23: The Year in Books

I haven’t recommended a single book on this blog all year. Considering that I recommend them almost daily — both to strangers in the library and my patience-of-a-saint friends — my lack of book-related posts is absurd. But every time I sit down to write, I can’t decide which book to review. Should I talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates or James Baldwin? Michael Eric Dyson or The Hate U GiveSister Outsider or All About Love? So many landmark titles and so little time…

But then Monday arrived and my birthday with it, and I realized I had the perfect opportunity to rave about a bunch all at once.

Below are the books that shaped my 23rd year. Most were written by women, many by women of color, and even more of them queer. It’s a list of novels and nonfiction, of poetry and prose. Most are geared toward an adult audience, but a few are for younger readers, because hey, if the book is good, you’re never too old to try it (also I’m trying to become a better-read librarian — stay tuned to find out if I ever tackle urban fiction).

Because this list spans half of 2017, you’ll see a few titles you recognize; hopefully, you’ve read them by now, but if previous posts didn’t convince you to pick them up, maybe this one will. (And before you leave, be sure to check out my new recommendation page. It’s a work in progress, but every request helps!)


1. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl

91NDWCNpb9LI’m relatively new to food memoirs, but Reichl’s witty prose pulled me in with the first page and refused to let me go. (It’s also the first book I checked out as a newly-minted 23-year-old living in my new city, so it holds a special place in my heart.)

2. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

607274Potok’s books have been a staple on my shelf since I first encountered him in high school. The Chosen is his most famous work, a beautiful novel about faith, friendship, and father-son relations in the face of changing worldviews.

3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

1736739Olive Kitteridge will forever remind me of new cities and first summers, of job-searching and getting lost on the way to the grocery store. “It’s just that I’m the kind of person that thinks if you took a map of the whole world and put a pin in it for every person, there wouldn’t be a pin for me,” says one of the characters at the end of the novel. It is a beautiful book.

4, 5. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and All About Love by bell hooks

32951Every once in a while a book will come along that changes the landscape of my thinking. All About Love and Sister Outsider were two of those books for me. Whether it’s Audre’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” or bell’s examination of society’s definitions of love, not a day goes by that I don’t think of these books and the brilliant women who wrote them.

6, 7, 8. Fun HomeAre You My Mother?, and The Essential ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ by Alison Bechdel

20765729You’ve heard of the Bechdel test, but have you ever read anything by the woman who coined it? If not, you’re in for a treat. I loved Fun Home so much that I immediately checked out the sequel, then spent a month falling in love with the vast and varied characters featured in Dykes to Watch Out For. If you’re looking for queer lit, I’ll recommend Bechdel. If you’re looking for graphic novels, I’ll recommend Bechdel. If you’re walking down the street and minding your own business, I’ll stop you and recommend Bechdel.

9. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

33916061Between the World and Me is the book that catapulted him to fame, but his latest is the book that cemented Coates as one of my favorite authors. Featuring eight articles written during Obama’s presidency and strung together with interstitial memoir, We Were Eight Years in Power is the kind of book I could only dream of writing. In fact, if I could write one essay half as articulate as a Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I think I’d die happy.

10. Thrall by Natasha Trethewey

13429607One of the most shocking revelations of the past year is that I don’t hate poetry. I actually kind of love it, especially Natasha Trethewey’s. Blending history and memoir as deftly as an artist blends paint, Thrall offers a powerful commentary on race in the Americas while showing just how much poetry can do.

11. Home by Toni Morrison

13152998Toni Morrison always sneaks up on me. The full force of her genius doesn’t dawn until the last fifty pages of a novel, but when it does, oh man. It’s moments like those that convince me Morrison is the greatest novelist ever to grace the English language.

12. Carol by Patricia Highsmith

25622850You probably recognize it as the 2015 film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but Carol started off as a novel by Patricia Highsmith titled The Price of Salt. A staple in the lesbian canon, Thérèse and Carol’s tale is as gorgeous as it is rending, a love story whose value lies not in its romanticization, but rather in its flaws.

13. Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

25566675I’m trying to read more authors of color than not this year, which has led me to diversify my “quick reads” canon. This decision has turned out to be a fantastic one, because now when I crave a YA novel to cleanse my palate between heavier reads, I turn to authors like Renée Watson instead of grabbing the latest dystopia I know I’m bound to hate. Piecing Me Together was a quick but high-quality read, the kind of novel that checked my privilege even as it encouraged me to broaden my worldview. Even better, it introduced me to a new author whose work I’m eager to explore.

14. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

743819Baldwin has been on my to-read list since high school but rocketed to the top when I discovered that The Fire Next Time is the work that inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Between the World and Me. By turns fiery, elegant, and utterly convicting, Baldwin’s meditations on race and class in America are ones I will return to many times in the years to come.

15. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

31421117There are almost two dozen incredible books featured on this list, but if I could convince you to read just one, I’d tell you to start with this one. Dyson’s book floated on the edges of my awareness for about eight months before I committed to reading it. In timing I can only describe as divine, it arrived in my hands the same week I finished The Fire Next Time and began The Hate U Give. If you’re looking for a contemporary voice on race in America that follows in the footsteps of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., start with Michael Eric Dyson.

16. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

32075671Twenty-eighteen seems to be the year I confront my prejudices against poetry and YA novels. I resisted reading The Hate U Give for many months before finally giving in. That resistance turned out to be a good thing, though, because it landed me in Starr Carter’s world the same day I entered Michael Eric Dyson’s. It’s not for me to say what might have been, but I doubt my understanding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement would have been as informed without Dyson’s explanation, nor my eyes as opened to the evils of racism without Thomas’s visceral fiction.

17. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

364141I have only scratched the surface of this fierce woman’s work, and for that I am excited. Reading this collection of poems felt like a spiritual experience made all the richer by the suspicion that I’ll get even more out of it at a later point in my life.

18. Lumberjanes created by Noelle Stevenson & Co.

22554204I recommend them to kids at the library all the time, but the Lumberjanes comics are a delight to readers of all ages. Funny, fun, and empowering, they offer a diverse cast of characters (more POC than not!!) and manage to mix dinosaurs, Greek mythology, and mermaids without losing sight of the Lumberjane creed: Friendship to the Max!

19. Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee

25387545I have a strange relationship to organized religion these days; if you asked me to describe my faith, I’d say I move at the margins of Christianity. That means different things on different days, but mostly it means I take things one day at a time and spend a lot of energy trying to understand the places I come from. I haven’t considered myself part of the evangelical tradition for several years now, but its influence still saturates my life. I tend to see that as a bad thing, but Deborah Jian Lee reminded me that there are some inherently beautiful parts of evangelical Christianity, and that strong and lovely humans are striving to make it a more welcoming tradition.

20. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

12875258I don’t know how to describe this novel. It touched me in inexplicable ways. It was about family and prejudice and siblings and AIDS, parent-child relationships and the impossibility of a girl’s first love. It should have been depressing, but instead it was an incalculable gift. The kind of book you finish and know you won’t forget.

21. Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

29430055I will never forgive myself for missing Shanthi Sekaran’s presentation at the Arkansas Literary Festival this year. (Okay, okay, I was working, but still. Unacceptable.) At almost 500 pages, Lucky Boy should have taken me four weeks to finish, but I devoured it in four days. “A novel about undocumented and privileged immigration, detention and parenthood,” it was timely when Sekaran published it in January 2017; in light of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, it’s an utterly essential read.

22. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

34273236It took a colossally long waitlist at the library and the blessing of people like Ann Patchett and Reese Witherspoon to convince me to read Little Fires Everywhere, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. It was the book that snapped me out of my post-Lucky Boy reading slump (they make excellent companion reads), and chances are if you’ve talked to me in the past three weeks, I haven’t stopped singing its praises. It’s the kind of book you sink into and don’t want to surface from, a treasure of a novel.

