My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2017, According to GoodReads

I enjoy GoodReads’s little “Your Year in Books” widget they roll out at the end of every year, but my favorite thing to look back on at the close of a year (or more accurately, the beginning of every new one) is how many 5-star books I read. That was only four in 2015In 2016, I handed out only five. I was a little luckier (or maybe a little more generous?) in 2017 and handed out eight. Seven if you don’t count a re-read of one of my favorite childhood books.

This year I’m splitting the nonfiction and the novels into two different posts. Part of it is because I have slightly different criteria for 5-star reviews in fiction and nonfiction, and part of it is because I read enough 5-star books this year that a single post dedicated to all of them would border on unwieldy. This first installment covers the best nonfiction I read in 2017.

Politics and Social Justice

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore. I had already known about the radium dial-painting disaster as a footnote in the history of radium and nuclear science, so I was glad to see the topic get its own full treatment. The radium dial companies’ continuing priority of profits over worker health, and their subsequent refusal to accept blame for so much suffering and to make it right, remains relevant today, nearly 100 years later. Moore’s research is exhaustive, which can sometimes make for overwhelming reading, but it all deserves to be chronicled.*

The cover of Sarah Kendzior's "The View from Flyover Country," featuring a view of the St. Louis Arch through a window.

The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior, Sarah Kendzior. I enjoy her writing for De Correspondent, so I bought an ecopy of this essay collection (predating the 2016 election) to have  as subway reading.

Memoirs

Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk light by a lamp from outside a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. Walden was one of my favorite books I read in high school, and one that deeply influenced me. With the account of Thoreau’s stay in the woods fresh in my mind, I picked up this up at a library sale years ago. But much as I wanted to read it, I somehow dropped off after a few pages every time I attempted until I read it during my trip to the US this summer. Maybe it was a question of needing enough time to get into it; maybe it was a question of age or life path. But I’m so glad I hung on to this book through countless library down sizes.

 

The cover of John Kerstetter's "Crossings," featuring bullets and scalpel in an "X" shape.
Image courtesy Crown Publishing, Inc.

Crossings: A Doctor-Solider’s Story, Jon Kerstetter. Kerstetter’s account of growing up on, then off, then on an Oneida reservation to become a doctor and then a medic in the US army until he suffered a stroke (an aspect of his life curiously absent from the subtitle or marketing text) is gripping and sometimes heart-rending reading.*

A cover of Ester Blenda Nrdström's "Amerikanskt," featuring a college of vintage photographs, including a young woman in denim overalls and a white bucket hat.
Image courtesy Bokhåll.

Amerikanskt, Ester Blenda Nordström. Much like America Day by Day, I found this account of Nordström’s travels throughout the United States in the 1920s fascinating, both as a snapshot of an America long gone by and also as the perspective of an outsider and first-time visitor.

Part 2, featuring the best novels I read last year, coming later this week!

*indicates ebook copies I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; reviews were already posted elsewhere and I genuinely loved these books.

Friday 5: It’s Electric

Welcome to 2018, everyone!

Anthony Indraus

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done with electricity?

I generally treat electricity pretty respectfully, so my more clueless moment isn’t dangerous so much as impractical. The first time I went to Korea, though, I thought it would be a good idea to bring my Hot Shot with me? Despite the obvious differences in electric outlet standards? I don’t know why I thought it would be so hard to find a hot water kettle but there you have it.

How did you last pass the time when your residence was without power for at least a few hours?

There was a huge power outage in Stockholm in the fall, and we were in one of the last neighborhoods to get fixed. I didn’t need to do much to occupy myself since I happened to work for most of it, but it did mess with my lessons that day because I needed to print a few worksheets out.

Around how many AA and AAA batteries do you have on standby?

I don’t need AA batteries much these days, but we always have one of those bulk AAA battery packs from Kjell and Company around for my optical mouse.

How do you feel about lightning?

I’m a fan, though I resented it growing up because it meant I couldn’t use the computer.

 

When did you last dance the Electric Slide, and if you’ve never done it, what’s the closest you’ve come to dancing the Electric Slide?

