life lately

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You could say that the photograph above is an accurate representation of my life lately: frenetic, productive, and often chaotic. When I came home from a work trip a week ago, I felt out of sorts because the home I’d known for the whole of my life suddenly felt like a stranger. Everything in New York had become too loud, too fast, and the glare of cars streaking down Park and the sun rising up from behind tall buildings was entirely too blinding. I made a deliberate choice not to travel this year because, by definition, Los Angeles is new and I’m its tourist and there’s much to see. I promised myself I’d commit to this place, get to know it, and, more importantly, try to make a home and life for myself in a place thousands of miles away from the world, family, and friends I’d built in my prior life. So to say that my quick trip to New York was jarring would be an understatement, and when I boarded my flight back to L.A., I felt relieved in the same way I used to feel about flying into JFK.

I’ll be honest, it’s been hard to come to this space. Even now, even as I type this, I keep looking around my apartment for things to distract me because I don’t know how to explain exactly how I feel. Maybe the word pulled seems appropriate? Pulled away, pulled toward, pulled from? I’m working 70+ hour weeks to save enough money so I won’t be in the position I found myself for the past five months. I’m working to pay down the sizeable debt I’d accumulated during that time, and I’m logging these hours to save enough money to break my lease, move out of my apartment into a little house with a yard so Felix could play. Last week a friend comes over and we’re taking photographs for a client and my friend wonders aloud if I still have my designer shoes and handbags, and she stops herself and asks whether I’ve sold them all. I nod. I have, with no regrets. This week she brings over expensive leather that we don’t end up photographing. Instead, we play with avocados, eggs and rose petals. Instead, we do the thing we never did in New York–stop and see everything. Can I tell you that the best part of my day yesterday was when my friend kept pointing out places in Santa Monica that could serve as a backdrop for our client’s product? Can I tell you that the constant pause gave me joy? Because when you live in a city for a while, you tend to take it for granted. You tend to see less because you’ve already seen it, shapes and colors have already been committed to memory. You find that process to be efficient: see once, log, move on. Rarely do we return to that which we know to see it anew, to rediscover it, to take it less for granted.

Years ago, my yoga teacher told me that the mark of an advanced practitioner was not someone who could kick up into a handstand, rather it was someone who could return to a basics class and re-learn downward facing dog as if it was the first time she encountered the pose.

I haven’t read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in over a decade–it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. I remembered the story only vaguely, on in parts, and when I read it for the first time I didn’t love it as much as I do now.

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I’ve been reading a slew of good, fast books (see above) that were endearing and honest. From a journalist with two decades of experience at Newsweek who’s forced to reinvent his career and work at a cultish start-up to a cookbook author who discovers her husband is having an affair while she’s seven months pregnant to a blogger turned essayist who’s just trying to get through her days without screaming–I felt acutely connected to each narrator in markedly different ways. When I finally came to re-read Murakami’s book, it felt like a clarion call. The dreamlike novel invites you to question your surroundings, it commands you to not get accustomed to the light and it compels you to ferret out the extraordinary from the ordinary.

“But finally, Mr. Wind Up Bird, isn’t that what life is? Aren’t we all trapped in the dark somewhere, and they’ve taken away our food and our water, and we’re slowly dying, little by little.” I laughed. “You’re too young to be so…pessimistic.” I said using the English word. “Pessimistic, pessimistic.” She repeated the English word to herself over and over, and then she looked up at me with a fierce glare. “I’m only sixteen,” she said, “and I don’t know much about the world, but I do know one thing for sure. If I’m pessimistic, then the adults in this world who are not pessimistic are a bunch of idiots.”

When I first read Wind-Up, I liked it but didn’t love it, and it took me a decade to understand the story’s quiet nobility. Much like my life right now the story is fantastic and dull, magical and ordinary. Much like the story’s main character, I’m trying to wade through the confusion and noise to get to the other side.


What I’ve been reading:
What if your mind’s eye was blind?
Amanda Peet on not crossing the Botox line.
What’s really wrong with the “do what you love” narrative.
The new mantra for Indian gurus is social media.
Why not post your failures for the world to see?
Today’s coffee shops are not far off from fraternization 350 years ago.
The uncanny value. Get depressed.

book buff

on my bookshelf: when books are/fail to be a salve

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For the past few months, I’ve been swimming upstream in a sewer. Books have always been my salve, my reprieve from waking life. It was easy to step into someone else’s life when my own became too much to bear. When Mike B. and his crew made me their object of scorn and ridicule in high school, I packed my bookbag with Cheever, Salinger, Hemingway, and Ann Beattie. When I was laid off from a dot.com that blew through $10MM in VC-funding within its first year, I cocooned in my bedroom with Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, and Judy Budnitz. When I learned a great love was sleeping with half of the women in the tri-state area, I pored over biographies penned by Stacy Schiff, Harold Bloom, and Janet Malcolm. I read every biography on Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot I could find.

I write to make sense of the world. I write to create clarity when none exists. I write to get passed, to get through. However, there are times when I can’t find the logic and my life is so dark I can’t see what’s in front of me. Times when grief and sorry become entirely too much to bear. In that disquiet, I turn to my bookshelf and browse. I might re-read a story collection I haven’t read in a decade because I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to remember the plots of the books I read in my 20s–I only recall the generalities of a book, not its innards. I might read poetry because it’s hard (economy of language, the constant reference to other works that make you feel as if you’re falling through a bottomless nesting doll) and a single line could seize me for days.

[As I grow older it occurs to me that I only have vague recollections of all the years that came before, only my romanticized memory of them.]

However, over the past few months, reading has been a challenge. I’ve started nearly a dozen books to only file them back on the shelf. I’ve fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter. And sometimes I’d stand in front of my book thinking that the act of reading is an exercise in futility. A book wasn’t going to change my reality; I didn’t have the time to hide because I had resumes and cover letters to submit, humiliating emails to write.

Perhaps it’s my intensive therapy. Perhaps it’s the meds. Or maybe it’s my desire to climb back from this dark time and fight, but after the hours spent looking for projects and work, reading is a reprieve. Yet, it’s better than staring at a television screen playing out my anxieties to the point where they feel like an inevitable reality. And slowly, I’ve become engaged again–not at the voracious book-a-week clip, but just long enough to read a few chapters and check my email again.

