Posts in book reviews
Books I enjoyed the most in 2018

This year’s book round-up is longer than usual simply because I read more books. This is largely because I discovered audiobooks this summer. I’ve differentiated between books I read (T) and books I listened to (A).

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In no particular order:

  1. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (T)

    This is my favorite Kingsolver since The Poisonwood Bible. The story alternates between that of a present day middle-aged woman dealing with the lie that’s the American Dream and that of a 1870s naturalist facing a growing disillusionment towards Transcendentalist ideals. Kingsolver draws clever parallels between the two worlds in what essentially becomes a critique of modern day America.

  2. This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (A)

    This reminded me of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder in that this is a story that cultivates empathy. I particularly love the portrayal of the parents’ marriage. It was refreshing to read about a functional, loving family in the midst of a very real and very difficult challenge.

  3. Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza (T)

    I expected this to be a light, quick read, but it proved to be thought-provoking and even a little dark. It’s about a tech exec who decides to run for office. I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming a few months after this, and was struck by the similarity in the portrayals of the necessary sacrifices of ambition one spouse has to make for the other.

  4. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (T)

    I read the majority of this novel thinking it was a memoir; that’s how true-to-life it felt. I very much enjoyed this insider’s look at the restaurant industry. This would make a good pairing with Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (<—an actual memoir which I also recommend).

  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (A)

    This has been on my TBR list for ages and I’m so glad I finally read (listened to) it. It’s an astounding work. It’s the kind of book that makes you dizzy, wondering how in the world the author managed to craft such distinct voices. This book jumps from narrator to narrator. Very compelling and vivid.

  6. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (T)

    I loved this. It’s a diary account of a year in which the narrator goes home to be with her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Its spareness belies the craft in the writing. I was bowled over by the simple beauty of this book. While very different in tone, it reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton.

  7. Less by Andrew Sean Greer (T)

    I really didn’t want to read this (An account of a privileged white male who is down on his luck? Yuck.) when I first heard it had won the Pulitzer, but I read it anyway because I tend to love Pulitzer winners. It blew me out of the water. This book is a delightful account of a struggling writer’s attempts to make do with what he thinks is a failed life. The novel is wonderfully ironic; as you follow the protagonist’s misadventures, you are slowly overcome with the realization of how beautiful life really is. I loved this book!

  8. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (T)

    Speaking of books that astound — this book blew my mind. It’s a non-linear account of Lincoln’s mourning over his young son’s death. It takes on various narrators’ perspectives, often in verse. It’s the kind of book that forces you to trust the author to bring everything together. Saunders succeeds with a bang. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book that made me really think about the transience of life and the heaviness of the pain we bear as humans.

  9. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (T)

    This read to me like a contemporary version of Beloved, both in the magic realism and the beauty of the writing and message. I predict this will find its way to high school reading lists before long.

  10. The Power by Naomi Alderman (T)

    The Power imagines a world in which women suddenly find themselves physically stronger than men. The ramifications of this newfound power is deep, wide, and provocative — I could NOT stop thinking about this book and what it reveals about our world. This would be a great choice to read with a friend (or a book club?) — so much to discuss.

  11. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (T)

    This book, similarly to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, lays out a world in which real-life circumstances are made vivid and perhaps more comprehensible through magic realism. Hamid makes it easy to imagine yourself in a war zone, having to make decisions about how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

  12. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (T/A)

    I put off reading this for most of the year. The premise — a newly-married man is wrongly accused of rape and is sent to prison — made me dread reading it. I finally borrowed the audio version and WOW. I’m so glad I did. This book is difficult (as I imagined it would be), but the characters’ voices are so real and beautiful. It’s well worth the read, perhaps ranking in the top five books I’ve read all year.

  13. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (A)

    This is a retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus, told in Patroclus’s voice. The way Miller gets into Patroclus’s head is magic. I couldn’t put it down even as the story careened towards tragedy. When I read books like this, I come up for air only long enough to marvel at the author’s genius.

NON-FICTION

  1. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (A)

    On one hand, this account of King Leopold of Belgium’s Kurtz-like actions in the Congo Free State is horrific and devastating in its portrayal of just how evil and self-serving humans can be. On the other hand, it is inspiring and convicting to be reminded that sometimes the dedication of a single person can bring about change. This is a must-read, a necessary reminder of what we are capable of.

