Everything I’ve Read in 2017 (So Far)

July 7, 2017
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Checking in on my reading goal for the year. I hope to read at least 50 books in 2017, and so far I’m two ahead of schedule. Here’s what I loved, loathed, and meh-ed.

Imagine Wanting Only This • Kristen Radtke

The death of a beloved uncle triggers a fascination with ruins and hollowed out places in this graphic memoir. Luminous, melancholy, and unlike anything I’ve read before.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living • Manjula Martin

A solid collection of essays and interviews about writing and commerce. It’s rare and refreshing to hear real talk about money, especially in my field, and I highly recommend this to other writers.

The Hate U Give • Angie Thomas

A young adult novel about a teenager drawn to activism after the police shooting of a close friend. This is the book everyone should be reading right now.

Difficult Women • Roxane Gay

These stories plunge the reader into the lives of very different women — two sisters haunted by a past crime, a stripper with a stalker, a black engineer in a small, Midwestern town, a woman who loves her husband’s identical twin. The women aren’t so difficult, after all; the world is.

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A Separation • Katie Kitamura

A quiet thriller about a woman searching for her estranged husband, who has gone missing in a foreign country. I loved this book. I loved it as a character study, I loved it as a rumination on love, marriage, grief, and endings. I loved it because there’s not a lot of action, but the plot never felt empty.

The Rules Do Not Apply • Ariel Levy

I am such a fan of Ariel Levy’s writing in the New Yorker, and this memoir did not live up to my (admittedly very high) expectations. It felt like the entire book was constructed around Levy’s stunning and memorable Thanksgiving in Mongolia essay, which is fine — but I don’t think the narrator has lived the ending of her story yet.

Thirteen Reasons Why • Jay Asher

I read this one after I watched the TV show, because I was curious how Jay Asher wrote certain scenes. Unfortunately, already knowing every twist and surprise meant I didn’t find the book to be as compelling. Had I done it the other way around, it would be a different story.

The One-Eyed Man • Ron Currie

This novel follows K., a man transformed by grief after the death of his wife, who finds himself the hapless star of a reality TV show. It’s both timely and clever, and it brought to light some uncomfortable truths about the world. I read this with tears streaming down my cheeks, and they were inspired by an even split of laughter/heartbreak. (Though judging from the reviews, I think I felt more maternal and tender toward K. than most readers.)

In the Garden of Beasts • Erik Larson

Erik Larson is all about using precise research to weave a fascinating work of nonfiction that reads like fiction, and this book is no different. This story focuses on the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, and his flamboyant daughter, who slept with everybody but Hitler. The book took a fascinating approach to a subject I thought I was already familiar with, but it was kind of like watching the Titanic crash in slow motion. I kept shouting, “Nooo!” at the page, but nobody listened to me.

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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse • Jennifer Ouellette

I read this when I wanted to employ some calculus theorems in one of my essays. Then I discovered the essay worked better without them. I finished this book anyway, which says a lot about the conversational voice and the author’s unique lens on calculus.

Underground Airlines • Ben H. Winters

The premise of this alt-history thriller is compelling: It’s the present-day world, and almost everything is the same. Except the Civil War never happened. The execution of this story is a little uneven at times, and I was more interested in learning more about the world Winters constructed than in solving the actual mystery at the heart of the book, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Brief suggestions for raising a feminist child in a world that remains threatened by equality. This will be my go-to baby shower gift from now on.

Small Great Things • Jodi Picoult

I’m always suspicious when an author’s name is bigger than the actual title on a book cover, which is the case with Small Great Things, but I read this book anyway. I wish I hadn’t. It is tries so hard to be A Very Important Novel, in the same overwrought vein as A Very Special Episode of Growing Pains.

The Sun is Also a Star • Nicola Yoon

Teenage love between a Jamaican immigrant who is about to be deported and a first-generation Korean-American poet boy, plus fleeting looks at the other characters who cross their paths.

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia • Mohsin Hamid

This novel is written in the second-person in the style of a self-help book, so the structure is what initially attracted me. The exquisite prose made me stay.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide • Stephanie Saldana

An American writer makes a home with her new husband on the dividing line between East and West Jerusalem. This is an empathetic and lovely memoir that makes me desperately want to visit the Middle East again — this time for an extended period.

