simple coconut cake

coconut cake

It’s been a while since I’ve made a cake.

Yesterday, I spoke with my agent about a new book I’ve been working on. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a suicidal teenager and travels across the country to witness the girl take her own life. But that wasn’t always the story. I gave my agent a collection of stories about women in various states of unraveling–women in cults, women who have been raped, and women who have the arcane ability to speak from the grave. I started the book last year when I first moved to California and I was surprised how quickly I finished a draft. I sent it to my agent and I could practically feel the trepidation in his response. Unbeknownst to me, I was rapidly unraveling and documenting that decent in a new book. I’d soon fall into a depression–a dark country to which I’m frightened to ever return–and my agent told me to take a break, think about the book and come back to him with something other.

It took nearly nine months for me to look at my work and cringe. What I’d been writing was relentlessly dark, I couldn’t bear to read it. I actually had to physically put the manuscript away and breathe. For years, it was easy for me to access that place, to sit in pain and discomfort, to know there would likely be an escape from it. How do you write about light? How do you write happy endings when darkness is the one thing you know. The only thing that’s never abandoned you.

Yesterday my agent wondered aloud about me as a writer before meds and after meds. Am I different, he wondered. Is it harder to write? I said meds gave me perspective, that not being on them made it dangerously easy to access the darker recesses of myself. But reading all of that now, I’m not sure I even want that imbued in my work. I told Matthew that I wanted to write a book that ended with hope. He laughed. Well, that’s a switch.

I’ve got a gut renovation ahead of me, but I’m excited to write my first book with a clearer head.

But back to the cake.

If you’ve been following me along on Instagram, you’ve seen that I moved apartments this week. I left the beach and the apartment that felt like the in-betweens, a place that held some of my most painful memories, and I’m in a home that finally feels like home. I’ve never lived in a space this big. I’ve never had a home office (I’m typing this in my new office!). Counter space was always precarious, something of which I had to artfully negotiate.

I have a new friend coming over tonight and I’m making her a 4-hour bolognese sauce. But this morning I woke and had the urge to bake a cake. I don’t know if it’s the desire for meditation because this week has been painful and stressful beyond measure. I won’t bother talking about the election on this space because I’m too angry to articulate how and what I feel. Baking worked. I pulled together this simple cake and it is INSANELY moist. I will say that since I don’t have a lot of sugar in my diet the frosting was A LOT. I had to scrape it all off to enjoy the cake. But if you love your sugar rush, this piece of heaven will not disappoint.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Molly on the Range
For the cake
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour (I used gluten-free)
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (I used almond as that’s what I had on hand)
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted but not hot

For the frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp full-fat coconut milk

For assembly
4 oz unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut
fresh berries, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
This cake is insanely simple. Pre-heat the oven to 350 and grease/line an 8-inch cake pan. Add the first 6 dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. In a medium bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry with the mix speed on medium. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Now on to the frosting. Clean out that stand mixer and beat the butter on medium until creamy (you’re using the paddle attachment, fyi). Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the sugar and beat until combined. Slowly, because you don’t want to get sugar all over your face. Beat in the salt, vanilla, and coconut milk. Frost the cake like a rock star and add that shredded coconut like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat a coconut.

cake + sweet loaf recipes

odds & ends

Untitled

“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.

 

book buff foodie finds freelance life + careers

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.
book buff

odds & ends

los angeles

 

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.

book buff foodie finds

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

books

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

my favorite posts of 2015

photo-1449237386841-d30ba36cd1bf (1)

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt

 My favorite writing comes from a place of compulsion. Writers tend to exorcise their obsessions through prose, and every time I’m finished with a project I feel done. I’m in-between writing projects at the moment, awaiting notes from my editor on my second book, and I’m finding it hard to start my new project even though I know what it’ll be (a fictional retelling of Genie: The Feral Child) because I don’t feel what my friend Kira calls “the hot poker pressed up against your back”. Right now I don’t feel much, honestly, so I’m hoping to revisit the words I wrote here that came from a place of verve in order to get some of that verve back.

