Books: The Best 75 from the Last 75

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Parade was dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.

Books I Have Read from the List

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)

    I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment

  2. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

    What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?

  3. Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)

    I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

    I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.

  5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

    My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.

  6. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

    Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.

  7. Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)

    Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.

  8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)

    I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.

(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List

1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)

This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of the books that would have made my list.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)

Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.

3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)

When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.

4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)

Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.

5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)

A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed seems worthy of the list.

6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”

7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)

A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.

8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)

There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.

The cover of this week’s Parade Magazine, the summer reading issue, featuring a list of the 75 best books in the last 75 years

Summer 2016 Reading List, Addendum

It is June 9. There is just one more Monday left in the school year. The countdown is really on now–but with the decreasing number of days, there is an ever-increasing number of books on my summer to-read list. I mentioned in my initial Summer To-Read post that I would likely end up writing an addendum. Well, here it is!

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Why I want to read it:

The movie trailers for the film version of this novel are intriguing, and I have heard the book is phenomenal–touching, poignant, thought-provoking.

How I heard of it:

When I first saw the movie trailers for The Help, I wanted to see it, but I follow a strict book-first policy that mandates I read a book before I see its movie, so, when I found out the film was based on a novel, I couldn’t see it: I had (still have) to read the book first.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Why I want to read it:

One of the famous six-toed cats living at Hemingway Home, August 2014

Quite simply, I love the line “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” At least, I think I love it. I can’t really say for sure until I have read the book. The line can stand alone, and mean a million different things, but I want to know what it means in the context of the book.

In addition, I already know I admire and enjoy Hemingway’s writing. In high school, I found A Farewell to Arms deliciously depressing and tragic. I also relish his short stories, with their clipped and realistic dialog, their symbolism, their tragedy, their flawed characters and ambiguities.

Finally, I feel drawn to Hemingway in that I have close ties to his two haunts, Michigan and Florida. I spent the early days of my childhood in Michigan, and still visit at least once a year. I have been to Petsokey, Michigan and other areas of the upper peninsula, as well. I also travel to Florida multiple times a year, and in the summer of 2014, drove all the way down to Key West where, among other sites, I toured Hemingway’s home.

One of the famous six-toed cats at the Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida, August 2014

How I heard of it:

Of course I had heard of it in passing–it’s pretty famous and I’m an English teacher. But what really placed it at the forefront of my conscious mind, separating it from the other famous classics we have all heard of at one point or another, was the suggestion that one have the line “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” tattooed somewhere on one’s body. A book line worthy of a tattoo has got to come from a book worthy of a read.

A view of Hemingway’s studio, August 2014. Our tour guide informed us that Hemingway would get up in the morning, spend a few hours writing about 600 words, and then venture out in the afternoon and evening to local bars and restaurants.


The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Why I want to read it:

While I have never read this book in anything close to its entirety, I have been exposed to excerpts enough times to know it tells its story from several different perspectives. My own novel-in-progress attempts something similar, so I think I can learn something from the structure of this piece. In addition, the writing style is rich and the characters of which I do have some knowledge seem diverse and well-developed. I simply want to know more.

How I heard of it:

A leader at one of the workshops I attended at the James River Writers Annual Conference used excerpts of this novel to illustrate various writing techniques and skills. My  parents also read it aloud to each other during a long road trip, and both liked it.

On a Side Note…

My initial Summer To-Read List includes Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. If you live in or are going to be in the Richmond area next week, you might be interested in Fountain Bookstore‘s Harper Lee Themed Dinner on Wednesday, June 15. It will feature a three-course meal and a discussion on the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman, led by Charles Shields, a biographer of American novelists.


