Ten Books for Back-to-School Season

Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

Since I work in education, September feels more like a new year than January does. When I go back to work, sometimes I want to pick up a book that mirrors my current season. If a book is set inside a school or is about a professor, I’m interested right away. I’m not sure if my intrigue stems from working in schools or fond memories of college, but no matter the reason why, I love academic settings and characters. Today I’m sharing ten books that are just right for back-to-school season. Sharpen your pencils, and let’s begin.

Adequate yearly progress book cover

Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden

This novel presents a satirical look at a public high school in Texas. We meet an earnest English teacher who yearns for a deeper connection with her students. The principal ends up in the news for saying something controversial on camera. Other main characters include a math teacher, biology teacher, football coach, and a second-year history teacher who blogs about the school and starts to go viral.

I found this novel to be equal parts funny and insightful. Many of the characters are people I feel like I’ve met over the years. If you’re looking for a lighthearted book to welcome you into a new school year, this is the one.

The all-night sun book cover

The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

I wrote about this book in last week’s recap, so I’ll repeat what I said then:

Lauren is a lonely, 30-year-old woman teaching college writing near Washington, D.C. She lost her parents years ago in a car accident and is still trying to find her way after their deaths. When Siri shows up in Lauren’s classroom, the two women strike up a friendship. Siri has also lost her parents, so the two feel a special kinship. Siri invites Lauren back to her home in Sweden, and Lauren, blurring professional boundaries, accepts.

The All-Night Sun follows the two women through their time in Sweden. This novel explores friendship, loneliness, and professionalism through beautiful prose and memorable characters. The cover of this book caught my eye at my local indie bookstore, and I’m so glad it did. I think most literary fiction fans will enjoy this story.

Good girls lie book cover

Good Girls Lie by J. T. Ellison

Good Girls Lie is set at a prestigious all-girls prep school in Virginia. The Goode School is for the rich and influential, the types of girls who will head off to Yale and Harvard. Beneath the impressive exterior is a secret society whose members push past the strict behavioral lines the administration has drawn for them. When a popular student ends up dead, people say it was suicide, but there are too many questions about the death for the interest to end there.

While I didn’t love this book’s conclusion, I did love the setting and the story’s fast pace. Good Girls Lie is the perfect escapist novel for anyone in the mood for a dark academic tale.

Looking for Alaska book cover

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska is the first novel by young adult legend John Green. (It’s also my favorite of his books.) The story follows a boy named Miles who attends a coed boarding school. It’s there he meets a girl named Alaska. He’s immediately smitten and is soon drawn into her fascinating, self-destructive world. When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew. 

I’ve read all of the novels Green has authored alone, and this is the one that has stuck with me the most. He writes teenagers so well, and their desperation and strivings toward adulthood are profound in this story. 

The most dangerous place on earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

In some ways, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the opposite of Adequate Yearly Progress. While that novel was satirical and followed teachers at a struggling school, this novel is much darker and primarily follows students at a school full of privileged families. The staff member readers get to know the most is a new teacher named Molly. She’s unaware of a tragic event that happened in middle school, an event still reverberating through the high school years later.

I appreciated how Lindsey Lee Johnson juxtaposed privilege and tragedy, earnestness and facade. This novel felt achingly real and has some critical things to say about how our actions can haunt us.

My dark Vanessa book cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

As the #MeToo movement continued to pick up steam in 2017, allegations come out against Jacob Strane, the man who groomed and started a relationship with his student Vanessa when she was just 15. The two are still entwined years later, even though Vanessa is in her late 20s and living her own life. Because of the allegations, she’s forced to remember what she had with Strane and reevaluate it. In her mind, she was in love. She’s not a victim. She chose Strane. Or did she?

This novel focuses on an abusive relationship between a high school teacher and his student, so know that My Dark Vanessa is not for everyone. It’s sad and disturbing, but I ended up loving it. It has important things to say about responsibility and consent.

The secret history book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This novel is set at a small, elite college in New England. A group of eccentric students grows close with an equally eccentric classics professor. Readers find out within the first few pages that one of the students is dead. The tension of this book is how it got to that point. 

The Secret History is probably the most popular, beloved book of the dark academia theme, and for good reason. It’s beautifully written and is full of memorable characters who you’re never quite sure you trust. This book is one of my all-time favorite novels, one I wish I could read again for the first time. It’ll never leave my personal library. 

