spring reading list

spring reading list

I haven’t been to this space in a while because for the past year or so I’ve lived much of my private life offline. There’s something strange that happens when people read your words for years and feel like they know you (in an edited way because they come to know you by what you share) but they don’t. Not really. They know a version of you. I struggled with that tension quite a bit. Combined with trying to sustain a consistent stream of work (freelancing is hard and I’m drowning in graduate loan debt), and thinking about my second book while I completed my third–I noticed that coming here I had little to offer. Simply put, I didn’t have it in me.

Today I woke early and decided what I did want to share–what I’ve been reading! Reading has been a tremendous stress reliever and I’ve been reading one, sometimes two, books a week. And no, they’re not the same ten books you see on every spring reading list because I often discover authors or books far past their launch buzz. I’m also frustrated that the same ten books give massive hype while the rest fall to the wayside. Perhaps I’m…biased. I’ll leave it at that.

On to the books!

Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: Someone recently asked me to describe Yiyun Li’s work and I said, she’s the Chinese Jhumpa Lahiri. I realize saying that is reductive and gives off the wrong impression, so I immediately explained that like Lahiri, Li feels caught between two languages and cultures. Lahiri spent years learning Italian, a language that liberated her or at least shifted her away from the Bengali/English tension. Yiyun Li made a conscious decision to abandon Chinese and not have her books translated into Chinese, but the pull of homeland is a constant and is at the core of her essay collection.

It’s strange to call this book a memoir because while the events are true (Li battled suicide depression and was hospitalized twice), there exists a semi-permeable wall between reader and author because Li doesn’t seek catharsis in the usual tell-all style, rather, she tries to make sense of it rationally and intellectually through conversations with dead authors who’ve shared her illness. This is the story of her literary life and how she uses it to cope with the constant pull to darkness. Is writing not my way of rehearsing death? Li writes. There are so many reasons I loved this book, mainly because it was a realistic portrayal of someone suffering from depression every day. The neat 3-arc narrative that presents a life where the illness or pain or grief is finite is so antithetical for how people with mental illness survive their day. For Li, it’s a continuum, an ongoing understanding, and conversation.

If you suffer from depression or just love literature, you will LOVE this book.

An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey: What starts as a recollection of a near suicide attempt to navigating the world of art, love, infidelity, and the many skins (or masks) we wear, An Arrangement of Skin deconstructs those masks in an effort to get puncture through oneself. From her mother’s macabre bedtime stories and a friendship with a tattoo artist who believes what you write on the body is an expression of that self to her fascination with taxidermy, Journey manages to usurp traditional images centering on dismemberment and metamorphosis. She makes the grotesque beautiful, and I’ve really encountered an essay collection that felt…new. This was a swift read and well worth your time. I’m baffled that it hasn’t been covered widely.

Outline by Rachel Cusk: To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Cusk until I read this recent profile. I’m drawn to complex women who may not necessarily be sympathetic or, more importantly, don’t want your sympathy. (Brief parenthetical: This Jill Abramson interview is spot-on and reinforces that women leaders are often judged by how “nice” they are.) Apparently, you either really love Cusk auto-fiction style or you think she’s the most selfish person on earth. I’m in the former camp and I purchased all of her books. Outline is a life told through conversation. We follow a novelist (and I dare say cipher), Faye, who’s teaching a creative class one summer in an oppressively hot Athens. The ten conversations she has with people she meets along the way (her seatmate on her flight to Athens–a man who’s lived much of his life in regret, a one-hit wonder novelist, an insecure nuevo-famous author who uses her celebrity as a means to mask her emptiness). Through each of these stories and the novelist’s interpretation and retelling of them, we know more a woman trying to find her identity through the filling out of an outline. The conversations she has gives her shape and depth.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez: Sure, this was published ages ago, but it’s new to me and damn near broke my heart. Reading this book now felt fortuitous as it invites you to be empathetic to the immigrant experience. I’m not going to start with all the fear and hate-mongering after Agent Orange was elected, but we are ALL immigrants–unless we’re Native American. But I digress. Henriquez’s remarkable debut, told from varying points of view, outlines the immigrant perspective in a small Delaware town. From cultural adjustment to learning English idioms and feeling homesick for the familiar, you have a sense of what people give up to come to the United States. What spins the plot into motion is a well-off Mexican family that moves to the states after their daughter, Maribel, sustained brain injury as a result of a slip and fall accident. Soon after they move, Maribel (who’s an outsider) connects with a local boy, Toro, who sees in her a kindred spirit. Their Romeo/Juliet-type love unravels all of the characters to devastating effect. I loved this book so much, not only because of the exceptional writing but because you see how “Americans” treat people of color who were born here and people who come from abroad. If you pick up any of the books from my list, I suggest you start with this one.

