On learning how to read more and stop wasting “pandemic time.”

“Pandemic Time”

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post about how the worst thing about this pandemic was the terrible contradiction of time still moving forward while lives were stuck “standing still.” I lamented all the time I was losing and was burdened by the weight of the injustice of it all. I wrote that post about two months ago, and time has continued to pass, but I have a better perspective, one that is not so defeated or helpless, and one that I am happy to say a lot of my friends are also embracing.

Don’t get me wrong; this pandemic sucks. Though that statement lacks eloquence, it is entirely true. The vast majority of people are having real difficulty in dealing with self-isolation, and the lack of human contact and interaction. Some people are terrified, and some people are indignant. Emotions are extreme and running high, and a volatile political climate is only exacerbating those emotions. Living in this modern world can be exhausting and overwhelming.

Therefore, I truly believe it is of the utmost importance to endeavor to adopt a positive, proactive outlook (at least part of the time), and this involves making a concerted effort to take care of ourselves as best we can: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. A lot of my friends on Instagram (in particular, I’m thinking of @_charley_mc and @jivajenyoga, but I know there are more) are teaching and/or practicing yoga. Charley’s posts are typically beautiful and inspirational, and incredibly welcoming; she offers little reminders that there are so many different ways to take care of ourselves. She’s even convinced me to sign up for a class or two. Jen’s posts are also beautiful and inspirational, and personal; her captions are authentically crafted, and she even told me that she “…just write[s] when inspired to.” My friend Matt is renewing his passion for drumming and shares awesome covers of songs (follow him on Instagram: @matthewvlossak). He’s also constantly sharing uplifting messages and has been open about his journey to becoming better (and that can mean a million different things to a million different people). These friends, and countless others, have helped me realize that posting about the injustice of life not going according to plan is not only stale and tired, but decidedly unhelpful. We all deserve to commiserate now and again, but when it becomes habitual, it can become dangerous to our health.

I’m now choosing to focus on self-improvement, which is the light at the end of this “quarantine tunnel” for me. So many people that I know have endeavored to better some parts of their lives, whether it be through diet and exercise, home improvement, or being more communicative with friends and family through video calls and emails. All of these things are wonderful! I admire how so many are putting a positive spin on the very difficult times we’re currently living in. I too am now making the decision to make the most of my “pandemic time.”

Making the Most of “Pandemic Time”

I began making a concerted effort to make the most of the unprecedented and somewhat abnormal opportunities this pandemic has created in my life. I recently started tackling home improvement projects I’ve been putting off for nearly six years. I painted my living room:

The top photos showcase the whimsical but dark green color of my walls (and if you squint, you can see the light green trim), which I have changed to “Drizzle gray” and the trim is now “Gold ink.” Please excuse the mess. And I’m still in the process of painting my ceiling because let’s face it: painting a ceiling sucks.

The home improvement is long overdue, but if I’m being honest, it’s not a top priority. For me, my two biggest goals (pandemic or not, honestly) are taking care of my body and mind (which leads to a better spirit, in my opinion). Now, I’ve never been athletic, but I was 50 pounds lighter, and I K N O W I need to get back to moving more and eating healthier. I need to relearn the good habits I broke when my depression got the best of me. That takes care of my body.

For my mind, I want to increase how much I read. And weirdly enough, the rest of the world seems to agree. According to one of the best guides I’ve ever read, “a US survey found that more than one-third of adults report a desire to read more books, with book reading second only to exercise as the most wished-for activity.” It’s good to know I’m not alone in my endeavor, and that there is a readily available community out there also wishing to improve its bodies and minds.

But how to get started?

Getting Started

One night while scrolling through social media (a TERRIBLE habit that I am breaking), I saw an Instagram ad for Psyche Guides from psyche.co, specifically a guide for “How to read more books.” Was that a sign from the universe or what?! There were so many elements and aspects of the guide to admire, but I was immediately impressed by the credibility of its author, Christian Jarret. He is a “… senior editor at Aeon+Psyche, with particular responsibility for writing and commissioning at Psyche. A cognitive neuroscientist by training, his books include The Rough Guide to Psychology (2011) and Great Myths of the Brain (2014). His next, on personality change, will be published in 2021.” Not only is he a cognitive neuroscientist, he’s an author as well! I also especially liked the way it was broken down into different sections, in the following order: Need to Know, What To Do, Key Points, Learn More, and Links & Books.

The “Need to Know” section was straightforward and gave a clear picture of what is ultimately required if a person wants to read more books: time. I have already discussed my struggle with time during this pandemic, but in truth, that struggle has always been there. “Anecdotally, many of us recognise this overwhelming sense of competing demands on our time. We hanker for the space to read more. We buy the books, they pile up, but we never get round to reading them – the Japanese even have a term for it, tsundoku.” While it’s completely awesome the Japanese have a word for wanting to read more books, the more compelling part of the quote is the phrase “competing demands on our time.” Because of COVID-19, those demands have either been removed or changed, for better or for worse. For me, I found myself with more time. Luckily, that’s the one thing I really need to read more books. “To read more books, you need to make it a higher priority, which means changing your daily habits and routines to accommodate more reading.” This seems like a no-brainer, but it helped shift my thinking. I thought that time was relentlessly moving forward (and it always is), and I was powerless against it, but that second part is not true. The real trick was to change how I was spending my time now that my “normal” life was interrupted. My daily habits and routines are certainly changing, so why not use that to my advantage?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but it has fallen by the wayside as of late. Instead of reaching for a novel, I’m typically reaching for my phone (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Gmail, Safari) or the remote (Netflix, Hulu, HBO). Reaching for my phone then creates a time lapse, in which I spend more time than I ever wanted scrolling through countless posts that more often than not leave me feeling angry or depressed. As for reaching for the remote, Ed Needham (creator of Strong Words and former editor of Rolling Stone) is quoted in the guide and shares my sentiments: “‘Sometimes, you just need the slightest encouragement to displace something that isn’t earning its keep in your routine,’ says Needham. ‘I remember [the US filmmaker and writer] John Waters saying he found it really easy to read every night because he never watched television. That made me realise it is really easy to stop watching television, because I get more from books than I do from the vast majority of television programmes.’” While I absolutely love watching a powerful film and I have television shows I simply can’t miss, is it necessary to binge? And I have to say there’s a level of cognitive absence; watching television or watching movies does most of the thinking for me and all I’m doing is reacting. When reading, I have to think critically and analyze AND react, so when it comes to bettering my brain, reading is the better path to take.

It’s well-known that reading more offers a slew of advantages. According to the guide:

There’s little doubt that you will benefit from reading more books. People who read literary fiction in particular tend to be better at reading others’ emotions and have greater moral sensitivity, possibly due to their simulation of the lives of complex characters; and reading nonfiction will increase your knowledge and broaden your mind. In fact, reading books is considered a cognitive ‘reserve building’ activity that could help to protect you from Alzheimer’s and related illnesses.

Christian Jarret, Psyche’s “How to read more books” guide.

I know why I want to read more, so specifically how to get started is wonderfully broken down in the guide in the following two sections. “What To Do” offers an in-depth look at each element of reading more, while the “Key Points” section summarizes them into a kind of checklist. I recommend reading the “What To Do” section if you’re truly interested in the subject, but if you’re just looking for a quick guide to how to read more books, I’ll share the “Key Points” with you now:

  • “Spend time thinking about why you want to read more books. The more motivation you have, the more likely you are to succeed. Start out reading books you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to quit books you don’t like.”
    • The benefits of reading are familiar to me, and I’ve already explicitly stated why I want to read more. Luckily, because I’ve been a reader my whole life, I can get started easily because I already know what kinds of books I enjoy. For me, the struggle will be quitting books I don’t like. I have the inexplicable and seemingly non-negotiable agreement with myself to finish every movie and/or book that I start. Can you believe I’ve never walked out of a movie theater, even when I’ve abhorred the film? I’m going to have to keep in mind a tip from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018): “…start more books, quit most of them, read the great ones twice. I think that a lot of readers would be well-served if they did that.
  • “Lay the groundwork for your new reading habit by making books salient in the physical and digital environments you encounter every day.”
    • I love big bags and purses. They fit in with the bohemian style I’m creating for myself, but they also fit a lot of stuff. Though I never find anything I’m looking for in my purse, I can always find a book. I’m going to make doubly sure I always carry a book with me.
  • “Set modest goals, at least at first. Aim to read just a little each day.”
    • Right now, my current goal is to read at least 20 pages a day.
  • “Look at your daily routines and your existing habits. Consider where you could build in a new habit of book reading, in effect piggybacking on your existing habits. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to succeed.”
    • Typically, I read at night while laying in bed. But after reading this guide, I’m thinking I should read whenever I reach for my phone. The guide states, “Unless you currently spend time each day sitting around doing nothing, it’s inevitable that, as you increase your book reading, other activities will have to fall by the wayside. You could confront this head-on by revisiting the audit of your everyday routines and identifying unwanted habits that you could give up.”
      • “‘Recognising that [acquiring a new habit] it is a substitution process is quite useful,’ says Gardner (Benjamin Gardner is a social psychologist at King’s College, London and an expert on the psychology of habits). ‘But then you have to come up with your own strategies based on what the old behaviour is and what the cues are to think about how you can disrupt that old habit.’”
      • But that doesn’t have to be a focus: Clear says, “Build your new book-reading habit […] and other unimportant things will naturally fall away.
  • “Try as hard as you can to always read whenever you are in that situation, time or place. Eventually, you will form a new effortless reading habit.”
    • Be consistent! This is also something I struggle with from time to time. To aid in this aspect, the guide suggests keeping a reading journal. I purchased one last summer at The Strand bookstore in New York City, and I love it. It’s also available on Amazon.
  • “Track your progress by recognising every day that you managed to read, rather than by ticking off completed books. After two weeks, you should start to feel that your new habit is deepening.”
    • The keeping of a journal will undoubtedly help with this.
  • “Consider whether your social world supports book reading. You could try joining a book group to chat with like-minded readers.”
    • This doesn’t have to be official. For example, I’m reading a Kurt Cobain biography with three friends, and after we’ve read a section, we message each other about it. Goodreads is also helpful, and I’m sure there’s hashtags on Instagram to follow and a million other places to connect with other readers virtually. If I come across an option I love, I’ll be sure to share it with you on this blog.
  • “Cultivate your identity as an avid reader of books. Write a sentence outlining the kind of person you want to be, and think about how book reading will serve that aim.”
    • Here’s my sentence: I want to be a beautiful, bohemian babe with literary aspirations.

