Soon, I will remember nothing that has ever occurred in my life. Quickly, before I forget and before I have a baby, some things happened to us in 2017:
I started a new job at UC Berkeley and stopped teaching
Jamie learned to be a programmer and stopped teaching
We moved out of the studio in my parents’ backyard into a duplex palace, meaning now sometimes I’m in one room, and Jamie is in a different room.
We encountered some seriously intense familial upheaval, which resulted in lots of good things but also permanent departure from our family home and the most traumatic trip to Costco ever
Jamie looked for a programming job for a long time, which he handled like the total champion he is, but like every human did not enjoy
Also we drove to Utah and spent the last day of the trip tearing all our stuff apart looking fruitlessly for our car keys, which by hour 4 or so led me to conclude that life truly has no meaning.
We saw quite a few beautiful things, including:
the wide skies and charmingly Seussian trees of Joshua Tree National Park
the view of San Francisco from Treasure Island: particularly lovely one day in March because we stopped there to turn around and go home after I successfully petitioned Delta Airlines to change Julia’s flight when she had a fever over spring break. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments of 2017.
My nieces’ faces at Disneyland, particularly baby Rosie’s beatific smile while waving to us from the carousel and Flavia’s giddy wonder after the Finding Nemo ride. “It was real,” she said. “It was REAL.”
the Mad Menny (Man Mennish? Mad Mendom? I just mean mid-century modern) delights of Palm Springs.
Some of our favorite water alongside some of our favorite people: the Provo River and Silver Lake; Lake Tahoe in summer and fall; and the Calistoga community pool, not a long-term favorite but a stumbled-upon oasis on a blistering day. We swam and lay out on the grass. For a few minutes, dazed but maybe also awakened by sun and comfort, I could feel my mom there with me, saying hi.
Rosie at my birthday dinner, completely drenched in curry and noodles, flinging tiny strips of lamb into her mouth with abandon.
Three Great Dance Parties and Our Own Christmas Tree (title of my memoir?)
A beautiful, white Christmas Eve Eve in Utah, and a beautiful, green Christmas Day on Maui
The next day, Boxing Day, I learned of my pregnancy.
I had brought a pregnancy test and prenatal vitamins on the trip, stuffed way, way down in my backpack. I had been feeling the tiniest hint of symptoms for a few weeks, but figured I was just making them up due to hope or (and) panic. I had told Jamie just a few days before, “Just so you know — I’m not pregnant. I’m definitely not pregnant.” “Okay,” he had said in his imperturbable way.
On Christmas Day I was late, but still feeling the familiar low back squeeze of menstrual cramps, so I figured things were just off. That night I lay in our hotel room and decided I would take the test early the next morning to confirm that I was not at all pregnant, so I could stop thinking about it and drink as much Diet Coke as I wanted to during our week in Hawaii.
Did you know that cramping from uterine expansion in early pregnancy feels the same as menstrual cramping?
Like I said, my memory is bad and getting worse. The days and weeks run through my fingers like water. But I hope so much to remember this:
My hand gripping the towel rack in shock, crouched on the sandy bathroom floor and staring at two pink spider strands on a plastic stick.
His face when he opened his eyes to see the present I told him I had forgotten to give him the day before.
When Pamela was grown, she married, and some years later, her first child was born. A girl, a beautiful baby girl, with round cheeks and lots of hair. Her name was Sara, spelled without an “h.”
Sara without an “h” was an important distinction, for Sara was named for Sara Crewe of A Little Princess. Pamela had read it when she was a girl. On the inside cover, she printed her name, address, and phone number as carefully as an eight year old could; and though the letters sloped down more than she’d hoped, anyone who found it missing would bring it back to her. She knew very early that her own daughter would be named Sara.
Sara Crewe, like all the best heroines, possesses both goodness and pluck. She, like Pamela, loves books and stories. And though she is an orphan, and has a period of great suffering at the hands of fate and Miss Minchin, she is honorable always and happy mostly, even in adversity. And, of course, she triumphs in the end.
It was not that Pamela thought Sara — her very own sleepy, milk-soft Sara — would be gifted the precise qualities Frances Hodgson Burnett gave the little princess once her name was printed on her little hospital wristband. But she did think that to name her daughter for a good, brave girl from a good, loved book was probably the right way to start off her life.
When Sara learned of her namesake as a little girl, she was terribly proud to have been named for a princess.
