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!

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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.

Two Weeks Later

Two weeks ago I had my uterus removed. LAVH, which means I had small incisions by my hips and navel, the doctor filled my belly with gas and poked around with tubey cameras to make incisions, then removed my uterus, fallopian tubes, and cervix through an incision in the birth canal.

At least, that’s about as much of it as I can stand to Google. It grosses me out to think about the last part, and while I’m all for knowing what’s happening to my body, I’ve been unable to calm the queasiness that comes every time I read the details of this operation. Since I had both my kids via c section, the idea of delivering my uterus strikes me as ironic. Or odd, at least.

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What I’m not feeling right now is any kind of sadness about my uterus being gone. I’d read a lot about women who didn’t feel as feminine because they lost that part of themselves. I didn’t know if I’d feel that after it was gone. Not so far. But I never liked my uterus. It’s been a shitty relationship for 23 years, and even when it gave me those two amazing children, it was still a huge, uncomfortable and awkward pain. I never had easy periods or pregnancies, so I can’t say I feel a sense of loss about that part of my body. I am sure when I’m not having to miss work or spend days in bed every month I’ll be even more glad. Adios.

I do feel a loss of possibility, even though the rational part of me knows that the possibility was already gone, since several years ago Eric and I decided we were done having kids. We figured out that we didn’t need new babies, just missed was our two as little ones. No amount of hanging on, martyring myself with a busted, miserable uterus was going to make that possible. Right now the worries I have about the space where my uterus was are about complications in the future. In a fit of pain and sleeplessness the other night, I started Googling what can go wrong after a hysterectomy, and that was a bad, bad idea. It will take a while for me to forget some of those words.

If I’m honest, my overwhelming feeling right now is fear of aging. Fear of living in a body that’s declining in performance rather than one that bursts with possibility. My hysterectomy underscored my mortality. And while I don’t feel old, or bad, or sad, I know I’m constantly checking my watch at the party. This is fun, but I know someday it will end. Have you read Sharon Olds’ poem, “35/10”? At our house it’s 36/12, but the sentiment is the same. Time is passing, man.

So. Recovery. It’s going, but it’s going so much slower than I had hoped. So here are some details (none of them more disgusting than anything you’ve already read, if you’re still with me). AKA: What I wish someone had told me about LAVH.

I was in and out of the hospital in one day–checked in at about 6:30 and home before 3:00. My doctor told me the requirement to leave and go home sans catheter was that I had to pee on my own, so I spent one very drowsy and determined half hour in the bathroom immediately after surgery. Once I proved myself, I was released and I was home in my bed. Not to be outdone, Henry came up with a sudden case of the stomach flu at school that day, so I didn’t see the kids a lot until we were sure I wouldn’t catch whatever thing he had.

One of the doctors told me I’d be nauseous when I got home, and they gave me multiple meds to combat it. What I didn’t do was read the side effects of the pain or nausea pills they gave me. If I would have, I would have known that they caused blurry vision and dizziness. Maybe I wouldn’t have fallen down on my way back to bed from the bathroom that night, hitting my head on the door frame and cutting my cheek on the dresser. Two days later I also discovered that the splitting headache I had was from the same medicine. I felt a lot better once I was off that and the Norco.

The worst pain for the first five days–and it was awful–was from the gas they used to inflate my abdomen so they could see with the cameras. I know, you’re like haha gas. Not that kind of gas, because that kind of gas lives in your digestive tract and no matter how bad it is on a scale of one to fire sauce burrito, you know it’s going to eventually exit. Not this gas. This gas is just in the space outside your organs, and it can’t leave. Every time you move, it makes you want to die. Stabbing, shooting pain in your shoulders. Roiling bubbles across your guts. Pressure and discomfort like you wouldn’t believe. My doctor told me my shoulders would hurt (“don’t call us if you have shoulder pain,” she said), but this was so bad and so painful that I am still having trouble finding the words to describe it. In the first week my incision felt fine and I wasn’t really moving around so gravity had yet to have her way with me, but the gas? GOD DAMN, YOU GUYS. I’m just keeping it real. I wished I could cut a hole in my side to let it out.

