My 2016 Reading Year

You guys I have been trying to write this post for weeks. WEEKS! Normally I LOVE writing about books, talking about books, sharing about books… this post feels like pulling teeth. What gives?

Safe to say that 2016 was a REALLY WEIRD year. For me, that weirdness extended to my reading. I read some AMAZING books at the start of the year… and then my track record went downhill. Fast. There were a lot of not-so-great reads, a lot of tried-to-reads. When I look over my books from the past year, one word escapes my lips: “Huh.”

That said… it’s not like it was a waste of a reading year. It’s NEVER a waste when you’re reading. All in all, I read 46 books (53 including all the “tried to read” books). Not quite as good as last year, but I’m not complaining.

I still made it a point to read diversely. Looking over how I did…

  • 31 books by woman – 67% of my total. (In 2013, it was 30%. Last year, exactly 50%.)
  • 11 books by people of color – so 23.9%. (In 2013, that number was 4.3%. Last year it was 19.5%.)

That second number seems embarrassingly low… even though it’s an increase over the past years. The sad thing? That’s my number when I’m paying attention. When I’m actively trying to read books by people who don’t look like me. Think how low it would be if I didn’t pay attention.

As far as picking favorites… well, the three books featured in my Winter Reading Recap are all up there: Station Eleven, The Fifth Season and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. That’s like, the motto of 2016: started out promising, ended with a dud.

BUT. There were some other gold stars amidst the “whomp, whomps.” They deserve highlighting.

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

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At magical Hedgebrook, there is a magical library, filled exclusively with books written by alumnae. I spied Orleans on the shelves one night before dinner and brought it back to my cottage. I think it took me all of three days to devour it.

This story is set in New Orleans – but not as we’d recognize it. Ravaged by hurricanes, decimated by an illness known as Delta Fever, the city has been cut off from the rest of the country – literally, by a huge, guarded wall. Those who live within the walls are mostly divided into tribes based on blood type (a safety measure against spreading Delta Fever). ISN’T THIS ALREADY FASCINATING?? Smith does an AMAZING job creating a world that seems at once totally foreign and totally plausible. And if the setting weren’t enough – well, there’s the can’t-put-it-down plot as well.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

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I had actually read this book years and years ago, back in high school… but weirdly, I remembered nothing about it. With the upcoming movie, I figured it was time for a re-read.

How did I not remember this book?? It is so crisp, so evocative, creepy in the best way possible. The man in black and the gunslinger are like two archetypes out of myth, yet they’re still their own well-rounded characters. This is a quick read, since it’s on the shorter side, but I’m looking forward to getting into the full series now.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I’m not normally a romance fan, but Book Riot is always trying to get folks to read different genres, and they’d recommended this one. Well, Book Riot, you were right. This book is pure unadulterated fun.

A modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, the book focuses on the Bennet family of Cincinnati. Our modern Mr. Bingley is a doctor and a reluctant contestant on a Bachelor-like reality TV show (of course), and Mr. Darcy is his neurosurgeon friend. Will Jane and Mr. Bingley find happiness? Will Jane and Mr. Darcy get over themselves and fall in love??

Well, of course. You know how this story ends. That’s part of the fun of it, though – knowing the outcome, and seeing how Sittenfeld reaches it.


I’m ending 2016 by re-reading an old favorite, To Capture the Castle. I figure if any year deserves a gentle ending, it’s this one.

What were your favorite books of the year? Any duds?

Oh, and if’n you’re interested in reading diversely in 2017, might I recommend the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge?

18 Rejections

That’s how many I’ve collected this year – from short stories, submitted to various magazines. Eight submissions are still out there, waiting, biding their time. So who knows, 18 could turn into 19, 20, 21, before this year is over.

I say this not to be pessimistic, but to be realistic. This is part of the writing life. Most writers out there probably know, in theory, that there will be rejections. I don’t think they necessarily understand the volume. There will be a LOT of rejection. And it usually comes after you’ve waited weeks, months.

18 is actually a VERY small number. Some writers aim to gather 100 rejections over the course of one year (heard from Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo of Women Who Submit). The idea being that if you’re submitting that much…well, some of them are bound to hit the mark.

