Category Archives: good writing

Year In Reading, 2013

40 43 books read or partially read, not counting the re-reading of comfort food books (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and Pride and Prejudice) but totally counting War & Peace, because I read the shit out of that, except the epilogue, which I skimmed the shit out of, because UGH TOLSTOY I GET IT NAPOLEON HISTORY EUROPE. Other than the epilogue, though, it really was pretty good! That was a pleasant surprise.


Here is the full list, roughly in order:

The Orphan Master’s Son (Johnson) – A

Life After Life (Atkinson) – A

Finishing the Hat (Sondheim) – A

Lonesome Dove (McMurtry) – A-

War and Peace (Tolstoy) – A-

Tenth of December (Saunders) – A-

A Tale for the Time Being (Ozeki) – A-

On Writing (King) – A-

Just Kids (Smith) – B+/A-

[all five of] The Patrick Melrose Novels (St. Aubyn) – B+/A-

Dear Life (Munro) – B+

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Waldman) – B+

Speedboat (Adler) – B+

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Sloan) – B+

Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble (Ephron) – B+

Half the Kingdom (Segal) – B+

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Semple) – B+

The Long Goodbye (Chandler) – B+

Foreign Affairs (Lurie) – B/B+

The Golem and the Jinni (Wecker) – B

Parrot and Olivier in America (Carey) – B

Your Baby and Child (Leach) – B

The Song of Achilles (Miller) – B

The Middlesteins (Attenberg) – B

The Burgess Boys (Strout) – B

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (Wentworth) – B

Double Indemnity (Cain) – B

The Interestings (Wolitzer) – B/B-

The Private Patient (James) – B-

Angry Conversations with God (Isaacs) – B-

Thrones, Dominations (Patton Walsh) – C



When I Was a Child, I Read Books (Robinson) — UF

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky) — UF



The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Greer)

Love, In Theory (Levy)

Telegraph Avenue (Chabon)

Bringing up Bebe (Druckerman) <– If Carrie from SATC had not just gone to France but stayed there, had a baby, and written an inane memoir



Flashes of War (Schultz) — by a friend! Can’t rate it objectively but can kvell.

Baby’s First Mobile Home Goes to VT

At lunch with coworkers today, I asked the waitress for a refill of my Diet Coke. “We don’t really do that,” she said, hesitating, so I assured her, “It’s not for me. It’s for the baby.” She laughed and said, “OK!”

Apparently last night, I was snoring and farting in my sleep, because pregnancy is beautiful. Much more of this, and I wouldn’t blame Mr. Ben for deciding that maybe we’ve been doing too much co-sleeping and we should move from Attachment Relationship-ing to an arrangement that has me in another room in a crib. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This is parenting humor. If you don’t get it, you should reward yourself with another vodka shot and one night stand.] I mean, I’ve never snored before, and “it was so loud in my dream that it was a dog,” he reported. “Then I woke up and found it was you.”

The baby totally owed me for that, so helping me get that Diet Coke was the least Squee could do.

Not to mention, if it hadn’t been for the baby, I wouldn’t have had to throw myself out of paradise after only two weeks.


No, I shouldn’t complain: it was great that I could go at all & take Squee — she’ll never be so easy to transport again; in fact, I am her very first mobile home! I had a fantastic time filled with sunny gem-colored days, waterfalls, mountains, swimming holes, ping pong, pool, karaoke, three meals a day served to me in the company of friends, Adirondack chairs, old barns, even older cemeteries, horror movie showings, books, cable TV, freshly baked bread, and massages that cost $45 for an hour. Communing with animals helped me get in touch with my maternal side!

Getting to know King Kong, by Gala


Pretending to liberate Giraffe, by Aliza Morell

There were a couple of days in the midst of the heatwave when the humid airlessness of my studio, which was utterly unprepared for temperatures over 75 degrees, made it difficult to write. Still, I got to page 60 of my nascent novel. Plus research, plotting, charting, reading & thinking! Yeah accomplishment.

I also felt so social — thanks very little to my own extroversion and more to the set up of the fellowship. A whole slew of residents arrived in unison, a mix of young, old, poets, fiction-writers, visual artists, students, teachers, and guest lecturers, to live and eat and play together on a campus well-integrated into a picturesque little northern Vermont town. Almost immediately, I was lucky enough to fall into a cadre of talented, smart, incredibly good and beautiful girls, with whom a run to the supermarket became as entertaining as a road trip.

