Tag Archives: books

Best Books of 2016

As I mentioned in my previous post, I read a LOT in 2016. 109 books, to be exact. (Snuck one more in after that previous post published.) It helps to have a long commute on public transportation, and it also helps to have an awesome library right down the street. I was very methodical about my reading in 2016, aiming to read books in certain categories (i.e. classics, memoirs, nonfiction, self-help) in the same month and planning in advance which ones I wanted to read.

 

And now it is time to tell you my top ten books of 2016. (Meaning top ten books I READ in 2016, not necessarily ones that came out last year.) Without further ado:

 

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

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This list isn’t in any particular order, but if I had to pick a favorite of the favorites, this would be it. And I’m excited to recommend it because I don’t know anyone else who’s read it. I’d read, and raved about, Susan Jane Gilman’s nonfiction, so I was excited to read her fiction debut. It spans 70 years in the main character’s life, from her birth in Russia in the early 20th century to her move to New York as a young girl to her abandonment by her family to her marriage and career owning a successful ice cream company. She turns out to be a not-so-nice person- Gilman has described her as a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley- but you keep sympathizing with her in part, I think, because you’ve been following her through her whole life and know all that she overcame. It’s a character-driven story, but the plot moves very quickly, and I just loved how right the character’s voice feels. Warning: this book will make you want ice cream.

 

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

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If you’re a Hamilton fan, this is a must-read. It’s got several essays on the development of the show as well as many of its cast and crew members. It also has the complete lyrics with footnotes provided by Lin that give additional information on historical accuracy, his thought process in writing, references you might not pick up at first, and random trivia. I recommend reading the lyrics while listening to the soundtrack- you’ll notice things you never picked up on before.

 

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

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This was super depressing but incredibly well-written. There are two people who both believe they are the rightful owners of a house: Kathy Nicolo, the alcoholic original owner whose house is foreclosed on due to a bureaucratic mistake, and Colonel Behrani, an Iranian immigrant with a wife and children who buys the house at a reduced price at auction and sees it as a step towards the American dream. It’s told in alternating first-person perspective for most of the book, and while both Kathy and Colonel Behrani are very flawed characters, they both also have legitimate reasons to claim the house and good reasons for wanting to stay there. I was very invested in the story all the way through- while it’s clearly not going to end well, I stayed interested in how we were going to get there.

 

The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski

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Attention-grabbing title, huh? I saw this book in a bookstore and was intrigued by it. It takes place in a small town in Idaho in the 1970s, where two teenage daughters in a devout Christian family are sent away to a cabin at the edge of town after one of them returns from a mission trip pregnant with what she believes is the child of God. It’s full of characters who could easily become stereotypes but never do. It’s another sad but well-written book, and I love Val Brelinksi’s unpretentious writing style. This is her first book, so I can’t wait to see what else she writes.

 

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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I decided to read this because I’d heard great things about the musical based on it (which I haven’t seen) and I love Alison Bechdel for coming up with “the Bechdel test.” I almost never read graphic novels or graphic memoirs or graphic anything- in general, I connect with words better than I do with images. So I was shocked that not only is the writing the best thing about this book, but it’s sprinkled throughout with literary allusions and comparisons to characters from fiction and mythology. The cartoons certainly enhance the story, but it’s the writing I really loved. It’s the story of her father, who died after being hit by a truck in what she believes was a suicide. Shortly before his death, she had come out to him as a lesbian, whereupon he revealed that he was also gay. Bechdel strikes a great balance between portraying the emotion she felt in the moment and analyzing her past with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and just very well done in every way.

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

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This is also a graphic memoir, and I read this right after Fun Home. Oddly enough, they’re both about relationships with and deaths of parents. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast recounts her relationship with her parents as they lived well into their nineties and slowly began to die of, essentially, their ages. Since dealing with an elderly parent or grandparent is something so many people have experienced, I imagine most people will find this super easy to relate to, even if your parents aren’t hoarders or extremely picky eaters. There are some very poignant moments- towards the end, Roz expresses regret that she and her mother weren’t closer- but despite the grim subject matter, this book is funny more often than not. Her parents seem like characters from a 90s sitcom, for one thing, and although dementia is a very sad thing, sometimes all you can do is laugh at it. And it’s hard not to laugh when Roz’s mother starts telling stories about things that never happened, like her mother-in-law trying to kill her. One thing that did surprise me is that Roz’s husband and kids are very rarely mentioned in the book. On one hand, I like that she kept the focus on her relationship with her parents (particularly since she’s an only child, which makes the family dynamics a bit less complicated), but on the other hand, it would have been interesting to hear about how her parents influenced her own approaches to marriage and parenting. I’m now two-for-two with graphic memoirs, so if anyone knows of some other good ones, send some recommendations my way, won’t you?

 

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

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What an unexpectedly gorgeous book. It has one of the most tragic premises imaginable- the night before her daughter’s wedding, June loses her daughter, her daughter’s fiance, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend in a gas leak that destroys her home. (I wonder if the Madonna Badger story was the inspiration?) But rather than focusing on either the tragedy itself or on June’s life after it, Clegg uses multiple first- and third-person narrators to show us the wider view. We learn all of the backstory that brought the characters to the moment where everything literally exploded, and it’s done with just enough detail to make it moving but not sappy. It also manages, in a way that’s amazingly devoid of cliche, to convey hope in the end. In short, this was beautifully written- well done, Bill Clegg!

 

My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

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This was the best young adult book I read last year. Basically, there’s a teenage boy with a ten-year-old sister he’s sure is a sociopath, although no one seems to believe him. It keeps you in suspense throughout, and while it’s clearly building toward something big, the specifics of it aren’t easy to predict. I also really liked that the love interest is a liberal Christian with two moms- it’s super rare to see a portrayal of that kind of Christianity in fiction.

 

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

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Looking over these, I have a lot of really dark and depressing books as favorites. Yeesh! But here’s one that was much lighter. It’s a fun concept- two teenagers in 1996 log onto AOL and are able to see themselves on Facebook 15 years in the future. It strikes a tone that a lot of YA books miss- funny without being a straight-up comedy, romantic without being fluff- and it mostly stays away from high school cliches. And I laughed at a lot of the moments when they don’t understand life in the next century (they’re very confused about why people say they miss Pluto and don’t know what texting is).

