25 May 2018

when your book is your fortress

What I’m Reading

Books have always saved me; they’ve been my constant, a comfort when life is intent on repeatedly punching me in the face. When I was small, I carried a book bag heavy with overdue paperbacks and I would stack the books high on my desk so as to shield my face. I spent much of my life this way—hidden from view. Erecting walls all around me. When the world gets too loud, I read, and books have this arcane way of reducing the world to quiet. Even if it’s temporary. Even if it’s just for a little while.

In graduate school, I was a big book snob. I only read SERIOUS LITERARY FICTION. And I suppose I was a snob because I was a follower back then—desperate to blend in—and most of the people around me were large-time condescending snobs in all caps.

I’m no longer that way because: a. it’s stupid and insipid and b. if a book gives you joy why mock it? There’s so much in this world to be miserable about, books shouldn’t be one of them. Books should raise you up from the darkness and comfort you, as they’ve done for me.

This year brought in joy and some of the usual challenges and I rolled up with my armaments, ready to fight.

This year, I’ve managed to read over 30 books. Some I devoured. Some pulled me out of my intellectual comfort zone. Others I tossed into the pyre. But I’m sharing what made the cut—those magical books that put me on pause, books you need to buy immediately.

My favorites:

The Year of Less by Cait Flanders: Cait Flanders embarked on a yearlong experiment to buy fewer products and she documented not only her awareness of how much we’re pressured as a society to consume, but she also highlights the deeper emotions behind our behavior. Our desire and need to consume and the empty spaces it temporarily fills. I learned the hard way about living beyond your means, and Flanders’ book was a reminder that we don’t need as much as we think we do.

Girls Gone Old by Fiona Helmsley: In 2016, Helmsley turned 40 and she was asked one of the many questions women in our forties get—isn’t it time to grow up? In her wry and raw collection of essays (some are laugh out loud funny, others are devastatingly bleak), she thwarts the question rather than answers it. She writes about wealth, addiction, 80s pop culture, serial killers, aging in America, rape culture, the cruel rise of trumpism—all with a nuanced, no-nonsense take. While I’m definitely not cool enough to hang with Helmsley, I thoroughly loved her book.

The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: I think if I weren’t a writer, I would’ve wanted to be a neuroscientist or neurologist as I’m endlessly fascinated by how the brain works. Although everyone.com has compared Ananthaswamy to Oliver Sacks for obvious reasons, Ananthaswamy has a voice and style all his own. Through an observant narrative, case studies, and interviews, he tries to get at the core of how we define “self”—which has been a long Biggie/Tupac battle between philosophers and scientists.

We learn about Cotard Syndrome (the belief that you’re a walking corpse), depersonalization (the feeling that one of your limbs is foreign, which triggers a fervent desire for amputation), schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s (did you know that Alzheimer’s principally attacks the region of the brain responsible for storytelling?), and more. The science bits aren’t too heady and Ananthaswamy has a terrific way of distilling complexity to its simplest parts.

All it Takes (Stories) by Patricia Volk: There are a lot of writers who I wish would’ve gotten more airplay (Toni Cade Bambara, Judy Budnitz, Beth Nugent—the list goes on for days, so much so that I’m doing a whole separate post on women who should be getting more play) and Patricia Volk was one of them. I used to host a reading series at KGB BAR in New York and I remember I had her in for a non-fiction cooking-related book she had published. Around that time I picked up an old copy of her story collection at Strand and it took me FIFTEEN years to finally read it. I’m a moron for not having read this sooner. Volk’s stories center on relationships in disrepair, where the wounded dress their scars with humor and acerbic wit. Volk’s characters are flawed, funny, quirky, desperate, and heartbreaking. From happily married women playing dangerous games of “imagine if” when it comes to their husbands to see the lasting wounds when a familial relationship comes undone, these stories will make you laugh and cry all at once.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m late to the party but who cares. This book is for anyone who’s been through it—grief, loss, and heartbreak—and wants to come out swinging on the other side. Her “Dear Sugar” columns were artfully arranged for a read that was smooth and riveting. I admire how Strayed lays herself bear—dolling out advice from a place of deep empathy and vulnerability. Reading the collection kept reminding me that within vulnerability lay strength because it’s truly the strong and determined who are unafraid to show their whole selves.

