Rosco P. Coltrane and Lessons From The Dukes of Hazzard

Childhood idol: Roscoe P. Coltrane

Childhood idol: Rosco P. Coltrane


In the late 70s and early 80s, I watched a lot of TV. Back then, parents were mere mortals (most of them smoking, drinking Tab and generally oblivious to things like seat belts and sun screen), not hovercrafts. It wasn’t easy to find overlapping television interests with my older-by-only-14-months brother. Where I favored Little House on the Prairie and Guiding Light, he liked the Six Million Dollar Man and Sanford & Son.


There was but one tiny patch of harmony from 1979-1985, a single show that we both embraced along with our Tang and Chips Ahoy. In The Dukes of Hazzard, we found characters we could both love– those rascally Duke boys and the zany cast of characters who chased, reviled, protected, guided and admired them.


Oh the Dukes of Hazzard.


There weren’t a lot of women on the show, except of course Daisy Duke, whose shorts eventually inspired a song by 69 Boyz (also of Tootsee Roll fame and indisputable national treasures, I think we can all agree). Dear old Daisy—she had long hair, tan legs, sparkly teeth, and men were always fawning all over her.


She wasn’t my favorite, though. She never got to do anything fun, except teeter around on those high heels trying to keep her vagina from falling out of her denim fig leaf. (This reminds me of another Dukes character, Cooter Davenport, who was the local mechanic.) I was nothing if not a budding feminist.


My favorite was Rosco P. Coltrane.  Now there was a character. Sure, he was the inept and crooked county sheriff who was buddies with the evil Boss Hogg, but I couldn’t get enough of him. He was better than the Duke boys because his car doors worked.  His dog was cute.  I liked his uniform.  But most of all, I distinctly remember thinking he had the greatest name of any television character I’d ever heard of. (At the time, I thought his name was actually “Rosco Peako Train,” but whatever.) When my brother and I played cops and robbers games down at my grandmother’s farm, I insisted on playing Rosco.


Here’s how it broke down: I wanted to marry Bo Duke, played by the fluffy-haired John Schneider; I wanted to be Rosco P. Coltrane; and I wanted Uncle Jesse to be my sage, next-door neighbor. (In a phenomenal twist of fate, the actor who played Uncle Jesse, Denver Pyle, ended up marrying a woman (Tippie Johnston) from a small town in Texas (Forreston) and lived a half mile from my grandmother’s farm.  I have an autographed picture.)


Having just seen that the actor who played in the indomitable Rosco P. Coltrane left this earth last week, I’m gripped with an urgent need to memorialize the lessons from Dukes of Hazzard. On the off chance that my children (1) learn to read, (2) find this blog, and (3) do not expire from mortification, I’d like them to know the following:


  1. Minor characters are often more interesting than the so-called main protagonists. See Rosco P. Coltrane, Enos Strate, Cooter Davenport, Cletus Hogg. (This is also true of Sanford & Son, whose minor characters include Grady Wilson, Rollo Lawson, Bubba Bexley, et al.)
  2. Always use your middle initial, so you can replicate the greatness of “ROSCO P. COLTRANE.”
  3. Never watch a show that glamorizes the Confederacy, which includes shows that slap the stars and bars on an old beater car that has doors that won’t open.
  4. If you become enamored with a bumble-fuck minor character who has no moral center, I will shuttle you straight to therapy, no matter how cute his hound is.
  5. When you get to therapy, show the good doctor this post as Ex. A, potential white trash roots.
  6. Do not make your name wearing scandalously short shorts because that’s all anyone will remember about you.
  7. Do not launch a country music career after you have made a “chase” show set in a fictional rural town in Kentucky. (Looking at you, John Schneider.)
  8. Don’t bother going back to watch any of the shows from the late 70s or early 80s.
  9. Exception: Go back and watch Sanford & Son.
  10. DO NOT tell Uncle Doug that I ever admitted that Sanford & Son was a seminal show or that Redd Foxx is a fucking genius.
  11. Don’t say “fucking.”
  12. You kids should find something better to do than watch TV.
  13. Don’t call a vagina a “cooter,” even though I was really tempted to do just that above.


Corporal Works of Mercy




Achievement was my first drug, and I was freebasing by second grade. Actually first. Sister Lynn Michelle held the spoon. She favored quizzes, and the lucky pupils who answered all of her questions correctly won a sticker depicting a long-haired Jesus instructing a group of rapt children.


I always got a sticker.


In Catholic school there was so much to memorize: stations of the cross, beatitudes, Hail Mary, Our Father, the Act of Contrition. I memorized, metabolized, internalized, repeated back.


I excelled.


My pull was to the mysterious and nothing magnetized me more than the corporal works of mercy.   These ethereal actions sounded poetic, but they were more than words.  They were the underpinnings of good Catholicism, the root system for the sturdy tree on which I was a mere twig.


For full credit, you had to list them in order.


Feed the hungry

Give drink to the thirsty

Clothe the naked

Harbor the harborless

Visit the sick

Ransom the captive

Bury the dead


Some of them I didn’t understand.  I wasn’t certain I was allowed to give my clothes away. The one about the harbors was confusing because I didn’t know anyone with a boat. “Visiting the sick” was tricky because I worried about germs.  What if I got sick and had to miss school or Sunday mass?


“Ransom the captive” vaguely reminded me of something I once saw on a Pippi Longstocking episode, or maybe it was the Three Stooges who lobbied to get their missing stooge back from a captor. It didn’t seem like something I should do at age six.  I’d wait until I was older. I hoped that was okay with God.  “Bury the dead” also didn’t seem like a job for a kid. We would bury my grandfather the next year and I would stand by the grave site in my monogrammed blue sweater. Would that count? I never touched a shovel.


“Feed the hungry” was the easy one.  Give people who didn’t have food the old cans of chili or creamed corn your family no longer wanted.

* * *

This morning on the bus I dreamed up an essay collection about eating disorders. Before I decided that was too over-played, bourgeois, and 90’s, I fleshed it out. The opening essay would be about Mother Theresa, anchored by that quote that feminists adore, which is attributed to Sarah Silverman: “Mother Teresa didn’t walk around complaining about her thighs—she had shit to do.”

My thesis: We don’t know if Mother Teresa obsessed about her thighs. I got a bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and a J.D., all accompanied by bouts of obsession: my thighs, my breasts, my stomach. I had babies, won court cases, wrote a novel, breastfed, taught classes, and there was always a potent sliver of my consciousness devoted to attacking my corporeality. I couldn’t stop obsessing any more than an asthmatic could start breathing normally.  Achievement and obsession about my body have always co-existed, overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, from a time before I got that first sticker.


I don’t know jack shit about feeding my own hunger.  And I have no idea if a struggling family wants my dented can of Wolf brand chili.


I can imagine a Mother Teresa afflicted with self-hate so potent that throwing herself into a life devoted to serving those with leprosy, AIDS, and tuberculosis didn’t quell a quiet, secret war she waged against her body.


I can. I can imagine it.


I’m already bored with this idea.  Except for the title, The Corporal Works of Mercy.  The title I love.





Thoughts on Serial


Since my 30-day reading ban, I’ve been casting about for ways to entertain myself on public transportation.  I’m all for spiritual enlightenment and walking through the valley of darkness, but riding a city bus without any distraction…no thank you very much.

Enter Serial. You know about Serial right? It’s the podcast spin-off of This American Life that explored the unanswered questions (like, WHO DID IT?) surrounding the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee.  Twelve episodes cover everything from alternative suspects, the character of the ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed who’s imprisoned for life for the murder, the wacky defense lawyer whose shrill questioning of suspects made my ears bleed, the technology of cell phones in 1999, etc..

Riveting stuff.

I was going to quit after two episodes because I’ve done habeas corpus work and I find it ineffably depressing.  Digging into criminal trials post-conviction raises so many more questions than answers and casts such a long shadow over “justice” that my psyche shuts down, compelling me to turn away and pray no one I know or love ever has to face a criminal trial.

Serial was no different.  After roughly 11.5 hours of podcasting, there are only more questions, which is why there are whole internet sites devoted to discussing Jay or the cell phone discrepancies.  It’s probably why this murder was the perfect subject for a podcast.

The highlight for me was the University of Virginia professor, Deirdre Enright. Enright runs the Innocence Project at the UVA School of Law, and she was the only bright light in this whole dismal case.  Her energy, intelligence, and tenacity on behalf of those wrongly convicted infused much-needed hope into an area of law that desperately needs it.  I love people who talk fast, think fast and know their shit.  That’s Enright.  If I would have had her in law school, I’d be living in Virginia right now looking for DNA samples and filing postconviction motions.

Downside: There would be times when I was sitting on the bus, listening to host Sarah Koenig talking to Adnan from prison, and a dirty feeling would come over me.  For me, this was all “entertainment,” albeit of the public radio variety so there was also educational elements, but overall, I was using a tragic story about a murdered high school student as something to keep my misanthropy in check while riding the bus home in a snow storm.  Is there something unseemly about that?  I guess if that’s true, then none of us should be watching Dateline or Frontline or 60 Minutes or the news.  (Does anyone watch any of those programs?)

How about the portrayal of parents on this show?  Was anyone else thinking that maybe it’s a bad idea to be too controlling about who your kids date?  With all due respect to religious customs that prohibit premartial dating or opposite-sex relations, it sure seems like some of the tension swirling about stemmed from the children’s fears of disappointing their parents.  It seems pretty obvious that the second you forbid your child, especially a teenager, from doing something, that something will start to look pretty fucking tempting.  While I’m not saying I’ll fling my kids out into the dating scene with zero boundaries, but I’m going to be very careful before drawing any lines in the sand.  (Easy for me to say, of course.  Ask me in ten years how I feel about one of my kids dating someone who doesn’t read or who didn’t grow up on Costco hotdogs.)

And ohmygod did those kids smoke enough pot?  I couldn’t get over how important pot was to them or how much they smoked.  Maybe because I went to an all-girls high school where we smoked pot only on the weekends.  Well, not me, but the girls who did.  And definitely none of my boyfriends, especially never Kevin, who never smoked pot before his basketball tournaments.  That never happened.

Moving on.

The biggest problem I had from the beginning was with memory.  I have a wicked sharp memory. I remember what you were wearing when I first met you and when you got your hair cut and where we went for your birthday 11 years ago (and that you ordered that crappy cheesecake that we sent back, then the waiter brought us a chocolate box “on the house”).  I bet you I could tell you what I was doing on Wednesday, January 13, 1999.  (I went to my job-ette at a university, then went to Flat Top Grill for dinner with two friends, and spent the night at my boyfriend’s house.  I had a Harry Potter haircut.)  How do these kids not remember anything?  Was it the pot?  Unless you are lying, how do you not know whether you went shopping, or the library, or the mall or to the fucking Best Buy?

My favorite people interviewed were the ones who had no shame about their past derelictions.  The person who was able to describe Best Buy because she used to steal from it.  Loved that.  How about the porn store clerk who worked with Jay?  (Forget what I said earlier about letting my kids date whomever they want: No porn store clerks. Or stars. Definitely no porn stars.)

In addition to feeling bad for Lee’s family and friends and anyone wrongly accused in this saga, I also feel bad for defense attorney, Christina Guitierrez.  She’s dead now and can’t defend herself or her so-called strategic decisions.  And that unfortunate sing-song-y voice.  It makes me cringe and pray that none of my professional orations end up on a podcast downloaded by 5 million people.



As I scrolled through websites discussing Serial and the murder, there was one other thing.  It was also mentioned by a friend on FB.  All of the producers and creators of the show are white: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Emily Condon, Dana Chivvas.  And Ira Glass, he’s involved, and he’s pretty white.  The story itself, however, is about people who aren’t. Adnan is the son of Muslim immigrants. Hae Min Lee is the Korean-American daughter of immigrants.   Jay is African-American. Koenig has been taken to task for getting things wrong with respect to the Muslim and Korean-American communities, for flattening the racial implications of Adnan’s conviction and for conflating two separate immigration cultures (Korean and Muslim).

This criticism of white privilege reminds me of an article about Jill Soloway, creator of the Amazon hit Transparent.  In her effort to get her fictional narrative on the transgender experience right, she has 2 full-time transgender consultants and enacted a “transfirmative action program” that favors hiring transgender candidates over nontransgendered ones.  Her cast and crew is upwards of 1/3 trans.   I know it’s public radio, but maybe an extra hour of pledge drive might create a budget to hire consultants to be sure that the nuances of the cultures that are unfamiliar to Koenig et al and her listeners would be a useful investment.  (Also: Everyone should watch Transgender.  10 episodes on Amazon.)

One more thing: Adnan did not take the stand, as criminal defendants are almost always advised not to take the stand because it opens them up for cross-examination which will potentially expose every bad deed the defendant has ever committed.  Then, jurors may conflate something like stealing money from the mosque’s till with first-degree murder.  Better to stay silent is the prevailing wisdom.  Juries are advised by the judge that they should not draw any adverse conclusions from the fact that the defendant opts not to testify.  One of Adnan’s jurors: “Oh sure, we were told it doesn’t mean anything bad if he doesn’t testify, but if he was innocent, why didn’t he get up and tell his story.” She clearly used his lack of testimony against him.  Doesn’t it make you nervous that these bedrock presumptions of our criminal justice system are routinely batted away by jurors?  IT’S SO DISTURBING.  What to know another one: Defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

I have to stop.

So what about you? What did you think? What bugged you? Are you joining the Enright fan club with me?






This entry was posted on February 6, 2015. 8 Comments

Withdrawal Is Hell



I’ve done this before. Sugar. Purging. Alcohol. Caffeine. Bad boyfriends. Withdrawal is no fucking joke, but it always passes, and in its place are hard-won insights and the giddy, breathless relief that the hairy, incontinent monkey is finally off my back.


You’d think those past experiences would be shining, hopeful beacons on the horizon, proof plucked from my own timeline that I can do hard things. Hell, I can the hardest thing of all: I can change.


But that’s the thing about withdrawal: while it’s the gateway to hope, its path is pitch-black, stark.  You know why there is no Venn diagram showing the overlap of hope and withdrawal? Because the whole fucking point of withdrawal is to crawl through it even though it feels like a hope graveyard. You keep crawling even though all you want is your drug for one more night and you don’t believe for one hot second that letting go is ever going to feel as good as having the needle in your arm, the Starbucks grande, the bad boy on your speed dial.


I’m there now. I’m staring at the ceiling and sweating while my whole family is asleep wondering what the fuck normal people do when they can’t read. (Sleep, apparently, if the three people in my house are any indication.)


I ride the bus feeling half listless and half buzzed. I’m dying to pull out a book, a newspaper, a Buzzfeed article about the 23 Things Only Girls With Fine Hair Understand. God, anything with the written word on it. I settle for a quick scroll through Instagram.


I feel like I’m dying. I’m Ray Charles in that scene where he’s detoxing, thrashing in the bed, screaming about spiders on his skin. I’m Tom Hanks’ character on Family Ties—the uncle who’s so profoundly alcoholic he drinks all of the Keatons’ vanilla extract to get a buzz. I’m the Ulysses-obsessed kid from my Master’s program who had a psychotic break when he abruptly stopped drinking Johnny Walker Red.


I got here by asking for help with my writing. I guess my shrink got sick of hearing me keen about how shitty my writing is compared to, well, every other person in the world who’s strung more than two sentences together. “I’m stuck, I’m paralyzed, I hate every word I write. By the time he was my age, Salinger was done writing.”


If writing is Crossfit, then complaining how much mine sucks is my WOD.


He lowered the boom: Stop reading for a month.


“Say what?” I said. My paying job requires extensive reading; those Amelia Bedelia books aren’t going to read themselves to my illiterate children; my only sustainable hobby (other than therapy) is reading.


“Other than work or reading to your kids, no reading. For a month.”


I understood the exercise. While for most people reading is pleasurable escape, I’d turned it into something else. I’d turned every book into an indictment against my own work. It was as masochistic as the way I guzzled coffee or enabled my college boyfriend by ghost-writing his essays so he could sustain his drug habit and fraternity obligations. The relationship between me and reading had to be reset.

So, surrender.


Was he taking me off heroin? No. Did he take away running or my Costco card? No. Do I have a choice? Yes.


I choose to crawl on, forsaking my seven library books because of the dim promise that at the end of this exercise I may have something better: appreciation, love and compassion for my own stories.

On Failure


I’m failing pretty regularly this year.

I had a secret wish to go a little vegan-ish, especially after Jeff bought us the Thug Kitchen cookbook.  First dish out of the gate I substituted chicken for tempeh.  In my feeble defense, our grocery store didn’t have tempeh.  (I like to think of chicken as simply “meaty tempeh.”)  Beyond the utter vegan failure, the pozole I made tasted weird. It had a weird citrus-y aftertaste and I was starving after I ate it.


I wanted to do yoga five days a week.  My current average, 2.5 weeks into the new year, is once a week.

I vowed not to yell at the kids.  But then Simon spit in my face, and I blew a gasket.  (Is there anything more degrading that someone spitting in your face?)   That was January 1 at 10:00 A.M. Here we are at January 13: He’s still spitting and I’m still yelling.  (Seriously, why does he have to spit in my face?)  I’m pretty sure I’m going to yell EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

I wasn’t going to spend any more money on books because I have approximately 12 at home waiting for me to crack open, and there’s always the library where books are free.  But then I went into the cutest bookstore EVER and well, it would be rude to not support a local independent.

I was also only going to read books I love and dump ones that didn’t speak to me.  So far I’ve finished one that I H-A-T-E-D, one I tolerated, and one that I’m still on the fence about. Fail, fail and fail.

There’s something freeing about it, though. It hasn’t killed me. It’s knocked my aspirations from lofty to manageable. I’m falling into territory that has paralyzed me for decades. I’m actively researching the answer to one of the most terrifying questions ever asked: “What if I fail?”

Oh and this one: I was going to work on my book everyday!  But there have been plenty of days (of the 13 in this year alone) when I simply could not face it.  Days when it feels too risky to open my manuscript because I’m afraid it will sour my mood and make me more yell-y, even without Simon doing a raspberry once inch from my face. On those days, I write other things– blog posts, essays, computer code for the app I’m developing (which will tell you if your outfit is cute or makes you look like a bloated soccer mom from 1989).

I’ve done a lot of things right, too, though I can’t name any right now. Oh, wait, I held the elevator open for someone I don’t particularly care for.  I bought Thank You cards (that I’ll probably never write).  I folded some laundry. I slept all night on my side of the bed. I told someone the truth about a favor she asked of me, the truth being that I didn’t want to do it but was willing to explore how much her request enraged me.

There’s plenty of good when I go looking for it.

I also read this inspirational piece. It made me think about J.D. Salinger writing stories from a foxhole in France during World War II.  Sure, he was already published before that, but he didn’t know he’d ever make it out alive (can you say “Battle of the Bulge” survivor?), and still he wrote and wrote and wrote.  Presumably because he had to.

I’m starting to think that my failures are no big deal.  Neither are my audacious proclamations that I will be vegan/a published author/a yogi/a coupon clipper.  Both are effluvium.  Not more true than anything else about me.

My working hypothesis about what happens if I fail is that it changes nothing.  Simon will probably still spit on me, there will be laundry to fold, thank you cards to not write, and a new day with a shockingly white blank screen.

Either way, I’ll be there.

Tying Up Loose Ends: 3 More Books and That Literary Agent Pitch Thingy

I thought I could just roll into the new calendar page and forget about my loose ends.  Then, I remembered who I am: a bona fide neurotic with just enough OCD for that to be impossible.  So, here’s a post that belongs to 2014, but has been written and posted in 2015 because I am who I am.

My last post extolled the virtues (and flaws) of the 54 books I read in 2014.  But, before that crystal ball fell on Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper (who should totally have a love child), I read three more.  Now it seems I can’t move on with my life without discussing them here.

I ended the year with three books by women I would love to be friends with.  I think they would really like me– if not the real me, then the me I would be to try to get them to like me. That Christie they would most definitely put on their Christmas card list for next year, if not their speed dial.


Book 55: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett. This is one of my desert island books, as it’s definitely in my top five.  Prospective writers should get this for her article, The Getaway Car, alone.  After reading this, I adore Patchett even more than I did before, which is weird, because, really, I should hate her. Not because she’s so talented at telling stories, but because she’s also so damn good-hearted.  She washed her grandmother’s hair in the sink and took her to lunch regularly.  She befriended a mean old nun who taught her to read.  She has deep connections to the animal kingdom through her pet dog(s), whom she writes about with more tenderness and loyalty than I write about my offspring.  She assisted elderly hitchhikers.  For god’s sakes, she taught herself to scale walls so she could join the Los Angeles police academy, so she’s also a complete bad ass.  She mentions her childhood without self-pity or resentment even though writers with less familial upheaval have made careers on attempting to heal those early, primal wounds.  So, I take it back: Ann and I can’t be friends. I like to be better than my friends at (at least) one thing, and I can’t think of no realm where I could best her.  She’s even helped me be a better parent. Case in point: My daughter is in kindergarten and not yet reading– which is fine, I mean, I am totally, 100% FINE with it.  Wait.  No, I’m not.  I’m dying to get my helicopter hands on a phonics book and get her reading by the time the snow thaws (even though her perfectly good school determined that formal reading should be taught in first grade).  Oh, how I want to push, push, push my daughter to read, read, read.  But every time lick my Tiger Mom chops and prepare to pounce, I remember that Ann Patchett didn’t read until third grade, and she’s the queen of arts and letters as far as I’m concerned.  So, I’ll make peace with Ann not being a friend; she can be a hero.   And some far off future day when she passes from this realm to the next, I will get into my car and drive to her memorial service to pay my respects just as she did to Eudora Welty.  If you read this book, you’ll want to join me.



Book 56: Yes, Please, Amy Poehler.  I’m in the habit of reading reviews of the books I’m reading. I start with the NYT (because if this is high school, the NYT is the most popular boy in school, then I’m the slightly overweight, pimply drama dork who would give him a blow job for free any time, no strings attached, if only he would look at me), then I move on to The Washington Post and The Guardian and  Before I read Yes, Please, I read the NYT review that positioned Poehler’s memoir on a continuum that included Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, as well as Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks Into A Bar (actually, I may have added that myself) and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.  The reviewer, Dwight Garner, posits that unlike Fey and Dunham, Poehler can’t write. “Even smart, hilarious people, the ones you wish were your great friends, sometimes can’t write.  The world isn’t fair that way.”  Harsh, Dwight, harsh.  He went on to “rake” into a “small pile” the things he liked about Yes, Please.  Anyway, enough about Dwight, whom I happen to disagree with. It’s not the case that Poehler cannot write.  Is she Ann Patchett? No, she’s not. But she can tell stories about living in rat-infested Chicago apartments and the genesis of the her comedy troupe, Upright Citizens Brigade.  She writes with way more honesty than her counterparts (save Dunham, but that’s a whole other story) about the messy parts of life: divorce (she talks around this), depression, baby weight that will not burn off.  Her thesis that being ambivalent about your art (i.e., not wanting it too much) was both surprising, brilliant and immensely insightful and practical.  Like her counterparts, I sense in Poehler a compulsion to make her childhood more idyllic than it actually was– in all of these books there’s an aversion to being critical of parents across the board, which feels like a whitewash of sorts.  But, as a mother who often wonders: How the HELL do mothers like Amy Poehler make it work with their hours on the set and their two small children and the book deal?  Poehler gives us a peek behind the curtain, as she praises her children’s nannies and admits to loving her job.  So, Dwight, I’ll take honesty and mess and imperfect storytelling any day. (Confidential to Amy: Don’t listen to Dwight.)



Book 57: All the Things I Never Told You, Celeste Ng.  Women in my office with IQ’s higher than mine loved this book.  They’re part of the cool kids crowd at work, whereas I’m only part of the “new kids, coolness not yet determined” crowd.  Naturally, as a needy social climber, I wanted to love the book as much as they did.  Alas, readers, I didn’t.  The trope of The Joy of Cooking as the Bible of oppression for women before the Women’s Movement seems overdone to me.  It’s very Anna Quindlen.  It bores me.  I also had a hard time relating to the parents in the story who cared more about fitting in to their respective societies than loving their children.  Believe me, I want to fit in too.  Maybe because I’m not an ethnic minority it’s harder for me to relate to how it feels to be stared at (echoes of Wonder) and to understand all the ways a good-intentioned parent might try to steer his or her child away from those experiences of “other-ness.”  And the mother who didn’t get to go to medical school and then pushed her daughter ruthlessly (to suicide, ya’ll) in some fucked up vicarious way to heal that dream deferred? I just couldn’t buy it. Or I did, but I didn’t like it.  Who sells their children out like that?  I know, I know, easy for me to say with my infinity choices and access to The Pill and my graduate school and law degree and my white skin.
* * *

Speaking of dreams deferred, one of the literary agents to whom I pitched, sent a lovely rejection email.  She wanted to love it, she said, but she found two problems: the voice and the plot.  The way I see it, I’ve nailed the font size, title and length.  Now if I could just nail character and plot, I’d have myself a book.  Maybe one day Dwight Garner will review my book and proclaim that I cannot write.  If that’s what the future holds, bring it  on.