I haven’t read much, but what I’ve read has been exceptional. Let’s hope the oncoming months usher in light and more books worth reading. For now, here are a few book recommendations:

Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot: I’ve been waiting for Samantha Hunt to come out with a new book since I first read The Invention of Everything Else in 2009, and her new novel does not disappoint. The dual-narrative story follows the lives of abandoned orphans Nat and Ruth with Ruth’s pregnant niece, Cora, as they desperately try to piece together some semblance of a family. A modern gothic that plays out varying ways in which one can form a family–cults, religion (replete with faux evangelical Christians), orphanages–when a traditional one fails to materialize. The plot twist at the end is imaginative and unexpected. By far, this is the best book I’ve read this year.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words: I admire Jhumpa Lahiri, an author who takes calculated risks in her work. I’ve read a lot of the criticism of her latest book, which is an odyssey of an infatuation with a language–in Lahiri’s case it’s Italian. Some called it frivolous, an act of privilege played out on the page. Others remarked that In Other Words didn’t have the narrative prowess Lahiri exudes in her prior books, where English was her dominate language. However, I loved it because it was risky not in spite of it. As a writer you can choose to play it safe, to create in your own narrow dominion, or you can fail better. Lahiri’s latest reinforced that sometimes it’s okay to pursue a passion that may not necessarily be pragmatic.

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: I loved this book SO HARD. I have a predilection for books detailing the exploits of the rich and morose, and this story set in 1950s New York and Los Angeles, about the pains of privilege, was downright delicious. The story centers on ambivalent and bored Courtney Farrel, a fifteen-year-old-going-on-thirty-five, who comes of age in the midst of financial ruin (her mother’s an actress whose star is no longer a firmament in the sky), teenage debauchery (think Gossip Girl before cell phones and Instagram). I felt like I was reading Fitzgerald because everyone’s wasted and no one is happy–lost generation, etc. I read this book nearly in one sitting and I’m glad it’s back in print.

Monica Drake’s The Folly of Loving Life: I happened on this story collection by accident. Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post from Drake’s publisher promoting the book, and I instantly bought it. I’m half-way through the book and already it’s one of my favorites. The linked stories set in a non-hipster Portland show characters at their most vulnerable. Broken people determined to find ways to make themselves whole. You follow the journey of a family where the mother is plagued by a vague illness (schizophrenia?) and the father who tends to her at the expense of their two daughters who try to find their place in the world when familial love and stability are missing. From Mexico to empty art museums and college dorm rooms, the despair expressed by the characters is palpable, but there’s a feeling of hope, which has been pulling me through.

Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut & Other Stories: I wanted to love this story collection more than I did. The stories navigate the spectrum of intimacy. From the slut-shamed Princeton-bound woman who cares for her autistic brother amidst the cruelty of her peers to a daughter hauling Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Mexico in hopes of reconnecting with her mother–the stories are sharp and poignant, yet I felt as if there was something missing. I know that sounds vague but I finished the collection content, but not wholly satisfied or as connected to the characters as I wanted to be.

 

book buff

old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.

It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?

Soon I mastered the acronyms:

AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal

Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.

When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.

This morning, I read a remarkable post about a woman who’s made hundreds of friends through social media. Ella Risbridger writes:

We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.

1-lon_HLCqSNYm4G93Xun7cwHer words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.

And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.


Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals

book buff

feeling bookish: when books are your greatest salve

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“What happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.’’ —James Baldwin

 

The thing about depression you’re always losing things even when the losses mount and you feel as if there couldn’t possibly be anything else left to lose. It’s a cruel thief that pilfers through your things in the night and leaves as swiftly as it came with everything that you hold dear. This week, a friend phones me from work and I can feel her sorrow over the line when she tells me that what I’ve been writing lately disturbs her–one post in particular that I’ve since deleted as it caused her, and a good deal of other people in my life, considerable anguish. She pleads with me to return to therapy and that if I were still in New York she would come from me. And I think of her arms as duvets swaddling me, and the first thing I thought was: I’m glad I’m here. It occurred to me then perhaps I purposely moved here to unravel out of the reach of those who love me. It’s a dark thought, but one that haunts me. I feel grateful for the unbelievable support my friends have given me in the past few weeks through calls, texts, emails and loans for therapy that I’m not able to afford on my own. This year has been a harrowing one, to say the least, but it’s taught me a great deal about friendship, kindness, patience and empathy. I haven’t been my best self and now I deeply understand what it feels like to lose your way but want so desperately to climb back. So I’m excited for the comeback tour and even if the road back will prove to be a difficult one.

Books have always been a comfort, a salve for anything that ailed me. When I was small, I read on my fire escape, imagining myself sprawled across the pages I was reading. For a time my surroundings gave way to the scenes and stories playing on in the stack of books I was making my way through and this kind of wandering, this loss, was a welcome one. Lately, reading has posed a challenge. I’ve started half a dozen books to only discard them. I tried to finish A Little Life and fell asleep–not any fault on the author, but rather my ability to shed my existing surroundings for a new one. Instead, I read articles–dozens of them, ever day–in fear of atrophying. Even though I am where I am now, I still want to learn. I continue to be a student.

Last week I came across a fascinating article about Pamela Moore, a writer I’d never heard of, but the tragedy of her and the power of her work has likened her to Sylvia Plath. Moore took her own life at the age of 26 but enjoyed a successful, albeit brief, career when her debut novel, written at 18, caused a sensation. Chocolates for Breakfast reminds me of The Bell Jar, but better. It’s a story of a privileged teenager’s sexual awakening–a precursor to Gossip Girl with the wealth and private parties and oceans of booze. Reading the story doesn’t feel dated even if it was written in the 50s because the rules of wealth, privilege, abandonment and being a teenager rarely change. It’s the first book I’ve been able to read in a long time–one that has managed to sustain my interest, and I’m grateful for these minor victories. Especially on days when I feel like I’m constantly failing.

What’s also made me smile is Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly columnist, who is acerbic, funny, and unafraid to say fuck one too many times. I recently discovered her via Austin Kleon’s email list and streamed her recent Long Form Podcast interview while reading her hilarious essay on writing rituals and routines.

On a more sobering note, these two essays hit close to home. One ponders whether a girlfriend who encouraged her boyfriend’s suicide should be considered his murderer, and a brave series penned by a woman who was formerly homeless and still penalized even though she’s doing everything to get her life back on track. And finally, an astute read on poverty and privilege amidst the smart set–an apt response to Claire Vaye Watkin’s excellent “On Pandering”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and class assumptions. Over the past few months, many people have said the words, “You would never be homeless. It’s just not possible.” Part of me wonders if it’s because I have the privilege of having a few friends who would take me in, lend me their homes, or is it because the assumption that a well-educated, moderately successful white woman (by all appearances, I’m white but I’m part African, Italian, Greek and Finish) couldn’t face peril. I read statistics that tell us the economy is doing better! Unemployment is at an all-time low. But then why am I reading hundreds of status updates and posts about people across race and class who are really struggling. People who made the same money now as when they graduated college, 20-30 years ago. Even my therapist asked about my project lull. I’d been consistently busy for nearly three years but I haven’t worked on a big project since October.

