When I made my master plan for reading 100 books in one year, I was counting on doing extra reading during the summer months. I forgot that between cycling, gardening, and making the most of the long days and beautiful weather, I actually have less time to read than I do during the school year. But in the final count, I read 91 truly wonderful and interesting books. I’m beyond happy with that, especially when that number included such incredible works as the ones I read in December. Here they are.
84. Wilder by Andrew Simonet (YA)
This gripping debut novel was recommended to me by my Twitter friend Lorrie, who is a friend of the author. It’s protagonist, Jason Wilder, is an outcast in his small town in every sense of the word. On probation after an act of teen rage that caused significant property damage and injured a child, he is sentenced to run down the clock on his senior year of high school in in-school suspension (known as the Rubber Room), where he meets Meili Wen, a kindred rebel spirit. They become fascinated with each other but this love story is far more complicated than the typical teen romance. For one thing, they’re both keeping secrets that could land them in serious legal trouble: in violation of his probation, Jason lives alone, his alcoholic mother having skipped town with her boyfriend to live in Florida. Meili, who is Chinese but grew up attending British boarding schools, is known to authorities as Melissa Young and is in the country on dubious premises that are never quite clarified – something about the Chinese mafia trying to kill her father. At any rate, she’s in danger, which triggers in Jason a powerful instinct to protect her. With his history of violence and inability to back down from a challenge, you can guess where this leads him. I was impressed by Simonet’s ability to create an authentic teen voice that compelled me from the very first pages. By the end, however, Jason’s inner monologue became distracting, interrupting the pace of the action. I also felt that aspects of the plot were rather convoluted, especially during the book’s climax, when Meili’s intentions and motivations are suddenly a total mystery, almost like she became a different character. But the idea of the “swerve” – the moments when your life and the people in it do not do what you expect – is central to the book’s theme of change and development. Jason’s struggle to navigate these changes is at times quite moving and evokes sympathy for a kid who’s had to grow up too fast, and all on his own.
85. A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Fiction)
Named one of the New York Times Notable Books of 2018, this intense meditation on human connection was the Now Read This book club selection for November. Because of a delivery hold-up, I opted for the audiobook (narrated with a brilliant sense of charged contemplation by Katherine Waterston), which I listened to all in one day during a long drive to Iowa. As I watched the bare trees and crusty white fields roll by outside my window, I was transported to the remote hills of Greece, where the book’s unnamed narrator has gone to search for her estranged husband Christopher, who has gone missing during the course of his research on death and mourning rituals. Save for the discovery of Christopher’s body and the violent manner in which he died, not much happens in A Separation, but the novel is suspenseful nonetheless, as the narrator performs an extended autopsy on her marriage and tries to figure out how much to reveal to her in-laws about its failure. I was struck from the very beginning by how aptly – in simple, detached prose – Kitamura conveys the novel, almost alien perspective you achieve as you admit to yourself that your marriage is over. I’ve never read anything that expresses so precisely what divorce feels like. Some readers may be turned off by how analytical the narrator is but I found the writing incredibly thought-provoking, raising questions about how well you can really know another person and how much of your true self you ever reveal to them. Perhaps even more indelible is Kitamura’s ability to provoke a mood. Though the narrator experiences a resolution of sorts, the feelings that dominated her trip to Greece, her detachment, uncertainty, and discomfort, are far from resolved by the novel’s conclusion and leave the reader with the same sense of ambivalence.
