Month: May 2013

29 May 2013

my favorite nightstand

Usually when I visit Michigan I am relegated to the couch, but this time I bunked up with my favorite member of the Class of 2013.

I’m not just saying that because she called me out in her valedictorian speech. I think she is my favorite because whenever I looked over to check the clock I would see the cutest little stack of fairy-tales I’ve ever seen in the room of a 17-year-old.

Congrats to my favorite graduate, and to all of you inferior graduates too. May all your wishes come true, all your endings be happy, and may nobody ever ask you to dance all night in molten iron shoes.

23 May 2013

thoughts on a blog: the ten year edition


This morning, I read Evan Roskos’s Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, which, appropriately, had me thinking about Walt Whitman.

Look guys, my relationship with literature is a bit fraught. I have read parts of Leaves of Grass over the years, but they didn’t sink into my psyche or anything.

They’ve sunk into the fictional psyche of Roskos’s James, sunk in hard. Which reminded me of John Green’s Q in Paper Towns – another fictional YA character with a personal relationship with Mr. Whitman, Leaves of Grass in particular. And then there’s my favorite Walt – Walter White. I might not be a Leaves of Grass scholar, but come on – his name is Walter White.

There is something that Mr. Whitman captured over a hundred years ago that resonates.

Back to Dr. Bird. James is depressed. He’s anxious. He doesn’t have any money, doesn’t have a car, his parents aren’t supportive. He talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist he calls Dr. Bird. On a very bad night in James’s life, Dr. Bird says: “Don’t you wish you would wake up one day and celebrate yourself? Don’t you wish you would wake up and celebrate yourself. Don’t you wish you would wake up and celebrate yourself?”

What does it mean to celebrate yourself? I could spend an hour, a day, a year reading “Song of Myself” and maybe give you a hypothesis about what in the world Whitman would say. But reading Roskos’s words, it was very clear to me what it meant for poor fictional James. To wake up in the morning and feel like you are something. To wake up and feel like you have something valuable to share with others. To wake up and not be immediately smothered by self-loathing. To wake up and feel excited to be in your own body, your own life, to see through your own two eyes.

I wrote my first blog post on April 15th, 2003. I’ve been at this for ten years. I have been a blog reader for just as long. That is many, many, many, many hours devoted to writing about myself, the things happening to me and the things that interest me, and reading about the lives of other people.

Lately, though, my blog annoys me. Probably because, lately, *I* annoy me. As I settle into this non-student life, this 9-5 life, it is clear to me that I am just not that interesting. Really. There’s only so much I can say about this small expanse of the world in my purview. There’s only so much I want to think about it. I roll my eyes at my narcissism, my lack of interest in many important things (see: the poetry of Walt Whitman) but my endless, ENDLESS appetite for micromanaging my own life. It’s annoying.

Other blogs annoy me, too. I am annoyed by people who wrap up their lives neatly, in bows, but I am also annoyed by those who over-share. I am annoyed with the constant peppiness sprinkled with moments of self-apology. I am annoyed by self-promotional and cross-promotional bullshit. I am annoyed by those who use their blogs as little sounding blocks for their own emotional successes, doling out recommendations, and summing up life lessons…  even though I do the same all. the. damn. time.

But I don’t think it’s a lost cause, the personal blogging thing. I am only annoyed by 95% of the world’s blogs. The remaining 5% I love, I love, I love. I will read anything these ladies and gents write – even cross-promotional, peppy, bullshit life lessons – until the blogs go off the air and then I will mourn the loss.

The difference? Those 5% are the writers. I can tell. You can probably tell, too.

I don’t know what Evan Roskos would say about this, or fictional James Whitman, or Walt Whitman, or even Walter White, but maybe, 10 years later, writing this little blog is how I wake up and celebrate myself. Which is different than promoting oneself or flagellating oneself or stroking one’s own ego.

Even if I can’t decide what to write. Even if my book reviews really lack critical focus or general clarity. Even if only ever have a handful of readers. Even if I write about the same things over and over again. Even if I am happy or sad, 18 or 28. Even if I occasionally annoy myself beyond belief.