I also personally recommend checking out the blog, “Years of Reading Selfishly” by Clare Reynolds. So there you have it, folks: an easy-to-use-guide for reading more books. How will you spend your “pandemic time”? Is reading a part of that plan? Let me know in the comments!

On living in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

On Monday, an article appeared in the New York Times called, “‘Brave New World’ Arrives in the Future It Predicted” by Alexis Soloski. The title completely intrigued me as I whole-heartedly believe that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the most important books of the 20th century. In my opinion, it should be required reading upon entering society and as the dumpster fire that has been 2020 rages on, the philosophical questions raised on the novel’s pages seem more pertinent and worthy of discussion than they ever have before. So the second part of the article title, that an adaptation has landed “in the Future It Predicted,” enticed me to read on.

But as I read on, I grew more and more disappointed by the article’s overall glib tone. Soloski has a Ph.D. in English and Comp Lit, so her knowledge and credibility are not in question. All reviews are matters of opinion anyway, and completely subjective, so what outraged me may not make the slightest bit of difference to someone else. That being said, I was infuriated by the tone of the article because it essentially ignored Huxley’s dire warnings about replacing complex introspection and meaningful, layered human connection with superficial, temporary pleasures, like drugs and meaningless sex and constant entertainment and stimulation. Soloski writes, “But ‘Brave New World,’ which most viewers will remember – vaguely if at all – from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.” First of all, Soloski seems to insinuate the novel, which she laters calls “…a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions have already come true,” is forgotten. Or maybe she’s implying that audience members are too dumb to remember or too numbe to care? Either way, to handle this classic and intelligent novel with anything but the utmost respect leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now I understand that Soloski is writing about the latest adaptation, but she seems perfectly okay with – again – the glib and hyper stylized and superficial approach taken in adapting Huxley’s novel for today’s audience. She doesn’t comment much on how “A collaboration between Universal Content PRoductions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, ‘Brave New World’ began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.” SHEDDING STORY AND CONCEPT? I understand that adaptations of novels usually are scaled back and disappointing, so my outrage comes from coldy exhibiting that the creation of this particular adaptation has had too many cooks in the kitchen (and likely still does) and shakes off elements as integral to the narrative as story and concept. Is Aldous Huxley, creator and author, completely forgotten in all of this?

Simply answered: yes, he is. This adaptation seems to be dumbing down all the turmoil and hard-hitting questions that made the initial novel so wonderful. “The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle.” It seems that the adaptation will not focus on the darker elements of social control but instead on a tawdry love triangle, which really isn’t a triangle at all if you’ve read the novel. And restricting it all to something so formulaic and overdone as a love triangle reduces the characters. For example, Soloski writes that the character Bernard Marx is just “an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks.” There is no mention of the accident that occurred during genetic engineering that keeps Bernard from meeting his “full potential” within the society. The importance of his surname is entirely glossed over. There’s not even a subtle hint at the extreme inner conflict that leads Bernard down a dark and twisted path.

The plot itself is changed to be more action-packed, it seems. “When the holiday goes wrong – the Savage Lands had a sedition issue – Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry.” In the novel, John does not help anyone escape. He’s brought back as an oddity, a point of interest. The fact that his mother travels with him is so much more important than Soloski lets on. John is considered a Savage because he believes in natural procreation and has a family and doesn’t take mood stabilizers; he is a Romantic. He doesn’t really fit in with the Savages either for reasons I won’t reveal because of spoilers, but all that is gone or minimized so that he becomes an action hero, some sweaty and muscular archetype to play against an intellectual in a love triangle which is so uninspired that it is unworthy of Huxley’s excellent novel.

As a matter of fact, the focus of the article and the adaptation itself seems to be on style and appearance more than substance. The article discusses at length the set design and filming locations and the use (or lack thereof) of CGI. This seems to be done intentionally. “The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. ‘The book’s hugely problematic,’ Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.” BUT THAT’S THE POINT! The utopia presented in Huxley’s novel isn’t a utopia at all. It is, in fact, a dystopia where freedom of choice has been so eradicated that there is absolutely no individuality and people are genetically engineered to fit a specific social class. People are designed to be inferior in different ways so others can remain superior. No, that doesn’t preach equality, but it does reveal a darker truth about humanity that no one seems to want to grapple with because it’s messy and uncomfortable, but to paraphrase John the Savage’s great speech towards the end of the novel, it’s my right to be uncomfortable and messy and unhappy if I want to be, so give it all to me! Let me be exposed to elements of misogyny and racism in the story, and then decide for myself how to react. Removing the more difficult aspects of the prose limits the reader’s reaction and involvement and erodes the author’s purpose.

But no; this adaptation is limited to fluffy entertainment and does so to the point where the characters are reduced and less complex and less riveting. “The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” Lenina was not just “a cheerful sex bunny;” she was grappling with being monogamous when promiscuity was the norm and struggling with her feelings for John. She had interiority; it didn’t need to be added! And how could Bernard possibly be softened when he is the villain? But the worst crime of all is how Soloski calls John “prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” SERIOUSLY? John wanted nobility and dignity and was searching for a real sense of self. He wanted to feel it all and experience it all. The actor who plays John, Alden Ehrenreich, understands this (which makes me like him even more than I already do). Soloski writes, “So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in ‘Solo,’ prefers to describe John as romantic.” Soloski’s tone is disturbingly dismissive when discussing the hero of the novel. To label him as “emo” discredits him and his beliefs.

Huxley, through John the Savage and his interaction with the “new society,” critiques the superficial society that is so often praised and preferred. People choose to numb themselves and self-medicate to avoid the more difficult and disconcerting aspects of being a member of the human race.  People choose fleeting sexual pleasure because it “feels good” instead of working to build lasting relationships, which disintegrates family units, and the social control in the novel is fine with this because “united we stand, divided we fall.” Keeping citizens dumb and numb and disconnected keeps them easier to control and manipulate. John becomes a hero because he rejects that notion. He tells the powers that be in the “futuristic” society of the novel just that when he says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It seems that the new adaptation and, in part, Soloski’s article about it both miss the point of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. They’re dumbing down one of the most important stories of the 20th century so people will have something to binge, to mindlessly consume, “while the world burns” around them. The Universal Content president told Soloski multiple times that “the show shouldn’t feel like homework.” They don’t want people to think and come to their own conclusions and judgments. The creators of the adaptation are creating an entertainment trap to keep people caged in superficiality and consumer culture, which is supremely ironic because those are some of the very kinds of traps exposed by Huxley. We are living in “Brave New World,” but this adaptation doesn’t really want viewers to realize that, so they’ve made changes to soften and remove “problematic” elements. In doing so, they’ve removed the author and his purpose, compromised artistic integrity, and likely ruined an important, classic novel for a new generation. It’s a shame.

To be fair, I haven’t streamed an episode yet. But I will when they become available today (and you can check out the trailer here), and I will swallow my pride and admit it if I’m wrong. But the tone of Soloski’s write-up in the New York Times has me worried. I feel like John the Savage, throwing away the Soma so people will finally wake up and realize what is actually going on.

On “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

From Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

So it’s like the fifth week of being quarantined and it’s only getting more difficult. I’m blessed to have a home and steady income, and I’m not sick and my family is happy and healthy, so it’s a shitty thing to complain about being bored and lonely; aren’t we all? To pass the time, I’ve been reading a lot and I’ve also started re-watching CBS’s 1994 miniseries “Stephen King’s The Stand.” I watched the second episode yesterday morning and had the sudden urge to tell everyone I know to watch it because it totally explains what we’re going through right now (not totally…that’s me being dramatic). This is NOT a new idea; King has apologized for us all feeling like we’re living in one of his novels. Still, I feel like Randy in the movie “Scream,” when he’s freaking out in the middle of Blockbuster and imploring everyone to watch horror movies so they could be better able to survive the slasher attacking Woodsboro. Only I’m alone, in my living room, urging everyone to read The Stand.

Another way to pass the time is writing and thinking. The latter, unfortunately leads to overthinking, which then leads to crying and mourning the past. But I think it’s mostly good. One day, I’ll be numb.

Episode Two: “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. And one of the best scenes from the novel is when the narrator comes upon Tyler Durden on the beach. Tyler has built a statue from driftwood. The narrator can’t tell what it is at first. He explains, “I asked if Tyler was an artist. Tyler shrugged…What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. . . he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

The beauty and tragedy of my moment of perfection is that it’s come and gone.

To be fair, we had two perfect moments. One was during an all-day drinking event on a sunny day in March. That day was the most attracted to him I’ve ever been. The place was crowded and being that we had been drinking for hours, I was mostly stumbling and having trouble keeping up. He told me he didn’t want to lose me. He was leading me through the crowd at the one bar, holding hands as he stretched out his arms behind him. Then he brought them around so that I hugged him from behind and it took all the self-control my drunk ass could muster not to bury my face in his hoodie and breathe deep.

We kept drinking. Day turned to night. We ended up at another bar. The thumping bass boomed incessantly, sounding more like war drums than anything else. Everything was vibrating, everything was shaking almost imperceptibly, and I used that as an excuse to hang onto his muscular forearm and steady myself. I put my ear close to his beautiful, smooth mouth to try and decipher the slurred nonsense that tumbled out. He sloppily smashed his lips against my cheek. It was over before I was even sure it had happened and both of us stood there looking at one another stupidly. Everything was bumping and booming and loud and hot and close and he drunkenly smiled at me. At that moment, I knew that if I were to push close against him and grab him and hold him and decimate his mouth with mine, he would yield and he would succumb. That is an unfamiliar and dangerous amount of power and I resisted. It would mean something cheap and tawdry. I wasn’t as drunk as he was, and I was worried that if it went as far as it possibly could, we’d have different feelings in the cold light of the next morning. It would have meant so much more to me than it would have to him. It wouldn’t be what I really wanted.

