I tried to read 100 books in 2018. I managed to finish 91. I suppose I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t hit my goal, but I learned an important lesson – namely, that the quota approach is not the best way to savor books. I found myself stressing about “getting through” enough pages in a day, and reading at times became another item on my to-do list. I was relieved to be free of the project, to be perfectly honest. But while I can’t say I recommend it, the undertaking led me to explore authors, titles, and genres I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, as friends and colleagues eagerly recommended their favorites to me. It was immensely difficult to narrow the best down to ten, but here are the stand-outs.
10. 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.
9. My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (YA)
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good demon possession. I attribute this to the fact that I saw The Exorcist at precisely the same age Regan was in the film and didn’t think for a moment that it couldn’t happen to me. This was of course during the 80’s, when, if Dateline and 20/20 et al. were to be believed, Satanism was sweeping the nation. Suffice it to say, the film had a profound effect on me and was the source of my greatest fears until well into my teens. Lately I can’t get the idea of possession and exorcism out of my head and have even started writing a YA novel about a couple of teenage girls who begin to notice something strange happening to the boys at their school… but that’s another story. This story, about a group of best friends navigating the typical high school parade of dumb boys and clueless authority figures as they just try to make the most of the freedom and glory of their brief youth, would be rich and rewarding even without the exorcism (and wonderfully chilling and gory possession that necessitates it) promised by the title. Hendrix achieves something truly brilliant in his highly engaging novel. Most impressive is the way he managed to capture the tight and passionate bond between girlfriends at multiple stages of their lives, beginning with the story of how Abby (the novel’s protagonist) and Gretchen (the would-be demon victim) become friends at Abby’s E.T.-themed 10th birthday party. Because the class rich snob invited everyone for a day of horseback riding at her family’s ranch on the same day, Gretchen is the only person to attend Abby’s party, basically guaranteeing that the girls will be best friends forever. That friendship is seriously tested during the girls’ senior year, when something happens to Gretchen at a party (Abby witnesses it but never fully understands what she saw) and everything changes. What follows is a brave, badass girl’s thrilling quest to save her best friend, no matter the cost to her reputation, safety, or future. It’s campy, creepy horror and coming-of-age revelation ingeniously woven into a terrific story of the deep and profound love and loyalty of teenage friendship. As an added bonus, Hendrix threads the needle of genuine 80’s nostalgia that doesn’t come across as ironic or self-aware, a particular peeve of mine. It’s just damn good storytelling.
8. Milkman by Anna Burns (Fiction)
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.
7. Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Fiction)
This wholly delightful novel was the Now Read This book club’s June pick and, oh yeah, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Its hero, Arthur Less, is in the throes of crisis, humiliations lobbed at him from all sides. Though he experienced some early success with his first novel, now his publisher has rejected his latest novel in its current form and his editor has told him to go back to the drawing board. The man he suspects might be the love of his life, Freddy, is marrying someone else. On top of this, he’s battling the existential angst of turning 50 and feeling alienated from all the people he used to love and the person he used to be. He’s like the character in his doomed novel, Swift, who wanders around San Francisco, wistfully revisiting the triumphs and defeats of his past, but who is apparently too privileged for anyone to care (the continual criticism of the book is that Swift “has the best life of anyone I know”.) Such is not the case for Arthur Less, and so to avoid the indignity of attending Freddy’s wedding, he accepts invitations to literary engagements that will take him all over the world, beginning in New York and then on to Italy, Paris, Berlin, Morocco, India, and finally Japan. Each of these events just seems to amplify Arthur’s insecurities – in Italy, he’s a finalist for what he thinks is a prestigious award for literature, only to discover the prize is juried by teenagers. His nagging anxiety about his failure to communicate is hilariously rendered by literal English translations of what he thinks is his fluent grasp of the German language. Indeed, one of the richest pleasures of reading this novel is Greer’s inventive use of language. Open to any page and you’ll find a description that is not only original, but key to the humor and humanity of the story (“Bright-lemon New York light flashing off the skyscrapers, onto the quilted aluminum sides of food carts, and from there onto Arthur Less himself”). Also compelling is affectionate tone of the mysterious narrator, who slips in here and there to tease the reader with a little memory or insight on Arthur. The revelation of his identity becomes part of an entirely satisfying ending that is nothing less than this lovable man deserves.
6. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Fiction)
For the last weekend in August, my husband and I drove all the way to Wichita Falls, Texas for a cycling event. The ride is fourteen hours each way, so I was intentional in my audiobook selection. I’d seen this title on many Best Of 2017 lists and it was ideal for making the miles fly by. Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s follow up to her acclaimed debut, Everything I Never Told You, opens with the Richardson family calmly watching as their comfortable suburban home is engulfed in flames. Everyone suspects the youngest child, 14-year-old Izzy, but why she would do such a thing is the intricate mystery the rest of the novel skillfully unfolds. It must have something to do with the custody battle between the adopted parents of an abandoned child and her birth mother, a plot line also introduced in the novel’s first pages, but to parse the connections between them, the reader must delve into the murky past of Mia Warren and her 15-year old daughter Pearl, who rent a duplex from the Richardsons. With a name like ‘Pearl’, it’s clear Ng is drawing a parallel to The Scarlet Letter, but Pearl’s mysterious patronage is not simply a matter of forbidden love. Little Fires Everywhere is really a story about motherhood. The profound, soul-destroying love is the defining characteristic of each of the women in the novel. Without giving too much away, I will say that this theme struck a particular chord in me. Ng explores prematurity, infertility, and adoption with such respect and honesty that it made me reconsider some decisions we’d made about our own family planning. We always saw ourselves adopting if the infertility treatments don’t work out, but Little Fires Everywhere shines a light on the ways in which a decision often seen as generous and selfless is in reality complicated and problematic. The novel is nothing if not thought-provoking and I came away much less secure in my conviction that adoption is better than the alternative of a child growing up in a potentially unstable home. What’s best for a child, what can overcome any adversity, is the power of a mother’s love. More than anything else, this novel reminded me how desperately I want to know what it’s like to be on the giving side of that love.
5. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA; Verse)
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.
4. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Memoir)
This arresting memoir of a defense attorney’s tireless fight for justice for his clients is the third option on our A.P. Language and Composition summer homework syllabus, and the one I think is most likely to inspire similar career ambitions in my students. While attending Harvard Law School, Stevenson, the great-grandson of slaves, interned for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, which exposed him to the vast and deeply entrenched injustice within the prison system. Thus began his long and prominent career advocating on behalf of those trapped in what Stevenson argues amounts to slavery by another name. The compelling story of Walter McMillan, a black man wrongly convicted of the murder of a young white woman he’d never met, is the thread that unites the book’s examination of the failure of our nation’s criminal justice system. Stevenson follows the chronology of the state’s preposterous case against McMillan, relying on the illogical and contradictory testimony of witnesses who were clearly lying, while ignoring that of the many credible alibis to his whereabouts on the day he was supposed to have been committing the murder. It seems impossible that the case could have ever gotten to the trial stage, until you see the systemic mechanisms designed to ensure a guilty verdict, regardless of the truth. This is nowhere more evident than in the death sentence itself, imposed on Walter by Judge Robert E. Lee Key, who, in handing it down, overturned the jury’s sentence of life in prison. The result of the multiple appeals Stevenson and the SPDC argued on McMillan’s behalf garnered a lot of media attention during the mid-90s; less-known are the stories of the other people Stevenson has defended over the years, people wrongly sentenced to life in prison or death, who represent other groups our justice system fails: people with mental illness; women trapped in cycles of abuse and poverty; children. Though Stevenson’s work does result in some victories – abolishing mandatory life sentences for children, for example – it is evident that there is so much work left to be done. We have a long way to go before we can say we’ve made good on the promise of Liberty and Justice For All, and Stevenson points directly at where we as a nation need to concentrate our efforts: “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth,” he says in his much-viewed TED Talk on this subject. “The opposite of poverty is justice”. The underlying argument of Just Mercy is that it is only through a full reckoning with the continued legacy of slavery that we will be able to see true justice finally done.
3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Fiction)
Finalist for the National Book Award and one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best of 2017, Pachinko is a sprawling narrative spanning four generations in the life of a native Korean family living in Japan, set against the backdrop of the most consequential political and cultural tensions of the 20th century. It begins in the 1920s, when Korea was under Japanese rule, with the arranged marriage of Hoonie and Yangjin,in the Korean coastal city Busan. They have a daughter, Sunja, who as a teen attracts the attention of a middle-aged gangster who impregnates and then abandons her. She is saved from a lifetime of shame and alienation by a pastor, Isak, who marries her and takes her and her son to live in Osaka, where they have a son of their own. The narrative follows the lives of these boys as they navigate the prejudice and cruelty of their second-class citizenship as ethnic Koreans living in Japan. The novel takes its name from slot/pinball game (perhaps you’ve seen them in trendy sushi restaurants) that is so popular and ubiquitous in Japan. It’s an apt metaphor for one of Lee’s central themes – the way people cope with and survive the indifferent vicissitudes of fate. The novel has been compared Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s epic chronicle of the decline of a wealthy German family, but I saw more echoes of East of Eden, with the Old Testament character names and the continual reckoning of the Sins of the Fathers. The triumph of Pachinko, however, is that unlike Steinbeck, Lee guides the delicate and complex strands of her narrative with such an expert hand and intimate tone that the reader never feels like they’re sitting in Sunday School. To be sure, there are horrible events and moments that certainly had me in tears. But every visit with these characters as they grow and set the course of their own lives is told with such honesty and affection, Lee’s emphasis is always their strength, hope, and will to survive.
2. 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.
- 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.