Off-Script and Off-Road: An Interview with Bernadette Murphy, Author of Harley and Me

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Bernadette Murphy, author of Harley and Me.

Bernadette Murphy wants to challenge your preconceptions about the kind of woman who owns a motorcycle.

Once upon a time, Murphy, now an LA writer and professor in Antioch’s MFA program, was a room mom for her children’s Elementary School classes: a woman who wore Winne the Pooh jumpers and bought into a vision of placidity. But when her father died, she bought a Harley, reassessed her life, began to dabble in risk, and started living for herself.

Harley and Me is Murphy’s memoir about learning to ride a motorcycle, but it’s so much more. In the vein of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Harley and Me is a journey narrative. But Murphy contextualizes her journey with scientific, historical, and cultural references. Harley and Me makes us evaluate not only how we see motorcycle riders, but how we see ourselves as women, mothers, and risk-takers.

Murphy and I spoke about neuroplasticity, becoming The Fonz, and the bio-chemistry of bonding with a machine.

Harley and Me is out in paperback May 30, 2017.

harley-and-me-csHarley and Me
By Bernadette Murphy
320 pp. Counterpoint. $16.95
IndieBound | Amazon

Heather Scott Partington: You write, “Awareness of death, it turns out, is a critical force motivating human behavior.” What did it mean to you to take on such a monumental risk? How did it shape your awareness of the current moment, and of who you want to be?

Bernadette Murphy: I bought my motorcycle the day after my father, my last remaining parent, died.  He had always seemed such a huge figure in my imagination, a strong, nearly invincible and wholly tangible human.  I could not imagine that one day he’d get older and die. But of course he did.  Experiencing his death changed how I saw things.  If death came for him, the most solid human I knew, it was coming for me, too.

We live in a culture that tends to play down and hide the reality of death.  Recognizing just how limited my time on this planet actually is has motivated me try my hand at a slew of wild adventures. I used to always think that there’d be more time later if I didn’t take an exciting opportunity when it was offered.  But guess what? The chance may not roll around again. I need to make sure I do the things I really want to do in this life, and inhabit my life as fully as I can while I can, because there will be no do-overs.  And while I know I take my life in my hands every time I mount my motorcycle, it reminds me that I take my life in my hands every moment I draw breath.  Driving across town, doing my daily routine.  There’s no knowing.  So why not go do the things I want to do – I’m going to die one day, either way.  Of course, I take all precautions I can – full-face helmet, riding armor, classes on how to be as safe as possible.

HSP: How did you deal with sexism or sexist language on your rides, and at the rallies? How did you reconcile for that with your pre-riding worldview?

BM: There’s no question that the sexism is rampant in the motorcycling culture, especially among riders of a certain age.  It’s been gratifying to meet an emerging new crop of young female riders who are breaking all the boundaries and just basically leaving that sexism in the dust.  Check out The Dream Roll, The Women’s Moto Exhibit, and Babes Ride Out.  These are groups of women (usually younger than me, but they include me, too, in their gatherings) who get together to ride and forge their own culture.  They’re not focused on changing the sexism of the old-boy network. Rather, they’re focused on their own riding, their own community, their own strength.  This is what I love about them: they just can’t be bothered focusing on what they don’t like about the male-centric aspects of the moto world.  They’re going off script, off road, to forge their own path.  And though this is not their goal, I suspect that by doing so, they will help transform the misogynist culture.

Personally, I don’t tend to go to motorcycle rallies and events like the ones you describe – they simply don’t appeal to me, unless they’re women focused like The Dream Roll.  Last summer, I rode from LA to Washington State to camp out in a field with 280 other female motorcyclists. That was a blast.

HSP: The chapter about Fonzie is great, and oddly enough I love that Henry Winkler was a little afraid of the bike–he was such an icon, but it was more of an accessory to him than a way of life. What did it mean to you to speak to him? And to reconcile the reality of the Fonz with how you had seen him when you were younger?

