I’m reading at Mercer County Library (Lawrence Branch) with some other area authors next Wednesday. Come support local writers!
I’m reading at Mercer County Library (Lawrence Branch) with some other area authors next Wednesday. Come support local writers!
Things to avoid:
1) Unnecessary adverbs
Example: It’s unnecessary to say your company aims to do something “successfully.” Of course you aim to be successful; no one goes into business hoping to fail.
Another example: listing a series of character traits plus one detail that doesn’t fit and pointing out that it’s “incongruous.” You can delete “incongruous;” the reader should notice that it’s different on their own.
2) Vague adjectives
Phrases like “a handsome man” or “a beautiful landscape” give the reader little information. Handsome/beautiful how? These adjectives are subjective and could mean almost anything. Use specific details to illustrate exactly what you mean.
3) Redundant adjectives
You don’t need to say a “soft velvet hat.” Velvet is soft, so just the words “velvet hat” convey the same image.
4) Name-dropping as a crutch for setting
If you’re writing a book set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you might be tempted to name some restaurants, stores, and famous universities and call it done. While this might impress the casual reader, careful readers who’ve never been to Cambridge won’t know what the city looks, feels, or sounds like. Name-dropping does not replace the harder work of creating vivid setting.
5) Name-dropping as a crutch for profundity
Various books and short stories allude to well-known literary works and authors. Sometimes they do it with a brazen title, sometimes a coy but obvious reference within the text. The name-dropper usually suffers by comparison.
One of my favorite ways to buy books — besides indie book stores with used sections, of course — is at library book sales. If you go on the last day or two of the sale, you can load up on books for amazing prices. I found a couple of sales where the books were going for $5 a bag and came back with lots of treasures.
Video: Trash in the Delaware Canal
Trash is an environmental crisis. Every day we use and throw out products that are designed to be convenient. That packaging lasts for hundreds of years. For instance, consider your everyday squeezable plastic hand lotion bottle. It won’t biodegrade, and you can’t recycle it.
Even products that are supposedly recyclable often aren’t. Plastic can’t be recycled if it’s contaminated with food or other substances. And the energy required to recycle plastic is sometimes more than it takes to produce new plastic.
The only real answer is to reduce the trash we’re producing in the first place. Because most products are designed to be “convenient” and “disposable,” this can be challenging. But there are easy changes you can make to reduce your trash stream right away. Inspired by people who have achieved a zero waste lifestyle, I’ve decided to make a serious effort to reduce my trash. Here are the steps I’ve taken so far:
Cling wrap and ziplock bags >> glass tupperware. A pretty easy switch.
Plastic disposable razors >> stainless steel safety razor. Honestly, this new razor looks sort of intimidating, but once I learn to use it, it will be less expensive and much less wasteful.
Paper napkins >> cloth napkins. Found some brown washable cotton napkins on clearance at Michael’s, and they have worked great.
Windex >> white vinegar. Vinegar, surprisingly, works just as well to clean glass when rubbed with a rag–the vinegar still comes in a plastic tub, but it’s somewhat more plastic-efficient than the Windex.
Dental floss in plastic >> dental floss in cardboard
Plastic toothbrush >> bamboo toothbrush. I bought the bamboo toothbrush on Amazon and haven’t tried it yet. Some would argue that buying a toothbrush on Amazon, with shipping involved, is equivalent to or worse than the plastic. However, I’m guessing that plastic toothbrushes also get shipped from somewhere far away–when you buy them at CVS, the closeness is an illusion. At least the bamboo toothbrush doesn’t last forever. It would be interesting and helpful if someone did a lifecycle assessment of both toothbrushes.
For products where there are container options, I try to choose the more recyclable option. For instance, this plastic wasabi tube isn’t recyclable, but the metal container is. No more plastic wasabi tubes.
I started shopping at a bulk food store. It’s a health food/eco-friendly store where you can bring your own container, have it weighed, and use it to stock up on bulk food. They have a selection of dry goods, snacks, and some liquids like oil and maple syrup. It’s slightly more expensive than a typical grocery store, but I think the reduction in packaging–and supporting an eco-friendly business–is worth it. However, realistically, I cannot afford some of the products, like their produce and hand soap. This is one frustration of trying to be an eco-friendly shopper: because these products aren’t mainstream (and not currently produced at large scale), they can be more expensive.
I also signed up for a TerraCycle program to mail in my toothpaste containers and remaining dental floss containers and toothbrushes.
And, because I live in an apartment without a private yard, I started attempting to compost with worms in a bin.
These are the changes that have been mostly painless to make. Getting to the next level might be harder and will take more strategizing.
Last week I read an excerpt from my novel-in-progress at the Philadelphia Stories Winter 2018 issue launch party. I had a great time–I’ve been working on this project for a while, and it was exciting to finally share a little piece of it. It was also wonderful to meet other writers, artists, and literature lovers from the area!
Read 68 books this year. I’m recommending 44 of them. Audiobooks are critical. Between work, graduate school, and writing a novel, I don’t really have time to sit down and read. I’m also worried about straining my eyes, since I already stare at computers and paper so much. I still read the occasional print book that I can’t find on audiobook (like titles from smaller presses, such as Jillian). But I read many of these books in audiobook format. It’s the perfect multitasking tool. You can read when driving, cooking, cleaning…thereby making those activities feel less like a waste of time.
Update 12/18: Added The High Cost of Free Parking, The Likeness, The Secret Place, Broken Harbor
Update 1/15: Added In the Woods, Garbology, and Hesiod’s The Works and Days. 2017 List Complete.
Megan Abbott. Dare Me (reread), 2013. The End of Everything (reread), 2012. Twisted crime fiction, written beautifully. What more could a reader want? Dare Me is a cheerleader murder mystery. In The End of Everything, the narrator’s best friend is kidnapped, and she tries to solve the crime.
M.T. Anderson. Feed (reread). 2002. Besides Oryx and Crake and 1984, this is the most disturbing and insightful (disturbing because insightful) dystopia I have read. In this novel, teenagers have the internet implanted in their brains. When they’re hacked during an excursion to the moon, the consequences are severe. M.T. Anderson is an astute observer of the effects of internet, advertising, and constant entertainment on our minds. See also: Amusing Ourselves to Death (below).
Margaret Atwood. Cat’s Eye (reread). 1998. A detailed and fascinating account of a Canadian childhood in the 1940s. One of the most striking aspects of this book is its scrutiny of bullying and its effect on the narrator.
A.S. Byatt. Possession. 1991. A novel of academics and literary sleuthing. When a young scholar discovers a famous poet’s letters to an unidentified lover, it sets off a string of startling revelations. As a writer, I admired the novel’s technical virtuosity. Byatt writes not only the main story, but also textbook chapters, poems, letters, etc. spanning several voices and styles.
Halle Butler. Jillian. 2015. Besides the excitement of seeing a 5 Under 35 winner come from a small press (Curbside Splendor), I absolutely loved this. Being in your 20s is supposed to be fun, or at least that’s what people say. Hilarious and cynical, Butler perfectly captures the unfun aspects, like being poor and unsuccessful. The narrator is a depressed, jerky young woman, and there is something so utterly satisfying about seeing this represented in literature. Bonus points for hating on the kind of people who don’t understand other people’s unhappiness.
Jonathan Dee. The Privileges (reread). 2010. A carefully observed, wonderfully written, deliciously voyeuristic novel about the lives of the wealthy.
George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. Eliot brilliantly examines the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of a woman who doesn’t fit with societal conventions. More than that, it’s a novel about family, a subject Eliot treats with compassion and warmth. She’s simply one of the best novelists in the English language, writing with incredible intelligence, wisdom, and generosity.
Tana French. The Trespasser, 2017. The Likeness, 2009 (reread). Broken Harbor, 2013 (reread). The Secret Place, 2015 (reread). In the Woods, 2007 (reread). In The Trespasser, a female detective has to solve a murder case while enduring harassment from her colleagues. The Secret Place is a boarding school murder mystery featuring bratty teenage girls. Broken Harbor is a murder mystery set in a hauntingly abandoned development after the financial crash of 2008. In The Likeness, a detective infiltrates the secret lives of a murder victim’s friends. Tana French is an expert at writing dark and twisty mysteries, while also going deep into character and setting.
Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Mary Katherine lives in an isolated house with only her sister and uncle, keeping separate from the village ever since the suspicious poisoning of several of her family members. When a cousin comes to visit, their carefully ordered existence is cast into disarray. Notable for the delightfully weird and creepy narrator.
Stephen King. The Shining (reread). 1977. One of the most perfectly creepy books I’ve encountered so far. Don’t let the movie fool you–it’s a lot more than a bunch of tawdry scare scenes. The book unfolds slowly, with much psychological depth and backstory behind Jack’s gradual unraveling. King is masterful at making unexpected things frightening. One of the scariest parts of the novel is when Danny tries to walk past a fire extinguisher–an ordinary object that becomes sinister in King’s hands.
Jean Hanff Korelitz. Admission. 2009. Like The Privileges, this one perhaps belongs in the voyeurism category. It deals with a cycle in the life of a Princeton admissions officer. An entertaining read, if you’re into campus novels.
Elizabeth Kostova. The Historian. 2009. An upscale vampire novel involving academics and lots of gorgeous libraries. In a nice shout-out to Dracula, it’s in epistolary format. An entertaining read.
Ron MacLean. Headlong. 2013. MacLean’s novel follows a journalist and a troubled teen during the Occupy protests (to be exact, a movement very similar to Occupy). MacLean has keen observations about the political climate in Boston at the time, and he does a great job exploring the nuances of how political sentiments change with our age.
Haruki Murakami. Sputnik Sweetheart (reread). 2002. A short, bittersweet novel with the dreamy surrealism that Murakami fans love.
George Saunders. Tenth of December. 2014. Saunders is notable for his distinctive voice, focus on working life, and all-around excellence as a story writer. I’m sure other people have said more eloquent things about him.
Sarah Smith. Chasing Shakespeares. 2004. Two very different graduate students think they’ve stumbled upon a Shakespeare conspiracy. Fun and fast-paced.
Zadie Smith. Swing Time. 2017. A friendship between two girls who want to be dancers changes over time. A fast-paced, interesting story with nuanced observations about race, politics, and celebrity.
Donna Tartt. The Secret History (reread). 1992. A pack of pretentious college students plot to murder one of their friends. Aside from the wonderfully melodramatic plot, Tartt writes some of my favorite sentences–she’s a keen observer of detail, dialogue, and character. Her writing is beautiful and specific. She also assembles a vivid cast of secondary characters. If you like campus novels, don’t miss this one.
Weike Wang. Chemistry. 2017. Wang was a 5 Under 35 winner this year. An unnamed PhD student in chemistry narrates her unraveling science career and relationship. The point of view is enjoyable for its take on a specialized subject matter
Sari Wilson. Girl Through Glass. 2017. A look at the world of ballet, with much fascinating professional detail.
Tobias Wolff. Old School. 2004. A young writer learns his craft while attending a fancy private school–and eventually tries to succeed by cheating. Wolff makes the daring choice of writing scenes featuring real writers, and he nails it.
Hester Young. The Gates of Evangeline, 2016. The Shimmering Road, 2017. Young writes literary thrillers–if you’re a fan of Megan Abbott or Tana French, you should check her out. Charlie Cates is a journalist who sees psychic visions about children in trouble. Her investigations take her to Louisiana and Arizona to solve crimes. These are the first two novels of a trilogy, with the third coming out in the future.
Hesiod. The Works and Days (translated by Richmond Lattimore). We’re not sure exactly when Hesiod lived; he is probably a rough contemporary of Homer. The Works and Days is interesting because of its cataloging of ancient Greek farming techniques–within the somewhat amusing context of explaining these things to the narrator’s “great idiot” brother.
Homer. The Iliad, The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Somehow I’d managed to avoid reading these until this year. That was a major error. If you haven’t read them, you must. Immediately.
Sophocles. Ajax. Sophocles presents quite a different interpretation of Ajax of Telamon and Odysseus than we see in The Iliad.
Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. 1968. It was refreshing to read such an ardent defense of wilderness. Abbey advocates preserving nature for its own sake, and not mindlessly building roads, buildings, and dams everywhere. Writerly qualities: a starkly individual voice, vivid place-based detail, and one of the most striking opening passages I read this year.
Gavin de Becker. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. 1999. A self-help-y book that would be light reading if it weren’t so terrifying…but ultimately helpful. This book is a good reminder to follow your intuition, which we often stifle in hopes of being polite.
Dennis Brian. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. 2005. Besides George Eliot, has there ever been a superwoman like Marie Curie? She was not only a genius and a hard worker, but also a humble and generous human being. It’s also incredibly uplifting to read about how Pierre supported her. It was due to his insistence that she was awarded her first Nobel prize–the committee had planned to award him, but not her. It was the first Nobel prize ever awarded to a woman.
Michael Braungart & William McDonough. Cradle to Cradle. 2002. This paradigm-shifting book reveals a startling and upsetting truth: recycling doesn’t work. Most recycled materials are actually “downcycled,” meaning they’re made into low quality products that are usually thrown out. As it is currently practiced, recycling only delays our products’ inevitable journey to the landfill. What would actually solve the waste crisis? Designing things that can be reused.
Rita Zoey Chin. Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir. 2015. Chin writes about her years as a teenage runaway and her later struggles with anxiety. Through all the difficulty, she finds an anchor in her love for horses. This lyrical memoir is a tribute to resilience.
Elizabeth Cline. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. 2013. Two alarming takeaways from this one: the polyester that most clothes are made of now comes from petroleum-based products; it’s synthetic and can’t biodegrade. And, for those of us who don’t think we’re wasting clothes because we “donate” them to charity: the volume of clothing donated is so overwhelming that charities can’t handle it, and much of it is thrown out. The cycle of buying cheap clothes regularly and donating them creates a huge amount of waste. After reading this, I went through my closet and realized that most of my clothes are made from polyester. And they’re made cheaply, with rapid obsolescence being an intentional part of their lifecycle. After a lifetime of shopping in cheap fast fashion stores, I’m not sure how to change my lifestyle, but I plan to 1) try second-hand shopping and 2) to keep my eye out for higher quality pieces made of cotton.
Dan Fagin. Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. 2015. This impressively researched volume chronicles the history of the Toms River pollution case. Fagin not only analyzes every event that occurred in Toms River, but also explores the history of the various sciences and technologies that came to bear on the case: epidemiology, dye making, toxicology, statistics, etc. This perhaps makes it sound like dry reading, but Fagin is also excellent at telling the human stories in parallel with the technical detail. It’s a deeply disturbing book. It makes you realize that corporations have a large stake in concealing their polluting practices–and, because it’s so hard to prove causation between diseases and specific pollutants, they can often get away with it, at least long enough to do massive damage to the environment and human lives.
Marya Hornbacher. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. 1998. A sad but fascinating and well-written memoir about eating disorders.
Edward Humes. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. 2012. A fascinating and sobering overview of the truly astounding extent of our garbage problem.
Bea Johnson. Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. 2013. Came to this book after learning about the Trash is for Tossers website. Some people, like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer, have figured out ways to structure their lives so that they’re not producing any trash.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 1985. It’s not that entertainment is a bad thing. A small amount of entertainment is healthy. The problem is, in a world dominated by television, there is significant pressure to make everything into entertainment. Although the book was published in 1985, it’s a startlingly relevant diagnosis of much of public discourse today.
Donald Shoup. The High Cost of Free Parking. 2011. This tome addresses a surprisingly unquestioned feature of the American landscape. Why are so many suburbs blighted by huge, deserted parking lots surrounding islands of retail? It’s because of zoning laws. Shoup traces the history and origins of zoning ordinances related to parking, building a convincing argument that these ordinances have caused a wide range of problems.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 BC. A history of astounding depth and analysis. It’s also surprisingly objective, considering that Thucydides participated in the war on the Athenian side. Thucydides observes all the fascinating details of the war, from how cities defended against siege to how large-scale political convictions fueled actions and conflicts.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that information media cannot be value-neutral vehicles of content. Instead, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. You can’t communicate the content of a book on television; the nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.
