Odds + Ends, Overcoming, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

everything you’ve been feeling? yeah, that’s depression

Late last week, after an episode of television left me unreasonably shattered, I remembered: This is what depression feels like. (How did I forget?)

I’ve experienced three major depressive episodes in my life. Darknesses so unnavigable I thought I’d never be a whole person again. But depression doesn’t usually come for me like this. It’s more likely to come in mild, stubborn waves. Instead of night that won’t end, it’s like clouds that refuse to part.

When I’m back under the clouds, I can’t understand how I ever forget that this is what depression feels like, but I always do. Maybe it’s a stubborn leftover from childhood, that hope that, once they come, sunny days will never leave.

But as steady as the sun comes, so do the clouds, and all my hallmarks signs of depression are back — and have been for several weeks. Brain fog, poor concentration, fast tears, a blue undertone, worries that seem unsolvable, a general sense that it’s all too much to bear.

It’s taken me three days to write these measly 800 or so words, because my brain feels both empty and waterlogged. This too reminds me I’m depressed. Accessinglanguageis usually themostnaturalthingI do. Maybe that’s why depression (even more so than anxiety) feels frightening — it cuts me off from the very act that heals me.

I like growing up, though, because I’m getting better at my life. Right now, I’m getting better at accepting that I can’t “fix” my way out of depression. Exercise or yoga or meditation or reading a good book — all these things help soothe me, but they’re not “cures” for depression, despite what the internet tells you. All I can do when I’m here is hang on. To myself and to the resources I have, and I wait for the days to get better. (And they always, always have).

This is a mild and functional depression, and some days are easier than others. Some days are even easy. Tuesday was an easy day — cheerful, productive, bright. I fell asleep at ease. Wednesday was not, though. My brain was a wide blank desert, and every time I tried to dial in to my work, my blankness intimidated me and left me in tears. I wanted to crawl back to bed, and hide from the light.

I’ve been on hiatus from my blog, because work and life crowded out the time I usually set aside to write, and I didn’t do a good job of creating time elsewhere. I once listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she said that when she wakes up in a bad mood, she asks herself: “Who are you going to blame your life no today? I was quiet here for several months last year, and returned in the fall to kickstart my creativity and retrain my writing muscle. Another month and a half of radio silence is good proof that I derail my own goals better than anyone else can.

Although, I hate the language of goals. Especially when I’m in my depression, I’m reminded that our resources are limited, and sometimes, you just can’t do everything you want to. Self discipline and commitment and “crushing it” all have their place in forward motion, but “no excuses” and “hustle harder” is just so antithetical how life actually rolls. I want to finish a draft of my novel by April 30. I told myself I’d write six days a week to do that. Last week, I opened my notes every day, and didn’t write a single word.

All that being said, I want to get back into a regular habit of writing here once a week. I like the space it gives me to think, and I like the small platform it gives me to connect with the people who share in my struggles and triumphs and questions and curiosities. That, more than anything else, heals me.

Reading Lately: The Woman in Cabin 10 + What Alice Forgot. After eschewing the novel in favor of essays for a year or so, I’m back to my roots. These last two novels I read are both highly marketed, highly marketable “commercial novels,” and while I dislike the snobbery of “literary fiction,” I see the difference when I read novels like these. These two novels are page turners/page burners. I’m not keeping either now that I’ve finished (I keep only books I really love and plan to return to), but losing myself in their stories reminded me of why I love books.

Watching Lately: Big Little Lies + Criminal Minds. I’ve been rewatching Big Little Lies (but only while I workout, because #motivation), and this show is so nuanced and complex. My boyfriend and I are also deep into Criminal Minds. We play this fun game during the credits where I shout out all the mug shots I recognize, and he buries his head underneath the couch cushions. (I didn’t say who it was fun for…). As much as I joke about loving creepy crime stuff, there’s something particularly fascinating about the gender dynamics at play in the true crime world. Women know — and we have this knowledge reinforced daily — that we are vulnerable to crime in ways that men are not. Our bodies and our lives only remain our own insofar as we are aware of how quickly they can be taken from us. Again, with the jokes, but I think women feel a little bit better when we know all the different ways we could be killed.

