I’m a VCCA Fellow!

I am honored to have been named a VCCA Fellow for 2021!

In late October, I will embark on a two-week residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Mt. St. Angelo, Virginia. VCCA hosts writers, visual artists, and composers, providing them with three meals a day plus private studio space to work. I will be in residence along with 24 other Fellows.

The idea of having two weeks to myself to write is, frankly, mind-boggling. I couldn’t do this without Al, of course, and my mom, and our babysitter, Janelle, who will all be taking excellent care of Lucia, Ewan, and Calla while I am gone. The kids are bummed on my behalf that I am going to miss Halloween and my birthday (shh, don’t tell them that I do not care!).

This residency is coming at a perfect time, as I come off of two great writing conferences: Community of Writers, in June, and Bread Loaf, in August. These conferences have energized me, helping me to breathe new life into existing projects. I am bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm, and can’t wait to have uninterrupted time to work.

Back to humor writing

It’s been a while since I’ve done any humor writing. For six years, I wrote humorous (I think!) recaps of trash television shows for the now-defunct Previously.TV, but when I started focusing more on short fiction, I put humor writing aside. I missed making fun of the dummies on reality television, but I wasn’t being paid to do so anymore, so… you know. But recently, a weird (and very stupid!) idea for a short humor piece, inspired by the überdumm The Bachelor, came to me and I decided to bring it to fruition, and voila! I give you: I Am Your Bachelor, and I Am Also Running to Be Your Governor, published in Points in Case. Enjoy!

My year in reading: 2020

2020 was a YEAR, wasn’t it? I started off the year with the ambitious goal of reading 70 books. Cute of me, in retrospect. I ended the year having started 71 books, but only finishing 54. Womp-womp. In most years, I would have been disappointed in falling so short of a stated goal, even one as arbitrary as number of books read, but by the end of 2020, my attitude was, basically, “F*** it.” (Which has been a helpful overall life mantra as I’ve navigated through the flaming pile of chaos that was 2020!) I’m happy I read any books at all, this year, frankly.

Failing to meet my goal also forced me to reevaluate the wisdom of setting numbers-based reading goals. Yes, I only read 54 books in 2020, whereas in 2019, I read 66 books, but I read 20,151 pages in 2020, as opposed to a measly 17,837 pages in 2019. So, there. But you know what? I wish I hadn’t read so many pages or finished as many books as I did this year, because this year, more than other years, I forced myself to finish books (often quite long books) that just were not working for me. And I regret that! I should have taken my own advice about not finishing books, because I wasted time and brain-space in a year in which I had neither resource to spare. In 2021, I resolve to quit books earlier, and/or to skim more liberally when necessary. Onward!

Now, for some of my faves and not-so-faves. (Please note, as always, that only some, not all, of these books actually came out in 2020).

Best novel: tie between Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi, and Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips. (NB: I will talk your ear off about either of these books, if given the slightest chance. Please read them. They are both gorgeous and wonderful and precious and make me want to be a better writer/burn everything I’ve ever written in a bonfire).

Best memoir: Tie between Wild Game, by Adrienne Brodeur and Empty, by Susan Burton

Best journalistic non-fiction: Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker

Best book about writing: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

Most eye-opening/life-changing: Quit Like a Woman, by Holly Whitaker

Most overhyped: Tie between The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett and Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino

Most enraging: 28 Summers, by Elin Hilderbrand (NB: I hated this book with such a fiery passion that I’m almost grateful to Hilderbrand for writing it and creating characters that were so gratifying to want the absolute worst for).

Best series: the Jackson Brodie mysteries, by Kate Atkinson

Long book I wish I hadn’t finished: SO MANY CONTENDERS, but tie between The Outsider, by Stephen King (577 pages), and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (506 pages)

Book I really am gonna finish in 2021: Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

For more of my thoughts and notes, feel free to check out my handy Google spreadsheet!

What were the best books you read in 2020? Any great ones I missed? Hit me up!

My year in reading: 2019

At the beginning of 2018, I started tracking my reading using Google Docs, and I haven’t stopped. Tracking my reading has become fun, even addictive, and it’s spurred me to read even more than I already was. And, despite what my husband might tell me when I’m up past my bedtime devouring a book, more reading is, as Martha Stewart would say, A Good Thing.

Before I dive into a discussion of my favorite books that I read in 2019, a quick peek at the nuts and bolts of my year in reading. As I mentioned, I read more in 2019 than I did in 2018. In 2018, I read 47 books (some of which I discussed here). In 2019, I read 66 books (and I finished one on January 1, 2020, which does not count towards my total)! All in all, this amounted to over 17,000 pages of reading completed. Not too shabby, if you ask me!

One of the most interesting new trends in my reading life in 2019 was how many books I borrowed from the library. In 2018, I did not use my library card even once, mostly because it was too much of a hassle to get myself physically to my local branch (see: children, laziness). In 2019, though, I discovered the life-changing Libby app and used it to borrow 44 out of the 67 books I completed (plus some others that I didn’t finish). This genius little app has saved me a lot of money and has allowed me to try books that I might not have been willing to shell out for. Borrowing books also takes the sting out of not finishing ones that simply aren’t for me. I can happily return an unfinished book to the library (digitally, of course) and let some other reader have at it.