BM: Speaking with Henry Winkler was one of the highlights of writing this book.  I’ve had a crush on him since I was 11 years old, and still have a crush on him to this day. In fact, my infatuation only got deeper after the conversation because he’s such a thoughtful, authentic, and willing-to-be-vulnerable human.  He’s just really present and I connected immediately with that quality. From talking with Henry Winkler, I saw that that he, like me, has struggled with the issues of being clear about who he is, claiming himself fully, being true to who he is.  What a wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path!  I also came to see that I had stopped emulating the parts of the Fonzie character I had so admired.  Instead of wanting to be Fonzie, to some degree – to the degree that I wanted  — I have in fact become him — or at least, my female version of him.

HSP: You write that women have an innermost thermostat that tells us how much joy, love, and success we think we deserve. What did this journey teach you about what you deserve? What lessons do you think other women can take away from your time on the bike?

BM: I learned that I have been shortchanging myself my entire life!  Especially as a young mother, when finances were tight and kids needed so much, I had learned to deny my own needs and wants, to reduce my desires to as small and easy-to-contain a package as possible.  And with good reason.  But now what I’m finally breaking out of that scarcity and lack mindset and working to reset my joy thermostat,  and finding that my dreams and desires are huge!  And that when I embrace them and think it might actually be possible to pursue them, I am so very happy and content.  Notice I didn’t say that when I get them I’m happy.  Getting them is almost beside the point.  Knowing it’s possible and that it’s okay for me to embrace these desires is the thing. For a long time, the voice in my head repeated the same toxic six words: “Who do you think you are?”  Who did I think I was to believe I could have a rich and wonderful life, to do things that were wild and exotic and just plain fun?  That voice kept me stuck for most of my adult life.  Now when it pops up, I remind it that I’m a beloved child of the universe who deserves these things as much as the next person and that I believe good things are in store for me.

HSP: Why do humans get risk-averse as we get older? What chemical changes start to happen when women decide to accept risk into middle age? You write that risk is necessary, that “one thing seems certain: avoiding risk altogether is actually an unhealthy state for all of us, male and female alike.”

Risk taking (in whatever form – taking a drawing class, traveling abroad, learning a foreign language, ice climbing, mountaineering, etc.) rewires our brain.  We use new muscles – literally and metaphorically – that increase our neuroplasticity.  This is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on which way you go, because the brain chemicals support the change.  If we take more risks, our brain chemicals give us a reward and then we want more of that reward so we continue to take more risks.  And if we stop taking risks, the reward cycle is broken and we find comfort in taking fewer and fewer risks.  The reason this is so dramatic for women in middle age is that the childbearing chemical brew we talked about earlier has convinced us to take as few risks as possible.  And unless we actively try to break that cycle, we’ll continue taking fewer risks until we become stuck and unable to take any kinds of risks at all.  If we’re not growing and evolving, we’re dying.  It’s a truth for all living things.

HSP: Did your experiences change anything about how you talk to your [adult] children? You write about how difficult it was to explain your risk-taking to your loved ones. I’m wondering if it changed how you want to parent them, or the message you want to communicate to them, even though they’re adults.

BM: My kids taught me more about risk taking than anyone.  They haven’t (yet) gotten stuck in that “let’s take a safe path no matter what” thinking.  They still believe so much is possible.  And they got me to do the same.  This has changed how I parent them.  I have to believe that if I’m safe in the hands of this universe, that they’re safe, too.  That I personally no longer have to be the guardian of their safety. I’ve done a good job raising them and I believe they make good and healthy choices for themselves.  So if they make choices I don’t believe in or support, I have to let it go and let them do what they’re going to do. It’s possible they are on the exact path they need to be on and that any interference from me is only going to mess that up.  And if the choice they make ends up hurting them, they will have learned something I couldn’t have taught them in a million years.

Plus, I have to embrace the fact that bad shit happens in life and there’s little I can do to change that.  They could get hurt doing a risky thing, but they could also get hurt not doing a risky thing. Parents are quick to warn their children about all the lurking perils if they take risky options. But they seldom tell them about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if they don’t put their true selves on the line.  That’s what I tell them.

HSP: What new risks are you taking now? Has your family’s reaction to your risk-taking changed since they read your writing about it?

BM: The biggest risk I’m taking right now is holding my partner, Edmond, in my thoughts and in my heart as he climbs Mt. Everest.  He’s one of the 200-plus climbers currently on Mount Everest*, on the brink of the first attempts in three years to make the final ascent to the world’s tallest peak, after fatal avalanches cut short the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Here’s a piece I wrote about it.

