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This is a surprisingly easy list for me. I just scrolled through my year of blog posts and of the books I read that came out this year or at the end of last year (so, Moby Dick doesn’t count, Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn or Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy don’t count…), there were five that I loved. Here they are:

1. We the Animals by Justin Torres. I literally wrote him a fan letter after reading this. It took him so long to respond that I was afraid he was really weirded out by it, but in the end, I think he probably just gets a lot of fan mail. As he should. The fact that the Pulitzer for fiction wasn’t awarded in a year that this book was eligible is a disgrace.

2. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. I just saw Julie Otsuka and Junot Diaz read at the 92nd St Y and, although I know much of the audience was there to see Junot, I hope that they all left Julie Otsuka fans. Her style is truly her own–incantatory yet raw, poetic yet economical. Another book that easily could have won the Pulitzer in my opinion.

3. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. He has achieved true rock star status–standing room only auditoriums, women shouting out “Anything for you!” at his readings, intense fawning and adulation lavished on him wherever he goes. None of this diminishes the fact that his book is absolutely fucking killer (man does he curse). The writing is so sharp, colloquial at the same time that it is intensely literary. You can take his work on the surface or ten levels deeper. So brutally real on the subject of its protagonist’s, and his brother’s, and their father’s mistreatment of women that it crosses over into feminism. Get Junot talking about it and you’ll know it’s true (seriously, read some of his interviews).

4. Dear Life by Alice Munro. Need I say more? An Alice Munro collection came out this year.

5. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I just finished this book and wrote the blog post today, but I know I’ll be obsessed with it and the ideas it presented for a long, long time. If you know me, get ready to talk about them. A lot.

I know no one ever does this, but if you are so inclined, post your favorites below!

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and when I do, it is usually narrative. But I threw this book up on my wish list after listening to a This American Life episode that featured some of the research that went into the writing of it, and my lovely friend Adrienne, a stellar psychologist, whose husband is a stellar NYC educator, bought it for me for my birthday. I was hooked from the first page. Not only was the experience of reading this book completely engaging, but it laid out theory after theory that thrilled me. Part of that thrill came from the fact that, although I discovered something new on nearly every page, almost none of it came as a surprise. It all made such sense. As an educator, I’ve read about plenty of schools and theories on who falls behind and why, but this book was the most comprehensive, powerful and meaningful collection of data and ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Working, as I do, with incredibly diverse populations of students—basically the entire spectrum New York City has to offer, from the most privileged children attending the ritziest private schools to children in the foster care system who’ve been cycled through a host of low-performing schools—every chapter of this book spoke to me. Read the rest of this entry »

It took me either one year or one day to read this book, depending on how you look at it. I received Train Dreams by Denis Johnson for Christmas last year (by my request) and then started it a few weeks later, sitting in a teachers’ lounge in a school on a break between classes. I must have been so distracted by whatever gossip I was overhearing that day that I forgot to ever return to the novella. Today, it was clear from the grey outset that I wasn’t going to accomplish much in the way of fiction writing, so I figured, after writing another blog post this morning, I might as well peruse my book shelf and at least make some headway there. I picked up Train Dreams again and am certainly glad I did.

 

This is a tiny novella of pleasing pocket-book proportions. It spans nearly eighty years, though and an eventful eighty years at that– Read the rest of this entry »

When I finally, recently, read and loved Jane Eyre, a lovely thoughtful person purchased Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for me, which is something of a prequel to the better-known novel. Written in the 1960s by the Domenica-born novelist Jean Rhys, it re-imagines the “madwoman in the attic” as a protagonist in her own right. Tracing her life from childhood in British-ruled Jamaica to eventual descent into suicidal/homicidal insanity while locked away in Thornfield Hall, the book takes on, among other themes, colonization, slavery and emancipation.

I love the idea of this book–the book itself, not so much. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve spent the past few hours looking up articles on Anna Karenina and then on NW by Zadie Smith. I’m headed to a book group discussion of Anna Karenina tomorrow, but because I read the book over three years ago, I needed a little refresher. It turns out that I’ve forgotten A LOT. I started reading up on NW for this blog post because, while I had a better handle on the novel and a vaster like of it than I thought I would going into it, I was confused by the ending and wanted someone to explain it to me. When I finally read an article by someone who just plain said that the ending didn’t make much sense, I stopped researching and decided to start writing. What I learned on the way, though, is that there are some AK allusions in NW that I didn’t pick up on while reading it, but when pointed out to me, make sense. There’s literally a cat named Karenin, for one. And, of course, there is the matter of unhappy marriages, which abound in NW.

The book is essentially about two women, Leah and Keisha/Natalie, close enough to feel like sisters growing up in a London housing project as children, still best friends, but in the way that they actually hate each other, as adults. Read the rest of this entry »