My Top 10 Reads of 2018

A couple of years ago, I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in a year. After recording the twenty-somewhat books of that year, my competitive nature showed itself and I decided I would read more the following year. I set a goal to read at least 25 books in 2018. I ended up reading 38. In addition to those titles I completed, I also abandoned a few. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have dared to not finish something I’d started, but I’ve come to that place in life where I no longer feel I’ve got something to prove. Life’s too short and there are far too many books out there to waste time on the ones that don’t thrill me.

This year, unlike last with My 18 Resolutions for 2018, I haven’t been able to decide what my goals for the new year will be yet. Sure, I want to get more fit and eat healthier, but that’s nothing new. I’d like to replace screen-time with face-time or even just me-time, but as for the big goals, this year I am going to have to wait to see what life unfolds. Whatever my intentions end up being, I know reading will be a part of it, so for those of you who also enjoy curling up with a good book, here (in no particular order) are the top 10 books from my year of reading.

  1. The Untethered Souby Michael A. Singer (Non-fiction/Self-Help)

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“You are capable of ceasing the absurdity of listening to the perpetual problems of your psyche. You can put an end to it. You can wake up in the morning, look forward to the day, and not worry about what will happen. Your daily life can be like a vacation. Work can be fun; family can be fun; you can just enjoy all of it.”

I’d first heard about this book when I listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations; I’d written about that experience in To Forgive, Divine, but at that time, I hadn’t read the book yet. Well, as the second book read last year, this one deserves a place on the list; it’s actually a great choice for starting a new year. This is the type of book you will want to read with a pen in hand. You’ll underline a phrase here and a quote there, and then eventually half of the page will be highlighted. You’ll write “WOW” in the margin or you’ll bracket off whole paragraphs that speak to you. There’s a reason it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller with more than one million copies sold.

  1. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA Fiction)

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

I’d had students who had read this book in the past and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t read it myself until I planned to include it as a book club choice for my students last year. The story centers around three teens who are unlikely friends in a small, southern town, but it’s more than just a book about friendship. The protagonist’s father is a religious man who is in prison, but the story behind his imprisonment is disturbing, to say the least.

At one point, I had to put the book down, then pick it up and reread, then put it down again. “Did that just happen?” I asked my husband who wasn’t reading the book and therefore had no idea what I was talking about. “I can’t believe that just happened.” Later, when my students were reading it, they’d come into my classroom at lunch or in the morning to ask me, “Did that really happen?” While it is a YA book, it certainly doesn’t read like one.

  1. Educated by Tara Westover (Memoir)

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“I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure; my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.” 

 Every now and again, I read a memoir that depicts a life that is so incredibly different from my own and from anyone else’s with whom I am acquainted that I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a work of fiction. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs was one, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was another, and Tara Westover’s Educated was a third. Westover beautifully tells the story of her childhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho with a father who did not believe in public education. She was seventeen when she first entered a traditional classroom yet ends up with a PhD from Cambridge University– although it came a a cost.

The quote above is a great example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a good reminder that not all students have the “luxury” of being engaged in school. This book has garnered a lot of praise and publicity this year, and it is definitely one that is worth the read.

  1. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (Sci-Fi)

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“It does no good to tell a beautiful woman how beautiful she is. If she already knows, it gives her power over the fool who tells her. If she does not, there is nothing that can be said to make her believe it.” 

Sci-Fi is not usually my genre of choice, but a girl who I went to high school with (who is now a librarian) posted about this book on social media and I thought, if a librarian is posting about a book, then it’s worth a shot. It was. This was one of those picked-it-up-and-read-it-in-a-day kind of books. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where any woman who attempts to bear a child dies, as does that child. The protagonist, the midwife, is a fiercely independent woman determined to help save humanity.

This is Book 1 in The Road to Nowhere series, but despite liking this one a lot, I haven’t checked out any of the others.

  1. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (Fiction)

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“We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.” 

If I had to pick ONE book that was my favorite read of the entire year, this would be it.

Girls Burn Brighter was not only beautifully written, but also told a story of friendship, love, and female empowerment unlike any other I’ve read. It was disturbing and heart-breaking, powerful and poignant. Every woman should add this book their list, then read it, then cry about it, then get together with friends and drink wine and talk about it together.

  1. There There by Tommy Orange (Fiction)

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“This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.” 

