a year in reading

true, i no longer have a bookstore. but—there’s nothing to say i can’t write a 2017 roundup anyway! here are some books & one-offs i have loved this year

each book is linked to indiebound to purchase in yr city
no indies near you? many of them ship!
or there’s always yr local library ❤

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BOOKS

hunger makes me a modern girl by carrie brownstein
riverhead, 2015

straight up: celebrity memoirs fascinate me. always have. i remember many trips to my hometown library where i would march straight to the back & spread out michael jackson books on the floor. i checked out moonwalk & this odd MJ poetry / scraps collection called dancing the dream multiple times. you can’t make this up: i even bought a hardcover copy of clay aiken’s memoir learning to sing

back then, i imagined reading someone’s memoir was like getting VIP access to their personal diary. ridiculous, right? but i liked the idea of it—this illusion that someone i loved would want me to understand, trusted me with ~the truth~

now, i read celebrity memoirs & am more intrigued by what an icon might say knowing the fact that i can even separate them from any other stranger is because of pure artifice, an environment constructed. i know this. they know this. so what do they choose? it’s flipped from truth to dare

that’s not to say that there aren’t good celebrity memoirs, ones that could be categorized in the more general genre. then again by diane keaton, for example, stands out. sure, there’s some diary entries about working with abuser woody allen, letters from lovers throughout the years. mostly, though, it’s about her strained relationship with her mother, which she depicts in commentary from the present, old letters, & her mother’s journal entries. it’s the first memoir i read, celebrity or otherwise, where i felt like there were two voices with equal strength. it’s very to easy to say my mother was like this, my mother would say this—but what about when her words are right there? we meet her mother when she is a housewife & see her to her death from alzheimers. we see diane in her youth trying to understand her family’s dynamics grow into a mother who adopts children of her own. it’s amazing

i don’t know exactly what drew me to hunger makes me a modern girl, or what made me keep that book over many other books i left when i was forced to move twice in two years. the intense, gorgeous cover? the hope that the title could be a mantra rather than a curse? i started reading it in my new post-hurricane apartment when i didn’t know what else to read. it came with me on the trip to & from my best friend’s wedding

let’s say this: i was not prepared. i cried in the tub; i cried in my bed; i cried on planes. unlike the conspiracy theories concocted by little teenage me, carrie here was showing me who i am; she was seeing me

of the many threads in this beautiful book, the one that has stayed with me the most is another woman describing what it feels like to be living with anxiety, before discovering & accepting that anxiety is what it is. for years, i had arguments with friends, family, lovers, teachers, colleagues about parties, certain situations that have to do with driving, bars, theme parks, quizzes. i was told i’m overreacting, to ‘calm down’

when hunger begins, carrie leaves us with this: that she is destroying her one love, home, & family: her band sleater-kinney. not because she wants to but because sometimes the pain wins. in other words, it was her fault. even if she was maybe the one that needed it most

since finishing the book, i’ve been going through sleater-kinney’s discography. it’s feral, but aren’t we all?

the year of magical thinking by joan didion
knopf, 2005

the first time i read this book was during the summer of 2013, before i had any fucking idea what it feels like to grieve anything, & the experience of reading it was sorta like looking at drawings of medieval torture devices: curious but something i would never have to encounter

these days, the current political climate notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine NOT being in a stage of grief at any given moment. i picked up magical thinking again when i felt like i had overextended the generosity of my friends & my journal

for those who don’t know, magical thinking is the book joan didion wrote after her husband died from a heart attack at their dinner table. they were married for almost four decades & had never spent more than two weeks apart. in fact, they were almost always together, both writing from home or traveling with each other when one needed to complete a location-based project. when joan’s husband died, their daughter was in the hospital with her own illness. she was alone; it was the holidays

i wanted to find the longer passage where she describes the vortex, how an ordinary thing that no one else notices can trigger a sudden jump in time in your brain where you’re not even there anymore but somewhere else & that somewhere else is so lovely & inaccessible that it shuts you down completely. how it feels to disappear & when you reappear to realize the people in your company are staring, that they have been for a while. that you, this time, are the crazy one. she writes about how doctors have studied this, how it happens to everyone that is grieving something. mourning. all that

it didn’t make me feel better in terms of feelings but it reassured my brain that i am not the only freak

from my quote journal, here are these:

All that and I had not even driven down there.
All I had done was catch sight of a commercial on television while I was dressing to go to the hospital.

I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them, but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. “Don’t tell me your dream,” he would say when I woke in the morning, but in the end he would listen.
When he died I stopped having dreams.