Summer 2016 To-Read List

For students, bus drivers, and teachers across the country, spring break has come and gone, Memorial Day is just around the corner, and summer break is cresting over the horizon. We can all comfortably begin our official days-until-summer countdown. For those of us who love to read, but rarely find time during the school year (unless, of course, you count student essays, research papers, journal entries, essay tests, etc.), this is also the time to begin officially making our Summer To-Read lists. To be honest, I’m hesitant to publish this just yet, as it will inevitably grow, but you’ll just have to keep your eyes open for addenda as I learn of more must-reads for the summer. Here’s my list as it stands now:

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Rinker Buck

Why I Want to Read It:

I have to admit that I’m cheating just a bit with this one, as it’s actually the last book I started reading at the end of last summer. September caught me unprepared, and I hadn’t finished reading. Between the start of the school year and now, I think I’ve managed to turn something like a mere 12 pages. First and foremost, I intend to return to this neglected nonfiction work by author Rinker Buck, whose writing chronicles his trip tracing the original Oregon Trail across the prairie in a covered wagon pulled by three mules with his ornery but helpful brother and his brother’s Jack Russel Terrier, Olive Oyl.

 The plan: kick off my Summer 2016 To-Read List with a book that I never got to finish last summer, Runker Buck’s The Oregon Trail.

My interest was initially piqued because of my position as a high school English teacher, my primary course being American literature. In addition to my professional interest in this memoir of the American spirit, the review reminded me of one my favorite author’s works, John Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Both books feature men traveling the country by unorthodox means, Steinbeck in his jalopy named Rocinante, alluding to Don Quixote’s horse, and Buck in a covered wagon. Both men are on a quest, in search of something they perhaps do not even know they want to find. Both books detail the historical, physical, and societal landscapes of America. And both books, of course, include a dog, the terrier Olive Oyl in the case of Buck, and the standard poodle Charley in the case of Steinbeck.

I was also interested because for a five-year period during my childhood, I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I have, on numerous occasions, visited the Oregon Trail ruts, Plymouth Rock, and Fort Laramie.

So far, I have learned an incredible amount about history, the American landscape, society, mules, the mechanics of covered wagons, and the particulars of wagon travel. The book has proven not only entertaining, but educational, informative, and thought-provoking. I am eager to read the pages the school year temporarily stole from me.

How I Heard of It:

I read a review in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Read an excerpt from the book and highlights from a 2015 interview with the author on NPR here.

2666, by Roberto Bolano

Why I want to read it:

A few summers ago, I read Salman Rushdie‘s novel Midnight’s Children. I enjoyed it so thoroughly, that still I find myself often ruminating over its pages, though I have long ago returned them to the local library’s shelf. I conducted an extremely thorough and analytical reading of this particular book, as I wanted to use it as an example for the literature portfolio assignment I planned to assign to the upcoming year’s honors English students (more on that in a future post). My careful study of the book made it even more impressive and enoyable. Bolano’s 2666 sounds reminiscent of Midnight’s Children, as well as one of my other favorites, John Steinbeck‘s East of Eden.

How I heard of it:

Almost every morning on my way to work and almost every afternoon on my way home, I listen to NPR. Two of my most beloved programs are Fresh Air and All Things Considered. During a recent broadcast, I heard a story about a stage adaptation for 2666, and the complex characters, plot that spans continents, and its impressive 900 pages (I love a good, long book) immediately mandated I add this to my Summer 2016 To-Read list.

Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

Why I want to read it:

When I was in first grade, my family moved across the country from Michigan to Wyoming with the help of my maternal grandparents, who assisted my mom in driving our family, which included four of us children, across the mid-west and west to our new semiarid prairie home. At one particular rest stop somewhere along the way, my little brother and I were horrified at what we saw on the other side of the fence from the rest area. Several cows were placidly grazing near the bloody dead body of an apparently trampled-to-death turkey. Traumatized, we went running across the rest area parking lot to fill our family in on the gruesome details of what the deceptively docile cows had done to the innocent bird. My grandfather calmly followed us back to the scene of the crime, where he pointed to a wobbly

Tomorrow’s Table seems a timely read when homegrown produce, farmers markets, and organic foods are all the rage.

calf nearby, its mother gently licking its slick coat. The cows had not trampled a turkey. What we interpreted as a brutally stomped turkey was actually the placenta and after-birth of a mother and her newborn calf. My grandfather gently explained everything, and from then on, I grew up knowing I could ask my grandpa anything–anything–about animals or plants, and he would know the answer. (This was also true of sports trivia, but that’s another story.)

