2017 Best books + best songs mashup

December 9, 2017

To mark the end of 2017, I mashed up my favorite songs of the year with the best books I read this year – kind of like a “Like that tune? Then you’ll love this book!” (This is not my idea, by the way. I saw @keyairruh do this on Twitter with pairings of albums and books, and I loved it.)

Some of the books and songs are paired because they are thematically similar or share the same sensibility. A few of the songs had lyrics that reminded me of the text. And some are mashed together just because they evoked similar feelings in me.

Keep in mind, I’ve been sick for one-going-on-two weeks and I’m delirious right now. So if these pairings don’t make sense, blame it on Flupocalypse 2017. But if the results are totally awesome, then it was me, all me.


Split Stones • Maggie Rogers  + Goodbye, Vitamin • Rachel Khong

Thirty-year-old Ruth, fresh from a breakup, quits her job and returns home to help her father, who is slipping into dementia. This is a beautiful story about devotion and what it means to be a family, and I found it almost painfully relatable.



Dreams • Beck + The Humans • Matt Haig

I won’t try to describe this novel because then you won’t read it. I’ll just say that it made me feel better about being a human, which is exactly what I needed this year.



Blow Your Mind (Mwah) • Dua Lipa + We Are Never Meeting in Real Life • Samantha Irby

An essay collection that made me laugh until I wheezed. I bought this for my flight home from Spain, and I have zero regrets.



Bike Dream • Rostam + A Separation • Katie Kitamura

A meditative and suspenseful novel about the end of a marriage and the things people never reveal to each other.



Havana • Camila Cabello (ft. Young Thug) + Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 11* • Edited by Lavinia Spalding

*Full disclosure: This anthology contains one of my essays, so you can trust me when I say it was the best book of the year. 

Also I had a hard time deciding between “Havana” and this song to illustrate it. I’m kind of obsessed with both of them. 



In Undertow • Alvvays + Little Fires Everywhere • Celeste Ng

The book starts with a literal fire and works backward to explore the conflicts that set the community ablaze.



Green Light • Lorde + Catalina • Liska Jacobs

The dark, deeply resonant story of a woman’s downward spiral.



The Underside of Power • Algiers + Born a Crime • Trevor Noah

The harrowing life of a comic coming of age during the end of apartheid in South Africa.



Quiet • MILCK + The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage •  Jared Yates Sexton

An honest and often disturbing look at the 2016 election.



Happy Wasteland Day • Open Mike Eagle + The Hate U Give • Angie Thomas

A riveting YA book about a girl who witnesses the shooting death of her friend at the hands of a police officer.



Over Everything • Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile + The One-Eyed Man • Ron Currie

A grieving man devotes himself to radical honesty, which turns out to be equal parts hilarious and infuriating.



Supermodel • SZA + One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter • Scaachi Koul

An essay collection from one of my favorite fresh voices.



Shh Shh Shh • Boss Hog + What You Don’t Know • JoAnn Chaney

A thriller that kept me up all night long.



The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness • The National + The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir • Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the most exquisite books I’ve ever read. It’s a masterful memoir about obsession and how scars can last for generations.



Feel It Still • Portugal, the Man + The Power • Naomi Alderman

I’m still high on this book, in which women suddenly gain the power to shock people with their hands, an exhilarating antidote to the news cycle.



What were your top books and songs this year? Do you have any good pairings for me?

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Great Books to Read During Bed Rest

September 4, 2017

One of my friends has a friend currently on bed rest, and she asked for some book recommendations to help make the time pass. My friend asked me for some suggestions.

It reminded me of how I passed the month of November 2008. I had just donated my bone marrow to a stranger, and the recovery was longer and more painful than I expected. (I would happily do it again, though.)

My friend Maria showed up to my condo with a brown grocery sack of novels, including the Undead paranormal romance series, about a woman named Elizabeth (Betsy) Taylor who loses her job, gets killed, and becomes queen of the vampires, all on the same day. Betsy is kind of like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless-meets-Pam from True Blood, and the books are every bit as addictive as drinking blood. Or so I’m told.

Maria also brought me a little series called Twilight. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

I loved these books with no regrets, even while others might scoff at them, because they brought me out of my body at a time I didn’t want to be in it. Each novel was highly engaging, page-turny, and exactly what I needed at that time — and I still think about all those stories fondly.

So trust me, I know what a joy it is to receive a huge stack of books during a time of forced rest. The ideal bed rest book is immersive, has quick action, and is compelling enough to transport the reader to some far-off place.

Here are the suggestions I gave my friend. If you have others, I’d love to hear them in the comments:

The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon

This is a YA book about two tenagers who fall in love on a street in New York just hours before the girl’s family is about to be deported. The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of different characters (not just the two teenagers, but the security guard at the court building, for instance), and it’s sweet without being sappy.

• Anything by Rainbow Rowell, because her stories are always sharp and funny and compulsively readable, particularly Eleanor & Park, and Attachments

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

This was less of an instructional self-help book and more of a memoir. Shonda is funny, her life experiences are relatable, and the book is a quick, inspiring read.

What You Don’t Know – JoAnn Chaney

Into thrillers? I am not, and I loved every word of this one. My friend JoAnn wrote this twisted and gripping novel about a serial killer in Denver and the female reporter who gets a little too close to the story.

Girl in the Dark – Anna Lyndsey

This is memoir that might be relatable for someone on bed rest. It’s about a woman who develops an allergy to light, so she is forced to stay in her house, only going outside on moonless nights.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal

A novel in connected stories about a Midwestern girl who becomes an acclaimed chef. J. Ryan is from the Midwest and he tells the story with so much warmth for the region and the cuisine.

• Love Me Anyway – Tiffany Hawk

This is another book written by a friend. It’s a novel about two young flight attendants experiencing the world, taking journeys, and coming of age at 35,000 feet.

Yes, Please – Amy Poehler

Funny, of course. It’s Amy Poehler, and everything she does is gold. And the birth plan chapter still hits home for me.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor

Follow Karou through the streets of Prague with this fanciful, mysterious novel. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious errands, she speaks many languages, and her hair actually grows out of her head blue. Who is she?

The Uglies series – Scott Westerfeld

The Hunger Games meets that awful show The Swan in this series about a dystopian world in which every 16-year-old is required to have cosmetic surgery to become “pretty.” It’s chilling how such a beautiful world can become so ugly.

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Everything I’ve Read in 2017 (So Far)

July 7, 2017
books - 1

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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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Citizen journalism in the age of Trump

February 26, 2017

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

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.”


“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.