My list of books to read this month

Severance by Ling Ma

I activated my Book of The Month Club membership again. I have started and stopped before, based on no fault of theirs, just my indecision about whether paying $15 a month for a book is worth it when I can request and read it for free from the library.

Here’s what I’ve decided: While it’s true that I’d save money if I just used the library, I’d also have to wait a long time for my turn on the wait list. With new releases, I always have to wait at least a few weeks. That means I’m never really sure when my request will come in, so I end up borrowing other books, and then when the book finally does come in, I have to drop everything to finish it before it’s due back. There’s no way you’re getting an option to renew on a HOT new book with a wait list. It’s stressful!

Therefore. I found a compromise. I bought a year’s-worth of BOTM membership so I don’t have a weird, unnecessary panic attack every month I get charged for a book. I saved a little buying the 12 books up front, but I did it more for the mental freeeeeedom. Now that it’s all paid off, I feel like I’m getting gifted a free book each month!


First up, I chose “Severance” by Ling Ma. Three reasons.

1) My brother, who is a voracious reader and librarian, recommended it to me.

2) It has a really rad minimalist book jacket that I just want to own and have on my bookshelves. I’m so book-basic sometimes and I don’t even care.

3) The story sounds really intriguing. Candace Chen is a first-generation American, busy New Yorker, and #bossbitch Millennial doin’ it fo’ herself… and is increasingly disillusioned by what all of that means—and doesn’t. Soon, Shen Fever consumes the city and, in its zombie-crusted aftermath, Candace joins a group heading to Chicago for survival. However, Candace is hiding a mystery that could soon put her in danger with her apocalyptic pals.

“Rather than an Average Joe, Ma gives us a Specific Chen, conjuring an experience of the apocalypse through the lens of someone whose variegated identity is not an exotic distraction but part of the novel’s architecture. The chapters of ‘Severance’ alternate between the narrative present—in which Candace, having been rescued by the survivors fleeing New York, tries to adapt to their tense group dynamics—and extended flashbacks that take us through her life, in reverse. The layers of Candace’s distinctive personal history are peeled away slowly, imitating the tentativeness and ambivalence with which many second-generation immigrants reveal themselves, caught between the desire to belong and the longing to be known.”

Ling Ma’s ‘Severance’ Captures the Bleak, Fatalistic Mood of 2018,” from The New Yorker

The Best American Essays 2018 edited by Hilton Als

I so enjoyed my recent read of “The Best American Essays 2016,” I decided to give the newest edition a go. Editor Hilton Als won the 2017 Pulitzer in criticism, and I look forward to reading his picks.

I’ll admit, I didn’t understand what an essay was before I read the compilation in BAE 2016. I’d wager my misconception is common, since the literary version of the form is so different from what we all slogged through in undergrad. I think they’re so great! A potent mix of journalistic technique, creative narrative, and critical transience, a well-done essay can give your brain something to chew on for days, months, years.

Most pumped for: Leslie Jamison’s entry, “The March on Everywhere.” I just read her book “The Recovering” and am, predictably, smitten. Aaaaand, turns out she edited BAE 2017, which means my to-read list just got one entry longer.

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).

Twelve things I’m loving this month

“Bloodless” by Andrew Bird

His new album’s title song is about our bloodless, cold, uncivil culture war. Here’s something we can all agree on, though: That piano part is mmmmm.

Existential Comics dot com

Also: “No, Stalin was not good you guys.”

Particularly the Simone de Beauvior editions.

Tessa Thompson

I’ve been so into actress Tessa Thompson this year! And apparently I’m not the only one: The Cut just featured her in an article titled “Tessa Thompson Knows People Can’t Stop Thinking About Her.” It’s something about the way she talks, right? She’s trance-like and so very deep. And her style. I loved her in “Sorry to Bother You” and she uniquely delivers such a great depiction of a Millennial creative-careerist-mom-wife as Bianca in the “Creed” movies. I can’t wait to see her in her own starring role, though, not just in a role that’s there mostly to just be a girlfriend or wife.

Three podcast reccos

  1. Books of Your Life, hosted by Goodreads co-founder Elizabeth Khuri. She talks to famous people about the books that have deeply influenced their lives.
  2. Art for Your Ear, hosted by Jealous Curator founder Danielle Krysa. She talks to contemporary artists about their practice, inspirations, and more. Try this episode with Los Angeles-based painter Seonna Hong (that’s her work below).
  3. Unruffled Podcast hosted by Sondra Primeaux and Tammi Salas explores the connection between creativity and recovery through interviews with creators of all stripes. It’s so inspiring. I like that the guests offer their own favorite recovery/creativity tools.

