Books of 2018

The year is up and the list is here! As always, despite the fact that I do read quite a lot, I look back and wish I had spent more time reading. I’ve made a few simplifying changes in lifestyle that will help me read as much as I want, and I’ll write about those in another post; but without further ado, here are the books I read in 2018, followed by my favorites, and the ones I deemed unworthy of finishing.

  • The Giver, Lois Lowry, 5
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, 3
  • Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl 4
  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, 4.5
  • Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes, John Shivik, 3.5
  • Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Hernandez, 2.5
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders,5
  • The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 5
  • Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall, 5
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell, 5
  • The Last Juror, John Grisham, 2.5
  • Why I Write, George Orwell, 3
  • A Good Marriage, Steven King, 3
  • 1922, Steven King, 4.5
  • Brainiac, Ken Jennings, 2.5
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling, 4
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling, 5
  • Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling, 5
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,JK Rowling, 5
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling, 5
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 5
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 4
  • Harry Potter y la Camarera Secreta, JK Rowling, 4
  • The Stand, Steven King, 2
  • Waking Up, Sam Harris, 4
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 5
  • “You Can’t Fire The Bad Ones!”, Ayers, et al, 2.5
  • Life on the Refrigerator Door, Alice Kuipers, 2
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind, 3.5
  • Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg, 4
  • Hero, S.J. Rollman, 2.5
  • Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance, 4
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, 4
  • Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom, 2
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 4.5
  • In The Best Interest of Students, Kelly Gallagher, 4.5
  • Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 4
  • Educated, Tara Westover, 5
  • Drown, Junot Diaz, 4.5
  • Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan, 3
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison, 5
  • Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, 2
  • Mexican Whiteboy, Matt De la Peña, 3
  • This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 5
  • Cannery Row, John Steinbeck, 4
  • The Winter Of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck, 4
  • Factfulness, Hans Rosling et al, 4.5
  • Murder On The Orient Express, Agatha Christie, 2.5

Top Books of the Year:

  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter 

A deeply touching picture of a family dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of their wife and mother, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a highly interesting and experimental work of metaphor. You immediately find yourself caring deeply about the bereaved father and young sons, and if you aren’t crying by the end, you’re a cold, dark waste of a central nervous system.

  • Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall 

This book is an introduction to modern geopolitics, and should be required reading for everybody in the United States, every year. It splits the world into seven distinct regions, with detailed maps for reference, and explains the history of the regions and how the topography, culture, and religions of the regions affect their status today, along with their ongoing development. Tim Marshall manages to break huge chunks of information down into digestible, interesting, and easy to read facts without veering into his own politics.

  • Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg 

This is another should-be-required read for young women in the U.S. Sandberg deftly navigates the real complications of being a professional working woman in the 21st century. Although she picked up no shortage of criticism for providing realistic behavioral advice for the fact that women who are perceived as aggressive in the workplace tend to be hurt for it rather than rewarded (as opposed to men, who are rewarded by being aggressive and self-advocating), the advice is well thought out and the tone of the book is hopeful and encouraging. Sandberg does not encourage women to be more like men – rather, she suggests that they remain true to the qualities that often make women more pleasant to work with than men, and then suggests small changes in workplace and personal behavior that will increase the likelihood of professional success. Sandberg provides personal anecdotes that are funny and educational, and my only complaint with this book is that it sometimes veers into the region of “platitards” – bits of cutesy feel-good phrases that don’t necessarily mean anything beyond what has already been said.

  • Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

This book is a wonderful work of nonfiction that combines touching memoir with pressing fact. “White America,” so often despised by the liberal elite for its racism and ignorance, is, in fact, a diverse set of cultural heritages that are, in many parts of the country, sinking further and further into social and economic decay. The same problems that plague inner-city black communities also plague rural and Appalachian whites. Debilitating drug usage, lack of culturally enforced monogamy, rampant unemployment and people taking advantage of welfare systems: These problems tend to be cultural, socioeconomic, and universally human, rather than racial. Imagine that. Vance’s writing isn’t particularly literary, but the story has good pacing, and is profoundly moving as an anecdote of failure, abuse, and the remarkable nature of people who are resilient to the trauma they grow up in.

