Yeah, it's March, but I just thought of it!
I've had plenty of time to think about my last year's reading, and I thought Cake would be a good place to share my favorites. I read a lot of good books last year, and a lot of them will stick with me, but it still wasn't even close: these books were both phenomenal, and each in their own way I wished hadn't ended. I'll explain that.
Favorite fiction read of 2017:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I was a little dubious about this book, but it captured me from the first page -- the voice is charming, thoughtful, inviting. If you have to know what books are about, it's about a writer finding a diary washed up on a Pacific beach. The text is part the finder's, and part the findee's: a diary of a Japanese girl raised in California and then suddenly transplanted back to Tokyo, and the story of the middle-aged writer in British Columbia trying to figure out how the diary came to be on the beach there. But that's just the core of the book, the thread around which everything else is built and accumulated, like salt crystals growing off a string, or sea flotsam and creatures twining around it.
The book is about time, death, grief, biology, alienation and connection. It's about Zen Buddhism, and crows, and suicide. It's about everything, and it's so good that when I finished listening to the audiobook (read by the author), I didn't want to listen to anything else for weeks: I only wanted to hear from Ruth and Nao, and I considered just starting over from the beginning, so I could be with my book-friend again. (If you knew how ravenously I listen to books and podcasts, you'd understand this is truly remarkable.) As it is, I'm going to go back and read it on paper, to experience it in a different way -- my sister tells me there are splendid footnotes!
Favorite nonfiction read of 2017:
The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
This is a huge ambitious piece of history: the author is a journalist and researched for FIFTEEN years before writing this, her only book so far. That's understandable: she's trying to tell the story of an event that directly involved around 6 million people, and took place, by her reckoning, over more than 50 years. Many of us know the Great Migration happened -- maybe we answered an AP US History test question right: "The Great Migration refers to: A. the mid-twentieth century movement of 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North" -- full marks. But particularly for a white American like me, for whom it isn't part of family history, there isn't much detail in the picture. Why then, when things had been horrible for black people in the South since the failure of Reconstruction? How did they go, what were they hoping for, who tried to keep them from going, and what was it like to go? Did they realize it was a mass migration, or did they just leave, each person and family for their own reasons?
This book answers all these questions by weaving well researched social history together with a rich mass of personal accounts. Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, used many stories, and chose one migrant to focus on for each decade of the height of the Migration (30s, 40s, 50s). Not only does that give us small-focus, human stories to care about and trace throughout, but it gives a grounded quality to the narrative: the South people leave is one well remembered, layered with sounds and smells. There's a level of immersive detail to these lives that you'd find in a memoir or a novel.
When I finished this book, I wished there were more books written like this, large scale histories informed and penetrated by oral history on every page. I can't think of a better way of learning about something within living memory, or making sure that that memory doesn't completely die. It's a hugely important piece of American history I never knew much about, something that still informs the shape of my country and race relations in it, and it was intensely interesting to learn about, besides.
What were your favorite reads last year, now they've had a chance to sink in?