Vic’s 2017 Top Ten Books

Dah, dah, dah, dah!! Here is it, my annual list of the top ten best books I read this year. Not all of these were published in 2017, but they all made my year a little brighter.

As I look it over there are two takeaways for me. First, I was surprised I liked a fair number of these because they aren’t genres or descriptions I would normally gravitate to. This is a good push to more-than-occasionally dip my toe outside of my reading comfort zone. And second, if you asked me whether I preferred fiction to non-fiction, ten times out of ten I would say fiction. But my top ten list this year does not support that: it is dominated by non-fiction. Eight are true stories, five of those are memoir. I guess I can drop my perpetual goal to try to read more nonfiction. It seems to have finally worked.

Without further ado:

  1. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie:No one is more surprised than I am that this is on my best of list; I have a long-held dislike for Seattle’s favorite author. I find him smug and condescending and have, to my detriment, avoided reading him because of this. But my book club forced me to read this gorgeous memoir earlier in the year and I was literally stopped in my tracks by the beauty of Alexie’s elegy for his mother and by the way he just laid open his heart, imperfections and all. It is a beautiful book on grief and difficult relationships. I’m going to read the rest of Alexie’s back catalog next year.
  2. Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas: I found a small hardcover of this book in my library, took it home, and devoured it in one sitting. Then I read it again. And then I obsessed about stealing it from the library, partially because some reader before me had dog-eared pages and underlined great quotes — magically the same ones I would have if it’d been my own copy– and partially because it’s now sadly out of print. Thankfully someone thoughtful tracked one down (thanks, Brooke!) and gifted me a copy so the original one made it back to the library system. It’s so good. It reads like it was intended to be a how-to book for older people who want to write their memoirs (it’s published by the AARP) but, like all Thomas books, it is charming and sweet and much more than a writing manual.
  3. Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel: The story of Chris Knight and the 27 years he spent living alone in the Maine woods is sad and beautiful and complicated, as is the story of Michael Finkel, the journalist trying to track him down and tell his story. This book is fascinating and well-written and it belongs on a very exclusive list of the best nature books ever written, right next to Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and Walden.
  4. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear: A memoir of an ordinary year, one that finds the author preparing for the death of her father, managing her anxiety disorder, and learning about bird watching. This is a book meant to be read slowly, I think, and savored in bits and pieces. The writing is spectacularly beautiful and quotes from the pages fill my commonplace book. “Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.” “Every love story is a potential grief story.”
  5. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is my favorite kind of novel — a multi-generational family drama that pulls you into the details of a world you previously knew nothing about. The story takes place in Korea over four generations, starting in the early 1900s and served as a great introduction to Korean (and Japanese) history. It’s about the unpredictability of life and the quiet strength of women and how, even after terrible things happen, life always goes on.
  6. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: There’s nothing about the description of this book that would have led me to believe I’d like it. It’s an alternative history, where the Civil War never happened and in present-day America slavery is still legal in four Southern states. The story centers on a black man, Victor, who works for the government as a bounty hunter, and while the plot moves forward quickly, we also get a glimpse into how Victor arrived in this place. It’s shocking and brutal and makes for a great book club discussion.
  7. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang: I’d seen an episode of the truly terrible ABC sitcom based on this memoir and had no desire to read the book until I started obsessively watching Vice’s Huang’s World. I’m so glad I finally did read it — this is a fresh and really smart look at the modern immigrant story. It’s funny and touching and taught me about Taiwanese and Chinese culture–not to mention American hip hop, streetwear, and by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship.
  8. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: I wish that this book had been there two or three years ago when I was really struggling with a career change, but even so it’s an invaluable resource and I’m sure to go back to it next time I need to assess what I’m doing with my life. This also made me desperately want to attend Stanford’s d.school.
  9. Hunger by Roxane Gay: This book took longer for me to finish than any book in recent memory. It was beautiful, but filled with so much pain and a couple of scenes so intense I had to walk away and come back once I’d caught my breath. There are no epiphanies or easy resolutions to Gay’s story here; just an honest account of a complicated struggle that she’s faced for years and continues to chip away at one day at a time.
  10. How to be Champion by Sarah Millican: Right now go watch the YouTube clip where Sarah Millican, Vince Vaughn, and PDiddy are on the Graham Norton show. It is an awkward and hilarious few minutes where Millican shares a very personal story about farting. This is in a capsule Millican’s comedic genius. She is brutally honest, doesn’t care about looking good, and is brave in a way that warms the cockles of my feminist heart (ok maybe that last one doesn’t come through in the clip but it definitely does in the book). I listened to this on audio, mostly on a long plane ride, and I laughed out loud like a maniac for many hours. It’s good, and she’s a new favorite.

Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For

This month has been a whirlwind of travel and work for me so I am looking forward to a quiet few days with my family, eating delicious food, and playing with my sister’s new puppies. As a small way to give thanks, I’m taking part in Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday feature today–the theme this week is Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For.

  1. Home Cooking: This book made me realize what my mom has been trying to teach me for years, cooking good food simply is a great way to show people you love them.
  2. The Fountainhead: It’s a terribly written book with a bullshit political philosophy but reading this at 18 made me realize books can change the world.
  3. You Are Here: I got through some rough times with the help of this book. It taught me how to be nice to myself and to always remember that bad shit ends.
  4. Everyday Matters: Danny Gregory’s creative diary inspired me to keep a sketchbook and to develop a regular creative outlet for myself regardless of my day job.
  5. Love is the Killer App: When I worked in a ruthless environment this book reminded me that doing good business with integrity and love is possible.
  6. Do More Great Work: This workbook inspired me to work towards a job and a career that worked for me and let me get to that great work.
  7. Into the Wild: This story of Chris McCandless helped me remember how important the woods and wilderness were to me, and inspired me to find my way back to it.
  8. East of the Mountains: This book inspired me to move to the Pacific Northwest 18 years ago. I just happened to settle on the other side of those mountains.
  9. A Little Life: Yes, this book is one tragedy after another. But it is also about friendship and love, and the value in showing up.
  10. How to Talk to Practically Anybody About Practically Anything: It was outdated even when I first read it in 2009 but some advice lasts forever. This is especially wonderful for introverts like me.

What books are you thankful for?

Out of Fashion

I’ve never been one for fashion, not in any sense of the word. I don’t wear trendy clothes; I tend more toward jeans and plain shirts and Doc Martens. I like pop music, but today’s stuff makes me chafe—give me the boy bands and one-hit wonders of the ’80s and ’90s, please. And though I believe I can honestly call myself an avid reader, I don’t often jump on books as soon as they’re released. In fact, I usually have little idea what’s coming up and coming out. I just don’t follow those lists like I should—or like I feel like I should if I want to call myself well-read.

But really, what does well-read mean, anyway? Does it mean keeping up with the times, or at least with the New York Times best-seller lists? Does it mean reading only what’s considered “real” literature, as opposed to the poppy works of Stephen King and the sci-fi, fantasy, and YA novels I enjoy? Does it mean having a deep knowledge of the “classics”? Because I happen to have a seething, lifelong aversion to them, which means I’m not up on my Austen and Dickens, and The Catcher in the Rye gives me hives; I tried last year to read Jane Eyre but gave up before she even met Mr. Rochester because I was dying of boredom (though Thandie Newton’s narration of the audiobook is phenomenal).

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Same cover as the one I had to read in a high school English class.

There have been some classics I have read and enjoyed. Fahrenheit 451. The Great Gatsby. Frankenstein. To Kill a Mockingbird. Pretty much the entirety of the Shakespeare canon. But it’s a decidedly short list. Does this make me any less of a reader? Some would say so, and I’ll admit it does make me feel that way sometimes too. As a professional book editor, former ghostwriter, and current blogger about books, I feel like I should have that foundation; I should be well-read in the classics and have a working knowledge of their storylines, themes, and historical contexts so I can compare other works to them. Because the classics are the gold standard, right? The bar by which the worth of all other literature must be set?

