Best Books of 2017

There were so many wonderful books published in 2017, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that I especially loved. Here they are:


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – by Kapka Kassabova


In this book, the author returns to Bulgaria (where she was born and spent her childhood) after a long absence. Her goal is to better understand the human and cultural impacts of the Iron Curtain border that intersected this area of the world, and this goal leads her into an exploration of the concept of borders themselves and how they impact the current immigration crisis in Europe. She crosses the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece many times over the course of her journey — a powerful experience for her after growing up near a border that seemed truly uncrossable. Her interviews with the people she meets in these borderlands unlock astonishing stories, as well as a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent history in the Balkans.

Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories – by Penelope Lively

Purple swamp hen

This was my first venture into the work of Penelope Lively, and I’m eager to read more. I found each of these stories to be sharp, engaging, and witty. At first glance, the stories seem to be about the mundane — a broken down van, an elderly lady doing her weekly shopping, an uncomfortable lunch meeting. But each story delves into the recesses of the human soul, and reveals something extraordinary and unexpected by its close.


Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

stone sky

When the first two books of a trilogy have been as widely lauded and won as much critical acclaim as The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate have, I always worry that the author won’t be able to stick the landing with the final book. I shouldn’t have worried in this case. The ending is masterful. This trilogy creates one single (several thousand page long) story arc, and this final book brought the story to a thundering, earth-shattering close. This is not light and fun fantasy — it delves into difficult themes such as abuse, trauma, power inequality, and rebellion. The world-building is captivating, the storytelling is masterful, and the ideas and struggles are deep and powerful.

Science Fiction

Binti: Home – by Nnedi Okorafor


This book (the second installment in the trilogy) is refreshingly different from classic science fiction. The author is Nigerian-American, and her works generally focus on African-based science fiction and fantasy. This book explores a kaleidoscope of different elements: a tribal girl struggling with the pull between her ambitions and the traditional expectations of her community, the tensions of a burgeoning friendship between this girl and a squid-like being who is the traditional enemy of her people, telepathy and unexplained mental powers, tribal magic and alien beings. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the third volume of this unique and beautiful trilogy.


Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – by Bruce Handy

wild things

This book will appeal to adults with a literary bent who still enjoy reading kids’ books — in other words, right up my alley. It’s a delightful romp through American children’s classics as varied as Goodnight Moon Charlotte’s Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The book isn’t intended for a scholarly audience, but it does explore children’s books as literature — digging into the lives of the authors, the thematic and structural elements (why do anthropomorphic animals feature so strongly in children’s lit?), and what children’s books from different eras say about the changing way we see our kids.

Young Adult

The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

hate u give

The main character in this book is 16-year-old Starr, a girl who regularly moves between two worlds — the world of the underprivileged black neighborhood where she lives and that of the mostly white suburban school she attends. The uneasy peace she’s carved out for herself between the two worlds begins to splinter when she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The story is raw and powerful, but it’s also told with nuance and compassion. This isn’t a political tirade disguised as fiction — it’s a deeply felt story exploring many facets of a terrible situation.

Middle Grades Fiction

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – by Dusti Bowling

events in the life

This is the story of Aven, a delightfully spunky girl who was born without arms (but likes telling people that she lost them wrestling an alligator), as she moves to a new town in order for her parents to take over the management of a run-down wild west amusement park. It’s a fun book, full of adventure, humor, and pluck, and I found it refreshing to read a book about a character with physical differences that didn’t treat those differences as the most important aspect of the story or of her as a person.

Graphic Novel

The Best We Could Do – by Thi Bui

best we could do

This powerfully rendered graphic memoir follows a Vietnamese-American woman’s exploration of her family’s past. She delves into her parents’ backgrounds, their lives in Vietnam, and their eventual journey to America as refugees. The theme of motherhood weaves throughout the book, as the author (a new mother herself) seeks to understand her own mother’s past through the lens of motherhood. For a more in-depth look at this book, check out this post.