When by Daniel Pink: Everyone and their pony is writing books about how to make moves whereas Daniel Pink is reframing the conversation to focus on when to make decisions. Timing is everything and understanding your circadian rhythms and the science behind when we do things could make a massive impact on how we live our lives. Do you want to make critical money moves when you’re in constant overdrive and headed toward the midday slump or when your mind is clear and focused? Whether you’re an early riser or you get in your groove when everyone’s fast asleep, the data doesn’t lie—the best time to make a decision is in the morning, according to data in Daniel Pink’s new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. People are the most productive within the first two hours of waking up because our brains are wired to make optimal analytical and reason-based decisions at this point in the day.

Did you know that judges are more likely to hand out lenient sentencing in the morning and as the day progresses they get tougher, and sadly, increasingly reliant on race as a factor in their sentencing?

I was endlessly fascinated by how and when our minds are operating at peak efficiency and how even being slightly off your game or tired can change the course of your life. Dramatic, I know, but Pink’s book was so smart and sound and put me to thinking that there are so many things that factor into our decision making and timing should be a key element.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: I used to think I didn’t like historical fiction, and then I went on a reading spree of New York historical fiction, starting with Jennifer Egan’s remarkable Manhattan Beach. I loved Goon Squad, so much so that I used the structure of Egan’s novel as one of my inspirations for my second book. The book takes place during WWII where we find Anna Kerrigan at the center of the story—an intrepid woman of her time, who fights to be one of the first women divers to repair ships deployed in the war effort. Kerrigan is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her father in her childhood and how an elusive gangster, Dexter Styles figures into the equation. When she runs into him, years later, at a club he owns, she starts down the proverbial path of no return.

I LOVED this book. It was not only riveting, but it’s a delight to see the city in which you grew up in a different light. The New York of the 1930s and 40s was dangerous, nefarious, untouched, and on the verge of an economic boom and I love how Egan draws her flawed characters and humanizes them.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis: Near my home, there’s a fancy-pants private dental practice and they have a free lending library perched outside of their office. Often, the books are quite good. I scored a lot of gems (including Manhattan Beach), and when I read the jacket of Fiona Davis’s The Dollhouse, my interest was piqued. Davis, as I’d learn while reading her next book, The Apartment, loves a dueling time narrative. In this case, the stage is set at the famed Barbizon Hotel (yes, home to Sylvia Plath for a month in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle) where the likes of Ali McGraw and Candice Bergen got their start. Davis tells the story of two women—Rose and Darby—who want to make their mark in New York on their own terms, without a safety net.

Abandoned by her mother and shunned by her stepfather, Darby McLaughlin heads to the famous hotel while she’s studying to be a secretary at the Katherine Gibbs school. Surrounded by glamorous models, she feels alienated and homely until she strikes up a friendship with an ambitious, kinetic housekeeper, Esme. Soon, Darby falls into the electrifying downtown scene, replete with nightclub owners, heroin addicts, jazz musicians, and dealers. Her life soon comes undone on Halloween night when Esme falls to her death. Or does she?

That’s the story Rose Lewin investigates as a journalist for an online magazine that feels a lot like Buzzfeed, only with a quarter of the panache and traffic—a step down from a promising career in network television that came crashing down, along with her five-star relationship with a well-heeled politico. Darby’s story is the only thing keeping her afloat. The novel hurtles quickly to a surprise ending (Davis loves her red herrings), and you’ll be left completely satisfied.