  2. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs by Peter Enns (A)

    This was like water to my soul, affirming much of my struggles in reconciling myself with the faith of my childhood and the less sure-footed, more honest faith that I have now.

  3. Tell Me More: the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan (A)

    I mistakenly picked this up thinking it was a memoir by an NPR reporter (I think I just made this assumption based on the fact that there’s an NPR show called Tell Me More). It is, instead, a series of essays. Corrigan is a couple of steps ahead of me in life, with older kids and experience with the struggles I know are around the corner. I know I’ll want to pick this up again. It’s a book that rings so true, it’s both challenging and reassuring.

  4. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, (T/A)

    Funny story: I decided I wanted to start running this year, so I promptly bought a book about running by one of my favorite authors. (You can guess how effective that was!) This is basically an ongoing journal of Murakami’s thoughts on his running life. It is inspiring, but to be honest, it inspired me to write more than to run. :)

  5. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown (A)

    I love what Brown has to say about belonging, although I have to admit months later, her exact wisdom is blurry. I particularly wish I wrote down the line that stopped me in my tracks. It’s a throwaway comment about why we shouldn’t let guilt about the world’s pain stop us from experiencing our own joy. Suffice it to say, it spoke directly to me.

  6. A Fighting Chance by Warren, Elizabeth (A)

    I read a string of political biographies and autobiographies this summer, but this stood out to me. It’s so easy to be cynical about politics (believe me, there are times I want to quit teaching government because I just can’t stand thinking about politics anymore), so it was refreshing to read about Warren’s own apolitical background and her passionate desire to use politics to dismantle a flawed system that stacks the deck in favor of already-rich corporations.

  7. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by King, Stephen (T)

    I’ve long seen this book at the top of book recommendation lists and it actually lived up to the hype! I love narratives about the writerly life. This one is chock-full of both entertaining stories and wisdom.

  8. Becoming by Michelle Obama (A)

    Speaking of living up to the hype… wow. This knocked me off my feet. I loved this. Michelle Obama writes with such an honesty about her upbringing, her ambitions, her marriage, her sacrifices, her view of motherhood… She captures the acute tension of holding on to her identity as a successful, ambitious feminist even as she made sacrifice upon sacrifice for the man she loves. I particularly recommend the audiobook, which she narrates herself.

  9. Educated by Tara Westover (A)

    My takeaway from this book: truth is stranger than fiction, and humans are resilient and courageous beyond understanding.

Notable rereads:

  1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (T)

    This is my third year teaching Huck Finn and I went from practically hating it to loving it. Twain is a genius in his satire and his ability to weave the most profound truths about humanity into what’s ostensibly a children’s adventure story. I’ve read it five times in the past three years and it only gets better.

  2. Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl (A)

    Two words: Dan Stevens. As in, if you’ve read these before, go ahead and listen to the audiobooks narrated by Dan Stevens. You’re in for a treat.

  3. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (T)

    I first read this the summer before my senior year of high school. I remember knowing it was special, but it wasn’t until I read it as an adult that I grasped the poetry, the tragedy, and the beauty Paton packs into such a slim volume. Highly recommend.

Note: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. That means I’ll earn a tiny fee if someone makes a purchase using an affiliate link from this site. You can bet anything earned will go straight to the purchase of another book! Thanks for your support!

Books I enjoyed the most in 2017

I set the same reading goal for 2017 as I did in 2016 — 52 books, or a book a week. Happily, I hit my goal — and exceeded it by 10 books. (You can see the whole list of books here.) It actually started off as a rough year for reading. I hit a dry spell between April to June (I pretty much didn't finish a single book for two months)! I got so behind on my reading challenge, I considered giving up. Then I picked up just the right book to kickstart my reading and I ended up completing 31 books in November and December!

Without further ado, here are the books I enjoyed most in 2017 (in no particular order).

Disclaimer: if you are one of my students and you happened to find this, please note my reviews are based on personal enjoyment and are not meant to be recommendations. I have included warnings; nonetheless, if you're interested in one of these books, please talk with me or a parent before reading. 

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My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I actually didn't hear of The Neopolitan Series until The Story of the Lost Child came out last year (I remember reading several articles debating the ethics of attempts to uncover Ferrante's true identity), but somehow felt inspired to give the series a shot before Thanksgiving break this year. I couldn't put the books down — I finished the books in 5 days, the first three crammed around hectic work days. (I remember choosing to walk to school instead of biking so I could read for an extra five minutes before work!) I can't quite put my finger on why these books are so compelling — for sure, there are quirks to the storytelling I found unfamiliar or even odd — but there was something about following the two main characters over decades of growth and change that absolutely kept me invested. (Warning: dark themes and perhaps graphic scenes—I can’t remember!)

