E.B. Bartels

Nonfiction mafia.

Category: Lists

Happy New Year! Read more books!

Is your New Year’s resolution to read more books? Are you currently trapped inside due to a blizzard and looking for something good to curl up with?

Check out this great list of recommendations (that I was asked to contribute to! I’m so flattered!) on Fiction Advocate:

“The Best Books to Distract You From the Dumpster Fire That Was 2016”

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Happy 2017! Happy reading!

2015: All Books By All Ladies, All the Time

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I wrote about my goal to read 50 books by women in 2015 for Wellesley Underground! Not only did I write about my experience, but I also some how managed to list my TOP TWELVE FAVORITE BOOKS that I read last year.

Need some reading recommendations? Check it out.

2015 Reading Challenge: 4th Quarter Check-In a.k.a. The End

And so it is 2016, and time to tell you about the 4th and final quarter of my 2015 reading challenge and how the whole thing went. If you’ve been following me on GoodReads, you already know: I didn’t make it. On December 31st, I finished my 48th book, and even though I am currently in the middle of two other books, I didn’t complete reading them in time. I’m definitely blaming men for this, because I did read 50 books this year:

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… just two of the books I read over the summer I had to read for work, and both were by men (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin), so, therefore, if I hadn’t had to read those, I totally definitely would have made my goal, right?! Except, it did get a lot harder to keep up with my reading pace once I started teaching in September, and I did throw in a lot of plays and comics/graphic works as the year went on to try to make the 50. But my friend and colleague Dan Halperin sums it up best: he is a director and theatre teacher, and the week before any show goes up, when the whole production always feels like a complete mess and that opening night will be a disaster and what were we thinking it’s never going to come together in time, he says, “If we were ready to go right now, we wouldn’t be challenging ourselves enough.” It’s better to set the bar too high, and to always be striving for something greater, than to set the bar low, easily hit it, and then sit around twiddling your thumbs. So I’m glad I tried to read 50 books this year, even if I didn’t exactly make it, and I am going to try to read 50 more in 2016 as well. One year I will get there. And then I’ll shoot for 60 books.

Oh, and in case you have forgotten and have no idea what I’m going on about: My goal for 2015 was to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

So, what have I been reading since I last checked in? Why, let me tell you!  (And if you want to remember what I read the rest of the year, please see my 3rd Quarter Check-In, my 2nd Quarter Check-In, and my 1st Quarter Check-In posts.)

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38. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson: This was the book I was currently reading at the time of my 3rd Quarter Check-In and let me tell you it was goddamn excellent. Margo is the best, and I may be biased because she was my professor and one of my thesis readers, but she is really great, and this book is a brilliant blend of her personal history and cultural commentary, and she deftly moves back and forth between the two. Margo is so smart, and getting to sit inside her head for 250 pages and listen to her thoughts on race, gender, class, art, academia… it was incredible.

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39. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: Where were Mariko and Jillian Tamaki when I was in high school? This graphic novel is powerful stuff, and it should be read by teenage girls everywhere. It deals with all the complexities of friendship, crushes, trying to fit in but feeling that you don’t, isolation, angst, confusion, complicated student-teacher relationships… it’s so good! I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I read it months ago now.

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40. Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa: With all the yoga I’ve been doing the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been getting into mindfulness and meditation as well. We also teach a lot about mindfulness to the kids at the school where I work, and even if the kids haven’t bought into it yet, I drank the Kool-Aid. It’s amazing to feel how much your breath can control your mood and your heart rate, and reading this gorgeous book by Sakugawa was like one long meditation. Her illustrations are beautiful, and to sit and to breathe and to reflect on your relationship with the universe––it was so very calming. I fully expect to return to this book over and over for its meditative qualities. Plus, it’s pretty to look at.

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41. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: From the same team that brought you Skim, this graphic novel is also about all the complexities and confusions that come with being an adolescent girl. This book features different characters from Skim, and this is a completely independent story and standalone work, but it feels a lot like a sequel––dealing with the same issues of sexuality and identity and friendship. Also, the whole summer vacation setting feels painfully nostalgic… the Tamaki women have got this graphic novel thing figured out. It’s a great book. Read it.

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42. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks: Dan Halperin recommended I read some Suzan-Lori Parks, and this play was fantastic. It’s about two black men who are brothers, whose father named them Lincoln and Booth “as a joke.” The older brother, Lincoln, works as a Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, and the younger brother, Booth, is an aspiring card shark. I don’t want to tell you much more, because I don’t want to give the story away, but it’s really, really, really good.

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43. To Be the Poet by Maxine Hong Kingston: I’ve been moving this little square hardcover book around with me for decades, and only this year did I finally stop and look at it. It was given to me as a gift, by someone, I forget who, who gave it to me when I was in middle or high school, back when I spent a lot of time talking dramatically about how I wanted to be a writer and composing pretentious, bad poems. I never actually read it, and assumed it was one of those gift books they sell at The Paper Store, with inspiring quotes by famous women or whatever. (Because I was such a literary snob in middle and high school.) Then after I read one million things by Maxine Hong Kingston this summer I paused and thought, wait a minute, I’ve seen a picture of that woman before… and I dug up this gem. It’s an interesting book––basically Kingston’s journals as she decides to transition from writing “long books” (prose) into poetry. At times it feels a little self-indulgent, to just decide I’m a poet now, okay? and then publish a whole book about it. But the writing exercises she takes herself through to compose poems, and the way she analyzes the difference between prose writers and poets, it’s all fascinating stuff, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. It made me think, oh, maybe I could also write a poem one day. And I guess that’s the whole point of her book, right?

