A Few Words on 2016

I was pretty absent from this space in 2016. It was another nutso year, with a lot of things taking me away from both reading and blogging.

I started 2016 excited about the new  year. I had come so far in the last few months; I had two jobs, a new apartment, a great boyfriend. I was far from where I wanted to be, but I was making it! I would keep growing and moving forward, and I would finally learn to trust myself! (Arrested Development narrator’s voice: “I did not learn to trust myself.”)

The first half of the year passed in a blur as I tried to find a balance between work, friends, Bae, and time to myself. Midway through the summer, a lot of stressful things began accumulating, and I spent the next six months dissolving into a puddle of anxiety and depression. I cried most days and felt nauseous almost all the time. I couldn’t stop the spiraling catastrophic thoughts, I didn’t enjoy the things I used to enjoy, and I couldn’t find the motivation to do anything about it. But Bae was endlessly supportive, I started seeing a great therapist, and I found a medication that’s working for me*. And I’m doing a lot better now; I may not have everything figured out, but I feel like myself again. I’m overthinking less and laughing more. I’m learning to be kind to myself. I’m even reading again. (I would deeply like to thank everyone who commented on my last post. It was a really personal, difficult thing to publish, but you all made me feel so much less alone.)

Before I wrap up, I want to share a few good things that happened in 2016. Because despite my broken brain and our President-Elect-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it wasn’t a COMPLETE dumpster fire.

  • I had some really nice adventures with Bae. We visited breweries, ambled through a sculpture park, hiked a gorge, and wandered around the Grand Canyon of the East.
  • I got to hang out with some of my extended family in the Finger Lakes for a few days of swimming, kayaking, and wine tasting.
  • I was able to spend a week in Alaska with my parents and sister in September. We climbed a mountain, trekked a dozen miles in the rain to gaze at a waterfall, and hiked a trail overlooking a glacier. I felt the exhilaration I’ve only ever found on mountaintops, and I fell in love with the sound of rain dripping onto the hood of my jacket.
  • At the beginning of December, my part-time job as a senior page at the library in downtown Buffalo turned into a full-time position with the development and communications department. I’m finally earning a salary doing what I went to college for at an organization dedicated to books and learning; it’s everything I could have wanted.

And although I spent most of the year in a pretty hardcore reading slump, I really loved a few of the books I read:

  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
  • Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I’m feeling pretty good about 2017. I know I’m still going to struggle with finding the right life balance, but I feel better about my ability to cope with it. I’m excited for some of my plans for the year, and I really hope to get back to reading more consistently and finding a way back into the blogging community. I’m not quite sure what that will look like; generating content doesn’t feel very meaningful to me at the moment, but I miss the people and the conversations and the enthusiasm.

Happy New Year!

Love,

Leah

*Posting this feels very personal and difficult. But I also think sharing things like this is incredibly important. I knew for months that I wasn’t okay and should probably get some help, but I wasn’t having panic attacks walking around the office, and I wasn’t unable to get out of bed in the morning, so I felt like I wasn’t anxious or depressed “enough.” It took learning that a lot of people I know see or used to see therapists for me to realize it’s normal and not a big deal and actually a really good thing. And hearing other people’s experiences has made me feel so much less alone. Talking about mental illness is scary, but I want to do my tiny part in destigmatizing it.

July Reads

July ReadsI’m insanely late with this post, but time sure flies when you barely have time to breathe. I worked pretty much non-stop in July and spent the last few days of the month rushing to pack up my things and move to a new apartment in between shifts. Before I even had time to unpack, bae and I were off to the Finger Lakes for three days of kayaking, swimming, reading, and wine and beer tasting with my extended family. It was so lovely to unwind, catch up with people I only see once a year, and race my cousins to finish reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Despite all the madness, July was the best reading month I’ve had in about a year in terms of both quality and quantity. I’m still working on finding the right life balance — clearly, I haven’t figured out how to blog with any type of consistency yet — but I’m getting there. It feels so good to finally be reading with joy again. Let’s take a look at the books I finished:

The Martian by Andy Weir: An astronaut, presumed dead and left behind on Mars, uses his wits and dry humor to try to survive on a planet that is trying to kill him. This book reminded me why I don’t tend to read plot-based fiction, and I liked it better as a movie.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: A twenty-something girl reinvents herself as a backwaiter at the best restaurant in New York City, where she falls under the spell of a magnetic server/bartender duo with a complicated past. I loved the propulsive energy of the writing and got completely swept up in this coming-of-age story.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: Over the course of one Brooklyn summer, relationships between former bandmates and their partners are strained when a filmmaker approaches them about making a biopic about their deceased fourth band member. This isn’t a novel that’s going to stick with me, but it was a fun, breezy summer read.