It took me four days to leave my bed and get to my couch. It took me a week and a half to feel strong enough to walk past my mailbox. I just started driving again yesterday. I feel good and stronger every day, but I feel sore and tired. Gravity doesn’t help, especially the area surrounding the internal incisions. My ex-cervix. The longer I stand, the more unbearable that feels, but the pain seems to migrate to different areas of my stomach, depending on the day. My ab muscles feel weak and I am sure this contributes to not feeling like I can stand up for a long period of time. I miss being strong, feeling like my body can move with a semblance of agility and fortitude. I feel stupid fragile.

Before the surgery I told myself this would be no big deal because I’d had two caesarians and I knew what that was and that I could do that, not sleep, feed a baby and still manage to move around. I have not been handling this as well as the caesarians, and either this means a) I am a weak soul, a shivering baby bird of a person, or b) it’s just different. I am trying to convince myself that it’s b. Am I glad I did it? Not today. Today I feel pissed off that I’m wasting my summer, and angry that I can’t really leave the house for any period of time that amounts to anything. It’s been hard to ask for what I need constantly, and hard to rely on other people for so long. I think I’ll eventually be glad I did this, but I’m not there yet.

I have eaten the full gamut of Things Heather Loves, from peanut butter M&Ms to Cheetos to ICEEs to gummy bears and two kinds of Oreos. I am glad I lost 18 pounds before surgery, because post-op, I wanted comfort foods, and my comfort foods skew decidedly lowbrow and high sugar. Eric has been so good to me, taking care of every single thing I needed. My friend Kitty stopped by with something for me every day, sat with me and talked so I’d feel like a real person. My sister scooped my kids up and delivered dinners without making me ask for anything at all. My parents, my grandparents, everyone has sent food and love and hugs. My room looked like a florist’s shop. It is good to be loved and cared for. It’s only hard to be a patient patient.

Henry said I’m different since my surgery. When I asked him how, he said “well, when the doctors removed the part of your body where a baby grows, I think they also took out the part of you that makes you embarrassed to talk about poop.”

So there you go, Internet.

Here are some pictures of what I’ve been up to. Spoiler alert: not much.

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Summer Reading List

I love summer reading. Most books are better read outdoors–a phenomenon I became aware of during my preteen cat mystery obsession. Sacramento summers provide lots of opportunities for sweaty outdoor reading while guzzling ice water.

Since high school I’ve been using summer to get ahead on my work. There never seemed to be enough time to read everything during the school year, so summer became about preparation. Getting things read so they were off my plate. This didn’t change when I started teaching, and grad school necessitated that I read ahead so I could meet all my deadlines. But the other side of summer reading is freedom. When you decide at age 13 that you’re going to teach English (then write stories, then review them), your normal life is going to mostly be about assigned reading. So many of my summers were the only time to read what I wanted to read. As an adult, I try to make my summer reading list a mix–getting ahead and indulging in something fun. This year is no exception.

What’s on my summer reading list this year? Books of all different types, it turns out. And–as always–the hope that I’ll get through one monster, one Big eFfing Book. The BFB.

Car Buddies

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I happily let Colin Firth read this story to me as I ran errands in my car: Graham Greene’s moody and obsessive 1951 novel, The End of the Affair. I’m haunted by this book in a really good way. Something about Firth’s accent and the structure of the story (maybe the cold way these lovers regard each other?): it begins at the end of a relationship, and it unwinds slowly. I couldn’t get enough. This may be unrelated, but Mr. Firth is invited to drive around with me and tell me any stories he’d like.

Learning Things

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The opportunity to interview David McCullough about his book, The Wright Brothers, for Goodreads was a huge surprise. And he was delightful–speaking with him ranks as one of my favorite experiences, ever. It also earned me more cred with my best friend, father, and grandfather than I could’ve ever hoped for. But even though I was familiar with Mr. McCullough’s work and a huge fan of the HBO series based on his biography of Adams, I hadn’t read more than fragments of his other books. So lately I’ve fallen into a nice rabbit hole of American history. His style is so conversational and easy, and it’s lovely to read to learn about something. I’m not sure if that makes sense? I hope everything I read makes me a little smarter, but usually I’m reading for style and literary content. I’m usually learning about feelings. It’s nice to read for information. It feels like it uses a different part of my brain. I love history, and I’ve loved every page of his work I’ve read.

