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 ❤



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 iraqi 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



“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 catalog & 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

laia jufresa & valeria luiselli in BOMB magazine


I had never really read what you were supposed to, and I was always trying to pretend I had, or saying, “Well, I haven’t, but I will!” I thought I was doing something wrong. The idea that I had to read certain books was a little overwhelming and had nothing to do with the way I wrote. Bradbury showed me that you have the right to follow your own path, both as a writer and a reader. He had made his own way, and he was very sure of himself in telling other writers that it was all right.


You learn by doing. You have to read a lot to be a writer. But I don’t think it necessarily makes you better. Only writing a lot does that. It would be ridiculous to say that going to museums makes you a better painter. It just doesn’t.


When I’m painting, I’m very comfortable being a beginner—trying things out and making mistakes. It feeds my writing. When you begin to feel like you’re a professional and have deadlines to meet, it becomes really important to still be able to play.


Mexico is incredibly porous to the English language in ways that are interesting and different from the situations in other Latin American countries. English seeps into Mexico at all social levels because of the enormous number of people moving constantly back and forth. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing in Spanish.


VL: Gilles Deleuze says that all great writers are foreigners in the language in which they write, even in their mother tongue. Do you feel that foreignness in Spanish?

LJ: I do, but probably not as much as you. I haven’t lived abroad as long as you have, but I didn’t grow up in Mexico City, so Mexico City Spanish has always been always a little strange for me.

VL: It’s hard to speak good chilango.

LJ: I always feel like I am imitating someone, and I am very imitative. I used to feel bad about that. I thought it implied a complete lack of personality.

VL: I was always proud of being that way, until recently.

LJ: You should be proud. Someone explained to me that it has something to do with mirror neurons. It means you’re very empathic.


I had left Mexico some years before because I had been in a shooting. Fourteen people were killed sixty feet away from me. I couldn’t bear it, and I had the privilege of leaving. So I did, and I didn’t want to give violence any more space, especially not in my writing. But I wanted to write about grief because we were all traumatized. Every time someone dies, it touches a lot of people. The same is true when someone disappears, though in a different and equally horrible way, because there’s no closure. So writing about grief was my way of making space for it.


In elite international circles, “global” Mexican writers, the civilized barbarians of the south, are expected to both embody and contradict the national narrative, perhaps so that bien-pensant intellectuals can confirm their well-intentioned beliefs about us. At the same time, inside Mexico, those same writers are seen as a disconnected bourgeoisie who are not entitled to their opinions, because they speak from a situation of total privilege. In one world, we are smart little underdogs, in another we are oppressors.


Mexicans are very politically incorrect. They have always disdained American political correctness. I myself did until I moved to the US. Now, I have these immense fights with my family when they say horrible things. I think that violence, whether it is social or personal, begins with language, which is much more powerful than people think it is. As a writer, what do you think about political correctness?


full interview here

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.

Q&A w/ laia jufresa, sophie hughes

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 9/12/16

How to stump me as a bookseller: come into the store and ask me for a funny, happy book where nothing bad happens. Because the truth is, I will fail you, one hundred percent of the time. The flip side? People ask me about my favorite books and often, I can see their eyes glaze over as I mention rape, suicide, addiction—as if those books can’t also have moments that are funny and happy.

Laia Jufresa’s debut novel, UMAMI, is such a book. In a hovel nested inside Mexico City, three families lose a mother, a daughter, and a wife. One leaves, one drowns, and one dies. However, Jufresa is not interested in that. Instead, UMAMI focuses on the next four years, and the way the neighbors inside the Belldrop Mews wade through their grief. Each character speaks in the present tense from a different year, between 2000 and 2004. Together, their accounts make a portrait of the ways we learn (or refuse) to cope.

Jufresa and her translator Sophie Hughes were kind enough to answer questions about the novel via e-mail.


Brazos Bookstore: UMAMI, to me, feels rooted in Mexico, even though the characters rarely leave their cloister. How do the Belldrop Mews and its tenants reflect the larger Mexico City? What is missing?

