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?

To Everest: Now you are two

August 13, 2016
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I’ve seen you so often, but every day I catch myself marveling at the sight of you. You are part-boy, part-pony. Every morning you burst out of the room, spring-loaded with the energy of a horse emerging from a corral.

I remember two years ago at the hospital, holding you during one of our first days together. We didn’t know each other then. Not really. I stared at you that day, and I wondered who you were – who you would become.

Well, every day you reveal a little more, and I am delighted with each discovery.

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You are curious. You want to know every color, every feeling, every animal. You try to read all the books, and sometimes you surround yourself with big stacks of cookbooks and Baby Lit books and travel guides and picture books, and you want to devour them all. It makes me so happy.

You are hilarious. You play jokes, like surprising me by hopping out from behind a door or forcing me to sniff your stinky feet. If I don’t laugh, you laugh anyway and insist, “Funny.” You always ask for a sip of my coffee, wait a beat, then collapse in giggles. That joke slays you.

You have an endless capacity for singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” When I sing about the wheels on the bus, you joyfully chime in with “All through the town!”

Your mind is a sponge right now, and I am charmed by the incorrect words you’ve acquired for everyday objects. Telephones are hellos, a bridge is an uppy-downy, and mountains are “the big.”

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You scale the furniture and leap up the stairs and somersault across the floor and hop hop hop all over the place and run circles around the dinner table. We gave up baby gates months ago, because it’s useless to try to contain you. When we go outside, you shoot me a sideways look and say, “I run?” – then you’re off, sprinting down the road. I’m exhausted and awed by it in equal measure. I love your energy for life and your sheer physicality, and I hope I can keep up with you in the years to come.

You have no fear, so I hold it all for the both of us.

You love airplanes and elephants, monkeys and watermelon. You are on a desperate mission to hug all cats. And I can say from personal experience, your hugs are the greatest. My favorite thing is when you hold my face to carefully kiss my forehead, my nose, my chin, and both cheeks.

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Most of all, you are kind. I’m overwhelmed by your generosity, patience, and compassion. You are gentle with animals. You wait your turn with toys. When you’re playing with a ball and another kid swipes it, you shrug and move on to something else. If you have two crackers, you always try to feed me first. You talk to everyone, including the homeless people at the library – especially the homeless people at the library – and it does my heart good to see all the smiles you leave in your wake.

You are just two, but you have already made my life richer, fuller, better. I still don’t know exactly who you’ll be yet, only that I’m so happy you’re mine.

An ode to the purple one

April 21, 2016
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I’ve said before that when Prince dies, it’ll be the celebrity death that destroys me. But as I sit here tonight, listening to the livestream of Prince music from a Minneapolis public radio station, I don’t feel wrecked. Not yet.

I think a part of me refuses to believe that I exist in a world without Prince. Or that a world can exist without Prince. Because as long as I can remember, my world has been infused with a tiny pixie funk sex god yelping about raspberry berets and “Trojans, some of them used,” and it was extraordinary. Prince is as seamlessly woven into my childhood as grape popsicles and roller skates. He just always was.

Over the coming weeks, a lot of people will write a lot of remembrances about Prince, and they will have more authority than I do. They will be involved in the music industry, or they will have attended more Prince concerts, or they will have something really unique to contribute. I don’t have that.

What I can say is that I grew up in a squat brick home in a tiny Ohio neighborhood, and Prince was an essential part of my life. Even there. His purple reign extended that far and deep.

First grade, my mother’s vanity. I see Prince on TV, and before school one day, I use my mom’s eyebrow pencil to draw a thin mustache over my lip. “Because it’s pretty, that’s why,” I argue as she wipes it away with a cotton ball.

Third grade, bathroom floor. It’s the quietest room in the house, so that’s where I go to record songs from the radio onto a blank Sanyo cassette. After I record “When Doves Cry,” I will play it so fiercely, so ceaselessly, that the tape itself will run thin and become knotted inside the player. I will untangle it and rewind the tape back into the case with a pencil, and that will happen over and over, until it’s finally rendered unlistenable.

Fifth grade, Desiree’s house. It’s my first time seeing the video for “Kiss.” While the song is pure sugary pop, the video is the most confusing, frisky, lusty thing I’ve ever seen. Prince is pure, uncorked sex, gleefully wiggling around in leather pants and a half shirt, while Wendy, clad in twice as much fabric, plays guitar. Meanwhile, a veiled woman in lingerie and aviator glasses slinks and writhes. I don’t understand their relationship, the three of them, only that it’s visually exciting. And though I know something sexy is happening, it’s also the first time I’ve encountered something simultaneously hot and playful.

Sixth grade, the community swimming pool. My friends invent this pointless game called “Song Cannon,” which involves doing cannonballs off the high dive into the pool. The kicker? In that space between jumping and plunging into the water, you have to shout a line from your favorite song. The first time I yell, “U got the look!” The next time, “Your body’s heck a sl— … (glub-glub)”

Eighth grade, the dank, wood-paneled downstairs of my parents’ house. Spontaneous dance party with “Batdance” at full volume.

High school, Kim’s house. My friend Kim is secretly dating a guy in our class who already has a girlfriend. He gives Kim a mixtape that opens with the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and ends with “Purple Rain.” It doesn’t even matter what songs are sandwiched in between. Kim plays the whole tape in her bedroom twice, and as the music careens through hunger and longing and sorrow, the air is charged, electric.

I could go on and on. The time a man on a Greyhound bus mistook me for Apollonia. Sneaking out of work early from the Cincinnati Enquirer to see Prince play a 26-song set. Standing front and center for Prince’s Coachella set, when he trotted out Morris Day and The Time. All the years I made a Prince lyric my mantra: “I don’t wanna die, I’d rather dance my life away.

And of course, all the nights made seriously funky with purple and ruffles, sparkles and a wink.

The year in music: Best songs of 2015

December 29, 2015
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This wasn’t a huge year in music for me. I didn’t go to any shows, and I bought very few albums. I didn’t even make a single playlist on Spotify. Instead I was busy working, writing, and mommying, and I often felt stretched to the limit just juggling those things.

But that also means when I did make the effort to listen to new music, it had to be good. And there were some standout tracks this year. Here are 15 of my favorites.

You can also check out my best-of lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Magnets (ft. Lorde) • Disclosure

I’m an old married lady now. But if I were still hooking up on the regular, this slinky, rattling tune would be my hookup jam.

 

Can’t Feel My Face • The Weeknd

Song of the year AND soundtrack for girls’ weekend with my high school besties.

 

Hotline Bling • Drake

Goofy dancing? Check. Video inspired by artist James Turrell? Check. Music that’s reminiscent of the Wii shop? Check. The result is a catchy, earwormy song that stays with me for days, as well as a video that always stops me in my tracks.

 

Kurt Vile • Pretty Pimpin

Every time I hear Kurt Vile, I find it difficult to believe he hails from Philly and not Joshua Tree. So when I found out his latest album, b’lieve i’m goin down…, was recorded at Joshua Tree’s Rancho de la Luna studio, the whole world suddenly made some kind of sense again.

 

Beck • Dreams

Even the worst Beck song is better than most other songs that dropped this year. (And maybe this isn’t the worst Beck, but it’s not the best Beck either.)

Chairlift • Ch-Ching

Soulful pop laced with stanky brass means this new Chairlift track is dangerously danceable.

 

Tame Impala • Let It Happen

This song is everywhere. I don’t know if I even like it anymore or if it’s holding me hostage.

 

Missy Elliott • WTF

Someday we’ll realize this is Missy’s world, and we’re all just marionettes in it.

 

Father John Misty • Holy Shit

I have a hard time choosing between all the wonderful, wry songs on I Love You, Honeybear, so I really labored over this decision. Today this one is my favorite. Tomorrow it’ll be “Bored in the USA.” And no matter my pick, Josh Tillman is brilliant. And beautiful. My god, look at that gorgeous man-beast.

 

Shura • 2Shy

Decades ago someone must have slipped a little bit of the ’80s into a time capsule. When it was opened in the spring of 2015, this is what came out.

 

Ezra Furman • Body Was Made

A body-positive, gender-fluid song that is a little bit Lou Reed, a little bit E Street? YAAASSS, BISH.

 

El Vy • Return to the Moon

El Vy is a collaboration between the awesome Matt Berninger, vocalist from The National, and Brent Knopf of Menomena, so that’s already enough to hook me before the song even starts. But the cleverly wrangled lyrics and classic New Order vibe are what keep me coming back.

 

Alessia Cara • Here

Alessia Cara has put words to much every party I’ve ever attended.

 

Diet Cig • Breathless 

This song is my 20s exactly, plus it has that tinny, garage-band sound I love.

 

Courtney Barnett • Pedestrian at Best 

(Trigger warning: Clowns.) Courtney Barnett must be my sarcastic spirit animal. I always find myself shaking my fist in the air and banging my head along to “Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey!” and I don’t even know why.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats • S.O.B.

My friend Lizi turned me onto this song, and it was an instant gift. I can’t tell you how many times it rips through my head on an average day. Also it neatly sums up my 2015.

 

So that’s me. What made the cut for your Best of 2015 list?

Cooleyhighholiday: A Christmas Miracle

December 23, 2015
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The Ghost of Christmas Past just reminded me of this story, which took place a few years ago.

A friend of mine, an opera singer, was booked to perform at a local Indian casino during the tribe’s holiday party. I tagged along, but I don’t remember why. Probably for free food.

While my friend crooned Christmas carols, I sat backstage on a rickety metal chair. A couple of guys were sitting back there too, and they laughed when the chair almost tipped me onto the floor. They were nice, though, and we had a ridiculously good time for people hanging out in the wings of a dusty stage. I don’t even remember everything we chatted about, only that we laughed a lot.

One of the guys complimented my friend’s singing and said she’d be a tough act to follow.

ME: Oh, you sing?

GUY: Yeah, we have a group.

ME: Sweet. What’s your group called?

GUY: Boyz II Men.

You guys, Boyz II Freaking Men.

Boyz II Men served as the soundtrack for my formative years. I owned “Cooleyhighharmony” on cassette, and when it wore out, I bought the CD. More of my backseat makeout sessions were set to “I’ll Make Love to You” than other jam. And I’ve been to more than one prom with the theme, “End of the Road.”

So when I realized these dudes were actually Boyz II Men, I did the only thing I could do. I launched into the Michael Bivins rap from “Motownphilly.”

“Now check this out
One day back in Philly
Four guys wanted to sing
They came up to me I said
What’s your name? (Boyz II Men)
Ya know what I’m sayin’.”

It’s a horrible flaw of mine that I sing celebrities’ songs to them. Usually the musicians aren’t happy about it. But in this case, the guys played along, launching into the “dum dum dum dah dah” harmony — a little Christmas gift to me.