Speaking of books I didn’t finish, there were quite a few. Among them: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. My reasons for not finishing these and other books are included in my reading notes, which can be found in my Google Doc here.

Now, onto just a few of my favorites that I read in 2019 (NB: not all of these books came out in 2019; in fact, many of them are pretty old).

Number one favorite: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. My review here.

Runner-up favorite: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

Best memoir: Tie between Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb

Most surprising: Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Most practical: The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman

Most overrated: Tie between Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid and Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney

Best mystery: Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Best thriller: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Creepiest: Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin

Best non-memoir non-fiction: Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Best sci-fi/fantasy: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

And, of course, my least favorite read, which I joyfully did not finish, was Dare Me, by Megan Abbott. What an utter stinker. (Sorry, Megan Abbott, if you’re reading this (you’re not). I liked some of your other books but this one really REALLY did not work for me).

You can read more of my thoughts on all of the books I picked up this year on my Google Doc or on my Goodreads profile. We are now three days into 2020 and I’ve already finished two books and am midway into a third, so I’m hoping I can blow through my reading record for 2019 this year. Happy new year and happy reading!

Shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner-Wisdom short story competition

Today I found out, rather belatedly, that my short story “Fourteen Meals” was shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner-Wisdom short story competition. I had received an email from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society back in early September announcing the winners, but I must have clicked on the wrong link/failed to read the fine print, because I missed the fact that my own name was among the short-listed finalists. Oops! Better late than never.

Calla

More big news around here: we welcomed a new baby, Calla Rowan, on September 17. I maaaay have forgotten to mention here that I was pregnant. Oops. I am chalking this up to Third Child Syndrome, in which the third child gets, if not short shrift, somewhat abbreviated shrift. Calla is only eight days old but she’s already proving herself a great third child: she can sleep through the shrieking of her older siblings, she doesn’t mind little fingers touching her tiny feet, and she more or less goes with the flow (although she objects vociferously to diaper changes).

My pregnancy and Calla’s birth came at an interesting time for me, professionally. In the last nine months, I’ve had two stories accepted for publication (one in the Chicago Tribune, one in Bayou Magazine), and I’ve sent my novel manuscript out to agents. Six years into writing fiction, I’m starting to see some career momentum and it’s very exciting. However, now that Calla’s here, I must put my writing career on hold while I devote myself to taking care of my newborn.

Unlike when I had my last two kids, however, this time around, I’ve prioritized getting help. I’m hoping the extra support around the house will help me get back into writing sooner than I would have otherwise (and will preserve my mental health).

In the meantime, I am enjoying my sweet Calla, who really is an irresistible little nugget.

Big news!

I am so excited to announce that my story, Host Mother, was named one of five finalists in the 2019 Nelson Algren Awards, hosted by the Chicago Tribune. My story was one of 3,000 entries and went through four rounds of blind judging before being named a finalist. I am very gratified to be chosen. The best news is that the story is live on the Tribune’s site now and you can read it for yourself right here, and my bio is here.

A retreat at Porches

This past weekend, I drove 3 hours southwest from my home in Alexandria to Norwood, Virginia to stay at the beautiful, peaceful Porches writing retreat.

View from one of the porches at Porches!

View from one of the porches at Porches!

The idea of a writing retreat is to step away from all of the day-to-day distractions that prevent you from getting writing done, or from getting deep into your writing. The point is to sit in a room, be quiet, and let the words flow. No folding laundry, no packing kids’ lunches, no grocery shopping, no TV. Porches allowed me to hole up in a quiet room with my writing, my reading, and my knitting, and crank words out onto the page.

The house instructions included this quote.

The house instructions included this quote

I spent Thursday afternoon to Sunday morning at Porches and got more done in under three days than I would normally accomplish in a month. My daily goal, when I’m writing at home, is usually to complete one scene from my novel. At Porches, I wrote 26 scenes in the novel and finished up a short story. The biggest accomplishment was finishing up the draft of my novel revision that I’ve been working on since January. What a feeling!

My desk

My desk

I did miss Al and the kids, of course. I pestered Al for frequent photos of Lucia and Ewan and we spoke on the phone every day. But man, was it nice to be able to have nothing on my agenda except to write, eat, and sleep. My typical day at Porches went like this: I’d wake up around 8 am (LUXURIOUS), make a cup of coffee, write for an hour or so, eat breakfast, write for another couple of hours, eat lunch, read, knit, maybe go for a walk, then back to writing until 6:30, when I’d eat dinner.

Healthy dinner and a book - an introvert's dream

Veggies, chocolate, and a book – my dream dinner

After dinner, I’d read and knit until bedtime, which was ludicrously and satisfyingly early (one night I fell asleep by 9:30 and slept until 8 the next day. This amount of sleep is UNHEARD OF for a mother of young children and might actually be illegal?).

