My Reading Year: 2014

photo (16)Tis the season for looking back at the previous 365 days and taking stock. The natural evolution is to use that information to introduce goals, but since I sort of already outlined my reading goals (hey, hey, Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge), this is really just a fun time to look back at my reading year.

In 2014, I joined the team of contributors at Book Riot, a fantastic online magazine about books and book culture. And y’all, my reading life exploded. Necessarily. And though I was nervous going in – I worried that I wasn’t smart enough or well-read enough to hack it at Book Riot, where everyone is SERIOUSLY well-read and smart – I’ve found the most wonderful family of writers there, a marvelously eclectic group who challenge me to read widely and differently.

And most of all, they challenge me to pay attention to what I read. In years past, I was doing good just to read. Immediately after finishing graduate school, I was lucky to read a book a month. In those days, attention to what I was reading was just beyond me. But now, I have a reading life that not only allows me to consider the what, but also begins to necessitate it, as a good reading citizen. I want to pay attention to the breakdown of authors – gender, sexual orientation, race, class – and also the subject matter of my books.

Looking back at the year, I did pretty well on the gender breakdown. Out of 48 books read this year, I actually skewed in a big way towards reading books by women.

Gender Breakdown

I didn’t realize the trend until well into the fall, but I was happy about it. I read what I enjoyed, what I felt drawn towards, and by and large, those were books by women.

I didn’t start out the year with a concrete goal of reading diversely, and that’s something I want to improve upon next year. The basic truth is that books by and about people of color are marketed differently, making it harder to encounter them the way you might encounter books by white authors. This is a problem in publishing, and luckily, the shift is coming, which is good news for readers. This year, out of 48 books, I managed to read 11 by POC.

Racial Breakdown

I had an even more dismal showing of books by LGBT authors, something I also want to do better with.

LGBT Authors

Why pay attention to all of this? Why worry about diversity in reading? Why chart it with tables and spreadsheets (besides the fact that it makes the chart-and-graph-loving part of myself super happy)? Imagine that for your whole life, the only cheese you ate was Kraft Singles. That orange processed cheese product was the only thing you knew of cheese. People talked about Brie and Jarlsberg and goat cheese and gorgonzola, and you could only think of clammy plastic squares of cheese product. That’s lack of diversity in your cheese life.

I don’t want a Kraft Singles reading life. Even when it’s hard, even when I read things that make me uncomfortable or that scare me, that make me miss my wife when she’s gone or that hit into the soft painful spots in my heart without my expecting it – the quirky and the difficult, the romantic and the historical, it all matters, and it’s all important, because I’m hungry for story. And I want so much more than Kraft Singles.

I published a list of my reading goals for 2015, and I’ll be updating monthly with My Reading Month, both to share my progress with the Reading Challenge but also to keep you posted on other books I’m reading. But for now, I want to share My Reading Year:  2014, in full, which you’ll find by following the link.

And until January’s Reading Month, happy reading, and a happy, sparkly, tremendous new year!

 

My Reading Month: December 2014

photo (16)Is there anything better than the stretch of holidays, from Christmas to New Years, for maximizing the opportunity for laziness, for sweatpants, for long, luxurious bouts of reading? I don’t think so. December was a great push towards the end of the year, and I read some surprising books – surprising for reasons I’ll explain – two of which are coming out in 2015 and that I highly recommend keeping a lookout for.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting My Reading Year, linking up to my complete reading list for 2014 as well as some stats about my reading life, my goals, my thoughts as I choose books and maneuver my reading life. But I didn’t want to skip the opportunity to tell you abut December’s books in a bit more detail. So here goes:

Reading at Time of Publication

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

My Reading Month:  December 2014

– The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin:  I finished this book on December 1, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It appealed to my sense of trying to maximize efficiency and order, trying to bring discipline and ease to my life. Though I know Rubin’s situation is different from mine – aren’t all our situations different? – it gave me good stuff to think on as far as resolutions go, the things I want to achieve or at least hold in my head as I go through the world.

- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson:  You guys. Read this book. Please. It won the National Book Award for Children’s Literature, but I wouldn’t call it a children’s book. This is Woodson’s memoir in verse, a lyrical look at her childhood growing up in rural North Carolina and then New York. It may be written in verse, but it reads as a straightforward, though vividly imagistic and lovingly remembered, narrative. There’s no difficulty to this poetry, so people who are new to (or even intimidated by) poetry will find this approachable. And it’s clear the level of care and love that Woodson put into it. I read it, smiled, laughed, and cried. I heartily recommend it.

