Tag Archives: Essays

Best Books of 2016 …Thus Far (33/99)


That’s how many books I’ve read so far this year. That may sound impressive — especially when the average American reads 12 books per year and 27% of Americans don’t finish a single book —  but in the book blogger world, 19 books in six months is verging on pathetic.

(I know, I’m too hard on myself. This is true.)

At the midpoint of this current trip around the sun, I like to reflect on the reading year to date by sharing my favorite books of 2016 thus far.  Sometimes there’s a standout book that is a clear front-runner and sometimes there isn’t.  This happens to be a year when there is — and it’s a book that has landed among my all-time favorites.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

Scorpion Tongues

Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics by Gail Collins 
This presidential election campaign is like nothing we’ve seen before … at least in our lifetimes. History tells a different story — and many of them — of political scandals that rival what we’re seeing today.

The Art of Description

The Art of Description by Mark Doty
Written by a true master of the craft, this is a fantastic book exploring how we use words to place the reader in the heart of our work.  Reading this is like taking a class with Mark Doty himself (something that is on my literary bucket list).  Until then, we have this gem.

Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris
An astonishing anthology edited by Amy Ferris (her Facebook posts are gorgeously written and full of inspiring kick-assery), the emotions in these essays are raw and real. These are personal, true accounts of people who have struggled with depression, suicide (either their own attempt or that of a loved one) and mental illness. As a society, we need to do a better job of telling our stories in order to help break the stigma that fosters shame and secrecy.  Shades of Blue is a damn good place to start listening.  Don’t be surprised if you find shades of yourself between these pages.

The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy
A fantastic collection of essays by some of our best writers, including Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, Margo Jefferson, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit and several others.

Boys in the Trees

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s songs are ones that make her fans — of which I am one, very much so — feel as if we know her.  Here, we learn for the first time the stories behind the lyrics that we’ve been singing for years. It’s an eye-opening, often surprising, sometimes heartbreaking look at family dynamics, coming of age, betrayal, sexuality, motherhood and the publishing and entertainment businesses.

So there you have it.  The best books I’ve read this year (so far).  It’s interesting that there isn’t any fiction on this list.  This seems to be shaping up as a year dominated by nonfiction, especially essays and memoir.

How is your reading year going? Is there a standout book (or books) that will be among your favorites this year?

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #33 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

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Book Review: The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion, by Meghan Daum (18/99)

The UnspeakableThe Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion
by Meghan Daum 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
244 pages

As someone who is new to Meghan Daum’s writing, The Unspeakable made me feel as if I were reading the Facebook statuses of a close friend who, like me, is in her 40s and who is also trying to make sense of some of the same feelings, struggles, and experiences that accompany this stage of one’s life.

“Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever knew what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.”

The above passage is from “Not What It Used to Be,” the essay in this collection that most resonated with me. This is exactly where I am right now in my own life, wrestling with this sense that our best days are behind us in terms of earning potential, unfulfilled goals, and the decisions and chance accidents alike that alter the trajectory of one’s life.

As with most collections, there are some essays that I connected with more than others. (Among them: “The Best Possible Experience,” “Difference Maker,” and “Diary of a Coma,” which repeats some material from the first entry, “Matricide.”) I admit to skipping over the essay about her dog simply because I’m not a dog person and reading about how much other people love their dogs isn’t my thing.

That said, The Unspeakable is a solid collection of well-written, often humorous essays that earns Meghan Daum a spot among our best contemporary essayists.

I’m participating in #WeekOfReviews hosted by Estella’s Revenge.


This is post #18 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

99 Days of Summer Blogging

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sunday salon/currently: the waiting and reading room

Sunday Salon banner

Finally, some sun. Although it’s cooler than I would prefer (I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt AND a cardigan), I can’t resist the chance to sit outside on the deck after all the cloudy and damp days we’ve had this spring.  Like all good things, it’s probably not going to last; I heard it was raining at the Pirates game (PNC Park is within a half hour from here, depending on traffic and construction and whatnot).

It’s really something how the weather can have such an impact on one’s mood. Mine has definitely been affected. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spending much of the past several weeks in doctors’ waiting rooms, probably some of the most depressing places on Earth. I’m convinced the banality of the dreck that passes for morning TV has embedded itself into my brain. Seriously, I have no idea how the hell people watch that crap.

(Things are, physically-speaking, okay. Nobody needs to be alarmed. It’s follow-ups and regularly-scheduled appointments and answer-seeking still in progress.)