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

I bought Anna the first of this series maybe two years ago and she was never interested in reading it. Luckily for both of us, I preloaded it onto her Kindle (a Christmas present!), and she read it because she didn't have other options. She LOVED the book and flew through the rest of the series — and I loved it, too. (In fact, I am currently in the middle of Book 3.) There is something wholesome, heartwarming, and somewhat old-fashioned about the four sisters' adventures. This would be a great series to read aloud.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

I've loved Chabon since I found myself captivated by The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay more than a decade ago. This — a fictionalized account of Chabon's grandfather's life — was right up there in terms of reading enjoyment. Part of what I love about Chabon is his (hyper-intellectual) vocabulary and his obscure allusions; I'd say this is his most accessible book yet, but it doesn't suffer for it. I really enjoyed this.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

This is a very recent read — I purchased a copy during our first bookstore visit here in the Philippines last week. I knew I was in for a treat within the first few pages. The book is ostensibly a mystery centered on Crispin Salvador, a (fictional) Filipino writer who is found dead in New York City under mysterious circumstances. The protagonist, who shares the author's name, takes it upon himself to write about Salvador's life, and as such heads back to the Philippines to conduct interviews with acquaintances and relatives. I've read that the real-life Syjuco doesn't like this designation, but I'd consider this book post-modern (or post-post-modern?) in its style and structure — it's very meta. The book is comprised of the aforementioned narrative thread as well as chunks of writing from fictional Salvador's works, but also includes another layer adding to the main narrative, in which portions of the protagonist's first-person story is also told in an omniscient third-person point of view. Confusing? The book is a little confusing, too, but I found it plenty fun to just keep reading and enjoy the ride. I liked the book because of its familiarity (so many of the scenes and cultural references hit close to home) and because of its subject matter — the Philippines and its complicated identity, literature and its power (or lack of power) to incite change — but I wonder if a reader unfamiliar with the Philippines would find it less compelling. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I find Green's brand of heart and braininess so attractive, I often wish I could jump into his books and become best friends with all the characters. I enjoyed this much more than The Fault in Our Stars (which is actually perhaps my least favorite Green book, although I liked it better upon a second reading). Aza, the protagonist, struggles with anxiety and OCD and, while my own challenges aren't exactly like hers, I found her story so relatable, so recognizable. I've loaned my copy out to several high school students and they've all loved it. (Warning: could be triggering.)

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

I lucked into reading this because my colleague (and much-appreciated reader-friend) happened to be reading this with students he is tutoring and loaned me a copy. I ended up reading the entire thing in one very, very emotional evening. I have trouble putting my finger on where exactly the power of this narrative comes from — is it the complicated relationship between the speaker and his father that makes it so real, or is it the depiction of Jews as mice (and the Nazis as cats) that lends it both enough distance and enough proximity to make familiar horrors new? Each page is painful but infinitely worth reading. (Warning: this is obviously a dark and disturbing book. Please read it anyway.)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read this multiple times this year because it's part of the curriculum for a new class I'm teaching (AP English). I initially read it quite grudgingly, not sure I wanted to teach it at all. I'm glad I didn't skip it, but I happily admit it was the discussions with my students that really made me enjoy this book. (I'd argue one of the best parts of being an English teacher is having a ready-made book club, with members that sure as heck better read the book and be prepared to discuss. :) My students helped me see interpretations I hadn't seen on my own. My favorite takes are a questioning of the monster's reliability (and thus the ending of the story) and an interpretation of Frankenstein's creation as a Faustian bargain. There's much to unpack in this book and it's so enjoyably dark and "emo."

Green Island by Shauna Yang Ryan

I'm not aware of too many English-language books about Taiwan, so I was pretty excited to stumble upon this at our local bookstore. Paul picked it up right before he took a group of students to Green Island and he found it absolutely gripping. When I read it shortly afterward, I shared his sentiments. This book made me feel ashamed about how little I know about Taiwan's politics and how unaware I've been about the brutality of its history. The story follows a young girl whose father is accused of being a political dissident and is subsequently arrested during the now infamous 228 Incident. He reappears more than a decade later, but his return is painful and complicated for the whole family. It's an ambitious book, as the narrative follows the daughter's own growing political awareness after she moves to the US as an adult. It's also beautifully written. (Warning: some graphic scenes but they’re fairly isolated.)

