Books of 2016: A Year in Review

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Jane Austen reading room at Mia, August 2016

I had a disorganized year of reading – and writing, but that’s for a different day. I read more books that I have in previous years, but the quality was lacking. I want to read books that shake me, makes my bones rattle, and while I absolutely did read a few of these (The Neapolitan Series left me strung out and raw), I also read a lot of filler. This was due in part to the fact that I was reading to clear my shelves – trim away that books that didn’t rock me to make way for more that to -, but it was also partly due to the reality of my year.

I can see in retrospect that I spent a lot of 2016 working hard to just get by. A few high-intensity, low-happiness spring months kicked off a very slow slide into the deep anxiety and mild, but tenacious depression with which I am closing out the year. Rounding up all of my 2016 titles made it clear that many of my choices were attempts to read for comfort. The problem was that I reached for a lot of shaky rafts, a lot of escapist reading when I needed to transcend.

While much of what I read this year didn’t have the teeth I want from my fiction, I hope to change that in 2017. I’ll still be reading to trim (for the first time in my life, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread pages on my shelves), but I want my literary life to feel more like a revival than it did this year. I have a few books on my nightstand that I’m excited about, but I’m also looking for suggestions. (I’m always looking for suggestions.)

So, in alphabetical order, all the books I read in 2016.

