22 Feb 2019

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Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

 

Bad Blood by John Carryrou: It only took listening to the first episode of Rebecca Jarvis’s compelling podcast The Dropout, a story about the famed biotech billionaire, Elizabeth Holmes, and the fall of her company Theranos, to make me run out and get Carryrou’s book. For those who are familiar with the Greek saga (trust me, it’s got all the elements of a Greek play, so much so, the film version is in the works starring Jennifer Lawrence as the sociopathic CEO), Carreyrou broke a series of articles in the WSJ doubting the efficacy of The Edison, a Theranos product that purported to provide up to 200 blood tests using 1-2 drops of blood, pricked from your finger. This technology, if it would’ve have worked, would have revolutionized healthcare, making blood tests more accessible and convenient, and people would have to rely on needle draws.

However, as one of my skeptics have said–a good idea is a dime a dozen. There’s a reason science Nobel winners get prizes in their 60s-90s–they’ve been doing this for a while. Biology and chemistry are complicated–especially when you try to combine them with new technology.

Carreyrou’s book is a sensational read–giving you all the drama, science, and suspense of a fast-paced thriller. There’s Elizabeth’s childhood, mired in financial legacy and an obsession with money and prestige. There’s the world’s desire to see past reality so much so that they’ll believe anything, the suicide of a prominent scientist, the fissures of familial relationships, the corporate lies, intimidation, and intrigue, and SO MUCH MORE. I’m grateful that Holmes is facing prison for her reckless pursuit of power at the expense of real people who made real decisions based on the faulty results of her 5th-grade science experiments. I absolutely recommend this book. BUY IT.

The Sylvia Plath Letters Vol 2: Anyone who’s taking an English class knows about Sylvia Plath. Possibly, they know more about her brief life than the astonishing volume of poems completed in the remaining months of her life. Her biography has experienced sixty years of vivisection. There was the rise of the pretty, ambitious and promising poet who won all the prizes and accolades but could never shake the untimely death of her father–a gruff, Aryan figure that spent his life fixated on bees. There are the years at Cambridge as an American riding around on a red bicycle, but striding ahead of her peers academically. There’s the chance reading of Edward (Ted) Hughes’s poem in a college lit journal and the launched party that set the dramatic tale into motion. The mythology of the union of two great poets, in an era where a woman’s sole role was that of being barefoot and in the kitchen, has been the stuff of movies and hordes of books.

For years, all of Plath’s work, as well as her brand, was managed with an iron hand by the Hughes estate. Two renowned Plath scholars, aided by Freada Hughes, were able to offer two volumes of un-edited letters from Plath. These are the Instagram-level tom-foolery of Aurelia Plath’s Letters Home. I’ve read every single book written by and about Plath and Hughes and this two-volume set is the real deal. Exhaustive annotations give the letters context, so you can read the true voice of a poet constrained by society’s expectations, hatred for her mother, the suffocating, yet the symbiotic relationship with Hughes, and her mental illness–made that much more prominent after Hughes’s infidelity and abandonment. Plath is the epitome of control and discipline. I admired her fastidious management of the couples’ money and the publishing pursuits. She was wry, funny, often an asshole, but in so much pain. The pain is palpable in the final few letters she sends off in her final weeks and the depression that surfaces so prominently and acutely. Plath fans will be satisfied with the two volumes. I felt as if I came away with an even more nuanced perspective of the young poet.

Evening in Paradise (More Stories) and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: Have you ever started a book loving it–feeling the author and her wild, imaginative style of writing–and then slowly feeling nothing but disgust for the author hiding behind the style that soon feels deliberate. Recently, I started (and couldn’t finish) The Chronology of Water, and it’s rare that you’ll find me judge the subject of a memoir, but Lidia Y.’s behavior was so reckless and repugnant without consideration of the wrecked lives she left in her wake–even after the passage of time. How do you drive and drive and then hit a pregnant woman, and, in writing about it years later still manage to make it about you? Every bold-faced writer adores Lidia Y. Her book’s being made into a film. She’s happy, tra la la, but the mark of a great memoir is the symphony between the work and how the work is presented. The structure and style fall apart in the middle of the book, and the character becomes increasingly abhorrent, having learned nothing. Having gained no perspective. She’s an alcoholic sex addict, but she’s suddenly cured by the right man and a baby. Delivering a neat and tidy ending. Um, ok.

