The Something of Books

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

― Ray Bradbury,
Fahrenheit 451

I work in a high school library and made a banned books display a couple of years ago. I chose the words above to be the centerpiece, not merely because of the censorship flowing through Bradbury’s novel, but because I loved this quote on its own. Sometimes when people ask me about my favorite books, I can’t explain why I like something. When I read a poem or a complicated text that I don’t fully understand, I can still find it beautiful and essential. I echo Bradbury’s words in those moments: “There must be something there.“

fahrenheit 451 book cover

Reading is an endless search to find that something. For some, it’s comfort. For others, it’s entertainment. William Nicholson writes, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Realizing there’s someone else in the world who thinks what you think or feels what you feel is a wonderful thing, especially when those thoughts and feelings are dark and isolating.

I think about the link between reading and loneliness a lot since working with teenagers. I feel a unique duty to these kids to be able to point them toward books that will inspire and teach them, but also toward books that will lessen the blows of that still-familiar teenage feeling of aloneness. A fictional character can say to them what someone else might not: “You’re okay. You’re not the only one. Life gets easier; I promise.”

Before I took my current job, I never read many young adult books, even as a teenager. I still don’t consider myself well read in the world of YA lit, but I do have a few favorites that I recommend frequently. When I dipped my toes into the water of YA books, I was surprised at how stellar the writing is and how adult the subject matter can get. I realize that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. I’m thankful for great writers like Sara Zarr, Courtney Summers, and Laurie Halse Anderson, who not only address hard topics but do so with eloquence.

Some of my favorite young adult books

For me, the element of surprise is one of the best things about reading. Not only does surprise open my eyes to whole new genres, but it gives me pause. A beautifully written sentence or paragraph makes me slow down and take note. Sometimes I end up seeing more in the long run by focusing on one small thing. Throughout my reading life, I’ve had my eyes opened so many times to new ideas and unique ways of seeing the world. Whether it’s discovering a whole new genre or reading a line of poetry that invites me to pause and see something ordinary in a new way, those moments of newness and wonder are necessary elements to the something of why I read.

There must be something there. I want each student who walks through the doors of my library to sense that truth. I want them to develop their own reasons for reading. I want books to become a joy and not a chore. Not every student is going to become a reader, but I want even the ones who don’t to be curious about how any character could stay in a burning house for the sake of some words bound together.

5 of My Favorite School Novels

We’re halfway through May now which means the school year is finally winding down. I have about four weeks left until I’m on summer vacation from my library job. Thanks to all of the graduations, tests, and year-end checklists, I’ve thought about school a lot lately, and I’m using that as inspiration for today’s post featuring some of my favorite novels set in a school or focused on students. A couple of these books deal with suicide, so if that’s not a topic you’re comfortable reading about this would be a good post to skip. Let’s dive in!

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne meet in high school. He’s popular but poor. Marianne is a social outcast, but she comes from a wealthy family full of terrible people. Though these two would never speak at school, they’re brought together when Connell shows up at Marianne’s house to pick up his mother who works as the family’s maid. They soon embark on a romantic relationship that Connell is desperate to keep secret so as not to jeopardize his social standing. Normal People follows Connell and Marianne through their high school love and explores how their bond is deepened and tested throughout college. Sally Rooney has important things to say about class and gender, and her dialog is fantastic. I’d been looking forward to this novel for months, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

During his eighth grade year, a bullied boy named Tristan kills himself after a love letter he wrote a girl is shared on Facebook. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth tells the story of the students who were involved in Tristan’s life, examines their guilt in the aftermath, and presents a harsh yet realistic look at life in high school. In addition to the students, readers meet Molly, an earnest new teacher hoping to make a significant impact on her students. The novel switches back and forth between perspectives, and I was fascinated by each one. I haven’t heard many people talk about this book, but it’s worth your time and attention, especially if you work with teens like I do.

Dare Me book cover

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s books are adult fiction, yet she writes teenagers so well. In Dare Me, she tells the story of a high school cheerleading squad living in the aftermath of a suspicious suicide. As an investigation into the death begins, the girls form new alliances, bond with their cool new coach, and treat each other with a viciousness masked by pompoms and the perfect routine. This book is chilling and impossible to put down. Abbott is one of my favorite writers, and Dare Me is an excellent place to start if you haven’t read her work before.

