The future is female

To say we are obsessed with the latest Jason Isbell album, “The Nashville Sound” is probably a bit of an understatement. We’ve loved all of his music, but this album is a masterpiece. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve listened to it over the last few weeks. You should listen to it right now.

Our current American climate is creating some powerful art. I know that some feel that it is a naive, liberal thought that art can create change, but art of all kinds gets me through a rough world – always has and it always will. It keeps me sane.

On the Daily Show this week Isbell said that folk music, “hearkens back to a time where we made up songs so we don’t forget our stories.” We are living in crazy, anxiety-provoking times. Unforgettable, deranged times. Isbell captures all of this in beautiful songs – a singer/songwriter for our generation.

 

In “White Mans World” Isbell sings:

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be her’s one day
But her momma knew better

This song gets you in the gut. Isbell GETS it.

America elected a man who when asked at a speaking engagement by a woman how to “go about creating the capital that I need to start my business when all I have is my knowledge and my dream.” Trump’s response: “Meet a wealthy guy.”  Of course, this is just one annoying thing among so many disgusting comments about women that the Predator in Chief has made (the latest being a tweet about a morning talk show host’s facelift and another saying awkward things to an Irish reporter about her smile). The President looks at a woman and he sees a body, not an equal.

The  part of all of this that upsets and unsettles me the most, that shakes me to my core, is that people see behavior like this as a sign of strength and normal (although not all will admit it). Bullying, cajoling, talking this way about and to people – a certain group of people identify with the slimy swagger and the tactics. They identify with the underlying fear and insecurity that some people have of powerful women & people of color.  They voted for a man who is “normalizing” all of these horrible traits. That is the part that has horrified me the most throughout all of this.

We are currently living in an alternative universe where scientists, the press/all news (except Fox & Friends & Hannity & Breitbart), judges, the FBI, the pope, actors and actresses – basically everyone except the administration – tell “fake news” because they are mad because their candidate did not win. Lucky for us we have an honorable, honest president whose twitter feed gives us solid facts (Obama bugged the WH, the murder rate in our country is the highest in 49 yrs, no administration has accomplished more in 90 days, largest inauguration day crowd EVER, etc, etc.). Lucky for us, we have a masochistic bully in charge of America (the former leader of the free world) who will make America great again.

girl-v-bull
Girl and the Bull – another great piece of Art

America needs to read a fucking book…here’s a few:

Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize last year – it’s so incredible. I feel different after reading this book about a Vietnamese refugee at the end of the Vietnam war. The narrator is “a man of two minds” who is constantly caught between different worlds and ideologies. It’s a different side of the Vietnam War narrative, and it should be required reading. Love this line: “Refugees such as ourselves could never dare question the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth”

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett explores complicated family dynamics and ordinary life. Patchett is a master story-teller, and I love everything she writes. Good beach reading.

Girls by Emma Kline – This novel was last summer’s hit book, but I didn’t pick it up because it seemed like yet another book about a Manson-like cult. When I finally read the book, I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would.  Prickly, impressionable young girls getting caught up in messed up stuff. The writing is great, even though we know the basic story.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon will scare you to pieces. Like all of his books, this novel shifts around from narrator to narrator. I especially loved that technique in his incredible first novel “You Remind Me of Me” . Ill Will is so creepy, and so un-putdownable. It addresses the terrors of heroin, death, paranoia, delusions, memory, serial killers. I stayed up late to finish it, and then I couldn’t sleep. Read it during daylight hours.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti reminded me of an Alice Hoffman book with the beautiful imagery and flawed, wounded characters and New England setting.  Alternating between the past and present, at the heart of the story is the love a father has for his daughter and his need to protect her from his past.

Autumn by Ali Smith takes place in England during Brexit, but it’s really a meditation on time and memory. A short little novel that won’t appeal to everyone, but will stick with you if pick it up.

Exit West by Mohsi Hamid is a must-read novel about refugees and trying to live a regular life, and love someone, in the midst of chaos. The book incorporates magical realism into a story about our common humanity and the will to keep going when everything is taken away piece by piece.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. If you love her poems (like I do!), pick up this collection of essays and get transported to a world where words and nature matter.

Have you started listening to the “Nashville Sound” yet?  If no, go listen to it from start to finish.