To which I respond, I have no idea.

 

book buff

new fiction: dark matter

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

 

People ask me how I am and say, oh, you know. Dying slowly. I wake and fall asleep to this tedium and the only thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I no longer need to adjust my eyes to the dark because the night is persistent. I am here and I am dead, yet I’m walking. Look at me—a stoplight, a lamppost, an old chair in dire need of upholstery. Turn me on and off like that lamp on the table, and watch as the bulb flickers and fades until one day it flares out.

The night he left, he said cruel things, horrible things you can’t imagine, and he followed me into the shower, photographing me. He took pictures of me crying through the frosted glass, even as I begged him not to. He said you look alive when you’re in pain. When I slept he poured a jar of ants onto my bed and he filmed me when I woke, screaming. He sat on top of me and fanned the camera from left to right. Look at you, Ava. You’re practically ultraviolet. I love watching them crawl all over your face, scurrying in and out of your hair. It was only when I was suffering did I come into color. I was all gray and black light, but that night, with the ants covering me, I was suddenly vermillion, emerald, and actinic blue.

Sometimes I hate myself for missing him. Don’t say his name—don’t even think it. Other times I allow myself to remember how his jaw moved like tectonic plates when he chewed, and his sour breath in my hair. [It starts with a J. Full stutter out—James.] Now all I feel are the crackle of bones beneath my skin. When I close my mouth I taste ashes. My body is a grave.

A year after he left, a woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and my building caught fire. I woke to the alarm blaring and when I reached for the broom to dismantle the thing [the hurt seized you], I smelled smoke. I felt heat rising up all around me, and light beside me. I grabbed my wallet, coat, and keys and made a run for it. Outside my feet curled in the snow. Socks. I’d forgotten them. A week later, a detective stood in the middle of my friend Millie’s apartment, picking up and putting down things as if claiming ownership of them. I was smoking a Newport and pulling at the edges of a skirt that no longer fit. The detective pointed to the smoke and said it was your bed, your cigarette. Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I shook my head. Shrugged. I knew there was a fire, I just didn’t know whom it belonged to. Besides, I was half-awake, drunk [black-out drunk, if you’re being honest], and thought maybe the super cranked up the heat for once. It felt nice to come home to a room where warmth cradled you.

No one pressed charges because the building owner took the insurance money and bought a house in the Keys [lady, you did me a favor; wolf-whistles all down the street], and the detectives had all been pulled in to work on a case of a serial killer who harvested his victims’ organs and left John Donne poems in place of what he had removed. Poor Donne. He never had a chance with that Cockney accent, and with Keats and Shelley fluffing their wigs and feasting on spiced lamb. Writing rich boy poems about how small they were. It reminded me of all my friends who would tell me about their sadness. They would talk about finding themselves lost in a place where cartographers failed to map, and I had to laugh because what they felt was a stopover in small town—a trembling pause in their overly illuminated life—while the dark spaces were my point of origin. They had their dark time while swathed by their money, husbands and families in waiting while I had nothing. So while I don’t understand the serial killer’s nocturnal habits, I understand the poet’s desperation. I understand a man who had to wade his way through an ocean with only a pen while others had ships, first mates, and clear skies.

A week later I flew to Los Angeles.

 

*

 

Will you always be your singular hurt? [Interruption—I am small, like sonnets and the architecture smothers.] Will there exist a time when you are no longer the weight you carry? Tell me, how is it that you’re able to excise so coldly? Was it because the wings you tore off flies made you sad? Observe their paraplegic limbs miming flight with a kind of disquiet—the depths of which only you know. [In contrast, my grief is epic poetry.] Or was it the way you arranged your hair—a fugue of roller-set curls covering a half-mask, your sadness filling the gaps. When it’s calm and the sun blows out, you can make a run for it. But before you go, ask yourself: why did he turn away from you? Was it because you shone too bright? Your eyes take on the quality of black matter and you press them shut in hopes that you can stop the flood, the inevitable tears. Like carp, you surface briefly for air only to plunge into the deep again. You’re wearing that lipstick again [I’ve got a taste for the manufacture and packaging of bruises]: a red slash on your lips against a landscape of bone-white and blue. You are forever covered in wounds.

 

*

 

You are worthless. You’re nothing, but how is that you still take up so much space? Don’t speak to me that way. In what way am I speaking? The way you always speak to me. I don’t want to do this now; my face hurts. How is it that I’m the only one who can feel my bones? Can you please not make me talk right now? I’d prefer to not talk. I’d prefer to pinch the skin on my body until the blood collects until it appears as if I’m bleeding beneath the surface because I am. Bleeding. These are the times when I hate you, immeasurably. Immeasurably? [Raucous laughter, rising to a cackle] Just stop. You’ve never been good at math and you’ve never liked me, James. Sometimes you make me feel like I don’t exist.

You don’t exist, Ava. Haven’t you been listening? I close my eyes and think about my mother—my first country, the only place I inhabited completely. I was a sliver of her continent, part of her main.

Back then, James and I lived in a basement apartment. We couldn’t tell when the sun rose or set. I liked that—the confusion. Sometimes he brought girls home and I’d have to sit and watch as he combed their hair, cut it, and shoved bits of it into my mouth. Swallow, pretty girl, he told me. Get every last bite. After he said, next time, can you wear that dress with the lace sleeves? I hate that dress, it makes me look like a doily. Ava, do you realize how fatuous you sound? A fucking doily? You used to be fun. You used to amuse me and now you’re a walking refugee camp. Can’t you do this one simple thing for me, after everything, everything, I’ve done for you? His voice was an avalanche I was desperate to tumble under. Ava, what’s the problem? If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll get one of those frail girls. Maybe an anorexic—they always have thinning hair and rings around their eyes.