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  1. Edith Wharton’s The Age of InnocenceI’ve read this book many times, and each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the grace of the language, and the precision of its observations. This was a comfort read that did not let me down. I read this in the wake of the election. For the first time, I had no sympathy for Newland, and all the praise and power for May and Ellen, each powerful women in their own right.
  2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: For all my love of the detective novel (give me an opening and I will diagram for you the social and historical importance of detective fiction), I’ve never read Agatha Christie. I picked this novel up on a rainy spring afternoon when I went in search of cheer-me-up books. Classic whodunit, and despite all the death, this mystery was a delight.
  3. Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s WifeThis is one of the few books I’d recommend not reading. Historical fiction imagining the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to Charles, the narrative spans her entire adulthood, and attempts to position Anne’s story as one of power lost, sought, and reclaimed. The writing was iffy, the narrative structure all over the place, and character development jagged, but the hardest pill to swallow was Benjamin’s attempt to excuse and apologize for the couple’s attitudes and opinions about Nazi Germany. History has no heroes, and I get the need to reconcile the good with the bad, but reading this attempt to smooth over the Lindbergh’s blatantly anti-Semetic, pro-Nazi opinions in post-election 2016 was not worth it.
  4. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: My yearly lesson to not read hyped books (or give the hype a few years to die down). After hearing must-read-able this book was, I expected an earth-shaking, ground-breaking treatise on political and cultural feminism. This book is not that. What it is is a series of thoughtful, thought-provoking essays on gender, race, sex, and popular culture (heavy on the latter). My roof blown off, but I benefited from this book, particularly from the critique of popular culture depictions of the Black American experience.
  5. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Transcendent. I’ve been intimidated of Morrison’s writing ever since reading her for the first time when I was eleven (Love, and I was too young), so though I own most of her books, I’ve only read a few. Beloved was a glorious, harrowing, exquisite experience. There’s nothing I can say about Toni Morrison that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll join the choir and preach. Read this!
  6. Julia Keller’s Bitter River: Don’t read this. It’s a small town cop mystery, but somehow, we go from pregnant teenager dead in a river to terrorist attack in Appalachia. Confused? Me too, and not just because this writer traffics solely in compound sentences and wildly irrelevant tangents.
  7. Tina Fey’s Bossypants: I love when smart, funny women write about themselves. Tina Fey is a decent essayist, and is at her best when she’s talking about the work or talking about being a woman. I got tired of her constantly making herself the butt of her own joke, but as another girl whose never known what cool is, I appreciated the honesty and humility.
  8. Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: Mary McCarthy is a master class in observational writing. This is a novel of connected short stories about a young woman in 1930’s New York City. It’s very much of its time in tone and style, but it’s a smart, carefully crafted examination of politics, gender, and social expectation. I read “Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man” immediately following the election, and at a moment when gender, politics and power were all thrown into harsh focus, this story was a particularly haunting and insightful look at petty, privileged men and the radical woman who challenge them.
  9. Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6: This was a short, dark, beautiful novel. Translated from its original Finnish, the narrative follows a girl traveling across a late 80’s Soviet Union to see hieroglyphs in Mongolia. I wrote a much longer review for Grist that you can read here, but the short of it is read this book.
  10. Ha Jin’s A Free LifeThe marketing calls this an immigrant’s story, but after reading, I think that’s too simplistic. Ha Jin uses the immigrant narrative as base camp for the Wu family, but then wraps them in layers of human complexity. As much as Nan, father and narrator, is an immigrant, he’s also an aspiring poet, a frustrated father, a husband who pines for a former lover – a fully formed man struggling for identity and abundance in their many forms. This novel is dense, and Jin’s writing style jars me, but I am so glad this novel.9-16-books-3
  11. Joan London’s The Golden Age: This was the best book I read all year. Published in Australia two years ago and released in the U.S. this summer, this novel is about a children’s polio recovery home in post-war Australia. It is a stunningly graceful and impossibly hopeful novel about pain, loss, and resilience. It’s a short, lyrical, abundant novel that takes life as it is, and sees, without sop or sentimentality, the beauty. Read my longer review for fields here.
  12. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Another re-read. President’s Day weekend, Valentine’s Day, frigid temperatures and a head cold lined themselves up, and I spent a long weekend reading this. I read this novel for the first time when I was 10, and I was far too young to understand the Confederate nostalgia or the references to the KKK. I thought I was reading a big, epic story with a fierce, mean, tougher-then-hell woman at its center. This was the first time I’ve read GWTW that I’ve been critical enough to see both, I’m not sure there’s a way to reconcile the blatant racism and historical inaccuracies with this story of powerful women and their survival.
  13. Ali Wentworth’s Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales:  Audiobook is the way to “read” a celebrity memoir. I listened to both of Ali Wentworth’s memoirs on two back-to-back work trips, and each was delightful. This one, the first, covers her adolescence and adulthood up to the point of her marriage. It’s fantastically funny, and at more than few points, surprisingly tender.
  14. Ali Wentworth’s Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales: Wentworth’s second memoir, and I liked it even better than the first. Each chapter is framed by an inspirational quote, and the wisdom that she gained (or didn’t) from it. Wentworth deals funny and real in the same hand, and these books of hers are delightful.
  15. Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany’s Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildI wasn’t going to read this. I have strong opinions about why, out of respect for the reader, J.K. Rowling needs to stop writing about Harry Potter, and I was not going to read this post-canon screenplay. Then, at 11 a.m. the morning the book was released, a copy wound up in my cart at Costco. I read it. I kind of wish I hadn’t. One of the most beautiful gifts that a good writer can give to their reader is the chance to let the characters live on in each of our imaginations. Cursed Child didn’t dim my love of the original books, but it confirmed all my purist, Harry Pottery snobbery.
  16. Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton: It’s become a habit to read Morton during the holidays, not because there’s anything particularly festive about her work, but because she writes easy page-turners with pretty (if sloppy) prose. This was the 2016 read, and I read this while recovering from illness, and mourning the loss of my grandfather. Easily my least favorite Kate Morton book thus far, but it distracted + entertained when I most needed it.
  17. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger GamesI hadn’t read these books or seen these movies until this year. I read the first two of the series (couldn’t get into the third) in early spring, during the season when my work is at its most intense. I enjoyed them so much more than I expected. Pure escapist reading, but it was great.
  18. Suzanne Collins’ Catching FireSee above.
  19. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A coworker nailed it when she said this was the least intimate memoir she’d ever read. It would probably be more accurate to call this book a music biography, and not a personal memoir. That (and the fact that being neither a fan of Sleater Kinney or punk music) aside, I really enjoyed this book. Brownstein writes crisp, muscular prose, and balances narrative with reflection well. The final three chapters, Be Still This Sad Year / Shelter / Home, are are beautiful and piercingly honest. They alone made the whole book worth it.10-16-books-new-writing-project
  20. Tana French’s In the WoodsIf you bill a book as a police procedural, you damn well better solve the mystery. The main character, male with tortured history, got a little whiny, a little too maudlin, but these small bits aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Right up to the point where they left one mystery unsolved. Mystery, I’m realizing, is a hard genre. Too much hype and nothing by the devil himself will made a decent reveal; not enough, and there goes the story. This story was all build, very little reveal. I’ve heard her later novels are more conclusive?
  21. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of FlowersOn the few occasions that I’ve shared the premise of my first novel with people, this is the novel that they’ve said my story is “just like.” (People, for the love of God, don’t do this to writers. Sharing our ideas is hard enough, but to hear “oh, I’ve already read that” is devastating). When I finally read this novel, it threw me into a funk. I didn’t love the novel – writing was a little flowery for me (no pun intended) and found the character’s motivations unclear – but it did force me to grapple with the parallels to my story (some, but fewer than people assume), and the value of the story I’m trying to tell.6-16-pool-day-2
  22. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: I read this book in a day and a half (partly because some plane ticket fun kept me in the Memphis airport for about 7 hours). Reading Ferrante is like holding on to a live wire, and trying not to let go. I burned through the entire Neapolitan series, and when I finally came up for air, everything I’d ever read (and written) was ash in comparison. These are, far and way, the most extraordinary I have ever read.
  23. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New NameSee above. Holding on to a live wire.
  24. Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: See above. Read anything with her name on it.
  25. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child: See above. The finest ending. What do you read after Ferrante?
  26. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are: I read this book slowly over of several months. An exploration into the habit of gratitude, its thesis is that joy does not produce gratitude, but gratitude produces joy. The call is to cultivate a daily habit of delight, and I found that when I practice thanksgiving, I’m a softer, slower, better aware human.
  27. Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: This is a strange, dark, delightful mid-century novel from the other Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, and a critique on the genre of Gothic literature. The cast of characters is off-kilter, the familiar – reclusive widower, precocious, motherless child, young governess – planted alongside the odd and out of place – a pregnant female doctor, the mother she has no patience for, very cranky service women, and an alcoholic brother, long in love with the dead mistress of the house. It’s jarring to read such a familiar narrative populated by such unfamiliar characters + motivations, but really, really enjoyable. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I liked finally getting to root for the drunk.
  28. Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector: A forgettable novel. I read it at the beginning of the year and had to look up a synopsis to even remember its plot (I immediately got rid of my copy). It premise is intriguing – mysterious, female perfumer leaves her fortune to a stranger in a different country, narrative unravels who these women are and how they’re connected. For me, the novel crumbled when romance and motherhood were reduced to plot devices. By diminishing each of these radical, transformation human experiences, the characters themselves were diminished.
  29. Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence: Another that quickly wound up on the give-away pile. After hearing that her photographer husband died while on assignment in Alaska’s Arctic Circle, mother Yasmin and deaf daughter Ruby steal a semi-truck and drive it across the tundra in the middle of a raging winter storm. And they’re tailed by a stranger in a pick-up. And someone is sending them photos of dead animals. And there’s an environmental terrorist on the loose. The plot give me whiplash, but I held on because I loved Lupton’s prose so much. It howled with a lyrical force I can only dream of in my own writing.
  30. Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility: I loved this novel. I loved it so much. It’s a story of a woman in transition, making the choices that will pave the future that we, the reader, will not see. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, choice, and playing life as it is laid.
  31. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements: A book dripping with critical praise. I liked this novel a lot, the story of a family, with a wide cast of characters (many of whom are given voice in the narrative) in the week leading up to one daughter’s wedding. Shipstead’s observations are critical and sharp, but her prose is soft and lyrical. I like the balance – it gave the novel a human quality, multitudes contained in one.
  32. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper: See above about Kate Morton. This was my 2015 holiday read, but I didn’t finish it until after the new year. Very enjoyable. Very forgettable.
  33. Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light: I wanted to like this novel so badly. I loved Raven Stole the Moon, and picked up this book, Stein’s latest, after a string of aborted attempts on other so-so books. A teenage boy returns, with his father, to the haunted family manor to cash out an inheritance and settle emotional debts, except friendly ghosts with ancestral secrets, and sexy, devious aunts cause problems. The novel read like a second draft that needed a third pass – writing not tight enough, plot holes too big, characters deflated.
  34. Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing: This is Capote’s first novel, written in the 40’s, but unpublished until 2005. I read this in a blink. It’s a story of the times – wealthy New York girl having an affair with a working class Jewish boy – and it’s written with all the jittery drama of golden age Hollywood. Capote is young here, flexing his voice and reveling in his language. As a young writer, I love reading the early works of literary titans.
  35. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: The first Hemingway I read was A Farewell to Arms, and it was an electric experience. I didn’t know language could do what that novel did. Reading this novel, though, made me understand why people complain Hemingway – he writes whiny indulgences of the wealthy and vain. Not my favorite from the Western canon.
  36. J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton: I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years, and when I finally started reading it, I wished I hadn’t waited so long. Willie Sutton, first FBI Most Wanted, was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969, after having his sentence commuted, and he gave one newspaper interview the following day. Told in a series of flashback, Moehringer reimagines that interview and Sutton’s early life as a love story. It’s not a great novel in a critical sense – it relies on sympathy, sentimentality, and stock myths about pre-war gangsters – but I was swept up by the story, and by Moehringer’s clipped, swift prose.
  37. Sarah Pekkanen’s These Girls: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of beach read books about girls and their girlfriends and the boyfriends who never quite measure up. Every few months, I’d borrow a stack from the library, and never once was I able to read more than one of these books. This novel was written in that same vein. Three girls, connected through the New York City magazine work (and one hunky writer) deal with heartbreak, insecurities, secrets etc., etc., etc. I found the story vapid, and even its girls looking out for girls message did little for me. I grabbed this book on the way out the door as I were rushed to catch a flight to make it to a funeral. It was a comfort read that gave little comfort.
  38. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: The cult of Cheryl Strayed is real, and I live on the fringes of it. I think she is a beautiful writer, and can often cut to the heart of human experience. As an advice giver, truth teller, wisdom mama for the millennial generation, I have less patience for her. I read this book slowly over about a month, because taking in all of it without a break would have been too much for me, but on a whole, I loved the book. For all my big-hearted optimism, I can be very cynical, and every now and again, it’s good to rein in the princess of darkness and let the sun shine.
  39. Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean: This was the first book I ever read for review (you can read it here), and a very good one to start with. A novel about a Colombian-American woman seeking freedom and redemption from the sins of her family and her former life. The plot is wide ranging, pulling narratives of immigration and dislocation, romance and wilderness, prison and passion, but at the heart is this question about what it mean for a person to be free. A very contemplative and, ultimately, hopeful novel, with a fluid, graceful voice.
  40. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?: Remember what I said about liking to read funny women write about themselves? Mindy Kaling’s second memoir is a little more traditional than her first (and I liked that), but just as smart and funny. She focuses on her adulthood and post-success career, and hits all the big subjects – body image, dating, celebrity-hood. The reason I love reading funny women write about themselves is the heart of this book: Because it’s a good goddamn thing to hear women recognize and applaud their own successes.
  41. Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People: My Halloween ghost story mystery, this novel was not spooky enough or mysterious enough for me. I did, however, love the inspiration for the book. From the dedication that McMahon wrote to her daughter: “Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods…’Sometimes it just happens.'”img_7760
  42. Emma Donoghue’s The WonderThis was the first novel I’ve read by Donoghue – people have been recommending Room to be for years, but I’ve never actually read it – and I think that tempered my reaction to this novel. It was good, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not the extraordinary work of genius that it’s been lauded. It’s a story about an Irish-Catholic girl who has been fasting for four months, and one nurse’s attempt to discover the trick behind the fast, and save the girl’s life. This was a very good story told very well, but for a novel that deals with themes as complex as faith, devotion, and duty, I was disappointed that Donoghue didn’t leave the reader more room to mediate on them. Read my longer review here.
  43. Amy Poehler’s Yes PleaseMy adoration of Amy Poehler is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I adored this book so much. It was the very first book I read in 2016, and all year long, I found myself returning to pieces of this memoir. She is as fresh and funny and frank as you could hope a celebrity to be, but she’s also wise about being an artist, and being a woman, and being a human. This book was enjoyable, but more than that, it was valuable.