Liar by Rob Roberge: Okay, I promise this will be the last book about mental illness, but this is a GOOD ONE. After a lifetime of heavy drug abuse/alcohol abuse and frequent concussions, Roberge learns that he’s developed a progressive memory-eroding disease. The notion that he’ll one day start to lose memories, stories–the core of who he is–devastates him, and he makes a point of using writing as a means of documentation of a life but also a catharsis for the inevitable end. Selfishly, I also love books that are not told in a linear fashion (so you have to work harder and be committed to the narrative–must everything be handed to you? I often think), and I think the structure evokes the feeling of disassociation, abject terror, and the need to commit everything to paper. I read this after Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir and it was refreshing to read a book about an addict told from the vantage point of perspective and age.

Compartment 6 by Rosa Liksom: It’s possible that a book can be relentlessly dark and laugh-out-loud funny. An unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow for Mongolia by train after having suffered heartbreak. However, there exists little time for grief when Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov is your compartment mate. A former soldier, Vadim is rude, vulgar, violent (he attempts to force himself on the woman several times and only stops when she beats him with her boot), drunk, and the woman’s unlikely companion. There is no startling plot revelation, but the journey, what’s revealed about the Soviet Union in a specific point of time, and how one copes with loss, is the real draw.

Also recommended: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees–I’m half-way through the collection and it is stellar.

book buff

picture ted bundy with a whisk and a head of red hair

When you ask me what influenced the creation of a novel about intergenerational mental illness and abuse, our sexist perception of the “good girl”, and the lengths children will go to forge a family, I offer this…influence doesn’t have a single point of origin.

 

1.

Listening to Ted Bundy for two days in a cold room in Southern California does things to you. You play the interviews over and over until Bundy’s slow, assured drawl beings to disturb you because it’s oddly comforting. You’re surprised by his voice, the ease, and coolness of it. The patrician charm of it. How he considers his words before he says them, how he hits his consonants like a melody. For a moment, divorce yourself from the man who took meticulous care of the skulls he collected, how he witnessed the skin pale and crack. If you can forget the monster that is Ted Bundy, you might think to yourself that this is the sort of man you’d want to meet. Remember, Bundy was a man who once studied law. Bundy saved countless lives as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline.

There exists no binary. Watch him. He’s witty, self-deprecating, and beguiling.

Let’s just get a map out, he says when asked to recall where he buried the remains of the women he murdered. Let’s see what we have. We have to get down to business here. I want to be as specific as I can be. Was it a burial, an officer asks. Yes, yes, a burial, Bundy affirms. I gave them a burial.

This is the savagery of the psychopath: the ease in which they assimilate and shift masks based on whom they need to manipulate. They’re brilliant at mimicry. Studies suggest they have the capacity for empathy; it’s just a muscle they willfully allow to atrophy. It’s easier to feel nothing that bears the weight of guilt, sorrow, remorse, compassion, and empathy. It’s easier to be cruel and it’s work to be kind.

When I write I start from the place of a character. I build out an entire person, the complexities of their world, and I follow what they do on the page. For my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, I knew almost all of my characters before I got to the page. When I created Kate, the educated, genteel, soft-spoken baker, she was only fully realized after I locked myself in a room with Ted Bundy. Because it’s horrifying when the kind person you’ve known for years, the blushing girl behind the counter serving your muffin, is actually callous and calculating; she’s someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the depraved, feels joy when others are suffering. It’s scarier when you don’t see your villain coming.

This is what all those women must have thought. When Bundy feigned broken limbs and disability to lure women to his car, they probably thought this is someone who is in pain rather than a monster who delights in inflicting it. Imagine the space between Bundy, the charming, handsome man on crutches pleading for help and the man who takes a lead pipe to your head. That’s the terror.

It was only when I met Ted Bundy through a computer screen did I see Kate, a woman who uses a veneer of innocence and society’s sexism to navigate through monstrous acts, relatively unscathed.

2.

Who didn’t fall in love with Alice Morgan, a prodigy who studied dark matter distribution and murdered her parents and dog just to see if she could get away with it? A brilliant woman, a player of games, although I imagine that Vegas would fail to challenge and amuse her because she’s someone who would usurp the adage the house always wins. Alice Morgan would’ve torched the joint before the first hand was even dealt.

I struggled with sex in my book. How much of it do my characters use to get what they want? Basic Instinct bored me because it was all sex and no intrigue. There are four women in my book, all in various stages of beauty and undress, and while some of the characters use sex as an obvious weapon and as bait, some, like Alice, simply offer a suggestion of it. Sex is not on the table but it’s not entirely off, either. It’s one of many weapons in her arsenal that she’d use if and when the occasion called. At first glance, perhaps you wouldn’t think Alice to be conventionally hot (personally, I’d disagree) and maybe her body wouldn’t put you on pause, but there’s something about her that sucks you in. Like a black hole. Her ferocity and intellect are bewitching. However, it’s that ease — like Bundy and fly tape: a seemingly harmless object that will seduce, trap, and kill you — that excites you. There’s something sexually thrilling in that dichotomy (the harmless and the murderous), which made Alice an easy model for two of my characters, doppelgangers Kate and Gillian.

