Category Archives: year in review

Top Ten Books of 2016


Looking back on 2016, it feels different from other years–election tension undergirded most of it and I wasn’t able to travel much. It was a year where we focused on things closer to home, one of the most significant being our little dog Penny, who became ours in August. Other major highlights included graduating from my Literacy Specialist program and the Cavaliers winning the NBA championship (!!!).  But of course the reading highlights. I will dedicate an entire post to this, but I did reread ten of my favorite books, which I loved. This year, my reading goal is to read more about people who are less like me, and read more books that are set around the world. I think it is so important to get to know others through literature. The following ten were the ones that stand out the most (and here are 2007-2015, if you still need some more ideas):

 

City on Fire: I technically started this at the end of 2015, but didn’t finish it until January. My book club read this much-hyped story with dozens of characters who are living slightly interconnected lives in New York City in the height of the 70s, with the climax of the story occurring during the infamous blackout in the summer of 1977.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Another book club choice, Glibert’s book tells the life story of Alma Whitaker, a (fictional) botanist born in 1800 whose scientific mind is challenged by the spiritual. This book is for people who love to know and get lost in a character’s entire story, as it covers her birth to death.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: The story begins by following 4 college roommates, each with a different background, all now living in New York City trying to make it in their chosen fields. That description sounds like Friends, but this is a dark, grave story. I felt immersed in the characters’ lives and found myself thinking considerably about relationships, grace, and the ability to move on from tragedy.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiehly: This is hands-down the best young adult novel I read all year and also the most important for teenagers and adults alike. It starts with a moment of police brutality and switches between two narrators, one white who witnessed what happened to the other, who is black. So thought-provoking and so relevant.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld: This hypothetical imagining of the life of Laura Bush was another book club pick. Sittenfeld’s writing is exceptional and I was completely drawn into this story, and I think anyone would be no matter what your political leanings. I found it fascinating.

Salt by Nayirah Waheed: This book of poetry floored me. Waheed’s voice is fresh, urgent, and striking. I actually couldn’t find this collection in any of my local stores–I think she is gaining quite a following, so hopefully it will be there soon. It’s worth tracking down! And very readable, if you are thinking of dipping your toes into poetry for the first time. I can’t wait to share some of her work with my students in our poetry unit. (Speaking of poetry, I also read Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems Volume 2 and her latest book of essays Upstream, both of which I loved. However, I’ve written about her so much, that I thought I should share the poetry love. She is an excellent introduction to poetry as well.)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: I actually can’t believe I didn’t write about this book, because I had two pages of notes going into our book club meeting. It told from the perspective of various family members as they deal with the effects of depression on 2 of the 5 members. It is so powerful and poignant, and though dark, also darkly comical and I laughed out loud a few times.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany: This was a highly anticipated read of my summer because I was in need of some literary escapism. I forced myself to parcel out its 4 acts over as many mornings on my fire escape. It wasn’t without problems–but even so, it brought a lot of joy to my summer. The parent/child themes I thought were incredibly well done.

Great House by Nicole Krauss: This was one of the books I chose to reread, and I wasn’t disappointed. I started by reading the four pages of notes I found tucked inside it, and really savored the whole book. What Krauss attempts to do in this book is pretty immense–there are four narratives that are connected only by the fact that at some point one of the characters in each owned an enormous desk that took on a metaphorical life of its own–to a point where it represented a deep kind of loneliness.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: This was another reread, and I was devastated when it was over. Philosophical and beautiful, I’m certain I’ll be coming back to the alternating narrative of 12 year old Paloma and 54 year old Renee many more times.

Year in Review: Top Ten Books of 2015

2015 started with a Buckeye National Championship, and I’ve got to say– thinking back to those wins still brings me an insane amount of joy. It ended with me finishing the final 2 courses I need for my Literacy Specialist masters degree, which has been three years of a 3-train, hour-plus commute up to Teachers College for each class. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the concept of “free time” in 2016–which I’m hoping to spend mainly pursuing painting, drawing, and photography. I just received Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic which I hope will help me to remember to not be afraid of not being good right off the bat. So much of my reading from this year, especially from this summer, helped cast a vision of what I want this year to be about–making meaning from the world around me and creating in response to it.

