30 Sep 2018

what I’ve been reading lately

VOX by Christina Dalcher: Imagine a world, a life, where you’ve been allotted 100 words a day. For context, humans average around 16,000 a day. A Fitbit-like tracker is affixed to your wrist and should you go over 100 words, you’re shocked. Surveillance cameras monitor for non-verbal communication. The voltage increases with every additional word. Imagine a 2.0 tracker that awards you “double damage” for cursing. In the 1980s, Margaret Atwood wrote a remarkable, possibly prescient book about the vision of far-right conservatives coming to pass–The Handmaids Tale. Christina Dalcher’s Vox is a worthy addition to the canon outlining our worst nightmare (or at least mine): a world dominated by the Christian right where women’s voices and rights–regardless of age–have been straight-jacketed.

Women don’t work, read, or write. Instead, they manage the home, keep up on their Stepford-like beauty routines, wear “Pure” pins declaring their support of the regime, and lay silently beneath their husbands during sex. Six-year-old girls compete for prizes on who can say the fewest words over the course of the day. And this society presses on until the president’s brother experiences a mysterious accident and Dr. Jean McClellan, a cognitive linguist specializing in Wernicke’s is given a reprieve to develop a cure. However, she soon learns the reality is far more insidious and horrifying than she could imagine, and she’ll do anything to save herself and her young daughter. I devoured this book in a matter of hours. The pacing is fantastic, the characters nuanced and complicated, and the ending is wholly satisfying. Check out this excellent WaPo review.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish: My friend Jenna posted on Instagram that she was giving away books and I quickly snatched up Haddish’s HILARIOUS memoir and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I am SO GLAD I did. In a collection of essays that range from her rough upbringing in L.A.’s South Central, including a mother who suffered from psychotic schizophrenia after a car accident, a father who maybe confessed to causing the accident, and a grandmother who tossed her out when she was 18 to her rise in comedy–and all the crazy jobs, relationships (including an abusive marriage) and bullshit misogyny she had to endure along the way.

Haddish has such a unique and arcane ability to find humor and light even in the darkest of places. I loved her voice (you can tell she wrote this, not some wack ghostwriter) and the fact that she lays her flaws out to bear because, like all of us, she’s a work-in-progress. If you’re looking for a great laugh and a lot of hope, definitely check out Haddish’s memoir. As the kids say, I STAN.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gaily Honeyman: Another gem of a find, Honeyman’s debut ranks as one of my top five favorite novels of the year and I have read A LOT of books (I’m up to 65, I think). Before I get into the plot, I was genuinely confused by the slew of reviews that called this book funny and breezy–including the jacket blurb from Reese Witherspoon. Maybe I’m getting soft at 42, but this book was not breezy.

While Eleanor Oliphant’s voice is wry, caustic, and funny–it’s mostly based on our perception of it. It’s sort of like someone who has Aspberger’s where there’s a disconnect between perceived and actual social behavior. They don’t know they’re being construed as socially awkward. While Oliphant hasn’t been diagnosed, per se, a history of severe abuse at the hands of a narcissistic sociopathic mother and being reared by the state as a result, combined with a reclusive life where her social interactions are limited to awkward work encounters and buying bottles of vodka from her Tesco cashier so she can binge-drink alone on the weekends, Eleanor isn’t like everyone else.

In a sense, Eleanor is uncomfortably comfortable, self-medicating her way through a lonely, isolated life until she meets Raymond, the bumbling unhygienic IT guy. After a random accident, the two–much to Eleanor’s chagrin–are thrust together, and soon she realizes that she’s worthy of love and a good life if she lets people in. I felt Eleanor’s loneliness so acutely, so painfully, and the journey from her very controlled world to one of freedom and self-actualization is a remarkable one. While I don’t consider this book funny by any stretch of the imagination, it’s incredibly hopeful.

The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger: My reading preferences have completely changed over the past three years. I used to love reading experimental fiction–now I can’t stand it. I hardly read thrillers and now I can’t get enough of them. And The Banker’s Wife was totally satisfying. Remember The Firm? Well, switch out lawyers for international financiers and you have a story of a powerful bank that has some shady dealings (think terrorists, bad guys, CEOs, etc.) and will stop at nothing to eliminate leaks and informers.

You have the dueling narratives of two women out of sorts–Annabelle Werner, ex-pat in Geneva, who’s just learned that her husband has died in a fatal plane crash in the Alps and Marina Tourneau, a former investigative journalist who’s marrying into one of New York’s elite political families. She’s giving up her taste for hot stories until her boss ends up dead, she receives a flash drive with some pretty incriminating information. Annabelle doesn’t buy the plane crash and starts digging. Marina is also on her own excavation and the two narratives weave their way to the truth. The book goes the way you’d expect with a few surprising moments, but it was still a terrific, fast read. I’ve also become oddly obsessed with Nordic countries and Switzerland so I loved diving into a world so far removed from the U.S.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: My god, this book was like holding black diamonds in your hand. Every word, scene, and image was pure magic and something of beauty. I’m in awe of how Jesmyn Ward invites you so intimately into the worlds she creates and you feel so connected to them even if their life is completely foreign to you. Her 2012 novel is a Katrina story, and we meet a close-knit family, who, over the course of a week, unravels in the wake of the coming storm. Fourteen-year-old Esch is pregnant and keeping it a secret, Skeetah is fighting to keep his prized pitbull and her puppies alive even at the risk of his own life, and Randall and Junior are trying to find where they fit in a home that is short on parenting and money but rich in love and the bonds that tie a family.

