My Year in Books (Part 3: Memoirs)

Memoir

Just like the previous posts on fiction and nonfiction, this graphic shows you the memoirs I read in chronological order. Unlike the previous days’ genres, this one offered no disappointments. If you like memoirs, you cannot go wrong with any of the titles on this list.

Still, if you only want to read ONE…

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – This book deserves all the hype it’s received. Some of the stories I knew from having heard Stevenson speak twice at conferences, but the way he tells them (both in person and in this book), I could hear them twenty times and still be moved. It’s hard not to want to make the world a better place, however you can, after reading this. (Note: I went back and forth on whether this title might be more aptly categorized as nonfiction, as it centers more on the cases Stevenson has been involved with than his life story, but it is his story of justice and redemption, so I put it here.)

The memoir that taught me the most

No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers – Half memoir, half nonfiction research on the history and stigmatization of mental illness, this book was illuminating in many respects, as I hadn’t thought as deeply about the oppression of mentally ill people as I have about other oppressions.

Surprises

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – I added this to my 2017 list because of the many “Best of 2016” lists it landed on. I admit I was skeptical, as I am not a science-minded person. I do not have any living things in my house besides my family, and they are still alive because they remind me they need to be fed every now and then. So, the facts that I not only enjoyed this book but also now appreciate trees and plants more than before is rather remarkable. And, this memoir took some turns I didn’t expect.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – I am not a Daily Show watcher, so I only knew of Trevor Noah peripherally before someone recommended this book. I also knew very little of South Africa. I cannot say enough about this book, which is really somewhat of a love story for his mother, all while tackling race, class, culture, and gender. Brilliant. (After reading this, I watched two of Noah’s comedy specials on Netflix, and I highly recommend his “Afraid of the Dark.”)

Hunger by Roxanne Gay – I read Gay’s Bad Feminist years ago and don’t remember loving it, so I reluctantly picked this up based on all the attention it was getting. It’s an excellent book for understanding body-shaming and developing empathy. I would put it in a similar camp as Shrill (mentioned below), but this one packed more punch and tugged on the heart a bit more.

The rest…

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – If you want to further understand class, and further understand the white working class in America, this book is an insightful memoir to get you started.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West – I picked this up after seeing a blurb about it in the local bookstore. Jenny Lawson, another fabulous author, said it best: “Required reading if you’re a feminist. Recommended reading if you’re anyone else.” Hopeful and heartbreaking and funny and sad.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie – Having taught Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary… and knowing a bit about him, I was intrigued by this memoir about the loss of his mother. It was very raw, and some of the recollections were repetitive, but this is another one of those books I can see people recommending about grief, like Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. 

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro – Picked this up after seeing Tig’s stand-up live. I was aware of the confluence of unfortunate events via the documentary on her (cancer diagnosis, sudden death or her mother, and a break up all within months), but this book was insightful, humorous, and very readable.

 The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich – This was so fascinating as a piece of writing – non-fiction…but not quite, given the many ways Lesnevich fictionalizes what she does not know. Memoir…but not solely, given how she weaves her story in with the murder case she is researching. It is gripping.

The Glass Eye: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco – I DEVOURED this book. Dead dad, grief, mental illness, and a dead half sister she never knew? All up my alley!

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy – Whoa, was this super readable. I have since read reviews, and I can see the criticism of Levy as a privileged woman whose elitism comes through…but that position does not detract from the immense trauma she experienced and writes of so poignantly.

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My Year in Books (Part 2: Nonfiction)

Nonfiction

Just like yesterday’s fiction post, this graphic shows you the nonfiction titles I read in chronological order. I love research and good journalism. Good nonfiction educates me, makes me change my mind or think differently about a topic, and so many of these books did.

It’s worth noting that some of these books border on memoir (I’m looking at you, Anne Lamott, Oliver Sacks, and Sheryl Sandberg), but the books on tomorrow’s memoir list are truly billed as such (they include the word in the title and/or are classified that way at book stores).

Books that taught me something new

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant – I read this while attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute in June, so the selection was particularly relevant and served as a primer for the value of creative thinking. I loved how Grant referenced some of the people in Feiler’s book (see below in “Surprises”), which I had finished just before this one.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – Foer makes his decision clear (he’s a vegetarian), and it’s hard to finish this book and not agree that is the only choice. (In fact, I recommitted to vegetarianism after reading this, as did my husband.) But the philosophical discussion he engages in, and the facts he presents and different points of view he includes does reflect the complicated, conflicting beliefs involved in one’s decision whether to eat animals.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba – I would love everyone to read this excellent, true story of creativity and innovation, and the power of education. The story chronicles how 14-year old Kamkwamba taught himself how to make a windmill to save his family from famine. (There is nothing “adult” about this book, but there is a shorter, easier young adult version of this book, too.)