My room, again

My room

My room

My room, again

I wish I could go back to Porches every month, but that would be logistically challenging, to say the least. But here at home, surrounded by nagging chores and quarrelsome children, I’ll try to hold onto the renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment I got out of my brief retreat. Until next time, Porches!

Can I keep watching The Bachelor?

I have been a faithful watcher of The Bachelor (and all of its attendant spinoffs) for over nine years. NINE YEARS! The first season I watched all the way through was Jake Pavelka’s, way back in 2010 (and here’s proof! I covered that season and subsequent seasons on my old reality TV blog, TubeTopix, and later, for money, on Previously.tv). And boy, have these past nine years been a journey. But as we come out of this latest season of The Bachelor and gird our collective loins for the coming onslaught of The Bachelorette, featuring one of the least articulate candidates for marriage to have ever graced our television screens, I find myself wondering if I can keep watching this show.

There have been approximately 500 think-pieces written about why The Bachelor is bad, misogynist, hokey, ageist, white-washed, and just plain awful, and listen, I ONE-THOUSAND PERCENT AGREE with all of those assessments. This franchise is TERRIBLE. The values the show promotes are retrograde and sexist. (This season, for example, the lead, Colton, asked the fathers of the four grown women he was pursuing for “permission” to marry their daughters. Putting aside the fact that he was making the same request to four different men, what outmoded notion of “respect” does he subscribe to in which the desires and autonomy of the women he’s dating come second to the preferences of their fathers?). The storylines the show sells are fake to their core, and the idea of romance that it peddles is, frankly, creepy. (Rose petals scattered on beds, bubbling hot-tubs, slow-dancing on platforms while being ogled by strangers). Let’s be clear: I very deeply dislike and mistrust this show. However, I keep on watching it.

…But should I?

Here is the point where I could write my own lengthy think-piece about why I watch The Bachelor and any number of other “dating” reality shows. Apart from pure, unadulterated Schadenfreude, I think one of the main reasons I continue to watch is because these shows are fascinating anthropological experiments. It’s interesting seeing what people will do on camera when they’ve convinced themselves that “love” is a prize to be won, how people will contort themselves into their idea of what an ideal partner should be, how quickly people (read: women) will subvert their own desires and agency to “win” whatever man they’ve been told they’re supposed to want to marry. It’s not good, any of this, or admirable. But it is interesting, especially for a smug, married lady like me. But now that I no longer have the excuse of watching this “professionally” (since I no longer receive cash-money to recap the show), I find myself questioning more and more whether I should be continuing to support its popularity and, honestly, wasting my own time on what has become a sub-optimal viewing experience.

This coming season of The Bachelorette, in particular, is posing a real challenge for me. For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the latest news out of Bachelor Nation, the newly crowned Bachelorette is one Hannah B., a 23-year-old pageant queen from Alabama who, God bless her, does not talk good. The woman cannot string a sentence together without flailing like a fish thrown onto the shore. She seems wild-eyed and unhinged in a way that could make for good television, but could also signal a lack of ability to carry a show like this.

But my biggest issue with the new Bachelorette is that Hannah B. is twenty-three years old. Serious question: how many twenty-three-year-olds do you know that are actually ready to get married? I’m willing to guess zero, unless you live in a religious community of some sort. And Hannah B., pardon me, does not strike me as a particularly “old soul.” Which is FINE. But, like, why are we watching this chick date a bunch of dudes when we all know that she’s not actually going to marry any of them? The entire premise of the show is that the lead is supposed to pick a life partner from among the contestants. And yes, the show’s track record at creating successful pairings is dismal. But the prospect of an engagement at the end of the season at least adds some sense of stakes to the endeavor, and an engagement, however ill-advised, is far more believable if the people involved are not fresh out of college, or pageant school, or whatever it is Hannah’s been doing for the last five years since she reached voting age. It’s just silly. Even as someone who actively hate-watches this show, I need there to be something I can hang my hat on. In past seasons, I have loathed various leads and contestants, but there was, crucially, a sense of mystery involved about the outcome.

But now, things in this franchise feel even more artificial than ever before (and that’s saying something). For one thing, the women on this past season of The Bachelor were so very young. The woman who ended up “winning” Colton in the end, Cassie, is also twenty-three. She expressed numerous times throughout the course of the show that she was not sure she was ready for a commitment. And, sure enough, in the end, she and Colton ended up just… agreeing to date. Which is sensible. But not that interesting. Also, many of the contestants on this past season were obviously on the show in a bid to launch careers as social media influencers. One of the final three women, Hannah G., actually IS an Instagram influencer. Like, that’s her job. It strains credulity to think she came on this show to “find love.”

What this past season made me realize is that earnestness among the contestants is a key component for a successful Bachelor season. They can be idiots, and delusional, and mean, and vapid, but as long as they’re mostly earnest, I’ll watch, because the show feeds into my anthropological curiosity. But if the contestants are just a bunch of pretty people trying to up their followers, I’m out. And I fear that this coming season of The Bachelorette is going to be more of the same.

Are any of you watching this show? Do you agree that it’s gone downhill or has it always been boring and I’m just now cottoning on to it?