Dare Me by Megan Abbot: High school cheerleaders Beth and Addy have been best friends since childhood, but even Addy doesn’t know how far Beth will go to remain Top Girl when a young new coach draws them into her world. I had a few problems with this novel, but I loved the darkly complicated relationships.

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith: Twenty years after moving to the Washington mainland, journalist Lucie returns to Marrow Island to visit an old friend at a mysterious commune. This haunting, atmospheric novel is one of my favorites of the year, so far.

(I also started The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but as I finished them in August, I’ll share my thoughts on them in a later post.)

I’m hoping things will calm down a bit more in August. I’m now living with one of my best friends, which is going to be such a good change: less roommate anxiety, more fun, less time spent in my car (it’s closer to one of my jobs and within walking distance of bae’s house!), and more kitty cuddles. The move was unexpected, but I’m calling it a win.

What was the best book you read in July?

Missing the Hype Around Two Buzzy Books

Sometimes, the blogosphere goes crazy over a book, and you read it and fall in love. But sometimes a book that garners tons of praise leaves you feeling underwhelmed. The second thing happened to me with two books in recent months.

Tender | The Martian

Tender by Belinda McKeon

(Goodreads)

Set in 1990s Dublin, Tender is told from the point of view of Catherine, a sheltered girl leaving home for the first time to attend university in the big city. She quickly develops an intense friendship with James, a charismatic photographer struggling with what it means to be gay in a culture that doesn’t accept open homosexuality. It’s a compelling psychological novel, and I loved how it pulled me into Catherine’s growing obsession — right up until the end. Just when the story reaches peak intensity, McKeon pulls away for an ending that provides a tidy resolution without showing readers how the characters got from point A to point B. I would have liked to see more of that character development on the page, and the last chapter felt like a let-down after the rest of the book’s dark power.

The Martian by Andy Weir

(Goodreads)

Six days into the first manned mission to Mars, a dust storm forces the crew to evacuate. On their way to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, debris strikes Mark Watney, leading his crew to believe him dead and to leave the planet without him. But Mark, the mission’s botanist, is still alive, and now he must find away to survive on a planet that is trying to kill him. With immense patience, extreme cunning, and a healthy does of gallows humor, he solves problem after problem. But will it be enough to get him home? Honestly, I liked The Martian better as a movie. This novel reminded me why plot-driven novels aren’t typically my jam; for most of the book, I was just wondering how many more problems Mark would have to solve before NASA inevitably rescued him. Additionally, as a visual learner, I had trouble following some of Watney’s engineering fixes; I was able to understand them more easily on the screen than on the page. This wasn’t a bad book; it just wasn’t for me.

It Turns Out I Don’t Want to Read My Own Damn Books

I don't want to read my own damn booksA year ago, I was blogging up a storm and blazing my way through the latest buzz books. And I felt a bit burned out, craving the space to amble through the mountains of backlist books on my shelves, savor tattered paperback copies of classics, and re-read old favorites without guilt. A few months later, when I decided to take a break from blogging, I thought the time had finally come for me to do those things.

When Andi announced her intention to focus on reading books she already owns instead of buying new ones in 2016, I was all aboard. I was SO ready to #readmyowndamnbooks. And yet, as I stared at my shelves of unread books over the next few months, they lost all of their luster. The spines looking back at me were books I’ve owned for years but have never felt compelled enough to read. That somehow didn’t change when the flow of shiny new books on my doorstep ended.

So I floundered. I didn’t read much. When I did read, it wasn’t as ravenously as I used to. I missed the enthusiasm of the blogosphere, the thrum of excitement around new releases. It turns out I crave the thrill of the new, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve started using the library again, which is super convenient as I work there. It’s nice to not feel limited by the selection on my shelves, which is actually fairly small since I live in a tiny bedroom in a shared apartment, and most of my TBR stash is stored at my parents’ house. I’m enjoying keeping up with the buzz and being able to read new books when my holds come in without feeling like I’m drowning in a sea of release dates.

I feel like I’m finally getting it back, whatever “it” is. Some sense of balance, maybe. Some sense that despite all the changes of the last year, the part of me that can be completely transported and nourished by words is still there. That this key part of my identity is still true, that I’m still me. I’m getting there.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

Book Review: So Sad Today by Melissa BroderFor four years, Melissa Broder has been tweeting funny but achingly sincere tidbits like, “I don’t feel at peace unless I’m torturing myself,” and, “the road to hell is you not texting me enough,” from the @sosadtoday Twitter account. Each tweet is an effort to connect, to entertain, and to score a tiny dopamine hit as the faves and retweets come rolling in — because her tweets are an effect of the very obsessions she is speaking about. In her book of essays, So Sad Today, Broder steps out from behind her Twitter handle to write about her struggles with anxiety, depression, and addiction in a deeply vulnerable way.

