15 Best Books of the Decade

It’s the end of the teens!  In honor of 2020, I decided to go back through all the books I read this decade and choose my favorite reads that were published in this decade.  Most of these are books I’ve reviewed previously, though many of them a while ago.  The list includes nonfiction and poetry but mostly literary fiction.  The books that made my list are ones that still continue to impact me in some way, the ones that, when I think about them, even years later, I remember the power of reading them either because of their ideas, the artfulness of the writing, or both.  Many of these are books that somehow or other make it into the classes I teach as well.  I’ve listed them here in order of publication date.

best books of the decade

The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander, 2010

Growing up, I thought very little about prisons or the people locked up in this country. If I did, it might have been in a very Hollywood or crime show kind of way: “Bad” people are locked up in order to keep the rest of society safe. It wasn’t until I began volunteering in prisons when I was in college through a course I took that I thought about the reality of our criminal justice system.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, but the picture it paints is a scathing critique of our heavily racialized criminal justice system. In the introduction, Alexander tells us her book is for two groups of people, either the people who maybe don’t know much about how mass incarceration works in this country but are open to criticisms of it being racist and corrupt or people who already know the realities of the system but want the facts and details to bolster their arguments when talking with people who still think that we only lock up “bad” people to keep the rest of society safe, and the fact that we lock up so many brown and Black men has more to do with their criminal behavior and poor lifestyle choices than anything inherently wrong with our system.

I am part of this second group of people, and so reading this book certainly gave me the statistics and stories to counter the prevailing narrative of mass incarceration in this country. And I couldn’t have read it at a more critical point in our nation’s story, this point of a wider conversation about how “Black lives matter” in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. It feels like I’ve had far too many conversations lately in which perhaps well-meaning, “color blind” people argue that, while it’s sad that these men died, they shouldn’t have been engaged in illegal activity, and, if there is a widespread fear of Black men, it’s justified given the violence and criminality of impoverished urban areas.

Alexander debunks this notion and shows how American’s “war on drugs” parallels other moments in our nation’s history, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

She begins with a discussion of Reconstruction and helps us to understand how so many white folks came to side with the wealthy landowners who sought to keep Black men and women oppressed post-slavery. She argues that poor whites were as much a pawn in the game, that they were equally under the thumb of the owning class and so had to be taught to hate Blacks, otherwise the poor and oppressed would vastly outnumber those in power. This history continues today, with the myth of the American Dream. Poor and working-class people must believe that they can “make it” in a system that is stacked against them, and they must believe that anyone who doesn’t “make it” is simply lazy, criminal, or otherwise undeserving. This myth helps to perpetuate a system which seeks to lock up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.

Alexander provides a number of studies which find that illegal drug use is pretty much equal across racial groups and that, if there is a disparity, it tends towards white people using more than others. However the United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world, and the vast majority of folks locked up are people of color. “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Alexander further demonstrates how the war on drugs was specifically leveraged against our nation’s most marginalized groups with mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate sentences for crack cocaine use versus powdered cocaine use (the former being primarily a drug used by poor, Black communities, the latter largely used by wealthier, whiter folks). The drug war and mass incarceration is extremely lucrative, and Alexander takes us through all the ways that states stand to gain from militarizing their police force and locking people up. One flaw in the book is that she says relatively little about how prisons are big business in this country. She touches on it by noting towards the end of the book how many people would be unemployed if we cut our prison population dramatically. I feel it’s worth noting that lots of people have a vested interest in making sure we lock folks up, not just the states and local jurisdictions who get paid by the feds if they make drug arrests or get to garnish property even if they don’t convict. A number of major corporations use prison labor, and private prisons are some of the best-selling stock on Wall Street.

Alexander goes on to detail all the ways that, once someone is in the system, even if they’ve never served jail time, they are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

“Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murders.”

Many states bar felons from ever voting, which means that a huge portion of the Black electorate is underrepresented, and employers may legally discriminate against anyone with a record, meaning that these people find it very hard to ever find meaningful employment, thus leading to a vicious cycle of recidivism.

If there’s any doubt that the criminal justice system disproportionately harms Black men, consider the issue of alcohol abuse and drunk driving. By the end of the eighties,

“drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year…The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually–less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year.”

However, sentences punishing drunk drivers are typically two days for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense; while someone convicted of possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years in federal prison. Why are these sentences so different? Why, even though drunk driving is far more likely to result in death, are drunk drivers so leniently dealt with? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male.

“White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk drivers were being adopted…Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death then the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person function and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offense, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

Alexander’s book is engaging and enraging. She cites a number of studies and covers a lot of ground. She also roots her critique in personal stories to help heighten the emotional pull of her anger. She lays out her argument very clearly, and I have the hope that other people besides her two groups she intends as her audience would read it; I wish I could hand it to every person who ever argued with me about my volunteering in prison by saying that prisoners don’t deserve theatre workshops or every person I’ve argued with recently who, in the guise of colorblindness, condemn the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. Ideally, policy makers would hear Alexander’s call as well. As a nation, things are going to have to change if we want to truly claim racial equality.
One fact that she cites that’s worth mentioning is that the less educated a person is, the more likely they are to favor a punitive approach to crime. Hopefully, we become more educated as a nation and, instead of claiming colorblindness, which Alexander says, as an ideal, “is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” and begin to dissect the ways our criminal justice is deeply racist and deeply flawed.

 

Room Emma Donoghue, 2010

This is a novel that it’s better not to know too much about, so avoid the dust-jacket if possible; allow the story to unfold as you read. The narrator is five year-old Jack, and he’s precocious and clever, and it’s a delight to read the world through his narrative. He describes life in “Room” with his Ma, and, despite the bond between the two and all the incredible, engaging ways his mom has devised to raise him to be thoughtful and intelligent, it soon becomes clear that something about their life is not quite right. Seeing the world through Jack’s eyes gives us insight into what it means to be social creatures, how much we take for granted, and how important love and care are for healthy development. It’s also a commentary on modern media and commercialism; though it’s never didactic. Emma Donoghue’s novel is highly engaging, emotional, and gripping.

 

The Marriage Plot Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011

The Marriage Plot is a thinking person’s love story. Which is to say, it’s not much of a love story in the traditional sense, but it is about romance and relationships, and it all is very smart and engaging.

Eugenides riffs on all those Victorian-era romance novels consumed with “the marriage plot:” “Will the unlikely protagonist get the one they truly love in the end?”: Austen and Eliot and even Anna Karenina. The riffing is self-conscious and up front, which is part of the fun of the novel. Madeline Hanna is finishing her English degree at Brown. She is in love with these stories, and she is also in love with Leonard, whom she meets in a semiotics class where all her notions of love and relationships get deconstructed. Leonard is a brilliant scientist, but his manic depression haunts his and Madeline’s relationship; while Mitchell, a young man in pursuit of religious and spiritual truth, loves Madeline, who sees him only as a friend.

Because all Eugenides’s characters are thoughtful and intelligent, they understand that love is more complex than the old storybook versions of love (though Austen, Eliot, and any of the good older writers also got this). He further complicates what is already complicated by showing us love and relationships through the eyes of feminist and deconstructionist theories, by layering these different ways of telling the story of love, and by upending the usual storybook ending.

