Best of 2017

Best Fiction

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Trespasser by Tana French

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Best Nonfiction

What Unites Us by Dan Rather

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Ann-Marie Slaughter

Feel-Bad Education, and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Best Memoir

Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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MeReader Year Six in Review

Here’s what I did on the blog this year:

I attended a local Women’s March and wrote about it.

I published a personal essay about my most recent pregnancy on HerStory.

I wrote about my experience with an alternative teacher preparation program for Dad Gone Wild and Diane Ravitch retweeted it.

I turned 33.

I wrote about teacher retention and family policies for Dad Gone Wild.

I wrote about school integration from the perspective of a parent who’s also a teacher for Dad Gone Wild. Chalkbeat picked it up!

In all, in 2017 I read 112 books, reviewed 53 of them, and wrote 6 essays, for a total of 53 posts on the blog.

I’ve hinted a couple times about how 2016 was a hard year for me. The shortest, easiest explanation is that I had a baby, so that consumed the first half of the year or more, and then politics got ugly. So 2017 has been kind of a rebuilding year. And now, I have more hope than I did a year ago that the things that went wrong in 2016, on both a personal and national level, will right themselves, with continued work and focus. Nationally, the special election results and #metoo are giving me hope. And, in addition to my boys’ growth, here are a couple reasons I’m looking forward to 2018.

Toward the end of the year, I posted fewer reviews than usual and no personal writing. My writing energy was diverted elsewhere. I took a four-week writing workshop in the fall. I tried more seriously to write my own fiction, coming up with about 50k words in the summer and another 50k in November for NaNoWriMo. I don’t think I came up with any ideas that I want to seriously pursue in the future, but I did prove to myself that I can make time to write and meet ambitious word count goals, so that’s bound to build my confidence.

Also, I volunteered to take on a new class at my school, US History. There has never been a certified History teacher at our small alternative high school. Students have been taking the course on a computer program, so naturally test scores are terrible. I took the test to become certified, and have been spending the last month or two planning brand new lessons from scratch with very little resources, support, or guidance. But I was getting a little bit bored and burnt out on Spanish, so I’m excited about it, even though it means making my job twice as hard for the same salary. Maybe educating young people about our country’s past counts as a way to #resist.

Tomorrow I’ll post about my favorite books I read this year!

MWF Seeking BFF

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertshe

Rachel Bertsche moved to a new city for her husband’s job, and found herself without any close female friends in town. So she made an audacious goal of going on “dates” with one new woman every week for a year, in the hope of finding a girl-soulmate. Over the course of the year, her goal changed. At first she thought she wanted someone she could call to meet for coffee or drinks at the drop of a hat, but then she realizes she actually doesn’t like last-minute plans. As she got to know new women and made choices about which ones to keep in touch with, she refocused her goal to a different definition of a good friend, one that’s more about how comfortable she can be with that person. She also lets go of nostalgia for childhood friendships and the lifestyles that enable them, which to me seems a more difficult than the other redefinition. The book reads like a journal of her year, and by the end, she describes feeling confident, adventurous, busy, and in-demand. 

The friendships we make as children and teenagers are intimate and easy, partly because kids have lives that enable the quick formation of strong bonds. Teens are in daily contact with people their own age, in environments (school, team sports, extracurriculars) that encourage them to put down their guard. Adults isolate themselves in houses and cubicles and don’t spend as much time in such friendship-conducive places, unless they consciously seek them out. It’s easy to wish adults lived more like teens in some ways, that we lived closer together in communities, and had social norms that allowed more casual contact with strangers and acquaintances. But short of building a commune or a time machine, that would be hard for an individual to accomplish.

Recognizing this reality, Bertsche gives a lot of great ideas for getting to know new people and building friendships that fit into adult lives. For example, I appreciated reading about “social identity support” because now I know the words to describe this phenomenon that I’ve seen make and break friendships. Many people like to have friendships that provide support for their own social identity, so they surround themselves with people who are in the same ‘life stage,’ or who have made many of the same major decisions about their lives. It helps to have people around who affirm your life stage and life choices just by being who they are, especially if you feel at all unsure or ambivalent about your decisions. It’s also simply convenient, as schedules are more likely to align. The lack of this social identity support is why friendships often founder when one person gets married and/or has kids and the other doesn’t. Not all friendships have to have this element, but it can make things easier for a new friendship. In some cases not having that social identity in common, especially during a vulnerable transition time, or for a person who is especially insecure, can jeopardize a relationship.