The Secret History book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first few pages of The Secret History, readers find out that a student at an elite college has died. The rest of the novel explores why and how. Richard is the main character, and when he transfers to Hampden College, he joins a group studying Greek classics under the direction of a professor the students nearly worship. Donna Tartt explores friendship, morality, literature, and devotion with great care and nonstop drama. The Secret History is suspense fiction at its finest, and one of my favorite novels of all time.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics book cover

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue lives with her professor father and has moved a lot for his work. When she’s a senior in high school, she and her father finally settle down, and Blue falls in with an eccentric group of students and their beloved teacher. Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been compared to The Secret History because of its plot, but this book has a lighter tone, though it too involves death and mysterious circumstances. This novel is what got Marisha Pessl added to my “I’ll Read Everything They Write” list. I’ve never read anything else quite like this book. I adore it, and I think literature-lovers who appreciate quirky fiction will, too.


What are your favorite school novels? What should I read next based on these books? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

Reading Recap | April 2019

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Today’s reading recap is the shortest one yet since I only read one book in April. It was a stressful month for a lot of reasons, including this one, so I didn’t have the mental capacity to read like I normally do.

The book I managed to finish is one I’d been looking forward to reading for months, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s about mental health which is perfect since May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is a subject I care a lot about since I’ve struggled with anxiety and phobias throughout my life and know many other people who have walked that road, too. Thanks to medication and a stint in therapy, my anxiety is under control. Hope and healing are possible.

And now, the recap!

The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

This book is a candid account of Heather B. Armstrong’s struggle with suicidal depression and the medical treatment that saved her life. Armstrong’s doctor referred to her a clinical study at the height of her illness, and she decided to go for it since it seemed like her only hope. During the trial, Armstrong received anesthesia ten times until she was nearly brain dead, an experience she compares to shutting down a computer in an attempt to get it working again. The results of the procedures are astounding and fascinating.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

If you read Armstrong’s blog, you’ll know she’s capable of being hilarious, profane, and deeply poignant all in the same paragraph. Her trademark style is present here, but the book is cohesive and structured well throughout. Armstrong makes complex medical information easy to understand and shows incredible vulnerability when describing her struggle to live a happy life. The love she feels for her mother and two daughters is beautiful to witness. You’ll be rooting for her on each page.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

Anyone interested in mental health or those who have been affected by depression.


April’s Blog Posts

8 of My Favorite Short Books

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Last month, I wrote a post about my favorite long books. I’ve been in a reading slump this April, and sometimes when that’s the case, I want to pick up something short. These past few weeks have been stressful for many different reasons (like this one), so I haven’t had the stamina for a long book.

With that in mind, today I want to share eight of my favorite short books. (I define short as being less than 250 pages.) If you too are in the midst of a reading slump, maybe something on this list will spark your interest and help you get your momentum back.

The Pleasure of My Company book cover

The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
163 pages

This brief, sweet story is about a man named Daniel who lives alone and suffers from OCD. He only leaves his house to go to Rite-Aid, and to get there, he has to use sloped driveways since he can’t step over curbs. A psychiatry student named Clarissa visits Daniel regularly in an attempt to figure out what’s going on in his head. When her abusive ex-husband shows up and threatens to take away their son Teddy, Daniel steps in and tries to save Clarissa and the boy. Through his relationship with these two, Daniel starts opening up and being able to embrace the world around him. Steve Martin narrates this audiobook, so if you’re a Martin fan like I am, that’s a great way to read this gem of a book.

Glaciers book cover

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
174 pages

Glaciers is a novel about a day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-something library employee working with damaged books in Portland. She lives a quiet life, loves anything vintage, and has unrequited feelings for a man at work. If you like books that dive deep into a character’s head and emotions, this is the novel for you. There’s not a lot of action or plot; instead, readers are allowed into Isabel’s head as she reflects on her past and thinks about her future. Glaciers is a charming, well-written delight of a book.

