World After World: Books for 2016

We live our lives in and through stories. “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth,” Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. … An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”

We asked Agnes Irwin teachers and staff to share with us some of their favorite reads from 2015. What book made an impact on you, educated you on an important subject, had a good message, or was just a really great story? Below, 23 teachers and staff members share their best recommendations for the new year.

WakingUpWhiteWaking Up White
Debby Irving
Waking Up White is an inspirational book that educates and propels the reader to self-examine and act with greater consciousness for the improvement of social equity. The book opened my eyes to the evolution of policies that led to systemic racism, and made me aware that, through my daily actions, I can help change the course of racism.”
— Esperanza Abadi, Upper School French teacher

SalvageTheBonesSalvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward
“I often call this book one of my all-time favorites, Faulkner meets Hurricane Katrina. What I mean is, the prose in this novel is rich, elegant and deeply southern. Take that and pair it with an impoverished family facing a looming catastrophe. Oh, and it’s a dog book, too.”
— Hillary O’Connor, Upper School English teacher

Flavia2The Flavia De Luce Mysteries
Alan Bradley
“These books follow 11-year-old Flavia De Luce, who lives in a small village in England in the 1950s, as she uses chemistry to solve mysteries. Not only are the mysteries well-crafted and so original, the stories are hilarious. From a groundskeeper who helps her solve mysteries to a housekeeper who can’t cook, the series is full of colorful and relatable characters. Flavia is terrorized and terrorizes her older sisters and she tries to form a relationship with her English father as the family attempts to keep the family manor up and running. These books are so amazing and I constantly stalk the internet waiting for the next one to arrive.”
— Dr. Sarah Eckert, Upper School history teacher and CAG research associate

JustMercyJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Bryan Stevenson
“People have revered the fictional character Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who bravely defended an innocent black man in To Kill a Mockingbird. As the author of Just Mercy points out, people tend to overlook that Finch did not successfully defend the falsely-accused man. This book chronicles Bryan Stevenson’s work defending innocent people sentenced to die on death row, children in adult prison, and others, using the case of Walter McMillian as the thread that runs throughout.

Stevenson, compared to Nelson Mandela by New York Times writer and author Nicholas Kristof, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal practice committed to fighting for children in adult prison, prisons and sentencing reform, and the issues connecting race and poverty. Why read it? Because it will remind you that everyone — every single person on this planet — is more than the sum of their parts and deserves compassion. As Stevenson writes, ‘The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent … It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.'”
— Donna Lindner, Lower School Director

“Anyone interested in truth and redemption should read this book. It compels us to look at our broken justice system and how those who are poor, and people of color, are treated so vastly different. This book is toted as the non-fiction, modern day To Kill A Mockingbird. A riveting read!”
— Kim Beamon-Morton, Lower School counselor and teacher

MarriageofOppositesThe Marriage of Opposites
Alice Hoffman
“The opposite of what, I wondered. I was intrigued by the title and once I started reading this novel, I couldn’t put it down. The story casts a wide lens and spans three generations over a period of 70 years. Rachel Pizzarro, the heroine of the novel, lives on the Island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. She is part of a Jewish community of folks who had escaped the European inquisition in the early 1800s and then settled in St. Thomas.

A basic premise of the book is the examination of one’s ethnic identity while coping with the pulls and tugs of a life fully lived. Always looming in the background is the stuffy rigidity of some of the seemingly-principled characters in the community who carry their own prejudice and hypocrisy. The ultimate message is that no one is immune from transmitting a potentially nasty judgment. I admired Rachel’s spunk and forbearance and I also liked reading how she embraced everything the island had to offer: the vegetation, the wildlife, the colors of the sea and sky, the weather. The fictional character of Rachel is loosely based on the life of the mother of the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.”
— Rita Davis, French Department chair

MeBeforeYouMe Before You
JoJo Moyes
Me Before You is a heartbreaking romantic novel. A girl in a small town needs a job to pay for college so she finds work taking care of a recently-paralyzed man. It brings two people, who couldn’t have less in common, together. She forms a strong bond with him and finds herself asking what to do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart. It was a great book.”
—Cheryl Kalodner, AIS Shop Manager

