E.B. Bartels

Nonfiction mafia.

Category: Opinions

2017 Reading Round-Up

Happy new year, devoted blog readers! While 2017 was a total disaster in a lot of ways, it was, at least for me, a great year for books. Here’s the breakdown of what I read this past year, my top 17 books that were published 2017, plus some of my reading resolutions for 2018.

WHAT I READ:

THE GENRE BREAKDOWN:

  • Fiction: 11
  • Nonfiction: 29
  • Graphic novels/comics: 5
  • Graphic memoirs: 9
  • Poetry: 8
  • Drama: 2
  • Young adult/middle grade: 6
  • Picture books: 40*

*Most of these were for research purposes. There are a lot of kids’ books out there about how to cope with pet death, FYI.

THE DEMOGRAPHIC BREAKDOWN:

  • Books by women of color: 22
  • Books by white women: 56
  • Books by men of color: 4
  • Books by white men: 28
  • Books by LGBTQ folks: 18

THE REASON-FOR-READING BREAKDOWN:

  • Books for research purposes: 52
  • Books for the Nobles 9th grade English curriculum: 4
  • Books for fun: 54

E.B.’s TOP 17 BOOKS PUBLISHED in 2017:

I would just like to say that a lot of really great books were published in 2017. Narrowing it down to 17 was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. This list could have easily been twice as long, but “34 books published in 2017” didn’t have quite the same ring to it. But, ugh! Making choices is so hard! Sigh. Anyway, let me present to you, my top 17 books published in 2017, in alphabetical order by author’s last name.

  1. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
  2. How To Fall in Love with Anyone by Mandy Len Catron
  3. From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
  4. Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
  5. Hunger by Roxane Gay
  6. Fetch by Nicole J. Georges
  7. Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
  8. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
  9. Alfie (The Turtle that Disappeared) by Thyra Heder
  10. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
  11. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
  12. Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo
  13. Yawn: Adventures in Boredom by Mary Mann
  14. A Surprise for Mrs. Tortoise by Paula Merlán
  15. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello
  16. A Girl Walks into a Book by Miranda K. Pennington
  17. After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry

E.B.’s READING RESOLUTIONS for 2018:

  • I need to pay more attention to who is writing the books I am reading for research and try to diversify the voices I am quoting in my own writing. (Turns out there are a lot of white ladies who like to write picture books about pets dying.)
  • I need to continue to read more books by people of color and LGBTQ folks. (Especially men of color. That 2017 statistic was shameful.)
  • I didn’t tally the exact numbers, but I know that most of the books I read this year were by American writers (Scaachi Koul was one of the most “exotic” as she is, gasp, Canadian) and I want to try to read more work by international authors.
  • And I want to continue to remind myself that if I don’t love something I am reading… I don’t have to finish it. I’m going to die before I get to read everything on my To Read list on GoodReads, so, live it up. Life is short. Read what you want to be reading.

Here’s to a 2018 full of even more great books!

 

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Review of Fen by Daisy Johnson

For the full essay, see it on The Rumpus.
Originally published on May 9, 2017.

I woke up at 3 a.m. to pee the other night. This was not unusual. I like to drink tea before bed, and I usually wake up at least once in the night to relieve myself. What was unusual was that before falling asleep, I read a story by Daisy Johnson. I dreamt of deep pools thick with eels, of lips dripping with human blood, of an albatross standing on the kitchen table. This time, when I got up to use the bathroom, I was not fully awake, so heavy pressed the dreams. My shadow seemed to move on its own; the walls of my apartment appeared to be breathing. And when I heard a rustling on the other side of the bedroom door, never did it occur to me that it was just my boyfriend, puttering around the apartment after a late bartending shift. I stared at the door certain that a pack of violent foxes was clawing at the other side. I gasped and screamed and, finally, woke myself from the dreams.

Remember

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You are loved. You are not alone.

Review of So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

For the full essay, see it on The Rumpus.
Originally published on May 23, 2016.

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I used a prayer card from a wake as my bookmark while reading So Sad Today by Melissa Broder. It happened accidentally—I went to a memorial service for someone I cared about, and, in wanting to keep her close, slid her prayer card into the book I was carrying with me at the time, which happened to be So Sad Today. But it feels fitting.

2016 has been a bad year for people dying. A lot of people whom I love and admire have left this planet, and we are only one-third into the year. It makes me sad, and it makes my heart beat too fast at night as I think about who will go next. I try deep yoga breathing, I try counting backwards from a hundred, I try taking a swig of NyQuil, and, when none of that works, I get up and read So Sad Today. Reading about Broder’s own anxiety and depression makes me feel better and less alone. I’m writing this review in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking too much about death. That also feels fitting.