I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.

all of it singing by linda gregg
graywolf, 2008

it’s a bonus that linda gregg came to my alma mater when i was there & that my other best friend introduced her the night of her reading. my best friend was nervous about the reading, but i was nervous about the dinner. about the part when linda would ask what i’m writing & i wouldn’t have anything good to say. we didn’t have anything to be nervous about, though, because linda came to the dinner in her honor an hour late. she told us all about it: on the way to the restaurant, she saw a homeless man collapse in the street & made our professor pull over until medical help arrived. over bougie food beyond our means, she told us about how wind turbines do more harm than good, due to bird murder. which is to say she is a poet through & through

at the reading, she thanked my friend by name & wrote a kind note in her book. in my book, she wrote my name & drew me flowers

even if that never happened, all of it singing would still be a book that calls me back again & again. before moving to houston, i got the mailing addresses of women i had been close to over the years & wrote them each a poem i had chosen for them from the book. regardless of how long it had been since we’d spoken, regardless if they read poetry. one friend liked the poem i sent her so much that she used it as inspiration for a tattoo that she got across her entire torso

this is not that poem but part of one that stood out to me this time:

I wanted it to be made of actual things. Dirt
and corpses even. As real as the table you
said your love was that I could sit down to
and eat from if I wanted anything permanent.
I wanted absoluteness to be made of my heart.

misadventure by nicholas grider
a strange object, 2014

this is the second book that a strange object put out before they died for a couple years then came back to life last year. i remember it as the most brutal & unsettling book i’d read, at that point. but, i’ve read many more short story collections & debuts since then—& the brain-melting fever dream by samanta schweblin, translated by megan mcdowell. (seriously, i’ve never felt so stupid or terrified reading a book than that one. it’s a marvel.)

another book that i’m not sure why it’s lingered on my shelf but i gave it another read & WOOF. it took me two months to finish even though it’s just over a hundred pages because the first section made me want to bury my head in the earth so deep that it dug into the ocean

is that the effect it’s supposed to have? i don’t know. there’s stories about being in love when you’re not out, having an attraction that you don’t realize is sexual, being so bored & exhausted by marriage that you’d never do it again. two stories, “formers (an index)” & “liars”, are just lists. the title story is a police report

over & over, the characters in these stories seem to be screaming that they don’t know what they’re looking at, they don’t know what they’re seeing, & i still can’t determine whether the claustrophobia is theirs or mine

my favorite story is “cowboys,” the last one & the longest in the book. over twenty-five pages, nicholas introduces us to lifelong friends chris & dale. chris & dale have a secret, a game they’ve spent their lives perfecting. in a way, it’s simple: one ties the other in a knot & waits for him to escape; then they switch roles. it’s not gay, they assure each other. but there are rules, the cardinal one being that no one else is allowed to know about the game, or become another player. of course, this rule gets broken as the boys choose colleges across the country (one in new york, one in california)

mistakes aside, the game continues into their forties, even when they both have wives & children. reunited in milwaukee, they take turns paying for a hotel room once a month, telling the women that they are gambling at a local casino. they both have the money; it’s not a big committment. but is it?

the knots themselves delineate sections of the story (i.e. 1. The Basic. Hogtie, face down, wrists tied behind back, ankles tied, wrists tied to ankles). each knot is ranked by how long it will take the partner to escape. there should be no more than fifty feet of rope used. optional furniture can be a chair or the bed—better if the bed is larger, making reaching the knots more difficult. the gag is a bandanna & sock. another important rule: the man who did the tie was to stay with the man that was bound for safety reasons, or in the situation where they would need to hide the evidence

one night, dale leaves chris in their hotel room, knowing the hotel staff will find him the next morning when he has neglected his checkout

what keeps us together?, misadventure seems to ask. it takes the standard answers & explains why they are wrong

in full velvet by jenny johnson
sarabande, 2017

unlike features, it’s rare for me to communicate with writers when i write reviews. & that’s ok—i love publicists. especially when kristen radtke & ariel lewiton were the princess warriors of the new york sarabande office (now no longer). if ariel asked me to do something, i did it

jenny johnson contacted me after reading my review for ploughshares. it was the only time a writer i didn’t already know had done that & i was honored to tell her that it was the best collection i’d read in ten years. since some ether, since all of it singing, since any book of poems that made me weep ugly whale tears

yes, there’s a lot about deer & taxidermy, nature in general (lots of light here). but most of it is about queer love, from using fake names in shame to The small-town heat makes everything stick / our skin pressing into one another, // the hair soft and light above your tailbone— / I won’t forget how you directed me there

i mean, i love this book. i love it because it’s not my story & i know it will comfort & validate readers who can identify with it, that it has already. i love it because this is one of the great joys of reading, meeting people that are different than me & letting them shine

shine on, jenny—shine on

lit by mary karr
harper, 2009

if reading hunger makes me a modern girl this fall was shooting for forgiveness, i read lit this summer when i thought all i could deserve was punishment, since i had heaps of it around me anyway. let’s read about mary karr & her flailing failed attempts before she finally got sober. let’s read about mary karr & her divorce. let’s read about learning to pray

today, there are probably MFA students that when you say her name are like ‘yeah yeah yeah, marry freaking karr, what else do you have?’ but i read lit for the first time back in probably 2012. then & now, passages like this make me smile til my cheeks hurt:

