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!!

 

 

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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:

 

 

READ: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

I spent 20 days in November reading one gigantic book. 900 pages. A huge novel that critics called Dickens-like and a HBO-type drama. Hallberg’s first novel City on Fire has been on my radar for the last year ever since I read that there was a bidding war for it that resulted in a 2 million dollar payday.

City on Fire will make you feel like you need a long, hot shower with lots of soap. It is a crime mystery set in the dirty, gritty world of New York City in 1977. A city full of drugs, punk, crime, art, and loud music; as well as Wall Street and old money. Chapters alternate between different characters that include a weary detective, a troubled writer, misfit teenagers, a drug-addicted punk-rock artist and his lover, a heiress, a creepy businessman, a cheating husband, and more. All of these characters are lost and holding onto secrets. They are searching for meaning and a sense of belonging in the rough, yet electric and exhilarating New York City…cue Alicia Keys singing Empire State of Mind

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York,
These streets will make you feel brand new,
The lights will inspire you,
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York

While I read it, I kept listening to Patti Smith (especially Horses and Paths that Cross) and I wanted to re-read Just Kids. Late 1970’s New York is the absolute star of this novel. This quote gives you an idea of the overall tone of City on Fire:
Diet pills have always been Ziegler’s secret for getting through four hours on air, but these days he lets them blast him right out of the broadcast booth at the end of the show and into the shift bars south of Times Square where you can be drunk before noon. Sometimes, early evenings, there comes a point where the speed wears off and he feels the meter running, but his sleep deficit is already so far beyond anything he’ll ever be able to earn back that he figures he might as well pop another pill, have another drink, because what’s another hour at the bar in the face of a million hours? What’s a little hangover in the face of the infinite grave.

The book is composed of 7 sections separated by snippets from letters, emails, fanzines, and other narrative devices. The last section culminates during the New York City blackout in the summer of 1977. I’ve been in 2 large blackouts (Northeast Blackout in August 2003 and San Diego in 2011). They were weird experiences where everyone seemed to be outside and drinking (not necessarily a bad thing!). They were very disorienting and made me feel extremely powerless because of so many uncontrollable forces. It’s a great idea to have a novel climax during a blackout.

After reading that huge, dark book (and because world events are really f%&#ing depressing right now), I needed something light and easy. I picked up Judy Blume’s latest adult novel “In the Unlikely Event.” It’s not that good, but I still read the entire book because it took me back to 6th grade when I devoured all of her books and that made me happy.

Check out these lists of the best books of 2015 to see what you’ve missed and to pick out Christmas presents… My favorite read this year was the entire Neopolitan Series – I have #ferrantefever and am so sad the series is over.

NY Times 10 Best Books

Tournament of Books

Slate

Parnassus Books

Guardian

Amazon

The Millions: A Year in Reading

Buzzfeed

Huffington Post

 

 

READ: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Last weekend I visIMG_4349ited my great-aunt Nancy in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my mom, sister, grandma, and a very close family friend. Perfect Fall weather, wonderful wine and delicious food, long walks, and lots of time reminiscing and laughing together. The Upper Peninsula (U.P) is called “God’s Country” by the locals for good reason. The huge, dense trees, the ever-changing colors of the Great Lakes, and a small population who lead a relatively simple life allow me to breathe easy. I feel like I take huge, gulping breaths. Whenever I start a meditation, I visualize myself on my Aunt Nanc’s porch with the trees rustling and the smell of pines in the air.  

 I am so grateful for all the time that I have spent in the U.P. during my life, and for the weekend that I just had with some of my very favorite people on the planet. IMG_4368

In order to get to the U.P., I spent a lot of time traveling – a 4.5 hour flight each way + a 6.5 hour car ride each way. Thankfully I had good company on the car rides…and a good book (and binge-watching Mr. Robot) for the flights. Lauren Groff astounded me with Arcadia (on my top ten list along with The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Great Gatsby, Eat, Pray, Love, The World According to Garp, Jitterbug Perfume, King Lear, Prodigal Summer,The Handmaidens Tale & Cloud Atlas), and her latest, Fates and Furies, had me engrossed while I was traveling.

Fates and Furies is a portrait of a 20 year marriage, told from two different points of view. The charmed playwright husband, Lotto, narrates the first part (Fates), and in the second part, the composed wife, Matilde, describes their years together (Furies). “Fates and Furies” explores the way that two people can love one another and build a life together, yet their perceptions of their shared experiences can be completely different. We all know how that can happen…whenever my family is together, I am always struck by our collective, divergent memories. Some memories are so vivid for me, and others don’t recall the incident at all. This seems to be more relevant the older I get, and reading this book while I was with my family reminded me, once again, that our experiences are always subjective.