The Marriage Plot is largely a novel of ideas, but it also has Eugenides’s attention to detail and character development. Each character is so finely drawn that you end up feeling like their friend and rooting for them despite their foibles and flaws. Eugenides takes us to the East Coast in the 80s, to Europe, and India; he shows us Mother Theresa’s charitable work, Christian mysticism, radical feminism, and even yeast biology. Aside from Austen, Tolstoy, and Eliot, he references Derrida, Salinger, and Talking Heads.

Many critics have written the novel off as pretentious, but I found it accessible and believable despite some of the high-mindedness. I also appreciated getting the three characters’ points of view, and I enjoyed the way the narrative twisted and turned in time.

The Marriage Plot confirms me as a fan of Eugenides: I’ve enjoyed all three of his novels, and, while all of them are very different, they all, The Marriage Plot included, are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell, 2011

It’s no wonder everyone is talking about this book! It is a seriously remarkable feat: Mitchell is able to so absolutely bring us into a distant world–the late 1700s Dutch colonial settlement in Japan–in a way that feels intimate, exciting, and moving. And he doesn’t dumb down his use of vernacular or cultural references. In that sense, it’s a dense read–he’s got over 20 characters “with speaking parts;” he has several locations and points of view, and he even uses Japanese calendar references for time. So, while I had to reread parts or go back and try to connect the dots, the language is engulfing, poetic, and beautiful, and I came to feel like the characters and I were friends. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and it’s worthy of all the praise it’s getting.

 

Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013
I had a hard time putting this book down. It was vast and intimate. It covered a lot of ground in exploring issues of immigration, Blackness in America, love and relationships, and more. The characters are complicated and real, flawed and easy to care about. It’s political but never feels didactic or pat. This was easily one of the best books I read in 2016.

 

Enon Paul Harding, 2013

“Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.” So begins Enon by Paul Harding. Poetically written and devastating, Enon follows Charlie’s journey through grief in the year following this tragedy. Most of the novel unfolds as memories—Charlie’s memories of being a child growing up in Enon and, more importantly, memories of sharing that childhood with Kate—and as hallucinations and dreams as Charlie becomes more and more dependent on pills and whiskey as a way to live along the edges of death, close to where he imagines Kate. Enon is beautiful and sad. I cried through much of it, fully believing the grief of losing one’s only child. It’s also often startling and illuminating. This is not a read for someone who needs heavy plot, but the poetry of the language and the intensity of emotion made for a perfect book in my opinion.

 

The Flamethrowers Rachel Kushner, 2013

This novel, set in a variety of places, most prominently New York City and Italian subcultural and revolutionary scenes of the 1970s, feels both very strange and unfamiliar and also deeply resonant and relatable. This is the force of Kushner’s prose—to render slightly foreign worlds such as the Salt Flats racing scene or the work of a rubber harvester in Brazil familiar and profoundly interesting.

The novel is primarily narrated by a young woman nicknamed “Reno” for her place of origin. We never learn her name because she has yet to make one for herself, which is ultimately her goal. She desires to be an artist, photographing and filming these moments in time that transport the viewer—such as the aftermath of her motorcycle crash on the Salt Flats, but also mundanity—mafia chauffeurs awaiting their charges in the heat—and she falls in with an older, more recognized crew of artists living in New York City, and she falls in love with one of them, Sandro, the wayward son of a moneyed Italian motorcycle dynasty.

Kushner shows us all these people who are searching or damaged. Oftentimes they are funny; oftentimes they are maddening. A recurring archetype in the novel is the older man who deeply loves his own voice and wants nothing more than to endlessly hold forth.  Sometimes those stories and views are outrageous, unbelievable; we, of course, are privy to these men’s stories as we listen in with Reno, and while these characters are often infuriating, their stories, sometimes given whole swaths of the novel, are fascinating, especially Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend whom Reno is slightly secretly in love with: He at one point tells a long and detailed story that may or may not be true about getting hit in the head as a boy and wandering dazed and memoryless until he is recruited to be a cabin boy on a sailboat with a wealthy couple whom he travels with for weeks until he suddenly remembers who he is.

This story of Ronnie’s is partly told as performance art. In fact, the novel is peopled with folks whose lives are, in the living, intended as a kind of art. Kushner has empathy for this way of being all the while showing how frustrating it can be to actually have an authentic and sincere relationship with people who take this as their ultimate mode of being.

Kushner’s writing is vivid and immediate. At one point in my reading, I realized how deeply enthralled I was and wanted to understand what she had done as an artist to bring me so fully in. The writing is unobtrusive but somehow perfect, and, mostly, I think she writes with such specific honesty that all characters become so interesting. At one point, the older art crew scoffs at a young woman who has shown up to an art exhibit in pants with a see-through butt because “it is so done.” Reno’s response is, “But it’s new to her, I should have said but didn’t. She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s.” This is how the whole novel feels: New because it’s Kushner’s vision alone.

 

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald, 2014

When Helen Macdonald’s father died, she fell into deep grief. She decides to raise a goshawk, something she’d always dreamed of doing, as a way to cope with this grief, and this is a memoir of that period of time. It details her training of Mabel and, more importantly, explores her own escape into wildness as a way to hide from the world in the wake of her father’s death. It is also, in part, a biography of T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King and who was also a falconer. As a child, Macdonald had been seduced and puzzled by White’s book about training a goshawk, and she seeks to understand his very strange relationship to his hawk, Gos, through her writing. Macdonald is honest about her own inner workings and insightful about the relationship between human civilization and the wild. She’s also a brilliant writer, which is what makes this book so appealing—I have little to no interest in falconry, nor am I familiar with White or his work, and yet this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Consider, for example, this passage when she meets her hawk for the first time:

“…[A]nd amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers…”

In the Light of What We Know Zia Haider Rahman, 2014

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that “within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.”

In The Light of What We Know takes this theorem as its metaphorical heart in order to explore the nature of personal identity, memory and its effects on who we become, and how we make the choices we make: In looking at who we are, pinning down exactly what brought us to this point is slipperier than we know, and, further, perhaps we can’t ever truly understand who we are in the first place. “The farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall far short of the limits of what is true.” Rahman’s novel explores issues of race and class, science, international politics, mathematics, and more. Each chapter begins with several epigraphs, ranging from literary—Somerset Maugham or Ford Madox Ford—to scientific, to political, including the definition of rape, and these quotations help establish the complicated themes and ideas that the book works through. And, being a book of ideas as well as compelling, complicated, and interesting characters, it is easily the best book I have read so far this year, perhaps one of the best books I have ever read.

In 2008 an old friend, looking thin, unkempt, and shaky, shows up on the doorstep of our narrator, a banker who is embroiled in the fallout from the financial collapse related to the housing market. Zafar, the friend, is a mathematician who has also been involved in the news-grabbing headlines of the day: the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, and both men find themselves at a crossroads in their lives where they are trying to understand how the choices they have made in the past have brought them to their current (unhappy) place in the world.