The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen

This is an unusual pick for me — I prefer fiction, and I have complicated feelings about books centered on spirituality. I read this for work and, happily, I'm so glad I read it. Nouwen explores the faith practices of the "desert fathers and mothers" (a group of people I admittedly am not too familiar with). What I loved about this book is its message of simplicity — anyone who knows me knows I overthink everything, and overthink nothing more than my spiritual beliefs — and it was so refreshing and relieving to hear someone say (so gently) that maybe all we need to pray sometimes is "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." 

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

I reread this after I randomly took a quiz purporting to tell me which literary character I am most like (Franny, apparently). I'd read this before but remembered very little about it and am so glad I read it again. Yes, I absolutely relate to Franny — her emotionality, her instability, her simultaneous shallowness and depth, her desperation to find peace and truth. If you've read this, you'll know she is fixated on the Jesus prayer, the very prayer mentioned in the Nouwen book above. At any rate, the Franny story hit very close to home and, while I find Zooey quite insufferable, reading this made me want to take another deep dive into Salinger's body of work.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

If we were to play "Which of these is not like the others?", this book would take the cake. It's the third and final installment in Han's To All the Boys I Loved Before series. I would perhaps be embarrassed to love a book that is so obviously a fluffy teenage love story, but I really enjoyed this series. I love that the main character, Lara Jean, is half-Asian. I love that she is dorky and innocent. I love that she loves her family. I love the relationship between the sisters. This is a series I will no doubt reread again because it is just so fun.

Honorable mentions:

The War that Saved My Life — Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Read this upon (4th grader) Anna's recommendation. It's about Ada, a girl with a club foot, who evacuates London with her brother during the second World War and finds herself in the care of a distant (but ultimately kind) woman. It's a lovely story that anyone would enjoy.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  — Gail Honeyman

This is a quick read that is both funny and dark. I found the twist in the end unnecessary, but I still liked this book a lot. (Warning: could be triggering.)

Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng

Wow. I can basically copy and paste the lines I wrote for Eleanor Oliphant above. Funny but dark, easy to read but with surprising depth. Also felt like some of the drama was unnecessary, but it was still good.

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas
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I've been so swamped with work-related reading lately, I've barely had time to read for pleasure. Thus, rather than my usual tendency to binge-read a book in one or a few sittings, I started Camille Bordas's How to Behave in a Crowd a few pages at a time. It took me a while to get into the story, but before long, I was sucked in — to the point where I was sneaking in pages on my way to work and before appointments.

The protagonist Dory (or Izzie, as he prefers to be called) is the youngest of a large, Salinger-esque family of brilliant intellectuals. Unlike his pretentious siblings (who are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another), Dory is a kid with normal problems — loneliness, everyday humiliations, crushes on unattainable girls who may or may not know his name. Dory's normalcy makes him stand out from his siblings, who skipped grades at school and are prone to impart their wisdom to their naive younger brother in the most heavy-handed ways. We're told (and we see) that Dory is sensitive and empathetic in a way foreign to his siblings; he, for example, befriends his insufferably snobbish sister Simone's visiting penpal, Rose, because Simone can't bear to stoop to Rose's vacuousness. He pays attention to his loved ones and is frequently the only person to notice others' secret pain. At first, Dory's sensitivity seems like a weak consolation for the fact that he's not brilliant. But then we see that perhaps Dory's gift of emotional intelligence makes him the most brilliant of all. 

I really enjoyed this book. I loved Dory. I found his and his family's navigation through various events such as death, disillusionment, and failure compelling and real. While I never quite warmed up to Dory's siblings (until very literally the end of the book), the family's home was a place I liked to be, stained couch and all. I was sad to say goodbye (to Dory, not the couch). 

The beauty of this book is that things happen (big things!), but it's not about the plot. It's a psychological bildungsroman in which a character's inner life is even more fascinating than what's happening around him. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

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The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
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My former boss once interviewed Salman Rushdie. She's met hundreds of prominent people over her career, and she said he stuck out as a favorite because he was both brilliant and generous. 

For this, and also because it is ubiquitous in Books You Have to Read lists, I once packed Midnight's Children as my only reading option on an intercontinental plane ride. I ended up giving up about halfway through (it's a THICK book!). I found the writing brilliant, yes, but not really that generous — in fact, it almost read as if it were a vehicle to display Rushdie's brilliance, and that's why the book is so long.