In “Honk If There’s a Committee in Your Head Trying to Kill You,” Broder writes about her attempts to shut out the internal voices incessantly reminding her how fucked she is. She tries alcohol and drugs, but she has to come down. She tries spiritual trinkets like Buddha statues and crystals before realizing, “In the temple it’s magic, but at home it just becomes more crap.” Finally, she finds meditation to be a useful way to find stillness and silence, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

“Google Hangout with My Higher Self” is exactly what it sounds like: an imaginary conversation between her anxiety and her rational mind. It’s so familiar to anyone who has tried to talk themselves out of their fears (“ok u need 2 chill the fuck out. u need 2 sit still”) only to realize that obsessing over small everyday bullshit is what keeps them from freaking out over existential doom.

In “Keep Your Friends Close But Your Anxiety Closer,” Broder writes about her fear of appearing vulnerable and the mask she wears in an attempt to control the way people perceive her.

She gets real about disordered eating, panic attacks, addiction to drugs and alcohol and the internet (she’s now sober), body image, fear of dying, her sexual fetish, and the tedium and tenderness of her open marriage to someone who has a chronic illness.

In a world where talking about mental illness is still taboo, books like So Sad Today are so important. I’m a firm believer in the power of books to build empathy, and Broder’s essays open a window into the life and mind of a woman whose brain chemistry makes getting through the day so much harder than it is for mentally healthy people. I related to some pieces and felt overwhelmed simply reading others.

Balancing out the mortal dread, fear, and insecurity is a darkly comic voice. As she writes of her Twitter account in the final essay, “I felt that in the reality of what I had experienced, it was a lot more helpful to just lie there and share experiences with others who understood. What worked for me was to maybe make myself laugh about my plight, and through the grace of the Internet, make other people laugh.” This book does that really well, using humor to build a bridge and encourage empathy.

I so highly recommend this book. It’s sad, it’s funny, and it will make you more human.

May Reads

May Reads

How is it June already? May positively flew by, and I’m not quite sure how to account for it. First off, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm welcome back! I’m excited to return to blogging, even though I haven’t yet been as active as I would like to be. I’m still working on finding that balance and making more time for reading, writing, and being involved in the community. We’ll get there!

May was a pretty slow reading month for me. I finished up Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which was so, so amazing. I don’t know how Atwood can be so consistently mind-blowing. I also devoured the first two volumes of Giant Days by John Allison and Whitney Cogar, which is a tremendously fun portrayal of college life for a trio of vivid young women. Next up was So Sad Today, a darkly funny and deeply vulnerable collection of essays about anxiety, depression, and addiction by Melissa Broder. Finally, I spent pretty much the entire month making my way slowly but surely through the first half of Haruki Murakami’s door-stopper of a book, 1Q84. As always, I’m enjoying the ride, and I’m pretty excited that 500 pages in things are starting to get real. And by real, I mean incredibly bizarre.

May Reads

Outside of my reading life, May was full of adventures. I got to spend a day with my sister before sending her off to Alaska for the summer, hiked the breath-taking gorge at Watkin’s Glen with bae (pictured above), and ran my first 5K!

Moving into June, I’m excited to finish up 1Q84, dive into some upcoming blogger-recommended library holds, and step up my blogging game.

What was the best book you read in May?

Giant Love for Giant Days by John Allison and Whitney Cogar

Giant Days, Vol. 1 and 2

[book-info]

I’m still a newbie to the comics game, but when I came across Giant Days, Vol. 1 at my job at the library, I couldn’t help reading the first few pages. And I was IMMEDIATELY hooked. I requested the first two volumes from the library and basically devoured them.

Giant Days follows three students who recently started university and quickly became best friends: Goth, statuesque Esther, whose powers for stirring up drama are truly remarkable; snarky, cynical Susan, the trio’s voice of reason and common sense; and sweet, home-schooled Daisy, whose naivety and optimism are truly refreshing. Together, the girls embark on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention as they find themselves away from home for the first time.

I really loved the way Giant Days portrays college life, enveloping everything from the unlikely friendships that develop, to the struggle to find a balance between socializing and schoolwork, to the colds and flus that spread like wildfire through the dorms. There are boy troubles and girl troubles, experimentation and questions of sexuality, drama-fraught dances, and study sessions fueled by pills of questionable legality.

But what I loved the most are the three heroins. Esther, Susan, and Daisy have such vivid, distinct personalities, and it was so much fun to see them play off each other. They each have a completely different approach to life and how they handle problems, but each young woman is smart, funny, strong, and insecure in her own way. Like Lumberjanes, Giant Days is a really wonderful depiction of female friendship. It’s just a ton of fun to read, and I can’t wait for Vol . 3 to come out in October. READ IT!

Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone With The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

 

When I was a teenager, fantasy novels were my jam. I couldn’t re-read the Harry Potter series enough times, I was always anticipating the next Artemis Fowl book, and the Abhorsen series was a regular part of my rotation. And yet, as I transitioned to adult fiction, my interest in fantasy fell by the wayside. However, a few months ago, in the depths of the worst reading slump I’ve ever experienced, I decided to shake things up and try reading The Killing Moon, the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood series. Julianne of Outlandish Lit raved about it, and she hasn’t let me down yet.

In the city of Gujaareh, peace is the law of the land — a law enforced by Gatherers, who shepherd the souls of the pure and the corrupt alike to their final resting place, the land of dreams. But what happens when the very institution responsible for rooting out corruption becomes complicit in the creation of a monster?

From the outset, Jemisin drops the reader into a world that is already turning on its axis, offering little help to readers as they try to get their bearings. I felt so lost in a world of unfamiliar terms, new-to-me names, and mysterious systems of law and religion, that I nearly gave up after the first 150 pages. Luckily, Julianne told me to keep reading, and she’s a queen, so I do what she says. After re-skimming all of the dialogue that point (which really didn’t take very long), I had a much better grasp on who the characters were, how this world worked, and what was happening in the plot.

Once I hit my stride, everything fell into place. The Killing Moon transformed from a baffling world where I didn’t speak the language into a gripping adventure full of intrigue, ambition, and deception as our heroes Ehiru, Gujaareh’s most respected Gatherer; Nijiri, his apprentice; and Sunandi, a totally badass foreign ambassador, fight to get to the bottom of a conspiracy that threatens the peace and safety not only of Gujaareh, but of the world. The characters are compelling and well-drawn, the world building is top-notch while still leaving plenty to reveal in future books, and the multi-layered plot kept me guessing.

This book was definitely outside my comfort zone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it after I got over my initial discomfort. I would highly recommend The Killing Moon to other readers interested in foraying into fantasy, with a small heads up that some patience is required. May I hint that there’s a glossary in the back of the book that would probably have helped me immensely had it occurred to me to read it?

What’s the last book you read that was outside your comfort zone? 

Book Review: The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

Safely secluded from the Outside world by a massive stone wall, Calamity Leek and her 12 sisters spend their days tending roses in the Garden, embroidering petal-stuffed cushions, and learning the skills they will use when they are old enough to go to war against the demonmales. In the place of textbooks, their dedicated, deformed caregiver Aunty instructs them from her multi-volume Appendix, a document made up of a Showreel; beauty rituals; and bizarre myths about the sisters’ purpose, life Outside, and the nature of the world. (Those cushions they sew? They’ll be used to cover the sky lid to protect the girls from the damaging heat of the Sun. And why are the cushions stuffed with petals? To perfume the sky so they won’t be poisoned by His polluting farts, naturally.) But when one sister seeks out the truth about what lies beyond the Wall, she sows the seeds of doubt that will topple their orderly lives.

I’ve been slumping pretty hard for the last six months, unable to muster much enthusiasm for the books on my shelf. I’ve been trying to #readmyowndamnbooks, but when I came across this novel in my work at the library, it seemed like just the right amount of weirdness to capture and keep my attention. It didn’t let me down! The First Book of Calamity Leek alternately made me laugh and gave me chills. I loved the way Lichtarowicz slowly, subtly reveals details in the observations of a girl who has no idea of the significance of what she’s reporting.

Delightfully strange and deeply unsettling, The First Book of Calamity Leek calls into question the stories we tell ourselves — and our stubborn adherence to these stories even as their holes are revealed. It’s a book that combines The Handmaid’s Tale‘s twisted version of female safety with The Beautiful Bureaucrat‘s inventive plays on language to fantastic effect. Like Our Endless Numbered Days, it asks more questions than it answers, making it a great book club pick.

Notable Quotes

“On the television, the demonmale was stepping up to seal the deal good and proper with poor Cinderella, or, how they say it so females should know to set off running, if they haven’t already started, Forever and ever OUR MEN. ” p 79-80

“Course, them demonmales shook their beards and laughed when Annie told them — which she was a total loonhead to do — about our Appendix. One of them said he had his own book with different stories in it about how everything started. The other one said the plain truth was the Sun was just a ball of fire, and we all grew out of fish, and hadn’t Annie heard that?” p  267