The narrator, who remains nameless throughout, intertwines his story with Zafar’s story, much of it culled from recordings of their conversations and from Zafar’s own notebooks. Zafar’s story reaches as far back as his impoverished childhood when he emigrated from Bangladesh to Britain and follows his path to Oxford, where he meets the narrator, and then to Afghanistan. Zafar is like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, haunted and compelled to tell his story, seeking forgiveness, or at least understanding, for the sin that he has committed. The difference between Coleridge’s character and Zafar is that it’s not clear whether Zafar is truly seeking atonement or is simply justifying his course of action.

On the surface, the two men seem similar: Both are Oxford-educated South Asians who chose high-powered careers yet have struggled with love and find themselves now discontent and trying to make sense of that discontent. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that key differences are at play in the men’s stories. The narrator comes from considerable privilege. His family is wealthy and connected, and he makes the point that he was able to buy his luxurious house even before he made it big selling mortgage-backed securities.

Zafar, on the other hand, grew up in poverty; his immigrant parents worked menial jobs, and he always felt out of place in the elite world he eventually finds himself in. His observations on class go beyond bitterness; he is an astute thinker about the intersections of race and class, and some of the scenes in the novel that explore reactions to him as a Bangladeshi are told with an appropriately scathing awareness.

Zafar is deeply angry at the U.S. and British involvement in Afghanistan, skeptical of any humanitarian rhetoric and convinced that the politics at work are merely the play of very wealthy Westerners attempting to grab more power. However, he, like any realistic human being, is an unreliable narrator of his own story. “No one can tell their own story…They’re the most untrue stories of all, the stories we write ourselves by our own hand in the first person where our own dishonesty is hidden from us.” Despite his anger and resentment, he also puts those he disdains on a pedestal.

This contradiction in some ways is at the heart of his story: He falls in love with Emily Hampton-Wyvern before he even meets her, upon simply hearing her name, a name that suggests status, power, wealth. Emily embodies Zafar’s view of the British: beautiful yet aloof and unattainable, unable ever to apologize for her wrongdoings, unaware due to her enormous privilege, perhaps, that she has done anything wrong. Zafar’s relationship with Emily eventually brings him to Afghanistan and to the sin his narrative unfolds.

The end of the novel and the final unwrapping of Zafar’s narrative is the only less than perfect aspect of the story. It feels a little too much like the finale of a children’s crime story, Scooby Doo for instance, in which all the pieces of the puzzle are suddenly laid out for us the readers so that we get to see all behind the scenes that we had not seen before. However, by this point, Rahman’s narrative has been so complex, interesting, and provocative that, as a reader, I easily forgave this clunkiness. Even the less than perfect ending lends itself to thought and contemplation, and one is left with more questions than answers, perfectly appropriate given how little we can truly know about the nature of life.

 

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, 2015

My main feeling after reading this memoir was an inspiration to write myself. Nelson explores the ways bodies change—such as her partner’s transition from female to male or her own body’s changes as it goes through pregnancy and birth. Nelson’s ruminations are deeply insightful, radical, poetic, and provocative. I intend to reread this one.

 

Autumn Ali Smith, 2016

I loved this book so much I almost didn’t want to read it! I took it in small doses, like poetry.

 

Here I Am Jonathan Safran Foer, 2016

This novel feels like a beautiful, warm, comfortable coat. Not only is it all of these things, this coat also has tons of little pockets where small little treasures are tucked away. And all the stitching is exquisitely done, and every time you look closely you are amazed by the quality of the material and craftsmanship.

At 600 pages, it’s expansive and wide-ranging, and yet it is also deeply personal and intimate. It’s laugh-out-loud funny very often and so sad throughout.

Here I Am is essentially the story of the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s also about absences in general. Sometimes the holes created by absences are beautiful—at one point Jacob, the husband—invokes Andy Goldsworthy’s art in which he lay in a field while the snow fell creating a snow angel in negative space. Absences can remind us about why we love, why we struggle or wrestle. But often those absences are sad, flaws. Near the beginning of the narrative, Foer takes us back in time into a quiet inn where our now in-the-present sixteen-year-married couple is reveling in their early love, lust, sexuality. They promise never to withhold the truth from each other and then almost immediately do. They continue to withhold while raising three boys, and that absence of truth is, ultimately, their undoing.

Of course, being Foer, these absences aren’t just sad moments in a life of two very real, complicated people. Foer writes out of a sense of Jewishness, and his absences are also about the millions of people whose lives ended and the millions whose lives we’ll never know because of the Holocaust.

“Here I am,” is the phrase Abraham used when God called on him to sacrifice his son and then the same phrase he used when addressing that son he was about to sacrifice. The novel asks a question about how one can be truly present for both of these utterly conflicting pulls, and so it asks how we can be present for all the things that pull us in our lives. Can we be true to ourselves, true to our spouse, our children, our parents all without compromise?

Foer’s answer here seems to be no, and that felt devastating to me.
But even this doesn’t do justice to what this novel is working on: It explores other religious questions, renders the voices of the three sons so beautifully and hysterically, imagines Israel on the brink of destruction, asks us what love is, what it means to live in the world, and so much more.

I didn’t always relate to the protagonists, Julia and Jacob. Jacob especially was maddening to me. At one point late in the novel we readers are let in on one of his secrets he withheld, a stupid, vain secret that feels crazy and utterly wrongheaded, and I wanted to shake him. But Foer doesn’t apologize for him or make it easy to be critical. We care about what happens to him—the stakes are real; the emotions powerful.

 

The Idiot Elif Batuman, 2017

I really loved this book! It’s laugh-out-loud funny and full of personality and ideas. You should read it!  This was probably my favorite book of the year.  The first person narrator, Selin, is a totally believable mix of adrift and full of purpose as she navigates her freshman year at Harvard, falling in love with a slightly older man, and travel abroad.

 

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin Terrance Hayes, 2018

Every sonnet in this collection has the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.”  Written after the election of 2016, these sonnets mourn the state of our country and present the grief, fear, and anger of being a Black man in America at this moment in time.  Hayes is often funny, and his playing with sounds such as assonance and puns is clever and heartrending.  The American sonnet form is the ghost of the more formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, and the looseness feels fresh and easy while at the same time being carefully crafted.

Here’s a favorite for its mixture of humor, pathos, and resonance:

 

I’m not sure how to hold my face when I dance:
In an expression of determination or euphoria?
And how should I look at my partner: in her eyes
Or at her body? Should I mirror the rhythm of her hips,
Or should I take the lead? I hear Jimi Hendrix
Was also unsure in dance despite being beautiful
And especially attuned. Most black men know this
About him. He understood the rhythm of a delta
Farmer on guitar in a juke joint circa 1933, as well
As the rhythm of your standard Negro bohemian on guitar
In a New York apartment amid daydreams of jumping
Through windows, ballads of footwork, Monk orchestras,
Miles with strings. Whatever. I’m just saying,
I don’t know how to hold myself when I dance. Do you?

 

The Overstory Richard Powers, 2018

This was my favorite book I read in 2018.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that surprised and captured me as much as this one. Richard Powers has done something significant in The Overstory: It is at once vast and intimate, philosophical and thrilling.

The novel opens with a chapter that is startling in its approach: It quickly zooms out, like a telescope, through decades in only a handful of pages using the life of a single tree as its focal point, sketching in the lives of the Hoel family who planted the tree as a way of rooting the story. It thematically sets up what is to come: the lifespan of a tree is vaster than human experience can understand; tree have ancient wisdom, and they will remember long after we humans have forgotten.

Then Powers shifts. The chapters that follow delve into the lives of the characters we will follow for the rest of this dense five hundred page novel. We are introduced to them, again, somewhat telescopically, through their formative years, sometimes going back a generation or two as a way to set the stage. Each is introduced through a tree which signifies something important in their lives (and here’s where I appreciate that I read the digital version of this novel–each person’s chapter begins only with a black and white sketch of their tree, no words. So I came to think of each character as a reflection of their tree.)

Powers takes us to the moments when all of these characters’ lives will intersect–sometimes deeply and profoundly, sometimes only peripherally. The third and final part of the novel is this story: Their interweaving.

This part is about the relationships of humans and trees: How is it that we humans have allowed the vast destruction of lives that are so essential to the well-being of the planet? And what are we going to do about it? Powers does not give us simple answers, and nothing is easily wrapped up. The novel is often sad and troubling, and also equally uplifting and inspiring.

The biggest takeaway for me is that I have become much more aware of how much I take trees for granted, and I have slowly started noticing them more.

Reading in 2019

I read 35 books this year (and am in the middle of three others, which is sort of how I operate in general), and I enjoyed quite a lot of them!  The best of the books were books that made me think about the craft of writing, how character and feel is achieved, or which had narrators with distinctive voices, or worked in complicated ways through interesting ideas or philosophy.  I also read quite a few children’s books, many of which I really loved, in part because they really are books that appeal to adult sensibilities as well.  Here are 13 books of 2019 that are worth mentioning.

2019 books

The Idiot Elif Batuman: I really loved this book! It’s laugh-out-loud funny and full of personality and ideas. You should read it!  This was probably my favorite book of the year.  The first person narrator, Selin, is a totally believable mix of adrift and full of purpose as she navigates her freshman year at Harvard, falling in love with a slightly older man, and travel abroad.

Milkman Anna Burns: I can easily say that I’ve never read a book quite like this: Little exposition helping me understand the world we’re in or when we are–slightly dystopian setting with warring factions, but who? and why? Names like Somebody McSomebody, Maybe-Boyfriend, Real Milkman (not to be confused with Milkman of the title who isn’t really a Milkman), and more that feels odd and unplaceable, and yet all of it works. It’s often funny–for instance the first person narrator (nameless, sometimes “Maybe-Girlfriend), draws the ire of her community for breaking social norms by reading while walking (People are horrified!), and her “wee sisters” are a stitch! But the book also feels heavy at times–she’s in a Maybe relationship with Maybe-Boyfriend and yet sought by the older Milkman, who is married and a “Renouncer.” He threatens violence and is genuinely dangerous–to her, to Maybe-Boyfriend. Of course the whole community has opinions about this affair that isn’t, just as they have opinions about everything else. At times the book feel like more of an exercise in an idea, but mostly I found it strange and wonderful.

Exhalation Ted Chiang: In the “Story Notes” at the end of this collection of short stories, Chiang writes that one of his inspirations for the novella-length story “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” was a writer writing about how being a mother brought her deeply into questions of love, evil and pain, and conflict resolution, and Chiang used this inspiration to work through how to develop fictional AI and all the big questions that come with that. It strikes me that these questions are at the heart of all these stories—questions of how to be a good human given the many forces at work in our development: society, time, larger forces we don’t always understand. Do we have free will, or is choice an illusion? Does it matter if ultimately the choices we make have immediate impacts on the world around us and how we feel in that world? How do we help others in our lives become their best selves?  And, like his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang does not give simple answers. His writing is complicated and therefore interesting, and I love feeling like I’m in the mind of a very smart, yet very moral person who is exploring big and important questions.

Born a Crime Trevor Noah : I listened to this as an audio book, and, while this is not my preferred medium for books, this one is great in audio. Noah is a linguistic polymath, and his autobiography is peppered with different languages and accents, and it’s great to hear these in his voice. He’s funny and smart, and his story sheds light on the experience of apartheid in interesting ways. The emotional impact of the end caught me off guard, though, and I was listening to it while trying to jog, but I ended up sobbing, unable to run any farther.

Autumn Ali Smith: I loved this book so much I almost didn’t want to read it! I took it in small doses, like poetry.

Charlotte’s Web E.B. White: This is still so good years and years later, maybe even better now as an adult, and I can notice how beautiful White’s writing is.  I mean: So. Beautiful. And I cried and cried reading it to my kid, and he said, “I love that book,” when we finished just now.

The Round House Louise Erdrich: This is a dark, upsetting coming of age novel, but it’s also moving and engaging. Joe is a thirteen year old Ojibwa boy whose mom leaves one afternoon for a routine trip to the office. When she finally returns after being the victim of horrific violence, she falls into a silence and depression. Slowly the story of what happened to her emerges, and slowly Joe’s plans for revenge grow. The morality of the novel is complicated, and Erdrich does a good job not simplifying anything. Joe is telling us the story from his adult future, of which we learn almost nothing, an interesting choice in that it so starkly positions this year in a kid’s life: We have no way to judge how all of his choices unfolded.

Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls Wilder: I never read this as a kid, but I found it absolutely delightful to read with my five year-old. We were totally entranced by all the ways they worked to make their lives run, from butchering a hog to harvesting maple syrup to the work of fighting off bears!  Funny and engrossing!

How to Set a Fire and Why Jesse Ball: The defining quality of this book is its very self-aware, funny voice of the teenage narrator. It’s easy to recommend it for that alone!

Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches John Hodgman: John Hodgman writes with the right amount of swagger and self-deprecation that is not just for irony’s sake, but somehow comes across as deeply sincere. Hence he’s able to provide interesting insights into people, privilege, aging, and more while being entertaining and funny. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan: McEwan, whose best books consider all the complexities of the human mind and how we grapple with ethics and more, takes on AI in this strange and interesting novel. I say strange because of its odd historical placement–early 80s, set against the backdrop of the Falklands war, but with an alive and well Alan Turing and cell phones. Despite the fiction of all this history, the moral questions and complexities of AI make it all work. It’s a philosophical novel but one that has a compelling narrative, and it is never didactic or simple.

Bend Sinister Vladimir Nabokov: I love Nabokov’s language, and this book has the strangest, funniest author’s introduction I’ve ever read! In general, the book is compelling but not necessarily gripping, often funny, and made me think! I wish the women weren’t so horribly portrayed…

The Perfect Nanny Leila Slimani: I liked this book despite its grim subject matter and despite the fact that the psychology of an overly attached and imbalanced nanny hit a little too close to home. It explores the complexity of modern families and subtly indicts a mindset that demands women be heroes in both the work world and family sphere. That said, it maintains a distance that I’m not sure I can explain how it was achieved. If I just told you the storyline, you’d agree it is deeply sad, but at no point did I feel any real grief or emotional attachment. In a way, I think this works here–I feel like Slimani set herself up to explore the mindset of a nanny who would kill her charges and make it believable (not a spoiler; it happens immediately at the beginning of the book) than in trying to be a story that engages us emotionally, so we go along for that ride rather than the other ride.