This book has harvested a lot of accolades this year. Told from the perspective of ten different characters whose stories come together in the end at the Big Oakland Powwow, Tommy Orange gives voice to the urban American Indian, a voice not heard nearly enough in modern literature. While I loved the Indian legends and lore peppered throughout this tale, it was quotes like the one above that made me stop and re-read entire passages and then just sit with it for a few minutes only to go back to the page and read it again.

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Literary Fiction)

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“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

Years ago, I read Silver Sparrow by this same author and I friggin’ loved it, so when I realized this was also by her, I knew it would be a great read. It’s a story about love and marriage and race and family and everything in between. Reading the letters sent between Roy and Celeste felt deeply intimate and immediately drew me into this story that satisfied me all the way to the very end.

  1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (Non-fiction/Education)

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“We treasure the occasional story about a child who climbs out of poverty, graduates from a prestigious university, and goes on to success. Since it’s possible for a handful, we cling to the view that nothing is broken in America. But it is. Education has become the modern American caste system. We fuzz up the issue in a sea of statistics about test-score-gaps, suggesting that social inequity is a classroom issue. We bemoan the achievement gap but dwell on the wrong ‘achievement’ and the wrong ‘gap.’ Achievement should be based on challenging real-world problems, not standardized tests that amount to little more than timed performance on crossword puzzles and Sudoku. The gap we need to face is how much more we spend to educate our rich children than our poor. We can test until the cows come home, and we won’t begin to bring meaningful equity to our youth. As an educator in the Midwest noted, ‘If a cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.’”

I already raved about this book on social media and wrote about it in Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, but I had to include it in my top ten list too. I found the book to be inspirational and thought-provoking for anyone who is involved in education or policy-reform. The quote above is my favorite from the book. I considered getting it as a tattoo, but it’s a tad long.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Fiction/Drama)

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“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

 I still think Firefly Lane is my favorite Kristin Hannah book, but it was the first of hers I’d ever read, and I have a habit of latching on to firsts (i.e. My Sister’s Keeper is still my favorite Jodi Picoult and Looking for Alaska is still my favorite John Green). For some reason, I refused to buy this book since it was still in hardcover, and I had to wait ages for it at the library, which may be why I didn’t love it as much as I should have.

My mom read it first, and once I finally got it she kept asking me what I thought. It really was a great read, but it was also over 400 pages, and I really hated the protagonist’s father, Ernt. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I got sick of his shit and kind of lost momentum as a result. Still, it deserves a place on the list. It may not have been worth waiting months for, but it’s worth the eighteen bucks to not be cheap and buy it.

  1. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo (Fiction/Romance)

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“What I wanted to tell you is that there are lots of ways to love people and I know that you’ll love someone else again. Even if it’s not the same, some of it might be better.” 

Last, but not least. One of my favorite people told me about this book and I had the title written on a notes page in my phone for a few months, but then, I saw a former student post about it on social media and it reminded me to check it out from the library. It was another can’t-put-it-down book that I texted every reader in my life when I was done to tell them about. This is a book you can lose a day in, and even though I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, this book won my heart (and gave me a bit of a book-hangover too.)

Well, that’s it… for now. I’ve got The One Thing by Gary Keller and Michelle Obama’s Becoming to start off 2019.

What are you reading this year?

Note: ReadingWhileEating is not affiliated with Amazon.com. If you click on a link to purchase a book, I do not get anything, but you get a book, and books are awesome.

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To Forgive, Divine

I picked up my copy of Rising Strong in the airport while we waited for the first leg of our flight that would take us to Mexico. As my children browsed the souvenirs, I perused the titles of paperbacks with no intention of buying anything. After all, I had a book I needed to finish for my book club and I’d packed my Kindle with a memoir I’d downloaded that I was prepared to start as well, but by the time I boarded the plane, I also had Brené Brown’s latest title in hand.

Mexico was the vacation that we had hoped it would be. Instead of visiting family in Florida or New York, we took our children to a place where we knew no one, where we were tourists. We lounged by pools while waiters offered us happy hour drinks all day long. They brought our children cheesy nachos and brought us salted margaritas all while the sun turned our skin different shades of pink.

For one whole week, I turned my cell phone off and never once checked email or social media. We watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean, and despite the birds that circled overhead threatening to pluck them from the sand, we didn’t interfere. Later, I watched my own children playing together in the brackish waves; I felt extremely blessed to have witnessed both in the same day, knowing these were memories I would cherish forever.

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We didn’t realize when we booked our trip that we were headed to Mexico during their rainy season, but we didn’t mind the few afternoons when the thunderstorms cracked open the sky. We watched from the balcony as sheets of rain danced from the sea towards the mountains and lightening sizzled through the humid air. These interruptions in paradise were just another part of our experience, but there was a darker storm approaching.