Isbell sings in “Hope the High Road”…

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

There can’t be more of them than us. There can’t be more.

Trump may be in charge now, but the future is female.

 

 

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These times won’t last forever

We’re moving again. It’s our 7th place in the 10 years we’ve been in San Diego. We’ve become experts at moving – especially because we keep moving around in the same neighborhood. Over the last week, we’ve been taking small trips with crates of dishes, books, pictures, & plants. This weekend we’re moving the beds and the other big stuff. Moving is pretty painless for us, except each time we leave a house, it is bittersweet.

Our current place is a chartreuse box that is under 700 sqft with 2 full walls of windows that bring afternoon & evening light into the house. There is a gorgeous bougainvillea that blooms non-stop, a lime tree that made so many limes our first year here that we had margaritas for 2 months, a purple sweet potato plant that attracts huge butterflies, and a full, gorgeous pear tree that provides the perfect amount of shade.

This house has been a birder’s dream, starting with our next door neighbor’s pet duck Charlie (who passed away a few months ago). We’re on the route for the crows where they gather for their roost, so every morning & night they fly by in droves. There are finches singing in the bougainvillea, in the Spring a mockingbird sings for over 30 minutes each morning starting at 5:50am, and we’ve spotted owls, parrots, & paired-up doves on our walks. And, of course, the hummingbird nest! The babies left a few weeks ago, and now a new momma hummingbird has laid eggs in the same nest and is guarding it ferociously.

Each night our house settles with a crack when we are in bed. This happens each night!  We watched the blood moon rise at the end of our street, Jupiter, Venus, Orion as we sat on the back patio, many sunrises over the mountains at the end of the street, and the fireworks over downtown from our front porch. It’s been a good 2 years.

Things are always changing. We’re excited to move to an old craftsman with a gorgeous kitchen and a dining room that has a huge skylight. Our new neighbors say that there is a ton of great birds at our new place… We’ll make new memories at the new house – our time at the current one is up.

As we’ve been packing I read George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo – perfect timing because this book is about how nothing lasts forever. Everything is fleeting and brief. And most importantly, how do we go on when we all know this is true?

Saunders is a master storyteller (Tenth of December!!). This odd, perfect book confirms it. It takes place one night in a graveyard where President Lincoln’s son Willie now resides. Willie is in a state of being “in-between” – a sort-of purgatory or bardo.  The backdrop is the beginning of the Civil War and all the horrors that humans inflict on one another. The narrative structure is unique – Saunders assembles a group of people in the bardo who resemble a greek chorus of voices telling the story. It takes some getting used to, but the strange story-telling combines like a poem to provide an overall feeling that scrapes your insides raw.

Saunders heartbreakingly writes “All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be…we must try to see one another in that way” and “I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing temporary energy-burst.” Over and over again, we are reminded by Saunders that the line between life and death is so thin. So, so fragile.

The novel is also a call to action in many ways (Lincoln, the citizens of the Bardo). A reminder that life is so, so short and we all need to look out for one another. Raise each other up. Putting up with evil and bullies and ignorance and manipulation is not okay.

This fucked up administration will not last forever either. These times won’t last forever.

I looked forward to all of the books below  – but I ended up not liking most of them. Is it a reflection of where I am at emotionally or the books? The Tournament of Books was recently held (with “The Underground Railroad” taking home the prize – no surprise there!), and a common theme with the judges seemed to be a general feeling of having a hard time reading/concentrating. A general feeling of “what the f%&* is going on.” That is definitely happening to me. The only people not worried are those not paying attention or those just watching state-run news.

Anyways, these may be good books but they didn’t work for me at this point…

Brit Bennett’s The Mothers – A debut novel with tons of positive reviews about choices that can follow us our entire lives. It takes place in Oceanside & Ann Arbor. I read it fast, but got to the end and thought it was just okay.

Zadie Smith’s Swingtime – I listened to this on audio and don’t think I would have finished it if I wasn’t always stuck in traffic. Parts of it were really good, and parts not so good. If you are a fan of Smith it’s worth reading – if you’ve never read her, read her other books first.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow – I literally could not get past page 25.  Couldn’t do it.

Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day – Waldman is married to Chabon (of the previously mentioned book), and I always enjoy her brutal, almost awkward, honesty (she’s the writer who famously said she loves her husband more than her kids and people freaked out about it). This book describes her experience micro-dosing on LSD to combat mood swings. It’s a really interesting look at mood disorders and our drug culture.

Some stuff I’m liking right now:

POETRY

Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

It’s been a few years since I read it, now I keep reading it over & over, especially the opening lines:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

I recently discovered Ada Limon and I love this one:

“What it looks like to us and the words we use”

All these great barns out here in the outskirts,
black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.
They look so beautifully abandoned, even in use.
You say they look like arks after the sea’s
dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,
and I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours

SO MUCH GOOD WRITING IN THE GUARDIAN, NEW YORKER, NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, LA TIMES RIGHT NOW…

If you don’t think we’re living in a version of The Handmaiden’s Tale read this article about our weak Vice President. What a weak, weak, pathetic man.

Margaret Atwood on what “The Handmaiden’s Tale” means in the age of Trump.

Stephen King on Donald Trump: “How do such men rise? First as a joke”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hummingbird

A hummingbird (an “Anna’s Hummingbird” to be exact) built a nest outside of our living room window a few weeks ago.  You could pass by the nest a hundred times and not see it. The nest is a teeny tiny fragile collection of spiderwebs and twigs that could easily be crushed by a human hand. For a few weeks, all of the leaves were missing from the tree, and the tan nest blended in with the branches.  The hummingbird mama rotated about 90 degrees every 30 seconds and her head constantly looked around. The only time she stopped moving is when we passed by the nest on our way out the door. Like a mannequin, she stayed still to blend into the branches.

We had 6 solid days of miserable weather about 2 weeks ago. Windy, stormy, rainy, hail. It was non-stop and the worst weather week I remember in the time that we’ve lived in San Diego. The mama sat on that tree branch, moving in the wild wind, all through those long days and nights of rain. We were so worried about her and debated building something to cover her up. Every morning we expected her to be gone, yet she remained.

We think the chicks were born on my birthday. Her behavior changed and all of a sudden she was poking her long beak into the nest. We’ve spotted the chicks (2!!) several times, and every day they get bigger & bigger. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The tree that she lives in just bloomed a bright white amazing blanket of flowers (although they stink like chlorine because it is a Callery pear tree). Her nest seems to be more protected now – the blooms, the babies, and the mama are all making me hopeful that it’ll be okay. I really hope it will.

It’s been a rough couple weeks with an ignorant, corrupt tyrant in charge. The hummingbird was a gift. We’re madly in love with her and will miss her so much when she is gone.

 

For more on hummingbirds, I love this article by Barbara Kingsolver.

I just finished Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days on the War on Drugs by Johann Hari– it blew my mind over and over again. It is a fascinating book about the war on drugs. Infuriating, mind-blowing, astounding. I am re-thinking so much after reading it.

One of the most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of Harry Anslinger – the first “drug czar” of the U.S. Hari writes: “The drug war was born in the United States – but so was the resistance to it. Right at the start, there were people who saw the drug war was not what we were being told. It was something else entirely…Harry Anslinger wanted to make sure we would never put these pieces together.” Also, they “worked hard to keep the country in a state of panic on the subject of drugs so that nobody would ever again see the logical contradictions” (sound familiar?) and the first drug czar would snap “I’ve made up my mind – don’t confuse me with facts.”

Hari uncovers so much of the hypocrisy and heartbreak of the drug war. I love this: “It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?”

Read the book all the way to the end. The last few paragraphs bring the hypocrisy of the “war” on drugs all together.

I read another Alice Hoffman book, Faithful. As always, it is a solid read with lots of animals, heartbreak, and 2nd chances.

I LOVED Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel Here I Am – I have always been a huge Foer fan. Eating Animals was life-changing for me and the rest of his books have broke my heart. His latest is about a family falling apart while the Middle East is also falling apart. Deep, beautiful, insightful and thought-provoking.

And I finished the Tearling series with Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. It is not a great ending to the series – but, it’s okay and still an interesting series that thinks about utopia, religion, power, magic. This line resonates: “He’s scared of everything…it makes him easy to manipulate…entire countries would close their borders and build walls to keep out phantom threats. Can you imagine?”

More good reading:

Upcoming books on Huff Post – I can’t wait to read Saunders books!

