Style icon: Grace

Style icon: Grace

I can’t think of a better person to inaugurate my Style Icon series than my perpetually stylish baby sister Grace.

After living in a variety of places around the world (most recently in Kathmandu) for the past few years, Grace now makes her home in Berlin. She is an accomplished videographer and photographer and a licensed yoga instructor.

She was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions and sending me some photos of herself and her wardrobe. So, take it away, Poodle!

Style icon: Grace

How would you describe your personal style?

Someone once said my style was sorta sporty/structured, and I think that is pretty accurate. I wear yoga pants most days and love jackets and drapey stuff too.

Style icon: Grace

Has your personal style changed over the years? If so, why do you think it changed?

I’ve always worn a good deal of black, even when I was younger and now (apart from maybe four colored things in my whole wardrobe, it is all I wear). Shopping is easy now, and when I see a rack of clothes, I just go to the black ones, and if I don’t see anything I like, then I leave. Texture is really important and always has been to me. When I was little, my mom couldn’t take me to fabric stores because I would have to touch every fabric sample… few things change. These days, I love leather, velvet, and lace.

What do you hope you communicate by what you choose to wear?

I find pleasure in getting dressed, and I hope that comes across. How I feel in my clothes is more important than what people think.

Style icon: Grace

What are some crucial pieces of your current wardrobe? Items you wouldn’t feel complete without?

My fuzzy black sweater, my Doc Marten Chelsea boots, my grandma’s necklaces, my silver earrings from Nepal, and my numerous pairs of black leggings and jeans.

Style icon: Grace

What is your most recent purchase?

A pair of black wool socks…it’s cold in Berlin!

Style icon: Grace

Is there anything you’re on the hunt for right now?

A practical leather wallet. I’ve always carried my small, black magic wallet with me everywhere I go, but here I use cash and coins frequently.

Style icon: Grace

Who are some of your style icons?

For me, my style icons are seriously scattered, and they often include places and how I feel in those places: Rishikesh, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Florence… But there are also some people too: Erin Wasson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tilda Swinton, Amirah Jiwa, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Style icon: Grace

What do you most notice or admire in a well-dressed person?

Cool, casual confidence. I truly admire people who dress with great confidence and who also don’t take themselves too terribly seriously. Getting dressed should be fun, and my definition of someone who is well-dressed is someone who is simultaneously creative and laid-back. I also admire people who can apply and wear makeup well (I know nothing about makeup and envy those who do).

Gran's Memorial in Ohio

Merci, Gracie! Such fun to read about your sense of style, which has always been distinct, even when you were tiny. More in the series to come (I hope!).

On wearing a uniform

Coco Chanel:
Coco Chanel and a Great Dane.

I’ve realized that the well-dressed people I most admire wear uniforms. Emmanuelle Alt has her black stilettos, jeans, and white shirts. Jeanne Damas is always tucking shirts and sweaters into high-waisted pants. Giorgia Tordini can WORK some menswear, and hence usually does (I’m more than a bit in love with her). Grace only wears black now. Jonathan wears black and white.

Such people have a very specific, recognizable, and definable personal style. This interests me deeply. I think this is what people mean when they say that someone has “great style” — it’s concrete and identifiable; it does not bend to the seasonal whim of sartorial trends.

A uniform is certainly an appealing concept. It is not surprising that the article Matilda Kahl wrote for Harper’s, “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day,” sparked such a frenzy of internet interest. We take people who wear uniforms seriously. It appeals to our deep need to feel orderly and distilled in our daily life.

But what does this mean for someone like me, who is neither (a) courageous enough to wear the same thing to work every day nor (b) inherently gifted in the art of choosing and wearing clothes?

