A Year in Reading: Tess Malone


2017 was the year I stopped reading. All told, I finished eight books. I probably started two dozen more. Nothing could hold my attention. Nothing seemed as gripping as this vicious news cycle, the new Netflix drama, some podcast, my social media feeds. Actually, it’s not true I stopped reading this year, just my reading was mostly of woke Twitter threads, idyllic Instagram captions, Facebook rants. It reminds me of the Aziz Ansari joke that when our kids ask us what we read, we will have to print out hundreds of 500-word op-eds we don’t even remember by the time we’ve finished tweeting them.

I’m not the only one who couldn’t read this year. I’ve had friends confess that though they attend readings, buy new books, and tweet about the literary community, they can’t remember the last novel they opened. One said he just wasn’t sure if he was even into reading anymore, like it was some teenage hobby like skateboarding he just outgrew. Friends who managed to finish a book a week might as well have been running a marathon. It seemed impossible when living in America in 2017 is like always having a new nasty car wreck to gawk at daily—no, hourly.

That’s why I am surprised even eight novels managed to keep my attention. Reading this year wasn’t about escape for me, ironically, because there was too much going on to escape. Instead I was sucked into books that reflected what I was going through. On the surface, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is about a group of unlikely friends who meet as teenagers at an artsy summer camp; this is usually the part of the novel people like the most. Yet most of the novel is really about creative competition. How do we handle it when our friends are more talented than we are or more successful? Although the book is about these six friends, it’s really about Jules, the least creatively talented, and how she harbors her jealousy, resentment, and imposter syndrome over watching her friends succeed when she has a perfectly normal, albeit mostly happy, life. Jules is a messy protagonist prone to fits of rage and envy. Her own husband gets fed up with her, shouting, “Specialness—everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do—kill themselves?” Jules is not likable, but I loved her and worried I might be her.

This year, I “left” journalism to work in higher-ed communications. The funny thing is I now write more than ever, for work, my TinyLetter, my sketch comedy group, and I even still freelance. Yet I often felt like I was selling out and had a few conversations with people who implied as much. What mattered more being special or being happy? The Interestings gnawed at me, exposing my darker insecurities. Even though I’m still not done trying to be “special,” Wolitzer’s perspective will haunt me and make me question my creative motivations, and sometimes I need that.

Of course, some of this preoccupation with specialness and comparing myself to other people and worrying about what they think comes from anxiety, which is why I loved John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. The protagonist is yet another high-strung often unlikable character, Aza, whose anxiety and OCD are so pervasive she self-harms and alienates her friends. Although my own anxiety has never been as bad, fortunately, I’ve never related more to a description of anxiety than Green’s. It’s a never-ending spiral of obsessive thoughts you know are irrational that you can’t turn off. “The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely,” Green writes. Aza’s narrative isn’t one of redemption either. She gets worse throughout the book and never totally recovers because anxiety can’t be cured, just coped with. This fall I had a bad bout of anxiety for no apparent reason right before a trip to Rome. I thought I had learned to manage it, but here I was waking up with nausea at 5 a.m. again. I realized maybe I’m just a person who has bouts of anxiety, and that’s okay. I happened to buy this book in the airport on the way to Rome and never saw mental illness articulated so well. John Green is YA’s king for a reason. We owe him a lot for giving voice to experiences that elude even those who go through them.

This was a stressful year both nationally and personally. But the books I read made me feel less alone and reminded me why I read even when there’s so much else to distract me.

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A Year in Reading: Tess Malone


2016 was the year I fell in love with reading again. Sometime during college, when close reading put every sentence under a fluorescent light, I started analyzing language instead of getting lost in it. I thought I would return to reading after I graduated, but then I became a copyeditor, where my job was to find every grammatical blemish and factual imperfection. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you profoundly disagree with how a writer uses punctuation (I’m looking at you, Hanya Yanagihara). The very thing that had gotten me into my major and career was now a chore. Yet I wanted to be a reader, so I compulsively bought books that would topple off my nightstand, a reminder I was getting through more Netflix than novels. I didn’t know what I needed to read, but my friends did, and their passionate recommendations for things I would normally never read reminded me why I sometimes find more solace or excitement in a book than anything.

