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:

 

 

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: Speak by Louisa Hall + much more

I have anxiety about weird things. I don’t like being late for anything. It makes my hands sweaty and my heart beat a little fast. I don’t leave my house dirty and my bed unmade. I can’t do it. I can’t stand leaving emails unanswered – drives me nuts. And I hate turning my library books in late. I picture the next person on the hold list waiting patiently for the book to arrive on the reserve bookshelf, and that makes me stay up late to finish a book so I can return it on the due date. Related: San Diego overdue library fines are at 7 millions dollars right now…people, turn your books in on time, people are waiting for them!

Since it is the Fall, when the best books of the year are released, I have a loooong list of books on my library hold list. They all seem to arrive at once, so I am reading like crazy to keep up and to make sure that I am returning them all on time. Lots of good ones…

Speak by Louisa Hall

The most unique book I read this year! If you like the movies “Her” and “Ex Machina” or all of the work of David Mitchell, you will probably love this book as much as I did. Hall uses different narrative devices to tell the story – chapters rotate between letters, instant messaging, diary, memoirs, and memories in a computer program. These devices are used by six different narrators – A babybot (a robot that looks like a doll to appeal to young children), a computer program and a young girl (example of the dialogue between them: Young Girl: “So you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices. Mary3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case”), a Puritan woman crossing the ocean to America, the Silicon Valley creator of the babybots, a Jewish refugee after WWII, and Alan Turing.

The book explores loneliness and the inability to fully connect with others. A pervading sense of loss hangs over the novel, which leads the narrators on a search for connection in an attempt to find meaning.

Related to this book/idea is a new 2-part TED podcast called Screen Time. Our connection with computers is on an irreversible path – where will it lead?

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

As the horrible news about the killing of Cecil the Lion spread like wildfire on social media and the news, I was reading about the heroine of this novel’s encounter with a lion. McLain’s story is historical fiction based on the life of Beryl Markham – a rule-breaker, feminist, and pilot who grew up in colonial Africa. Beryl’s life intersects with the love story in the Redford/Streep movie “Out of Africa.” All stories have multiple perspectives, and like McLain’s other book, “The Paris Wife,” this narrative offers a different point of view than what we already know. Great, escapist reading.

Check out the Radio Lab’s podcast “The Rhino Hunter.” It explores a case similar to Cecil the Lion. Heartbreaking.

Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

I ALWAYS read Hoffman’s novels even though she has started following the same formula in her novels. She takes a juicy, obscure historical nugget and turns it into a sweeping story (see “Dovekeepers” and “The Museum of Extraordinary Things”). In this novel, she starts with the story of the mother of a famous impressionist painter, and builds it into a world full of interesting characters who experience longing, loss, love, and hardships. Hoffman transports readers to  the 1800’s in the Caribbean by describing all the smells, foods, and  brilliant colors. Since it is Hoffman, she also injects a little magical realism into the story.  I’m a huge fan of Hoffman, and my esteem for her continues to grow.

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

A fish falls out of a fishbowl from a balcony of a high-rise in New York City. As the fish falls (and time passes), the stories of the residents in the apartment building are told. Random interactions cause ripples in the the lives of the residents. This book leaves readers thinking about the passage of time and all the random acts that form our lives.

Somer writes, “The milk in the fridge moves, second by second, towards its “best before” date. It is an inevitable reminder of time passing and how, through the very act of existence, the unmarred, unspoiled purpose of things moves inexorably toward expiration” and “It’s said that everything happens for a reason, but it’s never said that reason is always a good one. That reason is choice, chance, fate, or not.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

The absolute best collection of short stories I have read since George Saunders Tenth of December. Johnson’s writing is heartbreaking and intense. Like his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Orphan-Master’s Son,” this collection will stick with you and make your heart hurt as your mind revisits his masterful scenes over and over in the days after they are read. This is difficult, heavy, disturbing writing. Gut-wrenching, beautiful stuff.

The Last Love Song by Tracy Dougherty

Mom, you can partly blame Joan Didion for my move to California.

As soon as I read Joan Didion in high school I wanted to move to California . Over the years, I have read everything by her, with “The Year of Magical Thinking” being my absolute favorite. Her wit, literary references, sharp critiques, and desire to understand the events around her touch me deeply, and her seemingly fragile, anxious persona has always intrigued me.

