Tuesday, May 26, 2015


When I was in high school, I was pretty ambivalent about the future. I went to three different high schools so I tended to live day by day, not really believing I was in control of whatever came next (there was no evidence of it). I had a lot of passions and creativity, but I didn't know what I should do. When it came time to look up colleges, it was already pretty late in the application game, and I remember turning on the computer to devote a few minutes to searching for schools just in order to check it off my parents' to-do list. It was not a big priority. I was consumed by things like the new school and town I'd just moved to, the new friends I was loving spending time with and hoping they liked spending time with me, and crushes, of course. So I looked up colleges that met two criteria: they were in a city and had a good writing or journalism program.

A couple of my high school English teachers had pulled me aside and let me know that I was pretty good at writing... my papers got As and I did love reading. But I was also one of those people that got As in most classes, even ones I despised like Algebra and Chemistry. So I more or less shrugged it off and smiled and said thank you and went on to more pressing matters like making sure I had time to check my locker mirror before the next class because there might be something caught in my braces. When I moved to Pennsylvania my senior year of high school, just a week or two before classes started, I met with a counselor to enroll in classes and she said they kept an opening in their journalism elective which managed the school newspaper for military kids joining late (that was me!). None of the other electives appealed to me, so I said sure. Again, I didn't choose it because I felt it was My Path or anything. All I knew was that some old people thought I was good at writing. My parents said so, too, but y'know, parents have to say that.

By the time I got to college in Boston, I was extremely excited for many reasons, mainly being on my own for the first time and navigating various social activities like parties. And, sure, class, too. Yet, when classes started something unexpected happened. I was, perhaps, finally challenged in a way that I knew I had to pay attention. And my classes about the humanities and arts and writing were inspiring me and staying with me beyond the lectures and required reading. I couldn't care less about that science requirement I had to take, but I was pretty excited to write papers suddenly. Be it an analysis of themes in Rear Window or the misogyny of old fairy tales and new ones. I liked writing, a lot more than I thought I did. It always seemed more of a hobby than anything professional... I'd always kept a diary, always had a notebook handy for my dramatic renderings of adolescence or fictional stories (coincidentally, most of them had a protagonist who was a perpetual new girl in high school). Much of those long road trips moving across the United States or plane trips to Panama were spent in my head conjuring stories from a parallel universe. All the questions I asked everyone was a habit drawn from moving and trying to adapt as quickly as possible; some people found it annoying and others advised it was probably a good trait to have as a journalist. In college, it all started to make sense.

After graduation, a gloom descended when I realized there weren't a lot of publications paying well (or even at all) at entry level. I moved to a new city with interviews, but would not have been able to pay for rent and food (nevermind everything else) with the quoted salaries. The coveted positions usually went to the more fortunate, and I ended up temping for a fashion company, which led to a decent-paying permanent position--one that I still have today.

Yet, over the last ten years since I graduated college, I never gave up on the writing. I did some freelancing at first, but that didn't keep my attention. I wrote stories and kept up a blog as a creative outlet. In the last few years I met some women that were also writers and we were able to share our works in groups and pairs. I never really sought out publication or tried to submit my work anywhere though some friends prodded me to. Last year I felt a resurgence of inspiration after attending some meet-ups with other writers, and felt compelled to really get to this novel idea I'd been treading on for some months. I finally started writing it out, thanks to many women who cheered me on. One of them, a certain Beca Grimm (we had a total meet-cute in the lobby of our Bushwick apartment building and realized a shared passion for yoga and writing), was recently asked to guest curate an issue for online publication Storychord. She remembered a story I had shared a few years ago, and asked me to submit. I was a little nervous, my anxiety manifesting as it usually does when I reread old works, but I edited it as best I could and yesterday she ran it. It's my first piece of published fiction, and I'm honored that it's on a great site like Storychord (I'd thought for years of submitting to it), was chosen by an illustrious journalist in her own right, and is accompanied by two pieces of art by incredibly talented women, Ally White and Cassandra Jenkins.

So here it is: TEN YEARS FROM TODAY by Jessica Maria Johnson

Yes, this whole long post that got really introspective was just to tell you that I have a short story up now on Storychord.com. THANKS FOR READING, AS EVER.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

And now for something a little different.

I'm trying out a new platform called TinyLetter to send out monthly dispatches on my goings-on. I probably won't make the archives public, so subscribe if you'd like to keep up. My first letter will be going out today, April 15th.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Top Films of 2014.