– The Writer’s Notebook by various authors:  I began this book back in July after I went away to writer camp at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. A collection of essays/lectures on writing from some of their faculty writers, this is a great collection of craft essays.

– Spinster:  A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick:  I worried that this book would amount to “marriage=bad/single=good” but I have to say, Bolick rid me of those fears quite quickly in this book, which was part memoir-part literary criticism. By looking at the history of some of her most influential female authors, and coupling that history with her own memoir, Bolick creates an in-depth, well-researched memoir that investigates spinsterhood, independence, and freedom, and in the end, finds a way to create a universal battle cry for women writers:  find the space of your own, create your work, no matter your relationship status. This book releases on April 21, 2015, and I highly recommend checking it out.

- The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore:  So, the story behind the creation of the comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, is totally nuts. I thought I was settling in for a heavy dose of (somewhat dry) history, but I was wrong. It got sensational, and scandalous, pretty quickly. Jill Lepore has put together a fantastic, in-depth body of research in her history of Wonder Woman and her creator, who was, among other things, a psychologist, a scholar, and one of the early developers of the heart rate lie detector test – not to mention a suffragist and a man who enjoyed the company of several women. I don’t want to give away details, but this book is worth a read, especially for fans of Wonder Woman and/or comics in general.

- 19 Varieties of Gazelle:  Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye:  My friend Tara recommended I try reading Nye, and I’m so glad I did. I kept swooning over her poems, the sadness and the beauty and the hope of poems written after and in response to 9/11.

– How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis:  I want this book to have lunch with Spinster and I want to be there to buy the first round of drinks. Samantha Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish family; both of her parents, and much of her family, had fled Baghdad for London, where Ellis grew up and was expected to marry a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy and settle down. But Samantha Ellis heard the siren call of the writing life, and she heard it primarily through the literary heroines of her youth. Heavy on the memoir, Ellis goes on a literary journey through her childhood heroines, asking whether we need our heroines, what help (or harm) they do, and how to be the heroine of our own lives. This book comes out (in the States) on February 3, 2015. Again, I recommend checking it out.

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

IMG_6363In previous years, my only reading challenge has been to read a certain number of books within a calendar year. They could be fiction, nonfiction, whatever. I set a quota using the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I logged my list, and I worked on meeting my count. I usually hit it, and year by year, my number has gone up, to my current year where I’ve read over forty books. But 2014 was a transformational year in my reading life, which I’ll talk more about when I publish the post on My Reading Year.

This means it’s time to up the ante, I think. It’s time to make things a bit more interesting.

This year, I’ll be doing my own Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge. This is a hybrid of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, Pop Sugar’s Ultimate Reading Challenge, and a few of my own challenge entries as well – both to cater to my own interests as well as to help me stretch a bit. With the help of Book Riot and Pop Sugar, I’ve come up with 26 markers to hit, which means if I average a book a week (which is my supplementary goal), then half my year will be spent meeting the challenge, and half my year will be reading whatever I please.

I’ll be tracking my books here on the blog, checking off my challenge markers and listing the books that got me there as I go along in 2015. I love reading company, so if you feel compelled, follow along with me. My Reading Month posts will detail my progress with the Challenge, and I’d love to hear how your reading year is progressing – and if you have any recommendations for me!

The challenge starts January 1, 2015. And away we go!

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

A book written by someone over age 65
A collection of short stories
A banned book
A book with magic
A classic book that I haven’t gotten around to yet
A book set in high school
A horror book
A book by or about someone LGBTQ
A book with a one-word title
A book by an author of the opposite sex
A book from BuzzFeed’s “22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts of 2014″ list
A book that takes place in Asia
A self-improvement/personal growth book
A book by an author from Africa
A book published before 1900
A YA novel
A comic/graphic novel/graphic memoir
A book about how to succeed in business
A microhistory
A book originally published in a different language
A sci-fi novel
A collection of poetry
A romance novel
An audiobook
A National Book Award/Man Booker Prize/Pulitzer Prize winning book from the previous decade (2000-2009)
A book about religion (any religion)

How Reba McEntire Made Me a Fiction Writer | Book Riot

Most writers have beloved books that made us the writers we are today. They were first teachers, the stories that made us want to write. And I have those, for sure:  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories. But before those books sparked my writing life into existence, my earliest teacher was Reba McEntire.

I grew up with the knowledge that I was adopted, but as a child, the concept was a bit mysterious to me, so one of my favorite games was to pretend that my parents wouldn’t want me anymore, and Reba McEntire would adopt me and have child-sized versions of all her show costumes made (because she absolutely wore those around the house), and we would duet and then ride horses.

