Thursday, December 29, 2016

The End

Time goes still during the holidays, when I take my place at one end of my parents' couch with a book in my lap and try to to tune out the sound of the TV so I can be in my daddy's company while I read. Between Christmas and New Year's Day I can effectively dodge all responsibilities and ignore email. My only pastime between books is to tentatively poke the edges of resolution-ish thought bubbles and brace my gut against currents of regret for the failures of the year gone by. This, to me, is a successful vacation.

I'm enjoying the synchronicity of the books that have fallen into my hands here at year's ebb. Santa via mom via brought me Moonglow, the new Michael Chabon book. The protagonist is a gruff old man with an engineering mind, and the dominant themes are mortality and legacy. The blind whimsy of a holiday book exchange brought me Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is about basically the same things and the same guy. The book gods want me to make peace with the saturnine, with the collective grandfather, with Chronos. Maybe they're letting me know, "hey, your life could be worse, you could be a dead old man." Touché, book gods, tou-ché.

Some necessary words on one of the best novels of 2016. Moonglow is peak Michael Chabon. It is funny and beautiful, both specific and universal. Chabon is clever, imaginative and virtuosic, but not to the point of stealing focus from the story to shine the light on the author. This is a particularly impressive feat, given that he himself is a character in the story, or maybe this is the key to the effect: the presence of the author character within the text (slightly doofy) is a sleight of hand that distracts the reader from the workings of the master creator shaping the story.

The last book I'll read this year was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Peter John Still, sound designer, mystic, linguist -- a kind, curious, all-the-way-odd duck. His wide-ranging mind has many passions, and I'm fortunate that my interests overlap with his in some fringe territory where few people care to dig in deep. Call this zone of our friendship's Venn diagram "comparative esoteric spiritual poetics". So this book he found is called The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts. This classical scholar from England has re-interpreted the carvings within a particular Egyptian pyramid, refracting new light around our understanding of ancient spiritual belief and practice, the uses of language, the relationship of the word with the natural world, and the associations among humankind's collective identity formations and the cosmos. Let's just say it's not a fast read. Also, with very little reference in my understanding of the subject, it's hard for me to know what of this text is solid scholarship and what is just cool-sounding made-up stuff. But maybe this is an appropriate frame to work within when you're reading a text about religious poetry!

Happy 2017, readers. I hope we all do great things in the coming year, or at least read some great ones.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A month and a half to redeem itself

Okay, 2016.

I surrender.

My life went kablooey and then the country went kablooey. I went from "What the hell am I going to do now?" to "What in the actual hell?"

So, I read one book last month. My husband (recently estranged) had asked for the apartment back after two months of separation wherein he lived on other people's couches. And so I went to live with a friend in the valley, who is a miraculous human being, and put me up for the whole month in an actual guest bedroom with a door and a window and a closet and bed. And a cat even. I mean, this is a quality friend.

I have spent the past three months in a semi-fugue state, where eating and sleeping were either too much or none, not one invoice I issued at my day job was correct the first time, and I had no attention span or ability to focus at all. Reading was not. Only podcasts. Except one book, which was Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl. My host with the guest room and cat also is a writer and he has a fantastic library. And I chose this garbage from his shelves. But it works, because it was basically the book equivalent of junk food that you feel gross for eating and doesn't even taste good, which kind of makes sense given my situation. (note: I am a fan of her show, still, even after reading her dumb book.)

Hope you all are finding your way to the end of this year with books in hand. Let's read as much as we can before they start burning them.

Monday, September 12, 2016

SNL Superfan

14. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
15. Live from New York by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

I'm a lifelong fan of SNL, diehard even in lean years and if I really examine my language patterns, I quote the show unconsciously and regularly. These were my fun vacation books and they were everything I hoped.

Amy Poehler is disarmingly honest about the struggles of midlife as well as what a tough badass she is. She does not wallow but she gets into raw things like a really recent divorce. It's not as funnily written as Bossypants, it has more of a serious tone, but it's in the same category as that--biographic, honest and pretty darn funny.

The backstage gossip of Live is fantastic. What a bunch of dramatic weirdos! Such good stories about every chapter of SNL. The one caveat I will give the book is that the authors are clearly boomers who absolutely worshipped the original cast and think everyone else is a little bit less. So when they insert their personal opinions rather than just letting the cast speak for themselves, it's pretty obviously weakens the book. However, I would highly recommend the book if you like some showbiz inside stories. Great stuff.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Oh hi there. Remember me? I remember you. I come visit and lurk and read about what you’ve been reading. It’s good to see you.

