It often surprises people when I say I’m more introverted than they might realize. I understand. After all, I love a good chance to get dressed up and go out on the town, I’m happy to be in front of a camera, and I actually enjoy public speaking. I can’t be like that all the time, though. I don’t do well with extended periods of loud noises, I can dive deep into a complex, extended project, but I struggle with staying in peak focus when I have to jump from one task to the next to the next, and I’m easily exhausted by a constant go-go-go pace.
For these reasons, I’ve actually thoroughly enjoyed the mostly slower pace of the last several months. It was lonely at times, but it was also gloriously uncluttered. Keeping a school district up and running was no joke, but knowing I didn’t have a packed calendar on weeknights and weekends was wonderful. Knowing there wasn’t even pressure to be anywhere because, well, there was nowhere to be was the balm my soul needed after a particularly stressful first year in my job and a harrowing first few weeks of figuring out how in the world to put school online with just a few days prep time. I was one hundred percent okay with the months of being at home other than a daily walk around the neighborhood and a weekly trip to the grocery store. I loved (and miss!) working from home. I relished how much quieter everything was without cars on the road and planes in the sky. Truth be told, once I processed the shock of living in a global pandemic, quarantine was good for my mental health.
Among the many reasons I’ll always be grateful for lock down is the time it gave me to reconnect with something I loved since I was a little girl–reading. I tore through books (and puzzles and Netflix, too, let’s not fool ourselves) at a pace I hadn’t in many years. I loved it. I dove head first into fictional worlds, challenged my thinking, and felt the satisfaction of closing a book and exhaling after endings I didn’t see coming. I connected with friends and shared recommendations. I took their recommendations and loved discussing our thoughts. Below are five books I’ve loved lately.
1. The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh
A friend from grad school told me about this one. I saw it on her instagram and, knowing she loves to read and is a passionate student of bias, racism, and the Black experience, I asked her about it. Like many Americans, I realized I had far more to consider and unlearn about our country. If I wanted to call myself an ally and co-conspirator, I had work to do. If I wanted to make change happen, I was going to need to start with myself.
This book masterfully invites readers to examine themselves as fully human people. It asks people–good people, because the author and I both agree almost all people truly are good people–to become builders of change by reflecting on who they want to be and objectively analyzing if their thoughts and actions match up with that. It calls us to consider the complexities of intersectionality, privilege, and fear. It prods us to internalize what it means to take responsibility and supports us with strategies for taking action.
The Person You Mean to Be isn’t about guilt, though the nature of introspection means we’re all going to remember some things we wish we could go back and unsay or undo. It’s about doing the work in yourself and with others–the author includes herself in this–so that we can fight bias and work to change systems we know perpetually disadvantage people. It’s about realizing wanting better is the first step in doing better and nothing will change unless we take responsibility for our thoughts, education, words, and opportunities for action.
2. Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself by Dr. Jill Biden
I’ve always loved biographies and autobiographies, especially those of women who’ve shown that intelligence, tenacity, grace, conviction, and sense of self are key. My bookshelf holds, among other favorites, the biographies/autobiographies of Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Julia Child, Katharine Graham, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’m fascinated by female strength and the ways it is similar to and different from what is often viewed as traditional male strength. (Yes, I realize I’m painting in broad strokes here.) I find power in learning what made the women I look up to the women they became and both grounding and inspiration in understanding how they’ve navigated and nurtured their relationships.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Dr. Biden’s autobiography, though being a lover of presidential history and the lives of our First Ladies, I knew I’d at least enjoy it. I just didn’t know all that much about her beyond the basic facts. I now realize that’s because she, like me, is a much more introverted person than most of us realize. Her work as out nation’s Second Lady really didn’t let us see that side of her and, as she shares in her autobiography, she was more than fine to not volunteer the information.