Pamela’s Sara began to grow, and as she grew Pamela read her many books. She read her The Big Red Barn and Blueberries for Sal and The Runaway Bunny. But Sara’s attention span, like her namesake’s, was unusually hungry, so Pamela read her longer and longer books. When Sara was approaching three years old, Pamela read her The Little House in the Big Woods, and it was around this time that Pamela learned that she was again pregnant.
As Pamela read to Sara about Laura Ingalls’ simple, industrious life, the food they prepared and the games that they played in the beautiful Wisconsin woods, she pondered the name Laura for her second daughter. Laura Ingalls, too, has goodness and pluck. She too works hard and is mostly happy. It was a good name, Pamela decided, should her baby be born a girl.
She was, and so Sara and Laura were a pair for many years. When Laura was old enough to be read the Little House books, she pictured herself as Laura without any trouble at all, for Laura Ingalls is also small for her age, and also possessing a dignified older sister with blonde hair. Pamela’s Laura often forgot that the sister in the books is named Mary and not Sara. Laura dressed as her book sister for Halloween, and when she turned six, requested a Laura Ingalls birthday party. They played old fashioned games. Pamela made everyone a bonnet. It was a great triumph.
Sara and Laura slept in bunkbeds in their small apartment. Sara sang in a chorus and Laura went to ballet class. They had friends and they each had a sister, and mostly they got along.
Always Pamela read to them, and in time they read to themselves. In the evenings, when they snuggled up under a blanket on the couch with Pamela, they heard the adventures of their other sisters: Sara Crewe and Laura Ingalls, yes, but also Anne Shirley (Anne with an “e”), and Mary Lennox and the March sisters, the Melendy children (some of whom were boys, it couldn’t be helped) and the Fossil sisters and many children without last names: the children in E. Nesbit’s stories about magic, and the children in Edward Eager’s stories about magic. Sally Watson’s heroines, with their fiery sense of justice and complicated family tree. Pippi Longstocking, and Ronia, the robber’s daughter. Sometimes Pamela took Sara and Laura to see plays, and here they discovered even more sisters, though these were grown and beautiful and fierce, with names like music: Viola, Rosalind, Helena, Titania, Celia, Portia.
Though the books Pamela read to her daughters were not always old-fashioned — and, indeed, the books she read in her own bed, late into the night, were mostly, it must be confessed, grisly murder mysteries — they had often been written fifty years before or more. Pamela was drawn to their sweetness and perhaps not put off by their occasional didacticism, for she wanted her girls to be good and polite and hardworking and brave. And Sara and Laura loved the strange little windows into the times before. They loved the peculiar words and expressions that sometimes made sense and sometimes did not: they learned what a “frock” was, and a “scrape,” arms “akimbo” or ears, savagely, “boxed.” After reading books like these, the girls would sometimes hear a warm, old-fashioned narrator in their head as they went about their business, which would wrap them in a puffy little cloud of storytelling for some time, even after the last page had been turned.
Sometimes when Pamela read them these stories, the girls did not even notice that things had changed. Sometimes it seemed that girlhood was always the same, for their sisters in the books seemed quite like them: they too were wounded by embarrassment or indignant at an injustice. They too had golden days outdoors and awful, boring, or unbearably lonely days. They too had chores, good adults and bad adults, the exhilaration of cold air in their lungs and the hard little nugget of determination in their stomachs to outshine the boys in their classes.
One day Pamela sat down with Sara and Laura at their little round table and told them they would have a new baby in their family. Everyone was pleased, even Laura, who would no longer be the baby. This time they discussed the baby’s name as a family. Abigail was considered. Madeline was considered. No one took seriously the idea that the baby was a boy.
She was not, and Pamela named her Julia. This was a bit of a departure, for the Julia-from-a-book was not her story’s heroine but rather the heroine’s dignified, beautiful, and talented sister. Pamela thought her a suitable tie to the Ray family’s house, which is full of tenderness and mirth, and the Betsy-Tacy books, which were particular favorites for them all.
When Julia was a bit older, she learned that her sisters were named for girls in books, and Pamela was quick to assure her that she, too, had a book sister, a good one — who made her own decisions, who was brave and good.
When Pamela’s Julia was still a baby, she and her family moved for the first time to a house, and there Sara and Laura got to hear all the Betsy-Tacy books, even the high school and grownup ones. When they read Betsy and the Great World, they came to a scene when Betsy watches a stream of young men in England march off to fight in the Great War, singing a song with great boisterousness. Laura was disturbed to see Pamela crying through this scene, and Pamela explained how terribly sad it was, for most of these boys would never come home.