Laia Jufresa: Over 20 million people live in Mexico City. It’s a chaotic place that somehow manages to function and which, despite its unambiguous name, is more like many different cities at once. So this story, which takes place mostly inside an enclosed space of only five houses, does not portray the city (nor was that my intention). However, I agree with you in that the novel is very rooted in Mexico, but perhaps this happens not out of some sense of place as much as through the language, the atmospheres, the day-to-day of the characters and the tone of the relationships between neighbors and family members. I have lived in Mexico City, but only for about a third of my life, so in my heart and imaginary it remains a place made of emotional ties and singular expressions more than concrete streets and corners. So perhaps that’s what came through when I used it as a setting.

Sophie Hughes: I’ll only add that this novel touched me because it is universal. UMAMI brims with Mexico, but not the one I’d ever been sold in documentaries, articles, or movies before I moved here. I don’t read books set in foreign lands to see how exotic and foreign they are, but rather to hope to find in them common facets that define human nature. That’s the key for me. That’s why literature must be translated: so that books like UMAMI can come along and be brilliantly, movingly, entertainingly self-aware and honest in their observations about a place we may have a dubiously warped outsider’s vision of. Laia rips any narco-lit or magical realism label off a truly indefinable city.

BB: Why tell a story over five years through five voices?

LJ: I wanted to write about grief not in a melodramatic or immediate way, but by paying attention to its many ripples over time and as felt by different members of a small community. This interest led me to strive for a polyphony. Long before I had the story clear in my head, I was working on the different voices. I had the voice of a little girl who dies, and the voice of her sister seemingly finally over her period of mourning. This meant I needed a chronological structure that would allow those voices to coexist. I didn’t want to write a novel where the dead speak, so I needed the novel’s time span to allow me to include those two realities. Ditto for the other characters and their different losses or absences.

BB: There are two mysteries the characters want to solve—Why did Chela leave? How did Luz drown if she knows how to swim?—and another that is a riddle for the reader—What are “The Girls” that Alfonso is always on about?

The last section solves two of these puzzles and both revelations are mesmerizing! How do you create a universe in which these things are possible and also taken seriously?

LJ: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s one answer. In a way the whole book is my answer to how you would do just that—combine the serious and the absurd sides of real life—for this particular story.

I think one big important thing for me is achieving a sort of straight-forwardness with the voice, a place where I feel the voice is speaking truthfully, and then the story itself can be about anything at all. So perhaps it’s not so much about things being possible and taken seriously, as much as achieving a narration that makes things (anything) feel plausible, and feel as important to the reader as they do to the characters. But that building takes time and that’s why the last section seems to reveal so much.

The other key, I think, is the word you used: a universe. I think UMAMI is a book it takes a while to get into because it’s so far from the One Hero Journey roadmap that permeates so many of today’s narrative. I’ve read reviews that say things along the lines of “stick with it, it will be rewarding!”, and I sometimes cringe at this, thinking it is a flaw, perhaps one typical of first novels even, that I didn’t manage to fully hook the reader from page one. But other times I think what came through is that deep down I like books and characters—and people—that you have to get to know a bit before falling in love because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Building a universe, setting it up well enough—yet with only very minimal descriptions—so that the reader can leisurely move inside it, that’s something I’m really interested in. And I think perhaps building the Mews was the only way I could wrap my head around that task. Perhaps when you have closed walls you have spots where those mysteries and their many implications can bounce off or slowly percolate, whereas if the story was placed in an entire city as we discussed earlier, these very subtle nuances would get lost, and these puzzles that are so dear to the characters would seem meaningless.

BB: In this story, the female characters are bold while the men are passive and/or the ones who are left (either by death or by choice). Was that a conscious decision?

LJ: Not really. But so little in my writing process is a conscious decision…If it didn’t come naturally to me, though, I think this probably would be the one thing I’d make a point of attempting: to build complex multi-layered female characters. They’re rare where I come from. Not in life, of course, but Mexican literature, so rich in many other aspects—form, language, the mix of humor and seriousness, etc.—has taken so long to catch up to life in this one truth: that women are humans. I didn’t use to care but it bothers me more and more, somehow, to read book after book never finding a woman in it that isn’t a glaring stereotype—the whore or the mother. So yes, after this rant I’d say it probably was a decision, albeit an unconscious one, in that it’s something that matters to me. Not as a cause per se, but just because I find it ludicrous that something as rich and open as literature would be denied something as rich and endless as women’s inner worlds and daily acts of all sorts.