 

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

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Mara Wilson is freaking awesome. As a little kid, she was famous for acting in movies like Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Miracle on 34th Street, but as an adult, she’s famous for being cool on the Internet. If you’re familiar with her writing, this book is just as funny, touching, and well-written as you’d expect. One really surprising thing is how easy a lot of her stories are to relate to. No, most of us weren’t on movie sets as young children, but Mara shares stories about girl drama in high school (over show choir, hilariously) and awkwardness around cute guys that most of us can see ourselves in. But there’s plenty of on-set stories, too. If you’re looking for any Hollywood dirt, you won’t find it- while there’s a lot about the pressure they put on people to look a certain way, she actually has nothing but nice things to say about her old co-stars, especially Danny DeVito. (I was fairly indifferent towards him before, but she shares some really sweet stories about him here.) Mara has had to deal with some adversity that has nothing to do with acting- tragically, her mother died of breast cancer when Mara was eight, and she also suffers from severe OCD and some other mental illnesses. But this book has a lot of funny moments and Mara has a great knack for succinctly summing up truths about life. I saw her speak at a book signing when this first came out, and I’m happy to report that she’s also really funny and engaging in person.

 

What were your favorite books of last year?

I Read Books: About Dating

I’m starting a new feature here- “I Read Books.” I have a tendency to read, close together, groups of books that have something in common, so I’m starting this to share my reviews of what I read, grouped into categories.

 

As a chronic singleton who’s been actively dating for about seven years, I sometimes look to other people’s experiences for advice. Since it’s Valentine’s Day month, I’m kicking this series off with books about dating and relationships. Actually, I’m pretty sure I read most of these around this time last year.

 

Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date by Katie Heaney

 

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I don’t know if everyone would love this book, but I sure did. I am another Katie H. who has always been single and I could relate to so much of what she writes about here- liking guys who like other girls, crushing from afar but not doing anything about it, not realizing when guys are trying to flirt with you. Even though she’s a few years younger than me, her pop culture reference points, as she takes us through her life from elementary school until her twenties, resonated- I laughed out loud on the T when she discussed the incredibly flawed premise of the game Dream Phone and there’s a fantastic chapter about awful online dating messages. But even though she hasn’t found a boyfriend yet, this book is very light, happy, and optimistic. And before the end of the book I realized that Katie kind of has found the love of her life- her best friend and roommate, Rylee. Not in a romantic sense, more like Billy Mack realizing at the end of Love Actually that he people he loves is, in fact, the manager who’s always with him. Rylee, who always has a boyfriend, is a constant source of support and friendship, and as someone whose friendships have sustained her and kept her from complete loneliness, I get how valuable that is.

 

It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel

 

This book actually does a really good job giving hope to single people, and that’s not easy. The author was single for a long time before meeting her husband in her late thirties and based on her own experiences and those of her friends and other women who remained single until later than average, she goes through all the reasons women are told they can’t find love and tells you why you shouldn’t listen to them. She actually makes sense. Think about it—it’s not because you’re too independent or too picky or have low self-esteem. You’re single because you haven’t met the right person yet—period.

She throws in some Buddhist teachings to back up a lot of it, and it’s a bit distracting, but this was a quick and comforting read. Seriously, every single woman should read this.

 

The Unhooked Generation: The Truth about Why We’re Still Single by Jillian Straus

I actually read this book a few years ago, but last year I bought it and re-read it. Jillian interviewed a bunch of urban, single, heterosexual people she identifies as “Gen X-ers” (so it’s a teeny bit dated, but it’s all relevant for millennials as well) and found a bunch of patterns that have contributed to people remaining unmarried longer: unrealistic expectations, unwillingness to work to make the relationship better, “multiple choice culture” that prioritizes keeping options open, fear of divorce, etc. There are a ton of anecdotes from the people she interviewed as well as Jillian herself, but just when you start to get depressed and wonder how you’ll ever meet anyone, she includes a chapter on couples who did make it work and explains why. And now she has personal experience to back it up—turns out Jillian met her husband while she was researching this book.

The tips she gives at the end make sense. They’re not the easiest to follow—“burn your checklist”? My checklist is a mile long!—but they’re based on what works, and often what doesn’t work is couples expecting perfection without putting forth the effort to make the relationship better.

Speaking of checklists…

 

Data: A Love Story by Amy Webb

Amy Webb certainly had one. And not just things like being a non-smoker or wanting kids—things like which specific musicals she wanted her future husband to like. After a bad breakup, she decided to try online dating, and after a bunch of the terrible dates that most online daters are accustomed to, she decided to get very specific about what she was looking for, eventually coming up with seventy-two criteria. She narrowed those down to the most important, assigned point values to each trait, and used those to determine whom to go out with. She also analyzed the algorithms of the site she was using to determine how to get better matches, partly by creating some fake male profiles to see which women they were shown. Eventually, she met the man who became her husband.

I don’t know if the tricks Amy used would work for everyone, but there are still some good ideas in here—include “girl” in your username, show some skin in your profile picture, don’t mention too much about work because most people don’t like to think about work, etc. And it’s definitely worth considering that fewer dates with guys you’re more enthusiastic about is better than a larger number of bad dates. Aside from that, though, this is just enjoyable to read as a memoir. The writing has a funny, laid-back tone and there was a lot I could relate to— I’ve been doing online dating for seven years and it’s been among the most miserable experiences of my life.

Skin in the Game: Unleashing Your Inner Entrepreneur to Find Love by Neely Steinberg

In November of 2013, I went to a particularly demoralizing Match.com Stir event at a bar. Neely was there promoting her dating coach business, and…let’s just say the night ended with me in tears, sobbing to her about how frustrating my dating life was. She was very nice, and when her book came out, I bought it. It’s all about using the same skills that an entrepreneur uses to work on finding a romantic partner. While the book is a bit longer than necessary and could have benefited from more editing, it does make a lot of good points—after all, you’re not going to meet anyone if you just sit around waiting.

