Best of 2017

Hello, hello, sorry for the lack of posting here, as usual. This fall I started grad school and I’ve had trouble getting myself to sit and write blog posts (so, nothing new). I hope to post more in 2018.

This year my reading goal was 60 books, and I only read 50. This summer I moved closer to work, so I no longer commute by train. I drive to work, about 40 minutes to an hour a day, and I usually listen to audiobooks, but it hasn’t been enough to keep up with my old reading pace. I’m going to try to get back into the habit of reading before bed to try and read more…so we’ll see how that goes. My boyfriend got me a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas, which is exciting because I can read it before bed without interfering with my sleep with an LCD screen. It’s been working quite well so far.

Here’s my 10 favorite books read in 2017. Overall, I can’t say it was my best reading year ever, but I did read some good stuff. The best part of this year was discovering a love for audiobooks as a result of my new commute. As someone who hardly ever buys books, my Audible subscription is basically my greatest luxury, but it’s worth the money. I still don’t like listening to much fiction on audio, but a good memoir read by the author is a true delight.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2017
(Listed in order read)

  1. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
    This contemporary romance novel was probably my favorite reading experience of 2017, which is kind of a bummer because I read it way back in January. It was fun, breezy, cute, sexy, and the characters were fun. It’s about two work enemies becoming work enemies who kiss. I loved it. My favorite reading memory of 2017 was coming home from the Women’s March in DC at 3AM, then staying in bed the next day and reading this book all day.
  2. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
    I read this mostly on vacation in February, because it seemed like a good vacation/airplane book. It was. Still undecided on whether I want to read more Liane Moriarty, but judging by my first two picks of 2017, I need to read more fun, breezy books. Incidentally, I have no desire to watch the TV series based on this book…so maybe I didn’t love it all that much. Still fun, though.
  3. Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama
    I started reading this around the time of Trump’s inauguration, probably out of mourning, and I slowly worked my way through it over the next month or so. It’s a beautiful memoir, and I’m excited to read Obama’s next book.
  4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    This novel is about a black girl who witnesses her the murder of her childhood friend by police, and it’s a timely, serious read but it is also full of coming-of-age delightfulness. The main character, Starr, is a perfect YA heroine – imperfect, believable, and brave. This book was talked about a lot this past year, first because it was the biggest YA book of 2017, and later on because it was banned in a Texas school district.
  5. Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America by Tressie McMillan Cottom
    This was an interesting non-fiction read about for-profit colleges and the way they play on the fears and hopes of poor people (especially poor people of color) and it also delves into the way our new economy hurts working class people. If you’re interested in sociology, economics, or higher education in general, it’s a must read.
  6. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (audio)
    Blackout is about Sarah Hepola’s experience with alcoholism as a young woman. I especially enjoyed her narration in the audiobook. Not a salacious addiction memoir, but a story about how our culture often encourages self-destruction, and how it’s possible to build a life away from that.
  7. The Long Walk by Stephen King (Richard Bauchman)
    This novel, an early King Hunger Games -esque dystopia in which young boys are sent on an endless march to see who will be the last survivor, was probably not the best choice to read during my half-marathon training. It helped put things in perspective, however. Training for a long distance race? Consider reading The Long Walk and quit complaining that your feet hurt, because things could always be worse.
  8. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (audio)
    This book made me think a lot about how group-think and mob mentality can lead us down bad paths. Kipnis makes good points about how “sexual paranoia” can infantilize young women by treating them as continual victims. I think this book is a must-read for feminists because of the way it takes a different look at a controversial topic.
  9. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
    Another great memoir about a life unravelling.
  10. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (audio)
    This is maybe my favorite audiobook of the year. I spent a lot of time stuck in traffic, happy to be stuck because the chapter I was listening to was so good. I spent a lot of time laughing alone in my car like a crazy person. Patricia Lockwood’s narration is really the best part, because you get her comedic timing and inflection as it was meant to be when she wrote it. The book, as the title suggests, is about her experiences being the daughter of a kooky priest.

Now, as for 2018: I have some resolutions, but none of them are book based – I want to run 1,000 miles, meditate every day and do more yoga. Later in the year I will probably form some more substantial writing goals that will include this blog, but for now I’m taking it one day at a time. I set my Goodreads Challenge goal at 52 this year, so about 1 book a week, but I’m ambivalent about it. I’m also very against the idea of any challenge that dictates what books I will be reading, so I guess my main goal in 2018 is “read whatever the heck I want” – wish me luck.

 

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I Quit NaNoWriMo and You Can Too!

It’s November 24, 2017, I have written 20,081 words of fiction this month, and last night I made the decision to throw in the towel on NaNoWriMo 2017.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, and I’ve lost more years than I’ve won, but usually when I get this far in the month without quitting, I keep going. I won last year. Every time I win, I think, “This is it – I’m going to win every year from now on! I’ve got it figured out!”

But this year is different. I can’t catch up. More importantly – I don’t really want to. I don’t have any 7,000 word days in me at the moment. I have work, I have school, and you know what? I like my story too much to do that to it. Binge writing days are sort of fun, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that binge writing days in NaNo are the same as shooting a nerf gun at the paper tower that is your story. You might get words, but come December, you won’t be able to stomach looking at them.

So I’m going to keep working on this story, and I’m going to spend the last week of NaNo  focusing on finishing the semester strong. I might even add a few words to my NaNo count, but I’m not going to push for 50,000. I’m happy with 20,000; 25,000 would be amazing. Not just because I’m being gentle with myself – it really is a good amount to write in a month, as a graduate student with a full time job.

NaNoWriMo: I will see you in 2018. And now that it’s officially Christmas time, and the semester is coming to an end, I’m turning my attention to 2018 and what I want from it. What I want most of all is to work hard without being too hard on myself. I want to remember that good things are possible, but they take time – and they might take a little bit of failure. But if you can take failure, and find the tiny successes hidden underneath them, eventually – well, eventually you’ll probably end up writing a novel one day. Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t really figured it out just yet. And I’m okay with that.

So, NaNo writers: how are you doing? Have you won already? Are you a quitter like me? What are you going to write in December?

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.

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 jaw 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!