Because “Fates and Furies” tells the intense, warped details of an imperfect marriage with unsympathetic main characters, it reminded me of a literary Gone Girl. It is different than that best-seller because Groff writes absolutely beautiful – she uses mythology, strong and sparse sentences, great character development, and unique plot developments. There is a chapter near the beginning that I love because she artfully shows the passage of time through a series of scenes at parties. Another great part is Lotto speaking about woman artists on a panel – it is cringe-worthy. This book gets a little icky in some parts, but I liked how uncomfortable Groff made me feel.

No one knows what really goes on in a marriage except for the two people in it. Lotto and Matilde are viewed as a golden couple, and they believe that about themselves, and as readers we get to see what is happening behind the scenes of their intimate relationship.  Groff also expertly guides her readers on an exploration of the idea of genius in artists (often they have a little help…) and how our childhoods can shape the way our relationships form. Don’t miss this book – it’s a good one.

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I just finished The Story of the Lost Child, the heartbreaking finale in Elena Ferrante’s 4-part Neapolitan Series. It is incredible. INCREDIBLE. I don’t know what to write about it, I just know that I loved every second I spent reading this engrossing series. Read it – you will not be disappointed.

 

READ: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

60 million lives were lost in WWII. 60. Million. 60 million futures extinguished. Infinite possibilities for all of those lives gone.

Toward the beginning of “A God in Ruins,” the main character, Teddy, mourns a dead bird and thinks: “It was the generations of birds that would have come after it and now would never be born. All those beautiful songs that would never be sung. Later in his life he learned the word “exponential,” and later the word “fractal,” but for now it was a flock that grew larger and larger as it disappeared into a future that would never be.”

If you read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (which Atkinson describes as a companion piece to A God in Ruins), then you know that she can masterfully explore and play with the idea of infinite possibilities and the fragility of life. She revisits that idea, and the Todd family from “Life after Life,” in this novel in a unique and powerful way.

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The lovable, charming brother of Ursula from “Life after Life,” Teddy Todd, is the focus of this novel. I love Teddy for many reasons, but number one is that he always has a dog by his side. Teddy is a member of the Royal Air Force during WWII –  the novel flashes back and forth across the decades before, during, and after WWII. Each chapter is a different puzzle piece that demonstrates the unpredictability and speed of a human life. More than anything, the exciting thing about this book is not what happens, it is HOW the story is told.

There is so much in this book – look for things like…Powerful imagery throughout the novel (watch for all the birds!). Playful references to the structure of “Life after Life” over and over (“It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes”). Time and the inevitable march towards old age, death, decay. The idea of infinity and parallel universes (“And now. This moment. This moment was infinite. He was part of the infinite. The tree and the rock and the water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Now“.)

WWII shapes Teddy’s life, as well as the lives of his future family members. It is the uncontrollable force that creates his future, as well as the futures of millions and millions of others. We are all at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control.

The end. Wow, the end of “A God in Ruins”… It will leave your head spinning.

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AFTER you read the book listen to both of these interviews with Kate Atkinson here

This American Life podcast should be required listening for everyone

Liz Gilbert is coming to San Diego for a talk! Can’t wait!

My yoga teacher reminded me of this awesome TED talk on vulnerability

READ: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas sat on top of my bookshelf, untouched, for the last three months. The book was the last of a stack that I checked out 5 months ago at the UC San Diego library. I picked the book up last Friday after work, read the first page, and then proceeded to read all 600 pages of the book in less than 4 days. Unputdownable.

I recommend not reading reviews or Amazon descriptions because most of them reveal the plot twist in the book – just grab it and read. A lot of readers enter this novel and know what the plot is – I did not know and I liked having it slowly come to me. It kept me reading late into the night. As the reader, it was revealed to me at the same time as the characters realized what was going on.

Overall, this book explores a normal, middle class, American life. The American Dream. So many of my favorite novels look at the myth of the American Dream – “The Great Gatsby,” “Revolutionary Road,” everything by Franzen. Thomas looks at the American life with all its highs and lows. It is not achievable in so many ways. We can work hard, save money, and do everything we are supposed to do, but it can all go away in an instant because of uncontrollable forces. And then when we achieve what we thought we were supposed to strive for – are we happy? Is it what we want? What the f*&k do we really want? What is the goal?