And I got to bond with some impressive writers & artists of various ages, including the funny, kind Matthew Guenette, with whom I did work study in the kitchens, an experience that bonds participants together much like service in ‘Nam; high priestess of Tarot, calm, and good-humor Lynne Thompson; knife-making Mountain Man with a heart of gold Nick Anger; pop culture feminist professor-poet extraordinaire Simone Muench; and others.

Far be it from me to exaggerate the quality of the work done by the other VSC residents. Check it out for yourself: the word-art of Brett Lysne, which takes over-thinking to a whole new level; the eerie, beautiful, obsessively-rendered ladies of Katy Horan; the painstakingly precise, whimsical Americana collages of Rachel Grobstein; and oh my god so many, many more.

Untitled by Katy Horan
Art by Rachel Grobstein
The World Doesn’t End!! by Rachel Grobstein

Caitlin Doyle’s creepy masterpiece about adolescence “Thirteen” stuck with me for days. (Apparently it also pleased the editors of Best New Poets 2009.) And I’m still in awe of Nomi Stone, who has managed to publish poetry while amassing Fulbrights, advanced degrees, and experiences living around the world. As I discovered this fall during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, it’s invigorating to be around so much skill & energy.

Leaving was hard, and I would like to go back if at all possible please. Not for me — for the baby.

2010 Between the Covers


* denotes a book I recommend.

– denotes a book I didn’t finish.


Runner up: The Franzen, which I have defended at great length already.


  • Skippy Dies (Murray) – A young boys’ boarding school story that tries to be funny and flops.
  • Remainder (McCarthy) – Intriguing premise; bizarre follow-through. It’s also very hard to care about a main character who barely cares about himself.
  • The Slap (Tsiolkas) – The story seemed so promising! And I’ve read very little about Australia since The Thornbirds in high school. This, however, is a shallow, angry, misanthropic look at suburban life there that is better left untouched.
  • Lit (Karr) – Nowhere near as good as her first memoir, Liar’s Club. As an adult, Karr seemed less sympathetic and more self-absorbed.
  • The Imperfectionists (Rachman) — not because it was bad but because I expected so much and was underwhelmed with the results. Same as with the Wells Tower and Adam Langer.



  • Sacred Hunger
  • Sacred Games
  • Hunger Games

They were all good, too! Maybe there’s some juju there in those words.

You can also tell from this list that I’ve gotten a lot better at putting down sub-par books. Once upon a time, I found that to be much more difficult, and I would read through to the end anything I had started just to be a good girl. Now I’m a total rebel. Take that, patriarchy!

Today’s WTF? moment is brought to you by …

Apparently, in at least one paragraph of one story, I Write Like Leo Tolstoy:

I write like
Leo Tolstoy
I Write Like by M�moires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Also like Stephen King (?) and Daniel Defoe (??). Do these guys write at all like each other?

Subsequent paragraphs produced comparisons to Dan Brown (ew!), Charles Dickens (how?), and finally Kurt Vonnegut (okay, that one kind of makes sense). Do I not write like any women, or are there no women in their “famous author” database? Should I make anything of the fact that I apparently I change styles six times over the course of one piece?

Thanks to Tablet for the befuddlement.

Write from Wrong

I have a bit of history with Gary Shteyngart. First I read Russian Debutante’s Handbook and admired him. Then I read this interview in the Forward and despised him. Various people who have come in contact with him told me various unsavory stories that helped solidify my dislike, and I didn’t read Absurdistan, which might have complicated it.

Now I read this interview with him and feel all conflicted. On one level, I can relate to an uncomfortable amount of what he says. Like this:

Before the book deal, while you were working those five years on the manuscript, did you identify yourself as a writer?

No, no, no! Are you kidding me? I’m always shocked by Americans and their self-confidence. They haven’t published anything, and you ask them what they do and they say: “I’m a writer.” I say, “Oh, who is your publisher?” And they say, “Oh, well…I’ve been working on this book for the past 87 years and it’s brilliant but…” I do have to say that takes a lot of chutzpah and that’s wonderful. It really means that you think of yourself as a writer. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until the book came out.

On the other hand, we diverge here:

What were you spending your money on at the time?

Beer. Wine. Vodka.