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44. Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters: This is the second collected volume of the Lumberjanes comic series, and everything I said about volume one applies to this book as well: “File this under books that I wish had been around when I was a teenager. A thoroughly fun read, Lumberjanes follows a group of friends at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I loved that the graphic novel is all about friendship between girls and that it puts queer girls, girls of color, and not traditionally feminine girls at the center. (No sexy Wonder Woman outfits in this series!) The diversity of the characters shows the many ways there are to be a girl in the world, and each girl brings her own personality, style, background, talents, and flair to the group. Every adventure they have is only possible because of the power of their differences and their unity. I think this series perfectly executes the Audre Lorde mantra of how, in a group, our differences shouldn’t be divisive, but they should make us stronger.”

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45. Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? by Liz Prince: I read the rest of Liz Prince’s comics partially because I was in the process of interviewing her for my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column (her interview goes up on January 13th! stay tuned!), but also because she’s funny and great. This little collection of comics was refreshing because so many books are about all the ways love can go wrong (Romeo and Juliet, every book ever written, etc.) and these comics focused on all the things that are just plain wonderful about being in love––those goofy silly moments when you completely let your guard down in front of another person. Sure, those moments can be a little sappy at times, but why does everything have to be all angst and sadness? If you want to read about Prince’s depressing single times, read her book Alone Forever. 

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46. Delayed Replays by Liz Prince: This collection of Liz Prince comics is about day-to-day shenanigans that she and her friends and family get up to. Again, just as with Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? it’s about those little funny things that happen every day. It’s charming, and it made me chuckle, plus I loved the fact that it is a nonfiction comic––real life is rich with so many great moments, why not preserve them? For more about writing comics about real life, read my Non-Fiction by Non-Men interview with Liz Prince!

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47. Presto Agitato: A Dictionary of Modern Movement by Elizabeth Schmuhl: This book of prose poems was written by another one of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA gang, my buddy Tuck’s friend Elizabeth Schmuhl. Just as with Sarah Xerta (see 2nd Quarter Check-In), I had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this spring, and Sarah and Elizabeth have even collaborated together. I was especially excited to read Presto Agitato, though, because when I edited Catch & Release, the online publication of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, I was lucky enough to get to publish a few excerpts of this book. But that experience was nothing in comparison to the experience of holding this beautiful slim volume in my hands, taking in the gorgeous formatting and illustrations and translucent paper (great work, Zoo Cake Press!), and reading Elizabeth’s fantastic poems. Her book is really unlike anything I’ve ever read before, it’s not just a book, but a whole experience, and, don’t worry, Elizabeth, I am working on my dance response to your definitions.

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48. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad: I will have a review of this book up on The Rumpus in a month or so! You can read all my thoughts about it then.

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49. BONUS BOOK: The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen: This is one of the two books I am currently reading. This book is required reading for the faculty at my school this year as part of our professional development, and I can’t tell you much about it yet, as I just started it, but so far, I really like how Jensen incorporates her own experience as a mother of teenagers into her writing about research about teenage brains. I’m a sucker for writers who fold a personal story into a historical, cultural, scientific, academic, whatever commentary. (See: Negroland, for example.)

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50. BONUS BOOK: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock: This is the other book I am currently reading. I picked it up after it was highly recommended by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. Always trust Ann and Aminatou. They know what’s up, and this book is excellent. Mock is the queen of writing both in childhood moments and reflecting back on those moments as an adult. The way she analyzes gender, identity, sexuality, love, family relationships, and sexual abuse, is so good. It’s not an easy read, because Mock hasn’t had an easy life, but it’s an important book to read. As she herself says, her life was hard, but she is one of the ones that “got out.” Reading Redefining Realness, it’s important to remember all the transwomen who have not been able to achieve the sort of life that Janet Mock has now. As soon as I’m done writing this post, I am going to go curl up with her memoir again.

Now, the part you’ve all been waiting for! The statistics breakdown!

In 2015, for my reading challenge, I read…

  • 48 books total.
  • 50% (24/48) of them were written by women of color.
  • 18.75% (9/48) of them were written by (out, or as far as I know) LGBTQ women.
  • 39 different writers (there were several repeat offenders, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Audre Lorde, Liz Prince).

And even though I didn’t make my goal of reading 50 books by women, I did learn two really valuable things from this past year:

  1. YOU HAVE TO MAKE TIME. You have to make time to read. This may seem pretty obvious, but reading isn’t something that just happens. This isn’t 19th century Imperial Russia, where all anyone had to do was sit around and sip vodka and read Tolstoy. There are a lot of things out there that can steal your attention away from reading these days (i.e. The Internet), and it’s super easy to crawl into bed at night after work and think, “I’m too tired to read,” and then play Two Dots on your phone for a half an hour instead. That way, days and days, even weeks can go by, without me reading a whole book, and because I had the goal to complete 50 books this year, I found myself more aware of all the times that I could be reading that I wasn’t, and I would stop myself, and quit playing Two Dots (even though it’s so addictive), and open up my book. I hope I continue to keep that mindfulness of “I could be reading right now” throughout 2016 and the rest of my life.
  2. YOU HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION. Since I had the goal to read 50 books by women this year, with a majority of those books by women of color (and also LGBTQ women), I found this year made me become aware of what and who I was reading. As I said in my 2nd Quarter Check-In post, it’s so easy to fall into default recommendations or to just pick up the books you have lying around, and, when you stop and look, more often than not, those books are by white men. I have a ton, a ton, a TON of books in my apartment (seriously, I bet they actually weigh a ton in total), and when I would spend some time reading the books by women that I had accumulated in my collection, I would suddenly realize that I had read three books in a row by white women. Spending a year trying to focus on almost exclusively reading books by women, specifically women of color, woke me up and made me start to think about the people behind the names on the covers, and I hope that I can hold onto that awareness throughout 2016 and the rest of my life as well.

