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.


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.

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.

Review: Journal of a Solitude

This was a book that I bought at a library sale I don’t know how many years ago. After falling in love with Walden in high school, the similar premise of this book (memoirs of living alone in the countryside) intrigued me. Yet somehow I never got around to reading it until I was going through my books to ship across the ocean. Out of all of the books I hadn’t read yet but really wanted to, this was at the top of the list. So I tore through it during my last days in Pennsylvania and up the highways to Albany, then ended up re-homing it to my friend and hostess in Maine.

The black-and-white cover of Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton featuring a photograph of a desk illuminated by a lamp, as viewed through a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Author: May Sarton

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: May Sarton’s account of a year of living in the country

Recommended audience: Those interested in poetry and memoirs generally; those interested in queer writers specifically

In-depth thoughts: I could tell that I had started and stopped this book at least a few times: the first few entries were familiar to me, and I had dog-eared a page or two. Younger Me wanted to like this, or wanted to be the kind of person who liked this, but I guess she needed a few more years to be able to really get into it. Now Me couldn’t put this book down.

There isn’t much that happens, which is what you can expect from something titled Journal of a Solitude. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine, at any rate. There is also a directness and simplicity to her writing that pulls you along, and which is probably especially beneficial for English students. I think it’s exactly the kind of cozy book that makes for perfect winter reading.

Review: Crossings

I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.

Cover for Crossings by Jon Kerstetter
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Author: Jon Kerstetter

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.24 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor

Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology

In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.

I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.

What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.

As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?

Reveiw: American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. Incidentally, despite my struggles with brevity, I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing other people’s short writing. I have a friend on a short story kick who can attest to the extent of my cuts (and actually, you’ll blog-meet him soon enough). But the only way to get better at short-form writing is to read a lot of it, right? So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?

American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.

Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.

Author: Rick Bailey

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.22 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Those interested in short-form nonfiction writing, whether for its own sake or for the sake of improving their own.

In-depth thoughts: Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love! But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no “surprise” or “sublime” for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was “For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation,” which touches on one of his “non-traditional” (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn’t hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation, Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here’s the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:

“I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?”

It’s my turn to laugh. “Patrick Swayze?”

“In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation.” She gives me an embarrassed look. “Did you ever levitate?”

Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.

There’s probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen’s thoughts about it, and Bailey’s memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey’s own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?

I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.

I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.

While I might be tempted to point to one of these essays if I ever tackle personal essays or memoirs in a lesson, American English, Italian Chocolate was just not my cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to EFL students.

My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.


2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.


Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.


5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.