Out of the blue, I say, I’m from the state of Texas.
What’s that supposed to mean?
I know my son is gonna survive these ass-whoopings no matter how many of them there are. But when it’s five against one and there’s not a grown-up to intervene, I’m gonna instruct Dev to pick up a rock or a stick and leave a mark on somebody. Let’s hope it’s not your kid.
My uncle’s a lawyer, she says.
My daddy’s Pete Karr, I say, and hang up.

mary herself would be the first to tell you that her books are not a blueprint for how you should live your life. but she’s far from the worst person, too

a few years ago, mary came to read in houston & i had the opportunity to chat with her on the phone in anticipation of the event, help out with the book signing. i was nervous, even though by then i had been working big book events for years. i didn’t want her to think i was too shy, too chipper. i didn’t want her to think my writing was stupid

but she seemed to trust me, as much as you can trust a stranger. she said she read our interview on the flight over, thanked me for writing things that were accurate. she told me about a recent piece in a larger mainstream publication that attributed her saying things she never said, things she would never say

in case i thought it ever gets easier! she spent the entire book signing giving writing advice to philip gourevitch on speaker phone. you know. a guy that’s only been writing for the new yorker almost as long as i’ve been alive

her hair kept falling out of her bun & she was wearing a blouse that was low cut enough to make me blush. stilettos tall enough to definitely maim someone. when reverend callaham appeared, she asked if we could pray for a friend’s three-year-old son who was being flown to the hospital as we spoke. we stood, held hands, & prayed. after, she did the sign of the cross

it doesn’t always work like this but my hope is that if she can dig herself out of where she was that i can at least break even

one day we’ll all be dead & none of this will matter by scaachi koul
picador, 2017

i have this relationship with buzzfeed where i don’t read any of their articles but follow a significant amount of their teams on twitter? i love scaachi, don’t even know how long i’ve followed her or how she came up on my timeline. (perhaps my beautiful canadian friend diana?) i follow saeed jones & isaac fitzgerald; i watch their new morning twitter broadcast #AM2DM. karolina waclawiak, just because of how many of her writers praise her as an editor. but scaachi is my hero, with her screaming & strong (unpopular) opinions & posts about her cat sylvia plath where she narrates her thoughts. she extra, before extra was extra

i pitched a review for O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M. to the rumpus & former reviews editor brian hurley said it was taken but directed me to the interview department. from there, i played email tag with the editor & scaachi & picador for months & it became my first full-length feature on the rumpus site. the process was both the first time i felt like i had an editor that believed in me (thank you, brian) & the first time in a long time that i had a book i wanted to be everywhere. not that picador needs the help; i wanted people to help scaachi

not that scaachi really needs the help either. if she wants your attention, she’s gonna get it

lost & found cat by doug kuntz & amy shrodes
crown books for young readers, 2017

after last year’s presidential election, the good people came out in masses to order children’s books about activism. a is for activist by innosanto nagara in particular was sold out at our warehouse for weeks

i found lost & found cat during a normal day of opening boxes & receiving inventory. i read it cover to cover, passed it around the back room. three of us read it; two of us cried (or at least teared up). the next time i saw our children’s specialist, i thanked her & asked her if we could order more because it was something i would definitely hand-sell

here’s the story: an iraqui family is forced to emigrate to greece & they include kunkush the family cat (because family is family). to keep him safe, kunkush’s family holds him in a basket as the waves jostle the boat. on land, kunkush escapes, scared by the barrage of unfamiliar sounds & smells. his family tries to search for him but cannot stay long

as his family continues their journey, kunkush faces more battles when he encounters unfamiliar cats & is unsure how to navigate this new outdoor environment. he is dirty, hungry, cold, & sad. a few days later, aid workers rescue him, clean him, & move him to berlin, where he is placed with a foster family. meanwhile, volunteers take to the internet with community posts & crossed fingers, hoping to reunite this kitty with his humans

through facebook, kunkush’s family contacts the team & has a skype date to confirm that it is him. inspired by the story, photojournalist doug kuntz flies from berlin to norway with kunkush himself

& well. i’m sure you can guess how it ends—lots of hugging, lots of crying. BUT! the most endearing thing about the picture book is that it includes REAL PHOTOS from the REAL REUNION, photos of sweet baby kunkush. co-author amy schrodes is the volunteer who took him in before he was moved to berlin. co-author doug kuntz is the one that came through with the assist! NOT TO MENTION sue cornelison’s adorable illustrations that highlight both the plight & triumph of kunkush the refugee cat

WHAT IS NOT TO LIKE. CATS. FAMILY. HOME. presentation of current political crisis in a way that even children can understand. i hope this is a story that was read to children throughout the year but santa, if you’re listening…

whereas by layli long soldier
graywolf, 2017

when whereas was passed to me the first time, i was hesitant to read it because i didn’t think any comment i could make would help it out at all. flipping through, it’s clearly written by a brilliant mind, an expert in topics that i can’t even begin to approach. i also didn’t want any fumbling rambles i made to negate someone else’s experience

however, casey o’neil, sales & marketing manager & graywolf’s main bookslinger at the bookstore level, asked me if i might be able to write a blurb for indie next & i tried my best. & it’s still there!

When pain is obvious but goes unrecognized, it feels like trying to strain salt from sugar. With the poems in Whereas, Layli Long Soldier engages with where she’s ‘from’ through history and memory, analysis and reflection. Her mission? To stay angry—to declare, ‘I’m here I’m not / numb to a single dot.’ From rants and dreams and one lexical box to a pantomime of legalese, Long Soldier is agile, aware, and not asking for pity. She aims, instead, for action—’whereas speaking, itself, is defiance.’

i used her words, as much as i could. but basically, if you’re looking for some real talk about what’s going down with native peoples, why, like slavery, it’s not something that is “over,” read this book

tell me how it ends by valeria luiselli
coffee house press, 2017

i’ll say it outright: coffee house press is my favorite indie press, ever. not because i’m friends with them (although that’s wonderful—hi mandy, hi caroline) or they’re hip right now or blah blah. it’s because they published this book, & that it is singular, like everything valeria touches. it’s because for the 2017 CHP BBQ, all proceeds from the fantabulous baked goods went to the young center, a chicago non-profit in line with valeria’s call to action. because THEY PAY THEIR INTERNS

i wrote about this book for ploughshares. i have a blurb in it. i have shouted about it all the ways i know how to shout. i donated money to the young center because i didn’t want being a thousand miles away from the cookies to stop me

there’s so much panic in the world right now, in the micro & the macro. this book reminds me to pay attention & that there’s still work we can do. as civilians, in conversations, with our time

keep yr head up

stomachs by luna miguel (translation: luis silva)
scrambler books, 2016

i don’t know what the ratio is for other writers who have contact forms on their websites (or those bold folks that list their e-mail addresses in their twitter bios) but the messages i receive through mine are mostly spam. like ‘Dear Writer’ e-mails sent because i have a contact form

jeremy from scrambler books was an exception. throughout our e-mail correspondence, it was clear he knew who i was, how i write, & what books i gravitate towards. this is how stomachs came to me

even though i received it at the end of february, it was april before i got to read it & july before my review was placed. part of it was life stuff but just as true is that this book wrecked me. so much of the poetry i read (& love!) is written by men & women that have got some years on me. but luna & i were born the same year, so when she says, ‘I want to lose weight crying,’ i really fucking feel it

daddy issues by alex mcelroy
the cupboard, 2017

this one is a chapbook! can’t say it’s my expertise—the only other fiction chapbook i’ve read is the mystical juned by jenn marie nunes (yesyesbooks, 2016). but since meeting him at lily hoang’s reading (here’s me foaming at the mouth about her), alex has been a source of strength, poetry, news, cat photos…i met him before i met his work, which i think is my preferred way

when the new england review published his essay “endure”, i met alex on paper. i read it twice, sent it to friends, read it again, put up tweets. short as it is, this essay was something i had needed to read for years, & was glad alex was the one to write it. the fear & doubt, the trust so deep it turns to terror

with daddy issues, i was curious to see how alex works with fiction but its effect on me was the same. like returning to reading before reading became a large part of my job, where i was trained how to more or less eat books (a blurb here, a review there, an interview here, an upcoming feature, a book list)

alex must know what it looks like when a lanky white grad student like himself releases a book called daddy issues. must know that people expect old men whining about baseball, sleezebags leaving their wives for someone younger & bustier, beatings that are “designed” to “build character,” abortions & miscarriages. those things aren’t there, at least in these daddy issues

here, a child barters with a classmate so he can take his zombie grandpa home for a school project until something goes wrong & the child’s brother murders the already-dead grandfather, whacking the cadaver ’til there’s nothing left. a mother literally shoves her hands down her son’s throat—digging, clutching, searching. one man tells another man that his wife is made of ten thousand birds, which the husband refuses to believe until he goes home & she seems to evaporate

in short, alex writes. not to impress, avenge, atone—he turns things over until they become something new. he writes what he has to say then leaves the rest

the possibility of fireflies by dominique paul
simon & schuster, 2007

out of print, this one—or so it seems? which is all the more reason to write about it here

1987: ellie is fourteen & everything sucks. her sister gwen is hanging out with weird angry people who listen to weird angry music, throw parties, & get in trouble. her mom is getting worse—more days where she refuses to get out of bed, more yelling, more nights where ellie goes to bed hungry

some days, ellie comes home from school & the door is locked because no one else is home. she sits on the front stoop & watches the fireflies, thinks about other places she could be & how to get there. she thinks about her dad, & how he doesn’t even call anymore

things at school haven’t been super great, either, because it’s clear that ellie & her best friend celia are as opposite as they could be. celia’s family has dinner together every night at the same time. celia’s mom greets celia’s dad with cocktails; celia’s mom cooks dinner every night (complete with dessert!); celia’s mom drives them to the mall. celia cares about make-up & boys & the camp she goes to every summer for the entire summer

celia is a normal girl with a normal life, & can’t relate to this stuff. no one can relate to this stuff. then leo moves across the street & everything changes

