New essay: My 2018 in Books

2018 found me aphasic, trying to read, write, and pretend I was fine while my language skills unraveled. This was a side effect of the drug, Topamax, prescribed to me for migraines and epilepsy. I lost nouns, verbs, and names. Not great for a critic. I spent most of the year stymied and confused. Aphasia is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It’s also called Dysnomia; the language of losing language is cruelly euphonic…

Read the rest at Medium.

Treading

I’m as cranky as ever about our life on a sport schedule. Yes, I do think my kids swimming competitively is wonderful and yes, I know it makes me a jerk to complain about it. My crankiness has changed a little over the last few years. Does this matter? I am 100% less resentful of having to sit at the pool for an hour or two while the kids swim laps; I am 100% more excited about watching them compete. But practice? Pfft. I find the pool calming and I generally find it to be a good place to work (in my car at the pool, that is). Eric and I share driving duties. But I’m still cranky about the usual things: having to talk to other parents, having to eat dinner at weird times, having to not see my husband most nights, having to cajole the kids into putting on suits when they feel tired/angry/hesitant.

This is parenting. This is parenting. This is parenting.

Eric just left to pick up Addie from the pool, after driving cross-town twice to get them both there and then bring Henry home after he was done so he could avoid the wind. I just stayed home to stare at the wall. Tonight, everything is difficult. I thought that not having Henry play baseball this year was going to mean more ease. Ha.

AWP and LATFOB blinded me–as all writing/book gatherings do–with a flash of too-bright inspiration, followed by a heady sadness. Sadness for what? Nothing real. I’ve visited nerd land enough times to know it is a magical fairy illusion–one where I wear my best clothes and my best hair and most eager smile–and one that in no way corresponds to the life where I go to Costco to buy TP, or tell my freshmen every day to sit down and do school. I have zero desire to try to live in that imaginary space, and in fact I leave these nerd conventions feeling exhausted. But I also usually feel sad, a reasonless sad that seems to always manifest in a frustration with my schedule, lack of time, lack of energy for doing everything I want to do, etc. So today I’m pissed at swimming. I’m pissed at my job. I’m pissed at the hours it takes every day to transport two kids up from schools just miles from our house. I’m pissed that tonight when I went to cook rice, we were out of rice. So dumb. It’s the chafe of wants against have-tos, the old feeling like I have to be too many things to too many people, when I want to be alone, in my red sweat pants, writing for me (or, let’s be real, for someone who wants to pay me in US currency). I want to ditch the Mrs. Partington persona and shut down the HSP show. I want write and be impolite and and have energy for it and walk out of my office occasionally for hugs from my three people. Swimming gets the brunt of my frustration only because it’s the new thing in our schedule and if you’re going to parent someone who does a thing, you really can’t suck at making them go.

I am treading water in my critical career. I am pushing and pushing. I want to quit every night. I’m afraid to rest. This is writing.

We’re fighting about money. Getting married on tax day seemed funny 16 years ago.

What is this post? I’m trying to keep moving. I am staying up because I don’t know how to do the ten minutes where I lay in bed before I fall asleep. I am dreading that tonight. If I stop, I have to feel it pull me down. I have to wake up and do it again tomorrow. Nothing in my life is bad. But today I’m over my head.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

_

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.

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.

Bacon, Butter & Good Intentions

Welp. I was feeling all kinds of positivity when I wrote that post on Sunday night, and Monday went to hell.

I spent all day yesterday dealing with post-hysterectomy body drama (if you’re counting, I’m 4+ months out and things are not better). I went to the doctor just to get checked out because I am still in pain had a feeling something was off, and I ended up having to have a friend come get me because they needed to do a biopsy which almost made me puke/pass out on the table. Ta-da! I’m good and it’s probably just a weird/slow healing thing, but spending the last two days in my bed (again) on pain meds (again) is boring (again) and I’m not really taking fall by storm.

Anyway. This is giving me a chance to fall deeply once more into my Plants vs Zombies addiction and to finish what Eric seems to think is my 4th rewatch of Downton Abbey. I haven’t done a single productive thing. But you guys, I am going to be the most prepared for the final season series, and I have to do this by making sure I have all of the Dowager Countess’ quips at the forefront of my mind. “Any port in a storm.” Am I right?

UntitledThe cats ignored me all day yesterday, so today I am forcing them to acknowledge me because locked them out of all of the other rooms in the house. They’ll have to see me, at least. In Cookie’s case, it’s only to plan how she will cut my throat as I sleep, but I’ll take it.

It isn’t super comfortable to go up and down the stairs, so I went down about a half hour ago and carried everything up that I might need in the next six hours. Yes, food. Yes, books. Yes, candy.

I did do something fabulous on Sunday morning, though, and since I’m a blog photo thief, I have a evidence. Cely of Running Off the Reese’s moved to Sacramento recently. I have been reading her blog for years and wishing she didn’t live in Texas. Somehow this really happened. Since I am only able to make friends when I can interact with them online before actually interacting with them in real life (see: my entire grad school experience, the complete extent of my friendships in the literary world), this worked perfectly. On Sunday I met up with Cely, her sister Sari, and my local (also a former blogger) friend Tracy at Bacon and Butter and I happily died a death by grilled cheese eggs benedict. Everyone was lovely and I can’t wait to do it again.

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I am going to make an effort to keep the TV off and the ipad out of my hands until I get some reading and writing done today. I have no excuse to leave this bed full of candy and cats. I’m starting Sarah Einstein’s memoir, Mot, today, and that should keep me busy. Right?

Days that count

UntitledI’ve been a real peach this summer. A cranky brat.  This, as most of my peevish moods, came out of a dumb assumption. For sure my hysterectomy was only going to put me down for a few weeks, right? That’s what I thought. Then everything would be normal summer awesomeness: bike rides, daily swims, short trips around the state.

Nope.

I have spent most of this summer building a wall of books around myself–I’ve read 14 books in six weeks–and reading so voraciously that something feels wrong about it. Reading has been a way to fill my time and avoid thinking too much about all the adventures I’m not having. Last year’s dizzy summer of travel is still fresh in my mind, while this summer I have done a whole lot of zero, and I’ve been angry. A pouty, unreasonable, frustrated anger. Let’s call this a tantrum.

Poor me. I know. This is nothing. It’s really nothing. But right now it’s my something.

Anyway, it’s getting better. I’ve had some days, in the past week or so, that count, and make me feel like I’m moving. Yeah, I’m thankful for all of my days and they’re a gift; the healing, boring days are just harder to appreciate. It’s a stagnant state of I’ll-be-happy-when, which is, frankly, shit. I don’t like waiting, and I don’t like it when I struggle to find joy in the moment.

In the past week I’ve had three really good days, three days that meant I could forget that waiting. First, a funeral for a friend’s mother. Not that funerals are any reason to celebrate, but it put things in perspective. It was sad, but it was so lovely. Such a positive remembrance of the way that one person affected so many people in her life and made each person who knew her feel special. That day was also filled with people I haven’t seen in a long time. It ended up being a reunion of sorts: the kind of day when you laugh and tell stories and don’t watch the clock.

Second: Tuesday I took a solo day trip to our family cabin. I dropped our kids off with their grandparents and drove another half hour to my happy place. I haven’t been there alone since I went to finish my thesis in 2013. I spent most of Tuesday staring at the water, reading, and dozing in my chair to the white noise of water on rocks. I feel whole there. If a place can be an antidepressant, this river is it.UntitledUntitled
Third: I had lunch today with some friends–all retired teachers from my school. It felt like being normal. It felt good to laugh. It felt like an actual reason to get out of the house, but not the kind of day that means being worked up. Today was ordinary, but joyful. And another reminder that the people in my life are so great. I also had a decision about work to make today, and the day ended with one of these glorious friends telling me that no matter what, everything is going to be okay.

It doesn’t get any better than that, if you’re wondering.

I’m beginning to feel like a person again, and less like a body whose sole purpose is to sit still and knit together. If I’m being honest, I’m still shaking my fist at the sky a little because I know I won’t feel 100% until the day I go back to work. This entire break will have been an exercise in patience. This was not a fun summer or even an interesting one. But tonight I’m thankful for a few days that really count.

Binge

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Do other people read because they’re lonely? They must. I wonder if there’s a point where this is not okay. If it can be too much, an excess, unhealthy. If books are a way to avoid the mess of human interaction. I’ve read 12 books in the 4 weeks since my surgery. 12 books is more than I read the entire year before I started my MFA. I attach myself to characters. Not mistaking them for real, but often allowing myself to like them more than people. In fact, I like them better because they’re not. They require only observation.

Reading as meditation: It’s tough to sit still. It’s tough to ignore the phone, the hope that someone is thinking of you. It’s tough not to check Facebook. (Facebook is good for making yourself feel busy, loved, important.) But it gets easier to read for long periods of time if you do it every day. My mornings alone on the couch in the dark with a book and a cup of coffee and a flannel quilt bring me peace. They make me feel comfort within my own frame. A churchly calm. An ease of breath that is too often a struggle to find.

Reading as chore: Tell me I have to read it and I will hate the text. Try to trick me into learning something—something prescribed, clever, something that’s about your box of crayons rather than me being able to feel the book in my own colors, the way I know sunshine, or sadness, or the taste of homemade jam—and I will hate you.

Reading as rebellion: I can read anything I want. I say what it means. My authority comes only from my having read, my perspective is only as relevant as my own voice. (Ridiculous, meaningless, intoxicating and terrifying power, our voices.)

Reading as Invisibility Cloak: Don’t bother me, I’m reading.

Reading as shared suffering: File under: College Prep English Anthology, 11th grade (Colonial American Stories That Teenagers Will Not Enjoy). See also: Textbooks, Teacher Preparation Programs.

Is there a way to abuse books? To use books as a crutch? I’ve gotten so good at inserting them into the pauses between activities in my life that I find it difficult right now to be alone with this much time. Difficult to not read. To stop the frenetic tumble of words. I find it challenging to sit still, to heal after my surgery. I am lonely, but I don’t want to reach out. So I read and read and read, and in this way, am I’m more than alone, choosing characters over even my own company? I’m gulping down other people’s words, filling myself with things I can’t possibly digest.

Reading as a way to document experience: The books I remember best are the ones I can place in space and time. I listened to A Tale for the Time Being on the train in France. I read The Grapes of Wrath by the pool in Rancho Mirage. I read Middlesex at my parents’ while the kids were swimming. I read Gone with the Wind in the window of a hotel café next door to a teachers’ conference I was enrolled in, but ditching. I read John Adams in the car, at the public pool. Dichotomy of content and place make the reading even better.

Reading as physical act of love: The comfortable space between you and your spouse as you sit near each other, lost in stories.

Reading as impossible dream: The more you read, the more there is that you haven’t read.

The mannerisms of my reading are ridiculous, even when I read for fun. I’ve stopped pretending I want to read like normal people; I indulge my weirdness. I fold down the corner of every 50th page before I start. One hour of reading, each, a way to know how much is left. I read with my pen in my right hand, and I chew on the cap or scrape it gently against my lips. I read with discipline that’s almost militaristic, each hour allotted by to the teal blocks of time on my calendar, but this structure allows to indulge myself. My process of understanding what a book means is very woo-woo, very feely. As I’m reading I’m often more aware of the thing of the book than the detail. Embarrassingly so. I will forget dates. I will forget names—I often have to underline these for myself several times until they stick, check them three times before I submit a review—but the thing of the story comes to me like the steady time signature underneath the music. (Alternately, this is sometimes the cacophony of a discordant narrative.) The thing is like a waking dream, an exchange between me the person who wrote it. And maybe that’s just crap I tell myself, and maybe the thing has nothing to do with the thing they wrote. But I don’t question it. I just let it be, let it be something I feel. And then I type the quotes and then I really know. And I write it, or I try to get as close as possible. That thing.

Reading as a way to spy: How many times have I tried to see into the people I admire by trying to absorb their words? Both those they put down and those they pick up: equally enlightening.

Reading as marathon: A little a day actually makes significant progress. I am always shocked and pleased to find myself at the end.

Reading as sleep aid: When I read at night, I get sleepy in the background. I can’t help it. I’m too much in the story and my body quits. Every time. I should read more at night since I’m a terrible sleeper. I should let it happen. But I resist it, almost because I know it works so well.

Reading as currency, status, course of study: Resume.

The more I read, the less I feel purpose in my teaching job. Or more accurately, the less I believe in how it’s been defined in practice. The more I read, the less I think you can make someone read or deceive them into caring about a book or writing down what it means in a way that fits into a box. What I like, I like. What I don’t like, nobody can change. In fact, searching out more of what I like and defining what I don’t has made every book I read more pleasurable. Even the ones I hate. But we (English teachers, high school, mostly) don’t generally allow kids to hate the thing they read, or we haven’t given them the tools to hate a book and still read it. To hate it and to know why. So many people in my profession are afraid of what will happen if we let kids admit that a book for the class is boring. It goes against everything we need to tell ourselves.

I’m not sure how long I will keep up my reading sprint this summer. Maybe this is some kind of training I need so I can come out on the other side with a skill, a realization. Maybe it’s just filler, the carrot onstage in Waiting for Godot. But it’s eating at me.

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.

What I’m Reading

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This week in words:

On Sunday | The New Yorker. I am not good at reading TNY regularly. When I’m not careful, it stacks up and I start to feel stressed out. This week I tried to start something new. I want to take time on Sunday morning to drink my coffee and read at least some of this week’s issue. I always find an article or a short story to love. It’s time I made it a ritual.

During the week | The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi. I have yet to crack the beautiful cover of this surrealist whoddunit, but I am hoping to have it finished before Friday. Filipacchi wrote about beauty for The New Yorker recently, and I immediately wanted to review it:

After all, finding oneself beautiful when one is not: Is that not the next best thing to actually being beautiful? And the detail grew. Before I knew it, I was writing a fictional meditation on beauty—a disapproval of it, but also a celebration of it.

In my car | The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, AKA J.K. Rowling. For short bursts of reading-while-driving and reading-while-exercising, I have found that I love a good ol’ fashioned mystery. I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, and so far The Silkworm seems to be equally good.

Are you reading anything great this week?

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.