mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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on my bookshelf

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When someone claims an author is the next James Agee or Joan Didion, I listen. So far, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, is elegant, taut and masterful | My friend Alex {and his wife, who is one of my best friends}, keep raving about M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a disturbing YA thriller, so consider my interest piqued. And for those snobs who eschew adults who enjoy YA lit, I say, check yourself before you wreck yourself. We all need a literary balanced diet. | I took workshop with fellow Columbia alum Katie Crouch, and loved her gorgeous stories. I’m excited to dive into her new novel, Abroad | I wince whenever I hear a memoir compared to The Glass Castle, as I wasn’t a fan of the book or the writing, however, many writers whom I respect have been Facebook messaging me to check out Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man. You better believe I can relate to a story about a mother who is a truth-concealer | And finally, I’ve been battling the comma since in utero, so I thought I’d get humble and order Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

best blueberry muffins + books that save

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For as long as I could remember, books have always been a part of my life. I had the sort of childhood that was a photograph worth shredding; I was alone for most summers, and I spent them on my fire escape reading. While squirrels and birds ravaged the trees outside my window, I sat on the hot grates of a fire escape with a pile of books. Books were my companion and teacher, and you’d be hard pressed to find me–this small girl–without her bookbag packed to the gills, as my pop would say, with books. I started reading at 3, earlier than most, and I never looked back. I read anything I could get my hands on, and I remember that I always exceeded the limit of books one could borrow from the library. When I was small, I was consumed by stories of rich girls and their finery–their fresh water pearls and Fiat cars–where a great tragedy was being alone on a Friday night. Possibly this was a result of my steady diet of John Hughes films, but I felt transported. I felt as if I could close my eyes I’d wake to be somewhere other than where I was. Books gave me freedom, even if the freedom was defined as the confined space in my head.

Eleanor & Park
Eleanor & Park

For most of my childhood, I lived in my head. I jettisoned to exotic locales and feigned sleep in a house divided by two floors. I dreamed of stairs! Of taking them two by two! In this world, my imagination was rich and vivid, and I wove elaborate stories about my life as a result of having read so many books. Having been left alone so much, these books were a constant companion, a friend who would never abandon or leave, but they also served as ammunition for the dozens and dozens of stories and poems I wrote longhand. Books felt safe and they allowed me the freedom to interpret and understand the world in which I lived in and make sense of it through prose.

I guess you can say that my writing has always been a way for me to work things out.

This weekend was not what I intended. I planned to rest, write, work-out, spend time with my friends before starting a major project come Monday, but instead I felt anxious, uneasy, nervous–my father’s health concerns me and I’ve done everything I can to push him to see a doctor, but it’s not as if I’m physically living with him and nagging him on a daily basis {which is the only thing that seems to work}. He doesn’t yet see the magnitude of his impairment, and his clipped responses and fucking pride in hiding his illness, even while I know he’s in extreme, constant pain, is killing me. Right now I know he’s angry with me because I’ve contacted his family in Ireland and have also teamed up with his boss to push him to see a doctor. I hate being in this place, feeling his cold silence, even if I know what I’ve done is the right thing to do.

As a result I shifted gears and started reading a book I’d purchased on a whim–based on a line I’d read somewhere on the internet–Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. E&P is the sort of book that crawls deep into the recesses of your heart and sets up shop there. It’s funny, endearing, smart, tender without being sentimental. Reading the love story of two misfits in the 80s made me smile when it was impossible to think that I could. I fell in love with the characters, and felt a sort of kinship with Eleanor because I understood, and was empathetic toward, her life.

You can’t know how much I needed this book this weekend. I feel a sort of unrest about tomorrow and the days that follow, but right now I feel OKAY. Right now I feel sane enough to bake my favorite {FAVORITE!} dessert: THE BLUEBERRY MUFFIN.