Oh, Russians. I got my hair cut by a Russian this weekend. Or, more succinctly, I got bobbed! The Russian in question, Leila, was excellent at what she did, and yet she still managed to rub me the wrong way.

ME: (looking in the mirror) I don’t know. I’d like it to be a little … more exciting?
RUSSIAN: (disapproving) Well, you are the boss. You tell me what to do and I do it. But how do I know what you think is more exciting? Maybe you think mohawk is exciting.
ME: There are a lot of mohawks about these days.
RUSSIAN: Tell me about it.

Eventually she gave me a great haircut. But how much do you have to pay a Russian to do a good job *and* be nice to you? A question for the ages.

Back to Gary, who is either more ballsy, more arrogant, or simply more determined to be a full-time writer than I am:

I always tell my students to find a non-profit job because non-profit means that there is no bottom line! Or some kind of municipal job. You want to work 9-5, so that when the day is over it’s over and the weekends are yours. And the best thing, which I had at a couple of jobs, is when you can lock yourself in your office and write. People would say, “Oh Shteyngart is not a team player, he is always locked in his office, God knows what he is doing in there!” I used to work at this non-profit that dealt with immigrant resettlement and I would help write directions for new Russian immigrants, like how to not get drunk, how to avoid AIDS, stuff like that. That took max a couple of days a month, really. And the rest of the time I would lock myself in my office and work on the draft of my first novel. Half of it was finished by my senior year in college and the other half was finished working that job. It wasn’t the kind of service job where I would come home exhausted. I would come home ready to write or would have accomplished the writing at the office. It was brilliant.

I didn’t work more than two years at any one given place because there’d be lay-offs or people would realize I wasn’t doing anything.

It is twisted, but I kind of admire that. Here I am trying to please my bosses at whatever 9-5 job I am currently working while also trying to ultimately do the author thing. I would never close my door and work on my novel. For shame! Also, until now I’ve never had a door. But perhaps Gary’s willingness to piss off anyone who is ultimately unimportant *means* something. It can be freeing, I imagine, to stop caring about inessentials. Trouble is, the idea that someone could dislike me — especially a boss — has never been something I could shrug off.

I have to admit I’ve never worked more than a year and a half at any given place either. Not entirely by choice, though. Again, like Gary. Hrm.

On Friday, I met Mark Oppenheimer and we talked briefly about Gary Shteyngart. I mentioned the offensive article in the Forward. Turns out it was his piece — he was doing the interviewing. I also met the adorable & fantastic Myla Goldberg, who went to Oberlin like Gary Shteyngart, and the adorable & fantastic Irina Reyn, who went out on dates with Gary Shteyngart back in the day. Holy lord, people, can a world with six billion people in it be so small and yet so full of Russians?

ETA: Jesus Christmas, as the children say: The man is everywhere! Here is another interview with him on Tablet.

Internets FTW

The web is *on* today! Here’s Dana Stevens at Slate reviewing the latest rom-com black cat to cross her path:

The Back-up Plan (CBS Films), with Jennifer Lopez as a would-be single mother surprised by love, is by any reasonable standard a bad movie: predictably scripted, sentimental, with laughs that rarely rise above a gentle sitcom chuckle. But at least it’s not reprehensible, misogynistic, or cynical, and the lead couple isn’t made up of a shrill female narcissist and a proudly slovenly male lug. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend this movie, but if you were tied down and forced to watch it, you wouldn’t necessarily have to chew off your own leg to get away.

Damning with faint praise has become an internet art form.

And here’s the Washington Post on the porn scandal rocking the SEC:

In one instance, a regional office staff account admitted viewing pornography on his office computer and on his SEC-issued laptop while on official government travel. Another staff account received nearly 1,800 access denials for pornography Web sites in a two-week period and had more than 600 images saved on her laptop’s hard drive, the report said.

A senior attorney at SEC headquarters in Washington admitted he sometimes spent as much as eight hours viewing pornography from his office computer, according to the report. The attorney’s computer ran out of space for the downloaded images, so he started storing them on CDs and DVDs that he stored in his office.

I do not envy the cleaning lady in that office. In fact: For the love of god! Will someone please think of the cleaning ladies?

