love. life. eat. of the week: the women who rock edition

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Those who follow me on Twitter know that I found the Salinger biopic appalling. I had to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre {the original} as a palate cleanser. I’ve always admired Joyce Maynard, and found her response to a critic, who called her appearance in the film “self-aggrandizing,” the epitome of grace. It was also the finest mic-drop I’ve seen in quite some time. We can all learn from a strong woman who refuses to be silenced, all the while turning out prolific work. Speaking of strong women, I’ve been quite enamored with Petra these days. If you haven’t read her writing, you should. Not only does she write about success, traveling, self-doubt and praise, she also penned a pretty spot-on takedown of Kinfolk and their faux authentic aesthetic. Related, but not, is meeting Denise, a fellow blogger who lives in Singapore and is a pastry chef. She’s coming out with a cookbook, something authentic and true {with tested recipes}, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

While we’re on the subject of writers, my sweet friend Jamie is coming out with a new e-book, Transit Girl, and you need to download it to your device, pronto. As in, while you’re reading this. You can multi-task! My friend Lindsey penned a wonderful piece for Anthology magazine on a pair of fashionable ex-pats living in Paris.

On writing, Cynthia Ozick offers this: “If you’re writing a story and are confused about the end, go back to the beginning.” If you’re itching to write a book or even something small that matters, check out this slew of smart advice. However, if you’re blogging and want to make life easier for your readers, Lynne Knowlton’s sage words are not only hilarious, they’re true. Regarding blogging + writing, there’s been quite some talk on when one should write for free. I struggle with this as both a writer + consultant, someone who routinely gets asked for free advice or hour-long “pick my brain” sessions, which invariably leave me with a longer list of tasks than the person who invited me. My time, experience, and expertise are valuable, and I’m very strategic about when/how I offer assistance gratis. You should be too.

Finally, I wish I had this article this time last year, as I could have needed some wisdom on how to prevent burnout.

a glorious year in books

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Finally, there was time. Even saying that puts me to thinking of that remarkable Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last,” where a very brilliant and fumbling, Burgess Meredith is jubilant after a nuclear bomb explodes because it affords him all the time in the world to read the books he wishes to read, uninterrupted. He’s no longer tethered to a job he doesn’t love, a cruel wife he no longer has to face. But let’s pause there because the ending is a bittersweet one.

This year there was finally time for me to read. When I’m stuck or uninspired, I often get reinvigorated after reading a new book. My perspective and vocabulary widens, and I’m often reminded about the power that words have over us. As a writer, I read for pleasure, but also for analysis. Presently I’m stuck on how to structure the second half of my new novel, and reading Lahiri’s exquisite novel, The Lowland, is giving me ideas.

My only regret is not reading enough of the dead. I used to have this rule, where for every five contemporary books I’d read, I’d have to commit to a classic. With the exception of Nabokov and Faust, I’ve been all new books, all the time, so I’m making it my point in 2014 to resolve that.

In any event, I hope my reading list {29 books read this year, and counting} inspires you.

V. Nabokov’s The Eye | Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything + A Friend of the Family | Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet | Alice Munro’s Dear Life | Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments | Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days | Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem (re-read), The White Album + The Last Thing He Wanted | Paul Harding’s Enon | Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go | Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland | Claire Messud’s The Hunters + The Woman Upstairs | Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special | Goethe’s Faust, Part I | Aimee Bender’s The Color Master | Krys Lee’s Drifting House | Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn | Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In | Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear | Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland | Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians | Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her | Pamela Rychman’s The Stiletto Network | Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself

linguine bolognese + novular concerns

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It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, The dark threw patches down upon me also; The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious; My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? would not people laugh at me? — from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

If you asked me that week in April, when I stood on the shoreline of a beach in Biarritz and looked out into the horizon, watching the waves fold in on one another, what my novel would be about, I would’ve waved you away and said, I’m writing a story about a girl who sets a woman’s hair on fire. And that would be the end of it. Come nightfall, I made it my habit to visit the barnacles. They bound themselves to enormous rocks along the beach. I leaned in and desperately wanted to touch them, wondering if I too would be part of this attachment. I didn’t end up touching the barnacles for fear of infection, but I took photographs of them, watched dozens of videos online, and I didn’t stop to think about why I was fixated on these rather grotesque creatures, I just thought: there’s something here. I just don’t know it yet.