Instead, I touched his face and escaped to the ladies’ room. Later, when it was time to go pass out, I walked him home.

I’m an idiot, though. That wasn’t enough of a green light for me to tell him how wonderful I thought he was, how all I wanted was to be with him. Naturally, our next moment of perfection also passed me by. It was a few weeks later, and I was out with colleagues, staying overnight at a beautiful hotel for some weekend-long conference. The first night was pretty laid back, so we all went to bar just cross the street. I texted him, practically begging him to come down.

And he did.

The bar was closing and we needed to go somewhere else, and I invited him to my shared hotel room on the condition that he bring playing cards. He smiled but rolled his eyes, saying there was no way he’d find playing cards and that he was tired. Again, I begged him. He shook his head and said goodnight.

Back at the hotel room, I was commiserating with my roommates about the missed opportunity when there were three, loud knocks on the door. They were serious sounding knocks, reminiscent of the way a cop bangs against door. One roommate hurried to the bathroom. The other tried to hide in the mess of pillows and coverings on the bed. That left me to open the door. I tried to calm myself, rehearsing what to say to the authority figure who’d probably been summoned because we were being too loud. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and opened the door.

No one was there.

I stepped out and looked to the right. There was still no one there.

When I looked to the right, he was leaning against the wall, twirling a deck of playing cards in his hand, smiling slightly. All the blood rushed to my face and I laughed out loud; there was nowhere else for my joy to escape to. It was like something out of a movie. It was the personification of every romantic fantasy I’d ever had. He came in and we played Kings for a couple of hours until he had to go, quiet suddenly.

And then it was all over.

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On truly terrifying and terrible villains.

Villain

Halsey’s new song that she performed on Saturday Night Live, “You should be sad” (you can watch it here) has had me D E E P in my feelings all week, ever since I heard the song. It reminds me of the only man I think I ever really loved, and how that relationship was doomed because he “…can’t love nothin’ unless there was somethin’ in it…” for him. In the story of my life (and all writers believe their lives have plot and theme and depths of meaning), he is most definitely a villain. No matter how handsome, how charming, how complicated, or how conflicted he might be, he is most definitely a villain, a dangerous narcissist, a sociopath who takes and takes until there’s nothing left and simply leaves.

Thinking along that admittedly bitter and self-serving vein conjured up images of villains crafted from ink and paper rather than flesh and blood. Do imagined, constructed villains have anything in common with those of the living and breathing variety? The answer: absolutely they do, so for your reading pleasure, here is my list of truly terrible and terrifying villains in literature (in no particular order and there’s only nine because I couldn’t think of one more villain; I’m the worst, I know, and I’m sorry). AND SPOILER WARNING!!! SPOILERS ABOUND!!! (Actually, I think I did okay in keeping secrets, but better to be safe than sorry).

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  1. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

    When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad” (Rowling 238).

    One of the best qualities of a villain, outside of the comic book variety, is his or her ability to surprise by flying under the radar. What I mean is that Dolores Umbridge is perfectly put together, what with her matching cardigan sets and bows and seemingly perfect manners. The depths of Umbridge’s dastardly depravity are revealed slowly, layer by layer, as the character herself unravels as she spirals into madness. At certain points throughout the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, it seems as if she is simply unbeatable. She matches Harry step for step and is a worthy adversary. I would even argue she’s a more terrifying villain than Lord Voldemort because Voldemort is essentially a monster while Umbridge is a monster hiding in plain sight. And while she does not have special skills or super strength or advanced technology, she does have the scariest weapons of all: political backing and the ability to completely manipulate the bureaucracy.

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  2. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically, missing. Soon to be presumed dead. But as shorthand, we’ll say dead. It’s been only a matter of hours, but I feel better already; loose joints, wavy muscles. At one point this morning, I realized my face felt strange, different. I looked in the rearview mirror–dread Carthage forty-three miles behind me, my smug husband lounging around his sticky bar as mayhem dangled on a thin piano wire just above his shitty, oblivious head–and I realized I was smiling. Ha! That’s new” (Flynn 219).

    Amy Dunne is without a doubt a psychopath, maybe even a sociopath. However, Amy’s ability to remain hyper focused on her goal to meet success at all costs is admirable … except for the fact that she’s either killing or manipulating every single person around her. Amy is the voice inside a woman’s head that tells her to forget everything and everyone else and “do you.” Amy seeks revenge against her cheating husband in a brilliant plot that involves her faking her own death and becoming a more authentic version of herself. What terrifies me about Amy is that the authentic version is amalgamous and essentially nonexistent. Amy is a chameleon and can change her personality in order to achieve whatever her aim is. That kind of intense and fearless and devotion to one’s self is something I envy on my really bad days. Still, Amy is a horrible narcissist and violent psychopath with no redeeming qualities, really.

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  3. Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King

    “He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself” (King).

    It’s no secret that King can have trouble constructing plots; sometimes they’re convoluted and sometimes they’re lacking in a satisfying conclusion. What King is always a master of is creating dynamic characters and his legendary antagonist Randall Flagg is no exception. He is as charming as he is terrifying and King’s careful construction of his character shows glimpses of humanity. King doesn’t completely alienate his reader from Flagg, which is brilliant, because it keeps readers invested in his story. If there was nothing to latch onto, this ageless and universal adversary would become tiresome and excessive. But to see him become frustrated when thwarted and to see him become threatened when meeting his match rounds out and fleshes out his character. I would totally buy Flagg a beer at a local dive bar. The kick is that I’d be in some serious, fatal trouble before I even knew what was happening.

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  4. Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan from Carrie by Stephen King

    “‘Period!’ The catcall came first from Chris Hargensen. It struck the tiled walls of the steamy locker room, it rebounded in vibrations, and struck again. Sue Snell gasped in laughter from her nose and felt an odd, vexing mixture of hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity. She just looked so dumb, standing there, not knowing what was going on. ‘God!’ said Sue, ‘You’d think she never…’ ‘Period!’ Chris shouted again, even louder than the first time” (King).

    King’s my favorite author, so it’s no surprise he makes my list twice. Also, I’m a complete and total sucker for toxic couples. Chris Hargensen is the popular bitch who’s had everything handed to her and has to feel like she accomplishes something by shitting on others. Chris is a girl we all knew in high school, but King does what he does best and pushes Chris to the extreme. Her need for revenge becomes obsessive, overly cruel, and deadly. Naturally, such a bitch on wheels needs a hapless but equally psychotic lover boy to assist. Chris and Billy are disgusting and miserable in their relentless pursuit of Carrie. But before they go balls to the wall, they’re kids you avoided in the halls, kids you gave a side-eyed glance to during class. They’re rooted in the real world high school hierarchies, and that realness makes them all the more terrifying.

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  5. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

    “I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel–tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which” (Kesey 4).

    OMG NURSE RATCHED. I truly believe she’s the most hated character in all of American literature and even American cinema. Her cold, calculating, unfeeling demeanor as the head of the psychiatric ward perfectly sets up the conflict between her and McMurphy. She is unflinching, immovable, and undefeatable. She’s exhausting and terrible and miserable. Generations of readers have had such strong and visceral reactions to Nurse Ratched, and that is a testament to her power as a literary figure. She’s simply awful and as a reader, you don’t just root for her downfall, you deeply and desperately desire it.

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  6. Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby  by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald).

    Another toxic couple I love to hate. Much like Chris from Carrie, Tom and Daisy have had everything – absolutely everything – handed to them on a silver platter (probably literally). How do they feel alive and know that they exist? They ruin everything around them. They’re apathetic to the plights of others, careless in cruel and even calculating ways. I know Luhrman wanted to create a more sympathetic Daisy in his film adaptation, but I call bullshit. When you read the novel, she never calls Gatsby, never thanks him, and was never ever going to leave him. She just wanted to continue to have her cake and eat it too. She’s a mother who doesn’t raise her own daughter – hired help takes care of that. Tom may cheat, but Daisy does the same with Gatsby, and there’s no actual evidence of Tom being abusive other than a bruised pinky. Daisy’s full of shit, manipulating Gatsby into believing exactly what she wants him to, to keep him hanging around for her own amusement. And Tom’s just a douche bag.

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  7. Tyler Durden from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

    “Tyler spliced a penis into everything after that. Usually, close-ups, or a Grand Canyon vagina with an echo, four stories tall and twitching with blood pressure as Cinderella danced with her Prince Charming and people watched. Nobody complained. People ate and drank, but the evening wasn’t the same. People feel sick or start to cry and don’t know why. Only a hummingbird could have caught Tyler at work” (Palahniuk 31).

    It’s been said that we are our own worst enemy and damn, does Palahniuk drive that point home in his amazing novel. Tyler is everything a man would want to be; sexy, charming, carefree, hyper masculine, stylish, unapologetic … but all of those attributes come with a price, and the cost is compassion. Tyler’s a great villain because for 90% of the novel, he’s a role model. Readers gulp his Kool-Aid in greedy swallows, nodding enthusiastically to his anarchist, libertarian ranting and raving. But when his ideology is actually put into practice, it is violent and dangerous. Tyler’s terrifying because on paper, he’s perfect. In practice, he’s a deadly disaster.

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  8. Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare

    “ I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.142-4).

    I am a total sucker for a tragic hero. I love me some Macbeth. Equal parts tragic and terrifying is Macbeth’s total descent into madness. He’s loyal and brave and valiant and loved; he has it all. When he’s promised more, and when the woman closest to him urges him onward, he’ll stop at nothing to obtain and maintain his glorious destiny. Macbeth is every single one of us, wanting to make those who loves us proud and wanting the best for ourselves. When Macbeth is unable to stop and finds himself drenched in blood, it’s scary because it happens all the time in real life. Greed and ambition are common motivations when committing serious crimes and Shakespeare knew it over half a century ago.