Some thoughts about this dilemma and my desire to be uniform:

  1. Name what I like and why. Continue to fall into that visual rabbit hole that is Pinterest (with which I am unabashedly in love). Study well-dressed people. Take note of why I keep pinning the same images and over and over again. It turns out that I am a perennial sucker for a woman in (a) button-down shirt and (b) a classic men’s shoe. Be exceptionally clear about what I like and dislike.
  2. Continue to edit out pieces that do not fit my concept of my uniform. I think I have now successfully accomplished this, as I no longer own any bright colors, flashy prints,
  3. Wear and use what I have. I do not need more things. I have checked off some of the more expensive staples from my wish list this year (silk shirts, cashmere sweaters), and they should ideally last a long time. I am set. Say this to myself and believe it.
  4. Talk to stylish people and glean their wisdom. I like doing this anyway, but I want to do it in a more structured, disciplined way. I am hoping to feature a few of these people here in the weeks and months to come, so stay tuned.

If I had to shape a daily work uniform from what I already own, I think it would be this:

  • Three-quarter-sleeve gray crewneck sweater from J.Crew (similar)
  • Black trousers from Gap, which I had tailored many years ago and now wear once a week (similar)
  • Black blazer from Forever21, which I am super-ashamed to admit, but it’s actually great and I wear it all the time and it was $15 please don’t hate me I haven’t shopped there in years and never will again (similar)
  • Black Everlane loafers, my dream shoe

Here it is! I am proud of how bad this collage is and how decidedly un-cool-lady-blogger it is.

Little Stories bad collage

How about you? Do you ever think about this? What garments would compose your daily uniform?

On wearing clothes

Wardrobe essentials

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” — Virginia Woolf, Orlando

At the turn of each new year, I apparently expend a good deal of mental space thinking about clothes. What can I discard and donate now? What did I not wear in the past year? What, in Kondo’s life-changing phrase, sparks joy?

If anything, the simple act of tidying my wardrobe sparks joy for me. (I unashamedly admit that I love folding my underwear.) Last night, I edited my closet and came up with armful of things, once more, that I ought not hold onto. It thrilled me. I am so much happier with less.

Wardrobe essentials

But. I am struggling with a new desire. I do not want a pile of new things, but I want but fewer, far more expensive, and well-made things. Gobs of cheap garments from Target and Old Navy no longer appeal to me, as they did when I was younger. I just want one ludicrously expensive pair of jeans. Or a luxurious, sustainably made handbag. Which is a different (fiscal) problem altogether.

My style aspirations haven’t changed at all since I last wrote about them. I still want to dress like a Parisienne, however that is within my power in Central Virginia. I have successfully edited out most colors and prints, except for stripes. I wear rather plain things now, and I love it.

Simply put, people who say they “don’t care about clothes” are not truthful. Everyone cares about clothes. Everyone makes deliberate choices about what they buy and how they wear it. Our wardrobes are not happy accidents.

What people mean when they say this is that they don’t care about fashion or trends. Which is fine. But everyone cares about clothes.

And that is why I like thinking about clothes and observing what people wear and why. What we say to the world through what we wear. Is the image that I think I’m projecting through my clothes what the world actually receives? It is something to ponder.

Next: Perhaps some thoughts on uniforms and minimalism.

2016 goals

Early Christmas camellia
My tiny camellia in the front yard.

Mom instilled in us the annual tradition of goal-setting, and although we tend to approach it more loosely now, I still feel like I can’t start a new year without some vague ambitions.

Assessment of last year’s goals:

  1. Read 120 books. Read 152.
  2. Continue the pursuit of minimalism and eschewing clutter in my approach to our home and my wardrobe, specifically. This is a continual pursuit, but I feel pretty happy with what I accomplished, by way of throwing things out and taking care of what I have. 
  3. Invest in higher-quality and ethically made clothes and shoes. Stop buying cheap crap. Jump off the fast-fashion train. I also feel like I’ve done this; I am no longer tempted by Target T-shirts and Old Navy sweaters.
  4. Style myself like a French woman, as much as it is within my power. Maybe? I’m going to say yes. I don’t wear bright colors anymore, and stripes are the only pattern I don.
  5. Take either a Japanese or a French class, for credit. Maybe both, if I’m feeling extra-ambitious. Fail. I still want to do this, though.
  6. Eat healthier lunches. Maybe. I am very lazy about this still.
  7. Figure out how to read the Bible for pleasure. Not really, but we are in a Bible study now, and that has been enjoyable.
  8. Practice morning prayer/meditation/timid yoga sessions at home on weekdays. Nope, but I am taking a yoga class once a week, which is a big deal for me.

