2015 reading: here are some numbers.

this is why i like the end of the year.  >:3

in 2015, i read 68 books*, and here are my top 7 from those 68 (in no particular order) (or, rather, in the order i posted them on instagram, which was in no particular order).

  1. helen macdonald, h is for hawk (jonathan cape, 2014)
  2. alex mar, witches of america (FSG, 2015)
  3. patricia park, re jane (viking, 2015)
  4. rebecca solnit, the faraway nearby (penguin, 2014, paperback)
  5. jonathan franzen, purity (FSG, 2015)
  6. han kang, human acts (portobello, 2016)
  7. robert s. boynton, the invitation-only zone (FSG, forthcoming 2016)

(you can find quotes and reasons why i chose these 7 on my instagram.)

* as of this posting time.  i still have two days to read more!

in 2015, i went to 38 book events and readings, and here are 10 i particularly enjoyed.

  1. marie mutsuki mockett and emily st. john mandel with ken chen at AAWW
  2. michael cunningham at columbia
  3. meghan daum with glenn kurtz at mcnally jackson
  4. kazuo ishiguro and caryl phillips at the 92Y
  5. aleksandar hemon with sean macdonald at mcnally jackson
  6. alexandra kleeman and patricia park with anelise chen at AAWW
  7. lauren groff at bookcourt
  8. jonathan franzen with wyatt mason at st. joseph's college
  9. patti smith with david remnick at the new yorker festival
  10. alex mar with leslie jamison at housingworks bookstore

(both franzen events had no-photo policies.)

in 2015, i took 34 photos of books with pie.  mind you, this is not the number of times i ate pie.  this is simply the number of times i went to eat pie and decided to photograph it with the book i was reading at the time.  and by pie, i mean pie from four and twenty blackbirds because their pie is delicious and not too sweet and totally worth going to gowanus for (so, if you're in nyc, go get some!).

here are 5 photos of books with pie because it would be unnecessarily mean of me to torture you with all 34 slices of amazing pie, wouldn't it?


in 2015, i took 38 photos of books with stitch.

i suppose, to provide some context:  i love stitch.  lilo and stitch is one of my favorite movies (we're talking top 3 here).  i've had this stitch for 13 years.  i still shamelessly take him with me everywhere (he's in california with me right now).  obviously, he popped up every now and then with a book.

here are 5 photos of books with stitch.  i'm totally choosing how many photos to post arbitrarily (in multiples of 5, though, so maybe not so arbitrarily?).


in 2015, my book club started, and we read 10 books.  we've now eased into a routine of meeting at my friend's apartment and having a potluck, but we were absent this routine the first two times we met, hence the three out-of-place photos.  i know; it's making me a little twitchy, too; but we'll have 12 consistent flat-lays from 2016!

  1. marilynne robinson, lila (FSG, 2014)
  2. alice munro, the beggar maid (vintage, 1991) (first published 1977)
  3. kazuo ishiguro, an artist of the floating world (vintage,1989) (first published 1986)
  4. margaret atwood, the stone mattress (nan a. talese, 2014)
  5. jeffrey eugenides, the virgin suicides (picador, 2009) (first published 1993)
  6. ta-nehisi coates, between the world and me (random house, 2015)
  7. virginia woolf, mrs. dalloway (vintage, 1992) (first published 1925)
  8. michael cunningham, the hours (FSG, 1998)
  9. nikolai gogol, the complete tales (vintage, 1999)
  10. nathaniel hawthorne, short stories (vintage, 1955)

(we combined two months, so i didn't have 10 photos, so i included the nachos i ate when we met to discuss munro's the beggar maid.)

in 2015, i became much more brutal with dropping books because life is too short for books that simply don't hold your interest.  i intentionally dropped 13 books.