And I’m pretty terrified about America right now. This article in the Guardian on the writers who imagined a fascist future hit me hard.

Finally, reading is cool. And the coolest people do it. Love this article.

 

READ: Susan Ager

Growing up we had a subscription to the Detroit Free Press that was delivered 7 days a week. Before school I’d skim the headlines and read the comics –  but, the real reason to read the paper was the LIFE section where 2 or 3 days a week there would be a column by Susan Ager (yes, the Free Press also has Mitch Albom – but believe me, Ager’s column topped his!). Ager wrote for the Free Press for about 16 years, and I’m sure I read at least 80% of her columns.

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I have about 12 Ager columns that have traveled with me over the last 10-15 years. They are columns that I’ve shared with other people, or that were sent to me by family members in Michigan after I moved to California. For many years, family conversations would involve the words “Did you read the Susan Ager column about…”

Ager opened up my mind many, many times as I was growing up. She wrote passionately about marriage equality in the 1990’s before it was a conversation that people were regularly having. She introduced me to my climate hero, Bill McKibben, with a column she wrote about his awesome (and somewhat controversial) book “Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families.” I’ve seen McKibben speak multiple times and I’ve read everything he writes. I wonder when I would have learned about him if she had not brokered the introduction.

I also partly thank Ager for my love of poetry, particularly the poems of Jane Kenyon. In 1995 she wrote a column (Simple life’s end stirs words of loss) that my Aunt Nanc loved about Kenyon and her untimely death from cancer. My Aunt Nanc asked me to send her the full book of poetry (which I read before putting in the mail) and since then I have read her poems over and over. Here’s a few if you are interested: Let Evening Come, Otherwise, Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer, and After an Illness, Walking the Dog.

I also think that Ager introduced me to Wendell Berry, but I can’t remember the specific column for that. Overall, her columns explored our shared humanity, the small kindnesses that people are capable of, and a strong appreciation of nature and a simple life with everyday pleasures. This morning I stood in a pounding hot shower looking out the high window at the clouds changing from light blue to dark violet to bright, hot pink as the sun rose. A group of over a 100 crows passed by, squawking and joyful. A great way to start the day, and a simple pleasure that I fully appreciated. I thought to myself that Susan Ager could write an entire column about this one moment.

In a 2003 column titled A man who just can’t live on $145,000 Ager opens with “Last month, while Republicans scrambled to prove they’re not racists, a man named Nicholas Calio was able to quietly quit his White House job for a god-awful reason. He was George W. Bush’s liaison with Congress. He earned $145,00 a year. And he told reporters he had to quit because “I can’t pay my bills.” Ager then goes on to ponder how a person can not live on $145,000/year and the utter absurdity of it.

After George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 her column (Day after big mess brings fear, hope) began with “My first thoughts the morning after: Congratulations George W. Bush. The mess you’ve made remains yours to clean up. The mess in Iraq is yours. The deficit mess is yours. The health care mess is yours…”  Her frustration with so-called “moral values” is evident throughout the column.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Susan Ager lately because I wish she was writing during this insane election. We need her clear, reasonable voice over the coming years. It’s amazing how someone I have never met can mean so much to me.

To read some of Ager’s best-loved column, check out her website here.

Lately, all I want to read is escapist fiction -here’s some good stuff…

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler- A well-written novel injected with pieces of poetry about the restaurant industry, New York City, and being young and naive. Juicy and a little scandalous.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond – This may have been my favorite book of the year and I read it in one day. It’s a love story. It’s an environmental warning. It’s main character is a woman researcher. And there are penguins…go read it.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – A tragic plane crash occurs with 2 survivors and lots of questions about what happened. A great read (with the caveat that the ending is not the best part of the book).

The Nest by Cynthia Sweeney – Family drama involving an inheritance.

I read this little story by Ted Chiang (author who wrote the story that ended up being the movie Arrival) the other day. I loved it – maybe you will too?

This interview with Anthony Bourdain is precisely why I love watching his show Parts Unknown.

This interview with Megyn Kelley on Fresh Air is the best podcast I have listened to in a long time. She is eloquent and strong and impressive. Unbelievable that the man who bullied her is now going to be our President.