 

He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo

Ten years old at this point but still relevant. I bought this book back in college, left it on the coffee table, and went out. While I was out, my roommates picked it up and read it, and when I came home, I was greeted with, “Oh, my God, men are ASSHOLES!” We then all had a spirited discussion of the book they’d all flipped through while I was gone.

The thing is, harsh as it may sound, it saves you time and heartache to realize before things get too serious that a guy just isn’t that into you. It frees you to move on and look for love elsewhere. I don’t agree with everything in it—if he’s not asking you out, it might be that he’s just not that into you, but some men are genuinely shy or afraid of rejection—but most of it is genuinely helpful. Why waste time with a guy who doesn’t think you deserve his time?

 

The interesting thing about these books is that their advice is all different and sometimes different books conflict with each other, but I did find things to take away from all of them. What dating books have you guys read? Any particularly helpful/unhelpful ones?

Things I Loved in 2014

I did a “Things I Loved This Year” post for 2013, and here’s another one of sorts for this year. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m consuming fewer and fewer things that I dislike. I think I’ve just gotten better at realizing what I like. Every book I read this year got at least three stars on Goodreads. I only saw a few new movies and didn’t hate the ones I did see. If I wasn’t getting into a show, I didn’t continue watching it—I stopped watching How to Get Away with Murder after five episodes and didn’t make it past the pilot of The Leftovers. (I did stick with Season 3 of Homeland to see how it ended, but didn’t continue with Season 4.)

Books
If I finish the book I’m currently reading by tomorrow, I’ll have read sixty books this year. I’m going to post more about the books of this past year in future posts, but some highlights were Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas. All YA, interestingly enough. Also, at book signings, I met both Ann M. Martin and Neil Patrick Harris!

Movies
You know, I haven’t seen that many movies yet. All the Oscar movies are coming out now, though, so I’m sure that will change over the next couple of months. So far, I’ve enjoyed Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, both of which are based on books I’ve read.

TV Shows
The Good Wife was a big highlight. So was Jane the Virgin, which is hilarious and adorable. Gina Rodriguez is just really sweet and relatable in the title role, and it reminds me a lot of Ugly Betty. I’ve recently started watching Community, too, and am enjoying it.

Theater
LES MIS. Freaking fantastic. I also saw a production of Into the Woods that got me interested in the movie that just came out (haven’t seen the movie yet), and Finding Neverland when it was in Cambridge—I liked it but didn’t love it. My friends and I also saw both The Book of Mormon and The Lion King in Boston, both great.

Music
I never disliked her, but this year I’ve started to like Taylor Swift more than I anticipated. I think part of it is a backlash-to-the-backlash thing—I’ve never really understood why some people who don’t like her are so vicious towards her. If you don’t like her music, fine, but what has she, as a person, ever done that’s so bad? So I put a lot of energy into defending her, but it was really only this year that I started to like her music.

I also really enjoyed Ramin Karimloo’s solo CD. Speaking of which…

Celebrities
I still love Jon Hamm and Aaron Paul, but Ramin is one of my new favorites. And a late-breaking addition: Trevor Noah, the new Daily Show correspondent, whom I can already tell I’m going to love.

Food
I discovered that almond butter fudge—really just almond butter mixed with coconut oil and frozen—is awesome and healthier than most other desserts. I also started making this awesome cinnamon-apple smoothie.

Update on Life

A lot’s been happening with me recently, and I thought I’d take a minute to recount it here.

 

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that lately I’ve felt really, really lonely. It seems like it’s been weeks since I had a real, honest conversation with someone.

 

So for now, I’ll write about some of the good things that have been happening.

 

First, I bought a car!

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Even though I’m thirty, this is actually the first car I’ve ever owned. I had a car as a teenager, but it was only “mine” for a year, since it became my sister’s after I went to college. I also don’t really enjoy driving and don’t need to drive to get to most places I need to go. But sometimes I do need to get out of the city and I was sick of depending on other people for rides. So now I have this car! I mostly just drive to chorus every week and I drove to Marblehead a few weeks ago to meet my cousin’s cute new baby. But it’s nice having the option to drive places if I have to.

 

Second, I finished my fourth half-marathon!

bay state half marathon

Even writing that is weird. How did I become the kind of person who does four half-marathons? I still do not think of myself as a runner. I’m not an athlete and I’m actually kind of lazy about exercise most of the time. And yet…I just did this fourth half-marathon (the Bay State Half Marathon in Lowell) and got a really good time for me. This is a really flat course (there’s a marathon at the same time, and since it’s so flat, people use it to qualify for Boston- even their advertisements say so) and the weather was perfect and autumn-y, so that’s part of where the good time came from. But I also just feel faster, and while it might be awhile before I do another half, I kind of want to try again and maybe break two hours. It feels possible!

 

Third, I’ve had a couple of fun experiences at book signings lately. The first one was with none other than Neil Patrick Harris! He was doing a signing of his new memoir at Brookline Booksmith, so I got a ticket. None of my friends ended up going, but I made friends with the people around me in line. (Although two of them, who actually ended up being pretty cool once I talked to them, started off their time in line having this really graphic conversation about how someone they knew had an infection and I was dying to say, “Guys, I JUST ATE.”) They were hurrying everyone through the HUGE line as quickly as they could, so there wasn’t time to take a picture with him, but my new line-friends and I took each other’s pictures and sent them to each other.

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I had all these things I was going to say to NPH, like, “Congratulations on the Oscars! Are you going for a hosting EGOT?” (They’d just announced the day before that he was going to be the Oscar host.) Or, “Will you sing ‘The Confrontation’ with me?” But they all flew out of my head and I just ended up saying something like, “Thank you for being here!” and that I liked what I’d read of the book while standing in line. So I don’t think I left much of an impression on NPH, but I’m glad I went.

 

The other book signing experience was last weekend at the Boston Book Festival. You remember my post about the book series I loved as a kid? Well, I was really excited when I learned that Ann M. Martin, the creator of The Baby-Sitters Club, would be there. So of course I went to her panel and got her autograph and a picture with her afterwards! Ten-year-old Katie is so jealous of thirty-year-old Katie. (I met some cool people in that line, too. Lots of interesting people to meet at book signings.)

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I always try to do NaNoWriMo and never succeed. I do have a new idea this year, though, so we’ll see how I do. Some writing completed is always better than nothing, after all. You can friend me there if you want—purebrightfire is my name there.

 

And happy belated Halloween!

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Why E-Readers Are the Devil

I moved about a mile away on May 31 and am loving the roommate-free life so far. Moving is a huge pain, though, and despite my efforts to get rid of as much as possible prior to moving, I still ended up realizing that I have way too much stuff. I do, thankfully, have more space for it in my new space and I’ll be working again to get rid of more of it, but still.

A lot of the stuff I have, though, is books. Here’s what my bookshelves look like AFTER I got rid of the ones I didn’t want:

As much as a pain it was to move six or seven full boxes of them, though, I’m glad I own all these books. I have no intention of being a person whose bookshelves aren’t full.

And I absolutely have no intention of being a person whose books are all contained in an e-reader. As a matter of fact, I think e-readers are the devil.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, but the biggest one is that they are putting bookstores out of business.

Let me repeat that: they are putting bookstores out of business. For book lovers, I don’t know how that’s not the end of the argument right there, but somehow it isn’t. It seems that after years of reading the printed word, book lovers have suddenly found it inconvenientthat books are, you know, objects. With mass. And weight. And apparently, the desires not to carry things under five pounds and for more room in their bags have seduced them towards these bookstore-destroying e-readers.

Back in the days when You’ve Got Mail portrayed big bookstore chains as the enemy, I never imagined that I’d be defending Barnes and Noble as fervently as I have been, but here I am lamenting that aside from college bookstores, there is now exactly one Barnes and Noble in the entire city of Boston. Borders is now long-gone, slain by the e-Reader phenomenon. The Boston area does, at least, have a good number of used and independent bookstores, but I miss having options for book superstores, where you could settle into a chair and read and where you KNEW they’d have the book you were looking for.

There are plenty of other reasons, of course. I don’t think the experience of reading should feel like looking at a computer, which I do all day long at work. You can’t lend eBooks to your friends. You can’t have them signed by your favorite authors at readings. If you have kids, your kids will have no idea what you’re reading if they see you on your Kindle or Nook and won’t ask about it or try to read it themselves. E-readers might spare you some embarrassment if you’re reading 50 Shades of Grey in public, but they also spare you the shared experience of someone else who’s read the book bonding with you. And you can’t hand your favorite eBooks down to your children and grandchildren.

There’s also the matter of Amazon being a bully towards publishers. Here’s what they’ve been doing to Hachette Books recently. If you have a Kindle, you’re supporting this—so for the love of God, at least get a Nook if you absolutely MUST have an e-reader.

I’ll admit that there are a few upsides to e-readers aside from the more-room-in-the-bag thing. eBooks are less expensive to produce, so they allow publishers to release books that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. I actually do have a Nook for PC on my laptop because I wanted to read this book by Lois Duncan, a sequel to Who Killed My Daughter?, which is only available in eBook format. eBooks also help authors because they don’t have to worry about losing money from used book sales.

But that’s it. I can’t warm up to the idea of e-readers because I just keep getting stuck on the bookstore thing. I do not want to live in a world without bookstores. Browsing a bookstore and flipping through pages of a book I haven’t read is one of my greatest pleasures in life. A couple of years ago, Ann Patchett (an author whom I’ve seen speak twice and who is as talented at speaking as she is at writing, which isn’t always the case with famous writers) appeared on The Colbert Report and spoke about how, since her hometown of Nashville no longer had a bookstore, she’d opened one herself. She thought the community needed somewhere to have conversations about books and have story time for kids and get recommendations from actual people. In a wonderful bit of wisdom that applies to so many things besides buying books, she said, “If you never, ever talk to people and you meet all of your needs on the Internet, you wake up one day and you’re the unabomber.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Look, I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you have an e-reader (really, I think more than half the people I know have one), but I am saying that you should think about the consequences of the choices you’re making. Because when bookstores are all gone and buying online is our only option and there’s nowhere to go and browse and we’ve all turned into little unabombers? Well, I hope you enjoy all that extra room in your bag.

10 Books That Stayed with Me

More on books! Two in a month! See, I’m doing better!

Not long ago, Erin posted one of those tag-people things on Facebook where you were supposed to list ten books that had stayed with you in some way. I thought about it, but then decided to write about those ten books here instead. I didn’t just want to list them but also say WHY they stayed with me. So here we go!

Anne of Green Gablesand its sequels by LM Montgomery

This was the absolute first book I thought of. When I was about five, my grandparents gave me the Anne series and my dad read all of them out loud to us until we finished them. I actually have three different copies of Anne of Green Gables, one of which is illustrated.

There’s so much to love about these books. There are so many wonderful characters and I always did identify with Anne—like her, I’m very imaginative, sometimes oversensitive, and have a tendency to get into awkward situations. They’re funny, they’re sad, they’re sweet, and eventually they’re pretty romantic, too. (Gilbert Blythe is one of my literary crushes.) Christiana Krump and I decided that one day we’d go to Prince Edward Island, where LM Montgomery is from and where these books take place, and I will hold her to that!

The Harry Potterbooks by JK Rowling

Not the most original choice, I know, but these books do mean something to me. I think what I marvel at the most when I re-read these books is how thoroughly and completely JK Rowling imagined this world. It’s just so wonderfully detailed. And—I feel like there’s no way to say this without it sounding cheesy, but I’ll try—despite the darkness in the books, especially the later ones, and the deaths of so many characters, I find these books more uplifting than sad and more about love driving out hate than just good-over-evil. The summer the last book came out, I was struggling with a lot of personal things, but the anticipation of Deathly Hallows coming out was one thing keeping me going.

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman

I probably recommend this book more than any other and it might be my most frequently re-read book. I talked about it in this post and I honestly think any girl would like it. It’s funny and incredibly easy to relate to—and also, all feminist writers should take lessons from Susan Jane Gilman. She manages to make her feminist views clear without coming off as obnoxious or preachy, and the title is actually a reference to how she caved on wearing a traditional white wedding dress, then decided that it might be the most subversive thing she could do.