My family is divided on my risk taking.  My kids, my partner, and two of my brothers are supportive.  My sister, my stepmother, my ex, and some others still think I’m crazy and that if I’d just quit this stuff my life would be better.  What they don’t realize is that my life is now the best it’s ever been.

HSP: Can you share a little about your research related to Oxytocin? The results of your tests were astounding. 

BM: Oxytocin it the cuddle compound that we create in our bodies when we have sex, nurse a baby, feel deep love, even pet a dog.  It causes us to trust and to feel connected and warm with others.  I had this theory that my embrace of my motorcycle was tied to this neurotransmitter.  I believed that as my 25-year marriage deteriorated, and as my kids began to fly the coop and didn’t hug me and need me in the same way, I was going through a kind of oxytocin withdrawal.  Embracing the motorcycle seemed to reverse that.  But from a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Oxytocin, the neuroscientists tell us, can only be produced with contact with other living, active beings.  You can’t increase your oxytocin level with a machine.  Or so we thought.  We took my blood before and after riding my motorcycle and found my oxytocin level jumped a good amount – as much as a groom’s oxytocin level jumped in one experiment, just after he’d taken his vows. I believe that riding the motorcycle helped me have a deeper relationship with myself and that that is responsible for the oxytocin leap. Of course, this little experiment was just done on me and just done once, so it’s not scientifically valid, but it does lend credibility to my theory.

HSP: What are you working on now?

BM: I’m working on a novel about a woman who teaches at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and who engages risk – but risk of the more emotional kind.  She learns that her version of her past is not the true story, and then has to change her life to incorporate this new information.

I’m also toying with a possible book project on the nature of women’s leadership and the role marriage plays in it.  I’m particularly interested in 1) how marriage as an institution is dying away in Iceland and what that means to the culture, and 2) how the women of Rwanda took over many leadership roles there after the genocide there (when a large percentage of the men were killed and women had to step up into government and leadership positions) and how that change in gender balance of those in power has made for a healthier, happier country.  How those two topics fit together and what I might do with it, I don’t know yet.  But that’s what I’m tinkering with.

*This interview was conducted in the spring of 2016.

Purchase Harley and Me at IndieBound or Amazon.
More information about Bernadette Murphy can be found here.

Interview: Dorothy Rice, author of THE RELUCTANT ARTIST

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Dorothy Rice, author of The Reluctant Artist

Dorothy Rice’s memoir and art book, The Reluctant Artist, is a meditation on the author’s relationship with her father, and her efforts to catalog his extensive body of work. The artist, Joe Rice, was dedicated to completing a painting a week, yet despite creating a plethora of striking work, he never showed it or sought recognition for his art.

I recently corresponded by email with Dorothy (a good friend from my time at UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program) about writing the memoir, her father’s lasting lessons, and how she came to publish The Reluctant Artist through Shanti Arts.

Heather Scott Partington: How did The Reluctant Artist come about? What was its path to publication?

Dorothy Rice: The project began with an essay I wrote while taking taking community college classes at American River College. That essay, “The Paintings in the Rafters” told the story of an afternoon when my sisters and I got our father’s permission to haul a dozen or so paintings down from the rafters in his garage, where they had been stored (wrapped and taped up) for over twenty years. The essay was first published in the American River Review and then reprinted in the Still Point Arts Quarterly, an arts magazine that I found via the writers’ resource Duotrope. The editor of the Arts Quarterly, Christine Cote, was drawn to the art. She published several full color photos of my father’s work along with the essay and asked if I was interested in working with her on a book about my father and his art. I developed a proposal and we entered into a contract whereby I agreed to deliver text and photographs and she to publish the book.

I had no clear idea of what the text would be when I began but it eventually took its present shape, as a memoir touching on the ways in which the artwork affected me as a child, a young adult and throughout my life and, in particular, how my father’s lifelong pursuit of the arts inspired and fed my own creative aspirations. Because my father was always a very reserved man, the artwork had always seemed significant and important to me as manifestations and windows onto an interior life he kept mostly to himself.

thequeen copyHSP: Was there anything about the format of the book (art + prose) that presented a unique challenge or opportunity? Can you talk about how the book came together in terms of layout?