Did you think I was pretty while I was choking on that girl’s hair when you didn’t even stop to get me a glass of water? I remember you. You wrote me a letter on the back of a Chinese take-out menu, and it was about how you spent months watching me. How you followed me to the ocean once. Watched me swim against the waves that were blue, green, salty and cool. You wrote about the pelicans that surrounded me as I sprawled out on the shoreline, my body a ticker tape of hurt desperate to be carried out by the wind and the undertow. And, all this time, I fell in love with a man who wrote me a letter, who delivered evidence of his devotion, and I never stopped to consider its contents. I never found it strange that a stranger was watching me because maybe I was happy just to have been watched. Now I watch what you do to younger versions of me. Take me back to that letter, James. Tell me one nice thing about me. James sighed, and with a scissor, he cut the ends off my hair. Your name is easy to spell, was all he could fathom after three years of being the light that blared over my bed.

What is it that you think you’ve done for me? I want to ask, but I don’t.

 

*

 

When I was ten, my mother took me for lunch in a small luncheonette on Long Island—far from the Jackson Heights apartment in which we lived. The luncheonette stood at the end of a long line of empty stores that flashed For Lease or Going Out of Business signs. We only had to walk a few feet from the train station to view the shack with its peeling green paint and faded Pepsi signs. A placard reminiscent of the 1950s read: Hot coffee and a buttered bagel for $.50! This was the sort of place where everything arrived frozen and left torched. I kept asking why this place, why here, and my mother shook her head and cried out: you’re killing me. Ava. Murder in the first.

Inside, a man sat in a booth tearing apart a blueberry muffin. What had the muffin done to deserve such aggression? I stood behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her small waist as she streaked across the room to the table where he sat. On a giant plate lie the remains of his breakfast—a massacre of berries and cake. The man didn’t eat his food, it was more like he attacked it and took pleasure in surveying the destruction. When I edged into the booth across from him, he pushed his plate toward me and said, have some. I didn’t want a muffin; I wanted a cheeseburger! I’m allergic, I said, to which he responded, the whole or parts of it? The man laughed and proceeded to flick blueberries at my mother who laughed while shielding her face and said, my daughter has a casual relationship with the truth. I’m allergic to all of it, I said.

This is Martin, my mother said by way of introduction. I know that voice, it was the same one she used when she introduced my father to people we didn’t know. It was the voice of intimacy, of possession; this is someone you need to know. This was the voice that would alter the days following this one. What kind of name is Martin? I said. The kind of name you’ll be hearing a lot more of, he replied, adjusting his Marlboro man cap to further obscure his gray eyes. Martin owned a fleet of trucks that ran food deliveries all over Long Island, which I imagined was a leap from my father who owned a grocery store that sold lottery tickets and malt liquor on Elmhurst Blvd. When we were flush, which was rare considering everyone in the neighborhood bought on credit, my father would take us to Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Indian restaurants in the East Village, where I’d stare at the carousel of blinking lights until I passed out. Money didn’t mean luncheonettes in beat-up villages. Money didn’t mean caps that shielded a man’s eyes.

That day I ordered French fries and snapped each one in half and imagined Martin’s bones. I held up a fry and said, with eyes black and cold like certain seas, look how easily you break.

On the ride home, my mother told me she was giving me the choice she never had. I could either come live with her and Martin or remain in Queens with my father because she was done with her primary life. It was as if she’d found Jesus in Martin and was desperate to be reborn. I pictured Martin twitching; I imagined him choking on a mountain of ruined muffins. I remember the way he kissed my mother and how he left her face slick like oil spills. I was ten but I remember feeling lethal. I remember feeling that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be alone with Martin. Safe for him, that is.

That day in the luncheonette I never had my cheeseburger, but I bought one the day my mother lugged two suitcases down five flights of stairs to a taxi that waited outside. I went to McDonald’s and ordered the two cheeseburger meal, and I unwrapped the burgers slowly, delicately, and after I was done, after I’d eaten the meat, drank the cola and devoured the salty fries, I tore off bits of paper and cardboard and tossed them out the window like confetti. When my mother left, my father cried every night in his room for six months straight. I’d hear the guttural wails, his anguish, and whenever I soft-knuckled the door and said, pop are you okay, pop what can I do, he swallowed his cries and said he was fine, just fine, and could I be a good girl and get him a beer out of the fridge? I tucked him into his bed when I was fourteen and made his dinner and combed his hair when I was nineteen, and still he never recovered. The problem with me is that I think people are good, he once said. No one is good, pop. When will you learn this? My father never resumed his former shape, and sometimes I’d ride the subway out to Brighton Beach because only the waves rivaled my anger.

My mother sent postcards from a town called Elmont. Why did she send postcards? Did she consider her abandonment a vacation for which she was long overdue? Whenever I thought my wounds were closing up, she’d find a way to jab her fingers back in. Over the years, I sent her newspaper clippings of murdered women—photographs of necks bruised, eyes gaped wide, and the requisite high school portraits that evoked the emotional refrain of: observe her purity and innocence—until there came a day when the postcards stopped coming. The morning of my high school graduation I mailed her my last clipping. It was the story of a young girl who hung herself from a tree. I remember the lamentation, the pieta practiced by the evening news and mourners. The cries of: she had so much to live for; she left us too soon. They spoke of the child’s suicide as a theft, and everyone—the Home Depot location from which she purchased the rope to her parents for giving her an allowance to purchase said rope—was accountable. I wept sad clown tears.

Underneath the girl’s class photo, I scrawled: After you left me. A decade later, long after I had moved out of my childhood home, my father handed me an envelope and inside were five words that had been written by my mother: I gave you a choice.

 

*

 

My friend Millie phones to warn me that the cannibalistic serial killer has expanded his footprint. Apparently, New York is too cold and dark in the winter, and he’s moved on to sunshine and bones bleached white from the sun. Already he’s gouging hearts and dropping sonnets along the 405. I tell Millie that I’ll take my chances. And besides, odds are James will get to me first. He phones to tell me he’s in L.A. for a thing and would I hook up with him after? James says he wants to make sure I haven’t brought my fire-starter proclivities out west. Would it be rude if he rolls up to my apartment with a fire extinguisher and a condom? I tell him I’m busy, and he says that I’ll come around in a few hours because Ava always comes around. Before I hang up I wonder aloud if he’s the man who’s going around putting innocent women on the menu, and he laughs and says he’s strictly a hair man. Have you kept your hair long, Ava? James asks. His voice is as smooth as mirrors. I can’t see you tonight, James. Even the slightest contact with you will break bones. [Start brewing your detachment; shrink down to fairy size.] You can’t call me anymore.

You’re the saddest little bird, he says. Leave your door unlocked—I’ll come by late.