While returning from the pool one afternoon, I sat next to my oldest daughter on the golf cart that would shuttle us back to our hotel when she turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly.”

Of all the ways I could have responded, I settled on, “That doesn’t make me feel good.”

And it didn’t.

And it didn’t and it didn’t.

You see, from that moment on, I scrutinized my cellulite in the mirrors of the elevator, I ordered the salad instead, I declined dessert.

I was still on vacation. I was still stifling my laughter as my husband attempted to speak the language. I was still holding hands with my children, jumping into the pool together. The sun kept trying to peek through, but that squall was inside me.

I thought about my own mother, a woman whom I had only ever seen as beautiful. As a child, I don’t remember ever intentionally saying anything critical of her looks because I never thought there was anything to criticize. Why did my own children not see me the same way?

“Maybe she just has a different perception of beauty.” My husband’s words, meant to console me, offered no solace. Maybe I’m not a good mother.

Each night, as I dressed for dinner, my husband showered me with compliments, but they couldn’t permeate my own belief that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

She’s right, I told myself. My stomach is soft and jiggly. I am not the best version of myself. I have failed. I am a failure.

Brown writes, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” Yet here I was in Mexico, with this story stuck on repeat. I had fallen into this narrative and despite having finished the book, I was not rising strong.

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Had I been home, I likely would have taken to the gym. I would have sat down to write or meditate. I would have engaged in some retail therapy, a little time by myself till those clouds rolled away. Here in Mexico, the maid left chocolate every night by the side of my bed. Every morning I needed to don a bikini again; I hadn’t even packed a cover-up! And the drinks were TWO for ONE for crying out loud.

I could escape neither storm nor story.

Back in the states, I woke the next morning and headed straight to yoga. The following day, I hit the treadmill. Popping in my ear-buds, I scrolled through my podcasts. Knowing I could benefit from something inspirational, I decided on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Two episodes was all it took.

The first episode I listened to was a conversation with Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, a book I had read ages ago. Oprah and Ruiz discuss how 95 percent of what we believe is not true, they are stories we tell ourselves, and behind those stories lie our fears—fears that we are not good enough, are not beautiful enough, are not worthy. This sounded familiar—it sounded like Brené Brown.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “The human is the only animal on earth that pays 1000 times for the same mistake.”

How many times had I beaten myself up over this same story? How many times had I questioned my self-worth because of what I thought I, or someone else, saw in me?

The second episode was a conversation with Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul. I haven’t read this book (yet), but here I found the answer to the bigger question: How do I break this cycle?

Singer uses the analogy of a thorn embedded deep in one’s skin, touching a nerve. He says we have two choices: We can live with the thorn and try to avoid all those things in life that disturb it, or we can grab our tweezers and take that thorn out.

In keeping the thorn in, we not only alter how we live our lives, we also train everyone around us so they don’t ever touch that thorn. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I? Through my reaction and my behavior, I was training my family that this was a thorn not to be touched.

On the contrary, if we remove the thorn, we don’t ever have to deal with it again. We can start to enjoy life, and that, Singer says, is spirituality.

Whoa.

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Oprah asks, “How do you know what your thorn is?”

Singer’s answer: “Disturbance tells you. Just like pain happens outside, disturbance happens inside.”

Singer claims that the moment something disturbs you, if you don’t let it pass right through you, the energy of it will drag you down. “When a problem shows up with that chitter-chatter in your mind, the first reaction must be to lean away from it.”

Ruiz believes, “forgiveness is the most important thing.” Oprah explains that by forgiveness, he means to “let it go; do not be tied to the past.” While my daughter had apologized, I didn’t need to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself.

My daughter’s words to me were not what hurt me, nor did she intend to hurt me. My daughter’s words disturbed my thorn, a thorn that I have carried around with me for a long, long time. But in that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to take it personally when I should have chosen forgiveness.

The second of the four agreements is Don’t Take Anything Personally. When we take something personally, it “is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything then is about me.” Mexico wasn’t supposed to be about me. Mexico was supposed to be about us. I was making it about me.

If I could go back to that moment when my daughter turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly,” I would lean far, far away from my discomfort—even if that meant falling off the damn golf cart. I don’t want another internal storm to cloud an otherwise amazing family vacation. Yet maybe this storm was necessary in realizing what needed to be washed clean.

I’ve since ordered a copy of The Untethered Soul. I plan to turn the pages with my tweezers in hand.

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