Stars (★) mark the books that I liked the most. Please let me know if any of these resonated with you too or if you have recommendations for what I should read next. And here are the lists I posted in 2019 and in 2018.
- Free-Range Kids
- Make Me: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School
- ★ Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
- Azerbaijan: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture
- Math with Bad Drawings: Illuminating the Ideas that Shape Reality
- Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions
- Making Comics
- ★ Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change
- Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
- A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
- Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
- Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play
- Escape from Freedom
- ★ Between the World and Me
- ★ Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
- ★ Eating Animals
- Make It Stick
- Why We’re Polarized
- ★ Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion
- The Joyful Vegan
- The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age
- Untrumping America
- Give and Take
- Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War
- Children’s Books
- Books I Gave Up On
by Lenore Skenazy, finished January 13
This book came out ages ago but the helicopter parenting it addresses hasn’t gone away. I liked her recommendations, among them: turn off the news, don’t think like a lawyer, relax, etc. I just wish the book was a bit more rigorous. As it is, it reads like a collection of blog posts written by a layperson (not unlike the blog you’re reading right now!) rather than like a thoughtful consideration of parenting in the 21st century. The Last Child in the Woods, which I read a couple years ago, covers a lot of the same ground in a much more engaging fashion.
Make Me: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School
by Eric Toshalis, finished January 31
This book was recommended to me by a friend, and it came at exactly the right time. Many of my struggles while teaching in January and February were related my (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to bring a very resistent student back into the classroom (both mentally and physically). This book, which was written by a former Lewis & Clark professor, was less about practice and more about philosophy. The philosophy was this: see your students. See who they are, what makes them who they are, what their motivations are, and so on. Let relationships be the foundation of learning rather than the other way around.
All of that said, there were a few concrete pieces of advice. One was to use seating charts as a way to level the playing field of the classroom and prevent the creation of in groups and out groups. The other was to engage passive forms of withdrawal instead of writing them off (or allowing students to write them off) as “shyness.”
★ Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
by Lynda Barry, finished February 5
As of April 26, when I’m finally writing up my notes, this has been my favorite book so far this year. It’s essentially a collection of notes and clippings from a class that Lynda Barry, teacher and cartoonist, taught University Wisconsin-Madison in the early 2010’s. It looks like a standard composition book, which was the primary medium for the course. Students would use the composition books for drawing, note taking, noticing, or even just scribbling.
The main thing I got out of this book was inspiration for fun and weird and thoughtful things that I’d like to incorporate into my classroom. A few favorites (apologies if my notes are unclear):
- “You will not be graded on your drawing ability. You will so be graded on effort and time spent…”
- On liking and not liking: One person says, “I do not like __.” The other responds, “Ah! Yet it survives your dislike! Astonishing!”
- “Do I need to be able to draw to be in this class?” Response: “Not at all! But you must be willing to draw anyway!” (After reading this I immediately replaced the word “able to draw” with “do math.”)
- Students in the class were given code names and it was against the rules to refer to people by their real names.
- On who she wanted in the class: Students who are capable of “working hard for sustained periods when results weren’t immediately clear.”
- A question: “If a kid is never allowed to play, what happens?”
- Several homework assignments revolved around memorizing poems (by Emily Dickinson, for example) word for word.
- Classroom Rules: (they’re weird, but interesting!)
- Sit in a different seat every day.
- We don’t often chat.
- We don’t use electronic devices during class, or during class breaks.
- Draw tight spirals on the page while listening to others read their writing.
- Don’t talk about what they’ve written.
- Code names only.
- Attendance is taken by drawing and submitting a quick self-portrait.
- Truly exceptional work: A
- Doing the work: B
- Doing the minimum: C
- Individual work is done with ✓+, ✓, and ✓-.
- Two missed classes is okay.
- Three missed classes results in a half letter grade drop. A full letter grade drop for each subsequent missed class.
- Three tardies equals one absence.
- Students completed a daily diary in which they spent a few minutes listing things they did, saw, and heard, along with a drawing.
There is so much more to this book. If you’re a teacher or involved in any sort of educational endeavor, please pick it up. I bet you that it will force you to rethink at least one part of your practice.
Azerbaijan: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture
by Nikki Kazimova, finished February 13
Shortly after we accepted jobs in Azerbaijan, I bought a bunch of books on its history and culture. This one, published in 2010, was the first I finished. I’m looking forward to finding out what still holds true a decade later.