He’s got cards missing from the deck is all I’m saying, said Millie when she first met James. Your man only just met me and already he’s running his fingers through my hair, and you know how I feel about people touching me, especially my hair. Back then I brushed her off, told her James didn’t know the rules, but she wasn’t buying it. Millie drew an imaginary circle around her body and said, this is my space and you don’t get an all-access pass unless you’re on the guest list. And there he was acting all VIP, practically drop-kicking the bouncers at the door. I told Millie she was being dramatic and she countered with I’m being honest. That man doesn’t know his limits—he doesn’t understand that there are places to which he’s not permitted to go. I don’t know, Ava. Haven’t you grown tired of loving the stampede?

By the way, I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it might upset you. Mission accomplished, I snapped, cutting her off in mid-sentence. No, it’s not about James. It’s about your mother. I saw her the other day holding a little girl’s hand, and the girl looked just like you.

This isn’t news, Millie. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. Later that night in James’s bed I said, tell me you love me. And he turned to me with eyes shuttering and black and said, tell me you love me. He pulled my hair and said, look at you shivering, my little haiku.

A month later I ran into the man who raped me. I don’t know if rape is the right word because his shouting yes was louder than my no, so maybe he never heard my refusal. After, he brought me a glass of cold water and rubbed the sides of my feet. On that day, I saw him I was with James and the man who raped me was bouncing an infant on his knee. The little girl wore a pink puffer jacket and white socks with lace sewn around the ankles, and James smirked when the man, seated across from us, asked of his daughter: so who’s my little girl? The child reached for the man with outstretched arms and all she could say was Daddy. There should be a law against this kind of male blubbering, James said. I opened a book, but didn’t read it, and when the man who raped me reached his spot, he carried his girl gently in his arms and I leaned my head on James’s shoulder and said, that man raped me. James nodded and said he wasn’t surprised.

Before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped cold in front of a photograph that flashed across my television screen. It was the man who raped me and his neck had been cut from ear to ear, and the only reason he was found so quickly was because his daughter was screaming in the back seat. When the police arrived at the scene, they took a photograph of the child and samples for forensics because someone had scrawled, using her father’s blood, the letters N and O on her cheeks. The killer slipped a CD into the car stereo—Nirvana’s Nevermind, which played on repeat until one of the officers on the scene pressed the Stop button.

 

*

 

Who’s the kid that answered the phone—a repeat of me?

I gave you a choice, Ava.

Is that what you gave me, you fucking animal?

I have to hang up now, Ava. I have to go.

Tell me, where does everyone go when they say they have to go?

I have to go, Ava.

Stop saying my name like that…

—Like what?

Like you’re trying hard to remember it.

I have to go.

So go, I said. You little world, that made me so cunningly.

 

*

 

In Los Angeles, there is no rain, only sun, and James slips into bed beside me and bites the back of my neck. I tell him I’m tired and he tells me he’s tired too, so we lay in a kind of half-sleep for hours until the darkness overcomes us and forces our eyes shut. When I wake, he’s gone, but he’s left a note, which reads: I loved you in my own way.

I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes before I turn off the water and sit on the floor with a towel specked with blood. I look at the towel. I look between my legs and I wonder whether this is my blood. Does this blood belong to me? Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I call James and tell him there’s blood on my towel. The line breeds static and James says, you and your convenient memory. You don’t know how much I miss you. Burn the towel in the tub and get some sleep. What happened to the guy who wrote me a love letter on a Chinese take-out menu? James’s pause was measured and pregnant, punctuated the blare of horns on the freeway. I never wrote you a letter, Ava. You wrote me. Don’t you remember?

I burn the towel. I get some sleep. I’m a good girl; I do as I’m told.

 

*

 

I think he’s in my head again, messing things up, I tell Millie over a telephone line. I tell her about the phone call, the bed, and the blood on the towel. After a familiar pregnant pause Millie says, that’s impossible. James wasn’t in L.A. last night. And how do you know this? Because he was with me, but before you freak out it’s not what you think. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking. Ava, listen to me. I’m hanging up the phone, Millie.

I leave James 26 voicemails. He calls back and in a small voice he says, Ava, you gotta stop calling me. I hurl my phone across the room and shout, who’s the haiku now? I’ll see you in time.

I text Millie: I am two fools, I know.

 


This is the latest installment in Ava’s voice, which has been really fun to write. This is a pure first draft, so I’ll likely be making a pile of edits. Check out “Women in Salt” if you’re pining for more. 

 

book buff

the pile is always bottomless

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There will always be books to read. When I was younger there was a thrill in entering Waldenbooks. For hours, I’d get lost in the stacks or find a place in which to hide with my pile of books that I was already in the thick of reading. We didn’t have malls in Brooklyn–King’s Plaza–but nothing significant, and when my family moved to Long Island, malls awed me. They were gleaming and grand, and even though I couldn’t afford anything in the stores I’d still wander through them. They all had that new car smell. Sometimes I’d splurge on an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel, slathered in hot butter or I’d feast on a Johnny Rockets cheeseburger back when I believed Johnny Rockets made a good burger. This was before the world. This was before context and seemingly endless choices. This was when Waldenbooks had the best books.

Back then I didn’t know what a “literary canon” meant. I didn’t know that there were writers you had to read or know. I read what interested me. I read Dostoyevsky alongside Pat Conroy and Alice Eliott Dark. I picked up Ann Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me because the cover put me on pause. It was austere, bleached bone, and somber. I liked Flowers in the Attic and found Flowers for Algernon, and realized that maybe they weren’t so dissimilar. I read all of Ayn Rand until I realized that Ayn Rand was a bucket of crazy even if she knew how to tell a story. What I read was pretty much determined by my reaction to the first page of a book. If I didn’t like the first page or even the first sentence, why bother? I asked cashiers to recommend books based on ones I’d read and enjoyed. I read books mostly written by men because that’s what I read throughout high school and college. I was taught that men wrote the “big books”, the “great stories” while women wrote the quiet ones. It wasn’t until I was 24 and in the writing program at Columbia did I encounter bombastic, brilliant women. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf (and no, I’d never read her work until graduate school), Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and I could go on. Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).

Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).  Until then I didn’t know the disdain that “literary fiction” writers had for genre fiction, the tension between the books that sold well and were reviewed well. I didn’t put too much stock in book reviews because I frequently disagreed with them. I liked books people didn’t like and hated ones people revered. I read what pleased me and it would take me well over a decade to undo the snobbery I had taken for truth. Now I read whatever satisfies me in the present moment and know that a book’s value lies in the way that it gives a certain kind of pleasure to the reader or how it transforms them in some unimaginable way. I read mostly to see the world through someone else’s prism, and I write to make sense of the world in which I exist, a world that is often wonderful, frightening and confusing. I read and write to see what could be done with language, how it could be architecture or surgery.