86. Milkman by Anna Burns (Fiction)
This year’s winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, this unique and fascinating novel absolutely blew my mind. It took me a good 50 pages to get used to the prose, which is hyper-literal, and get my bearings setting-wise. Truthfully, for longer than I care to admit, I thought the novel was a work of speculative fiction, taking place in some post-apocalyptic dystopia. But no; it’s Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s, relayed through the perspective of Middle Sister, an 18-year-old girl with no political sympathies or interests whatsoever. She’s only marginally interested in her maybe-boyfriend, reluctant to commit to anything stronger than their tentative relationship status. What she cares most about is reading-while-walking, a habit that is so unconventional (“beyond-the-pale”) that it draws the ire and suspicion of her family, neighbors, and even complete strangers who worry that this defiance of cultural norms speaks to a deeper streak of disloyalty or rebellion. The suspicion reaches dangerous proportions when she attracts the attention of a prominent paramilitary figure known as Milkman. It’s never clear what exactly he wants from her – to recruit her, perhaps? – but he serves as a symbol of the terror of the surveillance state. He seems to be everywhere, see everything, and as rumors spread about her affair with an older, married man, Middle Sister becomes the target of even more threats and intimidation. He wears her down until she is afraid to participate in even the most innocuous of activities. Against the insidious power of the community stand individuals willing to question its authority – the real milkman, who refuses to allow the paramilitary to bury weapons in his backyard; a group of feminists known as “issue women” who attempt to raise consciousness surrounding the oppression of women; a married team of ballroom dancers whose fame and fortune inspire in the local children hope of achieving a similar escape. Like the narrator, they threaten the status quo and reveal the absurdity and desperation that lies beneath its attempts to control its citizens. Milkman is extraordinary, funny, brilliant, and true. Don’t miss it.
87. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Fiction)
Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, Sigrid Nunez’ trim but profound meditation on grief and memory received rapturous reviews from critics and earned the seasoned author such sudden fame that bookstores quickly sold out of her books. I was lucky to find the sole copy in all of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (where we spent Christmas) and read the book in its entirety on Christmas Eve. It’s that kind of book. More a collection of thoughts and impressions than a narrative, The Friend is about a woman mourning the loss of her long-time friend to suicide. From him she inherits an aging Great Dane named Apollo, who disrupts her life to such a dramatic extent that caring for him becomes a way for her to process her grief. But the novel is so much more than a story about a dog. It is also a reflection on writing and the cutthroat competition of the literary world. Early on, she observes that her friend’s funeral is less about honoring him and more an opportunity for his fellow writers to network, gossip, and brag about themselves. Her extended critique of writing as a profession is peppered with other writers’ thoughts on writing as alternately a vocation, a higher calling, an exercise in narcissism, and a means of healing (this last, my favorite, from Virginia Woolf). Along the way she comes to realize that the most meaningful relationship in her life is with Apollo. Their bond is deeper than words and the book’s ending offers the comfort and connection she’d failed to find in the complicated language of humans.
88. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Fiction)
Celeste Ng has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary authors, mainly due to her talent for creating incredibly rich, nuanced characters and weaving intricate plots informed by complex interpersonal dynamics. I was stunned by how well she pulled this off in Little Fires Everywhere, her second novel, and this one, her debut, is even more intense. It begins with the drowning death of high school sophomore Lydia Lee, a loss that rocks her family to its core. They can’t accept that she would take her own life, and spend much of the novel searching for something or someone to blame. For her mother Marilyn, it’s some shadowy transient criminal the police just haven’t found yet. Her brother Nathan is convinced that a neighbor kid knows more than he’s let on. Her father James blames himself. The search for the truth about Lydia’s death takes the narrative years into the past, examining the forces in each of her parent’s lives that have led up to this moment, including Marilyn’s own disappearance ten years earlier. In many ways, Everything I Never Told You is a novel about striving to fit in. Housewife Marilyn can never get over being forced to conform to gender expectations and giving up her dream of being a doctor. Her Chinese-American husband James cannot move beyond the cultural division that always made him feel like a de facto second class citizen. These motivate both parents to put expectations on their children that haunt and torture them, depriving them of the love and acceptance they really need. This realization unfolds with heartbreaking beauty in the closing chapter, demonstrating Ng’s gift for exploring the struggle to understand the ones closest to us.
89. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder (Young Readers)
This is one of the books I bought for my 9-year-old niece Stella for Christmas. I chose it mainly because of the gold “National Book Award Longlist” sticker on the cover (can’t go wrong with those is my general rule). But the premise also sounded right up her street: a group of orphans living by themselves on a magical island, awaiting an annual event called The Changing, when a sentient green boat arrives bringing a new orphan in exchange for the oldest. Stella read it in one day and then told me I should read it so we could talk about it. If you think I could say no to that, you do not know me. A sensitive and imaginative story about the very real adolescent anxiety about growing up, Orphan Island follows Jinny, who becomes the island’s Elder when her closest friend Deen is taken away at the Changing. Complicating her grief is her new responsibility for toddler Ess, the newest arrival. She must teach Ess everything about how to live on the island but also provide the care and support of a parent. The confusion of being burdened with adult responsibilities too young is one of the main themes Snyder explores in the novel and in Jinny, she creates an authentic character who could be any 12-year-old girl feeling the pressure to grow up fighting against the intense longing to remain a child. This conflict causes Jinny to do something that has serious consequences for her fellow orphans and her ultimate decision reflects her courage in facing what she knows she can’t change.
90. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this remarkable coming-of-age story is one of the most vibrant and original YA books I’ve ever read. Told in verse, The Poet X is about Xiomara, a first-generation Dominican-American teen who is used to standing out. Whether it’s instructing teachers on the correct pronunciation of her name, or fending off the unwanted male attention that has accompanied the arrival of her curves, or refusing to take communion at church (to the horror of her extremely religious mother), Xiomara’s life is a daily struggle against outside expectations. The only thing that makes her feel like herself is poetry, which she writes constantly but is reluctant to share with anyone, until her English teacher convinces her to attend a meeting of her school’s poetry club. There, she is introduced to the exciting world of slam poetry, where she can finally express everything she feels through spoken word. But she must keep the club a secret from her strict mother, whose harsh rules make Xiomara feel like a virtual prisoner in her own home. Finding her voice as a writer coincides with her defiance of another of her mother’s rules. She falls in love with a boy named Aman, even though she knows that her mother’s prohibition of dating or boyfriends makes a relationship all but impossible. The tension comes to a head when Xiomara and Aman are (inevitably) found out, setting up a tear-jerker of an ending that is realistic, touching, and poignant. I can’t wait to get this book in the hands of some of my students and hope you’ll give it a chance too, especially if you’ve never read a novel in verse, which makes for a crackling pace infused with the frenetic, charged energy of a teen coming into her own.
91. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (YA)
This hauntingly beautiful exploration of loss and loneliness won the 2017 Michael J. Printz award, a prize given by the Young Adult Library Services Association honoring the best in YA lit. We Are Okay begins with college freshman Marin dreading the beginning of winter break. She has no family and nowhere to go, so the manager of her dorm has made arrangements for her to stay on campus. She has a plan for fighting the loneliness she knows will seep in: a book of essays on solitude, trips to the East Coast college town’s quaint shopping district. What she’s not prepared for is the arrival of her best friend Mabel, someone we gather was extremely important to her but from whom, for unknown reasons, Marin has lately become estranged. As the chapters alternate between the present and the not too distant past, we learn that Marin’s mother died in a surfing accident when she was three, leaving Marin in the care of her grandfather, who is determined to keep the memory of his daughter buried so deeply that Marin has all but forgotten her. It’s Mabel who makes her feel loved and accepted, who welcomes her into her own family and takes her on countless late trips to the their favorite beach. It is there where, one night, their relationship moves beyond the platonic and the two become inseparable, blind to the world around them in the way particular to teenagers deep in delirious first love. When tragedy strikes, Marin is so thrown that it changes everything, and so Mabel is coming to visit for Christmas to try one last time to pull her back into orbit. In its insightful treatment of the destructive and paralyzing force of loneliness, We Are Okay is an emotional powerhouse that examines the sacrifices we make in an effort to protect our own hearts.