Last year I decided to start reading with purpose to try to recapture the joy and total absorption I found in books as a child. It worked! It worked so well that I am going to keep doing it. (It helps that Tara is a voracious reader whose favorite weekend activity is picking up our on-hold books at the library.) At the end of last year I did a “Year in Books” recap—an accounting of what I read and what, in brief, I thought about it. That was fun too, so here goes again.
Overall thoughts: I didn’t read as much this year—I moved in May and had to do a few months of comfort-rereading of Dykes to Watch Out For as a result; plus I hit a speed-bump with House of Mirth in the late summer (which was worth it but took forever). The quality of what I read was consistently higher than last year, though, and I was completely dazzled by some of the fiction. That was great, a true pleasure, but next year I’ll read some more non-fiction.
Also, if there were a 100percentwomen Tumblr, my reading list would be eligible! I feel pretty good about that, though it was unintentional. No laughably thin female characters like there were on last year’s reading list. In 2014 I will probably diversify, though.
So, here’s the list, in order of when I read it.
Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life [library]
I had been wanting to read Fran Lebowitz for awhile, especially after watching “Public Speaking,” the superb HBO documentary about her. Well, “Public Speaking” is the best way to imbibe her, is the conclusion I have drawn. I liked Metropolitan Life but it wasn’t as great as just watching her talk.
Sigrid Nuñez, Sempre Susan [library]
Loved, loved, loved. Finished it and immediately re-read it (it’s short and fast). Regretted giving it back to the library. Felt like every word in it was perfectly placed. Want my friends to read it so we can discuss it (hint, hint)!
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise [library]
Gave up on this at around page 293. I never cared enough about any of the characters, though I couldn’t really figure out why—I confess it may have been that I couldn’t tell who the good guys and the bad guys were. You know, in a more sophisticated way than that.
Susan Newham-Blake, Making Finn [gift]
This was apparently my year to read lesbian parenting memoirs, as I read two. This first one wasn’t very good, unfortunately. The author is pretty un-self-aware, which doesn’t make for a great memoir.
Amie Klempnauer Miller, She Looks Just Like You [review copy]
This one, on the other hand, stuck with me and I re-read it recently. It’s unsettling, but often in a good way, and the structure is thoughtful and effective. The blurbs on the cover are all about how it demonstrates “family values,” which, it does and I understand why they say that, but I felt like its value was in examining how non-traditional relationships and families are different (not better or worse) from traditional ones, and what to make of that. Which is needed!
Kathryn Joyce, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption [review copy]
This book is truly fantastic and I’m not just saying that because Kathryn is a dear friend. It’s an extraordinary work of investigative reporting, it deeply shakes up your ideas about parenting, family, and the value of good intentions, and it’s vital reading for any feminist, for the complicated questions it provokes about the reproductive justice and human rights dimensions of international adoption as it is currently practiced.
Amy Hoffman, An Army of Ex-Lovers [bought]
An Army of Ex-Lovers is one of my favorite memoirs ever. I bought and first read it years ago, and then at some point loaned it to someone (I can’t remember who!) who never gave it back. So when I went to Bluestockings for a reading of Amy’s new memoir, I bought a copy of An Army while I was there. It’s just so wonderful: funny, warm, and deft about Amy’s years as an editor and then editor-in-chief at the Gay Community News in Boston in the 1980s. It’s sort of like the life I had for a few years, except a generation or two earlier. Some of that earlier world had been lost by the time my friends and I were there—but so much of it was still palpable. It’s like an alternative family inheritance or something. Anyway, this is a book I have and will re-read every couple of years.
Amy Hoffman, Lies About My Family [bought]
I liked this but for me nothing will compare with An Army and Amy’s other memoir, Hospital Time. I’ll perhaps read it again, because there is lots in it I should like: immigration, alienation, coming of age.
Maria Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette? [gift]
Tara kindly got this for me to read on the plane, and it was perfect for that. I found it funny, but not quite as funny as other people did. The best way I can think to describe it is that the author’s bio says she previously wrote for TV, and…you can tell.
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings [library]
I read this on vacation in France and that was one of the best pairings the year afforded me. Wolitzer created a sprawling, rich, satisfying world, and I often just wanted to stay in it. And she provokes interesting questions about the nature of talent, success, accomplishment, and happiness in life, which all feel very pertinent to this stage of life. This is another one I would like to have an ad-hoc book club about.
Edith Wharton, House of Mirth [the Book Barn]
The first half of this I loved—Wharton is so, so devastatingly funny and sharp—and then it got depressing and dragged a bit for the second half. But overall I’m very happy I gave myself a second year of Wharton-reading and it was all worth it to be able to understand these two great pieces: Sarah Seltzer on “Lizzy Bennet vs. Lily Bart vs. The Patriarchy” and Nicole Cliffe’s “The House of Mirth as a Poorly Played Game of Choose Your Own Adventure” (which is exactly as great as it sounds).