2016 Goals

  1. Continue the pursuit of minimalism at home.
  2. Achieve and practice some basic conversational French before we leave for London. Keep up with my Duolingo practice; take some pronunciation lessons with friends who are French PhD candidates; watch an abundance of French film in the Criterion Collection.
  3. Read through and translate the entire book of Japanese short stories. Keep listening to the audio of it while driving. Keep making your brain sweat and weep for all that it has forgotten over the years.
  4. Be a better dog owner and housekeeper; mainly, groom them once a week and wipe their paws every day; keep working on their leash reactivity; train them more thoroughly. Figure out how to keep your floors clean so that you do not live in domestic misery.
  5. Write that thing that’s been rattling around in my brain for years. Share it with a select few for editing and criticism.
  6. Keep doing yoga, even though I hate it; get stronger, more flexible.

What are your goals for the new year?

 

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

Best nonfiction I read in 2015

I consumed a lot of excellent nonfiction this year, and this was a particularly difficult list to make. So many gorgeous, mind-expanding books!

1: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia

An enormous and spellbinding work of art, history, and memoir. Rebecca West travels to the former Yugoslavia with her husband in the late 1930s, on the cusp of World War II, and produces this gigantic and gorgeous book of her travels and observations. West, who is brilliant and yet endlessly entertaining and quick, sees the clouds gathering over Europe from the vantage point of the Balkans and produces this remarkable record of that pregnant historical moment. Their travels are chaperoned by Constantine, a Slavic Jew, who is a fascinating character in himself, and they are often unfortunately joined by his appallingly horrible German wife, Gerda, who is an outspoken Nazi sympathizer (which surely makes for a horrific marriage between them, at the very least). West is game for any adventure, however, even with such a dizzying array of characters and cultures.

Her style is breathtakingly beautiful and can win over even the most lax armchair historian (like myself), and she’s also devilishly funny and eloquently sarcastic. She, like most people of her time period, can be prone to racial stereotypes and overgeneralizations of people (she loves to use the word “sluttish,” for instance, to refer to people or art or cultures that she finds distasteful), but I think, on the whole, she comes down on the side of fairness and humanity more often than not. I will rave about this massive, unexpected treasure to anyone who will listen. It was worth every minute spent in its jam-packed pages.

2: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Gut-wrenching and terribly, beautifully composed. Essential reading for all Americans, especially us white ones, because we are still steeped in such shameful ignorance. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s repeated refrain of “the body,” in this letter to his son, was especially powerful and eye-opening to me, to consider the ever-present threat to the only thing you truly have, your physical self, if you are a black American. Until we so-called white Americans can acknowledge and bear our mutual, omnipresent complicity in perpetuating racism in a systematic, universal way, nothing will change in this country.

3: H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

The main thing that needs to be said is that this book is as incredible as everyone says it is. Helen Macdonald comes to terms with her beloved father’s sudden death in an unusual way: She adopts a goshawk. Goshawks are, I learned, one of the bird world’s finest killing machines, and training one to hunt with a human is no easy feat. In this marvelous book — half-grief memoir, half-hawk-training-narrative — Macdonald wrestles with the belief that animals can heal us, and finds that they can, but also discovers that animals can invert us, revealing our most dark, sad selves; a relationship with a wild thing can make us wild, a creature foreign to other humans and to ourselves.