Review of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

For the full essay, see it on The Rumpus.
Originally published on February 18, 2016.

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A friend posted a picture of me from her wedding, and all I can see is my stomach. I’m with friends, wearing goofy hats for the photo booth, having fun, but I don’t care. Something about the way my body is contorted, or how that slinky polyester is the most unforgiving, or how the waistband of my nylons cut across my middle, but there it is: the bright blue fabric rippling like thick waves over the uneven surface of my bulging gut––an oozing, distorted potato.

Wow, I think. You’re fat.

Mona Awad’s fiction debut 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a novel in thirteen vignettes about the experience of being a woman dealing with body image issues or simply put: The experience of being a woman. At the time I saw that wedding photo of myself, there were probably thousands of women online at the same time, also looking at photos of themselves, also thinking the same thing––no matter what those women actually weigh.

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!

Review of The Big Green Tent by Lyudmila Ulitskaya

For the full essay, see it on The Rumpus.
Originally published on November 5, 2015.

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Save three stray years, I have lived in Massachusetts my entire life. It’s a small state, and running into people I know is rarely a surprise. Sitting on the train in Boston, I’ll hear my name, and a former high school classmate will be four seats down. Walking through Harvard Square, I’ll pass one of my best friends on her way to dinner. Any time I meet someone from Massachusetts, I play that old game: Where did you grow up? Oh, do you know so-and-so? She’s from there too. Where did you go to high school? Oh, what about…

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to New England. Every place has its networks, no matter the size. A place can’t get much larger than Russia, and yet the world that Lyudmila Ulitskaya creates in her novel The Big Green Tent feels as intimate as Cambridge. The characters run in their own circles––the Russian intelligentsia, Moscow artists and musicians and poets, Soviet dissidents, producers of the self-published literature or samizdat, Russian ex-pats living abroad. Everyone is somehow connected, whether they know it or not.

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.

Wellesley Writes It Interview

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Rebecca Danos for the Wellesley Writes It series on Wellesley Underground!

Post originally appeared on Wellesley Underground on August 8, 2015.

It is an honor to converse with E.B. Bartels whose work appears extensively in close to two dozen publications. Most recently, she graduated with an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she founded Catch & Release, the literary blog and online magazine of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. At Wellesley, she won the Jacqueline Award in English Composition for her essay “Russian Face,” which you can now read in the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. In addition to being a prolific writer, E.B. is a teacher, a photographer, and was also an alumna editor for our very own Wellesley Underground.

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Image credit: Janna Herman

WU: You were a Russian Language and Literature major and Studio Art minor at Wellesley, though you also wrote extensively for the college’s student life magazine, Counterpoint.  What were your biggest influences from Wellesley on your writing? Did you know you wanted a career as a writer back at Wellesley?  How did you find yourself in your major and minor?

EB: My falling-in-love-with-writing story is pretty boring––it’s the same old thing that so many writers tell: I loved books as a kid, I started reading at a super young age, I wrote extensively in journals throughout my adolescence, I did independent writing projects in high school, blah, blah, blah, you know how it goes. I was so smitten with writing that I actually enrolled in a class at Wellesley in summer 2005––the summer after my junior year of high school. It was Writing 225 with Marilyn Sides, and it took place in a very warm room in the back of Clapp Library with a mix of students ranging from current Wellesley students to adults from the town to other precocious high schoolers such as myself. I loved that class and Professor Sides, and when I got into Wellesley, there was no question in my mind that I was going to be an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing, with maybe a Studio Art minor because I’d always loved photography too. I was even all set to ask Professor Sides to be my advisor. Done and done.

But then, at the end of my senior year of high school, I went to hear one of my favorite writers ever––the playwright Tony Kushner––speak at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. Afterwards there was a book-signing, and I went up to Tony Kushner and gushed all over him about how much I love his plays and how much I also love writing and I just wrote a play that my friend directed at our school and I was starting college in the fall and I was definitely going to study creative writing––and he interrupted me. Don’t major in creative writing, he said. I thought I heard him wrong. He went on to tell me to study anything else, to study everything besides writing, or I would be mechanically good at writing with nothing interesting to say. I took this advice very seriously, and when I arrived at Wellesley, I enrolled in Russian 101 to fulfill my language requirement. I immediately fell in love with the language––puzzling out Cyrillic, fantasizing that one day I would be able to read Anna Karenina in the original (LOL)––and I realized that majoring in Russian would give me the excuse to travel abroad and travel abroad far away, which was something I desperately wanted to do since I grew up in a town not even twenty minutes away from Wellesley. I thought that studying Russian would give me plenty of material to write about, which it did.

