15 Great Things I Read in 2015

In 2015, I worried that something might go very wrong with my reading. I was spending a lot of time on a long writing project, traveling more frequently and widely than I ever have in a 12-month span before — or likely ever will again — and started a rigorous new job. It was a more filled-to-the-brim year than maybe any of my previous 30. So, naturally, I was concerned I would find less time to read, and because of that my brain would erode, and because of that I'd just up and lose my will to live. But that's not what happened. It turned out that my busy-ness somehow cemented my devotion to reading. I needed it, relied on it, sought it out more than ever.

Every year I compile a list of the most compelling, funniest, still-nagging-at-me books, articles, poems, essays and short stories I've read. Every year, this list is an excuse I make for myself to revisit all those wonderful, hard, sublime pieces of writing.  I'm not sure if it's really of much use or interest to anyone else and, frankly, don't care. But here are 15 of those very things, in no particular order. *

1.  "You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine" by Alexandra Kleeman: There was so much hype around this book it should have been impossible for it to live up to it. But it did. Alexandra Kleeman's vivid and weird novel about a young woman negotiating selfhood in a society obsessed with sex and consumerism and image lands right in the highly uncomfortable place between over-the-top parody and everyday realism.  Where other novels have skewered our culture, Kleeman's impaled it on a stake and paraded it around town.

2. "Hope and the Artist" by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:  Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me" is one of the most remarkable and profound books of the year, if not the decade, if not in recent American history. It will be on every 2015 list, so in an effort to avoid redundancy, I'm shining my miniature spotlight on an essay he wrote in the wake of that book. It's about whether art has to offer hope, or, at least, solutions. His own work has been criticized for often offering none of either—unfairly, I think on one hand. On the other hand, I think, why should it matter? Coates's conclusion that "hope for hope's sake...is the enemy of intelligence" is not just well supported and logically made, but it's a nuanced idea about art and activism that will encourage you to think about the real roles of each.

3. This passage from "Chelsea Girls" by Eileen Myles: I've only just started reading Myles's new—and first—novel, so it wouldn't really be fair to add it in full to this list. (I'm sure as the preeminent poet of our time, a Guggenheim fellow, and all-around celebrated genius, she will be utterly distraught by this news. Forgive me, Eileen!) The novel is a fictionalized memoir of her coming of age, and her writing is deep as bones and lovely all over, as usual. But this passage about an old girlfriend was so extreme in its beauty it nearly made my heart forget to beat:

"I'm looking at her standing there, looking at her in her orange construction boots and everything else dark. I'm really adoring her as she's leaving and by the second she's getting more and more beautiful look at her eyes all green and golden brown and gigantic and these unreal lashes. Two are caught between her nose and her eyes are just sitting there and you know how people who really love you or who you irritate are always coming over and picking something off you. Well I can't even tell her I like those two lashes just where they are. Her entirety goes out the door."

Wow, right?

4. "A Survivor's Life" by Eli Saslow in The Washington Post: It's unavoidable, in a time where mass shootings pile up and bleed together and never seem to stop leading the nightly news, to let them all smear into one faceless, person-less blur. To move our grief and attention onto the next one when it inevitably comes. To forget. Roseburg, Oregon shooting survivor Cheyeanne Fitzgerald's story is one that goes mostly untold. It's the story of the aftermath, of what it's like to live through — at least in the strictly physical, bare-bones sense — one of these nightmares. The reporting is merciless and the details are excruciating and Cheyeanne and the dozens like her deserve our attention, still.

5. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: Moshfegh's dark and oddly funny short stories have been mainstays in "The New Yorker" and "The Paris Review" for years and I love them even when I don't really like them. She traffics in the gross, awkward, shameful corners of our humanity and she is not at all hesitant to make you squirm. Her debut novel, set during Christmastime, revolves around the odd relationship that forms between two women working at a juvenile prison. There's little that's merry or bright about the story, but it's easily one of the most unique and brutal books of the year. When the big twist arrives toward the end of the novel, I felt an actual, physical chill.