Pamela’s girls grew and read and read and grew, adding sisters to their wide constellation of girls with goodness and pluck. Soon Sara and Laura were almost all the way grown, though they still read aloud with Pamela often. Julia read most of all, with her legs tucked up and her fingers plunged into her ears.
Sara and Laura are grown and married now. Sara has two girls of her own, and each has a book sister: Flavia has a girl scientist who also solves mysteries; Rosalind has Rosalind, funny and wise, of As You Like It.
Pamela’s daughters have not read the old books in a long time. Julia — now a young woman herself — remembers them best. But Pamela has died and it hurts their hearts to read them without her voice. The sloping letters in the old copy of A Little Princess are almost too much to bear, and fill each daughter with a thundering grief.
But now when Laura wakes each morning she feels the happy twirl and wriggle of her own little girl within, and remembers her sisters’ sisters. She wants to gently tether her baby to a girl in a book — but who? It feels terribly important to keep the pattern alive, to show Pamela that Laura, too, believes in the power of the book sister.
It is true upon consideration that the pattern is not strict, that there were other considerations for Pamela as well: the taste of a name on the tongue, the lilt of syllabi from first name to middle to last, the other meanings and associations that cling to a name — the good ones like sunbeams, the others like bats.
Laura lies awake at night and thinks about her daughter, and her mother, and books, and names.
How does it all feel today, at three years? The same as before. More so, maybe. But this year I want to honor her pragmatism. “As a practical matter,” she would say. (She really showed where the italics were, in this and other phrases).
Since she’s been gone, I will come across a trait— pragmatism, and others— she embodied so effortlessly (embodied: gave it shape, life, voice) and I
swallow it greedily, spit it back out mangled try it on like a department store hat brandish it (borrowed superhero cape) hurtle toward its center on a roller coaster track — I’m becoming her, I am her, how did this happen unearth it from a hidden corner, stow it in my backpack notice it rising, tamp it back down notice it missing, cobble a vain and clumsy copy roll in it like dough in sugar — cover me, cover me
Would it always have been like this, even if she was here? Would I have done this anyway, because that’s the age I now am?
As a practical matter, it’s happening, regardless.
In the name of pragmatism: suggestions for a feast in her honor, if you’re reading this because you miss Pamela and you’d like something specific (and practical!) to do. If you’re reading this for some other reason, I can still vouch for every menu item. My mother was a gifted cook who loved food without affectation and without shame (and what a gift that is and has always been, to her daughters. I think about that almost every day).
Appetizer: Roasted Feta
Why: She made it often, brought it to gatherings of friends, her book group, her game nights; it’s easy, and very good.
Cut a block of feta in half; drizzle in olive oil and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Slice red and yellow peppers and place on top of the cheese block. Wrap the whole thing in foil and roast at 425° for about ten minutes. Serve with baguette or seeded flatbread.
Alternate appetizer if you don’t want to cook: a good of loaf of crusty bread
Salad: Have One – seasonal ingredients advised
Why: she was very committed to salad (not in love with it, per se, but committed). I assume this was partially to instill good habits in her children, partially because she liked the taste of a good salad. The other reason was aesthetic — she wanted some color on her table. Salad is pretty.
Persimmons and pomegranates in fall; orange slices in winter and spring; candied pecans; in summer, try one of those great salads of black beans, corn, tomatoes, and avocado; in summer, tomatoes. All the tomatoes. If you can get them: dry-farmed early girl tomatoes with burrata cheese, fresh basil, and olive oil.
Main Dish: Argentine Empanadas
Why: When we lived in Argentina for a year when Sara and I were little, her Spanish was so good that everyone in Buenos Aires thought she was Argentine. She loved it there and learned to eat dinner at 10pm, to buy ice cream by the kilo, to make delicious empanadas. Even though I was only 3 when we lived there, and we didn’t eat them very regularly after coming home, they taste so profoundly familiar and wonderful to me every time. She made them for Sara’s wedding — many types, to accommodate vegetarians and different preferences—but these are the classics. We spent hours at our dining room table, scooping, folding, crimping. She bought a full size freezer for our garage to house them all.
While you can technically make your own dough, Maza (and I discovered a recipe for it in her ancient blue recipe box), she usually just bought it pre-cut, as Tapas (her brand: La Salteña, I think these are the ones). Place a scoop of filling in the middle of each tapa, fold and seal in a half moon shape and try to crimp the edges (swear a lot when the crimping doesn’t come out how you wanted). Paint each empanada in egg wash and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400° for 5-8 minutes. Make a LOT.
