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 some sales where the books were going for $5 a bag and returned with treasures.
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!
I’m excited to share this excerpt from my novel-in-progress, published recently in Philadelphia Stories. Their Winter 2018 music issue is the perfect home for this excerpt–I’m so happy to see it among other art and writing about music.
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.
This summer Pale Hearts was featured on American Bookfest.
I’m so grateful to all the readers who’ve told me they enjoyed the book! Thank you for taking the time to read it and share your kind words. I always appreciate Amazon or Goodreads reviews too, if you have a few minutes to comment on the book. It helps other readers find the book, and it helps me as I continue to write!
This fall I’m leading another writing workshop at the Lawrence Branch of Mercer County Library. It will be on September 15 at 10 a.m., and the subject will be description. We’ll talk about how to use descriptive language to make your writing vivid.
One thing I’ve learned in my sustainability classes is that sometimes “green” solutions aren’t always so green. By solving one problem, you might be creating another. It’s essential to evaluate entire lifecycles and supply chains to determine whether one solution actually has less environmental impact. Here are a few examples:
1) Electric vehicles: Because electric vehicles don’t require gasoline, they might seem like a good way to lower carbon emissions. But it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In a country where most electricity is generated by burning coal, you’ve defeated the purpose. If the electricity is generated from solar and wind power, the electric vehicle is actually powered by a sustainable energy source. However, things get even more complicated. This article points out several other factors that affect the overall environmental impact of the electric car, such as the rare metals that are acquired through destructive mining practices. Only a detailed analysis of each stage of the car’s production, use, and disposal can reveal whether electric cars are actually an improvement.
2) Artificial Christmas trees: I was glad when my parents bought their first artificial Christmas tree, thinking it would prevent the cutting of real trees. Several years later, this artificial tree had shed most of its needles, and my parents decided to throw it out. That was when I had a horrible thought: where do all the disposed artificial Christmas trees go? It turns out plastic trees in landfills aren’t the only problem. According to this New York Times article, fake trees often contain polyvinyl chrloride (PVC), “which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Moreover, you’re not actually doing harm by cutting down a real Christmas tree. They’re grown as a local , sustainable crop, providing jobs and tree cover.
3) Recycling: For the environmentally conscious among us, it’s reassuring to toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling instead of trash. But there are some uncomfortable truths behind recycling: it’s expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Some of it ends up in the landfill. Much of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place. And, as pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, a game-changing book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling doesn’t solve the root problem. It still relies on our society’s default product lifecycle: take resources, make a product, and dispose of it (“cradle to grave”). Recycling slows that process down by a step or two, but it doesn’t alter the overall arch. A better answer would be to shift our products toward a circular model, where waste is designed out and every element of a product, even its packaging, can be put toward productive use.
Calling all central NJ writers and readers! Join me for a fiction talk at Mercer Country Library (Lawrence Branch) at 10 am on April 21. I’ll be discussing description: what does it accomplish, and how can you use it to make your own writing more vivid? My focus is on fiction, but similar techniques are applicable to non-fiction as well.
A few months ago, I had the great fortune to be a Visiting Artist at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. The center is located in New York Mills, a tiny, wonderful town in the middle of rural Minnesota. Despite its small size, New York Mills has a vibrant arts scene. The Center hosts concerts, art exhibits, classes, and a gift shop stocked with crafts by local artists. It also has a Visiting Artist program. Each artist is in residency for 2-4 weeks, living alone in a cheerful yellow house near the center of town.
My residency was scheduled for 4 weeks in November and December 2016. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove the three hours to New York Mills. As soon as I set foot in the artist house, I felt a sense of peace and excitement. There was a scrapbook filled with journal entries from the artists who’d stayed there before. The house had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and two work spaces with large desks, perfect for writing. Once I’d stocked up on groceries, I holed up inside (frigid temperatures helped!) and wrote, drafting about 100 pages of my novel-in-progress. I met lots of interesting, friendly people around town–artists, writers, the local baker, a taxidermist. I learned about dark house spear fishing and the local boat factory. I also held a workshop, participated in a reading, and visited 3 English classes at the high school. It was a fruitful and creative month.
I kicked off 2017 as a featured reader in Timothy Gager’s Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, MA. The other readers were poet Michelle Y. Burke and memoirist Rita Zoey Chin. I really enjoyed reading and learning about their work!
Finally, my talented photographer friend Kate Kearns took some lovely photos of me and my book last fall. I’m just getting around to posting them now because I’ve been preoccupied by several life changes, including a move. But, finally, here they are!
This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.
Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.
Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.
Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:
Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.
It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.
Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.
Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.
1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.
2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.
3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.