Her prose is perfect, luminous; I couldn’t get enough. (It’s evident that she is also a poet; she knows how to make language bend and sing for her.) H Is for Hawk is gorgeously written and smart and heartbreaking; it elicited tears from me, and wry grins, and a hopeful, thoughtful perspective on the mystery of death and of the connection between two living things.

4: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Having recently lost a beloved grandmother and now watching my parents (and parents-in-law) wrestle with end-of-life care decisions for their parents, Atul Gawande’s book was very relevant and poignant to me. As a general surgeon, he writes with medical context and experience, but he also writes as a son watching his father die. Gawande is willing to ask the hard questions and to do so with grace and eloquence. What is important toward the end of our lives? Is there a better model for elderly care? How can we improve the quality of our lives when the years ahead are few? Gawande addresses these questions with sincerity, tact, and feeling, and I think this book ought to be required reading for any child with aging parents.

5: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you think the US justice system is fair and not implicitly racist, think again. Michelle Alexander’s well-researched and devastating book argues that the War on Drugs has created an enormous prison caste system, composed primarily of black men. The United States is 5% of the world population but 25% of its imprisoned population, and the majority of those prisoners are minorities. Increasingly, white Americans have had to come to grips with the fact that we live in a foolishly innocent parallel universe, in which we are largely ignorant of the racism and widespread unconscious bias that permeate law enforcement and the courts. We naively believe that (a) if someone ends up in jail, he deserves to be there and (b) that there is a sense of colorblind fairness in policing, sentencing, and convicting. Nothing could be further from the heartrending truth. (It is particularly sad and notable that this book came out five years ago, before the well-publicized spate of grotesque police violence against black people. What does it take to make us pay attention?)

The evidence Alexander presents to back up her case is vast and impossible to ignore. And the historical and legal context that she provides is very valuable and eye-opening, particularly for readers curious about the implications of court cases and criminal justice legislation. I think the book could have benefited from clearer framing. She mentions this a few times, but Alexander is not talking about the entire criminal justice system; rather, she focuses on the War on Drugs and its vast implications for creating our age of mass incarceration. This is a strong, readable, and important work of scholarship that demands sweeping policy change.

6: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

A perfectly expressed treatise on the theology of craft, specifically the characteristics of Japanese and Korean folk art. This book had been on my to-read shelf for years, and I am pleased to say it did not disappoint. Yanagi elevates the artistic and spiritual merit of wabi sabi work, especially pottery, and draws on Zen Buddhism (with dashes of Christian mysticism to appeal to Western readers) to form his philosophy of art. It’s clear, cogent, and elegantly simple. All I could think when finishing was, When I go back to Japan, I’m taking a whole suitcase just for ceramics.

7: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This is probably the first nonfiction horror book I’ve read. And it’s worth the existential dread and terror, because that might be the only thing that will make humankind act at this point. (The part of humankind who cares about science and what it’s been telling us for decades, i.e., how can any intelligent person possibly vote for politicians who deny climate change? But that is neither here nor there.) Here, Elizabeth Kolbert presents well-researched and solidly written accounts of extinction — and displays the considerable evidence that we are careening toward the sixth great episode of the decimation of biological diversity on Earth. The Sixth Extinction will make you sad and will make you begin to preemptively mourn the death of all the beautiful life on our planet, but it may also make you want to stand up and shout about it. Happy to hear that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

8: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Superbly researched and written. This book won the Pulitzer when it was published, in 2006, and although that was nine years ago, it is still incredibly relevant and helpful as we watch the rise of ISIS (Da’esh). I marveled at the depth and breadth of Wright’s research.

9: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

What a lovely book of wisdom: for writers, specifically, but for human beings, in general. Rilke shares thoughts on writing, art, grief, love, and solitude with his characteristic blend of honesty and power. It is a shame it took me so many years to get to this little book. It will be a pleasant thing to return to in times of discouragement or confusion.