Books I’m Still Reading: Born to Run. Reading Bruce Springsteen’s prose is beautiful, and moving, and a little bit like sitting in church…but it’s taking me forever and a month to get through. This book will be on the 2017 round-up.

What did you read this year? What should I read next?

We the People: Election 2016 + the Hard Scrabble for Hope

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And — and to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams…

Because, you know — you know, I believe we are stronger together and we will go forward together. And you should never, ever regret fighting for that. You know, scripture tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”

So my friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary, let us not lose heart, for there are more seasons to come. And there is more work to do.” Hillary Clinton

On Tuesday, I cast a vote for Hillary Clinton.

I spent the day in classrooms talking with students about people in history who stood up against oppression, and then with determined optimism, I went to the voting booth. I cast a vote for the only person on the field qualified for the position and the only person who conducted themselves with the dignity required of a president. I had my reservations about her as a candidate, but on election day, I cast an excited, enthusiastic vote for hope, for decency, and for democracy.

And I woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that hate won.

I am sad, angry, a fire of fury at the 60,000,000 men and woman who voted for the lowest of our country, who casts vote for hatred, exclusion, violence, and blatant inexperience.

I am angry at the electorate. I am angry with the electoral college, which allowed one candidate to win even though more people voted for the other. I am saddened by each person who cast a vote for Donald Trump. If you’re my friend, and voted for him, I am angry at you. I won’t be forever but right now, I am mad. I am angry at the 49% of eligible voters who, for reasons of complacency or confusion or sheet stubbornness, chose not to vote. You, too, by your omission, help elect Donald Trump. I am furious with the 80% of evangelical voters who voted for him. How are is anyone to call themselves the hands and feet of God if we elect a man who threatens, belittles, excludes and divides? I’m also mad at the DNC; they are not without blame. They threw their weight behind a candidate who, though I supported her, was not the best candidate for this race. I’m mad that they overestimated their sway with college-educated people, and underestimated the anguish of the working class.

But most of all, I’m mad at Donald Trump. He ran for the highest office in the land, and he required nothing of his voters. A leader asks people to rise, and he allowed them to stoop.

But I’m not going to stay here.

I need time to grieve. As a woman, I hurt. I hurt for my friends who say “I fear” our president elect; I hurt for the students who are asking if they’ll be hurt, if they’ll be sent away, if their parents will be. I hurt for our country, because we should have done better. We can do better.

Once I’m done grieving, I’m going to work. Staying angry with those I disagree (some of whom are in my social circles, intimate and precious to me) will do nothing to heal. I’m going to fight for grace in understanding; I’m going to do deep work in myself to push back the liberal intelligentsia snobbery that I have taken part in. I’m going to really learn from those whom I disagree with. If this election gave me anything, it gave me a deep respect for the principled, honorable smart Republicans who govern along side.  I’m strengthen my spine, and intervene in any bigotry, ignorance or hatred that I see. I’m going to figure out what needs to happen–get educated, get involved, get organized.