Leaving aside the fact that these folks were fiddling with themselves while Rome burned, I just don’t understand the appeal of porn in an office setting. Isn’t the office the least titillating place on earth? I mean, we’re talking about federal government buildings, not Sterling Cooper.* And did these lawyers signal to each other not to interrupt their marathon sessions of self-love? Did they put socks on doorknobs, or what?

Lastly, the Internets provide us with this self-glorifying thread at Shapely Prose, where Kate-fucking-Harding encourages everyone to brag about why they’re awesome. The comments have been brightening my mood for an hour already like bloggy Windex. Thanks, folks!

*My friend Nomi suggests that offices are unsexy to me because I *don’t* watch porn on my computer, which is a cause-and-effect I had not considered.

On Writing

Jezebel takes on the prickly subject of women & memoirs in their post about Mary Karr, who says of her latest book: “I didn’t [write] it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because I’m greedy and I like living in New York.”

Jezebel wavers before deciding to applaud Karr’s “narcissism” and “burst of arrogance,” but like some of the commenters, I wouldn’t leap to either of those judgements. First of all, it seems to me like Karr is laughing at herself, as she is — I hope? — when she attributes her success to the fact that God loves her. But secondly, if the market values her stories, as it has her previous two books, why *not* sell them? Why is it considered low-class to be straightforward about the fact that writing can be not merely a craft but a trade?

I wish I could make money writing. I am doing my damnedest. Or, well, I haven’t been for the last few months: what with absorbing the blow of my book not getting picked up, and then the much more destabilizing blow of my father’s illness & death, I haven’t had any creative energy at all.

My body is getting up every day and going to work. It is managing to eat and see people and even go to the gym. But my mind, to some degree, has stalled. It can’t comprehend a world in which I can’t call my father, or walk into his room to see him rereading Pickwick Papers yet again, or hear him groan, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth ….”

At least I can still hear his voice. Last week, while cooking, I put on a movie in the background which I immediately heard him condemn as “Dreck!” It is very small solace but occasionally that will do.

Overall, though, my emotional immune system is out of whack, so stupid shit affects me much more than it should. Like the most recent Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin, which last time I managed to greet with the eye-rolling it deserved, and which this time led to a melodramatic crisis of confidence. My mother had to remind me that failure can build character, that there is something to be learned from the fact that you can fall and get up again.

A friend of mine recently voiced her fear that if she lost her current amazing job, she wouldn’t be able to look people in the face. Well, I’ve done it, and then I’ve done it again. As Mary Karr says, quoting Beckett, aspire to “Fail better.”

She also has excellent advice for young writers in general:

[O]ften what we’re most talented at we resist, because we think it’s silly, or small, or not good enough. I teach with George Saunders, a brilliant fiction writer, and he’s so funny. He went to Syracuse when Ray Carver and Toby Wolff were there, and he kept trying to write these gritty, minimalist, realistic stories, and then he’d have some bizarre thing in the middle of it, and Ray and Toby would kill themselves, and tell him, “Just do more of this! Just do this all the time!” And he’d be like, “I want to be a man!”

I will try to keep this in mind. I will also try to blog more, if only because it is a start.


The worst writing I’ve seen in a while comes courtesy of the Washington Post, in an article called (appropriately) Blood on the Mountain:

High on the mountain, the sun has to fight its way down through the thick forest. The light takes on a spectral elegance, as if yellow diamonds are falling to the ground. … But a murderer was in these woods, too. And he brought darkness to the light.

On the cheerier side of things, this interview with Meryl Streep in the Guardian almost made me want to see Mamma Mia!, despite my hatred of all things Abba. (I couldn’t even sit through Muriel’s Wedding, and I have abiding respect for Toni Collette.) The paper, for what it’s worth, seems to agree with me:

Streep plays an older woman called Donna who runs a B&B on a Greek island which has been infected by a terrible plague: nobody can stop singing Abba songs, until some god, in the form of the end credits, intervenes.

For some reason, the reporter seems to think Streep has never done comedy, which ignores how hilarious she was in Adapation and Postcards from the Edge. Maybe the laughs didn’t make it across the Atlantic.

Also, the website Cityfile, for which I had a Secret Internet Part-Time Job last year, has finally launched. I wrote about thirty profiles for them, including ones for such yellow diamonds as Ann Coulter, Lucianne Goldberg, Ken Auletta, the little Foer boy, and lots of others, including agents/editors whose names I’ve forgotten. Browse! It’s fun.