PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

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?

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.

autumn-walk-10-21-16-22

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.

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?