3.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old deaf artist who painted savagery on his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, to undo the harm that portraits of refined gentry had done, and the artist was something of a fakir drawing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all I can remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth. — From Chapter 1 of my novel.

Years ago I visited the Prado during a storm. All because I wanted to see Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. Late in life, Goya painted 14 paintings of madness and the macabre on the walls of his home. They represented his fear of insanity, his bleak view of humanity, and the fulfillment of our darkest urges. Imagine being greeted with the barbaric and terrifying when you stepped into someone’s dining or living room.

Possibly the most iconic of the Black Paintings is a portrait of Saturn devouring his son. I remember standing in front of the canvas for nearly an hour, mesmerized by something so utterly horrifying, but at the same time I thought of something different. What if Saturn was protecting his son from the evil and treachery of mankind?

It’s the dual nature of murder as hate and murder as sacrificial love that drove me to write some of the horrible things the mothers in my novel do to their children. Many of the characters in Follow Me Into the Dark suffer from mental illness. When Ellie is temporarily institutionalized for trying to bathe an infant Kate in bleach, she rationalizes her heinous act as one of love:

In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.

“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero, but I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”

They are wrong, of course, unimaginably so, but it was only until I saw what a parent can do to a child (see also Euripides’ Medea) through the lens of illness and insanity did I conceive of the dual acts of hate and love the mothers in my book inflict on their progeny.

4.

What happens to children who are isolated from parental love, locked away in an isolated boarding school in South Africa with nothing other than books and a vivid imagination to give them shelter? Sheila Kohler, in her exceptional novel, Cracks, balances a landscape of ethereal beauty with cold, cruel violence.

One hot summer, a beautiful aristocrat, Fiamma, vanishes into the veld. Decades later, at a reunion, thirteen members of tightly-knit swim team gather to reminisce on the weeks leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. As the memories and secrets unravel, we learn the horrific, violent lengths adolescents will go to when faced with obsession, jealousy, sex, and maternal longing. I loved this book primarily because the children are lost, rudderless, their sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother comes from the books they read. Their barnacle-level attachment to their swim coach, Miss G., demonstrates how desperately children need familial love. The characters in my look don’t understand love because they’ve lived in homes robbed of it. So they try (and fail) to create a home and this failure is their ultimate devastation.


I’m never quite sure whether people are interested in what goes into the creation of a book, so perhaps this is merely an exercise in me documenting what drove me to write my second book and debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark.

Upcoming Events: I’ll be in New York next week for some readings. Come on down!

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when you’re the shiny new thing for sale

kyoto japan“The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

There she goes in her threadbare Willy Loman suit, hocking her life like it’s a vacuum cleaner she’s desperate to unload. The clock ticks, tick tock, tick tock, and she’s got quotas to fill. So she tells one story after another, cuts herself open so her insides match her outsides, exposed, barbed, until someone writes and says, how do you take yourself so seriously, so publicly? Another writes: your book would’ve been better had you loved your mother. Still another: He’s your father. Just call him already. She could hear them heave their collective sigh when they type their comments because isn’t the solution obvious? Before, there was only the one life she had to bear, now it’s the multitudes, the peanut-crunching motley lot, who give her instructions on how to live her life. Kind of like the housewife tearing through the appliance manual, reading aloud the instructions for use, word for word, to the saleswoman who came knocking at her door. This is how you hold the vacuum cleaner. This is how you turn it on.

Since when does lying yourself out to bear become an invitation to parent, fix, and solve? It seems as if everyone’s become Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, erecting their “The Doctor Is In” lemonade stands, solving problems for a nickel.

Last year, she torches the suits and hurls appliances out of three-story windows. I’m done with all that, she says with an ample hand rub, confident, semi-confident, not confident, perhaps catatonic. Instead, she spends her days living her life in perpetual rewind, thinking about a time when it wasn’t as horrible as it is now. Make no mistake, it was always horrible, but back then it was sufficiently tolerable. Her life is a colossal mess of pain. Instead of offering compassion, asking what they can do, the peanut crunchers are relentless with their desire to repair. Their collective voice overpowers hers. Spouting platitudes neatly arranged on Pinterest boards, they shout: Be positive! Be strong! Don’t be so negative! Get over it!

She wonders if it’s possible to throw strangers off third-story virtual windows. Someone writes: When will she stop writing about her mother? Like, get over it. Because there’s a limit to how much of her sadness and grief others are willing to bear. There goes that clock again, tick tock, tick tock. The time allotted for her depression is running out. Time for a new state, a new emotion. Time to be someone other than what she is or how she feels. But don’t worry — they’ll be there for her when her sadness is in the past tense. When she’s the comeback kid, all toothy smiles and donning new suits. Their collective sigh is palpable. The thank god she’s normal again.

