2015 Reading List

What a year it has been.  At the beginning of the year, hopeful that motherhood wouldn’t impact my habits too drastically, I set a reading goal of 52 books.  I made it about halfway, with most of my reading being in the time before Baba could grab things out of my hands and knock the books off the shelf.  I came to love magazines this year, for their portability, destructibility (I admit that I underestimated the fascinating power of a crinkling page) and short attention span reads about a world that has become increasingly puzzling.  In the world of magazines, I developed a particular love for Vanity Fair, which deals a lot more substance than I had expected when the issues first started showing up on my doorstep, and The New Yorker, which combines my love of politics, my city and short fiction.

I also developed a critical appreciation for books targeted at young readers.  While I have read Giraffes Can’t Dance and Five Little Ducks far more times than I would care to, I fell in love with the beautiful artwork and simple storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day of School.  So has Baba, as it happens, and it makes me smile to see her always pull out my favorite books from her book shelf first.

 

baba_neil
                  Why read only one at a time?

 

Well, here’s to longer fiction in 2016.  Still, there were some very memorable reads this year; books that haunted me for months after I finished reading them.  I am still thinking about the gritty beauty of the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, the beauty of a kind man in The Orchardist, the tension-building effect of Philippa Gregory’s present tense in The Taming of the Queen and so many other ways that the books I’ve read this year have brought imagination and inspiration into my life.

 

Side_of_paradise

Classics

How do you compare a tell-all of flapper-era literary Paris with the gothic tension of one of the world’s classic horror stories?   Throw in the dusty and cold warfare of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the bitter parody of the Ivy Leagues in This Side of Paradise and my classics reading this year couldn’t be more varied.  Ernest Hemingway was my surprise discovery in graduate school.  I had read him in undergrad, of course, but had missed the intense beauty of his dialogue, no matter how many times I was assigned “Hills Like White Elephants.”  For anyone looking to dig in to Hemingway, I’d also recommend The Sun Also Rises or The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a shorter introduction to his style.

sisters-of-heart-and-snow

Fiction

The theme of my fiction reading was apparently setting; each of these books left me with such a distinct sense of place that the title is enough to cast me instantly back into the mood of the book.  A Girl with a Pearl Earring was actually my third or fourth reading, because I love the lush and delicate world that Chevalier paints in her coming-of-age story.  The Orchardist is a book that I have thought about all year long, for both the gritty independence and originality of its characters and the beauty of its setting.  I often wonder, as I read adult fiction, what a book would be like if none of the characters had romantic attachments to each other.  What peaks of creativity could we reach if we abandoned the central narrative of so much of our art and fiction?  The Orchardist answers that, while exploring the love of parenthood and friendship, in a truly thought-provoking narrative.

Speculative Fictionstation11

  • No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, James Smythe
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. Mandel
  • Starfarers (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Transition (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Metaphase (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Nautilus (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre

Science fiction took up a larger portion of my reading this year than it usually does, largely because I was swept into the imaginative world of Vonda MacIntyre’s Starfarer’s Quartet.  I’m a bit of a sucker for the idea of space ships that can grow their own environments, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series.  Starfarer reminded me of that, with spaceships that were as much characters of the story as the story itself.   Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven is beautifully unique work of fiction, that felt like The Stand retold by artists and sold as literary fiction, while James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man thoughtfully questions our growing relationship and trust of analytic technologies and search engines.

Now, in the beginning of January, I’m midway through Maynard Solomon’s tome-like biography Mozart and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  It’s been a tough month so far, with a lot of stress, and I admit that I’ve been looking for something lighter.  I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Julie Christine Johnson’s In Another Life in February, but can anyone recommend something smart and light to keep me busy until then?

 

Human Moments, No. 6

Behind the counter, José is fast at work, with an efficiency that I adore.  Bagels fly in his hands, as he takes the orders of six people at a time, his hands and his mouth seemingly disconnected.  He slathers jelly on a whole wheat bagel while I tell him I’d like my low-fat cream cheese on a pumpernickel.

“Toasted? Next, next, next!”

There is a man talking to him, near him, his sentences loud and choppy. The man is loud, so loud that I hold my hand up to my ear to block out his booming voice.  No matter which way he turned, his voice echoed off the counters, the walls, the neat lines of refrigerated shelf.

José turns his back on him and the man turns to me. “Fat is good for you, you know.  It’ll fill you up until lunchtime.”

“Mmmn,” I said, not eager to converse with a stranger under the best of circumstances, which the current situation certainly was not.  The long night of teeth and milk and interrupted sleep was not nearly far enough behind me.

“No, really,” the man continues.  “They’re doing studies on it now.  They say all the problems now are with carbs, with gluten.”

“Oh?” I ask, feeling a creeping rage at this stranger. “Change my order then, please. I’ll have the low-carb bagel. With low-fat cream cheese. And some privacy.”

José laughs and turns, his hands pulling out my dark bagel. He grabs a sheet of tin foil, his right hand already reaching for the knife.

Happy New Year!

blue_new_year_greeting_card_266209I spent the last day of 2015 switching between taking care of a sick baby, a sick cat and sorting through boxes of my mother’s things.  It’s not just my mother’s things — we are hoping to move in the spring, so I’ve spent the last week decluttering our basement storage so that when we show the house to potential buyers that it looks like a place where you can put things.  I’ve been going through all the stuff that we’ve forgotten that we owned, like fish tanks and snorkel fins and Halloween decorations, and trying to find new homes for them so that our house looks like a place where someone else can put their forgotten stuff.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The upshot is that Baba and the cat are both on the mend.  Our eighteen-year-old tabby tore out the dew claw on his hind foot on Christmas Eve, which led to him spraying blood all over our kitchen floor and being very indignant about all the antibiotics and pain medication that I’ve been force-feeding him for the last week.  He’s also been cordoned off from the back yard, which wasn’t too big of a deal until he started feeling better.  It has been Howl O’Clock ever since.  On Thursday, I strapped Baba to my chest and slung the cat carrier over my shoulder and went back to the vet for the follow-up exam.  Baba ate much of the furniture in the exam room while we waited, but the cat’s prognosis is good, even if he is still forbidden from his backyard prowling for another week.  Howl, howl, howl.

Baba is a little slower to heal, and we’ve spent most of last few nights attending to her cough. It wasn’t exactly my plan for ringing in 2016, but it is what it is. In a sense, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2015 than to stumble around with exhaustion after a long night of baby tending.  Here’s to more sleep in 2016.

After a hard week’s work, I am also beginning to see an end to the basement clean-up. It is a fitting project for the end of the year — trolling through old photographs, journals and letters puts me in a deeply reflective mood. I’ve now outlived enough of my relatives to have accumulated  generations of memories, so many of the letters and photographs that I’m rediscovering aren’t even mine.  Now, I am saving them for Baba, in the hopes that some day she will care as much about our family history as I do.

I did find my childhood diary, which has only fuelled my recent desire to take up journalling again. For a writer, the benefits are obvious.  I have journalled privately on and off through the years, but it has been off again since Baba was born.  I already struggle with finding enough time to work on fiction and this blog, and journalling was competing with that time.  Time may be a finite resource, but I find that I’ve missed the clarity that journalling gives my thoughts and emotions.

And yet, after finding my mother’s diaries, I am not certain about leaving behind such a detailed written record for Baba to find one day. My mother died suddenly, decades before she expected to. Her journals are filled with beautiful writing, but it is clear that they were an outlet for her when she was troubled or struggling with the depression that always chased her. This isn’t the picture of her grandmother that I want to leave behind for Baba. Every time I find my mother’s journals, I can barely stand to read more then an entry or two, because I know they weren’t meant for me. I know that I should destroy them, but I also can’t seem to bring myself to do so, knowing that they might have answers to some of the questions of my early life. They provide context to my memories, which my mother might have been able to do if she had lived longer.  I was raised thousands of miles from our extended family, so I don’t have the network of shared memories from cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents that so many people do.  I just had my mother, who died too soon.

In this cleaning, I found a baby memory book that she wrote for me, which has satisfied my curiosity about many questions that I’ve had this year. No one remembers when I began to walk, but my mother wrote it down for me. I found when I got my first tooth, grew my head of hair, began to sit up. I’ve wanted to know this all year so that I might know what to expect with Baba’s development. And here is a book that tells me everything!  I was so excited by this that I turned around and ordered a memory book to fill in for Baba, in case she finds herself in the same position that I am in now.

What if there are more answers, more context, in my mother’s journals and letters? I remember my mother, mostly as the grinning, silly, playful person that she was much of the time. But Baba would only know her through these very painful journal entries. That isn’t a fair picture at all. And yet, my mother kept journals from 20 years before she died. Did she want us to find them?  Could she just not stand to them go?  There are some questions I just can’t answer.

For now, I’ve put the journals and letters back in labelled boxes and pushed them to the back of our storage area.  I tell myself that after we sell our house and move that I might pull them out and read through them, but I know that a thousand things will take a higher priority.  They are journeys into the past and it is, after all, a new year now, ripe with the excitement new stories and memories to come.

Happy New Year!

 

The Eating Season!

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Earlier this week, Baba crawled right out of her pants.  She was nursing, which gives you an idea of what nursing a very active baby is like, and I didn’t immediately notice because I had covered us both with a sheet.  I laughed when I discovered her bare, chubby thighs and tried to hold her as close to me as she would allow.

This last month has been filled with moments like this — as the world has literally and metaphorically darkened, tiny moments of beauty keep filtering through.  My neighborhood is covered with an impressive array of Christmas lights, which make driving home through the darkness a delightful experience.  It is the first year since Hurricane Sandy that I’ve seen such an impressive display, and I am deeply grateful to see the world return to normal.  It is so reassuring to contrast the rising hatred in the world with festive frivolity, with beauty, with art.

It has been a remarkably sane holiday season for us.  I made a conscious decision to keep it simple this year.  Instead of trying to do all of the things, we picked the ones that mattered.  Cards, because sitting down to write my extended social circle once a year fills me with joy.  Small presents for family.  Our own contribution to the neighborhood lights.  Visiting with friends.  Loving our daughter in the fierce way that has become normal.  Bringing food to share with people that we love.

It is Baba’s first Christmas.  We went last night to a Christmas Eve dinner at a friend’s, in what has become a treasured annual tradition.  The food itself comes from the American Italian tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes, where seafood is served to both celebrate bounty and because it is a period of fasting from red meat in the Catholic tradition.  It is not my tradition, by heritage or religion, but it has been such a part of my experience since moving to New York that it has come to feel like mine.  Last night, as I fed Baba fish cakes and pasta baked in clam sauce, it felt like even more like home.

We let her stay up hours past her bedtime, which is why I can write this in the sweet silence of a sleeping house.  She took her first steps last night, after dinner and in front of an audience of kind and fine people.  We clapped and cheered for her, while her face exploded in glee at her new freedom.

Today, we will go to celebrate with a different set of lifelong friends, as we always do.  I have bought a cake for dessert that is covered in a more traditional design that I could have ever imagined picking out before — and yet, I found that I could not resist it.  I have, perhaps for the first time in my life, put on Christmas music in my home, just like my mother always used to do.

It is a season of music, of eating, of feasting, of remembering what is important in life.  This year, for me, Christmas is about love and charity.  It is about the ideals of a peaceful world; it is a reminder of what we must continue fighting for.  I can only hope to share this peace and joy that I feel in my heart with you.

 

 

Make It Stop

It is a dark and rainy night here in the Big Apple. No different from many fall evenings, except that videos have surfaced of terrorists threatening Times Square, only a few days after the slaughter in Paris. The city is on high alert, with the much criticized NYPD doing extra patrols and sweeps to try to stop murder before it happens. Tonight, I was followed onto my train by a counter terrorism cop, who visually swept the car before nodding that the train could go on.

I usually resent the police presence in the subway. They stand
with assault weapons across their chest, the business end pointed down.  How easy, I think, for them to accidentally shoot so many, if something goes wrong. They are often young and I wonder how many years they’ve been out of the police academy. They stand for hours, usually vigilant, usually watching. Watching us. Nodding one or two out of a hundred over to their tables, they swipe our bags with little cloths, analyzing the molecules that they pick up for evidence of planned destruction. When it is not my turn for inspection, I slide by them with a resentful glance at the fire power that has become normal to me, because I live in a world of increasing militarization.

This man, who was clad head to toe in thick padding underneath his dark blue uniform, carried only a pistol in his belt. And tonight, he reminded me that the city was under threat, which I had forgotten after my busy day in the office. And yet, I was glad to see him. What a brave man, I thought, to do this day after day. That’s admirable. I took a
long look at his dark brown eyes and curly hair. I took in the intense,
trained gaze, the dark embroidery of his name and unit on his pocket.

I should really work on my will, I thought. Just in case.  You never know.