23. What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson

36609352My preoccupation with race in America began three years ago while researching the poetry of Lucille Clifton. Since then, it has led me to authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Toni Morrison; to novels such as CaucasiaAmericanahBehold the Dreamers, and Home; to movies like SelmaGet Out, and Moonlight; to the poetry of Natasha Trethewey and the essays of Audre Lorde. Through it all, I have struggled to articulate the roots of my obsession. What right does a white girl have to talk about racism, but shouldn’t I use my privilege to shed light on this four-hundred-year-old problem? Except how do I do that without eclipsing Black voices and thereby become part of the thing I’m attempting to expose? I haven’t found answers to any of these questions, but I’m starting to be able to talk about everything that I’m learning. It seems fitting, then, to have Dyson’s newest book close out this list. I finished it two days before turning 24 and spent my birthday discussing the thoughts pinging around my brain. It was a turning point for me, one that I hope signals growth and humility and deepened understanding.

📚 Here’s to twenty-four and the many books it will bring. 📚

Advertisements

The Arthritic Turtle

I’m hard on myself. I always have been. I push myself to inhuman lengths to accomplish arbitrary goals like “keep my 4.0” or “carry this chair across the store” or “write that book in six months.” Even worse, I’m always trying to outdo myself. Once I’ve carried the sixty-pound chair across the store alone, I can’t just ask for help the next time. Once I’ve read 110 books in one year, I can’t just read eighty-five. I always have to beat the record, or else I’m falling behind.

This is an impossible way to live, but I didn’t realize how much harm I was inflicting until I tried to write a book in six months while working thirteen-hour days between two jobs. After six weeks, I burned myself out and couldn’t write for two months. During those two months — eight weeks when I couldn’t even think of writing without feeling ill — I had to confront some hard truths.

Hard Truth #1: I wanted to quit my job.

Hard Truth #2: I couldn’t afford to quit my job.

Hard Truth #3: I was going to quit my job anyway, because it was slowly killing me.

So I turned in my two weeks’ notice.

No sooner had I clocked my last shift than I got a text from a former professor, asking if I’d be willing to speak to her class.

“Of course!” I said. “What about?”

“The writing life,” she said. Specifically, my dedication to it, and what it looked like to have a job that allowed me the time and energy to write.

I had to laugh.

As I prepared for the talk, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I’d given up on my book. I hadn’t finished an essay in three years. I hadn’t picked up a pen all month, except to whine in my journal. Worse, my friends were out there writing stories, drafting books, and publishing poems, while I sat at a table and mouthed words about sacrifice and dedication and their importance to the writing life when the only thing I’d sacrificed was a shitty retail job. Who was I to tell a group of wide-eyed freshmen how to cultivate their writing?

* * * *

In her memoir Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert describes her encounter with a voice. She hears it in the wee hours of the morning as she lies curled on the bathroom floor in a pool of snot and tears, begging God to tell her what to do.

And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreaty — Please tell me what to do — repeated again and again. I don’t know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.

Until — quite abruptly — it stopped.

Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. I’d stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would see now some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence — a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness.

Then I heard a voice. Please don’t be alarmed — it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.

The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.

It’s been seven weeks since I spoke to that freshman class, and today, I am happy and confident. I’ve written five pages of the best essay of my life, I’ve adopted a low-pressure writing schedule that’s molded to my quirks, and I swap biweekly goals with a dear friend and fellow writer. I jump at the chance to discuss my projects. When I get stressed or miss a deadline, I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, and get a good night’s rest before waking up and starting over.

If you asked me to explain this miraculous turnaround, I wouldn’t be able to. There’s no clear formula I followed that I can point to and say that’s it, that’s what cured my writer’s block and whisked my dread away. There is, however, a ragged, limping path leading from one doubt to another until I reached the root of my One True Fear, a simple little question with a big and booming voice.