Vietnamese-American Stories: The Best We Could Do and The Refugees

Two of the best books I’ve read this year were by Vietnamese-American authors. It wasn’t particularly intentional on my part, but I love it when I find unexpected connections in books that I read. The books are The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In one sense they’re very different from one another – the first is a memoir in graphic novel format, and the second is a collection of short stories. Yet the two books complemented each other in interesting ways.

best we could doThe Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir, in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland. The author herself arrived in the US as a toddler (after her family fled Vietnam), so the book centers more on her parents’ stories. In fact, the very process of her seeking to uncover her parents’ stories is woven into the narrative itself. We see the long, difficult conversations she had with her father, and the way her mother opened up more easily to the author’s Caucasian husband about her past than she could with her own daughter. We see her father’s childhood unfold, and then her mother’s. These two stories providing an interesting counterpoint to each other – the mother grew up in the social elite, attending French schools, and vowing never to give up her freedom and dreams by marrying or having children. The author’s father, on the other hand, grew up in poverty, abandoned by his father – a man who later tries to recruit him to the Communist cause. Seeing the history of Vietnam as a backdrop to these two very different childhoods provided an interesting glimpse into the varied experience of the Vietnamese people.

Another element of this book that stood out to me is how the author tells the story through the lens of motherhood. Pregnancy and birth is a sort of frame to the narrative. The book opens with a vivid scene of the author giving birth to her firstborn child, and we watch as she’s inundated with the questions and fears that often accompany motherhood. Her new understanding of both the significance and the difficulty of having a child leads her to investigate her own mother’s past with a particular focus on the experience of motherhood. As the story unfolds, she follows each of her mother’s pregnancies, set against a background of a changing country, often full of turmoil and unrest. The pregnancies are varied: there are stories of infant loss and stillbirth, stories of “replacement pregnancies” following the loss of children, stories of fleeing the country with an infant in arms and of giving birth in a refugee camp. There’s a poignancy to a woman realizing for the first time the intensity, meaning, and self-doubt of being a mother, and then seeking to interpret and understand her own mother’s past in light of this.

refugeesThe Refugees served as both a complement and a counterpoint to The Best We Could Do. It’s a slim collection of short stories, much more understated and reserved than the graphic memoir. All of the stories relate in some way to the Vietnamese-American experience, yet there was an incredible amount of variety among the stories. The fact that the characters’ lives had a connection to Vietnam wasn’t presented as a dramatic or flashy thing – there was no sense of exoticism or melodramatic pity in these stories. Instead, we see a nuanced and often understated look into a few moments in these characters lives. It shattered the illusion of a single, monolithic “Vietnamese-American experience.”

Not all of the stories were about literal refugees. To me, the title seemed to refer more to the unmoored feeling of being between cultures – not fully belonging to one or the other. This unmoored feeling presented itself in very different ways depending on the personality and experiences of the character. The characters themselves are well drawn and they come to life on the page. We see the adult daughter who lives with her ghost-believing mother who finds herself haunted by the memory of the brother who died saving her life as they escaped from Vietnam. Or the Vietnamese girl who idolizes her half-sister living in America, until the sister comes to visit and reveals the complicated truth of her life in the States. There’s the retired USAF pilot who fought in the Vietnam War, now visiting his daughter who has chosen the life of a language teacher in Vietnam, as they hash out their conflicting views about the country his daughter now calls home. And we see the elderly librarian who questions her husband’s past when he begins to call her by another woman’s name as his Alzheimer’s worsens. Each character inhabits his or her own space, and reveals another facet of the story that connects Vietnam and America.

These two books stand beautifully in conjunction with each other. On the one hand, they have quite different ways of approaching the subject – The Best We Could Do with its striking visuals and deeply personal autobiographical story, and The Refugees with its thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a multiplicity of different experiences among Vietnamese-Americans. Yet they both delve deep into the same subject matter – the lives of people who have become Americans due in large part to the Vietnam War. The war is an ever present thread weaving throughout both books, but it’s not often the main focus of the narrative in either book. Instead, these books focus on the personal journeys of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American individuals – their joys and their struggles, and the way Vietnamese and American culture rub up against each other in their lives. Both books are beautifully written, and the experience of reading them side by side deepened my understanding and connection to these stories and experiences.