Alternate main dish if you don’t want to cook: In-N-Out Burger, with which she had an improbable but genuine love affair
Dessert: Lone Ranger Cookies
Why: There are so, so many iconic options to choose from (some of Julia’s suggestions included: “homemade ice cream, the Meghan Éclair Incident, the Summer of Grilled Pineapple, the Mexican Chocolate Cake”). But these cookies don’t even have a recipe in the blue box, because she had it memorized. These cookies were exclaimed over by visiting friends far and near, by college friends tasting them for the first time, by teen ballerinas and delighted toddlers. When she stopped eating sugar for a whole year, but took her birthday as a cheat day, these cookies were what she ate (all day. It was amazing).
Cream together 1 cup butter, 1 cup brown sugar (packed), 1 cup white sugar. Then add: 2 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla. Mix together separately: 2 cups flour, 1 tsp soda, 1/2 tsp salt. Combine dry ingredients with wet. Then add: 2 cups oats, 3/4 cups flaked coconut, 12 oz chocolate chips. Bake at 350° for 10-11 mins. Argue with Bay siblings over how long to bake for ideal texture.
Alternate dessert if you don’t feel like baking: Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream (“cold brown medicine,” her drug of choice during her pregnancy with Julia, and also after).
Flat water, Sparkling Water, Coke Zero (the real thing, NOT Coke Zero Sugar)
You know this one. Flowers, of course flowers. Tulips preferred.
These are just ideas, of course; do what feels right. Fellow Pamela missers, make today holy.
Books! They are great. I didn’t read as many of them as I hoped to in 2017, but as always I have plenty to say anyway! And as always, this is way past the appropriate time to post about this! La la la!
You’re the Top (5), You’re the Mona Lisa:
(in the order I read them)
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood: So, you’ve probably heard about this one way too much at this point because it got turned into a (very good) prestige TV show. And the book is all of those things you’ve heard: terrifying, relevant, terrifyingly relevant, foundational for many a dystopian world in the last thirty years. But you should also know that the language is beautiful, shiveringly beautiful. Maybe you, like me (and especially like my mother), scoff when something becomes a little too zeitgeist-y. But you guys, this one is really, really great. I read this very quickly in April and I still think about it a lot. Read it.
Swing Time, Zadie Smith: As you may know (although, why would you, unless you talked to me a lot in 2014?), I wrote my Master’s thesis on Zadie Smith. I’ve read a ton of her fiction and nonfiction, I’ve seen her speak live, I’ve read and listened to many interviews, and last year Julia — in a stroke of sisterly genius — bought me this book and got it signed by the author at an event. Thank you, Julia! (And thank you, Zadie Smith, if you ever happen to find this, although why would you? I adore you). So I’m saying I’m not unbiased. But I loved this book. The language is impeccable, the relationships deeply compelling, and the details so incisive and thoughtful they really are breathtaking. Smith is a person who pays acute attention to the world, who takes it apart and shows you the innards with precision and curiosity and also compassion. So good.
Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman (audiobook): Deeply, purely enjoyable. Funny and tender, propulsive and unassuming. For context, Jamie and I ended up listening to 4 different Gaiman novels on audiobook this year — and if you need an audiobook, he’s a pretty safe bet — but we liked this one the best. Hearty character development, vivid world-building, effervescent dialogue, and an excellent narrator. A great stretch of car hours! (If you’re curious, my ranking of all our Gaiman audiobooks: 1 – Anansi Boys, 2 – Coraline, 3 – Neverwhere, 4 – American Gods. All great, except American Gods, which I thought was just okay).
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett: So it’s sort of like with Zadie Smith. Not that I’ve written any papers on Patchett, but I’ve loved her writing since I was sixteen, so I go into reading her books with an already happy and expectant mindset. As I mentioned this time last year, I didn’t love her essay collection quite as much as her fiction, but this novel has me firmly back on the Patchett train. Very few people can write a sentence like she can. As in Bel Canto, here she inhabits a wide spread of characters, but this time spreads them out in different cities and over a sizeable swath of time, though each is part of an extended, blended, dysfunctional, fierce, flawed, achingly realized family. She grants every single one of them that impossible gift: humanity. Gobbled this book, already looking forward to reading it again. (Thank you for the wonderful birthday present, Susan!).
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler: So I got this one in Salt Lake City (thanks, Peggy!) and read it on Maui, so I associate it with our joyfully bipolar holiday season, which I admit is an unfair advantage. But this book is such a great read! I couldn’t stop. I also had the remarkable experience of somehow not reading, or at least not at all processing, the blurb on the back of the book — so I was totally unprepared for the major reveal that comes about one-third of the way in. Audibly gasped in public. If you can, read this book without reading the back! The one downside is that towards the end it tramps a bit too far into Didactic-town, a terrible place for fiction. But it was so inventive and strange and compelling, with a great narrative voice and so many moving passages, I still loved it.
