My list of books to read this month

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

Reading about the lives of conservative Arab women living in America does not sound like an entertaining time to me (the conservative descriptor is what feels most like a snooze, to be clear). However, I’ve read nothing but good things about this new, debut novel by Etaf Rum—part addictive page-turner, part family portrait with secrets waiting in the shadows.

Deya is a Brooklyn gal who is 18 and being pursued by suitors selected by her grandparents. Yikes enough as is, certainly, but the situation is underlined by a black line that traces back to the story of Deya’s mother, Isra, who left Palestine as a teen to marry her heart’s desire, not her parents’. Isra supposedly died in a car accident. A secret note, mysterious woman, and gut feeling say otherwise.

There There by Tommy Orange

This book was published last year and the Chicago literati looooved it. Devoted Chicago literati follower that I am, I put this on my to-read list. They’ve never led me astray with a bad book recco yet, and There There has further confirmed my faith in their Book Gods status (see also: “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good” by the New York Times).

Each chapter follows a different character in a very large cast of Native Americans in Oakland, all of whom are making their way to a fateful powwow that ends in a ~very American~ tragedy. The story wields language, grief, and first-person narrative like a knife sharpened on the too-long-ignored, unquiet bones of a true-life genocide.

The title is a reference to a misunderstood (whitewashed) Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland that Orange brilliantly weaves into one character’s scene. The phrase also comes up in another place, referencing the Radiohead song by the same name, demonstrating how contemporary and historically intertwined this novel is, symbolic of Native American experience and life in Oakland. Those cross-generational twines can continue to choke a whole community, or the rest of us can help them become untangled and pull everyone up with the rope.

I would like Tommy Orange to publish a new book immediately.

No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco

My bff in college loved the singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. She played me Ani’s “Not A Pretty Girl” one day our freshmen year, likely when it was spring and I was sweaty and sitting on the floor of her dorm room and licking cheese fry sauce off my fingers. And feeling righteous in the pit of my stomach or something similarly ravenous somewhere that no food hall cheese fry could ever satisfy.

Ani’s songs made sense to me, and they made me feel better. Not, like, better in the moment of listening, but holistically, lifelong, better. Finding her (along with Fiona Apple and The Distillers) was like finding the handle for the pressure valve release of my confused spirit. I never knew I needed someone to voice what Ani does until I heard Ani do it.

I am not a pretty girl
I don’t really want to be a pretty girl
I wanna be more than a pretty girl

I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger
And never to their own fear

Imagine you’re a girl, just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
And smiling, and I am sorry

But I am not a maiden fair
And I am not a kitten
Stuck up a tree somewhere

Ani’s music helped inform my understanding of the world, of myself, and of the experience of being and becoming a woman. When her voice cracks but she keeps singing her truth, she told the rest of us we could and should do the same.

I’m really excited to read her debut memoir, in which she tracks her totally underrated journey to DIY superstardom (she released her first album at 18, rejected the mainstream recording industry and created her own successful label, Righteous Babe Records), navigating the music industry in the 1990s and 2000s, getting an abortion, becoming a mother, speaking as a social activist, being a creative entrepreneur, and so much more.

Ani in Chicago at a discussion to celebrate the launch of her new book, presented by Women and Children First Book Store.
My superfan friend and companion for the evening doing the homework early.
Samantha Irby (of Bitches Gotta Eat and Shrill fame)!!! She was there as an audience member, but, of course, as soon as she was spotted, she was asked to intro Ani and it was perfect and hilarious, just like her.

My list of books to read this month

Normal People by Sally Rooney

“Normal People” is a not normal, very good book of literary fiction by author Sally Rooney. The story of back-and-forth lovers Connell and Marianne unfolds over the course of 2011, when the two are in their senior year of high school, and 2015, when college graduation looms.