Spending the end of 2014 packing up my life and moving across the country and then unpacking for the last month was not conducive to being timely about my annual Top Films post! But here we are, and hopefully I can press publish before we hit February. While I lagged a bit in written updates, I definitely saw a lot of movies in 2014. Jesse remarked a few weeks ago that he actually saw more movies in 2014 than any other year because he finally gave in to my every film-going whim and said yes when I invited him. It was a grand time to see a lot of movies with my husband; in years past I certainly saw more movies alone. I am smiling big right now -- I feel like something has been conquered! And it's a good thing that lot of the movies I dragged Jesse to were pretty good.

And so, I unveil, my favorite movies of 2014... as it exists today, subject to different order or whims of mood on other days -- but the beginning of this list is pretty solid.


Linklater strikes again for the second year in a row! I wasn't sure what to expect with Boyhood; when the film began I was like why is this is starting out with Coldplay's "Yellow"? And then I was taken back to when I first heard that song... twelve years ago. And then: I understood. As the movie unfolded, following a family and their world through the eyes of their son Mason, I was mesmerized by the way in which the director/writer Linklater and the actors were able to create--more than anything--an immersive feeling. It's definitely part nostalgia because there was a lot I recognized (the big sister/little brother dynamic to name one). The story is simple, but the way in which Linklater filmed the movie (aside from the once-a-year-for-12-years thing) evoked such a quietly thrilling perspective on a childhood journey. I saw it twice in theaters, and the first time I was lucky enough to meet Richard Linklater and the main actor, Ellar Coltrane. I might have known then, back in July, that it would be the best film I saw this year.


This movie surprised me. As I was putting together this list I was surprised that it came in at #2. But, the best films I saw this year provoked emotional reactions from me. Whiplash not only hit me emotionally, but physically as well. Seeing this film on the big screen, with the music almost another character between the two main characters (played superbly by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller -- an actor whose hype I never understood until this film), the tension on screen froze up my body as well. When the lights went on in the theater, I let out a breath I must have been holding without realizing. An excellent script, fascinating directing, and good acting. A solid, great movie... if you must watch it at home, watch it with the volume loud.


A beautiful, eerie, dark film that captivated me from the start. A somewhat silent film that still told a story, at once otherworldly and yet recognizable. It was uncomfortable, mostly, but enthralling. I like having to pick up the clues in a film to understand what's happening; my brain was churning through this whole viewing. The end culminates into a tableau of alien horror--based in a true, familiar, sad reality. The incredible visuals elevate the story to an even higher plane.


I'm not one for biopics; I've always been more of a fan of fiction and creative storytelling as opposed to depicting fact -- mostly, I'd like to leave it to documentaries. Trust me, no Hollywood film based on a true story is going to get every fact correct. Fellow true story Academy Award nominees American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher -- all have "fact" issues. Let's also talk about facts -- how a different perspective sees facts differently (it took a show like The Affair to really demonstrate that outrightly) -- and how Selma is from a perspective most films don't show, it's a familiar story told from someone else's valid perspective. Hurrah for that perspective! The predictability and remake barrage has bored me in the theaters; Selma told a great story freshly, and well. And the LBJ historical critics? The film is more than fair to his legacy, I didn't understand it's criticisms as I watched. As written in the New Yorker in defense of this film: "Indeed, there is no moment in “Selma” where King really thanks Johnson or, Hollywood-style, puts his hand on his shoulder and tells him, “You’re a good man.” If that’s what the “Selma” critics crave, there are plenty of movies that offer it." It's just stunning to me that this is the film being attacked; it's a great film. The acting, the script, the directing are superb. As a woman, it's truly amazing and stupefying to make realizations mid-film like "wow, I'm watching more than one scene of two women speaking to each other." That's because the film was directed by a woman. And that's why it's important: representation and balance on many, many levels. Ava DuVernay is a gifted director, and I look forward to more of her work. As the film ends with a speech by the extremely talented David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., there's a point that the crowd in the film begins to clap, and I was jolted as many people in the theater erupted into applause as well. I couldn't help but agree.


Wes Anderson, usually an acquired taste, seemed to have hit something this year with audiences -- was it the ending? Either way, I'm glad more people are on board. I mean, a Wes Anderson film is nominated for an Academy Award?! What! But it's a great film, a movie that retains Anderson's style and whimsy and humor with punctuations of disturbing darkness -- so colorful, and yet -- that ending. The directorial effort on display, the camerawork, set design, and images are all wonderful. I've never liked Ralph Fiennes as much, it was just a perfectly played role. I was excited by this film (saw it twice in theaters) and I've never been more excited for what Anderson has planned next.


