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Best Books of 2018

When I started this blog in 2007, I wrote about every. single. book. I read. Over the years my writing about reading has morphed in a lot of ways, and 11 years later I find it fascinating to see the role each has played in my life. In terms of posts, this year looked a lot like last year: one or two. 2017 was the beginning of transition for me that started with the IVF process, and 2018 was the epic transition year. When the new year started, my daughter was three weeks old. Not only did I have a new identity in that regard, but I also had to begin job searching while still on maternity leave. The spring became the season of “lasts” at a job and school I loved for 14 years. I packed up my New York City life, rented a minivan, and drove my family to Ohio (while Daniel handled our dog who cried for the entire ride). I started a new job in a new role two days later. We moved into our own home around Thanksgiving and finally started hanging some art this week. My hope is that 2019 won’t feel like transition, but will feel like settling in and breathing deep.

My dad bought my mom and I matching Book Nerd sweatshirts. Tessa wants one in baby size.

In terms of reading volume, I read more during the newborn/maternity leave phase than probably the rest of the year combined. When we moved to Ohio, I was so exhausted I literally read for 5 minutes a night. I think I’m finding my way back, though, and what better time than winter and dark evenings?

I’ll write a bit about each of the books I picked for my best 10 this year, since I (sadly) don’t have a blog post to link to as I’ve done in the past. These are in chronological order.

Going into Town by Roz Chast: this is a graphic novel that the author first created when her daughter was moving to New York City, where Roz Chast grew up. It is a love song to the city and all that is glorious and gross about it–and reading it knowing I’d have to say goodbye made it all the more wonderful and gut wrenching for me. This is perfect for any New Yorker or anyone who is moving there soon.

Sing Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: this was a book club choice and it made me want to read everything Jesmyn Ward has ever written. It’s about loss, growing up, race, and how the present is haunted by history, both personal and as a country. Poetic and deeply poignant.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I read this for a teacher book club this spring. It started slow and I wondered how I’d make it through its 500 pages. But then I was gripped and couldn’t put it down. It tells the story of a poor Korean family as they immigrate to Japan as basically lasts the lifetime of the matriarch of the family, though the reader gets to intimately know many of characters.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies: this is the book I recommended to every single person I’ve talked to since I finished it. It tells the life story of a gay man who was born in Ireland during at the height of gay oppression. The title alone captures the essence of this book–the deep dive into the protagonist’s life offers so much to think about for all people and a better understanding of contextual history.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds: Jason Reynolds is my young adult/middle grade writer-hero and I would recommend that any parent or teacher of kids 10 and older run to the bookstore to and buy everything. All humans, start with For Everyone, which is a speech he wrote and published. Parents of 10 year olds, start with Ghost. His young adult should be required reading for teenagers and adults (I’ve written about the power of All American Boys in the past). Long Way Down is written in verse and tells the story of a young man riding down the elevator in his building who is deciding whether or not to avenge the death of his brother.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater: one of the most important young adult books to come out this year, I’ve put this book in the hands of Brooklyn urban kids and Ohio rural kids. I usually describe it as a nuanced look at race and gender in America today, and in this case how they intersected in the true story by Slater. This book educates and creates empathy and understanding. I’ve said it before (and have a longer blog post in the back of my mind), that young adult books are paving the way to a better future.

Story of your Life by Ted Chiang: my husband and one of my best friends are considerably more interested in science fiction and space than I am. When the movie Arrival came out I had very little interest in it (and I still haven’t seen it). BUT. My best friend begged me to read the story it was based on, and because I love her I read it the 55 page story…in one afternoon (both naptimes…ha). The science part was fascinating, but the human part was heart wrenching–perhaps because I read it as a new mother, or because my own parents were housing, feeding, and caring for us in our transition, but this was the most moving story I’ve ever read. It’s in a collection of short stories called Stories of Your Life–and it’s one I’ll reread forever. And maybe see the movie.

There There by Tommy Orange: So many people I love read this book and when I found it for $5 I knew it would jump to the top of my stack. My only wish is that I had read it in a book club, but what Tommy Orange has created is truly original fiction. It tells the story of people, but also of a place: the Native American communities in Oakland, California. It’s told from multiple voices who the reader hears from a number of times, and whose stories occasionally overlap. This book was hard to read for me because it addresses really heavy subject matter, and also because it asks me to face my own ignorance about the legacy of our country’s history and how it lingers, but that is the most important kind of book to read, in my opinion.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo: my old commute was literally a one minute walk, so I never really got into many podcasts or audio-anything, because I’d rather read an actual book while on the subway. Now that I drive 30 minutes each way, my ritual is Rachel Maddow in the morning and either a podcast or a middle grade audio book in the afternoon (I did try a young adult book, but it was 11 hours and took me a month to finish! Middle grade books tend to be 4 hours, and I have some catching up to do in that genre). Anyway, I LOVED listening to this book so much. It is about 3 unlikely friends in central Florida in the 70s who meet at a baton twirling class. The main character is dealing with the fact that her dad just left her family, and it was amazing to me how DiCamillo wrote those emotions in such a realistic way in the voice of a pre-teen. As I was reading, all I could think was how much I loved these characters (and the time period with no technology that I believe now impedes on childhood adventures) and how meaningful it would be for any child who has faced similar issues. Her newest book is from the voice of another character in the story is already downloaded for Wednesday’s commute.

