Awareness First, Action Next: My Top Four Books of 2016
by Kristine Langley Mahler
2016 was filled with surprises that have challenged my resilience—an experience to which I’m sure many others can relate. As I reflect on the books I read last year, I’m startled to realize how much I connected with the messages of my top four recommendations: I was riveted by my ancestral past while afraid of the implications for the future (Barkskins), worried that naming my fears would not help combat them (This Is Only a Test), aware, more than ever, of the rural population whose discontent has come from being ignored (Throwed Away), and scrutinous as I examined the implications of restriction on my eating practices (Bread). Books, at their best, provide templates for comprehension and coping, and I recommend these four books (three are nonfiction and the fourth is grounded in nonfiction) with my whole heart. May 2017 bring, for us all, more insight and empathy to guide our actions.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
This is the culmination of the best of Annie Proulx; it is the book I didn’t even know I was waiting for. I have been researching my ancestors who arrived in Quebec around 1660, so the fact that Barkskins is, essentially, a genealogical tracing of the lines of two Frenchmen who arrived in Quebec in the late 1600s was providence.
Rene Sel and Charles Duquet’s paths take dramatically different turns as Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman (and Proulx traces the fate of the indigenous Canadians through his line) and Duquet sneaks out of his indentured servitude to start a logging empire (and Proulx presents an extensive account of logging throughout the world through his). People die, people are born, people succeed and people fail, and the two lines reconnect at the close of the book as we, as readers, see where the choices made by Sel & Duquet’s generations have led the world. Do not be daunted by its length or a fear of genealogical confusion. There is a family tree that you can reference throughout. The last line of the book gave me a long, cold shiver up the base of my spine, so please, please, when you read this book, do not skip to the end. The end has to be earned. And you will likely feel the same exhaustion and fear I did, because it is what has been wrought; it is what we have brought.
This Is Only a Test by B.J. Hollars
I love B.J. Hollars’ voice and I love his relentlessly inquisitive approach to writing through discovery, and so I love this essay collection about fear. We begin in a bathtub in Alabama, where Hollars and his wife wait out the tornado that devastates Tuscaloosa, and we walk into the wreckage afterwards, following that Minotaurian thread through the maze of fears against which we cannot protect ourselves enough: natural disasters, drownings, nuclear fallout, and the little frightening moments that happen when you become a parent. I still think about the story Hollars writes about Buckethead, the mythical kid at his summer camp who supposedly hid in a refrigerator during a game of hide-and-seek and a maintenance guy shoved the fridge into the lake as an anchor and the kid drowned; for several days it was all I could think about, especially since Hollars’ subsequent essay examines the apparent frequency of refrigerator deaths in the 1950s. Hollars researches well, Hollars writes well, and Hollars knows that confronting these fears is all just a test of our resilience, but it’s a pop quiz we can’t prepare for.
Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina by Linda Flowers
“Throwed away,” as Linda Flowers wrote, is an expression peculiar to eastern North Carolina. If a piece of land or a person or a stretch along the highway looks ‘throwed away,’ it can be in no worse shape. The expression is pejorative, though often but mildly—sadly—so.
Flowers, who came from Duplin County (just south of Pitt County, NC, where I lived) published this incredibly important memoir/nonfiction research book in 1990. It follows the demise of tenant farming and the rise of manufacturing plants in the coastal plains region of North Carolina while also considering the lack of proper education and the frustrating results of industrialization on a population who weren’t considered important. The strengths were the memoir sections—Flowers had a beautiful grasp on her subjects and her home. Flowers passed away in 2000; a shame, because her work on the collective ignoring of rural people who felt “throwed away” is particularly relevant today.
Bread: A Memoir of Hunger by Lisa Knopp
Lisa Knopp’s memoir of her disordered eating—not “eating disorder,” because there are such strange, stringent criteria one must meet to be “officially” diagnosed—Knopp refers to it as her “malady”—traces the connections between experiences and anxiety, between hunger and craving, and between the awful shifting attitudes of society towards eating behaviors. Knopp restricted her eating, in different ways, during three separate periods: as a 15-year-old high school student, after college at 25, and as a 54-year-old woman, and she writes with a precision and poignancy that took my breath away. Knopp began restricting as a response to her hunger for her mother’s presence; she began restricting again as a response to a lack of control and fear for the safety of the things she consumed, and finally, as she grieved for the changes in her life as well as a response to her health concerns.
Disordered eating is manifest, it’s everywhere, and no one is talking about it because it’s not a “real” disorder. But Lisa Knopp is talking about it, and she’s also talking about the other shunted-aside population—older women, who’ve learned how to hide their behaviors. This book is vitally important, and the vulnerability it takes to write about a disorder-no-one-calls-a-disorder is immensely moving.
Kristine Langley Mahler has essays published or forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Tahoma Literary Review, Rock & Sling, and the Brevity blog, among other journals. Her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and she recently received a university grant to complete a creative nonfiction research project about her Quebecois great-great-grandfather and immigration/inhabitation on native land. She is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work can be followed at www.kristinelangleymahler.com.