Sometimes in my life I go for long, long periods of time without reading. I don’t like those times, which is why I wanted to do this project. A little ambition. A little accountability. In the past, my not-reading is usually because I get busy and lazy, and in the free time I have I don’t make reading a priority. 

But it’s been weird these past few months, because I’ve really wanted to read. I’ve been reading a lot. A chapter here and there. Or holding a book in my lap and staring past it into the middle distance. Or carrying them in my bag everywhere I go where the only thing that absorbs them is the muscles in my neck and shoulder. But — and it’s a weird feeling and I don’t know how to explain it — it’s like my brain has been too full to fit anything else.  Like the words bounce off my eyes because there are too many other words inside my head to fit anymore.  

So here is what has taken over my brain. It’s personal, but hopefully tastefully so. I just want to share it here, I suppose. My parents got divorced this year after 38 years together. They separated one month and one day after my own wedding, and the divorce was filed the morning after my younger sister got engaged. When you’re little and your parents get divorced, people tell you that your parents love you so much and it’s not your fault. When you’re in your thirties and your parents get divorced, people tell you that you probably saw it coming though, right? 

(Sidebar: I mentioned that to a mentor of mine and he looked me very kindly and earnestly in the eyes and said “Your parents love you so much. It’s not your fault.” and I cried into my coffee.)

And of course there are more terrible things that can happen. Everybody is alive. Everybody is still speaking. But it’s been a lot. And, honestly, it’s been a lot more emotionally challenging than I expected it to be. So I have been grateful for stories and for imaginative worlds to climb into, although those have largely taken the form of TV and movies of late.

Some things that have made it through my brain cloud have been:

  • Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things, a collection of advice columns from her Dear Sugar days. I love Cheryl Strayed, and this book was a perfect nightstand treat. Easy to read in small pieces or long meditative chunks.
  • The BFG for the seven millionth time because Roald Dahl serves the function in my life that the Little House series serves in Jackie’s.
  • One whose title is lost to my brain that was a sort of self-help book for adults whose parents are getting divorced. My husband ordered it for me and I plowed through it on his kindle. It was like reading somebody’s terrible journal, but it was quite literally the only available, still-in-print book of its kind that we could find. It did provide me with a bit of kinship.
  • Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, the perfect primer to my first foray into graphic novels, immediately followed by Alison Bechdel's utterly stunning and perfect Fun Home.
  • All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which was like a beautiful beacon of light. I can only describe my experience like this: Marie-Laure’s father makes her a puzzle box every year for her birthday - a contraption with secret keyholes and twists and invisible seams. In one scene, Marie-Laure solves the puzzle box and finds two chocolates inside. She pops both of them unceremoniously in her mouth at once.  Reading the book was like opening one of Marie-Laure’s father’s puzzle boxes. It felt as though it had been lovingly crafted as a gift just for me. And the chocolate inside is delicious, but almost irrelevant compared to the box itself. It is the box that should be savored; the chocolate can be eaten two at once, ravenously.  I read 530 pages in three days, which is probably the same amount that I’ve read the whole rest of the year combined. It was the best feeling.

I need some new recommendations now. Books that are lyrical and lovely, literarily satisfying but not intellectually dense. Books that are good company. Share away - I value your expertise!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Little House on the Stress Reading

Books 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12/ 50

Farmer Boy
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Hard Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years

I don't really think rereads should count but this will be known as the 12 weeks of my life that were so stressful that a critical release became keeping a Little House book close at hand.

I've read all of them at least six times a piece (if not way more) so I can keep one of these next to the bed and scan a chapter while half asleep. Low commitment reading at it's finest.

Between planning/throwing two fundraisers, submitting three grants, designing two separate products to be delivered at the same time, planning/executing my sister's bachelorette party/bridal shower, actually having the wedding, and traveling cross country in a truck, my brain is a fried egg. Therefore I defer to Laura Ingalls Wilder for comforting chapters about holiday meals, sewing Christmas stockings and the big spelling bee at school.

Simpler times.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer reading

I have just completely lost the plot on this project. I'm not even sure where my book count stands. (There are several I have read and not yet discussed here. In terms of total books read this year, I'm pretty sure I'm on pace, or even ahead of it. In terms of qualifying books, though—since I'm excluding rereads and the books I copyedit for work—I'm laughably behind.) Anyway. I was on a ponderous-history kick through the gray months of early spring, until a book about the Nazi doctors got to be too much. Then I copyedited a bunch of books about business, which is also depressing, in a different way.