Actually, the truth may also just be that I'm not bright enough (or patient enough) to enjoy Rushdie's brilliance (I once also ditched the almost universally-lauded Wolf Hall mere chapters from the end, so I am serious when I say this is the likely explanation). 

For this reason, I was nervous to request an advanced review copy of The Golden Hour. I was afraid I'd have a hard time finishing it. But the blurb said this book is a scathing commentary on today's political and cultural climate (my paraphrase), so I was intrigued. (Also, I felt the need to finish a Rushdie sooner rather than later.) This time, I plowed through the book during a cross-country road trip. I finished in a few days — and I enjoyed it!

The Golden House is about privileged family, Nero Golden and his three grown sons. The Goldens are remarkable because of their wealth (they own a mansion in a private New York City neighborhood), but also because they suddenly appear in New York with nary a backstory. In fact, they are intent on obscuring their shared family history — we don't even know their real names or their country of origin. We are made privy to this family's secrets by a Nick Caraway-esque narrator, who initially tells us his job is to observe, but, of course, gets himself inextricably tied to each family member's fate all the way to the bitter end. The narrator, who gives himself a pseudonym (Rene — take a guess as to why a pseudonym is necessary), almost immediately excuses his obsession with the family by claiming he is writing a screenplay in which they are the subjects. And thus begins the tale.

What I liked about this book: Rushdie is not shy when using foreshadowing (is it foreshadowing if he tells us outright that something bad is going to happen?), but it worked for me. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next, especially once Rene gets more directly involved. I also enjoyed the hyper-currentness of the piece, which I'm not sure I've ever experienced in a novel— Rushdie takes us all the way past Trump's victory to 2017. The way he paints the most recent election is fascinating and disturbing (Trump's character is The Joker, Clinton is Batgirl) — I was acutely aware of just how farcical real life seems right now. Rushdie also dips into a multitude of worlds within his narrative — we hear about the art scene in New York City, Indian mob culture, even the inner-thoughts of a Russian gold-digger. And the writing? It's clear as a neon sign that Rushdie is brilliant. 

Surprise, surprise. That brilliance is maybe my biggest beef with the book. Rushdie, like in Midnight's Children, is too smart for me — he drops names (and all manner of trivia, in various languages) with reckless abandon. He also has such a strong voice, which is excellent, except every character sounds like they are various versions of the same voice. (No one, including the younger characters, sounds like they actually live in current day New York City.) In fact, the setting is confusing — it's supposed to be now, in a world I recognize, but the portrayal of actual events is so stylized, it could be of any made-up place, in any made-up time. (I'm thinking now that perhaps that was the point!) The actual plot centering on the Goldens almost feels anachronistic. I found it jarring when there are current-day references — oh yeah, this is supposed to be happening in my world.

By now, this is sounding like a negative review. On the contrary, I quite liked this book and would recommend it. The plotting was, at times, delicious and Rushdie gives nice, satisfying pay-offs. (I found it terribly unfair but quite enjoyable that one character gets to have his cake and eat it, too.) Suffice it to say, The Golden Hour has made me want to give Midnight's Children another shot. 

I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
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Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which I have not read. I worried that might make this review unfair, but then I realized there's got to be a good number of Margaret Atwood fans (or fans of literary fiction in general) who might be interested in Hag-Seed but also haven't read The Tempest. If you belong in that category, this review is for you.

First of all, I don't think you have to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. Atwood includes a plot synopsis of the play, but at the back of the book — I took this to mean she also doesn't think you need to know the original story to enjoy Hag-Seed. That said, I can imagine that familiarity with the original story would be helpful. But I'll get back to that later. 

Here's the basic plot of Hag-Seed: Felix is a play director who finds himself ousted from his position. He subsequently flees from all aspects of his previous life and holes up in a cave-like dwelling out in the middle of nowhere. For work, he secures a position as a teacher at a correctional center, with the condition that he be allowed to base the curriculum on a study and performance of a Shakespearean play. Meanwhile, he is dealing with his own demons — the grief of a past tragedy, the spite towards his ousters, his desire for revenge. All of this culminates in Felix's decision to have his inmate students perform The Tempest, both as a way to exorcize his demons and as a vehicle for revenge. 