Highlights from this year include the beginning of my book club, a trip to Austin with my best friends, finding nature in urbanity, another great weekend in the city with my mom, teaching with the best in the business, chasing after flowers in Louisville with my dad, wandering the city with Daniel, adventures with kindreds, my first Buckeye game, laughing with family in Kentucky, Ohio, NYC, and Newport, and playing with my nieces.

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But as for reading, here are the best words that illuminated the way (if available, they include links to the posts I wrote; if not, they include links to other reviews or author sites).

Fiction

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (her Life after Life made my Top Ten a few years back–both are brilliant)

*Honorable Mention: the paired reading of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee combined with the necessary responses and conversations that happened around its publication.

 

On Being/Meaning Making

Syllabus by Lynda Barry

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr (Rohr is a Catholic priest whose thinking has been the most insightful in trying to escape the binary thinking so present in both modern politics and faith communities)

Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

New and Selected Poems, Volume 1 by Mary Oliver

*Honorable Mention: The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre

Best Young Adult

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Need more books? 

Here are the past years in review since 2007 if you are looking for more books to add to your 2016 reading list.

 

Year in Review: 2014

2014 has been a year in which I’ve flown by the seat of my pants.  Graduate school took over most of my evenings and a large chunk of weekends–and though it’s been a lot of work and severely limited my social calendar, I feel like I am learning alongside some of the most passionate literacy teachers and from the all-stars of my profession. A great deal of my life at work was spent immersed in the world of inclusion teaching: thinking about what full time co-teaching would look like, trying to get the necessary supports ready, sitting in on interviews, clenching my jaw nervous about letting go of full control, and then feeling utterly thankful for the co-teacher I now share a classroom with and how much I’ve learned from the experience.  The team of teachers I work with has amazed me with their passion and drive–and the support that exists among us when at the end of the day all we can get out is “teaching is hard.” (True story. That was where the conversation took us at a party a few weeks ago.)

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This has also been a year where I’ve been so thankful for family.  We lost my grandpa in June, and I witnessed the definition of what family should be–and that is exactly what my grandpa would be the most proud of–having his five kids, their spouses, and his 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren together.  So many dad’s side of the family came to the services to stand alongside us. I’ve been able to get home to my parents 4 times this year to laugh and listen to music.  I celebrated my first Christmas away from home, but married into a wonderful family that includes the cutest nieces in the world and got to eat waffles from my mother-in-law’s grandmother’s waffle iron.  My apartment continues to be an adventure in shitty-coziness (leaks, slants, animals), but couldn’t ask for a better guy to check for rodents that may or may not have fallen from the ceiling.

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I’m still trying to weave art and poetry into my life, playing with watercolor and drawing, reading Mary Oliver. I journeyed through The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron and am still learning so much from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. But as always, it is reading that has built the backdrop of my year: opening my eyes beyond my daily existence, reminding me of bigger truths, letting me escape, introducing me to new people.    Here are the best of this year, linked to the post I wrote about them:

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: recommended by my mom and a gorgeous story that explores the space between suffering and love, set mostly in Burma

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: an incredible book to read closely and the basis of one of my favorite book club conversations of all time

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: a surprising favorite that started as a beach read but stole my heart in the last third

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: the second half of this story beautifully (and surprisingly) pulled together threads of women’s history and walked me through grief

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: the most beautiful and thought-provoking book of the year, set mostly in Japan

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: the most enjoyable book to read while in week 2 of a month long cold, with some tea, while it’s pouring. Fey/Poehler for president.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: stunning, though-provoking, lyrical WW2 historical fiction