Driving down the road and see an unfamiliar crop? Grandma will know what it is.

How can you tell if it’s going to rain all day? Grandpa knew that, too. It had something to do with the birds coming out and the cows standing (or was it not standing?) under trees.

He even helped my parents hand-build a horse fence encompassing six acres of pasture after we had lived in Wyoming a couple years.

My greenhouse, where throughout the winter, various flowers, fruits, and vegetables survived, and where I started watermelon and pepper seedlings for the spring.

Two years ago, I began to follow, albeit it with much smaller shoes, in his footsteps. I planted two cucumber and one zucchini plant directly into the dirt at my back fence line. Despite my husband’s skepticism, they grew and flourished and stocked us with more vegetables than we could eat alone. The following year, we started our own raised bed garden, and experienced success with grape tomatoes, watermelon, sweet pepper, carrots, lettuce, corn, cilantro, and strawberries. This fall, we just went right on ahead and built a greenhouse, where all winter long pineapples, grape tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, along with some flowers, thrived. This year, we have expanded our garden by two raised beds and have added egg plant, squash, some varieties of tomatoes, and broccoli to our menu.

But my interest in agriculture and homegrown food is only one reason I am interested in this book.

Another is that I am currently taking a certification course to become a life coach, and this book seems as though it could help me become a more informed life coach in the area of nutrition, as well as stewardship, responsibility, and overall well-being.

Finally, a third reason this book fascinates me is the fact that shortly after I picked it up, one of my dual enrollment students began writing a research paper on GMOs. I loaned her the book, believing it might help her in her study. It did, and the quotes, facts, and statistics I read in her paper, attributed to this book, were enthralling.

How I heard of it:

Earlier this spring, I was proctoring a standardized test in our school’s library. As I pace around and monitor students’ test-taking, I also read the occasional book jacket. As I walked near our librarian’s desk, I noticed this book sitting on the top of a stack. Each summer, she and a few other teachers at our school lead a sort of scientific nonfiction book discussion club, and I inquired if this was the book they had chosen for this summer. It wasn’t, but it had been in the running, and she offered it up to me. Of course I wasn’t going to turn away a free book on a topic of interest to me, so I took advantage of her offer.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Why I want to read it:

Because it is absolutely shameful that, as an English teacher, I haven’t yet. And because I have never, ever met someone who has read it and not loved it.

How I heard of it:

Who hasn’t heard of it?

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Why I want to read it:

Yes, I realize that as an English teacher, I should be absolutely ashamed to admit that I have yet to read this book. But aside from my burning embarrassment every time a colleague wants to discuss it, the polarizing effect of this book fascinates me. I have met very literary people who have been absolutely disappointed, particularly with the character of Atticus Finch, and equally literary people who have been absolutely delighted. I am eager to read it and make my own judgements.

How I heard of it:

Honestly, I have heard so much about this book for such a long time, I couldn’t tell you when I first heard of it.

The Curtain, by Milan Kundera

Why I want to read it:

I hope my reading of The Curtain will make me a better reader, writer, and teacher.

This book is a nonfiction work that explores writing fiction. I believe it could help me become a more adept reader, as well as a more skilled writer. I cannot wait to see what I will learn. I am hopeful for moments enlightenment and epiphany like the ones I experienced several times in my undergraduate English courses at Michigan State University.

How I heard of it:

Earlier this spring, my husband and I spent a weekend with my parents at their river house. I happened into my parents’ room for something, and found this book on the edge of the bathtub.