By December there are dozens, probably hundreds, of lists of the year's top books. Every bookstore and book trade association, all major newspapers and many magazines publish their own lists, as do countless bloggers and websites. And though these lists vary, certain books are making every one this year: H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald, M Train
by Patti Smith, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan, S. P. Q. R.: A History of Ancient Rome
by Mary Beard, The Argonauts
by Maggie Nelson, and of course Ta-Nehisi Coates's taut and gorgeous National Book Award–winner Between the World and Me
By all means buy these books (they're wonderful)! But maybe you're looking for something a little different this year. A local book, or one less talked-about but just as in tune with the American zeitgeist. For this year's "best" list, I'm sharing the gems that may not be riding the New York Times
' bestseller list, but which I read and loved this year and can't stop thinking about.
All the Things We Never Knew
by Sheila Hamilton
Chances are that if you live in Portland and listen to the radio, you've heard of Sheila Hamilton. Hamilton is an Emmy–award winning television journalist and a popular morning show cohost for KINK FM. All the Things We Never Knew
is Hamilton's memoir of her first husband David's struggle with bipolar disorder and subsequent suicide. Both a gripping, cathartic portrait of loss and a well-reported exposé of our mental health care system, All the Things
serves as an empathetic guidepost for families and individuals dealing with mental illness. Hamilton tells her story simply and with a surprising amount of self-critical candor, but what will stay with me forever is the heart-wrenching passage detailing how she told her young daughter about David's suicide. As Hamilton frequently notes, mental illness and suicide are pervasive but stigmatized in our communities, and many people feel like they have to keep such terrible experiences secret. All the Things We Never Knew
is a brave attempt to start a public conversation about issues that most of us have only dealt with, achingly, in private.
Underground in Berlin
by Marie Jalowicz Simon
The novelist Dara Horn
recently wrote an excellent essay about the ahistorical clichés of the Holocaust novel, among them the cute child protagonist, a black-and-white moral universe, and an uplifting ending. The same can be said for many Holocaust memoirs, though the themes differ; in general, the central plot point involves a Jew in hiding, the dramatic tension comes from the possibility of discovery, and the story concludes with the narrator's survival despite great adversity. There's nothing wrong with this. Despite structural similarities, within each survivor's account live the thousand details that showcase her individuality, alluding by extension to the individuality of every Nazi victim.
The problem is that most of these books, fiction and memoir, fail to address every reader's secret why?
Specifically, why didn't more Jews rip off the yellow star? Why did they report for deportation? Why didn't they fight for their lives? Marie Jalowicz Simon's remarkable memoir, Underground in Berlin
, addresses these questions. As a young woman, Ms. Simon broke with her family, which was determined to stay with the Jewish community during deportation, and disappeared into wartime Berlin. Without her star, but also without true anonymity, Ms. Simon moved between safe houses, always within sight of the authorities. She quickly learned to assimilate into new situations regardless of morality or conventions, often throwing herself into sexual relationships to survive. Underground in Berlin
provides a fascinating portrait of Berlin as a liberal city generally disinterested in Nazi ideology but still willing to give up its Jews, and of a cunning young woman determined to live through the war. Not since reading Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz
have I encountered such a brilliant, dispassionate account of Holocaust survival.
The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe
by Michael Pye
The Edge of the World
is a dense and delightful exploration of the trading cultures that flourished in the marshy borderlands of the North Sea during the Middle Ages. If that sentence bored you, let me try again: Vikings! Money! Power! Vikings! Prior to reading this book, I had no idea how central the North Sea communities were in the development of modern finance, and by extension in the promotion of disparate ideas like self-government, tolerance, and cleanliness. While Pye's claim that the North Sea basically ushered in the Renaissance is tenuous, because it ignores parallel developments farther south, The Edge of the World
shines a light on fascinating peoples I had never heard of, like the Frisians and Jutes. Pye also does an excellent job of conjuring the physical environment of the North Sea through time, and adds necessary complexity to the common depiction of Vikings as marauders. All that said, I have to admit that what first drew me to The Edge
was its gorgeous cover of an ancient fish encircling a sea. It's an image that promises wave-tossed relics and Northern adventure — and Pye delivers.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
by Carrie Brownstein
Okay, Carrie Brownstein's memoir isn't exactly a hidden gem. But it is a gem, courtesy of Brownstein's intelligent prose and careful description of her artistic genesis. After years of rock bios featuring tousled men in metallic pants snorting coke off of models, it's refreshing to read about the inner-life of an admittedly awkward rock star. (My favorite anecdote involves Brownstein trying to nonchalantly exit an orgy by doing a shoulder shimmy out the door.) Brownstein describes the Pacific Northwest milieus where Sleater-Kinney took shape, providing fascinating histories of the Riot Grrrl movement and her own transition from a precocious, vulnerable kid into an ambitious adult whose celebrity persona is at odds with her self-portrait as a shy animal-lover. Brownstein is clearly a private person, and Hunger
succeeds in conveying her insecurities and fears without allowing the reader the fantasy of knowing Carrie. It's a deft maneuver and one that works due to Brownstein's ample charm and intellect. And just in case you're wondering, you don't have to like the music to love the autobiography. Sleater-Kinney will always sound like noise to me, but Brownstein's words make sweet music.
Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim
by Justin Gifford
Readers familiar with Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, know him as the author of Pimp: The Story of My Life
, Slim's mostly true 1967 account of his 25-year career as a hustler. Slim's depictions of sex and violence against women are shocking, but as Gifford notes, Pimp
is equally remarkable for "laying the groundwork for blaxploitation films, street fiction, and gangsta rap" as well as "addressing the racial inequalities in American society." Iceberg Slim hustled in part because that's where a black man could make the most money.
Gifford's engaging biography describes a handsome, clever man "poisoned" — Slim's word — by street life, and his eventual jailhouse transition from misogynistic criminal to popular novelist and family man. (How can any reader resist that trajectory?) On the one hand, it's surprising that Gifford is the first scholar to tackle Beck's biography, given his stature as one of the most important African American pop cultural figures of the mid-20th century; on the other, the critical silence regarding Beck's oeuvre speaks to our culture's chronic dismissal of minority lives. However timely Gifford's work is, however, one of the aspects I most admire about Street Poison
is his refusal to resurrect Beck as saint done wrong by American racial prejudice. Street Poison
is a serious biography of a fascinating and problematic cultural figure and required reading for anyone with an interest in gangsta rap, black street fiction, film, or African American culture in the years before and after World War II.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck
Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail
hits a sweet spot between trail history, travelogue, and memoir. A few years ago, trying to shake a midlife crisis and seeking closure over his father's premature death, Buck and his brother traveled the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon drawn by mules. Buck does an excellent job of bringing to life the daily experiences of the pioneers, as well as aspects of Oregon Trail history that have gone unacknowledged, like the friendly Native American tribes who provided assistance to the pioneers and the mechanics of mule-drawn transportation. Buck's voice is extremely earnest and funny, and while his narrative lacks the transformational gravitas of another well-known trail book, Cheryl Strayed's Wild
, he makes for wonderful company. If you enjoyed Bill Bryson's Appalachian musings
or miss Tim Cahill's
outstanding, eclectic essays for Outside
magazine, The Oregon Trail
belongs on your to-read list. Warm and witty, it's the perfect escape from our long and chilly Northwest nights.
by Kate Bolick
There's definitely a consumer appetite for smart, relatable feminist essayists, and Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own
is a welcome addition to the niche being carved out by Roxane Gay
, Caitlin Moran
, and Lena Dunham
. Less global in its scope than Gay and Moran, and more literary than Dunham, Spinster
is a Gen X update of Virginia Woolf's seminal essay, "A Room of One's Own
." Restoring the word "spinster" to its origin as a reference for a highly valued working woman, Bolick explores her own deep-rooted "spinster wish" and traces the histories of the five female writers she calls her "awakeners," fascinating women like Edna St. Vincent Millay
and Neith Boyce
is not a self-help manual or a diatribe against marriage and motherhood; rather, Bolick concedes that there's room for myriad roles in 21st-century womanhood, and observes that today many women remain single not by choice but because of demographic shifts that have outpaced our culture's understanding of gender. Her main point is that to be a spinster — that is, to make a life of one's own — isn't about not marrying. It's about being considered a person beyond one's gender and all of the cultural packaging that goes along with it. Until women can walk through life as unencumbered as men by the cultural stigmas of bachelorhood and childlessness, they won't truly flourish as independent, distinct selves. Spinster
is an engrossing account of Bolick's attempt to do just that.
by Erik Larson
I admit it: Erik Larson's books are hardly the blushing flowers of the publishing world. Dead Wake
received a ton of press when it came out earlier this year, but now that the media attention has faded, it's time to remind you to read this wonderful book. An exploration of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Dead Wake
reads like a nonfiction suspense story featuring a diverse cast of military, political, and civilian personalities. Larson's character portraits are so vivid that he actually had me hoping against history that the Lusitania wouldn't sink, and I fell headlong into the intrigue between the British Admiralty, President Wilson, and the German submarine program. In true Larson style, the prose is very dramatic and fast-paced, belying the meticulous research that goes into building such splendid scenes and characters. Like his previous narrative histories (Devil in the White City
, In the Garden of Beasts
, and Thunderstruck
), Dead Wake
appeals to a very wide range of readers and makes an excellent gift or vacation read.
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More Best Books of the Year from Powell's: