What I’m Reading

Like all life-long learners, I’m always reading. I enjoy reading meaty stuff that challenges me. But I can definitely be caught with a supermarket tabloid, too.  Apart from being with family, friends and students, happiness for me is a comfortable reading chair, good light, and a stack of magazines I can’t get to because I’m so absorbed in a book.

Here are some of the titles I’m currently pushing on people. Please also see “What I’m Reviewing” for longer reviews of recent favorite books.

1) Daniel Mueeenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders — a beautiful collection of short stories about a diverse cast of characters who work or otherwise come into contact with a wealthy patrician, K. K. Harouni. K.K. is a distant but benevolent figure who has the power to give comfort to others without doing anything other than allowing them a post in one of his formerly lavish homes. Many of the most compelling characters are the young women from poor families who give themselves willingly to older men like K. K. and his stewards because they believe these men will protect them from poverty and presumably worse. When the women are forgotten or discarded, it is a painful reminder to the reader of the harsh realities of inequality.

2) V. E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — my new favorite fantasy book in the vein of Game of ThronesThe Golden Compass, and Harry Potter. Kell is an antari, a magical traveler who can pass between four worlds known as White London, Red London, Grey London, and Black London. Kell serves Red London’s royal family and has everything he could ever need — and yet he craves artifacts from the other Londons to which he travels, which imperils his home country. In parallel Grey London lives Lila, a street urchin and thief who dreams of having her own pirate ship and is not afraid to defend herself to the death. Schwbab’s story is creative, riffing on other well-known tales of magicians, precocious adolescents, and bloody battles between good and evil.

3) Jack Livings, The Dog — darkly humorous stories about life in China, this collection brings the reader into a deeper understanding of local politics, cultural norms, and the struggle of individuals to escape the lives they have been born into or forged for themselves. Livings is a master of understatement, giving what would otherwise be harrowing tales a digestible aspect for the reader.

4) Magda Szabo, The Door — a densely packed novella featuring the inimitable Emerence, housekeeper, savior, enemy, victim. The story is told from the perspective of the woman who hired her to clean house but who grew increasingly dependent on her, indeed obsessed with her, due to the mystery of Emerence’s true identity and the reason that her house is always locked tightly. No one may enter Emerence’s house, but many artifacts are produced from inside of it, things of great material or symbolic value. Translated from Hungarian, the story is creepy in a way reminiscent of all good psychological thrillers, but with a historical twist.

5) Teju Cole, Every Day is For the Thief — the mostly fictional account of a man’s return trip to Lagos, Nigeria after fifteen years in America. I was mesmerized not only by the beautiful writing and haunting photographs, but also by the complicated journey he describes, one that many of us experience as we craft adult lives away from the places we began. Leaving home is challenging for Cole’s anonymous narrator, and for us, because even though we often want to leave, or need to, we can’t help but wonder what our lives would be like if we had stayed. In his absence, Lagos has changed in fundamental ways while it has stayed completely stagnant in others. There are internet cafes and music schools and family on the one hand, and blackouts, petty crime and decaying museums on the other. He feels liberated by his choice of a new home in a country of comfort and education, but at the same time, he feels a kind of despair. In leaving home, he has changed and it has changed.

6) Peter Heller, The Dog Stars — as dystopian novels go, this one is much easier to take, as Heller keeps the violence and chaos endemic to post-apocalypse as distant as possible, and gives the reader a faint but persistent hope that things can always get better, even when there are hardly any of us left. Hig, a youngish man, lives in an old airport with his dog. His life amounts to little more than flying an old Cessna around the area to look for survivors of a devastating flu. His only companion is a cranky older man named Bangley who lives to kill marauders. Hig’s thinking is broken, but beautiful in many places, and when he flies beyond the periphery in search of more, he embarks on a journey we can all relate to, one that has no known destination apart from a different life from the one we know. One of my favorite students gave this book to me at the conclusion of our Dystopian LIterature class this spring with the promise that it was quite uplifting for a dystopian story. He was right.

7) Daniel Levitan, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — there is not one of us living in 21st century America who isn’t struggling to organize not only our thoughts but also our lives, at work and at home. Levitan presents a lot of interesting research on the topic of how humans organize their worlds and what best practices might help all of us to feel more control over the deluge of information, email, and other requirements of life in the digital age. In the past, management and organization might have been left to the managers and organizers, but today, we are all in need of training and tools to help us to keep things in places where we can find them again.

8) Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend — this book works a kind of magic on the reader that is somehow uncomfortable and ultimately transformative. In writing about her friend, Lila, and the violent, passionate community in Naples where they grow up, Elena give you the impression that she is always a step behind, in a cloud of quasi-confusion and inferiority. But don’t be fooled. Her brilliance is patent to all who come to know her voice as if she were a real-time confidante. I treated myself to reading book 2, The Story of a New Name, this summer and found it as impossible to put down as the first one.

9) dana boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens — this book helped me to see the positive aspects of social media, especially for young people, and I am now a firm believer in the productive power of “networked public spaces.” boyd’s explanations of why young people, indeed all of us, are so drawn to social networking is especially important in an age where conclusive data on the impact of such transformative digital communication is still lacking.

10) Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven — St. Mandel brings creativity and literary dexterity to the dystopian genre. She weaves Shakespeare, literature, and the human need for the arts into a very spartan post-apocalyptic world. She deftly reveals the risks and rewards of religious fanaticism, and also helps us to realize our amazing good fortune to live in a moment in time when air travel and instant communication are things we can take for granted.

11) Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — Stevenson’s book addresses many of the problems in our criminal justice system by compellingly juxtaposing his many triumphs and bitter defeats as a crusading lawyer practicing law in the South.

12) Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See — each chapter of this suspenseful historical novel is like a small, perfect painting. I think Emily Dickinson would have been thrilled with it, and I recommend it for readers of all ages.

13) Lily King, Euphoria — I didn’t know very much about Margaret Mead before reading this highly engaging story based on her brave anthropological work, but she is now one of my favorite historical and literary figures.

14) Sandra Beasley, I Was the JukeBox: Poems — I met Sandra through a mutual friend on Facebook and fell in love with her poetry. I brought her to my school, where she amazed our community with her stunning poems, “The Piano Speaks” and “Another Failed Poem About the Greeks” and “You Were You.”

15) Jeffrey Harrison, The Names of Things: New and Selected Poems — Jeff and I met at Andover 17 years ago when he was the Writer in Residence and I was a Teaching Fellow in English. I have always loved his work and it was especially fun for me the day one of my students found Jeff’s poem, “Our Other Sister,” on the Poetry 180 website.

16) e. lockhart, We Were Liars — this Young Adult novel can’t be put down.  Echoes of King Lear permeate lockhart’s story of privilege and loss.

17) Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane — I am terrified of Gaiman’s work. Coraline’s button-eyed alternate mother is no match for the demonic and mysterious Ursula Monkton. One of the best and scariest books I’ve encountered.

These are the books I push on people any chance I can get, but they are not new:

1) Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies 

2) Nicole Krauss, The History of Love and Great House

3) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

4) William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

5) Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

6) Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

7) Tea Obreht, The TIger’s Wife

8) Ian McEwan, Atonement

9) George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones

10) George Eliot, Middlemarch

I regularly follow these blogs/ sites:

Edutopia, a compendium of some of the best thinking and writing about education today. Am thinking through a December 3 article by Shane Safir on “Listening to Parents: What it Means to be an Ally,” and her sage advice for educators that we refrain from reaching for quick fixes while being careful to follow up with concerned parents.

Klingbrief, a monthly publication on the best and most thought-provoking books and articles on education today. The sui generis Pearl Rock Kane usually has the lead article, which is followed by pithy, informative reviews written by graduates of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College in New York.

Common Sense Media, one of the most thoughtful resources for teachers and parents alike. Dr. Kelly Mendoza was hugely helpful to me when I was researching digital citizenship programs last year in anticipation of my school’s move to 1-1.

Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, supported by the formidable Ann V. Klotz, Headmistress of this exceptional Ohio girls’ school.  See the CRG’s research briefs on girls and resilience, shielding girls from stereotype threat, and engaging girls in STEM. See also Ann’s “28 Things I Want Girls to Know.”

A Design So Vast, a beautiful blog on life and parenting by Huffington Post writer Lindsey Mead. She and I met when we were 12 years old and have been kindred spirits ever since. History is repeating itself in our daughters, age 12.

Great New Books, a wonderful site created by Jennifer King, dedicated to the art, practice, and joy of reading books.

6 thoughts on “What I’m Reading

  1. denise

    Came here on Lindsey’s recommendation and so glad I did. I’m always looking for new reading material and now I have a great list, thanks to you!

    Reply
  2. Shaine

    Hi Jess, Finally, got a chance to read through your TERRIFIC blog and your recommendations. Looking forward to searching my library’s catalog for these items. Have the feeling that I will be eagerly awaiting the courier with the incoming interlibrary loans. Happy reading. Shaine

    Reply
    1. jessflaxman@gmail.com Post author

      Let me know what you think of the books! I am reading a new one now that I love, called Department of Speculation, which my friend Laura recommended to me this past weekend. Great to hear from you!

      Reply
  3. Kendal Fay

    I’m so glad that you have this little section. I’m always curious about what to read next and I’ve always looked for your input! Thank you! Miss you, hope you’re doing well.

    Reply

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