Working on Lately: Being kinder to myself. I’m not talking self-care or “treat yo self,” but rather about the way I talk to myself. I shared on Instagram this week the negative comments I made to myself about my appearance. I try to approach the world with grace and care, but when I think about how I approach myself, it’s all sharp edges and hard lines. Of course you’re lazy. Of course you’re not pretty enough. Of course you don’t deserve that. It’s exhausting to live under such a barrage, and yet I choose to do it to myself! Why? I’m the one that gets to decide how I treat myself. Why do I choose to be so mean?

Behind Us, and Before, Creating Home, The Work of Becoming

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.

Bookshelf

books i read in 2017

86db281f-40e5-4eef-a4ee-e3dd5a8323e1I read this year for wisdom. I read less this year than I’ve read in years. I struggled to focus on the page for long periods of time. I started and abandoned at least a dozen books. I grew impatient with writers faster, and found myself avoiding male writers for the better half of the year. I bought books less frequently, and I quit carrying a book in my bag with me. I joked last night that I read so little this year, because I did so much living.

While that’s only about half-true, I do know that as I made changes to my life this year, I found myself less out of a need for escape, and more out of a need for awakening. Last January dawned black and lonely. I spent five months crawling towards the sun, and when I reached it, it was brilliant, blinding, and healing. Even though I read significantly less, I think I read better books, with more intention, and gained more from their pages than I have in previous years.

I’m leaving 2017 stronger, happier, and more at peace; these books helped shape me.

  • Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending: After talking about how rich my book diet was, it’s a bummer to start my (alphabetized) list with this book, because it was not good. I remember thinking that this was one of the those books prolific writers crank out because they’ve got a deadline coming soon. The characters were weak and one-dimensional, and the plot half filled out.
  • Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins: I brought this (along with three Ferrante novels) to Italy this August, and read it in the first week of our trip. I loved it so much — for its sweeping romanticism, for its multiple-narrator, multiple-timeline structure, for its unabashed adoration of Italy. I spent the first few months of summer eschewing novels and male writers, but Walter’s novel convinced me to return to both.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me: Is there anything I could say about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ elegy that hasn’t already been said? It is required reading. It is a social history of the systems of race that built and sustain America, and a painful meditation of the personal experience of institutionalized violence. It is angry, and mournful, and unapologetic. This book is intensely personal, and as a white reader, it felt like a window with the shades pulled back. This book is two years old now. If you haven’t read it yet, read it in 2018.
  • Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run: I began this book the day it was released in September 2017, but despite my deep, deep love for Bruce Springsteen, I couldn’t get into it. I needed this book later. It took me two weeks to read the first 200 pages, and two days to read the next four hundred in two days. Born to Runwas extraordinary in ways I didn’t expect it to be. Though he’s not old and is still actively creating, Springsteen wrote like a man at the end of his life — with grace and wisdom and posterity and understanding. He covers the range — his difficult childhood, the hunger of a young artist, the persistent hold depression, creativity, marriage and divorce, fatherhood (and sonship), politics, death, money. I read this book, because I love Bruce Springsteen, but it’s a powerful, painful, and ultimately hopeful meditation on a full life.
  • Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment: Ferrante is brilliant. Last year, I read all the Neapolitan novels, and told everyone that would listen that they should read them too. I’d give the same command about Days of Abandonment except this book is dark and disturbing in ways that even the Neapolitan novels weren’t. It’s a story of a woman’s unraveling, in the hot summer after her husband leaves her and her children. Ferrante writes women with an unparalleled and horrific mastery. This is a novel of undoing, claustrophobic and disorienting and compelling. I read it on the beaches of Sardinia, and on a plane, over the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Fire and the Gold: A good friend lent me this book in May — her favorite book and one that she returns to repeatedly for comfort. Published in 1956 and set in 1906, this is a novel about a young woman, set on ending an engagement, but caught up in the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s a short novel, but it’s sweeping and grand and romantic. Although I didn’t read much for escape this past year, this book was a perfect escape from a particularly high-stress week. (As a parenthetical, I love when people share with me the books they love. Maybe it’s because I love books so much, but it’s such an act of trust and intimacy.)
  • Felicia Sullivan’s Follow Me into the Dark: This was easily one of the best books I read this year. Sullivan is a brilliant writer (I came to her writing via her now inactive blog), whose fiction is dark, but powerful. Follow Me into the Dark is about mothers and daughters, and women in varying stages of undoing. When explaining this novel (to everyone who would listen, because, people, this book must be read), I struggled to explain the plot without giving too much away, but I landed on some version of: It’s a novel about inter-generational abuse, unchecked grief, and the trauma experienced by unloved children, told through the story of three siblings and the history of their family. Sullivan is a gorgeous writer whose words I would ink on my skin, but she’s also a unflinchingly brave storyteller who is willing to bring readers, with little promise of escape, into the dark.