  1. claire messud, the woman upstairs (knopf, 2013):  so. boring. nothing. happens.
  2. cheryl strayed, tiny beautiful things (vintage, 2012):  i started reading this in earnest, but then i skimmed it with a friend, and then i never went back to it.  strayed’s columns are generally hit or miss for me.
  3. atul gawande, being mortal (metropolitan books, 2014):  this wasn’t what i was expecting it to be ... though i’m also not entirely sure what i was expecting it to be.  i think i was expecting more profundity, and i wasn’t taken by the writing.
  4. renee ahdieh, the wrath and the dawn (putnam, 2015):  omg, the sheer amount of adverbs in this made me want to throttle the book.  i always read with a pencil to mark passages i like or to jot down thoughts, but i read this with a pencil to cross out all the adverbs and circle all the different variations of “said” --  i want to ban her from using a thesaurus ever again.  and limit how many adverbs she's allowed to use.
  5. rebecca mead, my life in middlemarch (crown, 2014):  i really liked what i read of this, but i finished middlemarch and didn’t like that that much, so i never did finish the mead.
  6. rabih alameddine, an unnecessary woman (grove, 2014):  i just stopped reading this -- like, i put it down for the day and kind of forgot i’d ever started reading it, which was weird because i started reading it on oyster books and liked it enough that i bought the paperback … and then i never went back to it and probably never will.
  7. ta-nehisi coates, between the world and me (random house, 2015):  i know; i’m horrible for dropping this; but i did.  i never finished reading it for book club, and i didn’t finish it after book club and have no inclination to pick it up again.
  8. jesse ball, a cure for suicide (pantheon, 2015):  this tried too hard to be … whatever the hell it is.
  9. virginia woolf, mrs. dalloway (vintage, 1992):  ugh.  i'm sorry, michael cunningham, but UGH.
  10. emile zola, thêrèse raquin (penguin, 2010):  given the plot, this is going to sound bizarre, but i was bored to death with this.  it was so predictable.
  11. philip weinstein, jonathan franzen (bloomsbury, 2015):  given my unabashed, vocal love for franzen, you’d think i’d be all over this, but, as it turns out -- and i say this in the most non-creepy way possible -- i know way too much about franzen’s bio already.  also, my brain kept going off in all sorts of directions because it’s already full with my own critical analyses of franzen, and weinstein’s writing is very flat.  one day, i'll write about franzen.
  12. shirley jackson, we have always lived in the castle (penguin, 2006):  so. boring. nothing. happens.
  13. nathaniel hawthorne, short stories (vintage classics, 2011):  (no comment.)

in 2015, i took a lot of photos of books with food, and i am not going to count them all.  here are 5 i randomly chose so that i'd have 7 "in 2015"s instead of 6.


and that's all, folks!  stay tuned for my year-end recap coming ... at some point in the next two weeks.  >:3  happy new year!

38 in 2015!

i went to 38 book events this year and did a lot of hearing authors twice.  i heard kazuo ishiguro twice, jenny zhang twice, jonathan galassi twice, patricia park twice, marie mutsuki mockett twice, meghan daum twice, jonathan franzen twice (and i’m still kind of kicking myself about that because i should’ve just gone to the b&n event, too), and the anomaly to that is that i heard lauren groff three times because she was on two of the panels i attended at the brooklyn book festival* before i went to hear her at bookcourt.

(* i counted the brooklyn book festival as one event for my tally of events attended.  i did count the two talks [toni morrison and patti smith] i attended at the new yorker festival as two events, though.)

mcnally jackson and bookcourt are tied with 7 events attended at each, followed by greenlight and housing works with 4, then the 92Y with 3 and AAWW with 2.  11 events were attended at other locations.

not too shabby, i say.  in 2016, i shall endeavor to attend more!  :3

marie mutsuki mockett with maud newton @ mcnally jackson!


from last thursday (2015 march 5) (when it snowed and the world was magical):  marie mutsuki mockett wrote a book called where the dead pause and the japanese say goodbye (w.w. norton, 2015) (which i really must read) of her time in japan after her father's death, which was also after the 2011 tohoku earthquake.  this is my second time hearing her read (the first was at AAWW with emily st. john mandel; post here).

maud newton is currently writing a book on the superstitions and science of ancestry for random house.