She wrote to make sense of the world. She wrote because the act of writing, and sharing what she had written, made her feel less alone. There’s something powerful about the company of strangers in the moments when you need it most. She read poems and blog posts on the Internet and nodded through tears because someone else felt exactly as she had. Never did she dare interrupt the private, primal aspect of that space because publishing isn’t synonymous with intimacy. It isn’t an invitation to come into someone’s house and rearrange all the furniture. So, for a time, she didn’t write or wrote things that only a few people read. She receded. And in that withdrawal, she discovered a different kind of catharsis, the feeling that aspects of her life were hers and hers alone, not some kind of Sizzler buffet where everyone felt entitled to their piece, where it was a given that you’d take your tray, share, and shuffle along.

This year, people remind her that she has a book coming out so…start dusting off those suits because people don’t buy a book, not really, not completely, they’re also buying the author and the story they’re pitching. Not everyone can be Elena Ferrante. Not everyone has the luxury of saying, read my book if you want and deal with it on your own terms, but I don’t come with proof of purchase. She scrolls through her blog, which has gathered a considerable amount of dust and shakes her head no. She looks at her Instagram because she likes sharing pictures and smaller aspects of her life, but people write that they miss the kind of person she used to be, one who gave of themselves so often, so publicly. Soon she develops an allergy to living part of her life online because that’s what’s required of her if people want to read her book. If her agent wants to sell another one.

Lately, she’s got a heavy case of nostalgia. She longs for the days when the Internet was a black void of Geocitiess pages, where you wrote and the audience was smaller and the comments a less pithy. When people didn’t expect that in exchange for them giving you their attention, they had the right to walk into your home and rummage through the cupboards. I don’t like these cookies, why don’t you buy these instead, they offer. But don’t eat too many of them (suggestive wink!). She considers this age of attention and ownership, and thinks that if this is what’s required (one barter for another), she’s reticent to share at all.

Instead, she thinks about dead bolting all the doors.

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how I start a novel…

Lately, I’ve been feeling allergic to blogging and social media. While it’s a tool I use in my professional (non-writing) life, it’s one I’ve abandoned when it comes to my personal life. I’ve spent years putting a lot of myself out there and over the past year I’ve felt a need to pull everything back. I’ve taken most of my channels private, and as you can see from the lack of updates on this space, my heart isn’t necessarily in it. So, I’ve decided to only publish when it feels right. And this morning, as I’m starting the fourth revision of my third book, I thought it might be helpful to give you a peek into my writing process. I hope you find this helpful! 🙂

And yes, this is me, before coffee. And the writer I blanked on? Denis Johnson.

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if anyone tells you that writing novels gets easier over time, they’re crazy

new novel

The final draft of my second book, and yes, I still print things out. 

 

When you write a book, your first thought is: Can I do this? Can I be obsessed with something to a degree that it’ll sustain me through hundreds of pages of revisions, years of deleting and rewriting drafts? Will I allow characters to inhabit my life for a period that doesn’t have a defined end? Can I write this without considering the business of publishing? Can I write knowing this may not be sold or read?

You ask yourself whether you can see the story and the fate of your characters all the way through. And after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, now that the book is written and you’ve exorcised your obsession by committing your characters to a page, you then ask yourself: How do I get better? You keep asking yourself that question every time you come to the page.

I’ve written and sold two books and I assure you the process does not get easier, but I often think about the line from the film Heat, when Michael Cheritto’s character says, For me, the action is the juice. For me, the reward is worth the stretch. I could probably offer more of an astute philosophy, quotes from great writers on the process of writing books, but it all boils down to this: the reward is the composition of the work itself, rather than external validation, which may or may not happen (in fact, I’m expecting criticism of my second book due to the nature of the violence), praise or criticism that is fleeting and soon forgettable. You write what consumes you. You write to make sense of the world. You write to explain it. You write to make your voice heard when it feels you’re the smallest person in the room.

Last year when I moved to California, I wrote my third book in a month. The velocity shocked me, honestly, because it took me eight years to start a second book, two years to write and revise it, and nearly a year to sell it. A new book for me is akin to bloodletting–it’s never easy, it’s often confusing and painful, but then there’s that MOMENT. The switch. When the story falls into place and your characters surprise you in the smallest (and arguably most powerful) of ways. My book always starts one way and ends up becoming what I hadn’t planned or intended. I lost count of how many times I gut-renovated my second book–the structure was problematic, the payoff non-existent, and a few of the characters felt one-note.

After three years, I found a structure that actually worked. And this happened AFTER I sold the book.

This is all to say that writing a book doesn’t come easily to me. So when I sent my first crude draft to my agent, he wrote back that it was way too dark–even for me. And more importantly, the story wasn’t as powerful as it could be. So I revised again, and two more times. Cut 100 pages. Added 70, and the like. And even when I sent the latest draft to my agent the book didn’t feel like it was working. The only section I felt drawn to are what I call the “Alice stories” — a series of connected stories documenting the strange relationship between an adult woman in New York and a depressed teenager in Los Angeles. It deals with the voyeuristic nature of social media, what we edit and reveal, and how strangers are sometimes profoundly connected than the people in your “real” life.

My agent came back and confirmed what I already knew. After an hour of brainstorming, we both agreed that I needed to cut nearly the entire book except for 40 pages. He then timidly suggested I do the one thing I loathe doing — a plot outline.

