I started out this year intending to join @geekerrific in a Year of Reading Women, but then grad school (a parade of dead male Spaniards) got in the way. Still, my favorite reads this year centered women, and it was so good to be among them. I learned so much from so many different voices.
The main theme of these books is craft, not content. I read a lot more than I wrote this year, which I’d like to be an exception rather than the rule. It was disproportionate and dispiriting, but it was also a master class and a retreat. I’m looking forward to the fruits of this inspiration. Without further ado…
Best non-fiction read for the first time
One of Us by Åsne Seierstad
This book on Anders Breivik and the massacre in Norway, written by a Norwegian journalist and war correspondent, is phenomenal. It was a timely read, sad to say, and getting inside what radicalizes the young/white/male is an emotionally exhausting thing, but if you’re going to do it, there is no better guide. This is the best that journalism can be.
Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal
The basic premise of this book is that domestic, unremunerated, generally women’s labor is excluded from the formal economy and therefore the latter is even more fictional than we thought. I learned a lot from that argument, but I also loved the broader implications. This book critiques economic logic as insufficient, a limit on what it means to be human, an obviously artificial thing. I admire that she took every assumption I had and questioned it without making me feel stupid for having held them. This is the best that popular scholarship can be.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
I loved this for the history, but even more for the historiography. Schiff does an amazing job making her scholarship accessible and does a lot with a little. Cleopatra is so often reduced to her sexual history and ultimate downfall that I would not trust any less capable hands with her story, and it was so gratifying to see what a smart take on well-trod history can do. This is the best that history can be.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
A very welcome wake-up call from a surprising-to-me source, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I also read this year and chose to learn from, rather than scorn—a productive exercise, honestly). Much like EPL, you get more out of this book if you approach it with good faith and decide to embrace its high-stakes implications. I really admire Gilbert’s approach to “creative living,” and acknowledging creativity as essential, rather than luxurious. This is the best that self-help can be.
Thy Will Be Done: Letters to Persons in the World by St. Francis de Sales
I have read and reread these so many times this year and discover a new gem each time. I am so grateful for Francis’ gentle, insightful spiritual guidance, and how wonderfully specific—and therefore broadly instructive—it is, especially for the laity. This is the best that spiritual direction can be.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
An elegy to the love of his life; tragic without being punishing. As with so many of the books on this list, the craft grabbed me more than the content. Goldman’s lyrical fury is unlike anything else I’ve read this year. This is the best that memoir can be.
Best fiction read for the first time
La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas «Clarín»
I jokingly referred to this book as “Anna Karenina, but you care about the Anna half.” A better way of putting it is that Anna gets the complexity of the Levin half. Incidentally, the titular Regenta is also named Ana, and she’s fascinating, and she desires transcendence, and she acts like a person, and I loved loving this book. Way too long, but hey, you’re allowed to be verbose when you’re also life-changing.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
I have a sort of secret motto: I love “things that are both.” I say sort of secret because it is the kind of thing I can never keep track of having declared or not. I love borders, blurs, betweens, boths. I wrote my entire statement of purpose for grad school about this. Homi Bhabha says that the location of culture is the moment of articulation of difference, the noticing your own distinctness from the other. How much more, then, when you find yourself inventing distinctions that do not hold up to lived experience. How much more interesting, then, is the both. In any case, I saw this title, and I sensed a manifesto. The book’s cover is a detail from a painting of St. Lucia, my Confirmation saint, that eyes-sprig that is so part of my own iconography that I’d never noticed its strangeness until I saw it out of context, staring at me from the cover of this book. Between the two I felt myself called to this thing. It delivered. That’s all I will say. I apologize for this not being anything remotely resembling a review, but I couldn’t do it justice anyway.
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Mandel’s writing has been so influential to me this year. Her sprawling North American stories have the impeccable structure of a small-town tale and I admire that so much.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little-No-Horse by Louise Erdrich
I’m glad I am savoring Erdrich’s books and making my way through them slowly. With each one, I let just enough time go by for me to forget how truly soul-shakingly good she is. And how perceptive and disturbing and unforgettable the faith in them.