And just because I’m being noncommittal, here are a few other honorable mentions:

Pippi Longstocking Astrid Lindgren

The Thing Itself Adam Roberts

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J.K. Rowling

Ghost Wall Sarah Moss

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong

Abel’s Island William Steig

Passed On

The ring was found months later.  Ice melted,
then returned.  Cold hands slipped
inside forgotten pockets, brushed stone, gold.
And memory like a hungry fish nipped.

As a child I’d admired the rings my mom
wore, bands of gold, rubies and diamonds;
two—distinct yet twinned. “A gift of love from
your dad when you were born: Two girls, two bands.”

Two rings, two stories: My dad’s truth, mom’s myth–
all of it complicated by divorce.
Why would she lie, years later, burnish with
nobility and love what was quite coarse:
One ring, thought lost, insurance paid: now two?
Two passed on.  Story created anew.

Fruitvale Station, New Years Morning 2009

Fruitvale Station, New Years Morning 2009
after Herman Melville

A shattering came; and after the train–
usually asleep at this time
a city was undone
(Sure, it was not the first one.)
concrete platform, blood in the grime.

The unrest of all grew
The crowds of the night surged
But videos and eyes could not see
how he was no longer he
He faded—the train’s clacking dirge.

So, then Fruitvales’s a tomb—
the throes of the city below.
Some forget, others never:
a mural, the shrine, an endeavor
to eternalize a people’s woe.

2018 Notable Books

2018 notable books

I had enough notable reads of 2018 that compiling this list has been a struggle.  I’ve decided to organize them into categories which may or may not be useful.  Below are 18 of the 58 books I read this year that most moved, engaged, delighted, or provoked me. 

Fiction

 The Overstory, Richard Powers

This was my favorite book I read in 2018.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that surprised and captured me as much as this one. Richard Powers has done something significant in The Overstory: It is at once vast and intimate, philosophical and thrilling.

The novel opens with a chapter that is startling in its approach: It quickly zooms out, like a telescope, through decades in only a handful of pages using the life of a single tree as its focal point, sketching in the lives of the Hoel family who planted the tree as a way of rooting the story. It thematically sets up what is to come: the lifespan of a tree is vaster than human experience can understand; tree have ancient wisdom, and they will remember long after we humans have forgotten.

Then Powers shifts. The chapters that follow delve into the lives of the characters we will follow for the rest of this dense five hundred page novel. We are introduced to them, again, somewhat telescopically, through their formative years, sometimes going back a generation or two as a way to set the stage. Each is introduced through a tree which signifies something important in their lives (and here’s where I appreciate that I read the digital version of this novel–each person’s chapter begins only with a black and white sketch of their tree, no words. So I came to think of each character as a reflection of their tree.)

Powers takes us to the moments when all of these characters’ lives will intersect–sometimes deeply and profoundly, sometimes only peripherally. The third and final part of the novel is this story: Their interweaving.

This part is about the relationships of humans and trees: How is it that we humans have allowed the vast destruction of lives that are so essential to the well-being of the planet? And what are we going to do about it? Powers does not give us simple answers, and nothing is easily wrapped up. The novel is often sad and troubling, and also equally uplifting and inspiring.

The biggest takeaway for me is that I have become much more aware of how much I take trees for granted, and I have slowly started noticing them more.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

This novel, set in a variety of places, most prominently New York City and Italian subcultural and revolutionary scenes of the 1970s, feels both very strange and unfamiliar and also deeply resonant and relatable. This is the force of Kushner’s prose—to render slightly foreign worlds such as the Salt Flats racing scene or the work of a rubber harvester in Brazil familiar and profoundly interesting.

The novel is primarily narrated by a young woman nicknamed “Reno” for her place of origin. We never learn her name because she has yet to make one for herself, which is ultimately her goal. She desires to be an artist, photographing and filming these moments in time that transport the viewer—such as the aftermath of her motorcycle crash on the Salt Flats, but also mundanity—mafia chauffeurs awaiting their charges in the heat—and she falls in with an older, more recognized crew of artists living in New York City, and she falls in love with one of them, Sandro, the wayward son of a moneyed Italian motorcycle dynasty.

Kushner shows us all these people who are searching or damaged. Oftentimes they are funny; oftentimes they are maddening. A recurring archetype in the novel is the older man who deeply loves his own voice and wants nothing more than to endlessly hold forth. Sometimes those stories and views are outrageous, unbelievable; we, of course, are privy to these men’s stories as we listen in with Reno, and while these characters are often infuriating, their stories, sometimes given whole swaths of the novel, are fascinating, especially Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend whom Reno is slightly secretly in love with: He at one point tells a long and detailed story that may or may not be true about getting hit in the head as a boy and wandering dazed and memoryless until he is recruited to be a cabin boy on a sailboat with a wealthy couple whom he travels with for weeks until he suddenly remembers who he is.

This story of Ronnie’s is partly told as performance art. In fact, the novel is peopled with folks whose lives are, in the living, intended as a kind of art. Kushner has empathy for this way of being all the while showing how frustrating it can be to actually have an authentic and sincere relationship with people who take this as their ultimate mode of being.

Kushner’s writing is vivid and immediate. At one point in my reading, I realized how deeply enthralled I was and wanted to understand what she had done as an artist to bring me so fully in. The writing is unobtrusive but somehow perfect, and, mostly, I think she writes with such specific honesty that all characters become so interesting. At one point, the older art crew scoffs at a young woman who has shown up to an art exhibit in pants with a see-through butt because “it is so done.” Reno’s response is, “But it’s new to her, I should have said but didn’t. She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s.” This is how the whole novel feels: New because it’s Kushner’s vision alone.

Ka Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, John Crowley

Crowley absolutely and remarkably brought me into the world and mind of a crow. This alone–this feeling of a crow ethnography–shows its masterfulness, but it is also beautifully written with so many small passages that spoke to me on a philosophical level. I feel somehow subtly changed from reading this novel despite the fact that, at times, it felt slow and boring.

Outline/Transit/Kudos, Rachel Cusk

            I’m including all three of these books here as one, since all three books, though they stand alone and can be read without the others, also all seem part of the same writing and storytelling experiment: A narrator (Faye) interacts with a variety of people; only through their words, their stories do we learn anything about Faye and her life.  We get almost none of Faye’s point of view or subjectivity; instead those she interacts with are presented to us at face value with all their detail, nuance, and flaws.

In the first novel, Outline, Faye travels to Greece to teach a writing seminar, and her advice to her students is to pay attention to what they see as they move through their day.  This advice seems to be the point of all three novels—in the paying attention is where all the stories lie.