So, this ends my 2015 reading challenge, but as I said in my 3rd Quarter Check-In post, just because it’s January doesn’t mean I’m going to go back to reading only books by white men all the time (though I have been thinking about finally finishing War and Peace after seeing Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 at the American Repertory Theatre last week). My apartment was flooded with books by women this year, and I have plenty of other wonderful books by ladies to read––these are the ones by my bed alone!

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Making sure to read books by women––and books by all underrepresented groups: people of color, LGBTQ people––is going to be a life goal of mine, and an on-going, never-ending process. Happy New Year!

2015 Reading Challenge: 3rd Quarter Check-In

Believe it or not, it’s already been three months since the last check-in on my 2015 reading challenge, and I must admit that I’m struggling a little over here. As you can see, I’m a few days late posting this––both because I was being busy with work and also because I may or may not have been stalling while I crammed in finishing a few more books to keep up with my reading schedule. *insert gritted teeth emoji face here* But for the future, I think I’m done with the rushing and the cramming. I want to enjoy and absorb the things I’m reading, not blow through them, and if that means I don’t make it to 50 by the time January 1 rolls around, so be it. As a wise man pointed out, I set this goal for myself before I knew I would be teaching this fall.

In case you have forgotten and have no idea what I’m going on about: My goal for 2015 is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

In terms of numbers, 75% of 50 is 37.5 books, and by the last day of September I had read only 34. Luckily, this weekend I didn’t have much going on, so I got to practice my favorite Saturday morning pastime of drinking coffee in bed while reading, and I finished a few things I had been reading simultaneously and brought things up to 37.

You see, not only did I start working full-time at a school this fall which leaves me a) with significantly less time for personal reading and b) pretty wiped out when I try to read before bed a.k.a. fall asleep with a book on my face, but I also got sidetracked reading a really awesome but really long novel (a casual 592 pages), plus I had to read two books over the summer for work that were by men, so that took time away from my ladies. (Men! Ruining everything! Typical!) I’ve decided to try to bring up my numbers by taking time to appreciate some great graphic novels/memoirs, plays, and poetry by women.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve read since my 1st Quarter and 2nd Quarter Check-In:

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27. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan: Last I left you I was on page number five of Boylan’s memoir and already had a good feeling about it. The remaining 283 only got better. Boylan is an incredible memoirist––conversational, thoughtful, accessible, and funny as hell. She leaves you reflecting on your own life and also the entire world, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for weeks and weeks after I finished it. Definitely read it! Though I may be biased… I got to interview Jennifer Finney Boylan for my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column on Fiction Advocate, and I think she is the bee’s knees.

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28. Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters: File this under books that I wish had been around when I was a teenager. A thoroughly fun read, Lumberjanes follows a group of friends at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I loved that the graphic novel is all about friendship between girls and that it puts queer girls, girls of color, and not traditionally feminine girls at the center. (No sexy Wonder Woman outfits in this series!) The diversity of the characters shows the many ways there are to be a girl in the world, and each girl brings her own personality, style, background, talents, and flair to the group. Every adventure they have is only possible because of the power of their differences and their unity. I think this series perfectly executes the Audre Lorde mantra of how, in a group, our differences shouldn’t be divisive, but they should make us stronger.

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29. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde: Oh, hey, speaking of Audre Lorde, as I promised I would in my 2nd Quarter Check-In, I went and read more Audre Lorde, and I love, love, LOVED Zami. (Thanks for the recommendation, Cris Beam!) In her poetic, story-telling style, Lorde goes through the history of her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. She perfectly balances that mix of adult-in-the-present-looking-back and child-wonder-and-confusion-in-the-moment. Zami is an exemplary memoir, plus it has all that great Lorde feminist ideology tucked into it as well. Just go read it. Right now. Stop reading my blog and go get a copy of Zami, okay?

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30. OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu: Haydu is another Nobles graduate (class of 2001!) and young adult author. While reading OCD Love Story this summer, all I could think about was how badly I needed this book when I was a kid. The story follows a teenage girl, Bea, as she battles chronic anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, while she also deals with a huge crush on a boy, Beck, whom she meets in group therapy. Haydu is masterful in her portray of mental illness and anxiety. She manages to bring awareness to the issues, lay out clearly what they are, and give a very powerful experience of what it’s like to cope with anxiety on a daily basis, but this is also not a Book About Mental Illness. It’s also a goofy, fun, teenage love story with all that good ol’ adolescent drama, which really hammers home the point that people are more than their mental illnesses. Anxiety, depression, OCD, all that––it’s just like someone having to manage diabetes or arthritis or hearing loss. It shouldn’t define who you are, and you shouldn’t be afraid of people with a mental illness. Haydu’s book tackles that concept head-on. It’s great. Read it. Unless maybe you yourself suffer from anxiety and OCD… sometimes Haydu’s portray of what it’s like to live with anxiety was a little too real for me… Also, trivia: Haydu has written a stage adaptation of OCD Love Story, which will be performed by students at Nobles this fall!

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31. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: I also promised in my 2nd Quarter Check-In that I would read more stuff by Kingston, and I was not in the least disappointed by The Woman Warrior. In fact, I may even like it more than China Men, because I’m partial to narratives about multiple generations of women, but also because Kingston was so much more present in this memoir. Again, she blends family legend and cultural commentary and global history and myth and fairy tale all into one magnificent thing. I’m obsessed.