What I found in Where the Light Enters was, to put it succinctly, a First Lady and a woman whose heart felt so much like mine I truly couldn’t believe it. The way she talks about teaching, not just as the profession she chose, but as the calling that chose and continues to choose her spoke to me on such a deep level. Her words were words I’d thought, felt, and said many a time throughout my career. After all, the very poem her title comes from centers on a teacher as the one who helps heal and empower another. When Dr. Biden announced she would continue teaching community college students throughout the campaign and as First Lady, I knew she clearly loved teaching and loved her students. I now see in her what I was fortunate to find myself–being a teacher is truly, wholly, gratefully embedded in my identity.
The way Dr. Biden talks about her family, her relationship with her husband, and the challenges and gifts of loving the two sons he brought into their relationship after the tragic death of his first wife and baby daughter is the grace and graciousness I seek and strive for. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to be married again. I don’t know if any future relationships I might find will be with a man who has children. It’s something I’ve given much thought too, though. If those opportunities do come in to my life, I fully plan to rely, in large part, on Dr. Biden’s wisdom.
3. Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo
This was one of the books I’ve read for work over the past year. My school district, like many around the country, spent much time exploring our course grading, ranking, and weighting policies and procedures and their effect on students mental health and college opportunities. I found the work fascinating and the opportunity to work with so many intelligent, compassionate individuals on something other than adapting to ever-changing COVID protocol invigorating. While doing some research for our committee, I found this book by Jeffrey Selingo, a highly respected and awarded higher education journalist and author.
I won’t go into as much detail on this book because I realize it’s the one in this write up least likely to appeal to a mass audience. Let me just say this–if you work in education and/or if you have a child in middle school or high school, you need to read this. Period. Long gone are the days of just making good grades and scoring well on the SAT. Being part of seven clubs and three sports teams? Not the flex you might think it is. Working in K-12 education and focusing in large part on advanced academics and college readiness, this book confirmed much of what I already knew about admissions procedures and offices. But there was so much more. The textures and layers this book brings to light, and in the easily readable way you’d expect from a journalist, will be beyond helpful and probably beyond frustrating to many a parent and student soon to enter the college admissions phase of their education. You’ll want to read it. I mean it.
4. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
My goodness. How do I even begin with this one? I can truly say it is now fully ensconced in my top ten books. At least for fiction. I don’t know…with all the reading I’ve done this past year, I may need to have tops lists by category. But this book. The storytelling, the imagery, the character development–all absolutely top notch. (Perhaps the author gained a knack for this with her own dramatic story. Whoa.) I know it can be cliché to talk about a book transporting you to the world the characters live in, but it truly happened with this one.
It had been recommended by colleagues and friends, including a former dance student who now has her own editing business. It was one of a handful of books I read during February’s Texas Snowmageddon. I don’t remember what the other books were. What I do remember is closing this book when I was done, exhaling, and saying out loud “That was a great book.”
I’m usually one who sees the ending coming in books and movies–something I’m pretty sure I learned from my mom, the scion of spoilers. I did not see this one coming…not the way it happened at least. Gosh, I want to talk about it, but I also don’t want to ruin it. If you haven’t read this one yet, do yourself a favor and do so before the movie adaptation comes out next summer. Reese Witherspoon is producing it. I have full faith in Reese, but the book and your own imagination are almost always just so much better.
5. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I chose this book as a palate cleanser after reading several heavier, more technical books for personal development and for work. Another one of my former dance students and sister to the editor mentioned above (Talk about an awesome family!), said it was one of the best books she’d read in quite some time. She, like her sister, devours books and has pretty darn good taste, if I do say so myself. She didn’t tell me much about the book, but knowing she loved it meant I would too.
Set primarily as a flashback to Old Hollywood, there was enough glitz, glamour, and drama to be totally unlike the several books I’d read immediately before it. Don’t let that fool you, though. This books has some serious themes and characters who are so much stronger and more substantial than you’d ever imagine from the beginning of the novel. What starts out as the classic story of a Hollywood wannabe turns, through the author’s masterful storytelling and dialogue, into a rich examination of the cost of stardom, the reach of its tentacles, and the fight to be who one truly is. I cried very real tears thinking of people who have suffered in some of the ways the characters did and I gasped at the ending. I can only think of three books I’ve ever reread by choice. This one may just become the fourth.