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year in review

What I Read in 2014: Non-Adjectivally Qualified Fiction

Figure 1. Oh, HONEY

Figure 1. Oh, HONEY

 

I decided to read more non-YA, non-romance, non-mystery, non-whatever-other-adjectival-qualifier fiction this. You know: the stuff makes people haul out the L-Word.

It started as a kind of “eat-your-vegetables” thing, where I resolved to broaden my horizons. But it turned out to be pretty delightful. Thanks to everyone who gave me these recommendations.

Dare Me by Megan AbbottThis book explores the world of high school girls, in a way that’s real and beautiful and honest. No pearl-clutching over sex or drugs or jealousy or nastiness. Narrated by Addy, the story follows the year when the girls on the cheerleading squad get a new coach. Brutal and funny and fucked up in so many subtle ways, Addy and her friends leap off the page. Can’t wait to plunge through the rest of Abbott’s novels.

Love Me Back by Merritt TierceA barn-burner of a debut. Here, Marie Young is a failed parent and wife whose unapologetic journey through sex and drugs and self-destruction is a view of female characters we don’t get to see.

Man V. Nature: Stories by Diane CookI love short stories but seem to forget this when I’m looking for something to read. These are some juicy crazy weird-ass stories. I don’t know what to say beyond that except I read the whole collection in like 3 days. Super fun.

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik ClarkBrilliant book for anyone whose read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or other books about local eating and industrial food production. Following flavor chemist David Levereaux, we see how generations of food science and trends affect one family. Funny in a dark and distinct way, you’ll be at minimum cocking a wary eyebrow at everything you see in the supermarket.

Portrait of a Young Man Drowning by Charles Perry. So I read this book because it was the source material of a movie Norman Reedus was in, which I haven’t seen. Dunno if I want to see it, actually. But the book was fucking fabulous. It’s about this white boy who grows up in New York and gets caught up in street gangs and his creepy relationship with his awful overbearing mother. The voice sucked me in; I absolutely loved it.

Arcadia by Lauren GroffIf your book has intentional communities or utopian hippie communes, chances are good that I’ll want to read it. That shit fascinates me. This one is told from the eyes of a little boy who grows up in one and it’s delicious and juicy and freaky and gross.

The Goldfinch by Donna TarttWell, everyone read this, so that doesn’t make me super original, but I will always read anything Donna Tartt puts out. This one took a bit to get going – a lot of L-word fiction has this issue, of course – but once I settled into all the extended description and what not, I was pretty happy. Boris, of course, was the character I fascinated on; Theo was very much a form of The Secret History’s Richard Pappen, which isn’t bad, of course, but they made a nice pair.

Candy by Luke Davies. Like intentional communities, if your book is about heroin or addiction, then I’m probably going to check it out. Candy is the source material for one of the last movies made by Heath Ledger. This is a fucking awful, relentless story that I couldn’t put down. The thing that is astonishing about addiction is how goddamn difficult it is. It’s not an easy life, pursuing the big high. It’s more work than any other job I can imagine and the horror involved is tenfold. Couldn’t look away, couldn’t put it down.

Redeployment by Phil KlayA 2014 National Book Award Winner. Goddamn, this was a great bunch of stories. Tore through it in about a day, and even that was me holding back, trying to savor and not devour through it. Each story its own universe of the war experience or the veteran experience. I also love war stories and books about military life and this one is one of the best I’ve ever read.

 

 

 

 

What I Read in 2014: Nonfiction

Figure 1. Pablo prefers an audio book over the e-Reader.

Figure 1. Pablo prefers an audio book over the e-Reader.

 

I actually read a lot of nonfiction books that were published this year. Amazing, huh?