BUT NOT HOW YOU WOULD THINK? or maybe you would. but when i read this for the first time as a teenager, it rocked my world, & gave me five new layers of skin. because little 14yo ellie does NOT hook up with 21yo leo—neighbor, babe, frontman of a rockband. IT’S NOT ABOUT THAT! it’s a different type of love where they teach each other things. it’s about ellie & how she learns to say no. & that she leaves, but not the way her sister did—running off with fake friends, the trouble only beginning. ellie calls her dad, takes the bus to his new house that she has never seen, & the first thing he says to her after all those years is welcome home

like. this book is my anthem

imagine wanting only this by kristen radtke
pantheon, 2017

i’ve already foamed at the mouth about k-rad some here but i wanted to include her graphic novel here for two reasons:

1) knowing of someone ≠ knowing someone & it’s a beautiful thing to be reminded of that, learn more about the layers that were unknown to you before

2) similar: it’s so freaking hard as a public figure to create a NEW IDENTITY after you’ve been doing another thing for so long & i want to help highlight kristen’s post-sarabande life

after much delay, i read imagine wanting only this in one sitting. trapped in my apartment from hurricane harvey, a story about a fellow midwest girl traveling to broken places seemed about right

Y’ALL. I DID NOT EVEN KNOW! kristen, who in our working relationship was always warm but distant, spills her fucking guts. in her graphic memoir, she shows us her favorite family member, her first big love, & the photographs that were all she thought about for years

sometimes we do things & we don’t know why, or there’s not a way to explain it that would make sense to anybody else. kristen going to these places & looking for something underneath the nothing is one of those things

maybe there’s not much else to say except that i respect it

citizen: an american lyric by claudia rankine
graywolf, 2014

i am into backlist. if i find a writer i like, i will read around their work. because publishing is so bizarre that it’s not always true that the most current book will be the ‘best’ one. sometimes books are published out of order. sometimes the idea is there but the mechanics are not. i don’t like the idea that a book expires

so yeah, i read citizen three years after it came out. i remembered when we couldn’t keep it on the shelves because the copies that would take weeks & weeks (sometimes months!) to arrive were already promised. or we’d put out two copies & they would go within the hour. i remembered the hype & thought this book would be sad. like, here’s one boy who was shot for being black & another & another & another. sad like one minute you’re crying but by page thirty, it’s so deep that you can’t even grow tears to reach it

instead, i was shocked, angry, confused. two particular accounts stayed with me. one is when the narrator meets a new therapist at her home: ‘When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?’ the narrator steps back, stating an appointment was made. the woman is still snarling—if she were a cat, her coat would be fluffed to capacity, her back arched—until she notices her mistake: ‘Oh, she says, followed by, oh yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry’

on another page, the narrator is at the drugstore & the front of the line is here. a man steps in front of her & the cashier corrects him: ‘Sir, she was next.’ & he says, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see you.’ out of forced patriarchal politeness, pity, perhaps decades of this interaction, the narrator says, ‘You must be in a hurry.’ wouldn’t i like to say this diffused the situation. but no. he says, ‘No, no, no, I really didn’t see you’

there’s no one quote that can summarize the whole book but this one that i saved in my quote journal is both a feeling i would never want anyone to feel & learned is the entire landscape for many black men & women:

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you—

yes, there have been times where i could identify with this feeling. in my lack of family support, in abusive friendships, in romantic relationships. but it’s the degree that makes the distinction. it’s that, for me, it was temporary

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NON-BOOKS

“how the witchcraft of clarice lispector saved my life” by scott esposito
the literary hub, 2017

i had never heard of scott esposito before i started working at the bookstore. not that i bought all my books from amazon either but i didn’t think about literature in translation any more than i thought about anything else. i didn’t read book blogs. (i still don’t really read book blogs.)

but people in houston & elsewhere were quick to tell me about quarterly conversation, how he’s been a tastemaker for years. when he followed me on twitter, i thought it was an accident or because of the brazos brand, not anything to do with me

where we began to connect for real is when the bookstore was robbed. kenny coble did his thing & shouted from the balcony of the internet about how it would be good to order a book or two to help us out, try to replace the money we had lost. & even if that’s not exactly how it works, twitter took it to heart & people started ordering en masse

we went from maybe three or four book orders a day (sometimes more if there were a popular in-store event & people reserved their signed copies) to forty web orders a day, or more. strangers who had never even been to texas went through our catelog & ordered books & gifts to save for christmas

also around this time, stephen sparks was accepting pitches for the lit hub series ‘bookselling in the 21st century.’ which is exactly what it sounds like: booksellers talk about what it’s like to sell books these days, in hopes we will stop having people come in & break out their tissues, saying o isn’t it awful how amazon is going to force y’all to close?

i pitched the idea then invited kenny & scott to collaborate with me. in the end, kenny was unable to participate but working together on the piece, scott & i developed a friendship that started with books then extended to all the other things we love outside of that—our cats, fashion, good food, the emotional spectrum

the deadline was tight but we got it done & the result was the most read feature on the lit hub website for 2016

since then, scott & i kept in touch often & i’m honored to consider him a close friend. but when this essay came out, i was so so happy to get some insight into his life when for a while, he was just scott, instead of scott esposito the great. & to be fair, scott considers himself to be just scott. but here he was working a shitty, dead-end job to pay the bills. here he was clutching onto literature because it was the only thing that kept his brain from leaking out his ears. & here he was telling me about another iconic figure, & in a way that i could see what he was seeing. i mean, a ‘compact, ferocious novel—that feels like the extended scream of a woman who has quietly wept her whole life’? who doesn’t want to read that!

as of yet, i haven’t found a way to be where scott is, where the passion & the grind align. but it’s nice to know that it’s possible for people to get there

“stark, erotic images of chinese youth stir controversy” by wilfred chan
CNN, 2017

if 2016 was the universe taking people i love, 2017 has been the year where people die & i am ashamed i didn’t know who they were before it happened. ren hang is one example of this. when it happened, alexander chee posted this profile, which also introduced me to wilfred chan

it’s true that suicide draws people in a dog sees squirrel kind of way. but what a life, as they say. the photographs are odd & fantastic, compelling & almost repulsive. it’s more asian bodies & more men’s bodies than i’ve seen anywhere else, with deep contrast between dark & light that keeps you looking

& right there the whole time is wilfred, leading through the display with the right amount of notes about the artist & the pieces. as if you were touring an actual museum, a private showing

one of the shortest reads on here but no less beautiful

the longest short, no. 130: “my dad was my first oprah” (interview w/ ashley c. ford)

if you know about ashley c ford (AKA @iSmashFizzle), you probably have heard her talk about her dad. how he’s been in prison for her entire life. & how he would write her letters, crisp cursive missives in fine black ink on white lined pages. as a recent follower, i haven’t read everything, but i was there when her dad was released this past spring. i read this electric essay where she talks about the reunion

this phenomenal forty-seven minute podcast is where ashley talks about how their relationship changed over the years, including when she finally found out the charges for his sentence

[SPOILER ALERT / TW] he was there for rape. & when he told her, he probably never imagined that she was a rape survivor herself. but she was & she is, & shit fell down on both sides. not to the point of breaking but in a certain way, it’s almost the worst thing that he could have done, short of murder. because, drugs? you can get sober; you can get clean; you can quit. assault? even when you take full responsibility (which he did, from the day the cops arrived), it’s still hard (damn near impossible) to have your father tell you the reason you don’t know him is because he made the choice to assault another woman, that he did the same crime that had been done to you. ‘i could not fathom, to be perfectly honest, a world where it would be acceptable for me to love my father,’ she says. ‘even if i still did, it wasn’t acceptable.’ [END OF SPOILER]

even if you’re not a podcast person, i so recommend this. instead of the hour you fall into a youtube hole. re-watch an episode of a show that you’ve seen so many times you know it by heart anyway. twitter timeline terror. candy crush

ashley, i salute you

“future perfect” by patrick nathan
red sofa literary, 2017

patrick nathan & i have thirty-three followers that we both know. via likes & RTs from those people, he’s been in & out of my timeline for years. but i don’t know much about him other than what anyone else would be able to find out looking through his page. this little post, originally written for NaNoWriMo, is the thing that made me [Follow]

originally written for NaNoWriMo, patrick discusses how he got the news about graywolf on a day where he was already having the best day ever & how the fear persists. how even though ‘it’s absolutely startling—even a bit terrifying—to be believed in so strongly,’ it doesn’t cancel out the anxiety of rejections & passes, especially ones sent via mail merge: ‘What was a ‘big break’ if I still couldn’t break through a slush pile?’

how fucking freeing, for someone who has a book coming out with their dream press to say, ‘With each new rejection, I felt like I’d lost the right to feel rejected.’ not that i want nathan to feel bad. but with a brain that seems to attack me most when i am happy, when NOTHING IS WRONG, it was nice to know i’m not as broken as i think. or that there’s ways around it

we can always fail better

o-word

I learn the difference between Oriental and Asian in middle school. No one in my family teaches me. The people in my family don’t care about political correctness or preferred nomenclatures. Watching The Real World on MTV, Pam explains that things are Oriental—e.g. vases and rugs, food—whereas people are Asian. To say a person is Oriental makes them into an object.
lily hoang

interview w/ lily hoang

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 8.15.16

Say you get to do an interview for the first time in four months and it is with the woman that wrote your favorite book this year. What you don’t know is that she is in Europe during the weeks you have to reach her. In fact, she’s been in Europe for eleven weeks: fourteen countries, one book tour, one week-long writing workshop in Barcelona. The last time you used Skype, you were a junior in college, and it was to talk to your best friend while she was in Scotland, and your crappy ex-boyfriend during his year in Japan. Seeing the interface and hearing the sound of the dial tone conjures more feelings than anticipated.