DR: The layout was primarily the purview of the publisher. She shared sample fonts and approaches to the layout with me, but to a great extent I deferred to her design expertise. When she first began to layout the project she had hoped the photos of the work could be interspersed with the text and placed near to where they are mentioned in the narrative. But she found this too cumbersome and instead opted to put most of the artwork and photos at the back of the book, with only a few images at the beginnings of the sections.

We did review several cover designs before arriving at the final. I knew that I wanted the self-portrait I call “The Green Man” on the cover and, for her, that posed some initial difficulties as the image is dark and dominant. We compromised on a smaller photograph that deemphasizes the starkness of the image. I had also wanted to use the title “The Green Man” for the book itself, but arrived at the compromise “The Reluctant Artist” after discussing with her the potential redundancy of the artwork and the title being so closely aligned.

What intrigued me the most about the publisher’s approach to the book was that she was wanted a full sense of the artist and his life and was therefore interested in including family photographs and other items of a more personal nature than I would have thought to include in the project without her encouragement. Her publications, at least in my experience, are an unusual blend of art and literature with a strong focus on visual presentation.

HSP: In the book, you say “I tuck things away for safekeeping.” Do your family members have a sense that you remember things better than they do? Or differently? What has your family’s reaction been to the memoir you’ve written about your memories of your dad?

DR: I think I have a reputation of “not letting things go,” of holding on to bits of information for later use. In terms of my father and his art, I was probably very irritating at times in terms of keeping track of where everything was and of what had been photographed and what remained to be done. For several years it was a kind of compulsion to gather the complete record and document his art on a website I created as a sort of online archive. Now that the book is done and there is something to show for those years, family members are very supportive and, I think, touched that we now have this unique memento of our father, who, in many ways, was an enigma to us all.

As far as memory, I think I have an amazing memory and that I recall many incidents complete with dialogue and other details. Yet I have learned from working on memoir projects these past view years that memory is mutable and that my “truth” isn’t always someone else’s. Our minds all work differently and it has been interesting to hear my sisters’ different takes on the same events. I did have several family members review the manuscript before it was finalized and made a few tweaks in response to their comments, not because I had it “wrong” necessarily, but because different wording could better capture how we all remembered things. For example, as I tend to be more pessimistic by nature than my sisters, my take often reflects that bent.

One thing that has been very heartening, and affirming, is that several family members (immediate family, cousins, nieces, uncles) have remarked that I captured Joe Rice, that my portrayal of my father felt true to them. Also, my memories have triggered deeper remembering for them, which was an important reason for putting the book together, to keep his memory alive. Other readers (i.e. non family) have expressed that the portrayal of my father resonated for them because of their own communication issues with a parent, spouse or other loved one. It has invoked the universal difficulty inherent in really knowing another person, particularly when that person is far from transparent. Also the notion of a person quietly pursuing their passion for decades (art in this case) without fanfare and seemingly with no need or interest in any outside approval or acknowledgement has also been a source of inspiration and interest for readers, as it has always been for me.greenman copy

HSP: You write that your father “had a distinct way of speaking”–how do you think his speech, and to some degree, his art–reflect the man that you came to understand him to be? Do you feel like you truly knew him?

DR: Interesting question. I always assumed his speech–he would sort of hesitate as if gathering his thoughts and then speak slowly and clearly, enunciating in an almost exaggerated way–had something to do with having come to this country in his early teens from the Philippines. But thinking about it, it could also have simply been that he was a man of few words and he didn’t take them lightly. He always thought before, and while, he spoke. His best art, to me, is careful art–the plotted geometric and surrealistic images of the 60s and 70s, so perhaps there is some concordance there.

HSP: Can you talk about the intersection of your dad’s life with some of the interesting figures in San Francisco in the 60’s?

DR: My Dad was an extreme introvert, so his life didn’t intersect with anyone’s in any obvious way. However, he was well read and aware of what was happening in the art world and therefore conversant about artists and art trends. Some of my fondest memories are of visits to museums and galleries and discussions about tastes in art. Like me I suppose, my father was not a joiner, of anything, and he avoided most social events that weren’t mandatory.

HSP: What do you wish you could ask your dad now?

DR: Related to the question above, I wish I knew more about artists he admired, artists he may have worked alongside or taken classes from at the San Francisco Art Institute, or earlier in undergraduate or graduate school. I always wanted to know what art meant to him, why he did it, why he had no interest in sharing or showing. It honestly puzzled me that as his health began to decline it became clear he hadn’t kept any kind of record of the things he’d created, no notebook or list. I would mention paintings or show him something on my website and he would be surprised, pleased too usually, and say he’d forgotten all about that one.

But, to be honest, I realize there’s no use wishing I could ask him things as he probably wouldn’t have answered in any way that I would find satisfactory. I asked lots of things along the lines of my questions above while he was still alive and received monosyllabic responses at best, more often only a wry smile and a wrinkled brow, as if to say, “what’s it to you, nosey pants.”

HSP: I know The Reluctant Artist took several forms before it was a memoir and art book. What might readers be surprised to know about those earlier versions?

DR: Well, I was always inspired by my father and his art, but I had also always wanted to be a fiction writer. So initially I fictionalized his life and thought it could be some kind of novel. Then, when I began taking writing classes and going to workshops, one instructor suggested I turn my novel into a murder mystery to liven it up. “Throw a dead body onto page two,” was his exact advice. So I did that and spent several years churning out a murder mystery, complete with San Francisco Irish detective, crazed hippies, one victim tossed from the allegedly haunted tower at the San Francisco Art Institute, the other strangled with her pearls in a dank basement. Very noir, very lame, very out of my wheel house. That novel resides in a drawer in my office, well actually, on the floor behind my desk.

new Joe Rice photos 006 copy

HSP: What’s your next project?

DR: I am working on a memoir inspired by my experiences as a mother. I never planned to have kids yet I ended up having a child in my 20s, 30s and 40s, one every nine years, plus two stepsons who came into my life with my third marriage.

This year, with my youngest child leaving home for college in the fall, I find myself reflecting on the journey, three decades during which I have been many kinds of mother—single, married, step, involved, neglectful and merely misguided. That said, who knows where it will lead.

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The Reluctant Artist is available for purchase here.
More information about Joe Rice can be found here.
More information about Dorothy Rice can be found here.
Photos of Joe Rice’s artwork used with the author’s permission.

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Saturday afternoon we had a house full of humans.

We threw a housewarming party, and road-tested the new digs. For the first time in our lives, we have a house big enough to party. A house big enough to hold our larger-than-average families. A house big enough to open.

I couldn’t sleep the night before because hello, of course I couldn’t, so even though the better part of last week was spent spending and shopping, and doing, I woke up at 3:00 AM to try to worry myself into a successful fête. I nudged Eric and told him I was too nervous about the party to sleep and he murmured mmm and promptly rolled over. I had made an Ina-worthy checklist the night before (complete with timetable, you guys) but I was still consumed by my trademark middle of the night anxiety. So I did what any good HSP does, and I got out of bed at 4:00 AM to start cooking.

Actually, nobody tells you this (bakers, maybe?) but 4:00 AM is a nice time to cook. It’s super quiet and nobody is trying to steal anything you make, and you can cook in your PJs without anyone’s judgy eyes on you. I flipped on Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore kept me company while I chopped brussels sprouts and dipped things in chocolate. Not for the same dish, no.

I felt a lot of pressure to entertain well–I always do–I come from a line of warm hosts and hostesses, of people who know how to put some cheeses on a plate and make you feel welcome AF. So I had convinced myself I needed to get this right. All week as I was shopping and cleaning and planning, I found myself wondering what my parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents would do, and when it came time to answer the door, I was happy with how that strategy served me. I don’t have it down, yet, but I learned from the best.

I prepped everything I could (which took me until about 8:30 or 9, who can remember?), showered, ran to JoAnn Fabric one more time because I CAN’T PARTY WITHOUT WASHI TAPE FOR LITTLE TOOTHPICK APPETIZER SIGNS, and was home in time to style the craft project that lives on top of my head. Side note: I gave up on dressing/styling myself for school back in about September, when the house crap hit the fan, and that added an extra level of difficulty/awkwardness to Saturday’s dressing, hair curling, and heel-wearing. All was well, but my current girl game is weak. Perhaps I will continue to dress like a male PE coach for the remainder of the year and then style myself like a lady again for the fall of 2016.