And that’s how I write. It’s instinct. It’s an image broken to pieces and rebuilt in my head. My state is one of constant reconstruction. Of voices and scenes that play out in technicolor, and then I write everything down, and the next day the voices come back and revise all the lines. So that week in France, I thought: I’m writing a book about attachments, about betrayal and hurt, as seen through the lens of two families destroyed by infidelity.

Yet, as soon as I made this novel something, as soon as I tried to define it to someone who had asked, it suddenly became the opposite of what I said it would be. In novels, and in life, I’ve learned that it never is what you intend it to be. The novel, over the course of six months morphed into something demonstrably different. Something I haven’t yet tackled stylistically and formally, but attempting to do so now. I have a few very close and trusted readers, and they’ve prodded me with pitchforks to go on my way, but three characters have emerged from the original seven (I tend to be a character writer rather than a plot writer; I create great people and see what mischief they rustle up), and I can’t stop thinking about them. Their voices are a constant, and I’m now at 100 pages, and finally, the real shape of the book is starting to emerge.

For those of you who are remotely interested in this stuff (because I can go on for days, just ask my non-author friends), I’m attempting to write a book that operates (and needs to succeed) on three levels. There’s the surface story — a family ravaged by an affair and the consequences that unfold as a result, as told through the voices of three broken children, one of whom has psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies. So there’s all this charcoal scenery and movement and things happen, people’s hair gets set on fire, things are torched and people are maimed with tweezers (it’s not that bad).

Then there’s this whole other level, where I’m trying to attribute the voices of folks like Jim Jones and lines of poetry as dialogue, giving yet another distinct layer to the characters and a richer meaning to the kind of people they are, and more importantly, what they thematically represent. In a span of 100 pages, I’ve managed to weave in Don Delillo, Jim Jones, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Carnival of Souls, Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. Not simply as a nod to great work, but as a means to translate and understand these characters via history.

On a final level, I’m trying to create two characters who are mirrors of one another. Not doubles, per se, but an inversion of a self. And the idea here is that I’ve got to make the two selves whole. All roads must converge at the end.

Yet, if you were someone who just opened up the book and read the story and didn’t see all of this, it would be okay. However, if nesting dolls are your thing, this book would be enjoyable too.

I’m home today, recovering from a cold, taking a break from an avalanche of work, and I’m readying this book for partial submission to publishers — my close readers and agent feel that strongly about the potential for this novel, which pleases me enormously. However, I’m not insane in the fact that publishing is a tough business, even more so for experimental fiction, so I’m not getting my hopes up. It would be nice for this book to see light.

Here’s hoping the hand plays out. As a little morsel, something new I just wrote, below:

His pants fell below his ankles as he began to run. James ran to where she left her clothes – paper denim shorts and a shirt embroidered with flowers – and scooped them up and flung them out the window. The rain persisted like a victory, which staunched the blood coming from between her legs. She was behind from where she stood and found herself looking back. She thinks of the smallness of a child’s hands.

They lay in bed, glowing from a single lamp that she kept flicking on and off. The evening descended, piece by piece.

“I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I love you,” Kate said.
“They say it’s better without gloves on.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I heard you fine. You know,” James said. “You’re beautiful in all the right places.”
“What are the wrong places?”
“Ask your mother.”

INGREDIENTS
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 lb ground sirloin
1/2 lb ground pork
1 yellow onion, rough chop
4 cloves garlic, rough chop
2 carrots, rough chop
2 ribs of celery heats, rough chop
1 28-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 15-ounce can organic tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 cups red wine (I tend to use a full-bodied Cabernet)
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs fresh oregano, chopped
3-4 tbsp of sugar, to taste (adjust based on the acidity of your tomatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup basil, torn
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (you can opt to use vegan butter)
1 pound linguine
1/2 cup reserve pasta water

DIRECTIONS
In a large pot (I used my Le Creuset dutch oven), heat olive oil. Make sure you have enough to thinly coat the pan, and that your pan is searing hot. There’s nothing more criminal than boiling beef, so use a large pot and ensure that it’s scorching hot. Once you have the heat of Hades, toss in your meats, flavor with salt and pepper and stir gently with a wooden spoon to break apart the met.

While your meat is browning (5-7 minutes), blitz your mirepoix — onion, carrots, celery — and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. It’s important that all of your veggies are roughly the same size because no one wants a huge hunk of carrot or onion in their pasta bowl. NO ONE.

After your meat has browned on all sides, deglaze the pan with the wine and add your veggie mix. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaf, sugar, water and oregano. Bring all the ingredients to a simmer and taste. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Simmer covered for about 2-4 hours. When the sauce is done, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a hefty pinch of salt to the water then add your pasta. Stir and cook until al dente. Add the pasta to the sauce; be sure to save some pasta water in case you need some. If the sauce is too thick, add the water until the desired consistency.

Remove from heat. Add the butter and basil. Drizzle each serving with some extra olive oil. DIG IN.

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on my bookshelf + some thoughts on writing

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For four years I woke and came home to a blank page. Writing was a failed series of stops and starts, an epileptic fit of random ideas gone nowhere. We write what consumes us, whether we like or it not, and our work is a reflection of what we’re tethered to. Arguably, I could say that I spent four years bound to an idea of a life that I thought I wanted. I had my publishing time. I had my freelance time. Now, it was time to get serious, as they would say. It was time to climb the ranks, have a title for which one could live up to, or any such euphemism for binding yourself to a computer for ten plus hours a day. Living as a barnacle under the undersides of planes and behind the desk, where lunch was what was ordered online. Conversation was the exchange of pleasantries and minor personal effects, but never too personal, mind you, between you and strangers, people whom you’d spent more time than those you loved.

You also write, as I’ve learned, when you have perspective, room to breathe. And in those four years I had neither — I chased what was in front of me, rather than conceiving of what could be beyond me. Beyond the next pitch, deck, meeting, endless and exhausting conference calls.

Honestly, I was worried. This ability I had to put words together in unusual ways felt like it had atrophied. It was a muscle gone slack and weak, and every time I came to the page, I kept saying the same old thing. Kept relying on my certain stock of images. I wrote a younger version of myself in an aged, experienced body, and I couldn’t quite get the two to reconcile. So instead I wrote about food. I wrote short blog posts, told some stories, and called it a day. But I’d soon learn it wasn’t enough. I wanted the shape of people. I wanted their voices in my head, constant, constant, like some sort of metronome. I craved a world that was unlike my own, but familiar in some way so I had my in. I had my compass, I would navigate.

And then there was the issue of the reading, or the lack of it. I used to have a blog where I’d document, over the course of six years, all the books I’d read. I stopped doing this because I went from a woman who voraciously devoured 60 books a year to one or two. My diction wasn’t what it was, I didn’t get inspired, I didn’t have space and time in which to read and learn. I grew irritable and impatient with longer books, because I was taught by society that we like our content succinct, manageable, efficient — like a machine of sorts.

So when I flew to Europe in April, I packed nearly a dozen books and read all of them. I read them on the flight, on the TGV, in the hotel room, on the metro, in the parks, on the beaches, in the many, many restaurants where I took meals. I read, folded down pages, took down words I liked. In the case of Nabokov, I took down words to look up in the dictionary.

And then it came. Like a torrent. I sat in a hotel room in Biarritz, the last leg of my journey, and wrote what would become the thing that consumes me, my new novel, Mammoth. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I let the hand play out and kept typing. Hopeful that the larger narrative would get pried out of my subconscious, and months later, after death, loss, more books, and an awakening, I’ve got a clear direction.

The two halves are now one, and I’m reading and writing more than ever. There are stacks of printed drafts in my living room. Books on the floor, on tables and in my closets. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, and this week I’ve got these four books in play.

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris | Doctor Sleep: A Novel | The Lowland | The Paris Review Book: of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, … and Everything Else in the World Since 1953

new books on my bookshelf

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Yesterday, I spent the day with Julia, an old friend and a luminous spirit. We spent a leisurely afternoon talking about yoga, anatomy, inspiring women and their transformation, living a life of truth, being humble, dismantling the ego, and of all the books we absolutely adored. From nibbling on croissants to strolling through the East Village, our conversation took us to one of my favorite bookstores in the city: McNally Jackson. McNally’s that rare gem of a bookstore that merges a cafe-type atmosphere, sweet baked goods, and the best books you never thought you wanted but absolutely need in your life. While Julia forged friendships and snacked choice magazines, I walked around the bookstore, ravenous, and here you’ll find my loot.

Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (novel) | Kate Christiansen’s Blue Plate Special (food/memoir) | Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus (novel) | Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast (food memoir)

ON MY RADAR. CHOMPING AT THE BIT, ETC.: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland | Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge | Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything | Abby Geni’s The Last Animal | Aimee Bender’s The Color Master | Kathryn Davis’ Duplex | Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters

shelf trophies: books I love, from me to you…

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Joan Didion’s The White Album + Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Everything from Didion’s writing process to water plants and Haight Ashbury, her essays are biting and will propel your own personal velocity | Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her: on adultery, love, heartbreak and the spaces in between | Claire Watkin’s Battleborn: dark, mythic, glorious and severe short stories focusing on the Nevada landscape | Claire Messud’s The Hunters + The Woman Upstairs: a novella and a novel that speaks to brilliant women the verge | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go: a family wrestles with the death of its patriarch | V. Nabokov’s The Eye: what happens after an affair jolts you into the afterlife | Krys Lee’s Drifting House: unflinching and graceful stories centered on the Korean-American experience | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove: magical stories that test your imagination and suspend disbelief | Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments: a meditation on memoir, movie-making and memory | Alice Munro’s Dear Life: this is her final book and it needs no introduction | Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home: how a disturbed interloper interrupts a fragile house | Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family: a swift, enveloping novel centering on the bomb that is the next door neighbor | Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: a graceful meditation on loss |

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hide the matches {new story, second dramatic revision}

Sunset / Woman

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve ever written, you may have noticed that I’m obsessed with time — keeping it, losing it — for its the one thing for which we truly have no dominion. I could say that my fixation of time is directly correlated to my fear of death (so traumatic that thinking about my final moments can easily send me into a real panic attack). Lately, I’ve been meditating on my obsession from a different perspective: the clarity and space that only time has the ability to afford you. And after a considerable amount of thought, I came to this: I’m writing some of the best work I’ve written in my life, but it’s difficult in form and structure, slippery (you can’t catch it, nor do I want you to), odd in my use of language, and dark. It’s not for a wide audience, and while this sort of notion — the sell-ability of a piece of writing — was once so important to me, I’ve come to realize this.

I could give two fucks if this collection doesn’t find a traditional publisher. I could care less if no more than 1,000 people read it. I have no more fucks to give for dumbing down prose and making life easier for the reader. I’m creating what excites me, what I think will excite you, and if you love it, AMAZING. If you hate it and give up, it’s been nice knowing you.

Bravery. Feeling assured. Scary, monstrous things, but I’m all in.

I originally wrote this story and published it on Medium, but after a few reads I found that there was a lot missing. So here, dear readers, is my latest.

Photo credit.

Continue reading “hide the matches {new story, second dramatic revision}”

read until you pass out, read until you can hold the book no more

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While I white-knuckle and practice patience {insert cackles and guffaws} while I await my friend’s opinion of my in-progress story collection, I’ve been devouring books and writing at a frenetic clip. Perhaps making up for lost time? Who’s to say. If I can give you any advice, it would be this: put down your phone and pick up a book. Any book. Just read.

notes in the margins: the interior of a short story

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much one gives. How one can reveal themselves, in measured degrees, in the words they write, the photos the post and the things they choose to share. While much of my writing is personal in this space, I’m extraordinarily guarded. The stories are demonstrably vague, friends are blurred in the pictures — I need it to be this way because part of my world needs to be preserved, protected, and wholly mine. And yet… I struggle with this even amidst the tacit rules I’ve set for myself (e.g. don’t talk about relationships, don’t give the innards of your professional life, don’t get too deep into politics, etc, etc). I tend to be loud online about the things that matter, but I give you a peripheral view rather than painting a whole picture.

But there’s something real in those innards. Of a body turned inside out, exposed. There is some real truth in that worth sharing. There’s truth in the struggle, the unknown and the uncertain. And after attending a panel last night, where I had the privilege of listening to extraordinary food bloggers, editors and businesswomen, did I think of a notion of notes in margins.

On the panel, Faith of The Ktchn offered how much more fascinating it would be for writers to review recipes instead of simply adapting them. Amanda Hesser talked about the thousands of recipes she’d received from readers of The New York Times, and how her readers had made the paper’s recipes their own. Scribbling notes in the margins, as such. I thought about that on my way home, and I was thinking about how interesting it might be to share some of that with you. To bring you the process I go through to write a story — what I read and how I plot out the stories, create images and characters. To bring you the innards of making that pretty salad come to life (the shopping, the cutting, the decoding of the recipe). I’m thinking that all that interior might be worthwhile to share with you.

