Year in Review: 2015

2015 was a big year for me: I had a semi-nervous breakdown, I learned how to recover from a semi-nervous breakdown, I realized that being a working adult means you have to smile and nod while everyone around you acts like a crazy idiot and for this they pay you, I got my driver’s license after much anxiety and strife, I trained for a 20k and finished when just the year before I couldn’t run a mile without stopping, I cut out some negative relationships and behaviors, I fell in love, and I read Game of Thrones.

Amongst all the ruckus, I read 64 books (at the time of this writing I am still in the middle of the 64th: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer). My original goal was to read 80 books, but I adjusted that to 60 because I hate failing and love winning.

My list of favorite books in 2015 tilts heavily towards the beginning of the year. My life got busier in the spring, but in the winter I mostly just sat around crying all the time–which I guess means that conditions were perfect for being hit in the feels by a good book.

15 FAVES OF 2015

#1: YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler (read in January)
This is the first book I read in 2015. It helped me a lot by forcing me to think about personal growth in a new way. Reading this book was like reading a pep talk from a very sweet and funny friend.

#2: THE FIRST BAD MAN by Miranda July (read in January)
I love Miranda July. She is perfect for me. I love her voice, I love the slightly off-kilter worlds and characters she creates. I think I like her because I always feel like such a weirdo, and her stories make the weirdo the normal point of reference. Her first novel didn’t disappoint in this regard.

#3: WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL by Cheryl Strayed (read in February)
This is one of those books that found its way into my hands at just the right time. Strayed’s story of perseverance in the face of pain gave me a lot of hope and comfort.

#4: 10% HAPPIER: HOW I TAMED THE VOICE IN MY HEAD, REDUCED STRESS WITHOUT LOSING MY EDGE, AND FOUND SELF-HELP THAT ACTUALLY WORKS by Dan Harris (read in February)
I like self-help books sometimes, not gonna lie, but this book actually isn’t as big of a self-help book as it appears. It’s the story of the author’s experiences with mindfulness, from the point of view of a ‘normal’ guy. I started a meditation practice this year, and it was very helpful to me in recovering from my aforementioned semi-nervous breakdown. This is the first book I’d recommend to anyone interested in meditation and mindfulness but who is turned off by the spiritual aspects of other books on the subject.

#5: JANE EYRE by Charlette Bronte (read in February)
This became my favorite classic. I love Jane for being the spunkiest heroine I have read in a piece of gothic fiction. She is smart, she is driven, and she’s not there to look pretty and meek. I even love Rochester, the grumpy weirdo. I felt an actual ache reading this novel, I wanted those crazy kids to smooch so bad. Let’s just say I shipped it.

#6: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (read in March)
Of all the books I read in 2015, I think I would recommend Station Eleven the most. It was beautifully written, but not too dense, and I flew through it. It’s a dystopian/speculative novel that is uniquely empathetic and hopeful. On the surface it’s about a future apocalyptic flu pandemic, but mostly it’s about the human spirit and the need to create and survive. I loved this novel because it took something I am comfy with (literary fiction) and mixed it with something I often feel unable to connect with (science fiction). If you like literary fiction and would like to branch out to adult sci-fi/dystopian, this is a must-read.

#7: SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn, (read in March)
#8: DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn (read in April)
I read both of Gillian Flynn’s non-Gone Girl novels this year, which only confirmed the fact that I cannot put down anything she writes. I love her insane, unapologetically bitter, in-your-face female characters. Flynn has an exceptional flair for plotting and pace.

#9: THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz (read in April)
I just remembered I planned to read more Junot Diaz this year, but I guess I never got around to it. That’s a shame, because this novel was amazing. Diaz’s characters are excellent, and he writes about race and family and heritage in such an accessible yet irreverent way.

#10: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson (read in April)
This novel is so deliciously, wonderfully creepy that it is now my go-to Halloween recommendation. It’s about two little girls who live alone with their disabled uncle after a mysterious “incident” killed their family, and it is one of those short novels that are perfect in every way.

#11: SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore (read in May)
Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection was a real treat to read. She is like Raymond Carver if Raymond Carver had a lighter, less masculine, less whiskey-stained point of view. She is better than Raymond Carver is what I am telling you! Her stories are simple, realistic, funny and heartbreaking.

#12: TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders (read in May)
I liked this short story collection for the same reason I liked Lorrie Moore’s. These stories have a great mix of heartbreak and empathy, with an extra distaste for consumerism and the corporatization of America.

#13: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (read in June)
Reading over this list, it is clear the way to my heart is a headstrong, kind of weird female main character, which is exactly what Olive Kitteridge was. Not exactly likable, but not exactly unsympathetic either. Still, kind of an asshole. I love when writers give the women in their stories full permission to be an asshole.

#14: MODERN ROMANCE by Aziz Ansari (read in September)
I listened to this on audiobook, which was the right choice. Aziz Ansari is hilarious and I loved hearing his voice in my ears every morning while I made my way to work. This is a great book for anyone trying to navigate dating in the online world, if only because it will make you laugh and realize you’re not alone, with bonus Aziz Ansari.

#15: MISSOULA: RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN by Jon Krakauer (read in October)
As much as I hate ending this list on such a bummer note, here’s a really great book about date rape I read in 2015.

Check out my Year in Books on Goodreads for the full list of what I read this year!


Now onto the resolutions.

I have decided to not set a goal for myself this year re: the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I would like to read longer books this year without feeling rushed–I want to continue the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, and I also have my eye on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Basically, I want to sink my teeth into books that are more of an experience.

Suggested reading from another book blogger abstaining from the challenge in 2016: 5 Reasons Not to Do the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2016 on brokebybooks.com. It convinced me. I will still be on Goodreads, of course, because I don’t think anything can convince me to not obsessively log what I read. I just don’t need to challenge myself this year to a specific number of books. I’d rather just focus on having a good overall reading experience, one that informs my life and my work in positive ways.

I also have about 300 unread articles saved on Instapaper at the moment. So, I’d like to make time for that, as well as the unread literary journals I have lying around.

That all being said, I signed up for the #readmyowndamnbooks challenge, which is kind of loosey-goosey, but I’d like to read at least 30 books off of my shelf by the end of the year. I want to read books I own and then donate them, because I don’t have the space and do I really need that copy of The Art of Fielding? Who knows–not I, as I haven’t ever read it.

Let me know what your favorite book of 2015 was, what your resolutions for 2016 are, and what you think of the books I listed above. Happy new year, everybody–I hope the coming year is full up with good books and no new Harper Lee novels.

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In Progress

I had this post planned out this week about Books on Writing, but I kind of lost heart about it. I’m sick of reading about writing and not writing, and I’m sick even more of writing about writing but not writing. If that makes sense.

I’ve been having trouble settling on something concrete to write about, but all these little story ideas keep coming to me. I scribble them down on post-it notes and then look at them later and feel like I am actually the dumbest person on earth. I remember what it used to feel like when I had something I wanted to say, that rush when I felt elevated enough by my own voice to say it. Things have gotten difficult, because the voice that used to tell me to write it down is now telling me I have about a million other things to do.

I am, however, nothing if not resilient in the face of my constant nagging neurosis: when I feel most pathetic is when I am most likely to be quiet and listen to what is going on around me. I have a creepy need to sit back, do nothing, and observe. This is how I became a writer in the first place. I have always had a knack for feeling like a fly on the wall, and an ugly one at that, and this has served me well. But it’s not just that-sometimes you need to be humbled to see what’s actually going on around you. You need to be knocked down before you can actually see what the story is, that the story is not about how you are a Great Talented Successful Person. The story is about what you saw when you sat down, shut up and listened.

It’s self-indulgent for me to read Stephen King’s On Writing for the fourth time instead of writing a story. There’s a time where you have to set aside the noise and decide for yourself how to write.

Sometimes you have to indulge, if only to find little bits and pieces that will lift you up and remind you to keep your eyes open and your fingers ready. This week I saw this video of George Saunders on the Atlantic that did that for me. He makes writing seem holy and life-affirming (“when you pay attention to those sentences, your better nature rises up”), but also like a skill to be honed, which is what I needed to hear. Stories are important, great stories are holy things, but writers are not holy things. Stories aren’t just delivered pre-written from the heavens. It takes equal parts practice and empathy, just like everything else.

My goal for the new year is to practice, not preach, and I am looking forward to shutting up about this topic in a variety of ways. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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I’ve been a fan of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast since about 2013, and although I haven’t been keeping up with new episodes, I still recommend it a lot to people just getting into podcasts.

Then Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor announced they were releasing a Night Vale book…and I knew I wasn’t going to like very much. Not that I didn’t try to have an open mind. I did, but I knew I wouldn’t like it very much and I didn’t. I am book reviewer, hear me roar!

I’ll keep this review short, because while I wasn’t a huge fan of the novel, I still think the podcast is really cool and I wouldn’t want to turn anyone off entirely. So here is a list.

THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE WTNV NOVEL:

  1. I didn’t like the characters the novel focused on. The podcast is a fictional story about a creepy, bizarro town told exclusively through the sweet, deep-voiced narration of Cecil, the host of a local community radio show. While the recurring characters are part of the charm in the podcast, the story is always told through this singular voice. This was the main reason I knew I wouldn’t like the Welcome to Night Vale novel, because most of the charm of the podcast is its format. There are a few chapter breaks that are transcripts of Cecil’s radio show, which read exactly like the podcast except…you’re reading it. Cecil’s voice was sorely missed, but those chapter breaks were STILL my favorite part of the book– I didn’t like the actual novel part of the novel. Which is a bad sign.
  2. I don’t think a twenty-five minute podcast translates to a novel. I was really glad it was over when I was done reading it. The long-form story just didn’t work for me in the Night Vale universe, because the more I was told about the town the less it amused me.
  3. It felt like the authors were a little tired by the end of the novel, too, like they had a specific word count they needed to produce, and some of it had to be forced out. There were a lot of times where they told instead of showing–actual, literal scenes where the characters looked at each other and said, “Wow, our town is a really weird place to live!” I rolled my eyes a few times, and the minute I roll my eyes at a piece of writing is the minute you’ve lost me entirely.
  4. I guess I just missed Cecil’s voice a whole lot. Cecil’s voice, the community radio station, the background music…those are where the character of “Night Vale” lives! I missed the atmosphere of the podcast, the comic delivery, etc.

That’s about it. I don’t recommend reading Welcome to Night Vale unless you are already a big fan of the podcast. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, definitely do not start with the novel. Listen to the podcast.

Welcome to Night Vale is at times absolutely perfect-it just didn’t need a novelization. That’s like saying, Hey, the Mona Lisa is a really great painting, really a masterpiece of its form…maybe we should turn that into a podcast? Okay, sometimes experimenting with different forms turns awesome things into further awesome things, but in this case it didn’t feel organic or inspired or interesting. But feel free to disagree with me, Night Vale fans! I would like to hear your thoughts.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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If you’ve read my blog recently, you know I’ve got a thing going on with Margaret Atwood–I am attempting to read her back catalogue in chronological order. I’ve gotten as far as Cat’s Eye, released in 1988. Some of her most popular work has been released after 1990, like the Oryx and Crake series, but I’m basically clueless about her newer work. So, when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2015, based on a serial she had been publishing online, I was all aboard.

There’s a lot of reasons to read Margaret Atwood–she’s quirky without being annoying or cute. (Never, ever is she cute.) The way she blends science fiction, gender issues, and Canada is one of those things readers needed without knowing they needed. Her language is in turns poetic and flowery and sharp as a knife. And The Heart Goes Last, while at times perplexing, did not disappoint.

The Heart Goes Last is about a modern couple named Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car after the economic collapse of the United States. They are offered the chance to trade freedom for comfort by joining The Positron Project in Consilience, a town where people alternate between being prisoners and living comfortable, dictated lives. It’s basically a city run by a corporation that gets people to sell their lives and bodies as a way of escaping the starvation and crime on the outside. All Hail Our Kindly Corporate Overlords.

It reminds me a lot of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart in the way it uses dark humor to shine a light on how very messed up society is and can become. Also, the fact that sex robots were a major plot point and nearly all of the characters are insufferable narcissists and/or insufferable idiots makes The Heart Goes Last kind of Shteyngart-esque.

Not that The Heart Goes Last was all sex robots and hand-wringing about materialism. I’ve read present day dystopian/speculative novels that focus on social media, like the above-mentioned Super Sad True Love Story and The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, and they’re certainly of the moment but sometimes they feel a little naggy, like your aunt complaining about selfies at Thanksgiving. The Heart Goes Last is different—it focuses on how economic disparities and excessive corporate power can erode individual choice, and it isn’t concerned about Facebook. Although it is sometimes absurd, the premise isn’t completely far-fetched. Because of this, The Heart Goes Last could have been a truly spooky dystopian, a la 1984, but instead it was…funny.