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  9. Eliot Andrews from Her Beautiful Monster by me 😉

    “‘Do you know what our last session together consists of?’ Eliot was smiling, but tears were pouring down his cheeks. It was pathetic. Sammy shook her head, terrified and trying to think of what to do next. This was no time for a conversation. ‘I’m going to give you a Glasgow smile. Do you know what that is?’ Again, Sammy shook her head and squirmed fearfully in Eliot’s arms. ‘I slit your mouth from ear to ear, and the scars that remain resemble a big smile, like the Joker from Batman. You saw that movie.’ Sammy needed to run, needed to get free; but how? Eliot was still rambling. ‘That in and of itself isn’t deadly, but if I were to then punch you in the stomach or make you scream in pain, you’d bleed out because the wounds would be constantly kept open. It’s a beautiful piece of irony, isn’t it?’ Grinning, Eliot took his shining scalpel and tried to slip it between Sammy’s lips. The metal in her mouth helped her to concentrate and she brought her knee up as hard as she could against Eliot’s groin” (Bean).

    Shameless self-promotion here. Eliot is a GREAT villain. He uses the greatest gift there is, love, to manipulate and injure Sammy. What could be worse? Buy it here.

So how did I do? Did I miss your favorite literary villain? Comment and critique my list!

On the end of a decade (dramatic though it may sound).

Not only is it the last month of the year, but everyone seems to be harping on the fact that it is the last month of the decade. I don’t remember people being this pumped when 2009 was drawing to a close, but truth be told, I don’t remember much about that time in general. I know I was in college, I know I was student teaching, and I know I had a lot of plans. Looking back, I realize I had a pretty fantastic decade.

  • I graduated college magna cum laude.
  • I lost nearly sixty pounds … and then gained it back. But then I started losing again, so let’s call this one a draw, shall we?
  • I bought a convertible, my dream car! And when the water pump somewhere in Pennsylvania and left me stranded on the shoulder of a steaming highway, I bought a Jeep! And when the Jeep was too expensive, I bought a brand new car, the first one I’ve ever owned.
  • I met Andrew McCarthy and Gary Sinise. And I yelled to James Franco that I liked his collection of short stories, and he mouthed “thank you.” I don’t think he was allowed to talk to anyone outside the theater after the performance of “Of Mice and Men.”
  • I published a novel (the first of many, let’s hope)!
  • I traveled to places I’d never been before, specifically Colorado and France.
  • I attended seven weddings and eight funerals.
  • Three of my loved ones deployed and returned home safely, but two made the ultimate sacrifice.
  • The New York Giants won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning as quarterback.
  • I worked my ass off and earned my dream job.
  • I finished the manuscript for a second novel and started the manuscript for a third.
  • I attended three absolutely wonderful writer’s conferences.
  • I bought a home.
  • I fell hopelessly, irrevocably, and dangerously in love.
  • I had my heart absolutely decimated. But hey; that builds character (Jane Austen wrote something like that, I think).

I’ve seen a lot of lists like this while scrolling through social media and “decade challenges” and similar sentiments. Recently, I was on LitHub and read an article titled “26 Books From the Last Decade that More People Should Read” (which can be found here and is definitely worth more than just a scroll-through) and it got me thinking: what would my reading list from the last ten years look like? I went over to my Goodreads page (and you should visit it too so we can be friends!) and scrolled through to revisit some of the titles that came along for my journey into the woman that sits in her kitchen, typing furiously on a cheap laptop that needs to be wiped down.

So here’s my list of ten books (with accompanying reviews I previously posted on Goodreads (except for my comments on The Spinning Heart)) that I read in the last ten years that molded me into the woman, writer, friend, lover, daughter, sister, aunt, teacher, human being I am today:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguroneverletmego
    “I absolutely adored The Remains of the Day. Thus, I had very high hopes for Never Let Me Go, and I was not disappointed. The story was completely original and the novel’s structure served it well. I appreciated the real human elements of the characters and it was those elements that made the story as engaging as it was. I am a huge fan of human drama, and this book offered me all of that in a new and interesting way. Pondering what to do with one’s short and limited time on earth is not a new concept. However the way the author investigates what that means to the particular set of people with extreme circumstances is breathtaking.”

  2. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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    “I loved this novel I am going to begin by imploring anyone reading this review to take my comments with a grain of salt, as I now realize I have a rather bizarre emotional connection to this novel. I believe I read this novel at the exact time I was supposed to; its plot, which focuses on the varying tragedies of the ‘everyman,’ relates to one and all. The prose was engaging and layered, so that every phrase contained a superficial significance and a deeper message that reveals itself in time. I loved this novel and highly recommend it.”
  3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
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    “Romance is usually never my genre of choice. It’s my literary snobbery, but I’ve always assumed romances left nothing for the serious reader to sink her teeth into. I’d just always assumed romance novels were nothing more than pages torn from some woman’s diary, some woman desperately trying to recreate a forgotten relationship from her past and doing her utmost to make sure she gets it right this time. All of those assumptions and assertions are insulting and unfair, I know. This novel, ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes, helped me to see the error of my ways.

    The characterization is outstanding. No aspect is obviously conveyed or conveniently created for the reader; there’s some work involved, but man oh man, is it worth it. These characters are developed and authentic so there is a genuine emotional investment in how this particular story unfolds. It’s not just the romantic relationship that has longevity with the readers, but all the friendships and familial entanglements. The characters were lovingly crafted and it helps the reader to stomach an unbearable plot.

    What I mean by that seemingly harsh phrase is that Moyes is not in the business of granting wishes; she’s being real. This novel is not what you think it is in the best of ways. I was very pleasantly surprised and intend on picking up the sequel soon. Definitely recommended.”

  4. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
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    “I purchased this book for three reasons: 1) I love ‘True Detective (particularly the first season which is absolutely flawless),’ which Pizzolatto created and wrote; 2) While binge watching the first season of ‘True Detective’ for the thousandth time, I finally watched an interview with Pizzolatto where he discussed his writing process and talked about illuminating the characters through nuances, and I thought that was just brilliant; 3) I spent a lot of time in a bookstore and would feel like a total asshole if I didn’t buy something.

    This crime novel is entertaining. I kept having to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next. The pacing was maddeningly appropriate, but this novel is so much more than a hard boiled crime story. Similar to ‘True Detective,’ Pizzolatto uses a fluid narration to not only blend the present and past to keep readers on their toes, but to develop characters in that subtle, illuminating way. Sure, the troubled hero and grizzled damsel who still needs saving are somewhat stock characters, but Pizzolatto’s talent and attention to detail creates living, breathing identities for those characters. They can’t just be compartmentalized or written off; they’re complex and layered, and engineer a real attachment. I wasn’t reading just to find out what happened to satisfy curiosity; I wanted – needed – to know if they made it, to know how they made out in the end.

    Highly recommended if you enjoy crime thrillers and/or good writing.”

  5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
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    “Stephen King at his best … Some stories were downright delightful and ultimately satisfying, but most were disturbing and unsettling and masterful. There were rare moments when the voice seemed stale and archaic, but King’s power comes from his knowledge of human nature. He gets it, man; and whatever that is, it’s terrifying and funny and entertaining and beautiful. Some stories in this collection are undoubtedly better than others, but King is a master storyteller, so each and every yarn is undoubtedly worth the read.

    I’ve been a longtime fan of Mr. King, and have suffered through some of his recent work (which feels awful and unkind to admit), but this collection felt like a return to what made me fall in love with his prose in the first place.”

  6. I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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    “Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer; I did not need to read this collection of short stories to learn that fact. The greatest thing about this collection, then, is that it shows Fitzgerald as an artist and a man. He truly believed in artistic integrity, and was brutally honest with himself about many things, including his talent and his drinking and his relationship with Zelda. The stories in the collection are evidence of Fitzgerald growing and evolving with the times, with his own life, and with his own interests. This is a must read for any and every Fitzgerald fan.”

  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
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    “As I start taking my aspirations to be a successful published author more seriously, I find myself attending conferences that assign required readings. Some are pretentious, some are obvious, but few are as practical, helpful, honest, and entertaining as BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott.

    I felt validated and challenged and, most importantly, inspired to really write and give it all I have all the time. Lamott’s advice and insight are not meant to placate or manipulate aspiring writers into following her footsteps or buying more of her books or anything so capitalistic or self-serving. She talks about the reality of being a successful published author and how the realization of that dream still leaves something to be desired because it is human nature to never be satisfied. That truth, crushing though it may at first appear to be, makes the whole endeavor more manageable.

    I am forever indebted to this book, to this absolutely wonderful author. I also plan on reading more and more of her work.”

  8. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall
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    “I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days.

    The honesty of the author’s account of her life with Ted Bundy is remarkable. Kendall freely admits her own shortcomings which may have attracted Ted to her in the first place. She does not deny any facet of her relationship with Ted and while some readers have found her to be irritating in her inconsistencies, I felt it made her human and actually gave her credibility.

    Unfortunately, now having read the source material for the wildly popular Netflix film starring Zac Efron, I dislike the film as they weren’t true to the material.”

    *A new expanded and updated version of this book will be released in January 2020.*

  9. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell
    lonesurvivor
    “This book was profoundly moving. I will not entertain anyone’s opinion about war or the military unless they’ve read this book.”
  10. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
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    “This is one of the most gorgeous novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. Achingly beautiful and haunting, there was not a single wasted sentence. Remarkable. Powerful.”

On the difference between critics and beta readers.

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

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So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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On writing reunions and summer reading.

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The beginning of July has been wonderful. I love the intense, dry heat as it is an excuse to be lazy and spend hours floating in a pool with a book in hand. I’ve had a slowly but surely diminishing pile poolside, and I’ve been nearly perfectly happy. It’s been difficult for me to carve out some time for reading during the school year that’s not dictated by my professional obligations. I’m hoping the I’m instilling reading habits in myself over the next two months or so will spill over into the Fall.