Joy School by Elizabeth Berg

I love this book so much. I love Elizabeth Berg in general, but this was the first book I read by her. It’s the second in a series of books about a thirteen-year-old girl named Katie in the early 1960s, although you can read the books out of order and not miss anything. (Yes, I’d love it even if I didn’t share a name with the main character.) Katie’s mother has died, her father is distant and sometimes angry, she’s trying to make friends at a new school, and she’s in love with a man who’s much older—and married. She’s just such a sweet, funny, lovable character and Berg’s writing style is so heartfelt and unpretentious.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

As annoying as Jonathan Franzen is as a person, he is a brilliant writer. I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2001 and have re-read it several times since. Every time, I pick up on some little detail or nuance that I didn’t before. It’s about a family originally from the fictional Midwestern city of St. Jude whose septuagenarian matriarch, Enid, hopes to reunite everyone for Christmas. Enid’s husband, Alfred, is struggling with Parkinson’s disease and other health problems. Their three adult children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, all have different versions of unhappiness in their lives. Gary is a husband and father denying, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he’s clinically depressed. Chip, after being fired from his job as a college professor for sleeping with a student, goes to Lithuania to defraud American investors. And Denise is a chef who sleeps with her boss…after she’s already started sleeping with his wife. I think what I love the most is how real the characters feel. They’re often difficult and unlikeable, but you identify with them nevertheless. I hope one day I’m half as good a writer as Franzen with none of the snobbery.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

My first few years out of college, when I was still getting used to the 9-5 office life, I really started to like any fiction that was about work. This book, which is written in first person plural and about an advertising agency facing layoffs, was something I really connected with—particularly referring to what the office’s collective “we” thinks and does and feels. It’s probably something that will have the most appeal to someone who does work in an office, but I think most people can identify with the strange camaraderie that develops in the workplace—some people you like, some people you don’t really like but form a weird bond with anyway, and the way workplaces facing tough times go through everything together.

The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker

I’ve written about this book before because the whole concept of it stuck with me so strongly. One of the main characters, Mary Beth, is a song reader. People come to her and tell her the songs that have been stuck in their heads, and the lines in particular that have been sticking out for them. By making sense of why those songs are there, she can make sense of what’s going on in their lives. But when the secrets she reveals through the songs turn ugly, a greater realization comes about: the only person whose subconscious Mary Beth will not explore is her own. As she sinks slowly into a depression, secrets about Mary Beth and her family come to light, and they must learn how to deal with them. The novel takes place in a small Missouri town in the early 1980s and is narrated by Mary Beth’s teenage sister, Leeann.

This book is a rarity: a lyrically written book with an interesting premise and very compelling characters but an equally compelling plot as well. The people Tucker writes about seem very real and she fleshes them out nicely. But although there are no car chases or murder mysteries, the plot is full of surprises and always keeps you guessing. I didn’t want to put it down. I think this is particularly admirable because Tucker could, conceivably, have taken her unusual premise and done something really simplistic with it, like tack on a mystery or a romance. But her approach is more subtle, and ultimately more rewarding. In the end, this book isn’t really about song reading, but about family, love, forgiveness, redemption, legacy, the weight of guilt, and the necessity of knowing and loving oneself.

To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee

You’ve almost definitely read this—I mean, who didn’t in freshman English class? But this is one high school English class book that I will gladly re-read on my own. Atticus Finch is just such a fantastic character and it’s such a wonderful, moving story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I sometimes feel like my life didn’t really begin until college. Nothing interesting had ever happened to me, and there was just so little that I knew about the world beyond my personal experience until then. This popular young adult novel, which I first read between my freshman and sophomore years of college, stuck with me partly because it made me reflect on a lot of things that had happened over the previous year. It’s about a quiet high school freshman named Charlie making new friends and learning how to come out of his shell and participate more in life. It says more about where I was in life when I read it than it does about the book, I think, but it might be the most thought-provoking thing I’ve ever read.

Twenty-Something Essays by Twenty-Something Writers

My first year out of college, I just stumbled across this book and bought it. Now I re-read it almost as much as Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. As the title suggests, it is a book of essays written by authors in their twenties. Two of them, both excellent, are written by BC grads (Marisa McCarthy and Luke Mullins). Mary Beth Ellis writes about her struggle with OCD. Eula Biss, taking a cue from Joan Didion, writes about the tribulations and loneliness of living in New York City. Emma Black writes about her first year teaching elementary school. Katherine Dykstra’s essay is about volunteering with low-income children while also writing an article about a luxury hotel. Elrena Evans writes about having a baby during grad school. Eli James, in one of the funniest essays, writes about trying to find a drummer for his band. Mary Kate Frank writes about the indignity of having to move back in with her parents after a series of bad decisions. Joey Franklin, in the winning essay, writes about working at Wendy’s while finishing school and taking care of a young son. Jennifer Glaser’s essay about losing her boyfriend to leukemia is heartbreaking. Kathleen Rooney, a graduate of the Emerson MFA program, writes about her career as an artist’s model.

And those are just some of the great essays in this book. It’s a great compilation of a wide variety of twenty-something experiences, and when I finished it I remember feeling like I’d made a lot of new friends. I hoped that Random House, who sponsored the essay contest, would run it again so I could submit something, but they never did.

 

Books of 2013

I don’t know why I always let so much time go by between my book posts. I am constantly reading- almost never leave the house without a book, in fact.

I read 42 books this year—which might be a lot for some people, but I’m feeling like a slacker after learning that Kirsti read 168. Yeesh! After seeing Schindler’s List, I became really interested in the true story behind it and read a lot of books on the subject. I also read some books on theology, and there were some books I re-read, among them The Book Thief, Olive Kitteridge, and The Imperfectionists. Some books I disliked (really didn’t like Death Comes to Pemberley), but there were many others I loved. Here are the highlights:

Hyperbole and a Halfby Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh is my favorite blogger of all time. She’s hilarious and super-talented and seems like such a cool person. She also took an extended break from the Internet due to severe depression, so I was happy when she emerged upon publication of her book. I’m thrilled that this book has been so successful and even more thrilled that her depression is now under control.