Stoner by John Williams book cover

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a simple book with a simple story. The novel follows a man named William Stoner throughout his life in Missouri. Stoner is expected to take over the family farm, but he is fascinated by literature and becomes a professor. We follow Stoner through his work life and marriage as he struggles with the things we all struggle with: being present, working hard, and showing up for the people who need us.

This book has been called a perfect novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. Stoner is not to be missed for readers who appreciate character development and a deep look into a person’s mind and spirit. It might be a simple story, but John Williams has profound things to say about being human.

Surprised by Oxford book cover

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

If you like nonfiction, here’s a recommendation for you. Surprised by Oxford is a memoir of Carolyn Weber’s time as a student. She begins attending Oxford as an agnostic but ends up becoming a committed Christian. This book is the story of how and why she converted. It’s a love story between Weber and Jesus, but also between Weber and her future husband.

Weber talks about faith with such nuance, intelligence, and warmth. The prose in this book is gorgeous, and you can’t ask for a much better setting than Oxford. If you’re a fan of Lauren Winner or Sara Miles, make sure to find a copy of this book and read it immediately.

Trust exercise book cover

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

This novel begins in the 1980s at a performing arts high school. The two primary characters are students David and Sarah, who fall in love. Their classmates’ rolling eyes can’t dim their passion or commitment. About halfway through this book, something changes, and readers are faced with a new reality that’s hard to explain.

Trust Exercise is a book that has kept on surprising me. The initial twist surprised me when I read it and ultimately left me disappointed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it. The characters and their stories kept rolling around in my head. While Trust Exercise won’t be for everyone, I do believe it’s worth your time. (And so did the people who gave it the National Book Award.)


That’s my list! What novels would be on your back-to-school syllabus?

What I Read and Loved in March 2021

Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

March was a wonderful, hope-filled month for me. I got my first vaccine shot and could finally begin seeing the light at the end of the very long and twisted COVID-19 tunnel. It was also the month where I regained some reading momentum which allowed me to finish eight books. EIGHT! And I enjoyed all of them! Keep reading to see the titles.

What I Read

This close to okay book cover

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith
Format: Audiobook

This new release is about a woman who sees a man standing on the ledge of a bridge, about to jump. She pulls over, talks him down, and invites him to get a cup of coffee with her. They end up spending several days together as they explore their secrets and heartbreaks. 

This Close to Okay reignited my love for audiobooks, thanks to the book’s excellent narration by Kamali Minter and Zeno Robinson. Though I didn’t find the ending wholly satisfying, this is a good story about two people who meet at just the right moment in time. 

The midnight library book cover

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Format: Hardcover

The Midnight Library is a bit of a departure for me, but I loved it. It’s a sci-fi tale about a woman named Nora who’s attempted suicide, only to be stuck in a unique library in which she can live different versions of her life depending on which book she pulls from the shelves.

Matt Haig’s story is deeply engaging and moving, the perfect blend of realism and magic. This novel will be especially delightful to book lovers who have a particular love of libraries and librarians.

Good apple book cover

Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York
by Elizabeth Passarella
Format: eBook

Good Apple is the true story of a conservative Southern belle who moves to New York, marries a Jewish husband, and deals with her evolving beliefs. This book is a quick, easy, and funny read, but it could have benefited from being more cohesive. Despite my issues with it, I still enjoyed this book, partly because I’m a sucker for almost anything set in NYC. 

Little threats book cover

Little Threats by Emily Schultz
Format: eBook

Little Threats is a slow burn of a suspense story about the 1993 murder of a teen girl. When the book begins, Kennedy has just been released from her 15-year prison sentence for killing her best friend, Haley. Kennedy has claimed innocence the entire time, but even her twin sister Carter is suspicious. Kennedy returns to her father’s house and her teen bedroom and faces the town’s anger and questions that are revived when a true-crime show comes into town to film an episode about Haley’s murder. 

I enjoyed this story and welcomed the slower pacing. The conclusion wrapped things up nicely, making the reading journey very much worth it for me. 

Who is Maud Dixon book cover

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
Format: Audiobook

Helen is a writer who’s had smashing success with her first novel, Mississippi Foxtrot. She goes by the pen name Maud Dixon and wants to keep her success under wraps. A wannabe writer named Florence becomes her assistant, promising to keep her real identity a secret. When the two take a research trip to Morocco, a car accident claims a life and opens up opportunities and adventures for the survivor. Though it started a bit slowly, the fast-paced ending more than made up for it. 

This thriller was another excellent audiobook, read by Thérèse Plummer.