Rooney is a maestro of character explorations and she’s at the top of her game with this one (and the top of the writing field, according to the British Book Awards, which recently awarded “Normal People” its coveted Book of the Year accolade). Rooney’s writing is mostly very subtle, purposefully juvenile, practically meditative to read in its simplicity, but that belies all the masterful skill she’s deftly weaving underneath.

“But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.”

And then she’ll body slam you with a perfectly astute description of depression or fleeting moments of joy or the spiritually injurious albatross of abusive relationships (between lovers, families, social classes) and the damage that results—damage that can be, if not erased, at least lifted by an irregular kind of love.

The George Eliot epigraph in “Normal People.”

Nothing Good Can Come from This by Kristi Coulter

I’m reading this for a future episode of Zero Proof Book Club. I don’t usually include those books in my monthly blog roundups, but I think this series of essays by Kristi Coulter is something anyone could enjoy, not just sober or sober-curious somebodies.

Frank, feminist, fucking funny. All the most delicious f-words apply to Coulter’s trash talk about being trashed and life before, during, and after the fact. Hermit crab essays, narrative essays, and other smart takes on the form abound. It’s interesting to read work on a theme and learning the writer’s story that way, rather than through a traditional memoir format. That Coulter’s life feels eerily familiar to women of a certain headstrong, willful ilk by emotionally chaotic childhood design is a bonus.

Zero Proof: Lit

In the latest episode of Zero Proof Book Club, Shelley and I discuss Mary Karr’s third memoir, “Lit,” detailing her heavy drinking days and eventual recovery and conversion to Catholicism. We talk about the art of writing memoir, the unique shame of drinking as a mother, spirituality, and lots more.

Listen to the new episode here, at, and follow us on Instagram at @zeroproofbookclub.

This book represents a positive turning point for my eventual sobriety, feeling a familiarity with Karr’s alcoholic anger and a longing for her hard-won sober peace. But Shelley, who read it a couple years after she quit drinking, had a different experience with the book.

Karr is a professional writer and a dedicated AA-er (in “Lit” she calls it “the therapy group for people trying to quit”), so you know she’s all about her coffee. Our newest podcast episode, in which we discuss Karr’s gorgeous, painful memoir about her alcoholism and recovery, pairs well with this iced coffee drink. For this upgrade on black coffee in a styrofoam cup, we poured cold brew coffee over ice and stirred in a little maple syrup and oat milk (pick your favorite creamer or non-dairy milk).

About “Lit: A Memoir”

What to expect: A groundbreaking entry in the quit lit canon, served with a side of southern sass and literary acuity

From the book jacket: “‘The Liars’ Club’ brought to vivid, indelible life Mary Karr’s hardscrabble Texas childhood. “Cherry,” her account of her adolescence, ‘continued to set the literary standard for making the personal universal’ (Entertainment Weekly).

Now, ‘Li’t follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner’s descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness—and to her astonishing resurrection. Karr’s longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet produces a son they adore. But she can’t outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in ‘The Mental Marriott,’ with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, ‘Give me chastity, Lord-but not yet!’ has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity.

‘Lit’ is about getting drunk and getting sober, becoming a mother by letting go of a mother, learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up—as only Mary Karr can tell it.”

— Lit: A Memoir

My list of books to read this month

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

I’m spending some time OOO later this month and I needed a good vacay read. This recently published book, my March Book of the Month Club pick, should do the trick. It’s the story of an artist who is increasingly convinced her next door neighbor is the culprit of an unsolved murder. That, or she’s having another psychotic episode. Can she stop him—or herself—before someone else gets hurt? I’ll find out in Orlando. 😉

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

A buddy of mine wanted to read this 1996 Atwood classic, so I hopped on board and am heading back to 1843 to meet Grace Marks, a young woman jailed for murdering her housekeeper but whose guilt is being questioned by someone who could save her from a life in prison. I’m not too far in, but it’s already got that Atwood-spook. The scenes of Grace’s childhood in Ireland, during which she helps parent the nine-kids-deep family, has me saying a Handsmaid-y Praise Be for birth control.