Fun Home • Alison Bechdel

Ahh-mazing. Just read it.

Woman No. 17 • Edan Lepucki

An unsettling LA noir about a writer, a nanny, a boy, a bunny, and how their lives intertwine high in the Hollywood Hills. Every few pages I found myself pulling out a highlighter to preserve some of the most sumptuous passages — and by the end of the book I was highlighting every damn thing.

You Will Not Have My Hate • Antoine Leiris

Antoine Leiris is a French journalist whose wife was killed by terrorists at the Bataclan in Paris. His heartbreaking Facebook post inspired this slim tribute to the exceptional and enduring power of love. It feels both shockingly intimate and universal.

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Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology • David Hinton

A friend in book club loaned this one to me when I was looking for something lovely to read, and this did the trick.

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland • Ken Ilgunas

This is the true story of a man who walks the entirety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — his goal is to have conversations about climate change, fossil fuels, and the oil industry with the people who will be directly affected by the pipeline. What’s really incredible about this book is that my staunchly conservative dad read it first, recommended it to me (<– not a conservative), and then we had a fairly reasonable discussion about climate change.

Today Will Be Different • Maria Semple

I have nothing to say.

Girl Waits With Gun • Amy Stewart

This is the book that helped me plow through the high-anxiety period around Inauguration Day, waking each morning at 3 a.m. with a racing heart and fretful mind. In those wee hours I turned to this sassy piece of historical fiction, in which one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs defended her family against the gang of bullies who threatened them. #Relevant

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What You Don’t Know • JoAnn Chaney

A story about a serial killer that’s violent, gripping, thrilling AND funny? JoAnn Chaney makes it happen. Bonus: Her female journalist character is spot-on.

The Sellout • Paul Beatty

Satire is so hard to get right, but this is masterful. Little wonder it won the Man Booker Prize.

Frankenstein • Mary Shelley

This was my first time actually reading Frankenstein, and I’m embarrassed it has taken so long. Turns out the story is nothing like I thought it would be, this book is breathtaking and gorgeous, and Hollywood’s version of Frankenstein’s monster is a lie.

The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World • Steve Hely

I think I’d like Steve Hely very much if I met him at a hostel somewhere. Instead I met him on the pages of this book.

The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 11: True Stories From Around the World • Edited by Lavinia Spalding

This one is the sweetest one of all, because I’m in it! When I made my backpacking trip around the world, I carried a couple volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing with me. My wish was that someday I would have a story compelling enough to share and the ability to write it well. Seeing my own name inside this book was that dream realized.

I’m biased, but I think this is the very best book on my list.

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This page contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. 

Citizen journalism in the age of Trump

February 26, 2017
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These are anxious times for free media. We have a president who systematically and deliberately delegitimizes the press, fears the truth, and views the First Amendment as a threat. At the same time, many newsrooms are lean and have limited resources.

There is hope, though. Thanks to social media, the Internet, and the proliferation of media outlets, there is an opportunity for anyone to become a citizen journalist – engaging, informing, and educating others.

Like it or not, we are the truth-tellers now. And this is how to do it.

  • Work a beat

It’s too easy to become overwhelmed by outrage fatigue. Instead, find one or two issues that you are passionate about, whether it’s gun violence, climate change, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ equality, religious freedom, etc. Research those issues, and channel your energy in that direction. Become your own expert.

  • Be persistent

This is particularly important when confronting members of Congress who don’t value the voices of their constituents. When the voicemail is full, fax them. When the email goes unanswered, go to their office and knock on the door. Remember: When someone is evasive, that means you’re on the right track.

  • Greet the news with skepticism

Don’t be an impulse buyer of news. Read beyond the headlines. Find primary sources. Question numbers. Read transcripts in their entirety.

  • Be accurate with the news you spread

Confirm numbers. Look up facts. Make sure quotes are in context. Spreading falsehoods ruins your credibility, and other people will no longer take you seriously.

  • Demand answers

If you’re talking to an elected official, assert your power. They work for you. If you receive a response that isn’t adequate, call them on it. Ask what they’re going to do about the problem, how will they accomplish this, and when you can expect results.