Anyway, the book is about half stories from her blog and half new content. Among the highlights of the new content are one new story about finding a letter she wrote to her future self as a child and another about her mom taking her and her sister into the woods when they were kids and getting lost. We also learn more about the Helper Dog (Simple Dog gets the most coverage on the blog). One caveat—there’s one story from her blog that was previously unillustrated, and I refuse to read it on the blog or in the book because it’s about a goose getting into her house, which is my worst nightmare. I’m even more scared of geese than Allie is of spiders. So that story might be the funniest one in the whole book, but I will never know.

Anyway, highly recommended. While I was reading it, I spent a couple of days being the crazy person on the T because this book was making me laugh every two seconds.

The Disaster Artistby Greg Sestero

You know of my enormous affection for the glorious, awful wonder that is The Room. This year, Greg Sestero, who played Mark (oh hai Mark), wrote a book with Tom Bissell, who had written about The Room in Vanity Fair. It’s all about how he met Tommy Wiseau and the making of The Room, and it’s just as insane as you think it is. It’s very well-written, so I suspect that Bissell did most of the actual writing, but the memories Sestero supplies are priceless. I can totally imagine Tommy Wiseau saying all the book’s dialogue with his crazy accent. One thing I didn’t expect, though—I actually came away feeling bad for Tommy Wiseau. We still don’t know everything about his background at the end of the book, but we do know that he’s lonely and longs for acceptance. Even so, the book is hilarious and a must-read for anyone who’s seen The Room.

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Man, this book unfolded in a way I didn’t expect. It’s a young adult novel that I’d vaguely heard of awhile ago and decided to read based on the eye-catching title. In the late 1940s, fifteen-year-old Evie travels from New York to Palm Beach, Florida with her mother and her stepfather, who recently returned from World War II. Once there, she meets and falls in love with a handsome young soldier who served with her stepfather in Europe. Gradually, secrets start to be revealed, and…you know, I hesitate to say too much else because it’s so unpredictable. Evie is a very sympathetic narrator, and the mood, although it’s two decades earlier, reminded me a bit of Mad Men—lots old-fashioned glamour, but also lots of ugliness lurking beneath the surface.

The Receptionistby Janet Groth

Speaking of Mad Men, I hadn’t even heard of this book until I stumbled across it in the bookstore and noticed a blurb on the front comparing it to Mad Men. Great job, publicity department, because Season 6 of Mad Men had just ended and I was looking for a fix. I found that the description was pretty accurate. Janet was the receptionist at The New Yorker for twenty years and met a lot of interesting people. Is it the most fascinating story in the world? No. But there is lots of literary name-dropping, glimpses into office life in the 1950s and 60s, and an identifiable story about trying to make it in New York as a young woman. It’s actually more about her personal growth than it is about The New Yorker, which is what I liked the most.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

I’ve read all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, and they’re all very character-driven and episodic, with sections like novellas with large gaps in time between them. This one is completely different—it’s much more plot-driven and has only one straight storyline. It also has an element of magical realism to it that none of her other books have. The narrator, Kate, and her twin sister Violet have had a degree of psychic ability since childhood, but Kate has been trying to put the ability out of her mind as she goes on with life as a stay-at-home mom of young children in St. Louis. Then Violet appears on TV, saying that an earthquake will hit St. Louis on a certain date. In the ensuing media frenzy, Kate feels her own psychic ability returning and reflects back on their sometimes painful childhood.

This book kept me guessing right up until the end. Kate is actually not a very sympathetic character, but the book is still very well-written with a very tight plot.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette was a respected architect whose greatest accomplishment has been destroyed. Now she’s an agoraphobic wife of a Microsoft bigwig whose life consists of driving her intelligent teenage daughter to and from school, having tasks completed by a virtual assistant in India, and fighting with an obnoxious neighbor. As a reward for perfect grades, she and her husband are taking her daughter Bee on a promised trip to Antarctica, but as stresses in her life accumulate, she disappears before the trip.

Based on the plot, you would think this book would be all dramatic and serious, but it’s actually really funny. It’s mostly told through emails but somehow manages to be full of action despite that. It also takes place in a wealthy Seattle suburb where a lot of people work at Microsoft and the author gets in plenty of digs at that company.

The Fault in Our Starsby John Green

When I was about twelve, I loved Lurlene McDaniel’s sappy novels about teenagers dying of horrible diseases. This book, amazingly, is like John Green took a plot from Lurlene McDaniel and rewrote it so that it was actually a good book. The narrator, Hazel, is a teenage girl with cancer who meets and falls in love with a fellow cancer patient named Augustus. What follows is a plot remarkably free of cliché that involves the two of them planning a trip to the Netherlands to get answers from a crochety old author about the fate of characters in a book they’ve read—but that also involves tragedy.

I read on the T a lot, but this book was only the second one ever to make me cry on public transportation (The Book Thief was the first). John Green is an awesome young adult author—I haven’t read An Abundance of Katherines yet, but I enjoyed Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. All of his other narrators have been teenage boys, and in this book I discovered that for someone who never was a teenage girl, he writes them very well.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan has quickly become one of my favorite authors (and I got to meet her at the Boston Book Festival—she was very nice!). Her previous books Commencement and Maine were great, but I think this one is my favorite. There are five stories involving five characters in very different circumstances: a woman in the 1970s who, after finding love twice, is distraught by her son’s impending divorce; a paramedic in the 1980s who wants to buy his wife a ring despite his financial struggles; a French expatriate in New York in 2003 having doubts about her whirlwind romance with a younger man; a happily partnered but unmarried woman in 2012 attending her cousin’s same-sex wedding; and Frances Gerety, the real-life 1940s copywriter who coined the slogan, “A diamond is forever.” Marriage, weddings, and diamond rings permeate all these stories, but we don’t find out the common thread in them until the end of the book. It’s full of memorable characters, and the true story of Frances is especially interesting. (She was like a real-life Peggy Olson!) I read the whole thing on the plane home from Ireland and absolutely loved it.

