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Britain

Portmeirion: The Architecture of Happiness

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Earlier this month we visited Portmeirion, a coastal village in North Wales exclusively for the use and pleasure of holidaymakers. I can’t remember the last time I was so enchanted with a place. A passion project of architect Clough Williams-Ellis that first opened in the 1920s, Portmeirion remains true to the description Lewis Mumford gave it in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker: “…a gay, deliberately irresponsible reaction against the dull sterilities of so much that passes as modern architecture today.” It is also an entirely enjoyable place to spend at least one day and night, as we did, and I suspect a week would pass just as easily.

Employing the landscape to create a liminal state, Portmeirion ingeniously prepares you to experience it on your inbound journey. Located on a peninsula off Cardigan Bay, your arrival requires an hour’s drive through the stark Welsh countryside of Snowdonia National Park—the land for which was secured for public use by Williams-Ellis—which is just enough time for your mind to absorb the natural landscape and unravel itself from the day-to-day grind. You descend into the village via a private road, then on foot under the thresholds of a Gatehouse and a Bridge House. The sum total effect of this mode of arrival reminded me of an explanation I was once given for the tunnel-like entrance to a mosque in Cairo: to prepare the person for a transformation once he or she arrives in the inner sanctuary.

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The inner sanctuary of Portmeirion is a jolly cliff-side Italianate village populated by tasteful tat boutiques, a bookstore (I like to think this is because Williams-Ellis thought no village complete without one), an ice cream shop, and several cafés and restaurants arranged around a central square. There are cottages where guests can stay for the evening as well as a small art deco-style hotel and restaurant at the bottom of the village with a sweeping view over the tidal estuary. Buildings and follies are adorned with idiosyncratic details, many of which Williams-Ellis rescued from distressed, once-grand British homes and buildings. Staff are uniformed, plentiful, and extraordinarily friendly, all seeming to have undergone Disneyland-style hospitality training. The Welsh accent helps; Mumford aptly described it by saying “…in a country that still does homage to its bards and orators, where every countryman still speaks in a soft singsong, as if verse were more natural than prose.” Fittingly, the bookstore is well stocked with volumes by Dylan Thomas and other Welsh poets should you wish to heighten the mood.

The original impetus for our visit was my husband’s interest in the village that had been the set for the 1960s cult-classic television show, The Prisoner. For me, Portmeirion had vague associations with mid-century pottery made by Williams-Ellis’ daughter, the designer Susan Williams-Ellis, which was enough to rouse my interest. We weren’t sure what to expect and only booked a single night on the theory that if it was all kitsch and irony, 24 hours was about how long we could sustain the joke without growing weary. As Christopher Hussey wrote in a 1930 issue of Country Life, “a pastiche conglomeration such as the acroplois at Portmeirion might easily have been an architectural horror. Set down in words, the idea of dumping a bright Italian village on the Welsh coast is scarcely promising.”
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As it turned out, our fears were completely unwarranted. Perhaps helped by the generous appearance of the sun for what locals told us was the first time this spring, Portmeirion was a joy. It was just busy enough to have interesting people watching but not to be overrun. There were several well-situated watering holes to engage in such people watching and one Prisoner-themed shop to entertain my husband. Should you tire of the village, Deudraeth Castle is a five-minute walk that’s just uphill enough to make the garden an excellent vista point from which to enjoy an apertif (they also have a brasserie and hotel). We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in the village, which was exceptional, and the next morning we walked one of several trails behind the village through a spectacular forest of rhododendron and camellias. The hydrangea weren’t yet in bloom, but I’m told they’re something to see.

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Despite tremendous competition from the various amusements on offer, my greatest discovery of the visit was Clough Williams-Ellis, with whom I’ve developed a minor obsession. I’m compelled by his singular vision and commitment to creating something for no other reason that pure aesthetic pleasure for the public. Unwittingly I’ve been tracing a thread of such pioneers on my recent visits to the UK. Three weeks before going to Portmeirion I visited the former country home of William Morris, the man most associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His famous quotes include “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” and “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Both apply equally well to William-Ellis’ creation of Portmeirion. These days this same thread is being woven by people such as the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, the creative director of Living Architecture, an organization that commissions exceptional modern architecture for the purpose of holiday rentals. The artist Grayson Perry designed one of their projects, and his House for Essex seems a logical next stop on my informal journey along the British trail of beautiful things. But first I want to go back and spend that week in Portmeirion.

Cotswolds

Anarchy at Kelmscott Manor

Back garden of Kelmscott Manor

View of Kelmscott Manor from the back garden

On Saturday we visited Kelmscott Manor, the rural Oxfordshire former retreat of William Morris and his family, as well as the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Upon arrival we were ambushed by an enthusiastic docent who immediately pointed out the location of the loos, a greeting that I suspect is fine-tuned to address the most pressing needs of the pensioner demographic that comprises the majority of visitors. When it comes to leisure activities, I have always been old before my time.

The docent’s overview of the grounds also included a tearoom, and, with fifteen minutes to kill until our timed-entry ticket was valid and rain clouds threatening overhead, we decamped to the whitewashed barn for a cup of tea drunk from William Morris-patterned mugs. In the entryway of the house we were “greeted” by another guide who blocked our way until she completed her elaborate explanation of the one-way system we were to follow as we proceeded through the property. When finally allowed to pass, we discovered the downstairs rooms were filled with pottery, tapestries, and a striking portrait by Rossetti of Jane Morris, who was both Rossetti’s muse and purported lover, as well as William’s wife.

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In the Green Room yet another docent—this one sporting an impressive outcropping of black hair in his ears—explained that one of the couches on display was produced by Morris’ company from inexpensive boxwood so that it would be affordable by the middle class. He went on to tell us that most of what was produced would have only been accessible to the elite, a curious irony given Morris was an impassioned socialist (some of the socialist pamphlets he penned are on display in the attic) and one that reminded me of the paradox of the modern-day artisanal movement.

Upstairs we made the fatal mistake of viewing the attic rooms before the first floor, inadvertently violating the one-way system instructions. After tense negotiations with another volunteer, we managed to regain entry. For a brief moment as we walked up the down stairs, I felt what it was to be an anarchist.

Of all the treasures on view in the manor, the one I found most striking isn’t mentioned in the pamphlet they hand you at the door. In the North Hall, hanging from a door that’s partially obscured by a grand hooded settee, is William Morris’ black overcoat. It’s a caped style à la Sherlock Holmes and patently lacking in the aesthetic qualities most often associated with Morris.

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Morris’ overcoat

Later, while dipping soldiers of garlic bread into hens egg en cocotte at the excellent local pub, The Plough Inn, I realized what the coat reminded me of. In Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, she has a habit of taking Polaroids of everyday items that belonged to artists she loves—Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Herman Hesse’s typewriter. If Smith had visited Kelmscott, the coat would’ve undoubtedly gotten the Polaroid treatment. In the book she also recounts how an unnamed poet gave her an ill-fitting, unlined Commes de Garçons black overcoat as an impromptu birthday gift. Later, much to her distress, she loses the coat.

Perhaps the Society of Antiquaries of London that runs Kelmscott Manor would consider loaning Morris’ coat to Smith as a replacement. Like Morris, Smith is an artist who wears many hats, from poet to writer to artist (in her case, Polariods instead of textiles). I can’t help thinking they would’ve gotten along had they been contemporaries, and that Morris would’ve approved of the loan as heartily as the busybody docents of the manor would object.

The Details:

Kelmscott Manor (open Wednesdays and Saturdays, April to October)
Kelmscott
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 252486

The Plough
Kelmscott
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 253543

Cotswolds

Easter

Our version of going to church on Easter Sunday was informal, stopping in to the Norman church of Saint James the Great in Coln St. Dennis towards the end of a long walk.
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The churchyard is overgrown in the back and inside there are small piles of stone dust and water stains high on the walls. Alongside the signs of dilapidation is the evidence this is still a working church: an electric heater installed behind the pulpit to warm the calves of the rector, vases of browning daffodils.

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On a wall in the rear hangs a list of rectors from 1272 – 2010, an improbable symbol of permanence in a structure that felt fragile. Husband and I had spent the walk talking, occasionally with raised voices, about our next moves—geographical and career—in life. I was feeling untethered, a sense that was heightened by the general state of terrorist-related anxiety across Europe. This historical record calmed me, a gold-inscribed reminder that life goes on.

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As we left the church we carried on past our normal turn-off, walking into Calcot. The road opens up as you ascend out of the valley and we were greeted by strong wind at our back and tiny pieces of hail hammering the back of our legs until, on the final stretch, it stopped and this appeared.

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Random

Some thoughts on MS, AI, and novelty human exoskeletons

Bambi the lobster mermaid on Coney Island will make sense by the end of the blog.
“Lobster” by Angus McIntyre, Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License

Yesterday I read a tweet from the MS Society UK that said “80% of people with MS are forced to give up work within 15 years of diagnosis. That needs to change…” The intention of the tweet seemed in part to be to raise awareness of the need for those diagnosed with MS to immediately go on and stay on disease modifying drugs, but the immediate effect on me was to do some math on the green paper towel sitting on my desk. It appeared that I had an 80% chance of being out of work by the end of 2027, which was a little earlier than I had expected retirement.

Whether it’s rational or not, I don’t really think I’ll be forced to do anything because of MS. I’ve been on disease modifying drugs since diagnosis—putting aside the pesky question of when I should have been diagnosed—and the only symptoms I’ve experienced during that time have been a few weeks of what at worst could be called a nuisance. Certainly I’ve not experienced disability. That, however didn’t stop me from noticing an article about Japanese robotics that could help disabled people that kept popping up in my social media feeds this week. I never clicked through; the knowledge that someone was working on it should I ever need it was comfort enough.

What I did click through on today is a piece by Gary Marcus about the current state of artificial intelligence, including the big news this week that DeepMind beat the European champion in Go, “a game that has been notoriously difficult for machines.” I started reading it thinking nothing about MS, spurred on only by my recently acquired interest in AI, nurtured by encounters with terrific film and literature on the subject. (My late-blooming interest in AI is a matter of much derision on the part of my lifelong sci-fi-loving husband.) But when I got to the part where Marcus recounts a talk by a graduate student of a deep learning expert on the same day the Go paper went public, I immediately felt a pang familiar to any patient of neurological disease who quickly learns the answers to most of her questions are “We don’t know.” Speaking about AI, the graduate student acknowledged “(a) people in the field still don’t really understand why their models work as well as they do and (b) they still can’t really guarantee much of anything if you test them in circumstances that differ significantly from the circumstances on which they were trained.”

In other words, AI sounds a lot like the human brain. And as with the human brain, it’s inevitable (as had been the fodder for the conflicts in countless sci-fi plot) that AI will be unleashed on the world before we ever understand it. It’s already been happening for a while with products like Siri and Google Now.

I’m less concerned about this than what Marcus poses at the end of his article: “The real question is whether the technology developed there can be taken out of the game world and into the real world. IBM has struggled to make compelling products out of DeepBlue (the chess champion) and Watson (the Jeopardy champion).”

As a person with a neurological disease that has the potential to impact both my motor and cognitive function, the one that’s more terrifying is the latter. Sure, not being able to walk is a horrifying prospect, but people are working on powerful exoskeletons I’ll soon be able to suit up in to handle that; I want mine to look like a lobster, just for the record. (Note to self: business idea for novelty human exoskeletons.) If AI scientists want to deliver a compelling product, how about one that will supplement cognitive skills in patients with neurological impairment? All I ask is she’s given a better name than Siri.

Berlin

A Thank-You Note to Mr. Bowie

Stoop of Paris Bar: “Passerby be modern.”

By coincidence I spent most of the day before David Bowie died in a part of West Berlin whose identity is inextricably linked to him. It started with my arrival at Zoo station—a key location in the 1981 film Christiane F., which Bowie made the soundtrack for and also appeared in as himself—to take a walking tour that, unbeknownst to me, had been cancelled.

At loose ends once I realized the tour wasn’t going to happen, I ducked into the Helmut Newton Foundation across the street from the station and spent an hour or so refreshing my memory on Mr. Newton (Jewish Berliner who fled in the 1930s, killed in a car accident leaving Chateau Marmont in the noughties, fond of photographing naked ladies). At the museum gift shop I admired two of the more lewd postcards, but the prude in me settled on a Newton portrait of David Bowie in a bathrobe sitting on the edge of the bed at Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel. I would send it to my husband, I thought, who is still in California. Bowie is his hero.

Paris Bar

After the museum, I walked the couple blocks to Paris Bar, an establishment on Kanstrasse that’s infamous for hosting Bowie and Iggy Pop during their Berlin years—three years in the late 1970s when Bowie made three albums, including Heroes. It was mostly empty when I arrived, and the waiter didn’t seem to mind that I wandered around taking photographs—undoubtedly not the first person to do so—including of a an eight-person table hidden in an alcove in the back corner and watched over by an enormous portrait of a female British artist whose name I forgot (there’s also what I think is a very small portrait of Bowie over the bar, but on second glance it may have just been a young boy). It’s a spot that would be perfect for a debauched celebration, and I wished very much to have the occasion to book it. Instead I sat contentedly in a banquette at the front, ate a steak, half-read the International New York Times, and people-watched as couples rotated through the seats to either side of me.

My Sunday with the ghost of Bowie was not an uncannily timed homage to a personal hero. While I admire him, the truth is that I can’t legitimately call myself a fan. For that to happen I think you have to discover an artist on your own, most likely when you are young, and I didn’t discover Bowie until my late twenties or early thirties vis-à-vis my husband, for whom, as I mentioned, Bowie is a hero. THE hero.

Through a likely combination of being slightly too young and too suburban, Bowie didn’t come into my childhood consciousness until Let’s Dance, a song that even my husband finds unfortunate. With no other history of Bowie, I just assumed he was another 1980s pop star.

He was, of course, about the farthest thing you could get from that and, at the same time, that. Bowie bent and morphed and transformed a hundred times, shapeshifting to suit his artistry. And for this reason, even if I had been exposed to him, perhaps shepherded into the coolness by some older teen-aged sibling of a friend, I doubt I would have liked him as a kid. I grew up in a household terrified into submission by middle-class WASP norms. Gender bending raging talents weren’t something we knew what to do with. Bowie would have, in all likelihood, scared me.

An aside. When I was in middle school, like everyone else I knew I loved Prince’s Purple Rain. My friend, Michele M., and I used to crank it out of a ghetto blaster on her front lawn as we lathered ourselves with baby oil and laid out in the sun (my family was afraid of a lot of things in the eighties—Jimmy Carter comes to mind—but skin cancer was not yet one of them). Prince was nominated for multiple Grammys that year and I will never forget watching the telecast home alone with my mother because when Prince appeared (in a cape and heeled boots in my memory), she commented, to no one in particular, “what a flaming faggot.”

In fairness to my mother, she didn’t say these words with anything that resembled contempt (and, as it turns out, she has a gay daughter now, so life’s funny that way). It was more like she was trying out a new concept, something she had heard (which, hilariously, was wrong), turning the words over aloud as if trying on a new pair of shoes. After that night I never heard her use the word again, and I only mention it now to illustrate my family’s complete ineptness at absorbing anything that fell outside our normative boundaries.

This morning when I heard about Bowie’s death on Twitter, one of the sweetest tweets I read was from a gay writer, Steve Silberman: “Goodbye, David. You probably saved the lives of millions of gay/trans/odd/”extraterrestrial” kids. RIP”.

Without wanting to sound dramatic, I think my husband was probably one of those odd kids, the kind who, unlike me, wasn’t terrified by Bowie but deeply comforted by his otherness. My husband, exposed to some of the harsher realities of life at a young age, has always been comforted by things that make me uncomfortable—terribly sad movies, for example. These reflections of life as he knows it in art make him feel sane, he tells me. It’s a relief that others see the world like him. And for that, Mr. Bowie, I thank you.

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2015

In March we took an opportunity to return to Berlin from California for my work—by which I mean to keep my job we moved. We told ourselves it was a chance to travel, and it was. We visited various outposts of Berlin, touring Frederick the Great’s summer palace in Potsdam, the churches where Bach conducted choirs in Leipzig, and nearly capsizing in a car-battery-powered houseboat on a storm-ravaged Müggelsee, whose shores are lined with DDR-era dachas.

Elbe-side garden of Hotel Helvetia

Farther afield we stayed at an eco-hotel (as far as I could tell this meant light wood furniture and guests wearing Birkenstocks) in Saxony Switzerland, a national park between Dresden and the Czech Republic border that I’ve wanted to visit since I saw a TV show about it years ago on the BBC. This is the landscape of sandstone mountains that German romantic painter Casper David Friedrich made famous in his painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, but we mostly clung to an earthbound bike path between towns and villages along the wide river Elbe. Here kelly-green buoys strained against the current like giant waterskiing gnomes. It was spargel (asparagus) season and we ate well.

Post-Hebdo and pre-Bataclan, we had Paris. We walked from our Berlin apartment to the Hauptbahnhof and, two trains later, stepped on to the platform at Gare du Nord and flâneused and flâneured to Île Saint-Louis, which I like to think gives us bragging rights to say we walked to Paris. That evening in the Marais we drank enough wine that it seemed like a good idea to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, which is to say just the right amount of wine for a Thursday evening in spring in Paris. The next day we rented a tandem bike that we pushed more than we rode along the traffic-clogged left bank before returning to the Marais for an encore of the night before.
In Belgium we regretted spending only one night in Antwerp in favor of two in Bruges, regrets that we soothed with local brews and plans to return. I have a rain check for a date with some of Rubens’ fat ladies at the cathedral.

View from the Alsatian village of Itterswiller

In September we cycled around Alsace for a week and ate one of those lunches that can make a vacation, at the kind of place you decide to stop at only to get out of the rain that turns out to be full of charm at every turn. Le Pressoir de Bacchus is run by a husband (front of house) and wife (chef) team who will let you park your bikes in their covered private courtyard, assist you in translating the menu with a French-English dictionary they keep behind the bar since there’s no cell phone signal and therefore no Google Translate, and all the while pretend not to notice you’re dressed in appalling stretchy cycle clothes that the local French patrons wouldn’t be caught mort in. Oh and you eat a crayfish and mussel risotto that makes your very picky husband realize he does in fact like mussels, to say nothing of the Baba au Rhum for dessert. Long live Baba au Rhum. (It will not surprise you to learn that this year I was one of those insufferable people that takes pictures of their food, all cataloged here rieslingdiaries.tumblr.com.)

The Guvnors’ Assembly assembles at The Royal Oak in Tetbury

In October I took an unplanned trip to NYC to see my niece and her parents. We took selfies on top the Empire State Building, saw Matilda on Broadway, and brunched with an old college friend, but I suspect if you ask my niece her highlight was the hour she spent with my college friend’s daughter digging mica out of the boulders near the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.

In a year of travel luxuries, the biggest luxury was that we were able to take monthly return visits to our beloved Cotswolds. It’s a destination that needs no embellishment, but visits to the old-timey Giffords Circus with husband’s aunt and uncle and a vintage-themed cycle outing with the jauntily-attired Guvnors’ Assembly were highlights.

Paris from Pont Louis Philippe

While humble brags are the bread and butter of a Christmas round-up letter, it seems strange not to mention the two defining news events of a year living in Europe, the attacks in Paris and the ongoing refugee crisis that will see up to a million people arriving in Germany before the year is out. Since the attacks in Paris I’ve found myself making silent and foolish-in-their-perceived-logic calculations about mundane choices in daily life—is this restaurant or airplane route or Christmas market more or less likely to be a target—and still, like everyone I know, I’ve gone on doing all of these things. Life is anything but business as usual for the tens of thousands of refugees that arrived in Berlin this year, their presence largely shielded from view by the urban spread of the city. Like Los Angeles it’s a city whose sprawl makes it perhaps too easy to remain in your own enclave.

Back in America for the holidays we’re looking forward to hanging out with my niece in Florida. I have high expectations for the Christmas present I’ve bought her, a jumpsuit with a navy-blue top and gold-sequin shorts that looks like something you could wear to tap dance your way undetected into the chorus line of 42nd Street. I suspect she will be more impressed by some iridescent shrapnel of a shell she scavenges from the beach. And this, I think, is a humble yet hopeful wish to leave you with. May we all scavenge something shiny from this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Books

Top 10 Books of 2015

Better English language bookstores in Berlin than my California hometown mean I actually read a few real live paper books in 2015

Weekend newspapers and the literary internet have been brimming with best books of 2015 lists, which got me thinking about my favorite reads of the year. I’m not one of those people (who are those people?) who can keep up with the flood of good stuff being written so not all of these were published in 2015, even if that’s the year I got around to reading them.

1. The First Bad Man by Miranda July was my favorite book of the year: fresh, startling, gross, and very very funny. I didn’t think I’d find a more original female protagonist than Tiffany in Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, then I made the acquaintance of Cheryl, star of The First Bad Man. Goodreads review here.

2. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink is a lightning-paced whirl of a flawed but addictive novel from a writer championed into prominence by the much-maligned Jonathan Franzen. Just read it. Or, if you must know more, read my longer Goodreads review here.

3. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine is a memoir by the first lady of punk you’ve never heard of. She hung with Sid Vicious and received fashion advice from Vivienne Westwood, but if that’s not enough to get you interested it turns out this is a rather moving tome on living a creative life. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic right after I read this—which I also enjoyed—and was struck by how much Albertine’s memoir is a gritty, real-life demonstration of the principles Gilbert espouses. Goodreads review here.

4. Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe is admittedly a niche read, but if you happen to be an Anglophile who’s a fan of Alan Bennett and London Review of Books (nevermind that the one time you actually read LRB a piece by Will Self made you want to stab your eyes out with pencils) and generally impressed by some vague concept of north London intellectuals, you won’t be able to resist Nina’s Stibbe’s real-life letters to her sister during her time as a nanny for LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. A Nick Hornby-penned adaptation is coming to BBC One TV screens in 2016.

Books 5., 6., and 7. are The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, A Place In My Country by Ian Walthew, and The Snow Geese by William Fiennes, which I guess means I have a thing for British male writers waxing lyrical about nature and the concept of home. Rebanks and Walthew also offer local insight into two iconic British landscapes, the Lake District and the Cotswolds, respectively, that most of us only know as visitors. Goodreads reviews here and here.

8. Outline by Rachel Cusk proves I also have a thing for solitary woman protagonists. Evocative of Joan Didion’s best fiction. Goodreads review here.

9. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a book of feminist essays described by a Twitter friend as a gateway drug for Solnit. She must have been right because I’m now reading Wanderlust.

10. Redeployment by Phil Klay, the lauded book of short stories by an Iraq war veteran and required reading for Americans. Goodreads review here.

Since it’s a Top 10 list I’ll stop here with a quick mention of two other books I enjoyed: Sarah Hepola’s drinking memoir, Blackout, and a collection of essays by writers without children, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum. Oh and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, who also happens to have an essay in the previously mentioned collection from Meghan Daum.

Here’s to a 2016 full of good books— may your nightstand runneth over.