  • Be clear

Communicate your message in a clear, concise way. We’re often talking about complex issues with a lot of nuance – we must cut through the noise to help people understand what is important and how it affects them.

  • Listen

A lot of people don’t post their politics on Facebook, tweet their issues, or write letters to the editor. They make their voices heard at the ballot box. It’s imperative we listen to their concerns now so we know how to best address them. We don’t want a surprise in 2018.

  • Ask questions

Find out why your friend, neighbor, or relative voted the way they did. Ask what they are looking for and what they hope to achieve. Why do they feel what they feel? Give up trying to find common ground; just find their ground.

  • Amplify the voices that aren’t being heard

The people who are loudest have an agenda, and their voices are already well represented. Find those who aren’t being heard and lift them up.

  • Look for new entry points into the conversation

I love novels because fiction allows us to address important issues at an angle. Fictional characters offer a distance we don’t get with the news, and it opens up valuable entry points for conversation. Find books, movies, TV shows that allow you to have difficult talks with other people.

  • Use the tools of storytelling

Legislation isn’t just a dusty document in some Congressperson’s office. These decisions affect real people, real families, maybe even you. Find the human story, as well as the significance and meaning of the story, and make the connection that policy is personal. Form a compelling narrative. Explain why this story matters.

My hope for 2017

January 1, 2017
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It’s New Year’s Eve 2016. I’m freshly showered, about to get ready to go out.

I’m sitting in my bathrobe when my son, Everest, notices a cut on my leg. First, he crouches down to examine it. Then he kisses it, because that’s how health and wellness works for 2-year-olds. Find the hurt, press lips to it, make it better.

A minute later he carries a pillow over, carefully places it on my leg and says, “Right here. Hold it right here.”

“Why?”

“So you won’t get hurt again,” he says.

It is a fragile thing, this love. Sometimes I don’t want to move for fear of crushing it.

I hold the pillow to my leg for a long time, afraid to let the moment go.  When I finally do, I tell my son that I’m all better, and it’s true. The cut is minimal, unremarkable. It will not leave a scar. But I want my child to know that what he did matters. I want him to know that tenderness has the capacity to heal. That his love is momentous even in its smallness.

Too often it feels like the world is whooshing past, like I’ve been plunged into a loud and rushing river, and this — this tangle of love — is the knotted rope that gives me something to hold on to. It’s pure and precious and good.

We are just a few hours into the new year now, and the future is too far away for any of us to see. It will certainly bring battles and wounds. Some of us will carry scars. Some will never heal.

My hope for 2017 is that as we move forward, we find ways to protect rather than inflict. That in the face of fear, confusion, blind panic, and downright evil, we move from arguments into action. That we find a pillow and apply it liberally.

 

The year in music: Best songs of 2016

December 29, 2016
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Ugh, my heart just isn’t in this post this year. But I’ve made a tradition of listing my favorite songs of the year, and I don’t want to skip posting now only to regret it later. (For previous installments, see 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

Almost every musician I’ve ever loved died this year, so I spent the bulk of 2016 listening to musical tributes for those artists. But there were a few bright spots in new music.

“Alaska” • Maggie Rogers

I don’t remember which one of my friends introduced me to this song, but I was instantly hooked. (I’m in good company.) Maggie Rogers is dazzling with a sound that’s part-folk, part-electronic, totally captivating. Plus the song’s message is fitting on the brink of a new year: Leave that old shit behind.

“Go!” • M83 (featuring Mai Lan)

This one didn’t quite hit me the same way as “Midnight City,” but I’ll always love the sweeping, epic sounds of M83.

“In Heaven” • Japanese Breakfast

A syrupy sweet song, but I swear it’s about my mom’s death.

“Somebody Else” • The 1975

Ignore the fact that the song doesn’t begin until 3 minutes into the video. It’s worth it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the kind of isolation and heartbreak Matt Healy sings about, but I still feel like I’ve lived this song 1,000 times.

“River” • Bishop Briggs

Explosive song and powerful pipes. What’s not to love?

“Best to You” (feat. Empress Of) • Blood Orange

Here’s how things work: Blood Orange releases an album. That album becomes one of my favorites of the year.