Because muffins make me happy.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Cooks Illustrated, with significant modifications to the topping {i.e. I used a crumble topping from another recipe}
For the crumble topping
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
3 1/2 cups cake flour

For the muffins
2 cups (about 10 oz) fresh blueberries
1 1/8 cups sugar (8 oz) plus 1 tsp
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp table salt
2 large eggs, at room temp
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup canola or safflower oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS
First, make the crumb. In a large bowl, combine the sugars, cinnamon and salt. Pour the melted butter over the mixture and stir until fully incorporated. Stir in the cake flour until a smooth dough forms and set the bowl aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 F with a rack in the upper third. Spray your muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine 1 cup of the blueberries along with 1 teaspoon of sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, mashing the berries with a spoon and stirring frequently. Continue cooking until the berries break down and the mixture has a thick jam-like consistency; the volume should be reduced to about 1/4 cup. Transfer to a small bowl and cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together. In another large bowl, whisk the remaining 1 1/8 cups of sugar and the eggs together until pale yellow and thick. Whisk in the butter and oil until combined. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and whisk to incorporate fully. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture along with the remaining 1 cup of blueberries. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold until the dry ingredients are just moistened – the batter will be lumpy, that’s fine. Don’t overmix.

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared wells of the muffin pan – each well should be completely full. Add one teaspoon of the blueberry jam to the center of each well of batter. Use a skewer to gently swirl the jam into the batter. Sprinkle the muffins with the crumble mixture.

Bake for 17 to 19 minutes, or until the tops of the muffins are golden and they spring back when gently pressed. Transfer the muffin pan to a wire rack and let the muffins cool for 5 minutes before removing them to cool completely.

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on my bookshelf

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I’ve a confession to make: for most of my twenties I was a book snob. If a book wasn’t “highbrow” literary fiction, it wasn’t worth reading. I mocked beach reads and turned up my nose at commercial fiction. Part of my snobbery can be attributed to attending an MFA program where highly-educated students read obscure 14th Century poets on the regular, and a great deal of it can be attributed to the fact that I was kind of an asshole.

Instead of battling the genres, I now look at writing very plainly: books that inspire me and books that don’t.

My first love is fiction; I’ll always have a taste for it, an abiding affection for it, but now in my late 30s I’ve suddenly fallen in love with so many genres and forms. I read that which inspires me to create, whether it be a food memoir, an exquisitely-wrought YA novel, or a novel that breaks ranks with content and form {Karen Russell comes to mind, who is a writer I deeply respect and admire}. Working on my novel has me reading a great deal of poetry, and I never thought I’d fall in love with verse, a form based on the economy of language, something to which I strive for in my own writing. How can a line be spliced such that it operates on several levels in conveying mood, character, scene? How can a single word be revelatory? Is there a plainer, more powerful way of saying something? How much can I create whitespace?

Someone once asked me what I do to get into the headspace of writing, how I get my “in” as it were. It’s a difficult question to answer since the impetus depends on the scene or character I’m trying to create. However, inspiration doesn’t come in one form or style or genre — in fact, I often find it hard to read contemporary literary fiction while I’m writing as I don’t want to get too influenced by a style I admire.

Right now, my bookshelf is stacked with some really great reads. Naturally, I’m starting with Michael Cunningham. Well, okay, I’m breaking my reading fiction while writing fiction rule. I’m blaming jet lag for everything.

Currently on my bookshelf: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger {fiction} | Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey {memoir} | Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen {fiction} | Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park {YA. Of note, I purchased this book after reading a single line posted on Twitter} | Summer Pierre’s Great Gals: Inspired Ideas for Living a Kick-Ass Life {illustration, creative}

on my bookshelf

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I’m having one of those blue days, so I’m keeping things quiet around these parts. I will share some of the lovely books that are piled up on my table, reading for the plucking. Right now I’m deep into Susan Minot’s new book, which I completely adore.

