spring reading list

spring reading list

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

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

On to the books!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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


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

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

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

new novel

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

show me the goodreads love

follow me into the dark by felicia c. sullivan

Hi, Friends! This is a short note (a plea) for all of my followers to check out my forthcoming novel, Follow Me Into The Dark, on Goodreads. I would be ever so grateful if you marked my novel “Want to Read”. My main character is Ted Bundy with a whisk and I guarantee you a twisted, rollicking ride. The insanity drops on March 2017.

 

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.

 

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.

 

on my shelf

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Cannot the labourers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work. –Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883)

We live in an age where being busy is lauded. Popular thinkers craft lists on how you can cram more into a single day. Others publish books on how to get shit done–how to use technology as a means of saving time because the cruelest crime we could commit would be to squander it. A New Yorker cartoon shows two children negotiating thirty minutes of playtime. Consulting their crammed calendars, they resolve to reshuffle, re-jigger until they can secure a slot two weeks from that day when they can actually breathe. This puts me to thinking of my friends, how we always bemoan that we’re overbooked, double-booked, and maybe I can see you next month for a coffee?

There’s no time.

There was a time when I worked sixteen-hour days. When weeks would pass and my only glimpse of the light was during a midday coffee break, when I’d race down the street to refuel to only sit at my desk and stare at a computer screen. I worked to have my food delivered, my groceries that invariably spoiled, delivered, to have books that went unread, delivered. Over the course of four years I gained 40 pounds and became a lesser version of myself. I was always tired, forever tethered to my phone–I was the one who missed the great moments in my friend’s lives–but you can understand, right? It’s work. I’ve so much to do. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to regard time differently–to balance fast and slow. That spending hours making a meal instead of having it delivered, or going for a walk when I could easily take the subway, meant something. So when a friend recommended Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness–a book published in 2004 but is completely valid now, I set aside the stack and devoted time to understand the danger of mindless speed.

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. He was inspired to research the art of Slow when he read an article about one-minute bedtime stories. For a moment he was excited because he could read his son stories and get back to work fairly quickly, and then he paused and realized he was completely insane for valuing saving time to get away from his child. The book is not an exploration of time but a personal journey for the author to chill out. I think all of us could relate, because who isn’t shocked/not-shocked by Amazon’s Darwinian work culture? Who hasn’t realized that cramming more in has the opposite effect, that at one point we suffer the law of diminishing returns? We’re spent, feeling as if our breath, and everything along with it, has been stolen from our body.

Sometimes I feel weird for living a slower-paced life because everyone around me is about now. Respond to that email now. Put out that client fire now. But it was only when I took a trip with the objective of doing absolutely nothing did I start a novel that two years later would find a publisher. It was only when I put my phone away during time spent with dear friends did I mend broken friendships. And it was only when I sat in a new home, thousands of miles from the place I’ve always called home, did I have the idea of a new story–something strange and dystopian, kind of like “Black Mirror”.

Because I don’t believe anything exists after we pass on. So why not live the best way we know how? I’m done with putting off my happiness for a later date as a means of sacrificing it now because what if there is no later date? A week ago I found out through Facebook that someone I know slightly died. Suddenly, at 35. It’s not fair, I thought. Wrong, I felt. A few days ago I met up with a close friend who shows me a tattoo she had done in remembrance of a friend who died suddenly this summer of a brain aneurysm. A man who was taken too soon from his wife and two children.

My friend’s tattoo reads: There is no time. So I try to follow Paul Jarvis’s advice and stop doing shit I don’t like. Operative word being try.

books

This summer I discovered so many wonderful books. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise is 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. From the moment I read My Happy Life, I was hooked, and what makes her latest book remarkable is the fact that it’s so absurd it’s almost real. Imagine what would happen if you were celebrating the start of a new life with someone amidst greed, television crew, marine biologists, and Japanese web celebrities–all over a few measly mermaids?

I picked up Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper while waiting for my friend Summer. Another marriage, another trip–a 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. Rarely do you hear the whisper of: maybe you’re not enough. Maybe we’re together because we’re terrified of being alone.