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates – I missed many of these pieces in The Atlantic the first time around, but the real power of this collection are Coates’s “Notes” that precede each article AND the Epilogue, which is Coates’s take on Trump’s ascension to the presidency. I heard Coates speak shortly after Trump’s election, and he didn’t deliver the speech I thought he would. The Epilogue is the speech I wanted.

Disappointments

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro – I wanted to like this because the premise – that you can learn volumes about someone by investigating what they eat – intrigues me. Shapiro claims women in history are typically studied by their romantic relationships, so she attempts to look at their diets, but I learned more about what the men in their lives ate than the women, and the interpretation of those diets was even lacking.

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba – I like the messages in here, but Borba gives a bit too many acronyms and “5 simple steps” lists for my liking.

Surprises

The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us by Bruce Feiler – I enjoyed Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families and didn’t realize he was the author of this one until I had it in my hands. I really appreciated his (feminist) interpretations of The Bible and the various connections he made to current society. It was Malcolm Gladwell-esque in that regard.

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove – I grabbed this on Curtis Sittenfeld’s recommendation (author of Prep and American Wife). It is journalism that reads like fiction, and it is essentially about the power of good teachers and the value of the arts. Gotta love that! (P.S. This book/true story is the basis for the upcoming television series Rise.)

The rest…

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister – An impressive work of research and insight far-reaching in scope, All the Single Ladies combines law, history, feminism, social policy… I feel smarter having read it.

Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – This eye-opening and heart-breaking ethnographic work follows various tenants and landlords in Milwaukee in 2008 and exposes the sociological, legal, ethical, and psychological implications surrounding evictions. It reads like fiction, and it’s too bad it’s true. In the epilogue, Desmond suggests ways to address this crisis.

Inspiring Creativity and Innovation in K-12 Inspiring Creativity and Innovation in K-12 by Douglas Reeves –There is a lot of wisdom in this small volume that is a very easy but insightful read for educators and school leaders looking at creativity.

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey – I would put Bessey’s writing in the style and tone of Glennon Doyle’s. I appreciated her earlier chapters outlining Jesus’s interactions with women in The Bible (hint: He treated women as equal to men) as the underpinning of her “Jesus Feminist” brand of feminism. I did find later chapters a bit repetitive and not as informative.

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott – As with all of her other books in this series, Anne Lamott gives medicine for the soul. Oddly, this one was essentially free of politics, too, which is unlike her. 

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks – A short, powerful read of Sacks’s last essays, most written when he was aware his days were numbered.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant – Sandberg and Grant presented some concepts on resilience and trauma that I had not heard before, such as the 3 Ps and post-traumatic growth. Is it ground-breaking? No. But, it is ultimately an uplifting book that encourages resilience.

 A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer – It’s not earth-shattering, but it was interesting. I liked Grazer’s discussion of creativity & innovation vs. curiosity. I also love the idea of “curiosity conversations,” though certainly the average person would not have the connections Grazer does to have conversations with, say, Oprah and Fidel Castro. 

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie – An easy, inspiring read for business owners, managers, and everyday folks looking for a larger purpose. I think anyone could take something away from this.

The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book about Living by Ira Byock – The stories are a bit too syrupy, a little too “neat,” and somewhat redundant, but the repetition of the “4 things” clearly stuck in my brain, and I do see the value to them.

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown – I have to be honest and say I liked Rising Strong better than this one, mainly because I felt this one was a little lighter on the research and a little heavier on repeating some earlier concepts. But, it is a good book, and it reads like the literary version of a few of her recent Facebook live posts, specific to our current political climate. It has valuable advice for sure.

The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Kenneth H. Blanchard – A fast read with easily applied lessons and analogies. This book was recommended to me by another school administrator as the best management book he’s read. I can see why.

Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life by Jen Hatmaker – I picked this up because it was recommended a few places, not the least of which was one of Brene Brown’s posts. It did make me laugh in places, and while her concept of friendship and sisterhood is not one I have much experience with, it did inspire me to write more.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss – I can’t remember how this book got on my reading list – who recommended this or what other book referenced it – but its ideas are intriguing. It’s certainly easier for those working in cubicles (non-service/non-education) to put into action, but I’m going to ponder this.

The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss – After reading the 4-hour Work Week, I thought I’d see what Tim had to say on these topics. He is not a guy I’d get along with for many reasons, but I do appreciate his philosophy of doing the bare minimum to get results (in both books).

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein – I liked the concepts of libertarian paternalism and “choice architects,” and I appreciated how the authors chose topics like education and insurance to illustrate the ideas. But at some points, the book seemed more like a treatise on those subjects than the concepts they were illustrating.

