Read in 2017

Have been regretting (is that possibly the right word?) not posting this earlier. This is my fourth year of keeping track (you can read 2016 here).


2017 was not a great reading year. Looking back, I see a lot of books that I didn’t much enjoy, which seems a terrible shame. The number of books is pretty consistent with prior years—right around thirty; am already at eleven for this year, so on pace and hopeful. (Summer is coming.) I did do some very serious re-reading and much of that was great, especially Middlemarch and this was the first year that I kept track of re-reading, which means page one to the end with intent, not a focused skim or a few chapters as I often do for teaching.

Nineteen of the twenty-six new books were by women. Only six of the twenty-six by people of color—I must do better! I keep thinking I am doing better (three of eleven so far). Amazing how we delude ourselves. Only ten of twenty-six were fiction.

I loved Marcy Dermansky’s novel and adored Zami, which is burned on my heart now, but the two books that really stood out for me in 2017 were Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which I listened to on audiobook. The performer, the Cambodian-American actor Francois Chau, has a beautiful voice and read the Vietnamese words and names, to my ear, flawlessly & beautifully which really made it all the more engrossing. The book is overlong and ungainly in parts, but it’s also a masterpiece: a real work of genius.

Much smaller in scale and also amazing was John Hampson’s 1931 novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound. My friend the novelist Jon Michaud recommended it to me. I began it and then put it down. I was gripping but cruel. Then I thought, “Wait! This is a novel about mean people. What if I just read it as if it’s about mean people?” Somehow, that unlocked it for me—I think I was imagining it as much sweeter than it is. It’s anything but sweet. Pitiless, cruel, and a masterpiece.  

Here you go: 

1.     Marcy Dermansky, The Red Car (fiction)


2.     Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (fiction)

3.     Miles Malleson, Yours Unfaithfully (drama)

4.     Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (fiction)

5.     Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (poetry)

6.     Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse (nonfiction)

7.     Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (graphic nonfiction)

8.     George Packer, The Unwinding (nonfiction, audiobook)

9.     Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (nonfiction)

10.  Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments (experimental nonfiction)

11.  Audre Lorde, Zami (memoir)

12.  Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In (nonfiction, self-help)

13.  Bing Xin, Letters from a Chinese Student at Wellesley: 1923-1926 (memoir; in translation)

14.  Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad (fiction)

15.  Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (fiction, audiobook)

16.  Lee Child, Die Trying (fiction)

17.  Reed Karaim, The Winter in Anna (fiction)

18.  Vera Brittain, The Dark Tide (fiction)

19.  Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life is a Narrative (nonfiction; in translation)

20.  Olive Schreiner, Women and Labour (nonfiction; kindle)

21.  Stevie Smith, The Holiday (fiction)

22.  Claire Dederer, Love and Trouble (memoir)

23.  Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth (diary)

24.  Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I don’t have time to write (essays)

25.  Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (nonfiction)

26.  John Hampson, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (fiction)


Re-read in 2017

1.     Nella Larsen, Passing (fiction)

2.     Jessie Fauset, Plum Bun (fiction)

3.     Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (fiction)

4.     Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (fiction)

5.     Judy Blume, Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret (fiction)

6.     Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (nonfiction)

7.     George Eliot, Middlemarch (fiction, kindle)

8.     Nella Larsen, Quicksand (fiction)

Read in 2016

(2016=29; 2015=30; 2014=33)

This is the third year I’ve kept track of my reading for the year and it’s the third year coming in right around 30 books. I think it would be great to read 52 in 2017. Let’s see if that can happen. What do I notice? This was a year of reading white women, for sure. Only 5 men and only 2 people of color in the whole list. That’s not great range, though since this accounting began in part out of the #readonlywomen movement of 2014, the preponderance of women in itself is neither surprising nor entirely bad.

Other observations: eight audiobooks (audiobook listening dwindling sharply between the conventions and that horrifying election and then rose again), only three books on the Kindle. A play. More experimental writing than in past years (11, 16, 23, & 25), so that’s good. And, with Mina Loy’s collection, even a bit of poetry. Also: some genre fiction this year in the form of three thrillers. Lee Child came to Fordham to honor alum Mary Higgins Clark and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I loved them and they certainly are a great way to finish a book quickly when just getting a complete narrative into your head feels like what needs to happen next. 

My least favorite books of the year were the Brittain biography (ponderous and too impatient to get to her pacifist work to see the rest of her life as interesting or worth documenting) and Eileen Myles (I know she’s a darling, but I found this memoirish novel almost unbearably self-indulgent. It’s really really hard for me to read about being drunk and on fellowship, dealing drugs and cheating on girlfriends who cheat on you.) I just felt the weight of all the time she was wasting. I kept reading—at a snail’s pace—because every few pages there would be a sentence that was absolutely dazzling and because I am a stubborn cuss.

