Monday reading

Good morning!  Here are a couple great things to start off the week:

Selfishness or survival?  Anne Helen Petersen gets it.  Her piece simultaneously discusses four different narratives surrounding the low American birth rate while also deftly and intelligently peeling back the layers regarding the choice to not have children and the impossible financial position that many young people find themselves in.  A great read.

A brave new world, indeed.  Bravo to Universal Standard and J. Crew for working towards truly inclusive sizing.  Shop the collection here!

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Fates, Furies, and Florida

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A couple weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of attending a book talk by none other than the amazing Lauren Groff.  She was at Vroman’s in Pasadena promoting her new book Florida with grace, poise, and temporary tattoos (!) for all of us in attendance.  As a huge fan of both Fates and Furies and Arcadia, it was a delight to hear her speak about reading, writing, politics, and a love/hate relationship with Guy de Maupassant.

Groff treated us first to a reading from the first story in Florida, “Ghosts and Empties,” followed by a refreshingly direct Q&A session.  When asked about a writer’s responsibility and political engagement, for example, Groff deftly explained how she abandoned a recently finished draft just after the 2016 U.S. elections — that it was a kind of book we could no longer afford to indulge in.  She does not write overtly politically, but rather tries to work sideways to get to the things that really matter right now.  She finds she is writing less and throwing more away, as I am, so I found immense comfort in her assurances that it is okay to admit we are struggling as writers in the current environment.  I was likewise pleased by her encouragement to spread empathy and be kind to each other.

Groff’s writing shows great consideration for words, so I was intrigued but not surprised by her ability with languages.  She spent time in France as a teenager where she discovered and loved the work of Guy de Maupassant, that master of the short story form, before beginning to hate him as an avatar of toxic masculinity.  To this day she tries to read in French at least once a week, and admits that French has deeply affected her English.  She self-deprecatingly says she is terrible at writing in French, although she she’d love to do so.  Or Italian.  Or German.  (I find written German to be deeply satisfying from a grammatical perspective because I am such a nerd, so I can relate.)

An anecdote about reading to her son, and how it created a special bond between them, really resonated with me.  It is amazing how reading together gives you the same points of reference.  You share and can understand each others’ canon.  It crystallized for me how much I enjoy reading the same books as a close friend, or watching a show with someone dear.  It enhances your ability to speak each others’ language.

As far as her new work, Florida is where she calls home, so the stories she weaves in this collection are steeped in a sense of place all the more authentically.  The women she writes about are her but not her.  And while she lives with her novels every day, her short stories orbit in the back of her mind until they demand to be written.  Personally, I can’t wait to see what comes out of her orbit.

Thank you, Lauren Groff!

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Earthly delights

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Recently I read the luminous novel Arcadia by Lauren Groff, and while I was not necessarily excited for a story about a commune, my experience with Fates and Furies earlier this year spurred me on.  I found I was drawn in imperceptibly by her graceful and vivid prose, and I found a softer, more immediate, delicately visceral version of Groff that I hadn’t expected.  Far from a simple chronicle of a commune, Arcadia weaves the reader vision of an experimental community through the eyes of its first child, a boy named Bit.  He watches life from his very soul, and through a series of episodes we get to know the unique cast of characters that make up this community.  Not only do we see the effects of Arcadia ripple through Bit’s childhood and then beyond into his adult life, but we do so experiencing the wonder of the young, the thorniness of growing up, and the ache of humanity’s quest for beauty.  I found myself teary more than once, and I’m guessing you may find the same.  Pick up Arcadia for a slice of Groff’s talent, but linger over it for the poignancy you’ll find within its pages.

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Are we there yet?

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Last week I had the pleasure of attending a book signing with the delightful Mari Andrew for her first book, Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood.  I’ve enjoyed Mari’s insights on her Instagram and on the blog Cup of Jo for some time, but fell for her even more after hearing her speak at Vroman’s Bookstore on Thursday night.  She’s been a real inspiration for me: not only did she transition to illustrating full time only a couple of years ago (and already has a book that made the New York Times bestseller list? Amazing!), but she manages to say the things we all are thinking but afraid to articulate in a way that is fresh, disarming, candid, and compassionate — often all at the same time.

In her talk, Andrew held forth on things she thinks are valuable “wastes of time,” including making your own happiness reliable, working towards the person you want to be, pursuing fun, and sometimes having no goal at all.  “I am a person who is loved.  And I am a person who loves.”  These words resonated with me long after I walked out of the bookstore, signed book in hand.  In a culture that seems to privilege self-sacrifice to an impossible degree, sometimes these small reminders that fun is a good thing, and that prioritizing your own happiness is an even better thing, are exactly what is needed — especially when they are offered with a smile as genuine as Mari Andrew’s.

