Top Reads 2009: Nonfiction & Memoir

Julia Child, My Life in France

I bought this for my wife a couple of years ago, and then decided to cram it before going to see Julie & Julia. What a delightful surprise! Part travelogue, part cookbook (in a way), the book is an homage to a "simple" way of life that also relishes and revels in "the good things" of life. And it is a beautiful memoir of a marriage well-lived, without idealization or idolization.

Madeleine L'Engle, Two-Part Invention: The Story of Marriage

This is an oldie Deanna picked up at a thrift shop. After she devoured it, it was put on my must-read list. (I find this to be a delightful part of the friendship that is marriage: reading books together.) In the same spirit at My Life in France, L'Engle sketches the story of a kind of bohemian marriage, but this one is constrained by Christian commitments, and also beset by suffering.

Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, with an Introduction by Michael Pollan

An timely, accessible, and representative collection of Berry's writings on food production, farming, and husbandry, including some fiction selections that picture mealtimes and practices of eating. The selections span his entire writing career (and the early selections show how prescient he was/is). An excellent introduction to, and compendium of, Berry's thought.

David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

Not sure where to place this in terms of genre, but DFW's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College appeared as a book last spring. Part of me was cynical about stretching this into a little hardcover--accomplished by publishing it with one sentence per page. On the other hand, this makes reading it a sort of meditative exercise--which is fitting. I see Wallace trying to redeem cliche in this piece (something he was already doing in Infinite Jest), and in doing so, he hits upon the centrality of worship. I assigned this as required reading in my Intro to Philosophy class (right after we finished Augustine's Confessions and watched American Beauty).

Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem

With Eagleton's typical verve, and post-theory rancor, this book is a philosophically-astute account of poetry, and specifically reading poetry, that isn't afraid to actually appreciate poetry.

Honorable Mention: Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creating Writing. Playing on, and somewhat extending, Kenner's The Pound Era, McGurl considers the formative role of ever-expanding MFA programs on American post-war fiction up to the present. Having been sometimes tempted to enroll, this book birthed in me a principled resistance. (See also Louis Menand's review and discussion in the New Yorker.)