Time to update those high school reading lists

My third daughter has just started her senior year in high school, with one of her classes being Advanced Placement English literature. She told me that she and her classmates get to choose some of the books they will read over the course of this school year and showed me a list of about 80 books that are mostly what I would call “classics” that are typical for high school or college reading, plus a few newer books that weren’t around when I was in high school. I’d say most of the newer books seem to have been chosen to represent writing from other countries and cultures. (The books are listed with the author’s name and then the author’s country/ethnicity in parentheses.)

Being an avid reader myself, I have plenty of insight to give my daughter about the list and what I think is good and that she would enjoy and learn from. Honestly, right away I just scratched right through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville. I read several of those authors’ books and was bored silly. I won’t dispute that they were “great writers,” but there now have been PLENTY of other great writers since them. Can’t we include those and cut back a bit on these “Great American Writers”?

One note: I think that some of the newer book choices on this list, limited as these inclusions are, were decent choices. But I was full-on scratching my head over someone’s decision to include The Memory Keeper’s Daughter among maybe 10 or 15 “newer” books. I did read that; it was popular when it first came out as what I would call a “book club choice.” Have I heard of anyone reading it since? Nope. I can only imagine that it was included because a character has Down syndrome. But can we not find other recent books that include someone with a disability, and in this case, not as a plot point that’s intended to pull at heartstrings in what I call a cheap shot?

I know Shannon Hale, a bright and amazing writer and wise observer of many current goings-on, has written about this topic before (in addition to repeatedly talking, rightly so, about how we need to do better to encourage boys to read books that have female protagonists and stop referring to “girls” and “boys” books), but I haven’t been able to find any of her recommendations in my Google and Twitter searches so far today. So until I do, I will just reinvent the wheel a bit and make a list of some excellent books that would be great not just for showing the authors’ excellent skills with the pen (… or keyboard) but that open up windows into parts of the human condition that haven’t been explored in the older books.

(Note: I have reviewed these on my website, Rated Reads, with detailed information about the books themselves, plus content information. Links are included for those on Rated Reads. Most of these are “mild” or “moderate” rated for their content, though a few are “high”.)

  1. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Not only is this book a page-turner as a mystery and gothic story, but it provides readers with some insights into post-civil war Spain, which many kids will never learn about in history. The writing is glorious; the notion of a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” where books people have forgotten about are lovingly kept will thrill anyone who loves books.
  2. UnwindThe Unwind series, by Neal Shusterman. These YA novels are sophisticated and thought-provoking and sure to spark conversation. The premise? Society has decided not to allow abortions but to allow parents to choose to “unwind” their young teens if they are unsatisfactory. These kids are killed humanely and their parts donated to those who need them. What’s particularly appealing to me is that the books don’t seem to have a particular agenda; they simply explore a strange “solution” that a society has come up with regarding the contentious issue of abortion.
  3. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. This nonfiction account of a year that was particularly deadly among climbers of Mt. Everest is gripping and educational. If you have kids who think nonfiction is boring, wait until they read this. I was skeptical myself, but it hooked me so much I’ve read five or more other books on related topics. An excellent example of narrative nonfiction.
  4. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. Because this is simply the best gothic book of the past 50 years. Sure, read Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, but Setterfield’s novel has yet to be matched since its publication in   .
  5. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. This is another nonfiction book that is written in a format that is easy to follow. It teaches readers a bit among the Hmong culture, the language and beliefs. It’s particularly useful because it shows the clashes of American and Hmong culture (not to mention how even English-speaking Americans often do not have adequate communication with those in the medical profession) and how the grave misunderstandings left a young girl dead. These are the kinds of books we need to read more of in the U.S.
  6. The-Immortal-Life-of-Henrietta-LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Oooh, more nonfiction. All of the nonfiction books I’m referencing are easy to follow and compelling reading. Here, readers get to learn about medical research and how little autonomy blacks were given in their own medical care in past decades. There’s culture issues, medical issues, genetics … all fine reasons to recommend this book.
  7. The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. My last nonfiction. This book may seem long and daunting, but it’s compelling. The author explores the history of migration of blacks from the South to the North and West from 1915 to 1970, making a huge change in the “face of America.” She uses the device of focusing on a few individuals and telling their stories in detail to represent the larger migration of 6 million people. Excellent research and writing.
  8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This slim novel has been published in many languages and sold millions of copies in the past 25 or so years since it was first published. It’s a sweet fable that allows the reader to think about the meaning of life and to follow one’s dream. It’s a nice choice for students because it is short and accessible, rather than daunting in length or topic.
  9. Anything by Amy Tan or Lisa See. I’ve read quite a few books by these two authors, whose novels explore the experiences of Chinese women, either wholly in China or as migrants to America, and often through several generations, showing the changes that come about through new and different opportunities.
  10. not-dying-with-you-e1565824929795Any of Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, I’m Not Dying with You Tonight. These are young adult novels written about topical issues that blacks are facing, from a teen perspective, in our current culture/environment. I admit I am woefully under-reading in this genre.

If I’m going to take a “personality” test, of course it’s going to be literary

So I was reading Josh Hanagarne’s blog, World’s Strongest Librarian, and he posted about using a fun little site called I Write Like, which uses an algorithm of some sort to analyze whose writing style your writing most resembles. Now I typically don’t get caught up in those cutesy types of things everyone posts on Facebook (which Jersey Shore person you’re most like or which reality show you’d be best on, etc etc.), but this certainly hooked my interest. I mean, I love to read, and I love to write. And having myself compared to a famous author can only stoke my writer’s vanity, right?

So I eagerly tripped right on over to the site and pasted in a few different paragraphs from my blog and from my reviews on Rated Reads. I clicked the “analyze” button and only had to wait a second for the site to spit out its conclusion: I write like Vladimir Nabokov. Ohhh-kaaay. Haven’t read any of his work, actually (no, I’ve never been interested in reading Lolita, thankyouverymuch). But it was a fun game to play.


I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!


Hanagarne noted that he hadn’t seen any female writers pop up so far, and my sample certainly lines up with that. Anyone else care to give it a shot?

Not a book snob, but I do have some standards

As much as I’ve loved reading for almost 40 years now, and other people know how much I have read, I’m still astonished, and other people are astonished, at times to discover that I have not read certain classics. I haven’t read these books, for instance: A Tale of Two Cities (though it’s on my Kindle now and I’ve started it), Les Miserables, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Don Quixote, Walden, or The Canterbury Tales. Glancing at lists online that various people and organizations suggest as the top-40 or top-100 must-reads, I am even surprised to find there are some books I’ve never heard of! (I didn’t think that would happen for me on a “famous-classics” list.)

Frankly, since I’ve been reviewing books for so many years, I’ve tended to get skewed toward reading mostly new books. This has been especially true since I started Rated Reads in 2008: I’ve wanted to focus on new works that wouldn’t have gotten as much word of mouth as older books so the site can be more useful to visitors. So the upshot has been: fewer classics.

Even so, I think I’ve done a fairly good job over the years covering quite a few classics. And I’ve discovered some new books that should qualify as “new classics” because they’re so well written.

But I’m OK with not reading the classics or the classically literary newer books that are deep and filled with meaning. I don’t see it necessary to be a book snob. I’m perfectly happy just reading fluff sometimes. I will admit, for instance, that I did eat up the Twilight books, before they got really popular and that’s all anyone who was female, ages 13 to 55 or so, was talking about.  I hadn’t planned on reading them (Stephenie Meyer is a fellow BYU graduate, and when I read in our alumni magazine about her book about a vampire who falls in love with a great-smelling girl, I thought it just wasn’t up my alley), but when a trusted reading friend handed a copy of the first book to me and said, “I want to see what you think about this,” I indulged and got hooked. Sure, they’re basically female brain candy, but it’s sure nice to have some tasty Hershey’s kisses to indulge in sometimes, isn’t it? (I say this deliberately because there are also great books out there that are still kind of indulgent but I’d consider more the equivalent of Godiva or Valrhona.) The Twilight series has provided a whole bagful of kisses. I do like a good romance and clean(ish) love scenes. I did get tired of hearing about Edward’s marble chest, though. I just don’t care about muscles and finely chiseled chests, apparently.

Given that I enjoy fluff now and then, I do have standards. I think now might be a good time to share authors I do not like. Yep, I’ve written about some of my favorite books and authors, but now I will write briefly about authors I detest.

  1. James Patterson, at least as part of a writing duo. I read Sundays at Tiffany’s because I thought it was such a clever premise. The writing stunk. It was short and unmemorable and childishly written. I suppose I should try one of his mysteries, but I’m skeptical after being burned with his ridiculous prolific co-authoring. Actually, now that I think of it, I suppose my entire list of “hates” is of authors who churn out books to a loyal fanbase who will fork over $28 for any new tome from their favorite author regardless of the quality of the writing. Me, I’m not that loyal, I guess.
  2. Nicholas Sparks. Another prolific author who writes what I consider to be formulaic crud. I firmly believe that if the only way a writer can elicit an emotional response from readers is by using death as a tool to pull relentlessly on heartstrings, he doesn’t have much talent. I generally appreciate nuance. (OK, I did already say I loved Twilight. I can’t explain that.) I read two books by Sparks, I believe, as a reviewer and have seen a few movies based on his books, so I am pretty sure I can say I don’t need to read/see anymore. SOMEONE ALWAYS DIES. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but it must be said. I figure, you read one Sparks book, you’ve read them all.
  3. Richard Paul Evans. I think he’s a very fine man and has done some real good, and I love his success story. But his writing is sophomoric. Sorry, but it’s true.

It’s fairly safe to say that any author whose writing I find sophomoric or whose plots are formulaic will make this list. Obviously, I make a few exceptions, but in most cases, I’ll avoid this bunk and stick to writers who craft three-dimensional characters, create fascinating worlds, who have amazing imaginations, who can just put together the same old words in the English language in ways that somehow seem new and fresh.

Even when it comes to fluff, I have some standards.