Lydia Millet’s Magnificence | Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure | Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch | Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars | Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude |

carrot cake cupcakes + cream cheese frosting + some thoughts on money

donotreblog

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Recently, one of my friends told me, point blank, that she wants to be filthy rich. When I pressed her on it, she talked about having the ability to pay for her children’s college tuition {which will likely rack up in the hundreds of thousands in twenty years time}, and live the life she wishes to live, in comfort, without fear. I was quiet for a time, and said, that’s not about being filthy rich, that’s about not peering over your shoulder in fear of debt collectors, that’s maybe somewhere down the scale, way down, from rich. Or, I could be completely off the mark.

I’ve been thinking about money lately, and what it can and can’t afford you. Next month marks a year from the time I tacitly made a decision to leave comfort behind in pursuit of something other. I would leave behind a handsome paycheck, equity {although it was doubtful that I’d ever get it}, health benefits and the stability that comes with swiping your keycard in the same office building every day. I would step into the unknown with little savings, credit card and student loan debt, but I knew I had to do this. And I had to be confident that I would always find something. That I wouldn’t be my own undertow.

Nearly a year later, and I’m making enough to get by and that’s okay. I can pay my rent, mail in my student loan and credit card payment checks, and there’s a little bit of money leftover to buy a fancy meal here and there, and that’s okay. While I do have minor panic attacks about when I’ll secure my new project, or god forbid should I get sick since Cobra is a MILLION DOLLARS, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m no longer anxious or broken down or stressed out or snapping at people or angry or crying in a bathroom stall. I’m writing, thinking of new side projects {how I’ll fund this magazine, who knows}, and being present for myself and my loved ones. I am no longer the woman who constantly apologizes for not being there because I’m there.

So while I’m not making a MILLION DOLLARS, I have time on a Thursday to make carrot cake cupcakes. I have time to read articles and books. I have time to think, and I guess that means more to me that a fancy handbag or some lofty title.

My god, how I’m changing. Ask me this three years ago and I would have likely said something completely different…

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INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe
For the cupcakes
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown {or coconut cane} sugar
3/4 cup canola {or safflower} oil
3 tbsp buttermilk {or almond milk}
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 cups tightly packed shredded carrots
1/2 cup of raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

For the cream cheese frosting
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature (left out for at least 4 hours or microwave for 30s)
1/2 cup {1 stick} unsalted butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar

DIRECTIONS
For the cupcakes: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners.

Using a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment (or a handheld mixer), beat together the eggs and brown sugar on medium high for three or four minutes or until mixture is light and thick. (This step will take about 8 to 10 minutes with a handheld mixer). In a small bowl or pitcher, whisk together the oil, buttermilk {or almond milk} and vanilla. On low speed, slowly pour the oil mixture into the egg-sugar mixture. This should take about 30 seconds.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the egg-sugar mixture. When most the of the flour mixture has been incorporated, add the carrots, raisins, and walnuts and continue to fold until the batter is homogeneous. Pour the batter into prepared muffin cups.

Bake the cupcakes for about 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the middle with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pan on wire rack.

For the cream cheese frosting: While the cupcakes are in the oven, start cracking on your frosting. Using your stand mixer {or handheld} Beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth {about 1 minute for the stand mixer, 3-4 minutes with the handheld}. Add the butter and continue to beat for another minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar. Beat for 1 more minute, or until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to firm up enough to spread on your cupcakes. The frosting can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 5 days.

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a glorious year in books

donotreblog

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Finally, there was time. Even saying that puts me to thinking of that remarkable Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last,” where a very brilliant and fumbling, Burgess Meredith is jubilant after a nuclear bomb explodes because it affords him all the time in the world to read the books he wishes to read, uninterrupted. He’s no longer tethered to a job he doesn’t love, a cruel wife he no longer has to face. But let’s pause there because the ending is a bittersweet one.

This year there was finally time for me to read. When I’m stuck or uninspired, I often get reinvigorated after reading a new book. My perspective and vocabulary widens, and I’m often reminded about the power that words have over us. As a writer, I read for pleasure, but also for analysis. Presently I’m stuck on how to structure the second half of my new novel, and reading Lahiri’s exquisite novel, The Lowland, is giving me ideas.

My only regret is not reading enough of the dead. I used to have this rule, where for every five contemporary books I’d read, I’d have to commit to a classic. With the exception of Nabokov and Faust, I’ve been all new books, all the time, so I’m making it my point in 2014 to resolve that.

In any event, I hope my reading list {29 books read this year, and counting} inspires you.

V. Nabokov’s The Eye | Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything + A Friend of the Family | Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet | Alice Munro’s Dear Life | Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments | Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days | Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem (re-read), The White Album + The Last Thing He Wanted | Paul Harding’s Enon | Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go | Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland | Claire Messud’s The Hunters + The Woman Upstairs | Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special | Goethe’s Faust, Part I | Aimee Bender’s The Color Master | Krys Lee’s Drifting House | Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn | Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In | Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear | Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland | Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians | Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her | Pamela Rychman’s The Stiletto Network | Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself

on my bookshelf + some thoughts on writing

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For four years I woke and came home to a blank page. Writing was a failed series of stops and starts, an epileptic fit of random ideas gone nowhere. We write what consumes us, whether we like or it not, and our work is a reflection of what we’re tethered to. Arguably, I could say that I spent four years bound to an idea of a life that I thought I wanted. I had my publishing time. I had my freelance time. Now, it was time to get serious, as they would say. It was time to climb the ranks, have a title for which one could live up to, or any such euphemism for binding yourself to a computer for ten plus hours a day. Living as a barnacle under the undersides of planes and behind the desk, where lunch was what was ordered online. Conversation was the exchange of pleasantries and minor personal effects, but never too personal, mind you, between you and strangers, people whom you’d spent more time than those you loved.

You also write, as I’ve learned, when you have perspective, room to breathe. And in those four years I had neither — I chased what was in front of me, rather than conceiving of what could be beyond me. Beyond the next pitch, deck, meeting, endless and exhausting conference calls.

Honestly, I was worried. This ability I had to put words together in unusual ways felt like it had atrophied. It was a muscle gone slack and weak, and every time I came to the page, I kept saying the same old thing. Kept relying on my certain stock of images. I wrote a younger version of myself in an aged, experienced body, and I couldn’t quite get the two to reconcile. So instead I wrote about food. I wrote short blog posts, told some stories, and called it a day. But I’d soon learn it wasn’t enough. I wanted the shape of people. I wanted their voices in my head, constant, constant, like some sort of metronome. I craved a world that was unlike my own, but familiar in some way so I had my in. I had my compass, I would navigate.

And then there was the issue of the reading, or the lack of it. I used to have a blog where I’d document, over the course of six years, all the books I’d read. I stopped doing this because I went from a woman who voraciously devoured 60 books a year to one or two. My diction wasn’t what it was, I didn’t get inspired, I didn’t have space and time in which to read and learn. I grew irritable and impatient with longer books, because I was taught by society that we like our content succinct, manageable, efficient — like a machine of sorts.

So when I flew to Europe in April, I packed nearly a dozen books and read all of them. I read them on the flight, on the TGV, in the hotel room, on the metro, in the parks, on the beaches, in the many, many restaurants where I took meals. I read, folded down pages, took down words I liked. In the case of Nabokov, I took down words to look up in the dictionary.

And then it came. Like a torrent. I sat in a hotel room in Biarritz, the last leg of my journey, and wrote what would become the thing that consumes me, my new novel, Mammoth. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I let the hand play out and kept typing. Hopeful that the larger narrative would get pried out of my subconscious, and months later, after death, loss, more books, and an awakening, I’ve got a clear direction.

The two halves are now one, and I’m reading and writing more than ever. There are stacks of printed drafts in my living room. Books on the floor, on tables and in my closets. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, and this week I’ve got these four books in play.

