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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Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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