I will always do my best to do good work here, whatever that work ends up looking like.

18 May 2013

wild riches

Remember when I said I wanted to read something shiny and fun on my plane trip next week?

Well, that decision just got a little harder….

The following books have appeared on my hold-shelf in the past few days…

1) Her by Christa Parravani, which I already mentioned I might read on the plane…

2) The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, which I have been waiting for FOREVER and I want to read before watching the movie

3) Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos, which I thought would be a nice way to segue back into reading decent YA

4) The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, which I have been in line for since 2012

5) How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, which I have ALSO been in line for since 2012

6) House Girl by Tara Conklin, which I have nothing else to say about other than I thought it looked good.

To that I have to say…

Well, NOW what?

17 May 2013

this book sucks and other adventures in bad literature

Book reviews have been light around these parts because I have been reading a lot of bad books.

You don’t have to call them bad books if you don’t want to. You could call them “fun reading” or “trashy books.” You could call them “books that just weren’t for me.” If you are a librarian, you could call them “books for readers that aren’t me.”

I’m just going to call them bad books because they don’t meet my (arbitrary) standards for literature. Characters that are well-drawn and multifaceted. A plot that is no more than 25% completely predictable. Language that is deliberate, clear, and inventive. Some distinguishing feature – voice, perspective, setting, whatever, anything that sets a book apart from the rest of books-like-that-book.

I used to think my standards were pretty low, but maybe years and years of reading wide + deep develops your palate a little, subconsciously.  Read more about that in this post. It’s not necessarily a good thing for me, as a reader: I don’t fall for books as easily as I once did, I don’t get hyped up about new authors, I don’t take “reading risks” as often.

And it makes reading bad books feel worse. Question to the masses: is there such thing as “hate reading?” I brought this up on Twitter and apparently “hate watching” is a common TV phenomenon; you watch a television program not because you find it to be good entertainment, not because you find it fun in a campy, awful kind of way (see: Glee, Gray’s Anatomy, American Idol), but because you actually despise the show and everything it represents (see: Real Housewives of Anywhere, 16 & Pregnant, any other reality show that is somewhat exploitative of the lower class or exalts/exposes the upper class) (there is a good Marxist thesis idea somewhere in there) (I am getting distracted).

Anyway, I read bad books sometimes, but I don’t like it. I roll my eyes. I sigh. I read awful passages out loud to whoever is nearby. I think wistful thoughts about the books I wish I was reading instead. But I keep reading for a particular professional purpose, or to keep abreast with trends, or to see what some controversy is really about. I don’t like it. I am watching the upswing of self-published books in certain sub-genres, and while I think that the rise of eReaders has made the 99 cent downloadable romance an easy and cheap choice for readers, if you keep coming back, then it’s possible you like reading bad books in a way that I do not.

Do these readers deserve some shitty books to read? Librarian Jessica says, I suppose so.

But that doesn’t mean they are “good books.”

That doesn’t mean that I have to say something nice about them.

I guess I should restrain myself and not start a blog devoted entirely to compiling first-person descriptions of kissing that gross me out. Is there any way to describe a good kiss other than “He/she kissed me.” Maybe one optional adjective to follow. Maybe. If you follow it with a metaphor, I will roll my eyes and what kills the mood faster than an eye-roll (See: Girls season 2 episode 1). If you describe it in great detail, I will likely gag because the physical description of kissing is kind of gross. There should be no mention of passions burning bright as the sun, a choir of angels singing. I wish I was making this up for effect and not looking through my latest bad book, I really do.

This is a line I walk as a reader/reviewer/librarian – between exploring books and shutting them out, description and judgment, personal taste and literary merit. I don’t always land on the professional side of the fence, but I try. And I think it’s important to stand up for books that are excellent, books that make all the other books want to try harder, books that are so great and different that they mix up the paradigm. I read for me, yes, I read for fun and for a number of other reasons, but I also read so I can share what I find. That’s just the kind of reader I am.

If that’s the case, I should probably start reading some good books sometime soon, no? More on that tomorrow…

13 May 2013


So I had this string of truly awful airplane luck, beginning in January of 2011 with this wild ride back to Boston and ending in June of that same year, when I spent 8 hours in the BWI airport only to have my flight cancelled at 9pm and end up stranded for the night. It was traumatic. I’ve written about it multiple times on this here blog even though it is not even a good story, just one of those awful wincing things that makes you want the person telling to shut up so you can, instead, tell your own story of agony.

Anywaaaaaay, I ignored any opportunities to fly anywhere for the next year and a half and stuck to ground transportation. Fortunately/unfortunately, we got rid of our ground transportation about six months ago. While I don’t necessarily notice our lack of vehicle on a day to day basis (unless, of course, our laundry cart breaks an axle a quarter mile from our apartment, but you really don’t want to hear that story, it’s too depressing), it does seem strange to miss out on so many cross-country, Boston to Michigan drives. We used to trek it two or three times a year, and this year – a year during which we actually must be in Michigan from time to time to, oh, plan a wedding – we have no such options.

Instead, I have become a jet-setter. Back on the air-travel wagon. That is a confusing metaphor.

I hate it a lot more than I used to because I know how awful it can get, how quickly your plans can disintegrate, how awful your concourse food choices are at 9:00 p.m. when you haven’t eaten all day because you’ve been taxiing around the runway for hours without AC. And how much a bowl of Pinkberry costs. It’s sickening. I stress out the night before, sleep fitfully, wake up feeling ill, and clutch my armrests during take-off. It’s awful. But such is my over-privileged, first-world life.

But there are three things that always please me about air travel:


1) The sleeping on your early morning flight, followed by an airport Starbucks on your layover.

2) Taking pictures of oneself in airplanes and airport terminals

3) Plane books. Plane books. Plane books!!

In December, I flew from Boston to Columbus and I read Eric Greiten’s The Warrior’s Heart. I thought about Navy SEALs for the entire trip; at dinner one night, I asked my sister if she could ever be a Navy SEAL and she said no, because one time a Navy SEAL did a motivational presentation at her place of employment and she read his memoir and it was really intense. And yeah, that Navy SEAL that came to visit was Eric Greiten. I find this kind of reading kismet endlessly amusing.

I flew back from Columbus to Boston and read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I liked a lot more than I thought I would, and which led me to read Tiny Beautiful Things, which I liked a lot more than most other books I’ve read in my life.

In February, I flew from Boston to Detroit to do some wedding planning. I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which in case you missed it, I loved, loved, loved, loved, loved x 1000 loved. There may have been plane-crying, which I think is one of the more dignified types of public-transit-weeping. Crying in a taxi is probably the best. Crying on the 66 bus is probably the worst.

On the leg home, I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, which was a hard one to stick to, but sometimes that’s the point of a plane-read: you are trapped, you must finish the task, you must keep reading until you are done reading. Yes, it was dense, but yes, it was rewarding, and I still think about it often.

Next week, I am doing another Boston -> Detroit jaunt, for wedding planning, a wedding shower, and my smallest sister’s GRADUATION FROM HIGH SCHOOL. SERIOUSLY. HOW IS THIS HAPPENING. I’m thinking Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising for the purposes of potentially attending a book club once I return (assuming all flight plans go as… um… planned and also that I am not dead to the world), and finishing up Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (assuming I haven’t devoured it in its entirety before then; I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance). I just picked up Her: A Memoir – that might be hard to avoid.

At the end of June, I am headed to Chicago and back again.

Shortly thereafter, back to Michigan in July for this thing called Getting Married.

Once that small life detail is taken care of, back to Boston, then on a plane to… oh… Italy.

How many books can one read on the way to Italy and back? How many books can I justify bringing with me in my luggage? Maybe it would be a good time to tackle Infinite Jest on my Kindle? Who gets slightly excited about reading a 1000 page book on her honeymoon?

These are all very unimportant questions with unimportant answers, but the moral of this story – as is the moral of most of my stories – is this: books and coffee. Coffee and books.

09 May 2013

only death will part

This week in impossible/stressful/ridiculous wedding tasks, we plan our ceremony.

Which will happen in…. oh…. two months.

Two. Months.

Scene: The Boy and Me looking over possible wedding ceremonies provided by our lifesaving officiant

The Boy:                Do you want to do our wedding vows like a duet?

Me:                        What in the world are you talking about?

The Boy:                Like this

[He shows me a supposedly contemporary exchange of vows in which the imaginary paper couple appear to read a very long, very drippy poem, alternating stanzas between bride and groom]

Me:                      I would prefer the phrases “you crept toward me” and “dandelion fluff” to not be included in my wedding.

The Boy:               Alright then.

Me:                      In fact, the only way I will exchange vows with you in a duet form is if we sing them. Like West Side Story.

The Boy:               What in the world are you talking about?


And that is when I realized that everything I know about romance, I probably learned from musical theater.

07 May 2013

where i’ve been / where i’m going

This week, a year ago, I was finishing up my last grad school classes. I was also working 700 jobs and applying for 1,400 more and staring down a summer that could end in triumph, disaster, cross-country move, or complete mental collapse. But this is all a way to say that although I am still only a few bus stops away from where I was last May, my life is in a different zip code. A different stratosphere.

I don’t want to wax too poetic about shifting identities and growing up, but that’s what’s going on. It’s what’s always going on. My days in grad school were probably overstuffed, but every day had a measuring stick – pages to read, articles to decode, papers to write. At the end of so many days was the measuring stick of a semester. If you measured up in December or in May, then anything you did with your days, your hours, felt like time well spent.

Now, I have more days and hours to work with, but those hours take on more weight. They stand on their own. They are 100% mine. Whatever I decide to do with them, that’s me. That’s pressure, but that’s life. Just a different life.

It changes the way I spend those hours, it does. It changes the way I read, and which books I choose when I do. I like to feel good about my hours – productive, like a good session of schoolwork, a nice workout – but I’m also trying to use my time to remember some old things. Life before grad school, when I used to have time to burn. Life when I was a kid, when I had a myriad of authentic (albeit fairly offbeat) passions. Life when I was in school, and every idea about children’s lit was going to be a future article, thesis, novel.

Not easy, balancing the long-term and the short-term, the hours and the weeks, the weeks and the months. Blogging is getting the short end of the stick, getting pushed out right now by other activities, but also because I’m not reading the kind of books I like to blog about. I’m not going anywhere, though. I like to know this space is here, and I hope that my infinitesimal number of readers will wait around for me. Don’t worry – as long as I’m still writing and reading, no matter how I divide up the hours, I’ll be around.

01 May 2013

The Great Gatsby, 11 years later

I wonder how many people in the world are reading The Great Gatsby this week. I finished my re-read last week. It was the first time I’ve read it since I pretended to read it in eleventh grade English. I mean, I tried. I’m sure I tried. I liked books in high school, liked them in college, but there was just something about the Required Reading book that turned me off. Now that I am a semi-professional reader and a grown-up adult, I can read in ways high school Jessica wasn’t interested in reading. I can read slowly, I can read for language and subtext rather than just plot, I can read stories that don’t fit my personal tastes without skimming, giving up, or pretending. I can read and enjoy books that at earlier points in my reading history, I didn’t enjoy. Like The Great Gatsby.

The book stays the same, but the reader changes. Eleven years since eleventh grade. I am no longer in school (FINALLY) and I get a lot of sleep: I can free up a little time to read that dense first chapter slowly and with care, properly orient myself to the book. I know more about the 1920s and have developed a bit of a soft spot for 20th century period fiction, so it’s not so foreign.

And most importantly, I realized that this book is 75% drunk people talking, partying, and cheating on one another. When I was in 11th grade, I had never been a drunk person nor encountered any in large groups. I have since attended a four-year state university. I am not sure that one can really grasp this novel without having encountered social groups bound by regular inebriation.

Eleven years later, I still don’t think I was picking up everything Fitzgerald was laying down. I’m sure it’s all symbols and metaphors and timeless commentary on high society, but high society is not exactly something I’m familiar with. Tonight, I made soup for dinner using a sauce pan without a handle. Not high class.

But will I watch a Baz Luhrmann movie about high society parties full of drunk people who love and hate and kill each other? Oh yes, yes I will.