October

I can’t wait for this election to be over. I am horrified by the vitriol and despicible-ness that the Trump campaign has helped “normalize.” White male privilege & power has never been more on display. When I hear “Make America Great Again” all I hear is “Make America White Again.” What does it mean and what does “Again” mean? What period is being referred to?

In the midst of all the racist and nasty rhetoric I’ve been reading some fantastic books that address the history and the current situation of black and brown people in America. Books like the ones below are exactly why I read. In an essay in his new collection The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman writes: “You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.” The following books changed me. They are all well-written novels that I am so glad exist!

  • Oprah’s latest book club pick, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead crushed me. I read the first chapter and then I put it aside for a few days. I picked it back up, and then I could not put it down. When I was a kid I remember thinking that the underground railroad was a real mode of transportation that helped slaves escape to the north – apparently Whitehead thought the same thing. Whitehead uses creative license to write a slave narrative that invokes traditional models, yet it is something completely different. He imagines a world where there is a real underground railroad that is carefully hidden and navigated by his narrator, Cora. Like Gulliver, she navigates different stops on a journey that illuminate absurdities. This book made me uncomfortable, it made me sick to my stomach – yet, it is essential and I’m so glad I read it. Check out his interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
  • Right before Underground Railroad, I read Ben Winters’ speculative fiction/noir detective/slave narrative novel Underground Airlines. Like Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (we just finished the 1st season Amazon Prime & it is OUTSTANDING), an alternative version of history is explored. In Underground Airlines the Civil War did not happen, and in the present day several states still have slavery. Imagine several states having slaves in this modern world of capitalism and greed – its horrifying and it hits a little close to home. “… their shit is pretty cheap, wherever it’s coming from. It’s pretty cheap and it’s pretty good. Nothing would change. People shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders, slaves suffering somewhere far away, the Earth turning around the sun.” 
  • Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing explores slavery over a period of 300 years and multiple generations. In linked chapters, the reader is introduced to the multi-generational lines that run from 2 sisters in Ghana who were separated by random circumstance – one stays in Africa, and one is put on a slave ship. The lasting effects of slavery & racism carry on from generation to generation. Homegoing is an emotional, heartbreaking journey.
  • Like Homegoing, Annie Proulx’s enormous novel Barkskins, follows 300 years from the perspective of the family trees of 2 linked people. In this case, it is French men who come to America as indentured servants. Their lives take different turns as one escapes, and the other stays and marries a Native American woman. Over and over, this novel reminds us America was built on so many deaths and the destruction of natural resources. It’s a sweeping tale with hundreds of characters (if you get lost, check out the family trees at the end) who are all at the mercy of circumstance and luck.  Proulx writes, “People streamed into the country – almost a million Irish in twenty years, half a million Germans. They came from all over the world, Germans, Canadians, English, Irish, French, Norwegians, Swedes. The world had heard of the rich continent with its inexhaustible coverlet of forests, its earth streaked as a moldy cheese with veins of valuable metals, fish and game in numbers too great to be compassed, hundreds of millions of acres of empty land waiting to be taken and a beckoning, generous government too enchanted with its own democratic image to deal with shrewd men whose people had lived by their wits for centuries. Everything was there for the taking – it was the chance of a lifetime and it would never come again.” 
  • I can’t believe it took me so long to pick up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing novel Americanah. Adichie follows the lives of a young Nigerian couple who are divided by the Post 9/11 immigration policies in America. Race and identity are explored in such a powerful, thought-provoking way. I was floored by this novel.

For some lighter reading, check out Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers, J Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky

If you want to figure out what to read next, check out the blog Book Marks. It compiles book reviews and grades books. Great place to find something to read.

Watch this…Hamiltons America. Holy crap, it is good. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius and this documentary is AMAZING!

I could watch this speech over and over and over…I want to hang out with Michelle Obama and talk over a glass (or two) of wine. Seriously, she is the coolest!!

 

 

READ: Lots & lots of books

It’s June. The summer solstice. Life is speeding up. It is not slowing down. This time of year makes time feel even more fleeting. Wasn’t it just Christmas break? I remember summer vacation as a kid feeling long and endless, now it is over before it even starts.

If you read this blog or know me at all, you’ve heard about my 97 year old Great-Aunt Nancy. I’ve asked her many times if life slows down again when you get old – do those long summer days that we had as kids ever return? They must return after retirement, right?  Unfortunately, she says life gets even faster. It doesn’t slow down.