Anyway. The party was a smash, and not because of anything I did–it was wonderful because my husband worked his tail off getting the constructiony things done, and I had help doing the kitcheny stuff, and my house was filled with love and friends and people who like us. People who were like damn, that was kind of an ordeal getting into this place, you guys, but hey why don’t you walk me around and point at your rooms? We had neighbors come by, old friends, new friends, family, and friends who are like family. Just the best mix of people.

By 7:30 PM my eyes were too tired to read, and I fell asleep at 8:00 without remembering to eat any dinner.

Sunday I just floated around on my cloud of clichés. I am lucky as all get out to have such a beautiful family, lucky to know so many wonderful people, lucky to have a home to bring everyone together. This feels like our grown-up house, like the space where we get to grow into the life we wanted at 19 (before we had any kind of clue how to get it).

But what should I read?

The number one email I get from friends and family members:

Hey, I know you read a lot. Do you have any book recommendations? I want to read something new, but I don’t have any ideas. I want something good… and not too weird.

So here are some things you could read. I am putting this here for myself as much as for the next few people who are curious about books. I can’t usually remember titles on the spot.

But know this: The more I read for reviews, the less I care about the labels good or bad. Those don’t have as much meaning to me anymore, and I’ll happily spend time with a book that’s outside of my own comfort zone because I’m interested in finding out who the right person is for that book. (Which is, my reading strategy, and probably should be the topic of another post.)

Also, a lot of what I read is weird. Part of that is by design–I like to read and review books from indie or small publishers, and often what gets published by those smaller places is content that’s not mainstream. So I know many of my reviews don’t appeal to a wide audience because those books wouldn’t (and those books are still valuable). But here’s an attempt to round up some recommendations for the masses. These are things I think most people would like, grouped by (sort of) their genre. Their HSP genre, that is… how I would describe them to you over a glass of wine and some delicious cheese.

An imperfect list in no particular order (with apologies to any book I forgot):

Weird, But Not Too Weird

So you want to read something outside the norm? Something artsy or dark? Something that will challenge your worldview a little? These books were so weirdly beautiful/tragic that I was completely drawn to them. All different subjects, all great writing, and all kind of bizarre.

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is a darkly comic book about three sisters trying to outlive a family curse. They descended from a Jewish chemist who invented Zyklon (a fictionalized Fritz Haber), and they spend their entire lives trying to pull together while dealing with a troubled family line. I reviewed it for the LA Times here.

Binary Star is a sad but alluring book by Sarah Gerard. I reviewed this one hereBinary Star is told from the point of view of a damaged anorexic on a cross-country journey with her (also) dysfunctional husband. Fun, right? I promise it’s good. Gerard’s language is beautiful and her characters see the world in terms of celestial bodies. It’s an amazing book.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is and end-of-the-world tale about a traveling band of musicians who roam around playing music and putting on Shakespeare’s plays for small towns in a post-apocalyptic America. A few of the characters are old enough to remember life before the event that took out most of the world’s population, and over the course of their journey they begin to solve a mystery from before things went south.

Tender Data by Monica McClure is a book of poetry. I reviewed it here for Electric Literature. McClure gets into issues of femininity and puts her speakers in direct confrontation with the world. It’s raw and sometimes messy, but the language is beautiful and you will be captivated by McClure’s honesty.

Stuff that Really Happened

There’s only one history writer for me, and it’s because I am totally, completely, hopelessly biased. Since I got to interview him last year, I’ve been blabbing to anyone who will listen about “best friend and National Treasure” David McCullough. But he can sure pen a historical tome. I promise I’ll get around to Doris Kearns Goodwin one day, but here are some recommendations of books I’ve read by BF/NTDM in the meantime. They won’t disappoint.

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John Adams, The Wright Brothers, and The Greater Journey all by David McCullough, all phenomenally rocking my socks.

What’s Happening Now

This is a book that provoked really strong feelings in me, which is why I think it’s important to read. As an educator in America, I really found it both moving and challenging. Coates doesn’t pull any punches.

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Based on Stuff That Really Happened

I’ve mentioned both of these books before, but (apparently?) I know a lot of people who are into historical fiction, so I will keep recommending them. Excellently researched and evocative works based on real women’s lives.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver is based on the life of Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph by Dorothea Lange. Silver writes in alternating perspectives of the photographer and the subject.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt tells a fictionalized story of a woman who dresses up like a man to fight in the Civil War (to spare her husband, who is too weak to fight). This really happened, and Hunt’s flair for the detail and language of the time bring his characters to life in an enjoyable, complex story.