The New York Times no-recipe recipes book cover

The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton
Format: eBook

This no-recipe cookbook is the perfect cookbook for me. When I’m in the kitchen, I like to be creative and make recipes my own. Sam Sifton gives cooks that option by presenting “recipes” that are more suggestive than essential. I enjoyed this book a lot because it reminded me why I like cooking so much.

The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper
Format: eBook

This compulsively readable thriller is about the lives of three different families living in one London apartment building. There’s Steph, Paul, and their teenage daughter Freya. Emma, a former shop-owner who feels entirely unmoored, lives below them. Then there’s Chris and his wife. Chris is a driving instructor who was teaching Freya how to drive. He becomes a person of interest when she disappears, and he was the last person to see her alive. 

The Downstairs Neighbor had me glued to my Kindle. The twists kept coming and coming, and the way all the characters tied together was satisfying. This book was just such fun

Know my name book cover

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Format: Audiobook

I’d only heard praise about Know My Name, the memoir of the woman formerly known as Emily Doe, who Brock Turner assaulted. With this book, the world meets Chanel Miller as she describes how the assault affected her, what the court case was like, and how being a victim and survivor has ultimately changed her life. Miller is a gifted writer; her prose is beautiful and places readers right in the courtroom alongside her. Her story was hard to read at times, but I was surprised by how hopeful parts of the book ended up being, too. Know My Name is an unforgettable memoir that deserves all of the positive attention it’s received so far.

What I Loved

The OverDrive logo showing a cartoon woman reading a book

TECH: OverDrive/Libby

Thanks to my local public library, I’ve been an OverDrive user for years. I fell in love with the app all over again in March, though. I had the opportunity to introduce some students and staff members to it, and that reminded me how great it is that so many library cardholders have access. Books you can get with the click of a button and take anywhere you go? Isn’t that fantastic?!

COVID Vaccine sign

HEALTH: The COVID-19 Vaccine

I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to the scientists and doctors who are responsible for this vaccine. It’s given me hope that felt so distant, even just a couple of months ago. Sorry for all the mean stuff I said about you in high school and college, science!

cw: abuse

DOCUMENTARY: Athlete A via Netflix

The abuse that occurred in U.S. gymnastics is horrific. Athlete A does a wonderful job explaining what happened and who failed to protect the young girls whose lives were forever changed by an evil doctor. Though definitely hard to watch at times, the courage of the survivors is incredible and deserves our attention. Watching them read their statements in court brought me to tears. If you’re a documentary fan, don’t skip this one.

That’s it for me! What did you read and love in March?

My Favorite Cookbooks

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a love for cooking and baking. And because I’m a bibliophile, that means I want to own all the cookbooks. I have a decent-sized collection at this point, so today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites, and explain why I love them. 

You should know that despite my love of food and cooking, I have the palate of an 8-year-old. (I’m working on it!) I like cookbooks that are full of simplicity and don’t require me to hunt down ingredients that are hard to find. Pretty pictures don’t hurt, either.

Cravings and Cravings: Hungry for More by Chrissy Teigen

No cookbooks get more use in my kitchen than the two Cravings books by Chrissy Teigen. Her cheesy ham and green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving and Christmas staple. The black bean and mushroom enchilada casserole is a simple and delicious vegetarian option. I’m not a huge fan of breakfast foods, but the everything bagel casserole is absolute breakfast perfection. (I just realized while writing this paragraph that I have a thing for casseroles. I guess we can thank my Midwest roots for that.)

I love these two cookbooks because every recipe I’ve cooked from them is packed full of flavor and uses ingredients that I already have in my pantry. Plus, the photography is fantastic.

Magnolia Table Vol. 1 and Magnolia Table Vol. 2 by Joanna Gaines

Joanna Gaines has the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. (Her shortbreads are fantastic, too!) That’s reason enough to want to make more of her food, but there are others. Her Spanish rice is my favorite rice recipe, and I feel like I’ve tried so many looking for “the one.” I can barely handle how yummy her scalloped potatoes are, drenched in their cheesy, gooey sauce. I love few things in this world as much as I love queso, and her recipe does not disappoint.

I reach for these two cookbooks repeatedly during the holiday season because the recipes are perfect for a crowd as the portions are quite generous. I also appreciate the mix of main courses, sides, and desserts.