When I meet Lily Hoang, author of the essay collection A BESTIARY—and four other books I have not read—I am wearing a hoodie I bought in 2009 for a band I no longer pay to see and pulling a personal pizza out of the oven because it is 9pm and dinner isn’t going to eat itself. Hoang also is in her pajamas, wearing a black t-shirt with a reference to something unknown to me and smoking an e-cigarette in her Boston hotel room. She ordered Indian food for delivery—they don’t have Indian food in New Mexico, see—and this is what it means to be professional writers: to eat on live stream with strangers because it is all the time you have before the deadline.


For two months, I backed A BESTIARY every way I knew how: reviews for Ploughshares and Heavy Feather Review, staff picks for the store and our website, and now this. In so many ways, I had already said what I needed to say, that A BESTIARY is the thing that finally gave me permission to stop worrying about everybody else’s opinions regarding my Asian-ness. It is enough to be myself and Asian and American, all. There is no quota. There are no rules.

In A BESTIARY, Hoang discusses her disguises through the years, and how few of them fit. During her marriage to a white man she calls Chris, she let her husband “correct” her opinions because that’s what “a good wife” would do. She made pies from scratch, with cold butter. “This used to be me,” she writes. Bitter toward the ex-husband, sure, but much more disappointed in herself for contorting that way. She uses Professor Hoang as comparison: “In the classroom, I project confidence and strength. People tell me I intimidate them.” Though dubbed her “favorite Lily to wear,” it is still a performance. It is all a performance.

When I call Hoang, she knows that I have read her book, which means I know what kind of sex she likes (rough), the name of her best best friend (Dorothy), all of her hate (and love) for her Vietnamese parents. I know about her abusive ex-husband and her abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend, the fling she had in Albuquerque; I know that she masturbates every day. In other words, I already know everything I want to know, more than I deserve to know.

So, what do I ask? I ask where she went in Europe. I ask if any of the recurring characters in her essays have read the book. I am thinking of her parents, but she thinks I mean the men and without any hesitation pulls me into the gossip surrounding the awful boyfriend. She tells me where he lives, what he’s doing. She says that when she posted a status that she was coming back to America, he sent her a message asking if he could buy her a plane ticket to come see him. Her response to me—in real time, side-bar—is to make a face and imitate her asking him if he had read the book. Then, since he has: “What makes you think I have any intention of seeing you ever again?”

She takes another puff on her e-cig, and I think, I want to be this woman.


Scratching her head, she says, “Do you want to know how I wrote the book? That’s something that hasn’t been written up yet.” I say, “Okay,” but what I wonder is whether or not she would have said the same thing if we were talking without video, if she couldn’t see my face. She tells me about studying with Rikki Ducornet and how she is responsible for the book that is on my bookshelf. During their summer together, Hoang read Ducornet the manuscript out loud. (Ducornet is in her seventies and can’t see well.) She loved the first piece, but was less enthusiastic about the second. An old woman without pretense, Ducornet asked Hoang if she had anything better, because everything except the first section was too self-serving, too purple. “I want to see what your brain can do,” Ducornet said.

Despite all, Hoang’s manuscript, the same one she read Ducornet, wins two contests. The first would not let her do revisions—it was the manuscript as is or bust. The second was the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. CSU gave her twenty days. Her deadline was September 10, in the midst of her deadline for her tenure portfolio, which was due September 1. Over curry and okra—so much Indian food the delivery person gave her three sets of silverware—Hoang tells me about those marathon weeks, how she juggled starting classes, being associate department head, finishing the portfolio, rewriting the book. She did not sleep.

What became the essay titled “on the WAY TO THE TEMPLE OF TEN THOUSAND SKULLS” was thirty-five pages in its original form. In my version of A BESTIARY, it is four sentences. Total, there are, Hoang says, “maybe ten” pages that got saved. The rest went to the trash, and for the better. In her acknowledgments, Hoang thanks Ducornet for their “fairy tale summer together,” and I want to know how these things happen. Because the book I read? Hoang cares so little for her own pain that many times I want to intervene on her behalf. It is a difficult, almost impossible, balance—to say, “Yes, this was me,” without romanticizing it at all.

Attempting an approach at the diagonal, I ask her about the title, and she says there’s “no special meaning behind it.” Instead, she tells me her definition of a bestiary—“a collection of animals, real and imagined”—and that she is a “literal human being” who says “exactly what [she] means.” In fact, she tells me she often gets chided for not being able to detect sarcasm. “I believe everything,” she says, and at this point, when she has not slept in days, has already been on two planes today and has another one in the morning, before dawn, I cannot argue.

Last question: what next? Right off, she says, “Tindering My Way Through Europe” and describes her vision of this book of steamy essays about her trips across the continent with all these handsome men with doctorates—EVERY SINGLE ONE. Hoang’s PhD? On “geography of the imagination.”

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 6.24.2016

 

Not all rat mazes have corridors. For the Morris water navigation task, it is as it reads: a rat must learn to fare in water. It is placed inside a pool and must swim to the other side. Once the rat learns its path, the scientist adds a solution to the water, causing it to become opaque. The hypothesis is that the rat will be confused. However, “despite changes to the environment, rats swim right to the platform.”

