Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgeman

We could not go far in the peapod. It wasn’t designed for distance, but it didn’t matter. Things were different on the water. Where Massachusetts had been my land and Maine, at least the land part, had been [my wife’s], the ocean and the little shelter islands that we could reach as our rowing arms grew stronger were new and neutral territory. I would stand up in the boat—because you really could do that . . . you really could break that rule, because the peapod would not tip or fail you—and I would scan the shore. Maine may be full of ambiguities, and its sky full of shades of gray. But it can also be blunt, and sometimes its metaphors can be a little on the nose. So I regret that I must write: I literally had a new point of view.

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 10.55.21 AMA typical outing would be to a little island, only a few oar strokes from shore. We would beach the peapod for a moment so that our children could get out. They would go off exploring on their own. You could walk the whole perimeter of the island in an hour, just strolling. But even when your children are older and have demonstrated common sense and physical and emotional resiliency due to your really incredible, award-worthy parenting, you still feel a pang of panic when they leave your sight. I would watch them disappear behind the trees as the shoreline curved off to the right, where they would scamper on slick wet rocks or fall or drown or meet an ill-intentioned stranger or whatever their fate might be.

And then my wife would also leave me, taking the peapod out on a solo row, following her deep, genetic Maine blood–calling to the ocean and misanthropy. I would watch her then disappear as the island curved around to my left, rowing her boat, utterly alone, the happiest I’ve ever seen her.

They would leave me on the beach, an only child once more, and I would take off my shirt and go swimming. By the end of that summer I had started swimming pretty frequently in the waters of Maine. I would not say that I learned to enjoy it. Even in August, when the water is at its warmest, it is still cold. But I did enjoy learning to endure it.

There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change dramatically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly through the new. That’s the gift of a Maine vacation: you survive it. (pg 237)

For my husband’s birthday in September, I gave him the gift of podcasts. You see, I had overplayed my hand at Father’s Day by giving him Apple AirPods, a present he had proved over the summer to be wildly successful by having one in his ear at virtually all times. After only two and a half months, I had no brilliant ideas to top that, so I did one of my least favorite things – research – to try to find new programs for him to listen to. As it turns out, even with all of the internet at my disposal, I’m garbage at research, so I turned to my friend Tiff, who’s fabulous at it, and she guided me to a list of podcasts he might like. That is where we discovered John Hodgeman.

My husband became immediately obsessed with his show, Judge John Hodgeman, and would often shove a headphone in my ear while I was trying to sleep because he knew it would resonate with me too. (To be fair, it always did, but as the parent of two young children, I will always choose sleep over being entertained.)

Fast forward to November, when my mother came to visit, and granted us a rare opportunity for a lunch and  bookstore date. We saw a copy of Vacationland on the Staff Picks table, and my husband flipped through it, chuckling and insisting I would love it. I ignored him because I was too busy drooling over all the recipes in the new Smitten Kitchen cookbook that I would never have the time (or talent) to make. He ended up buying it on Kindle later that day after lamenting leaving it behind, and a few weeks ago, while getting ready to fly to Sydney for work, he rediscovered it.

As it happened, I was between books at the time and decided to give it a shot. I ended up devouring it before he even left on his trip, often laughing hard and silently to myself as I waited for the baby to fall asleep. When I finished, I tried to convey to him how deeply the setting – Western Mass and Maine – resonated with me. I spent most of my own childhood vacations haunting those same fields and shores, and revisiting them through Hodgeman’s eyes was both accurate and hilarious.

I finally understood why he’d been tirelessly promoting this guy (who I usually think of as “that old correspondent for The Daily Show”) to me. Hodgeman is the person I would have become if I’d married someone exactly like my brother (whose address might be in NH but is a true Mainer at heart). It’s impossible to read this book and not see my family in place of his, to see my own neuroses and flaws in him. It gave me a wonderful, slightly morose feeling, glancing up from the page to see the past rush by, a tidal wave of happy hours spent in the sand, pointless pouts and arguments, rainy days in tiny motel rooms, productions of Shakespeare watched as the sun set and the mosquitos converged.