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

While I recognize that this short novel will appeal to some people more than others, I think the fact that it can be romantic and sentimental is actually a strength. It certainly isn’t the cheesy meaninglessness of the Nicholas Sparks variety; I know for that fact that many a junior high and high school student who are drowning the depths of mental illness, familial difficulties, and existential angst have found this book inspiring and deeply meaningful. I adored the main character, Charlie, and found his story and problems easy to relate to (not to mention that as a high school English teacher, I love my students who share characteristics of Charlie’s). This book deals unflinchingly with trauma, mental illness, and many of the weirdnesses of being a teenager in a way that feels real and emotionally raw.

  • Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

The entire time I read this book, I found myself wishing that I had had it on hand during a conversation with a coworker who knew nothing about evolution beyond the fact that it was merely a “theory,” advanced by some radical atheist scientists, to combat Creationism and good old Christian moral values. Sapiens does a wonderful job breaking down our species’ enormous history and complicated cultural evolutions in a way that both humbled me and made me proud to be a human. Although Harari can’t seem to help himself from making future speculations that seem motivated more by politics and personal beliefs than by fact, the overall tone of the book is neutral, entertaining, and highly informative.

  • Educated, Tara Westover

Educated, of which you can read a more comprehensive review here, is not only one of my favorite books of this year, but of my entire life. At once a mighty anecdote of both the profound suffering and hopeful resilience of human nature and a gorgeously written memoir, Educated was particularly relevant to me because Tara Westover grew up in Idaho as a conservative Mormon (we both drank Western Family 2% milk and learned to type using Mavis Beacon). Westover is a remarkable young woman who tells a remarkable story remarkably well.

  •  Factfulness, Hans Rosling et al

Factfulness is yet another non-fiction account filled with gobs of good information that everybody today should know. Although it’s easy to focus on the violence and evil that plague the news, Rosling reminds us that the world today is actually better by most counts than it has ever been – and substantially so. Because of this, we should take heart that the human condition has been improved, and will continue to improve as long as we can wrench our eyes away from the train wreck of the media. Along with his well-researched information, Rosling provides us with a helpful list of critical thinking methods that we can use whenever we find ourselves fearing that we might be shot dead by terrorists or die of ebola on the way to work. Hear a scary statistic? Ask yourself, “These are numbers sure – but compared to what? What is the context?” Read about a terrifying kidnapping, and want to lock your kids in the house because the world is a big scary place? Remind yourself not to act urgently in the face of limited information and then ask yourself, “How often does this actually happen?” Stuff like that. Even though sometimes the writing can be a little puerile, it’s good.

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison 

This book took me a long time to read because, even in the first few chapters, I got the sense that this was a serious book to pay attention to and take my time with. Several parts I read over again, and I cried more than once. In an era of “words are violence” and spurious claims of racism hurled at everyone and no one, Beloved was an unsettling reminder of how very bad things used to be for Africans and their descendants. I’m not saying things are perfect now, or even necessarily good. But acting as though everything is shit and everybody is threatened all the time ignores the fact that the situation used to be much, much worse; progress has been made, and continues to be made. In the meantime, it serves us well to have a reminder of the grave suffering and long-term repercussions of human slavery in United States. Beyond the literal substance of the book, Beloved is rich with literary writing. Metaphors are well-crafted throughout, prose is gorgeous and sometimes interestingly experimental, and the characters are fascinating and difficult to comprehend in their entirety. I’m positive that much of the meaning went right over my head. Beloved is human, relatable, and all the more universal for its specificity. It’s a book to be read again and again.

Books Not Worth Finishing:

  • The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta – Shameless liberal mockery of conservative Christians; flat, unbelievable characters; unremarkable writing.
  • The White Hotel, D.M. Thomas – Clearly written by a man fantasizing about female eroticism from an attempt at the female perspective; plot all over the place; highly abstract Freudian pseudo-analysis.
  • A Man Called Ove, Frederick Backman -Full of cliches, unbelievable characters, sentimental, poor writing.
  • All The Bright Places, Jennifer Niven – Full of cliches, unbelievable characters, sentimental, poor writing.
  • Lamb, Christopher Moore – Not my sense of humor, predictable jokes, lots of wasted potential.
  • Less, Andrew Greer – Full of cliches, unbelievable characters, sentimental, relentlessly wanna-be witty writing.

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