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris | Doctor Sleep: A Novel | The Lowland | The Paris Review Book: of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, … and Everything Else in the World Since 1953

when our words are the loudest sound

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There’s the smell of her voice. Mouthfuls of smoke and the spearmint gum she cracked and chewed. Metal from the coins and a small key she hid under her tongue. Some nights, late, it’d smell of blood gone dry — a cut on the lip, a cracked tooth — but also of something old. A cultivated staleness, a certain kind of loneliness that makes the whole of her mouth cavernous, as if she’d feret the life right of you. Take all of you in. They asked me to write a poem in fifth grade about my mother. Focus on a detail, something specific, they said. This was a time I swallowed voice, when hers was the loudest sound, and although I was nine I didn’t know how to describe my mother, which is to say the only way that I thought of her was to conjure her voice, and how it reminded me of a storm. So I did that, wrote a haiku, counting the syllables on one hand. Letting the words form and settle, and I handed in a sheet of paper where I likened my mother’s voice to thunder:

Crashing through the night
Roars filled with evil laughter
Lightning veins the sky

But maybe I should have written what her voice smelled like. That would’ve been more accurate; it would’ve gotten me closer. Someone asked me how I know how to do what I do, how I’m able to understand the world through writing about it, I never know how to answer that because this is something I’ve always been able to do. As I child my mother told me about the rules: Never cry. Never be vulnerable. Never be afraid. Never love anyone. So I lived much of my life like that, swallowing voice and practicing coldness. But my notebooks were a refuge, and I wrote out my sorrow like song, like sermon, and I remember what reading fiction first felt like. How I moved from the simple detective novels or stories of lithe blondes wearing pearls and fretting over their finery to leaning up against my locker reading John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and John Updike. From a city that perpetually glinted to the genteel homes in Connecticut where there existed a mudroom, I got lost, deliriously so, in the darkness of other men’s words. In a junior high school filled with girls took for granted their expensive denim and fine hair, I read The Catcher in the Rye and felt awakened. I felt as if someone was talking to me, a friend pointing to the scribblings in their binder and saying, this is me laid out to pasture. This is me, too. These men wrote about loss, something I understand far too well. They wrote about masks, and how a whole society subsisted on the delicate maneuvering of masks. Everyone was on the verge. Everyone was frightened of the emptiness underneath. They built this beautiful, idyllic world that was determined to ruin. As if you decorated a house with lush carpets and tasseled pillows to discover that you neglected to build a floor, thatch a roof.

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And then the thunder. And then the storm. And then the ruin. Does the story always start with, and end with, loss?

I wrote stories about girls who hung themselves from shower rods, girls who slept on linoleum floors as roaches skittered past, girls who inched out onto fire-escapes to read to escape the junk sick. Ceremoniously, guidance counselors held my typewritten stories and inquired about troubles at home, to which I’d shake my head and laugh and asked to be returned to class.

Of course there was something going on at home. There was always something going on at home.

When I first read Catcher, Bullet Park, The Sun Also Rises and Rabbit Run, I connected with the characters, but strangely enough I became fixated on the author. I wondered how he did it. Here I was, thirteen years old, ripping pages out of books and trying to diagram a story. How did someone create a whole world of hurt when I was only able to create a city of it? A house of it? And over the years reading gave me power, allowed me to find my voice, and although it’s been years since I’ve read the authors who unzipped my eyes open, I regard them with a certain kind of tenderness.

And then I think about how the most advanced yoga students actually go back to basics. They re-learn poses, break them down and rearrange them all over again. And after watching the horrific biopic that was Salinger today (it was so bad I can’t even talk about it), I was inspired to re-read his stories.