AlltheLightWeCannotSeeAll the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
“While the story this novel unfurls is compelling, for me, it was the vivid character development of the young children in France and in Germany during the 1930s that was unbelievably powerful. Seeing the tumultuous European world through the eyes of Marie-Laure and Werner helped me remember that children’s worlds can be wondrous and hopeful, even amidst the most dire circumstances.”
— Jenn Fiorini, Dean of Students

“The writing is gorgeous, without slowing down the story, which is set in occupied France during World War II. The plot is compelling, but what drew me in were all the forms of ‘light’ that sustained the blind heroine and others through terrible times.”
— Louisa Mygatt, Middle School history teacher

100YearOldManThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Jonas Jonasson
“I really enjoyed this book — recommended by our lovely librarians! The writing style was subtly funny and reviewed a bit of history in the form of flashbacks in addition to a story happening in the present. In short, everyone is looking for this 100-year-old man, who is tired of his nursing home and runs (or, more like slowly walks) away and goes on an adventure. As he goes, he thinks back on some of the events from his full, fascinating life.”
— Emily Brennan, Upper School math teacher

ArtofHearingHeartbeatsThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Jan-Philipp Sendker
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a love story set in Burma and imbued with Eastern spirituality and fairy-tale romanticism. Great story, fascinating characters, a bit of mystery, and really well-written.”
— Lynne Myavec, Middle School Director

H is for HawkH is for Hawk
Helen MacDonald
“This is a beautifully written book that is too complex to sum up simply. It is part grief memoir, part nature writing. You will learn about falconry, the biography of author T.H. White, and British chalk-cult mysticism. But all of that is secondary to the intimate portrait of the author, who lives in self-imposed exile with the tangle of her grief, and finds beauty in the instincts of a bird of prey.”
— Julie Diana, Head of Libraries and Academic Technology

BoysintheBoatThe Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown
“I recently read The Boys in the Boat, which follows the University of Washington men’s crew team during the 1930s and ‘their epic quest for gold at the 1936 Olympics.’ The book interweaves stories about the personal challenges of undergraduates during the Great Depression in the Pacific Northwest, the intricacies of crew and the athleticism and strategy of the sport, the history of World War II and Nazi Germany, and the excitement of Olympic competition. I found the book compelling on many levels: the power of the personal stories of the athletes and coaches who showed such courage and resiliency, as well as the insights into the challenges of the era, both regionally and in the context of world history. This was a book that I couldn’t wait to read, but also didn’t want to end.

Disclaimer: I am an alumna of the University of Washington and so felt a special connection to the story. While I was a graduate student, I conducted research on the waterfowl that nested along the shores of Lake Washington adjacent to the UW campus. I kept my research canoe moored to the docks of the UW crew house. In the early mornings when I was conducting my research, I often was lucky enough to be on the lake at the same time as the crew teams. To see them row with such rhythm and teamwork through the sparkling waters of Lake Washington with Mount Rainier as a backdrop was memorable.”
— Dr. Wendy Hill, Head of School

OnlyTimeClifton Chronicles
Jeffrey Archer
“This epic tale of Harry Clifton’s life was entertaining, relaxing and the kind of book you couldn’t put down. A dock worker in Bristol, Harry never knew his father and expects to work at the shipyard, until a gift wins him a scholarship to an exclusive boys’ school, and his life will never be the same again. There are six books and many unexpected plot twists. The author weaves in historical references through the entire series. Sometimes it is really difficult finding time to read for pleasure. This really pulled me in, and let me immerse myself fully and totally into the characters’ lives.”
— Susie Hagin, fourth grade teacher

AlchemistThe Alchemist
Paulo Coelho
“People should read this book because it can help to cultivate an excitement for world culture and travel, but more importantly it can help to keep a healthy perspective on life.”
— Liz Ortiz, Middle School Spanish teacher

HelpThanksWowHelp, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Anne Lamott
“In these unpredictable and chaotic times, it seems to me that simple prayer is a salve one can use anytime and anywhere. In another text, I read that prayer is the medium of miracles, and our world could use quite a few miracles!”
— Leslie Hahne, Middle School English teacher

BriefHistory7A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James
“It’s a difficult one to describe but easily the best thing I read this year. In fact, James just won the Booker Prize (UK’s national award for literature.) The book is a sprawling multi-narrator story set in Jamaica during the political upheaval in the 70s and the main focus is the attempt on Bob Marley’s life. James never names him as Marley but only refers to him as ‘the Singer.’ It delves into very specific political events and leaves you knowing more about Jamaica that you could imagine. It’s written in Patois and standard English, really a remarkable feat. It’s long though — 700 pages. It’s a tough read but impeccably done.”
— Brian Baillie, Middle/Upper School English teacher