Educated by Tara Westover: this memoir was another title that was recommended to me by so many people. This is also the year I realized how much I enjoy memoirs (perhaps because my life was moving at a pace too fast to reflect upon, that I enjoyed others’ reflections?). In this one, Westover recounts her childhood and young adulthood growing up in Utah in a family that was religious and survivalist. She didn’t attend school until she applied for college, and she went on to get a PhD from Cambridge. This book is another one that offers a look into a life I couldn’t imagine, and Westovers courage in the face of all she encounters, both on a personal and a cultural level.

We love reading on weekend mornings. This is New York Baby, which we both love for obvious reasons.

I’ve also spent a lot of time reading children’s books this year, so I thought I’d share ten favorites as well. Many of these come from one of my best friends, who is also a book nerd and whose first daughter is a little older than mine and always recommends the best titles! What a time to be a reader of children’s books–there are so many wonderfully poetic, funny, beautifully illustrated, poignant, important titles out there!

Gaston and Antoinette

City Cat

Franklin’s Flying Bookshop

Little Elliot Big City

The Littlest Family’s Big Day

The Bear Snores On (and all the bear books)

Love

Here We Are

This Little Trailblazer

Tessa reading one of her favorites, Edamame and Edapapa, a sweet book that reminds us of our family. Have you checked your local independent to make sure they have books that can remind all kids of their families, whatever it might look like? And to teach kids that families can be different? Thankful for friends who remind me of this important question.

Cheers to 2019 and many, many good books. My plan is to get to all the books on my nightstand (in July I bought books from every New York City independent bookstore I visited) and to check out some of the summer reading books I wanted to get to and didn’t. Columbus is home to two new and one old bookstore, all of which I love. I want to continue to read books that expand my understanding and grow my empathy. And! My other goal is to use the library more regularly. We are in walking distance of one, so that is my plan with Tessa when the weather gets a bit warmer.

Summer reading in a summer of all the transitions

Every summer for the past eleven years I’ve written a post about my planned reading. I started making the list mid-May and always published it around Memorial Day. Summer never officially started for me as a teacher until July, but I’ve always liked crafting a syllabus for myself and using the warm months, whether I’m working or not, to tackle it. This is the summer of change, though.

The past two years I haven’t written as much. I was reading a ton, but my brain didn’t  have the capacity to process; reading was my main form of escape as I went through infertility treatments. We are so grateful for modern science, because in December I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. So, for a while, my identity as a writer fell away as I was a patient of countless medical treatments, then pregnant, and now a working new mother. As if that weren’t enough, we are moving to Ohio this summer to be closer to family (and to be able to afford housing that also has a dishwasher, washer-dryer, and outdoor space). So that means I will be joining the ranks of midwestern educators, where summer starts in June–which translates to me as the shortest summer of my career, as my new job as a literacy coach begins August 1.

So, of course my summer will still be filled with books, but it will definitely be out of the ordinary. The other random change in my reading life is that I’ve been using the kindle app on my phone (set to black) so I can read in bed while our baby sleeps in our room. I have no interest in buying ebooks, so I’ve been using my (amazing) Brooklyn Public Library card and their digital collection. I often put holds on books I want to read and when they are available I get an email–which I can’t predict. I’ve somehow kept a pretty normal reading pace since having a baby, but I will no longer have summer days where I can read for hours on end through the afternoons. So. This summer’s list is not so much of a syllabus as it is a wish list, since my first day of my new job is August 1. But here we go:

Nonfiction

Ordinary Light

I Am I Am I Am

Just Mercy 

Operating Instructions

Hold Still 

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Liturgy of the Ordinary

Fiction

Less

Exit West

Idaho

The Idiot 

Ill Will 

Six Four

Happy summer! I’d love to know your recent favorites!

Complex Grief as Metaphor: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie is creative writing at its best. The memoir is a combination of prose and poetry, with intentional repetition of stories and various symbols that give the reader an authentic, moving take on grief. He writes “this book is a series of circles, sacred and profane,” (288). These circles, the repetition and symbols, are what I wish I could discuss with a book club or with students in a reading or writing course. Why does grief take us around and around? How do we work through the sacred and profane and hold both in our hands at the same time?

