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).
In no particular order:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Educated by Tara Westover (A)
My takeaway from this book: truth is stranger than fiction, and humans are resilient and courageous beyond understanding.
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.
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.
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