This book is the story of Eileen, the daughter of Irish immigrants who has been raised to believe in the American dream. Eileen meets Ed, they fall in love and they build a life together. Love, work, eat, make love, raise children, move on up, pay for school, purchase things, laugh with friends, take vacations, get sick, die…its what we do. It is our life. All of these things create a life. Thomas takes us deep in Eileen and Ed’s world, and it will leave you heart-broken, happy, and wondering about what you can do to savor all the happy moments in our ephemeral lives.

“It mattered so little that they’d won and yet nothing mattered more.”

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This story in the New Yorker by Lauren Groff! Her new novel comes out next month!!

Poetry by Peggy Freydberg. Love.

A few weeks ago at a reading Karen Joy Fowler quoted Nancy Pearl’s true signs of a reader and I SO identify with two of these:

  • Mispronounce words (ALL THE TIME!! Example: I used the word ephemeral above because I love it. I have no idea how to pronounce it, so I’d never say it out loud.)
  • Confuse real memories with things we have read (yup!)
  • Bad at small talk

I just finished the 2nd Tearling novel, “Invasion of the Tearling.” Second novels in trilogies are always hard because you know that you will be left hanging and waiting for the third one, however don’t let that keep you away from this series. I really liked the first one, and this one was just as good. It is a combo of different sci fi/fantasy/fairy tale conventions. A sort of  “The Handmaid’s Tale” with some magical jewels and “The Lottery”-type sacrifices thrown in. Fun, escapist reading.

Love this…

 

READ: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I am so excited about this book. If you think that you don’t like dystopian books, this one will change your mind. I guarantee it. Go get this book.

Dystopian books make me appreciate my life even more tFullSizeRender-2han I already do. Right here, right now. We’re so lucky to have all of these things that we do. We may be in the Age of Anxiety, but in 1st world countries we have antibiotics, electricity, information at our finger tips, hot showers, Lasik eye surgery (life-changing), oranges all year round. It is pretty amazing that the world exists right now when there are so many ways that it might not.

Station Eleven skips around between a near future where a super flu with a 99.9% mortality rate sweeps over the world, the world right before the pandemic breaks out, and 20 years after the outbreak. It follows three different characters – an aging actor who has been married many times, a young Shakespearean actress, and a paparazzo turned paramedic – and the ways their lives overlap before, during, and after the flu pandemic.

The overarching theme of the novel is a quote from Star Trek: Voyager, “Survival is insufficient.” We need friendships, laughter, beauty, compassion. We need art, imagination, creativity. A little dose of Shakespeare does wonders for the spirit and the mind. Art in “Station Eleven” involves taking risks (group of traveling actors who travel the Great Lakes region to bring Shakespeare & music to the outposts that remain after the world has ended) and doing what you love out of genuine passion (The Shakespeare trope contrasts against the aging actor who has lost himself in celebrity).

At the center of the novel is the creation of a piece of art, the comic book Station Eleven, a labor of love and method of escape for a character. This piece of art parallels the post-apocalypic world that remains. Lonely, haunted by the past, and inescapable.

This book left me with creepy tingles. What we have right now won’t last. We have no idea what will happen in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years but we make plans as if we can control the future and often we don’t appreciate the simple comforts in our lives.  At one point in the book the following dialogue occurs between two characters:

“Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?”

“Well,” Clarke offered, “it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?”

The melancholy, contemplative feel of the novel has lingered with me. But overall, readers are left with a feeling that life is beautiful, the gift of memory is precious, and we go on in the face of horrible tragedy.

Read this book!

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Margaret Atwood has a new collection of short stories out – Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. I may be Atwood’s biggest fan. The Oryx and Crake Trilogy and “The Handmaiden’s Tale” are the most incredible pieces of speculative fiction I have ever read. She is an incredible prognosticator and a prolific writer. “The Robber Bride”, “Alias Grace”, “The Blind Assassin”…all must reads. I read the stories in “Stone Mattress” and laughed out loud several times. I like her novels more than anything else, but her latest collection of witty, sharp quick reads is a great addition to her long publication list.

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If you love music, check out the show Sonic Highways on HBO. It is a 8 episode series that follows the Foo Fighters as they travel to different cities, delve into the music of that city, and then write and record a song in each city. In Sound City Dave Grohl brilliantly captured music legends, and he continues that in this documentary series.