My husband seems to be enjoying it too, in case you were wondering, if not with quite the wistful nostalgia I experienced. Even after all these years together, I haven’t completely converted him from a peaceful Coloradan to a curmudgeonly New Englander, which is really for the best since I’ve grown to love my time rock hopping in the mountains as much as drowsing by the rocky Atlantic sands.

 

*A piece of site business: you may have noticed I’ve been MIA for about a month. It turns out that until both children are back in childcare, the demands on my time don’t permit regular posting. I’ll do my best to share the best books I’m reading until I can get back on track in a few months.

The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Welcome to 2018! I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t feel completely beaten down by having both children home with me for ten thousand hours, traveling, Christmasing, coming home and trying to unbury from traveling and Christmasing with said children grouchily underfoot every single second – nope! I feel completely refreshed, organized, and ready to take on whatever whole food eating/exercise more/completely overhaul home and self resolutions have been set! Really! Ignore the wild eyes, the baskets of laundry in every room, and the vague sense of stickiness on every surface. This year is under control!

34456052842_257517516e_zJust about the only grain of truth in there is that it is, in fact, 2018. And I have made resolutions that I hopefully can keep to turn this year into a more productive one than 2017 turned out to be. I haven’t made any in years, but I decided a little intentionality might go a long way when trying to combat the bad habits I’ve gotten into work-wise. (Unfortunately for those who visit my home, none of them involves becoming a more diligent housekeeper.) The one thing I’ve been able to keep up with has been reading some really great books (having a nursing baby is good for my kindle library). I feel like the last six months have gotten away from me in many ways, but I’ve stumbled on so many wonderful reads, it’s hard to be too upset about it.

This novella, The Dispatcher, was originally released only as an audiobook. I remember reading about it on Scalzi’s site early in the year, but I don’t have much interest in listening to stories, so I didn’t even put it on my mental list. It was only recently, when it was released on kindle, that I decided it had been too long since I’d read one of his books and picked it up. I think I read it in an hour – maybe two – and it left me wishing for more. I know he plans on more books in this universe, and I absolutely cannot wait.

Much like his novel Lock In (which has a sequel due out this year), The Dispatcher is an example of Scalzi’s masterful ability to skirt current events and turn them into compelling and hilarious science fiction. I read his nonfiction posts almost daily, and I’ve enjoyed his style for years, but I don’t read his novels often enough to remember just how much I appreciate his fiction.

Scalzi’s characters lovable and fresh, and his fictitious worlds are just on the edge past reality. Those realities spring from how humans have evolved – rather than how a particular technology has changed us – and that may be why I find his work so compelling. His sci-fi has a heart and humor that brings me back book after book, and if you’re looking for an intro author for this genre (maybe a new year’s resolution to try something new?), he’s a wonderfully approachable place to start.

You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, Jenny Lawson

I’ve been reading The Bloggess (aka Jenny Lawson) for years now. My friend and I have even done our own dramatic readings of various passages from her blog (mostly to delight/terrify the kids in the youth group we were leading at the time). She is hilarious, irreverent, and even in the throes of her own not infrequent physical and mental pain, dedicated to the message the Depression Lies.  Her newest book, You Are Here, is a testament to that idea, and to the possibility that the coping mechanism a person privately uses to keep themselves alive might speak to a wider audience.

you-are-here-jenny-lawsonFor Lawson, her anxiety and depression are so severe that she often must keep her hands busy to prevent them from, in her own words, destroying her. She recognizes that she is her own most dangerous and unpredictable foe, and to combat her body’s desire to hurt itself, she draws. Her pen and ink sketches are as intricate and lovely as they are inspiring. In the year before this book became a reality, Lawson had shared a few of her drawings with her online audience and was surprised by how well-received they were. People were coloring them in and then sharing them back to the community, and each individual take on the original was a mini masterpiece in its own right – a whisper into the void of mental and physical illness that declared I am (still) here.