Lily Hoang is a first generation Vietnamese-American. A Bestiary, her debut collection of essays, is not about rat experiments, though they appear in some cases (as the above garnered from “On The Rat Race”). In meditations comparable to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Hoang both approaches and avoids her sister’s death (drug overdose), her failed marriage (white man she calls Chris), and a destructive on-again, off-again relationship (white man she calls Harold).

She has made attempts, like the rat, to find her way back home, but the paths didn’t lead the way they promised. “I had wanted to be a good wife, and for the most part, I was,” she writes, “but the fact that my marriage was a catastrophe doesn’t change.” As for Harold, he is a stubby lighthouse with broken lamps and both of them know it, but she remains. In “On Scale,” she does the math: “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and all the terrible things he’s told me over the years. In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.”

Suffering, she tell us, is a virtue in Vietnamese culture. It is right and true and noble, a thing required of all women. Hoang points at jade bracelets, describes how when she was young “my mother would cuddle me closely when I was sick. She would say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ and tell me that she wanted me to give her all of my sickness, so that she would be sick and I wouldn’t.” This inherited anguish—the pain and pleasure it inspires—seems to be a birthright, one that clashes with Hoang’s ideology as a feminist.

In “On Catastrophe,” she introduces us to Other Lily: “She would succeed in all the ways I have failed. She would not be a professor. She would not be divorced. She would be a good daughter.” Other Lily is a medical doctor, does not have “bad skin” or “a head full of white hair” or “do something as shameful as smoke cigarettes.” Other Lily “saves two lives and loses none”; Other Lily “is in love. And all her loyalty and love is reciprocated, an equal distribution of desire and faith.” Other Lily is perfect, the embodiment of our “better” self, the one we have always been told we should strive to become.

Actual Lily is feral and flighty, ferocious in her inner life. However, she also writes, and not without effort, “Face the facts: there is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.” Here, she stresses an essential point: she is not an either/or but a both/and. Winding, whimsical, and wild, A Bestiary tackles race, womanhood, and memory with a precision that pinches right at the veins.

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 5.25.16

When it comes to writing, Asian women in America are given two choices. The first, of course, is the one where her exoticism oozes from her skin like bark slathered in sap, where she is delicate like dishes that only see food during holidays. She is an Asian woman with Asian parents who adore her and they have made a life possible only through this bootstrap-raising that the Puritans wrote about in their diaries. The second—also damning—is the one where she is angry, wild. In this narrative, her lack of decency begets what she deserves: no marriage, no children, no medals.

Lily Hoang knows these expectations when she pens the essays that comprise A Bestiary. To introduce the collection, she writes, “Once upon a time—shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” In the first essay, “On the Rat Race,” the princess appears, and it is not her. It is Hoang’s dead sister, who is never named, not once—in this essay, or any of the others. Instead, Hoang writes:

My sister died nearly three years ago.

I have stopped asking why before once upon a time began.

I have renamed her my dead sister.

If there is love beneath this pragmatism, confusion, and frustration, it is affection Hoang keeps close. For us, she displays her dead sister’s troubles—ones, it seems, her parents have difficulty recognizing. Later in the essay, the mother praises Hoang’s dead sister for using the meat carver on Christmas and Thanksgiving. “She’s the only one who’s ever used it,” Hoang reports her mother saying, “She was so talented!”

However, it is a mere meat cleaver, and Hoang’s sister was only in San Antonio for a few years, had only borrowed said cleaver a few times, before she died. Hoang also adds no adornment to her sister’s addiction: “Towards the end, my dead sister stopped discriminating: any opiate would do, anything to subside her pain.” Here, Hoang recognizes that her sister’s hurt could not be contained—not by drugs, not by her, nor the lover and two sons she left behind. The night before she finds “my dead sister seizing on her bedroom floor, before she went and died,” Hoang describes how she “heard her crawling along the carpet,” opening bags and zippers. This whole time, “I didn’t open my eyes.”

Pretend, make-believe, fantasy—shh, shh—is a theme throughout. “On Scale,” the final essay in the collection, is especially brutal, a litany of cruelties inflicted by Hoang’s ex-husband Chris, her lover Harold, and how she always stayed. “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and the terrible things he’s told me over the years,” Hoang writes. “In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.” In other words, it’s not that she doesn’t know. She knows. She just can’t escape it. “My selflessness is a flaw I inherited from my mother,” she writes. “I suffer very well; my altruism can leave bruises.”

Some essays read as vignettes or parables while others dare even the most free-form lyric essays. “On the Geography of Friendship” with its movements (i.e., “Fugue” and “Allegro Non Troppo”) unfolds like a suite; “On Measurement” is an ode to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Main characters—her dead sister, ex-husband Chris, lover Harold, and close friend Dorothy—appear often, in the way the same actors play all of Wes Anderson’s characters in his films.

With A Bestiary, Hoang takes the illusion of the Asian woman we all recognize—meticulous, string player, passive—and skewers her, without pity. In this fairy tale, Hoang is a “bad feminist” and her sister is the Sleeping Beauty. Vibrating with energy but never maudlin, Hoang repels, and dazzles—an amazing debut.