My favorite book, by far, was H is for Hawk. Although I think about that handsome lug of a husband from Fates and Furies from time to time with a sigh.

1.     To Bed With Grand Music, Marghanita Laski (fiction)

2.    Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (fiction, audiobook)

3.    The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu (fiction)

4.    Plum Bun, Jessie Fauset (fiction)

5.     Unspeakable, Meghan Daum (nonfiction)

6.    Negroland, Margo Jefferson (nonfiction)

7.     Give and Take, Adam Grant (nonfiction, audiobook)

8.    Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel (fiction, Kindle)

9.    Richard III, William Shakespeare (drama, audiobook)

10.  Bossypants, Tina Fey (nonfiction, Kindle)

11.   The Argonuats, Maggie Nelson (nonfiction)

12.  H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (nonfiction, audiobook)

13.  Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (fiction)

14.  Bloomsbury Pie, Regina Marler (nonfiction)

15.  Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin (nonfiction, audiobook)

16.  Artful, Ali Smith (nonfiction)

17.  The Torso, Helene Thursen (fiction)

18.  Vera Brittain: A Life, Mark Bostridge (nonfiction)

19.  Killing Floor, Lee Child (fiction)

20. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner (fiction)

21.  A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson (memoir)

22. The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Mina Loy (poetry)

23. Where are the Children, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

24. Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles (fiction)

25. Pretend You Don’t See Her, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

26. Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton (memoir, audiobook)

27. This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust (nonfiction, audiobook)

28. Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (nonfiction, Kindle)

29. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance (nonfiction, audiobook)


Most important of all, we need to stay and keep connected. For my research, I’ve been reading Mark Granovetter’s work from the 1970’s on weak ties. He looked at working class Boston neighborhoods where unemployment was high. In one neighborhood, people did much better finding jobs than in another. In one neighborhood, people were successful in fighting the city’s plans to run a highway through the streets. What was the source of these successes? These neighborhoods were full of people who had ties to others outside the neighborhood. Granovetter found what we’re finding now in our social networks: if everyone you know agrees with you, if everyone in your circle shares your ideas, then your ideas don’t spread. But if you belong to a book group whose members differ from the people in your church which has a slightly different composition than your school board, you have the opportunity to spread an idea, to learn how to protest to local government when its acting against your interests, to pass your resume on to a manager who’s hiring folks in your area. Those groups that cross borders are weak ties and, in one of the most powerful and counterintuitive insights, Granovetter shows that only weak ties can be bridges.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about having a beer with a rancher when she was in rural Nevada on an environmental protest and finding lots of common ground. And I am still interested in and attracted to projects like Howard Schultz’s conversation starters or Matthew Dowd’s Listen To Us. Although I’m not loving Arlie Hochschild’s book, her project of going to rural Louisiana and getting to know people there, learning how they understood the role of big oil in their lives, is a good and brave effort to build bridges, not just for Hochschild, but, through her book, for may of us.

Keep those bridges. Build bridges. Instead of announcing “everyone who disagrees with me can go home,” why not remind people to be civil and strive to keep the links, even to those with whom you disagree?

Only connect.

This--defend, resist, connect--is my slogan, my aim and my hope for the coming year. What do you think?




Even as we defend our ideals, we will need to resist the designs and policies of the incoming administration. We must resist any political threats to the environment, to journalism, and to our most vulnerable fellow-citizens.

This year, for the first time, our family set up recurring (small) monthly donations to charities. We have always made annual gifts and occasional one-time gifts, but these sustaining donations save charities some money on fundraising and help stabilize their budgeting. I’ve been a sustaining member of WNYC for years. To that, we decided to support the environment (through which is smaller, more urgent, and as highly rated as the also excellent Sierra Club), civil rights (through the ACLU) and women’s rights (through Planned Parenthood). Those three issues rose to the top for our family; others will matter more to you, but it does feel good to give and to help.

Reading continues to be an act of resistance, too. Partly by supporting independent investigative journalism—we have recently subscribed to Slate Plus, the Washington Post and the Economist, all of which have been doing great good work to untangle and uncover questions about the upcoming administration.

More than that, we have to turn to books. The books that amuse and inspirit us as well as those that inform and warn us about the perils ahead. (I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on my Kindle, listening to George Packer’s The Unwinding, and reading a paper copy of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. As soon as I finish one of these, I’ll let myself read Marcy Dermansky’s new book, The Red Car!) I’m collecting a list of those books at the Syllabus for Hard Times and I invite you, again, to visit there and add your own ideas. Do I have to finally read The Fountainhead? Please don’t make me.