 1. Some Thoughts on Professional Etiquette Because Some Of You Need It: This morning, I came across an article about how coffee dates kill productivity. Recently, I was duped into a “pick your brain” meeting in the guise of a new business opportunity, and I left the hour drained having given a stranger several ideas and strategies for how they could start their new business venture. As an introvert I rarely get energy from spending time from people, rather the opposite. Often, I leave these coffee dates depleted, energy resources spilled into the person who conveniently forgot to pay for the cappuccino. I remember writing the above post after spending the bulk of my time giving free advice to others. Granted, I think it’s important to be an advisor or mentor to others, however, I also believe in reciprocity and paying my rent and $1,000 monthly student loan bills. In an age when people think it perfectly normal to cancel plans via text message at the last minute, I still believe in etiquette.

2. On Perception and the Delicate Dance of Masks: Scrolling through Instagram last night I paused in front of an image of fingers making air quotes with the words “I’m Fine” in between. I had a conversation with someone recently where I said that how I represent myself is markedly different from my actual self. Curious, he asked how I was different, and I said that I appear mostly put together even when it’s clear I’m falling apart. I say I’m fine so much it’s become a comical refrain, a prayer, and mantra, and this post was one of a few I wrote that attempted to navigate the many masks we sometimes have to bear.

3. Can We Just Be Still for a Moment?: I wrote this post in Nicaragua as I was bearing the weight of a significant loss while deciding whether or not I wanted to leave New York. Often we’re painfully reminded of our need to move, catch up, don’t pause because we need to be at a certain place. Personal velocity is a lauded virtue in an age where idleness is synonymous with laziness, and I wondered aloud about the benefits of simply standing still.

4. New Fiction: Women in Salt: It takes me a long time to write anything that pleases me. And I spent years not writing anything at all. However, in the past three years (specifically, the past three months), I’ve written more than I have in decades. I finished a story collection about various women in and out of peril, and while it sits with my agent I keep returning to this particular story, which is my favorite. When I write I don’t care about plot, rather, I get off on interesting people and seeing where they go. I loved writing in Ava’s voice (I also adored Alice), and I was humbled that so many of you liked this piece too.

5. There’s a Difference Between Feedback + Vitriol: I wrote this piece (and this one in 2014) because I think the word hate is being abused so much it’s starting to lose its meaning. This is hate. Women who face abuse and threats to their person and their family deal with hate. People who are bullied because of their race, sexual orientation, appearance, weight, age deal with hate. However, readers who offer constructive criticism about the way one runs a blog or a business is not a hater. I’m honestly baffled by people who only want to surround themselves with people who hurl praise at them to an unhealthy degree. From teachers, I would hear how I was this gifted writer. From bosses, I would hear about my talents as a leader. I would nod and thank them but then immediately counter with, how could I do better? How could I grow? How could I improve? Feedback is hard to hear, at first, it stings, but it’s knowledge that you could choose or choose not to use. Constructive criticism is different than hate, and I’ve grown increasingly annoyed at how the terms have been conflated, and how bloggers wither and recoil if they’re not told they’re special, perfect snowflakes.

23560415289_b8b86ca48f_z6. The Obligatory Mid-Life Posts: I turned 40 last week and I’ve had a lot of feelings over the year about it. I feel and don’t feel my years if that makes any sense. I am riding the fresh-out-of-fucks tourI made some crazy decisions regarding my career and the importance of a side-hustle learned some stuff, meditated on regret, felt (and still feel) afraid, and realized I’m still learning.

7. Women Who Inspire Me: My friend Arlene awes me with her second and third acts. And meet two women who are really changing the world and breaking ranks.

8. Some Thoughts on Losing Your Best Friend: As you get older, you lose people. Over the past ten years, I’ve lost two very close friends and those losses were devastating. I wrote a bit about losing a best friend.

9. On Publishing + Writing an Experimental Novel: By the time my second book will be published, it’ll be nearly a decade since my first, and my god, so much has changed. I wrote about taking big breaks, finding your voice, and the process of selling a dark novel about a difficult woman.

10. On Marriage, Children + Wearing a Blue Dress: When I graduated college, I thought I would work in investment banking, retire at 30, get married, have children and have a little house in Westchester. Um…things didn’t turn out as planned.

Uncategorized

the pile is always bottomless

tbr pile

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

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

writing the quiet: a taste of my weekly dispatches

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“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.

Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.

This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.

I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.

I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.

I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.

Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:

Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.

In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,

I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.

And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.

I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.

For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.

Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.

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