Listen, I’m all about unlikeable characters–I write them–but they’re humanized and not subsumed by their own narcissism. I’m writing this long intro about a book I hated because I’d read a review that compared aspects of Lidia’s memoir to the late, great Lucia Berlin. Both women have written about addiction, sex, and bad decisions, but Berlin manages to create a work of art and grace and Lidia…well, she’s getting a movie deal I guess?

Anyway. Lucia Berlin’s books are astonishing on the level of Joan Didion and Didion fans know that is a bold statement. There’s something about Berlin’s smooth, cool style in the way that she recounts the tragedies and horrors of her life and translates them loosely into fictionalized stories. Both story collections spam Chile, the Bay Area, Mexico, New York, and the American Southwest with characters that are addicts, struggling mothers, bad Christians, and socialites. An alcoholic mother who gets the shakes at 7am practically crawls to the liquor store because her children have hidden her car keys will one day get sober. A woman drops everything in California and boards a plane for Mexico to care for her sister, her childhood nemesis, who’s dying of cancer. A cleaning woman discovers that her boss is dead and wonders who amongst his loved ones is the murderer. An American growing up in Chilean high society glimpses the revolution through the eyes of her rebellious teacher and is seduced by her father’s friend. Two small children go door-to-door with a scam game that feels a little Bernie Madoff and discovers the price of making money. A woman with a young boyfriend and small children ventures out for an overnight affair to come home and discover that one of her children had gone missing, state troopers were called, and the whole town is in a frenzy. The now-sober woman travels to meet up with a professor with whom she’s developed a relationship via correspondence and realizes the whole trip was an epic mistake.

To say that you feel like a voyeur peering into the raw and intimate lives of Berlin’s characters is an understatement. She manages to find humor in even the darkest moments and recount horrific decisions with style, grace, and perspective. You’ll love her stories because the landscape is rich and is its own character. Her voice guides you through the landscapes as you navigate the complexities of these women’s lives.

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This post includes affiliate links, which means I make some spare change if you buy any of these books. 

2 Comments

  1. Patty wrote:

    Felicia:
    As always, your book recs are spot-on! Thank you. I also am working through Plath’s letters, vol. 2. Like you, I’ve read most books about her and I’m enjoying seeing the new letters–as heartbreaking as some of them are–and the annotations. I also read “Lover of Unreason,” the bio about Assia Wevill. Wow. Have you read that? It’s also heartbreaking. I read both books in the last 2 months–such an insightful juxtaposition. Best to you in books, my friend…

    Posted on 3.17.19 · Reply to comment
    • admin wrote:

      Yes! That was SUCH a great book!!