Of course, I never go to any of these appointments without my own reading material, so the positive side to all this schlepping and waiting around is that I’ve gotten through a few books, including some DNFs (Best American Poetry 2013 and Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn, which I really wanted to love but didn’t).

The notable ones, though, have been stellar.

The Best American Essays 2015

A fantastic collection of essays — most by writers who are well-known (Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, and others).  These aren’t gratuitous inclusions; this collection is a winner and these essays will stay with you.

The Art of Description

Being the huge fangirl that I am, I’ll read anything by Mark Doty. This little book was on display in the library’s poetry room (yes, we are lucky ducks here in Pittsburgh … our library has an extensive poetry section as well as its own room, which is rather grand). The Art of Description: World Into Word is a must for every writer. Doty examines description as part of poetry and the result is akin to being in a writing class with a master.

Tales of Accidental Genius

Yesterday I started Tales of Accidental Genius, a short story collection by Simon Van Booy.  I’ve read three of these and so far, so good. I would describe this collection as quietly surprising. (Short stories are, incidentally, great choices for waiting room reading material.)


And finally, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of LaRose by Louise Erdrich from the library, her newest novel.  I’m engrossed in this story about two families who are also neighbors; during a hunting accident, one neighbor kills the other’s five year old son.  To atone for this, he sends his own five year old son to live with the bereaved parents and to be raised by them.

Listening (Audiobooks) …

Sin in the Second City

It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to an audiobook (this will be only my second this year),  but when I saw Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott at the library this week, I realized that would qualify for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks since I have the print version. This is a nonfiction account of Ada and Minna Everleigh, sisters and proprietors of the Everleigh Club, a famous high-end brothel in Chicago during 1900-1911. The audiobook is great. (I’m fascinated with their keen marketing sense and financial savvy!)

Listening (Podcasts) … 
For months now, the Pocket Casts app on my phone has been acting strange. As a result, I haven’t been listening to many podcasts.  I think I figured out the issue and was able to catch “The Accidental Gay Parents #3,”  and “The Accidental Gay Parents #4,” episodes #80 and #81 from The Longest Shortest Time. LST is one of my favorite podcasts and I love this series and this family.

My go-to source for all-things-podcast is The Timbre, a fantastic site. I suppose that should be past-tense, because the site’s creators announced that they are closing up shop. Their reasons are understandable but I’ll certainly miss seeing their recommendations in my news feed.


PeaceBang’s post about “Outliving a Parent” resonated with me.

For reasons I can’t and won’t get into here, Dani Fleischer’s essay in The Washington Post (“Friends grow apart all the time but we rarely talk about it”) is very much something I’m experiencing right now. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement, thankyouverymuch.)

This week was National EMS Week and my friend John (who writes the popular Pittsburgh blog Ya Jagoff!) explains why this is so important.   Because of our experience on Thanksgiving, we know all too well how valuable EMTs are and I’m so grateful they were there when we needed them. And thank you, John, for your service as an EMT to our community.

My Listen to Your Mother castmates have been writing some incredible stuff lately. Those pieces deserve their own post. Look for that later this week.

And now it’s raining. Of course it is.

Back inside I go.


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Book Review: Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now, edited by Ann Imig

Listen to Your MotherListen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now
edited by Ann Imig 
G.P. Putnam’s Sons 
246 pages 

Are you tired of me talking about Listen to Your Mother yet? Well … there may only be eight days left until our LTYM Pittsburgh show (you’ve gotten your tickets, right?but this will consume me for awhile. Being part of this show means so much to me. So very much. It’s an incredible honor and one of the bravest things I’ve done in my entire life. It’s a really big freaking deal to be included alongside so many talented voices.

In addition to being a live reading performance happening in 41 cities, Listen to Your Mother is also a book. In this anthology, Listen to Your Mother founder and national director Ann Imig has gathered some of the best stories since the show’s inception six years ago.  While there are some names you may recognize (authors Jennifer Weiner and Jenny Lawson are two notable ones), most contributors are everyday people who have a story to share about some aspect of motherhood. Just like the show itself.

And just like the show, this collection delivers every emotion — from heartbreaking to hilarious and everything in between. (The book jacket accurately describes the stories within as being “devastatingly funny, refreshingly edgy, and deeply thought-provoking.”)

I really enjoyed reading these essays, most of which are only a few pages long. I would have liked this even if I wasn’t in the show because, ironically, motherhood has been kicking my ass bigtime. These stories made me feel a little less alone and reassured that others understand the many challenges with this whole parenting craziness.

Included in this anthology is:
“Matryoshka Dolls” by Mary Jo Pehl
“What Matters Most” by Zach Wahls
“The Meat Grinder” by Jen Rubin
“It’s Always Bad News” by Marinka
“Felt Like Something” by Megan Stielstra (my review of Megan’s essay collection Once I Was Cool is here)
“A Year at the Lake” by Jenny Fiore
“The Broken Bowl” by Jennifer Ball
“No Betta Mama” by Tasneem Grace Tewogbola
“The Reach of a Small Moment” by Alexandra Rosas
“Becoming Invisible” by Lea Grover
“Motherhood Off the Beaten Path” by Margaret Smith
“The Job of Motherhood” by Wendi Aarons
“Not a Princess” by Vikki Reich
“Threads” by Stacey Conner
“She Knew It” by Natalie Cheung Hall
“Peanut Butter and Jelly” by Taya Dunn Johnson
“The Good-Bye App” by Kate St. Vincent Vogl
“More Than an Aunt, Less Than a Mom” by Jerry Mahoney
“The Confession Jar” by Jenny Forrester
“Unspeakable Sacrifice” by Angie Miller
“Shy” by Haddayr Copley-Woods
“Mothering You, My Son: In Six Chapters” by Ann Breidenbach
“What If” by Lisa Page Rosenberg
“Swimsuit Edition” by Jennifer Sutton
“The Cookie Jar” by Patty Chang Anker
“My Mother The Protector” by Eddy Jordan
“Cocktail Playdate Dropout” by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor
“The Mother of All Fathers” by Robert Shaffron
“A Much Needed Slap in the Face” by Yoon Park
“Idiopathic” by Amy Wilson
“Nick’s Story” by Nadine C. Warner
“Prepare to Be Judged. And Possibly Stabbed.” by Jenny Lawson
“Monkey, Speak” by Robyn Rasberry
“The Wondering” by Greta Funk
“Be Happy, Have a Good Life, Remember Me” by Ann Stewart Zachwieja
“My Mom Fought the Nazis and Won” by Brian Lavendel
“I Want to Be a Nothing” by Jenifer Joy Madden
“Mother: A Multiplication Lesson” by Dana Maya
“All You Need is Lovey” by Katie Wise
“The Upside to Down” by Mery Smith
“Artichokes” by Kathy Curto
“Does Your Mom Play Drums?” by Michelle Cruz Gonzales
“Steam Power” by Helen Reese
“In Praise of the Other Mother” by Nancy David Kho
“Three Little Letters” by Lisa Allen
“The Tiny Bridge-Maker” by Jennifer Newcomb Marine
“Bottle Caps, Apple Trees, and Hope” by Sheila Quirke
“Pregnant Again” by Edward McCann
“Becoming Da Mommy” by M. Penny Mason
“Mothering Through the Storm” by Rebecca Anderson-Brown
“Waiting for My Kids to Wish Me a Happy Mother’s Day” by Meggan Sommerville
“The Children Ate My Gratitude” by Ann Imig
“Raised by Lesbians: On My Makeup-Free Mom, My Fashion-Challenged Moments, and Raising a Disney Daughter in a Feminist World” by Jennifer Weiner
“Orbit” by Ruth Pennebaker
“Leaps and Bounds” by Barbara Patrick
“Hummingbird: A Love Letter to the Mothers at Church” by Liz Joynt Sandberg

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The Sunday Salon: This is the Story of How I’m Trying to Read Everything Ann Patchett Has Written Before Tomorrow Night

The Sunday Salon

My big weekend plans were to do my own Readathon, of sorts, and to read All The Things Ann Patchett Has Ever Written.

You see, Ann’s speaking tomorrow evening at Pittsburgh’s Arts and Lectures’ Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series, and like the ticket I bought for Colum McCann, I bought this one a year ago, too. My thinking was that surely I would read something of Ms. Patchett’s in that timeframe, just as I had great hopes of reading everything by Colum McCann before his Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures appearance.

(I realized I read part of Truth and Beauty about six years ago, but didn’t finish it. I can’t remember why; I wasn’t blogging then.)

Anyway, I’m thinking I’ll start with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, since I have this out from the library now (along with Run), and I imagine much of her talk will touch on the essay topics.

So that was my intention this weekend, but I really wound up being a bit of a slug – not just with reading but with everything. I stayed up way too late on Friday night (as in, 2:15 in the morning late) to finish my submission for my writing group to critique on Tuesday evening and I’ve been paying for it all weekend. At 45 years old, it takes a few days to recover from that kind of debauchery.

I’m keeping this short because I really do want to read some Ann Patchett this evening. Hope you’re having a good weekend (and a more productive one than mine).  

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