in the Margins

Dear blog, I have been trying to write this post for a long time. A month or two maybe. The main subject of this blog was going to be How to Write With a Day Job and it was going to be a series. I was going to call the series “Writing with a Day Job” but then I read a book called Writer with a Day Job as research and I didn’t want to steal the title. So I am going to call it “Writing in the Margins” which is a little more cute and less literal but it is really how I feel. 

Writing is the most important thing to me, sometimes. Usually, though, there are more important things. Getting 8 hours of sleep every night is more important, because I’m useless when I’m tired. Keeping my day job is important, because I don’t want to be a starving artist or a starving anything. I really like eating 3 meals a day and having dental. That’s why I feel like I need to write in the margins of my life, with whatever space and time and tools I have to spare, and that will have to be enough for now. And I wanted to write a blog series that talks about how that is going for me. It is not instructional; I am not here to tell you how or why, because I don’t know yet for myself.

I turned 26 last week. I used a PTO day and spent the day wandering around New Haven, and drank two coffees. One latte in a bookshop/cafe (there are multiple in New Haven) and one giant iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I think they cost the same but the latte was much smaller. I went to two bookstores and didn’t buy any books, even though I fully intended to buy books. I don’t buy books anymore because the guilt of the fact that I have never read The Art of Fielding, in particular, after it has sat on my shelf for four years, is crushing me on a daily basis. I went to the Yale University Art Gallery and it was massive and beautiful and I enjoyed being alone, although a voice in my head kept telling me I would need to bring my mom there sometime. It reminded me of when I was in college and sometimes I would wake up on Saturday mornings with nothing to do and feeling quite depressed and alone I would take a walk over to the small campus art gallery and stand in front of art. I liked being in places where it was normal to be alone. I hated being in dining halls and eating meals alone while everyone else had roommates and friends and boyfriends to eat nachos with. It didn’t stop me from eating nachos, but it could get sad sometimes. Museums, libraries, book stores. It’s okay to be alone in these places. In fact, it’s better. Don’t you hate when you’re visiting a museum with somebody and you’re trying to concentrate on the art but your friend keeps saying, “Hey, come over here and look at this one.” I remember feeling peace when I went over to the art gallery on campus and sat alone with nobody but the student worker in the corner standing guard over the paintings. I remember finally being able to think, to let go of the constant fear and sadness that was fogging my brain and just feel like myself. I would still feel sad, because at that point of my life sadness was part of being me. But I felt at peace.

Last week at the art museum I felt 20 years old again, even though lately I’ve been feeling very old. I thought, this (starting silently at art by myself) makes me feel like myself. And I hadn’t realized until then that I hadn’t felt like myself in a very long time. Years, maybe, so actually “myself” might have turned into a different person along the way, but there is still the old me lurking in the back of my brain that only comes out in libraries and art museums. I felt at peace. I realized that being 25 was awful and I hadn’t felt at peace once. I felt exhausted the whole year! I felt pressed like a piece of zucchini stuffed into a juicer! But 26 is a different year, and all the things I had to work for last year are now here or about to be here. And I have days off sometimes, where I can go wander around an art museum and think this all over.

Alas, I didn’t write anything on my birthday even though it was all I wanted to do. Or, once upon a time, it was all I wanted to do. Now I want to do so much with the time I have left. And everyday is a series of choices and compromises. Every day I need to make the choice – will I write or will I not write? Sometimes I choose something other than writing that is still a good choice – I choose to meditate, I choose to go for a run, I choose to see my family. Maybe I am running out of time to be the writer I always wanted to be, but that is just something I don’t have the time to worry about. And maybe when I stop worrying about it and just write, I will finally start being the writer my 10th grade creative writing teacher always thought I could be. I guess that is what this blog series will be about, once I figure out how to write a blog post about it.

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Saltwater Book Review’s 2017 Summer Reading Challenge – Read a Really Long Book!

Summer might be my favorite time to read. Maybe it’s the nostalgic memories of summer reading lists–was I the only one who was super excited to get that list at the end of every year? Yes? I also have a lot of memories of going to the library with my mom and stocking up on huge stacks of books, which I would sometimes spend all day reading because it was summer and I had nothing else to do. Now I have more responsibilities, so summer isn’t the reading utopia it once was, but it still gets me in the mood to relax with a good book.

A couple years ago I made myself a challenge for summer reading, which ended up being way too aspirational. I always underestimate how long summer is and how busy I will be, and I overestimate how many books I can consume. I don’t really want to worry about numbers this summer, but I do want to have fun reading. So, this year I chose just one book from my to-read list, and I am pledging to read it over the summer.

The catch? It happens to be around 1,300 pages long.

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Like what is this book even about? I guess I’m going to find out.