Not going to lie – some days, it’s discouraging. Usually on days that’ve already gone off the tracks, for one reason or another. On those days, I let myself be sad for a little while, maybe get a treat… then I send out two or three more submissions. Immediately.

Some days? Some days the rejections are actually encouraging. I think only a writer could truly understand how that could be the case, but when you get one that’s personalized, when you get one that says “not for us, but we’d like to see more of your work”… that’s cause for a little celebration.

Writing is about process, and this whole circle of sending submissions, receiving rejections, repeat – it’s part of it. If you’re submitting, you’re putting in the work. You’ve just gotta have faith it’ll eventually pay off.

Saigon Dreams

I’ve been meaning for over a month now to write about Vietnam, but every time I sit down to do so the words slip away. Maybe I need time to digest, I told myself. The trip needs to coalesce, to firm up.

But it never did. When I think on Vietnam, all I see are fragments, moments.

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Maybe that’s because of the force of nature that is Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City—a never-stopping sea of people and scooters and red flags and little plastic stools on sidewalks. The smell of herbs and frying pork and sugar, of exhaust and day-old rain and heat.

Oh, the heat. Walking out of the airport close to midnight, I thought, This isn’t too bad. Yes, it was heat you walked into, a dampness you could feel wrapping around your skin. But it felt like Maui, like Florida, like any other tropical climate. It felt manageable.

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The next day we walked out into the city… and there was the heat. Inescapable. A weight slowing you down. By the end of the first day, after a long walk back to our apartment, sweat dripped down every trail of my body. It was like I had stepped out of an hour-long hot yoga class. (According to locals, this was nice weather. Not too hot, not too muggy. Of course.)

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The afternoon rain storms did nothing to break the heat. Neither did the thunder, waking us one morning by shaking our entire apartment, the metal patio door rattling.

The metal patio door, kept closed, keeping the heat out and the AC in. But through it every morning you could still hear the swish swish swish of the woman outside, sweeping the sidewalk with her twig-tied broom. As the morning wore on, honking scooters and lottery ticket vendors added their cries to the mix. Still, over those sounds, that broom. Swish swish swish.

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These are what stick in my mind—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. No distinct moments, no momentous events. Daily life in Saigon was about the little things. Sitting on plastic stools in an alley, drinking iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Watching the neighbors come and go, greeting each other. A restaurant owner instructing us how to mix our vegetables into our broth. Watching the city go by from the back of a scooter, wind hitting my cheeks.

The more time passes, the more Vietnam seems like a dream seeping into my consciousness. Less memory and more of a feeling, a longing—for slowly dripping coffee, for complex, confounding, astonishing food. The rows of tamarind trees, high above the streets. Even the heat. All a hauntingly written story; once you’ve read it, you can’t ever really get it out of your mind.

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‘Tis the Season

Things I dislike about this time of year:

  1. Dropping temperatures. I got home the other night and said to Byron, “I just realized I’m entering five months of never being warm again.” He agreed that yes, that was probably true.
  2. The serious financial budgeting that this time of year entails. And, I totally know, we’re fortunate that we CAN afford it. I’m sure it’s much more stressful for others.
  3. The decreasing daylight. Right now it’s 7:20am and just starting to get light outside my window. And that’s actually pretty good. Talk to me when it’s 8am and still pitch black out.
  4. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin.
  5. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Green Tuesday. Which I’m pretty sure is actually a thing now and not something I just made up.
  6. Having to pretend like I watched last night’s football game.
  7. The fireworks that go off in our neighborhood to accompany last night’s football game.
  8. Not being able to work in the yard as much, because a) cold, and b) dark.
  9. All the holiday obligations. Our December calendar is already booked. I don’t think there’s a free weekend on there.
  10. Wearing two layers of clothing around the house because I’LL NEVER BE WARM AGAIN.