Half Baked Harvest and Half Baked Harvest: Super Simple by Tieghan Gerard

Is there an Instagram feed that is more drool-worthy than Half Baked Harvest? (No, there isn’t.) Instagram is where I first discovered Tieghan Gerard, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her cookbooks. While I enjoy and use both books a lot, the Super Simple one is my favorite because I like food that is both 1) super and 2) simple. (That book also includes a lot of Instant Pot recipes, which delights my IP-loving soul.) Gerard’s tomato soup recipe could not be easier, but it is packed full of bright, bold flavors. Her peanut butter chocolate bars are like a Reese’s cup married chocolate chip cookies and lived a long, happy life together. I like homemade mashed potatoes, but don’t like all the work involved, so her Instant Pot mashed potato recipe is just what I needed. 

If you’re a fan of Gerard’s blog and Instagram, don’t miss out on these cookbooks. You’ll use them all the time, I promise. 

Chefs’ Fridges: More Than 35 World-Renowned Cooks Reveal What They Eat at Home edited by Carrie Solomon

If you’re a visual and curious person like I am, you’ll love Chefs’ Fridges. I’m fascinated by what other people keep in their refrigerators and kitchens, so this book was satisfying on multiple levels. Unlike with the rest of these cookbooks, I don’t turn to this one too much for the recipes because the focus is primarily on the photographs and interviews with the chefs. Instead, I turn to this book for inspiration. I enjoy seeing what kind of sandwiches a person throws together after a long workday. It’s interesting to see what staples a chef always has around. Looking at this book (even just the pretty mint-colored spine) always makes me happy, and that’s reason enough to love it. 

Simple Cake by Odette Williams

I like to cook more than I like to bake, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d use this book. Though it’s true I don’t turn to this book nearly as often as I do some of the others on this list, I’m grateful I have it. The format of Simple Cake is wonderful and user-friendly. Readers are presented with various cake recipes that are simple staples, like chocolate and vanilla, but the book also contains recipes for frostings, compotes, and ways to mix and match the flavors. I’ll love this book forever because of the excellent chocolate cake recipe inside, but I also appreciate how fun it makes cake-baking and assembly.

The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton

The spirit of this cookbook is my favorite way to cook. Instead of relying on specific measurements, Sifton’s recipes call for some of this and a handful of that. There are some great basic recipes and some more “showstopper” dishes, but the book makes it all accessible and fun. I got a copy of this from my library this week, but I want to purchase my own copy soon. That’s a sign of true love.


Do you use any of these cookbooks? What are some of your favorites?

What I Read and Loved in February 2021

Photo by madeleine ragsdale on Unsplash

I think I say this every month, but February flew by. I can’t say I minded, though, considering how stressful things still are thanks to the pandemic. Students at my high schools came back to in-person learning on March 1, so February was full of meetings and emails about what that was going to look like.

I only read three books last month, two of which are quite short. Since I had so much information coming at me from work, my brain needed a bit of a break. Keep on reading to see what those books were and to know what else I enjoyed. Thanks for coming by my little space on the internet!

What I Read

The truths we hold book cover

The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris
FORMAT: Audiobook

I’m always wary of reading political memoirs from people currently in office. I assume their books are going to be more policy-driven than story-driven. Despite my reservations, I enjoyed this book. There is a lot of policy talk in The Truths We Hold, but Harris does a lovely job telling her story. My favorite parts of the book include stories of her mother and sister and what their lives were like as Harris grew up. Seeing how her mother shaped her was touching. Harris reads the audiobook, which is a major plus for me. 

How to make a slave and other essays book cover

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker
FORMAT: Print

I love a good essay collection, and this book is exactly that. Jerald Walker talks about his life as a Black man in America with wisdom, humor, and a keen eye for a good story. I’m drawn to books set in academia, so my favorite essays in this collection are the ones that discuss Walker’s life as a student and professor. The essay in which he discusses his writing mentor James Alan McPherson is especially fantastic.

I am the rage book cover

I Am the Rage by Dr. Martina McGowan
FORMAT: Print

Whenever I do a pick-up order at Target, I browse the app to see what new books they have on their shelves. That was how I discovered this poetry collection. (Isn’t it great that a big-box store like Target sells poetry?!) This book was the perfect reading choice for Black History Month since McGowan’s poems have racial justice as their core. The poems in this book were written in the last year, so there are mentions of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Those modern connections made this slim volume a powerful read.

What I Loved

ONLINE SHOP: The Bluest Willow

As I’ve mentioned before in this section, I’m a big fan of the Popcast with Knox and Jamie. I discovered the Bluest Willow because the shop’s owner is Knox’s wife, Ashley McCoy. This shop has the cutest clothing, accessories, and home decor items. I’ve done several orders already and absolutely love all the pieces I’ve received. Ashley has curated such a lovely collection of unique yet everyday goods. I love this little shop so much.

