I feel like I really hit my stride in March. I was a little nervous because I knew I had to read an extra book to make up for falling short of my quota in February, but my picks this month were so good, I just inhaled them. I hope you find something here you think you might like as well.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Fiction)
Towles’ delightful novel, about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to lifetime house arrest in a Moscow hotel in the earliest days after the 1917 Revolution, possesses a charm that belies its depth and richness. I was absolutely smitten with Count Alexander Illych Rostov, a man of honor, grace, and integrity, a consummate gentleman. By contrast, the politics depicted in the novel are by turns cruel, illogical, and stripped of any ideals they’re supposedly meant to enshrine. It’s no coincidence that the beginning of the story includes a scene with the Count describing to 8-year-old fellow hotel guest Nina the honorable tradition of dueling. He has brought with him echoes of that past – a desk called The Ambassador, a portrait of his late sister, a stack of classic literature. As a member of the landed elite, the Revolution took nearly everything from him. Three years after his sentence, he carefully plans and very nearly executes a dignified jump from the roof of the hotel, but has a change of heart at the last minute, thanks to… bread and honey, served on a roof tile. That’s what I loved most about this story, how seemingly insignificant moments or gestures can have such a profound impact, and how traditions, no matter how disconnected from our daily experience, can endow our lives with such meaning. There are so many endearing details and vignettes, and every chapter (the titles of which all inexplicably begin with the letter ‘A’ – for Alexander? Amor? Is it meant to suggest that, like the hotel, just one letter contains multitudes?) rewards and delights. You absolutely must read it. Start now, if possible. Move it immediately to the top of your ‘to-read’ pile and savor every simple, intricately woven, utterly enchanting moment.
Becoming Maria by Sonia Manzano (Memoir)
With all the tributes and specials surrounding the 50th Anniversary of the premier of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the public television of my youth. The only cultural force equal in significance to Saint Fred was Sesame Street, with its lovable Muppets, imaginative animated segments, and cool celebrity guest appearances. While I imagined Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Prairie Dawn to be my actual friends, the adults on the show were stand-in parental figures, and my favorite among them was the always lovely, always smiling Maria. Sonia Manzano played Maria for 44 years, from 1971 until her retirement in 2015. Becoming Maria spans her earliest memories growing up in her Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx right up until her audition for Sesame Street. Many of the early moments are reminiscent of Sesame Street sketches, like one memory of being sent down to the corner market for a short list of items she forgets by the time she arrives (“A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter“). Always looming in the background is the shadow of her alcoholic father, whose love for music certainly helps to nurture Manzano’s artistic inclinations, but whose abuse grows ever more violent as she develops and matures. What’s so compelling about Manzano’s memoir is the way the reader can witness in this context the evolution of her fierce independence and firm conviction that her voice is one that must and will be heard. On Sesame Street, Maria started out working for Mr. Hooper in the Fix-It Shop and then went on to own it herself, and to me this aptly exemplifies how Manzano became Maria – by working her ass off, day in and day out, and not allowing any setback or frustration to deter her. I came away from her memoir inspired to work harder myself, likely a lesson she taught me years ago on Sesame Street.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (YA… kinda)
One of my favorite things as a teacher is seeing students reading for pleasure and it’s painful for me to ask them to put their books away at the beginning of class. I try always to ask them about what they’re reading and how they’re liking it so hopefully it doesn’t feel like a rebuke… anyway, a few months ago I noticed that often, the book I was asking them to put away was this one, which convinced me that I needed to read it and see what the fuss was about. I think probably the release of the Steven Spielberg-directed movie generated a new wave of interest in this highly-engaging story of scrappy teen Wade Watts and his gamer friends competing against a much better equipped corporate army in a Willy Wonka-esque contest to find secret Easter eggs hidden in a VR world called the OASIS. At stake is the entire fortune of OASIS designer Jim Halliday, who announced the contest in his will, and over whose journal, Anorak’s Almanac, the enterprising teens pore for clues to find three keys to three gates, the last of which leads to the treasure. I can completely understand why my students love the book so much; it is highly engaging and Cline’s skilled pacing is gripping, though the plot becomes a bit shallow. One of the more obvious (and gratuitous) motifs in the novel is the deluge of 80’s references, which were amusing at first but soon felt empty and pointless. I was also disappointed in the novel’s inconsistency in developing a broader theme about society becoming more insular and self-obsessed. The (digital) setting is an entire world that literally revolves around one man, Halliday. I thought we were getting somewhere when Wade asks his computer assistant, Max Headroom (yes, New Coke Max Headroom, that guy) for the day’s current events:
“Any news I should know about?”
“Just the usual. Wars, rioting, famine. Nothing that would interest you.”