This year’s Freetown Sound album is equal parts soothing and searing, but always dreamy. This song is a particular favorite for writing, sipping coffee, and staring into space.

“Lazarus” • David Bowie

Not my favorite Bowie song, because it forces me to reckon with all the things about life and death I don’t yet want to confront, but a masterpiece all the same. When the rubble of 2016 settles, this is the song that will endure.

“Hold Up” • Beyoncé

Someday, entire libraries will be written about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and nothing I say could ever compare. So I’m just gonna leave this song here without comment. Let it wash over you.

“Higher” • Carly Rae Jepsen

You know her as the “Call Me Maybe” chick, but to me she’s the queen of the new New Wave movement. All hail pop royalty.

“Boyfriend” • Tegan and Sara

I don’t listen to cassettes anymore, but if I did, this song would’ve worn out my tape.

“Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” • Car Seat Headrest

Singer/songwriter Will Toledo reminds me of one of my exes, but talented. It makes me vaguely uncomfortable, but thankfully his music is fine enough to transcend that. This is confessional songwriting at its very best.

What were your favorites from 2016?

Books I Loved in 2016

December 27, 2016
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Yeah, 2016 was shitty for a lot of reasons. But at least it was a great year for books!

I read 50 books in 2016, shy of my goal to read 52. (But I’m not giving up yet! There’s still time.) And I’m finishing the year with a tall stack of must-read books on my nightstand, an overflowing Kindle, and a bunch of fines on my library card — all signs of a solid literary year.

These were some of my favorites.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube • Blair Braverman

I read Blair Braverman’s longform essay, “Welcome to Dog World!” in The Atavist, and I instantly became a devoted fan. The piece was expanded into this book, which I purchased on pub day — never mind that I’m not even really interested in dog sledding or cold locales. Braverman’s writing is immersive and original, and every page felt like a treat.

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Eligible • Curtis Sittenfeld

I’ve read a lot of “modern retelling of XX” books, and this retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” is the best, funniest one yet. Plus there’s a Skyline reference every few pages, and I’m all about Cincinnati chili. Cut me and I bleed a three-way.

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When Breath Becomes Air • Paul Kalanithi

A slim memoir that tells the enormous story of a dying man examining every facet of life. Beautiful and brilliant. This has become my favorite book to gift to others.

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Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget • Sarah Hepola

Can we travel back in time to give Maggie of 1995 this book? Sarah Hepola articulates so many things it took me years to discover on my own.

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Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home • Jessica Fechtor

The memoir of a young woman who suffers an aneurism and struggles to recover her lost senses. Thanks to the restorative powers of cooking/baking, Fechtor finds comfort, normalcy, and goodness again. This is a great book for anyone who knows that spending time in the kitchen is about far more than putting food on a plate.

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The Arrangement • Ashley Warlick

A gorgeous, sexy novelization of food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s life and loves.

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Before the Fall • Noah Hawley

This author is the producer, writer, and show runner of “Fargo,” so he knows a little something about compelling characters and sustained suspense. This is page-turney enough to feel like a beach read, but well-crafted enough that it never feels frivolous.

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Dear Fang, With Love • Rufi Thorpe

Rufi Thorpe is another writer I discovered through an essay this year. Her Vela piece, “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid,” felt as though it had been written by someone who could see right into my heart, and it had a deep and lasting impact on me. It was so powerful, I was a little nervous to read her fiction — I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to her nonfiction. I was wrong.

This is the story of an absentee father who takes his bipolar daughter to Lithuania for the summer. The family dynamics ring uncomfortably true, and the prose is precise and dazzling.

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The Underground Railroad • Colson Whitehead

Do believe all the hype about this book. It’s that good.

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The Handmaid’s Tale • Margaret Atwood

I read this in a women’s studies class as a freshman in college, and all I remembered was that it blew my mind. Cut to (ahem, MANY) years later, and rereading it blew my mind all over again.

First off, it’s a stunning work. Margaret Atwood writes with a scalpel; there’s not an unnecessary word in this entire book. But more importantly, this novel has never been more relevant. Atwood has created a dystopian society that feels hyper-realistic, showing how easily the public willingly relinquishes power and allows the oppressors to take control. If it doesn’t horrify you, you’re not paying attention.

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What were your favorite reads this year?