The drawing below is one of my favorites. Before I had time to read the whole book, I was looking through the pictures with my son, and we stopped on this because he’s obsessed with dandelions. He loves all things yellow, but especially flowers, and the weeds we find on our daily walks – the dandelions and the California bush poppies – are his favorites. He’s quite good at miming the blowing of dandelion seeds, although he’s neither dexterous enough to pick them from the dirt himself or breathy enough to dislodge any of the pods without the help of his fingers. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get tired of pointing out the fields of them growing near our house or watching when I pick one out to blow on.

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I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion – those vivid yellow flowers that bloom in the cracks of sidewalks or abandoned lots. Anything that thrives in such strange, broken places holds a special kind of magic. It shines bright and golden for a moment before it withers, but then – when most have given it up for dead – it explodes into an elaborate globe of spiderweb seedlings so fragile that a wind or a wish sends it to pieces.

But the falling apart isn’t the end.

It depends on the falling apart.

Its fragility lets it be carried to new places, to paint more gold in the cracks.

I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion.

But I think, in a way, I already am. (p 59)

This book really found me at the right time. The last few months have been an onslaught of phone calls with friends who have received unexpected and advanced cancer diagnoses, unusual and unresolved test results for all manner of terrible health crises, and my own exhaustion/insomnia cycle that inevitably rears its head when I start to feel powerless to help the people I care about. It hasn’t made for the best start to the year, but reading this book and studying the images that literally saved the life of a person I greatly admire has been a powerful reminder. It’s not that the world is always good, or fair, or easy, but that each person in it – even those who seem beyond saving, or who sometimes wish they were beyond saving – have a place, a purpose, a unique voice capable of remarkable insight and empathy.

Today I changed everything.

Today I took a shower.

Today I kept breathing.

Circle any of the above that apply. They are all a celebration, y’all. (p 138)

Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

Is there anything better than seeing an email pop up saying a book you pre-ordered (and then forgot existed) is now available on your kindle this very second?! To me, it’s almost better than Christmas – a complete and wonderful surprise from a beloved author – it’s a happy enough occasion that it redeems even a week trapped inside watching the rain while a nine month old climbs the walls.

25776210Briggs, of course, was the author who got me through the last six weeks of my pregnancy and much of the summer caring for a newborn. Her Mercy Thompson series brings me so much joy with its lighthearted spin on werewolves, fae, vampires, and of course, coyote shape-shifters. It was painful that I could only read this newest volume in fits and starts, pages stolen during nap time (after chores and real work were finished – thanks a lot adult responsibilities!) and for a few minutes before I passed out at night. I told myself that I was just savoring it, but really, it was torture.

Now that I’ve finished, all I can think is, how long until the next book comes out? Do I really have to wait a year or two for more? This is a problem I often find when I’ve binged on a series and then caught up to real time production. My brain believes I’m entitled to infinite pages, but the reality is that I have to wait and hope that another email will pop up in the next few weeks telling me about a sequel in another beloved series I hadn’t remembered was forthcoming. The idea of such a treat will get me through the first long difficult hours after finishing, but the reality is, I don’t pre-order often, so I’ll eventually have to let go and turn to my shelf of perfectly good to-read books.

I’m not ready yet though. I’m still happy to daydream about characters I love, to swish this last novel around in my brain for awhile, sifting through it for bright shards of story I might have missed during my fractured read. It’s that bittersweet clingy stage all bookworms know, defiantly wrapped up in a favorite world even after the book has come to its satisfying end…

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

Since having a baby, I’ve found it less difficult than expected to write a post here every two weeks. I haven’t even found it all that tough to have a book read, which is almost more of a surprise. This week though, I almost had to throw in the towel. I have so much work piling up (do other writers find that this time of year is their busiest? I almost always have more work than I can handle in the winter/spring season) that even though I read The Rosie Project two weeks ago over several very long nights when my kiddo was sick and needed to be held in order to get any sleep, I’ve had zero brain power to think about reviewing it.

16181775It’s especially odd since I picked this up for the first meeting of a book club a friend invited me to join, and because I’ve never been part of such a group before, I was particularly meticulous reading it. This might not seem impressive until you consider that the book was consumed entirely between the hours of midnight and 5am four days in a row. By the end, I was so sleep deprived that Simsion’s characters were the only thing holding my night reality together. (And yes, when I finished it, I immediately ordered the sequel because I couldn’t function without this fictional world.)

Of course, when I went to the meeting last week, it was mostly an excuse to eat and drink wine sans children – not that I’m complaining – but the discussion about the book was more limited than I’d expected. (I was impressed that out of seven of us, six had completed the novel, which apparently is pretty rare.) It felt good to join a group of women who were excited enough about reading (anything without pictures) that they were willing to do the work even if, in the end, it wasn’t exactly the point of the evening.

I only knew one person that night, and I found it exciting to talk to doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and salsa dancers about this sweet little love story. It’s so easy to get lost in my own perspective as a writer; I was fascinated by other interpretations of the characters and their motivations. As it is, I rarely read the same books as my friends, and writing about what I read here is the closest I come to having a community of like-minded readers to tap into. We bookworms tend to be a comfortable with solitude, but many of us would also agree that there is real pleasure associated with sharing a good read.

I’m not sure I ever would have come across this book without the suggestion of the group. The Rosie Project is about a socially awkward professor of genetics (he almost certainly falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum) who is looking for a wife using his own scientific method (a sixteen page questionnaire) to weed out “time-wasting, incompatible” candidates. I was a little put off by the idea at first (I was afraid the book would be insensitive to such a protagonist), but after two chapters, I was hooked. Don Tillman is an unusual hero, and I couldn’t help but root for him. He isn’t limited by his idiosyncrasies; instead, they define a starting point for his growth. Simsion clearly understood his protagonist inside and out, and he treats him with gentle affection.

It made for a wonderful escape from a stressful week. I slipped easily back into Don’s challenges every evening. His very relatable problems made for a good jumping off point in book club as well. We ended up talking about bad dates (one memorable story ended up in traction, another, vomiting non-stop from food poisoning), compatibility, and deal-breaking quirks in a partner. I know more about some of those women after two hours than I do acquaintances I’ve known for years! Plus, I got to drink an entire glass of wine while sitting with my feet up, and at this point in my life, there is very little that can beat such luxury when combined with a good book…

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.

 

Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Welcome to 2016! I’m not going to crack any jokes about making or breaking resolutions a week in as it’s been years since I’ve even considered making some of my own, and honestly, the only other thing I can think of right now is that we’re now officially in Election year, and the whole political circus is going to be amped up to eleven until November. Just thinking about it is making me tired, so instead of dwelling on the questionable success of new starts and uncontrollable windbaggery, let’s break open that bag of emergency marshmallows (what? You don’t have an emergency bag of marshmallows?!) and make some reading-escape appropriate cocoa.

20910157Now, that we’ve settled in, I have to admit I’ve been on a little break from novels the last two months. During November, I was doing my own new-mom adaptation of National Novel Writing Month, where, instead of writing a completely impossible 50,000 words, I was trying to finish the first draft of the cozy mystery started last summer. Spoiler alert: I failed. I did get five chapters written, which was certainly better than nothing, but I had to extend my deadline to December 31 (which fortunately, I was able to meet). 

The whole endeavor was surprisingly difficult even though I was only eight chapters from the end. It was also much harder than any of the years I’ve done a traditional NANO novel, probably because I care more about this book than I do the crazy stories I’ve written in great speed in the past. On top of that, I care more about my son than I do about deadlines, which is both wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, writing makes me feel like a million bucks – on the other, well, I’m not the first parent to struggle with this particular problem.