Today, too, my government began the legislation to deny refuge to 10,000 Syrians. It is couched and marketed with words that make it sound like something different. They called it screening, as though the multi-year screening process that we already had in place wasn’t sufficient. What it is, in reality, is a requirement that a single person sign off on every Syrian that we allow to come here. A single busy person.  In reality, it means that we will deny even the paltry 10,000 that we’ve already promised to help. We will be as bad as Hungary. We will close our doors to the victims of our enemies.

Two hundred and eighty nine people got together in a room today and cast their vote that we should do this, even though every American school child is taught about how the U.S. made their immigration policies stricter for the German Jews during World War II. Even after we knew about genocide, we closed our doors. We are taught about how shameful that was, about how afraid Americans were. And yet, here we are, with an opportunity to redeem our country’s actions in those dark days….and two hundred and eighty nine of our elected officials thought we should repeat history instead.

The worst part, of course, is that this is in response to an attack by French and Belgian murderers. And yet, the call to keep French and Belgian visitors and immigrants out of our country has not come.  It is the Syrian refugees who are being given the blame, as my country seeks to punish the victims of ISIS for something a bunch of Europeans did.

A few months after Baba was born, I joined the local parenting group on Facebook. The main topic of the last few weeks has been how the local shopping mall has replaced Santa’s giant Christmas tree with a
glacier display. The presumption was that the Christmas tree was somehow offensive and that the PC police were at it again. Surely, this was a sign of American values under fire, as those other people had to be accommodated. Christianity, itself, is under fire by the loss of the tree.

I admit to some confusion as to how a Christmas tree, but not Santa, would be insulting. In any case, the outrage was so ferocious that a small tree was added to the display. The parenting group was horrified; how could the mall insult them by putting such a small tree in place?

In the middle of this discussion, one hundred and twenty nine lives were taken in Paris. And then the bigots came straight out.  It’s the immigrants. We need to stop the immigrants, they said.

My husband is an immigrant, I said. He’s worked here and paid taxes for over twenty years. What is your problem with immigrants?

Well, fine, they said. It’s the immigrants who are terrorists. Like the
ones who blew up our neighbors in 9/11.

None of those attackers were immigrants, I reminded them. I know that many people here lost people that they knew, that they loved. But immigrants didn’t do it. Immigrants want what you do — a better life for their children. A safer world. A place where there is plenty to eat.

Next you’re going to tell me what a great president Obama is, they said.  Thank God these governors have the sense to not let Syrians come to their states. You won’t agree, but you must agree that it’s understandable.

But the attackers in France weren’t Syrians! I said. And that’s not even something a governor can do! Does anyone here think at all?

I am, as you might imagine, very popular in this group. The whole discussion disturbed me so much that I have been really considering if this is a place where I want to raise Baba, knowing that she will come into contact with people who speak so hatefully about people just like her father.  We have been talking about selling our house and buying another in the same neighborhood, but now I am not so sure.


It was inevitable that I would find a news article that showed pictures of the French victims. My mouse hovered over the first picture, but then I had to look away. It is too much for me now. I see Baba in all of them. I think of the mothers that have been gutted by the loss of their children. I feel it too deeply. It is just another story of families torn apart by mass violence, just like the attacks in Lebanon the day before or the shooting in Kenya or the buses and markets that are attacked so regularly that we lose count of the dead.  I have victim fatigue. I can no longer look at the victims of Virginia Tech or Oregon State or Sandy Hook. I can’t even watch the videos that the UNHCR publishes. I can’t read the stories.

Anger comes easier.   Anger is so easy when I see the hate continue. I can only ask why we have a world in which young men become radicalized, in which they are taught to hate so much that they don’t even see their victims as other people. I want to know, to understand, why the world has become a place in which they can see no future for themselves. And then I want us to put systems in place to Make. It. Stop.

It seems so hopeless when all I can hear are my neighbors screaming for blood — the wrong blood.  Can’t we please move past the fear and reach out to each other? Can we please just Make. It. Stop?

November, NaNoWriMo, Some Falling Down

Some time between August and November, Baba changed from being a baby to being a little person — a little person that is brimming with opinions and ideas and curiosity.  I don’t know how it happened, but I suspect the when was sometime around when the plates in her skull fused together, transforming her from mewling newborn into a person.  An actual person, who spends every waking minute trying to find out more, more, more about her world.

Almost overnight, she had a child’s face and head, and a child’s thoughts to go in it.  Two days after she learned to crawl, she tried to stand, dragging herself up on anything that she could grab.  Now that she can easily stand with help, she’s trying very hard to stand without help.   She manages to succeed for brief moments — a few seconds here, a few seconds there.  She’s taught herself to fall, so when her legs buckle, they buckle neatly beneath her, bringing her down onto her rump.

Most of the time.

My writing journey has felt much the same lately.  I’ve had a second short story accepted for publication and I have been holding off on writing here until I have the details to share with you, but it’s been nearly a month now, and the details haven’t come.  So I will share that I hope that things are happening.  The journey continues, but it does so haltingly, a wobbly baby step at a time.

In the meantime, I decided to distract myself with NaNoWriMo, because I have deeply missed first draft writing.  I am working on an existing project — the novel that I began in graduate school — and I have been furiously burying myself back in the 18th century in order to do it.  Trying to write this intensively while taking care of my Baba has been a constant exercise in acceptance of my own humanity.  Although an experienced NaNoWriMoer, I am nearly 5,000 words behind where I should be. I am only scribbling off this post now because today’s writing went well enough that I started to close the gap.  This year, it’s not about winning NaNoWriMo — it’s about getting back to writing something new every single day, which I haven’t done for months.  On a day like today, when the baby slept and the trains were kind, my success fills me with energy.  I want to stay up all night and crow from the roof.  Tomorrow, well, tomorrow is, as they say, another day.

And so it goes.  The days pass and I watch Baba, whose journey feels like a reflection of my own.  In the garden, the leaves turn and fall off of all the bushes and vines that I’ve planted, and I know that they too will be back to their productive summer glory…one of these days.

Easy Come, Easy Go?

Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Bennet treated the matter differently. “So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I had planned on sharing the news with you today of my first publication, a flash fiction story about two people who meet in a diner near a college campus.  “The Diner” was due to be published this morning in The Saturday Night Reader, an online and print magazine that specializes in stories under 1,000 words.

Instead, I must share with you the sad news of the end of The Saturday Night Reader, as I received notice this past weekend that they closed their doors for good on Sunday.

Well, okay then.

It is far worse news for them than it is for me,  of course, but I must admit to a deep disappointment.  After so many years of writing privately, it was a great relief to have a story sell so quickly after I started submitting.  To finally be able to call myself a published author was a validation that all of this time and effort actually was leading me somewhere.  I know that I will get there again, but I need to grieve a little first.

So there.  That’s the grieving done.

One piece of writing advice that you hear over and over again is that you need to have a social media platform to have any chance of success with traditional publishers.  This is because the publishing industry is struggling enough (thanks, Amazon!) that taking financial risks on unknown authors is harder to do.  Having a successful social media platform tells a publisher how many fans the author already has, which lets the publisher make a guess at how much money they might make off that author.   It’s just business, baby.

Other than this blog, I had held off on spending time developing any of this, because it felt like I was wasting time that would be better spent writing.  But with a publication pending, I finally set up a Twitter feed and set myself to learning about marketing.  It…has been an interesting learning curve.  After nearly a month of “interactions,” I still haven’t figured out how to get meaningful conversation and contacts out of it, even though I gain new followers daily.

My greatest puzzlement has been my followers — the first of which found me before I had posted any content.  I quickly discovered the game of Twitter, as it applies to the writing community, which is to follow lots of other writers so that they will follow you back.  We all win from this — we all appear to be very popular.  But does it translate to book sales?  And, when you follow thousands of people, how do you get any meaningful content out of the Twitter feeds that you read?

I admit it.  Social media does this introvert’s head in.  Won’t you be my friend/reader/mutual followee anyway?

So here’s a serious question for you Twitterers and writers.  What tactics do you use to make social media worth your time?  How do you turn the constant chatter (or the loudest-chirp contest) into something that works for you?  Did playing the follower game translate into professional success?

While I puzzle over the mystery that is the modern world, I’m back to working on polishing some more short fiction for submission.  Stephen King gave a piece of advice in his book On Writing that I have kept close to my heart over the last few months.  If you have enough work submitted, then it doesn’t matter when the rejections come — you still have hope for the fate of the submissions that you’ve yet to hear back on.

So, cheers, Stephen King.  I’ll clink this glass to yours as each rejection comes in — after all, I’m one of your 971,000 nearest and dearest “friends.”

 

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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