Things I like about this time of year:

  1. Lighting candles in the living room as soon as I wake up in the morning, and as soon as I get home in the evening.
  2. Grapefruit. Satsumas. Meyer lemon.
  3. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin. (Yeah, it’s on there twice. Because it’s annoying, but also… playing with beauty products!)
  4. Eagerly awaiting the annual Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.
  5. Reading a book in front of the fireplace with a cat. Preferably two cats.
  6. On those rare days when daylight and sunshine and free time collide–grabbing the gardening tools and going out and breathing in the smell of wet dirt.
  7. Finding out what my top 10 Instagram photos of the year are #narcissist
  8. Watching the dog snuffle around in fallen leaves on our morning walks.
  9. Dinners with friends and family. It makes for a busy month… but gathering over homemade food is always time well spent.
  10. Pies. Cookies. Scones. Basically having a really good excuse to bake ALL THE THINGS.
  11. More time indoors = more time for writing.

Between Ease & Effort

A few months back I started taking yoga classes to get some sort of activity in my life that is not dog-walking. The other day, one of the instructors was talking about the space between ease and effort: how every pose should be a balance between those two. We should be pushing ourselves to be better (the effort), while also finding the comfort and joy in each move (the ease).

On our recent road trip though Montana, my brain mulled over this concept. We were on a long straight highway, clear as the eye can see. Looking at the world stretch out before us. A valley between sharp hills, west of the Rockies, with conifers clustered in gullies. Early morning sun making long shadows across tall grass, the occasional hawk poised overhead. A sky so big and blue it hurts the eyes.

The more I see of it, the more in love I am with the world. Why would anyone think there is anything better than right here, right now, this beautiful perfect earth that we have?

I get the feeling of seeing it all for the first time, the first time, as if no other eyes have devoured this landscape. Greedy. It fills you with such joy and such loneliness. It is good to look at rocks and realize how young, how small you are to this place. I could drink in all the world and never get enough.

2016 has been a big one for me in terms of trying new things, putting myself out there. Hedgebrook, going on my first-ever backpacking trip, making the decision to take the leap and leave my job… I couldn’t have foreseen how this year has gone. And I’m glad for that. I always want to see like this: filled with wonder at what the earth created.

This is how I want to live my life: full of adventure and a just a tad bit of uncomfortableness. Between ease and effort. It’s the balance between those two where you really shine.

Here There Be Giants

Four years ago for our honeymoon, we traveled to the Grand Teton National Park. I fell in love with the Tetons immediately, head over heels. Teeth rising straight out of the earth, fierce and abrupt, like a hand simply slipped underneath and pushed. Yet the Tetons were familiar in their own way–like how a child would draw mountains. Flat land, series of triangles, nothing in between.

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Glacier National Park isn’t that way. We drove out there a few weeks ago, prior to a friend’s wedding. I’d done my research on the park, knew what to expect…yet I still felt myself warily circling it as we drove, hiked, explored. Glacier feels raw, wild–like, actually wild, not a tamed human version of wild. (Even though technically, yes, it is.) When you first enter the park, the ranger hands you a brochure with a close-up of a snarling grizzly, its muzzle covered in blood. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it does get the point across: you are not the top dog here. Not by a long shot.

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The Tetons are the same range as Glacier, all the Rockies…yet the mountains here feel different. No child drew these. In Glacier, you can see the giant, ancient, mind-boggling powerful forces that shaped this land, carved it, curled it into bowls and peaks and valleys. The tiny remnants of those forces remain; from the road, you can see Blackfoot and Jackson and Salamander Glaciers. Seeing those, then imagining their size and scope when they created this…

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To the Blackfeet Nation, this was holy land. You still feel that. But this doesn’t necessarily feel like a benevolent deity, one shaped in man’s image. This feels deep, potent, a giant slumbering under the earth. A force that doesn’t care much for the humans on it–at least, not any more or less than anything else that scampers and crawls and flies across its surface. It feels like it would open one sleepy eye and say, “Oh, you,” before casually flicking you away. Which is not to say it’s evil or mean. It’s just indifferent. Which is sometimes nice, sitting near a power so much larger than us, that doesn’t care if we stop and mind the view.

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We spent almost a full week in Glacier and still I don’t know it. How can you know something so ancient, so old, when to it you are simply passing through, like dust in the night?

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What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

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An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)