Dougherty wrote this bio without the cooperation of Didion so there is not a ton of new information in this 600 page bio – but, I still devoured it. The bio brings together all of the Didion/Dunne stories and intertwines them with snippets of her writing. It is a great read. Dougherty delves into Didion’s love of California as a land always on the verge, a land where beauty & uniqueness mix with danger. Earthquakes, fires, floods, drought…bright colors, jasmine, eucalyptus, the Pacific horizon.  The creation of the University of California as it flourished because of the link to weapons R&D. The California frontier transformed into suburbia. A land of contradictions.

Didion has lived a life full of famous actors and writers, world travels, large parties, lots of bourbon & pills & cigarettes, and of course, lots and lots of time spent writing and researching. As a part of the new journalism tradition, Didion inserted herself into most of her writing, yet there always seems to be parts of her that are unknowable. Even though Didion probably won’t publish anything else in her lifetime, I will be re-reading all of her writing over and over again because her writing will always be relevant.

Misc. stuff…

New podcast addiction: Limetown

New album addictions: Gary Clarke Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim; Jason Isbell, Something More than Free; Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 album; and Chris Cornell, Higher Truth

I have a huge stack of books that I just picked up at the library…Purity, The Story of the Last Child, Fates and Furies. I’ll be up late reading for the next few weeks.

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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: The Neapolitan Series + More

Apparently my niece has become quite the reader. She enters first grade this Fall, and already she reads chapter books. I am a proud aunt. My family says she is just like me because her nose is always buried in a book – she also looks like me, which makes me happy, but not as happy as the fact that she has discovered the ability to lose herself in a book. Finding companionship in books makes the human experience less lonely and so much better. A few months ago, the amazing Sci Fi author Kim Stanley Robinson said at a lecture I attended, “If you read every night, you lead 10,000 lives, not just one life.” One life is not enough for me.

Plus, books are the best gifts to give. I hope she likes Madeline L’Engle because she’ll be getting “A Wrinkle in Time” for her next birthday. I wonder if she’ll get caught up in the Anne of Green Gables books. What will she think of “Little Women”?  So many lives for her to live.

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Photo credit to my mom. Perfect summer day at the lake.

The last few months were busy, but of course, I found time to read some good stuff…

The Neapolitan Series by Elena Ferrante

I devoured these three books over the last two months. The series is translated from Italian, and the writing feels sophisticated, open, honest, and European. The focus of the series is two childhood friends, Lena and Lila, and the way that their lives come together and grow apart over the years. The first book, “My Brilliant Friend” starts in the 60’s when Lena & Lila are children, and the series covers their lives as they become adults.

Themes of class, education, friendship, women & worker rights, and escaping your childhood hang-ups & loyalties are all explored in the series. At one point Lena (who narrates all the books) thinks, “…how many me’s were there by now?” As readers, we get to watch Lena evolve into many different things over the years. She makes some cringe-worthy decisions, and is not entirely likeable, but she is a fantastic narrator who gives us all the juicy details.

Lena constantly battles with the need to impress everyone around her and to rise above her surroundings. At one point, she returns to her old neighborhood and is treated with deference. Lena thinks that the woman can not possibly understand that “… I have been a slave to letters and numbers, that my mood depends on the success of their combinations, that the joy of having done well is rare, unstable, that it lasts an hour, an afternoon, a night.” Lena cares deeply about what everyone around her thinks, and most of all, she cares about what Lila thinks about her.

The friendship between Lila & Lena is complicated and somewhat vicious, yet they have a fierce loyalty to one another. They are competitive and not always there for each other in their darkest times. The series will keep you reading to see where they end up…

The fourth and final book in the series comes out this Fall, along with a ton of other great books coming up in the next few months – check out a list here: Book preview + a biography on Joan Didion

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

History is built on so much ugliness. Some choose to face it head on and confront it, and others try to forget it. Both ways are survival methods for victims.  In this beautiful novel, Ohanesian explores the different ways the Armenian Genocide that occurred in Turkey is remembered by those who went through it. This novel powerfully keeps the memory of the horrible things that happened to a million people alive.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

We moved last month. We love our new place, the best things about it are a dishwasher (!!!), AC, a lime tree with an abundance of fruit, and our new next door neighbor has a nine year old duck named Charlie. Charlie is brownish grey with a few blueish-green feathers around his tail. He follows our neighbor around the front yard, quacking and sticking his beak in the grass looking for worms and snails. Charlie comes when called and he snuggles with them and sleeps in their bed most nights (with a diaper on).

Birds are amazing.