Under the guise of treating my husband to a special event by one of his favorite directors, I bought tickets to a screening of Only Lovers Left Alive that included a post-film concert of the soundtrack live. Jesse loves Jim Jarmusch--Dead Man is his favorite film of all time--and I thought, hey, maybe Tom Hiddleston will show up? Two birds, one stone, you know what I mean? Sadly, Hiddleston did not, but we watched with Jarmusch a few rows behind us. I'm smiling as I type this because it really was a fantastic night: the entire Sunshine Theater in New York was booked for Only Lovers, decorated and dimmed, eerie music playing as we waited for the film to begin. And what a film! Gothic and beautiful and TILDA and funny and me thinking, huh, this is really Jarmusch? It's, in my opinion, his most accessible film. I played the soundtrack on loop for months afterwards--those guitars!--and perhaps that was because we saw that soundtrack played live amongst sets reconstructed from the film??

Me in Adam's studio
I don't know what PR firm handled that event, but that's how you promote a film--centering every detail to recall the film, and make it memorable. The film itself was perfect for the treatment given the acting, the directing, but also the essential music.


Here's a film I was excited for because I read the book -- and I was happy that Cheryl Strayed's flawed, beautiful, persevering spirit was captured so well by Reese Witherspoon and the movie. Most of the moments in the book are depicted similarly, there are many passages in the book I read and felt so visceral and gut-punching, and the film accomplished that as well. Though there were parts that made me nearly look away from the page (something that's not happened very often while reading anything), the film managed to sliver them in, and I liked the way the film's script and directing handled Strayed's small but engrossing story.


Yeah, this movie has its flaws and some weird special effects, but damn if it isn't a great ride of a film. It's a spectacle in the best way -- with twists and turns that kept me guessing, and I love not knowing what's about to happen in a movie these days. Chris Evans impressed me most here than any other work he's done, and the cast of characters, dystopian story, and jumble of metaphors provided a lot of fun for the viewer. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie from beginning to end.


Here's a true story that's never been told on the screen! And despite earlier protests in this post, I really just loved this movie because of it's heartache and uplift, for its superb acting in Gugu Mbatha-Raw (she will win an Academy Award one day -- she should have been nominated for this), and for its sweeping period directing (I really, truly, love sweeping period films. LOVE THEM). Another film that depicts a time in the past, that still attests to the issues we face in the present. (And like Selma, it also co-stars Tom Wilkinson? And was directed by a woman!)


Woah woah woah left field, right?! I mean, I wanted to put 22 Jump Street here (that's not really a joke) but this one came in late and under the radar at the tail end of 2014. And wow! I remember loving Once, and when I started this movie I had no idea it was by the same filmmaker. I had heard mere blips about this movie. Nobody was like: Hey, Jessica, you might like this, it's got good music and heartfelt storylines and wonderfully rendered characters that don't fall into gender tropes -- so, this is me telling you: watch this movie. (You know who did recommend it to me? Jesse's dad! My father-in-law suggested this film!) Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are grand. Adam Levine is also in this movie, but he's not as grating as I expected. And the soundtrack is on repeat -- did you hear the featured song in the film "Lost Stars" is nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars? -- little did I know Keira Knightley could sing in that singer-songwriter style I love. The emo girl in my heart, she was satisfied.


HONORABLE MENTIONS (that probably, given my mood, could have made my Top Ten -- 2014 was a *#$&!& great year in movies in my opinion)

WE ARE THE BEST! - currently streaming on Netflix, this Swedish film about a trio of pre-teen girls who start a punk band made me smile with glee. Punctuation point! Similar to Boyhood, there's something recognizable about watching these girls' journey in adolescence.

IDA - a black and white Polish film that searched down corridors I was not expecting. Awe-some.

22 JUMP STREET - if you know me, you know why. Best comedy of the year. Channing Tatum 4 Lyfe. Something Cool.

THE EDGE OF TOMORROW - on the insistence of one of my best friends, I relented and watched this Tom Cruise flick, and then watched it again the next night (he may or may not have gifted me the movie on iTunes for my birthday). This is a GREAT movie. Tom Cruise, yet again, proves why he's a great star and actor. Emily Blunt, you rule. I had one minor quibble, but other than that: spectacular.