Christmas Picture Books – 2017 edition

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is our picture book tree. Every year I wrap up 25 Christmas themed picture books and put them in a tree-like pile in our living room. Some of the books are one we own, but most I check out for us from the library.

Then every day from the beginning of December through Christmas, my son unwraps a book and we read it together. I love this sweet Christmasy time together each morning during the lead up to Christmas Day.

When we first started this tradition, I had Mom-guilt about not purchasing a bunch of new books for my son to unwrap each year. But then I realized that using mostly library books can be a good reminder that the gift is the story itself and the experience of reading together — not the material object.

We’ve done this for several years now, and while we have some favorite titles that we read every year, I always try to find fun new titles too. Here’s our list for this year — we’ve found each of these books to be delightful!

1. Twelve Days of Christmas – by Rachel Griffin

twelve days

2. A Star for Christmas – by Trisha Romance

star for christmas

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – by Dr. Seuss

how the grinch stole christmas

4. Christmas in the Trenches – by John McCutcheon

christmas in the trenches

5. Birds of Bethlehem – by Tomie de Paola

birds of bethlehem

6. Pick a Pine Tree – by Patricia Toht

pick a pine tree

7. Under the Christmas Tree – by Nikki Grimes

under the christmas tree

8. The Night Before Christmas – by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Raquel Jaramillo

the night before christmas

9. Red and Lulu – Matt Tavares

red and lulu

10. Samurai Santa – by Rubin Pingk

samurai santa

11. We Three Kings – by Gennady Spirin

we three kings

12. Bear’s First Christmas – by Robert Kinerk

bear's first christmas.jpg

13. When Santa Was a Baby – by Linda Bailey

when santa

14. Sleigh Bells and Snowflakes – by Linda Bronson

sleigh bells

15. Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree – by Lori Nichols

maple and willow

16. The Little Drummer Boy – by Ezra Jack Keats

little drummer boy

17. I’ll be Home for Christmas – by Holly Hobbie

i'll be home for christmas.jpg

18. The Twelve Sleighs of Christmas – by Sherri Duskey Rinker

12 sleighs

19. Apple Tree Christmas – by Trinka Noble

apple tree christmas.jpg

20. The Little Reindeer – by Nicola Killen

little reindeer.jpg

21. Silent Night: The Song and its Story – by Margaret Hodges

silent night

22. Baboushka and the Three Kings – by Ruth Robbins


23. Christmas in the Country – by Cynthia Rylant

Christmas in the country

24. There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve – by Pam Muñoz Ryan

no snow on christmas eve

25. This First Christmas Night – by Laura Godwin

first christmas night


Hillbilly Elegy – by J.D. Vance

It’s very unusual for someone from JD Vance’s background – a poor Appalachian kid from a broken home riddled with domestic abuse and violence – to end up with a law degree from Yale. Yet this memoir is the story of how Vance achieved this goal. The story is both personal and powerful, but as someone who grew up in West Virginia, I found that it often painted a complex culture with too broad a brush.hillbilly elegy

As a memoir, I thought this was a moving story. There’s something beautiful and important that comes from someone sharing their story and experiences in a long-form narrative. But this book tried to be something more than a memoir – in among the moving anecdotes from his past, the author included segments of sociological commentary and generalized explanation of the culture he grew up in. These sections weakened the story. The writing in them was weaker, and I wondered if an editor requested that the author add them in after the fact. In addition, the author seemed too close to his own traumatic experiences to have a clear and objective grasp of the culture as a whole. He commented a number of times throughout the book that he felt somewhat like he was betraying his culture by going to Yale and entering into the privileged world that came with it. This struggle with the transition between the two worlds and the tension that he (obviously) still feels about his past seem to interfere his attempt at making objective sociological commentary. He tells his story with heart and conviction, and it’s a story that we need to hear. But the attempt to expand his story into generalities about the culture detracted from the story as a whole.