But this critique is never developed further. The real world is going to hell but who cares – there are EASTER EGGS in a VIDEO GAME! My criticism obviously reflects my age and the fact that I have never been all that interested in gaming; the important thing is that it has reignited an interest in books among many of my students and more kids reading is always a good thing.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Fiction)
This fantastic novel was the March selection for the PBS News Hour/New York Times ‘Now Read This’ Book Club. Saeed and Nadia are students in an unnamed city situated within close enough proximity of an unspecified armed conflict that their daily lives become increasingly restricted and precarious as they fall ever deeper in love. Eventually they decide to leave and begin investigating ways out. The imaginative twist of Exit West, however, is that these ways out take the form of magical doors, like the wardrobe portal to Narnia, that instantly teleport migrants from one state to another. Hamid’s masterful description makes the plight of refugees and the inevitable nativist backlash – perhaps the most relevant socio-political issue of our time – feel timeless. But though I often had the sensation of looking down on the drama from a great distance, I never felt disconnected from the human struggle to connect and adapt and move on. Indeed, perhaps the most poignant journey of all was the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Even though their displacement certainly added stress I can’t begin to comprehend, I still identified with a couple trying to adapt and evolve together, and the sadness and alienation that results when those changes make you no longer compatible. Their story alternates with snapshot narratives from other door/portals, depicting simultaneous stories of other people. In one, Hamid observes, “We are all migrants through time”. It’s my favorite line because, even if it feels like my life couldn’t be more different from those of refugees like Saeed and Nadia, that fact alone is enough to unite us and invite readers to see this issue through the perspective of someone forced to flee their home, and from that sense of unity will come (hopefully) a recognition of our obligation to one another as fellow humans.
Delirium (Book 1 of 3) by Lauren Oliver (YA)
I can’t remember how I heard about this book or why I ordered it, to be perfectly honest. I think maybe it was one of those “If you liked…” recommendations on Amazon or something. No matter the circumstance, I’m happy I stumbled upon this fun and thought-provoking dystopian story of a future society in which love is considered a disease of which everyone, upon turning 18, must be surgically cured. Lena Haloway, 17, is excited about her upcoming graduation but ambivalent about her procedure, as it failed to cure her mother who eventually (she presumes) killed herself to be free of amor deliria nervosa. But just months before her scheduled surgery, she falls in love (AAH!) with Alex, who grew up outside the border of the city in a region known as the Wilds. This is especially dangerous because Alex is an Invalid, someone who chose not to take the Cure, and the two of them risk imprisonment or death as they fall deeper in love and their defiance of this society’s strict control over their lives grows even bolder. At 480 pages, it’s a little long, as these immersive YA novels tend to be; I could have done without the descriptions of absolutely every one of Lena’s clandestine bike rides through the back streets of Portland, Maine, where the story is set. But that’s a minor complaint and the drama, predictable though it may be, more than makes up for it. Oliver writes with an authenticity of voice and really quite delightful use language, like when she describes love as, “a single word, a wispy thing, a word no bigger or longer than an edge. That’s what it is: an edge; a razor. It draws up through the center of your life, cutting everything in two. Before and after. The rest of the world falls away on either side.”
I don’t often read entire YA series because there are just so damn many of them and usually the first gives me a good enough grasp to know which students would like it, but I’m really looking forward to reading Pandemonium, the next title in the series.
Clockwork Angel (Book 1 of 3) by Cassandra Clare (YA)
For Spring Break last week, my husband and I decided, rather on a whim, to drive to San Antonio in search of good cycling weather. Because it’s such a long drive (2,400-plus miles, roundtrip), I figured no one would blame me if I chipped away at my monthly quota audiobook-style. I chose this title because it is the prequel to another series by this author, which one of my students, a delightful 11th grade boy named Dexter, enthusiastically recommended. Also, its description included the words, “London”, “vampires”, “Queen Victoria”, “demons”, and “deadly secret”. Yes please! Tessa, 16, travels from her home in New York to London to try to find her brother Nate, who has gone missing. Before she can even try, she is kidnapped by the mysterious Dark Sisters, who know she possesses a singular power – the ability to take the form of anyone (without Polyjuice Potion!) – a skill they attempt to exploit to further the agenda of their sinister organization, The Pandemonium Club. With the help of a group known as Shadowhunters (human-angel hybrids tasked with maintaining order in the world), Tessa escapes their grasp and takes refuge in their London Institute, a sort of Hogwarts on a smaller scale. The Shadowhunters put her to work in what becomes an epic fight against the forces of the Downworld to claim Tessa’s shapeshifting power for their own evil devices. My usual complaint about these YA series installations – just too long, with too many interpersonal or character development episodes that dilute the plot – applies here. As often happens with audiobooks, my mind would begin to wander and this is the type of book that you can tune out for a while and not miss all that much. But it served its purpose of making a very long drive not feel quite so arduous and if we have to make another one, I’d definitely consider checking out Clockwork Prince, the next book in the series.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (YA)