My friend Jen is not just an A Little Life fan, though she has read it four times; she is an evangelist. So I wasn’t surprised when it showed up on my doorstep as a Christmas gift last year. Getting through a 720-page book wasn’t an enjoyable experience for a slow reader like me, especially when nothing seemed to happen except trauma. When the ultimate trauma transpired, I was so angry that I rage-cried and would’ve thrown the hardcover across the room if it weren’t two pounds. I told Jen I hated it — at least I thought I did. But after I finished, I couldn’t stop discussing it or reading Hanya Yanagihara interviews. I even had a dinner date with my friend Susan, another great reader, to discuss why I hated it, but midway through she asked me, “Is it possible you actually loved it?” She was right; I had mistaken my intense passion for hatred when it was really love. Yes, nothing happened, Yanagihara doesn’t understand pronouns, and the ending was infuriating, but I couldn’t remember the last time a book had completely consumed me like that.

When my YA book club picked The Royal We for February, I internally groaned. I had always found the royal family ridiculous, so why would I want to read a fictionalized account of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s courtship if Kate were American? But the book ended up being one of the most damned delightful things I’d read all year, the literary equivalent of the frappucino you told yourself you were too sophisticated for but still secretly loved. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan deliver on all the royal intrigue and scandal, from frosty Queen Elizabeth II to sexy bad boy Prince Harry, but really it’s the romance that makes all the royal drama worth it, like Richard Curtis meets Buckingham Palace. The novel made me miss the U.K. and the British friends I made while a University of Edinburgh student so much that I planned a solo trip to London that summer. I even visited an extremely obscure museum that I read about in the book, the Sir John Soane’s Museum; I recommend it for oddity alone.

I also have my book club to thank for one of the craziest reading experiences I had this year — getting through the entire four-book Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in a weekend. I have a reputation for never actually finishing the book, so when we decided to read a series in preparation for the release of The Raven King, I knew I was screwed. I expected I’d hate this bizarre mashup of Welsh myth, psychics, and prep school, but I was so enthralled by the world building, strong relationships, and ultimate metaphor for growing up that I stayed up until 3 a.m. two nights in a row. The books are also so creepy, with the protagonists wandering through catacombs and whatnot, that I had to keep every light on in my apartment. I told Stiefvater this in person when my book club attended a YA book festival in Charleston, YALL Fest, and she was so excited that she highfived me with a Sharpie in hand.

These books have nothing in common with each other, other than how I found myself fully engrossed while reading them. But they remind me that sometimes the best reading experiences are the ones we least expect. So I plan to read boldly and bravely because I’ll need some good escapism these next four years.

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Whatever You’re Not Allowed to Talk About Is What You’re Obsessing About


We live in an age when there’s a new Brontë orJane Austen adaptation every year. To the contemporary reader, Victorian novels are full of petticoats, windswept walks through the country, and brooding gentlemen declaring their love through letters. The worst that could happen is you catch a cold after getting caught in the rain — sex is characterized more by not-having than by having. “Dark-eyed Heathcliff has obsessed over your windblown soul in a universe where no one ever has to poop,” writes the narrator of Unmentionable, Therese Oneill’s new nonfiction book on what is was really like to live in the Victorian era for a woman — poop, corsets, archaic birth control, and all.

Culling her information from hundreds of pamphlets written by so-called doctors of the 19th century, Oneill dredges up all the unsavory parts of the Victorian era from eugenics to hysteria. The Oregon humorist had been writing articles like this for Mental Floss and Jezebel for years when Little Brown approached her to write the book. Although it’s nonfiction, Oneill writes from the perspective of an all-knowing, slightly cheeky Victorian woman giving guidance to the contemporary woman. The result is a thoroughly researched but hilarious look into daily life of the Victorian woman. “It’s not an underwear history book, but it is,” Oneill joked when she spoke to The Millions recently about how she got interested in the subject, the most shocking thing she found, and how Victorian society is still relevant.