I got the idea from Infinite Summer which is a community-based challenge to read and discuss a small chunk of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace every single day. By the end of the summer, you should have finished the entire book if you read the set amount of pages each day.

I failed that challenge when I attempted it last year, mostly because I wasn’t enjoying the book very much. I liked the idea, though. Sometimes huge books can be really intimidating and giving yourself permission to take a whole season with a book is helpful.

I wrote about wanting to read The Stand in one of my very early posts in 2013. How I thought I could read The Stand in one semester, on top of school reading and all the other books on that list, I have no clue. I’d still really like to read it, but the timing has never been right for me. Every time I thought about taking it out from the library and I took it off the shelves and was immediately horrified by how heavy it was. “I couldn’t possibly fit this thing in my purse,” I’d say to myself. “Maybe some other time.”

I was listening to Stephen King’s On Writing on audiobook, and hearing him talk about the experience of writing The Stand made me pause. “I really want to read that book,” I thought. So. I did something crazy. I bought a copy.

Now I have to read it, unless I want the giant thing to take up way too much space on my bookshelf and make me feel bad about myself for the next couple of years, just like my copies of Infinite Jest and Ulysses are doing at this very moment.

An apocalyptic novel might not be the best summer reading, but when I want a fun reading experience, Stephen King is always a good bet for me. More fun than Infinite Jest, at the very least.

So, that’s my challenge. If you’d like one of your own, then I challenge you to reading a book on your to-read list that you’ve put off reading because it seemed too dang long. It doesn’t have to be well over 1,000 pages like The Stand or Infinite Jest (although Infinite Summer communities like the one on Reddit might be a good community resource for anyone interested in choosing that one). If you’d like suggestions, check out this collection of community voted Goodreads lists of the best long books: https://www.goodreads.com/list/tag/long.

If you choose to do this challenge, please let me know, either in the comments here, through Goodreads, or by email at saltwaterbookreview@gmail.com. Use the tag #summerlongreads on Litsy (I’m saltwaterlit on Litsy, add me!). I’d love to see what you’re all reading this summer!

 

On Doing

I just logged into WordPress for the first time in a while and decided to start a post. Then I saw a draft I had saved three months ago, unfinished and never posted. Here is how that draft starts:

It’s tricky for me to write this, because I don’t know how to start. If I had my way, I would start it with just incomprehensible screaming and crying, but this is a written blog post and I don’t think you’d really get the picture that way. Basically, I am feeling really overwhelmed in my life right now. It’s bleeding into everything, from work to my personal life to the way I wake up in the morning – usually stiff in the jar from clenching and feeling like someone has beat me up. There’s a lot going on for me right now; and yet, whenever I say that, I feel like a fraud. I start counting responsibilities and then I feel like a liar and a lazy pathetic waste of space, because how can I really be as busy as I feel? Other people can handle this and so much more without freaking out so often. But, every day I have a mini panic attack – not about failure or stress or depression but because I keep worrying about time. “Time” is the word lately that can send me into a crying fit like nothing else. Because, well, I just feel like I don’t have enough of it.

I meant to post that draft, called the “DNF Chronicles”–mostly to discuss books I had left unfinished, mostly to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo–but I forgot about it. I guess you can say I forgot about it on purpose, because I have begun to try and take back some of my time. I decided to focus on my top priorities and cut back on everything else until I felt like I had more time, but I had a hard time with that. Basically, everything in my life is a top priority – work, writing, my future library career, running, my boyfriend, my family, reading. I couldn’t imaging cutting any of those things out, but I had to cut something out. So I decided to take a step back from regular reviews on this blog to free up some time, and mostly to just take one thing off my to-do list. But I knew it wasn’t forever.

This break has given me time to think about what I really want to do with this blog, and I realized I don’t really have any great passion for reviewing books. But I do love writing, and I love discussing the impact stories have on my life. I’m starting library school in the fall and recently I’ve been reading library focused blogs and bloggers, and I want to be part of that conversation, too. I also want to write more about my life, even though that can be very hard.

I don’t see this blog ever not being a book blog. I think it could be more, too, but the only way for it to be more is for me to figure out a way to write about my life and work and reading and writing in a way that makes it worth sharing. That last part is the hard part. I don’t have any answers right now. I toyed with big announcements for my come-back post. NO MORE BOOK REVIEWS, I thought about proclaiming — but let’s be real, I will still be posting book reviews from time to time. I’d like to write more about my writing, and where I am with certain projects, but recently, “massively blocked and crying to an audio version of Stephen King’s On Writing” is my current writerly state and that’s just not interesting. I thought about renaming my blog to signal a page turn, and maybe I still will.