The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas
Almost infuriatingly experimental, but he pulls it off. I would not recommend it to the monolingual or the faint of heart or the overly traditional, but if you’re willing to be along for a wild ride that’s just as much about college-years regrets as Ecuadorian politics, vamos.
Best movies/TV watched for the first time
There’s best (Carol, The Revenant, Room) and then there’s favorite (Love & Friendship, aka the Austeniest Austen, and Rogue One, aka Diego Luna in Space). The two movies that fit in both categories are Manchester by the Sea and Moana.
As for TV, El ministerio del tiempo has joined Lost and Jane the Virgin in the pantheon of my favorite shows of all time. This was also the year of Gilmore Girls and The Office, both of which have their flaws, but are ultimately delightful, especially for anyone who’s ever loved a hometown like I have.
Honorable mention: hidden gem Superstore
JMU Stratford Players, Harrisonburg, VA
September 10, 2016
I will never forget sitting in the black box waiting for the show to start. You could hear the river, gulls, chatter in several languages, traffic. The empty set was littered with Italian and Chinese takeout. I knew within ten seconds this thing takes place on Riverside Drive. Sure enough, they mention it in the first few minutes. That set and sound design was so brilliant, I will be raving about it for years. The play itself made me laugh and cry, everyone in it did such a good job, and I’m just so proud of JMU theatre in general.
Funk Cannon at the International Buskers Music Festival
Bastion Square, Victoria, BC
July 26, 2016
My sister and I walked around all of Victoria and collapsed, exhausted, at Darcy’s Pub. We had garlic fries and hard iced tea and watched these kids go ham for hours. If I had to summon a Patronus I’d think about this.
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
April 17, 2016
JMU did The Aliens last year, and The Flick is by the same playwright, Annie Baker. She writes about the inner lives of overlooked workers at everyplaces: the film nerd who works at the cinema, the stoner musician who works at the café, the high school kids who wander in and out of their worlds every summer. These plays are long, dialogue-heavy, and subtle. They’re easy to do badly. JMU and Signature nailed them. In any case, if an Annie Baker production comes to your city, see it. Otherwise, head to the library—she reads well, too!
Impact Montréal vs. New England Revolution
Stade Saputo, Montréal, QC
July 2, 2016
🎶AllezAllezAllezAllez MontréalMontréal🎶 (No further comment.)
Studio Theatre, Washington, DC
February 24, 2016
This falls under my craft-master-class theme. It’s a play in repeated, slightly altered scenes with just two actors, tied into the idea of parallel universes. It works so well. Each alteration ripples and says so much about these characters, how the same character can be alternately adorable and dangerous with the littlest trigger. It is remarkably well made. I don’t love the ends this technique is used for (there’s a lot of dressed-up nihilism in here), but I was totally taken with the skill of the format.
“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” at the Met
New York, NY
I spent a long time soaking in this exhibit with my friend Amanda, and I even bought the exhibit book to bring home. (I rarely do. Those things are expensive!) It’s been on my coffee table ever since—mostly, I admit, because I love being an adult and having a coffee table that has a coffee table book on it—and it makes me smile every time I look at it. Because that’s what people did when Vigée Le Brun was around. The most striking thing about her art is that her subjects seem genuinely happy to be there, which is hard to fake and even harder to maintain for hours of sitting for a portrait. This exhibit really evoked how intimate the experience of portrait painting is, and how much more comfortable and alive her subjects seem particularly in comparison to those painted by men. There is no element of scandal or even of tension here. There’s a lot of humanity. Even Marie Antoinette comes off as a mother doing her best. That’s hard to accomplish and it is such a good lesson in storytelling, for me, and why an artist’s identity matters in accessing the full depth of a story.
“Pompeii,” Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal
The most powerful object in this entire exhibit was, weirdly, an egg pan. It was gold in color, with four molded cup protrusions and a short handle, and it was designed for cooking eggs. I could not get over this. Ancient Romans had egg fryers. This was somehow more impressive to me than building an empire and temples and arenas. Similarly the jewelry, not so different in taste than what I’d see in a department store counter now, but ornate and genuine. It’s little things like this that make people real to us. And then, of course, in the last room, we see them terrified and dying. So many historical exhibits feel like a guided dress-up and leave you feeling like you’ve learned something. I left this having felt something, too. That’s different. That’s what I want to aim for.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Québec
Québec City, QC
A complex of buildings full of art I’d never see anywhere else, from Inuit sculpture to romantic-style landscapes featuring Mohawk women to contemporary architecture that blends perfectly into the Plains of Abraham. It’s a delight just to be there, let alone to have it to yourself as my family basically did, during the museum’s weekly late hours.
