Posts in reading
Burnout: how to break a reading slump

I’m guessing I’m not alone in that my reading life ebbs and flows. I can go through long periods during which I barely read at all. In fact, I’m kind of in a reading slump right now.

I’m currently listening to Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. It’s really fun — it’s an urban fairy tale set in London “above and below” about a girl named Door and a bumbling, “normal” person named Richard. Gaiman narrates it himself and the whole listening experience is quite enjoyable. I have, however, only really listened to it before bed, and I find myself falling asleep every night without even finishing a chapter (even if it isn’t — I promise! — boring).

I am currently not reading a book in print even though I have a million books on my TBR pile.

It’s no big deal to go through a reading dry spell. There are reasons, however, to break a reading slump. For one, I find that I watch more TV/stare at my phone much more often when I don’t have a book I’m excited about reading. I also find myself more restless when I don’t have a go-to past time that is relaxing, satisfying, and mentally stimulating.  And because I really do love books, I miss having a reading habit. With this in mind, I do find myself actively working to break my reading slumps when they’ve been going on for a while.

Here’s how I do it.

1) Aim low(er)

A tried-and-true way to break a reading slump is to pick a book that takes less effort to enjoy. For me, this means picking up maybe a YA/middle grade book or a genre novel (like fantasy or romance). Basically, I choose anything I can get through quickly. Finishing a book is often all it takes to get me back into the habit.

2) Make a reading date

Another way I jumpstart my reading life is to put aside some time to read without interruption. I find it most satisfying when reading is an immersive experience and, conversely, it is incredibly unsatisfying to plod through a novel a few pages at a time. It takes time — not just a couple of pages — to get into a story. Imagine how frustrating it would be to watch a movie 15 minutes at a time. (For this reason, I have mixed feelings about teaching class novels a few chapters at a time.) Giving myself an afternoon or evening with no goal except to read is a great way to get hooked on a book — and the reading habit — again.

3) Switch forms

While I certainly count listening to audiobooks as “real” reading, to me, reading a print book and listening to an audiobook doesn’t feel the same. Although not often, sometimes when I find myself hitting a dreaded reader’s block, I switch mediums (media?). If i’m reading a book, I give myself a break and pick up the audio version instead and vice versa. I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running this way — first in book form, then, when I stalled, I finished it via audio.

4) Get hooked

Contrary to tip #1, sometimes the best way to get over a reading slump is not to aim low, but rather to open a literary can of worms. It’s easy to find yourself not reading simply because you don’t know what to read next. An easy solution is to get hooked on a series.

5) Remember that reading is a habit

Reading, like all habits, takes effort and regularity. Several years ago, I actually felt unable to read. I had gotten into the habit of scrolling, skimming, and watching and found it almost impossible to concentrate on a page of text. I stumbled upon an article about how our culture of phone-scrolling and bite-sized information has actually rewired our brains. I realized then that it would take a real effort to wire my brain back. I did this by carrying a book around and choosing to pull the book out during free moments instead of my phone. It took a few weeks but it absolutely worked. Sometimes when I’m in a reading slump, I find myself having to retrain my brain again. It means making the decision to persist with reading even when I am tempted to stare at my phone instead.

I’m curious — does your reading life ebb and flow? What do you do when you find yourself out of the habit of reading?

readingKate LS Comment
This fresh morning
Collared Finchbill. Photo credit:  Paul Shaffner

Collared Finchbill. Photo credit: Paul Shaffner

I count myself along the myriad who fell in love with Mary Oliver in recent years. Her poetry is a buoy when I feel overcome by the dark storms of living.

In her memory:

“Invitation” by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

life, readingKate LSComment
Behind the scenes of a podcast
Like how I hung scarves on each side of my workspace so I don’t have shirts and dresses in my face? Also: once again, Mom, Vampire Weekend is a band. :)

Like how I hung scarves on each side of my workspace so I don’t have shirts and dresses in my face? Also: once again, Mom, Vampire Weekend is a band. :)

I posted that fancy picture of me in Room 135, a recording studio at WPSU (where I used to work). I spent HOURS in that studio (sometimes in the middle of the night — creepy because one wall is essentially a window to the lobby). A number of friends asked me if I was renting studio space for my podcast project and I laughed out loud.