I’m not knocking the plot outline or outlines in general. They’re often necessary. In what felt like the thirtieth revision of my second novel, I had to map out the timeline and character actions so I wasn’t confused. But here’s the thing–I write from the point-of-view of the character. I’m not a plot writer. I obsess over fictitious people to the extent that I know their whole world down to whether they can stomach mushrooms, mittens, or clowns (three things I hate).  I create character maps and sketches. I pin images of people so I can see my character. Then, and only then, do I let them go out into the world (or in the actual case, the page) and see what they do. I write stories scene by scene and the characters advance the plot.

I’ve rarely engineered the reverse. So plot outlines, for me, are the equivalent of taking spin classes when I’ve always done yoga. I’ll invariably fall off the bike, parts of my body will be sore, and I’ll likely make a mess of things. This may sound crazy but drawing out a plot is harder than writing the actual book (at least for me). But I did it because it was necessary and I need to exercise different muscles to get this book where it needs to go.

In four pages over two exhausting days, I mapped out my third book. I only “know” one of the characters, Alice, but I don’t even know her completely. I know these characters in parts, so directing them forward felt Herculean. But I did it, and my agent was kind and gave incredible feedback.

So here I go. I’m starting a new novel next week, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The book follows the strange obsessive relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a fifteen-year-old suicidal teenager, who happens to be the daughter of a film star on the decline. The book combines the voices and locations I know (New York, an adult woman) with those I’m slowly discovering (Los Angeles, teenagers). And with everything I write, there’s always something nefarious at work. Characters are flawed. Bad things happen. But unlike anything I’ve written previously, this story will end on a note of hope.

Because sometimes light doesn’t exist, even if it’s not within your reach.

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odds & ends

I’ve taken a hiatus from political news and election coverage, because even though I voted early I’m experiencing fatigue. Apparently, we’re all stressed and our connection to the truth is precarious, at best. We’re overwhelmed by the rage, anger and blind hate in this country. We’re tired of turning on our televisions to wonder what will shock us today. What new horror does the day bring? I’m also admittedly tired of being called a cunt on Twitter because I’m a feminist, because I’ve exercised my right to vote, and my choice (Clinton) makes strangers upset enough to spew vitriol in my mentions. As someone who rabidly consumes both liberal and conservative media (one of my oldest friends is a Republican, will likely vote for Trump much to my chagrin, but she did impress upon me the importance of understanding the other side because one can’t make an argument for one’s beliefs in their own bias vacuum), it’s been hard not to react to the headlines on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s been hard to switch away from MSNBC, BBC America, Al Jazeera, and all the other news outlets I consume on a daily basis. But I’m doing it because I want to preserve my sanity as much as possible. We’ll see what happens when we wake the morning of the 9th. I only hope, regardless of the outcome, that our country will move in a direction of healing. I try to have hope.

So, instead, I’m:

Watching: If you loved Stranger Things and Black Mirror, you will love Glitch. Filmed in Australia, the first season centers on six people who have miraculously risen from the dead and the practical and philosophical consequences that ensue. No, this isn’t zombie fare and it’s free of horror, which makes the show that much more powerful. What happens when your wife’s body, ravaged with cancer, gives up to then return two years later to find your husband married to your pregnant best friend? What happens when you were murdered at 19, and the man who everyone thought killed you, didn’t? What happens when someone has to explain television because you never made it to the 20th century. After the disappointing third season of The Fall (Jamie Dornan makes for an excellent serial killer), The Glitch satisfied my escapist craving.

I’m endlessly fascinated by cults. I once read over 30 books on them (and mind control), and it’s hard to find a nuanced cult film without it being camp. The Invitation is that film. It’s so quiet and deeply sinister that I was gripped the entire time–rare these days.

Reading: A few years ago, I asked friends if they knew of great stories told solely from a child’s point-of-view (one of the most difficult things a writer can do, really), and many pointed me to Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I finished in one day.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder, transports us to a different time (19th century, rural Ireland), but the slow-burn horror, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl, is equally as remarkable. A practical English nurse, trained by the famed Florence Nightengale, travels to a small village to bear witness to a girl who hasn’t eaten in four months yet remains alive. Is the child a miracle? Or is there something more nefarious at play? I can usually spot a plot twist early on, but this ending I didn’t anticipate and it truly satisfies. I also devoured my friend Liza Monroy’s hilarious, sardonic essay collection, Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire. Liza has such a gift for storytelling and while I normally shy away from essays that take readers on a relationship-related journey, Liza writes with such honesty and humility, that the essays always rise above the din. If you want a little levity in the darkness, I recommend Liza’s book, wholly.

Speaking of writing, a practical and excellent guide by Benjamin Franklin. And while I normally eschew the ubiquitous “what I’ve learned” lists, Brain Picking’s 10 learnings from 10 years is so on point and remarkable. If you read anything this week, let it be that. This was an elegant, potent read on body, size, and mind. And when a man writes a book with the word girl in the title, you can probably assume she’s dead or close to it. Grace Paley’s “Wants” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I stumbled upon it again last week while I was packing boxes and it chills me twenty years after I first read it. It also occurred to me that my favorite song is “Gimme Shelter” for reasons I won’t describe.