I’ve read 52 books this year, most of them written by women, many of them poetry collections and children’s books. I love the latter because both genres require a velocity and precision that’s demonstrably absent from other genres. A child has a short attention span so the work of a children’s book lies in both the economy and simplicity of language balanced by story movement and images that transport the child into an imaginative place. People who think children’s books are easy to write are fucking bonkers. I wouldn’t dare because I’d complicate the story in some way or use an image that would send a toddler to psychotherapy. I tend to look at safe objects and wonder how I can make them unsafe or unsettling–if that doesn’t happen on the page for me, I’m not interested in the characters or story. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure, and we stare in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying, Rilke writes in the first of the ten Duino Elegies.

George Saunders says that a real writer makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s kind of a freak. “Uncomfortable moments are not without value…because they make you feel luminous”. And I agree with that. The stories that have remained with me have made me feel unsettled, uncomfortable or uneasy in some way. I cleave to difficult, broken people. I like writing and reading about them.

I’m not blog-famous, and that’s okay. I don’t have a literary community and haven’t found these communities to be particularly inclusive and supportive though I dare say they would say they are all the way to the grave. I find most best-of book lists to be ridiculous because best is merely a subjective reflection of one’s taste and cultural access (or lack thereof). So I think about next year, what I’ll read and write, and I have an urge to re-read the Classics because no one does tragedy and pillaging better than the Ancient Romans and Greeks. I want to read stories that wouldn’t easily slip into my purview (meaning, I have to do the work in finding works in translation, works from POC, those not aligning with a binary gender). I want to read more children’s books and poems because both give me great joy in moments of grave darkness.

In terms of writing, I want to create stories that straddle genres. I love the blurred lines between fiction and non-fiction and the fallibility of memory. I’ve become oddly curious about dark matter and neurology and not sure how that will factor in. I still like my broken, flawed women and will continue to champion dark stories and characters even when the world tells me that they won’t sell, no one will read them. Next year I’d like to collaborate with a visual artist in some way, get better at taking pictures, and allow for different, varied voices in my work. Moreso than I’ve been writing as of late.

Sometimes I think back to those days in the mall, on the floor of Waldenbooks. I think about how much I didn’t know, and even though much has filled the space between that girl then and that woman now, there’s still so much to learn. There’s always so much to know in the brief time we’re able to know it. So this is the work. Always be the student and never posture as a pure teacher.

 

book buff

the whole stretch ahead of you (deliberate randomness)

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Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th

I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?

I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?

Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.

On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:

People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.

I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.

After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.

If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.

Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.

Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.

 


Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

book buff the gathering kind

finally…doughnuts + some happy bits

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For the first time in three months, I had a week where I didn’t want to lie down on the bathroom floor and count the tiles. I consider this progress. I took a few new business calls, cleaned my apartment, submitted a draft manuscript of my new story collection to my agent, I contemplated getting a tree but settled on a string of lights for my patio, read three books, and resumed spending time with old friends + planning new friend dates. Yesterday I went spinning with an old friend and former coworker, and after class, she pulled a doughnut out of her bag and confessed that she got into Santa Monica early just to pick up a Sidecar Doughnut and did I want to stop by for firsts and seconds?

Obviously, we went. And we went hard.

As you know, my love for the doughnut knows no bounds. I remember spending one day on a self-designed doughnut crawl across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and was so cracked out on sugar I was catatonic. And although I can’t go crazy with the gluten (see last year’s plague of burning hives + the steroids that made me hallucinate and vomit into garbage pails in the middle of the night, but I digress), I’ve allowed myself one strong gluten situation a week. It’s usually bread as I’m not into pasta as much as I used to be, and I’m now of the philosophy that if I’m going to hoover a bowl of fettuccine, it better be fresh, homemade, and weep-into-my-bowl good. Yesterday, I savored a cinnamon cake doughnut and made no qualms about accepting free, hot samples, and you need to know that these are the best doughnuts I’ve had in my LIFE. So much so that I’m writing a whole ode to a doughnut joint that has two locations in California.

Real truth.

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I love these doughnuts because they’re yeasty so you’re not getting a heavy cake batter bomb, rather you’re enjoying a light, airy pastry that has a bit of a crunch, but it’s feather-light. The toppings are pretty extraordinary, and the time that my friend and I stopped by in the morning, we saw a guy frying up a huge pan of bacon for one of the doughnut toppings. BLESS. All ingredients are local or organic, and the flavors are thoughtful, ingenious and creative. I tried the huckleberry (with berries straight from Seattle), butter/salt, apple fritter (that tasted like a croissant with an apple caramel glaze!) and a Hawaiian blend that oozed cream.

Tears. If you ever find yourself in Los Angeles, run, don’t walk, to Sidecar. I’m giving you gospel here.

[Cough. Insert segue.]

Tonight I was texting my friend Joanna about our cats and how I tend to abhor home decor books. I used to be into the Shabby Chic aesthetic until I realized I loathe pink and don’t have an interest in frills or antiquing, and most books tend to be poorly written and offer homes/solutions that are unrealistic for my taste and budget. Home decor books occupy a space on my shelf that is barely touched or referenced, and I have a hard time getting rid of my collection because I spent so much damn money on it.

Not so with Anne Sage’s Sage Living. Anne + I have a friend in common, and we’ve traded emails on occasion, but I was really taken with her recent interview–so much so that I paused my home decor book fatwa and ordered her book. Although I couldn’t relate to having the financial support of a family or a spouse (I’ve pretty much been self-sufficient from birth), I do know what it feels like to have your life uprooted and upended and having your art be the thing that pulls you through that dark country. I admired her candor and her willingness to own her privilege, and how she was able to reshape a dark time to create something that would yield joy and a sense of home for others. In her book, she enters rooms across the country and offers a nice cross-section of styles + aesthetics. The owners are not interior designers but people who have made their spaces in a reflection of the lives they desire for themselves. The stories, balanced with Sage’s practical advice, gives the book a warmth and depth that is missing from most home books I’ve encountered. It’s empowered me to revisit my space and re-affirm that it’s my creative sanctuary. It’s re-affirmed my desire for owning nothing extraneous, to only possess only that which is necessary and adored.

On an unrelated note, I snapped this picture next to one of the nine succulents I still own. I’ve been known to kill cacti so the fact that these plants, as well as my floor plant, are still alive is a testament to SOMETHING that’s changed in my life. And sometimes one needs those small reassurances (I’m no longer a cacti killer!) to keep going.