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah [library]
Really loved this as I was reading it but it hasn’t stuck with me as much as some of the other fiction I read this year. It was chockfull of sharp observations, and often funny, and yet there was a thread of cynicism and distance that ultimately dulled the impact (even though it felt very intentional). Also, the ending (much like that of the second season of “Girls”) felt oddly and improbably sappy, for how smart and unpredictable the rest of the book was. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was totally wrapped up in Ifemelu’s worlds. My friend Amy says it pales in comparison to Adichie’s first book, Half of a Yellow Sun, which I will now get out of the library.
Doris Grumbach, Fifty Days of Solitude [library]
A friend recommended this to me when I started living alone and wasn’t very good at it yet. By the time I got around to reading it I was no longer living alone, but it turns out Grumbach wasn’t living alone when she wrote it, either—or rather, she was, but she was pursuing a different kind of experiment. Her “companion, Sybil,” (!) a purveyor of rare books, had gone on an extended book-buying journey, and Grumbach stayed behind in their house in a tiny town in Maine through the winter. The whole point of her project was to be as solitary as possible—she resented the imposition of the arrival of the mail—for a set amount of weeks. My purpose in living alone was different, in some ways opposite. In any case, it was very interesting—Grumbach seemed to be fighting off some sort of traumatic memories that come to her whenever she is alone (and perhaps that is the central struggle?), and when you finally learn what they are, they are indeed traumatic, and yet don’t quite seem like the key to everything—or are they? In terms of how to process emotional trauma, techniques for extended solitariness, how to rely on oneself—it offered some thought-provoking theories.
Renata Adler, Speedboat [library]
I gave up on this one too. I asked Ester if I should stick with it and she said “Well, it definitely doesn’t change, so if it’s not your thing I say leave it by the wayside.” It was definitely not my thing, so it seemed like sound advice to me. The book has (at least) one odd effect: because it forces the reader to fill in big gaps in the narrative—at the beginning you basically have no idea what’s going on, and according to Ester it stays that way—I found myself assuming that the most expected reading was, indeed, what was taking place. For the stretch I read, it gave this purportedly non-conventional novel a very traditional feel.
Lionel Shriver, The Post-Birthday World [library]
I think this was the best book of my year. My cousin Jess recommended Lionel Shriver to me, but I couldn’t remember if she’d suggested a book in particular, so I paged through some options on the BPL app and rather randomly decided on this one. It’s just so masterfully written, so brilliantly constructed. I had the good fortune to get a stomach bug when I had about 200 pages left and read them all over the course of a snowy afternoon in my bed. Talk about unsettling! Read it, friends, and we’ll discuss.
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That’s my list! Happy reading in the new year, and please tell me what books you’ve loved lately. This also gives me occasion to realize that I only posted three posts in total in 2013. I am going to do better in 2014!
At the end of last year, my good friend, the voracious bookworm @shorterstory, published her “Year in Books.” As devoted readers know, I was astonished by how much good reading she managed to pack into 365 days. I decided then and there to document my own year in books—but not primarily to rack up a score! For the past few years I’d been reading in a scattered, almost half-hearted way: I read all the time, but seldom had a book keep me up at night, or that I was desperate to take out on the subway. My reading was undirected: I read whatever books I was given as presents, books I spotted on friends’ bookshelves, whatever caught my eye at book grab.
So in 2012 I joined the Brooklyn Public Library and became acquainted with the miracle of books on hold; I shopped more purposely at second-hand stores (thanks to my friend Logan, I went to the Book Barn for the first time!), and I started a list of books to read. I’m nowhere near the length of Ester’s list, but that doesn’t matter: I’ve gotten completely lost in reading again, in a way I remember from childhood.
So, forthwith, my Year In Books!
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Ugh. What a book. Eugenides is an incredibly gifted stylist, and this book was appropriately absorbing to read. But the characters were caricatures of themselves and the intellectual grappling ultimately felt empty (and not only because the only significant female character had absolutely zero to offer in that arena). And it was really anti-feminist. That’s an aesthetic as well as intellectual category in my book. A bad start to 2012!
Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
So fun! Funnier and more assured and revealing that Bossypants, which is also great. My only quibble: Kaling is clearly not a fellow sufferer of FOMO, as title suggests. Which is fine—her obvious confidence and lack of self-apology is really a joy to be exposed to (buy this book for tweens in your life. And for you). But it was slightly inaccurate packaging!
Sigrid Nuñez, The Last of Her Kind [second time]
I love this troubling, unsettling, gorgeously written novel so much. Re-reading it made me realize that what I often dislike about novels is how conventional and typecast the characters are. Another problem: writers with a shallow understanding of characters’ psyche. Nuñez’s characters are nothing like that, and she renders them with extraordinary depth and fidelity.
Jodi Kantor, The Obamas
Good and very readable! Kantor is basically telling you the story of Obama’s first term through the lens of his wife, marriage, and family, so you get a second layer on all the policy and politics. Political non-fiction for women? Well, kind of, I guess, but in a way that’s a valid form in its own right—not just the facts, ma’am, but some background on how the emotional and psychosocial cauldron out of which decisions and headlines arose. Applauded!
Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America
Terrifically fascinating history by a fluent writer. Any book that positions the fetus at the center of inquiry is going to raise problems for feminists, some of which I wrote about more in my review, for the Women’s Review of Books. But the legal, medical, and social history is gripping.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
I’d lump this near Eugenides: main female character even weaker than in The Marriage Plot, but in this case the book is partially redeemed by an absorbing story with a sweetness and good-naturedness among the male characters.
Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence
Loved. What a master! So many lines that made me laugh out loud. Takeaway: Turn-of-the-century New Yorkers were just as superficial and possibly much more so than we are now. Looking forward to more Wharton in 2013.
Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?
For part of 2012 I was hoping I’d get the chance to review this book. It didn’t work out, or hasn’t yet, but I have lots of thoughts about it. For now, suffice to say, when I mention it to people they start waving their arms and exclaiming, either because they love it so much or because it’s driven them so crazy. I think I might be in the driven crazy camp. Someday I hope to write about it at more length!
Michele Kort and Audrey Bilger, eds., Here Come the Brides
An anthology of personal essays by lesbians and queer women on marrying, or not. One of the essays is mine! Fodder for mulling if you are thinking of entering into a lesbian marriage yourself, or are straight and want to think anew about your hetero privilege!
Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind
Lots to think about here, especially if you’re a New Yorker, transplanted or native. More of my thoughts in this review I did for the LA Review of Books.
Anne Lamott, Some Assembly Required
I liked this (see more on my Anne Lamott thoughts below). Didn’t quite rivet me, but I did re-read parts of it on and off for months after first reading—so maybe it was riveting!
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did. The skillfulness of the writing left some to be desired, and I never felt like I could quite, quite, get inside Strayed’s head, despite all the disclosures about her past. Why did she make all those bad decisions? Why don’t I recognize my bad decisions and existential doubt in hers? Hmm.
Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer
Okay, I admit it: I had trouble keeping the characters straight for the entire duration of this book. I did! That may have blunted the impact of this book on me. I think that over the years Malcolm’s basic arguments about journalism and representation of the Other have seeped into my consciousness, so I didn’t find it really deeply compelling until the very end, when she kind of sums it all up and puts her cards on the table (I’ve also read a lot of Malcolm and totally love her but also find her ethically problematic). But glad I read it!
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
Frustrating but good.
Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls [second time]
Lovely writer. Both gentle with and hard on her characters. A story that I often think back on!
Terry Castle, The Professor: A Sentimental Education
Wow, what a writer. I loved being in her mind for awhile. But it ultimately left me cold. There’s something bloodless about Castle’s writing here, which is probably intentional (and masterfully done).
Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles
An interesting conceit—Earth goes off its 24-hour sun rotation, and days and nights stretch longer and longer and longer—that I often find myself thinking about as we start grappling more seriously with climate change. (And it’s extraordinary when you are really forced to think about how deeply embedded that diurnal cycle is.) But I wasn’t wild about any of the characters.
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal
Excellent as everyone says!
T Cooper, Some of the Parts
Liked it! The writing wasn’t always up to the job, but I loved the weird, offbeat, odd characters. Again, a novel populated with not the usual suspects—a real treat.
Jessica Valenti, Why Have Kids?
Provocative and interesting, a humane take on the many choices women who are, and aren’t, mothers make. Occasioned this very thoughtful review.
Anne Tyler, Digging to America [fourth or fifth time]
I love this book so much. Tyler is such an astute observer. And she loves her characters. I’ve read a lot of her over the years, and it sometimes feels as though she’s reprising familiar themes, but this novel is so fresh and so alive.
Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
Now here’s the Strayed book of 2012 that I liked! The wonderful writing that Wild lacked, plus some serious emotional insightfulness.
…and finishing 2012 with the following open on my bedside shelf:
Francisco Goldman, Say Her Name
Utterly ravished and astonished; completely absorbed. The writing is out of this world. Every metaphor, every sentence! And the ideas are enthralling. Easily my fiction favorite of the year, possibly overall favorite too.
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree
So far, great. Intimidating to pick up but very absorbing. Smart social criticism, some lovely and generous ways of parsing philosophical quandaries, plus lots to learn.
Anne Lamott, Hope, Thanks, Wow
Need to let this one settle more—like yoga, I don’t think it can be analyzed with my usual tools. I rediscovered Anne Lamott in 2012—I was basically in love with her in my early twenties, and devoured everything I could find by her—but couldn’t dig into the spirituality stuff that she’s published more recently. But this year I started following her on Twitter, and she’s so funny, warm, and great! And politically sharp! So far, though there are some class assumptions in Hope, Thanks, Wow that frustrate, I’m enjoying it.
Unfinished in 2012:
Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
I started this when I thought I might be writing the Are You My Mother? review. I put it down when that didn’t come together, but I’ve really enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more. Gornick’s insights about “the persona” were going to be very valuable! I had the chance to meet Gornick at a seminar for our interns this year—we talked about Bechdel’s memoir—and that was really cool.
Amor Towles, Rules of Civility
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Gave this to my father for Christmas, started reading it while still at home, and then had to leave one chapter in. Already absolutely fascinating, so much I should know but don’t. I thought having read a bunch of op-eds by Alexander I already grasped the main underpinnings of her argument…boy was I wrong.
Alexandra Fuller, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
I loved Fuller’s previous memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. My guess about what happened here is that Fuller gave her mother, who figures prominently and none to positively in the first memoir, a chance to vindicate herself in this go-round. It’s a shame—the mother character in Don’t Let’s Go is so much deeper, if more difficult, and ultimately more sympathetic. But do read Don’t Let’s Go.
Linda Hirshmann, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution
Widely praised, but somehow, I couldn’t really get into it. I wasn’t wild about Hirshmann’s rhetorical devices, and the history didn’t really come alive for me. Maybe I’ll try again.
Hilary Mantel, Bringing Up the Bodies
Due back to the library before I could finish. I will try again in 2013! But this time I’ll start with Wolf Hall.
There are others I’m forgetting. But this year in reading has been really fun. Thank you, wonderful authors, and thank you friends for all your suggestions! If you have suggestions for 2013 reads, leave me a note!
Responding to an open question that asked “If you could change one thing,” many listeners wrote that NPR should kill interviews with the man on the street.
As one respondent put it, “I really don’t care what some random dude in Florida thinks.”
I got back from San Francisco last week (it was a better return than the last time, when leaving that city full of blossoms to come back to New York prompted anxiety dreams on the plane home). Aside from spending quality time catching up with my SF friends and family, hiking on Mount Tam, eating in the Mission, and paying a visit to my brother’s bilingual kindergarten class (every bit as adorable as it sounds), I also, oh right, went to ONA12, the Online News Association’s annual conference.
As I’m getting my notes from the conference together I thought it would be useful if I pulled out some of my key takeaways. Here they are! (Before I start: I’m not sure I agree with, or buy, all of what I have below—but it’s all food for thought.)
Last thing—Neiman Lab “print-tweeted” the conference; the result is well worth checking out.
I read this:
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”
Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”
And thought (not to flatter myself) basically this:
This is a pretty remarkable response. I don’t have a problem with giving both sides some air time, but by far the main focus of the voter access battle is stringent photo ID laws — and the only real justification for stringent photo ID laws is that it stops in-person voter fraud. (That is, the kind of fraud where people show up in person at a polling place and pretend to be someone they aren’t. Even in theory, photo ID laws can’t stop any other kind of fraud.) This means that the existence of in-person voter fraud is exactly the core issue.
Gathering data for a project like this is a challenge because of how much variation exists between states and whether the precedent originated as a definition in the constitution, as an amendment to it, or was determined by the courts. Using employment as an example, state definitions vary to include some combination of public and/or private sector jobs and whether sexual orientation and/or gender identity was included. To complicate matters further, local laws and federal regulations also extend additional or partial rights.
For clarity, I narrowed the complexity to look at rights offered statewide…Using a quick graphical sketching tool named Processing I created this crude sketch to see if a circle could be used to show regions and if a visual pattern emerged. The rough sketch using five of the seven final seven categories seemed to show that this could work - or it seemed that way if you squinted a bit. A second iteration of this seemed to capture my attention and show that a visual design without a map could be feasible.
I’ll admit, when I first saw this visualization, I thought it was useful for research purposes but wouldn’t go viral, because it’s not immediately grasp-able on first glance. But it appears I’m wrong! Lots of people seemed to find it not only useful but powerful—and I wonder if that’s at least in part because there is a grasp-able editorial message in there after all: if you look at it for more than a second, you realize that the Northeast is the most protective of gay rights. In other words, this visualization not only enables readers to access basic information relatively unmediated, and go straight to whatever information they most care about, it also packs a punch. It also solves the map problem, in which a limited number of pieces of information can pertain to each state.
Because the Guardian is kicking ass here in the States, I think it’s only fair to observe that they carved up the US in a way that I don’t think most Americans would—what American considers Maryland the Northeast?