Pretty Pretty Good, in 5 words or less:
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue: Not Room (masterpiece) — still interesting.
The Bees, Laline Paul: Watership Down-ish, but bees.
Carry On, Rainbow Rowell: more fluff, plus Potter sendup.
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline: will be a good movie.
Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance: not life changing; still good.
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang: WISH I HAD HIS BRAIN
The Wanderers, Tim Pears: Young dude walks around Cornwall
You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson: she funny; better as podcaster
I Don’t Get It:
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss: Listen. So many people I know and love — including many family members! — loved this book and its sequel and couldn’t put it down. And yet I barely made it through the first one! The narration to me felt super overwrought and indulgent — like we had to hear every single solitary thing in Kvothe’s mind and body. Kvothe makes a joke. Kvothe walks 5 steps. Kvothe scratches his nose. Convince me why I should stick it out with this goofy dude and I’ll gladly give it another shot.
Most Fiction, It Turns Out: This year I started reviewing books for Publisher’s Weekly (thanks so much for hooking me up, Hannah!). They sent me a handful of books, and I got to write a couple hundred words of summary and analysis. Fun times for this English teacher! (Former. More on that soon, if I can get my act together). I really like the gig. But my main observation is this: by all accounts it is incredibly difficult to get published, but a lot of books that do get published are just lame.
In conclusion: reading good books is the bomb.edu! I hope you get to do it lots.
My parents bought our house in 2002, when I was thirteen, Sara was sixteen, and Julia was five. They offered much more than the asking price, because the house is in Albany, and that’s how things are here. It is small, about 1500 square feet, if you include the little cottage in the backyard. It is the only house our family unit ever lived in for more than two years.
When we bought the house, my mom was working at a big law firm on a big case that lasted, awfully, for the first few years of our time there. But she had a master plan for the house, and she managed to put a lot of it into action; my dad is perfectly happy to maintain that all* the house improvements were her ideas — he served primarily as her willing manual labor.
When they bought the house, she liked the high ceiling in the living room. She liked the hardwood floors. She liked that she had a little yard in the front, and a slightly less little one in the back. She didn’t love the colors of the original tile in the kitchen and the bathroom, but she could live with it. She also didn’t love the scalloped wood trimming in the rooms on the main floor: she called it “muck,” because it gummed up her clean lines.
The first thing she did was bolt the house to the foundation, because California has earthquakes.
The next thing she did was replace the flimsy metal windows with double-paned wooden ones, with divided lights, because she hated the look of metal windows, and the new ones would improve the insulation anyway. She added special blinds to the windows — springy creamy blinds that you can adjust from the top or from the bottom, for maximum flexibility. And to let the light in. She added plastic hooks to wind the blinds cords around, so little kids who came over wouldn’t tangle themselves and their precious necks in the length.
She tackled the cottage quickly; it was to be her teenage daughters’ bedroom, and she gave it a new bathroom — a sink with drawers, a little shower with excellent water pressure, a bright coat of paint.
When we bought the house, the backyard was wood chips and a cement walkway to the cottage. Wood chips would not do. She planted sod. Before it had fully taken root, when the raccoons would lift it up and hunt for grubs, she foiled them, ruthlessly, sticking skewers all over the yard to poke their paws.
To replace the cement walkway she made a little path of flat grey stones, purchased from the improbable but real rock store. The path had a little bit of a curve to it. Once, in high school, a whole slew of my ballet friends stayed over in the cottage because we had a performance in Berkeley. They mostly had bigger and fancier houses than mine. But they cooed over the little pathway to the cottage, and its little wooden beams, and the big window looking into the flowers. I felt so proud.
The flowers — she bought so many flowers, and tended them so devotedly. She gave the backyard a palette or pinks, purples, and blues; “grow!” she said to the rose bush, the delphiniums, the foxgloves, the corncockles with their graceful spindly necks. “Grow!”
Inside the house, down the half-flight of stairs, was the family desktop and the TV, because she hated TVs in living rooms. That room had a purple couch and a red rug — and, for her, this was quite the funky palette. Funky palettes, like TVs, belonged in TV rooms.