“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” — 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? What is true selflessness and altruism? And what happens to a child when they experience their first hurt, what if our parents aren’t as kind as we think they should be, what then? It hurts when someone is unkind to you but in the same measure we’re able to rationalize our unkindness. On Kindness serves up more questions than it delivers answers, and I walked away from it wondering how I could be kinder in my everyday life. Can I stop myself from making snap judgments of people? Am I able to pause and meet someone’s anger with calm and kindness as a means of quelling someone else’s rage.

It occurs to me that this summer I spent a lot of time dissecting marriage of all kinds–from the familial to the friendship (as I believe we are, in a way, bound to those whom we care about even if not in the legal sense). I think about kindness, honesty and kin, and when my friend Molly sent me this article about a woman who discovered, as an adult, that she was half-black, it put me to thinking about how I’m able to reconcile discovering, last year, that I’m part black. While watching “Little White Lie,” I empathized with Lacey’s story, and admired her bravery in bringing out the truth. That’s my hair, I thought. And like Lacey, I often wonder where I fit. How I identify myself. How I define blackness for myself when I’ve always self-identified as white and possibly something other? I’m privileged in the sense that I have so many wonderful friends who have embraced me and offered up advice on how they define blackness for themselves, and how I can find my own way to it. I’m also acutely aware of my white privilege and how that affords me trespass to places where others can’t go. How I can use that to be an ally. More on this soon.

Now that I’m in my new home, I can finally wade my way through the stack. Up next is Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems) because he’s a surgeon with the English language, Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut and Other People (Stories) because her first lines slay, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me because it should be required reading, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion because Joan Didion, and the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series.

What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for what I can add to the stack?

on my bookshelf: reading the dead

books

I’ll let you in on a secret: when I first started the master’s program at Columbia, I felt small. I felt stupid. Here I was surrounded by people who’d attended the finest private schools and the most prestigious of Ivy’s, who were as well-versed in contemporary fiction as in obscure 14th Century poets, and I was a reformed banker who read Bret Easton Ellis and the dead. I felt like an imposter in workshop–how did I get in here?–for the form and structure, the basic architecture of writing, was lost on me. My approach to books and story writing was raw, unfinished, and I was overwhelmed by the gleaming, the seemingly poised and polished.

At 24, I felt behind. I was desperate to catch up.

Over a period of a few years (punctuated by a time when I took leave from the program because my life had spiraled beyond my control), I devoured books at a rate that would only be described as astonishing. W.G. Sebald, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Oliver Sacks, Borges, Rick Moody, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Ian McEwan, Marquez, Nathan Englander, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham–the confluence of the living, and the long and respected dead, overwhelmed me, and for the decade of my 20s I read not because I enjoyed books but because I wanted to appear as learned as my peers. I wanted to fit, blend in. And while I discovered authors who would forever alter the way I view fiction and my approach to writing it (hello, Joan Didion, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gary Lutz), my desires were more from a state of urgency than self-investment.

Giving zero fucks is liberating.

I don’t roll with the “smart set”. I’ve few friends from my time at Columbia and even fewer from my stint in publishing. Now I surround myself with wonderful, strange people who challenge and support me. I no longer want the Knopf deal and the requisite story in The New Yorker (although I wouldn’t kick either out of bed); I’m okay with publishing only a second book in my lifetime while writing on this space. After years of hungering for the world and everything in it, I’m finally content with playing small, yet significant.

I’ve finally returned to the voracious joy of reading books like I’d had when I was younger. I read what pleases me rather than follow the trend of reading the right books, which speaks more to privilege than anything else. Lately, I’ve had to balance planning a major move and life change with a great deal of client work and scheduling all the doctor appointments I’d been ignoring for the past two years, all of which leaves little time for rest. When stress mounts and I have to schedule “me” time, I’m finding that spending time with the dead is comforting.

Over the past few weeks I’ve read Maeve Brennan’s The Rose Garden (I discovered Maeve’s work after reading Spinster, and this remarkable collection reminds me of Cheever and does not disappoint), Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night (I hope to live 10% of her magnificent life), and I’m knee-deep into Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (I found this novel on the street and I love, love, LOVE it). I’m bringing George Eliot with me when I travel to Asia next month, and if I need a break I’ll read a contemporary story that touches on the dead.