Nope. I am recording my podcast in my closet.

I’m not new to recording in strange locations — I remember once throwing a heavy comforter over my head and crouching on the floor to record voiceovers for a news story. In fact, after much trial and error, I discovered the best location for recording at our old house was in the garage, sitting in the passenger seat of our parked car.

While I do have solid equipment from my reporter days (albeit equipment best for field recording), one thing I love about podcasts is how low the barrier to entry is. If you have a laptop, a microphone, and a little bit of money for hosting the actual podcasts on a server, you can make a podcast.

In fact, my daughter recorded a couple of episodes a few years ago and she’s now working on a new episode completely on her own.

Here’s what I’ve done to prep for my podcast.

  1. Solidify my idea.
    I knew I wanted to focus on reading and books because it’s what I know and love. I also wanted to pick a topic that would build upon and even enhance my day job (teaching HS English). What I needed to determine was what exactly I wanted to talk about.

    When I started outlining the first episode, it was crazy how quickly things came to me. I think I sketched out the first episode in about 15 minutes. I think it’s because I’ve actually been thinking about this idea for a really long time.

  2. Come up with a name
    This has actually been really hard and I’m not 100% confident about my decision yet. I wanted to come up with a book-related name, something instantly identifiable that sets the tone for my content (the adjectives I’m going for: thoughtful, snappy, quirky, deep). My first idea was “Franny Glass,” after my favorite literary character. Doesn’t she epitomize those descriptors? But Franny Glass has a bit of a musty feel and I have no idea how many people have read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

    Suggestions from others: “The Shaffnerd” (ha!), Ye Olde Book Podcast (Paul’s go-to suggestion for anything is “Ye Olde”), Kitabu (book in Swahili), and A Novel Idea. Also “Flipping Pages” and, my favorite, The Book Rapport (you know, like The Colbert Report? Anyone?)

    My friend Cindy suggested sticking with what I have — either Sounds and Bites, a domain I’ve owned for years, or KLSreads, my hashtag and Instagram account for books.

    At this point, I’m leaning towards following Cindy’s advice and sticking with Sounds and Bites. Mostly because I JUST renewed my domain.

  3. Set up my equipment
    I dug out my old Marantz PMD661, my Electro-Voice RE-50 Mic, and reregistered my audio editing program on my laptop. I found the quietest room in our house — our closet — and cleared the top of my dresser to make a workspace.

  4. Record

    Then came the actual recording, which was fun AND painful. I went through my outline several times and threw away a couple of takes before landing on a mostly solid recording.

  5. Edit

    Editing is super fun but also very tedious. It’s also really tempting to go overboard — it was all I could do NOT to edit out all my weird breathing noises. (SO GROSS.) Listening to a recording of yourself is a uniquely painful experience. I had no idea I started every other sentence with “So…” and I didn’t realize how prone I am to upspeak (ugh!).

    I was happy to realize my fingers remember the keyboard shortcuts for the editing program, though, even after almost 4 years.

  6. Listen and edit again

    This is what I did when I worked on radio stories before, too: I exported the audio “draft” as an .mp3 and then sent it to my phone. Then I listened to the whole thing a couple of times through, jotting notes about what didn’t work and what I needed to change (for example: I listed fish sauce as an ingredient for a vegan dish. SMH). I also sent the mp3 to two “beta listeners,” Paul and my little bro, and begged them for constructive feedback. As is always true, their feedback pretty much canceled each other’s out. :) (Want to be a beta listener? Let me know!)

  7. Record changes/additions

    This is the perhaps the hardest part and I’m not done yet. It can be hard to match your own voice quality and tone. It’s also hard to know when to make changes to improve the piece and when to just let it be. I also found my voice is pretty much shot today — I’m just so tired of talking. I’m going to save this job for tomorrow and give the first “draft” another listen tonight.