Alexie demonstrates how to address difficult truths through exploring his complicated relationship with his mother.

It’s not only a book about grief, though. Alexie explores identity and racism–and his grief for his mother almost works as a metaphor for a reader wanting to engage with how racism is at work in our country and how he or she might face it and fight it. One of the best piece of advice out there right now, a starting place, for white people to think about racism is to listen. Alexie’s accounts and insights across the book took my breath away. This passage in particular:

I have visited museums of genocide in other countries. Though I realize “visited” is the wrong verb. “Endured” is too self serving. Perhaps the best sentence is “I have experienced museums of genocide in other countries.” And what do I remember? I remember that I kept having to close my eyes against the pain. I often had to look away from the pain. I often had to sit on benches and stare at the blank floors. And what do I make of the genocide museum in our own country? What do I make of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? It is a vital place. It is a grievous reminder. A warning. It is as necessary as any museum ever built. But it also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused. The United States often sits on benches and stares at the blank floors (296).

For readers, for me anyway, this book felt like a call to grieve, to sit and wrestle with, the racism of the past and think of how it impacts the present. What systemic processes created the realities Native Americans faced and continue to face? What policies? What small decisions on part of politicians and voters? What other areas of history do I need to reflect on with the same lens?

It’s the sitting and wrestling that our culture seems to be without these days: one is right or wrong, good or bad, tweet about it and move on. Alexie digs and circles back and digs and circles back, and the technical aspects of his writing style in this book couldn’t more beautifully capture that process. After finishing it, it feels like an invitation, knowing that it could be a process that doesn’t have a clear ending, or any ending at all. And that’s ok.

(Side note: this intersects with my reading of Prairie Fires, which is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also a record of government and Native Americans, government and the environment, the ways history books have narrated our understandings from limited perspectives. I love when books layer one another.)

Top Ten Books of 2017

2017, it seems, felt like a struggle for many. I tried to fill my reading life with stories that would help me get to know more people and more nuanced views of social issues, and in this way my life got a lot bigger. Sharing this with my students was a highlight–their passion for social justice was a highlight of my year.

I didn’t write that often because my body felt pretty tired–it was a year that started with IVF drugs and ended, so very gratefully, with a baby girl after years of waiting for her–this is how my life got a bit smaller, in the best of ways.

So we are holed up and hibernating in this cold, reading some picture books (City Cat and We Are Here are my current favorites–thanks Alison and Grace) and ebooks (very unlike me…more on that later) and drinking lots of coffee. And, of course, watching television favorites: the end of Major Crimes (deeply upsetting), making my way through Gilmore Girls (a delight), and American Vandal (hilarious satire on the real crime documentary genre). I have my Anne of Green Gables DVDs ready to go to start off 2018 well.

If you are looking to grow your nightstand stack in the new year, here are my favorites (and here are lists from 2006-2016). Please share your best books of the year–I’m always looking for good recommendations!

March by John Lewis: I’ve recommended this countless times to students and friends, in person and on this blog. This graphic novel trilogy chronicles Congressman John Lewis’s experiences during the Civil Rights movement. I would honestly call this required reading not just for those interested in history, but anyone who wants to understand today as well.

Homegoing by Yaa Guasi: This book is probably the favorite of my book club this year. It starts with two chapters that tell the story of two half sisters in Ghana in the 18th century who don’t know each other. Each chapter following covers someone in the next generation, alternating between the family lines of each sister, until modern day.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: Set in the early sixties, this is the story about family, coming of age, and loss–it felt like a combination of Stand by Me and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: Having won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, I imagine most people have heard of or read this book already. This creative book takes the reader on the protagonist Cora’s journey to escape slavery.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: Born to a black woman and a white man, which was illegal in South Africa, Trevor Noah’s story of growing up was eye opening, poignant, and filled with enough humor to break up the heaviness that encompassed much of his life.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This is another book that should be required reading not just for its young adult audience, but for everyone. The protagonist, a young black woman, witnesses her best friend get killed by a police officer. This story is timely, nuanced, and urgent.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: I mentioned this is my summer reading conclusion–I can’t believe I missed this book when it came out. Set mostly in Ethiopia, two brothers grow up in an adopted family of medical professionals. Not only is this a powerful story that completely sucked me in, it covers so many complexities about what it means to be human as well as in the medical world.

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce: This book feels like an “easy read” in that it feels like the characters are your own family and when it ends, you wish that it could keep going. It is about an Italian family on Staten Island and how the different members deal with the loss of one of the sons.