Run by Ann Patchett

I have a weakness for books set in Boston. In this one, the widowed former mayor of Boston and his two adopted young adult sons are involved in an accident on a snowy day that ends with a stranger being injured trying to save them. When they find out who the injured woman is…well, I won’t spoil you, but that’s what leads to the rest of the plot, which takes place over twenty-four hours.

This is both a compliment and a criticism of this book: I wanted more. It’s such an interesting set-up, and I read that Ann Patchett had originally intended for it to cover a longer period of time but ended up cutting it down for space purposes. That’s a shame, because most of the flaws stem from not having enough room to expand on things. The characters are all very nice people, but except for the mayor’s biological son, they needed more complexity. I also think it didn’t go deep enough into racial issues (the mayor’s adopted sons, way too obviously named Tip and Teddy, are black while the mayor is white and Irish). But I was completely absorbed in the book when I read it and just wanted more story and more of the characters when it was over. One other thing—I appreciate how it portrays Catholicism as an instrument for good, which is hard to find in fiction.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Poetic language isn’t usually my thing, but this book was so gorgeous and had so much heart and soul go into the writing that it won me over. Short on plot but long on character, description, and contemplation, it’s about a septuagenarian minister in the early 1950s writing to his young son and looking back at his life as he realizes that he may soon die. His articulate words on faith, love, and family moved me and stayed with me for a long time. I think it’s hard to write a main character who’s sympathetic and deeply religious without turning the book into a sermon, but Robinson has managed to do it. I can’t wait to read her book Home, a companion book to Gilead that focuses on some of Gilead’s supporting characters.

Things I Loved This Year

I’ll do another post about the events of last year, and I’m going to do some more substantial posts later on books, movies, and TV, at least, but I wanted to do this post on some of the things that I enjoyed the most this year. Without further ado:

Books

October was my book month. Two books I’d been anticipating for a long time were published that month—Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Halfbook and The Disaster Artist, a book about the making of The Room by Greg Sestero, who played Mark. I also attended the Boston Book Festival, where I had conversations with J. Courtney Sullivan, Tom Perrotta, and Hallie Ephron. I read many other wonderful books throughout the year, and I’ll blog about them more in a future entry, but some highlights include John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Movies

The best movie I saw for the first time this year actually came out twenty years ago—Schindler’s List. I don’t know how I made it to this year without ever having seen this movie. And…wow. I have such a hard time talking about this movie because I’m not sure I can in a way that does it justice. It completely deserves the reputation it has—I will say that. And the very end has me in tears every time. (I’ve seen it quite a few times since I first saw it in August, most recently last night at Erin’s. Yep, our super-fun movie night was with a three-hour movie about the Holocaust.) It also motivated me to learn more about the real story behind it, so I’ve now read several books about Oscar Schindler and the Jews on the list- so many that I could tell where writers got their sources from. And there’s so much more I want to say about this movie that I’m not sure how to say, but just know that it profoundly affected me.

Future entry coming about the movies that actually came out in 2013.

TV

The two TV shows I caught up with this year that I loved the most could not be more opposite. Parks and Recreation is this happy, upbeat show about nice people doing good things. Breaking Bad is a dark, tense show about an increasingly evil guy doing increasingly terrible things. They’re at opposite ends of this TV mood scale, but I loved them both so much- Parks and Rec because it’s funny and sweet and I enjoy all the characters, Breaking Bad because it’s incredibly well-written and acted and basically a masterpiece. (Yes, I’ve seen this clip.)

I also started watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report regularly for the first time. The week of the marathon bombing, I desperately needed something to make me laugh. Previously, I’d only watched these shows sporadically, but after that week I put them both on my DVR. They keep me sane.

Music

I didn’t listen to much new music this year. I did listen to a LOT of U2. I’ve always liked them, but over the summer I started listening to them kind of obsessively and discovered some songs I hadn’t heard before or re-discovered songs I hadn’t listened to enough. As for new music, I enjoyed Sara Bareilles’s The Blessed Unrest, especially her song “I Choose You.”

Theater

Aside from the very welcome news that Les Miserables is coming back to Broadway next year, there was a lot of good theater in my life this year. I traveled to New York to see Lucky Guy on Broadway, which was wonderful and moving and…there’s so much I could say about it and maybe I will in a future post. I saw Wicked for the second time. I saw a local production of Les Mis. I also saw a great play in the fall called The Power of Duff.

Technology

Two devices have massively improved my life this year. I bought a Roku, allowing me to stream Netflix and Hulu on my TV, and it’s been fantastic. (Future post about everything I’ve been watching via Roku.) I also finally caved and got my first smartphone, which was a good decision. I’d always been afraid I’d end up spending too much time online if I had the Internet on my phone, but that hasn’t really happened. Plus, now I know when the bus is coming.

Celebrities

My two biggest celebrity crushes this year are both guys on AMC shows- Jon Hamm and Aaron Paul. It’s kind of interesting- with guys in real life, I’ve never been attracted to good-looking jerks, and I realized this year that even with celebrities, there’s a personality element present with everyone I like. Jon Hamm, I am convinced, is a perfect human being. I could look at him all day, and I think it’s a travesty that he doesn’t have an Emmy yet. But even if, for some strange reason, you’re not into his looks or his acting, you have to love him after this. And this. And this.

Aaron Paul (who does have two well-deserved Emmys), is possibly the most adorable person on the planet. I love him on Breaking Bad, where he played one of my favorite TV characters of all time, but he seems like such a sweet person, too. Read this. And this. And watch this clip of him on The Price Is Right before he was famous, because it’s hilarious. And look at his Twitter and his Instagram, from which I have learned that he really loves his wife and he really loves pizza.

Food
When Pigs Fly bread is the best kind of bread, and it’s awesome when you toast it and spread avocado on it.

Remember that if you take nothing else away from this post.

Happy New Year, all!

On Love and Deserving

Warning: herein lie spoilers for the movie The Town, Season 4 of Gilmore Girls, and the novel Driver’s Ed.