I wish this book had come out at a different time. It’s quite a good memoir – a man telling the story of his growing up years, in a difficult home. But this book came out just before the U.S. election of 2016, at a time when a huge group of people were trying to figure out the culture of Appalachia and the American south, and trying to find out “who the Trump voter really is.” A lot of people latched on to this book as “the answer” to what Appalachian culture is all about. This is problematic. The story is moving and important, but it’s one person’s story. We can’t extrapolate out and say that we finally understand an entire culture based on one personal account.

Another problematic aspect to this book is the fact that there’s no in-depth discussion of how to define success. The author gives a very specific example of his own success – “getting out,” going to Yale, having a financially lucrative career. But he glosses over another success story in the book: his sister’s. While they both grew up in the same broken and very dysfunctional home, his sister married a solid, kind man, and seems to have formed a happy and stable life, even while she stayed in a working class rural environment. Sometimes success means “escaping.” But sometimes it doesn’t. To me, breaking the cycle of abuse and instability is the biggest success in both of their stories.

This book struck a very personal chord for me, because I grew up in West Virginia. I wasn’t born there (a fact which makes a difference to those who were), but I lived there from age five through my high school graduation. It was my home. A lot of the things the author describes in his memoir were things that I observed around me while I was growing up – the fierce tribal pride and family loyalty, the widespread poverty and difficulty in adjusting to and finding jobs in a new global economy, the tension and contrast between those who work tooth and nail to make it on their own and those who depend on the welfare system. But while many aspects of this story were very familiar to me, I resisted the inference that the author’s personal story was representative of the culture as a whole. There are plenty of families in rural Appalachia that aren’t riddled with domestic abuse. There are plenty of stable, happy families who love each other and love the place they live. There are plenty of people living in Appalachia who love it there and want to continue living there – not everyone views it as a place to escape from. There are problems in Appalachia, to be sure, and the collapse of the coal mining industry has certainly worsened them, but I found it to be a wonderful place to grow up.


Bookish Links

1. Who Reads Poetry

A collection of essays from readers of varied backgrounds about why they read poetry.

2. Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this week. His only book that I’ve read is The Buried Giant (which I loved), but I see several more in my near future.

3. 13 Diverse, Spooky Reads for Kids

A great list of Halloween reads for kids. I particularly enjoyed The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste.

4. Women Writers of the African Diaspora

I have a particular interest in African writers, and in women writers. Here’s a list where the two overlap.

5. 10 Memoirs by Women in the Culinary World

Culinary memoirs from women around the world — India, China, and the USSR all feature in books on this list.


Picture Books about the Middle Ages: Monks and Monasteries

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a change in the world of picture books. The picture books that explore history and the lives of famous people have gotten so much better. You can see it in the Caldecott lists, with titles starting to appear such as Henry’s Freedom BoxA River of WordsDave the PotterMe…JaneThe Noisy Paintbox, or Freedom in Congo Square — all books that tell compelling stories while at the same time exploring a particular historical person or event. As both a history buff and a lover of picture books, seeing more of this kind of picture books makes me very happy.

There’s something magical about exploring history through picture books.  Instead of a list of kings and battles and dates, you get a compelling narrative or personal story, complete with illustrations that give the kind of visual cues for the historical setting that are almost impossible to relate solely through words. A well done historical picture book engages the senses and gives a unique window into the time period.

So when I started looking over my 7-year-old son’s history curriculum for this year, I was disappointed with the lack of picture books. We homeschool and our curriculum (Sonlight) relies mainly on A Child’s History of the World and The Usborne Book of World History for its survey of world history. These are both good books, but I thought the experience would be enriched by adding in some well chosen historical picture books along the way.

In this first post, I will share the picture books we used to supplement our study of monks and monasteries during the Middle Ages. I’ll continue with an ongoing series of posts featuring the picture books that align with various periods of history as we study them. Our curriculum for this year covers the rather daunting period of the Middle Ages through World War II. With this large of a time span, it’s obviously going to be a high level survey, with just a few hand picked picture books to go along with each era.