Here’s a list of ones that I particularly enjoyed:

Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow. Being interested in male bisexuality, learning that Charles Blow deals with this issue in his memoir drew me to it (book #3 deals with male sexual fluidity). But the book is so much more than that. It’s about growing up in the South and growing up Black in the South and learning about what it means to be a man, navigating definitions of masculinity. A beautiful story.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. A 2014 National Book Award Winner. Totally sucked into Ms. Chast’s comics about her aging parents in issues of the New Yorker, I was thrilled to get my mitts on the book itself. My sister and I both read it in like two days. Chast doesn’t hold back on what it’s like to have aging parents; as an only child, she must contend with these decisions on her own, which was something that wasn’t easy for me to read, being the mother of just one child myself. In spite of this heaviness – which is good, important heaviness we all must face – the book was super funny. I related to a ton of it, especially having Old Country Anxious Parents who are Set In Their Ways.

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom. I’m kind of shakey on history when it comes to WWI and WWII and had only heard about the Vichy regime in passing. So when I saw a review of this, I snatched it up. It kind of makes me want to saunter around Paris again, looking at it in this sinister perspective, when every building concierge could be a savior or a traitor, and the notion of “collaboration” still reverberates today. And I don’t particularly like France. So, there.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I bite my nails in a fairly disgusting, inconvenient way. I’ve done so since I was a little kid. I heard about this book on the Book Riot podcast and decided to see if I could connect the dots about my various bad habits. Pretty illuminating, in how it unpacks how habits accrete and the reason why they endure.  Though I’m still wreaking havoc on my sad nubby fingernails.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. I’ve never read any of his fiction, but I’ve wanted to read this book for a while now; running and being a writer seem to be common habits, as it were, and I’ve found running to help me be a better writer, so I figured this book would give me insight. It did…and it didn’t, either. But that was okay; there’s a mystery there, in why we write, why we run and I ended the book feeling kind of coy and sly and comfortable with that puzzle.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger. I’ve meant to read this for years; it’s a title bandied about in lots of academic circles. Though I suppose it’s chiefly about art, the book connects art history with philosophy and gender and psychology and class and a whole slough of other things. I picked it up because book #3 had some themes concerned with how things are “seen” (isn’t that vague) and then I wrote this, which kind of gobsmacked me and has kept me in that gobsmacked place for a while now.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Here’s a book nonreligious people like me might enjoy. Here are the religious people that I can listen to and relate to, even if we don’t agree when it comes to teleological arguments.

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. This might come in handy for book #4. I don’t stay in many hotels because I loathe traveling in general. But when I do stay in hotels, it’s kind of delicious, so it was nice to pull back the curtain and see how the hospitality stage-hands manage the experience for guests. Not pretty. But also, quite amusing.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Just finished today and what a find. Ward is the 2011 National Book Award Winner for her novel Salvage The Bones, which I can’t wait to crack into next. What a beautiful, sorrowful, insightful book to read in this year where we’ve got to remind everyone that Black Lives Matter. Ward has written a memoir about the deaths of five men in her life, including her brother, and how our culture works to tear down Black lives, especially Black male lives. While it’s heart-breaking, it’s also a story of a family that looks a lot like mine, but a lot different too. Ward examines all the angles – economics, psychology, sociology, the very geography of life on the Gulf coast – and how the people in Ward’s life in DeLisle, Mississippi are connected, what connects them, what breaks them apart. What endures. Beautifully written.

 

 

 

Favorite Nonfiction of 2012

1) The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and The History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
I had a chemistry phase this year. This was fun. If only my actual chemistry class could have involved just examining the periodic table instead of all those crucibles of participates or whatever.

2) The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein
This kid was fucking INSANE. Also, SHOCKER: he had a girlfriend. Also, I wonder what the hell he’s doing now. Or if he’s got cancer.

3) How To Make Love To Adrian Colesberry by Adrian Colesberry
This is the funniest fucking sex book I’ve ever read. And required reading if yr a hetero lady who Does It with guys. Because it’s important to recognize that men do not actually care if yr thighs are shaved, smooth, and shiny like a runway model’s thighs. That is something I didn’t realize for many years. If I had any idea how low the bar is for men’s sexual standards! Man! I woulda TORN it up out there as a young hellcat. I mean, I still did okay back then, thanks for asking, but still. Think of the yarns I coulda spun!

4) Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
I think growing up the Sacks’ household, where it was okay for you to have a little alcove full of chemicals that exploded and fizzed and what not would have RULED.

5) The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes by Joan Silber
Read this for graduate school. It was good. Good craft book. Not much else to say.

6) This Is Not The Ivy League by Mary Clearman Blew
This is a story of a woman trying to find her place in academia. While having kids. And a husband who thought her writing was foolish. And a family who thought the entire education enterprise was worthless. And it’s beautiful and very funny. Okay, maybe not ha-ha-ha funny. But wry. And constructed in such a seamless way for a memoir – shifting back and forth in time but always remaining a pleasureable story.

7) City Boy: My Life in New York in the 1960s and 70s by Edmund White
An odyssey of New York City as it used to be, plus juicy literary tidbits, plus a portrait of gay male life before AIDS.

8) Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
I should mention first that I cannot stand the photo of David Foster Wallace on the cover. He looks TERRIBLE. Maybe it’s the only one that they could dig up that didn’t feature him without his trademark bandana? I dunno. Also, please note that I’ve only read one DFW essay in my life. Never any of the books. I didn’t know much about him except that it sucks that he killed himself. Apparently, many DFW fans think this bio is wrong and premature. I can say that his family relationships are notably scant. And Mary Karr also seemed quite coy in what she revealed to the biographer. Didn’t know he was such a whore (he fucked his students, ewww!) and got a bit more on his relationship with Jonathan Franzen (also eww). Dunno if I’ll ever tackle Infinite Jest. It just seems like such A Boy Book. Like the book version of the Washington Monument.

9) D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider by John Worthen
I re-read Lady Chatterley’s Lover while writing my grad school thesis and was like, holy shit! I can’t believe this dude. Was he really that misogynist and racist and shit? The answer is Kinda. It’s sorta fascinating. Also, did you know he was a big ole bearded GINGER? That alone you guys. But then the whole fact that he didn’t get laid was really the main impetus for all his beliefs and his fiction. Which is kinda sad. But also good for Literature, I suppose.

Favorite Fiction of 2012

1) Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
So, dragons. And all sorts of Weird Dragon Rules. And a GLOSSARY. And delicious characters. And ACTION. And I loved Prince Lucian. And no one even had sex but still! I kept reading!

2) The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
What a moody, creepy, lovely book. A house full of weird lady psychics? Mysterious brooding boys-only boarding school? Ley lines and murder? What the hell else do you want? Because it’s probably here.

3) Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Um, if you call this book a ‘mermaid book’ I’m gonna backhand you into next week. These are ANCIENT SEA CREATURES. And they are scary as hell. And beautiful, too.

4) Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
One word: PERRY. Now go read it, you big dummy.

5) The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Okay, so here’s some standard adult LITERARY fiction. And yes, it was assigned graduate school reading, so piss off. But if you really want some New Adult Fiction, this would it. Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard are all college graduates at sea about their next moves. There’s not tons of ‘steamy’ sex which marks a lot of New Adult, but there’s some. Mostly it’s really funny. I particularly enjoyed the portrait of Leonard, who struggles terribly with bipolar disorder.

6) Swimming Sweet Arrow by Maureen Gibbon
HOLY SHIT SO MUCH SEX. And kinda seedy sad sex, too. And violence. And girls being strong and girls being weak. Intoxicating. Where is the YA book with female characters who are fearless and curious about sex like Vangie and June?

7) Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Yanno, what could bug me more than some American expatriate pot-smoking poet living like a lump in Spain? You’d think I would have chucked this book into a fire. But it’s way too absorbing and amusing. Adam Gordon is grody and pretentious and completely idealizes women in a fetishizing way that arty men tend to do, but he’s also funny and broken and his take on a poetry reading and its stupid theatrics pleased me to no end.

