I’m sure a lot happened in November global politics-wise but for me the biggest story was the release of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. I deliberately slowed down my normal reading pace just so I could feel like I was spending more time with her and her wonderful family. God, I love them. And I guess I read some other books too… but let’s begin with the most important one.
76. Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)
When the previews for Michelle Obama’s hotly anticipated memoir started coming out a few weeks ago, the big story seemed to be that Michelle and Barack Obama had had difficulties getting pregnant and that both Obama girls were conceived through IVF. I read several stories suggesting that having someone with such a high profile come forward with their struggles with infertility would help to put the spotlight on this all too common though rarely talked about disease. Perhaps it would even galvanize our legislators to draft policy requiring insurance companies to do more to cover treatment. That would be groundbreaking, and fitting, coming from a couple who’ve already made such an historic impact on American politics. Part personal narrative, part sociological analysis, and part ‘behind the scenes’ perspective on her husband’s tenure as senator, candidate, and president, Becoming follows three acts. In the first section, “Becoming Me”, Obama describes her childhood growing up in a loving and supportive nuclear family on Chicago’s South side. Part two, “Becoming Us”, reads a bit like a yuppie love story, after that fateful summer when Michelle was assigned to mentor a Harvard Law student with a strange name during his internship at her Chicago law firm. The final part, “Becoming More”, details Obama’s time as First Lady, as she works to define herself as something more than a domestic ornament but avoiding the criticism heaped on Hillary Clinton for taking too big of a role in policy. She handled this deftly, devoting herself to supporting military families and improving the health of the nation’s kids through her healthy eating and “Let’s Move!” campaigns. Through it all, she looks back on her life with a perceptive awareness that links her own story to the larger narrative of the American Dream and our country’s continual struggle to extend that promise to all its citizens. The election of Barack Obama was a watershed moment, but it also revealed the virulent racism and contempt simmering below the surface, exploited by people like Donald Trump in an effort to send a signal that he was somehow illegitimate because he defied the rules about who was allowed to be president. Other moments remind us of how much the Obama administration did to help bend the moral arc toward justice. In one poignant example, she describes sitting in her dressing room in the White House one summer evening and noticing a purple glow through the window. It was the day that the Supreme Court had voted to overturn DOMA, making same-sex marriage legal in all of the United States, and the White House was lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag to commemorate the landmark decision. Wanting to see the lights from outside, Obama describes how she and Malia evaded Secret Service agents and snuck out a loading entrance where the crowds gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue wouldn’t see them. Lovely moments like these are peppered throughout the memoir, creating the overall impression that this First Family was the essence of dignity, integrity, and warmth – something we need desperately right now.
77. Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir)
I read this terrific memoir at the recommendation of one of my 10th graders, who’d chosen it for our twice-weekly IR (independent reading) time. Best known for his stand-up and for taking over as host of The Daily Show after Jon Stewart left, Noah is a master at lambasting the absurdities of politics and society. In Born a Crime, he turns that skill on the subject of his childhood growing up in apartheid-era South Africa. The title refers to the fact that, under the rules of apartheid, his existence – the son of a Xhosa woman and German father – was illegal. He couldn’t be seen with his father, so their visits always took place indoors. If asked by police or anyone else in an official capacity, his mother would have to pretend she didn’t know him. Thus, the “crime” of Noah’s birth cast him in the role of chameleon, able to float amongst different racial groups without ever truly belonging to any. The jaw-dropping idiocy of the institutionalized racism under apartheid, and its ultimate revelation as a house of cards arranged (after studying the mechanisms of racism in other countries, including, of course, America) as a means for the Afrikaner minority to maintain power over a black majority for as long as possible, is the continual target of Noah’s keen wit. But the bright star of his by turns alarming, funny, and deeply moving story is his amazing mother. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, whose name means “She Who Gives Back”, comes alive in these pages, a dynamic woman whose boundless love for her son overpowers even the violence and injustice that this system of government is designed to inflict. Noah draws a clear line from her fierce independence to his own strength of will to define a life for himself, and the force of her devotion to Trevor, to her religious beliefs, and to her moral convictions will inspire the reader as well.
78. Sleep No More by L.T.C. Rolt (Horror)
I rejoiced when I found this slim edition at a used bookstore, mainly because L.T.C. Rolt’s work is difficult to find outside of the U.K., but also – it’s ghost stories about the canals. My husband and I are a bit obsessed with England’s inland waterways and Rolt, the widely recognized father of the canal conservation movement, is pretty much the reason we can travel them today. I read Narrow Boat, his seminal account of a year of living on the canals, last summer but had no idea he’d written fiction as well. Sleep No More is a collection of twelve short stories set on the canals, railway, or amidst some other industrial setting. I read it just as we were starting our unit on Romanticism in my 10th grade class and was delighted by the parallels to 19th century gothic literature. There’s nothing particularly original or innovative about these stories. In one, a man dreams of his own death and then it happens. Another revolves around the apparently haunted turn of a road racing course. But the reason I loved them (and all Romantic tales of the supernatural) is for how brilliantly Rolt evokes an eerie, unsettling atmosphere – think dark corners of remote village pubs on cold autumn nights and foggy, lonely moors where the howling wind sounds like the wailing of a tortured spirit. These stories pure, macabre fun – scary in a good way, as we say in English 10, and worth checking out for fans of Gothic lit and England’s wonderful canals alike. If you can find a copy.
79. The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carre (Spy Fiction)
If I were diagnosed with a terminal illness and had only a finite time left on this Earth (meaning a finite number of books I could read), I would spend it reading John Le Carre novels. He is so good at dropping the reader right into the action of a story amidst fully established characters who will not slow down for you to get your bearings. Figuring out what the hell is going on is part of the fun. The Little Drummer Girl opens in this manner, with a group of Israeli intelligence officials led by Marty Kurtz meeting with contacts in Germany as they plan a sting operation meant to ensnare a Palestinian terrorist network. Meanwhile, in Greece, a young English actress named Charlie has no idea she’s soon to be enlisted as the bait to lure Khalil, the terrorist behind several bombings of Jewish targets in Europe. This requires Charlie to go full-on method, convincing herself (so she can convince everyone else) that she’s in love with Khalil and that he’s brought her round to fight on the side of the Palestinians. The plot is characteristically labyrinthine, but so tightly organized that you just follow it, trusting everything will fall into place by the end. It does, in spectacular fashion, with an attempted attack averted at the last minute. For me, however, the excitement was secondary to the fascinating character study of an actor committing herself to a role whose boundaries blur with those of her own identity. The reader is never quite certain where Charlie’s true sympathies lie, beyond a desire to simply survive it all. She is funny, sharp, and complex; one of Le Carre’s finest characters, in my opinion. I’ve got plans to binge the AMC series starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Shannon over Christmas.
80. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA)
After the release of Rowell’s celebrated debut on the YA lit scene, the novel quickly became a New York Times Bestseller and was included on many “Best Of” lists for 2012, so I’m a bit embarrassed it took me so long to get to it. An update on the star-crossed lovers trope, Eleanor & Park follows the story of two teen outcasts as they fall desperately, inexorably in love. The parallel to Romeo and Juliet is introduced early, and I was ready to roll my eyes through the whole thing, doubting Rowell’s – any adult’s, for that matter – ability to write about this uniquely teenage experience with authenticity. Was I ever wrong about that. There is nothing cliche about Eleanor & Park; reading it was like being transported back into my own teen years. Rowell does a remarkable job conveying the ecstacy and misery of first love, how quickly and completely it alters your reality and rearranges the particulars of each day so that they revolve entirely around the object of this obsession. The prose is crackling, buzzing with the electricity between Eleanor and Park, and moves the plot along with a pace that feels driven by the high stakes of their relationship. The urgency is real; Eleanor is back home (in Omaha, Nebraska, where Rowell sets many of her stories) after a year of living in unofficial foster care, kicked out of her home by her abusive stepfather. Over the course of the school year, it becomes more and more dangerous for her to stay in this situation, forcing her to make a decision that could spell the death her relationship with Park. This wholly original, spellbinding novel fits in beautifully with The Outsiders and The Fault in Our Stars among the classics of YA lit.
81. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (YA)
I loved everything about this compelling and beautiful story of two British girls set against the backdrop of World War II, and I’m certain you will too. In fact, you should probably put everything else in your life on hold while you track down a copy and get lost in the lives of Julie (“Verity”) a British intelligence agent taken prisoner in Nazi-occupied France and her best friend Maddie (“Kittyhawk”), a Royal Auxiliary Air Force pilot who joins forces with the French Resistance in an effort to free her. I feel like that alone should be enough to move this one to the top of your To Read list, but here’s more reason anyway: the structure is brilliant, told first in the form of Verity’s extended “confession” while in custody. The entire first half is set up as her cooperation with the Nazi’s, telling them everything she knows about the Allied war effort in order to delay as long as possible what she’s sure is her inevitable execution. But then the POV switches to Maddie’s perspective and the reader discovers that Verity’s version of events might not be true – might in fact be part of a larger plot to subvert the German war machine in France. The story is certainly exciting and unlike anything I’ve ever read, but my favorite thing about this extraordinary novel is how beautifully it renders the intense and complex bonds between girlfriends. They would (and will) do anything for each other and this deep devotion is at the core of every risk they take, culminating finally in the drama’s perfect, heartrending conclusion. I really do insist you read this one as soon as possible.
82. A Discovery of Witches (All Souls series Book One) by Deborah Harkness (Fiction)
My good friend Holly loves the All Souls series, so at her recommendation I listened to this on audiobook during my commute to work. All 23 hours of it (it took pretty much the entire month). By the end of it I had realized two important things about myself as a reader: One, I much prefer plot-driven stories to long character exposition or romantic subplots, and two, I really don’t care for vampires. Which made listening to A Discovery of Witches a bit of a drag at times, but fortunately the book included enough of the other things I love to make a convert of me. The plot is centered around Diana Bishop, an historian of science and oh also, a witch descended from Bridget Bishop, one of the women executed during Salem witch trials in the 1690s (this historical connection is one of those things I love, and the book is rife with them). Diana unwittingly attracts the attention of a legion of creatures, including vampires, demons, and other witches, when she somehow gains access to an ancient manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian library. Included among these is Matthew Clairmont, apparently the world’s oldest and most venerable vampire. It’s unclear what his intentions are, but Diana finds herself rapidly falling in love with him and he with her, a union that not only defies the established order but is also, it turns out, foretold by that archaic alchemical manuscript that everyone is ready to kill each other over. This conflict nicely sets up the plot of the sequel, which has Diana time-traveling to both keep out of danger and try to unlock the secret of the manuscript. While parts of A Discovery of Witches felt a little slow for me, I’m invested (and curious) enough to tackle Shadow of Night, the next book in the series. And I will definitely be watching the premiere of the British television series, premiering here in January, because even though I still think vampires are kind of gross, I’m certain Matthew Goode (in the role of Clairmont) will make a gorgeous one.
83. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (YA)
Before reading this book, I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a transport ship sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945 while evacuating German civilians and Eastern European refugees as part of a massive evacuation effort known as Operation Hannibal. More people died in this tragedy than on the Titanic and Lusitania combined, and Sepetys brings their stories to light with elegance and dignity in Salt to the Sea. It begins with a group of young refugees meeting up on their trek to the Baltic sea port of Danzig, embarkation point for the Wilhelm Gustloff and is told through their alternating perspectives. Joana, a pretty Lithuanian nurse, is trying to make it to Germany where she has been allowed to resettle. Florian, a Prussian art restorer, is intent on seeking revenge for the death of his father by attempting to smuggle a priceless Russian artifact stolen by the Nazis (and stolen back by Florian). Emilia, a Polish teen, is pregnant and just trying to escape the genocide that has killed so many of her fellow ethnic Poles. Mistrustful of one another at first, they guard their secrets tightly and are reluctant to even exchange names. By the end of the story, however, they become a family, bonded by their dependence on one another and their shared duty to protect Emilia’s newborn child. The quick shifts from character to character create a tense pace as the group not only evades the advancement of the Red Army but also reveals the drama and tragedy of their own lives. Their troubles are far from over once they’ve eventually reached the Wilhelm Gustloff, where all three must sidestep the suspicions of a deluded young Nazi named Alfred, who comes perilously close to discovering Florian’s treachery. Their desperate attempt to survive the ship’s sinking in the final act is as compelling as it gets. Here it might be easy to forget that this really happened, if not for Sepetys’ relentless pursuit of honoring the memory of the more than 9,000 who died in this devastating tragedy. In telling their stories, she brings attention to another long-ignored chapter in a war we still struggle to see with historical clarity.