Then I found a Judith Krantz book (Princess Daisy) on the Noyes Art Center book exchange shelf, and I picked it up, because a) I was desperate for something light and b) I thought I remembered that one of my artistic heroes, David Foster Wallace, used to include Krantz in his fiction curriculum. (I just looked up that curriculum again. No Krantz. But he did use a lot of commercial fiction in the same vein,, honestly, I can't call this anything except a beach read.) So yeah, objectively, this is ridiculous. There's a polo-star playboy who has a Polish nickname despite being the son of Russian aristocrats (one of whom is herself named Titiana, which...Tatiana? Titania? Nope, we're going with Titty-ana) who retain their fortune during and after the Soviet Revolution. There's a movie star who's discovered in a high school play and has an Oscar within five years. There's a brain-damaged secret twin. There's an evil half-brother whose comeuppance, never fully explained, happens essentially offstage, and whose death, also offstage, may or may not be a suicide, but since he has never shown one whit of remorse it sort of seems like more of a hunting accident. There are elaborate sex scenes between characters you barely hear from again. It's almost defiantly un-literary. The adverbs string you along bafflingly, blindingly, brilliantly, and the metaphors are un-parseable (seriously: they work at a passing glance, but fall to pieces under analysis). And yet I flew through this preposterous thing. Functional escapism. I dunno.

I went from there to Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's goof on the apocalypse. Several blurbs mentioned Douglas Adams, which made me a bit wary (I liked the Hitchhiker's Guide books when I read them as a teenager, but since then I've encountered a lot of wannabe imitators and have learned that there's a certain style of forced absurdity that is just not my thing). Fortunately, though, this is genuinely funny. I suspect there are a lot of people in this group who have already read it, so synopsis isn't necessary, and the revelation that it's funny will be met with a resounding "Duh." I'm curious whether anyone has listened to the audiobook (evidently very well cast); I spent a lot of the book envisioning my ideal cast, particularly for the central angel and demon, both of whom rank among my favorite characters I've encountered in months. I did, in the wake of this group's recent posts, enjoy the nod to 1984 in the closing pages:
And if you want to imagine the future, imagine a, imagine a sneaker, laces training, kicking a pebble; imagine a stick, to poke at interesting things, and throw for a dog that may or may not decide to retrieve it; imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some luckless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human...
Slouching hopefully towards Tadfield...
And just yesterday I read Tom Hart's graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about the sudden, unexplained death of his daughter, just shy of her second birthday. It''s a tough book to put into words, and I expect that if you're the parent of a young child it would be damn near unreadable. It's as raw and honest about grief as anything I've read, using visual language for the moments where words fall down. You want to read it all in one sitting, but at the same time feel as though you should be taking months to process it. I'm certain I'm going to have to come back to this one.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Plane rides and head trips

I went to Canada with my in-laws.
Sounds like the set up for a joke, but it really happened. Anyway, much reading ensued.

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name
This is the second in her four-volume series about the complicated friendship of two women. I read the first one on a friend's recommendation, and then she lent me this second one and I took it because she really liked this series and she said this book was her favorite of the four. I have a hard time getting over Elena Ferrante's style. Remember in creative writing class "show not tell"? Elena Ferrante loves to tell, tell, tell. It gets very monotonous, even when her characters are lively and there's lots of soapy intrigue.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
A short book on the subject of spirituality before, during and after mid-life by a Franciscan priest who has done a lot of comparative inquiry into themes relating to adult developmental psychology across different spiritualities and disciplines. I read it because it was recommended by the founding instructor at the acting studio where I take scene study class. It's a nice little book, and a good reminder of things I've already read in other places -- from Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Jung, Maslow, Pema Chodoron... However, now that I'm deeper into the complexity of mid-life, I have (obviously) a different perspective on the journey, so it was useful and reassuring to come back again to the subject.

C.G. Jung, Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930
A long book of transcripts from classes Jung gave in English to a small group of students. I think it's cool to be able to read someone like Jung without translation, because it seems like so many of these great thinkers use words in very specific ways that get distorted in the translation process. Plus, there's an informality to this text that makes it really accessible. My husband bought this other book by Jung that I just couldn't get into at all because it was so academic.
My therapist comes from a Jungian-influenced school, so he mentioned this book in one of our sessions. Though I don't think there's a "right" way to relate to dreams, I have always been curious about them, and I have had some helpful breakthroughs by sharing my dreams with my therapist, so it was interesting to get some more perspective on Jungian theory and practice. I also often read this book in bed before going to sleep, so the dreams in the book influenced my own dreams, and actually also seem to have influenced my husband's dreams, even though he never opened the book once. Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe there's something to this collective unconscious thing after all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Little House on the Stress Reading

Books 8, 9, 10, 11/ 50

Farmer Boy
By the Shores of Silver Lake
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years

I don't really think rereads should count but this will be known as the 12 weeks of my life that were so stressful that a critical release became keeping a Little House book close at hand. 