This entry was posted on January 5, 2015. 16 Comments

The 54 Greatest Books I Read This Year

This is all Stephen King’s fault.  In On Writing, his memoir on writing (“the craft” as he puts it), he mentions that he reads anywhere from 50-70 books a year.  When I read that, I decided I could keep up with Stephen King.  I wasn’t going to let two small children, a full-time job and a part-time therapy habit stop me from keeping up with Stephen Fucking King.

So, I read 54 books this year.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: The year isn’t over so I’ll probably actually read 56.)

Back in July, I told you about the first 22 books I read in 2014. I won’t rehash that here, but you can catch up by clicking here.  I kicked the reading into high gear on the back side of 2014. FN1

What follows is the remainder of the year’s books with my honest appraisals and commentary.

The best of the rest:


1. US by David Nicholls: For the record, I hated his insipid, stunty, first book, One Day, which became a lackluster movie with Anne Hathaway.  Let us never speak of that again.  But Us? I adored this.  Structurally, it’s the best book I read this year as it seamlessly weaves from past to present and back again.  Narrated by a guy whose fears and neuroses feel like a pair of well-worn slippers to me:  I love and recognize them, and they keep me warm. It’s so good I would have sworn it was written by a woman.

2. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: You can’t be faulted for skipping over this one. It’s approximately 7,000 pages long.  But do you really want to be a lazy piece of shit all your life? If the answer is no, then get on the Tartt train because the Las Vegas scenes of protagonist Theo Decker and his shady friend Boris are some of the most powerful in all of contemporary literature.  It won the Pulitzer for a reason.

3. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Set in rural Montana, this book is a bit of a downer.  Lots of relationships falling apart, people failing the people they love, missed connections.  What does it say about me that I love to read about that? The New York Times says this is a novel about the “moral limits of freedom.”  If you like to contemplate those limits, especially against the backdrop of Reaganomics and the spectacular ruggedness of rural Montana, take this for a spin.

4. We Are Not Ourselves by Michael Thomas: Chilling portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease.  Just thinking back to some of the passages depicting the fraying of the father’s mind and its effect on his family makes me want to run out and do a couple of brain exercises.  Debut novel that reminds me to have compassion for my deep, complex, often-burdened Irish heart.

5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: I know you’re sick of hearing about Reese, and Wild, and hiking boots.  I get that.  That’s not what this book is.  There’s no REI, no blisters, no mountaineering or would-be rapists here.  What there is is Strayed’s heart on a platter via her immense compassion and brutal honesty for people in pain who’ve reached out for her hand.  That she offers it back along with so much more makes this book bigger than simply a collection of advice columns.  Don’t skip this.  I cried three times while reading this.

6. Men We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward: Speaking of crying, I cried on the bus while reading the last chapter of this book.  It’s a brutal memoir, linking race, poverty, father-less families and systematic injustice on the Mississippi gulf coast.  Ward leads us through the lives she loved and lost.  After reading this book I realized: I’d follow her anywhere.

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer:  Moving.  That’s the word for this book.  Yes, it’s another Holocaust book, and like all good Holocaust books there are scenes of ghastly cruelty and unspeakable horror.  But there’s also this shining light from the two young people who are surviving the war inspite of the starvation, cruelty, death and destruction all around them.  All the chapters are short too, so it feels like you are reading fast.

8. Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Each chapter is another year in the life of this Midwestern family.  Nothing super dramatic really happens, yet I kept turning the page.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and all of the books will follow the chapter-as-year pattern.  It’s like an unexpected trip to Iowa– it’s relaxing, scenic, and the people are friendly and likeable.


This year I also read some really amazing, well done “lighter” books.  These gems are worth your time and money.

Literary Aperitif / LIGHTER FARE

9.  I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum:  This is a light read about a heavy subject: a marriage unraveling.  It’s Maum’s debut novel and I loved the memorable characters and the good sex scenes.  Maum is very funny.  Like Jonathan Tropper funny. Check this one out.

10. I’m Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Memoir): Let’s see…. an alcoholic drag queen falls madly and sincerely in love with a crack-addicted man-whore.   Underneath the glitz of the gay NYC lifestyle bankrolled by male escort money, there’s a story about what it’s like to care about someone who’s in the thrall of addiction.  This book carefully threads the line between glitz and the bottomless darkness that is active drug addiction.  Outrageous, moving and dark– just like I like my books.


11. The Removers by Andrew Meredith (Memoir):  Meredith is forced into the family business as a “remover,” someone who carts away the bodies of people who expire at home.  While working with his father in these somewhat horrific job, Meredith comes to see his father, who was heretofore disgraced by a sexual misconduct scandal, with compassion and empathy.  Bonus: interesting details about crematoria.

12. Heartburn by Nora Ephron: This was my first Ephron book.  I liked it, though there’s so much gushing over Ephron, especially since her death in 2012, that I was worried my expectations were too high.  They weren’t.  This book reads like her rom-coms (think Sleepless In Seattle), there’s just enough humor, truth, intelligence and wit to make it fun in a breezy, Meg Ryan sort of way.

13. Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner: Meh. This portrayal of a woman’s fall into addiction (prescription drugs) was entirely too sanitized for my taste.  It was like going on a date with a really hot guy you’re sure loves REM records and first edition Ezra Pound works, but it turns out he watches Real Housewives and loves Nickelback.

14. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: Does anyone else think it’s funny that the author’s last name is Miles?  This book, structured as a long complaint letter to American Airlines, is both funny and tragic as the epic fuck-ups of the protagonist’s life come to light in his discursive side bars.  He’s stuck in O’Hare, which has been the sight of more than one of my epic meltdowns.  It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever been an outraged Davey to the airlines’ Goliath, which is pretty much EVERYONE who’s ever flown anywhere.


15. Symptoms of Withdrawal by Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Confession– I “borrowed” this book from my therapist’s book shelf so I could take it on a trip home. I haven’t returned it. The inside cover has an inscription to him that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read. Must amend that ASAP. The book itself might have been good research for Ms. Weiner as it details Lawford’s (nephew of JFK, son of Peter Lawford) mighty struggle with addiction along with his endless grappling with his place in the venerable Kennedy clan (Camelot blah blah blah).  As someone who grew up 5 miles from the grassy knoll, I appreciated the “insider” stories about the Kennedys and all their Hyannis Port, east coast rollicking. Lawford, however, is completely full of himself, which was distracting, especially when he’s telling us how great his recovery/sobriety is. Pretty sure bragging about how humble and sober you are (vis-a-vis your sick-fuck family) violates the humility portion of the recovery program I’m familiar with.

16. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: Ya’ll, holy shit.  Hording is no joke.  I’ve laughed at hording and had the show on as “background music” while cleaning the kitchen.  Now, I feel like a giant asshole because this story enlightened me to what a serious disorder/disease/pathology it is that drives people to bury themselves in filth.  Think about it– it’s one of the most un-funny things I can think of.  This book was a portal into the world where your house could be so packed that a homeless person could be living in your attic and you wouldn’t even know it.  Chilling.

17. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander: These are short stories and now’s a good time to mention that I don’t like short stories.  I find it jarring to read them when I am used to the cohesion and flow of novels.  I enjoyed Englander’s exploration of Big Questions.  The first one was my favorite so download a sample and see if it’s your thing.

18. Diary of the Fall, Michael Laub & Margaret Jull Costa: This is one of the only experimental novels I read this year.  This book is a mind-blower.  Thematically, it explores how subsequent generations deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It focuses on three generations of men: the youngest is searching for forgiveness for a childhood prank that went horribly awry, the father is descending into Alzheimer’s, and the grandfather survived Auschwitz.  Ultimately the story weaves together survival, forgiveness and memory and shows how the Holocaust fucks with all three of those and will affect generations of survivors.

19. Bear, Claire Cameron: My friends were concerned when I mentioned I was reading this book.  Rightfully so.  It’s told from the perspective of a child who, along with her little brother, has survived a bear attack that killed their parents.  So, there they are, little innocents out in the Canadian woods, and their parents have been mauled TO DEATH and they must get help.  She’s five and her little brother is three.  It’s weird to recommend this book, but I do.  It’s awful to contemplate your kids seeing a bear gnawing in your vitals, and I will never EVER go camping again.  If that’s okay with you, read this.

20. Chasing Daylight, Eugene O’Kelly & Corrine O’Kelly: He’s a bigwig at a global accounting firm– the type of guy who flies to Singapore one day and Sydney the next, all while dealing with a “crisis” in a German sub (-sidiary not marine).  He’s a big fucking deal.  Then he gets an inoperable brain tumor and BAM! he has less than 4 months to live.  He decides to go all accountant-y and chart the best way to live his dwindling days.  He’s Type-A to the complete, pedal-to-the-metal max.  Some of that bugged me, but his quest was urgent and earnest.  How, on his death-bed, he still found time to write this book, I hope I’ll never know.  But his stories of reaching out for closures in relationships was incredibly moving.

21. Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch:  The protagonist was a compete ass. Someone I would “unfriend” and not socialize with.  And not particularly smart like a Kevin Spacey character (think Frank Underwood).  If one of my friends was married to him, we would never do couple stuff.  The whole thing gave me the creeps, and not in a good way.  I’m told his book The Dinner is the better of the two, so next year I’ll have better things to say about Koch.


22. An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken.  This memoir depicts the stillbirth of McCracken’s first child, a son whom she and her husband affectionately called “Pudding.”  Thank God, she tells us early on that although Pudding didn’t make it, she went on to have another healthy child. Reading this reminds me of how I had to read Lolita— the subject matter is fraught with so much emotion (judgment and fear and disgust– in the case of Lolita, but sadness, terror and grief here) that you have to really sink into the beautiful language to cope with the emotional heft.  McCracken is humorous, compassionate, human and utterly un-self-pitying (how did she do that???) and this book is a beautiful gem.

23. Hannah Delivered, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew.  This book also concerns births– home births and midwifery.  The character arc of the protagonist who sets out on a journey to become a midwife is realistic and hopeful.   There’s a memorable case of characters– specifically, the gay male midwife who goes off to Mexico to find his birthing-assistance bliss.

24. Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez. This may have been my favorite book of the year. The voice. The violence. The Texas landscape. The poverty. The border town restlessness and “justice”. The lineage of addiction. The burden of racism.  The generational resentments and the things people do to survive dire circumstances.  I’m gushy about this book, as a reader and a writer.  Martinez often breaks down the Fourth Wall and addresses the reader directly– very Frank Underwood and Shakespearean.  His musical references are perfect.  I can totally picture his British Knight shoes and I can taste the tamales he and his family make on Christmas day.  God.  Please read this book.  It feels important to me that you do.


25. Where the Red Fern Grow, Wilson Rawls.  This summer, I ended up on a Facebook discussion loop where this book came up. I made the mistake of saying, “I’ve never read that.”  The chorus of “no way!” “I loved that book!” deafened me.  So I read it.  It’s a great middle-grade story if you like bawling your fucking eyes out over dogs. (I don’t even like animals.)  I’m glad I can cross it off my list of American Classics I Should Read.  If you’re a writer, check out Rawls’ bio– no fancy MFA for him.  Just a life time of enjoying stories.

26. The Third Son, Julie Wu.  Allow me to sum up this book: A Taiwanese boy is not the favorite son. Bad things happen to him.  Then more bad things happen.  Then some really bad things happen in and to his country.  A girl falls for him, but he spends most of his life trying to earn money in American instead of being with her and their son.  Too much of a dream deferred.  Cup of tea, not mine.

27. The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about Liane Moriarity.  I saw her books everywhere. I was positive I wouldn’t like it, but you know what, I rather enjoyed large parts of it.  The ending got a little absurd for my taste, and I missed the satisfaction of vengeance.  The opening riff about the Berlin Wall as a way into the story about the woman who finds her husband’s confession on a bookshelf (which she wasn’t supposed to find until he died) worked for me.  That he actually murdered someone and basically gets away with it, didn’t work as well.


28. Wonder, R. J. Palacio.  The same thing happened with this book.  All over my Facebook feed mothers were extolling the virtues of this book and its message: People who look different should be treated with love and allowed to come into your life as friends.  A fiercely honest friend PM’ed me saying she saw it differently and I decided I had to see for myself.  I liked the multiple viewpoints and thought it captured some of the angst of middle school/high school with some freshness.  My least favorite narrator was the kid who has the facial deformity that functions as the lightening rod in the story.  I had sympathy for him and his plight as a child who gets stared at everywhere he goes, but I thought his level of self-absorption was a turn-off.  I would have liked to see a little bit more nuance around the subject of being an object, being stared at, looking different than everyone else, navigating people’s curiosity.  As it was, I found myself annoyed that he was so obsessed with people staring at him.  Does that make me a bad person? Judging by my Facebook feed, yes.

29. Early Decision, Lacy Crawford.  Because kindergarten and nursery school aren’t stressful enough, I decided to read a “based on real life experience” story about a woman who helps high-achieving (and rich) kids polish their college essays so they can get into their dream schools.  I found the interactions between the college application sherpa and the rich parents who hired her entertaining.  But like The Husband’s Secret, the ending took this absurd turn and involved a coincidence that did not ring remotely plausible so my warm fuzzy feelings soured.

Other Randos

30. Big Brother, Lionel Shriver.  I wanted to like this.  The story: a wildly codependent sister who tries to “save” her morbidly obese/depressed/washed-up brother from himself by leaving her family and going on a crash diet with him.  For me, there wasn’t enough spark here.  And the brother’s vernacular– calling things “hip” and talking like someone from the 70’s was distracting and incredible to me.  There’s also a plot trick at the end, which, as an aspiring novelist struggling with plot structure, infuriated me.  I have a distaste for short cuts or cute tricks.  This book has that, so beware.

31. Defending Jacob, William Landay.  I was 357 pages into this book when I finally realized it was fiction, not a memoir.  After that, I lost steam because the father’s saga of defending his son against murder charges in light of an avalanche of evidence against him seemed much more urgent when it was real.  It’s a great read, but let me be clear: IT IS FICTION.

32. Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin.  Don’t ask me why I read a 320-page bio of Johnny Carson; I have no good answers.  But it was an enjoyable read.  What I remember about Johnny Carson, whom I only saw when I was allowed to stay up late, was that he was skinny, wry, and had that pencil he was always tapping.  That he was actually a petty, ruthless, tyrannical alcoholic with intimacy issues does not surprise me.  The fact that I liked reading all about it from his personal lawyer’s point of view probably says a lot about me.  None of it very good.

33. Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin.  I wrote a review here this summer.  I’m still pissed she shafted Willie Nelson in her big old Texas book, but maybe in time I will forgive her. (No I won’t.)


Footnote 1: Other stats for the year: I spent $349.00 on books, a number I predict will go down now that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the Chicago public library.

Total number of pages read: approx. 13, 549.  That that, illiteracy!