Hope 2016

One of the most incredible things I saw on this dark Wednesday morning was an outpouring of love. I listened to teachers tell students that they are safe, accepted, wanted. I watched women hug each other, talk with another, cry together. I talked with friends, coworkers, family, about our disbelief and our dogged hope.

Because we do not have to be a people without hope. To become hopeless, to become scared and resigned to the GOP control of Congress and the White House is to allow Trump to win in a more powerful way than he already has.

We have two years of education and organization before the midterm elections. To quote Sorkin, every two years we get to overthrow our government. Right now, we have representatives in our state governments and in Congress who are also scared, also confused, also dedicated as hell. We have the power of speech, of organization, of democracy on our side. We have the chance to reach out to those we disagree with. We have the chance to reconcile differences, to celebrate them, to model a better way of being that our President-elect has.

We have power.

I know that I have privilege that allows me to come to hope faster than others. If you’re not there, I get it; I’m not asking you to get there. I hear your fear, I see it, I stand alongside you in it. By no means do I discount you or what you’re feeling right now.

A coworker said to me today “I have faith in the American experiment.” A friend wrote “I don’t have time to despair or to complain about moving to Canada. (Of course, for those of you mourning today, take your time). But when you’re ready, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”  Another reached out to me, and said “I know you guys are feeling scared and fearful right now and I get every reason why…As a republican and white Christian male, I will do my best to protect and hope to find a meaningful conversation in the future to better ourselves from this years results. We will disagree deeply on how to get here, but we know that we need to start moving.” Aaron Sorkin said to his daughter “America didn’t stop being America last night, and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always–always–been followed by our finest hours.”

We the people have the opportunity today: we have the privileged duty to get involved. I wept on Wednesday for the candidate who was not elected to office. I mourned the fact they my grandmother, who organized for voting rights in the ’60s, did not see a woman elected to office on Tuesday. I had hoped that this would be a tribute to her, to all the men and women who fought for their vote, and their voice. I grieve the hatred, and I grieve the fear.

But I will not stay here. I will recover from this anger. I will talk and talk and talk, and then I will do. Together–and I mean together, not Democrats together, not Republicans together, I mean Americans-who-want-better together–we will be a force of radical change.

We the people are not without hope.

We the people are not without power.

Going Dark: Autumn Update + Thoughts on Writing and Horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows I watch. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches.)

I walked through the small woods in my backyard. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hoped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for the men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.
I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.
I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

Life Lately: Getting Back to the Joy of It All

1115“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully.” The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer

These past four or five months have not been bad months, but they’ve been busy months, and busy is hard for me. Each week has been stuffed with work commitments, and weekly appointments, and friends and family, and I-didn’t-know-that-was-coming, and I’ve looked up again and again and said “I need some rest.”

I prefer to move at a slower pace, keeping open wide swaths of time for the people and pursuits I love best. I’ve heard this called creating margin—opening up time and energy around the unshakable commitments of life to make room for more rest, more joy. While I hesitate to call these margins a “need,” because they’re a luxury afforded to me by age and life-stage and privilege, I do know I struggle when my margins disappear.

This spring wound me tight. So tight I began to fray at the edges. I made myself overworked and overtired and overstressed. I came to the end of my days, and I let myself collapse ointo a heap on the couch. I forwent cooking one meal, then another, then another, and I slowly traded a robust reading and writing rhythm for eleven and a half seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. (Y’all, this show has NO business being on its twelfth season). I isolated myself even more than I usually do until I was only seeing people at pre-appointed times. I filled up every blank minute with some form of distraction, because it feels so much easier passively take than actively create.

I built up all these bad habits, and my body responded. Sleep deteriorated, and as my sugar and caffeine intakes rose, my body and mind both became sluggish. I was perpetually not sick, but not well. Then, a month ago, I began breaking out in hives and eczema, and last week, after a nerve-wracking (and expensive) trip to the ER, I learned that I have costochondritis and pericarditis—both painful, but non-threatening swellings inside my body.

I’m like a car badly in need of an oil change. Not broken, but I’ve gone just a little too long without taking proper care. I’m working on taking proper care now.

I use this space to document the “working through it” of it. The figuring it all out, as vague as that it. Now that work is promising to ease up a bit, and the temperatures are above freezing, I’m working my way through this little pile-up back to the joy of it all.

1113I’m doing that by getting back on top of my reading game. When I don’t read enough, I feel unbalanced, like I’ve left the house with only one shoe one. After a series of false starts and bad reads (who knew I would dislike The Sun Also Rises so much), I did what I haven’t done in months and had myself a little party trip to the book store. I picked up a few thrillers, and devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in days. I’m currently in the middle of the gorgeous Seating Arrangements. I’ve plunged back into my Granta Book of the American Short Story, and am trying to pick apart the genius of this hard, hard art form. I said last week that I understand the world through stories, and my goodness, it feel good to be back with them.

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Connected to the uptick in reading, I’m also going back to what inspires me so that I can make an easier time of my slow crawl back to a daily writing habit. For me, this means giving myself time to consume and time to think. I’m keeping the TV off, and as best I can, my phone away.

I reread this sad, strange, surreal story about a man who removed himself from the world for nearly thirty years. I’m pouring over the photographs from a recent visit to the Grand Canyon (more on that later—it’s been a month, and my soul still hasn’t settled). I’m doing what I heard another artist talk about, and using photographs as jumping off points for the stories I want to tell.

After the announcement of their 16 Tony nominations, I also gave Hamilton another go, and it all clicked together in a way it hasn’t before. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack over and over, not only because the music is good (it is) or the story is interesting (it is), but because Hamilton is an extraordinary example of what I find most phenomenal and worthy about artwork. At its core, art is the reworking and reimagining and retelling of our oldest stories so that the beautiful, radical, essential humanity of them is clear. Hamilton does this (and with history, no less!), and it’s blasted open the doors of my own shuttered creativity.