 

 

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book buff california living

all the books I read this year

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2002, from what I remember, was a rough year. I finally recovered from a two-year off + on cocaine addiction, I was still on leave from Columbia and I was in a particularly fragile place. What I do recall is writing a list of 50 things I wanted to do that would focus on creating something instead of destroying everything. That was the year I launched an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook, I got serious about writing my first book, and I absolved to read a book a week. The idea behind this was if I was immersed in great work, I’d create it, and in that first year I read 80 books, and every year since I’ve made a point to document all the books I’ve read in an effort to remember them. The books served as emotional and professional bookmarks, and looking back it was easy to see why I chose the books I did–I was reading stories of people who had journeyed through a similar dark country in which I still waded through.

If I look back on the books I read this year, it becomes clear that I’m desperate for an awakening. All the children’s books represented my relentless pursuit of awe and the non-fiction books were meditations on character, quiet, and solitude–cultivating a fertile ground from which to grow. I have some reading goals for next year (especially after reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay on learning Italian): finding more works-in-translation, reading more from the POC, gay and transgender communities. While I naturally cleave to fiction and stories, I’m making a point to read smart reportage and narrative non-fiction.

So here we go. A snapshot of nearly all the books I read in 2015. I know I left some out (I’m scanning my shelves and I’ll add more as I remember them), but you get the gist. Hope this makes for good reading recommendations!

  1. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Reading Big Magic was a wonderful creative awakening. I fawned over the book here and regaled a former life of book snobbery.
  2. Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness: From Slow food and workouts to alternative medicine and guided meditation to meeting people who huddle across the globe as a means of learning how to sit in a place of calm amidst a storm, Honoré doesn’t rally for a device-free era or for us to pick up and create our own version of Walden, rather he espouses ways in which we can manage pieces of our life in a slower way as a means of deeper connection and a more meaningful quality of life. More here.
  3. Adam Phillip’s On Kindness: While Adam Phillip’s philosophical and historical examination of the history of kindness is slim, it took me nearly a month to complete. Phillips analyzes kindness through the lens of faith, folklore, psychology and literature. Why are we kind? Are we kind merely as a means of serving our own self-interests? More here.
  4. Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation: I read Offill’s elegant novel nearly in one sitting. I once had the honor of having my work included in an anthology she edited with Elissa Schappell, and if that’s the height of my glory (occupying the same page space as Offill), I’m okay with that. Her slim novel was, by far, my favorite book of the year. Never have I read of a marriage come undone with such humor and poetry. She’s a hero for people like me who play in experimental fiction. 
  5. Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems): I read everything that Nick Flynn writes. He’s an artisan of the English language.
  6. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise: A hilarious story about a couple who honeymoons in paradise to soon discover the waters are teeming with mermaids. Millet is a hero of mine because she’s able to draw wry, acerbic women as easily as she is in creating a canvas filled with broken people.
  7. Nell Zink’s The WallcreeperA story of two odd people who trek across Northern Europe examining love, fidelity, friendship, desire–all while transforming into unlikely eco-terrorists. The writing is sharp, crisp and funny. Often times you never get to truly glimpse the innards of a marriage–you believe the life your friends represent–but rarely do we hear about the work.
  8. Nelly Zink’s Mislaid: To be honest, Zink’s second effort fell flat. While the writing was smart, I found the story of a white privileged woman “passing” for black offensive.
  9. Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan DidionI am a Didion fanatic, and while I thought Daugherty’s profile was exhaustively researched, I didn’t come away with feeling as if I learned anything new. Granted, Daughtery was denied access to Didion + her closest friends, so consider this a compilation of everything you wanted to know about Didion in one place.
  10. Cheryl Julia Lee’s We Were Eating Expired Things (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite.
  11. Mayo Martin’s Occupational Hazards (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite.
  12. Krishna Udayasankar’s Objects of Affection (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite, however, I thought Udayasankar’s poems on love and loss to be the finest of the lot.
  13. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge: I stumbled upon this book earlier in the year, and it’s been a while since I’ve read Maugham and I was reminded of his great narrative gifts. Who knew that a story centered around a man in search of life’s meaning in the midst of societal pomp, the aspirational rich, and the culture of conformity would hold such weight in today’s society–one that closely mirrors the one in Maugham’s work.
  14. Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train: I’m going to be honest–I hated Gone Girl, the book (and yes, I realize I’m in the minority). I thought the writing was exhausting and called too much attention to itself. The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, was sharp, smart and engaging–a terrific fast read.
  15. Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Reading Hepola’s incisive book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?). More here.
  16. Marilynne Robinson’s Lila: Robinson is truly magnificent. I never thought I’d love Gilead as much as I did (I’m usually not a fan of pastoral fiction), and I came to Lila with vigor. You met Lila in Gilead, however, Robinson’s latest novel turns its microscope to Lila, juxtaposing her current life of piety and disquiet with her nomadic, violent childhood.
  17. Darrin Strauss’ Half a Life: The fantastic novelist’s memoir of how a single moment (a car accident) shaped the whole of his life.
  18. David Brooks’ The Road to Character: Too bad the man who wrote this book is the complete + utter opposite of the great characters profiled in this book. If you can ignore the fact that David Brooks wrote this, you will enjoy a fascinating compilation of exemplary humans.
  19. Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love (Stories): This collection is astonishing, and I feel privileged to have discovered Bambara’s work. You can get a taste of her work here, but she reminds me of Junot Diaz with more rhythm.
  20. Katherine Heiney’s Single, Carefree, Mellow (Stories): Razor-sharp collection about young women tangled up in love and betrayal.
  21. Anton Chekhov’s Chekhov (Early Stories): I love reading a writer’s early work, a time when they’re finding their voice and developing their signature. While I didn’t love all the stories in the collection, I found myself laughing out loud at Chekhov’s pomp and wit.
  22. Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: I’m still in awe over how a tiny book could have so much impact. From war veterans suffering from PTSD to Leonard Cohen and Buddhist monks, Iyer’s book is a meditation, a sermon that preaches mindfulness and quiet. More here.
  23. Carson Ellis’s Home (Children’s book): I loved this remarkable picture book that imagines all the ways in which one can make a home.
  24. Taro Yashima’s Umbrella (Children’s book): A portrait of patience, Umbrella hones in on a girl who finally has her favorite books and umbrella and can’t wait for a rainy day.
  25. Maeve Brennan’s The Rose Garden (Stories): This deft collection reminds me of Cheever, but better, and does not disappoint.
  26. Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should & Must: Buy this book. The end. How it helped me.
  27. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: I’ve been a long-time fan of Manguso’s poems + memoirs. If you put her in a room with Lydia Millet and Maggie Nelson I might just combust. Her latest is an introspective look at the art of keeping a diary.
  28. Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment: In a really odd way, I sometimes feel this book has the weight equal to the Neopolitan books, and when Ferrante was interviewed she declared Days as one of her best books. The story takes place during a sweltering summer where a woman unravels after her husband leaves her and their children. While the Neopolitan books feel expansive, this one feels claustrophobic–perhaps that’s why I liked it so much?
  29. Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (Children’s book): If you’re looking for a way to explain the complexities of death to a child, I think this book is one of the best ones. A dog and a rat happen upon a “flat rabbit” (dead rabbit) and they try to resolve their loss.
  30. Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time: Although it’s primarily targeted to parents, specifically mothers, on how they can find time and balance, much of the book is applicable to everyone that feels the weight of their calendar and to-do list on their shoulders. Schulte’s shares the effects of stress on our brain and bodies. More here.
  31. Kate Bolick’s Spinster: One of my favorite books of the year. It struck a proverbial chord because I’m tired of women nearing 40 who have to apologize for their independence. More here.
  32. Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See: My god, this book stayed with me months after I read it. I had the same feeling reading this as when I read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old child, you see how an unloved child bears witness to a crumbling, fragile world around him. Buy this book. Preferably now.
  33. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women: An astonishing assembly of women who were on the verge. Interestingly enough, I saw a lot of parallels between this collection and Kate Bolick’s Spinster.
  34. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  35. Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  36. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  37. Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter: I don’t think I’ll ever tire of disquieting stories centered around familial discord. Mind of Winter is part horror story, all anxiety–a day in the life of a woman come undone.
  38. Cary McWilliams’s Southern California: When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I was eager to learn everything I could about California’s history. I bought tons of books and this one, by far, was my favorite.
  39. Sonya Lea’s Wondering Who You Are: The ultimate story of love and devotion, Lea writes honestly (and beautifully) about coping with her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftershocks.
  40. Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels (Stories): I learned of O’Neill’s collection via a short story I read online. The stories are fantastical, smart, and imaginative. I’d say 70% of the collection was terrific with a few bumps along the way. Definitely worth reading if you want stories that transport you.
  41. Mandy Kahn’s Math, Heaven, Time (Poems): I had the great privilege of sharing a stage with Mandy last month. She’s a wonderful lyric poet, and I devoured her collection in one sitting.
  42. Sara Jaffe’s Dryland: For the past month I couldn’t read anything longer than a poem, so I was thrilled that Sara Jaffe’s wonderful novel was a glass of water in the Sahara. This story centers around a teenager coping with the loss of her brother.
  43. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage (Stories): These are characters who “love and hate extravagantly”. I loved this beautifully written collection of real people in peril.
  44. Mac Barnett’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Children’s book): My friend Jason showed me this book when I visited his office and Jason, his coworker and I crowded around a table and read it, aloud. This story–of what is seen and unseen–is perhaps my favorite children’s book of the year.
  45. Ali Wentworth’s Happily Ali After: I’ve had a brutal few months and I want to thank Ali Wentworth for making me laugh out loud. Each chapter is a hilarious meditation on one of those inspirational self-help quotes, and how she brought it (or didn’t) to life. SO worth your purchase.  
  46. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  47. Stacey Levine’s The Girl With Brown Fur (Stories): While I was in Seattle in September, I picked up half a dozen wonderful books and Levine’s feral stories were such a rare find. Levine has often been compared to Kafka in the surreal landscapes she paints and the comparison is an apt + warranted one. I haven’t been this excited since reading Aimee Bender.
  48. Maile Meloy’s Devotion: I just finished this miniature story today and I loved it. Maile is such an incredible storyteller, and she manages to encapsulate hurt, loss and devotion into so few pages.
  49. Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World: If you want to feel the end of the world read this magnificent novel alongside Gold Fame Citrus. After a whirlwind three-month courtship, Jiselle (who’s name in Danish means “to pledge”) marries a pilot who is rarely home and becomes step-mother to his three children. Their idyllic life is anything but, especially with the hovering Phoenix flu (think Contagion).
  50. Claire Vaye Watkin’s Gold Fame Citrus: After reviewing this list it occurs to me that I didn’t include Claire’s terrific first novel. I bought it when I first moved to California and the apocalypse that ensues as a result of the drought is so beautifully rendered, and if The Road and White Noise birthed a miracle baby, this would be it.
  51. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies: Easily one of my favorite books of the year. The hype is well deserved and this book is pure magic from plot to character to vision. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.
book buff