When I was fifteen, everyone was gone from the house except for the two of us. She decided that together we would paint Julia’s bedroom as as a surprise while she was away — lavender, her favorite. We painted during the day and at night we watched some DVDs lent to me by a friend. It’s my favorite show, she said, so we gave it a try. It was “Gilmore Girls,” season 1. Painting all day, hours and hours of Lorelei and Rory at night. This week is sort of holy to me now.
A couple years later she enlisted a huge group of friends to help us paint the outside of our house a deeper tan. Then she enlisted a smaller but scrappy group of friends to move a piano she bought (impulsively, since no one played) into our living room. It was heavy. They almost broke their backs. Such is the devotion inspired by Pamela.
Not so long ago she had a skylight cut into the cottage roof — the ceiling has a lot of dark wood, and she wanted some more light in there. It really helps. When Jamie and I moved in some years later, our bed was beneath the skylight. The raccoons scamper over the roof with some frequency; I sometimes imagined looking up directly into their eyes.
*They added a little shed to the backyard, for more storage. This was the only house project my dad claims as his own idea, so I’m noting that here.
A few years ago the living room was repainted. Initially she wanted a muted blue. But she walked in one day, and it was finished, and it was a cheerful, pastel, robin’s egg hue. And she hated it so, so much that it had to be repainted pretty much immediately. It’s now a buttery yellow.
The front yard used to have a big tree. She didn’t love the big tree. She had it cut down, and then she had my dad painstakingly hack at and dig up every root in the little plot. She couldn’t have those roots disrupting her flowers. This time, her palette was brighter: reds and oranges and yellows, punctuated by startling dark purple and black.
My dad keeps up all of the flowers. People walking their dogs stop to admire them, especially when the tulips bloom.
Our house is for sale now. We will miss it so much, because it was ours and it held us and it welcomed our friends and our holidays and our little dog. Because the high ceiling in the living room means every year we have a big freaking Christmas tree. And because every room is hers, hers, hers.
Still I can’t really think about her very much, or for very long.
When someone brings her up, in conversation or at church, with or without preamble, I’m not ever ready for it and I can’t breathe and I do nothing but wait for it to be over. There is a word for this, but it is hard to remember, because usually it is used in a sincere but sanitized way, by people in suits who are talking a lot. It’s reserved for big, terrible events that are big and terrible in a way that makes the language about them tinny and robotic. But I remembered the word at some point in these last two years and felt it with the clarity of a key in a lock: Oh. Unspeakable.
Also, this other word: to steel (oneself). Reminded of it by a book last week, haven’t stopped thinking about it. I steel myself; I make myself steel. I do, I think, a little bit every day. I help take care of things.
But now this is how I live, armored and naked in the unspeakable face of her death. Because I am tough, and because I am weak, I think about the others who are mourning her, and not very much about her.
I’m so afraid of how much I miss her, so afraid of her slipping away.
Mama, don’t leave me.
Tonight I am unsteeled. An incomplete list of grief metaphors:
It’s like a spasm. When I see her handwriting on a recipe. When my mind strays so foolishly to those last few weeks, days, hours. Her name on someone else’s tongue. When I have something important I need to tell someone, who haven’t I told yet, there’s someone important I’ve left out, and then I remember who it is.
It’s like an ache. When my dad doesn’t smile for a week. When I think about my new friends and the way they would laugh with her. When I think about my old friends and how much she wants to know about how they are, what they’re up to. When I see her face on my sisters, on me. When I dream and she is there, but sick. When I dream — rarely, rarely — and she is well.
It’s like a hot jagged bolt when I think of bearing my children without her help.
It’s like a desolate scorched plain when I think about the life we could have had, the people we all could be, if she were here. The valley of the shadow of death. That’s what it’s called, isn’t it?
Sometimes for some reason I get the mail and I hope there’s a letter from her, and that is hell.
I look back on my writing from the last two years and you know, it’s pretty upbeat. I try to end on the redemptive. I wonder if that is something I am naturally given to, or if I have learned it or been trained into it. I suppose it is a good impulse. But what am I supposed to say?
The world is objectively worse without her. We are worse, and worse off. There is nothing good about her being gone.
I know I am lucky that she is my mother. I hope I see her again. In the meantime I will keep trying to be brave and strong. But. And. On this anniversary I am brave and strong enough to be sad.
I love yearly book recommendations, so here, QUITE belatedly, are mine. I don’t really read what’s current, so chances are you’ve already gotten to many of these. But then again, maybe you’re like me and you’re still discovering the joys of reading for yourself again after long years of school?