Now that I’m writing all the steps out, it’s actually a pretty big job for a little podcast! It’s exponentially easier than video production, however, and it’s FUN.

My goal is to polish-off Episode 1 tomorrow and record Episodes 2 and 3 this week. Paul’s working on the podcast logo design. I plan to launch by the end of the month!

How I remember what I read

In short, I often don’t, which is why I made it a goal last summer to find ways to make things stick. It seems like a lost opportunity to spend so much time reading without actually retaining what I read!

I listened to a bunch of podcasts and read a couple of books last summer about how to improve long-term memory. Here’s what I learned (much of which I’ve shared with my students):

  • Take the time to jot down notes while your memory is fresh.

    I know it sounds tedious to take notes on a book you’re reading for fun, but it really helps. Writing things down commits things to your memory not just because of the physical act of writing, but because it takes brain power to recall what’s important and figure out how you want to phrase it.
    This doesn’t have to be complicated. I have my students write chapter titles and summaries when we do novel studies. This document functions as a handy index/cheat-sheet when it comes to reviewing materials at the end of the unit. But when I am reading for pleasure, I will often just write a few bullet points on my Notes app. I write down character names, major plot points, symbols/motifs, and themes when I read novels, and simple lists of ideas when I read non-fiction.

  • While typing is better than nothing, hand-written notes are the best

    That’s what research says!

  • Talk with someone about the book.

    This is helpful even if the other person hasn’t read the book. Get in the habit of talking about what you’re reading with fellow book-loving friends. The simple verbalizing of what the book is about/why you like the book will help solidify ideas in your memory.

    If you CAN find a friend who has read the book, discuss away! As an AP English Lit teacher, it’s so, so clear to me that understanding often comes after the reading. It takes time to really process ideas and understand what is going on under the surface.

  • Read reviews after you’ve finished the book

    Much like I IMDB every movie I watch, I Google pretty much everything I read. I love reading other people’s takes on books I both love and dislike.

  • Keep a list of books read and review the list once in a while

    I have MUCH better recall of what I’ve read in the years I’ve kept track of books. The other years are like black holes.

readingKate LS Comments
Some questions (and answers) about my reading habits

I posted my roundup of my 2018 favorites on Facebook and was surprised by the influx of questions not about the books, per se, but about my reading life. I thought I'd post a few of them here because I love hearing other people's thoughts on this!

Q. How ever do you find the time to read?

A. Three things that have dramatically ramped up my reading life: 1) I bring something to read (or listen to) everywhere I go. That way if I have time to kill, I can read instead of just staring at my phone. 2) I don’t watch much TV (sometimes I wish that wasn’t true). 3) I listen to audiobooks. It allows me to “read” when I am doing mindless tasks like washing dishes, getting groceries, or even surfing the Internet.

That said, my reading habits ebb and flow. I tend to read many more books during the summer and winter, fewer during spring and fall (probably because these seasons coincide with the beginning and end of the school year!)

Also, a confession: I don't have many other hobbies and I sometimes sacrifice sleep to read.

Q. How do you decide what to read first?

A. I put books on hold at the library (ebooks and audiobooks) and read them as they come in. I also just read what I’m in the mood for.

Q. How do you decide what you listen to vs read on paper? Does it depend what you have time for?

A. Often it’s just what’s available at the library first or what I stumble upon at the bookstore. Occasionally I will specifically choose a format (I loved the idea or listening to Michelle Obama reading her own book) but often it’s just a matter of practicality. I also find I blitz through audiobooks faster because I can listen while multitasking or listen as I fall asleep at night.

Q. Do you use an app to listen to audiobooks?

A. I use the Libby and Hoopla apps (they're specifically library apps) + the Audible app.

Q. Do you have a hopeful reading list for this year?

A. Not officially, but I do have these titles on hold at the library:

These are in my physical TBR pile:

And I preordered this one, written by my friend:

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!

readingKate LSComment
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.


  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 many 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. 


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.

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.

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.