A Decade of Superlatives

Our family in 2014. Unfortunately, we don't take group photos very often.













Crumbling Lightposts: The Best of 2016

Taken at the apex of a hike up nearby Bailey Canyon on Labor Day.

This is my eleventh Best of the Year post! Here's a list of all of them, mainly for my own convenience.

I know that when it comes to the world at large, 2016 was annus horribilis. But for me, personally (when I don't think about politics), this year has been terrific. I've loved my first two semesters of grad school. I got to take my mother to Paris for a week to celebrate our milestone birthdays. (I turned fifty, but I'll let Mom tell you her age...or not.)

Our dog is still delightful. Our kids are growing in all the right ways. I've made new friends. Patrick continues to be the best husband of all time. And I've consumed a lot of great media and delicious food (as you'll see).* 

As always, books are first. In the past twelve months, I've read 130 novel-length books and 120 new-to-me picture books--both all-time highs spurred by my MFA program. (My previous recorded high number of novel-length books was 85, and I've never kept track of picture books before.)

Top Ten Novel-Length Books Read:**

1) My Book of Life by Angel, by Martine Leavitt

2) Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson

3) Calvin, by Martine Leavitt

4) Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

5) Jellicoe Road, by Malina Marchetta

6) The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

7) Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson

8) Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racciula

9) Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston

10) The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Most Disappointing (not the worst) Book:

Wink Poppy Midnight

Favorite New-To-Me Picture Books:

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K.G. Campbell

The Iridescence of Birds, by Patricia McLachlan

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel

Monsters Eat Whiny Children, by Bruce Eric Kaplan

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket

Duck, Death, and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch

Boxes for Katje, by Candace Fleming

The Lion and the Bird, by Marianne Dubai

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman

Jane, the Fox, and Me, by Fanny Britt

Because of school, I didn't see that many movies this year. But there were some good ones.

Best 2016 Movies Seen:

10) Ghostbusters

9) Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

8) The Legend of Tarzan

7) Midnight Special

6) Batman v. Superman

5) Mr. Right

4) Suicide Squad

3) 10 Cloverfield Lane

2) Eye in the Sky

1) Arrival

Ditto on the TV (but I never watch that much, anyway).

Favorite TV:

1) The Magicians

2) Stranger Things

3) Black-ish

Best Music Downloaded:

Summary: A whole lotta French pop--and another terrific album by one of my new favorite bands. 

St. Paul and the Broken Bones: Sea of Noise

Eli and Papillon: "Les rêves," "Cette nuit," et "Automne"

Vianney: "Pas là"

Soleil: "Ce qui guide mes pas"

Favorite Websites:


Fluent Forever


Best Resturant Experiences:

Maison Christian Faure, Montreal

Au Pied de Cochon, Montreal

Angelina, Paris

Aux Merveilleux de Fred, Paris

Altaeats, Altadena

Bistro de la Gare, South Pasadena

101 Noodle Express, Arcadia

Goals for 2017 include further improving my French and writing and turning in both theses (critical and creative) required for my MFA. Happy New Year!

* Sometimes I rank things in ascending order. Sometimes I rank them in descending order. Sometimes I don't rank them at all. It just depends on what I feel like doing.

** I am not and have never been an Amazon affiliate. I include links purely in case you're interested in knowing more. 


What Now?

Twenty-four hours ago, I went to vote. I cried a little with joy as I voted for Hillary Clinton, then wiped away my tears and carefully voted on the many measures presented in California.

As I left my polling place, I thought back to November 4, 1984. I turned 18 that very day and got to cast a ballot for the first time. I was thrilled to vote for the first female vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Of course, she and Mondale lost--hugely--to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. But in the years that followed, I hoped that a door had been opened with Ferraro's nomination. 

When Barack Obama won in 2008, my faith in newly opening doors was bolstered. Even though I'd supported Hillary in the primary (I also campaigned and voted for her when she ran for the senate in NY), Obama won me over with his integrity and vision. And then, I thought, it would be Hillary's turn. Surely it was time.