that time I wrote a book in two months

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I wrote a book. I’m in the darkest hours I’ve known and this book came like a torrent. I can’t take on major work projects because I can’t focus, and I can’t tattoo tiny smiles on my face for the people who want me cured, transactional, and normal again–but I can write a book of linked stories that I dare say is better than the novel that I’m set to publish next year. And I wrote 180 good pages, 48,000 words in two months. It took me a lifetime to write my first book, two years on my second, and both endured major surgeries, required backup generators, and defibrillators on standby. This book simply came, effortlessly, and I printed these pages and stared at them thinking, what the fuck is this? Words, illustrations, and photographs surround me on the day I’ve embarked on turning my mental beat around. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this just yet because it’s not visually ready (although the story is there and it’s sound albeit in need of copy-editing), but it’s something that suggests an urgency. It’s something that needs to be doing something. It’s not like anything else I’ve written that requires cooling on a rack. Part of me is nervous about sharing a story collection with my agent without giving him a roofie first because…story collection and book publishing and yawn and fucking yawn some more. Part of me wonders how this project would have taken shape had I had more money, and then I realize I’ve enough saved for rent and the idea of one of these crowdsourcing campaigns feels unseemly, the equivalent to elegant panhandling and if there’s one aspect of my personality that’s stubborn it’s my inability to ask for help because that means I’m beholden to someone. I owe someone something and I honestly hate the idea of art as a card game, art as arbitrage, leverage. Not being beholden means this can be as strange as it needs to be. Part of me is like, fuck it, I’ll publish this whole thing online knowing maybe 5 people will read it. And part of me wonders if that still matters to me. I don’t want what to tell you other than I have this thing and it’s arrived and it’s doing the thing that newborns do–fucking cry to make themselves known, heard, cared for. This isn’t a call for advice, honestly, it’s just an update on the strange happenings going on in my life.

 

Parts of the book are here, here, and here.

book buff