I have become the kind of person who says that youth is wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw). Like T.S. Eliot, I often feel like I am measuring out my life with coffee spoons…and, of course, the books I am reading. As time passes, I read. I read, and I read.

Here’s some of the best things I have read the last few months – you might want to add a few of them to your summer reading list:

Versions of Us and The Atomic Weight of Love – 2 GREAT books that follow the entire lives of their characters. In Versions of Us we follow 3 different paths that 2 people take based on a single decision made when they first meet one another. Sean & I just celebrated our 17th anniversary. The other night we discussed different paths our lives could have taken (if I had stayed at Michigan State, if we had prevented our first dog from running and tearing his ACL, if we hadn’t moved to California). It is crazy to think about all the decisions that we make that form our life. Versions of Us explores all of that, and it is such a fantastic read.

I loved The Atomic Weight of Love  right away because each chapter is named after a group of birds – “A Murder of Crows,” “A Party of Jays,” “An Unkindness of Ravens,” “A Charm of Hummingbirds.” Did you know a group of Hummingbirds is called a Charm – how perfect is that? The book explores the life of a 50’s housewife (who loves birds and science) who follows her husband to Los Alamos (where he is working on a top secret project…) and from there, she tries to find meaning in an environment where women suppress their desires to support their husband. So good! We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years. #imwithher

The final book of The Passage trilogy, City of Mirrors, came out a few weeks ago and it wrapped up the epic series in a super satisfying way. This apocalyptic series full of memorable characters has had me hooked for the last seven years – I can’t believe it is done. The books scared me over and over again with descriptions of virals (bat/vampire/zombie) and empty cities and a world with only 700 people left in it. However, like The Road and other good dystopian books, love is at the center of the story. I’m hesitant to start another book after finishing this yesterday because I really did not want these books to end.

After reading The Tsar of Love and Techno, I read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and it is AMAZING. Read this book and think about what you would do if you were in the situations that the characters are in. What choices would you make? Marra weaves together a heartbreaking story of coincidences, intersecting lives, compassion and survival. I can’t recommend this book enough.

A Little Life  is a huge (900+ pages),  disturbing, melodramatic  book about 4 college roommates who form lifelong friendships and live in New York City. I could not stop reading this book, but I have a hard time recommending it. There is so much beauty in it, but overall it is the most depressing thing I have ever read. Horrible thing after horrible thing happens – and yet I kept reading through all 900 pages. That’s a pretty good endorsement.

The Turner House –  A debut novel that is set in Detroit where a family of 13 kids disagree about what should be done with the family house that is under-water. Ghosts, debt, family relationships and more are all explored among a city that has fallen apart.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist  – Set among the Seattle protests in 1999 during the WTO conference it is fast-paced story telling told from different perspectives. Everyone has their reasons for doing things – its hard to remember that we all come to things with our own, unique backgrounds.

We went to Vegas in February to celebrate my 40th (!!), and as we flew in I read Claire Vaye Watkins dystopian novel Gold Fame Citrus, a novel set in the barren desert outside of California. Vegas is such an improbable place to build a huge city. No water, no green (except for the yards and golf course), no trees. It’s an apocalyptic landscape like the parched, dry world of Gold Fame Citrus (I was thirsty the entire time I read it). Like California and other recent dystopian books (Station Eleven, etc.), this novel has a strong-willed woman as the central character, a loving partner who makes a few wrong choices, and a prophet-like character who exerts a a strong influence over the people around him. It’s a bit formulaic, but its still a good read.

And finally, probably the most impactful book I’ve read lately is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Book recommendations travel fast in my family, and this one came from my mom via my Aunt Patty. This book discusses how we treat the elderly and dying, and what quality of life actually means. I love Atul Gawande’s writing in the New Yorker (check out Letting Go for a short version of the book), and I plan on re-reading this book over and over. Everyone should read it.

I read each of the following short books in one or two days – good, short reads…

Mislaid – recommending anything by Nell Zink is difficult because she is not for everyone and her characters are always bizarre! Her short, weird books explore race, sexual & class identity, and a lot more in weird ways.

The Vegetarian is short book by Han Kang, a South Korean author. It it a violent exploration of social norms, power, and madness.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Two widowed elderly people keep each other company and reflect on their lives. I cried from beginning to end.