Side note: If you’re not already, start listening. It’s a dancing, rapping, race-bending bio-musical about the man who founded the National Treasury, was at the center of America’s first sex scandal, and was killed in a duel by the Vice President. If that doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

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I’m turning my attention to food, trying to both follow the Michal Pollan food rules (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants), and rediscover the joy of creating meals. In response to the skin irritations and the swelling, I spent hours pouring over cookbooks and food blogs, looking for recipes that were low in sugar and dairy and high in vegetables. I’m mixing up what I buy, and what I eat, and trying to reorient my perspective around food so I see it as a source of energy and a gift, but not as a bandage or a salve. My goal is to make and eat food that’s good, real, and energizing, not to create a rulebook around what I “should” or “shouldn’t” and “can” or “can’t” eat. A few recipes from my May meal plan: broccoli melts, oatmeal blueberry breakfast bars, spring fettuccine primavera, and artichoke ricotta flatbread (with goat cheese instead of ricotta, and homemade pizza dough).

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There’s something slow and spectacular in keeping pace with only ourselves.

A Body of Belonging: Image, Self Worth, and the Cruelty I Deal to Myself

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On Thursday morning, I woke up, and before I’d even finished dressing, I made myself cry.

You’re fat. You’re ugly. Your jeans do not fit, and that tee-shirt was made for a smaller woman. Everyone will see this.

I caught my reflection in the mirror while I was dressing, and without a hint of hesitation, I gave myself this articulate dose of abuse before I’d even brushed my hair.

Hot, shamed tears came spilling down my face as if I’d been insulted by someone outside of my own mind, and for the next thirty minutes, I fussed with my appearance, trying to make style my reflection into something that voice in my head wouldn’t insult. I repeated these words to myself, you really do look like a potato, maybe if you curl your hair, people won’t notice it. No? Try tucking the shirt in. It still won’t look good on you, but you’ll have at least done what you can.

My worth is tangled up with my pant size, my beauty thrown in with my weight. I’ve had these all confused for years now, since early in my girlhood, really, but I’m in an especially cruel cycle of self-loathing right now. I stand in front of the mirror, and I pull at my flesh, tally it as evidence that I am notskinny, and because I am notskinny, I am less. I see the way that my body continually changes, shifts, morphs, and I hurl abuse and obscenities at it. I tether myself to the tyranny of something — the scale, the pant size, the softness of my flesh — and in doing so, I tear myself to pieces. I break myself down in tiny, compromising ways until my heart starts to look like what I’m chasing for my body — Less.

I was far, far too young when I decided that my body was, if not an outright enemy, a thing to be feared and controlled.

For reference, I’m a conventionally small woman. I’ve been roughly the same size since I was 10 years old: 5 feet, 4 inches, somewhere between 120 and 140 pounds, long legs, short torso, a soft layer on top of developed (read: big) muscles. As a child, that mean I was massive, but as an adult, it means I’m shockingly average.

As a young girl, I was was tall. This is one of my earliest perceptions of my body. Tall. And being tall meant something good, something exciting. I saw my height as a gift, specifically given by the women in my dad’s family. They too were tall. My aunt, my girl cousins. Together we were tall, and when I made school-house friends with two other tall girls, I was proud of my tribe. Tall girls. We could see farther and reach higher. We took up more space than our peers, and when you’re little, being big makes you feel strong.

For a long time, I liked my body. Or not such much liked it as didn’t notice it. My mom rocked body positivity (although I don’t think we called it that in the ‘90s), and when I heard my elementary-age peers mimic their own mothers and complain about wide hips or milk with fat in it, I told them they were stupid. In third grade, I watched a friend throw away three of her five chicken nuggets, because she was “dieting” to stay “right at fifty.” The next day, I loaned her my girl power/changing body book, and told her to read the chapter about anorexia and bulimia. In my head, she was stupid, and I was strong, and even though I wasn’t allowed to eat school hot lunches (waste.of.money, my mom reminded me), I knew that no person should ever diet, especially not an eight year old girl who weighed as much as I’d weighed as a healthy toddler.

My body was my tool, my toy, my vehicle. It was my mountain hiker, my tree climber, my soccer player. In my body, I camped, and I climbed, I read and I wrote. It housed all my excitement, all my wonder, all my fears, and all my dreams. It was me, and I had no concept of war with myself. How could I split Torrie from Torrie’s body, they were one in the same. One whole piece.

I hurts me, now, to think about how soon after the chicken nugget episode that I began to turn on my own body. That summer, I was harassed by boys for the first time — teenagers from down the road yelled something lewd and indistinguishable to me while I played in my driveway. When I heard them yell, and realized it was at me, I ran scared into my garage, confused and overwhelmed. I attended a birthday party that involved swimming, and for the first time, I realize that my body was somehow different than my peers. I saw them, with their straight, flat planes of girlhood, and compared it with my own topography of soft swells and ripples. This was the first time I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and I remember trying to use the water to hide my grown-up form from my much smaller friends.

In increments, I learned to regard my body with increasing shame and suspicion. I stopped being proud of my height, and began to understand myself as burly. Hulking. I learned how to do that thing that every girl at one point learns — where you stack your arms, one on top of the other, and wrap your arms around your stomach, hands curling over you waist and hips — to hide a stomach that had taken on a soft layer years before my peers. The visceral memory I have is of a girl trying to retreat, trying to pull back into her small. While my female peers began blossoming, each at their own rate, I continued to see other girls through a lens of envy and shame. I became used to, but not comfortable with, being the tallest, thickest girl in the room, and if other girls my age struggled with their own bodies, I never knew, so buried underneath my own nascent insecurities.

At the same time, I was also diving into words. I read with a new kind of voraciousness, sought out learning wherever I could. I begin writing the way I imagined adult writers wrote, and, once summer, I even wrote a 300 + page behemoth of a first “novel.” I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I did have didn’t often call. I kept myself from lonely by building words inside my own head. As I grew confident and proud of my brain, of how I could think and communicate and create, I, I wish I could have understood that those were all functions of the same body I was disassociating from, all part of the same team.

My parents, in a move that was ultimately loving and, surprisingly, not shaming, encouraged me to begin exercising. I spent the summer before high school learning about how protein fills you up, and cardio strengthens your heart. I didn’t track my weight or my calories or my measurements, but I began to regain some of the joy I once felt about my body. I became stronger, more confident, and mid-way through high school, I ended my fatwa on sports, and joined the Track and Field team. I was a sprinter (who ran exceedingly slowly), and while I added nothing quantifiable to the team, I learned about how much my body could do. How strong it could be. Some of the softness I’d accumulated melted away, and while I didn’t realize this until the mother of a friend complimented me on “my new hard body,” I did like that I became less aware of my body. It felt like a miracle, a few months later, when I saw myself in the mirror with two other girlfriends that we all looked remarkably the same.

