandering observations of the world. She does artwork with eggshells (symbolism). She observes people walking by (symbolism), especially at the museum. A class comes in, and the professor process to teach her students about craquelure, the natural and unavoidable cracking of paint on a canvas as time goes by (this was actually one of my favorite passages in the book). Anyway, cracks on a canvas. More symbolism. Obviously, something is happening with Marie. But, in keeping with the subdued and introspective nature of Aridjis’s writing, there are no mind-blowing, thrilling plot twists. If you need action in your books, this definitely isn’t the book for you. Personally, I find Aridjis’s works to be vaguely weird, philosophical, and slow. I liked it.
I haven’t posted an author-related video in ages, so when TEDTalks tweeted this last week I knew I had to share. It’s long, but worth it:
This is only one part of a much longer interview that took place late last year as part of the New York Public Library series. I love what they say about the experience of getting lost in reading and what that means from a writer’s perspective (from around 3:50-7:40). The whole thing is great. I really want to read the book they’re discussing, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.