Painting by Seonna Hung

Screen Prism’s “Mad Men” videos

Ahhhh! I LOVE this YouTube channel that features video analysis of film and TV shows and characters. Get ready to binge. They’re like taking a film history, movie 101, and screenplay writing class for free. Of course, the super smart “Mad Men” character examinations are my favorite, but poke around, watch, and have your own movie-like ah-ha moments. (Oh also! Film fans should follow the One Perfect Shot Twitter account. It posts perfectly DOP-ed movie shots. The freeze framing lets you meditate on why a scene is so visually powerful.)

Kopari Coconut Melt

I got this stuff as a free sample from Sephora and I’m so grateful. It’s saving my hands and face this winter, which always sucks the life out of my skin. It’s basically coconut oil cream that melts into your skin once you apply it. Guess I’ll be buying a giant tub of it once this tiny sample is gone.

The “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” soundtrack

In this new movie, Melissa McCarthy is brutally good as author Lee Israel, who is infamous for the forgery she committed of letters by legendary writers (and for her alcoholism, which they depict in the movie with such accuracy and objectivity… the scene where we find out how disgusting her apartment is reminded me of Augusten Burroughs’ apartment reveal in “Dry”; he only shows the reader how disgusting his apartment is once he gets home from rehab).

Gray, cold, and funny, the movie also has a soundtrack that’s lethargic and serene… like a rain cloud you’ve gotten used to and rather enjoy constantly hanging over your head. It’s got so many wonderfuls on it: the Pixies, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Chet Baker, Justin Vivian Bond, and this gorgeous Jeri Southern song that I had never heard before I watched the movie, but that I now want playing whenever I need a rainy day reprieve.

xoxo this album cover and its title… “Coffee, Cigarettes, & Memories.”

This quote from an InStyle interview with civil rights attorney Gloria Allred

“I don’t think fear is useful. I think fear is a weapon that has been used to deny women their rights.”

Read the full interview.

This passage from “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud

“It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friends instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL. Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.”

Get the book.

This month’s bro-tivational video!

“Self discipline is the definition of self love.”

See also: “You cannot win the war against the world, if you cannot win the war against your own mind.”

Roundup: Paintings of sexy men reading books

Following, an abridged look at paintings of sexy boys reading. You’re welcome.

Though perhaps he be toileting, pay no mind—because his mind is clearly no dump.

What’s that other beautiful hand of his doing? Must be a banned book.

Never judge a book by its cover or a man by his drapery.

A man with addictive reading tendencies (and just general addictive tendencies). We already have so much in common.

This sexy man reading is all cheekbones and stylish hat. He probably has a lot to say about revolutions.

When a colonial man is better than a renaissance man…

Probably still trying to get into “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Hi, yes, can I check out this book from the library, as well as the beautiful face that’s behind it?

Hashtag reading relationship goals.

No chest hair? No problem. Just keep reading.

I’d let him read about crackers in bed.


If you like pina coladas, cats, and reading, come with me and escape.

My list of books to read this month

“The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath”

By Leslie Jamison

I think it’s fair to call Leslie Jamison’s recent book about her experience with alcoholism a tome. It’s really long and the wispy pages are as thin as the memory of cigarette smoke. The book tome mixes multiple genres, including memoir, literary criticism, journalism, and cultural critique, into a potent zero proof cocktail. The 14 sections are titled with one-word themes of stops on her addiction and recovery journey (Wonder, Abandon, Blame, Lack, Shame, Surrender, Thirst, Return, Confession, Humbling, Chorus, Salvage, Reckoning, Homecoming). Less like a 14-step guidebook and more like a cycle of grief with ambiguous and overlapping boundaries, “The Recovering” is a must for anyone whose life has been touched by addiction; in fact, that’s exactly who she dedicated the book to. I am especially loving her deconstruction of the myth of the connection between alcohol and the talented creative writer. One thing, she argues, does not beget the other, and we should maybe stop romanticizing a destructive narrative that lets alcoholics stay trapped.

“Still Life with Oysters and Lemon”

By Mark Doty

This will sound silly and/or phony and/or a line from an SNL skit about aging hipsters, but I don’t care: I’ve been really into still life paintings lately. Ha! I don’t know when it started (maybe right after we uninstalled Gone, Country?). I am usually drawn to loud, bombastic art or highly graphic design or minimalist pieces bridging on nothingness. Never still life. Ew, boring! Until now. I suppose it’s tied to my desire to slow down a little. I’ve been working like a Bronte madwoman in the attic this year, and I think my psyche is catching up with me. “Seriously, slow the fuck down,” it says. “Here. Look at this pretty painting of material objects and ripe fruit to remind you that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And also that you need to eat something soon, OK?”

And then (devoted readers like me are familiar with this experience) a book I’ve needed to help me put words to what I’m going through found me before I could find it. “Still Life with Oysters and Lemons,” published in 2002, offers a longform musing, dissection, and memoir hybrid-essay that explores the mystery and love of still life artwork. In it, writer Mark Doty is a brilliant word magician (ahem, painter?) who deeply encapsulates the meaning of still life (and a still life). Perhaps no other book about still life needs to be written? “Especially not by you, Jackie, so take a nap,” my psyche moans.

Ugh. Beautiful.

Even Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview loves this book! I found this talker recommendation AFTER I finished this book. Big magic strikes again.

They also gave me this little friendly reminder. Happy almost holidays!


My list of books to read this month

“The Great Believers”

By Rebecca Makkai

If we’re to believe some very trustworthy readers on Instagram (we are), this novel about how the AIDs epidemic changed 1980s Chicago is one of the best books of the year. The National Book Awards agree: “The Great Believers” was tapped last week for the fiction longlist. I’m especially excited to read it because the author, Rebecca Makkai, is a leader of the Chicago literary scene and creative director of Story Studio in Ravenswood. It’ll be fun to dive into 1980s Chicago from the comfort of 2018 Chicago. I think. <reads news and shivers>

“Best Worst American”

By Juan Martinez

Speaking of Story Studio, I attended its Writer’s Festival at the end of September and took a class about flash fiction taught by this author, Juan Martinez. We read some Kafka and I fell in love with reading all over again (I mean, that’s not hard to do, but I had never really read flash fiction before, and this crash course was like finding a tattooed new crush hanging out in the library). “Best Worst American” is a compilation of Martinez’s best flash fiction and short stories.

“The Good House”

By Ann Leary

This novel follows the story of Hildy Good, a hilarious recovering alcoholic who has some secrets in her cellar. Ann Leary (NPR host and Denis Leary’s wife) has struggled with alcoholism herself, and it shows. I mean that in the best way possible. She writes about the experience of alcoholism with a brutally real but empathetic truth that reminded me of how terrifying addiction is when you live in its never-ending dirty cycle. To see yourself on a page, to be seen, is always cathartic. Even when it’s not the you that you want to be reminded of.

“12 Rules for Life”

By Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a therapist, thinker, and, I’d argue, philosopher who is reviled by the left. However, he has some very interesting things to say in terms of finding your own personal worth and creating a mindset that helps you not only survive the chaos of daily life, but thrive in it. Rule number one, for example, is to “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This isn’t a power move or a threatening stance, he says, but one that helps you “stand the hell up, with courage, and take it.”

Three things for word nerds to listen to on the commute home

Chuck Palahniuk with Joe Rogan

Check out this Joe Rogan Experience interview with author Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club,” “Choke,” etc). Chuck talks about the bravery that’s required of good artistry and how we shouldn’t worry about what can and can’t be marketed—such boundaries only inhibit the most powerful writing and art. P.S. Have you listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast before? Justin is a big fan and he would play it while we were driving or cleaning the house together sometimes and I got hooked. Joe, much to my stereotyping surprise, asks really interesting questions and has a very layered perspective; even when I don’t agree with his opinions, I appreciate that he brings guests on that challenge his ideas or help him understand things he has questions about.

Sana Krasikov reads “Ways and Means”

Krasikov’s short story is a refreshingly nuanced take on the complicated realities of the #metoo movement and issues of power.

Zadie Smith reads “Now More than Ever”

Swoon, Zadie Smith always nails it, now more than ever. Don’t miss this controversial short story about the cultural heat wave to fall in line with the progressive opinions du jour.

“I instinctively sympathize with the guilty. That’s my guilty secret.”

The best quotes from “Solitude of Self” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I have bookmarked this speech ECS gave at the Committee of the Judiciary of the US Congress on January 18, 1892. I find it most useful during, of all things, my super-blue days. Her wisdom and identification about the realities of the solitude of self, and her unintentional reminder that I am capable and free to help myself (a privilege people like ECS fought hard for) help pull me out of the black holes that are my bad days. I recently re-read the speech and thought I’d share some of my favorite parts. Read the full text here, you sweet-beautiful-captain-of-your-own-ship.

First of all, let’s imagine a world where women are ppl, mmk?

“In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny, an imaginary Robinson Crusoe with her woman Friday on a solitary island. Her rights under such circumstances are to use all her faculties for her own safety and happiness.”

Because she is (surprise, wig boy!) a real person, woman is responsible for making herself complete and happy

“…as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same—individual happiness and development.”

To survive the implicit solitude of self, every person needs the right to choose

“The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings.”

Education helps save us from fear

“The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.”

Men can’t protect women from certain things, things like the solitude of self

“No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must know something of the laws of navigation.”

You are a beautiful precious snowflake… so you are responsible for making sure you do not melt

“Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.”

Our internal lives can never be fully revealed

“In youth our most bitter disappointment, our brightest hopes and ambitions are known only to ourselves; even our friendship and love we never fully share with another; there is something of every passion in every situation we conceal. Even so in our triumphs and our defeats.”

Self-actualization is an inalienable human right

“To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes; to deny the rights of property, like cutting off the hands.”

Being a wife or mother is hard as fuck too

“The young wife and mother, at the head of some establishment with a kind husband to shield her from the adverse winds of life, with wealth, fortune and position, has a certain harbor of safety, secure against the ordinary ills of life. But to manage a household, have a desirable influence in society, keep her friends and the affections of her husband, train her children and servants well, she must have rare common sense, wisdom, diplomacy, and a knowledge of human nature. To do all this she needs the cardinal virtues and the strong points of character that the most successful statesman possesses.”

Taking responsibility for your life is empowering

“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded; a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment, by inheritance, wealth, family, and position.”

Even if protected, a person faces “fierce storms of life”

“The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer.”

Identity politics don’t matter in the realm of self

“Rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman, it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself.”

Making yourself a stronger, smarter person is necessary for survival and self-respect

“But when all artificial trammels are removed, and women are
 recognized as individuals, responsible for their own environments, thoroughly educated for all positions in life they may be called to fill; with all the resources in themselves that liberal thought and broad culture can give; guided by their own conscience and judgment; trained to self-protection by a healthy development of the muscular system and skill in the use of weapons of defense, and stimulated to self-support by a knowledge of the business world and the pleasure that pecuniary independence must ever give; when women are trained in this way they will, in a measure, be fitted for those hours of solitude that come alike to all, whether prepared or otherwise.”

Equal opportunity for all, mothafuckas!

“The chief reason for opening to every soul the doors to the whole round of human duties and pleasures is the individual development thus attained, the resources thus provided under all circumstances to mitigate the solitude that at times must come to everyone.”

“We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human beings for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self-dependence of every human soul we see the need of courage, judgment, and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man.”


Quick Quote: On social media

From Jennifer R. Hubbard’s essay “What’s This Doing to My Brain?” Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Spring 2018.

“We now routinely interact with one another in ways that were impossible for most of human history. Kenneth Goldsmith goes even further than Heffernan in celebrating cyberspace, finding the handwringing of naysayers to be overwrought. In Wasting Time on the Internet, Goldsmith contends that the web is social, not antisocial; after all, we communicate through it. As for fears of shrinking attention spans, he argues, ‘When I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement.'”

My list of books to read this month

“The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love”

By Sonya Renee Taylor

Sonya Renee Taylor is a slam poet whose movement of radical self love started in a conversation she had with another woman before a slam poetry competition. Sonya’s friend shared an intimate secret: She didn’t always use protection when she had sex because she was disabled and felt like it was too much to ask. Sonya responded, to her friend as much as to herself, “Your body is not an apology.” This new book is an exploration of that idea, and it takes great steps to clearly define the differences between radical self love, self confidence, and self acceptance. Through stories and prompts, the book asks readers to examine how they might give greater radical love to their bodies and, in the process, the bodies of other humans around the world.

“Best-interest buying is also about reducing the harm our purchases cause other bodies. What are three ways you can reduce the harmful or exploitative outcomes of your purchases?”


“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic”

By Sam Quinones

This 2015 book by journalist Sam Quinones foresaw the way the 2016 election would shake down, at least in terms of the desperation so many small- or medium-sized towns were feeling to change something, anything to stop the devastating slow build of addiction in their communities. Moreover, this book is an incredible, concise look at how we got in this mess in the first place. From interviews with families who lost children in addictions that began at, of all places, the doctor’s office, to the families in tiny Mexican villages who started running heroin to the States as means for their own survival, to the advertisers and doctors whose cartoon-dollar-sign-eyes added to the trouble. This book reads like a thriller, even though it’s nonfiction, and is thoroughly researched: Quinones spent decades covering crime and Mexico for various print journalism outlets. I highly recommend this book, and if you’re in Chicago, try to read it in the, um, next few weeks, OK? At 6:30 pm on Monday, June 25, City Lit Books in Logan Square is hosting a book club circle about “Dreamland.” See you there!


“Imagine Wanting Only This”

By Kristen Radtke

A good friend of mine recently recommended this book, which came out last year. It’s a graphic narrative memoir (how cool are all those words strung together as one thing?!). At a funeral for Kristen Radtke’s uncle, she drove through an abandoned mining town. She was so moved and curiously crushed by the sight of its emptiness that it inspired a journey that took her to many other deserted places around the world. Her black and white illustrations further compound the story’s deep dive into the murky black depths of grief, loss, and loneliness. What’s left of us when we’re left behind?