6. "Friends" by Lucia Berlin: Lucia Berlin's "A Manual For Cleaning Women" was published this year, though she died in 2004. She spent her life publishing and writing, but never achieved the degree of mainstream notoriety or attention her spare, witty stories probably should have earned her. This excellent story, about the gap — or sometimes gaping cavern — between our own self-image and how others actually see us, is an excellent introduction to her acerbic and startling work. 

7. "Letter to Our Daughters: Do Not Be Good" by Megan Mayhew Bergman in Ploughshares: Megan Mayhew Bergman's love of unruly ladies guides her life and work. Her book of short stories, "Almost Famous Women," tells tales of females forgotten by history, like Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Lucia, and aviator and author Beryl Markham. This letter to her own daughters is half urgent plea, half cheer. She implores them to swing for the bleachers, avoid sacrificing too much of themselves to others, to fail and fail again. "What if you woke up one morning and told yourself: 'Starting today, you no longer have to be good.' Starting today, you can do what you want to do, not what you ought to do." What if?

7. "The Year We Obsessed Over Identity" by Welsey Morris in The New York Times: Morris's kind of prophetic sum-up of our 2015 fixation on selfhood — he did write this in early October, after all — gets to the heart of what he calls "the great cultural identity migration" of our time. Caitlyn Jenner. Rachel Dolezal. Hamilton. Key & Peele. Morris bridges the gap between all these different explorations of selfhood and identity to get to the heart of just how malleable the idea of who we are is — or sometimes, is not. 

8. "The Parapet" by Jess Walters: You can't read this short story, because I own the only copy. Well, kind of. Let me explain: I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and spent a few summers taking writing classes at its quaintly named Log Cabin Literary Center, writing poems about the artwork in the museum across the street or musing in that excruciating adolescent way about a moldy leaf that fell on the lawn outside it. My mom invited me to come home this year and go with her to the Center's fundraiser, which featured a conversation between Jess Walter and Anthony Doerr, so of course I said yes. Anthony, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning "All the Light We Cannot See," lives in Boise for some reason. Jess, who wrote "Beautiful Ruins," lives in Spokane, Washington, for some reason. (Given Spokane's proximity to Boise and the cities' shared Pacific Northwestern-ness, both men qualify as hometown heroes.) I sat next to Jess at dinner and we talked about Hollywood and writing and Italy. Later, at the event, he and Anthony both read short stories they'd written using a line from a Log Cabin Literary Center kid's poem. Both stories were playful and lovely and new and never-published or performed until that night. On Christmas morning, I opened a present to find a manilla envelope containing the signed manuscript of "The Parapet," which my mom had sneakily bid on at the gala's silent auction. I could tell you what the story's about, but wouldn't that ruin the mystery?

9. "Drake Dance Revolution" by Rembert Browne on Grantland: Goddamn, Grantland. This glorious defense of Drake's ubiquitous "Hotline Bling" video, and his dad dancing within, is incisive and hilarious and swaggering and fun and exactly why we're all poorer for this website no longer existing. RIP.

10. "Hedi Slimane on Saint Laurent's Rebirth" by Dirk Standen for Yahoo! Style: This long, dense, interview with designer Hedi Slimane is essential reading for any creative person. It's rare that fashion ever gets this kind of long-form, attentive writing in such a mainstream outlet. While you are free to despise the grunge-for-the-1% transformation Hedi's applied since taking the reigns at Saint Laurent, this piece lifts the veil on his intentions and aims and influences. For me, it greatly justified why he is doing what he is doing and forced me to reconsider what both building and honoring a creative legacy can mean. 

11. "The Art of Fiction No. 227: Lydia Davis" in The Paris Review Spring 2015 issue: There's no one quite like Lydia Davis and there's no writing quite like Lydia Davis's writing. Her (often extremely) short stories are sharp and simple and often very funny, and as this interview about her writing life proves, her approach to her craft is similarly bullshit-less and not mystical or self-important. "I realized that you could write a story that was really just a narration of something that had happened to you, and change it slightly, without really having to fictionalize it," she says at one point. At another, when asked about whether she purposely includes symbols and metaphors in her writing: "No, I don't think symbolically at all." Vive la Lydia!