Nora Ephron wrote:

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a sea-diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

It’s been a long time since I’ve joyfully suffered from a literary case of the bends, far too long. I need to rediscover my love of reading and read in the totally immersive way I used to. Like in college. I always try to tell my students that they’ll never have the kind of time they have in college ever again to encourage them to use it wisely and selfishly. I read and read and read. I always had my nose in a book, whether it was for class or for pleasure. And I didn’t care if people thought me lazy. I didn’t feel a pressure to be doing something more constructive. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel a pressure to do anything. While it’s true I had less responsibilities and was physically located in an atmosphere very much conducive to my bookworm lifestyle, there was something else at play that’s harder to articulate, a kind of freedom I worry I might never find again.

Anyway, while I was in college, I was reading A LOT of Stephen King. I had gone to see him read once or twice, had forced all my roommates to watch adaptations of his novel, and was head over heels, exclusively reading King. My love affair turned intense during my freshman year. I was living on the sixth floor of an older building on campus with four other young women. Our dorm room was huge; it was two large rooms (one for our beds and one for our desks) and there was a private bathroom through the room with our desks. It was also across from the laundry room and was where all the other Honors students stayed. There were parties and fun, but for the most part, the people I saw on a daily basis had their heads on straight.

I came home after class one day, super excited to continue reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. It was engaging and enthralling, and I was hooked. All I wanted to do was lay in bed and read, and I had been looking forward to doing so all day. But when I entered the dorm, I couldn’t find my book. It wasn’t where I had left it, which was where I always left it: on my pillow. When I turned to circle dramatically in despair and disbelief, I found my book in the clutches of my roommate Charlotte. Charlotte was a talented, gorgeous, intelligent, and wonderful young woman, one of the best roommates I had at college. I loved her. But I was pissed she had my book (but not as pissed as I was when she ate my cookie and left a note saying “Sorry, but I needed it,” but I guess that’s a story for another time). When I told her I was in the middle of reading it, she asked to finish the page she was on. I consented, and she placed a bookmark in the book. Charlotte assumed we’d be able to read the same book at the same time. I had my doubts.

But what a wonderful experience. I was ahead of her, so she and I could talk about what we were reading while I did my best not to spoil anything. She used a bookmark and I dog-eared my pages (I’m a monster, I know). When Charlotte had a bad day, I set up a “bool” hunt for her just like the ones that appeared in the book. It was a radical, inclusive way to read to literally share a book with someone, and I cherished every second of it.

Reading, though a solitary activity for the most part, can be an impactful and communal activity (hello, book clubs!) and I feel the same way about writing. Last week, I was able to catch up with elegant, fashionable writers I met a few years ago in St. Augustine, Florida at the Algonkian Writer’s Conference. We talked about our triumphs and tragedies pertaining to writing, and discussed why we keep going despite the disappointments and rejections. It was a much needed afternoon and I cherished every second of it.

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Joanna Elm

Joanna Elm, accomplished author and one of the attendees, chronicled the excursion on her wonderful, absolutely wonderful blog which you can read here.

So, I’ve been reading and I’ve been writing. I’ve sent a finished manuscript to five literary agents and five small presses. I’ve also begun working on entering a few contests.

And I’ve reached out to the University of Limerick and am still gathering all the necessary information to live and study there for a year.

Hope all is well with you, readers. ❤

On new projects and begging for feedback.

Good morning readers and writers and internet users! Hope all is well ❤

While I’m working to get my second manuscript, titled Moody Blue, published, I am also working on a new book! I’m sharing the prologue with you below, and I am DESPERATELY BEGGING for feedback! PLEASE let me know what you think!

Prologue

The only people who ever really cared about Duke, the only people who ever honestly gave a shit, were gone – one of them forever, a recent member of the dearly departed. The other was away, becoming a better human being who’d have no time for addicts who couldn’t stand to see their own faces in cracked bathroom mirrors. Duke was currently studying his own reflection in just such a mirror and recognized himself, but he hated it, hated the reflection. His hair was too long and his eyes were too red, and he wasn’t fucking high enough. He turned away from his face, sick of looking at his stupid, fucking face. There wasn’t much to like about Duke, and Duke knew that, but he didn’t want to have to face it day in and day out. He needed relief, which was why he self-medicated. He’d used all the heroin he’d had in the house, which was impressively more than usual, but now it was gone and he had to rely on alcohol.

Duke didn’t want to rely on anything anymore; or anyone, for that matter. Come to think of it, Duke didn’t think he even wanted to be in the house anymore, either. Bottle of whiskey clenched tight in his fist, Duke stumbled over to the small coffee table by the front door. His keys were laying there and he reached to grab them. The world seemed to tilt as he did so, and the wooden table went crashing to the floor, taking two picture frames with it. Duke grabbed the corner of the wall to keep from falling completely. Had his other hand been free, he might have been successful, but that damn bottle wouldn’t let go of his hand. Whiskey splashed all over him as he went down hard on his ass. Cursing loudly, he threw the bottle at the nearest wall. Duke watched the glass shatter, seemingly from the inside out, and he saw the tiny shards explode into the light and catch it. The glass metamorphosed into stars and Duke watched, transfixed. The cuts the stars inflicted on his cheeks went unnoticed, were inconsequential. Duke watched the glass fall until it all lay on the floor.

His discarded, cold, metallic keys winked at him. Duke suddenly remembered he had to leave. He crawled to gather his keys, cutting his palms on the fallen stars from just moments before. Scooping up the keys, Duke rose shakily to his feet and made his way out through his front door. He left the door open behind him so that it resembled a large, gaping mouth, howling in pain and protest. Duke also left a bloody palm print on its face, cackling wildly and falling three times before he was sitting behind the wheel of his yellow Cadillac Seville from 1987. He’d bought it cheap off Matt to replace Uncle Rick’s rusted Ford because Duke couldn’t bear to drive it. Duke couldn’t bear to sell it, either. He didn’t want it but he couldn’t let go, and that, ladies and germs, was the story of his life.

The engine came to life loudly, but the radio was louder. It was Bruce Springsteen, singing “Atlantic City” with a supreme kind of melancholy that just fit the moment. Duke’s face fell and became serious as he thought hard, carefully considering everything making up the moment. He suddenly had a destination in mind: Aurora’s dorm, and he’d have to get there fast, or it’d be too late. He’d have to race the devils brewing within him to reach Aurora before she realized she was not only better than Duke, but better off without him as well. He backed out onto Broadway Boulevard, neatly knocking his mailbox to the ground. Duke was indifferent to it, sped down the quiet residential streets until he hit the highway. It was when he was pulling onto the ramp for the Garden State Parkway, heading north, when it happened: the accident. Duke took the ramp too fast, at seventy miles an hour, and the car rolled over and over, leaving the pavement to tumble down a grassy hill before slamming into the trees.

Duke lay bleeding, inside and out, for a devastating ten minutes before someone finally saw the mess and called the proper authorities. The Boss was still growling through the speakers to no one in particular. “Everything dies, baby; that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


Aurora had just drifted to sleep after a late night of paper writing. It had been interesting at least, discussing what it means to be human through the novels Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Aurora thought college was pretty cool. She was happy in college. Even sleeping, she was happy. It all felt right and Aurora had discovered she was right where she was supposed to be.

She awoke with a start from Bruce Springsteen suddenly proclaiming triumphantly that tramps were born to run from her cell phone. She scrambled to answer it, not wanting to wake her cranky roommate, so she didn’t even pause to see who was calling. “Hello?” she croaked.

“It’s Matt. You’ve got to come home. I’ll come get you if you want, but you gotta get back here.”

Aurora sat up in bed. “Matt, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Duke’s had an accident with my car and it’s not looking good. Christ.” Matt paused. “He’s dying.”

The tears came surprisingly fast, before Aurora could even really understand all that Matt was saying. “Matt, I … um, I’ll come home right now. I’ll call you when I’m close.”

“Are you okay to drive? I shouldn’t be telling you like this, I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call. He doesn’t have anyone else,” Matt said. His voice cracked at the end and Aurora heard him swallow, likely to keep from crying. There was another pause. “I can –“

“I’ll be there soon, Matt. I’m on my way. Just call me if anything changes, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“Okay, I’m on my way.” Aurora hung up before Matt could say goodbye. Throwing the covers back, she got moving, had to keep moving to keep her mind occupied. Aurora tossed clothes thoughtlessly into a duffel bag, not pausing to think about Duke being dead, not being around, not being Duke anymore. The thought of him scarred and bloody, and slowly becoming pale and cold, was enough to render her useless, but goddammit, she didn’t have time for hysterics. Aurora couldn’t curl up into a ball on the floor and sob like she wanted to. Slipping flip flops onto her frantic feet, Aurora threw open the door to her room, hurried down the hallway and bolted down the stairs. Her duffel bag and purse swung heavily as she ran to her car, so she was thankful she had forgotten her book bag. There wasn’t time for stupid, fucking homework. She had to have enough time to say goodbye.

Normally, it’d take Aurora over an hour to travel back home from the college. That night, it barely took her forty-five minutes.


Matt met Aurora in the parking garage of the hospital and escorted her inside, explaining to her in hushed tones that Duke’s condition was improving, miraculously so, and that they needed to remain cautious but could afford to be optimistic. They seated themselves in terribly uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs and waited.

And waited.

Matt stood and walked a few paces to stretch his legs and ease his aching back. “He’s been in surgery for two and a half hours now.” Matt leaned against the cool glass framing the operating room. He hadn’t really looked at Aurora since she’d arrived.

“What happened?” Aurora asked. She was trembling.

“He was high as fuck and tried to get on the parkway.” Matt was silent after that, listening to Aurora sob softly behind him. He did not reach out to her, did not offer to hold her or console her or anything. Aurora wasn’t mad about it. She knew they were both drowning in misery and that neither of them was strong enough to hold the other one up, at least not yet.

Two crippling hours went by, during which Duke emerged from his surgery and all his friends could do was wait until he woke up. When he did wake up, the doctor came and told Aurora and Matt, but the doctor also said that Duke was not out of the woods yet and that it would be some time before he could see visitors.

Matt yawned and stretched, and turned towards Aurora. “You gonna go home?”

Aurora shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Mascara was smeared all underneath her eyes and she knew she must have looked awful. “I don’t want to be too far, just in case …” Her voice trailed off as her mind traveled to horrendous possibilities, just the worst of the worst. She cleared her throat to find her voice and said, “You know, just in case something happens. I guess.” She swallowed hard.

“I get that, but you look like shit,” Matt said with a laugh that was more forced than anything else. “You need to sleep, and if you won’t do that, then you need to eat.” Matt studied her for a moment. “Let me take you to get some food.”

“I don’t want to go too far, you know, in case-“

“There’s a diner right down the road,” Matt interrupted. “We won’t be too far and we won’t be too long. You can just guzzle some coffee or something. Let’s go.”

Aurora sighed heavily. There was no real reason for her not to go, so she acquiesced and didn’t even protest when Matt bent to retrieve her purse.

In the few minutes it took for Matt to drive them to the local diner, Aurora fell asleep. She thought she knew what it was to be exhausted, but she was wrong. Matt reached over, gently grabbed Aurora’s shoulder and shook her awake. Aurora was momentarily confused and simply sat, staring at Matt with bleary eyes until she blinked slowly, stupidly. Matt laughed and it was a pleasant, genuine sound. It felt good to be out of the hospital, removed from the sterile, suffocating tragedy. “We’re here,” Matt smiled. “Need a minute? I can go in and get a table.”

Aurora nodded after she yawned loudly, somewhat obnoxiously, and stretched and rubbed her eyes, mascara be damned. “Yeah, sure.” She looked at Matt seriously. “Can I bum a cigarette?”

Matt snorted. “Since when do you smoke?”

“I’ve become quite cultured since I’ve been away at college, I’ll have you know,” Aurora said. She rolled her eyes but smiled partly to let Matt know she wasn’t really annoyed, and partly because she was pleased to have surprised her longtime friend, happy to have actually changed something about herself. Aurora didn’t want to waste her “college experience” by adhering to a behavioral code that had suited her in her small hometown, in a comfortable environment void of any really challenges and thereby void of any real personal growth. Aurora couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t say any of this to Matt, because he was born in Ocean Gate, still lived in Ocean Gate, and would most likely die in Ocean Gate without ever feeling stuck or disappointed or unfulfilled. So Aurora just looked at him expectantly.

“I guess so,” Matt smiled, but eyed Aurora warily. He reached for his pack of cigarettes in his coat pocket. “I wonder what other morals Little Miss Perfect has let fall to the wayside.” Matt was half-serious and hesitated just a moment more before suddenly pressing the pack close against his chest. “Tell you what; a real gentleman never lets a lady smoke alone.” He offered her a wink before a cigarette, and she was definitely more interested in the cigarette. She slid one delicately from the crowded pack (it was brand new; Matt had stopped on his way to the hospital, correctly figuring that the combination of caffeine, nicotine, prayers and Aurora was the only combination to get him through whatever lay ahead) and thanked Matt graciously. He did the same, lit Aurora’s and then his own with the green lighter he stole from Duke at a house party a month earlier. The pair of lifelong friends both took long, deep drags and exhaled slowly, just breathing and thinking in the silence, which is really all most humans are capable of in times of crisis; the normal ones, anyway, very much unlike the heroes that make the paper or the evening news.

“Where was he going?” Aurora asked.

“What?”

She took another drag of her cigarette, realizing too late the question was better suited for being posed after sleep, after a shower and over alcohol. Ironically, she was too tired to care and continued. “Where was Duke going?”

Matt paused. He too pulled on his cigarette before he spoke. “Damned if I know,” Matt said without looking at her.

Aurora’s shoulders were heavy with skepticism. “You didn’t talk to him at all that day? Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”

“He was fucked up,” Matt said. He was rubbing his forehead and continuing to avoid making eye contact. “We talked, maybe, but he was high as hell. What he was saying probably didn’t even make sense, you know?”

“But he was saying something wasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”

Matt groaned. “He was upset by the same old things he always complains about, drank too much and God knows what else, and decided he was finally going to get out of town.”

“But –“

“Jesus Christ, Rory! What do you want me to say? Do you really need me to point out the obvious, that you’re the only person he’d ever visit off the parkway? What could- I mean, how could that possibly matter? Fuck off if you’re going to make this about you,” Matt said. He had exploded and been unfair, cruel even. Somewhere deep down inside, Rory knew Matt could blame his exhaustion, his stress and heartbreak, but none of it could excuse the way he had attacked her, using her nickname and reminding her of how personal everything was. The car was filling with a shocked silence.

Rory grabbed her oversized purse and gracelessly climbed out of Matt’s car. She slammed the door behind her to truly emphasize the exit and it echoed in the silence of the early morning. She marched angrily down the sidewalk outside the front of the diner. She stopped at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the entrance, an entrance marked by ever glowing neon lights and double glass doors. She had yet to flick away the cigarette burning slowly between two fingers and her free hand pushed her wild hair from her eyes. She turned away from the diner’s entrance, turning towards the parking lot, slowly realizing there really wasn’t any other place for her to go. She was suffering from the same exhaustion and stress and heartbreak Matt felt, but there was something more, something like confusion and a little bit like guilt since she knew Duke had been trying to get to her. Rory started crying, crying really hard, alone in a parking lot in the gray light before dawn. It was a pitiful sight, especially when Rory wrapped her arms around herself to keep from completely going to pieces. Forgotten, the cigarette was still burning down between her two fingers.

Matt climbed from the car, slipping his keys in his pocket and nudging his door shut with his hip. He called Rory’s name, but she turned away as he jogged over to her. All she offered Matt was her back. “Rory, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”

“Leave me alone.” Her response was cold and clipped.

“I’m mean when I’m stressed,” Matt explained as he halted a few paces behind Rory. “I’m tired and sad and didn’t want to answer your questions.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh, come on, Rory,” Matt pleaded. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “I didn’t mean it, okay?”

“I feel so bad,” she sobbed. “I feel so goddam guilty because I left him. His uncle was murdered and I just went back to school, back to my own little world, like he didn’t just lose everything he had.” The tears gushed uncontrollably and made her nearly impossible to understand. “I’m supposed to be his best friend and I abandoned him. And I am selfish and I do make everything about me, but he still wanted to see me.” Shuddering, shivering, she said, “As messed up as he was, he still wanted to see me.” The cigarette finally fell from her fingers and she broke. Rory brought her hands to her face, sad and shamed and tired, and Matt took her into his arms.

Matt shushed her. “You can’t feel guilty. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but you didn’t put those keys in his hand or that bottle in his mouth.” He pushed her away from him so he could see her face, but still held her by the shoulders. “You can’t- I mean, you just can’t beat yourself up over this. You’re his friend and you love him, and that’s enough, okay? That’s enough.”

“I do love him,” Rory sobbed, collapsing back into Matt’s arms. “I love him so much, and he’s such a fucking idiot.”

Matt laughed softly and tried to soothe her further by gently rubbing her back. They stayed like that for some time, not saying anything, happy just to be held until the sky turned rosy gold. They headed inside the diner, and over coffee and pancakes, they talked about anything and everything but Duke.


They returned to the hospital a few hours later. Duke was awake but wouldn’t be allowed visitors until the evening. Matt used the time to sleep and shower, but Rory stayed put, dozing across a few chairs for 30 minutes at a time, pacing up and down the hallway, and chugging coffee incessantly. When the doctor came to find her and tell her she could see Duke for just a few minutes, Rory did her best to patiently listen to the doctor; he advised her to speak softly and stay calm. Rory did her best to follow him to Duke’s room as normally as she could but it was a struggle. She wanted to sprint to Duke’s bedside and hold him, and if she broke down yet again, then so be it. But she already felt responsible for Duke’s current physical state. If she were to make it worse, she would not be able to live with herself Rory found herself panicked into silence as the doctor excused himself and shut the door softly behind him. Rory’s breath caught in her throat.

“Aurora,” Duke breathed. He was the only one to use her full name, not even her parents did, and the sound of it nearly caused her to collapse. “You look like shit,” Duke added, soft and low, after using only his eyes to survey Rory. He laughed but it was almost inaudible.

Rory stepped forward, trying to stay composed. She remembered herself after a moment and offered a disappointing smile. “Like you’re one to talk.” The impending silence made the air heavy between them. “I only have a few minutes, but he said I could come back tomorrow.”

Duke nodded, breathed in and out. “I know,” he said.

Rory moved to the side of the bed and delicately took Duke’s hand in both of her own. “But I’ll stay for as long as you need me, for as long as it takes to get you well.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then she lovingly kissed his cheek. Trying not to start crying, she let her cheek lay against Duke’s for a few silent, precious moments. “I love you,” she said.

Duke stared straight ahead, blinking furiously. He wanted to say it back and even felt he needed to say it back, but he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment. He was grateful to be alive and grateful to be loved, especially by someone like Rory, but he was ashamed he’d been willing to throw it all away. He was also terrified of what lay ahead, that he might make such mistakes again. He was sure he didn’t deserve this precious moment with a beautiful woman, this miraculous second chance. Everything he felt and believed he had to consider was overwhelming and he knew his voice would be affected as a result, and sound shaky and overcome with emotion. Duke didn’t want that, not anymore. He wanted to be strong. He didn’t want to be a burden. Duke took a few deep, steadying breaths before he finally said, “I love you too.”

Rory straightened up and looked down at Duke with a soft, sad smile that Duke suddenly wanted to violently smash. He didn’t want to be pitied – that idea had not flown once sobriety arrived. Duke knew that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t have the energy or the knowledge to fix it, so he shut his eyes tight against it and lazily allowed his head to roll to the side.

Poor Rory didn’t know what to make of it. So she said, “I’ll let you rest and come back later with Matt. We’ll get Eric over here, too.” Duke said nothing nor did he move. “Bye Duke,” was Rory’s lame response to his silence before she hurried from the room.

Duke lay there, absolutely loathing himself until he fell asleep.


Rory and Matt returned the next day, sometime in the early afternoon. Rory had smuggled in one of those milkshakes you mix yourself from the local convenience store and she was thrilled to find Duke in much better spirits. She gave the milkshake most of the credit.

The three friends avoided speaking of the past at all costs and focused on the future, on Duke’s next move. Rory offered to clean out Duke’s house, which he had inherited from his recently departed uncle. So one day while Duke was still recovering in the hospital, she emptied and disposed of all the liquor bottles and syringes, moving from room to room, carefully inspecting each for hiding places both clever and obvious. Matt helped, dutifully following Rory from room to room as an extra pair of eyes and as an extra pair of strong and sturdy hands. Rory changed the sheets on Duke’s bed and turned up the heat so it’d be warm and cozy upon his return.

Rory vacuumed the broken glass, removed the wooden shards, and cleaned the bloody palm print from beside the front door. It was almost as if Duke had never left that night, but only almost.

Duke saw the results of Rory and Matt’s efforts just a few days later when he was finally released from the hospital and able to come home. His breath moved in and out in shuddery spasms as Rory pushed his wheelchair over the threshold of his home. It was the same, but it was also entirely different.

Once inside, Duke opted to wheel himself around. He moved from room to room in the same way Matt and Rory had, but it was unclear what it was Duke was searching for. His face was immoveable and his expression was impossible to read. Matt and Rory contented themselves with following just a few paces behind. They were intrinsically and inexplicably cautious, anticipating some kind of outburst from their stormily silent friend. Both assumed his stoicism was only temporary, but Duke kept on keeping on. When he wheeled himself into his bedroom, all Duke said was, “New sheets.”

“Yeah,” Rory lamely ventured. She paused to clear her throat. “They’re a higher thread count and I got you a heavy comforter.” She smiled but it was nervous and queasy. “You need to be able to relax in here if nowhere else.”

Duke raised his chin to indicate a bizarre looking light upon the end table on the left side of the bed. “Is that what that’s for?”

Rory stepped forward, a dull, pulsing heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s a sea-salt lamp,” she explained. “They’re supposed to reduce stress and anxiety. They’re very trendy.” Again, she tried to smile, tried to be light and natural and normal. But again, all she managed was awkward and forced and lame.

“Oh,” was Duke’s response. He looked around the room once more before deciding to leave.

Matt stepped to the side to allow Duke to roll past, but then he lingered where he was. He waited until Duke was out of earshot before he asked Rory what the fuck Duke’s problem was. Matt explained that Duke was being an epic kind of douche bag and had been that way since they’d left the hospital, and Matt was willing to chalk it up to a million different reasons, but if it was something as simple as sober Duke was an asshole and nothing more, then Matt wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. When Rory offered nothing in response, Matt asked in a harsh, hissing whisper, “What the hell is his problem?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Matt,” Rory hissed back, functioning at an extreme level of sarcasm. “Maybe he’s pissed he’s stuck in a wheelchair and maybe he feels useless and worthless because he’s going to be out of work for a long time.”

“Eric will hold his job-“

“Maybe there’s no money coming in and all kinds of money going out and he’s worried. There’s medical bills and court fees and prescriptions and regular bills and groceries-“

“The inheritance will keep him comfortable for at least-“

“ –all of that on top of severe physical pain, not to mention what extreme mental and emotional-“

“Okay, okay!” Matt exploded, no longer whispering. “I get it, alright?” He sighed heavily and turned, prepared to finally follow Duke down the hallway. Before he was out of reach, before he was too many steps ahead, Rory reached forward and gave Matt’s hand a reassuring, encouraging squeeze. They were all Duke had, so they could only be sympathetic; or at the very least, that was Rory’s understanding of the situation.

So once Duke was on the road to recovery and absolutely all of the damage could be assessed, Matt stopped dropping by everyday (though he did check in on a daily basis). Rory was more devoted, as she always had been and always would be; she went food shopping, drove Duke to all of his appointments and anywhere else he needed to be, cooked dinners at least once a week, stayed on top of the bills and let Duke know which money was due when. She took care of her best friend until he was able to get around without assistance and was cleared to drive, which was well after the spring semester had ended and well into the beginning of the following fall semester. Rory never registered for classes and much to the chagrin of those who knew and loved her (Duke included), she never returned to school.

Rory moved back in with her parents because the rent was free and she was only blocks away from Duke, so when he needed pain relief in the dead of night or when he woke sweating and screaming from god awful nightmares, she could be on her way before Duke even hung up the phone. It was a perfect situation until her parents started to get pushy about school, until her parents asked her pointed questions about exactly what she was sacrificing and for whom, until she could no longer ignore the valid points her parents raised during difficult discussions that rapidly increased in frequency. Rory had to run away, to shove it all down and away, because that was easiest even if it wasn’t best. With the last of her student loan money, she paid the first and last month’s rent for a quaint, absolutely adorable apartment less than two blocks from the bay. And since she was well-known, and more importantly well-liked, Rory had no trouble getting hired at the local tavern and in the two years that followed, she was able to work her way from hostess to bartender. Between the tips from the regular customers who adored her and the tutoring jobs she scheduled on the side, she made ends meet. It was a quiet, simple kind of life.

And Duke never asked her about it.

He knew that if he thought about it too hard for too long, or if he thought about it at all, he’d begin to feel responsible for nearly all of Rory’s wasted talent and potential. If he thought about it, he’d begin to develop a very real fear of Rory’s eventual and inevitable resentment once she realized Duke was quite content to keep her trapped, regardless of how content Rory might be to be trapped. In Duke’s defense, Rory never said anything about any of it; she just let the situation be what it was. So the all-important conversation about what it all meant for both parties involved never came up. In all the hours spent nursing Duke back to health, spent helping Duke regain mobility and independence and a sense of identity, neither him or Rory talked about the constantly advancing September or points beyond.

It was what it was.

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On the inability to stop questioning.

I’ve just finished Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN.
WARNING: Spoilers abound.

I was determined to hate this book. I didn’t agree with how the novel started, what with Jem dead and gone. I was treating it as a sequel rather than its own masterpiece, which it assuredly is, and was being stupid and small. I was behaving much in the same way Jean Louise was, confident in a supreme intelligence that nothing and no one could surprise me because I know it all inside out. But Jean Louise did not know her father as a human, did not know all the delicate intricacies of her hometown. She needed to see Atticus as a human being, with flaws (which boil down to opinions other than her own), just as the reader did. Lee is a masterful storyteller because she discreetly forces you along Jean Louise’s journey and does so flawlessly. Her revelations become the readers’ revelations and another invaluable lesson is imparted to a generation; that you can love someone and disagree with them, that parents are still people, and that we never, ever stop learning or growing. Beautifully written, perfectly executed; well done.

I cursed myself for starting the novel, firmly believing that there is information not worth knowing. I lumped this novel in with such information, but the pain that comes from realizations and revelations is how human beings grow. Though knowledge can come with a terrible cost at times, I suppose it’s up to each individual to decide when enough is enough. There is no hard and fast rule for when ignorance becomes bliss. Furthermore, I think that’s a lesson we all learn in time, in our own terribly painful way.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #26: “While at a family reunion, a teenage brother and sister find an old suitcase filled with money under their uncle’s bed.”

The car slowly rolled to a halt at the end of the long, meandering driveway. The gravel crunched beneath the tires in a finite, satisfying way. David didn’t move. In no way did he acknowledge the end of the journey. He left his ear buds in, music blaring, and his forehead remained against the cool glass of the car window. His eyes were wide open but unfocused so that his vision was blurred and doubled in a disorienting way. David could have stayed that way for hours and hours, long after the sun sank down and disappeared, but his twin sister gave his arm an affectionate pinch. It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was enough to snap him out of it and bring him back to reality. He carelessly yanked his ear buds out and turned to face Savannah. “C’mon bud,” she said. She was smiling, but it was small and too sad to be sweet. David decided it was horrible and would have preferred Savannah to frown, or wail, or scream – anything else. “We’re here. We’ve got to get our stuff from the back,” she instructed. She turned away and climbed down from the family SUV. He mumbled “okay” pointlessly – no one was listening – and climbed down himself.
David hopped down and looked at his feet, comfortably clad in athletic slides and tube socks. Savannah was always giving him grief for that particular fashion choice, but David didn’t understand her frustration or her condemnation. He didn’t dress any differently than anyone else on the baseball team. Now that he thought about it, he realized his conformity was most likely the point of contention concerning his wardrobe. Currently, one side of Savannah’s head was shaved and the remaining locks were long and pink, a bright pink. As David moved to stand beside his twin sister, he surveyed her torn, black leggings, stained shirt featuring some band that had called it quits long before the Newbury twins were born, and the silver hoop stuck through her right nostril. Savannah was a rebel without a cause, to be sure. The hand that reached for a pink backpack of imitation leather featured fingernails adorned with chipped, black nail polish. David had never bothered to observe his other half, had never bothered to ask what it all was for. Death, he supposed, had that effect on some people.
Savannah felt David’s eyes upon her. Belongings secured in her grasp, she turned to face. “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer,” she said in a husky, laboring tone in her best imitation of a dumb, schoolyard bully. As she passed to enter her aunt’s massive and impressive log cabin with wonderfully modern and convenient amenities, she playfully slammed her shoulder into David’s. It caused him to rock back on his heels and he started to chase after Savannah, which caused her to shriek and scurry inside.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” David called after her. He offered the world a satisfied smile as he reached in for his own black duffle bag.

Later, David stood in the doorway of a bedroom on the third floor, the top floor of the cabin without counting the attic. He was to sleep in this room while his family stayed with Aunt Cheryl, who had just lost her husband. Uncle Doug had been killed in a rare attempted carjacking in town, a small town that was half an hour from the cabin, a small town whose name was only known, and not even cherished, by the locals. It was bizarre and tragic set of events, of circumstances, but wasn’t that always the way with death? If its patterns were readily, easily identifiable and thereby predictable, then the problem of the lack of longevity in humans would be solved. But David was not one for deep, philosophical thoughts, nor was he prone to entertaining existential crises. He shook his head and stepped into the room.
It felt weird, like the air was heavier or something equally irrational and beyond explanation or articulation. Savannah’s fashionable backpack rested atop the twin bed farthest from the door and nearest to the adjoining bathroom. The other bed straight ahead and against the breathtaking, full length windows, would be his. It had always been that way; all the innumerable visits to Cheryl and Doug’s cabin had begun in this exact same way. It was familiar yet not. The room was decidedly different, but not in any way that would make sense to anyone but David. He sighed.
It was nearly eight o’clock, but it was mid-July, so the room was filled with glorious, burning natural light courtesy of the giant windows. It should have been beautiful, but David only blinked once and turned away. He returned to the dark, cool, carpeted hallway and threw his duffle bag carelessly. It landed in the center of the room. David left it, hurrying downstairs to the muted sounds of idle conversation passed among grieving family members.
David moved to stand behind his mother, his sister, and his aunt. They were standing in a peculiarly straight row, looking out the tall, wide, sliding glass doors. David fell in line, took his place beside his sister, and tried to match their gaze. Though the lawn was a massive series of rolling hills, there was nothing of particular interest, nothing he hadn’t seen before. There were the cows and goats and donkeys and horses, moving slowly, grazing calmly, like this was a day like any other, as if the human who brought out the hay three times a day wasn’t dead and cold and gone. David thought it was a curse to be a sentient being. “What are we looking at?” David asked Savannah discreetly through the corner of a clenched jaw.
“Dad,” she answered, in the same discreet fashion. “He’s just been standing out there, staring. He’s been like this for at least ten minutes.”
David turned to his sister, concerned. “Shouldn’t someone go out there and check on him?”
“I’ll go out there in a minute or two,” answered Mom. Both David and Savannah whipped their heads in their mother’s direction, surprised she had overheard, had eavesdropped and then given herself away by responding. She had not turned to face her children but had remained stoic and still with her eyes locked on her husband. “He’s grieving for his brother, guys. There’s no right or wrong way to do that.” It wasn’t an admonishment or anything, it was just a statement, a fact there was no arguing with. In the same cool, matter-of-fact fashion with which she spoke, Mom slid the doors open, stepped out and slid them shut behind her. For a few moments, the remaining family members watched her progress, felt their breath catch in their throats when Mom stepped a few feet behind her husband and called out to him. He didn’t turn, though. He didn’t respond in any sort of fashion they could readily observe. The husband and wife stayed like that for endless, unbearable minutes. Eventually, Mom moved towards Dad and slipped an arm around his shoulders. It was seconds before he crumbled into her embrace. He was sobbing openly, and it seemed indecent to watch, so his children turned away. They showed their backs to the windows and doors, to all the glass.
Savannah wiped at her eyes soundlessly. David nudged her shoulder with his. “It’ll be okay,” David said. He sounded lame. Savannah was the one who gave comfort, handled situations and convinced David he’d survive. Though they were twins, separated by mere minutes, Savannah had always seemed older, wiser. But now, in the face of seeing her father cry for the first time, she was speechless. She had nothing to offer. Savannah could only nod.
Suddenly, Aunt Cheryl spoke. She said, “I didn’t think it was possible to miss someone so much like that. Huh.” Aunt Cheryl seemed thoughtful, genuinely intrigued by the extravagant, dramatic display of human emotion going on just outside her doors. She busied herself in the kitchen, presumably preparing for a late, supplementary dinner, a second evening meal. David and Savannah exchanged perplexed looks. David didn’t know what was worse, watching his dad weep like a woman outside, or watching his aunt be cold and distant inside, seemingly unmoved by the passing of her husband. David tugged on Savannah’s sleeve and jerked his head to the side, indicating that they should leave and go upstairs. She nodded and followed her brother.

The next day dawned clear and bright. When David padded downstairs in bare feet, he discovered the adults showered, dressed, and heading out.

“What’s up?” David asked.
“We have to head out for a while to handle arrangements,” Mom answered delicately. “There’s cereal and milk for breakfast.”
David nodded. “Anything we can do to help, Ma?”
She smiled warmly and grabbed her only son by his shoulders. “Just make sure you don’t make a mess, okay? Help your aunt out and clean up a little.”
David nodded again. Mom kissed him on the cheek and the adults headed out the door. David set about pouring himself some cereal and was joined by his sister some time later.
The pair cleaned the kitchen, hung around outside, traversed back inside, and watched mindless television. Savannah chucked the remote without warning onto the opposite couch, only narrowly missing David. “We should be celebrating Uncle Doug’s memory, not just sitting here.”
David sighed. “How?” He was used to Savannah’s penchant for sentimentality and dramatics. He’d entertain her today, seeing as how they really was nothing else to do.
“I don’t know,” Savannah admitted with an air of defeat. She thought for a few moments in silence and then said, “We could watch home movies.”
The nostalgia appealed to David and he smiled. “That’s not a bad idea.” He climbed to his feet. “Where do you think Aunt Cheryl keeps them?”
Savannah climbed to her feet and shrugged. “No clue, but let’s look around.”
David hesitated. “Mom told me not to make a mess.”
“We’ll clean up after ourselves,” Savannah laughed. She shook her head at her brother’s momentary lapse in common sense. She hurried upstairs and David followed close behind. She explained that something personal, like home movies, would most likely be in a personal space, like a shared bedroom. David tried to explain his trepidation, how it was weird for him to be in his aunt’s bedroom for many different reasons (including but not limited to relation, gender, age and so on and so forth), but Savannah dismissed her brother’s misgivings with her presence. She assured him it was fine, and advised him to look in the closet and on shelves but not in drawers or cabinets; she’d handle that. The pair commenced searching, coming up with nothing interesting until Savannah released an excited shout.
David turned to his sister, who was spread on her stomach on the floor, peering and reaching underneath the bed. “What are you doing?” he hissed, as if there was anyone home who could hear them. He felt like this was a violation. Why would she look under the bed, anyway? Who kept home movies there? But Savannah was insistent and in just a moment more, she was sliding an antique-looking suitcase out from under the bed.
“How cool is this? It looks like it’s from the 1800s!”
“You should put it back,” David warned. It was cool, for sure, but he was positive there was some reason it was hidden beneath the bed, and David firmly believed ignorance is bliss.
“Why would she keep something this great where no one could see it or appreciate it? Maybe it’s got something awesome in it!”
“Grow up,” David sneered. “The home movies aren’t in there, so put it back, and let’s go up to the attic.”
But Savannah wasn’t listening. She was opening the suitcase and when she did, she screamed. David dropped to his knees. The young siblings were looking at thousands of dollars. Neither had seen so much in person. Both longed to reach out and touch it, to hold it and pretend it was theirs, all theirs. Savannah looked at David with wide eyes. “Why the hell would Aunt Cheryl have all this cash under her bed? Why isn’t it in a bank?”
David shrugged. “Maybe the crash of ’29 left her rattled.”
“She’s not that old, stupid,” Savannah snorted. Her amusement faded. “This is weird. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Then put it back and let’s look in the attic, like I said,” David offered, climbing to his feet. Savannah carefully closed the suitcase and slid it under the bed. In the attic, they found a couple of dusty shoeboxes with ancient VHS tapes. They hurried down stairs, hoping they’d be able to find a VCR. They were just about to resume their earlier positions on the couches when the doorbell rang. David hurried to answer the door, Savannah in tow.
The opened door revealed two intimidating-looking men in expensive suits. They wore identical, humorless expressions. The one on the left grunted and asked, “Is Cheryl Paton home?”
David frowned. “I’m afraid she’s not. She’s at the funeral home with my parents, making some last arrangements for my uncle. Can I help you?”
The man dug in his coat pocket. “Just tell her we stopped by and give her this card, okay? We want to talk to her about her husband.” He handed over an average-looking business card and looked at David from over his mirror sunglasses. “Have a good day, kid.”
“Thanks,” David said. “You too,” he called as he shut the door. With Savannah breathing down his neck, the pair read the name on the card. Detective Joseph Stanton, it said. What did the cops want with Aunt Cheryl? Maybe they’d made some progress on the case, found the assholes who tried to take his car?
“Think this has anything to do with the money upstairs?” Savannah asked.
Inexplicable chills ran along David’s spine. “Shut up,” he growled, shoving the card in his back pocket. “Help me find a VCR.”

Over another dinner that evening, David handed his aunt the business card. “Some detectives stopped by the house today, Aunt Cheryl. He asked me to give you this card and tell you he wanted to talk to you about your husband.”
Cheryl snatched the card from David’s hand. It surprised David, the urgency of it, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. She didn’t say thank you or anything. Cheryl got up and left the room. The extended family was left to its own devices. “That was weird,” David said.
“Yeah, and we found an old suitcase filled with tons of money under her bed while we were looking for the home movies,” Savannah whispered excitedly, looking from Dad to Mom and back again. “What’s that about, huh?”
Dad slammed his fists on the table, eliciting a shriek from Savannah and stunned silence from Dad. He pushed his chair back and away from the table, wood sliding against wood, and stormed from the room. Mom calmly wiped her mouth with her napkin and followed. Savannah turned to David.
“What the hell?” he mouthed.

The next day dawned clear and bright. David awoke to screaming and shouting. He bolted up in bed, flung the bedclothes far from him, and took off. He ran towards the source of all the noise, ran downstairs to find his mom and dad and sister pacing in the kitchen.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” David was panicked.
“Cheryl’s gone,” Savannah said. “So is the money. So are her clothes. She just up and vanished.”
David was in disbelief. He asked Savannah to repeat what she had said when Detective Joseph Stanton strolled in. “What money?” he asked.
David looked to Savannah, terror-stricken.