This book details MacDonald’s experience training a goshawk after her beloved father passes away unexpectedly. The bird becomes the sole focus of MacDonald’s existence. The book weaves history, nature-writing, and tales of falconry into an interesting, cohesive whole. In the midst of overpowering grief, a beautiful bond between MacDonald and the dinosaur-ish, totally wild hawk, Mabel, forms.

Don’t eat birds  (or any other sentient beings) please.

The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer

A story of a family in Silicon Valley (before it was the Silicon Valley) told through the viewpoints of the four children: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan & James. Like all families, this one is messy and complicated. A calm, caring father, an aloof mother who does not want to be a mom, a crazy f-up youngest sibling, and lots of secrets and hurt feelings. A quick, enjoyable read.

I’ve also just finished reading the essay collections Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Megan Daum. Both of the collections are thought-provoking, interesting, and worthwhile reads. Gay’s collection is all by her, but Daum’s collection features 16 men and women who explore their reasons for not having children (they are all childless by choice). One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Reproduction as raison d’être has always seemed to me me to beg the whole question of existence. If the ultimate purpose of your life is your children, what’s the purpose of your children’s lives? To have your grandchildren? Isn’t anyone’s life meaningful in itself? If not, what’s the point of progressing it ad infirm? After all, 0 x infinity = 0.”

 

READ: Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

I’ve had a preoccupation with nuclear bombs since third grade. It amazes me that all of us go about our everyday, normal lives with these atrocities in our midst. I could go on and on about my obsession with all things nuclear. I’ll save it for another time…There are so many books that I love that address nukes, but one of my very favorites is Lydia Millet’s “O Pure and Radiant Heart,” which brings Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard to the present day so they can see the monster that they created. Millet plays with the absurd in her novels, and they are all political, hilarious, and thought-provoking.

FullSizeRender-7In “Mermaids in Paradise” her dark, biting humor had me laughing out loud and smirking on almost every page. The novel’s premise is the Caribbean honeymoon trip of a normal, boring American couple that takes a weird turn when they discover mermaids. Yes, mermaids. You never know, they could be out there.

The husband, Chip, is a happy, all around good guy with an obsession with Midwesterners, gaming, and fantasy. The wife, Deb, narrates the story. She’s a bit of a sour-puss who gives wry observations like the following about wedding planning with her mother in law:

“I told her no favors, since Chip and I had passed beyond that phase. We were adults, I told her calmly, but firmly: when we attended a party we didn’t expect to go home with sparkle-filled bouncy balls or a handful of Tootsie Pops…No, we were perfectly pleased to leave a party empty-handed, our blood alcohol content somewhere above .08.”

and

“If a man like Chip can emerge sane and whole from eighteen formative years with a Nurse Ratched harpy, there’s hope of redemption for each and every one of us. There’s hope the sun may not burn out after all, some billions of years hence, transforming into a giant fireball that obliterates the planet.”

When Chip and Deb get to their honeymoon, it starts to get weird, and hilarious. They meet a motley crew of people, and together they try to save the mermaids from the claws of capitalism that are absolutely everywhere in our world. “Mermaids in Paradise” examines issues like extinction, exploitation, and technology.

Deb thinks: “What was their problem? Our problem, as a race…It seemed to me the virtual world was even worse that the real one, when it came to humanity…Here we sat at civilizations technological peak, and what we chose to do on that shining pinnacle was hate each other’s guts.”

I love the ending. It left me feeling a little hopeless and like people are generally assholes, but it also reminded me of the magic and beauty that surrounds us every day.

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I just finished another irreverent novel called “The Wallcreeper” by Nell Zink. It is a dark, twisted book that is FULL of zippy one-liners. Thru the lens of a parasitic woman who attaches herself to men, the book explores eco-terrorism, marriage, and the search for meaning.

Two nights ago I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning to read “What Comes Next and How to Like It” by Abigail Thomas. This memoir is so honest that reading parts of it are uncomfortable. I felt like a voyeur that was snooping on her family. Thomas writes about mortality, being hurt by those we love the very most, forgiveness, addictions, and complicated family dynamics. She writes truth.

Thomas gives possibly the best advice EVER: “Forget career, forget the future, forget existential worries, just get yourselves a couple of dogs, and everything will be all right.” Yup, that about sums it up. Also I love how she captures the mother /daughter relationship over and over. She describes something to her daughter, who responds, “Yes Mom, I know. Your memories are my memories.” 

For another view into someone’s life that feels a little uncomfortable, but is so, so beautiful listen to the podcast “The Living Room.” Sob!!