My 10 Favorite Reads of 2018

First let me say, 2018 was an amazing reading year for me. I read more books than I’ve ever read in a single year. I finished 88 books. I also kept track of everything I read, partially because I love a good spread sheet, and partially to hold myself accountable.

Before I dive into my top 10 books, here is a little breakdown of what I read in 2018.

  • 44/89 books were by authors of color (49%)
  • 48/89 books were by women (54%)
  • 26/89 books were by women of color (29%)
  • 30/89 books were published in 2018 (34%)
  • 60/89 books were acquired by me in 2018 (67%)
  • 50/89 books were nonfiction (56%)

Of all the books I read here is how the star ratings shook out

  • 16/88 books received five stars (18%)
  • 25/88 books received four stars (28%)
  • 31/88 books received three stars (35%)
  • 11/88 books received two stars (13%)
  • 3/88 books received one star (3%)

I love a good stat, and I could break down my reading even more, but I won’t. Instead here are my top 10 favorite reads of 2018 (in alphabetical order), though they weren’t all published this year.


Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

The true story of biotech company, Theranos its founder Elizabeth Holmes, and the scam they ran on the rest of the world. This book has it all, fraud, threats, billions of dollars, high profile characters, and a cute blonde. If you need a WTF kind of book, Bad Blood is your best bet.
Hear our full discussion of Bad Blood with Nancy Rommelmann on The Stacks, Episode 28 .


The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

A unique memoir, of women refugees, set during the Rwandan Genocide that follows Wamariya and her sister Claire as they travel through Africa looking for a way out. Poetic, and with a sense of calm, this book engages with the trauma that was endured and the perspective that it brought.


Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

An emotional memoir of life as a young Black man in Jackson, Mississippi. Laymon is brutally honest and completely vulnerable as he tells of his own struggles and successes, and he connects his life with a much bigger picture of being Black in America. Laymon’s dedication to the written word and to the power of revision is striking.


Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A beautiful work of fiction and a modern day retelling of Antigone set against the backdrop of ISIS in Great Britain. This book is an emotional ride with plenty of plot to keep things moving, but still a real strong commitment to developed and complex characters. This book asks the question “who is the bad guy”?
Stay tuned for our conversation of Home Fire on The Stacks Book Club in January.


Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

The story of Ward’s early years told through the deaths of five young Black men in her life over the course of four years. This book is a Black Lives Matter memoir, before we ever had the language of the movement. Ward crafts a story of pain, grief, womanhood, and Blackness, all with in her signature beautiful writing.
Hear The Stacks discussion of Men We Reaped on episode 4, with guest Sarah Fong.


Othello by William Shakespeare

I revisited this play in anticipation of our episode on New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, and was blown away by how good it is. Othello holds up. This is story of racism, jealousy, entitlement, and sexism. Aside from the language the play, it easily could have been written today. There are scenes in Othello where I found my self in tears simply reading the words. I know Shakespeare is intimidating but I found this to be more accessible than I thought, and it was the spark for my #ShakeTheStacks Challenge.


The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson

A collection of beautifully written and incredibly thought provoking essays on justice, revenge, mercy, and responsibility. These essays discuss the most complex and challenging topics of the current moment, from Whiteness to the environment, from terrorism to rape culture. Though they seem like they shouldn’t be placed next to each other, yet it works perfectly. Johnson is a force when it comes to the written word. A true artist, asking questions and leaving room for her reader to find the answers.


Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

If you want to learn about racism and racist ideas and the history of those traditions in America, this is your book. Kendi writes accessibly and in great detail about the power struggle between racists and anti-racists and those in between (assimilationists). He chronicles racist thinking in American life and doesn’t let racism off the hook as simply being ignorant. I still find myself thinking about this book as I watch the world unfold around me.


There There by Tommy Orange

A fantastic novel centered around a big powwow in Oakland, CA. This book is told from many perspectives, and has a cast of dynamic characters. Orange does an amazing job of sharing some of the experiences of urban Native American life, without being preachy or leaning into cliches. The writing is great and the characters are diverse and engaging, plus the plot is suspenseful and keeps you tuned in until the very end.


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I never thought I would love an advice book so much, but Tiny Beautiful Things is more than just advice. Strayed is the perfect mix of compassionate and curt. She tells it like it is, and weaves her own stories into her sage words. Sometimes she delivers a warm embrace, sometimes she takes you down a peg, but mostly she does both, and it is perfect. I know this is the kind of book I will return to when I just want someone to tell me about myself.


Thats all from me, but please share your favorite books you read in 2018 in the comments below, and I look forward to reading more great books with all of you in 2019.


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The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

E6521C99-1A52-4616-B658-92150D28E59B.JPGThis book is a true gift. I am very grateful that Wamariya chose to share her story with the world. I think we, as readers and consumers, can often feel entitled to read great stories. I think we feel we deserve to be educated and entertained. The Girl Who Smiled beads is an ever present reminder, that every book, every story, is the work of someone else. It is their labor of love and struggle, and that they are making a choice to share that with us. We should be humbled to be in the presence of someone else’s journey, and we should be grateful. This book made me grateful.

If you are not familiar with this book, here is more information for you.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive. 
 
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.

Clemantine and her sister Claire go on extraordinary journey, except its not extraordinary. It is all too common. It is the story of civil war. It is the story of death and violence. It is the story of becoming a refugee. It is one telling of this story, that too many know too well. Wamariya makes the point of reminding us that it is us, that are inadequate, we can not take in all the unique stories of suffering. So instead, we find ways to make certain ones the special ones. The ones we are willing to see.

The story as told by Wamariya to Weil is fantastic. The poetry in the language is beautiful and it brings so much depth and emotion. Wamariya is willing to get vulnerable. She is willing to be flawed for us. The structure of the book is not linear, we jump from event to event, year to year, we are sorting through Wamariya’s life with her. Looking for clues as to who she is and how she grew into her self. She is angry and bitter, she is distrustful, she is also a caretaker and a witness to so many. She will not let us see her, or her sister, as only victims.

While there are parts of the book I would have loved to hear more about (her relationship to Black Americans, the conflicts in Africa she experiences, her day to day acclimation in Chicago), this book is full. It is rich with thoughtful analysis of ones own journey, which is so hard to do. To be truly examines one self is no easy task.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is in line with other books about children who grow up in war torn African countries and find their way to America. Two that I am particularly fond of, What is the What by Dave Eggers, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. While the other two books are more concerned with historical context and the telling of a cohesive story, I found this book to be more thoughtful, more introspective, and more concerned with the greater narrative of suffering that we inflict upon one another.

While there are parts of this book that are disturbing and emotional, I would suggest you read it. I would suggest you bear witness to Wamariya and her journey.

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