What if you have nothing to write?

* * * *

I write at the rate of an arthritic turtle. That five-page start to my really good essay took four whole weeks to eke out, and I’ve been hacking at this blog post for hours. The only writing I can churn out with speed and regularity is the kind I do in letters, and lately, even those have waned.

Being the opposite of prolific is one of my greatest insecurities, especially when someone mentions that David Eddings quote about how “a writer’s apprenticeship involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin.” The first time I heard that, I almost fainted, and then I stood up and almost fainted again. One million words is a lot of writing; a full day’s work for me clocks in at around three hundred, or, if I’m really lucky, a single page.

I used to beat myself up about this low productivity, but I don’t anymore. Instead, I love my arthritic turtle. I’m proud of her. I work with her all evening and go to bed smiling because I can’t wait to find out what else she has to say.

For ten years, I harassed my turtle, demanding to know why she wasn’t better, faster, stronger — healthy, like all the other turtles I knew. Every once in a while, this tough “love” tactic worked, and I walked away with a poem or an essay or the scattered draft of a book. But it never happened with regularity, and more often than not, my words dried up; the turtle pulled into her shell and left me with nothing to do but kick some dusty rocks.

Then the Question showed up, in all her scaly glory. What if you have nothing to write? she hissed. WHAT IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE?

And that is when my arthritic turtle stood up, poked her head out of her shell, and, as calmly as the voice that told Liz Gilbert to go back to bed, said, “Honestly, who even cares?”

Pursue

Two years ago as I prepared to graduate college, a friend’s parting words to me were pursue your writing and nurture your intellect. In the seasons since, her exhortation has stuck with me, entering my thoughts often, sometimes as a whisper and others as a shout. It seemed fitting, then, as 2018 dawned and I formed my goals for the coming year, that the word I chose to guide me was pursue.

When I christened it my word of the year, “pursue” meant “write.” It meant that every Saturday from January to June, I would get up, pack my bag, and trek downtown to the library where I would park myself at a desk for five or six hours and write. This plan lasted six weeks before collapsing beneath the weight of two jobs and changing schedules. For a while, I tried to salvage things, but by mid-March, I had given up, not just on writing day, but on the whole book. I was too tired, too poor, and too overworked to spend my one day off wrestling the emotional equivalent of a pissed-off tiger onto pages I wasn’t even sure I wanted people to read anymore. And who was I to think I could write a memoir at age twenty-three?

So I quit. I ditched writing like I’d ditched the book and sought solace in self-pity and books. But as I read (and wallowed and read, and wallowed and read some more), I began to gain perspective.

It’s not that I did the wrong thing when I set out to draft a memoir in six months. Sure, it was ambitious, but there’s nothing wrong with a little ambition; it motivates you, gets you out of bed and in front of the laptop. The problem came when I forgot the second half of my friend’s advice; in my rush to prove myself as a writer, I’d neglected to nurture my intellect.

Once I realized my mistake, I felt less guilty about the book. I began to see not only that pursue and nurture went hand-in-hand, but also that pursue pertained to more than just writing. Or, more specifically, I understood that my friend’s charge to pursue my writing meant so much more than “sit in a chair and type.”

Pursue meant applying for that job I probably wouldn’t get. Pursue meant saying yes when friends asked if I wanted to join them. Pursue meant closing my laptop every night before bed and reading instead of refreshing Tumblr. It meant quitting a job and sleeping in; it meant driving somewhere new and spending the whole day outside. It meant making my own pizza and experimenting in the kitchen, cleaning out my closet and showing up for friends. It meant reading and reading and reading some more, then changing locations to read even more.

In short, “pursue” came to mean what it should have meant five months ago: LIVE.

As Rainer Maria Rilke puts it in Letters to a Young Poet:

Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

IMG_6725So no, I’m not writing a book. On Saturdays, I work in a cubicle instead of sit at a desk and write, and I may have done a very dumb thing by quitting a job right before thousands of college students saturate the summer market. But I’m at peace with all of that, because for the first time in a long time, I’m really living. Everything else will work itself out.