But I digress. I was talking about my break from novels, not lamenting the existence Hermione Granger’s time-turner. I like to take a break from fiction when I’m doing a lot of my own writing. It clears my head and allows me to focus on working through those ideas rather than procrastinating with another writer’s story. Obviously, I can’t just give up reading though, so I often find myself a little niche to explore. This time around, it has been comediennes. 

Amy Poehler’s book was a recommended read after I finished Mindy Kaling’s, although it was a far different experience. Poehler is a much more serious person than I realized, and her book certainly reflects that. Unlike Tina Fey or Kaling, her focus is less on a laugh out loud read (although I did) than it is a grittier look at her own experiences. She hasn’t sugar-coated her past failures here. She’s done some things that certainly don’t endear her, but her response to those choices, and her perspective as an older comic and woman were powerful and worthy of respect. 

This is a woman who has worked incredibly hard and has lived a fascinating, if challenging life. She hasn’t done everything perfectly, but that’s shaped her comedy and made her, in my opinion, more worthy of her success. It was passages such as this one that touched me deeply and made this book special:

The hardest day in Haiti for me was when we visited a few orphanages. Some of these places were doing the best they could. Others had a long way to go. Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages. A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say good-bye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.

Those kids needed so much holding. Kisses and hugs and clothes and parents. They needed everything. The enormity of what they needed was so intense. We ended up talking in the street with Jane, and crying. Jane was agitated and passionate. She talked about all the work left to do and all the small changes that can improve children’s lives. I was once again moved by her ability to steer into the curve. Jane was a big-wave rider. She didn’t make the mistake that most of us make, which is to close our eyes and hope the waves will go away or miss us or hit someone else. She dove in, headfirst. That night, I read the deeply calm and at times sneakily funny Pema Chödrön, one my favorite writers: “There are no promises. Look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” Pema reminded me to practice tonglen, which is this meditation breathing exercise where you breathe in all the pain and breathe out nothing but love. It felt like the opposite of what I had been doing for a year. I felt one tiny molecule in the bottom of my heart feel better. (loc 3224)

Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson

Do you ever buy a book purely for the title? I have to imagine the answer is yes, and the main reason I want to believe this is that I really struggle with titling projects and I want to believe that at the end of the day, all that agony has meant something. I want to know that at least a few people who buy my books are doing so not because they know me or my work or even because they care much for the genre, but purely because it would be too hard to pass up the opportunity to buy something with such a fabulous title! As you can tell, I’ve clearly got my priorities in order.

While I was considering this question, I actually wished I had created an appropriate tag when I started this blog just to mark the books I buy and read for the title. I know I’ve done it more than once, and it seems like it would be fun to go back and compare how those books worked out for me. I feel like if I collected enough empirical evidence on the topic, I might be able to make an educated guess about how reliable it is to judge a book by its cover. (For the record, the cover art for Finn Fancy Necromancy is both amazing and completely nonsensical, and I love it – sheer bonus on top of the title, in my opinion.)

If I had to make a guess without any data (which is, admittedly, how I like to roll), I would say that books I’ve chosen purely for love of the title tend to score a six or a seven out of ten for me, whereas books I pick for the cover art alone tend to score much lower, averaging maybe a four or so. Again, I have no real evidence to back this up other than my memory (which has become, in the last nine months, not so much a sieve as a sucking vacuous black hole). Fortunately, I suspect it would be hard to prove me wrong on this point, and even if it were possible, it would be a tremendously unsatisfying victory. It would take so much work, and for what? To discover that taste is a fleeting concept? That the most enduring stories last regardless of title or cover? That it’s only in this wonderful age of book over-saturation that we even get to contemplate such a curious issue? Our time could be much better spent perusing the library shelves for titles, like this one, that make us giggle. Is Finn Fancy the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it light and fun and perfect for my wandering brain this close to the end of my pregnancy? Yes. 

Henderson’s style is familiar and friendly, and his characters are people I can imagine befriending over a coffee even though their circumstances don’t seem to allow for many latte breaks. Every morning at the gym, as I battled exercise-induced heartburn (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, I have it right now), I would read a chapter or two about Finn, returning from exile in a faerie prison world after twenty years, and I would appreciate how challenging it would be to try to pick up life where he left it, as a teenager in the eighties, now far from the cutting edge and pushing forty. 

Since he’s returned, he’s not only the target of the mysterious forces that framed him for his original crime, but he’s also been dumped back into the the fray of his family’s drama and his adolescent love interests. He has no personal memories of the last twenty years, has no idea what technological or political advances have been made, and has had no contact with anyone from his old life. What he does have is a healthy sense of humor (very much under appreciated by the people in his life) appropriate for a kid growing up with the Goonies. I couldn’t help but sympathize for the poor guy. No one should have to go to bed seventeen and wake up middle aged – it’s just not fair. 

When it comes down to it, the reason a book like this often ends up being a good fit for me, even when I do no research on it whatsoever before reading, is that silly wordplay is something I enjoy. While a beautiful cover might inspire or intrigue me, it often has little bearing to what’s on the page. The title, on the other hand, is an author’s wink at the world, a little peek into the particular twist of psyche that has turned a spark into an adventure.

For more about Randy Henderson, head here.

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, Mallory Ortberg

Last month, I was diligent about my research. I read a lot, but it was almost entirely a fact seeking mission, and quite frankly, it was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong – the books were incredible, and I’m so glad I took the time to read and take notes from them, but I also wish I hadn’t put so much off to the last minute that I was forced into such a rigorous schedule. As it is, we still have plenty to do before this baby arrives, and I don’t have much energy for anything – even reading delicious fiction – but I did find a book (at the beautiful new library that opened a couple of months ago right down the street – am I excited about this? Yes!) that was prefect for all the evenings I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to pick my husband up from the train. 

Mallory Ortberg, in case you don’t know, is the co-editor of an amazing website called The Toast. Her book, Texts from Jane Eyre, is ridiculous and honestly way more brilliant than it has any right to be. I felt downright stupid trying to parse some of the texts because I’m clearly not as well read on some of the classics as I should be.  She, on the other hand, has the kind of inside scoop on quality literature that will make English majors weep with joy. It’s also the perfect book to keep on hand for those three to five minute intervals of downtime we seem to now use exclusively for checking Instagram, Twitter, email, or, of course, texting our own brilliant thoughts to loved ones and frenemies alike. 

I’ve recently reached a saturation point with my phone though. I find that if I check apps too often in a day, I start to feel truly fatigued. Having a book that’s easy to jump into and out of is the best medicine. It gives me a reprieve from whatever stress or boredom I’m trying to combat without raising my blood pressure or making me feel like I’m wasting my life looking at recipes I’m too beat to cook on Pinterest. (For the record, in the past, I have made some of those recipes, and they’ve been delicious, but I’m more in a path of least resistance mood when it comes to food these days, so it just doesn’t make sense to spend time mindlessly clicking.) 

 While the very best long term solutions would probably involve spending more time in the garden, or somehow discovering a way to collect all those brief breaks and turning them into an hour on the couch with a superb novel, having Ortberg’s wonderful sense of humor to keep me company has been a wonderfully workable option. Her book pinpoints that oft-overlooked intersection between pop culture and literary prowess. I feel, in equal parts, that I would happily watch her do standup as I would be in awe of her lectures in a college classroom. Her intelligence is also intimidating to me in the best kind of way; it makes me want to reach out and learn from her because I trust that her sense of the absurd would make the experience utterly delightful. 

This is probably not a book that would strike the same chords for everyone as it does for me. It skews toward a younger audience in its conceit, but an older one in its depth – an interesting combination, and one I hope might encourage interesting conversations about theme and communication between those two groups. Literature is an ever evolving field, and although some elements will always remain at its root, our drive as curious, boundary-challenging humans will also push and stretch it into new shapes in every generation. It’s one of the most beautiful things about books and about studying trends and history of reading habits. We’re always seeking to do what Ortberg has – take the best of the old and transform it into something fresh, fun, and new.

For more about Mallory Ortberg, go here.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

This has been a big year for me exploring books that incorporate art. I’ve found so many that I loved, and this one, a gift from my sister-in-law at Christmas, has been on my “must read” list for a long time. I love Allie Brosh, I’ve followed her career for several years now, and I’m thrilled that her book was as delightful as I had imagined. Much like Fun House, Hyberbole and a Half is a drama dressed up in clown shoes and a squeaky nose. Although much of Brosh’s work makes me giggle uncontrollably, the real meat of it deals with her own struggles with depression and self-worth.

If my life were a movie, the turning point of my depression would have been inspirational and meaningful.  It would have involved wisdom-filled epiphanies about discovering my true self and I would conquer my demons and go on to live the rest of my life in happiness.

Instead, my turning point mostly hinged on the fact that I had rented some movies and then I didn’t return them for too long.

The late fees had reached the point where the injustice of paying any more than I already owed outweighed my apathy. I considered just keeping the movies and never going to the video store again, but then I remembered that I still wanted to re-watch Jumanji.

I put on some clothes, put the movies in my backpack, and biked to the video store. It was the slowest, most resentful bike ride ever.

And when I arrived, I found out they didn’t even have Jumanji in.

Just as I was debating whether I should settle on a movie that wasn’t Jumanji or go home and stare in abject silence, I noticed a woman looking at me weirdly from a couple rows over.

She was probably looking at me that way because I looked really, really depressed and I was dressed like an Eskimo vagrant.

Normally, I would have felt an instant, crushing sense of self-consciousness, but instead, I felt nothing.

I’ve always wanted not to give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally – finally – after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety  and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji

I felt invincible.

And thus began a tiny rebellion.

I swooped out of there like the Batman and biked home in a blaze of defiant glory.

And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton. (p 113)

So ends Part One of the two part story about her worst eighteen months of depression. In the second section, she talks about how the feeling of invincibility faded to become a combination of boredom and a sort of horror that she would never experience feelings again. She doesn’t spare any of the journey – the loving but useless help from friends, the struggle with suicidal thoughts, the slow road back from depression to a more balanced mental health – it’s all there. Furthermore, the end is not a rainbow of recovery so much as it is a ray of hope.

A huge part of what makes her story so authentic and appealing is that she’s not fixated on the neat conclusion, but on the space in between the starting line and the finish. Her approach is light but frank and could as easily be a jumping off point for discussing these issues in a classroom or at home as it is an enjoyable coffee table read.Humor has long been used as a technique to de-stigmatize certain behaviors society has deemed off-limits for discussion, and I, for one, am completely in support of this approach. Brosh’s sense of the absurd coupled with her piercing self-examination is unsettling, but also strangely inviting. She’s the guest you invite over who has no filter, the one who manages to be awkward and scrambling and lovable at the same time.

 

To see more of Allie Brosh’s brilliant work, head over here.

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.