The Millions: Victorian sexuality is such a big, complicated, and often absurd branch of history. How did you first get interested in it?

Therese Oneill: In college, I got a kick out of collecting pre-sexual revolution sex and hygiene books because they were godawful and hilarious. The first two I found in an antique store in the window: “Advice for Mothers and Daughters” and “Advice for Fathers and Sons.”  Some of these books were earnest. You can’t blame anybody because they have 100 years less knowledge than you do. But these men who may or may not be doctors were so certain they were correct, even with no science, tests, double-blind studies.

TM: I always assumed Victorians just didn’t discuss sex, so it’s fascinating they had these pamphlets. How did those come to be?

TO: People didn’t like to talk about sex and the body. They were prudes. They just wanted to be proper. And at the time Victorians were getting smarter; now they can read, but they still can’t find answers. So smart guys would frame information in the context of hygiene and godliness because God wants you to be clean, and it worked.

TM: So you knew these pamphlets existed, and you even found a few, but how did you research the rest?

TO: I cherry-picked from the books and pamphlets. These men are lunatics. There were doctors back then who probably were smart, but the pamphlets that were bought were pulled out of somebody’s ass. They were framed in morality, like of course if you masturbate, you’re going to die. Those are the books people bought, and those were mentalities that took hold. There were medical journals, but no one bought them.

I have two full, eight-inch shelves of pamphlets and more. And there’s this little thing called Google Books, where they’ve uploaded pamphlets. If you know the right search terms, you can be brought to most bizarre contemporary resources. I would type in words like “sin, woman, childbirth.” They thought if you did suffer during your period, you were terrible person. They thought they could figure out what your problem was as dictated by period blood. It was stuff they could not ever have known; even today I don’t know how you could possibly conduct those tests. But they were so proud they were using modern science and techniques. The problem with these guys was they never suspected for a second that they weren’t right. People in the 19th century would never admit they didn’t know something; they’d make it up.

TM: That’s a fairly alarming way to dispense medical advice. What was the most shocking thing you came across during your research?

TO: Doctor John Harvey Kellogg was so respected and had hundreds of patients. But he had an obsession with masturbation, and most of his biographers think he was celibate his whole life, even though he was married. Kelloggs cereal was invented to keep bowels and genitals clear of congestion. Whatever you’re not allowed to talk about is what you’re obsessing about, that’s all of Victorian sexuality. A mother brought in her daughter, a 10-year-old rape victim. As a result of the rape, the girl couldn’t stop touching her genitals. The modern take on this would be masturbation is self-soothing technique or she could’ve been hurt. But he recommended genital mutilation with a big smile on his face. Afterwards he didn’t even follow up on this child. I hate his guts, but I had to allude to it kind of softly in the book.

TM: What made you devote a book to this topic?

TO: I wrote a lot of articles for places online, and those articles were always a hit. Like “7 Ways to Keep Your 19th-Century Man Happy.” I would use quotes from those books, and the response would be huge. But it’s what I’m interested in. You know what I did last Saturday night? I read the bylaws of the Philadelphia tax code in 1828 — for fun. I like that stuff, and it unravels the way the world works.

TM: We often think of ourselves as rather removed from the Victorian era, even though a lot of our concepts and systems come from it, like childhood, modern zoos, etc. Would you say that the topics in this book are still relevant?

TO: Nothing is different really. Everything a woman would deal with back then had to do with hygiene and beauty: they’d wear lead on their faces and these constrictive corsets. But those are no different than heels or Botox. Vanity will never leave us, so we don’t care or don’t notice the accumulation of things that aren’t good for us. I guarantee we’re doing something now that’s equally destructive.

There will always be alternative medicine, or you believe you know this secret oil that will cure your cancer. People don’t trust big establishments; they think the medical establishment is out to get us and charge us money. But in 100 years, they’re going to look back at us like we were absolute dumb asses, like pumping poison into our body to cure cancer.

TM: One of my favorite things about this book is the voice of the narrator. How did she come to be?