The Wright Brothers is exactly that, the story of the two Ohio gentlemen that changed the world. The Greater Journey is about Americans in the mid-1800s who went to Paris to learn everything they could; they wanted to go and study so they could bring back art, medicine, and culture. Since I was in Paris almost a year ago, this was really fun–I could picture exactly what parts of the city he was writing about, and I had no idea about most of the history in the book. John Adams was fascinating, and besides giving me even more respect for the relationship President Adams had with his wife, Abigail, it was such an interesting look into the early American experience. It gives me hope that we were so messed up then and we still managed to make it work.

I’m hoping to dive into 1776 next.

Core Work

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Lately I am acutely aware of the relationship of all stories. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this series for Ploughshares, so I’m searching out connections, but I have felt for the last 6 months or so like I’m building a lifetime independent study course. I read things for fun, but even the things I read for fun end up circling back to things I’ve studied. Eventually it’s all material for the same project. This is kind of exciting, if you think about it–I just read this article about biliotherapy and how sometimes books are prescribed to people for various conditions. But I’m thinking of this in a looser sense–I’m building the kind of person I want to be, and accessing the information I want to know. It’s all working together.

So. In that vein, I read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. Mostly, I was just curious, since the Arab’s perspective in Camus’ The Stranger is certainly something I’d discussed with my AP students. Camus was huge for me in the years I taught AP English. I talked to Literary Disco about the book just last year. But I’m curious about anything that examines a story from a different side. I read it just for fun, but by the time I finished the (short) novel, I had pitched it as a post. I had too much to say to keep it to myself. So that’s coming soon.

My Brilliant Friends

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Do you ever read books just so you can fit in with your peer group? That’s what happens when you go to grad school. If someone reads a great book, you read it too, so you don’t feel like the dumb one the next time you’re all standing around chugging martinis. Well, you still might, but at least you’ve read all the cool things. You can nod with authority.

My friend group has such good literary taste and reads so voraciously that I can barely keep up. But I finally had time to read Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleventhe other day, and it did not disappoint. And if you like Shakespeare (me!) and Star Trek: Voyager  (me!) there’s a few details that might make your day. My friends, as usual, were right. Station Eleven is thoughtful and well-written. Up next in Books My Friends Said Were Decent is the first in the Neapolitan novels series, My Brilliant Friend. And yes, I do have to look up how to spell Neapolitan. Every time.

Real Work

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I had pitches accepted to review both Phoef Sutton’s Crush and Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness in translation. Neither one of them seems like it’s really going to be work to read. Sometimes I can’t believe that reading books is my job.

BFB

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Every summer I read something enormous, something that I think is too challenging for me and something that I want to read just so I’ve read it. Like running a marathon. Summer offers the opportunity to get through something that will take me a looooong time. Something I need to walk through carefully. Slowly. Methodically.

I haven’t decided yet what the BFB will be this year, but right now the two front-runners are Infinite Jest and War and Peace. Really.

Aim high, kids.

June One.

Hello, June. Hello, real life.

I wish I had better reasons for not writing anything lately. Not just here, but writing anything other than book reviews. But I have no reasons because I don’t even have the head space to think of reasons.

When I look back at 2015 and try to remember what it was about, I am sure that all I will remember about this time is that I sat in my car. I sat in my car or I drove a child somewhere in my car, and I tried to hold on to a thought for longer than five minutes. In 2015, I felt like I might never hold on to a thought for more than five minutes, ergo, I might never be able to write any fiction again. Or feign to work at writing any good fiction. (Because being a writer is mostly about looking off into space and thinking the same thought for a really long time, right?) In 2015, I had so many ideas, and they were all gone by the time I pulled into my driveway.

Yes, it’s fun, seeing each of my kids find a way through the world, and junior high (for the big one) has been something so alien to our entire family that it took all our combined willpower to get her through the first year. But while I’ve been able to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of waking up early so I can write my book reviews and not feel panicky about that (mostly), I am unable to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of creativity. Because creativity needs some freaking space, and my brain is mostly full of things like: 7:05, leave the house. 7:12, drop Henry at Grandma’s. 7:22, say goodbye to Addie before PE. 7:50, run to the restroom before class starts. 9:55 sneak out of class during the last five minutes so you can make it to the restroom again before all the kids are in the hall. 11:15, lock classroom door so you can eat without talking to 9th graders. 1:05, run to restroom again before the next class starts pounding on the door. 2:20 try to get to Henry before he’s the last lonely kid in the parking lot. Etcetera. And there’s a lot of me having to say “really?!?” to kids and shooting mean looks around.

