The Something of Books

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“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

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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

Reading Recap | March 2019

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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:

My Favorite Books about Music (And a Reading Playlist!)

I’ve enjoyed music even longer than I’ve loved books. My parents listened to “oldies” growing up, so the first artists I remember knowing about are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beach Boys. Unlike some of my friends, I loved the music my parents played. They were just listening to music they liked, but I was soaking up a musical education. I had a boy band phase in middle school and wanted a Spice Girls CD more than I cared to admit even at 11, but my musical foundation is solid thanks to the songs I grew up hearing.

It makes sense, then, that I enjoy two of my favorite things coming together: music and books. Today I want to share some of my favorite books about music and explain why I like them so much.

Daisy Jones and the Six book cover

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones is an up and coming singer in the late 1960s. She’s beautiful and talented, but also a drug addict. Billy Dunne (who also has issues with substance abuse) is the lead singer/songwriter for a band called the Six which he’s in with his brother and four others. When a producer realizes that Daisy and Billy are magnetic together, Daisy joins the band. Soon the group becomes one of the most popular rock bands in America.

Daisy Jones & The Six is the book that inspired this whole post. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago and it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s a novel, but it’s written as an oral history which makes it seem as if every word is real. You might not think oral history about a fake rock band would result in a page-turner, but this novel is an addictive read from start to finish. It’s utterly original and full of songs you’ll wish you could hear. Thankfully, Daisy Jones is becoming a 13-part series for Amazon. I’m excited about the soundtrack more than anything else.

The Song Is You book cover

The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips

This novel was released in 2009 when people still used iPods. Julian is obsessed with his and uses music as a way to connect with memories of his past. After something tragic happens to Julian and his wife, he loses interest in everything, including music. It’s only when he hears Cait O’Dwyer sing in a bar one night that he starts to feel things again.

The Song Is You follows Julian and Cait’s relationship through their correspondence. The way Arthur Phillips portrays grief, longing, and marriage in this novel is consistently compelling. I remember one particular scene that made me physically ache. This book feels true, and I think that makes for the best fiction.

The Music Shop book cover

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

It’s 1988, and Frank, the owner of a small music shop in London, is getting pressured to start selling CDs. He’s devoted to his vinyl records, however, and refuses to change. His life is a simple one, and he’s okay with that. But then, of course, there’s this girl. She walks into the store one day, and Frank (along with all of his friends in the neighborhood) is instantly captivated. She ends up asking him to teach her about music, which forces Frank to face some painful memories.

The Music Shop is a sweet story that never feels saccharine. The supporting characters are colorful, the love story is heartfelt, and the music references throughout are delightful. If you had your heart broken by Daisy Jones & The Six and The Song Is You, this book will help put it back together.

Signal to Noise book cover

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Meche is a teenager in the late 1980s. She isn’t cool and hangs out with two equally uncool friends, Daniela and Sebastian. The trio often listens to records and one day they realize that Meche has the power to cast spells through music.

Flash forward to 2009 when Meche’s estranged father dies. She’s forced to return to Mexico City where she grew up. She runs into Sebastian and is brought face-to-face with memories she’s tried to bury.

Through these two timelines, readers learn about Meche’s musical power, how she uses it, and what happened with her family and friends to make her want to leave everything and everyone behind. This book is more fantastical than what I usually read, but I love it and wish it had a broader audience.


Sometimes when I’m reading, I like to have some background music playing. If you do too, here’s a playlist I made full of slow, folksy songs that pair nicely with a good book for a cozy night at home. Happy reading (and listening)!


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8 of My Favorite Long Books

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Last week I was listening to episode 173 of What Should I Read Next, my favorite bookish podcast. The guest in this episode was talking about how she enjoys long books and wants to read more of them. While listening to this episode, I realized that I don’t read long books nearly as often as I do short books. (I define long as being over 450 pages.) As much as I love reading, sometimes I’m intimidated by long books, though I’m not sure why. To remind myself that I shouldn’t pass over long books, I’m sharing eight of my favorite lengthy reads today.