Time Is The Thing A Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann

I really enjoyed reading Fleischmann’s earlier work “Syzygy, Beauty,” and was excited to receive an advanced copy of their forthcoming narrative essay, “Time Is The Thing A Body Moves Through,” to write about for a literary publication. Here’s the description: “How do the bodies we inhabit affect our relationship with art? How does art affect our relationship to our bodies? T Fleischmann uses Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s artworks—piles of candy, stacks of paper, puzzles—as a path through questions of love and loss, violence and rejuvenation, gender and sexuality. From the back porches of Buffalo, to the galleries of New York and L.A., to farmhouses of rural Tennessee, the artworks act as still points, sites for reflection situated in lived experience. Fleischmann combines serious engagement with warmth and clarity of prose, reveling in the experiences and pleasures of art and the body, identity and community.”

#SundaySentence: Toni’s call to action

For David Abrams’ Sunday Sentence project, readers share the best sentence they’ve read during the past week, “out of context and without commentary.”

(Except I totally give you context and commentary.)

“We know you can never do it properly — once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.

From Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Lecture in Literature, as a younger generation speaks to the artists, the writers, the people who are struggling to make way before them.

My list of books to read this month

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison

I’m such a Toni Morrison fan girl. This latest tome is a compilation of writing outside her novelistic cannon, composed of essays, speeches, lectures, and meditations she’s written over the decades of her iconic career.

It includes, among my favorites, her Nobel Prize Lecture in Literature from 1993, as well as several deep dissections of her favorite pieces of literature and insights into her own work. It’s exciting to have these parts of her deeply intellectual oeuvre in one place.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer

I’m also a Lee Miller fan girl. So this was the obvious pick for my Book of The Month subscription choice. Lee Miller is best known as photographer Man Ray’s muse, but girlfriend has her own work, photography, and story to share. The Age of Light fictionalizes Lee’s sojourn from man’s muse to self-made artist, with 1930’s Paris as its backdrop.

Lee Miller

I first learned of Lee in Francine Prose’s book The Lives of The Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired, which, now that I think of it, is worth a re-read itself. Maybe next month?

Tanja Ramm under a bell jar, 1930, Lee Miller

Untitled (Iron work), 1931, Lee Miller

On writing: Stephen King to the rescue

If you haven’t read On Writing by Stephen King yet, get a copy now. Stock up on cute highlighters while you’re at it. (He’s also hella feisty on Twitter.)

If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.

Stephen King, On Writing

I love this golden nugget quote in the chapter about theme. It’s so true, right? Even those of us who can only hope to be Stephen-King-quality after a couple lifetimes know this feeling. Hitting that sweet spot where things you didn’t even know were in you fall together into a cohesive story or paragraph or sentence? It feels otherworldly.

Keep writing! Chase those ghosts! <3

My list of books to read this month

Maid by Stephanie Land

Debut author Stephanie Land takes a painfully honest look back at her years spent cleaning a lot of other people’s houses for only a little pay, while also raising two children alone. “Maid” has been billed as “‘Evicted‘ meets ‘Nickel and Dimed,'” which are two of my favorite nonfiction books about the cyclical challenges of rising out of poverty in America—no matter how hard you’re working at those bootstraps.

I think of reading books like this (and “Evicted,” etc.) as a civic responsibility. They help me understand how poverty in our country works (both in the past and today… because its causes and effects are constantly morphing), why it is so hard to climb out of, and how we all contribute to poverty’s brutal repercussions even if by simply misunderstanding what poverty can do to a person. Or in this case, one tough mother.

Orwell On Truth by George Orwell

Also an intangible civic duty: educating ourselves on the history of truth and democracy. I found this little pocket book at the Chicago Public Library branch that opened LITERALLY WITHIN A BLOCK FROM MY APARTMENT (!!!!). It features excerpts of Orwell’s most potent arguments about what truth actually is and how hypocrisy can manifest itself in even the most well-intentioned. His brilliant, astute critical observations about how language shapes our cultures and world views made him an enemy of both the left and the right. Which kind of makes him my hero.