I started thinking of all my associations with the words “love” and “deserving” when used together.

Here’s one—this lovely song by Lori McKenna (possibly the subject of a future Katie Recommends):

[spotify id=”spotify:track:0p5x6zmXBjXdQ0bVcvMPhm” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]

Here’s another—the cheesy book and self-help tape Luke listens to on Gilmore Girls (which, laughable as it is, does help him realize that he’s in love with Lorelai). I can’t find the clip where the tape says, “You deserve love,” but here’s another one that includes the tape.

But here’s another, the one I think of most often. A few years ago, I’d just seen the movie The Town and hadn’t really liked it. My biggest issue with it was that when the female lead discovers that the guy she’s been seeing is the same guy who traumatized her by kidnapping her at gunpoint during a bank robbery, she still wants to be with him. I did not buy that for a minute, and shared that thought with some co-workers at lunch one day. One co-worker, who’d seen the movie and liked it, was surprised. “But she loved him!” she said.

“Some people don’t deserve love,” I countered.

And I’ll never forget the look on her face. She looked like I’d slapped her—as if, with an offhand comment about a character in a movie, I’d hurt her personally.

But I meant it when I said it. I really did believe that not everyone deserved love. Everyone deserves to be loved by their parents and families, but does everyone deserve romantic love?

I have a lot of friends who have fallen for lousy guys when they deserve much better. It’s frustrating to see your friends continue to see and to respond to jerks, and my response, more than once, has been that guys like that don’t deserve love. Not that they don’t deserve the love of my awesome friends—that they don’t deserve love, period.

But how far does that theory go? If a fictional bank robber/kidnapper doesn’t deserve love, what about real people? Do murderers deserve love? Rapists? Domestic abusers? Cheaters? Do genocidal dictators deserve love? If you do a terrible thing, should your karmic punishment be the permanent loss of romantic love?

This almost seems like a set-up to a discussion of religion, but my thoughts here aren’t quite so high-minded. Honestly, I’m thinking about myself—someone who has never received romantic love from anyone. Someone who has no firsthand experience with the emotion they sing about in so many songs, that drives the plot of so many of my favorite movies. Someone who, most of the time, tries very hard not to talk too much, in this blog and in real life, about how frustrating my lack of success at dating has been—but someone whose psychic real estate is largely occupied by thoughts on that subject. It’s been getting worse and worse now that I’m twenty-nine and have spent the entirety of my life single and without romantic love. I worry every single day that I will never have the things I want the most—despite trying as hard as I can to meet someone who will help me get those things.

It’s very hard not to wonder what is so wrong with me and to come up with things that are wrong. I am by far the least attractive girl in my group of friends. When I was on vacation in Florida back in August, I had a hard time looking at myself when I was on the beach with three much thinner friends. I’m not getting any younger. And I am, as I’ve mentioned before, not a very nice person, and my success at disguising that fact varies. I’ve always wished I could be one of those people whom EVERYONE likes, but I’ve already failed at that—there are more than a few people who actively dislike me, maybe even hate me, and I have to take responsibility for that. I’m not even sure why I still have any friends at all.

And I guess this has all been a roundabout way to this realization: I’m not always sure that I deserve love. I know nothing productive can come from this way of thinking, but there it is. When trying to find someone has been this discouraging, I find myself thinking—what do I really have to offer a potential boyfriend that no other girl can? With so many awesome single girls out there, why would anyone ever want to be with me? Do I really deserve that kind of love?

Maybe I don’t. But maybe no one does. Because this brings me to my final association with the words “love” and “deserving” –a quote from the young adult novel Driver’s Ed by Caroline B. Cooney. In the book, two teenagers have confessed to stealing a stop sign, which resulted in a fatal accident. At the very end, one of them says to his father that he doesn’t think he deserves love. His father says that he’s right—he doesn’t deserve love:

“That’s the thing about love,” said his father, wrapping a Christmas arm around his son. “Nobody deserves it. Love just is.”

 

I think that might be closer to the truth about love and deserving than anything else.

Some Good Things

It’s been a bit since my last post, and I’ll write about something more interesting pretty soon. Sometimes it’s hard to find things to write about when life is good. Which it is right now, I’m happy to report. Not because of one huge reason (I’m still single, sadly), but lots of things are going right lately. And it can be obnoxious to talk about how great your life is (see this article!), but on a blog about my life, I do want to share what’s going on with me.

So here are some reasons I’ve been happy lately:

-One of my goals for the year was to write more fiction, and I have. A long time ago, I used to try submitting short stories to magazines, but after awhile I just…stopped. Until this year, when I started submitting a couple of stories around. Recently, I found out that one of them was accepted! My short story “Things You Don’t Know I Know about You” is forthcoming in The Sierra Nevada Review, and it will be out in May. Yea!

-I made my sales goal at work, which means I’m getting a bonus in a couple of months.

-I completed a 10K yesterday and got a good time for me! I finished in 53:29, which is a 8:37 pace, faster than I usually run.

-I’ve been better lately about exercising and not eating crap.

-My roommate and I got a better Internet connection. I then joined Netflix, and then I bought a Roku. The Roku has massively improved my life. I’m now catching up with TV shows I should have been watching. Parks and Recreation is now one of my new favorites—I’ll do a post in the near future about everything I’ve been catching up with. Breaking Bad is probably next.

-But I’m not starting Breaking Bad until baseball is over because RED SOX IN THE ALCS WOO!

-It’s fall and the weather is lovely and I recently went apple picking because YEA NEW ENGLAND.

-I’ve picked up a little side project editing college essays for high school kids, and I’m enjoying it.

-The Boston Book Festival is coming up this weekend- I’ve meant to go every other year, but have always been busy. This is the first year I’m making it.

-BC’s football team still isn’t great, but they’re at least better than they were last year.

-I saw a great play called The Power of Duff last weekend. After I see a good play, it makes me want to see [Allie Brosh] ALL the theater! [/Allie Brosh] So maybe there’s more theater for me in the near future.

-Speaking of Allie Brosh, her book is coming out at the end of the month!

-My friends are awesome, although that’s not new.

-My furry friend is also awesome.