Now on to the second book we listened to during our interminable drive home from Texas. My first exposure to John Green was listening to the audiobook of The Fault in Our Stars, which had us both rapt, completely oblivious to our surroundings (not great when you’re driving, I suppose), and so invested in the story that we were sobbing by the end. So I know that Green can write story that transfers well to the audio medium, largely due to his uncanny ability to create teen voices that are compelling, complex, and immediately lovable. In this story, 16-year-old Aza is persuaded by her best friend, Daisy, to attempt to uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of billionaire Russell Pickett, who was about to be indicted for fraud before he took off, abandoning two teenage sons. Aza quickly befriends Davis, the older of the two, whom she knows from attending a special grief camp for kids who’ve lost a parent (her dad; his mom). The two of them easily fall in love but their relationship is complicated by the real story of the novel – Aza’s at times crippling anxiety. She worries most about bacteria, of being infected, overrun, eventually consumed by an army of tiny microbes. This leads to behaviors that become more dangerous as her relationship with Davis takes her into unknown territory, a place she does not know how to explore without causing harm to herself. Green has said that Aza’s mental illness is inspired by his own struggles with OCD and anxiety, and I was most impressed with his ability to represent those experiences so vividly, illuminating an important social issue. I’ve been teaching for 13 years now and in that time, I’ve witnessed (and tried my best to support) so many of my students fighting their own battles with anxiety and depression. To see their pain and courage rendered with such love and humanity was, for, me, the greatest value of Turtles All the Way Down.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carré (Fiction/Espionage)
I am devoted for life to John Le Carré’s wonderfully complex characters and themes, and the Cold War-era world of international intrigue he crafts so deftly in his spy novels, so this is not going to be a very objective review. I can say with certainly that he is in my top three favorite authors and that the George Smiley novels in particular are books I know I’ll revisit throughout my life – once I get through all nine of them, that is. The events depicted in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold happen fairly early in the Smiley timeline and are referred to in later novels, most thoroughly in Le Carré’s most recent work, Legacy of Spies. Graham Greene declared it “the best spy story I have ever read” and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold frequently appears on top ten lists of best spy stories ever written. It describes a plot to have British agent Alec Leamas fake-defect to East Germany in order to wreak havoc within rival Communist intelligence organization while also… trying to do something else, look I don’t want to spoil you, it’s so good! What this novel does probably better than any other of LeCarré’s books (that I’ve read anyway) is present the contrast between the ideals that the British/Western intelligence officials attempt to preserve and protect with the cold ruthlessness of their methods. Whether the ends justify the means is a question the novel continually ponders and never answers. Late in the story, Leamas argues with Liz Gold, the Communist Party member with whom he has dangerously fallen in love, about the value of philosophy and ideals. Leamas thinks it’s naive and pointless to believe in anything (which makes him the best man for this particular job), and it’s at about this time that the reader is feeling just as cynical… but then LeCarré absolutely guts you with a breathtaking ending that makes you refuse to give up just yet. That’s his genius and the reason I simply can’t get enough.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (Essays)
Virginia Woolf is another writer (as is E.M. Forster) for whom I feel an intense, lifelong devotion, and whose entire catalogue I have undertaken to read before I die. So I’m a bit ashamed to admit that it took me this long to read her most famous essay, written in response to requests by two women’s colleges for her to deliver lectures on “Women and Fiction”. She begins with her guiding premise, that women’s voices will not be represented in fiction unless and until they have sufficient means (for Woolf, that mean 500 pounds a year) and the freedom to work uninterrupted. What follows is an imaginative narrative of how she arrived at this conviction, told from the point of view of a fictional female character (“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please”) as she investigates women as written by men throughout history. She discovers so very little that she reimagines the lives of intelligent women, writers-that-would-have-been, through the character of William Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith. Her tragic fate exemplifies the multitudinous ways in which women have been oppressed, restrained, dehumanized, and ignored in all aspects of life. And while I might raise practical objections to her thesis on the grounds that it artificially limits the range of voices we still need to have represented, I can’t argue with the value she places on intellectual freedom. In her forward, Mary Gordon quotes a letter Woolf wrote to a friend about why she wrote this essay: “I wanted to encourage the young women – they seem to get fearfully depressed”. The main reason I’m so obsessed with Woolf is that, whenever I read her work, I feel like she is sitting very close to me, speaking in a still, reassuring voice in my ear – perhaps even inside my head. Returning to Judith Shakespeare in the last chapter, Woolf writes, “the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down… she will be born.” When I look around at all the young women who are now raising their voices and demanding to be heard, I am more encouraged than ever.
Thank you for reading my March picks. As always, if you’ve got suggestions or recommendations, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or drop a comment. Very special thanks once again to artist Aaron Panaligan for the beautiful artwork. You can see more of his work at his Instagram. On to April! And hopefully, eventually, someday maybe (please???), Spring.