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  • Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo: I listened to this memoir on audiobook during a work trip that kept me in the car for about ten hours. I expected very little from it — as a public figure, Schumerisproblematic and I’ve never connected with her brand of humor — but my library offers little by way of audiobook, so I gave it a shot. I was surprised by how thoughtful this book ended up being. Most compelling were Schumer’s reflections on the trauma she experienced in an abusive relationship, her father’s multiple-sclerosis, and her experiences of body and love.
  • Gilian Flynn’s Gone Girl: I realize I read this book about five years too late, but I was underwhelmed. Yes, I’d already seen the movie, and knew the twist, but usually, if a book is good enough, it doesn’t matter to me if I know the plot or not. I thought Flynn’s writing drew too much attention to itself, and the character development not as sophisticated as it was billed to be. I liked the movie better.
  • David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: I was wary of this book when it first came out, because do we really need more white men telling other people’s stories, but this book ended up impressing me. Grann tells the rigorously researched story of the widespread murder of Osage people during the early twentieth century for their wealth and oil rights. This book lagged in the middle, but Grann managed to tell this story with grace, pain, and respect.
  • Kevin Fenton’s Leaving Rollingstone: I first read Fenton after attending a panel he was on in 2011. His novel, Merit Badges, is a melancholy ode to youth, friendship, and what we lose as we grow up. Maybe this is the central question of Fenton’s writing life, because Leaving Rollingstone was written from a similar vantage. He begins his life on the family farm in Southern Minnesota, and spends the rest of his adolescence and adulthood trying to find a way to return. Fenton writers like a man in process, not a man with results, and I found his memoir thoughtful, mournful, but ultimately hopeful.
  • Chris Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins: One of the last books I read this year, and one of the most meh. Bohjalian is a prolific writer, but I’ve never read any of his novels. This one fell flat. The plot was compelling enough (dual timelines, set ten years apart: A serial killer is targeting a wealthy Italian family; Nazis are occupying the same family’s villa during the late years of the war), but it was about nothing more than what was on the page. Especially this year, I was reading for so much more than entertainment, and this barely was that.
  • Tana French’s The Likeness: This book. I was wary about it, because I read French’s first detective novel, In the Woods, last year, and it’s plot was a disappointment. The Likeness begins with a less compelling mystery than In the Woods — a young woman, who shares a striking resemblance with a murder detective, is found dead in an Irish farmhouse; the detective goes undercover as the dead girl to try to find out who killed her — but read as a much better novel. Although French wraps up this mystery well, I think I would have still loved this novel, even if it has as disappointing ending as In the Woods. More so than this book is about murder or detectives or solutions, it’s a reflection on friendship, and connection, and the deeply human need to belong. Of all the things I gained and lost in this past year, I’ve struggled most with the sense that I’ve lost friends. My social circle has shrunk down to a very few, and I’ve felt intermittently hurt and lonely because of this. Maybe I loved this novel, because it asked what it means to belong at a very point in the year when I was asking myself the same question.
  • Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior: For a long time, I avoided anything that too closely resembled “self-help,” because I didn’t believe that a real person (me) could live a life so unlocked.Love Warrior is much more memoir than self-help, but because Melton rose to fame through her self-help-realm blog and first book, it still has elements of direction. I listened to Melton’s memoir on audiobook early in the year, and I feel like I was able to only half-hear it. Possibly one of the most woo-woo things I believe is that books come to us at the right points in time (if we want them to), and this book came to me a bit too early. I’ve since listened to Melton talk about some of the same themes she discusses in her book — rock bottom, vulnerability, trust and power, loneliness, and I want to read Love Warrior again. I wasn’t ready, at the time, to unlock.
  • Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If I’m being honest, I remember loving this book than I remember actually reading this book. It’s my now-boyfriend’s favorite book, and he recommended it to me in the first few weeks we’d been seeing each other. This book is slim, but I devoured it. (Handsome man borrows you his favorite book on the fourth date, that’s what you do). What I do remember about reading it was that this book seemed to hold every emotion a human being can feeling, and that, if there ever was one, is the perfect description of adolescence.
  • Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist: I think we expect more wisdom of people after they pass. I remember feeling this way about Fisher’s last memoir. This book was charming, and enjoyable, but in the weeks following her death, it was billed as some kind of deep dive into the heart and mind of a young woman on the brink of her life. It’s not that — it’s a teenager’s diary, paired with enjoyable, gossipy essays about that period of her life. I did enjoy this book, but I think I expected revelation, when really, it’s a lot of reflection.
  • Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply: Another audiobook for another brutally long solo-drive. I found that Levy’s memoir commanded my attention, but very little else. Levy writes well about being a female journalist, about her experience as the wife of a woman with severe addiction issues, and about the late-term loss of her baby, but it failed to do, for me, what good memoirs do: Make the personal seem universal.
  • Louis Erdrich’s Shadow Tag: Oh my god, this book was thunder. Erdrich is prolific and masterful, and this is not one of her more popular novels, but it is easily my favorite. Remember what I said about books finding us when we need them? This one came to when I needed it. It tore open the curtains, and shook my bones, and demanded I be awake. It tells the story of a woman gathering her own strength in the middle of her dysfunctional and abusive marriage, and the unraveling of a family along the seam of the parents’ wrecked marriage. It’s a violent, angry novel, and it demanded I pay attention. I finished it on a Sunday, and immediately began re-reading it.
  • Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own: I read this book slowly during my mid-summer literary dry spell, but each time I opened it, I felt like I was being spoon fed wit and wisdom. Spinster is equal parts memoir, literary criticism, and social commentary. Bolick writes about her five “awakeners” — female writers who composed and comprised Bolick’s development as a woman and artist. Although much was made about the marriage issue — both the title and Bolick’s meditation on her decision to never marry — I found marriage was a minor part of this book. Instead, Bolick writes holistically about what it means for a woman to build a life of her own choosing. I picked up this book now, a few years after its publication, because this is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly this year. Bolick doesn’t provide answers, but she does provide solace — that these questions are hard to ask, and that answers are hard to come by, and that every woman has, if not the opportunity, at least the right to build for herself a good life.
  • Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea: I bought this book years ago, and I’m pretty sure I picked it off the clearance table, because I liked the contrast of a white cover, blue-scale cover art, and raised red lettering. When I finally pulled it from my shelf this spring, I barely knew what it was about. It’s one of those novels where a description of the plot makes the book sound tinny and shallow — prep school sailor is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner while building new relationships, confronting fresh tragedy, and finding grace and answers for himself in the process — but Dermont’s novel is rich and graceful and generous. Her portrait of the interior life of Jason, her narrator, is complex and nuanced, while her language is beautiful and playful. I loved-loved this novel, and found so much mournful, hopeful beautiful within its pages.
  • Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers: I’ve never read much poetry, and while I think that the kind of Instagram poetry that Kaur writes is making poetry much more accessible for a wider audience, I’ve never sought it out. I enjoyed reading The Sun and Her Flowers, and burned through it in just a few days, but it didn’t heal me or change me or make me new. There was something too tidy about her poems. Maybe it was the way they were packaged, each section charting the life cycle of a plant, or the way she wrote with such seriousness, but there was a texture or a roughness that I wanted. Life is rarely this tidy, and healing never is. (I also wasn’t aware until after finishing this book that the authenticity of her poetry has been called into question a few times, as has her exploitation of the trauma experience).
  • Nafisa Haji’s The Sweetness of Tears: A forgettable book from the very beginning of the year. I believe I remember thinking that the plot spanned too much time, tried to cover too much ground, and relied too heavily on coincidence. I also remember the language being exhausting. I can’t find the book on my shelf, so I must have gotten rid of it immediately upon finishing.
  • Julia Glass’s Three Junes: The first book I read in 2017, and maybe my favorite. I read it immediately following my grandfather’s death, and like good novels do, this book helped me heal. It was full, and beautiful, and gorgeously written. Read more here.
  • Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: Again, with the “books finding you.” I read this in 2016 as well, and last year, I was underwhelmed and sometimes annoyed with Strayed’s particular brand of big-hearted truth-telling. This year, when I read it, I was riveted. I said that I read this year looking for wisdom, and I sat underneath the Sugarfountain looking to be cleansed. One thing I know I learned this year: My cynicism is boring, my life is gift, and what’s wrong with fighting hard to make it all beautiful.

  • Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion: Another one of my book-drought books. I started reading this book in June, and finished it two days ago. This was the first of Daum’s collections that I’ve read, and while I found the collection, as a whole, a little patchy, I appreciated the overall work. I loved the essays “The Best Possible Experience,” “Not What It Used to Be,” and “The Joni Mitchell Problem.” Daum is funny, thoughtful, and “real.” I want to read more of her in 2018.
  • Mary Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays: I read this book in two rainy days, and it burrowed straight under my skin. Oliver is a beautiful essayist, and this collection is stunning. She writes with the authority of age, but this book is neither confessional or even terribly personal. Instead, it’s a meditation on wisdom, and the natural world, and beauty, and aging. This book is another gift Oliver has given us, and like her poetry, each word on the pages seems deliberate, smooth and beautiful — pebbles plucked from Blackbird pond.
  • Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys: I struggled to get through this behemoth of a book, but when I finally got to the end, it stripped me bare. This was the first Joyce Carol Oates’ I’ve read, and while I’m currently hesitant to pick up more of her books, this book stayed with me. More here.
  • Amy Poehler’sYes Please: One of the few re-reads. I picked up Yes Please again, because Amy Poehler is so funny, and so generous, and so smart, and she gives so many opportunities in her book to learn. I now own a copy of this book, and it sits on my shelf more like a reference text than a memoir. Creativity? Failure? Love? Friendship? Ambition? She could tell you something about all of it.

As always, friends, I need to know: What did I miss? What else do I need to read? Tell me your titles!

Bookshelf, The Work of Becoming

what i’m reading + navigating the next

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Of course, of course, I know that I can’t know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there’s only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don’t mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what’s coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I’ve seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it’s all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true – two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather’s side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of “we didn’t know this coming; we couldn’t have known.” I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn’t planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn’t have known, then, what she knows now. That she’d spend more of her life married than not married. That she’d give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they’d each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we’re young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy “what’s next” is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It’s an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I’ve been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I’ve read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I’m looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family’s central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It’s a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me – the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I’m not even sure what; I just known that I’ve been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I’m currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I’ve read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again – or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I’m trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

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?