Postman says that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered–mostly because television, as a medium, is best suited to entertainment. As a result, everything else is transformed into entertainment so that it looks good on television.
I was born after Postman’s book was published, so it’s hard for me to judge how much society has truly changed. To some extent, people have probably always trivialized serious, complex matters and/or spent large amounts of leisure time engaged in frivolous pursuits. What has definitely changed is the immediate availability of entertainment at any time and any place, as well as its explicitly addictive design. Perhaps because of this, entertainment is often seen not as an accompaniment to life, but as a serious life pursuit in itself.
TV is the center of most homes. Other furniture is acquired and arranged in deference to the television. In living rooms, the chairs and couches face the TV instead of each other–implying that the living room’s purpose is not conversation, but watching. The TV holds privileged status over any other activities that try to exist in the same room. If you’re reading a book, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument, none of that matters as soon as someone else wants to watch TV. The TV takes over the space with its noise and flashing images, which often leak even into other rooms.
TV shapes interactions even when people aren’t in front of the screen. At any given social gathering, one of the most common topics of conversation is television. No other activity is as universal or unquestioned. People say they “have to” catch up on episodes. They force themselves to try TV shows that are popular, even if they don’t like the show at first. Many people say they don’t have time for x meaningful activity (exercise, writing, learning a new hobby), and then in the very next sentence bring up the latest episode in a popular TV show.
I don’t have a TV. I dislike to the extent to which the internet and social media already distract me from things that matter, and having a TV would only exacerbate this phenomenon. It seems more and more that we’re defined by what we choose to pay attention to–and while it’s not possible to completely ignore it, I aspire to pay as little attention to entertainment as possible.
Looking for something to read? I have recommendations!
Die a Little (read twice), Dare Me (reread), Queenpin, and The Song is You by Megan Abbott—Abbott is one of my favorite suspense writers. She’s somewhat like Tana French, with plots that twist and turn right up until the end. Her gorgeous prose verges on the poetic. I’m pretty much obsessed with her novel Dare Me, a murder mystery involving high school cheerleaders.
Jurassic Park (reread), Prey (reread), and Disclosure by Michael Crichton—I can’t get enough of Crichton’s tales of sci-fi technology gone wrong.
The Privileges and A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee—Dee writes literary examinations of family life. His novels are quietly gripping, the drama unfolding in well-contained jewels of sentences. The Privileges is a rarity—an entertaining, almost voyeuristic literary novel about a wealthy family involved in various suspicious exploits.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen—A humorous novel about a shallow, corrupt “biologist” and his failed attempt to murder his wife. This light read also has a surprising environmental component, with a plotline about an evil businessman who pollutes the Florida Everglades.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang—A Korean woman becomes a vegetarian, only to face social censure from friends and family. This short novel is at once weird, surreal, and moving. Definitely worth reading.
Euphoria by Lily King—A love triangle between anthropologists is a fascinating basis for a story, and King executes it perfectly. This book has it all: drama, sensuality, and keen observations. I also love that it features characters’ career ambitions, a topic that doesn’t occur much in fiction these days.
Pet Sematary (twice), The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, Revival, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – So, true confession, I’d never read Stephen King before this year. Perhaps because of my contrarian spirit, I often feel reluctant to read authors who seem universally popular. Since someone in my writing group always has one of his books in her purse, I figured I’d finally give him a try. Wow, was I missing out! He’s a fantastic storyteller. I’m particularly impressed with how easily he establishes characters. Some of the novels have lots of characters (It, especially). As a writer, I was skeptical about each new character introduction, only to find myself caring about the character and his/her world just a few pages later. He also has an uncanny knack for writing about children. His ideas for stories seem endless (obvious, but as a newcomer, I had fresh appreciation for it). The stories in Bazaar of Bad Dreams were so varied, ranging from the promised creepy stuff to morality tales to an unexpectedly hilarious story about a “Fourth of July arms race” in Maine.
Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia—As a former way-too-stressed teenage overachiever, I love reading admissions novels. Usually they feature some good-hearted brainy kid trying to make it to the Ivy League. Kanakia’s novel is a refreshing take on this genre. Reshma is a scheming anti-heroine, willing to resort to various dubious methods for getting into Stanford. Not only does the novel entertain with her twisted exploits—it also features metafictional elements and, on top of it all, surprising, touching moments of revelation. This is a memorable debut novel.
Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel—Another excellent YA novel with an intelligent female protagonist… Teenage Sarah longs to break out of her role as an astronomy nerd. During a summer vacation to Cape Cod, she tries on a new identity and finds a boyfriend. Because he’s in college, she lies about her age. Eventually her lie spins out of control. Loved it for the characters, who are all memorable and lovable—especially Sarah, even when she makes bad decisions.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane—This fantastic debut novel follows the life of an elderly woman who lives alone. One day, a government worker unexpectedly arrives, claiming she was sent to care for her. The setting and the thin line between real/unreal make the story feel dreamlike. It’s a mesmerizing book, gorgeously written and unforgettable.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (reread)—This is one of my absolute favorite classics. Reading Melville feels like having an erudite, intelligent friend explain the world to you. This book is full of wisdom, play, and deep love for both man and nature. Do not let your life pass by without reading this.
The Love of a Good Woman and Dear Life by Alice Munro—What is there to say, really, besides that Munro is one of the great short story writers of our time.
Little Children, Nine Inches, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta—Perrotta writes engagingly about suburban life. The Abstinence Teacher follows a high school sex-ed teacher and a devout Christian convert—a juxtaposition that could easily become stereotyped and predictable, but which Perrotta handles with admirable care and sympathy. Little Children is a fantastic novel about an affair between parents of toddlers. Nine Inches is a story collection.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert—For those of us who tend toward literary snobbery, it might be tempting to write off the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t do it! This awesome novel reminded me somewhat of Euphoria (above) in its focus on a woman’s career in science. The main character is a 19th-century botanist. Full of ambition, adventure, and historical detail, this is a novel of great warmth and intelligence.
Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver—Despite its clickbaity title, this is a well-observed novel about urban women in the years after college graduation. Silver chronicles early-twenties life with care and humor, sadness and surprise.
How to be Both by Ali Smith—It’s sort of hard to describe this novel, which juxtaposes a teenage girl grieving her mother and a 14th-century artist. It’s weird and wonderful, experimental and moving.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reread) and The Finishing School by Muriel Spark—Spark writes with wit, warmth, and humor. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an incredible portrayal of that nebulous but defining influence, the elementary school teacher. The Finishing School is an amusing satire about private school and writers.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)—I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread this dark and twisted college novel. It’s an entertaining tale of intrigue and murder. Tartt is incredible at description, dialogue, and secondary characters. This book is made by all its of perfect little details–it feels like you’re reading in HD.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)—Wharton chronicles an illicit romance among late 19th-century New York City elite. That makes it sound shallow, but it’s actually a novel of great subtlety, sensitivity, and beauty. Wharton is a master of social commentary, humor, and tragedy.
Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America by Richard Brewer—This book covers the history of land trusts, which allow for private land conservation in the United States. It also includes substantial chapters on current practices in land trust administration. This is an important text for anyone hoping to join or volunteer for a land trust. Of particular interest is the chapter on urban sprawl, one of the biggest threats to open space in America.
Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen—A memoir about the author, written by her graduate school friend. Chang is best known for her book The Rape of Nanking, which exposed this wartime atrocity to western audiences. She was an ambitious writer who’d published three acclaimed books before she committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. Kamen’s biography is a sensitive portrait of a brilliant, complex woman.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim—Kim writes of her harrowing escape from North Korea into China and, eventually, South Korea.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo—I came to this book expecting to hate it. I heard about it through an essay on LitHub, which described KonMari’s barbaric attitudes toward books. As a book hoarder, I felt outraged, and I decided to learn more about this horrible person. Spoiler alert: two months later, I’d gotten rid of perhaps fifty bags and boxes of stuff, and everyone remarked on how amazing my room looked without the clutter. I still marvel at KonMari’s weirdly infectious spirit. I started out reading about her with full-on enmity, only to become a real “konvert.” It’s obvious she’s not much of a reader, from the callous way she describes maiming books to her assertion that thirty (thirty!!!) books is enough. Yet her guidance on how to deal with stuff is spot-on. Reading her book was a revelation. I suddenly realized I was surrounded by tons of stuff I didn’t use or even like that much. Once I got rid of it, my space felt so much better. Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with clutter!
Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang Lang—The autobiography of the famous pianist. The chapters about his childhood and his struggles with his father are fascinating.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold—Essential reading for any environmentalist/conservationist…Leopold originated the idea of a “land ethic”—treating land not as property, but as something with intrinsic value. We’re far from achieving this, but it’s an important concept and an eventual goal. Leopold also writes with reverence about spending time in nature and appreciating land.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis—I grew up in a Christian community where you were told to “just have faith.” I always hated that; it’s not an acceptable answer for “why.” Lewis’s book is one of the better intellectual arguments for Christian faith that I’ve come across. I particularly liked his discussion in the initial chapters of the origins of morality.
The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx—A cultural study of two traditional images in American writing: the machine and the garden. Marx traces these conflicting ideals from the founding of the country through the early twentieth century. There are some fascinating analyses of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald in relation to nature/machine imagery.
God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin—The author explores the interesting subculture of an evangelical college.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal—This is a shocking tale about a serial imposter. A German man managed to impersonate his way into the richest circles in America, eventually taking on the identity of a supposed Rockefeller. This true story wouldn’t translate well to fiction, simply because it’s so outlandish and utterly weird.
The Radioactive Boyscout by Ken Silverstein—Last year I read The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a biography of Taylor Wilson. That book repeatedly referenced this one, so I decided to read it. Unlike Wilson’s story, this is a tale of scientific talent gone wrong. It’s at once sad and fascinating.
Once Upon a Time by J. Randy Taraborrelli—As a Hitchcock fan, I became interested in Grace Kelly and saw this book in the library. It’s about her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While her life is portrayed as a “fairy tale”* in popular culture, things weren’t really so happily-ever-after.
Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink—This is a helpful book for those of us who feel like we could lose a few pounds. It talks about how much habit influences our eating, and offers concrete advice on how to reduce your food intake. The main (uplifting) takeaway is that even small changes can have a positive effect.
Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer—An expose about Adam Wheeler, the student who cheated his way into and through Harvard. He was discovered in 2010, when I was still in school, and it was a huge scandal across campus. Julie Zauzmer (formerly of The Crimson) does a great job investigated all the details of his intriguing case.
Our Town and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder—No one seems to talk about Wilder these days. I hope that will change. He was a major literary figure during his lifetime, winning three Pulitzers, two for plays and one for fiction. Our Town is old-timey and nostalgic, and the Matchmaker is a charming comedy. I’m curious to explore his fiction.
*I find it weird and sort of amusing that we use the term “fairy tale” to connote happy endings. Actually, most real fairy tales have horrific, gruesome endings.
Calling all central Minnesota writers and readers! Join me this Thursday for a writing workshop and reading at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, MN. Here’s the workshop description from the Cultural Center’s website:
Join author and visiting artist Emily Eckart for an interactive writing workshop. After discussing basic elements of fiction common to all stories and novels, participants will get to try their hand at creating characters and story settings. After the workshop, Emily will read an excerpt from her new book, Pale Hearts, to kick off the Center’s monthly Open Mic night (7-9pm). Both the workshop and Open Mic are free to attend and open to all!
The workshop runs from 6-7, and afterwards there’s an open mic from 7-9. All ages and levels of experience are welcome to attend!