Keep encouraged, friends.

V

I.

Lately I have been thinking about life and all its rich minutiae, the little moments that make everything so acute and achingly real. The long drag of the work day and the sudden lightness of its end. The earthy tang of kale tinting my morning smoothie, made all the more wonderful by the miracle of waking up early enough to make it before 6am. The drowsy pleasure of a 1am phone call. The startling gift of warmth on a January day. The silence of a mid-day meal spent slowly reading poetry. The hum of Adrienne’s words settling inside my chest.

II.

On Friday I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of the library and gazed out its endless windows, soaked in the sunlit buildings, and marveled at the intimacy of watching strangers enter and exit bearing their armloads of books. How lucky I am to work here, I thought, contemplating the shelves around me. How blessed to benefit from this sanctuary of education and learning.

III.

Last week a woman and her granddaughter entered the store where I work, disappeared down its aisles and returned bearing coupons and a quiet request for colored pencils held behind the desk. I rang up their transaction; the grandmother gathered the pencils and pressed them into her granddaughter’s palms; and as they turned to walk away, I fought the urge to surrender to a sudden burst of tears. Something about their patience, their politeness, their gentleness — the tender shift of colored pencils from very old to very young — struck me as impossibly kind, and my heart swelled with gratitude for having witnessed it.

IV.

Small moments like these — incongruous, unpredictable — have heightened my awareness of this world. For every ragged sob over bruised feet and soul-sucking retail, there is the comfort of a day off and a bath in epsom salts. For every unbearable hour spent longing to hear someone’s voice, there is the release of writing a letter. For the helplessness that overtakes me as I watch Little Rock’s homeless leave the library for the bitter cold each night, there is the ability to hand out canvas totes to replace the duct-taped trash bags they haul behind their backs.

V.

This world is not perfect. It is cruel and unfair and unkind. But even in the darkness, there are moments of improbable light.

IMG_3944

A Wider View

There’s so much I want to say about 2017, but I’m not at all sure how to say it. How to describe such a momentous year? In twelve short months, I moved to a new state, got an apartment, worked four jobs, and came out to my family and the world of social media. I also bought a car, wrote two drafts of a book, and spent the holidays away from home. I cried a lot, laughed a lot, and drank a little wine. It was a good year. And that is such a poor way to describe it.

I guess in the end what I want to say is this: 2017 felt like a gift. A gift of unimaginable proportions, a year both unwieldy and wonderful, brimming with laughter, anxiety, joy, and tears. I grew so much as a person, a writer, a worker, a friend, and that growth is gaining momentum. It’s propelling me onward into something — I don’t know what — and I’m excited. I am eager. I feel ready to face the challenge of this year.

So much of this momentum comes from the media I consumed. I headed into 2017 desperate to change my life circumstance, yes, but also heavy with questions and aching for answers. I wanted to understand 2016, this year that had wrecked me so thoroughly, that had brought me to my highest high and dropped me to my lowest low. I wanted to understand my family’s broken dynamics. I wanted to understand the election. I wanted to understand racism. I wanted to understand homophobia. I entered 2017 with a deep desire to know, not just what was going on in my life, but in the world around it. And so of course I turned to books.

Annie Dillard says it best in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Below is some art that helped me take a wider view, that drew me gently back and encouraged me to look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on. It’s a list shaped by my preoccupations, driven by my need to understand my country’s flaws, my queer heritage, and my white, Western, Christian one, as well.

As 2018 unfolds, I encourage you to explore these titles. But more than that, I urge you to ask your own questions and seek out your own answers. Or, if there are none, then at least continue to question. Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’ — as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

Keep inquisitive, friends.


The Books

taking a wider view

The Movies

looking at the whole landscape

The Shows

really seeing it

The Music

wailing the right question; choiring the proper praise


Here’s to 2018, the year of describing what’s going on.