Article: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, Old Hollywood’s Most Infamous Sex Scandal

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 8:44 am on Saturday, April 17, 2021

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For Mental Floss, I wrote about a juicy 1930s Hollywood scandal involving Mary Astor’s Purple Diaries.

It’s one of the first Hollywood sex scandals–plus it inspired part of my novel, Right Back Where We Started From, which starts in 1930s Hollywood and has a Scarlet Diary and a controversial starlet in it.

Check out 10 Juicy Facts About Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, Old Hollywood’s Most Infamous Sex Scandal.

Article: Flight of the Condors

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 8:40 am on Saturday, April 17, 2021

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Late last year, I went on a quest to see the critically endangered California Condor in the wild. I wrote about the experience for Alta.

I’ve always wanted to see a California condor in the wild. It’s on a list I keep in my head of animals I’d like to glimpse in their natural habitats, which includes, in no particular order, a male moose with full antlers, a whale, a ringtailed cat, a hedgehog, a swarm of monarch butterflies, and any kind of monkey. But the California condor stands out because it came so close to extinction. When I was a kid, there were only nine wild condors left. At that point, in 1987, they were taken into captivity, and their future looked bleak. The idea that we could lose North America’s largest flying bird—a vulture with a wingspan of almost 10 feet—struck me as tragic even then.

But we didn’t lose the condor. Thanks to conservation efforts, it has made a comeback. There are now around 300 condors in the wild, most living in Central and Southern California, with smaller populations in Arizona and Utah. I kept thinking about this throughout 2020, a year filled with environmental disasters, from wildfires to melting permafrost to a worldwide pandemic caused by a mutating virus. Even as climate change bears down and some scientists say we’re entering an era of mass extinction, the preservation of the California condor shows that we can repair some environmental damage. Not that it was easy. Despite extensive time and resources spent, the condor is still critically endangered. Lead poisoning remains a threat, and the bird’s future is far from guaranteed. So I’m not sure whether my interest comes from ecological hope or an urge to see a rare creature while I can.

Read the rest here.

Essay: Elegy For A Tree

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 8:37 am on Saturday, April 17, 2021

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My neighbors cut down their tree and banished all the birds from our yard. I wrote an essay about it for Entropy.

The morning after the neighbors cut down the tree, my yard was quiet. The crows that for the last 15 years had woken me every morning like an alarm clock were gone. A few days before, when the elm tree still stood in my neighbor’s yard, I sat in the predawn light drinking coffee and watching hundreds of birds fly over my house. Crows tossed about like balls in the sky, a necklace of Canada geese flowed past my vision, and songbirds jangled in the bushes. The cacophony they made was loud and wondrous and I loved it.

Now my house rang with silence, and loneliness crept over me. As I stood by the window, avoiding at the gap in the sky where the tree used to be, I could hear the crows in the redwoods several blocks away–a party that moved houses. They had no reason to come here now.

Read Elegy For A Tree

Alta Essay: Searching for Mary Austin

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 8:14 am on Saturday, April 17, 2021

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For Alta Magazine, I wrote the essay Searching for Mary Austin: Life for the author of The Land of Little Rain was as hard as the inhospitable region she wrote about. Excerpt:

Right before the coronavirus quarantine, I went to the Owens Valley to learn more about Mary Austin. The Land of Little Rain, Austin’s 1903 book about the California desert, is an environmental classic rivaling the work of naturalists like John Muir. But today the essay collection, and Austin, are largely forgotten, and I found myself wondering why.

Austin was prolific, producing 34 books and more than 200 shorter works. She believed she possessed genius-level talent, but her literary legacy, as biographer Esther Lanigan Stineman puts it, “would have disappointed the writer who finally yearned for an enduring reputation as a social novelist.” Genius or not, Austin was ahead of her time when it came to feminism, racial equality, and environmentalism. The Land of Little Rain was her first and most successful book, important in its recognition of the striking austerity of the Owens Valley and the Mojave Desert. While Austin was writing it, her circumstances were as inhospitable as the environment around her. Trapped in poverty and a loveless marriage, she was geographically and spiritually isolated as she juggled caring for her disabled daughter and working full-time as a writer and teacher. She remembered that period as “long dull months of living interspersed between the few fruitful occasions when I actually came into contact with the land.” So here I was, going in early spring to that same land to see if I could better understand this complicated writer.

Read the rest here.

Article: Greedy Women In LitHub

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 1:05 pm on Monday, November 9, 2020

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I have a new article on LitHub, On the 19th-Century Food Writer Who Embraced Gluttony As a Virtue.

It’s about how I read The Diary of a Greedy Woman by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, which I loved… until I didn’t.

Notable In Best American Essays 2020

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 12:58 pm on Monday, November 9, 2020

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Hey! I have a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2020.

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Read The First and Last Lives of Jack London.

Article: Searching for Mary Austin in Alta

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 12:35 pm on Monday, November 9, 2020

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I have a new article in Alta on Mary Austin, the author of The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903. I went to the Owen’s Valley to trace Austin’s route through the area and found out some juicy things–a hidden child, unhappy marriage, hallucinations of angels helping her writer her work. She was a fascinating lady.

Article: Humboldt Grown

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 1:46 pm on Tuesday, September 22, 2020

For Alta, I wrote about growing up in Humboldt County, and the changing nature of the marijuana industry. Excerpt:

In 2019, my hometown, Arcata, in Humboldt County, California, removed the statue of President William McKinley that had stood in the central plaza since 1906. Arcata has long been an ultraliberal hippie haven, and the eight-and-a-half-foot bronze sculpture had presided over many a drum circle. I’ve seen bras hanging from McKinley’s hand and traffic cones on his head like a dunce cap. More than once, he has been covered by political banners demanding justice.

The vote to take down the statue was part of a nationwide trend to dismantle monuments of controversial figures. It was sent to Canton, Ohio, where the president is buried.

McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901, ran on a campaign to establish U.S. colonies, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and parts of Hawaii. Today his expansionist policies are viewed as racist toward indigenous people. I agree with that, but the removal of the statue doesn’t have the same symbolic power as, say, taking down monuments to Confederate soldiers in the South. McKinley never even visited Arcata. The statue was a sentimental tribute to a recently murdered president. As the years passed, its presence spoke more to Humboldt’s unique nature, as there’s a slight absurdity to an almost-forgotten president standing in the middle of a town full of bead stores and cannabis startups. The statue’s removal felt like losing part of Arcata’s personality, and I wasn’t sure what would be replacing it. It seemed like a tipping point of change that had been building since I left 20 years ago and was now showing itself in concrete ways. I wanted to know what that looked like.

Last summer, I went to Arcata to see the plaza without the statue.

Read it here.

Article: Lost Beneath Lake Berryessa

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 4:23 pm on Sunday, January 12, 2020

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Check out my Alta article about the town of Monticello in Napa, which was turned into a lake and reservoir in the 1950s. Dorothea Lange documented the human and environmental toll that went into creating Lake Berryessa. Excerpt:

Goat Island in Lake Berryessa pokes up from the water like the crown of a hat. Beyond it, the hills are unusually triangular, coming to soft peaks instead of rolling mounds. Standing on the shore, I tried to imagine the island as it had been 62 years ago: not an island at all but the top of a hill. The lake is man-made, the result of a dam built across Putah Creek. The 1.6 million acre-feet of water cover a fertile valley and a town named Monticello.

The idea that there’s a town under a lake in Napa County, an hour-and-a-half drive from my house, was intriguing. Add to that the fact that Dorothea Lange, whose photographs humanized the Great Depression, shot a series on the flooding of the valley and the town, and I knew I had to see Lake Berryessa.

Read the rest here.

Essay: The Houses My Father Built

Filed under: Joy's Work,Nonfiction — Administrator at 9:23 am on Friday, November 15, 2019

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For Curbed, I wrote about my childhood for the first time.

My earliest sense memories are of construction: the smell of freshly sawed wood, the sound of hammering. I remember being in an airy, half-built room, picking up bent nails and putting them in a bucket. A photograph shows me, a toddler in pigtails, by the cement foundation of our house. My dad is beside me, in a white T-shirt and jeans. He looks young and healthy—there’s no outward sign that he’s disabled. It wasn’t the first house he would build for his family, nor the last. My childhood is shaped by a pattern of my father building us a home, selling it, and building another.

Read the rest here.

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