The M Train by Patti Smith – not as good as Just Kids, but still an interesting read.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Beautiful, unputdownable writing and storytelling.

A Spool of Blue Thread  Classic Anne Tyler book. This is her best one.

I have a bunch of good summer reading planned. Stacked on my table are Lab Girl, Modern Lovers, and the new Annie Proulx Barkskins. I’ll be back soon to let you know how they are.

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Other good things…

My new favorite podcast is Modern Love. You will cry and laugh and sigh. Every single episode makes me believe in humanity and the power of love.

This New Yorker article by Franzen is SO GOOD. Birds, travel, capitalism. No one captures modern life like Franzen.

I love President Obama. Smart, reasonable man doing an impossible job. These pictures are fantastic.

Anthony Bourdain’s new season of Parts Unknown is just as good as the rest of them. One of my favorite things on TV. Favorite episode of this year was Tbilisi, Georgia.

My sister visited me a few weeks ago. She has been to San Diego many, many times to visit, and I love how she still gets excited about new things each time she visits. On this last visit she was most excited about all the Jacaranda trees that were in full bloom and the Little Libraries that we have all over my neighborhood. I take the Little Libraries for granted because we have so many around here (at least 10 within a square mile) and I use them all the time. Add one to your neighborhood if they aren’t there!

READ: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

My favorite season in San Diego is winter – even in a wet El Nino year like we are having now.  Bright, clear skies. Citrus trees full of juicy fruit. Sage in the canyons, mountains in the distance. A short drive to hikes in the snow. Orange and purple sunsets. Mostly empty beaches. Birds of paradise, bougainvillea, and coral trees. Warm days with cold evenings. San Diego often feels like a desert, but in the winter it is lush, green, and pretty much perfect.

All of this beauty I am surrounded by contrasts with the desolate, dirty landscape in Anthony Marra’s amazing collection of stories, “The Tsar of Love and Techno.”  Some of the most powerful images in the stories include an artificial forest, a horribly polluted lake, smokestacks that serve as constant scenery, an inability to see the stars – ever, and the cold, cold, COLD weather of Siberia. The characters in the book are a reflection of their surroundings as they try to survive in a brutal environment.

A gentle landscape painting of a meadow with a rolling hillside serves as the center of convergence for this set of interlocking stories. The painting undergoes changes as the stories move among the characters, and, like all art, it means different things to different people. The stories drift from the 1930’s to the future as Russia experiences communism, Glasnot, and the Chechen Wars of the 1990’s.

All of the characters are struggling to get by when the decks are stacked against them. They struggle with guilt because often their survival depends on their ability to sacrifice other people and keep moving on after witnessing horrors. As one of the characters watches absurdity during an execution, he thinks, “It was the keyhole through which I first glimpsed life’s madness: The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano.”

Marra writes, “What divine imagination could conjure something so imperfect as life?” As I read this, I kept wondering what kind of person could conjure up such perfect stories. Among the desolation in these stories, humor and beauty and our shared humanity infuse every page.

Along with Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, this book is my FAVORITE read of 2015. I loved the book so much that I went to the library an hour after I finished it to pick up his 2014 novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” I can’t wait to start reading it this weekend. And if you need another reason to read “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” Ann Patchett picked it as her favorite book of 2015 (I also discovered that she is a veg in her latest blog post – another reason to love her!). And it is in the 2016 Tournament of Books!  I’m calling it as the winner!

Other good things I’ve read or listened to lately include Ruth Reichl’s memoir/cookbook/twitter collection “My Kitchen Year:136 Recipes that Saved My Life” (so much better than her recent novel), Carola Dibbell’s “The Only Ones” (dark and odd), Robert Galbraith’s 3rd Cormoran Strike novel “Career of Evil” (addictive), Colum McCann’s short story collection “Thirteen Ways of Looking” (so good – plus it made me re-read Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird ) and Margaret Atwood’s “The Heart Goes Last” (hilarious!).

Looks like good reading is coming up in 2016. Most excited about new Jonathan Safran Foer, Justin Cronin, and Don DeLillo.

And like so many others, I love David Bowie music and I’m so glad it remains even though he is gone. This is my favorite Bowie song – I always play it on the jukebox at the bar down the street from our house: