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"It was like, it was like, it was like."
Books about motherhood & liberation, art & procrastination, fangirl histories, and more.
Hello, friends. There are a lot more of you now than there were last time I sent out a letter, so, welcome! I am so happy to have you here. I’ve missed writing and sending these, very much. In some ways a lot has happened since January and in other ways not much has changed at all, but one big thing is I sold my book, a memoir called Better. Yay! Yikes! I’m currently finishing it and, man, I love it. I know that is corny. But working on this book is similar to working on book reviews over the past year, in which both have made me think: People will pay me to write English papers? One time while talking with my sister Danea about a review I was working on, she (a biotech scientist) said, “So you decided you just wanted to keep doing homework for the rest of your life?” which is very funny and very true. The caveat of course is there aren’t many who will pay for this work and what they’re paying isn’t usually much but, still, I do not take it for granted.
There’s a lot to be said (and a lot that is said) about the drudgery of writing, the loneliness, the pulling-teeth-ness of it, and I find, for the most part, that I much more enjoy having written something than I do writing. Even these reviews, which I’m really excited about, often feel like a slog sentence by sentence. Before working on Better, there was only one other project that didn’t hang over me while I waited to start writing until it was too late to finish it on time, and that was my senior thesis at Reed. I won’t bore you with too much of it (…ahaha unless…?) but it was about gaps and absences in Samuel Beckett’s short and unfinished plays, the merging of the infinite and nothingness, and so much of writing it felt like active discovery. I finished that bad boy TWO MONTHS before it was due! I was late on literally everything else in college! It took me eight years to graduate! But Better feels like that: buzzy, heady, exciting. Not all the time, that would be insane, but a good amount. When it started feeling like that flow state — after going through a few versions that I knew, at my core, were built around some imperfect guess at marketability — I knew I’d landed somewhere good. Hopefully that translates into something people want to read and buy! If there’s anything we can say with certainty amid the DOJvPRH hearings it’s that one never knows!
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Now let’s talk about some of the best things I’ve read since the last time we spoke.
Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones
Cooper Jones’s debut memoir about disability, beauty, work, and meaning easily joins the ranks of my all-time faves. I reviewed it for Oprah Daily, so forgive me for cribbing from myself in just a moment, but there’s so much I loved here: the precision of the writing, the accessibility of the philosophy, how funny it also is?? I loved what it did to my brain, both while reading it and beyond.
Here’s some of what I said about it on Oprah Daily:
Jones so closely analyzes the relationship between work and beauty, pain and pleasure, without ascribing a moral value to either, hinting at conclusions but then challenging you when you think you’ve settled on one. I found myself reading for a meaning I already believed in, or hoped I could. I wanted Jones to tell me: Is the struggle worth it? Might it be beautiful in its own right? Sure, maybe. Sometimes. But to get tangled up in these questions is to miss Easy Beauty’s quiet profundity. It’s a story more concerned with possibility than limitation.
Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber & The Novelist by Jordan Castro
I’m pairing these because they really spoke to me and each other in interesting ways while I read them. They’re both concerned with the creation of art — Haber’s about a niche art scholar, Castro’s about a man trying and failing to work on his novel — both told in a sort of arch, overwrought to the point of tediousness first person POV. While reading both you get the sense that the writers are living within the tension of loving and thinking really seriously about art while also finding that tendency (in themselves and others) absolutely insufferable. They’re both short, smart, genuinely funny — Haber’s truly laugh-out-loud — and triggering in similar “ugh I know this person / oh god I might be this person” ways. I felt Castro’s second-by-second account of compulsive app reloads like a personal attack, and his insights into social media are brutal and spot-on:
In short, Instagram was vanity and Twitter was pride. Twitter would kill everyone then kill itself; whereas Instagram would only peter out, slowly disappearing into a kind of pleading void.
Be warned, though: there is a a lot — a lot — of poop play-by-play in The Novelist.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
I bought a copy of this back in 2020, after it came up in this BuzzFeed post of Black SFF, and I finally took it off the shelf this year. Whitehead’s debut novel, from 1999, takes place in an alternate New York (technically, if I’m remembering correctly, an unnamed "major metropolitan city") where elevator inspectors are major political actors operating in two rival factions. An elevator goes into free fall under the watch of the city's first Black female inspector, Lila Mae, and it sets her on a dangerous survival mission. It’s about power, corruption, and racism, and it’s now my favorite of Whitehead’s books. I alternated between reading and listening to the audiobook, which is fantastic.
I’m Waiting for You (and Other Stories) by Kim Bo-Young
I went to three different indie bookstores to find this sci-fi short story collection during a trip to Vermont because I was dead set on reading it over the long weekend. And I don’t really remember why? It became one of those things, no other book would cut it. Anyway I did find it, thank goodness, but didn’t get further than the title story and its companion piece that weekend, an aching, profound, yearning story about a couple on separate ships traveling the galaxy, coordinating timelines and routes and calculating relativity to get back to Earth at the same time for their wedding. The first story is told through the groom’s letters, the second through the bride’s. The journeys are doomed; mishaps and redirections keep them from each other while centuries pass on Earth, and it’s painful to see the missed connections from both sides. But the letters are full of deep love and faith, and it’s one of those stories that continues to pop up in my mind every now and then. I’m not ready for the other pair of linked stories in the book, which I’m sure will be similarly devastating, quite yet.
Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It by Kaitlyn Tiffany
The joy I felt reading this book!! If you’re interested in internet subcultures, stan Twitter, memes, pop music, feminism, and most importantly One Direction you really shouldn’t miss this one.
Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes
Nothing has radicalized me quite like becoming a mother during a pandemic, and I’m ravenous for writing that exists in the overlaps of mothering and liberation. Angela Garbes is doing some of the best there is. Essential Labor is (I’m sorry) essential reading, a beacon of hope and possibility and an energizing call to action amid the mess of doomsday and nihilistic takes about our future:
“The aim of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible,” writes Audre Lorde. I love her directive for both its vagueness and expansiveness. […] When we are parenting from within, feeling confident and secure in our bodies, rooted in pleasure and love, we are better able to meet the goals Lorde set forth. Embodied mothering, which leads to embodied children who become the next generation of adults, can be our best offense and defense against the inhumane, distinctly American lifestyle.
Human Blues by Elisa Albert
Elisa Albert’s After Birth was the first ambivalent/traumatic depiction of early motherhood I’d ever read and it blew my mind when it came out in 2015. Human Blues — which follows a singer-songwriter Aviva Rosner over the course of nine menstrual cycles spent touring a new album and trying to get pregnant — feels complicated/complicating in similar ways, this time around fertility and infertility. It’s about bodies and womanhood and creativity and sacrifice and Judaism and Amy Winehouse, among other things. The voice is frenetic, irreverent, horny, angry, and distinct — “Ah, the descriptive limitations of physical/emotional overwhelm: It was like, it was like, it was like.” — in such an intimate third person that I keep misremembering it as first. When I asked Elisa about the voice at her launch she described Aviva as sort of exhausted, with nothing left to lose, and that absolutely comes through. I loved it, but I’ve recommended people read through a few pages to see if it works for them before committing to it.
Before I open up paid subscriptions, I’m curious to hear what bonus features you’d be most interested in: Book advice column? Author interviews? Themed rec lists? All of the above? Something I haven’t thought of? Reply to the email or let me know in the comments.
Listen to Normal Gossip!!! It’s taken over my life!
Jamil Jan Kochai found the teacher who taught him to read and write in 2nd grade and his Twitter thread about it made me cry! A good amount!
Must reads: Isle McElroy’s poem “Punchline” (CW: rape), Kelsey McKinney on generational wealth in the arts, Katie Heaney on Abbi Jacobson and her A League of Their Own reboot, Elamin Abdelmahmoud on being a Diet Coke person.
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