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan: my foray into science-nerd reading which literally showed me just how big and wonder-filled the universe is

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki: I thought this young adult graphic novel would be for kids, but it was a poignant reminder of the complexity of the early teenage years

The Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: the post for this book is still in progress, but its craft and themes taught me so much about Chechnya and life in a war-torn country

This is the end of my 8th year writing this blog. You can find lists from 2007-2013 here. I think I’m going to re-do an old reading resolution–read the books on my nightstand before I buy anything new.  Here’s the current pile:

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My Year as a Reader: Top Ten Books of 2013

I generally count my time in alignment school years: September is the new year and August is the month of reflection and generating new ideas for the coming year, so it’s always interesting each December to examine and reflect on the calendar year.  And actually, it’s probably healthier to not count my days by my profession.  This year was one of my favorites:

First and foremost, I got engaged on January 1st and our wedding in August was a celebration with family and friends I will truly never forget (especially my grandpa organizing the Yager family at the hotel bar Friday night, dancing to Gloria with my Uncle Bob at the reception, or my Brooklyn girls fulfilling their promise of charging to the dance floor as soon as the music started, hands in the air).

Personally, I have learned so much about paying attention to small moments of beauty and truth, breathing deeply, and taking the time to nurture creativity.  Professionally, this summer I had the opportunity to be inspired by kindred educators at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s institutes, which has driven so much of the energizing work happening right now in my classroom and my ability to truly celebrate each of my students and their voices.

As a reader, I set a resolution at the end of last year to not buy any new books until I made it through the ones I already owned.  I did pretty well on that until the spring and it completely fell apart once June hit and I decided that summer reading was an exception.  Oops.  But, I did buy a kindle and used the kindle app on my ipad to read multiple book, and learned about how to check out e-books from the library.  Also, I’m such a fan of independent book stores, that it was hard to walk in and NOT buy something, just to show solidarity in their mission, especially Greenlight, Community Bookstore, and Book Court.

Regardless of how I got them, though, below are the ten best books that narrated my whole path this year:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: This was story tucked into story tucked into story, told in a mirror image format that was the most challenging and most thought provoking fiction of the year. I couldn’t stop thinking about the thread that tied the narratives together.

Quiet by Susan Cain: The subtitle really says it all for this one–the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.  This was the best nonfiction book I read all year and help me to not just own my introverted nature, but think about how I can empower my introverted students.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: This short book is for adults who have forgotten the magic of being a child. At once fantastical and realistic, this story was phenomenal and my favorite fiction book of the year.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: My cousin and her son recommended this middle grade book to me and I think it is one of the most important I’ve ever read about life and loss.  I wept at the end, which is rare for me, and had a hard time recovering–but this is because it beautifully captured so much of what it means to be human.  The illustrations were breathtaking, as well.

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy: Van Booy has become one of my favorite authors because of his poetic style and ability to capture tiny moments of humanity at its most beautiful.  As suggested by the title, it follows multiple story lines to show how people are much more connected to one another than we realize.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson: I read mostly mystery for the month of August and this was my favorite by far.  Atkinson’s protagonist is born in 1910 and the story continually resets itself and re-imagines what her life may have looked like.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: This memoir is one of the most discussed books of the year and Deraniyagala’s story of grief after losing her husband, sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami is heart-wrenching, powerful, brave, and important.

Everyday by David Levithan: This book was by far my favorite Young Adult read of the year.  The protagonist is, essentially, a soul–s/he inhabits a different body each day and the reader gets to experience this unique voice and watch as s/he tries to craft a life outside the inhabitation s/he cannot control.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown: By far the most transformative nonfiction/personal growth book of the year, especially for this Type A/Oldest Child combination.  She helped me find some grounding and do a lot of the thinking work that propelled me from May onward through the year.

1,000 Mornings by Mary Oliver: This short book of (accessible!) poetry grounded me as the seasons changed and helped put some of the wisdom I took from Brene Brown to work.