TO: I am a humorist, and the funniest thing about this information was how seriously they took it. I wrote a nonfiction book, but I wrote a fictional narrator, and she believes all this stuff works. She’s a combination of brothel madam and the Dowager Countess, who knows all the grit but is going to teach you how to be a lady. She was funny, and I loved her. The voice came to me on day one, and I kind of use that character in the articles I wrote anyway. My favorite parts were when I could be funny. I get called snarky a lot online, and I don’t want to be snarky. I want to be ironic and satirical.

TM: It’s interesting to narrate the book from a woman’s perspective when it was such an oppressive time, and men were the ones writing these pamphlets. Was that ever difficult to reconcile?

TO: There are a couple places I feel I didn’t give enough credit to the difference in the era. Ladies did have to be different back then. It was a different world. They were oppressed with how they had to do things back then to run a household. Laundry took two days. I don’t want anyone to think the men were jerks back then. They were ignorant, but they were doing the best they could with a few exceptions of blowhards who I quote liberally.

TM: We’re so obsessed with Victorian literature and Jane Austen film adaptations these days. How would contemporary women fit in?

TO: We’re so far removed now from how awful it was back then. The books that were written in that time don’t mention poop. In the paintings we see, women don’t have hairy legs. It’s not our fault, but this art has led us to be inaccurate. Being back there would be a lot more complicated than you think it would be. Your modern senses would be offended. You’d be disgusted.

No Miss Havishams Here: On Emma Rathbone’s ‘Losing It’


Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in?

Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism — she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem — to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”

We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her.

If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career.

This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not.

The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles — among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce — spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice.

Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age.

While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between.

The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales.

This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)

The Ultimate Intimacy: On Neil Gaiman’s ‘The View from the Cheap Seats’


Over the course of eight novels, four short story collections, and a series of graphic novels, Neil Gaiman’s greatest work of invention has been himself. The author has 2.42 million Twitter followers, with whom he shares everything from exhortations about human rights to bored airport musings. His messy-haired, leather-jacketed figure appears at Amanda Palmer concerts, on Guardian comment pages, and even at the 2010 Oscars. He is ubiquitous enough to transcend the genre section of bookstores and accessible enough to retweet fans’ Kickstarter pages. Inviting his fans into his life like this takes the mystique out of writing and creates a sense of community, similar to the fandom of John Green. But fans want more: we want to be confided in — we want to make it real.

Gaiman has made himself familiar and friendly without forging any real intimacy. One advantage of writing in the genres that Gaiman does is that no one ever expects the work to be autobiographical. The 50-something Englishman has never jumped a magical wall in pursuit of a fallen star or come home to find parents with buttons for eyes. Throughout his fiction, only small biographical details have snuck in: the tiny lakeside town that Shadow moves to in American Gods is reminiscent of Gaiman’s Wisconsin home, and the quiet boy who lives vicariously through the books he reads in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman as a child — he’s said so himself. Gaiman controls the narrative, not just of his characters, but of himself, limiting revelations about the latter to the mundanities of daily life and charming childhood anecdotes about reading. But he has been sprinkling breadcrumbs for years in the form of speeches, introductions for anthologies, and newspaper editorials, all of which have been compiled in the 544-page The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is Gaiman’s first collection of nonfiction, containing everything he’s written from 1990 to the present day, from his now-famous 2012 “Make Good Art” commencement speech to text on the nature of cities from SimCity 2000. Some of the entries might’ve been better left to time, like an odd 1990 piece for Time Out about wandering London after dark that never amounts to much; we might not need two, back-to-back essays on Harlan Ellison. Yet taken as a whole, The View from the Cheap Seats is more than just an assemblage of a man’s clips; it’s Gaiman’s welcome entry into another popular genre: the writing memoir.

Stephen King’s On Writing pulls in people who would never pick up a horror novel; Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a cross between a writing memoir and a self-help book with last year’s Big Magic. It’s not a coincidence that these titles are from well-known and prolific authors, whose writing memoirs offer a rare form of intimacy. King, aside from being a master of the macabre, is an astute grammarian, as revealed by a hilarious rant against passive voice in a memoir that also explores his childhood and addiction. Gilbert may have made her name on a deeply personal memoir, but it had the consequence of making her persona larger than life; Big Magic allows her to peel back the Oprah Winfrey-approved brand to expose the diligent and occasionally frustrated writer behind it all. These books are a way for the bestselling author to remind the reader they were once like them. And even if Gaiman didn’t set out to compile a writing memoir, that’s what Seats is.

For Gaiman, the writing memoir is less about how to write and more about why we need writing. The sections are divided thematically, from music to movies to personal musings. The first is titled, “Some Things I Believe” and includes several pieces in defense of threatened literary entities: libraries, children’s literature, bookshops, and genre fiction. Most of these defenses boil down to one thing. “Somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person,” he writes in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech in this section. Even the sections devoted to things and people he loves — G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Who, comics, Tori Amos — transcend pure fandom; they are sharp analyses both of what makes the work so good and why Gaiman needed them in his life when he did. In one of the collection’s most striking pieces, Gaiman interviews Lou Reed right before a 1992 concert, asking questions about his creative process, like “So does the subject of the lyric change for you in retrospect?”

Words are inherently political to Gaiman, and writing and reading are a political act; the book features several defenses of reading as a way to teach empathy and build a better society. As this belief builds throughout the book, it’s not surprising when we come to Gaiman’s first-person account of a Syrian refugee camp in the final section. Why wouldn’t a man who has been writing for 30-some years because he believes words can facilitate change not write about one of the most pressing international humanitarian crises of our time?

This is a writing memoir about why ideas matter, and sharing this with his readers is the ultimate intimacy — building a connection that is more than a shared fantasy of a boy in a graveyard or underground London. By the end, the biographical details scattered throughout the book don’t say nearly as much about the author as do his influences, motivations, and beliefs. After all, fans fall in love with authors for the worlds they create, and by inviting readers into his own fandoms, Gaiman reminds readers he is just like them. In one sense, The View from the Cheap Seats is Gaiman’s most personal work to date.

A Year in Reading: Tess Malone

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I’ve always hesitated to call myself a writer. As a child of fiction-loving parents, I was convinced you were only a “Writer” (with a capital “W”) if you wrote from your imagination. I told myself this even as my bylines piled up at various school newspapers; I was writing a lot, yes, but that wasn’t real writing. It wasn’t until this November, when I wrote eight articles for one upcoming issue of the magazine I work at — a feat I will never attempt again — that I realized I am a writer, damn it! Although I think my revelation had something to do with the books I found myself drawn to this year: tales of strong creative women who didn’t give a damn about what other people thought.

I read Amanda Palmer’s unapologetically honest The Art of Asking early in 2015. Her memoir chronicles her career from working as a living statue in Cambridge to crowdfunding her newest album, musing throughout on just what it means to call yourself creative. But this is not one of those polished self-help books for artists that are becoming trendy; it’s authentic and unflinching about how hard it can be to unleash your work and hope it will be understood, mistakes and all. It gave me permission to write, yes, but also to fail. The book is littered with Palmer’s failures, which is what makes it such a triumph.

This theme of owning up to your failures and false starts continued in Amelia Morris’s cooking memoir, Bon Appetempt. Cooking memoir doesn’t do the book justice because it’s a coming-of-age tale of finally finding the woman you always needed to be, with some great recipes included. Morris is good-humored but real even throughout family troubles, poor career choices, and bad dinners, but these “failures” make for a rich story. She taught me it can all work out, just keep writing and cooking, and that you can make pasta sauce out of an entire wheel of Brie and some cooking water.

With these two books on creativity and cooking influencing my mindset so early on in the year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my favorite book of 2015 — the one I’ve recommended to five people and will recommend to you now — was J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Billed as a novel, each chapter is really a short story that could stand on its own thanks to opinionated protagonists with unique voices, but they all connect to a larger-than-life Minnesota chef, Eva Thorvald. She’s the type of culinary wunderkind you’d expect on an episode of Chef’s Table, but one of very humble origins. And this book is less about a genius than the people who influenced her, the same down-home Minnesotans I grew up with. I’ve lived in Atlanta for almost two years now and have embraced the pimento cheese and bourbon, but Stradal’s world made me homesick for the best indie radio station, 89.3 The Current; the St. Paul farmers market; and even the somewhat petty Lutheran moms of my classmates and their peanut butter bars. I’ve never had much of a Minnesota accent, but I recognized myself and the community I grew up with in this book, just like I recognize it in FX’s Fargo, which I binged around the same time. We all have to start somewhere, and maybe that’s the key to creative success.

Palmer, Morris, and the fictional Thorvald go back to their origin stories in their tales of creative fulfillment, and maybe that’s what I’ll have to do when I finally pen the humor essays I’ve talked about writing for years — now that I’m a “Writer” after all. Consider that my 2016 New Year’s resolution: fully embracing my creativity, and I have three strong women as guides.

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A Year in Reading: Tess Malone

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2014 has been a year of transition for me. After 19 years of being a student, I graduated with my master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri in May. By the end of the month, I moved to Atlanta, a city I had only been to twice before. And in the beginning of June, I started work as a copy editor for a magazine. Yes, I’m a single girl living on her own in the bright, big city and working in journalism — my life is a romantic comedy waiting for Ryan Gosling to arrive.

Although my books were some of the first things I unpacked when I got to my new apartment, considering I close read for a living now, I haven’t had much time to read for fun. But the books I did read fell into a certain category: young women trying to figure out their place in a new world (I wonder why?). My new city survived two historic fires and is often a backdrop in apocalyptic TV shows and movies, so I didn’t have a hard time getting sucked into Edan Lepucki’s California and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Edan’s end of the world is shockingly intimate and real — and all the more terrifying because of this. I loved both Cal and Frida even though they stubbornly tried to get me not to, and I decided my artifact would be a beer opener. Emily’s dystopia is visceral yet hopeful — the kind that keeps you up late to read more. Yet the most provocative book in this category wasn’t in a not-so-distant and bleak future, it was immediate and raw. The best book I read in 2014 was Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl.

I should note that I started off 2014 trying to absorb all of the wit and wisdom in The Most of Nora Ephron, but half a year later, I needed someone more relatable, someone who didn’t have it all. After all, the title of Lena’s book is about defining yourself by what you aren’t, my favorite and most detrimental 20-something hobby. Yet in Lena, I found a girl who made the same mistakes I had or even worse, but she could write about it with a humor, vulnerability, and the self-awareness that was missing from Hannah Horvath. But like her alter ego, Lena doesn’t apologize for who she is even as she admits some terribly intimate secrets and character flaws, and this is why she is both one of the strongest voices in film and, now, evidently, in writing. Plus, the book is hilarious. Whether you like her or not, Lena Dunham is a new literary voice to be reckoned with — cutting, funny, and sometimes brutal.

And this is the type of writer and woman I want to be, not fodder for a Ryan Gosling film, but witty, honest, and strong.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Fact-Checking Fiasco


What do you think gets fact-checked the most rigorously: newspaper articles, magazine stories, or books? If you guessed books, you’d be surprised to know that they are rarely, if ever, fact-checked. At The Atlantic, Kate Newman questions why we have so much faith in books’ accuracy but why publishers don’t bother.

Street Preachers and Tacos


“Even if I bought cars in department store parking lots, and even if I followed small children down wooded paths, I still knew better than to accept tuna fish from strangers in national parks.” At The Hairpin, Jami Attenberg writes about meeting a street preacher in Moab. For more Attenberg, read her not-quite-a-restaurant review of Café de La Esquina at The Morning News.


The Twilight Generation


What happens when you grow up reading Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey? At The Morning News, five women discuss what it meant to come of age reading these books. “It’s more socially acceptable for a guy to watch porn than it is for a twentysomething woman to read these books. There is something that bothers me about that,” one women said.