MotherforChacoA Mother for Choco
Keiko Kasza
“This is my favorite children’s book. Choco wishes he had a mother, but who could she be? He sets off to find her, asking all kinds of animals, but he doesn’t meet anyone who looks just like him. He doesn’t even think of asking Mrs. Bear if she’s his mother — but then she starts to do just the things a mommy might do. And when she brings him home, he meets her other children — a piglet, a hippo, and an alligator — and learns that families can come in all shapes and sizes and still fit together.

I used to work for a teen parenting program in Boston, and we had a relationship with the local library to encourage early literacy. At one of our staff meetings, the librarian brought in a number of books, at the end of the reading of A Mother for Choco, we were all in tears. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. The program really highlighted the importance of early reading to children. When the teen moms read to their infants, you could see the babies focus in on the colors in the books and the bonding between mom and child was reinforced.”
— Kim Beamon-Morton, Lower School counselor and teacher

InventionofWingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
“This is the book I read in 2015 that made the greatest impact on me. It is a novel of historical fiction set in the early 19th century which is narrated by a slave girl (a fictional character) and by her owner’s daughter Sarah Grimke (a real life figure) who was an abolitionist and suffragette. Their lives are intertwined as each of them battles oppression and searches for individual freedom. Beautiful imagery and depiction of the courageousness of women of this time.”
— Linda Janelli, Middle/Upper School receptionist

R.J. Palacio
Wonder is about a sixth grade boy who was born with severe facial deformities. He endured nine massive surgeries before he was 12 years old, and his face is still not right. Due to that, he has been homeschooled, but his parents decided it was time for him to go to school. They found what they thought was a sensitive private school. The book is very sensitive, told from a different point of view in each chapter, often of the same event or time period. It is very thoughtful and really makes you wonder what it would be like for Augie and for his classmates. There are some difficult times, but in the end, it is remarkable the changes that each character makes. Wonder was on the NYT best-seller list simultaneously for adults and for youth for several weeks when it came out. The author decided to write the book when she and her young daughter encountered a severely deformed child at a coffee shop. Her daughter had a difficult time with it, and she wondered how it must feel to be the boy, who everyone shies away from. You will have a much better idea of how that boy would have felt after reading this book.”
— Pedie Hill, fourth grade teacher

MartianThe Martian
Andy Weir
“I loved this one and haven’t seen the movie (currently in theaters). Geeky main character with science factoids all over. Lots of my family read it over the holidays at our big gathering. Even my literary niece who works at The New York Times liked it! My brother read it in a day. Fun book.”
— Jeff Harlan, Middle School English teacher

NightingaleThe Nightingale
Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale tells a moving story about two sisters living in Nazi-occupied France who cope with the challenges of the war in very different ways. It gave an interesting perspective into life in France during WWII and demonstrates the power of one person to make a huge and lasting impact on the lives of others.”
— Elena Bertrand, Upper School math teacher

Humans of NYHumans of New York
Brandon Stanton
“I received this as a gift from a student. I usually gravitate with a real appetite for historical fiction (and some historical non-fiction) and in some ways, Humans of New York is historical non-fiction in the 21st century. It is a pictorially-rich, street-wise ‘narrative’ of human snapshots of New York humans, ‘detained’ for a moment in time in their life’s continuum by the author, and captures some of the most profound, spontaneous nuggets of human experience. It is a quick read, but you find yourself paused, prompted by a particular photo or its brief narrative to ponder one’s own existence. A fascinating compendium that fits in the hands and schedules of any of us humans in the 21st century with not a lot of time but always consciously and subconsciously thinking about what others are thinking and experiencing.”
— Cathy Lynch, Middle School history teacher 

Gore Vidal
“This is one of the better works of historical fiction ever written. It takes a thoroughly contrarian view of early American history, putting major historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in a distinctly different — and more scathing — light than you see in the course of your standard history text. Vidal was also a sharp and insightful writer, which makes an enormous difference. Highly recommended.”
— Sean McCormick, Upper School history teacher

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