Our son, Christian, has been employed by Hillary's campaign since early this summer. He's worked 18-hour days seven days a week for months. He's had amazing experiences along the way, and has felt--rightly--that he's been a part of history.

Today is his last day of work. He's broken-heartedly packing up the temporary office he's been in charge of in Pennsylvania and heading back to Virginia. In a few days, he'll be with us for Thanksgiving, and it'll probably be the biggest family group therapy session ever. I am so proud of my boy, his strong ideals, and his tireless, cheerful work on behalf of our first female presidential candidate. 

Last night felt Apocalyptic with a capital A to me. As a devout Christian/Mormon, I do believe in the Last Days foretold by Jesus and all the prophets before and since. They may well be upon us. 

But until then, I feel called to rise up and be better. A couple of weeks ago, I read this piece by David Wong (warning: language), and realized I'd been smug and selfish, and that I needed to reach out to those to whom our president-elect has appealed so strongly. I feel chastened and humbled; I know I can be a more involved citizen and a better practitioner of my beliefs. 

I believe in tolerance and love; I believe in peace and understanding.

I believe in taking care of the poor and the disenfranchised--in every part of this country and in the world.

I believe in working to eliminate injustice and inequality of all kinds.

I believe in careful, radical stewardship of our precious, irreplaceable environment.

I believe in action and dialogue and co-operation.

I believe in asking God--and working myself--to bless not one nation, but ALL nations, with freedom and prosperity.

Because I believe we are all children of God. Now, with this unlooked-for result, I'll be called upon to live those ideals even more fully.

Patrick often says we get the government we deserve, so I will now set about deserving better than what I got last night. Here's hoping we can find our way. 


Book Love


I have this great friend named Trevor. I haven't seen him in years, but he's one of those people who seems like a spiritual twin. Yesterday, he tagged me in an email conversation about favorite books. Here's what I wrote back to the group.

Trevor, I don't know that I've ever received a better compliment than being included in a group of "people whose lists [you] would almost kill to see."

I have lots of favorite books for lots of different reasons. Out of courtesy to you all, I had to make rules for myself: no more than five books per category; no mentioning a writer more than once.

Books that rescued me from Very Bad Places:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Eight Cousins, by Louisa May Alcott
The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton

Books I've re-read the most times:
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell 
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis

Cookbook upon which I rely most heavily:
The Way to Cook, by Julia Child 
(Though, YOU GUYS, I just got Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab for my birthday yesterday. I've read 40 pages so far this morning, and I am deeply infatuated.)

Books in which I see myself mirrored most clearly:
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Here Be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman

If at gunpoint I could choose only one book by my favorite British writers not otherwise mentioned:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins
Possession, by A.S. Byatt

Same thing, gunpoint, favorite Americans:
The Children, by Edith Wharton
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Shining, by Stephen King
Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Books that made me laugh the hardest:
Make Way for Lucia, by E.F. Benson
The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Books that made me sob the hardest: 
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

Books in the sweet spot on the Evocation-Aesthetic Venn Diagram in my brain:
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Picture books I most love reading aloud to my kids:
Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak
Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik
The Piggy in the Puddle, by Charlotte Pomerantz
The Zoom Trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones
Busy, Busy World, by Richard Scarry

Books that most terrified me:
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Speculative fiction most influential on my own writing:
Was, by Geoff Ryman
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link

Books I've discovered and most loved since starting my MFA:
The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K.G. Campbell
There you have it. I wish people still blogged, so I could tag all of my friends and ask you to make your list of favorites. But you can tell me in a comment. :) 

All Things Dark and Beautiful--2016 Edition

Hope and Tess as the Grady twins from The Shining--a mothering pay-off moment for me. 

In years past, I've made lists of books, movies, music, and places that evoke the Octoberish feeling. All this month, I've been too busy with my wonderful graduate program (and, um, a trip to Paris), and haven't had enough leisure time in which to sink into a pleasurable melancholy. But I turned in a school packet Saturday night, so today's the day. Fittingly, it's Halloween. And November, my favorite month of the year, is a wonderful time to indulge in all things Octoberish. With that in mind, here are all the latest things I've found that bring me to that elusive, borderless place that Ray Bradbury called The October Country


The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

A haunted house story in high Southern Gothic style. You feel like your family is dysfunctional? Read this book, and you'll feel like you're part of the Brady Bunch. Images of Beldame, sitting on a desolate beach in Alabama, will stay with you.

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

The dream Long Island summer rental turns deadly for a couple from Queens. This book and The Elementals were re-released relatively recently by Valancourt Books, which looks like a treasure trove of forgotten horror classics that I'll be mining for quite a while. 

Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

Forget Neil Gaiman and John Bellairs (well, not really): this is THE scariest book intended for children that I've ever read. Barraclough expertly sustains dread and atmosphere to the very last page. The companion book, The Mark of Cain, isn't quite as well done, but it's still worth your time. 

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

An English village is plagued first by an epic flood and then by contagious, suicidal madness. The bizarre Willoweed family is at the center of all the action. This book was banned in Ireland for decades; it's definitely an unsettling little book.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

A book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Lyrical magical realism also fits the bill. Finn goes in search of his missing friend Roza, who has been kidnapped by someone who doesn't appear to be of this world. Both lovely and suspenseful; I bought it in hardcover, because it's a keeper.

All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage

Murder mystery? Ghost story? Hudson Valley idyll? In this compelling novel, Brundage does what Gillian Flynn tried (and failed) to do with Gone Girl.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Here's a nod to the younger kids. This lovely, only slightly creepy book featuring the most British of monsters is about dealing with grief. I read it on an airplane: big mistake. Sobbing in public is not my favorite thing. 

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racciula

The students and chaperones of an all-state music festival get snowed in at an upstate New York resort--where a grisly murder-suicide occurred years before. With many nods to The Shining (but working far more in the mystery genre than in horror), Racciula manages a quirky and complex ensemble cast with dexterity, wit, and compassion. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

I approach retellings with strong caution--especially retellings of English classics I have cherished since childhood. This expert retelling of Jane Eyre met and exceeded my very high expectations. It is its own story. Set in 1960s Scotland and Iceland--two very Octoberish spots

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, started out with this book. It's not perfect, but it's good. The best approximation I can give you is that this is what would have happened if Shirley Jackson had written To Kill a Mockingbird. Now: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and Jackson is one of my favorite writers, and The Little Friend is not as good as all that--but that description should give a sense of its atmosphere. 


I could write pages of posts about melancholy music in all genres, especially classical--but that's beyond the scope of today's exercise. Instead, I'll give you a few songs that I've played over and over this year to assuage my need for October. 

Sarah Calderwood "Through Bushes and Through Briars"

My favorite (and most Octoberish) composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, collected this folk song at the close of the 19th century. Calderwood does it justice in this simple but haunting version.

Mandolin Orange "One More Down"

Life in the South can be depressing, you know? This very talented duo sing their hearts out on dozens of plaintive, original songs. This is one of their best. I love the simplicity and pathos.

François Couperin "Les Barricades Mysterieuses"

This piece puts me into a trance of otherness. I love it deeply. At this summer's residency, I was reading in the chapel, one of Vermont College's only air-conditioned rooms, during some free time. A woman I knew only slightly came in with some music and sat down at the Steinway. After she played a Bach Chaconne, I asked her if she had this piece with her. Startled, she said yes, and she played it for me. Magical. But it was only afterward that I realized what an odd coincidence this was; she'd only brought a few pieces of music with her from home, and this, a relatively obscure piece, was one of them. (At this point, my kids would say, "Connect the dots.")

John Rutter "Blow, Thou Winter Wind"

This chilling secular carol will carry your Octoberishness straight through to March. Words by Shakespeare; music by Rutter: it does not get better than that. I heard it once and immediately ordered the sheet music so that we could sing it at home. Gorgeous.

Led Zeppelin "When the Levee Breaks"

This is hands down my favorite LZ song of all time (and there are so very many to love). The echoing harmonica, John Bonham's driving, monstrous drums, Jimmy Page's otherworldly guitar, Robert Plant's mournful delivery of classic blues lyrics--perfection. This semester, I'm writing a ghost story set in California's Central Valley, and this song always gets me in the mood to work on it. 


Goodnight Mommy (R)

Holy crud, this movie is creepy. Twin boys become increasingly sure that the woman who came home from surgery at the hospital is not their mother. It's so immersive that you'll forget it's in German. Clever script, great camera work.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PG-13)

The girls and I loved this one, based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith (and borrowing more than heavily from Jane Austen). It didn't do well in theaters, but I think it's a gem. My friend Danae would call it "kick-donkey."

Cold in July (R)

A movie doesn't have to be set in the fall to be Octoberish. A man shoots a burglar, whose newly-paroled father then seeks revenge. Heart-stopping, twisty, but a little more grisly than I'd prefer. That flaw aside, this is a story with staying power. 

Midnight Special (PG-13)

Things aren't always what they look like at first glance. A father must evade both the government and an apocalyptic cult in order to protect his son, who has otherworldly powers. Hypnotic. 

The Keeping Room (R)

This may be my favorite film of this year. Two sisters and a freed slave fight off a seige by two renegade Union soldiers. You feel the suffocating heat and humidity of the desolate plantation; you feel the paralyzing dread of the women in their vulnerability. Melancholy in the extreme. 

Lost River (R)

Okay, this movie is FAR from perfect, bless director Ryan Gosling's little heart. BUT there is real emotional power and atmosphere here. It's set in Octoberish Detroit, and is post-apocalyptic without the actual apocalypse. Will this family escape the crushing despair of its circumstances? The curse of Lost River indicates no, but watch until the end to see. 

Ex Machina (R)

A programmer wins a week at the estate of his company's reclusive CEO and must pass a Turing test with a beautiful, intelligent android. Love triangle becomes love square....Claustrophobic and dread-filled. 


The Returned (Les Revenants) (R)

You want the French series, not the failed American series that was based on it. Several inhabitants of a town in France's Haute-Savoie come back to life, with no memory of what happened to them while they were dead. Their attempts at reintegrating into society are heart-breaking and riveting. As with Lost River, a reservoir created by damming a valley (and flooding several towns) figures prominently. if I'd had the time, I would have binge watched the first season. I still haven't watched Season 2; I'm kind of hoarding it. 

True Detective, Season 1 (R)

Southern Gothic at its best and most modern. I don't know if I'll ever bring myself to watch further seasons of this show, because Woody Harrelson + Matthew McConaughey + a freaky serial killer + the Louisiana bayou = black magic. This series kept me guessing, and that is hard to do. More smexy (that's my portmanteau of "smut" and "sexy") than I'd prefer, but that's what the fast forward button is for.

The Leftovers, Season 1 (R)

What happens to the people who don't get caught up in the Rapture? This show explores that question. I liked the series much more than the Tom Perrotta novel on which it's based. Again, too much smex for my taste, so consider yourself forewarned. 

The Magicians (R)

I loved Lev Grossman's trilogy about college-age magicians who discover a Narnia-like otherland, and I was cautiously delighted when I heard that Syfy was going to make the books into a series. Patrick and I LOVED Season 1 and can't wait for Season 2. 

Stranger Things (PG-13)

We've only watched two episodes so far, but I'm hooked. It feels a little Twin Peaks-y, a little X-Files-ish--which means it's right in my wheelhouse. Hoping to watch episode 3 tonight after trick-or-treating.

What would you add to this year's Octoberish edition?