The Address by Fiona Davis: When I like a writer, I go DEEP. I became a CIA operative in the way that I track down everything they’ve ever written. Once I finished The Dollhouse, I ordered The Address and pre-ordered The Masterpiece. We’re back to the dual narratives, this time with Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden–two women tied to the famed Dakota residence in New York City. In 1884, Sara Smythe serves as the head housekeeper in a posh London hotel. When she saves the life of the child of a famed American architect, Theodore Camden, he offers her the job of a lifetime–head manager (unthinkable in those times) of the new Dakota apartment building. This was a time when apartment buildings had AMENITIES. We’re talking on-site tailor, kitchen, maids, etc. Ambitious and determined, Sara travels to the U.S. to take on the role but finds herself falling in love with the Theodore, a married man with children.

Meanwhile, it’s 1985 and Bailey Camden, fresh out of rehab and with a tarnished reputation in New York City’s interior design circles, finds solace in the fact that her wealthy cousin, Melinda Camden, has hired her to remodel the very apartment Theodore Camden owned over a century ago. While Bailey struggles to stay sober, she soon discovers the illicit affair and becomes fixated on knowing the real facts behind her lineage.

Similar to The Dollhouse, the two narratives converge with an explosive and wholly satisfying ending. I actually LOVED this book more than The Dollhouse. Davis has a fine sense of pacing and timing and the reveal is always artfully crafted. And who doesn’t want to revisit the New York of the nineteenth century?

You Think It, I’ll Say It (Stories) by Curtis Sittenfeld: I recently read this New Yorker piece that talks about Sittenfeld and Sloane Crosley creating “awkward lit.” Candidly, I also purchased Crosley book and didn’t love it as much as I wanted to (although she’s clearly talented and witty), and I hadn’t even thought of classifying You Think It, I’ll Say It as a genre other than it feeling real to the reader. I’ve loved all of Sittenfeld’s books and she has such a way with dialogue and making her characters–regardless of their flaws and missteps–compelling and empathic. Like most of her books, this collection centers on relationships in various states of undress. My favorite story of the lot was “The Prairie Wife,” where a woman becomes fixated on an old lover who suddenly turns Christian, conservative, and lives that prairie life. Sort of like watching Ree Drummond in the closet. There are some nods to the trump era (and yes, I refuse to capitalize his name) with “Gender Studies,” where a woman, having just ended a passionless marriage, has a cringe-worthy one-night-stand with an ardent trump supporter and “Do-Over” where two a woman grapples with sexism when she reunites with her high school crush. In “Plausible Deniability,” a bachelor and his sister-in-law engage in an illicit email affair over…classical music.

For Plath Fanatics (her second set of letters will be released in October!): Granted, I started off the year a little morbid, diving into two books that are a little salacious, to say the least, A Savage God by A. Alvarez and Giving Up by Jillian Becker. Alvarez’s book is a fascinating meditation and historical account of suicide, while Becker’s book centers on the last few weeks of Plath’s life. Becker was one of Plath’s friends, who happened to be present during the affair and its aftermath. Candidly, if you’re a Plath fanatic, you’ll appreciate these. However, you can definitely rent these from your local library.

That’s all for now! Next week, I’ll be sharing reviews of the following books:

  • On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
  • Newspaper by Edouard Levé
  • Brave by Rose McGowan
  • Practice You: A Journal by Elena Brower
  • Being Boss by Kathleen Shannon and Emily Thompson
  • The More of Less by Joshua Becker

 

Full Disclosure: There are Amazon affiliate links in this post, which means if you purchase any of these books, I make a little cash to pay for my site’s hosting fees. 

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  • I’m honestly crying tears of gratitude. I should tell you that I’m not a cryer. Unless it’s those Sarah McLachlan animal shelter commercials and then I’m a puddle. But I’m getting really excited about how this @medium series is coming together. I’ll probably top 50K words including the downloadable resources. And I’m even more humbled that my friend @lorissas (we’ve known one another since 2002 and we’ve worked together since my book publishing days) created these gorgeous custom graphics. I really want my collection branded in the blues and to reflect my vibe as much as possible. I’m spending my own $ to license photography and illustrations.
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All because I’m really fucking tired of faux marketers who don’t know of what they teach. Or they teach what has worked for them, their blog or IG, which doesn’t necessarily translate to big brands. Then you have scammers who make it hard for the legit marketers who have to go through hoops because companies have gotten burned by incompetence.
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I also want to make use of my educational privilege. I went to an excellent private college and Ivy League graduate school. I had the privilege of working for brilliant marketers, from whom I learned everything I know. And I want to share that as much as possible. For free. This is my goal in 2019–create and share tons of pedagogical content. For free.
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I’m so excited!!!!! Shout out to @omgstephlol for believing in my vision and putting up with my craziness.
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#fuckfauxmarketers #makinguseofmyprivilege, #brandstrategy #marketing #marketingtips #strategy #thehustle #freelance
  • THIS WEEK. Well, let’s see... I wrote a total of 32K words, accepted an offer to be one of a few operating owners of a funded content start-up (no $ now but I think this will blow up), I had another interview with an agency in Philly and we talked money, balance, neuroscience and I like their vibe. I’m not moving cross country just yet so let’s all take a pause. I finished a good book, started another. Got my mammogram results back—no cancer! I got angry with my health insurance company like the rest of America. Part of me hopes I can get a full-time job so I can enjoy a consistent paycheck for a hot second. Celebrated a month off the sauce (let’s not get telenovela about this). I cleaned my house and burst into tears talking to my bankruptcy attorney because apparently no one cares that you’ve been making on-time payments for over a year and you’re going through a rough patch. It stormed and I loved it and prayed for more rain. It’s sunny now. I have a first line for a new chapter but I can’t write because all I’m thinking about is work and how I’ll make rent. But here it is: “Love in their home had become its own form of violence.”
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I met up with @bhatmon who always makes me smile and if I move back east she’ll be the one true thing I’ll miss. I listened to podcasts, read science articles, and wished that I could get a neuroscience degree but a kind reader pointed me in the direction of MIT’s free classes so I’m jazzed. I emailed a rescue service and filled out an adoption application but no one ever wrote my back so that made me sad.
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I have no idea how I’ll at for anything but I can’t freak out over that which I can’t control and like that. And love is kind of violent if you really get to thinking about it.
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I’m annoyed that I’ve lived get for over three years and I haven’t seen nearly enough. And on it goes.
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#weekendvibes #weeklyrecap #realtalk #instayum #thehustle #amwriting but am I?
  • Love can sometimes create its own form of emotional violence.
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I used to rummage through photos as a means of being cruel to myself. You used to be thin! You used to be slightly fashionable! You used to be disciplined! And as the edges softened, as your wont to do as you get older and let a lot of the hardness within you go, it occurred to me that the things I used to want and love were violent. I was ruthless to my body to get it to a certain shape instead of eating to sustain myself and moving to feel. I went at everything so hard! Then I worked all hours of the day and night until it made me literally sick. My hardness, my love and desire to look and be a certain way, was hurting me.
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Now. I’ve softened in all senses of the word. I’m calmer. I have a different (and healthier) view of my body and what it means to be beautiful, and I have strong boundaries that guard against the people with whom I work and the projects I’ve taken on. I’ve fired abusive clients. I make clear when and how I work. And I put me first. I have a lot of writing to do to make $ to pay rent this month but I rested yesterday because I need it. I didn’t realize how tiring writing could be when you’re doing it for 10-12 hours a day. Sometimes you need rest.
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Now, I look for pictures like this when I’m happy. When I’m laughing as feeling joyful and hopeful. Because I’m trying to be kinder to myself.
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#tuesdaymotivation #bekind #beingboss #boss #thehustle #amwriting
  • Writing exhausts you. So much so that, come evening, all you can do is stare blankly at a television screen. You can’t read because you can’t bear to see another word.
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I’ve been on a heater, writing for 10-12 hours for the past two days. I wake at four and start working at 4:30. It’s my best time. I’ve finished 3 of my 9 medium pieces and believe me when I say that teaching something, especially solely in written form, is a lot harder than I anticipated. But it’s work that gives me pride. Plus it’s a little money that goes towards paying my bills.
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Tomorrow is a call for a freelance strategy gig with a philly healthcare agency, more work, and possibly a delivery of fried chicken. Here’s hoping.
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#thehustle #amwriting #f52grams #clementinedaily #beingboss #thefreelancelife #freelancewriter #faceplant
  • #tbt of me sweating my ass off in S. Africa, wrinkles et all.
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In the midst of me having a two-day long rage blackout over my garbage $600/month healthcare that won’t even cover my MRI, I learned two exciting pieces of news.
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The medium series is a GO, you guys! I’m shaking with excitement because faux-marketer scam artists and their wack courses are a pandemic. They don’t have experience in what they’re selling. They haven’t achieved for others what they’re selling beyond their own channels. And they don’t actually understand what they’re selling. I can’t tell you how many lead magnets and PDFs I’ve downloaded and webinars I barely lived through where people didn’t even understand the basic principles of brand platform development. They got the terminology wrong. They got the process wrong. Data was non-existent. I was APPALLED at the AUDACITY of these dumb chumps. So I decided to create a FREE mini course that takes you through the full brand platform process. I’m publishing one overview (9K words), and 8 follow ups that flesh out the overview. You’ll get information in layman’s terms, complete with exercises and real-world examples. I’ll also be sharing a link when all of this is up where you can view all articles FOR FREE, bypassing the paywall. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. I didn’t realize how hard this would be, creating lessons that were instructive and easy to understand. I’m setting aside time to finish this while I do client work that pays the bills. I am happy medium is paying me, which is pretty awesome.
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This is the first in a series.
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The OTHER news is that I was offered operating ownership (not equity) in a content start-up that I truly believe will blow up like nitro, to quote Biggie. I love the company. I’d be working with hella smart people and my work would be advising on the brand, marketing and editorial. The offer took me by surprise and I was humbled and honored. While there’s no $ up front, the ownership really piques my interest. I can’t give any more details than that, but this is pretty cool.
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Now I will lie down. .
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#selfie #bignews #bignewscomingsoon #amwriting
  • Get ready for the magic, people. I’ll be back to sharing food posts in 2019!!! I just came back from an awesome party and I’m inspired and filled with so much energy.
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I’m planning a monster tutorial series (with graphics) on marketing strategy, brand development, and audience segmentation and I’m publishing this FREE on @medium. Don’t buy courses from scam artists who’ve never worked on real brands. I’ve got 20 years and I know what I’m talking about. I’m also considering in-person trainings at the corporate or individual level (not free). I don’t want to do courses as I teach best in front of people.
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I’m going to finish this book. I’m going to try to leave my house and network a little more with people I dig. And I’m trying to get to the East coast before March to see my peeps.
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And I’m going to fight for financial stability and be kind to myself!!
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Let’s do this!!! Tell me what you’re doing. And hey, if it’s surviving know that is an achievement in and of itself.
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#bigenergy #bigmagic #tuesdaymotivation #newyear #instayum #cannoli #bigplans #realshit #letsdothis
  • Instead I wrote SIXTY pieces, of which I’m so proud. I wrote over 200K words, which is like 3 books considering my last novel clicked in at 70K words. I feel good having written my way through some of my most darkest moments. Haven’t read my stuff? That’s sad for you, my friend. Resolve that by hitting the link in my profile. Also, big love to @omgstephlol. .
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#amwriting #weekendvibes #authorsofinstagram #medium #icantgoonillgoon #beckettquoteibviously
  • Merry Christmas to all you beautiful animals. I've had the great privilege to work with a lot of exceptional people this year. I've done some of the best work of my career and I'm grateful for the incredible clients, friends, peers, and mentors in my life. Happy Holidays! And here's to a rockstar 2019!
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#merrychristmas #christmaseve #blessup #2019 
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