Wow, No Thank You.

via samanthairby.com

Somewhere between two days and two months ago (time has basically ceased to have meaning or proper flow these days, amirite?), I had the privilege of enjoying a conversation between Samantha Irby and Jia Tolentino. My Jia fangirl status was cemented a while ago (as exhibited here and here), so it was extra fun to hear her interview an author live. And someone as hilarious as Samantha Irby? Thank you, Free Library of Philadelphia! Razor-sharp wit combined with the intimacy of a chat between friends made for a delightful listen. I hit “purchase” on Irby’s most recent book before the chat was even finished.

Wow, No Thank You is one of those books that manages to deal with racism, classism, sexism, sexual orientation, body issues, and and number of other -isms with such a deft and humorous touch that you don’t even realize it isn’t pure brain candy until after you’ve put it down for a bit. Irby is hilariously blunt, occasionally raunchy, and always painfully, amazingly observant. Why do we women feel pressured to buy cream specifically for our necks? If your family never had the privilege of owning a house, does gutter maintenance magically find it’s way into your conscience when you sign a mortgage? Are Hot Pockets and self-care really mutually exclusive? Why waste energy on that person who hates you, when they realistically would add nothing of value to your life even if they did like you? Can anyone utter the phrase, “are you familiar with my work?” without feeling painfully awkward about it? Questions and answers to laugh at and ponder and nod along with abound in this collection of laugh-out-loud essays. Irby also provides an excellent annotated playlist, for those of you hungry for late 1900s nostalgia mixed with a heretofore unmatched level of hilarity.

In a nutshell, Samantha Irby is one funny lady, and you should buy her book immediately. “Because we live in a fiery hellscape,” to quote her directly, and we need all the clever hilarity we can get. And this hilarity even comes with a dose or three of contemporary awareness, so you can feel virtuous while you indulge. You’re welcome, and enjoy.

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Everything I Never Told You

ng_everything_coverIn Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, the story of the Lee family unfolds like the petals of a flower.  Lydia is dead, that we know, and the story of her family, their grief, and their undoing unfurls slowly, with pathos and grit alike.  Chapters from Lydia’s own childhood, her parents as young people, her siblings and their own lives — all of these are twined inexorably together, as all families’ are.  Ng pulls together the experience of being an outsider deftly with a multi-layered coming-of-age story that resonated with me deeply.  There was not a single character I wasn’t rooting for by the end.

We all have inner lives, and we all carry wounds that make us fragile, even if they are invisible to the naked eye.  The saga of the Lee family brings that home with quiet power, drawing us through a gripping page-turner of a story that sears, comforts, and ultimately shows how even the darkest hours can led us to a semblance of redemption.  Highly recommend.

 

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Girls’ weekend

I’m in the process of planning a getaway in December with a few girlfriends, and we are all seriously looking forward to a few days away to relax, recharge, and savor some quiet.  Currently we are scouting out some AirBnB locations, trying to decide.  Beachy location?  Desert oasis?  Mountain escape?  Regardless of which we choose, I do have some essentials in mind.

Alice Munro’s Dear Life, for short stories to dip in and out of all weekend long.

A hair band in the perfect ochre for easy-yet-cute hair.

Comfy velvet wide-leg pants for lounging, because duh.

Softest hoodie that is ideal weight, ethically made, and beyond comfortable.

Faux fur mules that will be equally stylish outdoors as in.

Cozy candle with a hilarious boyfriend-y backstory, for all the comfort and none of the inconveniences of toting our menfolk along.

 

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The Grace Year

I preordered Kim Liggett’s new novel The Grace Year as soon as I could, and was riveted the moment I had it in hand to devour.  There is simply no other way to consume this book — heart in hand, fully devouring this tale of girlhood and womanhood.  Liggett’s speculative fiction expertly weaves a world where women have no power or agency, save the magic they must be rid of in their sixteenth year, the grace year.  the_grace_year_coverIt is a survival story, a modern fairy tale, a coming-of-age, a resistance manifesto, and a terrifying horror yarn all at the same time, deftly told and hauntingly realized.  I could not put it down.

There are so many ways that women and girls tear each other apart and lift each other up by turns, and this novel  explores those dynamics in interesting ways.  What does power come to mean when you are entirely deprived of it?  How do we define ourselves within the rhythms of family, society, friendships, and love?  What does that mean for our self-hood?  How can we push for meaningful change?  All of these are questions I turned over in my mind as this story unfolded.

Besides a fascinating macro look at a society described by some as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, I thoroughly appreciated Liggett’s attention to small details.  The language of flowers in particular made for a beautiful leitmotif, further strengthening her world-building.  Flowers make for a common language, but they also prove to be a perfect metaphor for the girls themselves.  Fragile, beautiful, unique, prized, just as easily crushed as admired — the Grace Year girls and their story will haunt you long after Liggett’s last page.

 

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Three Women

three_women_coverWhile on vacation this summer I read Lisa Taddeo’s new book, Three Women.  To say it was arresting would be an understatement.  It is a striking non-fiction work about women and desire, women and sex, but most of all, women and loneliness.

Taddeo spent eight years researching this book, covering the lives of women across the U.S. in their most intimate spaces.  The result is a portrait of three women in very different places in life, but all desirous, lonely, empty and fulfilled by turns.  Lina pulls away from a loveless marriage and begins an affair with her high school sweetheart.  Maggie endures a statutory rape trial while mentally reliving the relationship she shared with her high school teacher.  Sloane is a happily married woman whose husband enjoys choosing other men for her to sleep with.  All of their swirls of emotion are painfully familiar despite their varied situations: an ache for acceptance, a reckoning with the past, isolated loneliness and attempts to escape it, lusty desire, self-doubt and self-examination in equal measure.  Taddeo does a masterful job of creating something far beyond journalism; she paints the lives of these women in a way that is both personal and universal, and she makes sure to give each agency over her own story in the process.

Three Women is a must-read.  Add it to your summer reading list if you haven’t already, and prepare for a book that will affect you profoundly.

 

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Xenogenesis

lilliths_brood_cover_artI recently finished reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and just had to share.  Published under the collection title Lilith’s Brood since 2000, it is made up of three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.  Butler is an excellent storyteller, with a “hard science fiction” bent in this trilogy that is satisfying as well as thought-provoking.

The series takes place in an interesting sort of dystopian future, where humans have destroyed Earth and each other almost completely.  An alien race steps in to save what is left, hoping to trade genetic material to ensure the survival of both humanity and themselves.  The aliens believe humankind, if left unaltered, contain a “Contradiction” between their high intelligence and their hierarchical nature that will lead to eventual demise in every scenario, as was already proven by our destruction.  A fascinating thought to consider, isn’t it?

While my own personal prose style preference strays closer to that of Amor Towles, thematically Butler does a masterful job of exploring sexuality, race, species, gender, and humanity — deftly and also in an entirely un-preachy way.  While decades old at this point, Lilith’s Brood is almost frighteningly relevant to us today.  Are we doomed to obliterate ourselves without some kind of outside intervention?  Can our intelligence outweigh our hierarchical strivings?  Is our stubbornness a boon or a hindrance?  It may be that history will have to play itself out before we can answer these questions, but Butler gives us a powerful nudge to think about these things sooner than later — all tied up in an engaging alien-encounter package.

Octavia Butler cover art by John Jude Palancar.
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The Last Romantics

“We believe in love because we want to believe in it.  Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles?  The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it.”

–Tara Conklin, The Last Romantics

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This past weekend I devoured the new novel The Last Romantics from Friday night until late Sunday.  Quite frankly, I didn’t want to put it down.  Tara Conklin does a masterful job of drawing us into the lives of four siblings, weaving a story I found both arresting and vividly meaningful.

Spanning from their childhood in the early 1980s through to a slightly dystopian 2079, the Skinner siblings deal with the sudden death of their father, their mother’s depression that follows they call only “the Pause,” and the lives they lead in the years that follow.  Conklin deftly explores what love means, and loyalty — how family ties bind and break, pull and twist us into the people we become.  Romantic love is peppered into the narrative, but the overarching theme is familial love, how it shapes us, and the heaviness and the light which it carries.

Conklin’s writing reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver by way of Lauren Groff, yet with her own voice and style that make for a deeply engaging novel, one that resonated with me long after I turned the last page.  A rich, rewarding read.

 

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Three great design books

Right now there are so many inspiring books on design to choose from!  If I had to pick three right now, I’d be diving into these handsome volumes.  Each has a unique point of view, but all feature amazing, quirky, beautiful spaces that I’d love to pore over again and again.  Coincidentally, all three are by incredible women that I am proud to support.

It’s Beautiful Here by Megan Morton

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This is Home: The Art of Simple Living by Natalie Walton

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The Alchemy of Things by Karen McCartney

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Modern Art Desserts

After admiring the cover and peeking inside virtually every time I visit Blue Bottle Coffee Co., I finally picked up a copy of Caitlin Freeman’s Modern Art Desserts.  I am so glad I did!  Freeman’s book is a gem.  Formerly of Miette, Freeman clearly knows her way around amazing desserts — backwards, forwards, and sideways, in fact.  What made this cookbook stand out for me was the fact that is not only full of stunning recipes, but also it serves as both a personal memoir and a mini-guide to some of the works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  While Freeman and her beautiful desserts are no longer at SFMOMA, the cookbook that resulted from her tenure there is a pleasure for the pastry enthusiast and art lover alike.

Each dessert is presented with a photograph of the pastry, an image of the artwork it was inspired by, information about the work and the artist, and Freeman’s own experiences creating the dish.  Then follows the recipe, with clear, clean instructions.  Many of the recipes are quite aspirational — the complex Mondrian cake, for example, takes a whopping two days.  However, specialized supplies and ingredients are sourced in the book, out-of-the-ordinary equipment is highlighted and explained, and a section early on gives a great rundown of both the ingredients and cooking tools you’ll likely need throughout.  Freeman somehow manages to make incredibly complex recipes seem both aspirational and accessible.  Mixed in with culinary feats like the Mondrian cake are slightly lower key options like trifle, sodas, popcicles, and even a savory snack or two, so there are certainly options for those who prefer to measure their recipe timing in minutes or hours rather than days.

Overall I was surprised and delighted by Modern Art Desserts.  It is a diverting read above and beyond being a good cookbook.  If you’re a modern art fan, give this one a whirl.  Freeman has given us candy for the eyes and the taste buds in equal measure.

 

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Dog Songs

While I was blissfully meandering in a bookstore in Seattle, I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs.  I find her work to be meditative, insightful, and beautiful, and this slender volume about dogs did not disappoint.

 

Some of the poems seem to be simple, lyrical observations, but gradually you find yourself drawn into contemplations about life, love, and the simple joys and sorrows of being.  I read the whole book in a single quiet afternoon, my dogs sleeping at my feet — and in hindsight, I cannot think of a more restorative way to spend a Saturday.  Oliver’s keen eye and unabashed incorporation of nature into the fiber of her life make Dog Songs a unique entry in the canine companion poetry milieu.  A quietly moving read.

 

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