My dad used to do a radio show from our living room, and during the day, his microphone and sound system sat untouched. I loaded Reba’s tapes into the deck, and played them loud, and sang into the dead microphone, letting my voice mingle with hers, imagining myself a show queen.

I listened to her albums on cassette endlessly, memorizing her songs. I practiced her trademark growl, her hard R’s, her vowels that rounded out like ice cream being scooped.

But while as a child, I wanted to be Reba, as I grew up, and grew into a writer, I began to notice the effects her music had on my writing and reading lives. My MFA thesis was a collection of short stories, all told from a female point of view. My thesis list was comprised almost entirely of books by women, and my advisor made me add some men to round out the collection.

Reba’s career has been almost entirely dedicated to songs about women, about uniquely female experiences. In an interview (done ages ago) with the Chicago Tribune, she said that she was interested in women’s stories. When speaking about those women, and about her song choices, she said, “There’s a lot of women out there who just want to have that three minutes of rebellion,” a rebellion she illustrates and offers to them in her songs.

I came to understand women through her music. I learned about doubt and fear and infidelity in “Whoever’s in New England.” I felt the shame, the worry and hope and scrappy determination deep in my bones every time I heard “Fancy.” My sister and I sang “Does He Love You” on my karaoke machine, and I learned about the ways women distrust each other, the way the villain can become blurred. In “And Still,” the ultimate missed connection, I learned about expectations and disappointment.

I was in fifth grade when Reba’s cover album, “Starting Over,” came out. The title song, originally recorded by Dolly Parton, told the story of a woman coming to terms with her parents’ divorce. My own parents were divorcing, and though I was still very much an child, that song gave words to my feelings, which were too big for me to articulate.

The list could go on and on. But as much as Reba’s songs provided me an education, her videos did even more. When Vince Gill was asked to record a video with her for their duet “The Heart Won’t Lie,” he did so begrudgingly because he knew it would be “an epic.” And it was – she did a military tie-in. Her songs were merely thematic springboards for her videos, which reimagined plot lines, characters. The story became more dramatic, more nuanced, more emotional when you watched Reba’s, yes, epic music videos.

In 1996, Reba cut her hair. And like Samson, she lost her strength, at least my opinion. Maybe it was just me growing up, growing away for awhile, but Reba and I lost touch. Her songs didn’t resonate for me like they used to. It would be years before I returned to her. And when I came back – as an adult, as a writer, I found that old artistry, that verve and storytelling. I found my old teacher.

In those early years, when I had my eyes closed and I was singing into a powered down microphone in my living room, I was learning to be a reader and a writer of women’s stories. I was learning to play with theme and plot. I was learning to create big characters, to take chances, to give voices to women who society might look down on. Reba introduced me to a broad spectrum of emotion. And the same way that, when I was a teenager and I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn every year, I understood some new aspect of the emotional journey – so it was with Reba’s songs. I understood some deeper level of the emotion, the story, the women. Year by year, song by song, Reba made me the writer I am today.

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This post originally appeared on Book Riot

On Forgetting

I’ve been having trouble blogging. It’s no mystery that my blog posts have been infrequent (that may be a generous way of putting it) over the past several months. My food life has been decidedly less exciting – not quite sexy enough to put on a food blog, or at least a food blog as I have always understood it. My reading life keeps me absorbed, and I’m deep in the world of my novel, pounding out pages.

And yet, I miss this blog. I feel similar to George Bailey on It’s a Wonderful Life, wishing merry Christmas to all the places that had grown so fuzzy and beige to him – the movie house. The emporium. “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Whisks & Words.

And yet. Every time I’ve sat down to blog, I’ve felt stalled out and incapable of writing. It’s one thing to draft my novel, where I’m the only one who sees it. But to add my voice to the world right now feels canned and odd and naive. The news is so bad. Every day, in some new way, the news is bad. How can I talk about books and cookies when death and destruction abound? When it’s right there, waiting for me. What can I possibly say?

I talked about this with a friend at coffee this morning when she expressed the same sadness, the same frustration. A sense of helplessness coupled with a sense of loss and grief, and add to all of that, the need to go on. For her, to be merry and bright for her children, who are innocents. For me, to do the work, my work. There must be ways to move on.

Writing content for the Internet is weird in this way; in so many respects, a blog is like an online journal, where we can keep things simple. But then, there’s this pressure to be somebody, to brand yourself and to say something – something worthwhile, to say something that Matters, and I’m not sure I can. Maybe cookies is all I have. Maybe this simple blog is where I can take my shelter and comfort. Maybe it’s where I can share cookies with everyone else who may be feeling as stilted and saddened as I am.