Finally, Mila Kunis: bad-ass. And speaking of awesome women, my friend Hitha is doing great things. Support.

And yes, this is currently my life. Exhibit A:

moving

 

book buff

odds & ends

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“Can’t you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful?” ― Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

I haven’t loved a book so hard since Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. I never thought a relentlessly dark tale of a prodigy pianist, who so desperately wants to end her life, could be funny. It’s easier to write binary and it’s downright difficult to create balance, and Toews manages to achieve this on a level that is awe-inspiring. The novel centers around sisters, one of whom is a gifted, yet tortured, musician (think: the poet in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Percival in The Waves), and the other the prodigal fuck-up, and how their private, unbinding love is challenged by suicide. In one scene you’re reading about Elf and her latest attempt to take her own life by slashing her wrists and downing bleach, and then you’re somehow laughing at the dark comedy that is this large, disruptive family plagued by a history of depression. As a writer, I often read books on two levels–one for pure enjoyment, entertainment or education and another as a devoted student. I deconstruct structure; I diagram character and tone. I’ll ask, how does he/she achieve what I’m trying to do, and how could I learn from them? While I’m tethered to the darker side of things, I’m feeling the need, especially now, to imbue my work with needed light.

If you don’t mind a book that’s a little heavy (balanced by light), I can’t recommend Toews’s novel enough. Buy it. Now.

I love science fiction. My favorite show of all time is The Twilight Zone, and I think Rod Serling a genius for the stories he imagined and brought to the small screen–most of which were provocative in the late 1950s conservative culture. I loved Stranger Things for the imaginative plot, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s, and after I visited Guillermo Del Toro’s very magical and horrifying LACMA exhibit, I found The Strain and I’m addicted. The story is less sci-fi than apocalyptical and biblical — the world we know plagued by a virus, which we soon learn to be a sophisticated strain of vampirism. This isn’t your staid fangs and capes, rather, Del Toro’s modern day monsters are painstakingly conceived from an evolutionary and biological perspective. And while the story is smart and forward (the catastrophic battle between humans and monsters), the characters grapple with real issues of love and loss.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve become enamored by artists who straddle and redefine form. The Leftovers isn’t just a cable drama about a day when millions of people suddenly disappeared–it’s drama, sci-fi, poetry, all meditating on all the ways in which we define and experience loss. This is why I admire writers like Maggie Nelson, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet and others of their ilk who refused to be confined in a box. A few weeks ago, I shared my new novel’s jacket copy with someone whom I was potentially interested in hiring as a freelance publicist but was disappointed when this person wrote back, oh, this is genre fiction. Let me pause and I say that this argument isn’t about whether I like or don’t like genre fiction (I do, and think genre fiction is hard to pull off, thus warranting so much respect–I wish I had the commitment to pacing and patience that a brilliant mystery novel requires), it’s about having myopic vision. I set out to toy with form–I wanted to write a story rooted in literary fiction (my comfort zone) but have elements of psychological thriller and suspense. I look to Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder as a perfect example of collapsing form. If you read her book jacket, you would say, oh, this is just true crime. While there’s nothing wrong with true crime (Ann Rule’s memoir of her working with Ted Bundy is one of my all-time favorites), that reductionist thinking would’ve ignored what Nelson set out achieve. Her slim book is parts true crime, memoir, poetry, and a private letter between her and her aunt, who died in the hands of a serial killer.

I get that we want to give everything an elevator, fit everything into a neat and tidy box because it’s quick, efficient and easy. However, I admire artists who break tradition, who say, this book, show, or song need not be only this. It could be this and that.

A brief aside: have you noticed that shows have literally gone dark? I already wear glasses. Please don’t make me reach for the flashlight.

In the vein of nodding to people who inspire you, I loved this take on success being defined as how you elevate others. Years ago, I read The Art of War, and now I find it a pile of shit. I’m not interested in Darwinian workplace warfare, rather, I know I win by how I treat others and how I help them rock out in whatever they’re doing. Another way in which you can view success is by how you redefine size. We naturally think that bigger and more is better, a sign of achievement. I have X amount of followers, thus I’m an “influencer”. My home is Y square footage, so that means I’ve “made it”. I don’t subscribe to a McMansion view of life, rather, I’m in step with Mike Birbiglia’s call to play small.

And if you’re not reading Bianca Bass’s wonderful blog, you’re not living your best life. She writes about success and creative work from the millennial perspective–namely, you don’t have to hustle 24/7, rest is a virtue, and her musings call for more meaningful connection beyond fan counts. I’ve grown really tired of being sold to ALL. THE. TIME., so it’s a respite to discover someone’s blog and their writing and not feel trapped by an affiliate link. There are people who still tell stories just to tell them.

