Every Book I Read in 2015 (So Far)

I have been keeping a written record of everything I read since I was 15 or 16. For a long time it was in a fat little blue suede journal, which seems to have gotten lost the last time we moved.  I’ve been keeping a note on my phone since then, and today I moved it over to the List app. My list can be found here.

(Looking back at the year so far I can see this list is a parade of a very specific sort of trendy “literary fiction” novels and you can probably extrapolate from it *exactly* which book blogs I read.  Blech, what a snooze. Tell me the weird and unexpected and great things you’ve read lately, please.)


In a coat pocket

I’m reading “The Folded Clock” by Heidi Julavits – it took me a little while to get into it, but now I’m gulping it down, always trying to speed through one more of the brief entries before the train reaches my stop. Its subtitle is “A Diary” but it’s (thankfully) not a true diary. It represents a year, though the entries are out of chronological order and each is shined up into a small, gem-like personal essay.  Each micro-chapter begins, “Today I…”

Julavits is fantastic at isolating small moments– thoughtful, joyful, maudlin, puzzling. Even a pretty mundane chapter offers up a small piece of poetry. Last night, I thought about how it strains credulity a tiny bit that one person could keep stumbling across so many little moments that are lovely or disturbing or both. There are plenty of entries that are short meditations on moments in marriage, or parenting, or friendships, but there’s a lot that are sparked by slightly surreal encounters or series of events — none of them are completely outrageous or hard to believe but when they’re all lined up and presented together, they kind of make you go: really? All of this?

Not that it matters, of course — it’s her book, and who can resist the impulse to polish one’s anecdotes just a little? Wouldn’t that story be funnier or more poignant if you could tweak just one little detail? All the same, the book– a collection of pretty ordinary moments– had me feeling like my life was a little, well, ordinary. How could all these strange/lovely/bizarre little things really happen to one person?

Julavits is preoccupied with objects: ones we imbue with meaning, ones we treat carelessly, ones we lose and ones that (sometimes mysteriously) find their way back to us. Throughout the book, she’s losing important things– her wallet, her passport–and stumbling across useless things that she can’t bear to throw away. There’s an entry where she riffs on the contents of coat pockets, how like anyone she’s often finding scraps of paper, notes, ticket stubs. At one point, she wears an old coat and discovers her marriage vows in the pocket while she’s sitting on the subway with her husband.

Today I had to take my winter coat back out of the closet. It was 37 goddamn degrees on April 24.  Chilled and feeling bitter about the whole day already, I crammed my hands hard into my pockets on the way out of the apartment and immediately felt something bite me. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and discovered it was a little Mexican worry doll, the really tiny kind made out of a twist of paper wound with wire and brightly colored thread. A little bit of the wire had become exposed, sharp enough to snag on the skin of my finger like an errant staple.

jWYWahKxgKKAlUeLcfOPtoK9pscB2rq22Naaro_8Hn4I found the worry doll lying on the floor of the lobby one morning on my way out to work. I thought maybe I should leave it there, in case in belonged to a kid who really cared about it and was going to come looking for it. But I thought it was more than likely that it would get vaccummed up before that could happen, so I put in in my pocket, planning to leave it on the covered radiator in the hall where the postal service leaves packages. I forgot, of course, and ended up carrying the worry doll around in my pocket for several days, occasionally remembering it when I put my hand in my pocket — entertaining myself by wondering how it got there, fretting that it meant something to someone and I’d just picked it up and pocketed it. (It’s probably trash, of course. They give dolls like this out like after dinner mints at some Mexican restaurants). At some point, I put the coat in the back of the closet, thinking that I wouldn’t need it again until October, and then I really forgot about the tiny doll.

Anyway, this morning the doll’s arm stabbed me in the finger and I thought: well, that’ll teach you. These things are everywhere if you remember to look.


“On Immunity” in a Blizzard

20613511I finished “On Immunity” by Eula Biss on the T on Friday morning. (What better place to ponder the public good and herd immunity than on a heavily delayed subway car with a couple of hundred other miserable, sniffling commuters). Both a history and defense of vaccines, it’s a book that defies categorization: part medical journalism, part ethical tract, part meditation on paranoia, privilege, and the common good. From the first moment I picked it up I felt a sense of recognition, like, yes, this is what has been missing from this conversation, this is what we need to talk about.

Every time I’m in Copley Square I think about the inscription on the Public Library there: “Founded through the munificence and public spirit of citizens.” It’s not something you hear much about, “public spirit.” Sometimes, depending on what’s going on in the news, I read that dedication and think that we’ve abandoned the concept entirely.

These last couple of weeks have been an absolute bear for the MBTA, and while the T and city are making excuses, individuals are overwhelmingly helpful: always making room for one more person on a jam-packed train, helping an elderly woman elbow her way to the doors so she doesn’t miss her stop, hopping out at a street level stop to help a mother drag a stroller through the deep snow and onto the train. These interactions are not something any decent person needs to stop to think about: people living in a society look out for each other, especially for the most vulnerable. Public spirit is alive in Boston.

Herd immunity is about public spirit. You do not get vaccinated to protect only yourself, you get vaccinated to protect both yourself and others, especially those who are most vulnerable to disease. (People with auto-immune diseases, people too young or ill to receive a vaccine). Depending on what parts of the Internet you frequent, the vaccination conversation can be framed as hysterical mothers vs. rational doctors, or profit-hungry pharma companies vs. establishment-rattling mommy bloggers. In “On Immunity”, though, the crux of the argument is this: if you believe that it’s fine for healthy families to refuse vaccinations, you must also believe that your social privilege exempts you from any moral obligation to our fellow humans.

Rhetorically, “On Immunity” pulls off something tricky: extending empathy to a group without making excuses for their (dangerous) behavior. A mother of a young child herself, Biss can inhabit both the fear and the privilege that defines much of the anti-vax crowd. She connects anti-vaccine paranoia to a very simple fact: the scarier things get, the less trustworthy that our authority figures become, and the more control we try to exert over our health and the domestic sphere. Biss lingers here, acknowledging the fear and expressing her own original hesitance about vaccines, but then isolates the dark core of this kind of thinking: a catastrophic failure of public spirit.

This is something I think about a lot: that we’re always holding in tension our responsibility to the public good and our desire to draw inward, shrink our focus down to a pinhole of protecting ourselves and our families. And scrabbling for a little control, however illusory, is all too familiar to me. Biss recalls her sudden, mysterious fear the first time she was on a boat since the birth of her son, and then finally naming it: “Oh, I’m going to die.” I don’t have kids, but my husband had cancer at 26–a very effective crash course in “oh, I’m going to die” that I don’t recommend. I’m not a stranger to that overnight change: one day the world seems fine, the next everything feels perilous.

What I liked most about “On Immunity” is that it acknowledges this paranoia with compassion and something like respect, but then methodically shreds it to pieces using science, ethics and the long, fraught history of vaccination and public health. It arrives at a fact that’s easy to say, but not always easy to live: the public good is greater than individual fear. It is not an exaggeration to say that our survival depends on reason trumping panic–indeed, that triumph is the only thing that has ever moved society forward. I don’t know how many minds “On Immunity” will change–probably not many, unfortunately–but it’s starting the conversation in the right place.

Products, Reading

Dept. of Endorsements #2

Why do we have blood types? More than a hundred years after the discovery of blood types we still don’t really know why they exist.   – Pacific Standard 
Dr. Cornel West  on Obama’s false progressivism:  “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.”    – Salon 
Avoiding the breast cancer “warrior” trap, or why we should stop talking about kicking cancer’s butt. – New York Magazine
“Short Term 12” –  I barely heard about Short Term 12 when it came out, and I cannot believe I missed it.  It’s genuinely one of my favorite movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Brie Larson plays Grace, a young woman who works at a shelter for kids and teens who are caught somewhere between a dangerous home and foster care. Everybody is waiting on paperwork, on a trial, on a foster placement.  Grace does everything she can for the kids, all while dealing with (or not dealing with) her own past. Short Term 12 goes to some really dark places but manages to be filled with hope and humanity–while sidestepping anything remotely trite. It’s both sadder and funnier than I’m managing to convey. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