 

For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

The biggest problem with going on a three-week vacation in October is that when November rolls around, and I’m once again buried in pre-holiday deadlines and extra NaNoWriMo word count, I don’t feel like I can phone it in. If you look in the archives, November is traditionally my laziest month of reviews because it’s hard to hack a thousand words about someone else’s book when my own projects are keeping me up late every night! And then waking me early! When it’s still dark! It’s almost like the writer in me doesn’t realize that hibernation has officially started…

But here’s the thing – there’s a solution to what I’ve started calling the “November is hell” problem. And that solution is audiobooks. Yes. Audiobooks. Usually the bane of my existence (I have almost zero ability to concentrate auditorily), this month, the audiobook is my saving grace. I can listen while cooking dinner (or cleaning up the kitchen from a week’s worth of dinners). I can have it on while I’m in the shower or running errands or waiting to pick my husband up after work. As an added bonus, I can listen to NPH at double speed and get through his jokes in almost half the time! Seven hour book listened to in four? Win!

I suspect it wouldn’t be easy for me to pull this off with a novel, which is why I almost never listen to them, instead choosing memoirs or biographies that don’t require following a complex plot. Nothing slows down a speed read listen like having to constantly rewind to catch up on what transpired while I was multitasking. I’ve found this is especially effective when listening to books written and read by comedians, like Harris (or Fey or Kaling). I’m so used to the rhythm of his speech from years of watching How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser, MD that it’s more like a one-sided conversation with an old friend than a book.

It was surprising too, when I told friends I was reading it, that when they inevitably asked whether it was hilarious, I had to stop and say…well, yes. Sort of. But also, no. Which they then took to mean he didn’t successfully execute his jokes, but which actually meant that his story is set up less for laughs than it could have been. Instead, he’s sincere, and sweet, and somehow both self-deprecating and vain. Harris is witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable.

It’s possible it’s just a side effect of listening to a person’s life story told in their own voice, but it’s hard not to root for Harris, to celebrate the birth of his children with him, and to recoil in anger at the discrimination he’s experienced. The format has an empathetic effect on its listener. The fourth wall comes down, and for a few busy hours, it’s possible to be a part of his world.

 

For more about Neil Patrick Harris, head here.

Lock In, John Scalzi

It’s no secret that I love John Scalzi, and his books. He’s a friendly guy who is both a gifted writer in one of my favorite genres (humorous sci-fi) and an incredibly sharp political mind who has, in the last few years, used his celebrity to compose and share some of the most wonderful insights on issues of gender, race, and harassment that I’ve had the privilege to read. Apparently this makes him something of a pariah in certain circles, but since I try to avoid the trolling corners of the internet (how is it possible that all 17,000 of you are so kind? I’m very lucky), I think of him more as that wacky uncle who likes to sneak off and play videos with the kids after dinner and who probably steals all the best candy out of Halloween bags.

Due to the craziness of October, and now November’s non-stop word count battles, I ended up reading Lock In primarily in bites, ten minutes here and there, until I got about two-thirds of the way through and just plowed to the end. When I finished it, and there wasn’t immediately a sequel, I got annoyed. Then I remembered I don’t have time to read sequels this month, and I immediately felt better…ish.

I say this knowing full well you can undoubtedly appreciate the struggle between wanting (or even having) a sequel and wanting an afternoon (or a week, depending on the length or number of sequels available) when everything else can be blown off for reading. It’s the best feeling. As a child, it was easier to find the time. I would read during lessons I already understood in school, do my homework as quickly as possible, and then curl up with a book until dinner. I could happily pretend I’d already practiced piano (which I loathed and was unbelievably untalented at) if it meant twenty more minutes before bed. Now, in the twenty minutes before bed, I have to clean up the kitchen and make a reminder list for the next day and try not to fall asleep while brushing my teeth. Very little reading gets done. Even when the book is as wonderful as Lock In.

There was something especially fascinating about finding a book about disease as Ebola was entering the US. All of a sudden, the issues Scalzi was addressing seemed eerily prescient. How would we react if the world was hit by an uncontrollable pandemic? How would it change the political, ethical, medical, and social structures we’ve become accustomed to? Scalzi’s novel does an excellent job of balancing the exploration of seemingly infinite repercussions while creating characters I’m desperate to see again and again in future installments.

(Just, you know, not this month…)

 

For more of Scalzi, head this way.