My favorite part of the book might have been the concrete suggestions and guidelines that came from Bertsche’s research about the psychology and sociology of friendship. It’s good to have rules of thumb to help you make decisions when wracked with insecurity and self-doubt. Here were some of my main takeaways: 

  • If you really intend to follow up with a potential new friend, make the date soon, ideally before the first date is over.
  • Storytelling is key, and much better than “interviewing.”
  • Face-to-face > phone > email > facebook
  • Loneliness ≠ depression.
  • To become friends, you need to meet up with someone twice a month for 3 months.
  • Anthropological research says that each of us has enough room in our lives for about 150 relationships at any given time.
  • A simple definition: “Friendship is consistent, mutual, shared, positive emotion.”
  • Emotional closeness between long-distance friends declines about 15% a year.
  • Sharing secrets builds trust.
  • Facebook has made high school reunions obsolete.
  • Shared history is why lifelong friends are impossible to replace.
  • But on the other hand, new friends know only the current version of you, won’t pigeonhole you or tie you to your past, and don’t have the baggage old friends do. Also, childhood friendships are often formed out of convenience (she was your friend because she lived next door, not because you had anything in common with her), while adult friendships are formed by choice and mutual interests.
  • Laughter creates friendships.
  • Does real comfort and intimacy in a friendship mean being able to talk about the Big Stuff, or the minutiae of daily life? Or both?
  • Four necessary behaviors for making friends: interaction, positivity, self-disclosure, supportiveness.
  • Social media can make loneliness worse if you use it as a substitute for interaction and as a basis for social comparison.
  • The familiarity principle: the more you see someone, the more you like her/him.
  • The best relationships are synergistic: both people get more out of it than they put in.
  • “Couple-friends” are 2-4 times as hard to make as one-on-one friends.
  • Click accelerators, things that make people bond quickly: similarity, proximity, vulnerability, resonance, and a safe place.
  • Doing new, novel things together helps build relationships.
  • Carpe diem! Most people will not think you’re a creepy stalker if you admit to wanting to be their friend or express interest in getting to know them better. They’re more likely to be flattered.

I sympathized deeply with Bertsche’s quest and the loneliness fueling it. Like her, I moved to a new city for love in my mid-to-early 20’s and found myself disconnected from the social ties that had been most important in my life. Actually, her move and mine happened almost at the same time. I wish this book had been written back in 2008. It’s an inspiring read that could really motivate you to put more time and effort into making and keeping good friends. Her goal of one friend-date a week is ambitious and incredibly time-consuming, but even a smaller scale version of her quest could be a great way to enrich your life with new friendships! A possible New Year’s resolution?

What Unite Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Dan Rather draws on his decades of experience reporting on politics and world events to inform this set of essays, mixing anecdotes from the history he’s witnessed with stories from his modest childhood in Texas. His quietly inspiring exploration of what it means to be an American aims at bridging the current partisan divide to find principles that all Americans can agree on, ideals like inclusion, empathy, science, and service. Rather states progressive values in terms that conservatives can agree with, leaving the specific policy implications of these values for readers to decide for themselves.  He does all that without mentioning our current president by name. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move, one that I think George Lakoff would approve of.  Directly invoking that name would invite charges of partisanship, when Rather’s goal is to transcend party loyalties. Maybe Rather is too gentle and indirect in his arguments, and perhaps it’s impossible to change minds and hearts without offending someone. But I do think there is value in his project here, and that if we can all agree on these principles, even if we disagree on how to act on them, there is cause for hope. I’m considering giving this book to my Dad for Christmas.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I enjoyed John Green’s earlier books, so I have been one of the many fans eagerly anticipating his newest novel. In Turtles All the Way Down, Green’s first-person narrator, Aza, struggles with extreme anxiety and OCD, to the point of self-harm. She fixates on germs, gut bacteria, and her microbiome. Green manages to make her anxiety seem utterly reasonable–which is of course the exact right way to portray this disorder from the inside looking out. Mental illness makes the extreme thoughts that are its main symptom seem absolutely logical, even inevitable. Like, why aren’t we all always freaking out about our complex, fragile microbiome? How does anyone ever kiss, when it’s obviously disgusting swapping so many germs?

The plot is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a millionaire CEO, and a romance with the CEO’s teenage son, Davis. Several times, Aza shows a lot of genre-savvy. She knows how the money should affect her relationship with Davis, and how her unique mind should help her to solve mysteries. but she doesn’t want to or can’t go along with those genre rules.

My one criticism of the book might be that Davis is too perfect, too accepting of Aza’s flaws, too poetic to be a real teenage boy. He’s obsessed with astronomy and writes contemplative reflections on Shakespeare quotes on a blog that Aza happens to discover through some lucky cyber-stalking.

I was almost more interested in Aza’s best friend Daisy, a fast-talking fanfic writer, than in Davis or the mystery surrounding his father. Daisy is super charming, and she took me in from the beginning, but there is a seed of meanness and selfishness and discord in her relationship with Aza that has to be revealed and fixed. I love it when strong female characters have complex friendships with deep-seated problems that are NOT rooted in jealousy over a boy.

In the end, there is resolution, but considerably less than in most YA books. There’s no happily ever after. Aza is certainly not cured. She will always have anxiety. The heartbreaking realism of Aza’s difficult future is not something Green flinches away from, and I really appreciate that.

Hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, essayist, and cultural critic that I was honored to meet in the summer. I already knew the outlines of Gay’s life story from reading Bad Feminist, but this book lays out her trauma and its aftermath in detail. It was heavy and hard to read at times. Gay describes in excruciating detail what it’s like to live in her body, the physical discomfort, the social stigma, the loneliness.