This, too: I’ve been trying to lose weight since January. Succeeding, slowly. But I will maintain until I die that some part of my creativity comes from consuming doughnuts and ICEEs and pretzels and red licorice, and that carby/fun part of me is being brutally repressed for a little while longer.

Anyway. I’m home. It’s quiet, and I just finished the last review I need to write for three weeks. I’m having some minor surgery next week, so the break in work isn’t really a break, but not reading for work and not writing for work and not going to work–that feels a little bit like a guilty thing I’m doing just for myself. I’ll take it. I don’t really know what to expect this summer. We’ve purposely kept our schedule open since I don’t know how I’ll handle the surgery. Before you ask: It’s a hysterectomy. Not a secret, not major, and not life-threatening, just something I need to do so I can stop being in agony every month. I’m a little sad to say goodbye to some part of my body that gave me these awesome kids. And I’m a little sad that I’m not packing for some European adventure like I was last summer. But in addition to riding in my car, 2015 just needs to be about evicting my bum uterus. As soon as I do that I can get back on a plane.

For now I am just happy to be home with my (almost) eighth grader. Happy that all of the problems of the school year will fade over the next few weeks. I’m hopeful I find space enough to keep my thoughts, to turn them over and let them become something more than a passing idea.

We’ll see. If not, at least I get to lay by the pool and eat fresh tomatoes.

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I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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Doing and Not Doing

Mostly, it feels like I’ve been standing in line at Ulta.

Do you notice how there are always about fifteen people working there, yet there is always a line to the back of the store? Hate. Shout out to my new favorite eyebrow pencil, however: Anastasia Brow Wiz in Caramel.

But what I’ve been doing? Teaching. Cat snuggling. Books, and walking to podcasts. Oh, and a short Super-Bowl-avoidance shopping trip.

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What am I not doing? I think that’s more interesting–at least to me. Most of my worry time is devoted to it, anyway. Since December, I haven’t written any fiction. Zip. I tried once and all I got was two confused pages.

I feel like such a loser. Way to use your MFA, HSP. I sent my friend Faye a letter the other day, and I whined about this for about two pages (yep, I totally could have put that time to good use writing a damn story–or, you  know, this time I’m using right here to blog). But I’m struggling to get a story out. Really struggling. Anything.

Why is this? I have all kinds of excuses. The first is that I have been really busy with review work–a blessing, the best, happiest kind of blessing–but this is also a time of change. I haven’t found equilibrium yet. Damn if I’m not predictable about what sets me spinning.

Excuse #2: My whole family has been sick. Fortunately (and it’s just a teensy bit hard to admit this, but I will) I didn’t get as sick as the rest of them because I was the only one who had a flu shot. But one or another of us has been down for about three weeks. Lots of missed work for sickies. I’ve also had some ladyparts problems again, which has meant a shitton of doctors appointments of one kind or another. And a lot of laying down while they put me into giant tubes (nothing wrong, just a hassle, and time). While it’s been a time of gratitude about our double medical insurance, it hasn’t been my most productive moment for the written word.

Excuse #3: I’m trying to lose weight, which means I hate everything.

But so what, Whineypants. I know. None of that matters when it comes to what I want for myself. Do I want to be a writer of fiction? I do. And if I do, that means putting my money where my mouth is. Or maybe a more apt way to say it is that it means putting my butt into my chair. Making myself write the stories that I know I need to tell. Something. I haven’t figured it out yet. I like systems, and for this I don’t have one. Fiction feels like it needs space — in my head and in my day. I haven’t found that. Not that kind, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. Things are good. I have work. I have a routine. I have a way to make it work with my day job and my family. I have myself figured out when it comes to reviewing, and I just recently found my maximum capacity. That’s a strength, in a way, to know how much you can and cannot handle. Now I do.

But this is how it is: the job of critic will always come with crises of confidence. I go along fine, read-read-read, write-write-write, and then I get another wave of who am I to say what I think about a book? Nobody cares about you, English teacher who still lives in the town where she went to high school. That feeling is stronger from time to time and I know to ride it out — it eventually passes. But lately I wonder if I can be a critic if I’m not also walking the walk. If I’m not putting my words on the page, if I’m not sending out stories, do I even get to write about what other people have done? This is just a different kind of worry.