 The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

This book is worth the hype and awards it’s garnered: It’s complex with solid world-building and interesting, multi-faceted characters. Sometimes it’s hard–the abuse and horrors are daunting–but it feels worth it, and it’s not without flaws (hard to talk about without spoiling certain aspects of the plot, but I’ll say simply that the three point-of-view characters could have been better intertwined.) Regardless, I’m excited to read the next books in the series. (Months later I still haven’t…)

Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Sprawling, expansive, vivid, and exhausting: Half a Yellow Sun explores the Nigerian Civil war–or Biafran war–through an intimate look at three different point-of-view characters, an educated and wealthy young woman, her house servant, and her twin sister’s British-born lover. The novel paints a complex portrait of these three and their intertwined lives and also details the horrors of the Biafran experience fighting for independence against the Nigerian government. Adichie never talks down to us by giving simplistic exposition, which I admired about the book. And I also felt exhausted by it since I have so little context about this particular moment in history. This is fine–“exhausting” here isn’t a negative quality of the book exactly. Instead it’s a book that demands attention, openness, and a willingness to be led through a great deal of horror and misery. It offers little that is uplifting, which, truly, is also not a negative quality of the book; rather it’s a simple fact: This was a brutal time in history, and Adichie is a strong enough writer to know that anything simple or pat would be off-putting. Still…it’s a hard book to say I loved given this despite its obvious mastery and engaging story-telling.

Vida, Marge Piercy

I was very easily enmeshed in this book: The nuance and detail made it feel intimate, and the subject matter–a woman living underground to escape a heavy jail sentence from her revolutionary activities–made it exciting. I didn’t always like Vida or agree with her positions, but even these moments where I was frustrated with her came from the fact that I was reading a finely written novel–here was someone, after all, who could annoy me or make me want to argue, you know, like real life people I love.  I have minor complaints about missteps or details I couldn’t believe, which felt glaring given how precise and finely-wrought everything else was.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

I mostly read this book because so many of my students were, but it ended up being a top read for me this year.  Starr is a bright and observant high school student living in two different worlds, the Black neighborhood where she was born and raised and the mostly white private school she attends outside the city.  When her childhood friend is shot and killed by a police officer in front of her, the differences between her worlds become starker, and her struggles to decide the right course of action come to the fore.

This is a novel that deals with timely issues in a complicated and smart way and should be required reading for all young white people.

I am not without minor quibbles: Some of the conflict feels overly contrived or not quite coherent, but this all feels fairly insignificant in the light of what is a well-written, smart, and moving book.

Home, Marilynne Robinson

This is one of the those books where nothing much happens, and yet the gravity of the characters’ lives feels enough that it doesn’t matter that there is so little plot. It is subtle and sad and moving.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This was my last completed book of the year, and I can’t say what exactly about it drew me in, but I felt captivated for nearly the entire 770 pages.  I think I’m attracted to books that help create a world so outside my own, and this did that; though it’s set in our present time and country (mostly), it details lifestyles and milieus so far removed from my own experiences—the world of a teenager living in Las Vegas strung out on drugs and alcohol, the world of furniture restoration, art dealers, shady underworld criminals.  What connects all these disparate threads is a small inadvertently stolen painting by a Dutch master and the young man whose world has been turned upside down by a single act of terrorism.  The novel has nothing startling or new in its writing; it’s just a thoroughly engaging story.

Children’s Books

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

This is a book that is often overlooked in the Dahl oeuvre, and I can’t figure out why.  In my opinion, it is his best.  Unlike his other books, this gives us nothing fantastical, and yet it is magical and fantastic in its believability.  It has none of the mean-spiritedness of some of his other books.  Instead it is a story of a boy who thinks he has the best father in the world, and he is likely right.  His father, however, has a secret, which it is best to not know too much about as you begin reading.

Poetry

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

Every sonnet in this collection has the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.”  Written after the election of 2016, these sonnets mourn the state of our country and present the grief, fear, and anger of being a Black man in America at this moment in time.  Hayes is often funny, and his playing with sounds such as assonance and puns is clever and heartrending.  The American sonnet form is the ghost of the more formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, and the looseness feels fresh and easy while at the same time being carefully crafted.

Here’s a favorite for its mixture of humor, pathos, and resonance:

I’m not sure how to hold my face when I dance:
In an expression of determination or euphoria?
And how should I look at my partner: in her eyes
Or at her body? Should I mirror the rhythm of her hips,
Or should I take the lead? I hear Jimi Hendrix
Was also unsure in dance despite being beautiful
And especially attuned. Most black men know this
About him. He understood the rhythm of a delta
Farmer on guitar in a juke joint circa 1933, as well
As the rhythm of your standard Negro bohemian on guitar
In a New York apartment amid daydreams of jumping
Through windows, ballads of footwork, Monk orchestras,
Miles with strings. Whatever. I’m just saying,
I don’t know how to hold myself when I dance. Do you?

Nonfiction

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Damning, depressing, and inflaming: This is a seriously researched ethnography which indicts the private rental market and its inherent function of making money off of America’s poor in perpetuating poverty. Desmond’s thesis is that eviction is not a result of a poverty; rather evictions cause poverty by creating instability in multiple regards.

Fiction: Rereads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

            Prescient, scary, enraging.  I read this ages ago when I was in high school or early college and have, like so many, been watching the show more recently.  The book is coolly and poetically written and worth a read.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

            Best to not know much about this one going into it, so, loosely: a tale of grifters in Victorian England trying to get rich or get free.  Twisty and turny, fun and engaging.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

McCann’s jumping off point is the day in August 1974 when Philip Petit tightrope-walked the World Trade Center.  This audacious and bold act redefined public space and showed us how connected we are.  Here is a series of intertwining stories about lives connected around that event.

Investing in Public Schools: An Open Letter

Dear Progressive, Privileged Friends,

I went into teaching eighteen years ago because I believe deeply in the power of education to make a difference in our world.  It often seems to me that the only way to make a change is to truly understand–empathy and intelligence are the possibilities of a great education.

I think you agree with me, but we all too often disagree about what exactly this means.

As someone who has worked as a public school teacher now for nearly two decades, I have come to believe that we need to protect public schools, but all too often the conversations we are having are about how much the public schools disappoint–you would rather homeschool or send your kids to a private school.

And I am with you to a certain degree–plenty about how we do school in this country disappoints me too, but mostly I am sad: sad about the systemic failure that seems to be happening despite all the people who seem to care about powerful education.  I live in a city that offers our kids “schools of choice,” and the district I teach in, just across the Bay, also offers “schools of choice,” which means that one’s neighborhood is no longer the determining factor in where a kid goes to school as a way to account for the extent to which our cities are still segregated, to ensure an excellent education for all students regardless of neighborhood or family income.

But desegregation is not what is happening, which is obviously a systemic failure.  This failure has made it possible for, for instance, what is happening in my neighborhood: the Sequoia and Global Family dichotomy.  Here are two schools that are about two miles apart, potentially, in a more traditional model of schooling, a distance that would draw students from the same neighborhood, and yet the two schools are very different demographically.  Global Family is 92% Latino, 4% Black, and .4% White. It is 98% “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Sequoia, on the other hand, is 29% White, 22% Black, 19% Latino, and 12% Asian. Forty percent of its students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The segregation is not stark, and, to be fair Global Family is a dual immersion English/Spanish school, so obviously it is going to appeal to Spanish-speaking families, which may account for its large Latino population.

But, still, this feels off to me–it doesn’t feel like what Schools of  Choice was designed to address, in that one school can be 98% poor and scoring very low on the standardized test scores (a dubious measure of success to be sure, but, of course, even us progressives who know the limitations of these test scores can’t help but notice them and, even unconsciously let them affect our perception of the school’s quality)  at 14% and 10% proficient in language arts and math respectively; whereas Sequoia’s proficiency rates are 49% in both subject areas. Sequoia is considered “highly desirable;” Global Family is not.

Districts such as this one where I live and the one where I teach–districts who espouse values of rigor and social justice, equity and diversity–shouldn’t have let this happen.  But it has happened–our schools reflect and reproduce social inequity.

So where do you come into this?

I’m writing to you, my progressive and privileged friends,  in the first place because, like I said, I know you care about social justice.  If you live in an urban area, you may likely recognize your district in the one I’m describing, even if the particulars aren’t exactly alike, and, especially given the ways that cities have been changing in the last couple decades, you are likely concerned with issues of gentrification; you, like me, may even feel some responsibility for the fact that, simply because of the color of your skin or relative economic privilege you yourself are contributing to gentrification and the fact that more and more low-income folks of color are being pushed out of their homes.  If you have school-aged children or ever plan to have children, you are inherently part of this conversation.

So as someone who is inherently part of this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what we can do about this inequity.

My answer is that you need to invest in your public schools.

One of the things that makes Sequoia so sought after is that new families recognize the value of its very committed family base; for instance, despite the larger financial woes of the district, families joined together to help raise money for a music program.  While counting on funding from families cannot be an answer if we care about serving well even the poorest kids, the spirit behind that—invested families working to make the school better because they see a shared value, a shared purpose—is an important example of the kind of investment all schools need.  Sequoia is a perfect example of how, when community members feel invested in the school they make it better, and that, in turn, improves the community.

Sequoia is also recognized for its leadership and the spirit of the kids, which obviously comes from quality teachers.  Academic research shows that quality teachers are one of the key factors in student achievement. And, while districts need to think about their policies of hiring and placement, community investment goes a long way to addressing this particular issue as well.  For years I was part of a teacher-led think tank, Teacher Leadership Institute, and we looked at the question of teacher attrition, which has a pronounced negative effect on “low-performing” schools that mostly serve poor kids. Our research showed that only one in five teachers stays in teaching longer than five years, and when we studied why, the primary answer was the workload—specifically, teachers don’t mind working hard, but they want to feel like their hard work is getting them or their students somewhere.  If they feel like it’s not, they burn out. So then, at some point a certain kind of inertia takes over: a school may be “low-performing.” Teachers burn out quicker, but then it becomes harder for the school to attract highly-qualified veteran teachers, highly-qualified veteran leadership…and so then fewer families want that school, or the families that do attend that school are poor, lack resources to advocate, don’t feel empowered to organize for change the way, say, Sequoia families did to create that music program.

Meanwhile, the wealthier, more resourced families are looking elsewhere.  They pull out. They divest by sending their kids to private school. The vicious cycle continues.

I suppose it’s not any one family’s responsibility to step up and invest in the school, but if it’s no one family’s responsibility, then it becomes no one’s responsibility: the inertia is in place.  The school suffers, the district lacks equity.

Progressive, privileged friends, I understand your concerns.  I really do. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what good education looks like, and I know the power of an engaged, rigorous, relevant classroom.  When it comes time to send my kid to kindergarten and beyond, I worry about how I’ll be as a parent because I have such high expectations for teachers–I know what we’re capable of.  And, just like every parent, I want the best for my kid. The parents of children at Global Family want their kids to feel smart and capable, want their kids to be their best selves. They may not always have the resources to advocate for this; they often don’t have models from their own lives of what invigorating and rigorous education looks like, but regardless, their children deserve to be inspired by school in the same way that my kid deserves that and your kid deserves that.  Privilege does not make our kids more deserving.

All too often we are thinking only about our kid, not about all kids.  Investing and integrating benefit all children–test scores and graduation rates increase in integrated schools, and isn’t part of what we want for our children that they feel themselves as connected to a larger whole, not somehow separate from or above others because of their privilege?  Even small children can begin to understand the ideas of social justice inherent in this.

Given this, dear friends, I think it’s also useful to really actively work to redefine what we see as “quality education.”  Test scores aren’t the only factor. Is the school diverse? Will your kid get a number of different points of view from kids of varying backgrounds and life experiences?  How will they learn to be connected to and part of their community? Powerful learning is bigger than the individual lessons the teacher imparts. These are important qualities in our kids’ schooling in part because school is the primary way they will get these lessons.  As an individual parent, I can work to instill a love of reading in my kid. I can encourage their creativity and provide resources for these pursuits. I can work to teach them how to communicate well–all of which schools should strive for as well. It is however much harder as a family to provide my kid a number of diverse points of view or life experiences.  It is much harder to create the conditions through which my kid can learn to communicate and negotiate across differences, discovering all the things that make him like his peers and all the things that make him unique. All too often, families who divest from the local public schools and send their kids to private schools are choosing a more heterogeneous and privileged environment.  What does that teach children?

This isn’t just a local issue.  The national conversation about public schools has encouraged divestment.  Our current Secretary of Education made her mark being an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools at a time when more and more public school teachers feel beleaguered by lack of resources, low pay, and general waning support for the work they do serving the vast majority of school-aged children.  In practice, in seems we can’t have both a strong, invested public school system and robust support for private school vouchers.

Of course, there are many ways to be engaged in your community and even ways to help support your local public schools even if you don’t send your kid there.  But schooling is so universal, and schools tend to be a place where many of our cultural values get debated and worked out. Talking about the politics of schooling is a conversation about race, class, justice, and all the things we want to pass on to our future generations.  My hope is you’ll be part of this conversation in ways that make our world better for everyone.

Best Books of 2017, Special Rereading Edition

This year, in advance of teaching a new class, I read a bunch of books I had already read in order to prepare to teach them.  Of course they made my “best of” list because that is the whole reason I am teaching them and therefore rereading, so this list is a little longer than normal because I’d like to also honor new books.

Favorite Books, Reread:

Beloved, Toni Morrison

I’ve always been a reader, but this was the first book I read as a freshman in college whose narrative structure so kicked my ass in a way that amazed and delighted me that it’s continued to be one of my all-time favorite books and the book I’ve most dreamed about teaching.  I’ve now read it five times, and knowing the deep sadness at the heart of the story didn’t diminish it in the least.  In some ways it made it even more powerful and heart-rending.  Morrison’s prose is luminous, vivid, and profound.  So many stories are packed in here, but it’s ultimately about the power of self-love and the utter destructiveness of slavery in its ability to undermine that self love.  If you have not yet read Beloved, it’s time!

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also profound and heart-wrenching, Ellison’s novel is the story of an evolution of a consciousness.  It draws on stories from the South of Brer Rabbit, the trickster figure who subverts his oppressors while “yes”ing them to their destruction.  It’s brutal and brilliant.  It’s rooted in a particular historical moment and also so current.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

    Alex is our hysterical Ukrainian narrator full of malapropisms and mistranslated idioms.  He is hired by American Jonathan to find Jonathan’s history in a tiny, potentially nonexistent Ukrainian town.  That history reaches back to the beginnings of World War II and the atrocities committed against the Jews there, and so the quest’s center is loss and sadness.  Foer also takes us back through the long, long history before World War II that brought us to Jonathan’s grandfather, a story full of magic, the absurd, and long dream-like passages.  Despite its grave subject matter, it’s often very funny and full of poetry.