Gay talks openly about her struggles to fit into a world made by and for smaller people, her hesitations about going in public and doing things I find normal and simple, the planning and accommodations she has to make to get around her body’s incompatibility with our physical world. I was already on board with body positivity and fat acceptance, but reading this book made me realize again how wrong it is to make moral judgements based on body size. I also think that conversations about fat acceptance sometimes limit themselves to people who are overweight or even obese, but who are not so big that they have trouble fitting into standardized clothes or furniture.  “We’ll accept fat people,” people say, “but not if they’re THAT fat.” Which obviously completely undermines the point. Gay offers readers a lesson in empathy for those we are much too quick to judge and dismiss. You never know what someone else has gone through, the deep reasons why they are the way they are.

The book doesn’t really have a happy ending, but instead a brave look to Gay’s future, where she will work to approach happiness. I so admire her, her spirit and determination to move forward despite everything that happened to her, and her courage to look unflinchingly at the ugly things weaker people would have to repress or ignore just to survive, and then to say them to the world.

The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I picked up the first of the famous Wheel of Time series to try to fill in a gap in my reading in the fantasy genre, and was really disappointed not to enjoy it as much as I was expecting to. I call myself a fantasy fan, so I felt obligated to finish it. It’s a very long book, but I stuck it out, in case there was something at the end to justify the hype. Maybe the ending is amazing enough to justify the thousands of fans and dozens of sequels, I was hoping. 

The language grated on me and was a constant source of annoyance. I enjoy high fantasy language when it’s done well. I love Tolkien, Robin HobbGarth Nix, and Jillian Kuhlman. But Jordan’s language seemed affected to me, not genuine or authentic, like his characters were elementary school kids reading lines in a bad play. I didn’t buy the weird invented words like gleeman (a minstrel–why not just say that?), or the newly-coined curses (“Blood and ashes, Batman!”).

I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from a long book, and who happily dives into thousands of pages when they’re well-written and worth the time to read. But this book is way too long, and its length problem starts at the sentence level. I could edit 10-25% of the scenes and events and side characters out of the story, and then another 10-25% of the words out of every page that’s left. It’s a good general rule that if you need a dictionary in the back to help your reader keep track of your mythology, then you’re either dumping it on too quickly, or you made it too complex, or both.

I thought the characters were annoying and impetuous because they constantly make dumb decisions. Like, don’t tell the wizard who saved your whole town that you’re having dreams where the devil talks to you and you wake up with your dream-pricked finger bleeding. Of course, go explore the creepy ruined city, and follow the guy with no shadow. And then, go ahead and steal a jeweled dagger from an enchanted treasure and hide it while playing with it obsessively. These decisions are so incredibly stupid and genre-blind that I lost patience with them and could no longer dismiss them as motivated by superstition or teenage capriciousness. They were pure distress balls.

A quote on the back of the copy I read said, “Robert Jordan has a powerful vision of good and evil.” But I did not find the portrayal of evil in this book to be persuasive at all. If real evil worked in such a transparent, obvious way, announcing itself and insisting that people bow down to it, evil would be much easier to resist than it actually is. The motiveless, pointless evil of this book’s villain was overblown, caricatured, and flat-out boring. Similarly, all of the talk of the Pattern, and the Wheel that weaves it, is another problem that takes power and meaning away from the characters and their story. If all of the actions of the characters are simply a result of their fate, of the turning of an abstract Wheel, then they have no agency and their choices are meaningless. If that’s the case, what’s the point of reading about them?

There are so many elements of this story that have exact parallels to The Lord of the Rings that it seems like kind of a rip-off. I’m sure others have pointed these similarities out before: idyllic farmland attacked by outsiders, a magic wizard who calls the reluctant hero to join a quest, an epically long backstory. Even the people and places are the same:

  • Orcs = Trollocs
  • Wizard Gandalf = Aes Sedai Morraine
  • Aragorn the Ranger, heir to the throne of Gondor = Warder Lan, the last Lord of the Seven Towers, the crownless king of the Malkieri
  • four hobbits = four teenagers
  • The Shire = Emond’s Field
  • Ringwraiths = Myrdraal/Fades/Half-Men
  • Ents = long-lived, tall creatures that call humans “hasty” = Ogier
  • Misty Mountains = Mountains of Mist
  • Mount Doom = Shayol Ghul in the Mountains of Dhoom
  • Mordor = The Blight
  • The Dark Lord Sauron = Ba’alzamon/Shai’tan/The Dark One

At first I thought the changes Jordan made in rewriting The Lord of the Rings made his story more inclusive because there are many more female characters than in Tolkien’s books. But the gender politics of the One Power are so strange that I’m not sure if they’re progressive or regressive. The principle of balance seems good and neutral, but if balance has to be restored by taking fictional power away from a group that has little real power, I don’t necessarily think that’s a positive and inclusive choice for an author to make.