Dept. of Speculation book cover

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
179 pages

Though I’m happily unmarried, I love reading novels about marriage, especially when things aren’t going very well for the couple in question. Dept. of Speculation is about an unnamed woman known throughout the book as “the wife.” She and her husband used to write long, reflective letters to each other in which they would consider their lives and the world around them. In this novel, the wife is reflecting on her role as a mother, spouse, and lover of art and culture. I can’t believe how much depth Jenny Offill was able to reach in such few pages. Dept. of Speculation is a tightly constructed, excellent book about female identity and longing.

If Beale Street Could Talk book cover

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
197 pages

A few months ago, I started reading An American Marriage. I’d heard nothing but praise about the book, but I realized it just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get into it, even though I made it halfway through the novel. After I read If Beale Street Could Talk, I realized how similar the plot is to An American Marriage. Both books are about couples who are forced apart when the man is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. While An American Marriage didn’t work for me, I loved If Beale Street Could Talk. Baldwin’s characters are well-developed, and their love is evident throughout the story. If Beale Street Could Talk is a compelling story about love, race, and the lengths we’ll go to save the people we love.

Interpreter of Maladies book cover

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
198 pages

When I read work by an excellent short story writer, I’m always in awe of their ability to tell a complete, meaningful story in so few words. Jhumpa Lahiri is an excellent short story writer, and Interpreter of Maladies is a beautiful example of the form. Many story collections can be hit and miss in terms of quality, but I love each story in this book.

When you reach me book cover

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
199 pages

When You Reach Me is a middle-grade novel, a type of book I never read. Something about it caught my interest, though, so I decided to give it a try. It takes place in New York City during the late 1970s and includes three storylines revolving around a sixth-grade girl named Miranda. Her mom is about to appear on the TV game show The $20,000 Pyramid, she and her best friend Sal have a falling out, and she starts receiving mysterious notes, including one that says, “I’m coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Somehow, Rebecca Stead ties these storylines together and throws in a bit of sci-fi and references to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, too. This novel is a beautifully written and engaging story, one I couldn’t put down. I am so glad I gave this book a chance. It was a good reminder that a particular age range shouldn’t dictate what I read. 

Frances and Bernard book cover

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
208 pages

When I heard that Frances and Bernard was inspired by Flannery O’Connor and her friendship with Robert Lowell, I was immediately interested as my love for O’Connor knows no bounds. This book is an epistolary novel comprised of letters between the two title characters who are writers that meet at an artists’ colony. Their bond is beautiful, as is Carlene Bauer’s prose. Frances and Bernard is a sweet story about friendship, love, creativity, and connection.

Gilead book cover

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
247 pages

Like Frances and Bernard, Gilead is also an epistolary novel. Rev. John Ames is an older man with a young son, and he decides to write him letters about his life and faith since he knows he won’t be around to tell him in person. Gilead is a masterpiece about family, memory, and God. It’s deeply theological yet also profoundly human. It’s one of my favorite novels of all time and truly deserves all the praise it’s received. This book is a modern classic.


What short books would you recommend? Do you find reading short things helpful sometimes?

YA Fiction & Nonfiction Pairs

In the high school library where I work, it can be difficult to get students to read nonfiction. One of the ways I like to promote it is to do a display in which I pair high-interest nonfiction titles with a novel about the same topic. Today I want to share a few pairs with you in case you too are looking for ways to promote nonfiction to your teen patrons.

Click here to read the rest of the post over at Teen Services Underground.

Poetry Recommendations for People Who Are Scared of Poetry

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

April is National Poetry Month, and I’m always glad to see poetry getting special recognition since I consider it to be an under-appreciated art form. It seems as if poetry intimidates a lot of readers. I’ve heard people say they can’t understand it or don’t want to spend their reading time having to analyze something. While there is certainly a lot of complex poetry out there, there are also many options for people who want accessible, beginner-friendly poetry. I want to share some of those options with you today.

Second Sky book cover

Second Sky by Tania Runyan

Second Sky is one of my favorite poetry books. Tania Runyan writes about faith and spirituality in a way that is entirely relatable. She does what all great poets do and illuminates the extraordinary and profound in the everyday. You can read two of her poems here.

