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My Top 10 Reads of 2016

By Nancy Flanagan — January 25, 2017 4 min read
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First: Thank you, Goodreads. It’s the perfect app for prodigious readers, keeping track of all those titles that sound the same, and learning whether other people love the oddball book that kept you up all night.

And second, thanks to my perennial reading buddy, retired English teacher Claudia Swisher of Oklahoma, who beats me handily, every year, in our ongoing reading challenge (also accomplished through Goodreads). Claudia’s top ten reads? Here. We have only one book in common this year (#1 on both my list and hers). Most of her recs automatically wind up on my Kindle in January. I read 105 books in 2016, but Claudia piled on with 146 titles. Neither of us has had much appetite for fiction in the last couple of months.

My top ten list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and the majority of the books have some connection to education. Only six of these are books were published in 2016, but the rest were new to me. And delicious.

#1. Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools by David B. Cohen. Terrific book. Much more than a collection of stories about happy, successful, innovative classrooms. Cohen’s thoughtful commentary accompanies his classroom visits, weaving observations about education policy, teaching, our changing student demographics, equity and justice into detailed vignettes that paint an accurate portrait of education in America. There are a few cogent policy recommendations, but mostly, Cohen’s verbal pictures tell the story. The kids, it seems, are all right--and so are the teachers. That’s a lesson that bears endless repetition, and Cohen does so with grace and conviction.

#2. Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. A friend was so convinced I would love this book that she ordered a paperback copy for me and had it sent to my home. She was right. It’s a great tale, beautifully written, all about the one-room schoolhouse roots of American education, where ordinary kids in Montana encounter a superbly gifted (accidental) teacher. If you think public education has lost its soul, read this book.

#3. Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos. I think this may be one of those novels where the author’s descriptions of teaching were more beguiling and meaningful to me than the average reader. Kallos captures changes in our educational beliefs and attitudes—how we treat unusual children, or the importance of penmanship, for example--and turns them into deeper messages about human relationships.

#4. Dark Money by Jane Mayer. Dense with information, connecting all the dots, Mayer’s book was a sensation early in 2016, filling readers with dread and outrage over the evidence that money buys influence and even public opinion. Even though the book is heavily footnoted and meticulously researched, it’s very readable. And horrifying.

#5. The Trespasser by Tana French. Tana French will spoil you for other mystery and thriller writers. Her characters are so well-drawn, her setting in Dublin rings so true, and the plotting never feels like the reader is being manipulated. There’s nothing predictable about French’s books; I love them all, for different reasons.

#6. Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein. I so wish I had been able to read this book before I retired from teaching in a middle school. Orenstein’s key message: It’s different now. Technology and social mores have shifted the conversation; the things we fought for—control over our own bodies and desires—have turned out differently in the age of Tinder. Lovingly written, filled with important ideas.

#7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The first book I’ve read that presents the fraught journey away from enslavement as muddled and complicated. There is no clear distinction between heroes and villains, no clarity of purpose, no triumphant entry into safety or freedom. It’s all brutal and complicated and terrible. I’m not sure Whitehead’s presentation of the Railroad as manifest reality works, totally, but it adds a layer of ambiguity to what must have been unremitting fear and uncertainty about whether there was a “right” thing to do. This seems like a book worth reading again, in a year or two.

#8. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Mathew Crawford. A compelling look at what we value in America (credentialing, mostly) compared to actual work, acts that accomplish useful tasks and involve dedication and skill. This book made me re-think every assumption I held about the worth of schooling and the things we prize as educators.

#9. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Krueger gets inside the skin of a young teenager, Frank, whose summer is wrenched from baseball and television into a series of inexplicable tragedies. What makes the book exceptional is the moral ambivalence of all the characters, from Frank’s minister father to his beautiful, yearning sister. That, and Krueger’s pitch-perfect writing, made this a memorable read.

#10. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman. A book about decisions made by privileged high school students in the model community of Columbia, Maryland. Lippman is such a good plotter that when the threads finally come together, it all seems obvious: we seldom escape, completely, from what we were as children and teenagers.

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