Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

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A Year in Reading: Sarah Smarsh

Inauguration Day was, in the eyes of most people I know, a horrifying day. The poison of hate had taken control of our political system, and it touched us whether we voted for it or not. Thus, the year that followed was for many—even those who sprang into civic action on the right side of history—lived in a state of foul bitterness.

In precise tandem with that political trauma, I happened to receive a shock to my physical system. Hours after the inauguration ceremony, which I had refused watch, I was in an emergency room with a rare, painful infection that progressed far enough to initiate liver failure. I fully recovered from that weeks-long illness, but it set the tone for the resistance I would undertake for the rest of the year. My scary hospitalization was a reminder, for me, that living to fight—to write—another day is reason to not just resist but to be glad.

In the face of such an assault on decency as the current political leadership, there is perhaps no greater act of resistance than to appreciate our lives, even as we fight back against the forces that tear at us. To see beauty in this place called Earth and the broken beings with whom we share it for a short while. To read and write the books that the most corrupted of them would burn.

Here is what I read or re-read this past year. It is a list in which I now see the simultaneous peaceful reveling and spirited reckoning that I hope might save this democracy in peril in 2018.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang

Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love by Zack McDermott

Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens by Marianne Williamson

Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry

PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon

Revolution by Russell Brand

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy

The Dorothy Day Book: A Selection from Her Writings and Readings, edited by Margaret Quigley and Michael Garvey

The Editor and His People by William Allen White

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream by Studs Terkel

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara W. Tuchman

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree

The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers 2 by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis

Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Carol Shepherd McClain

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Magazine Subscriptions:

Columbia Journalism Review
Creative Nonfiction
Dissent
Harper’s
In These Times
No Depression
Poetry
The Believer
The Lion’s Roar
The New Territory
The New Yorker

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Louise Erdrich

Maybe I would characterize 2016 as a movie car chase, and 2017 as the reveal where all of us anonymous motorists who got side-swiped, flipped, forced off bridges and into concrete abutments, rise out of the wreckage yelling for real. My list is composed of books to read to your fellow travelers as you sit, shaken but alive, beneath a tree. You will need a moment before setting out to put an end to the damn movie and fix the world.

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner
This year was a promotional campaign for this book.  The writer is a professor in the Program of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University.  His conclusions give me, well, hope.  Let me simply quote from the introduction: “Sex scandals, financial corruption, and violence are all overwhelmingly male.  This is not, I will argue, mainly because men happened to be in charge and had the chance to do these things.  It is mainly because they are men.  And the motives and inclinations that led them into positions where they could abuse power are the same ones that long enabled them to keep women out.  But this is over.”

So say we all.

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Using the language of the colonizer to talk about what it means to be colonized, Long Soldier takes us down some rough roads.  But also there are strands of sheer delight—her devotion to meticulous emotional description, sharp irony, and perfectly recapped incident make this a book to carry through your day.  I would open it when waiting for, say, a tire to be fixed, or in a clinic waiting room.  Never disappointed.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I wish the title was The World Without Some of Us, but the idea is a great thought experiment.  What would earth be like if we all disappeared (let’s just say instantaneously and without foreknowledge or pain).  I know, still not a cheerful thought, but oddly I found real comfort in this altogether humane and fascinating tour of a planet that has shrugged off all human presence.  This book made me long to visit the places Weisman visits in his quest for natural antiquity.  As Weisman’s premise looks increasingly possible with news of this year’s record carbon spew, I read it with increased gravity.  This is a wise and beautiful book.

Her Body and Other Parties  by Carmen Maria Machado
Remember all of the scary stories from your preteen days and then add every gory movie you have watched since then and sift this into the brain of a masterful young writer.  Machado’s writing is full of repressed physical energy and the raw juice of annihilating female fury.  The body is the subject, the culprit, the innocent.  Standard accessories like ribbons become frightful.  She does unimaginable things with a prom dress.  But these stories are also funny—which really made me uneasy—because I could hear in my laugh that same squawk a tiny dog makes in moments of duress.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
Maybe it is that the economic nomads Bruder writes about, people who live in cars and RVs and follow jobs that make my bones ache just to think about them, have the most remarkably upbeat personalities.  Maybe it’s because I feel like I know or could be any one of them.  Maybe it is because many are drawn to my hometown neck of the Red River and work the sugar beet harvest in a cold dusty wind that I know well.  This is an important book.  Bruder writes about economic refugees who downsize from regular houses into minivans, downsize from regular jobs with benefits into utter uncertainty.  They refuse to be apathetic about life, but their treatment at the hands of pittance wage employers like Amazon (free OTC painkillers for elderly warehouse workers) is brutal.  The book is a calmly stated chronicle of devastation.  But told as as story after story, it is also a riveting collection of tales about irresistible people—quirky, valiant people who deserve respect and a decent life.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I did a lot of driving this year and Sherman’s book—furious, compelling, beautiful, and horrifying by turns—took my daughter and I through North Dakota and then up to Canada.  Because Alexie is a masterful storyteller, champion slam poet, and truly great improv performer, this audiobook is one of the best I’ve ever listened to.  No bells and whistles and production—just raw Sherman—sometimes breaking into tears, sometimes making us cry.  Sherman had brain surgery and I think he is the first in the world to make it laugh-out-loud funny.  That’s the other thing that is tremendously valuable—funny gets you through a lot.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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