8) Under The Wolf, Under The Dog by Adam Rapp
I’m late to the party on this, but GODDAMN. This is one of those books where you’ll follow the narrator into hell if that’s where he takes you. And Steve Nugent does take you through hell–his own–that has landed him in a psych ward. But he’s super funny about it. Which is really all you have to do to keep me reading – amuse me with word & phrase and I won’t care what happens (or doesn’t happen.)

9) The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
If you think YA is all about vampires and not getting a prom date, read this motherfucker. Put on a helmet, first, though. Then come talk to me.

10) Where Things Come Back by Corey Whaley
See above note for The Marbury Lens. Another expectation-smasher.

11) Rotters by Daniel Kraus
Antiochus Boggs is the grossest, creepiest, dirtiest, BEST villain ever. Also, this book is about grave-robbing. Top that, man.

12) Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
This is a book about war, sea turtles, fucked-up families, asshole brothers, tattoos and true courage. Also, Travis is funny as fuck and Doller brings the swoon.

13) Everybody Sees The Ants by A.S. King
Lucky Linderman ain’t so much lucky. Bullied, guided by dreams of his POW grandfather, he’s trying to figure out how to survive in the hell that is modern high school.

14) Tithe by Holly Black
Also super late to this. But it’s so delicious and good. The original urban faery concept and so creepy-sparkly-good.

15) A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Whatever. I fell down the hole. I like being there. I’m on A Dance With Dragons. Saving it up, though, because who knows when the next one will come out. ALSO: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

16) Catch & Release by Blythe Woolston
I like it when books take you to weird  places. That sounds vapid and trite, but in this case, we go from flesh-eating MRSA deaths to fly-fishing to National Parks to animal mutations to monster movies to road trip in an old Cadillac with a girl named Polly and a boy named Odd. It helps that Polly was on my shortlist of girl names. Also, Odd is funny as hell. And there’s no sex! Still I kept reading. I liked the boy-girl friendship that wasn’t fraught with sex tension. That’s rare.

17) The Knife and The Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez
Azael is caught in juvie and recalling what led him there. But how can he get out? And why must he keep watching this weird white girl? And what’s her fucking deal, anyhow? Twisty wonderful book.

18) Kiss It by Erin Downing
This book takes so many YA romance tropes and turns them into pretzels. Satisfying on so many levels. I especially love books that feature teenagers at crappy jobs. Chastity is a waitress and, unlike her name suggests, no shrinking violet. Also: SEX. But not creepy/fakey/Glamour Shots kinda sex.

19) Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach
So, first you read Stupid Fast, because that’s the first book featuring Felton Reinstein (who, like Jonah Griggs and Marcus Flutie, makes me ache because he is not an actual, living human being.) Then you just continue enjoying being in Felton’s head. I love being in boys’ heads. It’s as exotic as hell.

We will end at 19, for symbolic reasons. *Mona Lisa smile*

2012 Resolutions

I have all these goals, which aren’t resolutions, and most of them involve rehauling either my house or my body.

Which is super boring. No one cares if I rearrange my office or paint my basement. Well, except me, and my family. And no one cares as much as me if I lose weight or gain muscle or get a tattoo or stop biting my goddamn nails.

I don’t have any career goals, either. I teach as much as I possibly can and writing is so unpredictable. Who knows what kinda insane ideas I will cook up in that department? It’s enough to resolve to keep doing it, somedays.

I would like to get better at writing feedback on student work. I think I do an okay job, but mostly the act itself causes me so much angst. I worry about saying the wrong thing or not saying enough good things or being inadvertently discouraging.

I suppose if I resolve to do something, it would be to not give a shit as much about things that don’t concern me.

Also, every year I resolve to learn how to sew but never do.

It seems like the older I get, the fewer things I want to master. It’s totally okay with me at this point to not learn the following: how to sew, how to play the guitar, how to use power tools.

(I should probably learn how to sew, though. Because I’m all obsessed with my clothing.)

Adrian never makes goals, because he already knows how to do everything, probably. He can sew and fix machines and TIG weld and do calculus and make French bread and blah blah blah. I’m jealous that he can do all these things. But I don’t want to spend time learning all that. Because that would take time away from reading, see.