  • mockett wanted to do an event with newton because she (mockett) writes about very ancient rituals and newton is writing a book about ancestry from a modern approach.
  • the question of how we deal with loss/suffering is an ancient one.
  • when she (mockett) was a child, she'd be confused when she went to people's homes in japan and the first thing she ahd to do was go to the family shrine and light a stick of incense, but, now that she's gotten older, she's come to appreciate that ritual, that sense of assuaging the past and, in a sense, befriending it.
  • refers to japan as the "land of exception" -- i.e. owakare is the final parting (of loved ones) ... except for when the dead come home in august (or sometimes july) (again, the land of exception) during obon.
  • on the collective experience of grief in japan:
    • she didn't think she was writing a book about herself but about japan -- a common criticism is that there isn't enough about her.
    • it's very clear, though, that's she is grieving.
    • if you're grieving, there isn't one way of dealing with it -- found that useful about japan's many rituals for grief.
    • the common message of all these rituals acknowledged that they couldn't get rid of your pain or make it easier, but they could help you see the collective and see your pain against the pain of others.  they didn't make her pain smaller but made her feel like she was expanding, which in turn made her pain feel smaller.
    • i.e. a trip she took to see a specific temple in kyoto:  she was pissed because it was so crowded so she couldn't see the temple but had to go through these steps of writing something on a sign/paper, but she had to wait on line to get a pen, then to do this, then that -- and the effect of all that was to make her realize that she was one person among all the people there.
  • newton:  you can't generalize about DNA.
  • newton:  ancestry actually used to be a good thing until christianity intervened and supplanted ancestors with saints.
    • because we're such a rationalistic culture, we tend to look at DNA as a purely scientific endeavor (the idea of scientists as thinking of DNA as a purely technological and scientific endeavor, as something they will be able to decode)
  • mockett:  "if you're grieving and you get a card that says something like, 'don't worry; he's still watching over you,' it makes you angry because it's such a platitude."
    • grief is a very raw emotion.
    • tells a story about a temple with a puppet hag (you stand in front of this box, and a terrifying puppet hag pops out at you -- this is a very simplistic explanation of the ritual; she did a much better job describing it):  the idea is that, when you cross the river styx, the hag jumps out at you.  if you're wearing clothes, she takes them, but, if you aren't wearing clothes (because your family wasn't wealthy enough to afford sending you into the afterlife clothed), she takes your skin.  if you look at this hag face-on, she's terrifying, but, if you look at her from the side, she's sad because she doesn't want to do this but has to because it's part of life.
    • the puppet hag shows how death is terrifying but that death happens, and we have no choice but to be sad.
    • old cultures have ways of explaining things in these indirect ways, but mockett also found comfort in that, to think that, a hundred years ago, people had already been thinking about these things.
  • used to love ishiguro and was obsessed with steinbeck, but she's starting to read a lot of nonfiction nowadays while exploring the idea of "how can we stretch the story?  where do we go with being east asian and/or multicultural?"
  • talked about the duality of being seen as quiet/shy in the west but louder with a lot of questions in japan.
  • the beauty of japan is that there are places to go and grieve publicly.  this doesn't really exist in the west.  the west has a narrative of "you grieve ... and then you move on."  she appreciated that, in japan, there was constantly a place where she could go to grieve, the joke being that, if this temple didn't work for you, then you could go to another temple or another because we have lots of temples!  we have lots of gods you can pray to!
  • "the thing about grief is that it's universal."

jang jin-sung + marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel + michael cunningham

it was an unusually packed week of events -- three in a row!  (this is highly unusual.)

jang jin-sung @ the korea society (2015 february 2)

the korea society puts on some really, really great events.  last summer, they held an event with roberta cohen, co-chair of the committee for human rights in north korea, and jo jin-hye, a north korean refugee, and, on monday, they hosted an event with jang jin-sung, former poet laureate of north korea who had to flee because he lent a friend a book from south korea and his friend left his bag (with the book, which was obviously highly confidential) on the subway.

this event was particularly interesting because jang was part of the elite in north korea and, therefore, has a different perspective.  he worked for the united front department, where he created propaganda material that was intended to create sympathy among south koreans for north korea, and was gifted a rolex by kim jong-il at one point.  and, yes, this was a book event because jang wrote a memoir, dear leader, that was published last year.

  • the united front department was created at a time north korea was confident about unifying korea under kim jong-il.  when jang joined, this was no longer considered feasible, so the department started looking into north korea.
  • kim jong-il wasn't picked for succession.  he was placed in the propaganda department, not in a governmental position (if he'd been picked for succession, he would've been given a governmental position), but this turned out to be pivotal for him -- it's where he learned the power of narrative control.
  • was very surprised by jang sung-taek's execution -- north korea is a system that's built on the supreme leader being infallible, and the execution shattered that.
  • after kim jong-il's death, weird political plays began happening, which fractured the monopolization of power.  the execution statement said that jang sung-taek had been trying to become prime minister of north korea, and he had been trying to gain power along economic lines.  it is assumed that kim jong-un ordered the execution, but it was actually the power-holders of the OGD (organization and guidance department), and there have been no power conflicts since the execution.
  • kim jong-il built power through his network of close friends.  kim jong-un's is built on his position as kim jong-il's son.  thus, kim jong-il's was a total apparatus of power, while kim jong-un's is merely a title.  
  • argues that the only solution for north korea is reunification
  • the world needs to change how it views north korea.  if kim il-sung wore full body armor, kim jong-il only wore frontal armor, and kim jong-un is naked save for a tiny little shield.  and yet the world is still so focused on attacking that shield -- basically, north korea has changed, but the world's approach to it has not.
  • north korea has already been conquered by the US dollar.
  • north korea seeks dialogue because it's only through dialogue that they can make threats, extort, etcetera.
  • north korea operates on a two-prong strategy:  to cooperate on land but maintain tension on sea.  you can't see something like the cheonan sinking as solely an act of provocation but as a result of the dynamics of north korean/south korean relations -- because south korea kept giving, north korea had to keep upping the tension/psychological warfare to maintain its leverage.
  • if the cult of kim keeps being attacked, north korea will keep responding.  the system relies on defending the legitimacy and supremacy of the leader no matter what.

also, i think interpreters are so badass.  the ease with which they turn language around in their brains so quickly ... it's incredible!

marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel @ asian american writers' workshop (2015 february 3)

mockett wrote a book called where the dead pause and the japanese say goodbye.  read an excerpt from it here!  emily st. john mandel wrote the fabulous station eleven.

  • ken chen (director of AAWW)'s pithy summation of cormac mccarthy's the road:  when a disease takes over the world and turns it into boy's life magazine.
  • mandel:  there's something in art that reminds us of our humanity.  as a species, we're kind of hard-wired to find that grace.
  • mandel researched pandemics and was able to find a kind of hope in how it happened again and again.  ("so the apocalypse has already happened.") (i forgot who said that.  it might have been chen posing it as a question.)
  • mockett:  while she was in japan, she went to see a shaman who would supposedly be able to channel her father (mocket's father passed away).  she wasn't really sure what to expect or believe of this shaman, but she realized that it wasn't that the shaman could literally channel her father but that the shaman's aim was to help her, to help people through their suffering and learn essentially to live and be happy.
  • mandel:  the idea of the museum came out of the idea that we already do this.  there's something very human about collecting weird little things.
  • mockett:  in the writing of this book, she wanted to capture the things she found precious and unique about japan because, who knows, it could all disappear.
  • mandel:  donna tartt's the secret history is kind of her model because it's kind of the perfect novel -- it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.
  • mockett:  two secrets for structure in her book:
    • she didn't have a book (model) in mind.  she was definitely influenced by japanese structure, though -- or lack of structure.  she doesn't really like structure because structure is another of those things we can play with, but she came up with the idea to follow the cycle of the soul, starting with death and going from there.
    • she has a handful of jazz musician friends, so she was also thinking of the book like a setlist, like a gig.
  • mandel:  she found herself looking at the fragility of the world in a way she hadn't.  "this whole apparatus of civilization that surrounds us is incredibly fragile."

it's such a pleasure listening to mandel read.  i'd been weirdly hesitant to pick up station eleven until i went to a reading and heard her read the "an incomplete list" passage (pages 31-2) -- it's a haunting, beautiful passage, and she reads it so wonderfully.

michael cunningham @ columbia university (2015 february 4)

michael cunningham!  he's such a gracious, generous soul, and it was a delight to hear him as part of the creative writing lecture series at columbia.  (i also love going to columbia; the campus is beautiful; and i don't ever trek up there so i like the excuse.)  the lecture series doesn't really provide a structure (i don't think), so he used the time to create characters with the audience and show how that led to formation of a plot/narrative.  it was pretty cool.

  • he opines that any fully-imagined character in conjunction with another fully-imagined character can't not form a plot/narrative.  (and he went on to demonstrate this.)
  • after the basic questions (gender, race, job, family, etcetera), the oft-unasked questions:
    • what does s/he most ardently want?
    • what is s/he most afraid of?
    • what's standing in his/her way?
    • what is it s/he most doesn't want you to know?
  • what characters want -- desire drives fiction, even if what they want is invisible to them.
  • there's no such thing as plot; there are only human beings trying to get something they want and the world keeping it from them, whether through external forces or self-sabotage, etcetera.
  • when creating, tends to start with the physical, with the body.
  • sometimes, if possible, tells students to out and pick a person and follow him/her (don't stalk, though) and come back with a list of twenty physical traits.  it's amazing how often a full human being with a soul will come out of that.
  • if you sufficiently imagine the corporeal, you summon someone.
  • "we walk bold and unafraid into the cliche."
  • you set it up (the characters and such) ... and then you wait for the surprise.
  • a sort of measure of success is when the novel doesn't turn out to be the novel you started writing.  if there's no surprise for the author, then how could there be any for the reader?
  • he writes probably twice the length of the published book and likens it to taxes:  i owe the government half my income, so i owe the wastebasket half my pages.
  • writing is a collaborative process.  you should have a team of readers.  three or four is a good number.  twelve is too many, and one is too few.