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell
Orwell. Perhaps nailing down his nom de plume?

There’s so much I didn’t know about Orwell or appreciate about his work until reading this brief book. I was surprised at how modern his essay writing reads; though, I shouldn’t have been, considering that “1984” is perhaps the most prescient novel of all time. Nostradamus of the nine-to-fiver.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

And, because it’s Valentine’s Day month, I’ll be reading this historical fiction novel from 2015 that I still see people raving about on social media. It gets so much love! I’ve been meaning to read Kristin Hannah’s book that came out last year, “The Great Alone,” but figured I should finish this tale first. A story of two sisters struggling to survive in WWII France, Hannah weaves together a big-hearted story about the power of love in a time of hateful power. I can’t wait to soar away with this one.

Interview: Author and historian Joan Cashin

In my recent re-reading of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” I was struck by the description of the first time morphine needed to be mass produced—and fast—in the United States. Answer: “The U.S. Civil War prompted the planting of opium poppies in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina for the first time and bequeathed the country thousands of morphine-addicted soldiers.”

It’s just one example of how the environment and landscape of the United States was forced to change during the Civil War.

For a million other fascinating examples, look no further than historian Joan E. Cashin’s new book from Cambridge University Press, “War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War.”

Joan E. Cashin, author of the new book “War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War” from Cambridge University Press

Was the physical world during the Civil War a parallel to what was happening to the soldiers and civilians embroiled in it?

“That is a good analogy,” Cashin says. “The armies—both armies, Confederate and Union—exploited the physical world to the full just as they exploited the civilian population.”

The book explores these exploitations, recounting how and why they happened, who suffered because of them, and how they changed the course of the war.

I love reading books like this—historical documentations that tell story after story of real lived experience. It’s packed with anecdotes that could consume a creative writing class for a whole semester. All my fiction-writer friends out there, books like this are also great for research.

“Some civilians began to crack under the compounding pressures of war, engaging in increasingly reckless behavior. In May 1864, a tall, well-dressed clergyman walked right through the Battle of Yellow Tavern, calling out in a booming voice, ‘Where’s my boy. I want to see my boy.’ The man strode across an active battlefield while troops shouted at him to leave before he disappeared, uninjured, into the woods. … Other civilians were overcome by trauma, undone. A white girl stood at her front door watching the buildings burn on her family’s property. She began yanking the hair from her head, repeating the curses she heard from passing troops, and shouting with maniacal laughter.”

Chapter six, “The Uncanny”

Cashin’s most recent entry into the huge Civil War canon is an intriguing one. Expertly researched and woven together by her energetic voice, Cashin gives the devastating subject matter a balanced place to call home. And homes, as you’ll read, are a big part of the environmental Civil War story.

Below, read more about Cashin’s experience writing the book, what’s been inspiring her lately, and who she’d invite to a dinner party. Hint: her guest list’s conversations would be fodder enough for her next Civil War book.

What is war “stuff”? 

The stuff that armies needed to wage war, that is, the material resources, such as food, timber, and housing, as well as the human resources, such as the skill and knowledge of the civilian population. Throughout the history of warfare, armies have often turned to civilians for what they need to wage war.   

Why is it important to examine how the Civil War impacted the environment (and how the environment impacted the Civil War)? 

I think it reminds us of how horrible war can be. Wars that last any duration of time always inflict damage on the environment. 

It was very interesting to read about houses being destroyed and civilians trying to stop the destruction of homes or buildings—and how some soldiers were deeply conflicted about this tactic. It made me consider how different the experience of “home” and “making a home” was circa the 1860s versus today. You commune differently with a place you’ve built with your own two hands. What was the most interesting thing you learned, discovered, or meditated on while working on this book?

I agree completely that most people had a deep sense of connection with their homes, even more so if they had helped build those homes. That is quite different from the world we live in today. I was surprised by many of the things I came across during research for this book, but the section on housing and what happened to the private home was one of the most shocking. 