12. "Inside the Legendary Breakup of Barbra Streisand and Superagent Sue Mengers" by Peter Borsari in Vanity Fair: I couldn't get enough of this story of frenemyship, betrayal, and power. In an excerpt from his book "Can I Go Now: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent," Borsari details the explosive and intimate bond between Barbra and Sue with the kind of wicked, scandalous details that bring to life the best and worst of Hollywood stereotypes. Just one example: "After the Manson murders, Barbra confided to Sue her concerns about her personal safety. 'Don't worry, honey,' Sue told her. 'Stars aren't being murdered. Only featured players.'" Obviously, I was engrossed in every word of it.

13. "My Own Life" by Oliver Sacks in The New York Times: Oliver Sacks contemplated everything with his signature thoughtful curiosity, including the end of his own life. His new approach to living upon learning he had terminal cancer — clearing the remaining time of anything "inessential" and redoubling his commitment to his work and those he loved — is a kind of poetic ethos for how we should strive to live each day. 

14. "I Have a Time Machine" by Brenda Shaughnessy: If I remember right, I came across this poem when someone I follow tweeted the opening lines: "But unfortunately it can only travel into the future/at the rate of one second per second." I smiled to myself and clicked the link to read it all and was delighted to find that this wasn't just a poem of wit, there was real heft to it. A beautiful reflection on the speed and slowness of a life. 

15. "How I Finally Let Go of My Grief for My Dead Mom" by Kate Spencer for Buzzfeed: Yes, this raw and painful and redeeming essay by the lovely Kate Spencer is about grief. But it's also about love and growing up and guilt and parenthood and identity. And it gives beautiful permission to anyone who has lost someone to let go in his or her own way. 

*This year's list only contains work I encountered in 2015 and that was also first published in 2015. There was just that much good stuff out there.

A Visit to the Helmut Newton Museum

In Berlin, I visit the Helmut Newton museum. There’s a wide staircase, carpeted in lipstick red, to the second floor. Five nudes hang suspended there above the steps, forcing your gaze. You walk underneath the challenge of their cavernous navels and knife-length stilettos.

Images courtesy the Helmut Newton Museum for Photography

Images courtesy the Helmut Newton Museum for Photography

It is the day I am leaving Germany. I spent the previous day working, interviewing the stars and director of a new movie filmed in Berlin; it’s why I’m here in the first place. While we waited for cameras to roll, the director and I made small talk about the city. I’ve never been. He asks what I plan to do. I say see the Berlin Wall, the Helmut Newton Museum. Helmut Newton? He tells me he’s a great fan, and that, funny enough, Newton crashed into his fence on the night he died, right next to the Chateau Marmont in LA. I’m astounded by the weirdness of the coincidence: two Angelenos in Berlin, and he comes up in conversation, and this story happens to be there. Really? I ask, and immediately feel a blazing self-consciousness at my interest, worry that my eagerness is macabre.  

On the main floor of the museum, they’ve recreated Newton’s office with all his things in it, like trying to summon a ghost. Like a room could be a séance.

His clothes, a wool suit from a different time, hang in a display case.

A wall features framed letters his wife, June, received after his death. They come from famous people like Richard Gere and Anna Wintour and Charlotte Rampling, who writes in the effusive poetry of creative people of a certain status.

I think about his death and wonder what it might feel like to suddenly be without a body, when you are a person obsessed with the body; with capturing it on film for posterity, with exploring its shapes and possibilities, with building a life out of all these other bodies.

Charlotte Rampling, Paris, 1977 by Helmut Newton

Charlotte Rampling, Paris, 1977 by Helmut Newton

On the way out, I buy some postcards of his photographs. Rampling, a perfect composure of shadows and cheekbones, nestled in a nest of fur and her own fluffy hair. David Bowie, transparent with youth, in a white robe in a Berlin hotel room. An elegant hand of ferocious, red fingernails captured against a backdrop of hard stone. In the paper bag the gift shop girl hands me, a handful of pictures, making bodies immortal as memory.

14 Great Things I Read in 2014

Here's a sense memory that's been caught in my brain since I was 10 years old: reading a book in a warm room, sunlight streaming in through thin curtains, bare feet tucked between couch cushions, sucking on a sugar-coated lemon. But this isn't a scene from my own life. It's one my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Saum, recounted in front of our class once. Mrs. Saum had round glasses and a Sarah-Plain-and-Tall braid, and just as quickly as she recalled those lazy afternoons spent with her mother to us, she snapped out of her reverie: "But don't suck on lemons," she said, pointing a slim finger at the collective face of the classroom. "They'll rot your teeth. We just didn't know it back then."

Still, that image remains a gauzy, romantic thing lodged in my brain and one of my fantasies about reading: that the experience can be emotional and intellectual, but also tangible and physical. Maybe it's why I've always read a lot, in some endless quest to capture that imagined, sun-soaked bliss. (Maybe it's also why I never really warmed to my Kindle.) This year, I chased it more than ever. It was partly a disciplined effort — I set a rather modest goal of reading at least three books each month, in addition to literary magazines, essays, newspaper and magazine articles — and partly because everywhere I turned someone had turned out another unwavering and true and heart-busting piece of writing I simply had to give into. Without further ado, here are 14 great things I read in 2014. They are poems, they are essays, they are books, they are even Twitter feeds. But they all encouraged me to take up temporary residence in a new corner of my brain or feel something unique or unfamiliar, whether I read them in a warm, sunlit room or (more often) at a cold desk. 


  • "The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison. Leslie Jamison's essays are the kind of ruminations that encourage readers to wander inside ideas shoulder-to-shoulder with the writer. "The Devil's Bait," about people who suffer from the medically dubious disease Morgellons, crystallizes Jamison's approach: she is devoted to doing best work to understand that which she realizes she might never be able to fully understand, to channel and honor the anguish of others, to explain ourselves to ourselves. I debated including this collection since it has already popped up on nearly every "best books of 2014" list, but in the end, I'm happy to add my voice to the chorus. It's a book that will make you feel more human and demand your caring.  
  • "In the Absence of Sparrows" by Daniel Johnson. James Foley's murder disturbed me deeply. But this poem, by his longtime friend Daniel Johnson, is a remembrance of the war journalist who was many more things than a war journalist to the people who knew him best.  It brings some context to a life rendered — for most of us — only in the blur of TV-news segments, with language stark and yearning and more indelible than the 24/7 news cycle ever allows.
  • "The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henriquez. My favorite novel of the year. A group of South and Central American families, living improbably in a Delaware apartment complex, become entangled in each others' uncertain lives in myriad ways. Cristina Henriquez's plain-spoken language captures the small heartaches and joys that define a life and succeeds in creating one of the most vibrant, real depictions of first love I've ever read on the page. 
  • "Twenty-Two Years Ago, I Asked My Dad if He Was Gay. Then He Was Gone" by Whitney Joiner for Slate Whitney Joiner's essay shovels down deep to the bedrock of the man her father — who died of AIDS when she was just a teenager and never was able to tell her he was gay — was. Despite the very specific circumstances of their lives, which is rendered with the unflinching directness of youth in her writing, she speaks to something about parent-child relationships in all their gradiations; the way our parents remain a strange, hyper-close enigma for most of us in childhood, like a star familiar and constant but held at a distance out of our reach. With this remembrance, Joiner pays tribute to the man her father was, publicly and privately, in the way each human deserves but not all get to experience.
  • "The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking" by Olivia Laing Writing and drinking have been bedfellows for centuries, and in this well-researched but lively history, Laing sets out on an all-American road trip to unravel the particular love affairs some of our best writers have had with alcohol. Laing doesn't fret over or sidestep the romantic image of the drunken, tortured artist, but instead shows how drink alternately defined and destroyed the lives and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and John Berryman, and (maybe my personal favorite of the bunch) the incomparable Tennessee Williams.
  • "Father-Daughter Dance" by Anne Helen Peterson for LA Review of Books. Anne Helen Peterson, a college professor who recently absconded from academia for a post at Buzzfeed, simply writes some of the best stuff out there about TV and humanity. This essay on "Mad Men" and the relationship between Don and Sally Draper deftly closes its hands around that "the feeling of Dadness." A nostalgic look at the fallability of fathers and the strange demands we make of parents, it also captures the imperceptible flashes in which our relationships change and morph, and argues that our best TV shows might be best just for letting these subtle moments exist. (I just noticed that I included two father-daughter stories on this list. Are any of you therapists?)
  • "Creativity Creep" by Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker. "Make stuff" might be the mantra for the modern creative, but Joshua Rothman's essay asks us to revisit a lost definition of creativity: as a way of thinking rather than production, more in the mold of the Romantic idea of the word than our 21st-century iteration. A refreshing and original criticism of our culture's "creativity" obsession, which so often focuses on things and stuff and monetization rather than an approach to living a certain kind of intellectual life. 
  • "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets" by Zadie Smith for The Paris Review Zadie Smith has an almost supernatural power to channel the voices and brains and lives of others like some kind of literary medium. In this short story, she captures the indignities of an aging drag queen, Miss Adele, who just wants to buy a goddamn corset, with a bullet train's pace and force. 
  •  "Zoo Animals and Their Discontents" by Alex Halberstadt for the New York Times Dr. Vint Virga doesn't speak to his patients, but he still manages to hear a litany of their complaints, fears, and pains. He's devoted his life to shepherding better lives for animals in captivity, and as research continues to uncover more about the inner lives and feelings of the creatures we share the planet with, this aim seems more morally necessary than ever. This fascinating story follows Virga as he tries to help Alice (a constipated elephant), Molly (a pathologically fearful sheep), and BaHee (a withdrawn gibbon) while illuminating new ideas and science about just what might be going on inside the brains (and souls) of animals. 
  • "Difference Maker" by Meghan Daum, excerpted from "The Unspeakable." I had the pleasure of meeting Meghan Daum once, many years ago, when she spoke in my professor Dinah Lenney's personal essay class in the masters program at USC. I was already an admirer of hers then, of the memoir I'd read and the insightful pieces she wrote as a columnist for The LA Times. This piece about her work with an orphaned teen and how it dovetailed with her own ambivalence about parenthood busts apart so many deeply held ideas about the shape our lives, and especially women's lives, should take. It talks about privilege and pain and the unbridgeable distance between people and that endless quest for some semblance of peace most of us travel our entire lives. It is spellbinding and now I can't wait to read the rest of her book.   
  • "Up From Pain" by Charles Blow, excerpted from "Fire Shut Up in My Bones." I first came to know Charles Blow as a sort of anti-pundit pundit. A fixture on cable news programs, he was the rare guest unconcerned with getting the last word — maybe because he always had the best word. Off screen, his essays on politics and race for The New York Times always shocked me in the eloquence they managed to wrest from the demands of deadline writing. But this harsh and tender essay about abuse, sexuality, blame, and how we define ourselves introduced me to yet another side of the author and thinker; fiercely personal, unabashedly willing to wallow in the things that deserve wallowing in, and a person whose deep well of humanity stunned me to my core. 
  • Melissa Broder's Twitter feed. I have to stop myself from retweeting every single thing poet Melissa Broder commits to her feed. Her irreverent mashups of nihilistic philosophies — rendered in Valley Girl speak via the filter of text message lingo — will sometimes strike me as fucking hilarious or, at other times, gut me for a brief and terrible moment, depending on when I read them. Like: "just gonna let u do existence and i'll pretend 2 watch," which is equal parts ice-cold bravado and hovering-right-up-at-the-surface pain.

  • "Thirteen Ways of (Not) Looking at a Crime Scene" by Travis Mushett for Blunderbuss2014: the year in voyeurism. Everywhere we looked over the past 12 months we saw or heard something we had not been intended to see or hear. The naked bodies of actresses. The private emails of Hollywood executives. Beheadings. The unhinged, racist ramblings of billionaires. "When we claim the right to stare at each other from all angles, we implicitly demand that everyone always act as one-sized-fits-all people," Travis Mushett writes in his essay on the desire and revulsion that comes with observing. "People for all contexts, homogenized people. That is, we demand that people not act like people at all." A powerful, poetic treatise on when we should look . . . and when we should look away. 

  • "another day, another vow not to discuss politics on facebook" by Marty McConnell. "When I’m doing it right, this life/ is sweeter and more lethal/ than I could ever have imagined" From those first livewire, unforgettable lines, McConnell's poem slices deep and wild at the noisiness and bravado of our online selves and modern living. It's the kind of writing that makes me hopeful it might convert more people to poetry, which she proves is just as relevant and exciting a form as it ever has been.