Chihuly Garden & Glass
I don’t know how to describe this. You just have to look at it. And even then I cannot get across the monumental scale of it with pictures. The whole thing feels very Wonderland.
Virginia Quilt Museum
I haven’t actually written the article that inspired me to go here in the first place (yet). No me sale, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll get there. But I’ve always been fond of museums or exhibits that focus on medium, rather than theme or period. You notice details you wouldn’t otherwise. Quilting is a pretty straightforward, simple thing at its most basic—if I can do it, trust me, it’s not that hard, because I am a disaster with things like this—but it lends itself to infinite experimentation. The two artists featured when I visited the museum, friends Constance Norton and Violet Cavazos, make fantastically detailed, monumental, contemporary, and occasionally even representational quilts that blew me away. I think I love this museum precisely because it celebrates an art that is often dismissed as craft, as if the latter was never the former, as if an object having a purpose robbed it of aesthetic value. (And, let’s be real, as if women’s work had no artistry to it.)
Honorable mention: the streets of Montréal in general
Best posts or articles by other people
Rich Cohen on the great Québec maple syrup heist for Vanity Fair
Reading this was a highlight of my December.
Jessica Weiss on female Cuban skateboarders for the Miami New Times
The best sports journalism of the year in my book.
Alexis Okeonwo on the defection of the Eritrean men’s soccer team for the New Yorker
This is a crowning jewel in the “soccer explains the world” genre, which as we all know is my favorite genre.
Michael-Lee Murphy on Brexit and football in Belfast for Hazlitt
Another good one. I learned a lot about Ireland (both Northern and the Republic) this year, particularly because of the Easter Rising centennial. I’ve enjoyed increasing my understanding of it, in part because of my own heritage, but also because I have quite a few Irish and Irish-American friends—all Catholic, so I never really hear the Protestant half of the history. Murphy’s article reminded me a lot of Tierra del Fuego, actually, all of the British-Argentine arguments and binaries that map poorly onto everything down there. It’s a good read.
Jeanne-Marie Jackson on political performance in the academy for 3:am Magazine
I read this before my re-entry into academic life and it was very affirming to read, not only as an instructive example of why multilingual literary studies are important but also as a lament of overly abstract, uninformed, “cultural” academic work. That is: in order for academia to be good it has to be good, not just well-intentioned.
And, okay, they each get one:
- Franklin Foer on Donald Trump for Slate
- Rebecca Traister on Hillary Clinton for New York
- Joshua Cohen on Bernie Sanders for The New Republic
Best posts or articles by me
- Jacques Hamel
- Katharine Drexel
- Kateri Tekakwitha
- Catherines (forthcoming)
- José Gabriel Brochero (forthcoming)
How soccer explains the world:
- The mythical founding of Club Atlético Independiente
- The politics and poetry of Copa América Centenario
- A love letter to DC United
- Urban design in favelas
- Socialism in Venezuela
- Voting in America
- The Bob McDonnell case
- Obama in Argentina
- Dénouement, revised / Washington, DC
- Swamp heat, revised / Washington, DC
- Bias-motivated incidents / Charlottesville, VA
- On the move (aka Cracker Barrel Theory) / Seattle, WA
- The work of God / Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal (original)
- He is faithful, and he will do it / Basilique Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
- It is truly right and just / Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal (modern)
Honorable mention (given that Rubén Darío did all the work): El nacimiento de la col
Cool things that happened this year, not mentioned elsewhere in this post
- I had purple hair for a bit there
- I got my first apartment
- I presented pedagogical research (read it here)
- I taught intermediate Spanish at a university
- I got ridiculously good at making pierogi
- My sister and I climbed to the top of a waterfall and got soaked on our way back down
- I had the perfect, platonic-ideal coffee experience (honorable mention)
- I know Portuguese now (and yes ok I finished the Duolingo)
- I started a side blog to share and support contemporary Christian art