Mezzanines book cover

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann

I first heard of Matthew Olzmann when I came across his poem “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem.” It was love at first read. I bought Olzmann’s debut book just because I love that poem so much and I wasn’t disappointed. Olzmann can gut-punch you in just a line or two. He can be playful and profound. You can read more of his work here.

The Poetry of Rilke translated by Edward Snow

I own quite a few poetry books, and this collection is one of my most beloved volumes. I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when I read Letters to a Young Poet, which I love. When I saw this edition of Rilke’s work, I knew I had to have it. I was captivated instantly, and I think you will be too. Rilke has such a gift with words. Like Tania Runyan, he talks a lot about faith, and like Matthew Olzmann, he can deliver profound insight in just a few words. This specific edition of Rilke’s poetry is noteworthy because Edward Snow did a fantastic job translating Rilke’s work from German to English. You can read many of Rilke’s poems here.

Life on Mars book cover

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Sometimes after I read a book that earned a Pulitzer or other esteemed book award, I think, “Really?” Thankfully, that wasn’t the case when I read this beautiful collection from Tracy K. Smith. She deserves her Pulitzer for creating such unique and memorable work. I love this description of Life on Mars from Goodreads: “With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence.” To see what they’re talking about, read her poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” here.

devotions book cover

Devotions by Mary Oliver

If you’ve read any poetry at all, chances are it’s by Mary Oliver. She’s one of the most beloved contemporary poets for a good reason. Her work focuses on nature, love, God, and the beauty of the world around us. Her recent death was heartbreaking to many of us who have appreciated her words and found solace in them. If you want to get started with Oliver, pick up Devotions. She chose the poems in this book herself, and they span her entire career. If you want even more Oliver goodness in your life, check out this Book Riot post that helps you know where to start.


More poets I love:

  • John Donne
  • Langston Hughes
  • Kim Addonizio
  • Andrea Gibson
  • Christian Wiman
  • Maya Angelou
  • Mary Karr
  • Carrie Fountain
  • Ellen Bass
  • Jack Gilbert
  • William Carlos Williams
  • Pablo Neruda
  • Sharon Olds
  • T. S. Eliot
  • Billy Collins
  • Joseph Millar
  • Robert Hass

Poetry resources:

I can’t recommend Poetry Foundation enough. Poets.org is another favorite. If you want daily poetry, this site gives you just that. Beloved contemporary poet Billy Collins is the brainchild behind Poetry 180, a collection of work that introduces high school students to great poems.


I hope this post is helpful for those of you wanting to dip your toe into the world of poetry. There’s so much goodness out there to find. Happy reading!

Reading Recap | March 2019

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

March was a fantastic reading month for me. I read seven books, and three of them received 5-star ratings. This post is long enough since I have many books to share, so let’s jump right in.

Homegoing book cover

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Rating: 5/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Effia and Esi are half-sisters born in Ghana during the 18-century, and Homegoing is the story of their descendants through the modern day. Each chapter reads like a short story about a different character.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

Everything. I marvel at how Yaa Gyasi fit so much depth and history into a relatively short novel. Each chapter is well-written and full of characters who are stuck in impossible circumstances. I’d heard nothing but good things about this book, so I thought there was no way it could live up to the hype. I’m glad I was wrong. Homegoing exceeded all my expectations. It’s a stunning accomplishment, especially considering it is Gyasi’s debut.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Everyone, especially those who enjoy epic stories set over a long time period.

I Found You book cover

I Found You by Lisa Jewell
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

I Found You tells the story of a single mom who finds a strange man with memory loss on the beach outside her home, a new bride whose husband has just vanished, and two teenage kids on a family vacation that went wrong twenty years prior. The less you know about the plot of this book going in, the better your reading experience will be.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

The vague plot outline I described above might not sound like it should work, but Lisa Jewell combines those three stories in ways that are consistently suspenseful, surprising, and ultimately satisfying. This is the first book I’ve read by Jewell, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

Most suspense fans will enjoy this, as long as they’re okay with flashbacks.