Super Subjective Favorites
(Alphabetized by author, not in favorite order, necessarily)
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie writes as though it is no work at all; she captures both images and emotions with clarity and languorous grace. And aside from the sentence-level pleasure, this book is full of vivid characters, humor, and real wisdom about Important Themes without lapsing into self-seriousness (win!). Recommended for absolutely everyone.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
This is one of those books I heard about a lot while I was in college and just got around to reading. I’m so glad I finally did! If Adichie’s voice feels totally unmannered, Diaz’s comes careening off the page with so much vibrant personality it feels like an audiobook when it’s not an audiobook, if that makes any sense. This is a pretty much unrelentingly sad story written in a way that can only be described as joyful. Like Americanah, it’s also layered and worthy of serious study but feels totally unpretentious. I loved it so much.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
This is an ongoing mystery series set in contemporary London (all Muggle, no magic) that revolves around the dynamic duo of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellicott. I feel so much affection for those two, I really do —and that to me is Rowling’s true gift. There are very few authors out there who can do character or dialogue like her, you guys. It’s not just a Potter thing, apparently; her people always find their way into my heart.
Bonus tip: get the audiobooks. We listened to all three of these that way, and I HIGHLY recommend the mode for a few reasons: If you’re listening to an audiobook, it may be because you’re on a road trip, and mysteries/thrillers are a great genre for road trips — they keep you awake, tend to be pretty straightforward structurally (which translates well to narration), and they provide many opportunities to pause and discuss theories with your copilot. Plus, all three of these audiobooks were narrated by Robert Glenister. I have no idea who that dude is, but I love him. He has incredible range and warmth.
One More Thing: Stories and More Stories, BJ Novak
I am normally not a short story person. They’ve started to interest me more as a way to think about writing, but from a purely pleasure-reading perspective, I’m always like, “why would I invest in this (frequently overly mannered) thought experiment when you’re just going to dump me in like 10-30 pages?”
What I loved about this collection was that it felt like a completely casual, lighthearted approach to writing fiction — like BJ just sat down and was tooling around and invited us to join him; the stories feel essayistic. Many of them are very, very short, just the teeniest vignettes, but I loved them for that airiness. The book is full of charm and humor, but it can also be thoughtful and sweet in surprising little twisty ways. I sincerely enjoyed it, and not just because I love BJ (though I do, because, as I’ve documented, I love Mindy, and she loves him. Transitive property).
The Prestige, Christopher Priest
This one made my list of favorites partially because of the circumstances of reading it: we took it on our trips to New Zealand and the East coast, which made it extra fun. When I think of this book, I now get to remember reading it aloud while snuggled up in our campervan beside Lake Tekapo, or in our airstream in Charleston. But this book is also an enjoyable blend of historical fiction and shivery mystery, with just enough creepiness to keep you reading, but not too much to turn off a wimp like me.
Bonus tip: We really liked reading the book and then watching the movie to see the different approaches to the material (compare and contrast—the favorite activity of all English teachers, including this one). Full disclosure: I don’t say this often, but I think the movie is actually a little bit better.
The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall
I really loved reading this, but it’s pretty nerdy. Sepinwall’s book is a nonfiction cultural history of when (and which) television shows got really good, and what they do differently than the TV of yore. It was published in 2012, so it’s a bit out of date, I suppose, but the author has great analysis on so many shows that I love: The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friday Night Lights, etc. Sepinwall also includes interesting interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits from the creators and contributors—and I’m a complete sucker for that sort of thing, so.
To sum up: If a big part of the pleasure of watching TV for you comes from dissecting it with your friends and bunkmates, this is a great read.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
The Secret History was published in 1992, so again, this is not a current list, but oh my goodness I loved it so much. I could not put it down—like, I read it while I was walking my dog-level of unputdownability. The novel follows Richard, who relocates from a working-class California town to a liberal arts college in rural Vermont to study ancient Greek — and falls in with a group of eccentric classics students who do some weird sh*t in their spare time. Like murder!
I found the book incredibly tense and QUITE dark, but it is so densely layered and strange and absorbing that I really think it’s worth reading. Tartt hangs her mystery plot over a nonlinear structure, which allows us to watch closely as the class tensions, intellectual fixations, and disturbing dynamics within the group simmer and finally boil over.
My one quibble: The lone central female character in the book is a bit of a cipher. Come on, Donna! Help a sister out!
If you’d like to feel super unaccomplished: join me in learning that Tartt published this masterful book when she was 28. Twenty-eight.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is the absolute coolest. Her books are always this amazing combination of thoroughly researched American history and smarty-pants editorializing, with a bit of personal essay thrown in here and there. At one point in this book, she refers to herself as a “historian-adjacent, narrative nonfiction wiseguy.” It really doesn’t get anymore #goals than that, for me.