Finally, one of the things I’ve learned this year is the need to nurture relationships and be patient. I admired this mother’s lament on how the challenges in her life prevent her from being the kind of friend she knows she can be. I’ve been there (with an unhealthy relationship to my work replacing children), and if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s this: Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Lean on your friends and help when you can.

 

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odds & ends

This Saturday it’ll be a year since I moved to California. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, never needed a car, failed the road test three times because I couldn’t parallel park and then my license expired because why bother? Now I think about all the places I can go if I got a car. I think about geography, a terrain not yet navigated and a year is nothing, a blip because there’s so much about being here left to explore.

I first thought of California when I considered transferring to USC for film/writing during my sophomore year, and for the next fifteen years, I flirted with the idea of moving here. I never did it until I did and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

I don’t think I could’ve gone through the necessary introspection and work had I still lived in Brooklyn because I grew uncomfortably comfortable. I don’t know if I would’ve written a book that finally ends with hope if I still lived in NY. I don’t know if I would’ve been a calmer, quieter, chill person if I still lived in NY. Who knows, right? This journey is far from over and it’s private, strange, wonderful and it requires constant work. There is no taking a day off or sleeping in because nothing frightens me more than going back to that dark country that occupied me in February.

It’s been a relief not documenting as much online as I used to, and although I know I have a book coming out and I have to market it, blah, blah, blah, I don’t believe in doing something unless it makes you bolt out of bed. The strained effort shows and people are smart and they know when you’re phoning it in. I used to be excited about sharing everything, but that edited version of your life comes with costs you hadn’t quite calculated.

What I will say is this. Things are good. Really good. I finally feel settled, at home in all the ways you can think of the word.

I’m on a tear lately when it comes to books, films, art and I’ve been voracious with media. I finally got a LACMA membership because I can’t wait to check out the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, which is so up my alley. After seeing a slew of terrible Netflix movies, I stumbled on a Norwegian tsunami film, The Wave, and it made me wonder why we can’t make films as equally smart and gripping. Why must everything be a remake? Formulaic? The story of a geologist, who aims to save his family from a 300-foot high tsunami that’s been triggered by a rockslide in the quiet village of Geiranger, is tender, smart, thrilling and I’m shocked that I felt transfixed for over 90 minutes without glancing at my phone. The film is that good. Watch it. In striking contrast, I watched the acclaimed documentary, We Come As Friends. Remember Darwin’s Nightmare? This is darker, a deft exploration of how colonialism, war, and business contribute to the exploitation of South Sudan. I also re-watched A Woman Under the Influence after catching a random interview with Gena Rowlands and remembering how much I love watching films about women coming undone.

When it comes to books & articles, I’m reading everything. This piece was an incisive take on the tie between vlogs & anxiety disorder. Speaking of bloggers, this might be the most egregious shill yet–vloggers roll up to a country with the most horrifying human rights violations and document their holiday in… North Korea. What’s next? A guided tour through Syrian refugee camps? It’s true that introverts get hangovers from too much socializing. There have been times when I’ve needed a whole day of solitude to recharge.

My third book features characters across age, race, gender identity and social class, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy to write. This terrific piece outlines the fundamentals of writing “the other”. The best quote was from Junot Diaz, whom I admire:

To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.

Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.

And if we’re getting bookish, this author was a thrilling new find and T.S. Eliot was a total asshole. I read three great books in a row and you need to order them ASAP. Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (not everyone will love this because it’s obtuse, but her writing is ferocious), and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. This, from Jansson’s book, remains with me:   

The worm probably knows that if it comes apart, both halves will start growing separately. Space. But we don’t know how much it hurts. And we don’t know, either, if the worm is afraid it’s going to hurt. But anyway, it does have a feeling that something sharp is getting closer and closer all the time. This is instinct. And I can tell you this much, it’s no fair to say it’s too little, or it only has a digestive canal, and so that’s why it doesn’t hurt. I am sure it does hurt, but maybe only for a second. Now take the smart worm that made itself long and came apart in the middle, that may have been like pulling a tooth, for example, except it didn’t hurt. When it had calmed its nerves, it could tell right away it was shorter, and then it saw the other half right beside it. Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down to the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terribly upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. They they started to think. They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

Finally, I won’t get into politics here because I rant on Twitter enough, but this week’s New Yorker profile on Jared & Ivanka Kushner was fascinating.
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odds & ends

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I’ve spent the past few weeks absorbed in domestic and international politics and it is exhausting. I’m genuinely frightened about the direction our country is headed, and I only hope that people vote en masse come November. I’ve made a point to try not to get too deep into politics over the weekend (I read/watch conservative & liberal publications/media, even though I am a staunch Democrat who will be voting for Hillary Clinton come November), because it only gives me anxiety. Let’s save that for the work week.