When did we agree to call it Cali?

I have a bit of an obsession with books about California, something I can trace directly to the summer I spent reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Ever since, I’ve been captivated by authors who write California well, and these do:

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Sidewalking by David Ulin is nonfiction, a collection of essays about walking in LA. I interviewed Ulin here, and I loved this meandering book.

Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor is a gorgeous love letter to the Fresno Valley. I reviewed this book for LARB, and I am still so smitten with Taylor’s lush descriptions of fruit trees, wide open spaces, and grapevines. Fresno book? Yes please.

The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte is a small book about fog in San Francisco, and the author dealing with his brother’s suicide. It’s quiet, calm, and spellbinding. If you’ve ever sat on the beach and watched the fog consume the hills of the city, you will love this book. It haunted me.

Short on Time? Read in chunks.

I didn’t like short stories until grad school. In fact, other than whatever I was assigned at UC Davis as an undergrad, and whatever I prepped to teach, I hadn’t read a whole lot of short stories. But something happened when I started to read a lot of short story collections for reviews and my thesis in my last year of grad school–I fell in love. I really like short stories now, and I’m better at knowing how I should read them–I can’t sit down and devour them all at once like a novel. So here are some great things I’ve read in the last few years, and these are all good for picking up, putting down, and picking up again. They’ll transport you.

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The Color Master by Aimee Bender was the first book review I ever published. But it’s a wonderful book, and I had no trouble writing about how much I loved Bender’s work. A joyful, strange read.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin is a more recent read, and Berlin’s stories walk an amazing line between ordinary and macabre. Her protagonists write of real life without ever becoming self-indulgent. She gets to the heart of human emotion without ever sentimentalizing. She was a master of characterization in just a few words. I reviewed Cleaning Women for Las Vegas Weekly here, and I had trouble keeping my words short.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray is raw. Violent. Mysterious. And I loved it. Gray’s mind is dark and I couldn’t put these weird stories down. I reviewed this one for Ploughshares.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman isn’t too recent, but it bears mentioning because I love it so much. I read this one in grad school just before the author came to guest lecture. These are tragic, magical stories filled with love and awe.

Stories about Complicated Ladies

I don’t know what else to call these books. But they’re the kind of thing you can lose yourself in over a period of days, or use to transport yourself to another world of friendships, affairs, betrayal, and a whole host of issues about what it’s like to be a smart lady with all the feelings. I loved both of these, and they’re completely different from each other.

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is probably the book you’ve been overhearing your friends talk about. Go read it. It is the first of four books by Ferrante (a pen name, which somehow adds to the draw) about two friends in post-WWII Italy. I’m on the second one and it’s just as good. MBF follows the women through their girlhood and adolescence. It’s great.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum was the “it” book earlier this year. (It was touted as 50 Shades for the literary crowd). Jill was my poetry professor at UCR, but I promise you my fandom would be just as maniacal if I didn’t know her. This book felt like a rare treat–each sentence is beautifully constructed, and it’s a multi-layered story about a dangerous woman. Loved it.

What I’d Recommend to My Students

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I read Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet for a review at The LA Times, and I was really struck by how much this book carried a message that my AVID kids need to hear. It’s about a first-generation college student who doesn’t know how to handle college once she gets there. I would put it in any of my students’ hands in a heartbeat (and have already done so a couple of times).

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is the kind of book I’d recommend to my former AP kids. For some reason, Camus’ The Stranger really strikes a chord with a few students each year. Daoud’s masterful telling of the story from the perspective of the unnamed Arab’s (invented) brother is stunning.

Books Where Stuff Happens

A large portion of the conversations I have with my students about books have something to do with helping them find books “where things happen.” Many of them are impatient and don’t want to trudge slowly through a dry historical narrative to get to the good parts. If you’re looking for books where there is a lot going on all at once (and right away), these are some pretty good bets.

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Everyone and their mom has already read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. You might as well join the club. My sense is that you’ll either love it or hate it. (My two favorite emotions to have about a book!) I dug this book (and I stand by my review, even though I’ve talked to so many people who hated it). I think it’s a creative take on a crime novel. The main character doesn’t know if she did it.