Vowell is in fine form in Lafayette —she’s got a great story by following Lafayette’s role in the Revolutionary War; she’s got amazing letters from all the major players in the moment; she riffs on all of it with her characteristic hilarity and genuine patriotism.
This was especially delightful to read in 2016, which as I’ve noted, was the year of Hamilton for us. It was so fun to hear a different author on people and events we already had so many feelings about. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t picture Lafayette as Daveed Diggs the whole time.
I liked these quite a bit and I think you might too!
With Child: Mormon Women on Mothering, ed. Marni Asplund-Campbell
The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
Zombie lit, but literary AF. Now a movie!
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
We listened to this as an audiobook during some of our New Zealand drives, and it works really well that way (see above). We enjoyed it! But this book clearly owes a huge debt to Gone Girl, which is the superior entry in the unreliable narrator/missing person mystery/commentary on unhappy marriage genre.
You and Me, Always, Jill Mansell
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
Hamilton: the Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
A teeny little darkly comic epistolary novel. Especially hilarious if you have ever been part of an English department at a university.
Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, A.O. Scott
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
Very Well Done but do not Have my Heart
Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson
See my complaints about short story collections above. I also felt like Johnson was showing off the whole time—deliberately dwelling on pitch-black, disturbing subject matter to be like, “I’m just that cool and edgy.” It did, however, make me want to read his novel. So I guess his tricks worked, which is annoying.
Mystic River, Dennis Lehane
I enjoyed this while I was reading it — it’s suspenseful and engaging. But I resented it after the fact, because this is the type of book that becomes the basis of the ten million movies set in the Northeast about white dudes with goofy accents shooting at each other that pretend to be interesting because “Ben Affleck.” Guess what, Lehanes and Afflecks? I don’t care.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
You guys, this is an amazing book. Mitchell is clearly a genius. He has such mastery of his language, and uses that language to build worlds within worlds. I was blown away by the technical prowess on display here — but for all that, I didn’t find myself particularly attached to his characters. I’m not sure why. But character investment is a lot of what I personally expect from fiction; and I recognize that’s not an especially sophisticated way to read. Oh well.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
Patchett wrote one my Favorite Books Ever, Bel Canto. She also wrote a book that I consider Extremely Good, State of Wonder. So I was really excited to read this, because it’s an essay collection, one of my favorite genres, from this writer I admire so much. But I read it less than six months ago, and I already can’t really remember the essays very distinctly. It definitely had nice moments, but considering how good she is, I wanted to love it more than I did.
Celebrity Book Category
This weird “reading books by famous people” thing is apparently not just a phase for me, so I guess I’m going to lean in and acknowledge that I really enjoy it. From least to most favorite:
No Land’s Man, Aasif Mandvi
Mandvi was an awesome contributor to The Daily Show for a long time, and I saw him on the street once, so I feel some affection for him. His book is also quite well reviewed. But considering what an interesting background Mandvi has, this book should have been more, well, interesting. I think the problem is that most of his vignettes have exactly the same structure. Change things up, Mandvi!
Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham
I liked this a lot, and I read it in an afternoon, which was fun. Graham isn’t a great writer at the sentence level, but she is smart and thoughtful and comes across as sane and nice. She also conveys a ton of affection for her Gilmore Girls and Parenthood castmates, which I think is pretty classy. If you’re a GG person, you’ll probably like this, and some of her on-set anecdotes will make you want to WEEP.
The book confirmed my affection for her and made me want to read her novel, so I’d call it a success.
Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
I think that in real life, I would rather spend an afternoon hanging out with Lauren Graham than with Anna Kendrick—because Gilmore Girls, but also because Lauren seems more relaxed. But I really liked this book, even a bit more than the other! It’s surprisingly thoughtful and conveys a lot of the anxiety and turmoil of being a movie star without coming across as whiny. She is also genuinely really funny.
One editorial note for Graham and Kendrick, because they’re definitely going to read this: both of these women are clearly invested in the “I’m just a regular person! Isn’t it nuts that I’m famous?” narrative. I like that narrative, it’s appealing, but it’s also not particularly true— sometimes Kendrick in particular leans a little too heavily on the self-deprecation. We get it, ladies, you’re regular people—but no you aren’t, you’re exceptional, and your life is weird, and that’s fine.
One More Thing, BJ Novak
See above. Good job, BJ! (I still like Mindy better, though).