My Year in Books (Part 1: Fiction)

books

I read my way through this year to avoid getting sucked into a vortex of disappointment, and while I have long agreed with Lang’s sentiment, no year has his words rang truer for me than 2017.

I read 73 books this year – roughly a book every 5 days!

It’s hard to despair when you’ve spent 365 days awash in wonderful words, urged out of your own myopia by Haitian immigrants, gender nonconformists, African inventors, social justice seekers, and people grappling with their own cultures, pasts, and losses. Some of the books I read purposefully strove to be a spiritual salve, but just about all of them accomplished this goal.

For the last couple years, I’ve started the New Year with a blog post about my previous year in books, but this year, one entry isn’t gonna cut it.

This year, I’m breaking that list of 73 into three manageable chunks by genre, starting with the longest list of 37 fiction titles. (The next day’s list will be nonfiction titles, and the following day I’ll share the memoirs.)

If you DID get sucked into the vortex this year, my prescription for you in 2018 is more books, and I hope these posts give you some titles to add to your medicine cabinet, er, book shelf.

Fiction

This graphic shows you the fiction titles I read in chronological order. As I finished these, I gave them a 1 – 5 star rating on Goodreads.com and wrote a couple sentences about them on my Pinterest page, but some of the books I gave 5 stars to have long since left me, and I can’t stop thinking about some of the ones I granted fewer stars.

Thus, I’m doing this year-end list appraisal differently this year. (Feel free to skim and skip around!)

Books I keep thinking about

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – I finished this book in March, and I have thought about it ever since. It starts with two half sisters in Ghana and traces branches of their family tree for 300 years, with each chapter devoted to a family member and reading like its own short story. It as an absolutely beautiful book whose ending I cherished.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – This book has been on my shelf almost since its publication in 2002, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m embarrassed I didn’t read it sooner. If, like me, you’ve passed over this tale of three generations of a Greek-American family and its secrets, wait no longer!

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – We need more coming-of-age books appropriate for younger audiences that discuss identity and sexual orientation in the nuanced way this delightful story does. I also really appreciated the healthy, happy parent/child relationships depicted here. (This was one of two books on this list that I gave my daughter for Christmas.)

 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – I started it and thought, “WTF?!” Then, I did some searching and stumbled upon NPR’s review, which was immensely helpful for giving me an orientation for the world I was entering. (I agree with just about everything that review says.) This book is ostensibly about Abe Lincoln’s grief over the death of his son, and the spirits his son encounters on the other side. In the end, this is a book unlike any other I’ve read, and its messages about grief and the purpose of life are worth it.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – Starr, an African American teenager witnesses police killing her innocent friend after a traffic stop. This debut novel takes us through how Starr processes that trauma while attending a predominantly White prep school where her classmates are relatively blind to the racial tensions she feels. This book deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. I’m critical of endings, and this one nails it. (This was the second book that made its way into my daughter’s Christmas stocking.)

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin – This Young Adult book serves as a primer for the concept of gender fluidity, one that many adults could benefit from as well. I love how Garvin doesn’t describe Riley or ever identify the character as male or female through other character’s eyes.

Disappointments

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – I had high hopes for this one given all the “Recommended” and “Best of 2016” lists it made, and it fell way too short of the hype.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – Although I’m from Massachusetts, I knew nothing of the infamous Lizzie Borden and her butchered family, so this fictional reimagining of those grizzly murders intrigued me. Three narrators tell the story, though, and they all sound the same…like 12-year old girls on a playground rather than adult women at the center of a double homicide. 

Surprises

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig – I can’t remember how I stumbled across this delightful book told from the perspective of an autistic girl in foster care. It is honest and heartfelt and hopeful.

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – This book was in a couple magazines as a must-read, and I loved this quirky (almost whimsical) family trying to understand and support its youngest family member, a transgender girl. It was easy to digest the larger message in the book, and you couldn’t help but feel for the whole family.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – A large cast of characters keeps this tale about a Russian sentenced to spend his life inside a hotel moving. It reminded me in some ways of A Man Called Ove, but more historical, more literary, and more humorous.

Books I should have ditched but didn’t*

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam – Fans of Tom Perrotta might like this one, but its main character is an adulterous, selfish, insecure man incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions, and he reminded me too much of someone else I was trying to forget.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey – It’s a zombie book, but not. It’s a sci-fi book, but not. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic and dystopian. I knew none of this when I picked it up, and maybe those classifications would have helped me get in the right frame of mind, but probably not because I don’t like books with kids in peril.

A Working Woman by Elvira Nararro – I kept waiting for this book to get better or have some kind of twist. But there was no twist, and it did not improve. Thankfully, it was relatively short.

