Recommended Reading 2017

Read 60 books so far this year. I’m recommending 37 of them. (I’ll add to this list as I finish up some books in December.) 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.

Fiction

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 and realizing that you’ll probably spend most of your life at jobs you don’t like. 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. A female detective has to solve a murder case while enduring harassment from her colleagues. 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.

Poetry

Homer. The Iliad, The Odyssey. 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.

Plays

Sophocles. Ajax. Sophocles presents quite a different interpretation of Ajax of Telamon and Odysseus than we see in The Iliad.

Non-fiction

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.

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.

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.

Updates

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.

writing workshop

TV

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that information-transmitting media are never value-neutral vehicles of content. Rather, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. In other words, you can’t communicate the content of a book on television. The nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.

Postman further argues that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered. This shift is driven by the fact that 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, it seems that 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.

Witness how 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.

Thinking through environmental consequences

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.

The decks will never be clear

decks
Source: Morguefile.com

Sometimes, when my to-do list grows longer and longer, I feel like I can’t possibly write until I clear all of the other tasks.  I plan to allocate a few days just to focus on the chores.  Then, when they’re done, my mind will be free for writing.

It never quite works out that way.  As soon as one thing is completed, two more replace it.  I never get as much done on chore days as I hope.  The to-do list is never defeated.  Instead it morphs over time, leaving me frustrated at how much of life is given over to administration–mundane tasks that keep everything running, but steal huge amounts of time in the process.

I first started writing seriously in the months after I graduated from college.  At the time, I didn’t yet have a job, and that was when I started keeping track of the hours I wrote each week.  At first I found it difficult to write for more than two hours per day.  I figured I had time to build up my endurance.  One day, however, I had a realization.  If I couldn’t make myself write for more than two hours when I was as free as I’d ever be, then I wasn’t really being serious at all.  I had to make better use of my time.  I’d never be that free again.

This revelation was unfortunately true. I have never had enough time to write.  Even during my wonderful four-week residency last year, I was filled with a sense of desperation.  I wrote eight hours a day, wrote until my fingers hurt and I couldn’t think anymore.  I knew that, as soon as I went back to real life, it would be so hard to find the time. There are always other, more important things to do.  Always.  Lately my to-do list has gotten alarmingly long, and it’s tempting to put aside writing until all everything is done.  I wish I could clear the decks so I’d have the time to focus on my novel like it deserves.

Writing, especially fiction writing, takes a certain kind of irresponsibility.  You have to find the will to set aside more important things.  For people like me, this is difficult and anxiety-inducing.  But there will never be a good time to write.  You have to write when you’re uncomfortable and hurried and anxious.  If you wait, you’ll never write a thing.

Writing residency & other updates

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New York Mills water tower

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.

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Train tracks near the artist house
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Grain elevator near the center of town

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!

library phhoto

Audiobooks are the best

I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.

Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.

Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.

My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.

Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.

It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.

Writing and talent

Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.

Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.

I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.

I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented.  That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.

Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.

The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.