RECIPE: One Skillet Saucy Chicken Tortilla Enchilada Rice Bake
from Half Baked Harvest

Look at this picture of gooey cheese and sauce and tortilla chips and flavorful goodness. LOOK AT IT. This recipe is as delicious as it appears, and also pretty simple. I made my own enchilada sauce, but this would be even easier if you used pre-made sauce. I’ve loved many Half Baked Harvest recipes, but this one might be my new favorite.


What did you read and love in February?

Naming What Matters for My Home Library

Photo by Radu Marcusu on Unsplash

My book collection has become a situation. Shortly after I started doing library work professionally, I decided I wanted a personal library. I’m privileged to have always owned books, but I wanted more than a few books on a shelf. I wanted a collection, something I’d build slowly over time. I have that now, and it could be going better. 

For one thing, I’ve outgrown my bookshelves. When that used to happen, I’d just buy another bookshelf from Target and call it good. But now there’s no room for more bookshelves. Hence, the situation. 

One of my favorite people on the internet is Kendra Adachi, a.k.a the Lazy Genius. I never miss her podcast, and I love her book, The Lazy Genius Way. Her work always helps me clarify my thinking, so I re-listened to a recent episode of her podcast called What to Do Before Reorganizing Your Home. In true Kendra fashion, she said something that resonates deeply: start by naming what matters

  • What matters to me about having a well-organized home library?
  • What matters about having a collection where I can find the book I want without moving a gigantic, wobbly tower to get to it?
  • What matters to me about having a home library at all?

These are some of the questions I’ll be thinking about in this post as I design a plan to conquer my bookish clutter. (I wrote about this in 2018 too but have apparently ignored my own advice.) I was going to make a Word doc and work through this project privately, but I thought this post might help those of you who are facing bodily harm due to the stack of hardbacks on your nightstand that looks more like a Jenga tower than literature. Let’s dive in.

Problem #1: I don’t have enough space for the books I have
Solution: Get rid of some books. 
Question: What matters about the books I choose to own?

Here’s what I came up with as I thought about what books and types of books I want to own rather than borrow: 

  • I want to own books by authors whose work I value deeply
  • I want to own books I know I’ll want to write in or underline
  • I want to own books I know I’ll return to over and over again
  • I want to own books that are part of special series I collect
  • I want to own books that are pretty because aesthetics matter to me
  • I want to own books that I’m excited to read right now

That last bullet point is probably the most important one for me as I embark on getting rid of books. I’ve had some titles on my shelves for years that I haven’t picked up yet. When I run into those books at one of my school libraries, I have no hesitation discarding them because books that don’t circulate don’t provide much value to a library. I need to take that approach with my own collection, too.

Problem #2: My books are disorganized. 
Solution: Organize my books in a way that makes sense to me. 
Question: What matters to you about an organization structure? 

Because I’ve been doing library work for nearly sixteen years, I can’t help but want my home library to have a strict structure. I like my fiction shelved alphabetically, and I like my nonfiction divided by subject. Have I briefly considered putting Dewey decimal numbers on my nonfiction books? Maybe, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. Organization matters because it saves me time finding books and putting them away. 

(Dear People Who Shelve Books By Color, 

Your shelves look so pretty, but I just cannot.

Love,
Andrea)

Problem #3: I buy books a lot faster than I can read them.
Solution: Buy fewer books. (Maybe stop checking out 17 library books at a time, too.)
Question: What matters about how I spend my money? 

Of the three main issues I have with my home library, this issue bothers me the least. I don’t mind having many unread books on my shelves, but I know I need to be more thoughtful about spending my money. Years ago, I’d often visit thrift stores and pick up any cheap books that looked even mildly interesting. I’ve become choosier over the years, but I still have work to do in this area. After thinking about it for a bit, here is what matters to me about the books I choose to purchase: 

  • I want to financially support authors whose work means something to me, especially if that author is a person of color
  • I want to purchase books I want to read, not books I think I should read
  • I want to purchase books I intend on keeping in my collection for a long time
  • I want to focus more on quality than quantity, like buying one new book at my local indie instead of six at a thrift store just because they were cheap

Having a home library matters to me because I love books and I like having them around me. It’s that simple. They’re exciting, comforting, beautiful, and stimulating. My collection brings me joy, but only when it’s contained and not piled up everywhere.

Working through these three main problems has helped me clarify what my next steps to need to be in order to go from a situation to an enjoyable part of my home. I should probably go get started.