I still don’t have the time I’d like to devote to this blog, but I’m slowly learning how to breathe more and take time for the things I love the most. I’m feeling a new sense of urgency around my writing that I’ve never felt before and I know that needs to be my main focus this summer, before I get swept away with grad school. I either make time for writing now or I never will. I hope I will write about this more eloquently in the months to come, but for now I’ll have to accept these keyboard smashes as what I’m working with.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

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John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a solid first effort, but I remember it feeling thin, perhaps not long enough. With Universal Harvester, Darnielle has found his stride in writing fiction. The writing here is immersive, empathetic, and occasionally funny. The first part of the novel evokes a nostalgic middle America; set in the late 1990s in a video store in Iowa, a clerk named Jeremy is getting complaints that certain VHS tapes are being recorded over with strange home video clips. As Jeremy investigates this mystery with his coworkers, various townspeople, and his widowed father, the story begins to get even more mysterious.

This isn’t really a horror novel, like it’s being described in some blurbs, but it does have a creepy, slow-burning cinematic quality to it, much like an indie horror flick that is more interesting than scary. I can’t really criticize the writing at all; it’s well plotted and paced, but I just didn’t “get it”, which is my least favorite review to give to a novel, because I know the fault is mainly mine. I liked the first quarter of the novel a lot, but as the narration progressed to different times and places, my mind started to wander and I started to lose focus. My interest completely fell off by the end of the novel, thus, I didn’t really get the ending or what exactly was going on. My bad. Universal Harvester is one of those vague, open-ended thrillers, one I really need to be in a certain mood to love.

I’ve got a lot on my mind lately and I much prefer fluffy, easy-to-follow stuff. Romance novels, long-form journalism, and comic books are sort of my jam lately. (This has nothing to do with my review of Universal Harvester – I just wanted to let you know where I’m at.) The book I most enjoyed recently was The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, a contemporary romance about two office workers that end up hate-boning. It was just the ticket for my scattered brain this month; I came home from the March on Washington on January 22 and sat in bed for hours finishing it and ignoring the news like the bad feminist I am. It was perfect.

So, consider this a non-review: I think John Darnielle is awesome, and his second novel shows that he is not just a musician-turned-author, he’s a talented author in his own right. I didn’t really “get” it, but I feel that way about a lot of similarly structured novels. If I were in a different mood, or it was closer to Halloween, I probably would have had a better attention span for this. You may love it, especially if you’re looking for something atmospheric, nostalgic and a little bit strange.

Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

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As I started on Mary Miller’s new short story collection, I wasn’t expecting much. Which turns out to be a good thing, sometimes.

I think the reason why I disliked Difficult Women by Roxane Gay last month is that the hype, fanfare, and my own expectations were way too high. Mary Miller, in contrast, is a writer I’ve never heard of. Difficult Women and Always Happy Hour, both new January releases, are actually very similar. Let me just take a moment to be thankful that two short story collections written by women about women are being released, well-received, this month. Difficult Women features situations and lives that are a bit more, well, difficult – and Always Happy Hour is like a revolving door collection of the same story, the same life, in different situations. The characters in Always Happy Hour feel younger, even if they’re not. They’re less mature, less heroic. They are characters that make their own problems, characters who laze around, drink far too much, and think about how much they don’t love their boyfriends. But, hey, when the writing is good, it’s good, and Mary Miller captures the minuscule details of her character’s lives with a witty and warm voice that I loved reading. Her brutally honest and unpretentious writing style appealed to me a lot.

In one story, a women reflects on the foster home where she works, and the imperfect but loving relationship she has with a girl caught in the system. This story is completely un-romanticized, but it’s full of heart. In another story, a women spends a cruise with her boyfriend and his family, drinking too much and being sea sick. Another women in a different story considers whether she should ask her boyfriend to stop filming them having sex. Mary Miller’s stories reminded me why I love short stories – they don’t need to be wildly ambitious like a novel. All they need to do is show the reader one scene and make it real. Miller does that beautifully, and I am glad I’ve heard of her now. You should be too!

The best books I read in 2016 + 2017 Resolutions

Top 11 of 2016
(in the order I read them)

1. Saga Vol. 2-5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga is a comic series about a family caught between an intergalactic space war. It’s fun, sexy-in-a-weird-way, and feminist. What more could you want?!

2. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
If I had to pick a favorite of the year…it might just be Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Read my review here.

3. Killing and Dying: Stories by Adrian Tomine
This turned out to be a year of graphic novels for me, starting with Killing and Dying, which I read last January. I wrote about it here.

4. You by Caroline Kepnes
This got a lot of buzz, and it was well deserved – this was a seriously fun, fast-paced read. Read my review here.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Oh, Jude. You poor thing. Reading A Little Life was an engrossing experience. Read my review here.

6. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Thanks, Obama, for the book rec. Basically, Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage; first told by the husband and then the wife. The first half, Fates (the husband’s side), was good. The second half, Furies, was truly phenomenal. I guess because women have to do everything around here.

7. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz is my favorite contemporary short story writer. His stories are quick, simple on the surface but complex underneath, and deliciously unpretentious.

8. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart
This is a graphic memoir written about Tom Hart’s experience after the death of his toddler daughter, Rosalie. It was really sad and really beautiful, and I think graphic memoir is a perfect medium for such a story.

9. March Books 1-2 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
I haven’t gotten a chance to read Book 3 yet, but I already know that this series is very important, and should be required reading in schools. It’s about John Lewis’s experience in the Civil Rights Movement, including sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the 1963 March on Washington. This is an important historical testament to the men and women who bravely fought for civil rights, and I encourage everyone to read it.

10. Alex + Ada, Vol. 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Another comic – this time, one about a guy who falls in love with a robot. It’s a fun read, but raises a lot of questions about artificial intelligence, the way technology has invaded our personal lives, and the fear and uncertainty that comes with all that.

11. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I was only going to make this a list of 10 books, but I listened to This is the Story of a Happy Marriage on audiobook and loved Ann Patchett’s voice in my ear with a fierceness, so I had to include it. She is a very smart, warm-hearted writer and I really enjoyed listening to this collection of essays about her life and writing.


2017 Reading Resolutions

Last year I chose to set my goal at 40 books. I know for some people it’s hard to find the time to read 40 books, but I read every day on my commute to work, so I usually can read about 50 books a year without effort – I probably could read 40 books even if I stopped reading everywhere except on the train. My reasoning for setting my goal low was that I wanted to simply enjoy reading without pressure. I wanted to read long books that take a whole month to read without worrying about falling off pace on my reading goal. I think this was helpful, because I had a lot of stressful things going on this year, and my Goodreads reading challenge was not something I wanted to be stressed out about as well.

In 2017 my goal is to read good books, so I will probably be DNF’ing a lot more books. I plan to be a bit more discerning about galleys and ARCs, too, although I want to keep up with new titles as much as possible. And I plan to set my goal a little bit higher at 60 books. I desperately want to be the kind of reader that can read 100+ books every year, simply because I’m getting older and my bookshelf isn’t getting any smaller. It’s just that I don’t think it’s something that’s really possible for me at the moment, unless I quit my job to be a professional reader. 60 is a good compromise.

Last year I also wanted to read books I already own, but I failed pretty badly on that. I just can’t resist the library. I did stop buying new books – I think I bought less than 5 books this entire year, which is bad for book sales but good for me because I have no space on my shelf. I donated a good amount of my book collection as well, but I’m afraid I still won’t have space for new books anytime soon.

2016 was a good year for me, despite the various disasters. I think we are all entering 2017 with a sense of trepidation, but I think it’s a good thing to not be sure all the time. It’s okay to be uncertain about the future. When we’re uncertain, we pay better attention. I do know that compared to this time last year, I have a clearer vision of myself and what I want out of life. I started the year with a lot of questions that I spent the whole year answering. I have a better plan now, and I hope to achieve a lot in 2017 –  and even if I don’t, I’m grateful for what 2016 has given me. Thank you all for reading, and have a happy new year!

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Here’s the thing: I think Roxane Gay is awesome. I loved Bad Feminist and An Untamed State and I love following her on twitter. I haven’t read Ayiti, her first short story collection, but I’ve bought a copy and it’s on my TBR list.

So it’s hard for me to say this. I didn’t like Difficult Women, which is her new collection of short stories, previously published in various literary magazines. I had already read a couple of these stories in anthologies and magazines, so I wasn’t surprised by her writing style, but all together, this felt like a very underdeveloped collection. It feels rushed and underwritten, like it’s a collection of very first drafts. Instead of growth, character development, and depth of language, we get a collection of stories that are somewhat skeletal, all similarly structured. It’s a collection of stories that tells, and not shows, and in the end, all the characters and their stories blurred together.

Here’s a sentence about two characters having sex in a highly emotional moment in a story, “The Sacrifice of Darkness”: “We were not gentle but we were gentle.” This is an example of writing that tries to convey meaning by becoming overly vague instead of digging deep, and I found it deeply unsatisfying. At best, it’s poetic-and Gay’s writing certainly has its poetic moments-but at worst, it falls short. These characters really aren’t difficult. They are all pain and no depth, and I kept wishing the stories would linger on important moments instead of rush.

I will say I found the last story “Strange Gods” to be very well done. However, I had to read the entire book to get to a story I really loved, so I’ll take a pass on recommending Difficult WomenI’m going to assume that I’m not the biggest fan of her style of short fiction; I think her writing is better suited for essays (like Bad Feminist) and longer works that are more thought out (like An Untamed State). I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming memoir Hunger, which will also be released 2017.