To revisit the girl who was thirteen, creating fiction.

new books on my bookshelf

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Yesterday, I spent the day with Julia, an old friend and a luminous spirit. We spent a leisurely afternoon talking about yoga, anatomy, inspiring women and their transformation, living a life of truth, being humble, dismantling the ego, and of all the books we absolutely adored. From nibbling on croissants to strolling through the East Village, our conversation took us to one of my favorite bookstores in the city: McNally Jackson. McNally’s that rare gem of a bookstore that merges a cafe-type atmosphere, sweet baked goods, and the best books you never thought you wanted but absolutely need in your life. While Julia forged friendships and snacked choice magazines, I walked around the bookstore, ravenous, and here you’ll find my loot.

Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (novel) | Kate Christiansen’s Blue Plate Special (food/memoir) | Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus (novel) | Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast (food memoir)

ON MY RADAR. CHOMPING AT THE BIT, ETC.: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland | Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge | Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything | Abby Geni’s The Last Animal | Aimee Bender’s The Color Master | Kathryn Davis’ Duplex | Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters

shelf trophies: books I love, from me to you…

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Joan Didion’s The White Album + Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Everything from Didion’s writing process to water plants and Haight Ashbury, her essays are biting and will propel your own personal velocity | Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her: on adultery, love, heartbreak and the spaces in between | Claire Watkin’s Battleborn: dark, mythic, glorious and severe short stories focusing on the Nevada landscape | Claire Messud’s The Hunters + The Woman Upstairs: a novella and a novel that speaks to brilliant women the verge | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go: a family wrestles with the death of its patriarch | V. Nabokov’s The Eye: what happens after an affair jolts you into the afterlife | Krys Lee’s Drifting House: unflinching and graceful stories centered on the Korean-American experience | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove: magical stories that test your imagination and suspend disbelief | Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments: a meditation on memoir, movie-making and memory | Alice Munro’s Dear Life: this is her final book and it needs no introduction | Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home: how a disturbed interloper interrupts a fragile house | Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family: a swift, enveloping novel centering on the bomb that is the next door neighbor | Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: a graceful meditation on loss |

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love.life.eat. of the week: on my bookshelf

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Years ago, for a time, I worked in book publishing. I got the job because I’d edited and published a mildly-successful literary journal, was relatively well-read, and had a way of marketing my non-traditional experience to make my fit into the large house, to which I was applying, a seamless fit. It was 2006, and many in the industry were reticent to approach social, or even understood the seismic shift in how consumers wanted to connect with content. The definition of influence was securing a Times book review, and much of my work was misunderstood or marginalized. But I’d started to notice people on the subway reading books on mechanical devices; I saw how meaningful conversations between passionate readers online not only sparked interest for a book, but cultivated a community we’d only known in book clubs. Towards the end of my tenure, the tide had shifted and publishers sought out my counsel on how to place books in a reader’s virtual lap, but by then I’d changed. As someone who was part of a committee that decided which books to acquire, I was exposed to the more unseemly bits of the business. Books were bought not because of the beauty of the work, but for the means the author had in promoting it. Words like platform and newsletter subscribers were bandied about, and all this time my friends, brilliant writers, struggled to get their manuscripts sold. Tension mounted to the point where the idea of reading a book for pleasure made me violently ill.

Revered since my childhood, books had morphed into a grotesque creature, a changeling, and I abandoned my shelves for months. It would take me two years to wash off the sludge, two years until I could take pleasure in holding a book in my hand.

I say this because for the past three years I haven’t read as much as I wanted to and it was killing me. After twelve hours in the office, if it was a choice between sleep and thumbing through a hardcover, sleep was always the victor. And my poor beloveds gathered dust on the shelves and I frequently skirted conversations with my writerly friends because I was so far removed from the gems that made their way online and in-store.

Until now. Once an ardent devotee of American literary fiction, I’ve noticed that my affection for genre has changed. From reading Going Clear to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the scores of cookbooks and food memoirs clamoring for coveted space on my bookshelves, my book collection has evolved in step with the woman I’m becoming, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So this week’s love.life.eat. will focus on books. Books I’m taking with me to Europe come April. Books I love. Your book recommendations… so, spill it!

Collages

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life | Caitlin Moran’s How to be Woman | Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife: Stories | George Bellows | Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go