Well, not so in my world. And to be honest, I think I get along fine without them. Because I have my own classics. Those titles I’ll go back to again and again and reread in part or in whole whenever I need some literary comfort food or inspiration. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (yes, really—it was my bible when I was fifteen/sixteen). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Titles that bring me back to the times and places when and where I read them, that still speak to me in some way after so many years.

 

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My actual dog-eared, marked-up hardcover from when I was a teenager. I still have it!

 

And isn’t that what makes a classic book a classic anyway? Its ability to tell us something about ourselves whether we’re reading it at the time it’s published or a hundred years later? The old white folks who wrote the officially sanctioned classics don’t have a corner on that market, you know. There are—do I even need to say this?—plenty of other diverse voices out there whose words are just as meaningful, just as timeless and important.

To reflect this, I adhere to a different definition of the term well-read. Instead of meaning that you read all the correct things, the fashionable things as far as the literary institutions are concerned, I believe it simply means that you read a lot. Because I do, and I read a wide variety of titles because I believe, as is true in all aspects of life, variety is what matters. It’s what makes the world interesting. If we were all the same—if we all listened to the same music and watched the same movies and read the same books and wore the same clothes and ate the same food—how boring would that be? We need that diversity, that broad range of stories and authors, in order to experience the world in full. Even the dictionary backs me up on this one—Merriam-Webster defines well-read as “well-informed or deeply versed through reading.” That is exactly what I’m talking about.

Besides, I will forever be a thirteen-year-old girl trapped in a middle-aged woman’s body, and you can have my YA novels when you pry them from my cold, dead, glitter-painted fingernails.

PS—I would love to hear about other people’s personal classics. Leave a comment with your list!

Library Plug-in

Whoa. I just came across this amazing Chrome browser extension — once you install it, every book on Amazon or Goodreads (plus a long list of other book-related sites) comes up with the availability of that book at your local library, in all formats. I just installed it earlier today and have already put a half dozen new books on hold because of it. So convenient! Check it out here.

 

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On Just Being a Reader

I am drowning in good books these days.

I just got back from a long work trip, where I read Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties. It wasn’t fantastic, but I love Stephen King and the way you just get sucked into his insane plots. This was perfect to read on the long plane rides and in the middle of the night as I struggled with jet lag. Then I got home to a backlog of holds at the library. I breezed through Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts. Are teenage boys really that obsessed with sex? I realize that sounds like a stupid question–of course they are–but I was sort of freaked out by just how much the protagonist thought about sex. Like more than seemed possible.

From there I blew right through Fangirl, which was funny and sweet (and fast), and then I started Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, which is really fascinating. It’s probably something I should have learned in school, but as you probably remember, I spent an awful lot of time at school doing shots and skipping class. Before I could get very far on that one, though, I cheated and started John Green’s newest, Turtles All the Way Down. That John Green, he’s amazing. I stayed home an extra half hour this morning just because I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

My TBR pile is promising, too. We’re reading Lincoln in the Bardo for book club, and I bought the new Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust. I have a memoir by Michel Faber called Undying that will probably make me weep, but I still can’t wait to read it.

It’s luxurious to have so much good stuff to read.

For a long time I was really worried that my career-change meant I wouldn’t get to enjoy this kind of heavenly excess. I worked in books for almost 20 years, in a ton of different roles, from bookseller to publisher. There were SO MANY good things about being in the books business. Tons of free books. TONS. I was surrounded by people who loved and lived books. I got to talk about my favorite subject at work all of the time. I always knew the latest scoop on new books, on authors, and on controversies. Authors were my rock stars, and I got to meet so many of the very best of them.

I worried for years over leaving that world, so afraid of losing all the benefits.

But in the end I was just burnt out. The pace was insane. Media coverage of the work I was a part of was relentlessly negative (and often wrong). And those periods of not being able to finish a book–those black holes where nothing at all is connecting with you?–I kept having more of them, and they seemed longer and more precipitous every time.