I've read all of them at least six times a piece (if not way more) so I can keep one of these next to the bed and scan a chapter while half asleep. Low commitment reading at it's finest. 

Between planning/throwing two fundraisers, submitting three grants, designing two separate products to be delivered at the same time, planning/executing my sister's bachelorette party/bridal shower, actually having the wedding, and traveling cross country in a truck, my brain is a fried egg. Therefore I defer to Laura Ingalls Wilder for comforting chapters about holiday meals, sewing Christmas stockings and the big spelling bee at school.

Simpler times. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Privacy and Publicity

Mid-year through our blog's journey, I find myself having read five (more) books about the gloriously fucked up inner lives of girls and women. So it goes. I'm becoming an expert.

After reading her most recent novel, The Mare, I added Mary Gaitskill to my library list, so now I've read three of her earlier books. (Have I mentioned how amazing the L.A. public library is? Shouts out to the L.A. public library.) Gaitskill writes from the complex interior of feminine shame and desire like no one I've ever read. She traces the outlines of her characters' blind spots with a degree of dispassion that repels sentimentality and an attention to detail that prohibits cliche. It's an intimate experience to read her, particularly because she writes about sexual situations in a way that draws attention to the privacy of the experience of reading itself, and the unique space that is created in the process of meeting a writer in her world to co-create the experience of the story.

Bad Behavior is her first book, a collection of short stories that includes the basis for the film Secretary. For a debut, the voice and perspective are incredibly assured, and her insight into the subtlety of relationships, both between people and within oneself, is deep. Her second book, Two Girls Fat and Thin is a novel that shares a lot of themes and settings with the short stories, but plays with narrative and time in a much more ambitious way, which makes it feel like more than just a long version of what came before. This book also has some of the best-observed "life in New York" passages I've ever read. In these passages Gaitskill manages to distill the epic dance of privacy and publicity, solitude and community, control and chaos, culture and savagery, absurdity and gravity, illusion and disillusionment into a few gestures that say it all. Third, I read Veronica, another novel, ruminative and acidic, without the whispers of hope and heart that made the other books funnier and sadder.

I also read two older books (1962 and 1955) that explore female power and fear in ways that could be considered in the family line of Gaitskill. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a short novel told from the first person point of view of an adolescent girl who's a weird limb of a withering aristocratic family tree being threatened by an increasingly emboldened township of common folk. The story casts an spell of low-grade horror that's both intriguing and unsettling, so you could probably read this book as an allegory for the slow-motion weird-world horror/suspense of adolescence itself.

Bonjour Tristesse is the first novel by a French writer named Francoise Sagan. She wrote it at eighteen, and the subject, writing from the first person about recent events, is not much older. The setting is lush and glamorous with cigarette smoke and salt air and convertibles, so it's a little like Don Draper and daughter in France, but if the daughter was the the one with the Draperish manipulative skill and lack of moral center. Short, summery and linear, it's a commendable beach read.

Friday, May 13, 2016


I was listening to Slate Culture Gabfest which is a podcast that I have deleted from my feed in exasperation several times, but has wormed its snobby, blathery, self-importanty way back into my regular listenership, for now. Anyway, I was listening to this segment about book clubs and the gender-specificity of book clubs -- namely, that they tend to be groups of women. Partly because women (fact) read disproportionately more than men, especially more fiction. So all this made me wonder: what are the personal and social purposes of a book club, and why do women read more? But most of all, why do I read?

What I realized is that the very top reason I read, really, is because I like to go away. A focused reading experience disappears me. (Aside: in the classic and eternal division of people who would choose invisibility vs people who would choose flying, I would choose flying every time.) When I read intently, I lose time, I forget my body. If there is nothing to argue with, assimilate or criticize, my only thoughts are the words on the page. So that's primarily going to be the experience of fiction or memoir. And, treading lightly around the gender police, I believe women have more incentive and more predilection to enjoy being vanished like that.

Speaking of the gender police. Presenting the memoir of Carrie Brownstein (she of Sleater Kinney and Portlandia fame), Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. This is a lean book. Its spareness makes sense coming from a songwriter -- it feels like there's a lot between the lines,  but that it would be uncool to ask for more story than what you're being given. There are parts that are a "just the facts ma'am" reporting of events, and there are parts that feel like a grad student thesis, both of which styles feel like they're designed to keep the reader at a safe distance. Then, too, there are flashes of humor and hints of vulnerability, lines that transmit the best kind of nostalgia, and the wryest kind of remembering. Above all, it was inspiring to read about someone committing to their calling with such grit.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A woman, a girl, her mother and a horse. Color, class, womanhood, desire. This is a book of beautiful voices. It has a horse's trotting pace, as the short chapters bounce among first-person accounts of the story. I loved that Mary Gaitskill took liberties with the interiority of the girl -- she doesn't tell her story like any child that has ever existed, but there is an element of the fairy tale mixed into the bones of this book, and for me it worked. I'm going to add her other novels to my list.

Sunday, April 24, 2016's just about rabbits, right?

Book 7/50 Watership Down by Richard Adams

(Re: 7/50 isn't it weird that you can feel so many ways about a single number? Like, yay, I'm reading significantly more than last year! Boo, I'm not reading nearly as much as I thought I was going to. Who cares about numbers--they are just a silly measure of reading! I care! It's a whirlwind over here)

Anyway, Watership had been on my "Why have so many people I know read this?" list for a long time so I thought I would finally tackle it. I guess some high schools read it and I have to say, I really don't understand why.

The book is entirely too long. I love a beautiful description of the English countryside as much as the next guy, and I was genuinely interested in the politics and culture of rabbits (a feat I realize!). But was this guy being paid by the word? This would have made fantastic novella--tight 120 pages and that thing would be pure gold. Instead it drags for nearly 450 pages.

If you're not familiar, it's the story of a clan of male rabbits who strike out on their own after one of them who has the "sight" predicts a dire tragedy in their warren. They adventure, they face danger and challenge, all good stuff but SO MUCH description of landscape and I'm just like yes, the grass was a golden haze in the sunlight but oh my god are we ever leaving this riverbank or what?

I cannot understand why you would need to read this in high school. Maybe to read a selection that would show you how to write a beautiful setting? If the point is an animal parable that mirrors human government or military, you are way better off reading Animal Farm.

If you are a particular fan of parables or of beautiful English countrysides, this might be in your wheelhouse but while I'm glad I now understand the cultural reference, I can't exactly recommend it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Thanks for nothing, April.

So, I don't know how April is coming to an end already, but with it disappeared my dreams of catching up on my reading. Since I'll be between shows most of May, I'm determined to make up for it then.

I went full force on the transformation theme for March with my first ever self-help book -- You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero.

I'm a fairly optimistic person, but I have terrible anxiety and that gets in the way of living life more often than I would like. I'm also determined to have a successful, fulfilling career in the arts, so any extra encouragement is welcome.

The first draft of this review was very apologetic, but as I reflected on my reading, I realized that that was stupid and the whole point of the book was transformation and a lot of what she said genuinely resonated with me so I’m dropping the baggage here.

Sincero’s approach was very human and light on the cheese. She focused on becoming more optimistic and appreciative of the wonderful life you're living and she has a point. 

“Love yourself.” is the last note in almost every chapter and I don't care who you are, that's good advice. 
Food for thought passages:

“Growth ain’t for weenies…”

“It never cease to amaze me the precious time we spend chasing the squirrels around our brains, playing out our dramas, worrying about unwanted facial hair, seeking adoration, justifying our actions, complaining about slow internet connections, dissecting the lives of idiots, when we are sitting in the middle of a full-blown miracle that is happening right here, right now.
We’re on a planet that somehow knows how to rotate on its axis and follow a defined path while it hurtles through space! Our hearts beat! We can see! We have love, laughter, language, living rooms, computers, compassion, cars, fire, fingernails, flowers, music, medicine, mountains, muffins!”

“When we get so wrapped up in our heads, we miss out on what’s available to us right now in the moment. Stop and notice how you feel right now. Feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Feel the air on your skin. Feel your heart beating. Your eyes seeing. Your ears hearing. Notice the energy inside and outside of you buzzing. Shut off your thoughts and feel your connection to Source. B-r-e-a-t-h-e. Even if you’ve got bone-chilling credit card debts or you haven’t spoken to your mother in six years, right now, in this moment, you can find peace and joy in that which simply is.”

Just Take My Heart
Mary Higgins Clark

I started reading MHC's suspense novels when I was 13 and home sick with pneumonia. I have almost every book she's written in her decades long career--I fell behind a little bit in the last few years. If you're a fan of a book where you at some point think every character is guilty--usually with an Irish Catholic, female protagonist, check her out!  
It had the classic I-know-who-the-killer-is-wait-what-no-he's-the-killer-I-wasn't-expecting-that twist which I think is good for the soul every now and then. It felt a bit too expositional here and there and the ending wasn't my favorite, but the murder investigation element makes me want to be a detective in my next life. 

Friday, April 15, 2016


That thud was me, falling off the wagon pretty hard.

After a solid run of books, and really loving making reading a priority again, I picked up Elena Ferrante's Troubling Love.  It seemed like a double duty slam dunk, with "love" in the title, and a slim little volume to introduce me to this Elena Ferrante dame I've been hearing so much about.

But you guys. I couldn't do it.  I read the first 10 pages about seven times, and then only made it to about 50.  It wasn't clicking with me, in spite of its clear psychological richness and the rich complexity of the characters' relationships. My defeat caused a spiral, and I went about 3 weeks without so much as touching a book.

(Also, I've been reading approximately one metric fuck ton of scripts a week for work, which I'm not counting here, so that might also have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm.)

A birthday gift from my husband, Daily Rituals, helped to reverse the spiral.  It's just a whole bunch of micro-peeks into the daily routines of various writers, composers, artists, etc. I made my own daily ritual of reading a handful of the profiles with my morning tea, which made for a rather satisfying start to the day.  The books is absolutely a "I wrote a blog and got a book deal" set-up, and it totally feels that way.  Also, I grew weary of the endless stream of self-destructive chain smoking white dudes, and would have loved a more diverse cross-section of artists. But it made for good morning popcorn reading, and for that I am grateful.

Next came Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming which was SPECTACULAR and I cannot recommend highly enough. It's a memoir, written entirely through short poems, for upper elementary aged readers. I am now convinced that poetry is the only way that memoirs should be written - the flashes of image, smells, sounds is so perfectly captured in a way that evokes the way that memory actually works. I rejoiced for all the sixth graders who will read this book and feel their lives transforming in a quiet way inside their bones.

Then, Philip Pullman's Clockwork, which I initially checked out from the library thinking it might be a good fit to adapt for a Filament show. It quickly revealed itself to be not-right-for-that, but I tore through it regardless. A dark, twisting yarn-within-a-yarn that includes murderous robots, clockwork hearts, and possibly the devil himself. Although very different from the His Dark Materials trilogy, it has all the Philip Pullman master storyteller hallmarks.  It's a perfect wintery not-quite ghost story for little ones who like to be spooked, or for big ones who like spooky things but don't actually want to be scared.

So it seems that right now I'm only interested in reading literature intended for twelve year olds, so I'm just gonna ride that wave til my reading mojo restores itself.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Wild Girls

After recognizing last month my seriously dark attraction to stories about girls and women being victimized by the awful, awful world, I decided to actively seek antidotes.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
A dear friend stealthily Amazon-gifted this book to me -- it came in the mail unannounced after we had dinner together. It's the first book of a four part series by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, and it's that rare bird of a story that follows a female protagonist and focuses the narrative on her friendship with another female character. How many books can you name that do that? Anne of Green Gables? So this was a refreshing experience, story-wise. The writing itself is direct to the point of bluntness, almost completely unadorned. I'm sure in its native Italian there is more delight in the words, but in translation, I found the pragmatism of the language plodding. Even so, I tore through the book in a weekend, so the world and the characters were compelling enough to drive the novel. I'm not hungry to consume the next three books in the series, but my friend loves them so much I might commit to them.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed
I am a big fan of Cheryl Strayed, a subscriber to her advice podcast Dear Sugar, a follower on social media. I saw the movie first, and I loved it. So it was with an open heart that I finally read this memoir. There is a time not so long ago that I would have been made so uncomfortable by how dopey she was with her embarrassing backpack, irresponsible finances, fully on-display horniness, that I would have thrown this book. But I'm so down with Cheryl's wounded-healer agenda, and am attuned to the courage in her willingness to share her story in all its spectra of humiliation and triumph, humor and heartbreak. And damn can this lady write. She brings everything so brilliantly to the page, wrapping us fully in her interior life and projecting around us 360 degrees of sensory experience. It's intimate, and it's generous, and it fully lived up to my expectations.

Monday, March 21, 2016

6/50 The Handmaiden's Tale

The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Finally. This had been on my list to read for years. Too many friends had shot me a confused look when I said I hadn't read it yet. Because, as so many of you know I'm sure, this is essential reading. This is Huckleberry Finn, Beloved or Great Gatsby level. You need to read it to understand human society, social movements, the cyclical nature of history, and the entire concept of women in society.

However, I'm installing a new rule in my life in response to how I read this book. I blew through the final third of the book from 11pm-2am. The new rule will forever be known as "Don't read terrifying dystopias before sleeping you idiot." Because it will result in some really upsetting dreams and a crushing sense of hopelessness the following day.