So whether you’re a homeschooler, a teacher, a librarian, or just a parent or care-giver who wants to explore history with the kids, I hope you enjoy diving into this collection of picture books.

Picture Books About the Middle Ages:

Monks and Monasteries

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane – by C.M. Millen


This tale follows a plucky young monk named Theophane as he works in the scriptorium of an Irish monastery, copying manuscripts and creating books. Told in lilting verse, and with beautiful stained-glass style illustrations, the story brings to life a number of aspects of bookmaking — making the ink, collecting herbs and berries for color, binding up donkey hair for brushes, etc. My favorite aspect of this particular book was the fact that it incorporated into the text translated quotations of actual poems written by Irish monks in the margins of their manuscripts.

Magic in the Margins – by W. Nikola-Lisa


This story also focuses on a young boy working in the scriptorium of a monastery, but the focus is different than in The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane. Our main character, Simon, is just an apprentice in the scriptorium, and he longs to progress from simple sketches and exercises to being able to fully illuminate pages in the manuscripts. An unusual assignment from the abbot of the monastery leads Simon on a journey of discovery about meaning and imagination in art. This book goes into more depth about the artistic marginalia that monks included in the illuminated margins of their manuscripts than other books I’ve seen.

Saint Francis and the Wolf – by Jane Langton


Set in 12th century Italy, this is the tale of a wolf who terrorizes the town of Gubbio until Saint Francis steps in and brokers peace between the wolf and the town. The charming illustrations are in the style of medieval illuminations and give a good sense for both the dress and the architecture of the time.


{For fellow homeschoolers: this list of books aligns with Week 1 of Sonlight’s Core C}



A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Literature as Companionship

Literature as Companionship

by Margarida Cadima


In his semi-autobiographical novel Satori in Paris, Jack Kerouac writes about “…the tale that’s told for no other reason but companionship, which is another (and my favorite) definition of literature…”. I quote Kerouac because throughout my life, literature has had a panoply of qualities, among which companionship.

Due to my father’s job, I moved around quite a lot growing up. I’m Portuguese, but I was born in Rome, and have lived in Lisbon, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and London. Being an only child, I didn’t have a sibling with whom to share this nomadic experience, so I turned to books as companions. Literature was my travel companion.

In 1999, when I moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my parents, I had a children’s version of The Three Musketeers with me. I used to read and re-read it, and through D’Artagnan’s adventures, I could better cope with my own adventure, of adapting to a new culture, a new school and a new language, English. I remember fondly the lunch hours spent in the library reading children’s books and magazines (I was a huge fan of American Girl magazine!), at first trying to read and understand the words on the page, then eventually being able to string together the words and comprehend the story I was reading. Literature was my language companion.

As I grew older, literature continued to accompany me and helping me better understand the world I lived in. In high school, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, and there you have sprawled on the pages of this work human nature. It is all the more impressive when you think that this book was written some 500 years ago, and how pertinent it remains to our present day. Literature is my companion in understanding human nature.

I will never forget the day when I decided I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. It was 10th grade English and we had to read The Great Gatsby. Never had I read a book that, to put it simply, contained all of life. The decadence, the idealism, the unrequited love: it was all there! To everyone who has read and loved The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about. At that moment, I knew then I wanted to read and learn about and study more literary works. I want to spend my life delighting and discovering everything literature has to offer. As Italo Calvino said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I wanted to engage in this dialogue. I wanted to join this never-ending conversation. It was then I decided. Literature is my companion, for life.

I graduated high school in June 2009, less than a year after the global financial crisis exploded. In the news, all we heard was that people were being laid off. There were no jobs. Nobody was being hired. So studying literature did not seem like an obvious choice. Perhaps this generalized hopelessness made it all the more clear that you have to study what you love. It may be cliché, but you have to follow your passion. To this effect, I’m concluding with a quote by  literary critic M.H. Abrams, who graduated high school during the Great Depression and justified his choice of studying literature as follows: “There weren’t jobs in any other profession,” he explains, “so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”


To connect with Margarida, check out her Instagram.


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