I’ve had a hard time coming to this space because I’m not sure what to make of it anymore. Everyone tells me that I have to be everywhere when my book comes out, and although I know this to be true logically, I really love living most of my private life offline. So we’ll see where this goes. I’m having some new friends over for dinner tonight so I’ll definitely share the healthy eats I’m making. Until then, this is what’s going on in my neck of the woods:

READING: For a while, I couldn’t read. I had trouble revising and finishing my third book–a link of connected short stories centered on women in various stages of unrest. The book is meant to be a very loose retelling of The Waves. I finished a draft of the book in two months, which is shocking because I usually have to fork over a pint of blood for every chapter I write. However, when I re-read it after a few months of being on anti-depressants and therapy, for the first time in my life I had to put what I wrote down because it was too dark. When editors told my agent that they love my work but it’s “relentlessly dark”, I laughed it off because I couldn’t see it for what it was without perspective. Dani Shapiro wisely wrote that the “self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it”, and this is true because the now self looks back at the former self and weeps for that version. Wants this version, this book, to be hopeful. I couldn’t read until I finished a new draft of the manuscript, and now that it’s sitting with my agent (fingers crossed), I’m on a tear. I loved, loved, loved, Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands, a story collection steeped in female friendships, self-discovery, infatuation, loss, and disillusionment. I also tore through Heather Havrilesky’s How to Be a Person in the World–a selection of unpublished Ask Polly columns. Heather’s writing is so whip-sharp, self-effacing, empathetic and downright funny. Although I couldn’t relate to some of the columns on mothering (a few I skipped over), I enjoyed how Heather invites us to self-reflect and take stock and accountability in the journey to being our better selves.

These two books were a lovely palate cleanser after I finished Emma Cline’s The Girls, which was good, but not great, and a book from I expected so much more. I was SO EXCITED for this book because I’ve studied cults extensively, read nearly everything on the Manson family (from which the story is very loosely based), and while the writing was stunning, the story fell flat. I’m in the minority on this one and I’m sure there are a million people who would disagree.

I just started Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and I can’t wait to finish it.

Also, reading Bianca Bass’s interview with me (subscribe to her newsletter!), what burnout really means, when anxiety hovers over success, darkening it, taking on social platforms that harbor trolls, and how a self-taught hacker escaped a cult (riveting).  

WATCHING: If you asked me about my favorite movie genre, I will immediately counter with horror and suspense. And I’m not talking about the digital special effects from slasher movies or the ubiquitous, over-the-top gore that’s replaced suspense and nuance, I’m talking about what Hitchcock referred to be as being afraid of the jump. My favorite era was the 1960s-70s where films were created as an antecedent to McCarthyism–a masked being crippling small town America, endangering its citizens and usurping its values (think: Michael Meyers). In recent years, I’ve loved Asian horror because it’s rooted in traditional, mythology and quiet nuance, unlike the slasher bloody gore that’s replaced individuality and intellectualism. Now, all we have is what’s after the jump because we’ve come to know what to expect.

However, I’ve discovered a few films and series that are smart, suspenseful and unsettling. Southbound is what Rod Serling would have conceived had he been alive. It’s a string of five connected vignettes depicting what happens when our most extreme fears play out on a long stretch of endless highway. It also reminds me of the very brilliant House of the Devil.

winona ryder stranger things

If you haven’t watched the Netflix hit, Stranger Things, you need to think about your life choices. Yes, it brings me great joy to see Winona Ryder reinvented (she plays an excellent hysterical mom in a tightly-wound and deftly conceived 8-part miniseries that takes place in the 1980s. Again, we’re transported back to small town America, but, in this case, the plot centers on Ryder’s missing son, who was abducted, we think, by forces from the other side. Is the government harboring secrets (shocker) and conducting experiments that will alter mankind? Who is Eleven, the strange girl who manages to move things with her mind? I love how the thrilling sci-fi aspect of this is balanced by the relationship between three pre-teen boys that reminded me of Stand By Me. The stakes are always raised and the writing is so first-rate that I’m HOPING this gets renewed. An old favorite, Wayward Pines, had a disappointing second season so I pray this doesn’t follow suit.

Not a horror film, but completely worth watching, is Girlfriends, made in 1978. It was one of the rare and bold films at the time that meditated on female friendships and the strain that marriage (and wants) can inflict. I caught this randomly on TCM last night and I stayed up late to watch it. I was born in New York, and I felt nostalgic for a version of the city that wasn’t whitewashed. It was the New York I remember as a child in the 80s–gritty, exciting, and slightly dangerous.

Btw, Black Mirror is coming back in October. Brace yourselves.

DOWNLOADING: If you’re Type A like me and love Instagram (or use it for work), Planoly is an excellent app (there’s a desktop version), which allows you to plan out your feed, schedule posts and analyze the success of them. I’m pretty fixated on photo-editing apps, and I have about 10 on my phone including Color Story, Afterlight, Snapseed, and VSCO.

BUYING: I’m SO over spending a $ on labels. I want quality items that will last forever, and I want them at an affordable cost. This is why I’m shopping at Cuyana, M.Gemi & Armadio.

PLANNING: I am SO excited for my debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, which is coming out next year. I CANNOT WAIT. If you want to interview me for your blog, drop me a line. I’m going to New Zealand come November. Where should I go? I’m primarily hitting the North Island, but I want to check out Queenstown.

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