      Posted on 3.18.19 · Reply to comment

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  • We spend our time devoted to the periphery. If periphery was an altar trust that we’d all gather and worship. We cleave to the shiny objects that are social media, email, podcasting—we’re told we have to be diversified—at the expense of the one true thing you create. The thing by which you want to be known and remembered. We give equal (if not more) weight and devotion to that which surrounds our thing instead of getting laser-focused and refining our skills, being a student—all to keep getting better at the thing.
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Trust me, I want to do ALL THE THINGS. Now, I ask myself what portion of my day have I committed to being a better writer, a better storyteller and brand builder? Am I learning something new, regardless of how minor that something is? Or am I zeroing in on the things that are conduits and bridges to and from the work. You’ve created all these points of entry to a thing that isn’t as good as the vehicle that got them to the thing.
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Think about that. Prioritize. .
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  • So, I fell down in the middle of the street while walking to an important meeting. I scraped up my knee pretty bad, but kept it moving, because I have a long-term play to earn as much as I can to move somewhere super remote and quiet by the end of the year.
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It’s weird to think that I’ve lived in NY for the first 39 years of my life, Los Angeles for the past four, but I’m watching old episodes of Shetland and wondering how I can get myself to a remote farmhouse, cabin, outhouse, etc. All I need is good WIFI for work.
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But an island in Scotland isn’t realistic, so I’m setting my sights closer to home, California. And I’ve got time to research, thankfully. .
Until then, I’ll keep plugging, keep writing, keep up with newly-revisited healthy habits.
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  • New post up on medium. Link in bio.
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“If I had my way, I’d never leave my house. My home is small, and I know every inch of it. An 800-square foot box with two windows, walls, and a doorbell that plays instrumental Julio Iglesias. Half the rooms are cloaked in effulgent light and the other a cool charcoal black. I’ve become fluent at oscillating between the two. I don’t even love the space in which I live, but I’m hard-pressed to leave it.”
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  • I live in a city of four million people, which was a marked improvement from my home, New York, of eight million. I snapped this photo during my trip to Cape Town (488K people), and during that trip we traveled to towns of four thousand people and it was GLORIOUS.
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It’s bizarre that I’ve always been a city girl and all I want now is small. Quiet. Remote. I feel like my dad.
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I cracked my tooth on Friday (it’s all good—I got Percocet and a $3K bill), and it made me think that there’s so much I want to do, work-wise and artistically, but I’m always thinking about money. Years ago, I heard Paul Jarvis talk about reducing your expenses to feel richer. I know, captain  obvious, but it resonated with me on Friday while on Percocet.
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I’m considering another move when my lease is up to a small AF town in California not too far from the Redwoods and the ocean. I LOVE California, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the US. And I love the idea of FEWER people. Quiet to write. Maybe I can get a dog friend for my Felix! .
So, we’ll see. Does anyone here live in a remote or super small town? If so, what do you love about it?
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  • My breaking point was over a hazelnut. A hazelnut that cracked my tooth at two-thirty this morning. Because I was stress-eating granola. But it was the three thousand dollar bill to fix said tooth that did me in. Only a few weeks before, a persistent ache in another tooth turned into a five-hour fiasco involving a dentist, an endodontist, a $5,000 bill and me texting a friend — while the fifth shot in my mouth was kicking in, and I was inhaling nitrous gas like a glass of water in the fucking Sahara — ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT?
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My dentist tried to reassure me, after rejecting my pleas for a fifteen-year repayment plan, that this particular tooth had already booked a one-way ticket to a root canal, so I ended up saving $2,000! Oh, cool. So, instead of dropping ten grand on two teeth, I was only paying eight. Like I have eight thousand dollars just laying around, waiting to be flushed down the dental toilet. Apparently, the hazelnut was my salvation. I started laughing and continued laughing. For a while. To the point where everyone in the waiting room was uncomfortable.
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****I wrote about teeth, money, and debt in my latest medium post. Link in bio.*****
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  • This is our one life. We love. We lose. We overcome. We break in ways we never thought possible. We climb, ravage, and wreck. While it’s possible that every story has been told, that knowledge doesn’t stop us from reading, watching, listening, and feeling. It doesn’t disconnect us from someone’s unique experience. Instead, we live for the retelling: how individuals bear that which is familiar or common, and how their singular experience feels fresh and new.
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Today, I wrote a tutorial about crafting plots. Instead of vivisecting plot arcs — because frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch — I invite you to consider three simple questions: what story will sustain your interest for 70,000 words? Can you commit to your story and the sequence of events that unfold for months or years of your life? Does your novel have the weight to capture and hold your reader until the end?
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This year, I’m committed to sharing what I know for FREE. I’ve got no classes to sell after this (I actually hate the idea of teaching writing; I’d rather be doing it), but lots of people have asked for the goods and I believe if you’ve got the skill and privilege, you should be sharing it.
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  • Want to write a book? I'm sharing a six-part series in how to get the job done. The first two I'm previewing on Medium. Yesterday, I wrote about writing killer dialogue. Today, I'm sharing how to craft compelling characters. If you love what you read, consider sharing and clapping (more than once!). link in bio!
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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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  • Want to write a book? I got you. Below is an excerpt from my latest medium piece—the first tutorial of six I’ll be sharing on writing mechanics. You’ll get the other 5 later this month if you’re on my email list. Link in profile!
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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