So that’s where I am this week. What I am doing? It’s not work. Not the right kind, at least.

Couple o’ Apps

I’m using two new-to-me iOS apps consistently for freelance work, and I thought they were worth sharing. Both are free (woo!) and both are helping me manage my kazillion different projects.

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Genius Scan

Need to sign and contract and send it back to someone? No scanner? (Actually, I have a scanner but it takes 10 minutes to warm up and then another 10 minutes for me to remember how to use it.) I’ve been using this app to scan documents for about a year and it works great.

Genius Scan makes your phone work like a scanner. Take a picture of a signed document, and the app turns it into a PDF, which you can email. Need to sign and send multiple pages in one PDF? It lets you do that, too. There’s a (pay) option to fax, but do people still use fax machines? Is it 1987?

Anyway, Genius Scan rocks my socks.

Toggl

This is a more recent discovery, but I really like it too. For months I’ve been trying to track how I spend my time on freelance/review projects. I’ve been doing this using pencil and paper (which is fine), but usually I have to do a little bit of math to figure out how long I devoted to each task. Boo, math.

This app lets you start a timer (online or on your phone) and label it–under project–and it keeps track of your total hours spent on each thing. If you’re tracking this kind of thing, the reports are really helpful. And you know how I enjoy a good report.

Nobody sponsored this post. I just like both of these things.

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Oh, and: This isn’t something I’m using for writing, but the Pact app is sure keeping me honest (and making me go to the gym). I can recommend that one, too.

Can you recommend any good apps? I’m always looking for something new.

10 ways to read more. Even if it’s boring.

UntitledIt’s not as difficult as you’d think to read more books. I’m not a particularly fast reader, and I certainly don’t have very much free time. But in 2014 I read 66 books, for a grand total of 18,863 pages. Best reading year ever.

I get asked pretty often about how I manage to read so much. Of course, I do like to read and chose two jobs for myself that necessitate reading. But I watch a shitload of bad TV, you guys. And liking to read doesn’t mean I’m predisposed to getting a lot of it done. Until a few years ago, I was pretty much only reading the novels I was teaching. I didn’t read for fun unless I was on vacation. When I started an MFA program, I realized that I needed to find a way to make reading work in my daily life. When I started working as a book critic, I needed even more strategies. And I’m not talking about the standard “stop reading if you find you hate a book” advice. Sometimes it’s worth knowing how to read even if you’re not feelin’ it.

How to Read More

1. Know how long it’s going to take.

This seems like it would make the task more daunting, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. This helps me so much. If I know how long a book will take, I’m more likely to know how (and if!) it will fit into my life. I am less likely to be surprised when I’m not finished. I realized in grad school that I needed to plan specific chunks of time for reading and writing if I was going to actually do them.  I’d spent my previous academic career in a state of constant worry: When I was I going to get my reading done? Why did I sometimes have extra time and sometimes run out of time? I spent a lot of time in college trying to stay up late to finish books and papers, which means I spent a lot of time crying while I half-assed things. I have two kids and an incredibly demanding day job that comes with its own homework. I couldn’t do that willy-nilly shit anymore.

So I sat down one day to read for an hour just to see how far I’d get. I tried to pay attention for a while to see if I was close to an average number of pages per hour. What I discovered is that I read about 50 pages an hour, average. This can vary, of course, depending on the typesetting of the book, or how old the material is (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), but I am always close to that average. If a book is 200 pages, that’s a four-hour book. If a book is 300 pages, it’s a six-hour book. This helps me to choose things based on how they’ll fit into my life. (This is why I chose to read Middlemarch over the summer, not when I was in school.) I mean, I look at the length of a movie before I go. Why not figure out the run time of a book?

Once I know a book is going to take me six hours to read, it’s generally very easy to figure out when I can do that. It might be three hours a day on two weekend days. Or if I want to get it done during the week, four days of reading for an hour and a half. There’s something great about the word “only”–if I tell myself I only have to read for an hour and a half on a particular day to stay on schedule, I am free to quit and walk away when that time is up. And if I want to keep reading? Bonus.

Of course, most people don’t have to get through a book by a deadline. I still think it helps to have an idea of how long a book will take you, even if you only read for ten minutes a day. Are you willing to live with that particular story for the next three months?

2. Give yourself permission to be lame.

I have this post it note on my computer monitor at work: You don’t have to be great today. Just do your job. It works for reading, too. Many, many times the fear of not being perfect (or not getting a whole job done, or not doing something the “right” way) is enough to keep me from doing it at all. That’s stupid. I’m trying to be more forgiving with myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading for more than a half hour. Sometimes I can only read 5 pages before my kids interrupt. Sometimes I can’t really concentrate. Sometimes I read and I don’t understand what I read. Sometimes I have to read a chapter over and over just to get it. I used to only read when I could stay in bed for an entire day and binge. I can’t really do that now, but that’s no reason to avoid reading altogether. Nor are any of my other fears about not reading “right.” Reading a little, even inefficiently, is always going to be better than not reading at all.

3. Take your book with you.

Reading in boring situations is the best. My favorite thing to do is to avoid the task at hand. I’m awesome at not doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Carry your book. Avoid work. (This post on Zen Habits confirms that I’m not the only person who finds more time to read this way.) If I can make reading feel like avoidance behavior, like a cheat, it’s indulgent. If I’m at a meeting that’s running long, or if I’m stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, or if I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for my kids to get out of school, reading always seems like more fun than just sitting. I have to be there, anyway. Once I got used to carrying a book, I started to feel like something was missing if I forgot it. I know I could be playing solitaire or crushing candy or scrolling through the latest gossip headlines, but at the end of the day none of those leave me with anything to show for my efforts. If I read while I’m bored and waiting, I can at least get ahead. Little bits add up.

4. Think of reading like a treat.

This is a mental game I play with myself all the time. Do I love to read? Hells yeah. Does that mean I always want to read? NOPE. The minute I catch myself wanting to complain about having to read, I stop and change my mindset. Reading is definitely a “get to,” not a “have to.” As a literate, thoughtful person, it’s a privilege for me to read. It’s never a chore. (And when that doesn’t work because the reading still feels like work, I remind myself that I could be digging a ditch or having to smile at other humans for my job. That usually does the trick and I snuggle right back into my quilt and my book.).

Reading is relaxing. It’s good for your mental health. It’s wonderful to sit or lay still during a busy day, whether it’s at the beginning, middle, or end of it. Read outside. Read under a blanket. Read with a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy it, because it is a luxury.

5. Pay yourself first.

Procrastination is a losing battle. I read recently that procrastination is the hope that you’ll suddenly want to do something later that you don’t want to do now. That has never happened to me in my life. I hate the same things at the end of the week that I hate on Monday. Pushing a task off until later only makes me enjoy my free time less. If I have to read and I’m not particularly enthused about the book, I make myself get it over with. I jump right in. That way it doesn’t hold any power over me and as soon as I’m done with it, I’m free to goof off. You show yourself generosity by completing boring tasks quickly; you give yourself some truly free time after you’re done.

But that doesn’t address the idea of reading things you want to read, which is sometimes equally difficult to fit into your schedule. I think that comes down to priorities. Either you want to do something, or you don’t. If you want to read more, quit making excuses and just read more. I try to think of the hours in my day like money. I only get so much and then it’s all gone. This really makes me feel better when I “pay myself first” by doing the things that matter the most to me before I do anything else. I deserve to do the things that make me feel fulfilled, not just the things I have to do. Sometimes the only way to do that is to make sure I read before I do anything else. I’ve developed a habit of reading in the mornings before my family gets up.

6. Don’t give your time to stupid stuff–unless you choose it.

AKA, don’t watch anyone read the internet to you on TV. Gretchen Rubin calls this “potato chip news.”  You know what she means. Just watch local news one day and pay attention to how much anchors talk just to fill time. I catch myself gobbling up potato chip news when I’m waiting for the forecast, or waiting for a story that’s teased before a commercial. That’s ridiculous. It’s 2015. I have a device in my pocket that tells me the weather. It also will tell me who was nominated for an Academy Award, or what the latest study says about eating beets, or what I’m supposed to be terrified of this week. I don’t have to ever watch a commercial again. There is no reason to sit and watch any show that regurgitates the internet. (Watch a morning show, and note how desperately they read things from Twitter in attempt to be relevant.) Get your own Twitter account. Scroll fast and skip the potato chips.

The point is, if I catch myself falling down the rabbit hole of stupid news (or re-runs of reality TV, just “watching whatever is on,” etc), I try to at least think about whether or not I could be spending my time more efficiently. This is not to say that I don’t waste hours of my life doing things that most people would find ridiculous. But I’m happy to spend my time on inane things when I choose them.

7. Get into audio books.

Ignore the voice (real or imagined) that tells you audio books aren’t real books. Is it a different act to listen than to read words on a page? Sure. Do you hear the words? Do they go into your head? Yep. You read that. If it isn’t “real,” so WHAT? I listened to Anna Karenina while I trained for a marathon, and I have amazing memories of running with Vronsky and Anna. Last year I listened to The Goldfinch on long walks through my neighborhood, and I was just as moved by antique furniture restoration as I would have been holding the book. I’ve loved some of the stories I’ve heard more than the ones I’ve read with my eyes. Enjoy the words however they get into your brain.

8. Get a buddy.

I’ve never been in a book club, but I’m desperate to talk to people about stories. I find writing reviews scratches this itch. Maybe all it takes for you is having a friend read the same book at the same time. Everything is better when it’s shared. I love when my husband or a close friend read a book with me. Try to find a reason for reading, and you’re more likely to stick to it.

9. Have a goal.

I like to see my little ticker go up on Goodreads. Set a goal for yourself, even if it’s small. It feels good to make progress.

10. Give yourself permission to hate what you read. Read anyway.

I firmly believe this: If you can make yourself read things that are challenging (even if these things are boring), you are going to have more opportunities in your life. Let me say this another way: If you only ever read things that feel easy, good, or exciting, you’re limiting yourself.

I read things all the time that are hard to get through. Sometimes this is for work, sure. But sometimes it’s because I need to learn. Sometimes I want to read an opinion that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I read bad writing so I know how I don’t want to write. Many times I read about people who are not like me. Sometimes I read things that are beyond my reading or comprehension level and I work so hard just to understand. Not always. God no. I read a lot of fluff. But if you tell yourself you only have to read things  you like, after a while you will run out of books. Reading will get tedious. I guarantee it. If you give up on every book that doesn’t feel just right, you might not ever discover something really great that’s different. Maybe the book is about to get SO good, and you missed it by putting it down. Maybe you are about to get so good as a result of reading it.

I know that’s not popular advice. And this is not sexy, but here’s how you read more. Even when it’s boring: You keep going, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I ran a marathon that way: slow as hell. If you keep reading, and if you don’t stop, you will make progress. And the more you read, the more you’ll want to.

Flaubert-isons

How do I really spend my time? You think I’d know, since I plan every variable (exercise, sleep, work hours, pages to read) like a madwoman. But I haven’t really thought about how it all shakes out into percentages. Last week sometime (in a post I can’t find now) I read someone’s goal for the new year was to keep the work/fun balance by trying for 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure.

Sounds nice, right? I had no idea if I was anywhere close to that. And then this morning I saw this post from Colossal about famous creatives and how they spent each day. Of course I dropped everything to crack open an Excel sheet and color-code my own day. I didn’t have to even tell you that.

Verdict? Using the categories from the Colossal infographic, my day looks like this:

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My design skills are out of this world. I know.

On an average day, I spend 8 hours sleeping, 7 hours at my day job, 3.5 in “other” (which basically means driving kids somewhere, cleaning, or cooking a meal), 3 hours on food/leisure, 1.5 on creative work, and 1 on exercise.

If I’m sick (like this week) or have too much review work to do, I skip the gym and end up doing creative work from 4:30-6:00 AM, too.

So?

It reveals both my propensity for charting things and the fact that I do not have nearly enough hours in my day. It also reveals what I fundamentally feel, which is that I wish I had more yellow (leisure) and pink (creative) on my chart. I’ll be glad when I can scale back the green (day job) to do this. But I feel so pleased about my sleep habits. No single other thing I’ve done in the last year has made me more happy. Everything is easier with more sleep, harder with less. Kind of cool to lay it all out so I can compare it to, you know, Flaubert.