It came up at the reception for the wedding I was at in August. I’ve always thought of The Electric Slide as a collective memory; something I couldn’t reproduce on my own but would suddenly remember in a large enough crowd of people. False! (Before that it had easily been fifteen years since I’d last danced it.) And none of the wedding guests seemed to remember it, either. It was up to my buddy and ride to the wedding (pictured above dipping his feet into the Atlantic), who spends a lot of time contra dancing, to coach us all in it. He drove eight hours in one day (four hours there, four back) to attend the wedding, so I hope that moment made it worth it for him. That, and all of the Moxie he stocked up on.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 11: Bethlehem, PA

My baby-est, littlest cousin—my maternal aunt’s only child—turned 21 this year.

I was 10 when she was born, and I remember thinking to myself, “One day she’ll be 10, just like I am, and I’ll be 20.” At the time, it was barely fathomable to me that I’d ever be an adult (or that the wriggling red mass I was looking at would ever be “big” like me). I don’t remember if I had that same thought when I turned 21: “Someday Haley will be as old as I am now, and I’ll be…even more of an adult.” It’s a thought I could easily imagine myself having. In any case, that’s the reality of it now. She’s 21, and a junior in college—a period in my own life that doesn’t seem ten years ago, and yet it obviously was!—and before you know it she’ll be in her thirties, and married (or not!) and a mom (or not!), and I’ll be even older…

Speaking of my family, Day 11 of the trip was dedicated mostly to lunch with Mom’s side of the family. This would normally include Haley, but she was at the shore, so not this time.

It was a Sunday, and Mom suggested that I could go to church with her before we leave for lunch, and I more or less gracefully dodge that bullet.  I spent most of that morning doing some more cleaning and then reading by the pool.

Some books in my collection I had been clinging to since high school or thereabouts, because I really wanted to read them (or maybe more accurately, really wanted to be the kind of person who would read them), but could never get around to it. One of those was the Illuminatus! trilogy omnibus; I ditched that one because I’m definitely no longer a 14-year-old girl with a crush on a pretentious snob of a classmate. Another was Journal of a Solitude, which I bought at a library sale (the library that’s now reaping the benefits (?) of my book hoarding tendencies) on the premise of “woman alone in the woods.” This was right after I had AP English Language and Composition and fell in love with Walden and so a lady version of the same thing held a lot of appeal for me.

I decided to take a break from the boxing and the repacking and the sorting and sit with Journal of a Solitude out by the pool. It was summer, so it was basically peak beauty when it comes to the flowers and the landscaping.

A clear blue in-ground swimming pool with red-orange tile edging on a sunny day, with flower bushes and green trees in the background. Green flowering landscaping featuring black-eyed Susans and a bush with pink flowers.

Not pictured are my absolute favorite flowers: some huge red hibiscuses just off-camera to the left in the first photo. But they had their moment before my trip and so there was only a couple of sad, drooping blooms left by the time I arrived..

This time Journal of a Solitude stuck with me, really stuck. I finished it on the bus to Albany and ended up giving it to Homesteader Friend, my host in Maine, because it seemed like exactly her thing. I was glad I held on to that book for as long as I did, because I’m glad I finally read it, and I hope Homesteader Friend gets something out of it herself.

Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk with a typewriter, lit by a lamp from outside a window.

Anyway, Mom only took the time to change out of church clothes and then we were off to visit my grandmother at the senior home for a little before meeting everyone else (my aunt, my brother and his wife, and my “aunt” Doris) at the restaurant. My grandmother just turned 90 this year, and she’s still “with it,” but has it a little rough getting around. Her hearing also isn’t the greatest so you have to slow down your speech by a third (and also crank up your volume by a third). We talked a little bit about how I’m doing in Sweden, and how she’s glad that I’m not in Korea anymore.

We had lunch at an Italian place that my mom and her sister habitually take their mother out to, because it’s close by and it’s easy for her to maneuver and they have food she likes. There were enough of us that we had a large table in the back to ourselves. I had a lot of the same conversation again with Aunt Donna (actually my aunt) and Aunt Doris (my grandmother’s best friend and accepted friend of the family): what I’m doing in Sweden, good thing I’m not in Korea anymore, etc. I also get a very belated birthday card.