(Looking for more recommendations for your reading year? Click here to read my year in review posts since 2007.)

As always, I’d love to hear your best recommendations & reading plans for the new year!

Year In Review and Top Ten Books of 2012

This year, my reading life seemed to be anchored in studying history and looking for wonder.   It is easy to get caught up with trivialities and the day to day, and for me, that is when I begin to feel the least like myself.  Thank goodness for the books that keep my eyes open and my brain thinking–and, more importantly, for the people in my life this year who were such good reminders of truth and beauty.  


I started this blog in January 2007, so each December since I’ve read through all my posts of the year and done a reading “year in review” that includes my top ten.  What’s different about this list and most book lists out there is that I get to maybe one newly published book a year (too expensive for this teacher and too heavy for this car-less commuter), so my choices never reflect the newly published.   Here are lists past if you feel so inclined:  20112010200920082007.  If you want a closer look at what they’re about, click on the title for my original posting. 


A laugh-out-loud/don’t take yourself too seriously read:  


1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy  Kaling.  I read this book on the train home from my New Years gathering and finished it the first morning of 2012 and laughing was the best possible way to start a new year.


The best vacation reads: 


2. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Crosse.  This is a read for book lovers that I curled up with during this year’s February break.  It was thought provoking, but for me, mid-winter, it was more of an enjoyable escape during a week off work: a quest to make the perfect book store with a mystery tucked in.

3. Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy.  I read about this book in New York Magazine and started it during one of the first few days of my summer break.  One morning I took a roll and a coffee to Prospect Park, thinking I would spend 30 minutes or so reading.  Two hours later I got up, completely moved by the poetic characters and language.  Absolutely beautiful. 

I got pulled in by World War Two this year: 

4. Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand.  The true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner, Air Force Bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, this book was an incredible story of the endurance of a man as well as a heart wrenching glimpse into the life of a POW both during and after imprisonment.


5. Night by Elie Wiesel.  Wiesel’s memoir of his time spent in a concentration camp, I re-read this book with students in an incredibly powerful club in the spring.  I would put this book on humanity’s must-read list–it is dark and difficult to swallow, but so important.


6. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen.  This is the story of William Dodd, America’s ambassador to Germany in the thirties, when things with Hitler were beginning to heat up.  It was a fascinating read and a great introduction to the politics leading up to World War Two.


7.  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.  This book is a commitment: it is over 600 pages of very small type. However, I was completely enthralled by this biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian from the 1930s and early 40s who was a key part of the resistance to Hitler and the Valkyrie plot to assassinate him.  It was such an inspiring read of someone who refused to sit back in safety when something felt gut-wrong to him no matter what others were saying–and for that, he is a hero in my eyes.


A book that will keep you guessing long after you finish it: 


8.  Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  This was probably the most challenging, unique read of my year and the kind of book that as soon as I finished it left me wishing I could immediately start over and then head into a literature course to discuss it.


A classic worth re-reading: 



9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I loved reading this book in high school (my honors English teacher even helped us organize a mock-tail party in full dress attire a la Gatsby at the end of the year).  I’m reading this book in a club with students later this year, so I reread it for the first time since graduate school and it gave me lots to think about.

My favorite book turned movie of the year: 


10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  I read this years ago and enjoyed it and decided to re-read it before the movie came out.  Chbosky captures the mind and coming of age of wallflower Charlie through a series of letters.   I went to see the movie at BAM after an amazing brunch and it really turned into a perfect afternoon, because the movie version is incredible–the kind that restores one’s faith in humanity incredible.  I highly recommend both, but the book first, obviously!


I’m always looking for recommendations and I love hearing about people’s best reading experiences of the year! Stay tuned for my New Year’s Reading Resolution and my reading plan for the early months of 2013.  


The New York Times wrote earlier this year about stories AND science: “The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.” So, that is your motivation for finding a new book or two to explore in the new year.