Math with Bad Drawings: Illuminating the Ideas that Shape Reality
by Ben Orlin, finished April 22
I really, really liked this book. I’d like to incorporate more drawing and storytelling and application into my own teaching – this book serves as a strong model.
One of my favorite ideas in the book comes from the very beginning where he describes an updated version of a childhood game called Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe. Rather than being boring and deterministic like its predecessor, Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe expands the board and adds a few new rules. In so doing, he writes, it “spurs our ingenuity.”
He then goes on to write: “If regular tic-tac-toe is math as people know it, then Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe is math as it ought to be.”
Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions
by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, finished May 28
Many of my students struggle to come up with their own questions. I think there’s an implicit assumption that it’s the teacher’s job to ask questions and the students’ job to answer them. But this is a rigid and restrictive way of approaching learning. Thankfully, the authors of this book have been working on solving this problem for a long time.
The basic premise is to invert the question asking and answering paradigm I mentioned above. Now the teacher poses statements or ideas (which the authors call a “QFocus”) that students use as a foundation for asking questions. A few examples from the book:
- “Torture can be justified.”
- “The scientific method must be followed.”
- “Miranda Rights always protect the rights of the accused.”
Notice that none of these are questions, and that depending on your perspective, they may be controversial, too. As I said, the teacher proposes this QFocus and then turns it over to the students to use to generate questions. For the first statement (“Torture can be justified.”), some questions that grew out of this were:
- “How do you define torture?”
- “When is torture used?”
- “What justifies torture?”
- “Who are mostly to be tortured?” (There is an error in this sentence, but the method described in the book advises transcribing questions exactly as they’re stated.)
- “What are the long term effects of torture?”
Students then use the questions that they have generated as a jumping off point for further research. It’s easy to see that this method is much more engaging than poses a question to students and goading them into finding answers.
by Lynda Barry, finished June 3
This is by the same author as one of my favorite books from this year, Syllabus. It shares a lot of the same content. However, this book brings in more exercises for storytelling and journaling. If I ever taught a class on writing, I’d certainly use this as a foundational text.
★ Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change
by Eitan Hersh, finished June 14
I found out about this book from Ezra Klein’s interview with Hersh back in March but Hersh was already on my radar thanks to a paper he wrote back in 2017. The core thesis of that paper, and this book, is that except for voting, most Americans engage in politics like they engage in professional sports: cheering for their side and demonizing the other, but never really rising beyond the role of spectator. The key, though, is that by obsessively following the nes, arguing on Facebook, and applying bumper stickers we think we’re affecting change, even though we’re not.
Instead of this slacktivism, Hersh advocates following the lead of the community organizers he profiles in the book. One such organizer from New York City, Angela, spends her weekends traveling from Brooklyn to Staten Island to talk with people who voted for Donald Trump. The operative word there is with. She’s not talking at people or trotting out a canvassing script. She’s actually listening and seeking to understand, and hoping that in turn they’ll want to understand why she voted against him. (This strategy is known as “deep canvassing.”) According to Hersh, Angela has achieved significant success, taking the one vote she’s allowed by the Constitution and multiplying it.
The ideas in this book resonate with me because I’m a political hobbyist. I don’t argue with anyone on Facebook (at least not anymore) but I do obsessively follow the news without much to show for it.
One of my favorite quotes from Hersh comes not from the book but from his interview with Ezra Klein. He says:
“I don’t need to follow important things, I actually need to be important. I need to be in a situation where people are relying on me to do something.”
With that in mind, I’m trying to dedicate less of my time to following important things, spending it instead on things that are actually important.
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
by Jerry Mander, finished June 27
The first thing to know about this book is that it was written in 1978. Television and everything around it have changed immeasurably, making the book seem dated. That said, there’s a lot of evergreen truth within. For example:
“…the problem was too much information. The population was being inundated with conflicting versions of increasingly complex events. People were giving up on understanding anything. The glut of information was dulling awareness, not aiding it. Overload. It encouraged passivity, not involvement.”
I also appreciated Mander’s assessment of how the media has allowed us to confuse primary and secondary experience:
“In one generation, out of hundreds of thousands in human evolution, America had become the first culture to have substituted secondary, mediated versions of experience for direct experience of the world. Interpretations and representations of the world were being accepted as experience, and the difference between the two was obscure to most of us.”