Yes, it’s fascinating to read stories of how people survived, including the mental warfare that had to be waged in order to maintain resources. I’m thinking particularly of Cornelia Parsons’ submissiveness and smile (!) that shamed soldiers into leaving her home. Were there any firsthand accounts from the book that especially stuck with you?

Yes, many of them stuck with me. Cornelia Parsons certainly did, along with most of the hostages who were taken by the two armies. I believe that “The Uncanny” section of Chapter Six is memorable. 

When do you write?

My best writing time is the afternoon, so I try to teach in the morning. I try to do some writing every day, six days a week, even if it is only 10 minutes on a very busy day. 

What is the best thing about being a historian?

The research, the writing, and the teaching—in short, just about everything!

What has been inspiring you or interesting you lately?

Judith Giesberg’s edition of a diary by Emilie Davis, a black woman who lived in wartime Philadelphia, which came out in 2014, was inspiring to me. I am also looking forward to reading “The Civil War: An Environmental History” by Tim Silver and Judkin Browning, which is coming out with UNC-Chapel Hill. 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a book on material culture and an article on animal studies, both for the war era.

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

Great question. I would invite three people from the war era: Angelina Grimke Weld, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln. I have some questions for all of them.

My list of books to read this month


By Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve already fallen in love with Barbara Kingsolver’s nonfiction writing thanks to her book of essays “Small Wonder,” so I’m excited to dig into her fiction and see if it has the same effect. I admire her ability to give the smallest observation its rightful place in the bigger picture she’s painting–like finding a puzzle piece under the coffee table and using it to complete the whole damn thing.

“Unsheltered” is her new novel about two families in two different centuries living in the same house. One of those families is a modern-day grouping of debt-saddled Baby Boomer parents, disillusioned Millennial daughter, and disabled Greatest Generation grandfather. The other family includes a curious science teacher threatened after discussing the exciting new work of Charles Darwin in class.

“With history as their tantalizing canvas,” reads the book description, “these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.”

Art imitating life circa 2018, non?

“The Boys of My Youth”

By Jo Ann Beard

“OMG. Have you heard of this book?!” 

^ I have been heard asking this throughout my social circles for the past three weeks since uncovering this book of essays, published in 1999, from the lost-in-circulation library heap. Actually, now that I think about it, “The Boys of My Youth” hit my radar courtesy a piece in the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, in which a contributor praises Jo Ann Beard’s book as something every student-writer must read.

Wowee, what a gift. Beard is brilliant. Her voice is so effortlessly funny (her three-word sentences are witty weapons a post-dial-up humorist would haul 30 in for). But what I love most is how Beard writes memoir in-scene, with remarkable grace. It’s as if she enters another plane, able to look back and from above, to hand down her stories, reported with life-affirming, knot-spotting details she missed the first time around. 

I’d recommend this to everyone who loves to read, student-writer or not. I’ll be asking S. Claus for my very own copy this Christmas, too.

“A Manual For Nothing”

By Jessica Anne

This book is a künstlerroman, which is German for artist-novel, which is American for: Anything goes, motha fucka!

That appeals to me, you know? As did the bookstore’s shelf-talker recommendation for it. I haven’t dug into it yet, but lists and poems and assimilations and some real-saucy-but-profound-shit await. A manual for nothing sounds like a manual for everything-I-need-right-now.

P.S. Readers have asked about the desk calendar I feature in this blog post series, and, as the new year approaches, now’s the perfect time to get your own! The monthly pieces are from Linnea Design and the 2019 series is just delightful  (that is, as far as I can tell from just glancing at mine… I try not to look at each month until it’s time to slide it into my clear plastic desk frame on the First of Whatever… THRILLING!… Look, I take my kicks however they come. You can use your calendar however you want.) The toy dinosaurs are gifts from my niece and nephew. Good luck finding those (such perfect nieces and nephews and also these exact dinos).