1Q84 book cover

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami; translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
925 pages

1Q84 might be the longest book I’ve ever read, but it never feels long. (It was published as three different volumes in Japan, but I read all three in one hardcover edition.) This novel is weird, suspenseful, a little creepy, and wholly original, but never dull. It’s about a woman named Aomame who happens to be an assassin and a man named Tengo who teaches math and is working as a ghostwriter. Aomame realizes she’s living in a parallel reality which she doesn’t understand. Tengo is becoming so involved in his ghostwriting project that his dull life starts to seem anything but ordinary. Murakami converges these two narratives in a way that makes total sense for the world he has constructed. This novel is hard to explain, but know it’s a phenomenal accomplishment by one of my favorite writers.

Anna Karenina book cover

Anna Karanina by Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky

838 pages

Do you ever pick up a book and expect to put it back down shortly after that? That’s the way I approached Anna Karenina. I was intrigued enough to begin the novel, but finishing it seemed like a huge challenge. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Reading this translation of Tolstoy’s classic was a delight, not a problem. Anna is a complex character who chases her passion, even though it leads to her downfall. Who among us can’t relate to that? If you’re intimidated by this novel like I was, try this particular translation, and I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Goldfinch book cover

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
771 pages

The good news about Donna Tartt is that she’s a gifted, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The bad news is that she’s only published a book every ten years, so there’s a lot of waiting and expectation associated with her work. Thankfully, The Goldfinch was worth the wait and surpassed all of my expectations. It’s about a boy named Theo who loses his mom in a tragic accident. He clings to her memory by holding on to a small painting of a goldfinch. This painting and his connection to the art world ends up shaping the course of his life in extraordinary ways.

A Little Life book cover

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
720 pages

A Little Life has haunted me from the moment I finished it. It’s a story about four male friends in New York City, though the focus is mostly on Jude, a wounded man both emotionally and physically. Yanagihara follows these four men throughout several decades. We see them advance in their careers, fall in love, get hurt, and come face to face with their secrets. A Little Life is a heartbreaking book, and Jude’s story is especially brutal. This book isn’t for sensitive readers or those who are triggered by references to abuse, but if you like beautifully told stories that will stay with you long after you read the last page, pick up this novel ASAP.

The Habit of Being book cover

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
edited by Sally Fitzgerald
640 pages

Flannery O’Connor is one of my most beloved writers. She’s funny, thoughtful, challenging, and smart. Her fiction has a voice that’s undeniably hers, and her nonfiction is full of intelligent thoughts about God, the writing life, and how to do creative work. This collection of her letters combines all of the things I love about her work. I know an extended selection of correspondence might not sound too exciting, but I read each page of this book and loved every minute. Die-hard O’Connor fans will appreciate The Habit of Being for being such an enjoyable and charming book that reveals what life was like behind the scenes of O’Connor’s success and battle with lupus.

The Nix book cover

The Nix by Nathan Hill
640 pages

Samuel Anderson is coasting through life. He wants to be a great writer, but instead, he’s a mediocre college professor who spends his evenings playing video games. One day he sees the mother who abandoned him as a child show up on the news for throwing rocks at a political candidate. Samuel owes his publisher a book, so he decides to track down his mom and write her life story in an attempt to show her true colors. As Samuel gets to work, readers are taken through the latter half of the twentieth century as his mother tells her story. There is so much happening in this novel, yet Nathan Hill never lets it get away from him. It’s an epic book, and it still astounds me that The Nix is Hill’s debut. I want everyone to read this book and love it as much as I do. (The audiobook narration is outstanding, by the way.)

Night Film book cover

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
592 pages

Journalist Scott McGrath hears about the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the twenty-something daughter of Stanislaus Cordova, the iconic and reclusive horror filmmaker, and feels something’s not quite right. He immediately suspects that Ashley’s death wasn’t a suicide. McGrath has been interested in Cordova for a long time, but his attempts to chase the truth about the mysterious man and his life have never ended well. Still, Scott’s curiosity gets the best of him and he, along with two unequipped strangers, start looking for the truth. Throughout the novel are photos, newspaper articles, website screenshots, and other visual elements that make this story even creepier than it already was. If you’re a mystery and thriller fan, this is a must-read. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Middlesex book cover

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
529 pages

Like several of the books on this list, Middlesex tells an epic story. At the center is Cal who was born as Calliope Stephanides, a girl growing up in Michigan during the 1960s and ’70s. Readers learn a secret about Cal and trace generations of her family to better understand her story and history. This novel is utterly unforgettable and deserves its Pulitzer Prize.


What are you favorite long reads? What books would you recommend I pick up next? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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