He also talks about how some children today (or at least in 1978) are so surrounded by human-made things that they think that everything is made by people. I read this part of the book during a camping on the John Day River. Sure enough, Idara asked me who put all the rocks by the river and who put the water in it. We’d never talked about these things specifically before, so I was glad to have the opportunity to talk about what’s a part of us and what has been here long before us and will certainly be here long after.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
by Robin Diangelo, finished July 1
If you’re reading this post I’m sure you’ve read this book, or at least read someone’s take on it, so I won’t go into too much detail. That said, the two things I took away from it are:
- Racism is not just individual people doing bad things, but an entire system whose purpose is to maintain white people’s position at the top of the social hierarchy.
- If someone calls you out for something they think is racist, try to listen with an open mind.
This book is not without its criticism. I think the Wikipedia article here provides a nice summary. The most salient critiques, to me, are that the book is reductive in its treatment of whites and people of color and that may serve to simply allay the guilt of the reader. For example, the book lacks significant discussion of political action, which I think is the most important part of anti-racist work.
A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
by Yuval Levin, finished July 7
This book argues that our institutions have gone from being formative, in which someone might ask themselves: “Given my role [in this organization], how should I act?”, to being performative, in which someone involved in the institution sees it simply as a platform through which to broadcast themselves and their ideas.
The military is a good example of a formative institution. People enlist and then are made into better versions of themselves, at least theoretically. A good example of a performative institution, on the other hand, is our Congress. They don’t pass many laws anymore, but members still spend a lot of time telling you what they think (think Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
To me, all of this is a reminder to focus less on myself and more on the institutions and communities I’m serving. And looking outward, to be less patient with performance, especially when it comes at the expense of action.
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
by Nir Eyal and Julie Li, finished July 10
If you’d never read a book on focus, productivity, or work-life balance, then this book would surely provide a wealth of new information. But having read tons of books on those topics (something I’m not particularly proud to admit), this book didn’t offer me a whole lot. That said, there were a few new ideas that I liked.
- When managing kids and technology, make the conversation about people instead of technology. In other words, the problem is not that they’re staring at their phone all day, it’s that it’s creating a barrier between them and the people around them.
- Kids are attracted to technology because it satisfies their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competency (see self-determination theory) especially if they’re not having these needs met in the real world.
- It encouraged me to try out FocusMate.com, which I’ve actually had a lot of success with lately.
- He talks about a way of catching up with friends on a regular basis: “[We] meet every two weeks to talk about one question over a picnic lunch. The question might range from a deep inquiry like, ‘What is one thing you are thankful your parents taught you?’ to a more practical question like, ‘Should we push our kids to learn things they don’t want, like playing the piano?’” I like this idea because one of my strongest adult friendships to date began by asking and answering questions like these.
So I guess I did get quite a bit out of this book. I guess sometimes I just have to write it down.
Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play
by Mitchel Resnick, finished July 17
I really loved this book – the pages of my copy are peppered with highlights, notes, and stars. The central theme is that children (and adults!) learn best by employing passion, projects, peers, and play (the so-called “4 P’s”). As a country we do a pretty good job of this in preschool and kindergarten but get worse and worse at it as kids grow older.
“Most schools in most countries place a higher priority on teaching students to follow instructions and rules (becoming A students) than on helping students develop their own ideas, goals, and strategies (becoming X students).”
Escape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm, finished July 28
Why are people who profess to love freedom so comfortable surrendering it? Fromm attempts to answer this question by drawing a distinction between different types of freedom, freedom to (positive freedom) and freedom from (negative freedom). In short, while Capitalism and democracy have increased negative freedom over the past few hundred years, we’ve also left something behind:
“This identity with nature, clan, religion, gives the individual security. He belongs to, he is rooted in, a structuralized whole in which he has an unquestionable place. He may suffer from hunger or suppression, but he does not suffer from the worst of all pains—complete aloneness and doubt.”
So while freedom is invariably described as a positive force in our culture, it’s something that pains us, too. We seek to ease this pain by submission to political parties, charismatic leaders, celebrities, and so on. That submission alleviates our isolation helps us to feel connected to the world around us.
But as Fromm, who fled Nazi Germany, is careful to point out at the end of the book, this is path from freedom (that is, negative freedom) to submission is not inevitable. The solution, he writes, lies in cultivating our capacity for positive freedom:
“…there is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.”
I found this explanation interesting but unsatisfying. It’s clear to me that severing of social ties and increasing alienation are foundational problems in our culture, and I’m doubtful that these problems are to be solved by increased focus on individuation. I can’t help but wonder if a more effective (and concrete) solution lies in the ideas expressed by Levin in A Time to Build.
★ Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, finished August 7
One of the books in my “To Read” pile right now is One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle. The prose in this book by Ta-Nehisi Coats made me think of that title constantly. It just flowed. I finished it in a couple days.
Even more important than the particular words, though, are the ideas. Here’s one:
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.
Much of the conversation around race in the past few months has centered on how we feel and talk and act (White Fragility is a good example of this). And obviously these things are important. But ultimately changes to policy and law should be the goal. On that note, you should read Coates’s essay The Case for Reparations.
★ Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
by David Epstein, finished August 24
My friend Jake recommended this book to me in November of last year. He wrote, “Range by David Epstein is blowing my god damn mind. I’m afraid if you read it you’ll walk away from teaching and programming next year. But it’s only going to confirm your life up to this point.”
He was right. I’m not leaving teaching, but it did reframe what I’ve often seen as my main weakness (failure to focus on one interest) as potentially my greatest strength. After I finished it I made a list of all the jobs I’ve had since college:
- Social worker
- Radio producer
- Web editor
- Elementary school teacher
- Software developer
- Middle and high school teacher
Decent range, to say the least.
Another way to think about the book is as an answer to Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, which popularized the idea of the 10,000 hour rule, which states that achieving excellence in any skill requires spending 10,000 hours (40 hours per week for 5 years) in deliberate practice. Epstein pushes back on that idea by attempting to prove that this is only true for so-called “kind” learning environments, like chess and golf, or playing the violin. They’re kind because the task is relatively static and it’s possible to receive immediate feedback about ones progress. Unkind learning environments are much more common. Teaching is absolutely an unkind learning environment.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand, finished September 2
Louis Zamperini was a former Olympian runner from California who went on to serve in World War II. He was shot down over the Pacific, survived in an inflatable raft for 47 days, and then endured over two years of torture in Japanese POW camps. He survived the war and went on to run a camp for at-risk youth.
I’m writing these words in month seven of a two-week lockdown, while forest fires rage across my state, and I’m wearing an N95 face mask because the smoke is so bad inside the house it makes me feel like I have the flu. But as Zamperini’s story shows, it could be much worse.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
by Greg Mckeown, finished September 7
In three words, “weniger, aber besser” (Less, but better). This was a good follow on Range, which offers an alternative perspective on focus. In the end, I find both perspectives valuable.
I’d read this book before. I picked it up again to remind myself to focus on what is important as our lives are upended all around us.
★ Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safron Foer, finished September 11
This is a fantastic book, and one of the most moving I’ve read in years. It finally pushed me over the edge from eating meat and dairy sparingly to becoming vegan. It would be incorrect to say that there was any revelatory information in this book. I knew that most meat, eggs, and dairy comes from factory farms, and I knew that those farms were horrible places for the the animals, for the employees, and for the environment. But there are so many problems in the world, and it feels impossible to do everything right all the time. This book convinced me that doing this thing right was worth the energy and sacrifice.
Make It Stick
by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, finished September 13
One glaring omission from the master’s program I recently completed at Lewis & Clark was the science of how learning actually happens and how teachers can use that information to better educate their students. This book is twice as long as it needs to be, but it does a good job of summarizing this science and making it actionable. Some things I remember:
- Trying to remember reinforces our memories.
- The harder we have to work to remember something, the longer the memory last when we eventually do remember it.
- In service of making remembering more difficult, remembering should be interleaved (i.e., practice different types of math problems together instead of doing a bunch of one type and then a bunch of another), and it should be spaced out (it’s better to quiz yourself a little bit every day for a week before an exam rather than all at once the night before).
- Avoid the illusion of knowing, which is when you think you know something but actually don’t. This is also known as false confidence.
- For the love of god, don’t just reread a text in an attempt to remember it. Quiz yourself instead.
And finally, one fun fact: Trying to answer a question you haven’t yet learned the answer to (like, “What’s the atmosphere on Venus made of?”) actually primes your brain to remember that fact once you actually do learn it. Amazing.
Why We’re Polarized
by Ezra Klein, finished September 27
I wonder if anyone would disagree with the following quote:
We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.
I also wonder if anyone disagrees that it’s a problem. But while most people I hear talk about politics point fingers at individuals (Trump, Pelosi, McConnell, Ocasio-Cortez, etc.), this book takes aim at our systems and institutions. Klein offers no tidy explanation of what ought to be fixed in order to fix our problem with polarization. Instead, he focuses on a variety of factors which ail us:
- Undue focus on national politics (where we have little voice and which doesn’t have much of an impact on us) versus local politics (where we have a much greater voice and which impacts us much more).