I continued to be active, joining the Cross Country team and proving to myself that I could run an entire mile without dying. Not just that, but I could run two, three, four, seven miles without dying. (I didn’t push myself any farther. I still believe that running a full eight miles without stopping would kill if not my body, definitely my soul).

I was confident, yes, more comfortable, yes, proud, again, of my body and it’s abilities, but I never fully became unified with it. I never learned to love it. I continued to have flesh ripple out where I didn’t want, and continued to pluck at skin and call it excess. I amassed an arsenal of mean girl tricks I could play on myself: comparison and jealousy and magazine cover envy. Every few months, I discovered a new part of my body that could be wrong, and developed corresponding anxieties. After school sports were replaced by an after-school job (one that boasted a perk of constant bread and butter, if I wanted it). High school ended, and I slipped deeper into the anxious depression that would cripple me in the spring of my freshmen year of college. I was increasingly less active, increasingly more sedentary. My emotions flared uneven, and I isolated myself. My body continued to shift and change, and while I remained objectively slim, every few months, I added a couple more pounds onto my frame.

My body remained a thing of discomfort. It betrayed me in dressing rooms when the clothing designed for teenagers and young women couldn’t accommodate my body, and the clothing designed for adult women made me look ten, fifteen times older than I was. It shamed me when strange men used it as an opening to yell filth and degradation from sidewalks. It remained a symbol of my non-belonging, so whenever I was in social setting that made me uncomfortable or anxious, I would slip back into the same confused shame that I associate with being the only twelve year old that needed to wear a real bra. I learn how to manage my mental health, and graduated, and got a real job, and learn how to be a writer. I now lose and gain the same five to ten pounds, and although my clothing hangs when I’m on one end of the spectrum and strains when I’m on the other, I look essentially the same.

I have entrenched myself into a sick, repeating cycle of love and hatred that feeds on the fit of my jeans and the number on a scale, and what is maybe the worst part, is that I am not alone. I’ve just told the world’s most boring story: Twenty-first century woman is uncomfortable with her body. I am violent and abusive with myself. I let my own brain produce chatter that would turn me apocalyptic and vengeful if someone else said it to me outloud. My worth is dictated by the level of disgust I feel at my own form, even though I know the body science of water retention and food digestion and general, basic, healthy fluctuations. I eat chocolate, then condemn myself. Pull fistfuls of flesh away from my bones, and offer them up as fat. I do what I did on Thursday morning, and whip myself vicious over a body that is healthy and happy, if maybe a few pounds in excess. I have not an ounce of kindness on days that I’m feeling “fat,” and when I feel pretty, confident, at peace or even happy with my body, I allow myself only the slightest nod of approval.

I break myself to pieces, and it hurts. It hurts every time I tell myself I can never eat sugar again, because there’s an inch or two of grabbable flesh around my middle. I scrawl vitriol across my body — too thick, too wide, not flat, too much giggle, not enough definition — and whenever I hear someone try to care for me in the way that I’m not letting myself, I brush them off, tune them out, give them reasons why they’re wrong.

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This body is a home. I’m realizing this slowly, and only in pieces. I live inside this flesh, and each cruel word I attach to it is a scar. It’s a mark of ugly anger, of rejection and hatred. I am tired of rejecting myself.

Three times, I’ve let needles scar ink into my skin. My foot, my wrist, and my shoulder. Together, they are strength, brokenness, wonder, and home. Each it’s own direction, it’s own invective. I have them all purposefully, permanently in my skin, because I want my body to be a record. I want it to be a testament of strength, a capsule of celebration, a record of beauty. A home that holds the wear and care and deep, deliberate embrace of a rich, undulating life.

This body cannot bear the weight of my own cruelty. Not if I also want to embrace the overwhelming fullness of this life

You are within yourself one person, and I want you to be whole. I want you to be whole no matter how you thicken and swell, droop and fade, as you invariably will. I want your body to be a place of strength, and of peace.

A place where you belong.

Here’s What I WON’T Quit in 2016: Thoughts on Quit Lit, Staying Put + the New Year

2016a2015 was the year of quit lit. Everyone with a blog, or a Twitter account was quitting something: social media, beer, academia, televisions shows, bread, iPhones, sugar, massive income, the day-to-day happenings of human life. (Hell, I “quit” something, then wrote about it). The biggest of all these stories, though, were the stories of people who “quit” their lives. Who left exorbitant paychecks  to hang out on the beach, who traded Conde Naste for Cape Town, a huge D.C. Home for a grass hut in Mexico. People who, for different reasons, traded the life in front of them for something radically different.

Then they sold their story to magazines so we could know how much better life is from the top of a treehouse.

First, the two caveats I need to include here. One, it is commendable whenever men and women take risks to improve their lives. As long as you’re not abandoning people who depend upon you, then brava for following instinct, need, and passion. Two, I’m going to talk about privilege, and in order to do that, I need to acknowledge my own. I am deeply, radically privileged. I grew up in a financially and emotionally stable home, attended public school without threat of violence, received a college education, and am now on my way to building an equally financially and emotionally stable home. I am very privileged.

Now, here’s what I want to say about these “I quit my life stories:”

At their best, they are interesting and possibly mildly inspiring. At their worst, they are shaming, and they are shallow.

When I first started to see these stories, I ate them up. They were fantasies illustrated with bright photographs (all optimized for my cell phone screen), for the 600 or so words, I enjoyed participating in the escape.

But as I read more of these articles, I became more discerning of the tone of most of these stories. I realized that as much as these stories are explanations of one person’s highly individualized choice, they’re also laced with the insinuation that their choice was the right one, not just for themselves, but for all of us. They were writing because they found the secret to the good life, and if we were choosing to stay (regardless of the reason) we were the real suckers.

“‘I quit,’ goes the text. ‘And you should, too,’ goes the subtext.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic

To quit is to declare that you do not need to learn how to deal with what’s in front of you. It means that your responsibilities, and commitments, and life structures demand so little of you that if you vacate yourself from all of them no one, yourself included, will suffer.

At its very core, it’s a story of privilege. My life was so great, I could no longer live it. Those who can to do this do so because the riches of their first life were so great that they are able to take that excess and parlay that into an easier, more enjoyable second life. I’ve yet to read the story of the public school teacher who quits, moves to Phuket, and starts a beauty blog.

