5 min read

Hello from the Redwoods

Hello from the Redwoods

Dear friends,

The world is on fire. You don’t need me to tell you this, but the sentence has a lot of real estate in my mind. We knew this day was coming (some of us for our entire adult lives) but it still feels like being punched repeatedly. You can hope that people see the structural connections between misogyny, health care, race, xenophobia, the capacity of a citizenry to keep itself not only informed and educated about the issues but psychiatrically well, and the fate of the planet. But greater knowledge and understanding doesn't seem to be the direction we're headed.

I recently returned from a self-made writing retreat in a treehouse in Santa Cruz where I worked on a new novel, a literary dystopic thriller about friendship. The treehouse was built in a fairy ring of redwoods, adjacent to a farm. A peacock that the groundskeeper called Loverboy proclaimed his presence repeatedly —it turns out that peacocks are gorgeous and fabulous, but also weirdly noisy motherfuckers. Rabbits lived in a large hutch out back in a broad golden field just outside the redwood grove. I could hear them snuffling at night. A rooster awakened  me 4:30 a.m. every morning and kept going all day (cock-a-doodle-doo—has any other onomatopoeia more accurately reflected the sound? I now don't think so.) These sounds were far more conducive to writing than my normal construction noise, the drilling and hammering that make me want to tear my hair out.

And early morning wakings, when you're still a little asleep and have no chance for coffee, are pretty good for fiction writing. I made progress in figuring out the turns of this novel (still one or two to go—can't seem to nail those). A lot of flow in the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sense, and a chance to be reminded me of a larger vision for my life. Since reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude one day in my hot little below ground room in a shared Oakland Hills house , it’s been my hope (plan?) to write literary fiction that plays with every genre. I’ve never written a dystopia and I have also never written about friendship. Most of the time my protagonists are loners, so this is an interesting departure for me. I was reminded during my retreat that nothing is more fun than fiction, and that I need to make room for this happiness, no matter what.

I’ve been reading a ton for NBCC, and for my own well-being this year. Reading is psychologically calming; that’s probably why so many of us with lonely or terrified or otherwise fraught childhoods gravitated towards books. The adrenaline spikes we’re getting with the state of our country—basically, for those of us who understand systems, a gigantic tiger coming for us every single day and our bodies telling us we need to be vigilant or die—we surely could use more calm, if only to regroup and figure out how to fight smarter. So here are a few personal book recommendations. I have others I'm still thinking about.

All the Lovers in the Night is a superb, lyrical, and insightful novel—one of the best I've read this year. A number of critics and writers I admire had mentioned unique novelist Mieko Kawakami and I hadn’t had a chance to sit down with her yet, and it was a highlight for me to do so this year. It’s a book about an extremely lonely thirty-five proofreader who decides to make a change in her life, and has a totalizing artistic vision, with not a word out of place.

Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage is a phenomenal, surrealistic short story collection . I wasn’t sure how it would stack up against Ma's pre-pandemic pandemic novel Severance, but I think it’s even better. When writing short story collections, it's a challenge particular to the genre to arrange the order of the stories so that they feed off each other and create a whole that is strongly patterned. This one does that in such a lovely, resonant way, and is also funny. (There's a yeti!)

For Alta I wrote about two debuts well worth your time: Meron Hadero’s A Down Home Meal for These Troubled Times and Melissa Chadburn’s A Tiny Upward Shove.

If you’re looking for a grotesque video game in literary fiction form, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona has you covered. Here’s my review in the Washington Post.

It’s been an exciting year for nonfiction. The most important work of nonfiction I’ve read this year is Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. He reframes neoliberalism and leftist history, and attends to their complex social and political impacts. As a sidenote, I infrequently locate books that are smart about how they cover Silicon Valley history—I spend a lot of time emotionally and intellectually checking these books—but this one is excellent in that regard.

Read Ed Yong’s The Immense World about the perception of animals. You’re seeing this everywhere, including on booksellers’ lists for a good reason.

I also recommend Isaac Butler’s The Method and Mary FE Ebeling’s The Afterlives of Data. The first—because it’s an excellent read, and who isn’t fascinated by this history of the Method? The second—because medical privacy and data, and how we hand off information about our bodies that then gets sold and resold, is a fairly pressing concern. For more about the right to privacy, read Amy Gadja’s Seek and Hide: A Tangled History of the Right of Privacy.

And I’ve recommended it in the past, but I’ll reiterate after this last week of Supreme Court rulings, read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. We’re here because of all the dark money floating through every level of our system, most visibly and with greatest immediate damage in the courts, but also with fingerprints all over the cultural landscape.

If you're in the Bay Area, go see Hadestown. Spectacular. I should have written musicals instead of all these novels and short stories and legal briefs. Librettists make people happy.  

Let me know how you’re managing. I hope, in spite of the disturbing state of a world being consumed by rogues and the autocrats they’re enabling, you’re finding a way to do what you love while also fighting in whatever way suits you. The thing is, the fight will never be finished. There is no end of history, no end point, no utopia, and something multiple sclerosis has taught me is that it’s an extremely short life and you look away for a minute, and it’s—

choose the method for fighting for our world that aligns with how you want to live in this window of time.