GONE GIRL - one of my favorite theater-going experiences on opening night. You could almost hear the difference between the people who had read the book against the shocked waves of those who hadn't. There's some mishandling of the material, but I love watching that dark, brooding Fincher directing, unapologetically.

BIRDMAN - spectacle, spectacle, not GREAT, but damn good. A little too clever, perhaps? The cinematography shines above all else.

BLUE RUIN - WHAT IS THIS AMAZING MOVIE? It's streaming on Netflix right now and I urge you to watch it immediately. Jesse and I were -- I'm about to use this word -- gobsmacked as we watched. I won't even mention anything about it, just watch it.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - because it was the most entertaining film I saw all year.

THE ONE I LOVE - SCRIPT. Low budget science fiction might be my favorite screen spectacle; I loved that this is essentially sci-fi but more grandly about human romantic relationships. A more cynical Eternal Sunshine, but worth the ride all the same. Plus, Moss + Duplass! And though I love low-budget sci-fi there's still something about...

INTERSTELLAR - I didn't even know if I liked this movie upon first viewing. But after several conversations (SEVERAL!) and me watching myself slowly to fervently start defending it, I really love that there's a director like Nolan out there who gets the big bucks to tell unpredictable stories in IMAX.
















And now, your thoughts! What were your favorites?? What did I miss? I have a list of films still to see -- Nightcrawler, The Babadook, Two Days One Night among them.

Some of my past top film posts: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Year in Books: 2014.

Ever since I challenged myself in 2009 to read 52 books in the year, I established some good reading habits to keep up the momentum. I've relaxed on the challenge aspect of reading, since I don't want to deter from reading longer books just because they may take more time.

This year I managed to read 42 books. It was an inspiring year in reading; I discovered a lot of writers partly because I was seeking out original voices and going to book readings in Brooklyn, and partly because I joined a couple of literary groups. I met people in those groups and followed them on social media and heard of a lot of new writers; some of them were even writers themselves.

Here are the the books I read this year in chronological order, the star rating I gave them on Goodreads, and those that are bold became all-time favorite books of mine.

01 The Best American Magazine Writing 2013, ASME *****
02 Powers, Vol 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?, Brian Michael Bendis ***** (re-read)
03 Like Life, Lorrie Moore ****
04 A Story Lately Told, Anjelica Huston ****
05 1800 Miles to Nowhere, Brian Diaz ***
06 Salvador, Joan Didion ****
07 Ms. Marvel, No 1, Willow G. Wilson *****
08 S., J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst ***
09 The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton *****
10 Disgrace, J.M. Coatzee *
11 The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion ****
12 Songs for the Missing, Stewart O'Nan **
13 After Henry, Joan Didion ****
14 The Yellow King and Other Stories, Robert W. Chambers ***
15 Swimming, Joanna Hershon ****
16 The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham ****
17 Powers, Vol 2: Roleplay, Brian Michael Bendis ***
18 Powers, Vol 3: Little Deaths, Brian Michael Bendis ***
19 Powers, Vol 4: Supergroup, Brian Michael Bendis *****
20 Powers, Vol 5: Anarchy, Brian Michael Bendis ****
21 The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez *****
22 Powers, Vol 6: The Sellouts, Brian Michael Bendis ****
23 Powers, Vol 7: Forever, Brian Michael Bendis *****
24 Powers, Vol 8: Legends, Brian Michael Bendis ****
25 Powers, Vol 9: Psychotic, Brian Michael Bendis ****
26 Powers, Vol 10: Cosmic, Brian Michael Bendis ***
27 Powers, Vol 11: Secret Identity, Brian Michael Bendis ****
28 The Most Dangerous Animal of All, Gary L. Stewart and Susan D. Mustafa **
29 Cutting Teeth, Julia Fierro *****
30 Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, ed. Sari Botton ****
31 The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud ****
32 Friendship, Emily Gould ****
33 Wild, Cheryl Strayed *****
34 Middlemarch, George Eliot ****
35 Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay *****
36 Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ****
37 Nightwood, Djuna Barnes ****
38 All the Roads That Lead From Home, Anne Leigh Parrish ****
39 NW, Zadie Smith ***
40 A Million Miles, Amy Fleisher Madden *****
41 Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel *****
42 Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed *****

Like I said, it was an inspiring year in reading. One of my favorite new authors, Roxane Gay, who wrote Bad Feminist, had a fun superlative-y way of of recounting her year in reading -- here's me trying to do the same...

