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Margaret's Favorite Reads of 2017

It has long been my habit to give books as Christmas presents. Books, to me, are the greatest gift you can give (and receive, for that matter). They stick with you long after you have closed the cover; they change the way you see the world, sometimes forever. I choose the books that I have enjoyed the most throughout the year and try to match them to the reading habits of my family and friends. This often proves quite difficult as everyone, it turns out, looks for different things when they read books. Some hope to be challenged by the books they read. Others hope to be entertained. I always hope that both things can happen simultaneously. This, to me, is the sign of a great book: it stretched me outside of my comfort zone - maybe through genre, length, theme - and forced me to question my perceptions.

Favorite Reads of 2017:

M Train by Patti Smith

This book is not only one of my favorite reads of the year, it has made its way onto my list of favorite books, period. Patti Smith is the rare writer that describes a simple scene - like sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop, people watching and writing - and turns it into a spiritual experience. Her exploration of life, death, and the temporality of all things moved me to tears on a few occasions. M Train made me think of possessions, both inanimate objects and the people that we love, in a more reverent and grateful way.

Smith turns sixty-six while she is writing her memoir; Hurricane Sandy hits New York City; she forgets her favorite camera on a bench by the beach. All of these events work together to tell Smith’s story of losing her partner, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Her words are wise, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Another incredible book by a woman named Smith, On Beauty has also found its place on my “favorite books ever” list.

Zadie Smith’s books are alive. I can think of no better way to describe them. She writes from the perspective of many characters and each of their voices is distinct and real. From the minute I opened On Beauty I felt completely immersed in the world that Smith created. Her characters are full and strong and defy neat categorization. Written in 2005, this novel could just have easily been written yesterday. Her themes are relevant to current conversations about free speech on campus, liberal and conservative ideology, and race and class in the United States and Britain. Her work exposed hypocrisy in my own liberal beliefs, challenged perceptions I had about the intersection of race and class, and made me laugh a lot. I did not want it to end.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Before I moved to Eau Claire, I lived in Milwaukee for seven years. The Milwaukee I lived in was very different from the one described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, though I was aware that I was living in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. The evidence was all around - blue collar neighborhoods became hotbeds for hip restaurants I served at, boutiques I shopped in, and roasteries where I drank my coffee. On the other side of the river and highway are the neighborhoods Desmond writes about. This dividing line looms large, and Desmond’s work shines a spotlight on the community that I loved - though hardly knew.

Over the course of about fourteen months, Matthew Desmond lived in two of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Evicted, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, follows eight families that face eviction over that period of time. There were moments while I was reading this book that I had to remind myself these were real people, and not characters in a fictional world - a sign of my privilege as I sat on my couch, drinking coffee, and listening over the baby monitor for sounds of the end of my daughter’s nap. Evicted is heartbreaking and difficult to read, and I think everyone should. Poverty is not simple, and Desmond’s work demonstrates the need for awareness, understanding, and change.   

1984 by George Orwell

Somehow I made it through high school and both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English Literature without reading 1984. I have no idea how. I finally read it this year and now I get what all the fuss is about. Thoroughly dystopian and alarmingly relevant to today, 1984 kind of messed with me. In our current political climate, scenes in which Winston is destroying old news articles and changing the narrative of history scarily foreshadow fake news and all of its definitions. The writers of the “Newspeak dictionary” aim to delete words from each edition, encompassing more meaning in fewer words, eliminating the tools needed for creative expression and reducing critical thinking. The similarities to today are far-reaching and kept me up at night.

Honorable Mentions:

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favorite writers working today - his book Everything Is Illuminated is one of my favorites, so if you like Here I Am, check it out. There is something fearless in the way Safran Foer writes; he is unafraid to tackle huge themes while expertly crafting the inner life of each of his characters. Here I Am is no exception. This is a big book that tackles not only the dissolution of a marriage, bar-mitzvahs and child-rearing, and the death of a family patriarch who lived during the Holocaust, but also an earthquake in the Middle East that catapults Israel into war with everyone.

Here I Am is an emotionally heavy book due mainly to the fact that Jacob and Julia Bloch are a “normal,” loving couple with three children who can no longer keep their marriage and family together. But throughout each character’s search for independence and identity, there are moments of everyday hilarity that imbue the story with hope.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Elizabeth started recommending this book to me a while ago. Then I heard an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins on one of my favorite podcasts, On the Media, and I knew I needed to move this book up on my reading list. Gold Fame Citrus is not an easy book to read. Watkins keeps her readers at the intersection of excess and deprivation for the entire novel, teetering on the edge of science fiction, but always coming back to the emotional and material world of Luz, a twentysomething former model and actress trying to survive in the literally and figuratively shifting landscape of post-global warming America.

The King is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón

I finished The King is Always Above the People and thought, “Okay, that was good. What should I read next?” It didn’t make an impression. Maybe the final story didn’t resonate with me, or maybe I was hungry. Either way, I set the collection aside and started into my next book.

Over the next few days, I found myself absentmindedly dwelling on the characters in Alarcón’s stories. I wanted to know all the things that led up to the moment I met them. I wanted to know what had happened to them after we parted. Alarcón had created characters that I had only spent a short story’s worth of time with, and yet I was thinking about them as if they were friends of friends. If you’re looking for a collection of short stories that deals with familial expectations, identity, and reinvention, The King is Always Above the People is a great one.

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

This book took me completely by surprise. If you read my blog on Mansfield Park, you know I’m a big Jane Austen fan, but I haven’t read much work by the other women included in this book - one book each by Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and nothing by Virginia Woolf. In other words, my enjoyment of this book didn’t hinge on being intimately familiar with the work of these authors.

A Secret Sisterhood is a fascinating book. Each featured writer is working at a different time (with the exception of some overlap between Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot), and thus the social conventions and expectations vary drastically for each woman. Reading each of these portraits one after the other (I finished this book in a day) I came away feeling so grateful to be a woman now, and not just because modern medicine has come a long way - every one of these women dealt with a loved one dying of a cold. While it can often feel like women haven’t come all that far in our fight for equality, this book will convince you otherwise. I’ll warn you - A Secret Sisterhood will add books to your reading list; I can’t wait to read more work by each of these authors.