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32. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: This is Morrison’s most recent book, and it is her first novel to take place in a contemporary time. It’s a riveting story, fast-paced and engaging, and Morrison’s commentary on the modern United States is fascinating. However, I was frustrated by the length of the novel. It felt like it ended too soon, and I kept thinking about loose ends that I wish had been addressed. Morrison’s characters are complex, and I was so intrigued by their stories that I was annoyed when I didn’t get to hear everything about all of them. So I guess all my whining here is to say that I really liked the book and am just upset there wasn’t more of it.

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33. The Big Green Tent: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon: This is that little 592-page novel that ate up a bunch of my August and September. It was totally worth the effort, but, whew, did it take a while to read. I’ll save my comments on this one as I have a review of it forthcoming at The Rumpus[EDIT: Here is the link to the review on The Rumpus!]

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34. Alone Forever: The Singles Collection by Liz Prince: I panicked after spending so much time on The Big Green Tent and grabbed a short and sweet comic collection by local writer and artist, Liz Prince. I read her Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir last fall, and I loved it. I enjoyed the standalone comics of Alone Forever, but I definitely preferred Tomboy. Prince can do a really great job at managing a long, connected storyline, and I think that’s why my favorite part of Alone Forever was the multi-part series about Prince’s OK Cupid dating history. (Though I do love that Prince is local, so I got a little thrill every time she would try to make eyes at a dude on the Red Line or go on a blind date at Diesel Cafe–I’ve been there! I’ve done that!) I think that Alone Forever doesn’t show Prince’s full potential as an artist. Still, it’s fun, and I would recommend reading it, especially if you’re currently going through Tinder Hell.

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35. The Mountaintop by Katori Hall: Shout out to Dan Halperin who recommended a whole list of women playwrights for me to read! His suggestions did not disappoint. I’ve spent a lot of time this fall remembering just how much I love theatre and how helpful it is to read plays to help think about dialogue in prose, and, on top of all that, Hall’s The Mountaintop was an incredible play that made me think about how to incorporate real people into fictional work and how to carry a play with only two characters and how to write about history in a personal way and how to put magical realism on stage and and and and my mind was blown. I’m writing this from a coma. I’m a pile of mush. Bye.

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36. The Worrier’s Guide to Life by Gemma Correll: I started reading this while standing in Newbury Comics, waiting for a certain wise man to finish browsing the records, and I had to buy the book to bring home to finish because I was making a scene in the store laughing. I was already familiar with some of Correll’s work from Twitter, but this whole book is a gem. Look at her website for a sampling, but go get the book and laugh-cry over it in the privacy of your own home.

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37. The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith: This was another book I read for work, as it was summer reading for the 8th graders this year. Smith is another local writer, and I got that same thrill as I did reading Liz Prince whenever her characters did things that I have also done, such as walk by Jamaica Pond or go to Starbucks in Brookline or drive down Blue Hill Ave. The story tackles the intense, complicated issues of reparations, Boston’s kept-quiet ugly history of slavery, how race and class play into relationships, and how history shapes everything we do in the contemporary world. It also is a ghost story/mystery, which makes for fast-paced reading.

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38. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson: This is what I’m currently reading. I pre-ordered this book and picked it up on the day it came out, September 8th, but am just getting to it now. So it goes. The author of this memoir is my beloved professor and thesis-reader from Columbia’s Writing Program, and I already have good feelings about this book, because Margo is the best. If you don’t believe me, read my Non-Fiction by Non-Men interview with her from this summer.

And now it’s time for those horrible statistics! Out of the twelve books above, only five are by women of color, and three are by out members of the LGBTQ community (I never want to assume anything about anyone’s sexuality or gender identity). Basically, I’m a mess, and I need to really plan out everything I’m going to read for the rest of the year, because when you grab random comic books at Newbury Comics, the odds are they’re usually by white women, if they’re by women at all. So. I’m ashamed, but I’m going to keep at it.

I’ve also realized something: while I really want to hit my 50-books-by-women goal for 2015, either way it doesn’t mean that in January 2016 I’m going to go back to reading only books by white dudes all the time. Sure, I’m looking forward to reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, but I think trying to read mostly-to-only books by women is going to be a goal of mine for the rest of my life. One of my fellow teachers has said that she feels that diversity and inclusion goals are a mindset, not a set curriculum. It was never as if I read 50 books by women and *poof* I would suddenly just get it. It’s an ongoing, life-long process.

Still, I’m going to try my hardest to hit my 50 books by January 1, 2016. Wish me luck!

P.S. If you can’t wait until the end of the fourth (LAST!) quarter to see what I’m reading, follow me on GoodReads.

2015 Reading Challenge: 2nd Quarter Check-In

Today is July 1st, and you know what that means––hot dogs and fireworks are right around the corner, the summer is already a third over, and with the end of the second quarter, it’s time for another check-in on my 2015 reading challenge slash New Year’s Resolution.

In case you forgot: My goal for 2015 is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

In terms of numbers, 50% of fifty is twenty-five books, and, not only am I on track, I am ahead of the game at the moment––I just started book number twenty-seven this morning! This is a good thing since, as some of you may know, I will start teaching full-time at the end of August and will have less time for free reading (and also will have to read a lot of additional books for work––many of which, I’m guessing, will not be by women). So let’s get right to this update so I can get back to my books.

Here’s what I’ve read since my 1st Quarter Check-In:

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13. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard: Last I left you, I was about halfway through this collection of essays. When I finally got to the famous essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” I was reading on a bench in the sun (despite the cold, as it was early April) outside of the Cambridge Public Library. I’d heard a lot about this essay, and in my typical cynical sense, I was prepared for it to be a let down or just a medium after so much hype from so many people. But I finished that essay, sitting on the bench in the sun, in the cold, and I felt gutted. I felt like Jo Ann Beard had ripped all my organs out and threw them in the snow. I haven’t had that powerful of a reaction to a piece of writing in a long time, and I walked back to my apartment from the library engrossed in thought, feeling like an empty shell, sort of listlessly drifting. It was an awesome feeling––awesome in the sense of awe-inspiring, not necessarily in the sense that I felt really good. In summary: read The Boys of My Youth for “The Fourth State of Matter” alone. Or just read “The Fourth State of Matter.” You have to.