I’ve posted before about Forgotten Cookies, and I made them again the other night, at Amanda’s request. They’ve become one of her favorite holiday treats, and what can I say? Happy wife, happy life.

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The “magic” of Forgotten Cookies is that, after dinner, you do the work. You take a chilled bowl and chilled beaters, and you whip two egg whites with sugar and a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form and the batter becomes glossy. Fold in almond extract, vanilla extract, chopped pecans, and semisweet chocolate chips. Spoon them onto a foil-lined sheet and put that sheet in a 350° oven, and then turn the oven OFF, and “forget” about them for the night.

I did this on Monday night, after I spent the morning writing my butt off, after I spent the afternoon prepping vegetables for the week ahead. I stood over the sink, licking the batter off the whisk, selfishly taking every marshmallowy bit. And in the morning, while I manned the toaster oven for toast, and Amanda manned the coffee maker for coffee, she asked, “Are you going to check the cookies?”

This is code for “take the cookies out of the oven so I can eat them.”

They were delicious – it’s an old recipe that I can rely on, one handed down to me from my mother, written in her handwriting in my family recipe book.

I was thinking, though, of that idea of “forgetting” the cookies. Because, of course, they’re all but forgotten. They’re in the oven, working on becoming finished cookies, even though I’m not watching them, and the oven is off, and the dishes are cleaned, and in fact, I’ll slumber through much of the process. And it occurred to me how very much this process is like writing.

I’m in what we’ll call the third draft of my book. I’ve been working a little over two years on this beast, and I marvel at how many times I’ve had to take breaks – to get married, to move cross-country, to travel, to deal with holidays. To welcome my honey home from mini-deployments. And every time, I panic. I’ll forget how to write, I’ll lose my steam, I’ll get fuzzy on my goals, I’ll fail fail fail.

But the thing is, I don’t. I remember how to write. I get the steam again. Somehow, while I’m away from my work, out in the world, talking and living and traveling and generally being human, the work continues. The book is in my brain, working on becoming a finished novel, even though I’m not watching it, and my computer is stashed away, and my mind is on other things.

It’s the same with this blog. I “forget” how much I need it, how much it can be a sanctuary from the storm, rather than a big screen on which to relive it. And in that way, maybe the cookies and the books and the cats and the writing have a place after all.

My Reading Month: November 2014

Lo and behold, I turned around, and it was December. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, those who celebrated, and just an all around wonderful weekend to everyone, in the States or not. This is such a fun time of year because the “best books of the year” posts are starting to crop up, and in December, it finally makes sense to see them. They’re like Christmas decorations:  there is such a thing as too early.

The “best of” lists are great for helping beef up that “to be read” list, and during this, the time of gifting and shopping, having a solid TBR list in your back pocket is a good idea. As of yesterday, The Millions started their Year in Reading (starting off with Anthony Doerr). My very own family of Rioters over at Book Riot has released its list of Best Books of 2014 (including my pick for my favorite book of 2014). And here at Whisks & Words, I can tell you what I read in November.

At Time of Publication

Currently reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I cannot WAIT to talk more about this book in January, after I’ve finished it. (I may not even be able to wait that long. There’s a lot of underlining happening here. A lot.)

Books

  • On Immunity:  An Inoculation by Eula Biss:  This book dives into the world of immunity, taking up the question of why we immunize, how it started, and why (and how) it has come under question. It was funny to be reading this at the time that I was getting my flu shot. But the great thing about Ms. Biss’s writing is that she presents information and anecdotal moments that could very well stir us up into total freak-out, but at the right moment, she pulls back and takes a cool-headed approach. Her style goes back and forth between hard data, carefully researched, and her own experiences as a new mother. Also, and this was probably my favorite aspect of this book, she ties in the novel Dracula in a way that is brilliant – the ways that our imagining of Dracula has informed our ideas of immunization is just amazing. I want to read the book again just for that logical maneuver.
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler. You guys! The Amy Poehler memoir! I’ve been waiting for this little treasure for months, and when it got here, I was like, okay, Eula Biss, enough with immunizations. AMY POEHLER IS HERE. And the book was a delight to read. She takes an honest and open approach to matters like love, work, writing, divorce, and motherhood. She treats her subjects with care and humor. The book itself is beautifully done, and I felt inspired the whole time I was reading it.
  • French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon. Amanda and I got married in a French restaurant. There’s a reason for that. We <3 French food. And I’m always intrigued by other cultures and their approaches to food. The French have a very regimented approach but they also wrap so much into food:  in timing meals, in eating as a family, etc., you are also crafting character. There were several aspects of this book that spoke to me, as an adult, and the ways that I approach food. I think this book leaves some major questions unanswered (she notes, for example, the difference between the way American mothers and French mothers approach nursing, but does not go further into that – but then, her daughters were both well past nursing, so perhaps it was a moot point in the space of her book), but alas, it cannot be an ultimate guide to everything.
  • Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross. I read this book for a post I recently did at Book Riot on etiquette books (and how they just might be the ticket to getting through awkward holiday gatherings), and this was a delightful little read. More novelty book than anything else, I was happy to find that it did illuminate some of the trickier social moments in some of Austen’s novels, which will come in handy the next time I re-watch Pride & Prejudice.  