The dark humor lent the novel a satirical flair, but I don’t find The Heart Goes Last anywhere near as scary as I find The Handmaid’s Tale (published by Atwood in 1985), and I think The Handmaid’s Tale is more effective because of its earnestness. I certainly recommend The Heart Goes Last, but my answer to the question “What Margaret Atwood book should I start with?” has not changed. (It’s still The Handmaid’s Tale, because I will never shut up about that book.)

This is the downside to being a Great Living Writer. Jerks like me will always compare the old to the new. But I find Atwood’s bibliography so interesting in the way it flows from one book to another like one decades long conversation. They’re all different, but the ideas build on one another. Which is why I’m glad I took the time to read them in order (with the exception of this one), and why I’m glad she’s still writing. Because if The Heart Goes Last is any indication, Margaret Atwood in 2015 is still taking valuable and interesting risks with her writing.

Let me know what you thought of The Heart Goes Last in the comments below. Bonus questions: Do you have a favorite Margaret Atwood book? Are you from Canada? Is it as cold there as they say?

All I Do Is Win: NaNoWriMo 2015

I didn’t win. I had been planning that title for a while and I don’t know what else to call this post.

I finished November with 23,163 words of a “novel” or, let’s just say, a Piece.

In my creative writing classes in high school and college, we would always call every thing Pieces. Poetry, short stories, essays about your dad – all of it can be called a Piece. Now that I am out in the real world, stranded and alone, I prefer to call my writing the thing that it is: if it’s a poem, it’s a poem, if it’s a story, it’s a story. This here is a blog post. During my years of schooling the word Piece had taken on a sacred tint in my eyes. “Piece” meant something. A piece of your writing, like a piece of pie, was a gift you brought to your fellow writers, even if they all secretly hated you. Writing lately is more of a lonesome endeavor, but I will call this thing I wrote in November a Piece. Simply because I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a story.

The piece I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a woman, her husband, their five year old son, and a dead body. I planned ahead of time this year, which normally I don’t bother with. I chose the Snowflake Method and worked on it all October. I had big dreams for this story. I was thinking Olive Kitteridge meets Gone Girl. It was going to be the creepy yet heartwarming tale of a small, scenic town and the dead bodies and unstable wives who reside there.

Once I started writing, I really hated my story. I hated my characters, and most of all, I hated writing so fast, because I was getting my own imagined facts mixed up. I kept forgetting what the town was called, what my main character’s mother was like, etc., and I could never go back and check because that would be against the rules of NaNoWriMo, namely the rule Write and Don’t Look Back. I kept running off the rails I had laid for myself the month before, so all my planning was for nothing.Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 10.36.56 PM

The triumphant part is that I both started and finished the month writing – I didn’t give up once it became obvious I would have trouble winning (See above: Picture me hanging my head around Day 16) . They are some days I skipped, but this year I successfully beat the syndrome that usually ruins November for me. Usually, I write all the way up until the middle of the month, have an off day, and then stop writing for the rest of the month.

I have been participating in NaNoWriMo since November 2006. I have done 10 whole NaNoWriMo projects. I spent some time yesterday reflecting on this…and realized, to my horror, that I almost always lose. It’s not something I really own up to, because every year I am so newly excited to start. But, yeah. Out of the 10 Novembers I have participated, I have only won three times. And one of those was Glee fan fiction.

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Most of 2011 was a blur.

So, why do I like participating every year? Rush writing doesn’t seem to result in any brilliance or enthusiasm from me. I guess I like the idea of working on a project in a month with a bunch of other people trying to do the same thing.

I wrote at least 20,000 more words than I wrote in October, and I feel excited to keep writing this month. That’s the most valuable part of participating – it helps me remember to make writing a daily practice. It’s not about winning or losing, or even making a specific word count. It’s simply about doing the work, and making it a priority.

Now, onwards. Let’s talk December Write Lots Please. DeWriLoPl. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of words, and my goal for this month is 5,000 words a week. The first thing I’d like to work on is rewriting my NaNoWriMo piece as a short story, because as a fiction writer I love redemptive arcs.


 

Here is what I read in November: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (re-read), Revival by Stephen King, Little Girls by Ronald Malfi on audiobook, and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m currently in the middle of re-reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, and the Welcome to Night Vale novel.

Expect reviews soon on two of those. It’s a surprise which.

How was your November? Did you write anything? DID YOU WIN? Or did you just read something really good? Let me know, because I could use some inspiration.