All This Life by Joshua Mohr was a book I also reviewed, and it is one of the best constructed books I’ve read in a long time. Mohr weaves together the stories of many different people in San Francisco in this tale that examines how technology links us together–sometimes inextricably.

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg is another book where action takes center stage. Tod was my thesis advisor at UCR, and this book from last year shows what he does well–characters with complex inner narratives, often struggling to move forward in life. In this case, though, the guy struggling to move on is a criminal posing as a rabbi. It’s a fun book, and the main character’s deeper spiritual questions keep the work from being cliche. A fun read, but also thought-provoking.

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And there you go. Does that give you someplace to start? If you need more, you can find me over at Goodreads.

Dog Friend and October Things

I am happy as a clam, but I’m nowhere near as happy as Hurley, who has made it his personal mission to follow me around the new house. I suppose this isn’t too different from how he had to be near me in the old house, except the old house was so small that he didn’t have to get up. There are so many new dog places in the new digs. He’s been busy trying to never be more than two feet away from Mom.

The house is good. It doesn’t feel like ours yet, but I’m not complaining. I think this is due to two things: 1) it’s not in my head yet that we deserve something so nice. Yeah, I know that we are paying the mortgage, so I am not being completely ignorant about how it works to qualify for or pay a home loan. But space is so NICE. After you tell yourself for years that where you are and what you have is good enough, I think it just takes a while to adjust.

2) All of our stuff has a place to go. I have never experienced this in my married life, and since my married life is basically the history of my entire adult life, I have never experienced this in my entire adult life. No, all of our stuff is not here. But most of our regular day-to-day stuff is, and it fits in the cabinets. I can tell you that that was something I never imagined happening. Not because we had a crapload of stuff (I think we do okay, Marie Kondo-wise), but because the storage in our previous homes was just so teensy. Eric’s favorite room in the house is the giant pantry under the stairs, and I totally get it. When you can have your extra AppleJacks and your extra TP in the house, you are livin’ right. Thanks, Master’s degree!

UntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledDon’t go all OCD on me. Those TV wires are going in the wall, stat.

School is good. October is here and busy as ever with Homecomings and ordinary school doings, but that’s when I’m happiest. Everyone always has something to do, which means there’s less attention on everyone being new and having to prove how awesome they are. And if I manage my work (paper) load wisely,  by October it doesn’t get so out of control that I need to take days off so I can grade. My kids (students) get it–well, I hope, at this point–they get me and they get what The Mrs. Partington show is and is not going to be. It’s routine time, and I thrive on routine time. The monkeys are wrapping up swimming (shh… I can’t wait for a break from sports!) and even though I pretty much hate fall, I am ready for some time inside my new house under 25 blankets.

I haven’t done anything extraordinary lately in terms of reviewing, but I do find that having an office feels like an extravagance. It’s a luxury to leave my stuff out on my desk and to know I can walk in and sit down in a quiet room whenever I need to read or write. I’d been having a rough stretch while we moved from house to house, and now that we’re settled I feel like myself. Reviewing comes with occasional waves of self-doubt and frustration, and I (fingers crossed) think I’m heading out of a bad one. It helps that I have been reading good books–I’ve been excited to work through them on the page. I hope now that I am back working every morning again and since I have a place to “go” to work I can also get back to some serious pitching and planning. It should surprise absolutely nobody that I work better when I have a place and a plan.

So that’s October. I just read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly yesterday because I was having a bout of surgery-related pain (I know, still?) and I decided the cure was a long day in bed with a self-helpish book. I was inspired by everything Brown had to say, but particularly what she says about how we live in a culture that perpetuates the idea of scarcity. (I am not enough, I do not do enough, I’ll never be enough, I’ll never have enough… those tapes we play in our heads.) She says the antidote to the kind of misery and the shame that comes from that kind of thinking (the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to ruin any moment because we’re already thinking about how it can go wrong) is gratitude. Duh. But I mean, she’s right, and it didn’t hurt me to read it. (Brown’s TED talk is pretty good if you’re not the readin’ type.)

Anyhoo. I’m feeling thankful today, and I have so many reasons to be.