“A Most Wanted Man” – Next time we have a rainy weekend afternoon, go see this. It’s a slow, intense spy flick. It’s about old fashioned spy craft and even older fashioned betrayal; nary a car chase or even a firearm for most of the film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is terrific, as usual, and all the more devastating because we’ll never see his “as usual” again. Fair warning, if you’re not feeling great about America in general lately (see also: my first longread pick), this movie is not gonna cheer you up, fictional as it may be. My only complaint is my usual pet peeve, that all the German characters speak to each other in English with a German accent.  (Like, just speak normally, your character wouldn’t really be speaking English anyway!)  Hoffman makes it work, Rachel McAdams occasionally sounds like Daenerys Targaryen. 
I have been having horrible foot issues for a few weeks–stabbing pain in my arch that at one point was so bad I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk on the way to brunch and cried real tears for a sec–and it got bad enough that I bought the first pair of Birkenstocks I have owned since freshman year of college. And oh baby was it money well spent. I got these; they make my feet look stunningly gigantic but I don’t care because my feet are so happy. So far I have not purchased any Eileen Fisher palazzo pants to go with them but will report back. 
Me, Reading, Uncategorized

Dept. of Endorsements #1

#Longreads: Coke adapts to Americans’ realization that Coke is killing us  – Bloomberg BW
The middle class takes a stand at Market Basket – Esquire 
“A database of intentions” An interview with Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp – The Atlantic 
Album: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Haven’t always been the biggest fan of Jenny Lewis’ solo work, although I will put on Rilo Kiley’s “The Execution of All Things” and settle in for a good cry any day. That said, I’ve had “The Voyager” in heavy rotation for a week now and can report that it’s sad and funny and pretty and I like it very much.
Books: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I tore through this once fast on an airplane, and then went back and methodically read the whole thing again. Wolf down the fascinating reporting and personal history, then savor the “damn girl” moments in the prose. The knockout first essay is online here if you are not convinced.
Recipe: This bomb 20-minute gnocchi dish, which has literally four ingredients and is pretty much a perfect summer dish. (I also put in an onion, because I’m not a savage, and dumped in some of the white wine I was drinking, so… six ingredients).
Movie: “Boyhood”. Somehow this is a movie with no major tragedy that manages to make you think about what a series of small tragedies life is–while also being funny and deeply recognizable, and possibly making you feel guilty about what an asshole you were as a teenager. The last scene with Patricia Arquette kind of wrecked me.

“Well I do resent, in my own life and in that of other women, the amount of time we splurge helping and consoling others. Most women seem driven to do this balancing act, however vigorous their careers. Well, I half resent, half accept it. Mind you, I’m not expressing regret here when talking about the energy I’ve lost as a woman; regret is a prissy bourgeois sentiment. I’m kvetching, which is a healthy loud-mouthed tribal activity.”

Paris Review Interview with Francine du Plessix Gray / just how I feel today 

“Well I do rese…

Reading, Uncategorized

The best books by women I read this year

When my fellow reader and Internet-friend Heather Froehlich asked me about my personal reading list, I started thinking about the best books I read this year. When I had a list of maybe seven,  something pretty cool happened: I noticed they were all by women. Once I started thinking, an awful lot more came to me. Even cooler is that a lot of these are new books, by young women.