So I went to see Deadpool. Cause in order to destroy the patriarchy, it would probably help to have acrobatic battle skills and a dark sense of humor.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

4/50: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Lengthy (and damning) subtitle. Lengthy and damning coverage here, too. The authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, begin with the tobacco companies' well-known efforts to keep the public from understanding the toxic effects of smoking. Even though scientific consensus had existed for a while, the tobacco industry recognized that "uncertainty favors the status quo," so it worked to make the science seem less certain than it actually was. They enlisted a few scientists: not doctors or biologists, as you might expect, but retired physicists who'd spent most of their careers in the Cold War arms race and had therefore become diehard supporters of the free market. Then those scientists enlisted the help of a few sympathetic news outlets. Then other industries realized that they could do the same thing—in many cases, buying the support of the very same scientists. So those guys (Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, and a few others) helped keep the American government from acting on secondhand smoke, acid rain, the ozone holes, and global warming.

This is, as you might suspect, a maddening read. (I actually began last year and had to put it down several times for lengthy cooling-off periods.) There's a lot of blame to go around, of course, and it falls not just on Seitz et al but also on the journalists who were too lazy to examine sources, on the industries that refused to address problems they'd created themselves, and the politicians who allowed themselves to be persuaded by obviously non-objective "facts."

One of my favorite aspects of this account is how thoroughly and effectively it details the modern scientific process for the lay reader (sample passage: "Peer review is a topic that is impossible to make sexy, but it's crucial to understand, because it is what makes science science—and not just a form of opinion"). However, that also makes things get a bit dense in certain paper-trail sections, when one person is refuting an early draft of a paper, but then a newspaper picks up a different draft, but the second reviewer doesn't issue a correction... I think, essentially, that the question with so many of these issues is "How could so many people get it so wrong?" And the authors are to be commended for trying to answer that question as completely as possible. But it could be simplified in places.

The political denial of climate change often just leaves me yelling "WHYYYY? WHYYYY?" And there were sections of the book that gave me the same reaction. Which is why there's a bit near the end that I just want to quote at length:

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn't just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage—real, lasting, pervasive damage. ...To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than [Milton] Friedman's "neighborhood effects." They are "negative externalities": negative because they aren't beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

We all expect to pay for the things we buy—to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits—but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. ...This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues [acid rain, secondhand smoke, etc.] together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them.

"Negative externalities" is not a term I've encountered before, but it's one I needed. I think the American public is confronting it in a very real way with numerous issues right now, as hard-core deregulators poison the water of Flint and keep mortgage bankers from going to jail and work to prevent minimum wage increases. It may be a little too academic-sounding to catch on, which is a pity, because most of these struggles are still playing out, and they involve all of us—whether we want them to or not.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Inner Voice

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida, trans. by  KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

This book first caught my attention because I am a really devoted fan of David Mitchell. But it has the added charm of being a firsthand account of a very particular way of seeing the world that is not often available. It's written by a thirteen-year-old Japanese boy with autism. It's a quick read.

But it reminded me of this fascinating article I read about assisted communication, which I really want to recommend to everyone because it is such a crazy story. This shit is a serious, serious trip. It's so crazy. You have to read it.

March Book Buffet

At first I thought this was a really eclectic assortment of books with nothing in common, but then I realized they are all about women and girls confronting a dangerous, deeply sinister world. So, that's intense.

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll
Spooky scary illustrated short stories! The art is beautifully composed, with subtle but effective detail. One of them, The Nesting Ground, infected my subconscious to the point that I had an actual nightmare. It's about a little orphan girl whose brother's wife is not what she appears to be. One thing I loved about the telling of this story was that it wasn't until midway through that I noticed this very subtle detail that she wears a brace on one leg and has a walking stick -- probably she has had polio -- but it's never actually mentioned in the text.

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne 
My February assignment, turned in just a little bit late! What can I say, it still feels like an assignment to read this book, even though it's an undeniably sturdy classic. One source of resistance for me, I think, is that Hester is just so patient and long-suffering and reformed that she's too much a symbol and not enough of a person.

Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis
This book lives somewhere between an anthology of short stories and a novel. The narrative is loosely hung around the life of Rainey Royal as she matures from precocious preteen to young woman. In some ways, she's written after a stereotype -- damaged artsy seductress -- but the writing here is full of beautiful surprises, humor, fire-branded images, closely observed details, that it all added up to a totally compulsive read.

The Killing Lessons, Saul Black
Before premium cable binge-watching, this kind of genre fiction was the crack du jour. It's a total potboiler of a detective story, but nicely done (if you can stomach seriously disturbing serial-killer-related subject matter.) My husband and I binge watch miniseries like Top of the Lake, True Detective, The Killing, and this book is the exact same formula. Very dark. But thoroughly gripping.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Avid Harry Potter fan that I am, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t yet read this. Go easy on me.

I took comfort in the fact that her voice was the same as it was in HP. It was like she knew how hard it was for the world to read a book she’d written that wasn’t about Harry Potter and wanted to ease us into it with the soothing familiarity of her storytelling.