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14. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine: Much like “The Fourth State of Matter,” I had heard a lot about this book before I read it––I had even heard Claudia Rankine speak at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this April––and, again, I was not disappointed. I was completely blown away. I love how Claudia Rankine defies any sort of straightforward genre––this book is at once personal essay, poetry, cultural criticism, art criticism, history, and myth––and how she incorporates her own personal story as a Black woman in America with the larger story of racism in America. I feel like I’m just rambling right now, but the point is that I can’t really explain this book, but it is one of the most powerful, intense things I have ever read in my whole life. You just have to read it to get it. Also, this book confirmed my feelings that everything that Graywolf Press publishes is pure gold.

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15. Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron: I was beginning to feel like a failure of a Wellesley alumna for how little Nora Ephron I had read. Yeah, I had seen You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. Yeah, I’d read some of her profiles and essays, but I had yet to sit down and read through one of her books. And I’m so glad that I did––my favorite thing about getting to read a whole group of Nora Ephron’s journalistic essays in a row is to see how even when the first person narrator is absent, her personality and dry, witty tone is evident. I finished Wallflower at the Orgy and immediately wanted to start I Feel Bad About My Neck, but then I got worried that “fifty books by women” would quickly turn into “fifty books by Nora Ephron.”

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16. Nothing To Do With Me by Sarah Xerta: As a prose writer of nonfiction and a personal essay junkie, I’m not drawn to a lot of poetry, but I am trying to read more of it because it helps my brain think about language differently. I picked up Sarah Xerta’s book because I had the pleasure of meeting her at the AWP Conference, as she is friends with my buddy Tuck, and I am so happy I read Nothing To Do With Me because Sarah Xerta’s poetry was an incredible reminder about the beauty and intense power of concise language and specific words themselves. So many of these poems are like a quick blow to the head––they left me dazed and reeling and amazed. Sarah Xerta is a genius, and, as I know from having the good fortune to meet her, a lovely human as well. A really great book by a really great person.

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17. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson: I heard that the new reboot of Ms. Marvel had cast the superhero as a teenage Pakistani Muslim girl from New Jersey, which I thought was pretty awesome, and I wasn’t disappointed by the series. I love how Kamala Khan is just an average teenager, dealing with friendship angst and school drama and strict parents with high expectations. This book was a fun break from some of the heavier work I have been reading, and what I loved the most was that Kamala Khan wasn’t a “strong female character.” She is just a girl, who can be strong, but also can be weak and confused and unsure of herself. In summary, she is just a regular old girl, to whom I am sure a lot of teenage girls can relate. I would have been obsessed with the series in high school, for sure.

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18. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange: I had seen parts of the movie For Colored Girls, but I had never read the original poem-play that inspired the film. I’d like to take a moment here to remind all of you (and inform those of you who don’t know) that once upon a time I was really into theatre and writing plays, and I think in the third quarter I want to try to read some more plays by women, because reading for colored girls stirred up something inside of me that remembered just how powerful words can be when paired with movement and action. This poem-play in particular is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking, and the way that Ntozake Shange has seven women perform the words of her poetry––it is inspiring. This book is also an incredible resource for understanding just how race and class play an enormous role in feminism.

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19. China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston: I never said that I would read fifty books by fifty different women, and I am glad about that, because I am obsessed with Maxine Hong Kingston. I heard about China Men in a lecture at the AWP Conference on imagination and speculation in nonfiction––about how Maxine Hong Kingston was able to craft these beautiful, vivid, incredible stories based on the little information and few concrete facts she had about her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather’s experiences as Chinese immigrants in the U.S.A. Clearly she done her research––the book is full of rich details from the time periods––and she has read the stories of men similar to the men in her family, but the way she is able to float between myth and legend and fact is goddamn INCREDIBLE and something to be admired. I can’t wait to read The Woman Warrior next.

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20. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: Everything I wrote about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen can pretty much apply to The Argonauts, except that instead of exploring race in America, Maggie Nelson is exploring gender and sexuality. Again, Maggie Nelson completely defies any kind of standard nonfiction form––she has poetic vignettes mixed up with philosophical analysis interspersed with personal anecdotes. What I really love though is how Maggie Nelson uses her own family’s tale––her relationship with the gender-fluid Harry Dodge, Harry’s son from a previous relationship, and the son that she and Harry have together with the help of a sperm donor––to explore gender, queerness, and the concept of family. Once again, Graywolf kills it.

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21. Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan: I got into the Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan because I used to intern at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency in New York––the agency that represents her. Exit Wounds is Rutu Modan’s earlier book, and while I enjoyed it a lot, I think I liked her newer book The Property more. However, it’s completely worth the read, and I like how her stories always seem to involve some element of family mystery––the things left unsaid, the things you have to figure out after someone dies, the things that get forgotten.

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22. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson: This is the second installment of the Ms. Marvel reboot. Kamala Khan’s adventures continue, and I found Vol. 2 just as enjoyable as Vol. 1 (see my review above).

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23. Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks: I’d like to take a moment to shout out to my friend, fellow Wellesley alumna, and fellow writer Diamond Sharp, who compiled this really great list of Black feminist books for The Root. In an attempt to try not to be less of a Problematic White Feminist and to diversify the group of women writers I read (sorry, Nora Ephron, you’re great and all but…) I have been using Diamond’s list for recommendations, which included Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic (and giant) collection of poetry and prose-poems. Again, like with Sarah Xerta’s book, it was exciting to read poetry and get into a different mindset about language, but don’t pick up this 500+ page book and think “Oh, poetry! I’ll fly through this!” You have to sit with Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry. You have to read her poems, and then reread them, and then think about them, and then go back to them again. The hardest thing about Blacks, though, was how much of Gwendolyn Brooks’s critique of sexism and racism is still 100% completely relevant today. Reading it in 2015, I often felt like her poems were about current events. It was a depressing feeling.

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24. Beloved Beasts: Animal Mummies from Ancient Egypt by Salima Ikram: So when I set my reading challenge for 2015, I didn’t say I would only read books by women in 2015, because I figured that I would have to read some things for my writing research and for work that were written by old white dudes––basically just anything I am choosing to read this year as a “free reading” type book needs to be by a woman to hit my goal of fifty. But! Lucky for me! I’ve been doing lots of dead pet research for some new essays, and in reading about animal mummification, I’ve had the chance to read a lot of Salima Ikram‘s work, which is awesome, because she is a total badass. She is a professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, and she has more or less on her own taken on reviving and restoring the Egypt Museum’s collection of animal mummies through the Animal Mummy Project.

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25. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde: Just as with Maxine Hong Kingston, thank god I decided not to read fifty different women writers, because I want to go and read everything Audre Lorde has ever written. The day I actually started Sister Outsider––a book I had heard so much about and had been planning to read forever––I was interviewing Cris Beam for my NON-FICTION BY NON-MEN column on Fiction Advocate (stay tuned for that interview to go up later this month), and she mentioned that her favorite quote of nonfiction by a woman writer was Audre Lorde’s line: “Your silence will not protect you.” Remember how I felt reading “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard? That’s how I felt reading all of Sister Outsider. I had chills the entire time. Again, just like with Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks, I was distraught by how much of what Audre Lorde was writing about in the 1970s is still 100% applicable to today’s problems of racism and sexism. I underlined and put stars next to most lines of the book. Audre Lorde articulates so clearly, beautifully, what it means to be a truly intersectional feminist and a good person, and I am going to write out and hang one million quotes by her over my writing desk. I want the whole text of Sister Outsider tattooed all over my body so I never forget a word. In her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” one line in particular (though there were so many lines I loved) I think sums up what I am trying to do with my fifty books by women goal:

…where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.

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26. feminism is for everybody: passionate politics by bell hooks: Just like Sister Outsider, I know that this book will be one that I return to again and again for feminist guidance. While bell hooks uses more academic jargon than Audre Lorde, and I love how Audre Lorde bases so much of her feminist theory in personal stories, bell hooks does a great job at breaking down complicated feminist ideas into fairly simple, colloquial language and summarizing the history of the movement, where we need to go from here, and arguing why feminism is beneficial for everybody. This book is an excellent manual for anyone who considers themselves a feminist (which should be everybody) or an ally of women. Read it!

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27. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan: This is the book I just started this morning. I’m not very far along at all (page five), but I’m really excited about this one because I recently interviewed Jennifer Finney Boylan for my NON-FICTION BY NON-MEN column. Look for that interview in September, and in the mean time, read her memoir along with me!

Now for the statistical tallies. I think I am doing a little better than I was in the first quarter. Trying to stick to this resolution, I’ve really noticed how much of an effort it takes to read books by under-represented groups––not that there aren’t as many great books out there by women, people of color, and queer people as there are by men and white people. Trust me, there are TOO many great books out there by women, people of color, and queer people; I have massive, massive, massive piles of books by women to read all around my apartment right now and am feeling overwhelmed by all the fantastic recommendations I’ve received. But it’s interesting that when people don’t know about my resolution, and they recommend a book for me to read, more often than not it’s by a white man (ex: Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews), and if they do know about my resolution, more often than not it’s by a white woman (ex: How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran). Books by white people get a lot more attention, and, therefore, they’re the books more people know about, and, therefore, the books that more people recommend. This is something I knew before this year, but it’s certainly an important reminder to see it played out so obviously.

Anyway, out of the fourteen books I finished reading this quarter, seven were written by women of color. This is not the majority––as is my goal––but again, like last time around, it is a solid 50%. I need to do better with that. Though one area where I have improved is reading more books by queer women. Though I didn’t explicitly state this goal in my New Year’s Resolution, I also want to read more books by queer, gender queer, and trans women because reading books by queer, gender queer, and trans women makes sense if my goal is to read books by under-represented groups of writers. Only one book from my first quarter was written by an openly queer woman, but this time around, out of the fifteen books mentioned in this post, four were written by openly queer, gender queer, or trans women. That’s not great statistic-wise, but it’s an improvement.

So, again, IN SUMMARY: I’m doing okay, but I could be doing even better.

P.S. If you can’t wait until the end of the third quarter to see what I’m reading, follow me on GoodReads.

2015 Reading Challenge: 1st Quarter Check-In

Yesterday marked the end of March and, therefore, the end of the first quarter of 2015, and so it seems like a good time to update you on the progress of my New Year’s Resolution.

In case you forgot: My goal for 2015 is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

In terms of numbers, 25% of fifty is 12.5, and I’m right on track––halfway through book number thirteen. However, some may argue that I’ve cheated a little by including a couple of young adult books and graphic novels. Plus I also read a short story and an essay that were masquerading as books, so maybe I’m not doing quite as well as I thought, but you all can decide for yourselves and judge me in the comments.

Here’s what I’ve read so far in 2015:

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1. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: I am totally in love with badass women essayists, and Jamison is at the top of my current list. She does that thing that I love of combining a personal experience with historical/cultural research and commentary, and I think Jamison is brilliant at it. So many excellent essays in here, but I think my favorite was “In Defense of Saccharin(e).”

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2. Embroideries by Marjan Satrapi: Satrapi is the author of Persepolis, her memoir about growing up in Iran after the Iranian revolution. Compared to Persepolis, Embroideries has less of a straightforward narrative storyline––the book depicts a group of women who are friends, family, and neighbors, drinking tea together and sharing stories from their lives. The dialogue is energetic, and I enjoyed bouncing between the different stories and learning about the lives of women in Iran.

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3. The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George: I read this entire book out loud so many times to the Babysitting Charge that I felt I had to count it. George is an epic YA author, and I had never read any of her nonfiction before, but I loved seeing where she got the inspiration for so many of her YA books. Who knew she had so many wild pets of her own? My only complaint: no wolves. I mean, isn’t she most famous for her YA novel Julie of the Wolves? Sheesh.

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4. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith: This was the short story disguised as a book. I got halfway through the story and realized that I had already read it when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and I had simply been deceived by the cute little single-story European edition. Great job, marketing team. (Okay, I guess it is a stretch letting this one count, especially since I had read the story before.)

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5. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane GayI still can’t stop thinking about this book. Gay discusses so incredibly what it means to be a human––a well-intentioned, messy, flawed, contradictory human. I really loved the personal essays in this collection. A few of the reviews dragged for me, especially when they were about something I hadn’t read or seen and/or don’t care about, but, over all, I wanted to start rereading this book as soon as I finished. I think that Gay’s version of feminism should be adopted as essential feminism. I hope it becomes mainstream feminism. Plus she made me feel better for identifying as a feminist but also loving Jay-Z.

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6. Yes Please by Amy PoehlerPoehler is the best––smart, thoughtful, brutally honest, and hilarious. There were times while reading that this book that it felt rushed, as if Poehler’s agent and publisher had been thinking HEY HURRY UP WE GOT TO GET ON THIS WOMEN IN COMEDY MEMOIR BANDWAGON ASAP (see: Bossy Pants by Tina FeyIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling, etc.) But I was willing to forgive that, and some of the chapters that felt more like filler (the lists, the haikus), just because I love Poehler so much. I might be biased though, because I think you will especially appreciate this book if you’re from the Greater Boston Area. It brought back so many memories of my teenage days at the Burlington Mall and childhood birthdays at Chadwick’s. Yes, I do love Poehler, even if I am from Lexington, and she is just “Burlington trash.” (Rachel Dratch knows what I’m talking about.)

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7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I’ve been in such a nonfiction black hole for the past two-and-a-half years, that it is always fun and refreshing when I read a novel for a change. This is such a great story, with characters I really cared about and grew to know. Plus Adichie is funny as hell and sharp and smart, and I love her commentary on race and racism in America, woven into the plot so seamlessly and thoughtfully. I get what all the fuss was about. This book is excellent.

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8. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: I wrote a whole review of this anthology for Fiction Advocate that will go up on April 16. Stay tuned.

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9. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie BroshThis book is neurotic, weird, amazing, and perfect. Just read it. Any way I try to explain it will sound crazy––it’s not quite a graphic novel, it’s not just illustrated essays, it’s something much more. I still laugh to myself just thinking about the chapter about how dogs don’t understand moving.

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10. Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin: I think this book is my pick for favorite so far of 2015. I’m definitely biased because I’ve met MacLaughlin, I think she is awesome, and we also went to the same high school (good ol’ Noble & Greenough––she was class of 1997, I was class of 2006). BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT I don’t care, this book is SO FANTASTIC. Perhaps I loved it so much just because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: how writing is all in your head, your eyes on a computer screen, how out of touch you are with actual reality, and also trying to find other work to balance out all the writing that uses a different part of your brain, that makes you feel good and happy and accomplished in another way, maybe a job that gets you outside…. MacLaughlin seems to have found the perfect balance, and has written a kick-ass book about it all. Plus, just like Jamison, MacLaughlin adds in so many interesting historical and cultural elements to her own personal story. I know all about the history of screwdrivers now!

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11. If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan: This is another book written by a Nobles alumna––Farizan was class of 2003, and she was a senior when I was a freshman, and so, of course, I always thought she was super cool. Now I think she is even cooler for having written this book. This novel has a great message about staying true to who you are, despite horrific circumstances, but also about how life doesn’t always have a fairy tale ending. I was thrilled while reading it to see a realistic and thoughtful book for young adults as opposed to so much of the saccharine happily ever after YA crap out there. So much stuff marketed to young adults is dumbed down and superficial, and kids pick up on that and hate it. They can handle important, heavy subject matter, and, in fact, already think about it, even if a lot of the stuff targeting them doesn’t show it. I think it’s great that Farizan has taken intense, big issues––such as sexuality and gender identity and feminism and politics––and put them in a book for kids.

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12. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This was the essay disguised as a book. In fact, it’s actually Adichie’s famous TED Talk about feminism––expanded and edited––bound beautifully. Whoops. Again, probably a stretch to count this, but Adichie is brilliant and eloquent and every god damn person in the WORLD needs to read the 48 pages of this slim little book.

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13. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard: Currently reading this one. I’m about halfway through this collection, which every person who writes nonfiction ever has told me to read. No, I haven’t gotten to the essay “The Fourth State of Matter” yet, but I hear that’s the really good one.

As for my goal of reading a majority of books by women of color, I need to do better. Out of the twelve books I’ve finished reading, six were by women of color, though two of those were by the same woman (Adichie). As for the essay anthology (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed), out of seventeen contributors, only three were people of color (17.6%), and saying that I’ve read 6.176 books by women of color is just pathetic in a grasping-at-straws way to hit the majority, so I’m going to let that one go. Besides, three of the seventeen contributors in that anthology were men, so if we’re splitting hairs here, in that way, I’ve also only technically read 11.824 books by women so far in 2015. Yeah. Let’s not do that.

IN SUMMARY: I’m doing okay, but I definitely could be doing a lot better.

P.S. If you can’t wait until the end of the second quarter to see what I’m reading, follow me on GoodReads.

P.P.S. This is not an April Fools Day joke.

Assessing My Independent Bookstore Tote Bag Problem: UPDATE

Don’t worry, everyone: I found YET ANOTHER Brookline Booksmith tote bag of mine while helping my parents clean out closets at their house this weekend.

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[EDIT]

And a further update, as of 3/25/15: I am also now the proud owner of a Bluestockings tote, gifted to me by fellow writer, Columbia nonfiction MFA, and literary tote bag enthusiast, Jaime Herndon. After seeing my initial post, she sent it to me in the mail because she’s the bees knees. Thanks, Jaime!

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THE UPDATED TALLY:

FOURTEEN tote bags from TEN bookstores.

Assessing My Independent Bookstore Tote Bag Problem

Tonight I was going through my bedroom closet a little bit––hoping that if I start spring cleaning then it will actually, finally, officially, forever stop snowing––and I started to make a pile of my various bags because, man, do I love a good bag––vintage leather purses, hipster backpacks, glittery clutches, etc. And as I piled, I began to notice something. Of my collection of bags, not only do I have a disproportionately high number of tote bags in general (I have at least three Fishers Island Library totes, along with the classic WZLY 91.5FM “Bitches Love Totebags” tote bag, and one from Third Man Records in Nashville, just to name a few), but most of my tote bags come from bookstores. Specifically: bookstores of the independent variety.

So, let’s assess.

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Part One: The Strand Edition.

Anyone who loves books and has ever been even near New York City has been to The Strand. I first went to The Strand when I was in sixth grade and my dad was working in Manhattan; it was the end of the 1990s and then The Strand boasted having eight miles of books. Now it has eighteen.

Please note here that I actually used to have more tote bags from The Strand, but when moving this past summer I tried to streamline things a bit and limited myself to keeping only a couple. That’s a joke though––you know the next time I go back to New York I am going to buy another one.

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Part Two: Book Culture (née Labyrinth Books) Edition.

In my defense, I did spend two years at Columbia University for grad school, and Book Culture is the official bookstore of the MFA Writing Program. However, two of these bags are from back when Book Culture was called Labyrinth Books, purchased while visiting one of my high school best friends who was a first-year at Barnard. So, I have no real excuses here.

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Part Three: Cambridge Edition.

Growing up in the Greater Boston Area, north of the Charles River, I always had a crush on Cambridge and its many cool independent bookstores. It is my great honor and pleasure that I now live within walking distance of both Porter Square Books and the Harvard Book Store. Gotta love that (Harvard) crimson.

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Part Four: Not-in-the-Northeast Edition.

Both of these gems were bought on trips to regions outside of the Boston/New York area. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon is legendary, so obviously I had to commemorate my trip there, and Book People in Austin, Texas is magical. One of my worst home-after-traveling regrets is having not purchased a tote bag from a bookstore that I visited. Why didn’t I get one from the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington or McKay’s in Nashville, Tennessee? What was I thinking?!

Also independent bookstores should learn from Book People’s tote design––more tote bags need zippers! My books are always falling out everywhere!

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Part Five: Boston/Brookline Edition.

I’ve spent many an hour and many a dollar at the Brookline Booksmith, especially during my years living in Dorchester and hanging out at Coolidge Corner. However, confession, I have yet to go to the new Jamaica Plain bookstore Papercuts JP. Both of these tote bags were presents from two of my BFFs: H. Tucker Rosebrock and Elizabeth Jane Good. Thanks for encouraging my habit, people.

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Part Six: The Final Edition.

Don’t forget about Printed Matter, Inc. in New York! While not a traditional bookstore in the sense that it doesn’t sell copies of Yes Please by Amy Poehler, you can’t get much more independent than a bookstore selling zines, chapbooks, and artist books. Their tote bags are works of art themselves.

Remember: books is power.

FINAL TALLY:

TWELVE tote bags from NINE bookstores.

That’s it. For now, at least.

I’ve decided it’s probably less weird if I just accept that this is a “collection” and not an “intense subconscious hoarding situation.” So, in that case, let me ask all of you: What are your favorite bookstores that I absolutely must visit one day, and, from which, purchase a tote bag? 

 

Just Some Goals for 2015

In 2014, I read 41 books: 20 by women, 3 by people of color, 2 by women of color, and 4 by people who openly identify as gay or queer. Even though I had grad school professors dictating what I read for the first half of the year, that is no excuse, and even with making an effort to read almost exclusively books by women the second half of the year, these statistics are pathetic.

In 2015, my goal is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color. (Tweet me recommendations at @eb_bartels, or comment on this post!)

My other goal is to read The New Yorker as soon as I get it in the mail, instead of just adding it to the big old pile of unread New Yorker magazines on my desk.

Oh, and to go to the gym or whatever.

GET READY I’M GONNA READ SO MANY BOOKS BY WOMEN IN 2015

REALLY EXCITED JUST SPENT ALL OF MY HOLIDAY/GRADUATION AMAZON/BARNES & NOBLE GIFT CARDS ON 12 BOOKS BY WOMEN:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
  3. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  4. Within the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg
  5. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  6. Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus
  7. Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol
  8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  9. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
  10. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
  11. The Essential Ellen Willis by Ellen Willis
  12. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
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