My favorite book of the year, and perhaps the last decade--a novel in which I saw myself and my mother and the important stories of of those who rarely have their voices heard: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

My second favorite book of the year, because when one becomes inundated with apocalyptic premises, this one will sneak up on your and make you realize the beauty in your own world: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A book dear to my heart that fills me with pride in my friend and honor to have been asked to edit it as it headed towards publication: A Million Miles by Amy Fleisher Madden

Examples of well-written novels that are great reads without having a "relatable" protagonist to root for (something I despise when people evaluate a story): Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Example of a not-so-well-written true story with a narrator you're supposed to like but by the end you kind of hate and you were glad when you got some money for it when you traded it in before moving across the country because c'mon, not even a DNA test?: The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart (who believes his father was the Zodiac)

She wrote how many pages at what age and won what award what am I doing with my life this is amazing!?: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Book I tried because of its Celebrated Author but became confused as to why it was any good at all: Disgrace by J.M. Coatzee

Now understand why this marvel is a classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot

Book that started out like watching the pilot episode of LOST and then became the final season of LOST and just...uh...lost me: S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Short stories that stayed with me for such a long time I had to take breaks between reading the next story: All the Roads That Lead From Home by Anne Leigh Parrish

Cannot wait for the movie because LUPITA: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Books that made me cry in public: Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

What was the best thing you read in 2014?

Previously: 2009 | 2012 2013

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014.

Yes, I'm late. It's nearly February of 2015! I will say -- I think I already like more music in 2015 than I did in 2014. 2014, for me, was the year of the soundtrack... and some of those songs weren't released in 2014, but I'm counting it either way.

But I did deem two albums my Queen and King.

St. Vincent / St. Vincent

I've loved Annie's music for a long time, but this one, aptly self-titled, is her best album yet. She's a musical genius whose songs and sounds mesmerize me. For instance, probably my favorite sound or recorded aural moment of 2014 was in the song "Huey Lewis" during an instrumental break that starts around 2:10 and really revs around 2:36. That point that it revs? I remember walking to work in New York and listening to this song for a few weeks straight during that walk -- and pushing up the volume at that moment to drown out everything and get pumped for the day. It still works. Every single song on this album works.


Ryan Adams / Ryan Adams


Ryan has been a favorite for years, clearly, since this very space on the internet is named after a lyric in one of his songs. And this S/T shines with some brilliant moments; some of his best music in years. There's something more calm in him, but with that ever-present soulfulness that I love his music for. It's also coupled with the fact that Jesse surprised me with tickets to see Ryan Adams a week after moving to Los Angeles in December--the sound of the newest songs vibrated within me. When he sang "New York, New York" I began to cry. Then he sang "Dear Chicago" into "Lucky Now" and I bawled; it was a necessary catharsis. I live here now. I love him always.

Here's my Rdio playlist of some songs from my favorites of 2014 -- the rest of the list is below --


Against Me! / Transgender Dysmorphia Blues

The throaty wails and strength remain, it's power and it's beautiful.


OK Go / Hungry Ghosts

The best album they've recorded. The videos are still brilliant -- but I've definitely danced around in my room alone because this music gets me pumped UP.


The Xcerts / There Is Only You

Jesse played this album over and over and over again. And now I love it.



Boyhood - my most listened to song of the year was "Hero" by Family of the Year
Begin Again - yes freakin' Adam Levine is in this movie and on this soundtrack SORRY I LOVE IT
Only Lovers Left Alive - death / life / love / eternity / guitaaaarzzz
Whiplash - what the hell I'm listening to instrumental jazz on the daily now what IT'S SO GOOD
Under the Skin - eerie being eerie

I must mention that Fiona Apple wrote a title song for the Showtime drama The Affair and that song is like eight million times better than that show is and I think I just pressed next episode JUST TO HEAR THAT SONG PLAY OVER THE TITLES. And yet! And yet!!!!! It's unavailable for purchase anywhere. I've looked. If you find it, tell me. I sink back into the ocean...


Honorable Mentions:
The Both / The Both
The Menzingers / Rented World


What about yourself? January has already been fruitful with releases: Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love is giving me life, Bjork's surprise early release, Mark Ronson's dance fest Uptown Special is the soundtrack to my dinner-cooking most nights. But we'll save that list for the end of this year...

Here's some of my past top albums: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2012 | 2013