Best Books of 2018
Thursday 20 December 2018
The last six months were pretty dismal for me in terms of reading adult fiction. I just didn’t get my hands on the books that I wanted to devour. Finding the right book at the right time is so important and that wasn’t the case for me in terms of the fiction I picked up. Sure, I finished a few novels, and while they were enjoyable, they weren’t A Little Life (my favorite of 2016) or Lincoln in the Bardo (one of my favorites from last year).
Luckily, I read a ton of wonderful nonfiction and young adult novels that moved me in powerful ways. Instead of ranking them, I’ve categorized them by genre. Perhaps one of them will make a great gift this time of year. Maybe you will want to read one of them yourself if you’re on holiday right now. Either way, I hope you are finding the time to curl up with a good book.
As we close out the year, David and I would also like to express our gratitude to all of you. It has been another incredible year and with big changes coming down the pipeline for our course, please know that we are here to support you. Always.
Educated by Tara Westover is a must-read memoir. It is Amazon's top book of the year and for good reason. It's terrifying and the author’s ignorance is stunning. I couldn’t put it down. Westover comes from a very, very protected family and her father believes the government is the Illuminati. She's not allowed to go to school and doesn't have any friends outside of her huge family. And this family is messed up in some of the worst kinds of ways. Because of their fear of the government, they won't go to the hospital when they need to (i.e. car accidents, births, injuries on the farm...). You know from the back cover that Westover does end up getting her Ph.D. from Cambridge in history. It was a real pleasure to read how she finally does get “educated” after all those brutal years. If you liked The Glass Castle, you will love this memoir!
This is one of his best books in years. I have to warn you though that the first 30% isn’t that funny. But then it gets good. And then it gets dark: his mother, father, and sister all haunt his thoughts in some particularly disturbing ways. The self-reflection, and the reflection he forces the reader to do about family, is particularly poignant. If you're looking for classic Sedaris, then read "And While Your Up There, Check On My Prostate." It's the 2nd to last essay in the collection and is only 5 pages long. In it, he asks his international audience this question: "What do you say when someone cuts you off in traffic?" If you need cheering up, for whatever reason, it's worth reading that essay alone. Partial spoiler: the Romanians have the best answer to that question.
I highly recommend that you read Factfulness by Hans Rosling. The subtitle, "Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think," sums up this nonfiction book well. He begins with a 13-question quiz. No one has ever gotten them all right and only 1 person out of the more than 12,000 people he has polled has gotten 12 right. This includes people at the Davos Economic Forum, health researchers in Scandinavia, and Nobel laureates. In fact, a huge majority of people do worse than chimps (33% right). Why? He outlines 10 faulty ways we think about the world and what to do to combat that faulty thinking. The solution is more of a thinking strategy than asking readers to learn current facts about the world. In this day and age, these habits of mind are essential. The sentences aren't beautiful, and he can be a bit of a blow hard at times, but it's very engaging because of how wrong we are about the world.
The End of Average by Todd Rose was a book I read as a part of professional reading group at school. That might make it sound boring. It isn’t! There are three things he covers that I think are worth mentioning. One, he talks about how we got to a place in the business world where we have employees (read: teachers or people who actually do something) and managers (I don't want to get fired, so I will let you fill that in here). It's fascinating and worth reading just for that section. He also dissects personality traits and tests like the Myers/Briggs. Let's just say he's sceptical of them and how they are used. And third, I liked how he provided specific anecdotes, like one about Costco, and how they have minuscule turnover rates (only 6% after one year). I wasn't fond of his discussion of higher education, and his personal story came into it too much, but if you can look past those things, or just not read those sections, it's an incredible book and made me think a lot about what I do in my classroom and why.
Young Adult Fiction
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour won the 2018 Michael L. Printz award, given for the top YA novel of the year. It's good. It's also heartbreaking and crushing. Marin, the protagonist, is off to college and the novel takes place mostly during the summer before she leaves. Both of her parents died when she was younger and she's lived with her grandpa for ages. He's a bit of an enigma - drives her to school, jokes about the nuns there, eats dinner with her, but is also quite reclusive at night. The novel centers around an event that takes place two weeks before Marin is set to leave for college. Something happens. And she just bolts. Leaves town. Tells no one. Doesn't answer her phone or respond to texts. The novel opens four months later over winter break. Her best friend has finally decided to go and visit her, to check up on Marin. Slowly, things unravel for the reader about what happened that summer night and in that unravelling, the reader falls apart too. It's a beautiful book, well-written, and not cliche.
Dear Martin follows the story of Justyce, a 17-year-old African-American senior in high school. He's from an impoverished neighborhood, but has made his way to a fancy private school on scholarship. The plot hinges on the unarmed killing of young African-American males at the hands of the police. But it also confronts racism and all the subtleties surrounding it; social justice and how to take action; and what to do when you fall in love. The title comes from a set of letters that Justyce is writing to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his quest to understand Dr. King's teachings and actions. It is a novel worth reading and a novel worth discussing in your classes!
The main character in Piecing Me Together, Jade, is struggling with how to navigate a rich, white high school as an African-American student on scholarship. She comes from the poorer area of Portland, Oregon and everyone at the super liberal school is trying to "help" her out. Her counselor enrols her in Women to Women, a program meant to support women as they grow up. But Jade doesn't want help; she wants genuine opportunities afforded to all the others at the school. It's an excellent novel that deals with race, class, gender, family, and more. This novel pairs well with The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.
I’d also like to recommend Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I recommend the first for the sheer pleasure of a delightful narrative coupled with a snarky narrative voice and the second for the sharp social commentary about race, religion, gender and the power of poetry.
If you read only one graphic novel this year, make it Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. It’s terrifying because of how you question yourself as a reader and as a human being. And it’s perfect for our troubling times. The plot revolves around the disappearance of Sabrina and how her boyfriend and his friend deal with that key plot moment. You’ll start to believe the conspiracy theories that get whipped up in the novel and then you’ll start to hate yourself because you got suckered. Sabrina was the first ever graphic novel long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and I’m not surprised. It’s incredible, but chilling.