Aunt Doris was keen to know what life is like in Sweden, and it was hard to know exactly what to tell her. Everything about my life is pretty banal and not that different from the US, except that I don’t drive. I landed on the story about going to the doctor on New Year’s Eve to get a small piece of metal out of my foot and how it was less than $10 US for a quick (but necessary!) visit that took all of five minutes. The conversation was immediately sidetracked by the insane state of the American health insurance system and how much that kind of visit would cost with their respective insurance plans. We also talked about my brother’s Instagram, which his wife hates (“anyone who doesn’t know you or your weirdo sense of humor will just think you’re an idiot”) and which, according to Aunt Donna, Haley loves (“she gets it, John, she thinks it’s hilarious”).

After lunch, Mom and I stopped at one of the vineyards between my grandmother’s and home. We don’t get a bottle but I get a wine slushie, which I sipped for the rest of the drive home.

There was more cleaning once we got back home. The books were basically all done by this point; now I was up to my eyebrows in knick knacks and mementos. I also tried to get together jewelry stuff to either mail back to myself or to give away to crafty friends. The whole time I was home it simultaneously felt like I didn’t have enough time in the day and that I also didn’t get anything done, the worst of both worlds. But now Musikfest was over and there was nothing left for me to do except take care of my stuff and see Best Chemist Friend.

Happy 2018! New Year, New Word

Happy New Year, readers and friends! Whether you’re tackling a new language, writing a new book, or pursuing continuing education, I hope 2018 is a year that brings you closer to your personal goals.

There are two things that I do instead of New Year’s resolutions. One of them is a longer-term project: the 101 Things in 1001 Days project. (I’m due to be wrapping up a current list in May, so more about that later.) The other is an annual project, but rather than one of those hyper-focused, driven-for-success SMART goals that life coaches and trainers like to talk about, it’s just a word.

I started doing this in 2016 and I’ve found it to be low-stakes enough to be not stressful, and focused enough that it’s brought pretty substantial improvements in my day-to-day life that have persisted long after the new year.

In 2016 I chose the word “focus,” since everything in my life felt very scattered and, well, unfocused. This is to be expected when you’re a freelancer trying to pull from all streams (and even running an Etsy shop to boot), but it’s not really a productive feeling. Keeping that one little word in mind helped me to stay on task with what I needed to do, and reminded me to keep my digital and physical workspaces clear except for the tasks I needed to work on right now. It’s amazing how less stressed you feel when you go from a browser window with twelve or fifteen tabs open down to just four!

Last year my word was “courage,” a necessary trait after what was for me (and for the rest of the world) an overwhelming and discouraging 2016. I didn’t succeed as much as I would have liked with that word, but I still took risks and jumped on opportunities I would have normally let pass me by. I don’t know if I’m now any more courageous than I was at the beginning of the year, but we’ll see how this year plays out.

This year, I would love for things to quiet down a little so I can do some housekeeping and organizing. It’s also gearing up to be a big year for me for other reasons: it’s mid-term elections back in the US and my first chance to vote as a Swedish citizen. With any luck, I’ll also be starting Stockholm University’s Kompletterande Pedagogisk Utbildning program, but I don’t want to jinx it. Regardless, 2018 will be a year with a lot going on, and in anticipation of that, the word and concept I chose to steer my life towards in 2018 is:

A peaceful grove of redwood trees in the afternoon sun, with "calm" in yellow calligraphy in the bottom right corner
Original photograph courtesy Sebastian Engler

Of course, just because I’m shooting for a calmer, more serene 2018 doesn’t mean I won’t be taking on any new work! It’s more a word about my daily habits and deciding which ones enrich my life and which ones just send me into an unnecessary spiral of nerves and worries. Even in Sweden, a country built for introverts, interacting with the world as an introverted freelancer can really take it out of you.

Are you going to choose a word for 2018? I’d love for you to tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.