The lie of these articles is that there is life, and there is bliss, and to reach the latter, you must first escape the former. This is a shallow, half-hearted response to the whole vast tapestry of the human experience. A good life, a life well-lived is, yes, marked by risk and by courage, by changing what does not serve and by celebrating what does. But this life is also rooted in relationship, in steadfast presence, and in sacrifice. In staying when it would feel better to leave.

To have weight and dimension, a life can’t be only about passion, but also must be about recognizing and honoring what is set before you.

And what’s set before all of us is different, influenced by background and upbringing, time, circumstance, location, privilege, and a whole host of other factors as randomly assigned as these. What’s beautiful, commendable, worth of story, is the people who take what is given to them, and, with dutiful devotion, show up for themselves, for their families, for the responsibilities that they’re been yoked to. Who create passion and adventure and bliss where they are.

For most people, to quit would not only isn’t feasible, but it isn’t responsible. It isn’t commendable. It’s an easy out in the face of the hard and necessary staying. For many, to quit is not even an option.

“It is a luxury to be able to quit something, whether that thing be a job or a food or a pair of Lululemon Luxtreme Wonder Unders. And it’s a luxury, too, to be able to write about that quitting.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic. 

I am building lives within the hem of responsibility. I know—I’ve always known—that I cannot quit our jobs to travel the world (as much as I’d like to). I cannot cut away from my life here to live a life out in the ever exotic there, no matter how many bloggers assure us I can.

Not only that, but I are yoked to a community of people as well. Relationships take care, and time, and proximity in order to flourish, and I, in turn, need these men and women for our own growth and general human decency. To quit what I’m building here would be to quit, in a way, all of our friends and family, and that would destroy me.

2016aI was raised by a man who worked hard, with little complaint, because he understood that his responsibility to provide for his wife and children was sacred. His three bad habits, he always told my brother and I, were food, shelter, and clothing for Aaron and I. My mother, in response to my father’s work, sank herself into motherhood with the ferocity of deep love.

Planting into a life of responsibility and interdependence isn’t sexy. It doesn’t translate well into a feature story, but it is deeply human. It’s worthy to pursue, admirable to work towards, and it is profoundly, essentially human.

In this new year, I want to hear the stories about those who stayed. Who stuck out demanding jobs, because it’s what they needed to do, and who remained faithful to their partner during trials, because they knew that nurturing the commitment is better than abandoning it.

Life is such that we anchor ourselves to one another, to institutions, to the dutiful devotion of love. To quit, is to wrench those bonds apart—or it is to never form them.

That which we cannot quit gives us context. It gives us weight, and shape, and it gives us access into the sacred. That which we do not quit shapes us into faithful, steadfast stalwarts of lives lived well and true.

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In honor of the life in front of me, here is what I will NOT quit in 2016:

My job
General fiscal responsibility
Carbs
Coffee
Television (I will learn what happens to Jon Snow)
Writing (because I would wither into a shell of myself if I did)
Hard work
Friendships with extraordinary women
Family

But, because to be human is to contradict, here is what I will quit in 2016:

Sugar (my doctors and health care providers claim I’ll feel better if I do…)
Diet Coke
Possibly cable (because Netflix and HBO Go…and debt).
Comparison (Because it’s toxic. It’s brutalizing to hear that I don’t measure up, and usually, the only person I hear this from is myself. It’s cruel to me, it’s cruel to the specific women I compare myself to, and it’s cruel to the general unity of womanhood.)
Talking shit about myself
Thinking that publication is the reason why I write.
Social media before bed
Uncomfortable clothing
Inaction

Onward, onward, into the New Year!

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All the Books: What I Read in 2015

BooksBooks2015 was a strange and interesting year of reading for me. I’ve always, always been an avid reader–even in college, when my peers were loath to even look at another page of writing, I continued to seek out books as both an escape and a lifeline. Except for one lonely, bored summer, reading, and reading a fair amount, has always been a given for me, but this year, I started to feel something new happening in my literary diet.

I still can’t quite put my finger on what was happening–or why–but here’s what I did that felt so different: I finished books I didn’t particularly like. I re-read to understand either myself or the text in a deeper way, not simply to burrow into comfort. I read in a wider variety of formats–essays, short stories, memoir, non-fiction. I pushed passed my own literary snobbery, and let myself read what was interesting + what was on my shelf. I finally read a few of those must-read books that I buy and keep unopened on myself because they intimidate me. I also bought books–largely from second-hand stores–at a vicious and unreserved clip, always reasoning that, for a dollar, it can’t hurt to try.

 

As I look back on all the books that I read, it’s clear that I was seeking to re-define how + why I read. I read to remain alive and to remain awake, to find clarity, to soften my heart to in-real-life people I meet, to make me a better writer. I read (and write) because telling stories is both the solution and the mystery, the lock and the key.

So here’s a snapshot of all that I read in the past year.