- Social media and algorithmic recommendation systems, which radicalize us under the guise of showing us things we’re interested in, or likely to be interested in (The Social Dilemma is a great documentary on this subject).
- Consuming news from just one or two sources. This is not not actually a “both sides” problem, either. As Klein writes: “The Democratic Party’s informational ecosystem combines mainstream sources that seek objectivity, liberal sources that push partiality, and even some center-right sources with excellent reputations, like The Economist and the news reporting in The Wall Street Journal…There is no similar diversity in the GOP’s trusted informational ecosystem, which is entirely built around conservative news sources, many of them propagandistic.”
If you want to understand what the hell has happened to us (and also why the less-partisan late-20th century wasn’t so great either), read this book.
★ Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion
by Jia Tolentino, finished October 12
There are so many sharp essays in this book that it’s difficult to choose a favorite, but I think that Tolentino’s best writing revolves around the subject of women, in which she writes: “[A] woman is allowed to assert her independence as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else.” I also the essay that opens the book, in which Tolentino writes about how the internet, and social media in particular, affects us.
I loved this book because it left me feeling smarter and dumber at the same time, and it reminded me to dig deeper in my understanding of the world.
The Joyful Vegan
by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, finished October 15
As I wrote above, after reading Eating Animals I finally cut meat, dairy, and eggs from my diet (for the most part – turns out that completely extricating these things from your diet when your food choices overlap with five other people is extremely difficult). I read this book by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau as a kind of how-to manual, and it didn’t disappoint.
There’s a stereotype of vegans as rigid and judgemental, but she’s as far removed from those terms as any person who follows a vegan diet could be. If you’re even ever so slightly curious about veganism but don’t want to feel really guilty as you explore it, this book is a good place to start.
The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age
by Richard Louv, finished October 16
Back in 2018 I read The Last Child in the Woods, in which Richard Louv makes his case that modern kids are being deprived of a fundamental ingredient for their development: nature. This book expands the argument to adults, arguing that too much time spent in the built environment (buildings, cities, etc.) is bad for us. Well, duh. Even so, it’s nice to read the accumulated thoughts of someone who’s spent his life meditating on this concept.
This book connects to a million parts of my life, and I could write about it for ages and ages. But I’ll just pull out one of my favorite parts:
The best antidote to negative electronic information immersion will be an increase in the amount of natural information we receive. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.
by Adam Grant, finished November 2
This was one of those business-oriented nonfiction books that I highlighted a ton of and now, writing what I remember 6 weeks later, I can hardly remember a thing. So I looked back through my highlights and found this one:
We find surface ways of appearing original—donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes—without taking the risk of actually being original.
When I think of the word original it’s often this type of surface originality that I go back to. And for better or worse, I don’t think it’s something anyone would accuse me of. When I found a shirt that I liked back in 2017 I bought several and have barely worn anything else ever since.
The question for myself, then, is whether there’s anything original under the surface. More often than not I answer in the negative.
by Dan Pfeiffer, finished November 19
One of the first lines in this book lays out the thesis:
The biggest divide in the Democratic Party is not between left and center. It’s between those who believe once Trump is gone things will go back to normal, and those who believe that our democracy is under a threat that goes beyond Trump.
Most of the people I know think that Trump is the devil incarnate, and while they may be right, they forget that Trump’s presidency was made possible by a system and that it’s that system that’s the real problem, not Trump. President Trump’s term will end in January, but many other problems will remain, like gerrymandering, an unrepresentative U.S. Senate, an undemocratic Supreme Court, and on and on. And if all of that isn’t convincing enough, imagine if there were an autocratic president who was more cunning and less lazy – then we’d really be screwed.
Celebrate Trump’s departure, sure, but then start addressing the real problems, like a presidential election system that has awarded the presidency to the person who received fewer votes in two out of the past six elections.
Give and Take
by Adam Grant, finished December 2
Nice guys finish last, according to the old saying. According to the author of this book, who teaches psychology at the Wharton School, they finish first, too. He defines three categories of people – givers, takers, and matchers, and uses experimental and statistical data to make the case that in general it’s the givers who end up being the most successful.
There’s a lot to like about the research and conclusions that make up this book. The thing I loved the most is how it shows that the American (and Western) ideal of putting ourselves first may actually be hurting ourselves in the long run.
Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War
by Thomas de Waal, finished December 30, 2020
When our move to Azerbaijan was put on hold for several months, I put my background research on hold, too. Now that we’re packing up again I figured it’d be time to finish this. I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of the Caucusus, and the more I read the more I want to learn.
by Andy Weir, finished May 30
The Martian is about an astronaut stranded on Mars who has to figure out how to survive until help can arrive. It was okay. I loved the science, and the engineering, and the problem-solving. But I had to constantly suspend disbelief. (Spoilers ahead!)
I had to suspend disbelief not because of the prospect of someone surviving unassisted on Mars for months on end, and not because the author imagines that NASA would risk the lives of five other astronauts and billions of dollars to save one person. No, the thing I couldn’t bring myself to believe that was that NASA would send someone with the maturity level of a ten-year-old boy to the other end of the solar system.
This exchange, between mission control (JPL stands for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, sums it up:
[12:04] JPL: We’ll get botanists in to ask detailed questions and double-check your work. Your life is at stake, so we want to be sure. Also, please watch your language. Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.
[12:15] Watney: Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)
Still, there were some good parts, like all of the math the author works into the descriptions. I just wish he’d spent more time creating a believable protagonist.
The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood, finished September 20
I love dystopian literature. In addition to the power of a book which focuses on what societal collapse means (or might mean) for women, I loved the prose in this book, too.
Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes.
The book is a work of fiction, but as Atwood has pointed out, the book is woven from events that have already transpired, and in many ways are happening now.
The Old Man and the Sea
Earnest Hemingway, finished October 13
I read this to see if I was still into Hemingway. Turns out I’m not. No question that he was the king of spare, removed prose, and as always there’s a lot that I can learn from his writing, but this book left me wanting.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong, finished October 18
This is the first novel from poet Ocean Vuong, and I loved it. The book sounds like a long poem as it traces the protagonist’s personal and family history, which includes immigration to the United States from Vietnam, growing up on the East Coast, and falling in love for the first time.
One question that lingered as I read was how much of the novel was autobiographical. From what I can tell from Ocean Vuong’s Wikipedia page, the novel tracks pretty closely with his life.
by Carl Sagan, finished November 12
Two of my all-time favorite popular science books are Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. I wanted to see what his fiction was like, so I picked this up. I’d seen the movie many times, and enjoyed it. Usually I don’t like to read a book after watching the movie but there was enough difference between these two that it was worth the time to read the book. And the ending of the book (in which Ellie discovers something about the irrational number pi), in particular, is much cooler to think about than the ending of the movie.
Here are a few of our favorite children books that we read this year. Usually this list is co-compiled by Idara and I, but now we’ve added Oren to the mix. See if you can pick out his favorites.
Mirette on the High Wire
by Emily Arnold McCully
Mirette helps her mother run a guest house in turn of the century Paris, and one day a mysterious guest arrives. Mirette learns that he used to perform as a high wire walker, and she becomes determined to learn the trade.
There’s a lot to love about this book — the watercolor paintings, the spare prose — but the reason why I loved reading this book with Idara every day for weeks on end was that Mirette didn’t give up, even when she fell off.
Frightfully Friendly Ghosties
by Daren King
The premise for this book is brilliant: a group of ghosts live in a house and can’t figure out why the “still-alives” don’t want to be friends. This is the first chapter book that Idara has taken any interest in, and it was probably helped along by an illustration every few pages. We read it about four or five times before I picked up the sequel, which wasn’t nearly as clever.
Jane Foster’s 123
by Jane Foster
Whenever Oren gets to the flower page he pretends to smell them. At least I think he’s pretending.
by Cynthia Rylant and Erin McGuire
We must have read this a thousand times. It was also the first book that, having memorized the words, Idara read to us.
by DK Publishing
I always like to imagine that the baby on the left told a dirty joke and that the baby on the right is offended.
★ Where the Sidewalk Ends
by Shel Silverstein
Idara and I started reading this during bedtime early in the year. Here favorite is “With his Mouth Full of Food.” A few lines:
His mother said, “Milford, it’s crude and it’s lewd
To talk with your mouth full of food.
Why, even the milk cow who moo’d as she chewed
Never talked with her mouth full of food
Mine is “The Long-Haired Boy.” In lieu of a quotation I’d encourage you to read it yourself and try to remember what it was like to be young and different.
Books I Gave Up On
In the interest of getting better at giving up on books I don’t like, here’s a list of the books I started and didn’t finish. I’m sure I gave up on others, but I didn’t start writing them down till this month.
Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens
I made it about thirty pages into this book but I couldn’t get past the setup: Why would the rest of Kya’s family abandon her with Pa?