Man Walks Into a  Room, Nicole Krauss

    Samson Greene is found wandering the Nevada desert near death and delirious.  A tumor is removed from his brain, saving his life but also destroying all memories after the age of twelve.  So, despite being a thirty-eight year old man with a life, a wife and a job as professor at a New York school, all he has access to is his boyhood.  Krauss uses this jumping off point to explore the power of memory and how we become who we become.  But then she goes further: A revolutionary scientist has a vision to test the limits of selfhood and empathy–is it possible to truly understand another person?  The novel dips into entirely plausible science fiction that provokes interesting questions.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

When I first read this as a high school senior, it made very little impression.  I reread it more out of a sense of duty (“This is often on the AP test; I should at least see if it’s interesting to teach…”), and I get the challenges of it–it’s not a perfect book by any stretch.  It opens with a long, boring-ish rumination on the shipping world, and, of course, Conrad has been criticized for his racism in his characterization of the Africans in the story, criticism that is warranted and interesting to pursue as a teacher.  Despite these shortcomings, I found myself engrossed in the nightmarish, evocative prose and the moral questions the book raises.  I reread it on the heels of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost about the terrors in the Belgian Congo, and Conrad’s novel is an interesting companion to this book.

Favorite Books, New Reads:

The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen

    This novel deserves all the acclaim it earned.  It is funny, strange, and historical.  It’s narrated by a slightly unreliable narrator who is a double agent for the Vietnamese communists while living in Los Angeles.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

When this book initially came out, it got a lot of coverage: Here’s the story of a woman who dies but then is repeatedly reborn until she gets it right.  I had heard it was good, but I wasn’t sure how Atkinson would pull it off–wouldn’t it get boring reading the same story over and over?  Needless to say, since it’s on my list, she pulls it off.  Parts are repeated, but Atkinson knows how to pace appropriately, and it’s interesting to see the small changes that are made that this time save our protagonist so that she may live further on until her next death and rebirth.

Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta

I felt absorbed in this book: It raises genuinely interesting questions about sex and relationships in an age of porn, parenting, identity politics, and more. Even if it felt clunky at times, it was a highly engaging read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

I am so glad I read this book despite not loving her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones.  Moral of the story: it’s worth giving authors second chances.  We meet Jojo, one of three narrators of the novel, on his thirteenth birthday.  He’s trying hard to be a man, which means helping to slaughter the goat that will be his birthday feast, but, as he has vague mystical powers, including the ability to hear the thoughts of animals, this goat included, the slaughtering drives him away in terror.  Jojo’s gift is a family inheritance–his grandfather and grandmother also have access to magic, and his mother, one of the other narrators of the novel, enjoys getting high so that she can see her long-dead brother who visits her during these times.  Her addiction and terrible parenting make her a hard character to empathize with, and Ward doesn’t do much to endear her to us, which, to me, felt a small fault of the novel.  And yet there’s so much that’s beautiful and sad and moving here, that it’s easily one of the best books I read this year.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Atwood tells the story of real-life servant Grace Marks who was found guilty of the murder of her master and fellow servant.  Atwood attempts to make sense of her history: Did she actually do it, or was she set up by the other servant who was condemned along with her and hanged?  Along the way, we get Atwood’s particular sharp voice, feminism, and insight.  It’s a deeply engaging story despite how much we know up front.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

Conversations With Friends is, as the name would suggest, full of great talkers, talkers who can mesmerize with their insight and erudition. However, being a great talker doesn’t mean one is also an honest talker or even good at relationships. This is the crux of Sally Rooney’s novel then: witty, interesting conversation mostly between people who are trying to figure out how to be in relationship to one another and often failing at it.

Twenty-one year-old college student, Frances, our first-person narrator, is best friends and sometimes lovers with striking, irreverent, and intelligent Bobbi, who revels in the way she makes people feel uncomfortable around their accepting of middle-class social norms. Frances is used to being overshadowed by Bobbi despite the fact that Frances herself is a brilliant poet and intelligent in her own right.

When the two women are courted by a famous, older writer and photographer and brought into the folds of her life and social world, Frances naturally assumes that Bobbi is really the focus of this woman, Melissa’s, interest, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Frances’s crush on Melissa’s semi-famous actor husband ends up being reciprocated. The two fall into a secret, illicit affair complicating Frances’s relationship to Bobbi.

While the storyline, on its surface, reads like a soap opera, Rooney’s writing elevates it above mere drama. All the characters are complicated and messy in interesting ways. They have blind spots and moments of utter clarity. What makes it a novel worth reading is that it’s not just this dramatic storyline but often a novel of ideas: Why monogamy? What is love? What is the line between friendship and romance? Is it possible to be authentically in relationship to someone, or will those relationships always be shaped by societal expectations and conventions?

And Rooney never tries too hard to answer these questions. Instead we’re offered this moment with these characters, and we’re left to wonder. As I neared the end of the novel, I felt a bit of a loss at the idea of no longer getting to be part of these lives. I would have kept reading.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Is it possible to be neutral in a warzone? Thomas Fowler, a journalist, is stationed in Vietnam in the early 1950s during the era in which the Vietnamese were trying to throw off their French colonial rule, thereby involving the United States more and more in the struggle for power. He’s not the titular quiet American; he’s British and is able to use this identity to claim neutrality despite the various warring factions. The quiet American is Alden Pyle; he’s young and naïve, and yet his political idealism leads him to be more of a dangerous figure than Fowler originally takes him for.

Pyle is not only dangerous politically; he’s also dangerous to Fowler as he’s fallen for his mistress, a Vietnamese woman Fowler fears he will never be able to make truly happy given that he’s older than her and already married.

This struggle for the beautiful Phuong comprises the heart of the novel’s plot, and yet the heart of the book really is Fowler’s evolution as he comes to realize that he cannot be neutral.

So many aspects of this book could have put me off: The context was mostly lost on me, and Greene does no dumbing down or explaining of the politics and history; he writes with an implicit belief that we understand who the various players were. Consequently, to keep up, I had to do independent research along the way.

Further, Fowler’s view of Phuong is troubling: It’s sexism borne of racism in that he sees her as simple and consequently less deserving of a real love that comes from a meeting of the minds. Greene does not seem to endorse this view. I read Fowler as ultimately a cynic, someone who’s blocked himself from truly caring about the people in the country where he lives as a way to shield himself, and this view slowly comes undone as the novel progress. Still, the ways Phuong is talked about is off-putting.

Regardless of what would be marks against the book, I found myself repeatedly moved by it. The prose is simple and yet beautiful, and Greene constantly surprised me with quiet little insights. It is often meditative and sometimes strange, but all this works for it. This is my first Greene, and I will likely read more.

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

I was given this novel by a friend from my hometown, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Bulawayo emigrated from Zimbabwe and where she sets the second half of this coming of age story that feels lightly autobiographical, at least in that it follows a girl’s life in Zimbabwe before coming to Michigan.