I read somewhere once that fiction has the ability to be the ultimate truth-teller. Imagine the irony in that–you can understand the depths of something so acutely, so intimately in a way that the news fails you. In the wake of the recent hurricanes, much has been written about why families stay behind, why they don’t evacuate their homes and it wasn’t until I read Ward’s book that I truly felt it in a way that was more powerful than logically understanding it. I loved Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, but this novel is my favorite.

Full Disclosure: I have included Amazon affiliate links, which means I make like $1/month when you buy one of these books. 

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  • When I was in Cape Town, I was supposed to have been making headway with my new book—the first story since I started my last novel in 2013 that’s excited me. All my books have been about familial, specifically maternal, discord. A mother and daughter never made whole. And this is the first story where parents don’t play a role. At the heart of the story is the friendship between two broken, flawed, and funny women who lean on one another to crawl out of darkness. It’s hard for me to write about love, but this, I think, is the closest I’ve come to it.
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I like these characters. I like imbuing my dark sense of humor into my work. I like leaning away from. The weight of language and literary fiction to tell a story as simply as possible. And believe me when I say that simplicity is fucking hard. Writing lean, impactful sentences are hard. Conveying so much in a small space feels, in a way, like poetry.
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I WAS supposed to have made headway, but that didn’t pan out and it’s okay because I was more focused in relaxing. I was more in awe of the landscape and people than I’d anticipated so all I wanted to do was be outside. Funny for someone who holes up in her Los Angeles apartment, but I digress.
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I’m back and the story is coming, albeit slowly, but it’s coming. There is a plot only I don’t know it completely yet. I know the ending—I can see it clearly—it’s just the path there is a little foggy.
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And this is the first book I’ve written that is more linear than anything I’ve written.
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I’m proud of this.
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And I’m trying not to think of the business of books. The chore of searching for a new agent after I fired my one of 20 years. The chore of overcoming my last book’s Bookscan numbers, the pitching and the selling. The fucking preening. I want none of it.
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So, for now, I just think about the work.
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  • So...apparently I’m writing a new book. It’s interesting (or odd, depending on your view) that new work comes in my darker moments. I started my last book after I had a breakdown from a job (and sociopathic boss) that was killing me. I was in Biarritz when I started what would become my second book, which is darker than my first book.
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This time, I’m toying with what happens when you climb out of the dark (my first two never got to that place). The book is titled The Only Possible and it centers on the close friendship between two broken women who are climbing out of their familial and person wreckage. This might be the first long work that ends with hope. I have this marker for myself, which is totally arbitrary. If I get to 50 good pages, the book is real.
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I’m at 52, so I suppose this thing is real. Light in the dark and like that.
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A brief thank you to the people who’ve been there for me these past few weeks. The ones who haven’t ignored or muted my posts—you are true friends and allies. Thank you for your friendship and kindness. I don’t give my heart and trust to many people for these obvious reasons, but I’m grateful to those that have it.
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I think it’s important to learn from the experiences we’re desperate to forget. Some of my greatest teachings come from working with terrible clients and sociopathic bosses. I wrote about this on medium (@felsull) and I’d love for to check it out, clap, and share.
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But remember this. Don’t let anyone define your worth. Only you have the right to that math. No one deserves to be yelled at. No one deserves verbal abuse. No one deserves to hear that they’re worthless, stupid, or an idiot. You are the guardian of your worth.
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Constructive feedback is a valuable tool, but it doesn’t define you as a person. We will fail. We’ll botch a job or make mistakes. Value comes from learning from the missteps, in creating systems and processes for yourself that reduces the likeliness of that mistake from happening again. Your worth is not the measure of your failures, but how you’ve rebounded from them. How you’ve grown professionally AND personally. It’s about you standing up in the wreckage and saying, okay, let’s keep going.
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Your worth is not bound to your work product — it’s defined by all the things that make you, you.
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  • This morning, I finished all my deliverables for two of my biggest projects this year. I can’t believe I got it all done!!! Save for two client calls today, I plan to spend the day supine and watching horror movies. #yassssss #brandstrategist #marketingstrategy
  • I used to be this intense person and I assure you this is not a compliment. I went at everything so hard. I worked through pain and exhaustion. I cleaved to velocity — a body in motion stays in motion and like that. Force = mass x acceleration and like that. I placed more value on outcomes than inputs. I cared about what people thought of me and wanted to please everyone at the expense of my well-being. I placed an unhealthy level of emphasis on amassing a large collection of people in my life more than cultivating richer relationships with a handful. I pursued things at the expense of the quiet nobility of living an honest, full life.
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My wake-up call was a phonebook packed with numbers but no one to call when I was breaking. What changed during that dark time was this: I began to live small and this is, I assure you, is a good thing.
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Small isn’t a pejorative. It’s about getting surgical about the people and things that inhabit your life. Cut the barnacles. Eliminate that which is extraneous and unnecessary. Don’t settle for common or this is how it’s always been done. Small is about the amount of noise you allow in. It’s about making the choices that won’t please the majority of people, but you end up pleasing yourself. It’s the difference between living in a mansion and creating a house that is a home. Fewer, better are words whose meaning has shifted for you. They are words of wealth. And more suddenly feels like a burden.
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For those who suffer from depression, meds and therapy simply level the playing field. They elevate you from negative integers to zero. It’s easier to build from zero than from mounting losses. Meds and therapy don’t create shiny, happy people. There are days that are dark and tough and what’s allowed me to function during that time is the concept of living simply and small.
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