I’m not entirely sure why, but it turns out that I read a lot of really excellent, really diverse, really awesome books by women this year. It certainly has something to do with the Internet — Nicole Cliffe of The Toast, the books writers at The Hairpin, and Emily Gould and Ruth Curry of Emily Books have guided me towards some stuff I was never going to come across in a Barnes and Noble. And I think I was just looking harder for the next thing, because I’m not as surrounded by fellow readers the way I was when I was in an English program. There’s fewer organic recommendations coming my way and as a result I’m pushing harder, looking for books that are riskier, less conventional, harder. And I think it’s worth remembering, in an autumn when we got the professor who thinks women have never written a book worth teaching, and the curmudgeonly dick-swinging of Jonathan Franzen dominated the literary web,  that some of the best books of the last couple of years were written by women.  Here were some of my favorites.
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Loved for Strayed’s out-and-out ballsiness for hiking the PCT by herself (when she was only 26), and especially for the fact that this is a book that’s truly about a woman’s relationship with herself. It’s a hero’s journey in the old-school Joseph Campbell sense, but with a woman in the driver’s seat (or rather boots).
Pound Foolish – Helaine Olen
Helaine Olen covers money and personal finance for the Guardian and her book is a righteous takedown of the personal finance industry (watch your back Suze Ormon) and the fictions that Wall Street  is selling to the average 401k investor every day. Required reading.
Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar
I think I have a whole other post in me about this book. It asks some important questions about why a certain (sizable) subset of American society is so obsessed with “going back to the land,” crafting,  backyard chickens, attachment parenting and the entire DIY movement. We distrust society, so we pull back, opt out–eat organic, homeschool our kids–but what happens to the people without that privilege? Is it OK to opt out and look inwards, instead of advocating for things like equal pay and affordable childcare? So…I could talk about this book all day.
Heroines – Kate Zambreno
This is another one I could go on all day about. It’s a combination memoir-biography … scenes from Zambreno’s own life as a writer and a frustrated faculty spouse, intercut with the stories of the women who surrounded the modernists: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Eliot, Jean Rhys. All of these women were artists in their own right, but were overshadowed and pushed aside by their ambitious husbands. Fitzgerald in particular comes off pretty awful; first stealing entire characters and passages from his wife’s writing, then tossing her in a mental institution when he decides their relationship can support only one genius. Zambreno is asking hard questions about what we think is “good art” — is it refined, with form and craft elevated above all, or is it honest, even when it is messy and confessional? This book is a challenging read and not for everyone–Zambreno pulls no punches–but it sincerely changed the way I read and think about literature.
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
I was absolutely nuts about this book. Like, reading it while eating and brushing my teeth, and wishing my train commute was even longer so I could finish it. It’s a little hard to even encompass because it’s a multigenerational story that spans WWII in Italy to downtown New York City in the seventies. The story is a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a little Renata Adler, and simply a lot Rachel Kushner–I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything like it.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book is freaking sexy. The main character Ifemelu, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze, have pretty much the best love story I’ve read in fiction in a long, long time (and maybe my very favorite one I’ve read in a contemporary book). I’m really, really excited to read whatever Adichie does next: she’s brilliant and funny, by turns tender and blisteringly satirical. I shouldn’t sell the story short –it’s about immigration, race, family, and where we belong, and the love story is only a piece in the bigger story of Ifemelu, a smart, funny, brave character who I absolutely loved.
Don’t Kiss Me (Short Stories) – Lindsay Hunter
All I can say about this one is go read “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” Back? Ok, the whole collection is like that.
The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
I don’t know if Hollywood has optioned the rights,  but The Interestings is exactly the kind of smart, true, great book that feels bound to be totally ruined by an ensemble movie (MAYBE I would accept a Nicole Holofcener adaptation). It’s about a group of artsy, weird kids who meet at a crunchy camp in the Berkshires, and then grow up–some of them coming to terms with genius, some of them coming to terms with the lack of it. The truest part of it to me was how your relationships with your friends change as you get older–some people you think will be in your life forever end up falling away, while others return to you in ways you never expected. Very much recommend reading this before somebody decides to make a movie out of it.
Speedboat – Renata Adler
Not a new book by any means, but tverybody was reading Speedboat this year because it was re-released by New York Review of Books Classics.  I am so, so glad that someone decided that it deserved a new lease on life. It’s a novel in that it is fictional–but that’s where the comparison ends. Adler created something totally different with Speedboat, and if you can roll with the non-chronological, untraditional shape it takes, it reveals so, so many gem-like moments that are bound to make pretty much any writer jealous.
Wolf Hall+Bring Up the Bodies  – Hilary Mantel
This year I also read one of Hilary Mantel’s earlier books, “A Change of Climate” and I’m currently working on “A Place of Greater Safety” and… you guys, Hilary Mantel is so fucking good, I don’t even know what else to say.  I went a big Tudor-fiction phase when I was a teenager–Carrolly Erickson, Carolyn Meyer, Phillipa Gregory–and I didn’t think I was going to be that interested in “Wolf Hall.” Another Henry VIII+wives book? Another Anne Boleyn book? Do we really need that? The answer is yes. She’s a master.
So, that’s my list, of some truly awesome books by women that I read this year. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?