2017 Book Round-up

My 2017 reading list was fucking fire. I averaged 3 books per month, which is totally manageable, but a lot more than I’ve read in recent years, and a big reason for that is that almost every book I picked up was un-put-down-able.

It was fun and inspiring and almost every day I was bursting at the seams to tell people about what I was reading and invite them to join me. Part of that is  because publishers were ON IT last year so I had a lot of great new books to choose from. But even more of what made this such a great year for reading, is that I had a pretty specific intention behind how I chose books for my to-read shelf.

At the end of 2016 I was down in the goddamn dumps. The collective trauma of the presidential election and what it said about our country’s racism and misogyny and xenophobia was heavy, and like a lot of my friends, I wanted to resist in any way I could.

The morning after the election, I went to an early yoga class because I had been up all night with nausea and anxiety and grief, and I had to do something physical to ease some of the psychic ache. The class was a small group of women who all looked as stunned and bewildered and fragile as I felt, and we shared a very gentle, very conscientious practice, focusing a lot of thought on the fact that we were sharing in this experience together, and it reinforced a little burgeoning sense we had that the work of resisting would involve a lot of attention and energy invested in others, in being aware of their existence and their humanity. Seeing all those women also going through it, crystalized my belief that, in order to get through this nightmare, we all need to bear witness for each other, we all need to be present and available and more open and generous and kind, and not just in theory, but in actual physical practice, be there for and with each other.

I spent the next several weeks thinking a lot about what I could do, what I had to give, that could be of help. And the conclusion I came to was that while I could march and protest and call my representatives, I didn’t have a whole lot of money to donate or invest in resistance. But I realized that my attention is a commodity and a currency, and I have to spend it wisely. Just as you vote with your dollar, in a lot of ways you also vote with your attention, and frankly, we all give straight, white christian heteronormative males too much attention – in the media, in public office, in commerce, in academia, in the arts. So I vowed to direct my attention to other voices, and not just voices that are other than straight white male, but also voices that are other from my own, because even as a marginalized minority woman in America who’s pretty aware of others, I still have privilege and blind spots in cultural awareness and identity politics, and there’s no reason I can’t actively do something to mitigate that.

Since reading takes up a huge portion of my cultural consumption, that seemed like a good place to start my consumption resistance. I put a bunch of effort, even more than usual, into looking out for books by authors who are either marginalized, traditionally excluded from canon, or whose experience is  notably different from my own. Which isn’t to say that I have banned straight white male authors from my reading list entirely, I just choose not to give them any special share of territory, and I limit their inclusion so as not to disproportionately weight their presence. For example, I allowed myself one for sure exception – the new George Saunders book, because he’s one of my favorite authors and I’ve been looking forward to his first novel for a long time, but his inclusion on my list shows how exceptional a white man has to be to make the cut, whereas everyone else can be exceptional or ordinary or even kind of shitty and I’ll still read their work. I’m basically giving them the same privilege we allow white men most of the time.

Anyway, I decided to put together a little summary, in no particular order, for anyone that might want to play along at home (please, please read some of these books so we can talk about them together!).

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay– This is a collection of exactly the kind of short stories I want to read all the time. Far too often, I think, we waste time with stories about characters who are cliches or tropes, not viable complicated people. They tend to be flat and one dimensional and exist only to advance a prescribed and played out plot. And I always find myself wondering why more stories aren’t about fun-ass, badass complicated-ass women like the ones I know in real life. Side note: most of the women I know are so complicated and beautiful and frustrating and prismatic that it’s hard to look straight at them, and even harder to look away. So why aren’t there more characters like that in fiction? And here’s the thing: THERE ARE! You just have to look a little harder to find them. But luckily for us, Roxane Gay brought a bunch of them to life, and packed their stories into a delicious collection. These women are not simple. These women are not ordinary. These women are messy and bad things happen to them and they do bad things and they live stories you wouldn’t necessarily feel like you have any business knowing about. This book lit me up, made me excited about fiction again.

All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers, Alana Massey -I loved this book so much I ended up taking a writing class taught by the author. It explores such a wild range of topics from celebrities and icons to mental health and sex work and divinity, and all of it is so razor sharp and charming and brilliant, and the exuberance throughout the book is contagious enough to melt even your coldest indifference to Courtney Love.

Born A Crime, Trevor Noah– Trevor Noah’s writing is as charming as anything he’s done on TV. You can actually hear his adorable accent in your head as you read along, and it helps add a certain buoyancy to what is otherwise a stressful fucking account of his youth in South Africa.

White Rage, Carol Anderson– Talk about a back story. As we’ve discussed, this has been a rough year of seeing some really ugly parts of our culture that maybe a lot of us weren’t aware of, or if we were, didn’t understand the extent of. I think it’s been harder and harder to pin the tail on one donkey, to blame one person or group or force for all the ugliness and racism we’re suddenly being governed by. But this intensely accessible outline of the arc of racism and its impact on legislation in America since the Civil War, kind of gives a name to that one force, and it’s filled with points that are both alarming to look at head on, and a relief to have a name for.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas– This should absolutely be required reading for 2017.

The Best American Essays 2016, Jonathan Franzen ed. – I’m not one to stan for the Best American series. Like, not at all. But I do read them most years, for, I dunno, the sake of curiosity? This one though. Ho-ly hot damn. Nearly every essay was gorgeous and rich like fiction, original, fresh, bracingly specific. Honestly, there were multiple times where I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up the short story anthology instead. The quality of the writing was that good, and lively and lush. There were several essays that I hunted down online to share with people because they got so deep under my skin like a song you can’t stop listening to. And I have mixed feelings on Franzen as a writer, but I gotta say, the man can edit like nobody’s business. Seriously, highly recommend this one.

All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg– This book fucked me up. It’s probably not for everybody, but I felt seen as hell reading it. It’s about a woman who has given up on her pursuit of an artistic life for a lot of reasons, her family is complicated and unconventional and she’s got a lot to deal with, and she ends up living a life that requires some interesting strategies to hold it together. There’s so much real shit about grown woman sexuality and promiscuity, and I mean real, grown ass autonomous woman stuff, and it’s great. And so much about coping with trying not to be an artist, how that manifests and fucks you up. There are deep dives into all those wounds and their consequences. It’s just gorgeous.

Hunger, Roxane Gay– So much of this felt utterly essential on so many levels.  It’s not just that Gay cut down to the core on so many things we tend to only look at sideways, it’s the way she has laid it out, in an ebbing and flowing arc, she takes us along on the journey, themes emerge and recede and come back again, so that reading the book is a process of circular revelation. The chapter on Christopher was one of the most vital and excruciatingly accurate portraits assault survival I’ve ever read.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby– I’ve loved Samantha Irby for a long time. Some aspects of our lives are shockingly similar, and I’ve found myself looking to her, often, for a good old fashioned sanity check. Her first book, Meaty, felt like someone was telling my life story, only better and funnier and more brilliantly written. But WANMIRL, is different. The humor is still there, but it goes so much deeper into a lot of the themes presented in Meaty. Illness and dating and being a minority woman in America. I don’t know. I really can’t do this one justice in a blurb. It’s just so good, and I found myself, weeks after reading it, still really wanting to know how Sam and Mavis are doing. Just kind of thinking about them like friends of mine I need to catch up with. And I feel like that says so much about how thoroughly Sam builds character in her writing. I’ll probably read this one again.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan -I avoided reading this for so long. Mainly because of growing up in the 80s. All you heard about was how much middle aged women loooooved the Joy Luck Club, and being a yoot, I didn’t want to read the same books as middle aged ladies. The marketing of the movie was also pretty vulgarly simpering and aimed so exclusively at a certain kind of…ok the commercials were just boring and waaaay too serious and overwrought. Seriously check this out:

 And it’s a damn shame because the book is nothing like that! It’s populated with such badass women! Omg I love them! They’re all so complex and modern and fun and interesting and why did they market it the way they did? Anyway it’s great. And anyway I am a middle aged lady who loves this book now so maybe I was right about that part?

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Eagan -If you liked watching Peggy Olson walk down that hallway at the end of Mad Men, or if you like Brooklyn or historical fiction or gangsters, you’ll get a kick out of this. Jennifer Eagan is a blast, as always.

Made for Love, Alissa Nutting -you know what we could use more of? Romps. I want romps as far as the eye can see. This shit was so fun and ridiculous and a little bit gross and dark and also a sick burn about our relationship with technology and our elevation of tech gods. But also a total blast. And also pretty gross. If you like things like Skinny Legs and All, Geek Love, or, like, those Christopher Moore books, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Other books I read, and loved:
Tranny, Laura Jane Grace
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Mothers, Brit Bennett
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul
Our Short History, Laura Grodstein
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
First Bite, Bee Wilson

So, what happened to the George Saunders book? I didn’t finish it. I’ll pick it up again at some point, because it seemed good, but it didn’t hook me initially, and I decided not to give it more effort than that.

This last year it’s felt like the whole country was a giant room full of angry white men screaming about the same bullshit. It has been terrifying and draining. And through reading these books, I was able to shut the door on that room, just a little, just enough to find myself in a quieter, saner, more constructive room where I could actually hear what other people were saying. I wasn’t able to escape completely, nor would I want to. But I was able to tamper the noise just enough to break the feedback loop of angry white men yelling, and remind myself over and over that no matter how much psychic space they try to commandeer, they aren’t the only ones here. It’s the antidote to the helplessness and exhaustion and feeling like there’s nothing we can do about anything, because there is so much. We can be an audience for each other. We can be witnesses to each other’s experiences and imaginations. And that’s one of the ways we can fortify each other through the hard times.

As for 2018, I’m off to a good start with Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s good shit, guys. After that, I’ll probably look to Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge because it’s full of thoughtful, expansive reading prompts, and they just get it. But if you’re reading this and you have recommendations, send them my way!

 

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6 Months in New York!

 

Baby’s First Blizzard 

 Six Months! It looks like we’ve survived our first winter, and even though this was a notably mild one, I’m still puzzled by the dire warnings we got from family and friends before we moved. And I have to admit I was pretty terrified going into this – mainly because I’ve never owned a real coat in my life and had no idea, like, how they work. But, seriously, everyone made it sound as if no one ever lived through a snow storm. Like at the first sign of “bitter” cold anyone in their right mind would go running back to Cali. And to that I have to say, WHY DIDN’T YOU PEOPLE WARN ME ABOUT SUMMER?! Winter is adorable and cozy and magical and wonderful, and summer is the veritable armpit-soaked trench of human existence. 

Blizzard Sunset, Maria Hernandez Park 1/24/16

Anyway, 6 months in, and I’m totally in love, which sounds like a cliche and doesn’t even come close to describing how deeply “at home” I feel. And of course it’s not just the city – it’s our friends, and my job, and our apartment and our neighborhood, and above all: it’s that we’re in this together, me and Autobono. One of these days I’ll get around to writing about the move itself, but for now I really needed to bang out a quick catch up post, just to break the ice, and remember what it feels like to transfer the words in my head to the page after such a long break (spoiler alert: it’s weird).

More soon, but in the meantime, pics!

Williamsburg Bridge at sunset 3/18/16

Writers of Color: Your voice matters

My new hero!

Vanessa Martir's Blog

Dr. Miranda Bailey, a black, genius general surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy speaks in a loose language that sounds like home—“I can’t be…” and “gonna.” She’s fierce, will read you in a heartbeat and always has the best intentions. She’s hardcore and reminds me of me in many ways. She’s the chief resident, dubbed the chief surgeon’s “work husband,” she plays a prominent position in the hospital, and yes, I know this is a drama and not real life and just a show, but it’s important to have these models in pop culture. Why? Because such characters demonstrate that you can be your full self and succeed; you don’t have to adopt the voice and language of white America to make it.

Voice.

If you know me and have worked with me, you know that I stress that a writer work on finding his or her voice. Why? Voice is perhaps…

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An Evening of Poetry

IMG_5233This past Wednesday, Dancing Girl Press hosted a poetry reading at E.M. Wolfman General Interest Books in Downtown Oakland. It was my second time seeing one of their events, and what was once a total novelty has quickly become a welcome and well-anticipated tradition in the neighborhood. The event features three DGP poets reading from a mix of published chapbooks and works in progress, all of which were bold and fresh and captivating.

When I left the reading, I met up with a friend at the Golden Bull down the street and tried to explain how awesome the readings were, but I came up short. I realized I have way more words for things I don’t like than for things I do like. And that’s not ok with me anymore. So I figured I’d take a stab at reviewing the reading for this blog.

The first poet, Nicole Borello is a joy to see in action. I’ve had the pleasure taking several writing classes with her, so I was already familiar with her work – her short stories are powerhouses of humor and insight, and her poetry is equally accomplished. In addition IMG_5230to running her own independent press, Nicole has published three chapbooks, all of which are rich and substantial and incredibly accessible. Here’s the thing about Borello’s work – it sneaks up on you. Her reading style is so casual and conversational that you don’t realize you’re being blessed with a dose of badass feminist poetry. I call her work feminist, not because it follows a political agenda or anything, in fact you would be hard pressed to describe her work as political or pedantic. It’s more that the images she presents of women are gritty and real and vibrant – in her work we get to admire bountiful asses and the contents of padded bras, we explore intimate grooming and rites of motherhood and prostitution and abuse – but Borello addresses these things with her signature grace, in effect saying “of course we should talk about these things, because they are beautiful and ugly and real and true,” And in a society where we avoid such topics, giving them a place in poetry is itself an act of feminist assertion.

Now don’t get me wrong, the strength of her work is not solely in it’s subject matter or the accessibility of its delivery – this is well crafted poetry, this is a woman who understands form and structure and employs them every which way to pack maximum meaning into her words. I could get lost in them all day, unpacking connections and associations. This is potent, primal stuff. Her latest chapbook, Fried Fish and Breast Milk is available from Dancing Girl Press.

After the reading I picked up Sarah Chavez’s chapbook All Day, Talking, also available from Dancing Girl, because her poems and the ongoing narrative they explore just got under my skin. The poems in the collection all take the form of letters to a deceased woman named Carole. They range over time, revealing snippets of both women’s lives and their relationship, things they believed in and things they questioned together, and they also chart the speaker’s explorations of life with and after Carole – there’s an intimacy to her private thoughts while washing dishes, reminiscing about adventures they shared, forming and reexamining her identity over time, and of course grieving her lost love. I had to pick up the collection because the story was so compelling, like a really good novel, but masterfully packed into the frame of compact epistolary poems.

Discovering Chavez’s work was a treat and one of the reasons I love these readings (besides the fact that they’re local and hosted at a seriously delicious little bookstore where pretty much every book on the shelves is on my Goodreads list), because they bring talented voices practically to  my doorstep and introduce me to poetry I wouldn’t have found on my own. Check them out, especially if you think you don’t like poetry, ‘cause these two just might change your mind.

Winter Stay-cation

image3 The company I work for is very generous this time of year. We basically shut down for the last two weeks in December, meaning that I’m off the hook from work in ways I’d never be on a regular vacation. The problem with regular vacations, no matter how grand or peaceful you make them, is that everyone else is still working, so no matter how hard you try to get ahead of the current, by the time you get back to the office your inbox is crammed, your work has piled up, and you spend a disproportionate amount of time playing catch up. This is not the case when everyone  is off! When the whole company is on snooze you get to really unplug, because even if you tried to be a good soldier and log into VPN, there isn’t anything there to work on. (If an out-of-office auto reply goes out and no one’s there to read it, does it make a sound?).

Now, usually I try to cram as much into this indulgent break as possible – trips to LA to see my family, or across the country to see distant friends. I make big plans for all the things I’m going to work on and write and sort out and organize and see and buy and…! But this year, after a pretty quick chat, my boyfriend and I decided to take it easy as fuck, and man am I glad we did. I can’t imagine a more satisfying way to have spent all this free time. And because of that, I’m feeling ready to go back to the grind… excited even, because I feel like I’m going back legitimately recharged and refreshed.

image1And we still got a lot done – I joined a new gym, started a journal, fired up my blog. I got to spend time with local friends whose schedules don’t normally line up with mine. I completed a ton (a ton!) of weird home projects that have been haunting me all year – finally replaced the stupid dutch oven (welcome back, braising! You’ve been sorely missed), bought a desk and set up a work area for myself because I really needed a dedicated space to practice my craft and reinforce the validity of the work I’m trying to do. I’m 36 years old. I’ve been writing my whole life. And I’ve never given myself a real place to work. I figured out some really important things about what foods and activities are working for my body right now (Crohn’s disease is a moving target, so it was great having time to really observe patterns and set some guidelines for myself). I got to see what the fuck my cats do all day while I’m at work (hint: it involves sleeping and napping, and more sleeping)

The important takeaway is that I got way more done because I approached the break with an attitude of “I’m relaxing here! If there’s any time or energy left when I’m done, THEN I’ll move on to doing stuff” which is the exact opposite of the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality of my entire life up to this point. Coming into adulthood, I had to move fast, like disgustingly fast, just to survive. But that part’s over now. My life and my body have been trying to slow me down for the last few years, and I’m starting to see why. Some things can move a lot faster when you slow down and let them.

image6Winter is the perfect time to study hibernation and repose. It feels good to follow the rhythms of nature, to sleep when the world sleeps, to go indoors early when the sun goes down early. Largely because when it’s dark out it’s harder to dodge all the human feces on the sidewalk (I’m looking at you San Francisco!), so you may as well take that time to paint your nails, take a nap, watch the new season of Revenge, read thirteen books, and plan which seeds to sow come spring.

Today we go back to work. Back to morning commutes…and evening commutes. Back to desk life and emails and social interaction. It’s time to plant now, and lay down the roots for next year’s harvest. And I’m rested and ready. Bring it on.image5

New Year, Same Me

I started the year with an 8am barre fitness class at my new gym, which is also my new love. No hangovers. No excuses. I got up at the crack truve picof dawn on New Year’s Day, and I went and tried a new class, and it kicked my everlovin ass! Thank god for Sombra! (Serioulsy, they should douse you in this stuff on your way out of the studio.

Why did I sacrifice a morning of sleeping in to get sweaty and sore? Because I could. See, over the last few years my body has been to hell and back (several times). I’ve suffered bouts of all out immobility thanks to first a broken leg, then a temporarily crippling flare of Crohn’s disease and related arthritis. As 2014 came to a close, a lot of my health problems eased closer to remission, and now that I’m starting to feel like myself again, I’ve been able to increase my physical activity. So I’ve been sort of haphazardly getting out and trying things here and there – a spin class after work, a Sunday jog by the Lake (using the term “jog” loosely here), walking to work instead of riding the bus. That sort of thing. And as my activity becomes more frequent, I keep asking myself why I exercise. Is it to lose weight? And the answer, for me anyway, is: not really.

Here’s where I’m at with my body: I fucking love it to death. This is a body that survived being run over by a motorcycle! This is the body that rebuilt itself, from muscle loss, bone fractures, torn ligaments, monstrous autoimmune attacks – and it still gets me everywhere I need to be. And it feels good! It’s me! Sure, my immune system is a little bit ratchet, but that makes it even more apparent how strong I am, how robust my organs are to stand up to that kind of constant assault.  And I feel compelled to celebrate my strength by moving more, in new and challenging ways that feel good.

Because I’ve felt what it’s like to not be able to move. And there’s a chance I’ll be in that situation again at some point, so I want to enjoy my mobility now, while I still can, and because I know that moving my joints now is the best way to keep them moving for the long haul.

So, I’m not looking to change myself, although I’m sure my shape will change a bit along the way. I’m not looking for a new me, not at all, I’m looking to experience more of who I already am. And that’s a much stronger motivator than “having to go work out” – it infuses my decision to get out there with curiosity and excitement rather than dread and stress.

I got lucky that just yesterday I found a gym that’s in line with my goals and attitude about exercise. After years of the uncomfortable sweaty ham-scented grind of a mega-gym chain, I decided to check out a new place in my neighborhood. It’s clean, and beautiful and warm and welcoming and personal. The classes are exciting and challenging and the instructors are encouraging and friendly. And I get excited to go there. So even though the membership is significantly more expensive, I’ve decided to join up, because I’d rather pay more for something I’ll actually use, than less for something I’ll avoid.

So that’s the last piece of my exercise resolution. Here it is in full: 1. Take time every day to think about why movement is important to me. 2. Move in ways that feel good. 3. Move in ways that feel like accomplishments. 4. Spend active time in places I actually enjoy being.

That’s it. No “lose 20 lbs.,” no “run a marathon,” no “fit into my skinny jeans.” Just me experiencing my body in motion.

Resolution

I started reading the Best American Essays 2013 yesterday. I usually hate these things and only read them mainly to confirm my suspicion that the same stories keep getting told over and over. But I have to say that so far the first three essays of this edition have been refreshingly interesting and inspiring. In fact the third one resonated with me so much that I’ve decided to make it my first post of 2014. The quote below is from Richard Schmitt’s “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”, and it sums up exactly what has inhibited my writing for most of my life – not the fear of failure or success or whatever, or even lack of time or resources or support (although I’ve never had much of any of these), but something even more strange and probably unique to fiction writers, and possibly “romantic”.

As a writer, I spent years hiding and denying my connection to the circus because I had the romantic notion that fiction writers simply made things up out of thin air or their intrinsic, God-given genius. An idea, I see now, about as crazy as running away to join the circus.

It’s fantastic to see someone else name the thing I’ve struggled so hard to define, and while he’s referring to time spent in an actual circus, the metaphor still applies – we all come from circuses (and by “all” I mean all us interesting people) – but some of us, for various reasons, are reluctant to draw from that rich, seething soil. I have long shared the weird (and inaccurate) notion that good writing is supposed to come from someplace foreign, that it had to be entirely made up in order to be of value, so I’ve avoided telling all my best stories, the easy stories, the ones that are constantly on the tip of my tongue, just trying to keep them from blocking the really, really good and unique and original stories  that I might possibly invent from scratch. But I’m finally realizing that it’s taken more effort to suppress my own crazy circus full of stories than it would have to just write them down. So that leads to my biggest and most cherished resolution for the year: in my writing, I’m going to do my best to come home to the circus, and stop trying to run away to the normal. I’ll be sharing it here. Happy New Year!