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Bluets

This past weekend I had a lot on my plate.  All good things, either enjoyable or necessary or both, but an introvert like me sometimes just needs a bit of uninterrupted time to recharge.  I finally decided to give myself half a day off, which did me a world of good — I napped, had pasta for dinner, and read.  And oh, did I read.

nelson_bluets_coverI read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch that evening.  I loved it. I’m not even sure how to describe it.  Non-fiction. Numbered snippets about the color blue, simultaneously about and not about a breakup, entirely raw and honest and contemplative.  Hundreds of small poems in the form of lyric prose.  A three-year meditation on color and loss and suffering and limits.  I haven’t felt the desire to pick up a pencil and mark up a book in a long, long time, but passage after passage spoke to me.  It felt good to read and feel understood and hold that book and pencil in a lamp-lit room on my green velvet couch, with my favorite candle burning.  Yearning, and desire, fucking (she does not mince about), philosophy, musings — it is the kind of book I would want to write, the kind I feel like I could write, and I say that with an utter lack of hubris, but rather in the sense of finding a longed-for kindred voice.

Bluets was an outstanding read, bursting with emotion in a quiet, intense, meditative state all it’s own.  This is a slim tome I will be returning to again and again, like an old friend, or perhaps something even better: a sense of being understood.

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Stories that stick with you

Arimah_coverSomewhere on your reading list, make room for Lesley Nneka Arimah’s dazzling and thoughtful debut collection of short stories: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.  These stories stayed with me for quite some time, getting up under my skin and lingering there, mildly disturbing, mildly haunting, and entirely memorable.  Arimah examines humanity and relationships in striking snippets, slices of lives extracted and told with precision by way of magical realism, flavors of dystopia, Nigerian cultural milieu, and creative mythology by turns.  Each has its own carefully crafted sense of place, and the aches and cares of each character all but pop off the page.

“Windfalls” stuck with me, the narrator’s flat acceptance of her life starkly contrasting with the shocking intentional injuries she suffers at the hands of her manipulative mother for payouts.  “Who Will Greet You at Home” likewise left an indelible impression on me, lingering long after I finished the book.  It is the story of a young woman who creates infants out of yarn, of paper, of human hair, hoping that Mama will bless them so she will have a child of her own, and she trades measures of her empathy and then even her joy in payment.  It begs the question, much are we willing to give to get what we want?  What society says we should want?  And how high is too high a cost?  What if the price becomes our humanity?

Arimah draws you in over and over, each story engaging in its own way. She is particularly good at teasing out the unique trials of being a girl in a world intent on extinguishing those who shine a little too brightly.  Grab this book, savor each story, and ponder the imprints they leave on you.

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Love your solitude

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“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I read Rilke’s Letters years ago and felt such a resonance in my young spirit.  I’m feeling a bit off-kilter as many things are in flux at the moment — perhaps it is a good time to return to those encouraging words I found so dear.  Wishing you confidence and calm as the week comes to a close, and happy Friday!

Two great books

Last week I dove headfirst into a pair of great novels, one after the other.  Both were intimate, searing looks at love, relationships, and life.

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Call Me By Your Name is one of the most achingly beautiful books I have read in a while.  This love story unfolds over a few weeks of summer in Italy, and is poignant in ways I can’t quite find the words for.  We inhabit the head of the protagonist, inhabit the sleepy Italian villa, and at the same time we feel every dull throb of longing from every past desire in our own lives.  I read this in a night and a day, and was gripped from start to finish.  André Aciman’s prose is tender and desperate by turns, fleshing out a love that is somehow both fleeting and transcendent.  An exquisite read that will leave you thinking about love and life and the way each changes the other for years to come.

fates_and_furies_coverFates and Furies gripped me just as much, but in an entirely different way.  Like Call Me, I couldn’t put it down, and finished it in less than two days.  This novel, too, explores a relationship, this time between a husband and wife over the course of their marriage (and beyond).  I’m not even actually sure if I enjoyed it, per se, but it was an intense experience to see their relationship from both sides of the coin.  It was very thought-provoking, and I think I am still digesting it — I haven’t started another book yet for that very reason.  One takeaway from this novel for me is the fact I want to be known.  I want to feel understood and loved for me, not for a construct someone has in their mind.  And I don’t want to be left with an impotent rage over the paths my life has taken (or not).  But then on the other hand, can we ever really know another person, truly?  We inhabit this body in this life, and everyone else is relegated to observer by default.  How much can we know?  How much can we be known?  Lauren Groff’s style is very compelling, and once you wander into this Greek drama, you’ll want to stay and ponder long after the curtain closes.

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Monday amusements

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Good morning and happy Monday!  I know “happy Monday” can be a bit of an oxymoron, so here are a few fun links to get the week started on a brighter note:

Internet work-spaces are a psychopathic pit of lies.

What?  I always put my pristine caseless iPhone face-down next to three paperclips for maximum productivity.  You know, near my Emotional Support Pineapple.

 

The British Museum of your stuff

My feelings as I walked through the British Museum encapsulated in the most hilarious way.  No, we didn’t steal this!  “Chain of continuous possession being impossible to establish, the ownership of the object has reverted firmly and decisively to the museum.”

 

New erotica for feminists

“He says that he can see I’m smart because I have enormous books… [I] spend all night fantasizing about his insightful commentary around non-linear plot structure.”  Swoon.  Sigh.  Is it hot in here?