To return to a previous point — you don't have to have read The Tempest to enjoy this book, but I'm willing to bet the story would be a lot more enjoyable if you had. There are plot contrivances that are understandable only because I know Atwood was following the original story. The characters are a bit uneven — the prisoners, particularly, seemed less believable as actual contemporary criminals than as background players in a Shakespearean comedy. I can, however, imagine the delight I would've experienced in connecting Atwood's story and characters with the original. 

I have always loved Atwood and there are certainly moments that shine for the writing. I particularly admired the sympathetic and believable depiction of Felix's relationship with his deceased daughter's ghost. But what I enjoyed most is the depiction of Felix's classes. As an English teacher, it tickled me to see a skilled teacher tease meaning and intrigue out of a Shakespearean work, especially since I will be teaching Shakespeare for the first time this year. Would that I be half as inspiring as Felix!

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

New page: book reviews!

I've long said a dream job would be any job that would allow me to request books from publishers. I recently realized I don't need to quit my day job to make that a reality. I've joined a couple of review programs that allow me to request books for review. So far, I've read and enjoyed The Heirs by Susan Rieger and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Check out those reviews (and more to come) here! You can find my reviews and other book-related posts by clicking on the "Book Reviews" tab above.

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The Heirs by Susan Rieger
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I wasn't terribly interested in reading this book, based on the subject matter alone — it's about a wealthy, WASP-y family (with five sons who refer to themselves as — and I quote — the "Five Famous, Fierce, Forceful, Faithful, Fabled, Fortunate, Fearless Falkeses" — that moniker alone made me want to put the book down). We've established that an inordinate percentage of lauded "literature" revolves around the trials and tribulations of privileged white men and frankly, at this point, I'm just tired. The thought of reading about SIX privileged white men (the Five... Falkes + their dad) made me feel really tired. 

But — but! — I decided to give the book a shot and, lo and behold, I was rapidly hooked, despite myself. Rieger writes with spare — even brusque — sentences and the pace leaves no time for weariness. After the first few pages (in which we immediately discover that patriarch Rupert Falkes is dying, and then get a high-speed account of his blue-blood wife Eleanor's back story) I found myself thinking, "She's just telling us everything, straight up! How in the world is Rieger going to keep this up for 254 pages?"  

But she does! We soon find ourselves immersed in the kinds of conflicts rich people encounter, like a posthumous paternity claim, unrequited love, mid-life crises, anti-Semitic in-laws (almost all of which can be solved by $$$). To me, the magic of the book is that I loved reading it, even though I didn't truly care about anyone's problems, and that's simply a credit to Rieger's clever writing. I love her way of taking any overwrought drama out of the soap opera-worthy storylines; the cool absence of emotion is, remarkably, delightful. Rieger just tell it like it is, tongue firmly in cheek. 

It's not a perfect book. Most notably, the Five Famous... Falkes are faintly ridiculous two-dimensional stereotypes. To be honest, I still can't tell you which one Tom is. (The trumpet player? The nice one? Or is that Will? There IS a Tom, right?) I didn't care enough about them to keep the characters straight, not did I particularly want to hang out with any of them. I definitely didn't want to hang out with oldest-child Harry. But Eleanor and Rupert — and their marriage — are endlessly fascinating. I loved that no one really understands Eleanor, but no one can help but admire her. She reminds me of a warmer take on Clarissa Dalloway (a good thing, in my book). 

All in all, The Heirs is fun but smart  — high-brow summer reading, the perfect pick for the beginning of summer break. Recommended! 

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

The best books I read in 2016

Published in 2016:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This should become required reading for all Americans.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I escaped to this book the week of the US presidential election. It was the best kind of immersive experience. The titular character is one I'll never forget.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
I picked up this book during Thanksgiving break and promptly devoured the 600+ pages in two days. So much fun.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This is the best-written book I read this year. Wow. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
It is hard for me to believe Gyasi is a first-time author. This is a beautiful and devastating book.

In the Country by Mia Alvar
I loved this collection of short stories particularly because it is about the Philippines (and I am a Filipina), but I would recommend it to anyone.

Published prior to 2016:

Silence by Shusaku Endo
This rocked my worldview, very much like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory profoundly affected my faith. This is a book you read once and think about for years after.

Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates
I read this book in conjunction with The Underground Railroad, Beloved, and Homegoing. This set of books completely changed my perspective on America's history and legacy, especially as a newly-minted American.