I finally left books in early 2013, at least five years after I’d begun to think it might be time. In hindsight, I wish I’d left earlier.

The change was good for me in a lot of ways, right away, but I also felt like I’d lost the right to have an opinion on anything books- or publishing-related. I was an outsider. It took me a few years to get myself settled into my new life and career and to settle my brain, and of course I’ve realized that I am still entitled to my opinions. And I’ve found that I actually love and enjoy reading MORE now than ever before.

So what’s different?

Reading isn’t work any more. Even with all of the great things that came with working in books, at the end of the day, opening up a book to read was, at some level, working. It was an excellent type of work, no doubt. But it was work. And in many ways what I chose to read felt like a political decision. Maybe the book was self-published, or published by someone we had difficult business dealings with. That meant something. Was the editing a little loose or the cover not quite right? I would think about the person I knew who was responsible for those mistakes and fret about whether I had something to do in order to fix it. Now I just peruse covers, read reviews, and decide whether a book is something that floats my boat at the moment. No politics, no work.

I decide which books are important. There’s no pressure to read all of the big new important books. There was never a set rule that I had to read a specific list of books, of course, but it was expected that you were current on everything that was important. One of the things that made me realize it was time to leave books was when I was at a dinner in New York with two publishing people, catching up on what we’d each been reading. I mentioned a memoir I’d picked up about a woman who spent a year in Japan. I really liked it. One of my dinner mates, a lovely woman, said, “Hmmm, I don’t know that book.” And the other one said “Don’t worry, it’s not an important book.” Ugh. So gross. That elitism was my least favorite thing about publishing. Anyway, now that I’m not in the books business I can go on benders and read nothing but YA or memoirs or books about hiking the Camino de Santiago for months on end. I don’t have to feel guilty about it. I can even go back and read–or reread–backlist titles, something I couldn’t imagine doing when books were my job.

My opinions are finally my own. There’s no need for me to be diplomatic or to champion titles purely for business reasons. I am proud to say I never lied about liking books that I sold or published, but there were certainly a lot of things I chose to remain silent about. I never even made negative comments about books published by other houses–who knew who might end up being inadvertently offended? No longer! I am free to say, for example, that I hated Alec Baldwin’s memoir, Nevertheless, with the burning intensity of the sun. What a narcissistic fucker that guy is.  Also, e-books are too freaking expensive! Publishers ripped off American readers but somehow won the PR war against Amazon on the subject. I still refuse to buy any e-book that’s more than $10. Instead, I go to the library. Speaking of which,

I’ve rediscovered the library. I’ve had a library card my entire life, but I didn’t really use it when I was working in books. Now my local library is an important part of my everyday life. I was there this morning and will probably be back again before the week is over. I love how busy it always is–full of kids and all kinds of adults and people learning English and old men sitting in the carrels in the back watching romcoms on their laptops (at least that’s what I hope they’re watching). It’s a little microcosm of our entire city. I feel good in there. And going there regularly makes me feel like I’m really part of my community.

I guess all of this is to say that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world because I got to work in books every day. It certainly was a wonderful experience. But there is an awful lot to be said for being a reader, just a reader.

NaNoWriMo? No, Thanks.

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—is upon us. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers are challenged to produce a 50,000 wcrest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76ord book entirely in the month of November, from start to finish. As someone who used to ghostwrite books of that length for a living, I can tell you this is no small feat. It used to take me months to get that much done (though most likely, NaNoWriMo participants will not have stubborn clients to contend with while writing, as I did; that slows down the process considerably). 

So it sounds like fun, right? And what a sense of accomplishment these writers must have at the end of the month, when they have an entire novel completed. Granted, it’s only a first draft, and hopefully—speaking now as a practicing book editor—there will be many rounds of edits before it’s suitable for publication. Still, I can only imagine the thrill of knowing the biggest hurdle, the writing, is in the past, that you’ve finally gotten all those words inside your head out and into some sort of logical order, that you’ve created something pleasing that others might want to read. 

Still, I will not be participating. Why? Because I have a life. Too much life, to be exact, to have time for it. I don’t mean this in the insulting or condescending way it sounds, as if those who do NaNoWriMo have no life and are therefore free to pursue their writing dreams. Because really, who’s got the short stick here? I have two jobs and a six-year-old son to spend time with when I’m not working, and between those two things, that’s pretty much all of my time. Sometimes I’m able to sneak in an hour and a half of writing once a week while waiting for my kid to get out of a class he takes on Saturday mornings (as I’m doing right now), but even that is often trumped by other more necessary errands. To tell the truth, I envy those who can participate in NaNoWriMo, not just because they have the time (or make the time; I’m sure there are some participants who are just as busy as I am who still manage to fit it in) but because they have the inspiration. Because they haven’t lost whatever it is that drives them to write. 

Creativity is like a muscle, I believe, and if you don’t regularly flex and stretch it, it can atrophy. I’ve seen it happen in myself, during periods—like now—when I don’t have as much expendable time and energy to put toward creative pursuits. This doesn’t have to be writing; it can be drawing, painting, knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, redecorating your home—anything that makes you use your imagination and produces some sort of artifact that can be enjoyed by yourself and/or others. If you are regularly able to be creative, then good for you—I envy you too. I hope you flex that muscle as often and as strongly as you are capable of. And I hope that you don’t take that ability for granted, as I did back during the days when I was prolific. Back in my twenties, say, when I had almost zero responsibilities and much fewer worries clogging up my head. 

Whenever I think about myself as a writer, my mind always goes to that time in my life, to an apartment I had in Jersey City, New Jersey, a third-floor attic that had an extra room I set up as a writing space. I had a desk that wrapped around two walls, a cork MV5BMzc1YmU2ZjEtYWIwMC00ZjM3LWI0NTctMDVlNGQ3YmYwMzE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY999_CR0,0,704,999_AL_board with photos and postcards for inspiration, passages from books I liked typed out and taped up on the walls behind my desk, and a giant subway-advertisement-size poster from the movie Fight Club. I spent so much time huddled in there, smoking American Spirits and listening to my three favorite CDs at the time, Depeche Mode’s Ultra, Duran Duran’s Medazzaland, and David Bowie’s Earthling, on heavy rotation while I wrote and wrote and wrote, never finishing anything more than a flash fiction piece here and there but just enjoying the process, just loving the feeling of translating the images in my brain into words on the screen of my Mac laptop. I would agonize over every syllable until they were all perfect, until they all gave me that hum I felt inside my mind when I knew I was writing something good. Something with meaning; something with heart. Something that spoke to the themes I was always trying to relate in my writing: love and trust, loyalty and betrayal, and getting down to the deeply buried heart of what it means to be human in this world, to the moment where all is laid bare and the truth, in all its beauty and all its difficulty, is confronted and revealed. Though isn’t that, after all, what we are all writing about? Isn’t that what any good writing is able to achieve? 

I still write about these themes today, I think, when I do get the chance to write, albeit in different ways. Instead of fictional characters, I write about myself, about the life I’ve had and the moments that have defined me—the love I have felt, the trust I have lost, the betrayals that have pushed me to become the person I am today, for better and for worse. The older I get, the realer my writing becomes to the point that I rarely work on anything that could be classified as fiction anymore. And it’s harder to find that hum, to look at the words I type and feel like they are magic, to feel the sparks fly from my fingertips as they meet the keyboard. Instead it feels like work, like something I have to work at rather than something that just comes to me. 

I tell myself it’s all a first draft, that if I don’t get it perfect, it’s okay, I can always go back and edit. The important thing is to get it out. Writing as therapy, I guess you would call it. That’s what I have time for these days. And in a lot of ways, that’s good. It’s what works for me at this point in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes sorely miss those days in my Jersey City garret. If I could somehow harness that creative energy again and pair it with my older and questionably wiser work ethic—minus the time constraints–who knows what kind of NaNoWriMo masterpiece I might be able to complete?

Words and Music

When I was thirteen years old, I became obsessed with words. It was when I decided I wanted to be a writer, after reading SE Hinton’s The Outsiders (which I’m sure I’ll post about here at some point). I read tons of books from the local library – all the Hintons, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, Paul Zindel – and wrote in a journal multiple times a day, though admittedly it was mostly about which member of Duran Duran was the cutest. (I still have the journals. So cringe-worthy.) But the point was I was writing. I was expressing myself. I was exploring what it means to use words in new and exciting ways, to communicate how I was feeling with pen and paper (because I am old and grew up prior to the ubiquity of personal computers and the advent of smartphones). 

This age of discovery coincided with the other great love of my young life: music. Thanks to my family, an appreciation for all genres and styles had been instilled in me practically since birth. My older sister’s obsession with the Beatles rubbed off on me simply by being around her. My two older brothers filled in the hard rock and heavy metal. And my dad, a sort of music polymath with a record collection in the tens of thousands, schooled me on everything else, from classical to classic rock ‘n’ roll to big band to opera. He’d even listen to the modern stuff from time to time. 

Being a teenage girl, of course my own tastes trended toward pop music. I’d grown up listening to Top 40 radio stations like WPLJ and Z100 out of New York. My record collection was made up of all the obligatory pop icons, from Duran Duran to Cyndi Lauper to The Go-Go’s to Madonna and as many 12” remixes of one-hit wonders as I could find in the local record shop. 

In my later teen years, I transitioned to more “alternative” music and tuned in to the Wham!_-_Make_It_Big_(North_American_album_artwork)legendary WLIR out of Long Island; my record collection became a CD collection populated by REM, Erasure, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, and Morrissey and the Smiths. (Though, keeping true to my roots, my first CD purchase was Wham!’s Make It Big.) 

Regardless, no matter what I was listening to, it always came down to one thing for me: the lyrics. A good beat is nice, but for me nothing was as important as what the singer was saying to me, as the words he or she was using to express whatever the song was about. Okay, “Like a Virgin” didn’t hold much weight with me; I’m not sure I even understood what it meant when it came out. Pop music did still appeal to me just because it was catchy and the people performing it were so darn good looking. But more and more, I sought out those songs with lyrics that made me feel something, even if I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was. Because isn’t that the beauty of music? When done right, it can evoke emotions we sometimes don’t even have names for. 

And, of course, I wrote about it. I wrote down the lyrics of entire songs on loose-leaf notebook paper and taped them up on the wall next to my bed so I could gaze at them while I listened and refer to them for inspiration for my own writing; aside from the journals, I was a nascent teenage novelist, though everything I wrote was pretty much an Outsiders knock-off. I transcribed snippets of lyrics into my journal, sometimes doing what amounted to close readings, teasing out possible interpretations, the more complex the better. (My treatise on the Police’s “King of Pain” comes to mind. Just like Sting, it took itself a little too seriously.) 

The older I get, the more I appreciate a good lyric, one that sticks in my head the way the jungle yell of “Tarzan Boy” used to when I was thirteen years old. (And now it’s stuck again, probably for you too. You’re welcome.) Once I find one, I will listen to that song to the point of complete overkill, putting it on endless repeat, waiting each time for that moment when the lyric comes through and my emotions surge: 

Thom Yorke of Radiohead singing, “I can’t help but feeling…I could blow through the ceiling…if I just turn and run” in “Fake Plastic Trees.” 

Green Day’s “21 Guns”: “Lay down your arms, give up the fight.” 

Glen Phillips—well, I could fill a book with his lyrics, but I’ll go with “all that you a1786098417_16love will be taken someday, by the angel of death or the servants of change” from “Grief and Praise.” 

David Bowie in “Ashes to Ashes”: “I never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue.” 

I can even wring meaning out of my beloved pop music: 

“I have no secrets from you, I have nothing left to hide”–George Michael, “Something to Save” 

Duran Duran’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, aka my life anthem: “Always trying to control me, who do you think you are?” 

I could go on and on and on. 

Of course these words probably mean nothing to anyone but me—another genius perk of music, that we can all interpret it and appreciate it in whatever way we want. It’s individual; it’s personal. The most meaningful line to me might be the tritest to you and vice versa. And that’s okay. I will respect your assertions about whatever artist speaks to you personally if you can deal with the fact that I sometimes find boy bands deceptively profound.

Don’t go to sleep!

I arrived in India yesterday and in between napping and trying to figure out what day it is, I’ve been reading Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King. It’s my book club book this month and is especially great to read right now because the plot revolves around a sleeping sickness that only affects women. In the book I am reading about women desperately trying to stay awake just as I am desperately trying to stay awake. It’s trippy and I think making the book better for me. More on this once I’ve finished it.

Categories

We’ve been writing about commonplace books –these old fashioned collections of quotes from books and readings– and working on our own versions for a few months now. When we started, a little bit of digital sleuthing quickly showed that most people break their CPBs down by category. I considered this for a few days, and even tried to come up with a short list of categories for my collection, but it seemed an impossible task. It’s hard to think about organization when you have nothing but blank pages in front of you. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, however, I can look back and see some categories starting to emerge.

2017 has been a difficult year. My husband received a big and terrible diagnosis early in January and one of my ways of coping has been to just write this year off –I’ve said at least a dozen times something along the lines of “2017 isn’t a good year for me for ______. Let’s talk next year.” It applied to everything from socializing to taking on big projects to traveling to spending money. Although it sounds kind of pessimistic, I actually found it quite freeing — it was a little confirmation to myself that yes, this year would suck, but with any luck things wouldn’t suck forever. As long as you see an end to a difficult time, it’s much easier to get through it.

And I think because of this state of mind instead of using my reading to escape I’ve dug deep and read little that wasn’t about K’s illness or about how others have dealt with a shitty turn of events.

The big question that has been running through my head all year is “how do we comfort the people we love?” and the truth is that I’ve yet to come across any great answers. But I have started to build up a pretty sizeable fountain of other people’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with hard shit. I have lots of thoughts on this and will probably post about it again, but for now I thought I’d just share a few of the quotes from this year’s reading that have resonated the most.

“The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It’s not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is to simply show up. It’s about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all — this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it’s how, for me, everything turns holy.” Glennon Doyle, “The Secret of Life Is Simply Showing Up”, O Magazine July 2017

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (found on a comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post 7/25/17)

I am reminded of an image…that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more — sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life

These are only from things I’ve read in the last ten months. I find myself wanting to go back and reread things I read long ago, things I read before I was keeping track of quotations in my commonplace book. I want to re-read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, the best book on grief I think I’ve ever read, about the terrible year that Didion lost both her husband and her only daughter. I want to go back and re-read Late Fragments by Kate Gross, which I listened to on a solo road trip through the desert a few years ago. It was wonderful, if wonderful is an appropriate word for the memoir of a very young woman with a horrible cancer that kills her soon after she finished writing the book. I want to go back and re-read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Lifeby Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a book that I absolutely adored when I read it more than a decade ago. Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer earlier this year, just ten days after the NYT published a heart-wrenching dating profile she wrote for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I want to revisit the wisdom in Will Schwalbe’s The End-of-Your-Life Book Club and Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life.

I see now that this is not a new category for me. It’s just become more important to me this year. So, what should I call this category? Illness? Grief? How to live with death in your rear-view mirror? Oh. I guess that’s just called Life.

Vicky’s bullet journal best practices (so far)

When I was in my fast-paced tech job and overwhelmed with shit to do, I became obsessed with time management systems. My first love was Getting Things Done by David Allen. It really helped me get through some crazy times but the process was pretty cumbersome and outdated (lots of calling people ON THE PHONE and filing papers in drawers). Over time I experimented with a bunch of different systems, including creating daily to do lists in every conceivable form — on paper, on the email I wrote each week to tell my manager what I was working on, on the giant whiteboard in my office, in Outlook using Tasks, or even creating an index-card-based Hipster PDA that was both incredibly simple and elaborate at the same time.

Then, early 2014ish, I came across bullet journaling.

Brilliant! I love that it’s entirely paper-based. That it’s simple. That you don’t have to fit your thoughts into preset templates and can write small or large or neat or messy and it still works. And I love that it has the potential to be beautiful.

I’ve probably completed four or five of these journals so far and over time have tweaked my usage from the original.

Here’s what it looks like for me today:

  • I use a single notebook for everything. Grocery lists are right next to notes on the paper I have to write for my boss. This felt weird at first but has helped me become so much better at managing my home life.  (The only exception is travel. For each trip I take I actually make a separate notebook. Tasks in these small notebooks are eventually transferred to my master notebook but the small travel book becomes a souvenir. Maybe I’ll do another entry on that some day.)
  • Every month I start with a simple printed out calendar and an updated to-do list. I find it too time consuming to draw in my own calendar, even though it’s much prettier that way. The to dos, as per the original bullet journal video, are a result of going through all of the tasks from the last month and transferring any that remain open to the new month. I almost always come up with a few more to dos during this process as I sort of clean out my brain. I mark each new month by washi-taping the edge of that page. That way it’s easy to find when I need to check on to dos or see the full month view.

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  • ​I start every notebook out with a six-month forward-looking spread. This is surprisingly helpful to me — when I start it’s usually mostly empty but as I go I add in trips and big deliverables and important events and that six-month time horizon helps me see big things on the horizon.

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  • ​I used to write notes on the books I’ve been  reading, but now that we’re using the Common Place Book, I probably won’t need to.
  • ​I tape in photos of things I love here and there, especially after I return from a trip. Sometimes they’re actual photos but more often they’re just basic color printouts from the office copier. Super easy to do and it brightens the notebook and reminds me of how beautiful the world is every time I look at it.

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  • ​I use the back of the book for master lists. Sometimes these are pages dedicated to coworkers where I keep a running list of things I need to ask that person about (I did this a lot when I managed a team). Sometimes I keep track of big projects and goals here — more often than not these are personal. For example, you know I have this goal to go to every National Park in the US? I write out the ones I still have to go to in the back of each notebook. I don’t often refer to it but every now and then it serves as a little inspiration in a boring meeting.

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  • I take copious notes during meetings or when reading work documents. Sometimes they look good, usually they don’t. But I remember things when I write them down so this is an important step for me. Sometimes I am bored and have to write about that.
  • I washi tape in business cards from new contacts. I keep the info digitally but I like having the cards and keeping them in the notebook serves as a visual reminder for who I’ve met and where.
  • I love a good mind map. There are a bunch in my bullet journals.

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  • As you probably know, I am extremely goal-oriented. I like to use the journal to identify and track goals. Sometimes this is a yearly kind of thing, sometimes it’s printing out a list of all of the artwork from the intranet and checking them off as I find them (the place I work now has an AMAZING art collection).

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I do NOT:

  • Number pages or create indexes. I did when I started but found I never used them.
  • Create weekly spreads. I rely on my digital calendars to manage meetings and personal events. I don’t get anything additional out of replicating them on paper.
  • Use the full-range of cute shapes to mark my entries. As much as I like the little eye for explore further, I find myself writing out “need to learn more” instead of the shape. It’s a personal failure. My brain doesn’t work that way. I am pretty religious about the basics for tasks — cross out for complete, > for moved forward to next month, strike-through for no longer relevant.
  • Digitize my bullet journal. I tried this after my first one — I snapped photos of each page and uploaded to my Evernote account. Evernote has OCR so I liked the fact that I could conceivably search my writing. It didn’t take very long and the OCR worked pretty well but I find that I never ever went back to look at these notes. It was easier and more enjoyable to just flip through the physical notebook on my shelf.

Something I haven’t done yet, but want to try:

  • Habit tracking. I love the way these things look and I especially like going back and adding to a page over time. Don’t know what I’d track yet though. Going to yoga maybe? Riding my bike? Not sure. I need to think about it.

Let me know what you end up doing. I love talking about this shit. 🙂