Read anything good this month?

Foodish and Bookish Pilgrimages

It’s funny – some vacations start as something simple. Amanda and I hadn’t been on an honest to goodness vacation – one completely unrelated to either of our jobs – in years. In an effort to check some items off our California Bucket List, we planned a whirlwind trip to Yosemite, Napa Valley, and San Francisco. There’s lots to do in all those places. But for me, there were a couple things I needed to see:  I needed to go to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and I needed to go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley

There are times when, as a writer, I feel like I have missed a movement:  because of my age and the time I was born, a movement has passed me by. I’ve grown up in a time of processed foods and food industry scandals and shockumentaries and all these diet choices and it becomes SO much. The New Yorker ran a piece last month called “A Foodie Repents”. I had a lot of feelings about the post, but ultimately, for me, the post is about that feeling that, to borrow from Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us” when it comes to food. Reality shows and food blogs and Pinterest and apps and product placement and so, so, so many recipes:  it can become a bit daunting. It is part of the reason I’ve had blogger’s block. What can I possibly add to the conversation? What can I say that’s not already being said by hundreds of other people? What is the point in trying to chase after a movement that feels like it has passed me by?

Yosemite

Yosemite

But, to return to this nice little vacation with my wife, there’s something grounding about traveling. About escape. But mostly about putting your feet on the ground in places rooted in the movement(s) you’re passionate about. Which brings me to Chez Panisse. Alice Waters is, for those who don’t know, the chief reason we have a local food movement. She’s written widely about the importance of local, whole foods that taste exactly like what they are. I obeyed the instructions to leave our phones off the tables and just enjoy the meal. It was simple food, well-prepared. Nothing fussy or fancy. On the bar was a pear tart that was being doled out, slice by slice, to order. There was rustic artisan bread. I thought for a moment that I saw Alice Waters and freaked out a little (it wasn’t her, I decided). My fried chicken came with a sweet puree of root vegetables and perfect collard greens and this meal was so lovely, so nourishing, I had no choice but to go back to my hotel and nap.

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When I woke up, Amanda suggested we drive into San Francisco and walk around a bit. I was in a food hangover, wrapped in fatigue like a warm, heavy blanket, but I walked with her, making our way to Ghirardelli Square, and I was glad I hadn’t fought her on it:  seeing it all lit up at night is very different from during the day. We stopped for a simple salad and all the sourdough we could eat.

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And the next day, on our real trip into San Francisco, the pilgrimages (what I call these trips that not only offer escapism but also restoration) continued. We started at the Ferry Building, where we had waffles and coffee. The best waffles, with chew and density (secret ingredient:  cornmeal) and just a sprinkling of sugar, ones you held in your hand and dipped in your coffee. The farmers market was going on, and we walked among the stalls, and listened to musicians, and watched people eat. I was homesick for my kitchen, for my markets. But before the day was over, we had to walk pretty much the entirety of San Francisco (slight exaggeration, but my feet felt like it was the whole city) and make our way to City Lights Bookstore.

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This blog splits its focus between food and writing, and so I must mention City Lights because it is part of that feeling of trying to hang on to a movement. The Beats are pretty much from a bygone era, but independent bookstores, small affairs with funky floors and close wooden shelves and an entire second floor for poetry just show that this is one movement that (contrary to what “publishing is dead” folks will tell you) is very much alive. I wore my Little Women shirt for the occasion and happily waited for my picture to be taken in front of those windows.

I took no pictures of my food, and I focused on time with my wife, and I soaked up the experience of vast Mother Nature and delicious wine and all that San Francisco had to offer. And it restored me a bit to myself. I still feel, perhaps, that the world is too much with us, that I’ve missed things and I can’t catch up. But at the end of the day, I want what these pilgrimages celebrate:  to write well; to celebrate and cook and eat simple, whole foods, well-prepared, and lovingly served; to shut out the noise and enjoy my work and my books and my food and this community, which I have missed.