I started writing for Counterpoint while I was living in St. Petersburg my junior year. Some of my good friends from ‘09 were on the Counterpoint editorial staff and gave me a monthly column which basically was “E.B. Rambles On About Something Relating To Russian Culture For A Couple Hundred Words” and I loved it. I enjoyed feeling that I was still part of the Wellesley community while so far away, but I also loved the deadlines and trying to come up with a new, exciting topic each month, and I enjoyed getting to develop my own voice and sense of style. When I came back to Wellesley my senior year, I took the only creative writing class I ever took in college––Travel Writing with Professor Sides, in the same hot room at the back of Clapp as that summer class––and it blew my brain. Before that I had thought oh, I’ll do the Russian Literature PhD route which most Russian majors seem to pursue, or I thought I would go into translation, or maybe get an MFA in photography, but Professor Sides’s travel writing class made me remember how badly I had wanted to be a writer before I got to Wellesley. So as I panicked about what to do next, I applied to be an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow at a school in Dorchester. I worked at Mother Caroline Academy for two years, teaching fifth and sixth grade girls English, Literature, Social Studies, and Art, and that sealed the deal. Seeing eleven-year-olds freak out with excitement about writing spoken word poems or coming up with their first-ever short story made me remember my own love of writing, and so that was that. I applied to get an MFA.

WU: Did you notice a difference in the community between Wellesley and Columbia?  What was it like being in a co-ed writing environment as opposed to a women’s college?

EB: Columbia is known for having one of the largest MFA writing programs, which is part of why I chose it. I knew that if I ended up at a place like Brown, where you have all your workshops with the same four other people for the two or three years of your MFA, I thought I would lose my mind. And, though I didn’t realize it going into getting my MFA––I thought I was getting the degree just to become a better writer––the whole point of going to graduate school for art is to develop an artistic community. An MFA degree is no guarantee of employment, and a lot of artists out there are very anti-MFA––feeling it’s a waste of money and time and that you can be a perfectly successful artist without one, which is true––but in getting my MFA I met a whole lot of amazingly wonderful fellow writer friends, and it was as if this big hole I had in my heart that I hadn’t realized existed was suddenly full. Suddenly having this gang of friends who just got it when I didn’t want to go out for drinks because I was finishing an essay, or who would want to sit at a bar all night and talk about their favorite memoirists or how they were having a moral dilemma writing about their family or ex-boyfriend or whatever, it was incredible. I say get an MFA just to find those people. They’ll let you bounce ideas off of them, they’ll listen to you cry about getting rejected from McSweeney’s again, and they’ll edit your writing forever.

At Columbia, the writing program is divided into three genres––Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction––and while some people complained that such a large MFA program gets very competitive, I found that seemed to apply to some genres more than others (cough, Fiction). Nonfiction was this big, emotional family––maybe because right away in workshop we were sharing some of our darkest secrets and feelings in our pieces and it was like Group Therapy Lite––and there were thirty-five of us, so there were enough people to mix up who was in your workshop and classes each semester, but few enough that we knew each other all pretty well by the end. Also Nonfiction felt a lot like Wellesley, because, more so than the other genres, Nonfiction was mostly women––I think it was something like thirty women and five guys in my year. My thesis workshop with Lis Harris was all women, and it was awesome.

Though something I did notice about being in a co-ed environment––and I’m talking about all the genres here, not just Nonfiction––was a divide in the confidence between the men and women writers. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all of the men or all of the women, but I noticed that often the men were much more confident about their writing, with no doubt they were on their way to being the next Jack Kerouac or David Foster Wallace, while many more of the women seemed to suffer from Impostor Syndrome––feeling they didn’t deserve to be in the program, not sure how they got in, totally unsure if they would ever make a career of this whole writing thing. I definitely fell in the latter category. I have my MFA, and I still feel like a total fake. I feel like a fraud being featured in this series on Wellesley Underground––I have been forcing myself to say “I’m a writer” when people ask what I do, as opposed to defaulting to whatever my paying day job is at the time: “I’m a babysitter” or “I’m a teacher” or “I’m an intern at a literary agency.” But fake it ‘til you make it, right?

WU: Your focus at Columbia was creative nonfiction.  Can you explain a little what this is and what inspired you to pursue this track?

EB: I chose nonfiction because I realized I needed to stop lying to myself. In high school I would sometimes write “short stories” which were stories inspired by my own family’s lore, and then I wrote this play about a grandmother, mother, and daughter who have coffee together once a week and talk a lot and occasionally get into big blow out fights, weirdly just like me and my mother and grandmother, and I realized that fiction isn’t my thing. I think every writer starts off thinking that to be a Real Writer you have to write The Next Great American Novel, but then as you get older, you start to notice all these other amazing types of books out there, and you start to think, hey, maybe I can write The Next Great American Biography or The Next Great American Collection of Essays. All the writing I did at Wellesley for Counterpoint was all in the personal essay and travel writing camp, so when it came time to apply for my MFA, I only looked at programs that offered nonfiction, and Columbia has one of the oldest and established creative nonfiction programs, which is another reason why I chose to go to school there.

Now, to clarify creative nonfiction: no, I did not go to Columbia Journalism School. (The number of times I have to tell people this over and over blows my mind.) And, no, I am not working on a “novel.” But I understand why it’s confusing, because what I do falls somewhere in between––not that I make things up, no, none of that James Frey garbage, but that I take real information, real stories, real people, real things from the real world, and write about them in a way that reads much like a short story or a novel. You find a way to take the events of an ordinary life and order them and structure them in a way so they build on each other to make a plot that is exciting to read––just like in a novel. I like to think about it like this: fiction writers are composing music in a room that is silent––making up everything as they go, while nonfiction writers are composing music on a very noisy, crowded, loud street––filtering the din to hear only the sounds they want for their piece. A way I like to try to explain the difference between journalism and creative nonfiction is that journalism is like the video footage they show on the local news to get the information across, while creative nonfiction is like a Ken Burns documentary. Though I think a lot of journalists would have beef with that statement, and, to be truthful, there is a lot of overlap––I’ve read articles in The New York Times, which would probably be called journalism just because they’re in a newspaper, that are as gorgeous and artful as any memoir or personal essay.

WU: You write a column Non-Fiction by Non-Men for The Fiction Advocate.  Can you tell us a little about the writers you have interviewed and this experience?

EB: Why, yes! Thank you for asking about my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column. Ahem. (Yes, that’s a link. Click it. Thanks.) I began the column because a personal mission of mine is trying to read more books by underrepresented groups of writers––women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. I am continually horrified by the statistics that VIDA puts together each year––in so many major publications, male writers continue to outnumber women by vast proportions, not to mention how many more books by men get reviewed than books by women, let alone books by white people than books by people of color, let alone books by straight people than books by LGBTQ people. It’s depressing. And at one point in grad school someone asked me to name my favorite writers, and I realized that the group I had quickly rattled off (Nabokov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy, Chekhov) were all white men. So I thought to try to do my own little part by showcasing some really incredible women writers of nonfiction in this column. So far I’ve interviewed biographer Patricia O’Toole, historian Andie Tucher, former New Yorker staff writer Lis Harris, and Cris Beam, who has written about queer/trans issues and also the American foster care system. Upcoming I have an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson whose book Negroland: A Memoir comes out in September, and also one with Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose memoir She’s Not There was the first bestselling book by a transgender American. I’m constantly in awe by these women––by the work they’ve created, the junk they’ve had to put up with as women in a male-dominated field––and I love that this column gives me an excuse to ask them a million questions about their lives and careers. It’s very comforting for me, personally, to hear their stories and advice because it quells my own anxieties about trying to make it as a writer.

WU: You are currently working on two books, one based on your MFA. thesis.  Can you tell us a little about these projects?

EB: My MFA thesis was a memoir and historical narrative about my family’s small business––an insurance agency in Somerville, Massachusetts that has been in our family now for almost a hundred years. While the business has barely changed, our family––and the city of Somerville––has evolved significantly around it, and my thesis was about how a family can evolve from factory-working, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, into privileged, upper class, Ivy-League-attending artist types through this one, tiny, prosperous business. The book is about how hard people work to protect themselves from all kinds of loss––saving up money, obsessively going to doctors, buying expensive insurance policies, checking and double-checking and worrying about every possible worst case scenario and thinking you’ve got it all covered––but how, in the end, you can’t protect yourself from everything. Loss, and death, are inevitable.

My other project is actually about loss too. This book project is a collection of linked essays about all the pets I’ve had, and all of the unfortunate ways they’ve died. Three of these essays have already been published on The Toast under the series Dead Pet Chronicles. But in addition to my own personal stories, I’ve been researching all the varied and wild ways that people mourn their animals––pet cemeteries, taxidermy, mummification, artificial diamonds made from cremated ashes. It’s amazing what people do for their pets. Though, I think the thing I like the most about working on this project is that as soon as I tell anyone about it, it’s like being the priest at confession––people open up to me about hamsters trapped in walls and puppies they ran over with cars and fish they replaced without kids knowing.

WU: Is there a particular essay that you have written that has the most significance to you?

EB: “Freedom, My Dear” was published on The Butter. The fact that it was published on The Butter alone is hugely significant to me––The Butter is the sister site to The Toast, run by amazing essayist Roxane Gay. The fact that Roxane Gay, whom I worship, read my essay, and, not only that, liked it enough to publish it––I died a little with joy when that happened. But more so than that, writing “Freedom, My Dear” was a really important experience for me. The essay started out as a total mess––all these different ideas stemming from an experience at the Russian Baths in New York––and I was really lucky to have one of my best writer friends and editors-for-life, Ariel Garfinkel, go through at least half-a-dozen drafts as I tried to figure out what I was saying. I would like to point out that several other writer friends also read drafts of this essay, and for them, I am forever grateful as well, but Ariel not only helped me figure out structure––she also patiently pointed out flaws in my logic and thinking and gently helped me see when I was actually making some unintentional but extremely transphobic comments about women’s spaces. Writing that essay made me examine my way of thinking, and my own inner prejudices and biases, and try to understand how to fix them. And even so, the end result wasn’t perfect––one commenter on the essay pointed out that I had made some assumptions about trans women’s genitalia, which I hadn’t intended to do, but I had nonetheless. That essay, to me, is the perfect example of how writing can help you figure out not just how to say something, but how to think and what you think, and how we are all always growing and learning as people, no matter how old we are. Also, writing that essay made me really appreciate having honest and kind friends/editors like Ariel who are willing to provide a safe space for me to try out ideas and call me out on things.

(And now go read Ariel’s essay on Salon. It’s incredible.)

WU: Do you participate in visual art projects as well?

EB: Alas, since college, not so much. While teaching at Mother Caroline Academy, I did do a photography project of my students’ accessories, but besides that, I’ve really been focusing on writing exclusively for the past three years. I’m still a visual learner––I will forget something entirely unless I see it written down, and I draw these crazy charts to try to figure out the structure of my essays and writing projects––and even while I’m writing, I’m always thinking of visual components to complement the work. My thesis was full of photographs and scanned letters and doodles and artifacts, and it’s very hard for me to separate words from visual components. Similarly, most of my photography, painting, and printmaking projects in high school and college involved words. For example, I took a lot of photographs of graffiti around my high school and then did double-exposure prints of the words overlapping with other images I had taken. Words and images go together for me. My dream is to find an agent/editor one day who supports my visual art drive and will allow me some say in illustrations/photographs in my book. But that might be a pipe dream. Publishing houses have whole art departments for that stuff.

WU: What is the most important message you try to communicate through your writing?

EB: One of my professors at Columbia said that every writer has a theme or subject that they just can’t shake, and that every one of a writer’s works can be traced back to scratching at one idea. I guess, at least with my two book projects, I am trying to understand how people try to protect themselves from––and later cope with––loss and death. I also want to understand and show the role that humor plays in the darkest times. I love a good black comedy. As my grandfather says: what’s the difference between a Russian tragedy and a Russian comedy? In a Russian tragedy, everyone dies. In a Russian comedy, everyone dies happy.

WU: You are also an extensive reader.  Any recommendations for WU readers?

EB: Yes! I have so many recommendations! I set a goal for myself that in 2015 I am trying to read fifty books by women, with a majority of those books by women of color. You can check out my blog for updates on the challenge and to see the twenty-seven books that I have read so far in my 1st Quarter Check-In and 2nd Quarter Check-In posts. Also, follow me on GoodReads to see what I am reading in real time!

WU: What plans do you have for your writing future?

EB: Short-term––I will be teaching middle school again this fall, so I hope to learn how to balance the demands of working full-time in a school with making space for my own writing and reading because, to be honest, I think making time for my own writing and reading makes me a better teacher––what example are we setting for students if teachers are not continually in the process of learning themselves as well? I also am applying to writing residency programs for school vacations and next summer. Long-term––I want to finish one of my book projects so it feels strong enough to begin to query agents, so then I can obtain an agent, create a book proposal, find an editor, get a book deal, the whole glamorous thing. And, eventually, one day, I hope to be able to teach writing at the college or graduate school level, because I find, selfishly, that I am a better writer when I am also teaching. Students give me creative energy and drive, plus they hold me accountable––I can’t go around telling them to write if I am not writing anything myself.

WU: To continue to follow E.B.’s writing, check out her website, her blog, and her Twitter.

AllisonandAJontheAT

Together hiking the Appalachian Trail from April to October, 2015!

E.B. Bartels

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