SH: This didn’t occur to me when I first read the book, but it certainly became clear as I translated it. I think Laia writes multi-layered characters whether they’re male, female, or inanimate reborn dolls. And I think when you read this book it’s not a glaringly obviously female targeted, if such a novel exists. Having said that, as a woman, I will never look at motherhood the same way again. Laia’s character’s decimation of society’s response to her having chosen not to have children is vital and brilliant, without ever moralizing. Of course, like any good novel, UMAMI doesn’t wear any moral or political messages on its sleeve, but it does pose some very pertinent questions about the human and female condition (and those terms themselves).

BB: Always, there is this sentiment from the characters that English dilutes everything in a way that is almost unforgivable. Bilingual characters are judged on whether they can mask their natural accent when using their second language. How did that attitude affect the translation process?

LJ: I’ll let Sophie get that one but I’ll just share that when my friend Carmen Cáceres, an Argentinian writer, read one of the first drafts she said to me, “This book is SO Mexican! They’re all obsessed with English!” I was taken aback. I would have named many other very Mexican features the book has before hitting upon that particular one. But then I thought about it and had to accept she was absolutely right.

SH: It wasn’t so much the attitude as the nitty-gritty “Gah, how will I get this outsider’s view of this English word across if the text I’m writing is in English?” Often, precisely because she’s so fluent and interested in English as a native Spanish speaker, the point of Laia’s jokes are at risk of being lost in English translation. To give an example: teenage Ana’s dad is Mexican, and her mom English, and she’s grown up bilingual.

“According to Dad, on principle you should distrust any language that uses the same word for libre and gratis.”

Here I had to trust that English readers have just enough of an awareness of (or subconscious link to) the Latin roots underpinning their language that even if they don’t speak Spanish, they’ll get the joke. If you don’t find any humor in UMAMI, you can be certain it’s because I’ve failed at my job.

BB: What projects are you working on now?

LJ: I just finished my first movie script. Hardest thing I’ve ever written, by the way. But now it has a director and a producer and if they somehow find loads of money, it will perhaps be a movie someday? In the meantime, I’m having a baby in a few months and striving to learn German so I can properly howl at the people in the delivery room when the time comes. (Because I live in Germany, not because I find that classier.)

SH: I’ve just translated a good chunk of LA RESTA (2015) by Alia Trabucco Zerán. Searing, intelligent, breathless, brave, uniquely crafted: you’ll definitely see this novel in English one day. And by chance, I translated a sample for a friend of hers, Guiseppe Caputo, who’s written a novel EL MUNDO HUÉRFANO that’s flying off the shelves in Colombia. I really want this book to find an English-language publisher. The setting is a kind of Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet beach wasteland/fairground. The relationship between father and his gay son one of the most tender I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The descriptions of the young man’s sex life are beautiful and brutal. I hope we get increasingly used to seeing literary novels that include homosexual sex in our bookshops. How can we hope for new novels to speak truthfully, as indeed Laia puts it, if we suppress what shocks us in its novelty or seeming inapplicability to our personal lives?

BB: What are recent works in translation you would recommend? What authors or works would you like to see translated into English?

LJ: I just found out Samantha Schweblin’s first novel (DISTANCIA DE RESCATE) is coming out in English! Do Not Miss It. It will be called FEVER DREAM and it’s translated by Megan McDowell.

And I wish Jorge Ibargüengoitia and Fabio Morabito were more available in translation.

SH: I wholeheartedly agree with Laia on Schweblin. I’m interested to see the reception. She may divide readers, but isn’t that what good books do—prompt discussion? FEVER DREAM appeals to me because it paints a dark, dramatic underbelly of motherhood. The same appeal as UMAMI had, in fact, although they are two very different novels. This is a good time for Latin American literature in translation. Mario Bellatín, Carmen Boullosa, Álvaro Enrigue, Verónica Gerber, Julián Herbert, Yuri Herrera, Laia Jufresa, Valeria Luiselli, Emiliano Monge, Guadalupe Nettel, Eduardo Rabasa, Daniel Saldaña Paris, Carlos Velázquez, and Juan Pablo Villalobos are contemporary authors recently or about to be published in English from Mexico alone! Just because no one (thankfully) has put a name on it yet (i.e. the Boom, the Crack) doesn’t mean something significant isn’t happening in front of readers’ eyes. I get the feeling at Brazos I’m preaching to the converted, though…