The rest…

The Nix by Nathan Hill – I liken this to The World According to Garp. There are many moving parts to this hefty novel, including ghosts, war, mother/son stuff, politics, social commentary, conniving students, and gaming. The Nix tells a tightly-woven tale, and just about all 620 pages of it are essential. I especially appreciated the story’s end, which satisfyingly wraps up all the storylines.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – I picked this up because it made so many “Best of 2016” lists, and I was unaware it was a “YA” book, which might have deterred me from reading it. I’m glad I didn’t know because this was as delightful as those who nominated it for those lists claimed. It is a book about young love. It is a book about clashing cultures. It is a book about immigration. But as the cover suggests, it also explores the interconnectedness of humanity.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – Fiction about the horrors of WWII is not my favorite genre, and I feel like I’ve read my fill of it via book club choices. But, when two people whose book opinions I value highly raved about this book to me, I had to put the ban on WWII books aside. I am glad I did. For anyone who does not feel saturated with this topic, I would highly recommend this title – and for those who haven’t read much fiction about this topic, this novel is the best of the bunch.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult – Picoult is not my favorite due to her trite endings and the fact she hasn’t met a headline out of which she didn’t want to make a story. This book is no different. But. It is an excellent novel that highlights important issues in race. I agree with just about everything Roxanne Gay wrote in her review of it.

Native Son by Richard Wright – I am glad I read this, as I would label it an American classic that I missed. I could understand Bigger’s actions, though some of Mr. Max’s legal speeches were difficult to agree with.

The Shack by William Paul Young – This as been on my shelf for over 8 years, and my desire to read the book before seeing the movie version is what drove me to finally open it. I found it a little schmaltzy, but I also have many dog-eared pages of good life wisdom.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I had no desire to read this, but after seeing an episode of the series on HBO, I got sucked into the story. What a delicious, page-turning beach read with a twist I did not see coming!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I have watched Adichie’s TedTalk about “The Danger of a Single Story” many times and had been remiss in reading any of her work. I am glad I started with this one – very timely, incredibly engaging, and I absolutely loved it.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – A librarian recommended this after hearing about some other books I liked, and I can understand why. I have been on a multiple narrator kick lately, and this fits the bill. It has mystery, grief, and misunderstood characters. A worthy read.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson – A fast, seemingly simple read that packs a lot of punch. This was my first book by Woodson, picked up based on a librarian’s recommendation, and it did not disappoint.

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington – A beautiful follow-up (prequel, actually) to Harrington’s Alice Bliss. She writes nuanced male characters and depicts complicated, loving relationships so perfectly, not to mention her messages about the ravages of war are timely.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton – It’s long and could probably have been at least 100 pages shorter, BUT…it’s very good. The relationships and characters are well developed, and the subplots seem plenty at times, but they all work.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I can see why. It’s short but mighty, and the way Saeed and Nadia’s relationship evolves over time was beautifully, and sometimes painfully, realistic. This was a good one!

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons – This book was referenced in a few magazines as a good read, and because I am interested in more multicultural works, I grabbed it. The narrator’s South African mother dies, and it’s about her navigating that loss, and life with her American father, in the aftermath. If you liked Mothers, which I did, you’d like this.

The Blue Songbird by Vern Kousky – I picked up this children’s picture book from a Brain Pickings blog post. The bird is trying to find her unique song, and while the story is simple, it adds a twist on what we need to do to find ourselves. I would buy this for the little people in my life.

Frederick by Leo Lionni – I may very well have read this picture book before when the kids were young, but if so, I didn’t remember it. What a treasure and a wonderful story about everyone having a gift – and how valuable non-tangible gifts are!

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo – I liked it for what it was – sometimes schmaltzy fiction. The ending was maybe a bit too…convenient? Not sure. But it was an entertaining page-turner.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue – Oh, man, did I love this couple. It is a realistic and both heartbreaking and optimistic immigration story. I would put it on the same shelf as Exit West, but this had more…magic.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – I thought I would like this more than I did, but I honestly think it was ME and not the book (as in, I wasn’t in the right headspace when I read it). Richie’s story is haunting, and the final scene with Mam and Given is moving. But otherwise, none of the characters really “did it” for me.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny – More substantive than a beach read, but not as intense as a true literary novel. Enjoyable!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Wood – I had never read this till now, though it’s been sitting on my shelf for probably over a decade. It is an important book, and I am glad I read it, but it’s not as gripping as I thought it would be. It took me about 50 pages before I got into it.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – I wanted to like this one more than I did. I liked the multiple perspectives, but I didn’t connect well with any of the characters.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi – I really appreciated the protagonist’s perspective of a Haitian immigrant trying to reconcile her culture while learning that of her Detroit cousins.

*It’s worth noting that I did ditch two books this year: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time when I was more than halfway through, because I didn’t care about the protagonist or understand what the point was, and Gary Taubes’s The Case Against Sugar due to his conflation of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.