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This is another extremely well-written collection of short fiction by a Filipino author. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I know not everyone felt the same way, but this totally lived up to the hype. It was the perfect book in which to lose myself during a vacation — long and rambling, but also extremely compelling. 

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I read this for a book club and it surprised me in so many ways; it's funny, subversive, and dark.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Gorgeous, haunting, and worthy of every bit of acclaim it has received.

Honorable mentions:

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
This reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except (dare I say it?) I found it even more enjoyable.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I didn't love this as much as Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but you really can't go wrong with Ann Patchett. This book feels like a modern take on Anne Tyler, which is a very good thing. 

You can see a comprehensive list of all the books I read here

Better late than never

I had two books on my to-buy list when I arrived in the Philippines: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Euphoria by Lily King. The problem is, none of the five (five!) bookstores within walking distance carried them. Eventually, one of the bookstores ordered the books for me, but in the meantime, I decided to refocus my efforts on finding and purchasing novels written by Filipino/a authors.

Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

My new fascination with Filipino/a literature started with Mia Alvar's In the Country, a collection of short stories by a Filipina-American author. I was particularly intrigued by her historical/political stories from the Marcos/Aquino era, a time I vaguely remember but don't really understand. Reading Alvar was a revelation to me — minus one romance novel I stumbled upon as a teenager, I had never read anything by a Filipina author. I, frankly, cut my teeth on books by white men: first John Grisham, later Michael Chabon, Graham Greene. The literary characters that have filled my mind are war correspondents, college professors, cops, lawyers — by and large, white males. (Sometimes Filipina characters do make cameos in these books — as maids, nannies, entertainers.) To be fair, I have encountered books about the immigrant experience that hit close to home (by Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri), but I have never read anything that touches on my Filipino heritage.

In the couple of weeks I've been here, I've been building a collection of books by Filipino/a authors, based on recommendations and reviews. Several purchases in, I was pleasantly surprised to realize all but one are written or edited by women authors. I'm noticing Filipino literature tends to be more subversive, feminist, political, and gritty. This is the stuff I had no exposure to as a student in a Western school system.

Funny story: after reading a few books, I picked up a book by an older white male (the kind of book I've always read, the kind that gets a lot of attention from the media outlets I read) and I was astounded by how alien it is, how far it is from my reality. It's startling to realize so belatedly how the loudest (and most powerful) voices from my literary journey represent a largely homogenous perspective that is not my own. 

Happy to have my eyes (and world) opened. Better late than never.

 

April book report

My reading frenzy, which began in March, is still going strong. I read 11 books in April, which puts me 10 books ahead of my 52-book reading challenge this year.

Here are one- or two-sentences about each of the books I read in April, for future reference:

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Oh, to be Hemingway, when living the life of a starving artist meant maybe cutting short your Swiss ski vacation to a month instead of two! Maybe my favorite parts were Hemingway's scathing descriptions of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Fitzgerald's various, um, insecurities).  

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I'd never read this — and I had no idea there is so much more to the story than the crazy lady in the attic. Talk about a sprawling novel.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

This book surprised me with its spare, matter-of-fact characterization that somehow still left me with a vivid portrait of the main character's complex and paradoxical emotions. I was also surprised by how much I resonated with Toibin's portrayal of the immigrant experience.

What If? by Randall Munroe

I listened to this at 1.5x speed while I was laid up with a concussion and it was such a laughably poor choice for what was supposed to be a brain-resting activity. I did enjoy it — and particularly liked Will Wheaton's reading.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and John Levithan

This started my dive into John Green's back catalog. I loved the characterization of both Will Graysons — one reminds me so much of a few of my 7th grade boys, it's painful.

Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

I usually feel deeply satisfied reading Murakami even though I never understand his books, but this time I just did not feel invested. 

The Collar and the Cavvarach by Annie Douglass Lima

Lima is a colleague from our sister school and she is visiting this month to give a talk in my class, so I figured I should read her book ASAP! Happily, I enjoyed it — I found her made-up world compelling and her characters sympathetic. (I cried!)

Animal Farm by George Orwell

WOW. This was so much darker than I anticipated — almost unbearably dark.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I can see why this remains an enduring Green favorite. He has such a gift for respecting the intelligence and maturity of teenagers.

This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

Being a middle school English teacher gives me an excuse to read fluffy YA novels. I read one of Smith's other books based on a blogger recommendation and I liked it enough to pick this up from the local library.  

No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre

I read this play for my book club — dark, but darkly funny. Makes me wonder who would be in my version of hell...