My name is Hilde Kaiser. I live in northwest Evanston where I am a Jill-of-all-trades: writer, lead parent, certified Nia instructor, student of earth medicine, knitter, film buff, and home baker, with a bundle of volunteer work thrown in (all in the domain of parenting, education, and personal development). My idea of heaven is reading a book at the Evanston lakefront with a little something to eat from Hewn bakery. As an avid reader (75 books so far this year) I am grateful for our area libraries and their superb programming (hey, how about Our Mutual Friend for Mission: Impossible?). My secret confession is that my favorite thing to read is “The Traffic Guy” column in The Round Table.
1) Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (2016)
I’m not above choosing a book by its cover, and the lush, evocative, and eccentric portrait of its subject, Margaret Cavendish, convinced me to pick this novella up, knowing nothing about it. It’s so pretty. It’s one of my favorite books of the year because I’m still thinking about this poetic, experimental, slightly odd gem of a historical novel that deserves lots of readers. “Mad Madge” was a 17th-century proto-feminist who was one of the first women to publish under her own name and to earn a living by writing. She also dressed herself on her own terms – crowds assembled to see what she was wearing when she went out for walk. There’s a fab article in the New Yorker on the book as an example of “archival historical fiction” (as opposed to “realistic historical fiction”). Which is another way of warning you this book is anything but straightforward, but it is one-of-a-kind, like its subject. And the language is oh-so-pretty, like the cover.
2) The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016)
This novel, as opposed to my first choice, will be on everyone’s lists for best books of the year. It’s satisfyingly well crafted: it contains multitudes (mother/son relationships, the ’68 Chicago riots, a gaming world very much like “World of Warcraft,” Norwegian ghosts…). It’s this year’s big fat immersive literary fiction holiday read. Get ready to see it everywhere: Meryl Streep and J. J. Abrams optioned to produce it as a TV series. Don’t be too jealous: the author’s backstory is that before starting this novel, he lost all his belongings during a move, including his laptop and the backup hard drive with three year’s worth of writing. I love stories of creative resilience possibly even more than novels with enthusiastic blurbs by John Irving (and this book has both).
3) Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016)
My favorite memoir of the year, because she can make a seed’s journey so suspenseful and metaphorical you’ll want to share that paragraph with everyone (but be aware that if you read it to your 11-year-old, he will roll his eyes). All the intellectual thrills and heartbreak of being a research scientist that you never knew existed (spoiler alert: funding for biologists sucks).
4) The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups by Erika Christakis (2016)
I mostly let the Family Action Network’s speaker series guide my nonfiction reading choices. Many excellent, renowned, award-winning authors came through this year (Robert Putnam, Matthew Desmond, and Rep. John Lewis are three that come to mind). But my heart belongs to anyone advocating for parents and the value of play, relationships, and process-oriented activities for young children. Plus, it’s just fun to inhabit the preschool classroom with a keen-minded guide (at the time of the writing of this book, the author was on the faculty of the Yale Child Study Center).
5) It’s All Easy: Delicious Weekday Recipes for the Super-Busy Home Cook by Gwyneth Paltrow (2016)
I had my Martha Stewart cookbook phase. Then Mark Bittman. Then Ottolenghi. And now, if I’m honest, this is the cookbook most like how I want to cook for my family: food that is quick to make and unlikely to be rejected by children but also interesting to make and eat. Overnight oats, 3 kinds of avocado toast, poke bowls, cauliflower mac and cheese, pho, ramen – healthy twists on foods of the moment plus old favorites like pasta carbonara. I am telling you, the vegan, gluten-free, refined sugar-free chocolate truffles are really really good.