Bookshelf, Out of Doors, Overcoming, The Work of Becoming

comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leaf, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles of my skin. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched him move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved great blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

Bookshelf, On Writing, Storyteller

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?

Bookshelf, On Writing

Bookshelf: “She’s Come Undone”

I read. Incessantly, obsessively. I’ve turn the car around because I’ve left my book at home. I bring books to Target, to work, to friend’s homes, to parties. (I always bring a book to a party; it’s my shield against agoraphobia.)

As much as I love reading, though, I hate reviewing books. (Same with movies). The way that a piece of writing, or a particularly story, hits us is so subjective, so dictated by inherently subjective factors. At least it’s that way for me. Reading is intensely personal and intimate, which means that I love or hate a book, it has more to do with me than it does with the actual book. I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m sending out my “good-bad” judgments out into the online world.

All that to say this: I just read one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a long time, and I want to talk about it. (A recommendation isn’t a review, right? Or maybe it is, and I’m just contradictions and hypocrisy.)

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Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was published in 1992, and I think my mom read it pretty quickly afterwards. I was born that year, so I have spent most of my life knowing that this was one of her favorite books. The summer before I left for college, she bought me a copy of She’s Come Undone at a thrift shop, and told me that it’s a coming of age story about a fat girl, written in such a convincingly and authentically feminine voice that I won’t believe it was written by a man.

It took me five years, and four tries to finally read the book, and when I finally did, I loved it. (See what I mean about reading being highly subjective? I wasn’t in the right mood/frame of mind/attitude to read the book the other four times I tried, and thank God I didn’t read it then).

This book washed me clean. It’s all brokenness and hope. This searing portrait of redemption cut across a lifetime of ugly pain. I finished it this afternoon, and when I did every nerve was ringing out with the overwhelming, aching beauty that I found in this book.

It was this small story, stretched out over years and years of one person’s lifetime, about exactly what my mom had told me: An overweight girl fighting through all the demons and angels that life handed her. (My mom was also right in saying that Wally Lamb writes an incredible, real-as-day woman in a first person voice).

As a reader, I sunk into the story line, and could hear the voice of Dolores Price telling me to read another chapter, just another few pages, but this book impacted me as more as a writer. All 600 pages of my airport paperback copy, I felt like I was sitting underneath a fountain. There’s this double-sided thing that Lamb does, where he writes about the violent, ugly, and hateful with same intimate, emotional grace that he uses for the lovely, splendid, and poignant, and the effect is just magic. He writes with this power that stripped his characters bare, stripped his readers bare, and then somehow brought us all up together, more clothed and more human.

This book moved me, and it taught me, and it’s going to stay with me.