Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Why Is This at All Important?"

My local library is running an informal Best Books of 2018 contest. Customers can vote on social media or drop their vote in a "ballot box" (i.e., a shoe box wrapped in craft paper). One anonymous commenter decided not to vote. Instead, he or she left a note asking, "Why is this at all important?"

The answer, of course, is that it's not one bit important! It's fun

I adore this time of year, when every media outlet with even the slightest literary pretension produces a list of the best five or ten or hundred books published in 2018. 

Thus I present for you a list of my favorite lists of the best books of 2018. Yes, a listicle of listicles. It's so meta, I can hardly stand myself. 

1. The granddaddy of them all is NPR's "Book Concierge," a 318-item list of books sortable into the standard genres, but also book club reads, short books, long books, "eye-opening reads," and some other unusual categories that make the list a fun way to wile away a half-hour--when you're not actually reading, of course.

2. The New York Public Library's list was curated by its staff (and was the inspiration for my local library's informal contest).

3. The Times Book Review chimes in every year with a great list. (That one might be behind a paywall if you've already used up your free views for the month.)

4. In a completely different list the New York Times book critics also pronounced on their favorites. (Also potentially behind a paywall.)

5. Slate, of course, has an opinion.

6. Slate also has an opinion about audiobooks.

7. PopSugar has the lighter fare covered. 

8. Once you get past the offers to join their recipe email list, Southern Living has a great list of choices curated from independent bookstores.

9. LitHub is probably my favorite literary website, and their mostly unique list is probably my favorite, as well. 

That's a lot of lists to sort through. If you're not in the mood, here are a few books that show up on at least three lists. 

Calypso, by David Sedaris
Circe, by Madeline Miller
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight (nonfiction)
I'll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara (nonfiction)
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner
Milkman, by Anna Burns (just won the 2018 Man Booker Prize)
There, There, by Tommy Orange
Transcription, by Kate Atkinson
Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

After combing through all these lists, I'm most excited to read My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. And I guess probably There, There, just because it showed up on almost every list and I want to decide for myself if it's worth the fuss.

Et tu? Have you added anything to your TBR pile because it showed up on a Best-Of list? 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Thirteen Books

Who set 2018 reading goals this year? And did you meet them? Come on, you GoodReads power users, fess up. What was your goal? Seventy-five? One hundred?

Me? My goal this year? Twelve books. My goal was to complete the #ReadICT program, which identifies twelve categories. That's it.

Now I knew I'd exceed that goal, and of course I did. As of today, in late November, I've finished . . . are you ready? . . . thirteen books.

What now? Thirteen?

Yes, thirteen. I admit, I thought I'd read more than that, but I'm 100% comfortable with that total. After all, it's been an intense year. I've taken Spanish classes, re-launched Sunflower Editorial with some gratifying results, started a(nother) blog with a mostly weekly publication schedule, completed an editing certification program,* and, oh yeah, helped move an entire library into a brand-new facility. I mean not literally. There were professional movers. But still.

But surely, you ask, you read to relax? With all that stress, isn't reading even more important?

Nope. Not for me, not right now.

With the exception of the PG Wodehouse I keep next to the bathtub (Hot Water, har har, thanks for asking), trying to concentrate on a book can feel like torture. When my brain is exhausted, as it has been for a good chunk of the year, I listen to podcasts, rewatch Parks & Rec (except for season one), knit, draw, knit or draw while listening to podcasts or rewatching Parks & Rec, anything but follow words on a page.

Does that make me less of a reader?

Hell no.

Are you any less of a reader because you didn't even set a reading goal this year? Or because you didn't finish your library's reading program? Or because your GoodReads goal was one hundred books and you only finished seventy-eight?

Hell no.

Are you more of a reader because you met or exceeded your goals?

Of course not.

A reader is someone who knows when to pick up a book to make her world better. A reader is someone who knows better than to force himself to meet an arbitrary goal when it doesn't make sense.

Someone who powers through book after book just to say that she did it? That's not a reader. That's just a show-off.

I want to be a reader.

Life is settling down around here and I'm getting excited about reading again. Our library is running #ReadICT again, so I'll set my 2019 "goal" in line with that, but I don't really care how many books I read next year. I want to savor my books. I want to absorb other writers' creativity and use it to fuel my own. I want to read because it makes me happy, not because my social media reputation depends on it.


*I mean I assume I finished. I submitted the final project yesterday. Unless something goes seriously off the rails, I'll be officially certified in copyediting by the University of California at the end of next week. No, before someone asks, you don't need a certification to edit, but we all need continuing education no matter our field, adding professional training to your CV never hurts, and doing well in a challenging program has been a nice confidence boost.


On an unrelated note, I am looking for a way to donate to charities assisting the migrant caravan. I'm considering UNICEF or the Red Cross, but if you know of a legitimate charity providing direct assistance, please let me know and I'll update here.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Brett Kavanaugh Makeover

I want to thank Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump for my new lewk.

What do you think?

I think the lack of eyeliner and mascara really highlights how tired I am of men* who blame and even make fun of women who are victims of sexual assault, while the absence of foundation does a nice job of emphasizing the frustration with men* who continue to blithely ignore what women are actually saying and instead choose to critique their tone of voice as "shrieking." The thin, pursed lips perfectly express my feelings about men* who are so determined to adjudicate the merits of a particular case that they don't realize or don't care that their comments--thoughtless at best, frequently hateful, and always ignorant--are repeatedly traumatizing the women around them.

All the best beauty looks start with an inspiration, and I was inspired by being late to work. Normally my morning routine is on point, scheduled down to the minute to have me walking into work five minutes before my shift starts. But one day a couple of weeks ago, I lost track of time reading about Christine Blasey Ford. I had 10 minutes to finish a 20-minute "beauty" routine, half of which is simply smearing my face with foundation and my lashes with mascara. And it was about to make me late.

All at once, the whole process became ridiculous.

Why do I even wear makeup? Who cares if my skin tone isn't even and random strangers can see a blackhead or a zit? Who tells me that I should never, ever appear in public without my liquid face mask lest people in general and men in particular find me unattractive?

The culture that gives us Brett Kavanaughs and Donald Trumps, that's who.

The horrific culture of violence women are expected to navigate as a matter of course.

The culture in which one in five women are raped.

The culture in which almost one in two multiracial and indigenous women are raped.

The culture in which between 95% and 98% of rape reports are truthful.

And I haven't even gotten to sexual assault and harassment that doesn't end in rape, which is barely even acknowledged, let alone punished.

Fuck that culture. Why am I spending so much time changing my appearance so that that culture will find me acceptable?

I haven't worn makeup since that day two weeks ago.


Now, look, I'm not saying all women should immediately stop wearing makeup. I would no more tell a woman what she can and cannot put on her face than I would tell her what tattoos she's allowed to get or what clothes she should wear.

This post is about me, not you. If you want to keep wearing makeup, if makeup makes you happy, if makeup makes your day easier instead of harder, I am not here to tell you you're wrong.

I'm not even saying that I will never wear makeup again. It's not like I have any plans to throw out a $30 bottle of foundation. That's good stuff, and I'm going to want it the next time I go to a party or a wedding or somewhere I want to feel a little extra fancy, or maybe just next week if I feel like it.  


So, no, I am not saying all women should immediately throw out their lipsticks.

I am saying this: In the two weeks I've been makeup free, my confidence in my appearance has soared. It almost feels miraculous, like a superhero origin story.

In the last month, women have had to watch while every conservative man* from Donald Trump to that guy we turned down for a date that time pilloried Christine Blasey Ford for no reason except that she had the the gall to report her abuse. We had to watch while Dr. Ford went through what every woman who reports abuse experiences, except Dr. Ford had to do it in front of the international media. We had to relive our own worst moments while the men* around us debated our believability, our reliability as witnesses to our own lives, our motivations, even whether we're "pretty enough" to be assaulted. Even when they were told how hurtful they were being, how their obsession with the technicalities and legalities entirely misses the point, how they are in no way qualified to pronounce judgment on a case they know nothing about, they would not. shut. up.

So I don't know about you, but I definitely feel like a supervillain threw me into a tank of experimental chemicals. I almost drowned, but when I finally pulled myself out, soggy and exhausted, I had amazing new powers of perception. I can see now that I've been participating in "beauty culture" in a thoughtless, externally determined way that was designed to make this culture comfortable at the same time that it made me anxious and self-loathing. Beauty culture in that context is the polite veneer of rape culture--or what I'm going to call from now on "Kavanaugh culture."

Trying to change myself to meet the expectations of a culture that wants to hurt me with impunity and gets grumpy when I object is simply no longer possible.

My personal decision not to wear makeup as often is entirely insignificant. It's so silly and superficial that I've almost deleted this post as too dumb and unimportant at least a dozen times. Yet I've spent thirty years drowning in a metaphorical vat of poisonous chemicals, in a culture that wants me to believe that my natural skin isn't good enough, that I'm inherently disgusting and need to change myself not because I really want to but because I owe it to the world, because without makeup, I'm not "likable" enough.

I'm not rapable enough.

It doesn't get more serious or important than that.

Without makeup, I can feel myself standing up straighter, smiling more often. Those blackheads and zits and scars are all still there, and some little wrinkles are starting to crop up around my eyes. But somehow, this week, to quote Saint Thelma, something's crossed over in me. I can't go back.

And, damn, I look stunning.


A Brett Kavanaugh Reading List

"Looking Back," Ursula LeGuin
Remember me before I was a heap of salt,
the laughing child who seldom did
as she was told or came when she was called,
the merry girl who became Lot's bride
the happy woman who loved her wicked city.
Do not remember me with pity.
I saw you plodding on ahead
into the desert of your pitiless faith.
Those springs are dry, that earth is dead.
I looked back, not forward, into death.
Forgiving rains dissolve me, and I come
still disobedient, still happy, home.

Victoria Bissell Brown, "Thanks for Not Raping Us, All You 'Good Men.' But It's Not Enough." Washington Post, October 12, 2018.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, "Opinion: We Still Haven't Learned from Anita Hill's Testimony," New York Times, September 27, 2018.

Kate Harding, "A Master Class in Women's Rage," Medium, September 27, 2018. 

Lacy M. Johnson, "On Likability," Tin House, October 11, 2018.

Sarah Kendzior, "Opinion: Kavanaugh's Appointment Isn't a Step Backward. It's a Head-First Plunge into an Ugly Past," Globe and Mail, October 6, 2018.

Kristen Zory King, "For Women, the Sin of Indulgence Is the Worst Sin Imaginable," Medium, October 2, 2018.

"Nobel Prize for Anti-Rape Activists Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege," BBC, October 5, 2018.

Rebecca Traister, "Opinion: Fury is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It," New York Times, September 29, 2018.


*Yes, I know there are women out there who support Kavanaugh and Trump. I don't understand you and I worry for you.


During the week I was writing this, this popped up in my Facebook feed. So apparently it's women's fault that men are too stupid to tell when we're wearing makeup.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who You Lookin At?

The reading slump is over! Woo Hoo! I finished Dietland last week, and with that, I'm a reader again! Whew, that feels so much better.

Before I get too far into this, yes, I know there's a show out on AMC, but I didn't know that when I started the book. It's on my list to watch as soon as I can get it on DVD or streaming. If you've watched the show, this is not about that. No spoilers!

This isn't a regular book review, anyway. 

Except for one significant flaw (my opinion is over on GoodReads) Dietland was a pleasure, a visceral, physical pleasure to read. The violence is extreme, but even as the civilized part of my brain, the part trained to value nonviolence and reconciliation above all, objected, the instinctive animal part thought, "Huh. Seems fair." And then she purred a little bit and licked her lips.

It felt pretty good to give that unreasonable, reactionary Me a lil scritch behind the ears before I locked her away again.

So Dietland made an impression and has stayed with me in the few days since I finished it. A large part of the story is about visibility--who is seen and who is doing the seeing. The central character, Plum, spends about two-thirds of the story trying to make herself invisible. When people in public do notice and react to her, it's never to give a compliment.

Thoughts of visibility were running through my mind this morning as I was getting ready for work. I was thinking about how, when I look at myself in the mirror, I seem fine. Not supermodel gorgeous by any means, but certainly attractive, with soft, flowing hair that I love to feel brushing my back and bright hazel eyes that look green or brown depending on what I'm wearing, which makes me feel a little bit magic. In my bathroom mirror in the morning, I look and feel good.

But at some point during the day, I will catch a reflection of myself in a window or see myself in someone else's cellphone picture and that confidence I left the house with deflates. My gut pooches out too far. My lips are too thin. My beautiful, flowing hair has somehow transformed into a frizzy rat's nest. I look like a tired 41-year-old. At best, I look like someone who can safely be ignored.

Why do I perceive myself so differently according to where or in what surface I'm doing the perceiving? Is the difference that the first happens in the privacy of my own home whereas the second is a public exposure? More importantly, how does this (flawed?) perception of myself change how I behave in the world? In Dietland, Plum believes she is hideous, that her appearance means she doesn't deserve basic respect, and she behaves accordingly, hiding herself away as much as possible and never confronting people who are cruel.

I "hide" myself a lot, with neutral clothes, hats and hoods, thick-framed glasses. 

What would my life be like if I couldn't see myself in those cell pictures? If I went through the whole day, every day, perceiving myself the way I see myself in my own bathroom mirror? Women's lives 100 years ago, before the proliferation of public photography, were not all beer and skittles,* but is this one area where our lives have actually gotten harder? Certainly we didn't have to compete with digitally altered models, which has a real-life effect on how real-life women are perceived by real-life men.

Oh, so many questions I have and not a single answer.


My niece's first birthday is next Sunday. In her single year on Earth, I've taken countless selfies with her on my lap, the first when she was about sixteen hours old--and have promptly re-taken them until I get one of myself I can stand to look at.

I do love this picture of both of us, even though it's a little blurry. Happy Birthday, my sweet Nugget!
After every picture I almost involuntarily verbalize those self-criticisms. I have to stop. Cam is getting old enough to understand my reactions if not my exact words and--no hyperbole--I would rather drive a nail through my own tongue than add to the burden of impossible womanhood she has to grow up with.

Maybe that's a little dramatic. Cam will be fine, in the sense that most of us are fine. In the sense that it's "normal" for us to doubt ourselves, to alter our behavior and our bodies in a futile quest to look like Victoria's Secret models. (But have you ever actually looked at VS models? I don't mean how big their breasts are or how skimpy the "underwear" is. Except for skin tone and hair color, they all look exactly the same. It's scary. Are they aliens? Androids?)

Dietland makes explicit how American culture values women primarily and always for how well we meet impossible standards. What if I could discard that influence? What if I moved through every day feeling the way I feel when I first get dressed in the morning? What if I could convince myself that those bad selfies or store-window reflections were inaccurate distortions, not reflective of my real beauty?

More unanswerable questions, I know. I keep trying, though. Dietland is a good motivational manual.


PS: If your first reaction to this post is to "reassure" me by telling me how pretty I am, stop. You've missed the point. Tell me I write well. Tell me I'm a good auntie. Tell me you hate my politics or you love my spaghetti sauce. Do not comment on my appearance. 


*"Skittles" is a game. Beer is . . . beer. I looked it up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Reading Is Fundamental

June 5th. The last book I finished was All the Light We Cannot See, and according to Goodreads, I finished it on June 5th.

It's not that I haven't been reading in all that time. I just haven't finished anything. Americanah, Record of a Spaceborn Few, Women Heroes of World War II, and a Obama-Biden bromance parody called Hope Never Dies are just some of the books I've started and haven't managed to finish. I intend to finish all of them so I guess technically I'm reading four books at once? Sounds impressive, except I'm not actually reading any of them. I've moved on to another one called Dietland, recommended by a friend. It's promising. I might finish it!

Reading slumps are a thing, y'all. But if you think that's going to stop me talking about books . . . well, you haven't been paying attention. I follow a blog called Reading Every Night (mainly because it's such a great blog title) and she just did a post on the top ten books she "learnt" something from. (Those silly Brits and their "English.") Great idea! Here are mine in no particular order:

1. I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time in middle school. It taught me that I could read and enjoy "hard" books. At the time, it was the longest book I'd ever read and slogging through the dialect was no joke. I've reread it several times since and practically minored in Huck Finn analysis in college. Go on, ask me something. 

2. That Godless Court by Ronald Flowers and Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society edited by Michael Ariens and Robert Destro were the textbooks I used in a religion and the Supreme Court class in grad school. I learned more about how our country functions (or doesn't function) in that single semester than in a lifetime of listening to grouchy relatives bellyaching at the dinner table. Listening to Nina Totenberg read Supreme Court transcripts is now my favorite part of NPR. Also? Antonin Scalia was terrible at his job. Awful.

3. When an undergrad lit class assigned Emma, I rolled my eyes so hard they almost popped out of my head. Some how, some way, in all my young-adult certitude, I had become convinced that Jane Austen was just a fluffy romance writer. Yes. I know. I am properly ashamed. I wasted no time making up for my error, though, and had a difficult time concentrating in my last semester of college because I was too busy reading her entire bibliography, which taught me how far we've come and how far is left to go.

4. True Grit (Charles Portis) taught me that Westerns could also be literature.

5. The Dispossessed (Ursula LeGuin) taught me that Science Fiction could also be literature.

6. "A Worn Path" (Eudora Welty, short story) taught me that stories could be as delicate and nuanced as a Da Vinci painting. It's the story that made me an English major and set me on my path.

7. The Sherlock Holmes stories taught me that just because an author or book is canon doesn't mean it can't be critiqued.

8. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) taught me what I've suspected all along: Dogs are worthy of poetry.

9. The People in the Castle (Joan Aiken) taught me that grownups should read fairy tales, too.

10. Mr. McMilikin's Mountain taught me that parents get tired of reading the same stories over and over but they'll do it for you anyway.

That's just a random sample of some of the books that have influenced me. And you? What books have taught you an unexpected lesson?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

So Much TMI

First, if you're a perfectly healthy, happy human being whose life is working out exactly as you planned, this post is not for you. Feel free to skip it, and we'll see you next month when I return to my normal babble about books and dogs.

Let's talk about brain chemicals. And thyroid hormones. And poor sleep. And being a little embarrassed.

My brain chemicals are a little off. Just a little, but apparently for a long time. Thyroid problems are easy to diagnose with a blood test, but not so easy to treat. And restless leg syndrome (RLS), when it's mild, can fly under the radar enough that it interferes with your sleep but so subtly that you can't really pinpoint it and don't understand why you're so. fucking. tired. all. the. time. (Which is also a symptom of thyroid issues, just to make it a little more confusing.)

A crisis point in late March/early April finally landed me in the doctor's office. Don't worry, not a dangerous crisis, just an I've-had-enough-of-this-bullshit-something-has-to-change-come-to-jesus moment. My matter-of-fact PCP handed me a tissue and put me on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor called escitalopram (the generic version of Lexapro). I found a nice therapist to talk to, too.

Apparently my serotonin reuptake really did need to be selectively inhibited because, after some dosage adjustment to deal with side effects, the escitalopram started to work. My mood improved. Actually, "mood" sounds too flip. I haven't been in a bad mood for fifteen years. My brain chemicals were wonky. So I guess the right thing to say is that my brain chemicals began to properly regulate. I started feeling . . . hopeful? I wasn't sure.

But I was still really tired all the time, and it sucked feeling hopeful but not being able to do anything about it, so I went back to the doc. This time I didn't cry. I was mad. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2010 and here it is 8 years later, and I still feel like shit? (In retrospect, knowing the symptoms, I think it's likely that I developed it sometime around 2005 or 2006, so it's actually been at least 12 years.) She checked my levels again, and they're normal, so the last-ditch effort was to switch from the generic thyroid meds to the name-brand Synthroid. Apparently there can be up to a 30% difference in effectiveness between generics and the name-brand versions. Turns out that 30% is important. Y'all, I haven't had brain fog in a month. I can find words when I'm talking to people. I can get up and fix breakfast and it doesn't wipe me out to the point that I have to go back to bed. I almost feel like one of those people who likes to spend their weekends going out into the world!

I said almost. Let's not get crazy.

The last thing to work on was the RLS. Lexapro can exacerbate RLS, and my suspicion that I had it was suddenly a certainty. I was flopping like a fish every time I tried to lie down to sleep. I think sometimes I literally fell asleep while I was still moving. After a particularly rough night, I called the doc again and she added another medication, pramipexole. That one worked the very first night and it was glorious. I slept. (There were some crazy visual side effects and the dosage had to be adjusted, but it works so well I'm willing to live with a little crazy.)

I've had all three of these meds working together for two weeks now (with the Lexapro and Synthroid already built up to therapeutic levels) and I feel . . . normal? It's hard to tell. The maladjusted coping habits of 15 or 20 years are still there. My first response to stress is still to want to take a nap. But my mental and physical energy are improving. I can make long-term plans and visualize how to follow through. I even started a new writing project, Little Yellow House, that will take a pretty serious level of commitment. This is not something I would've even considered 6 months ago. I wouldn't have had the time, what with my strenuous napping schedule.

Why am I telling you all this? Mental problems are supposed to be private, right? I guess because it would never have occurred to me that there was a solution if I hadn't heard other people talking about it. It was celebrities like Jenny Lawson (the Bloggess) and the hosts of My Favorite Murder and all their fans talking openly about their mental health that first got me thinking that maybe I didn't have to feel so run-down and discouraged all the time. And after I quietly mentioned to some close friends that I had started medication and almost all of them said, "Oh, yes, that worked for me," I realized how common this is but how embarrassed we are to talk about it unless someone else mentions it first.

So I'm mentioning it. I may be an introvert, but I'm not shy and being embarrassed makes me mad. So screw it. If you need a friend to nudge you into the doctor's office or the therapist's office or wherever you need to be, let me be that friend, even if you're not really sure what it is you need. The doc will help you figure it out. I finally realized that I don't have to be suicidal or a threat to others to need help. There is no "sick enough" to deserve help. I didn't feel well. I deserved to get help. And I feel so much better that I want the rest of the world to feel better with me. I don't mean to imply that two weeks of feeling good have made me a mental health expert. I'm at the very beginning of figuring out how and to what extent my life can or will change. But when I think about how long ago I could've started this process, if I had only known, and how my life might be different now. . . . If you're in a similar situation, I want you to know.

[In fact, as I was proofreading this, I just remembered a doctor's appointment about four years ago, when I was telling the doc how tired I was all the time and she asked me if I thought I might be depressed. I was surprised and poo-pooed it immediately. "I'm not suicidal," I told her, "I'm just tired." If I'd realized four years ago that you don't have to be suicidal to need help. If I'd let her write the escitalopram Rx four years ago. Hell. I guess there's my next topic for therapy.]

I don't have a good ending for this one, maybe because there is no ending to this story. So here are some zinnias and sunflowers. They're about the only thing July heat is good for anyway.



Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Draft, or Ode to an Orange Notebook

Notebooks are a tactile thing. I love the way a stack of pages feel when they've been covered with ink on both sides. You can keep your 100 GSM. I adore shitty student notebooks that show the dents and gouges and ink bleeds from yesterday's intentions and agonies and mistakes. It's braille for the sighted. It's a topographical relief map of the brain.