“The soft purr and hiss of the shower was audible from where Shirley and her rosy reflection say facing each other, savoring the news that seemed still to effervesce in the atmosphere, like bubbling champagne.”

The characters are all members of a small town outside of London where a sudden death has left a vacant seat on its council. Rowling rotates through the various characters and their families through the book, giving us a clear grasp of the goings-on of the townspeople. At first, I had to keep going back to remember which characters were which, but once their connections to each other became clear, it was easier to navigate.  In some ways, it reminds me a show like Desperate Housewives—lots of gossip, lots of secrecy.

Rowling had this beautiful way of knowing just when to switch perspective to the character you’re next most eager to hear about.

It’s a little bit heavy at times—especially in the lives of the current and aspiring council member’s teenage children. I appreciated the realistic ending. Many of the conflicts happening at the start of the novel seemed to mostly resolve themselves, but the damage left behind changed the characters and the course of their lives in a way that felt real and human. I’d like to see where they go from here and that’s not something I often find myself yearning for.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

5/50 Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

This was an unusual read for me; a piece of more hard science fiction than I'm used to. I tend to be more in the Ray Bradbury camp of science fiction that is light on the hard science specifics and much more philosophical about the ethics of technology and progress.

Except that is exactly what this novel is about. The main character is a human that was made into an AI and now is a single consciousness made up of multiple bodies. This consciousness is trying to right a wrong and the mystery of what she is trying to do and why is a compelling reason to pick up the book. The consciousness has several names: Justice of Toren and One Esk.

I would say this novel succeeds in two major ways. First is that the story very subtly completely challenges everything we believe about a gender binary. Characters are not strictly male or female and instead of that issue being biological, it is linguistic. The protagonist moves through different languages that either gender or do not gender things. It's a completely fascinating "feminist" take in that it quietly forces you to see just how male our particular world is.

The second way it succeeds is by forcing you to contend with the idea of multiple consciousnesses in a very relatable way. I can't say that AI is a topic that especially interests me, but the idea of being a multiple body and viewing the world knowing that you are more than a body was fascinating.

This is the first in what is supposed to be a trilogy. I have to be honest and say I don't feel overly compelled to pick up the next book--not because this wasn't exciting and a really stylish experience but because I got a lot out of the premise and I don't know how much more a sequel will offer. But if you are looking for a really interesting story made up of multiple intelligences, revenge and a fascinating culture, I would recommend Ancillary Justice.

Monday, March 7, 2016

3/50: In the Garden of Beasts

Really had trouble putting this one down once I started it. Erik Larson is a compelling storyteller, to say the least. (I keep coming back to one description of a senior Nazi with cheekbones so high and prominent it was like he had golf balls under his skin.) As histories go, this is quite novelistic; it makes no pretense of objectivity and it's following a tiny group of people—one could call them characters, even though they're real-life figures—caught in much larger events.

I think several people in this project have read In the Garden of Beasts already, but for the sake of those who haven't, here's a quick capsule description: This follows the lives of the American ambassador to Berlin and his family, particularly his daughter, in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. It discusses the denial many people felt in the early days of Hitler's power, the way they were convinced that the more level-headed party members would prevail, even as acts of violence became impossible to ignore. It also documents the American anti-Semitism that prevented people in our government from taking actions that might have saved lives; even the ambassador's daughter is at first enthralled by the Nazis and has a romantic dalliance with at least one.

What's really unsettling about this book, though, is reading it at the same time that the news is showing people heil-ing at Trump rallies. There are times when history refuses to stay as firmly in the past as one might wish, and instead becomes (to paraphrase Stephen Dedalus) the nightmare from which we are trying to awake.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Into the Wild

Into the Wild
Jon Krakauer

The structure of the book and the biographical nature wasn’t what I was expecting when I opened it--I assumed that it was a memoir. It’s told in a sort of backwards way, working from his death backwards, but at the same time ends with him in Alaska. The storytelling had a “come full circle” way of ending.
Chapter 4 takes place in places I’ve been on the outskirts of my hometown of Kingman, Arizona. That was cool. The events were taking place a few months before I was born, but I’m the same age now that he is in the book, so that’s a little surreal.

Particularly insightful passages:
“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.”

“It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders; engaging in risky behavior is a rite of passage in our culture no less than in most others. Danger has always held a certain allure. That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war. It can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes.”

There’s a good deal about mountain climbing and adventure that didn’t really interest me. I think if I was a climber or more outdoorsy, it would have appealed to me more. I just don’t think I was the right audience for the story.

EDIT: I'm still thinking about this book weeks later, so on some unconscious level, it did leave an impression on me.