Hey, and [shameless plug!] speaking of making comparisons to authors, I have a piece up at Ploughshares today where I do just that. Here’s an excerpt:

I love art from other art. Ballets inspired by narratives. Garments influenced by architecture. Paintings that translate sound into color. Recognizable connections light up our synapses. We like things that remind us of other things, particularly if the connections are clever. (How else do you explain the popularity of “Weird Al” Yankovic?) Inspired work honors its source, but often it also begins a conversation. Many of the best literary examples don’t just use an original plot for a model, but reanimate the language of the older work to create something new. When an author uses work this way, the tension between two texts adds gravity to them both.

Read the rest…

Monday Links

Morning, world!

Looks like today the literary scene is back in business. Or at least, my little corner of the scene in Smalltown, USA. I have a review up this morning in the January issue of Bookslut:

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Characters in Thomas Pierce’s new collection of short stories, Hall of Small Mammals, are observers. Pierce juxtaposes science and faith, and his stories show how they share a desire to explain and label the world. Seeing truth is central to his characters’ understanding of life around them — obliteration of fear, faith in humanity (or man’s ability to thrive), and the order of the animal kingdom are ideas that bleed from one story to the next. Pierce’s characters live in the overlap of a science-faith Venn diagram.

Click here to read the rest.

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It’s also a good morning for me because The Millions’ Great 2015 Book Preview is up. I get asked all the time how I choose books to review. This is how.

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And while you’re poking around the interwebs, take a gander at this interview with one of my favorite authors, Megan Mayhew Bergman. Her book, Almost Famous Women, is out tomorrow.

I am happy in the New Year.

Good Morning, 2015!

Let’s start writing up some resolutions so we can cross those bad boys off.

I’ve been thinking about goals this week. I have zero success with setting or keeping any real New Year’s resolutions. I tend to use New Year’s as my personal excuse to daydream. (Read: I usually try to write things down that are either so broad or so impossible, it won’t matter if I fail.) But I always find that whatever I accomplish in a year is influenced–at least a little–by the thoughts I had in January.

Is this how you do a resolution? Am I bad at resolutions, or good? Can you also please explain to me what is on the back side of belly buttons?

I digress.

I’ve been reading about how resolutions are better framed as habits we want to establish than finish lines. This speaks to me. I could say I’m going to publish a short story this year, America. But that’s really dependent on so much luck and right timing, no? It could happen, and I’d feel great for ten minutes, or it could not happen (likely!) and I’d have to walk around and feel like shit 365 days in a row because of something out of my control. What I could say is I’m going to spend at least one day a week sending out story submissions. That way I will have a shot at feeling like a champ (weekly!) even if I don’t win the publishing lottery. You know? I get 52 chances to feel like I win. And by sending all of those submissions I will have increased my chances. I will get to feel like the gold star student for just trying.

This is my wheelhouse, people: resolutions that are habits I want to get to rockin’. (And they’re not all about books. Don’t worry.)

Resolved:

  1. I will move my body through space at least three days out of the week. I will give myself permission to do shitty workouts because a shitty workout is always better than no workout. Whenever possible, I will exercise in the morning so I am free from thinking about it for the rest of the day.
  2. I will write letters frequently. With my hand. And mail them to other humans via the United States Postal Service. Related: I will buy stamps and keep them on me.
  3. I’ll maintain a system for tracking the books I’m pitching, reading, and reviewing. I will write things down in the same way and in the same places. Every time.
  4. I will cook as many meals as possible. I will enjoy the amazing cornucopia of produce that is California’s Central Valley. But I will also eat gummy bears and drink tequila because I like fun.
  5. I will read for work, for pleasure, to learn, to understand, and to become more like the people I admire. I am free to read terrible books with great enthusiasm and great books with terrible enthusiasm.
  6. I will give my time to people I love. I will give time generously to myself.
  7. I will get as close to 7-8 hours of sleep as possible. Every single night.
  8. I will my work done early and as quickly as possible. That way I can fritter away my free time without guilt.
  9. I will put money into savings each month for travel.
  10. I will get as much of the following into my life as I can: flannel, ICEEs, long runs in nature, cat feet, hugs, Sharpie gel highlighters, waves on my toes, cups of coffee, fancy stationery sets, lipsticks that make me feel like I have a role on The Good Wife, book reviews, naps in the sunbeam, badass mentors, drinking buddies, and braised meats.