10: The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays

In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I want to say about being both a free-thinking progressive and a self-identifying Christian. Five stars for a handful of the essays, which are luminous and so wise. A few I found a bit dry and tedious (the obsession with John Calvin is something I don’t totally understand), but overall, recommended particularly to American Christians, especially the ones who want to use their minds.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt (a quote here)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
  3. Women in Clothes, ed. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
  4. Hold Still, Sally Mann
  5. The Diary, vol. III, Virginia Woolf
  6. Oranges, John McPhee
  7. A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov
  8. A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West
  9. Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  10. White Girls, Hilton Als
  11. No Good Men among the Living, Anand Gopal
  12. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz
  13. On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss
  14. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves
  15. The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
  16. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
  17. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum
  18. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon
  19. The Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig
  20. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
  21. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  22. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso
  23. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
  24. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
  25. The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits
  26. The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey

What were some of the best nonfiction books you read in 2015? I’d love to hear about them.

Best poetry I read in 2015

To kick off my annual lists of the best things I read in the past year, here are the best 10 books of poems I read in 2015.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

1. The Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis

Selected Poems

2. Selected Poems, Rita Dove

Electric Light: Poems

3. Electric Light, Seamus Heaney

Life on Mars

4. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Almanac: Poems: Poems

5. Almanac, Austin Smith

Elephant Rocks: Poems

6. Elephant Rocks, Kay Ryan

The Long Approach

7. The Long Approach, Maxine Kumin

[Out of print; I seem to have the only copy in the world.]

8. House, Bridge, Fountain, Maxine Kumin

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations

9. Of No Country I Know, David Ferry

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009

10. What Goes On, Stephen Dunn

Up next: Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2015. Any favorite books of poems you read this year?

I am alive—I guess—

I am alive—I guess—
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory—
And at my finger’s end—

The Carmine—tingles warm—
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth—it blurs it—
Physician’s—proof of Breath—

I am alive—because
I am not in a Room—
The Parlor—Commonly—it is—
So Visitors may come—

And lean—and view it sidewise—
And add “How cold—it grew”—
And “Was it conscious—when it stepped
In Immortality?”

I am alive—because
I do not own a House—
Entitled to myself—precise—
And fitting no one else—

And marked my Girlhood’s name—
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine—and not mistake—
And try another key—

How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—the birth I had—
And this—besides, in Thee!

Emily Dickinson

I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be

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In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I wanted to say in my previous post. This is long, but it’s great, and it gets at the heart of my intention. The entire essay (and this book) is luminous and wise, and I recommend it highly. Robinson is American Christianity’s greatest treasure. Without further ado:

There is an implied religious rationale or impetus and obligation behind very deplorable trends in contemporary society. The arming of the fearful and resentful and unstable with military weapons, supported by the constant reiteration of tales that make mortal enemies of their fellow citizens and elected government, is pursued with a special passion in regions that claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian, and well mannered, to boot. Biblicist that I am, I watch constantly for any least fragment of a Gospel that could, however obliquely, however remotely, cast all this in any but a satanically negative light. I am moving, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.

In any case, how is it possible, given this economics of dark grievance that has so benefited arms manufacturers, cable celebrities, gold mongers, and manufacturers of postapocalyptic grocery items, that they can not only claim Christianity but can also substantially empty the word of other meanings and associations? I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be. As a matter of demographics, of heritage, of acculturation, of affinity, identification, loyalty. I aspire, with uneven results, to satisfying its moral and spiritual standards, as I understand them. I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example. To political democracy. These loyalties are either implied by my Christianity or are highly compatible with it. I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels. Persons of my ilk, the old mainline, typically do object just as strenuously, and on these same grounds. But they are unaccountably quiet about it. And here we have a great part of the reason that these gun-touting resenters of the poor and of the stranger can claim and occupy a major citadel of the culture almost unchallenged.

From “Memory,” in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson.