The 7 best things you can do for your face

Anyone who knows me well knows that I go through seasonal obsessions. I decide to learn everything I can about a particular topic, and then I move on to the next topic.

This past season, my obsession was skincare science. (Who can say where these things come from? The prior season, it was native plants.) I spent untold hours reading articles, peer-reviewed papers, blogs, reviews, and ingredient dictionaries. I still don’t really understand chemistry, but I now have a decent grasp of the science behind what you put on your face.

So, buckle up: Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned.

1. Sunscreen every damn day.

Even in the winter. Even if you don’t like it. You have to wear sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if you use antioxidants and moisturizers and the whole shebang: If you don’t wear sunscreen, everything else you’re putting on your face has been rendered worthless.

There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens physically block the sun and are usually composed of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun and are also known as organic sunscreen. Both work; it depends on what your skin prefers.

SPF matters. Your daily SPF should be at least 30 (broad spectrum, protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays). Anything much over 50 isn’t really giving you additional protection, so don’t go crazy and think that SPF 150 will protect you from the sun’s rays for all eternity. Chill.

Finding an excellent sunscreen is The Great Quest for all skincare adventurers. It is very difficult, and you will fail many times along the way. Thankfully, there are many others walking this perilous path who have written great reviews; this is a nice place to start, and here is a very helpful overview about how to wear sunscreen well and why it matters.

Skincare science post
Current favorite sunscreens.

Favorite sunscreens I’ve tried

  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen, SPF 70 (I know that the 70 is overkill, but the composition is excellent and it layers beautifully)
  • Clinique Pep-Start Daily UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 50
  • Olay Complete Daily Defense All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30 (Olay needs to COOL ITS JETS with the product naming; my fingers are so tired from typing that)

2. If you’re over 20 and you’re not using a retinoid, you might as well just end it all now.

Just kidding. I only found out about retinoids last year! But they are the powerhouse ingredient of skincare. There’s, like, nothing they can’t do: even your tone, texture; reduce acne and sun damage; lessen wrinkles and fine lines, etc. As Into the Gloss says:

“The results are almost too good: With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads. Science can’t prove that retinoids will make you a more likeable person, but doesn’t hurt to try for that, too.”

Before you go crazy, here are some basic rules of thumb:

  1. Start using retinoids gradually. Start using it just once a week until you build up a tolerance. Retinoids are known to cause irritation. I destroyed my moisture barrier by going crazy with retinoids, so don’t be like me. Go slow.
  2. Use a retinoid or retinol product at night. There’s some evidence to indicate that retinoids are rendered useless when exposed to sunlight.
  3. You only need a small amount. Slapping on more product doesn’t make it work better.
  4. Don’t give up! Retinoids take weeks, like 8-12 weeks or even longer, to start making a difference. The biggest mistake people make with retinoid is quitting too soon. Don’t be like those people. Fight the good fight.

Um, what are you waiting for?

Skincare science post

Favorite retinoid products

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. There’s really nowhere else you should look, IMHO, for a retinoid. This is the most potent, gentle, AND affordable thing on the market. I feel like I should buy it in bulk. I’ve been using this one for about 5 months now, and it’s a dream. Never caused me any irritation and my fine lines and skin texture have improved dramatically after months of faithful use. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!
  • Differin. I didn’t have a bad reaction to Differin; I just preferred the texture of The Ordinary’s product, so that’s what I’m using. Differin is also cheap and now available in drugstores without a prescription. It’s strong (you only need a pea-sized amount for your whole face), and it may cause you to purge (i.e., break out even more) at first.

3. Don’t trust product claims: Read and understand ingredients.

Everyone is trying to sell you something. If there is anything Americans need to learn, it is this.

Companies will say literally anything to get you to buy stuff; they will promise you the moon and invisible pores in just one week.

Trust no one. Instead, school yourself on some skincare science and cosmetic ingredients.

This is very exhausting if you are not a chemist, but again, the internet is Full of Wonders. I’ve learned so much about what to look for and what to avoid after just a few hours of education. Resources below.

Semi-related caveat emptor: Don’t get sucked into the popular myth that all “natural” beauty products are better for your face. There ARE a lot of natural ingredients that are awesome for your skin, but a lot of “natural” cosmetics companies have poor formulations that are not well tested, not backed by research, and/or do next-to-nothing for your skin. Some natural products are downright damaging on your sweet little face (e.g., lemon, vinegar, essential oils, coconut oil if you’re acne prone, etc.). Step away from the pantry. Trust science and solid formulations. (There are some “natural” brands I love, like Yes To and Derma E, and there are also many natural brands that are just overpriced garbage.)

Don’t forget the primary lesson: Trust no one. “Natural beauty” companies are not charities: They also just want to sell you something (and look righteous while doing it).

Favorite resources

  • Paula’s Choice: Ingredients dictionary: Don’t recognize an ingredient? Look it up here! This is a fantastic place to get thorough, scientific, and yet understandable explanations for which ingredients are great and which will murder your precious epidermis.
  • Beautypedia: Take some reviews with a grain of salt, but in general, this is a pretty trusty place to get science-based reviews of beauty products. This site is the brainchild of Paula Begoun, she of Paula’s Choice fame, who is worshipped (and sometimes decried) by skincare enthusiasts the world over.
  • CosDNA: Don’t get scared about the Chinese. This is a crowd-sourced database where people can analyze the ingredients of a million cosmetics products. The system then flags common irritants or inadvisable ingredients.

4. Respect the pH of your face.

If, like me, you have a problem with breakouts and texture, and swing between dry and oily skin, balancing the pH of your face is crucial.

Your skin’s natural pH is about 5.5. Many popular cleansers and products, however, have pH levels that fluctuate in wild directions on either end of the scale (lemon, for example, has a pH of 2; many foaming cleansers have a pH of 9).

The most important components of this lesson are to choose the right cleanser and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Use cleansers with solid ingredients that have a pH between 4 and 6; 5 is ideal. Many popular cleansers are really harsh, which I was surprised to discover. Oil-based cleansers can’t be pH tested, and I love them. They’re super gentle and not stripping, so I heartily recommend them as well. Here’s a place to start to determine the pH of your cleanser, using the crowd-sourced genius of the web.

Skincare science post
Current favorite cleansers.

Favorite cleansers (all with good ingredients and low pH)

Fun fact: Drinking water is great, but it really doesn’t do much to hydrate your face. (At least, there’s little evidence that it makes a difference.) Instead, commit to high-powered hydrators and moisturizers every day. A common misconception is that people with oily skin don’t need moisturizers. They do; I do. Balance your skin’s overproduction of oil by keeping it balanced and moisturized. Every day!

Skincare science post
Current favorite hydrators and moisturizers.

Favorite moisturizers

  • Hada Labo Gokujyun Hydrating Lotion. Miraculous stuff! It’s like a hydrating toner that turns into a super-light moisturizer. Incredibly affordable and immediately effective; I put this on my face twice a day, every day, and it’s helped me tremendously with hydration. The bottle will also probably last me a year.
  • Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. I’m in love with this weird-smelling stuff packed with snail slime. Powerful ingredients, and you only need a tiny amount to cover your whole face with goodness. It’s the last step of my nightly routine.
  • Glossier Priming Moisturizer. I’m not enamored with this moisturizer, but it’s been working well for me for the past few months. I imagine I’ll need something heavier in the winter, because it’s very light, but it delivers what it promises.

5. Exfoliate with acids instead of with bits of rock.

Exfoliation is a critical part of having a smooth, even complexion, but I had no idea that you could exfoliate chemically. Physical exfoliation—harsh scrubs that everyone used as a teen and still can’t put down, rotating face brushes—can work too, but you’re at a much higher risk of damaging your skin. Korean women, the ruling goddesses of skincare, rarely, if ever, use physical exfoliants and they have perfect skin, so I’m listening to them. Instead, be like a Korean goddess and exfoliate chemically, with acids!

There are two kinds of acids that are great for your face: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). I have worked both into my routine, but I am trying to help myself reintroduce them gradually, because they’re potent and I freaked my skin out a bit at first.

Here’s some great advice from Paula and from facialist Renée Rouleau about adding chemical exfoliants into your routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite chemical exfoliants.

Favorite exfoliants

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. When you start reading skincare blogs, this is THE most-mentioned holy grail product in the acids space. Everyone raves about it. My advice: Go slow! Don’t be like me. Start once a week and then increase use based on how your skin tolerates it.
  • Derma E Overnight Peel (AHA). Solid ingredients and easy to use.

6. Up your antioxidant and vitamin game.

Your face needs vitamins too! Antioxidant-rich serums and moisturizers are an important step toward healthy, glowing skin. Vitamins and antioxidants can be a little tricky, because there are so many of them, and sometimes they don’t play well with others (especially the acids), but they have tons of benefits. I’ve worked a few favorites into my normal routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite serums.

Favorite antioxidant serums

  • Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. I’ve done more reading about vitamin C than any other skincare product because vitamin C is (a) really great for your face, but (b) really difficult to get right in the formulation. The big problem is that it’s very unstable (i.e., it oxidizes, or goes bad, rapidly), and it often does not mix well with other products. That’s why people like this Mad Hippie serum, because it’s a more stable form of the vitamin, mixed with the super-beneficial ferulic and hyaluronic acids. Here’s an incredibly persuasive review of the stuff.
  • Glossier Super Pure serum (niacinamide, or vitamin B3, and zinc). Helps with blemishes and congestion! Have been using this for a few months in my morning routine, and I think it’s helped keep breakouts at bay. Next, I’m going to try The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% because it’s a lot cheaper.

7. Listen to your skin.

Glowing reviews are seductive. We’ve all been there: rushing out to buy something a friend told you was amazing, only to be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t work for you (or causes a pizza-level breakout).

The primary thing I’ve learned in my skincare voyage is what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. You may hate a lot of stuff that I love, and that’s OK. Every face is different!

Learn to love and respect the skin you have. Heed the messages it sends you.

And this, my friends, ends the skincare saga. For now.

Disclaimer: I was not paid or asked to say any of these nice things about these products. This is all from the goodness of my skincare-obsessed heart and depressed wallet.

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The garden isle

Kalalau Trail
View from the Kalalau Trail

The fam went to Kauai for a week, and we thought about staying forever.

Dream holiday, really. Perfect time with my hilarious, strange, and marvelous family.

I took all of these photos with my old, crappy iPhone, and the island’s aggressive beauty is STILL VERY EVIDENT. Kauai cannot be dimmed!

Kalalau Trail
Another view from the Kalalau Trail
Koke'e State Park
Canyon views from Koke’e State Park
Koke'e State Park
Kels and Alex

Koke'e State Park

Koke'e State Park Koke'e State Park

Koke'e State Park
Dad and Mom share a gigantic shave ice.
Queen's Bath
Checking out Queen’s Bath. Note that Jak roller-bladed here.
Queen's Bath
Queen’s Bath
Queen's Bath
Hi, Guion!
First days in Kauai
Hanalei Bay on a foggy day
First days in Kauai
Alex and Jak at Hanalei Bay

First days in Kauai

First days in Kauai
View in our neighborhood
First days in Kauai
Feral chickens everywhere!
First days in Kauai
Sam down at our private beach
First days in Kauai
Evening view from the outdoor shower

Not a joke. The rainbows are everywhere.

Verdict: Kauai = totally worth the 22 hours it took to get there.

Koke'e State Park

The little myth

September
Tree, from a recent hike.

On the precipice of 30, I am learning how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. L’art pour l’art.

In my youth, I felt I had to master anything I loved. But then, inevitably, my inability to master a thing diminished my passion for it. For instance, I loved ballet. I loved watching ballets, studying ballerinas. I took ballet lessons as a girl, and then, as a young adult, read Apollo’s Angels and took two beginner’s classes. I was, and still am, a terrible dancer. I am neither strong nor flexible and I have none of the free courage of movement that dancers require. My inability to master ballet itself dimmed my love of the art form. My ballet slippers collect dust in a drawer upstairs; I have forgotten all of the warm-up stretches I used to try every morning. It is a sad and frustrating conclusion to a brief flicker of interest. I never thought I’d become the next Margot Fonteyn, but I expected more from myself. I let myself down quickly.

I’ve been thinking about this false exchange in one particular realm lately. I have loved fiction since I was a child and still do. I read, on average, 50 to 60 novels every year. I study novelists; I drink up their Paris Review interviews; I am obsessed with the craft. And yet, despite all of this, I do not think I can write fiction. I keep trying and loathing myself.

Maybe I will get over it; maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally write that thing that has been rattling around in my head for years. But either way, I am now repeating to myself the fact that love and mastery do not have to go hand in hand. I can love a cello concerto without ever having to pick up or know anything about the instrument itself. I can adore Italian film without having to learn key phrases. I can devour fiction without having to write a novel. It’s a little freedom I am giving myself.

“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” — Robert Penn Warren

I do not think I will ever be in the mood to read Don Quixote. Can I take it off my to-read list, where it has been languishing for seven years?

A month after the rally of hatred, our parks are still in turmoil. The Confederate statues are covered up with gigantic trash bags in the morning; in the evening, an unauthorized group of men is tearing them down (which we witnessed last night, walking back to our car). Insipid tourists pose for photos, cheesing in front of the Lee statue, which irritates me to no end. (It’s such an insensitive and weird impulse, to want to pose with this now-infamous statue, which you never would have cared about, much less noticed, before a woman died in the street.)

One thing that has comforted me lately is the presence of excellent local journalists—namely, Jordy Yager. We heard him speak in a panel of other journalists on the topic of race and racism in the news, and I was so impressed with and grateful for his deep grasp of Charlottesville, its history, and the white supremacy that controlled and still controls so many of its institutions. There is still much to be done, but there are many who are fighting the good fight for the long haul.

Mad decent

August
My office on a sunny day

The past year has caused me to stop following the news with such voracious interest. I learn about things piecemeal; I look further into them if I am interested. But I no longer try to read everything that is happening. I am over hot takes; I am over the outrage machine. I have books to read and dogs to walk and friends to eat with. And, in spite of it all, the earth melting and the bombs falling, I am happier than I was a year ago.

The weather has been in that unspeakably gorgeous middle ground lately: the humidity is fading away and the air feels light, burnished, sweet.

Ah, how much easier my life would be without these two German shepherds, and also how much sadder.

“To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself.” — James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life

Currently reading: The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (which inspired me to start trying to read short stories in Japanese again; it is taking me an embarrassingly long time and yet I feel uplifted and exhausted by it); Sanctuary, William Faulkner; A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin.

How to move forward

Lee Park

If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.

We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”

My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.

And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.

“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things

So, what’s to be done?

If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.

If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.

What we can do

Support the good work of local nonprofits and humanitarian organizations. We love The Haven, Computers4Kids, New City Arts, the Women’s Initiative, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the International Rescue Committee, among others. Sara Benincasa also has compiled a list of Charlottesville nonprofits that could use help.

Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.

Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.

Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.

Why cast the world away

Family weekend
Ladies at Blenheim.
Family weekend
The boys with kayaks.

Fam came for the weekend, for Mom’s birthday, for kayaking down a very low river and for visiting a winery and Monticello. Time with them is always very good; it always goes by too quickly.

I used to keep much more fluid and interesting blog elsewhere. I wrote about people and events as if I was writing in a private paper diary. It’s a little shocking to me now, rediscovering my late high school and college blog, but I also think I was a better writer back then. Sure, I was self-righteous and affected, but it was far more scintillating. Now, when I look at this thing, which I have maintained over the course of seven or eight years, my mind feels empty. I have nothing, it seems, to say.

Things I enjoyed reading online

(Hot tip: If you want to know what I enjoy reading online, you can sign up for the bimonthly email I curate: Story Matters.)

“God’s world is good. Only one thing in it is bad: we ourselves.” — Anton Chekhov

Writers I’d read on any topic

  • Anne Carson
  • Annie Dillard
  • Lydia Davis
  • John McPhee

The best piety is to enjoy

Garden in June
Bee enjoying a daylily in my front yard.

For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.

We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.

I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.

The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.

For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.

“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”

I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.

“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”

— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot

I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”

That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.

And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.

Happy Tuesday!

Sainted sight

Edits
A recent arrangement, partly from the yard.

This, then: the vast and strange beauty of the world and all the living things in it.

Trees have families and can recognize their children by their roots. One in twelve men are color blind. The production of almonds consumes 10% of the state of California’s water supply each year. Emily Dickinson was buried in a white coffin with a Lady’s Slipper orchid. Japanese macaques bathe together in naturally occurring hot springs and throw snowballs at each other for fun.

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men — to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us — with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

We went to North Carolina this past weekend, taking a fast-paced tour of siblings, parents, and grandparents, and it was a pleasure to feel that rush of nostalgia for the state. In Chapel Hill, we walked through the arboretum and saw the tree where we got engaged and the church where we met and were married. As we drove, we remarked on the landscape and architecture and felt that it was a little foreign to us, now that we have lived for seven years in Virginia. But it’s not really that different. We just like to think that it is.

Problems I enjoy: Too many books to read. Too many plants to plant. Too many German shepherds in the kitchen.

10 best books I read this spring

I read less in the spring than in other seasons, mainly because I start obsessively monitoring my garden, but I still got through an enjoyable assortment this year. Here are my favorites from the past few months.

01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

Can anyone, really, compare with Seamus Heaney? I think not. You can drink of him all day and never have your fill.

02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

“A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it.

03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. George Saunders is able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character.

04. In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name — and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails — has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present.

That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

I’ll admit that I harbored a good deal of fear about autism (and receiving that diagnosis for a potential child), but a lot of that misinformation I was carrying was been addressed by the thoroughness of this book. And while there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been — thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved.

05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

I first read this novel when I was a teen, years ago, and I liked it so much more upon a second reading this time around, about a year away from 30. I re-read it in preparation for a book club in which all of my fellow members bailed, citing there was “too much sex” in it. Cue eye roll.

The Handmaid’s Tale shocks me less than it did then, and that’s perhaps the depressing element. But I’d forgotten how enjoyable and incisive Margaret Atwood’s prose is. It is somehow skillfully plain but never boring; she embellishes at all the right moments.

In the tradition of a slave narrative, Offred is a complicated and compassionate narrator, and I enjoyed listening to her.

Could this happen now, in the United States, or even in the future? Doubt it. (Atwood can seem a little high-strung to think that this is where we could be in the 1990s, but it makes sense that this is what she was thinking about, because she wrote the novel while living in Berlin in the early 1980s.)

But some aspects of Gilead don’t seem that far off. Obsession with women’s bodies and controlling reproduction has always been a hallmark of any fundamentalist religion. There are whispers of Gilead-like policy even now.

(No, I haven’t seen the Hulu series yet; yes, I’d like to.)

06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

All the darkness and heaviness of a Christianity built on a foundation of guilt and shame. God bless James Baldwin and all he went through to bring us this tidy, transformational masterpiece of American fiction.

Read for the second time, again for book club, but this time the members actually showed up, and we had a lively discussion.

07. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

“There is so much that clings to us, and wants to keep warm.”

Breathtaking, marvelous poems. I have always enjoyed Charles Wright, and this was a far-ranging and enjoyable collection of his later work. It is a pleasure to merely live in the same town as Wright, to know that a poet of this matchless caliber lives in my county.

08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

“I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that’s visible at the tunnel’s end.”

I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs.

09. Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

They just don’t make journalists like they used to.

Marvelously researched. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia.

10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

Image result for femininity susan brownmiller

“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”

For women readers, this book doesn’t contain much new information, but it’s a thought-provoking collection of all the ways that femininity is impressed and enforced upon us.

I appreciated the moments when Susan Brownmiller divulged that she too, despite being a pants-only, makeup-less feminist, is sucked into the femininity vortex (obsessing about her hair, modulating her posture to appear smaller or more deferential, etc.); it makes you feel less alone, and just as confused as every other thinking women about what to perform and what to eschew.

The book left me feeling the same as I always do when I contemplate the masculine-feminine binary, which is, simply: frustrated. Useful to have a collection of all of these cultural rules in one place, though, I suppose, if only to wonder about their origin and how to rebel against them.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • Simple Matters, Erin Boyle
  • The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Plants doing as they please

Garden in June
The outrageous coreopsis in the front yard.

Latest obsession, because I always have one: Native plants!

I just finished Nancy Lawson’s book The Humane Gardener and have felt the full error of my amateurish ways. I have planted a handful of native southeastern plants, mostly by accident, but I am so ready to focus on them and eschew the imported, exotic interlopers. (Gardening with native plants makes you sound really xenophobic really fast.)

There are so many plants that gardeners hold up as a standard of aesthetic beauty that are non-native and often invasive — and offer zero benefits to the insects, birds and mammals that cohabitate with us. I was also reminded, by Lawson, of how arbitrary the definition of a “weed” is. Unless it really is an invasive non-native plant, “weeds” generally serve useful purposes in your local ecosystem. I am more inclined to leave (some of) them, having been more informed of what “weeds” actually belong in Virginia (such as that wild violet that I keep ripping up).

I found Lawson’s book so heartening, because it made me realize that my little yard is actually my most powerful weapon against the grave tide of climate change. I can’t do anything about the Paris Accord. I can’t do anything to persuade China or the United States or India to reduce their carbon emissions. But I can garden for my native ecosystem, and in this way, boost a little bit of the earth that falls under my purview.

A few photos of the native plants that we have thus far:

Garden in June
Christmas fern (one of three).
Garden in June
Blossoms on our gigantic black elderberry.
Garden in June
Spiderwort.
Garden in June
Even more spiderwort.
Garden in June
Little bees on the coreopsis.
End of April
Baby oakleaf hydrangea. Can’t wait for it to get HUGE.

Natives planted but still growing: Purple coneflower, more spiderwort volunteers, pokeberry (which I previously ripped out but will now allow in select areas, having been informed of its usefulness to Virginia wildlife).

Next garden ambition: To turn the area that was formerly a chicken run in the backyard into a native wildflower mini-meadow, to attract lots of pollinators and let things grow a bit wild and unchecked.

All summer long, I am happiest when I am eating an unadvisedly large quantity of cherries.

“I write to find out what I think about something.” — Anne Carson, quoted in her Art of Poetry interview, Paris Review