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: Alice McDermott has a way of capturing the inner conflicts of her characters and the small moments in their lives in a way that feels deeply authentic and artistic. This story felt like the essence of creative writing to me. The main character is a young new mother in an Irish Catholic Brooklyn neighborhood whose husband

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: This is the first ebook I’ve read since I travelled internationally five years ago. The first week home with our new baby, I didn’t read at all and basically had an identity crisis. I realized that there were other options on my phone to occupy my time while feeding and the kindle app saved my life. This is a story about a Chinese American boy in Manhattan whose mother disappears when he is ten and he is then adopted by a white family upstate.

Shalene Flanagan Made Me Cry (or, why high school cross country was the best)

 

Before the JV girls race, 1998

Last weekend I teared up reading this article in the New York Times about Shalene Flanagan’s NYC Marathon victory…and it brought me back to high school (and the glorious mid-to-late nineties–please cue Under the Table and Dreaming, Throwing Copper, When I Woke, Jagged Little Pill).

The background information sounded like a metaphor for so many female relationships:

Here’s how it worked until Flanagan burst onto the scene. After college, promising female distance athletes would generally embark on aggressive training until they broke down. Few of them developed the staying power required to dominate the global stage. And they didn’t have much of a community to support them; domestic women’s distance running was fractious and atrophied.

The author goes on to share Flanagan’s countercultural approach:

Flanagan’s leadership style doesn’t fit the “girl boss” leadership archetypes that are flourishing in pop culture, the Ivanka Trump feminism, with its shallow claims of support for women, that yields no results. (Ms. Trump’s kind of feminism may attract cheers at races, but it does not win them.) Flanagan does not just talk about elevating women; she elevates them. And they win.

Where I live in New York City, most people I talk to do not have fond memories of high school. I’m an 8th grade teacher, so it is easy for me to understand why: the exclusive tribes, the never ending social striving, trying to figure out life while also trying to figure out Trigonometry. It’s a lot. But. I loved it–and my time spent on the cross country team is a major reason why: I was a part of a community where people lifted each other up–and it wasn’t a small group of girls–my freshman class essentially tripled the size of both the boys and girls Cross Country team, with about 80 runners total.

Y’all, I was so slow. SO SLOW. And yet, I remember countless races, trying to power through the last mile and seeing varsity runners from the boys’ and girls’ teams on the sidelines cheering me and the other slowest runners in the race on with enthusiasm. I remember being encouraged to set goals for myself and train to beat them, even though I would never be a varsity runner. When I was a freshman in 1995, the senior girls modeled what it meant to be a team–they were making every runner photocopied inspirational posters to get ready for race day. They made us feel like we belonged and included us 15 year olds on their inside jokes.Their example paved the way for how we would want to lead not just as runners (because Lord knows I’ve never led a race), but as teenage girls who lifted one another up.

Senior girls, 1998

I was a part of a community that elevated me as an athlete (I’ve never really stopped running…slowly), but moreover as a human, and this is one of the reasons why I can look back and say I loved high school and one of the reasons why I begged my brother to get me a Yeti mug with our high school logo on it that he got all of his groomsmen at his wedding this summer (all friends from high school, interestingly).

Community and lifting one another up seem so novel now, as a look at a social media landscape that can be so brutal. (Though I am hopeful as I follow my high school’s “student section” on twitter (@TheHerdCHS) where its student leaders try to get everyone to to every game: not just boys football and basketball, but every event. Go elks, #EPND, etc.)

So looking forward, I’m wondering how can women elevate women? And in light of all the gross news lately, how can men? The boys Cross Country coach was also my teacher for 3 years in middle school. I walked into his class at the end of 8th grade and declared that I finally ran a mile without stopping and he was just as excited as I was–meanwhile his team was running over ten miles at practice easily.

Running cross country gave me so many metaphors to guide my life (come on, I’m an English teacher, I had to go there) and while I was reading the article, so many new ones came to mind:

“We had run thousands of miles together; we had worked so hard for this. She had been there every step of the way, struggling with me,” Cragg told me a few months after the race.

Instead of being threatened by her teammates’ growing accomplishments, Flanagan embraced them, and brought in more women, elevating them to her level until they become the most formidable group of distance athletes in the nation. National championships, world championships, Olympics: They became some of the best runners in the world.

Together we accomplish more.

“I thoroughly enjoy working with other women,” Flanagan told me. “I think it makes me a better athlete and person. It allows me to have more passion toward my training and racing. When we achieve great things on our own, it doesn’t feel nearly as special.”

As a teacher, and for my fellow educators and anyone who works with young people: how do we help foster this lifting up of one another? How can we help make adolescence a time where there are people to look up to and cheer one another on, even when it feels uphill?

As women, and as humans, how can we look for the best and elevate one another, rather than judging?