I’m wondering if you feel the same? Whether it’s the stories I create or the meals I cook, I’d like to show you the interior.

Lately, I’ve been working on a series of stories about two families affected by an affair. On the surface, the rub is adultery, mental illness, but after thinking about these characters I realized I’m writing about hurt — intentional, unintentional, mental and physical, and the domino effect of a hurt, namely, the people who get hurt on the way to the end, those on the periphery, etc. And suddenly the stakes got higher and the stories became interesting in a way they hadn’t been before. I spend hours, literally HOURS, on unpacking images, and in order for me to write five pages I have to immerse myself in art, literature, music to get me there. So as I truck along, I thought it might be helpful to have you take a look at what’s going on in my head.

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Mario Sorrenti’s Draw Blood for Proof for the art and the name. I plan on ripping off this title (or a derivative of it) for a story. It’s raw, visceral, and I like it. | Nick Flynn’s The Re-enactments in understanding fluid novel structures | Goethe’s Faust in using poetry and imagery to ferret out our basest selves — helping me with Jonah, one of my characters | Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs in helping me shape the exterior and interior selves and write rage on the page. Read her great interview here on how she manages this balancing act. | Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem on how to make the small extraordinary and the meaning of white space and repetition | Peter Buchanan-Smith’s singular vision for keeping focus | Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, on repeat. I tend to write to music. Silence freaks me out and too much noise freaks me out, and a song allows me to go under, get deep. And I love this haunting song because it’s the antithesis of what I’m working on. Or so I think. Or, perhaps, it simply allows me to slip deeper into the dark, allows my mind to go places where I’m frightened for it to go to create the characters and words I need to create. | The Shining. I’ve been watching this film since I was five, but the use of mirrors and inversions and repetitions and time manipulation is allowing me to see this movie in a way I hadn’t been, and now it’s even more frightening. My story doesn’t seem time as something that is chronological, rather, it’s a nuisance that must be tended to like a garden. | Photos of the actor, Kyle Gallner, as I think of Jonah as him. It helps to get a picture in your head of the character and he is Jonah. | Interview’s Winona Ryder interview for some reason made me think about her hair, and hair is an odd component to my stories. {don’t ask} | and on it goes…

love.life.eat. of the week: on my bookshelf

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Years ago, for a time, I worked in book publishing. I got the job because I’d edited and published a mildly-successful literary journal, was relatively well-read, and had a way of marketing my non-traditional experience to make my fit into the large house, to which I was applying, a seamless fit. It was 2006, and many in the industry were reticent to approach social, or even understood the seismic shift in how consumers wanted to connect with content. The definition of influence was securing a Times book review, and much of my work was misunderstood or marginalized. But I’d started to notice people on the subway reading books on mechanical devices; I saw how meaningful conversations between passionate readers online not only sparked interest for a book, but cultivated a community we’d only known in book clubs. Towards the end of my tenure, the tide had shifted and publishers sought out my counsel on how to place books in a reader’s virtual lap, but by then I’d changed. As someone who was part of a committee that decided which books to acquire, I was exposed to the more unseemly bits of the business. Books were bought not because of the beauty of the work, but for the means the author had in promoting it. Words like platform and newsletter subscribers were bandied about, and all this time my friends, brilliant writers, struggled to get their manuscripts sold. Tension mounted to the point where the idea of reading a book for pleasure made me violently ill.

Revered since my childhood, books had morphed into a grotesque creature, a changeling, and I abandoned my shelves for months. It would take me two years to wash off the sludge, two years until I could take pleasure in holding a book in my hand.

I say this because for the past three years I haven’t read as much as I wanted to and it was killing me. After twelve hours in the office, if it was a choice between sleep and thumbing through a hardcover, sleep was always the victor. And my poor beloveds gathered dust on the shelves and I frequently skirted conversations with my writerly friends because I was so far removed from the gems that made their way online and in-store.

Until now. Once an ardent devotee of American literary fiction, I’ve noticed that my affection for genre has changed. From reading Going Clear to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the scores of cookbooks and food memoirs clamoring for coveted space on my bookshelves, my book collection has evolved in step with the woman I’m becoming, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So this week’s love.life.eat. will focus on books. Books I’m taking with me to Europe come April. Books I love. Your book recommendations… so, spill it!

Collages

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life | Caitlin Moran’s How to be Woman | Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife: Stories | George Bellows | Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go