Daisy Jones & the Six book cover

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Rating: 5/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

The Six are rising rock and roll stars in the late 1960s. Daisy Jones is a singer/songwriter who’s trying to get her voice heard. When Daisy performs with the Six one night, the chemistry she has with the band’s lead singer Billy Dunne is electric enough to make her a permanent part of the group. Daisy Jones and The Six tells the story of the band through all their highs and lows as they experience addiction, love, and fame like they never dared to imagine.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

Taylor Jenkins Reid wrote this novel as an oral history, and that structure makes it seem more like a documentary than fiction. I suspected I’d like this book, but what I didn’t predict was that it would be such a page-turner. Billy and Daisy are captivating protagonists, but each band member has an individual storyline and unique identity. This book inspired a blog post all about my favorite books about music.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

I think this story has wide appeal, but literary fiction fans who appreciate nostalgia will be especially captivated by this story.

Before she knew him book cover

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

Hen and her husband Lloyd have recently purchased a house in the suburbs. Their neighbors Mira and Matthew invite them over for dinner, hoping to make some new friends. During a tour of the house, Hen spots a trophy in Matthew’s office that she’s sure is connected to a man who was murdered several years back. Due to her bipolar disorder and previous trouble with the law, no one believes Hen when she tries to convince them that Matthew isn’t who he seems to be.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

I’ve read a lot of thrillers, and Before She Knew Him is more original than most. The suspense in this book doesn’t come from the usual “whodunnit” question, but from wondering about motive, former victims, and who might be next. In addition to all the twists, this novel also has interesting things to say about mental illness and how it affects female credibility.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

Thriller fans looking for something different will enjoy this novel.

The cassandra book cover

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields
Rating: 3/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

Mildred is a young woman living with her verbally abusive mother in a small Washington state town during World War II. When Mildred gets the chance to leave and begin work at the Hanford Research Center, she’s thrilled to start her own life and help the US win the war. She becomes a secretary for a physicist whose work is top secret. But Mildred has these terrifying visions about what it is they’re really doing at Hanford and suspects how it’s all going to end.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

Mildred is a strong character who I was always rooting for throughout this novel. The Cassandra has a feminist perspective that is wonderful to see in historical fiction.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

This novel is loosely based on the Greek myth of Cassandra, so if you know and like that story, this book might be worth checking out. Historical fiction lovers who like stories with a lot of grit will probably enjoy this, too. (I was unfamiliar with the myth and don’t reach for a lot of historical fiction, so I was definitely not the target audience for this story.)

How the Bible Actually Works book cover

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Books Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–and Why That’s Great News by Peter Enns
Rating: 5/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

The Bible is often presented as an answer book for all of life’s questions. In How the Bible Actually Works, Peter Enns argues that what the Bible offers isn’t an index of answers, but is a collection of stories about how those seeking God found wisdom and how modern-day believers can find it, too.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Peter Enns is one of my favorite biblical scholars, and this book is an excellent example of why. Enns is as funny as he is knowledgable which means that when he writes about the history of the Bible, it’s not only educational but also immensely entertaining. This book is filled with some challenging concepts, but they’re presented so that those of us who don’t have PhDs from Harvard (like Enns does) can understand them.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

Progressive Christians who are looking for ways to read the Bible with fresh eyes will enjoy this book a lot.

The Child Finder book cover

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

Naomi is a woman with a dark past who uses her tragedy to help other people. She’s known as the Child Finder, and in this novel, she’s working to find a little girl who disappeared in a snowy Oregon forest three years earlier. The child’s parents still believe there’s hope, even though the situation seems dim. As Naomi works to find the missing girl, she has nightmares about what happened to her years ago and starts to piece together some of the memories of her story that she’d forgotten.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

I love books with a strong sense of place, and Rene Denfeld has undoubtedly created that with The Child Finder. The icy and snowy setting of the mysterious forest would make this a perfect winter read. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Naomi and her story. She’s a strong woman who is committed to the truth and bringing closure to desperate families.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

This novel addresses child abuse head on, so keep that in mind if that’s a triggering subject matter for you. Otherwise, I think people who appreciate good, dark suspense novels will really like this book.


Have you read any of these books? What was the best book you read in March?


March blog posts: