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 Mártir'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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Crohn’s “Cured” by Pot?

Crohn’s “Cured” by Pot?

This article claims that 5 of 11 test subjects were cured of intractable Crohn’s disease by smoking pot every day for 2 months. 

If I try this, will I have to change my name to The Dalai Lion? 😉

But seriously, I wonder if this was a large enough sample, and if there were other factors in these people’s recovery. It’s interesting though, to hear that people are actively trying to research alternative treatments for folks who don’t respond to the usual drugs. 

Also, did these people have to go to work and function or were they just sitting around smoking grass for 2 months? Big burning questions here.

I’m curious what other Crohn’s patients think!

Book Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

ImageI’m reading Karen Russell’s new collection of short stories and so far this one is hitting me right where I like it. “Reeling for the Empire”, a story about young women in Japan during the Meiji empire who are conscripted to spin silk in a factory and find themselves permanently altered by the commitment, stands out as a potent example of why I fell in love with this collection so quickly.

The story touches on all my sweet spots- magical fantasy, introspective and fascinating female protagonists, and my favorite pet fascination with Russell in particular – the female protagonist who believes herself to be the agent of her own undoing. Russell has written this type of character before in Swamplandia and in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a character who is struggling to understand the cause of her great transformative trauma, and to devise a way to transcend it. The meditation on regret in this iteration is especially captivating, and the narrator distills her understanding of it beautifully when she explains “Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.”  How lovely and apt to think of regret, or any internal processing of memory or imagination as a journey, and especially to view the kind that you must repeat and revisit as pilgrimages. For gems like this it’s been a joy to watch the author develop over time, and as with all my favorite authors I derive as much pleasure watching them negotiate and construct recurring themes over the course of their careers. In this way, Russell joins the likes of Elissa Schappell, Don Delillo, and Jonathan Lethem, contemporary authors whose new works will always have a spot reserved on my “To Read” shelf.

20 Best Rock Clubs in America

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Rolling Stone has posted a list of the 20 Best Rock Clubs in America.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked for 10 years (collectively) at the Troubadour & the Great American Musical Hall, and they’re both in the top 10! I personally think they’re some of the best rock clubs in the country, but it’s always a thrill to see them honored this way.

Check out the full list!

You Could Find Me In the (Autoimmune) Club, Bottle Full of Bud

I always sort of knew I might develop an autoimmune disease at some point. The women in my family are riddled with them, and they get them fast and hard. My mom died of lupus 3 weeks after her 52nd birthday. My grandmother developed rheumatoid arthritis in her mid thirties and was wheelchair bound for most of her life thereafter. All of my aunts and many of my cousins have some form of thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or some combination of them. So I had a good sense that something might come up for me eventually. I got tested every few years for lupus and R.A. and all my tests were good – my blood pressure is low, cholesterol too, my diet’s clean, I’m physically active, no joint pain and I could run three or four miles without passing out, so I thought I still had a long way to go before I developed problems. But, like I say, everything happens, especially change.

About a year ago I started having digestive problems. It came on slowly at first, just discomfort after eating, but more and more I started noticing that food, in general, was making me sick. As my symptoms got worse, I tried various elimination diets, trying to identify what was causing so much grief – gluten? dairy? alcohol? caffeine? sugar? But no matter what I took out or put into my diet, I kept getting sicker… and sicker. I got to a point where food wouldn’t stay in my body long enough to digest anything. I was bloated, and pale, and in so much pain that I basically trembled constantly, and I’d gotten so used to it that I didn’t even notice I was going through my life like a beat-down robot. Then my boyfriend and one of my best friends teamed up and made me finally go to the doctor. It took about 6 weeks of increasingly unpleasant tests for the doctor’s to identify what I have as Crohn’s disease and confirm that yes, in fact it was all food that was making me sick, or rather it was my immune system that was making me sick in such a way that no food could possibly feel good. Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease where your body sends too many white blood cells to parts of your digestive system causing inflammation, ulcers and erosion of various membranes, so that when you eat, it’s kinda like shoving food into an open wound. When I saw the scopes of my insides it looked like I’d been eating shards of glass and battery acid for days.

Then, just as my doctor was coming up with a treatment plan,, my immune system continued to get hopped up like a college girl on Cuervo and sugar-free GoGirl, and got all ratchet on the hardware in my (formerly broken) leg. After almost six months of steady healing, my leg started doing a historical reenactment of what it looked and felt like when it was first broken (swollen to twice its normal size, impossible to put any weight on it.) And it kept getting worse! Red, blotchy, firey hot, it looked like I had dunked my leg from the knee down in boiling water, I assumed I had reinjured it, but when I mentioned it to my trusty GI doctor, she identified it as an extension of the Crohn’s disease. So now we know that what’s going on is a more general inflammatory condition and whenever my body feels stress, it starts ramping up and goes off to fight The Great War somewhere in my body, and if there’s no war to fight, it damn sure starts one.At least now we have a diagnois(ish) and a plan.

Knowing that autoimmune disease is triggered and aggravated by stress, it made perfect sense that this had started when it did, 6 months after I was run over by a motorcycle, amid all the stress of balancing an intense physical therapy schedule, full-time work, a 10 mile commute on public transportation on crutches, fighting daily with hospital accountants and my insurance company, and learning that my boyfriend and I were on our own because the dirtbag who ran me over had no insurance. Stress-wise, I was fully primed for my immune system to overreact.The good news about that, from my perspective, is that because it responds so dramatically to stress, it’ll probably respond well to stress-reduction.

So while we convince my white blood cells to go home and sleep it off, I’m on steroids, anti-inflammatories and a super limited diet of basically white starchy food and meat. I’ll write more about the details of the diet and the creative solutions my boyfriend and I are coming up with to accommodate the new restrictions and challenges. If you have a similar situation, or a blog with recipes or tips, please feel free to share them! (and good luck with your healing!)