  1. Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx: This book thought too much of itself. Proulx radicalized me to the power of the novel when I read The Shipping News at fifteen–I didn’t know that you could do what she did to language, didn’t know you could tell the story that she told. Maybe it’s because I expected the universe of this book, or maybe because that’s what she tried to deliver, but by the time I finished this book, it had demanded all my respect and none of my affection. She charts the story of one accordion, and that, at least, is a fascinating and complex narrative to tell.
  2. The Awakening, Kate Chopin: I seem to return to this book ever three or four years. Each reading and a new layer of mastery and beauty unveils itself. It’s a slim, masterful hurricane, and for everyone who read it in high school and forgot about it, do yourself a favor and READ IT AGAIN.
  3. The Best Yes, Lysa TerKeurst: This book had a few good practical tips on how to prioritize–how to say “no” so that you can say “yes” to your “best yes.” It’s also a fog of privilege, simplicity, and yay-rah-rah. A blog post would have sufficed.
  4. California: A History, Kevin Starr: California is fascinating, and if you need to learn about the state (as I wanted to for my second-novel-project), read Kevin Starr.
  5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Every summer, I read “must-read” book, and this year it was the The Color Purple. I won’t say too much, because me telling you that this book is good, fantastic, beautiful and human and devastating and hopeful, is to say what everyone else has already been saying for the past 30 years.
  6. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: Another fog of privilege which, I realize, is the point of the plot, but I was disappointed. I picked it on the review that Kwan was the Edith Wharton of twenty first century China. To me, it read like a beach book. A good one, but no Age of Innocence.
  7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson: I went to Chicago for our two year anniversary, and I read this while were there. With Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio turning this story into a movie, there is and will continue to be hype upon hype, but what fascinated me the most was how true Larson’s assertion that the 1893 World’s Fair changed the world. If nothing else, this was the fair that introduced America to PBR. (And all the hipsters when ahh).
  8. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: Another audiobook. The perfect companion for 600+ miles of driving, and so engaging. I did find some of the things that were said about this book (fog of privilege, self-indulgent) to be true, but she woke up, changed her life, then wrote about it with a praiseworthy degree of vulnerability–and that is brave.
  9. The Forgotten GardenKate Morton: I read a different Kate Morton book, The Distant Hours, a few years back, and loved it. Female protagonists, Gothic houses + and their secrets, WWII, and quick story. Then I read this, and realized that it was the same book (with a less interesting backdrop) than the earlier one. A bit canned, but Morton knows how to move a story, and that is something I need to know more about.
  10. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin: This was a reread, and it was the book that taught me that not all books are meant to be re-read. My entire life, I’ve been happy to return the same stories again and again, for both comfort and learning reasons, but this was the first book that I returned to fully expecting something big and was let down. I read the whole series a few years back–burned through them–and I picked up book 1 expecting to get thrown back into the drama and thrall. I wasn’t. For me, this kind of heavily plot-driven, heavily-fantastical book is only good one time. (The show however, I’ll watch again and again and again).
  11. The Green Mile, Stephen King: My first Stephen King, and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t love reading a serialized novel in the format of a traditional novel–the necessary repetitions irritated me to no end. Plus, I have a feeling that Stephen King is supposed to be some kind of scary/creep you, so in 2016, I’m going to give Dolores Claiborne a go.
  12. Harry Potter, 1-7, J.K. Rowling: These were also rereads, but never have have they disappointed. I very much grew up with Harry Potter, my mother reading them to be before Prisoner of Azkaban was released. When cancer consumed my grandmother, and her care consumed my mother, I reread Harry Potter on a loop. I was eight, and these books were both comfort and explanation for the pain and mystery of death. When anxiety wrenched me from myself, I clung to these books as a raft. This summer, I reread for pleasure, not for catharsis, and I learned. Because the stories are tattooed onto me, I was able to pay attention, instead, to how Rowling wrote them, how she moved the plot, how she wrote her dialogue, how she build her characters. Then when I finished them, I wept, and said that no other books are worth reading. Par for the course.
  13. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova: This book soured pretty quickly after I finished it. I loved Dracula, and wrote several lengthy term papers on it in college, and my love of Stoker’s novel propelled me through this one. While I loved reading a massive novel dedicated to the detailed analysis of primary sources, in the end, Kostova pulled out far too many threads and didn’t tie them up neatly enough, which is especially disappointing in a novel as long as this one was).
  14. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This was, without competition, the best book I read all year, and easily one of the best I’ve ever read in my lifetime. It was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. Go read it.
  15. Loving Day, Mat Johnson: This was another book that I read based upon a review, and was disappointed in. After 300 pages in Warren Duffy’s head, I just wanted out. That being said, it was a phenomenal and fascinating look into the experience of being bi-racial. Johnson has been vocal about bi-racial identity being both marginalized and misunderstood, and this novel felt like it was doing important work of excavating and illuminating what it mean to be bi-racial in a highly-radicalized America.
  16. Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True Life Novel, Fred Setterberg: Meh. I read it for research, because it is set in the type of suburb I’m writing about. Beyond that…
  17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich: Again, meh. It was quick and enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. (Except that it was my mother’s book, so I had to discuss if she also felt iffy about it).
  18. Night Over Water, Ken Follett: Chauvinist. Every woman in this book was clearly in idealized version of what Follett wants women to be (read: charmingly sparky, but ultimately submission, with giant breasts). I read to the end to find out what happens, then immediately stuck it in the give-away pile.
  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: Although a few books on my summer reading list went unread, I am so glad I made it a priority to return to this book. I get it now: the appeal, the human, the romance. Jane Austen is a master, and I should have never doubted her most beloved work.
  20. The Queen’s Fool, Philippa Gregory: I read She’s Come Undone and Wild within a two week window, and I was so electrified by the stories + writing in both that I found myself needing a break from all the greatness. This book happily coincides with a weekend getaway, and there’s something really indulgent about a reading something not-too-deep on vacation.
  21. She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb: See both note above and previous post on this book. I loved it.
  22. Something Happened, Joseph Heller: Second best book I read all year. I was assigned this text in my last semester of college, and although I wrote two essays (for two separate classes) on it, I never actually finished it. Reading this book is what I imagine riding a bull is like–you grab on, and hold on as tight as you can for as long as you can, except in this case, you absolutely should get to the very end. It works as both a historical snapshot of a particular moment in America’s history (post-war, post-baby-boom, pre-summer of love, pre-hippie burnout), and an incredibly comprehensive character study. I would not recommend this to many people, because it is so hard to read (700 pages inside one man’s head + paragraphs that can go on for pages), but it is so worth it if you get to the end.
  23. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe: The last audiobook I listened to this year, and again, it was a companion for a very long drive. I put this on my summer reading list, expecting a good celebrity memoir–some inner-circle gossip, the hard work and good luck it (often) takes to get famous, rounded off with some on-set stories about the West Wing. I got all that, and so much more. Rob Lowe has the gift of being both emotionally vulnerable and deeply straightforward. If you’re a Rob Lowe fan, read this. If you’re a memoir fan, read this. If you’re interested in a good story, read this.
  24. Volt, Alan Heathcock: The only full short story collection I read. It was electrifying (no pun intended). I read this as I was editing my own short story for publication, and it helped get the job done. It was also an intense, interesting, deeply compelling series of interconnected stories. It took me four years to read this book, and I am so.glad that I finally did.
  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: Another in a series of disappointing books. I had this on my shelf for years–such a good book, everyone said–and I just couldn’t get it up. It felt flat and stale, and for the last third of the book, I was only reading to finish.
  26. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed: There’s a reason why this book jumped onto the NYT Bestseller book in its first week and why Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights before it was published. Strayed is such the darling and titan of the literary world that there’s not much I can add, except that this book was so powerful. (Plus, my father-in-law knew her and her family well when she was a little girl, which is easily my coolest seven-degrees-of separation story).

I also read a whole landslide of short stories (and had one of my own published!), too many too track down and name individually.

All new year, all new books! What about you, what did you read in 2015? What are you planning to read in 2016?