Les livres de 2010, round 6

For a long (long, long) time, I didn't know who my people were. Two months ago I had a lunch meeting with Tim and talked to him about work and what I'm doing in the tech world and how I see my career. Are the tech people my people? And if they are, then which subset of them do I belong to? Or maybe the bloggers are my people? Or the French-speakers? Or the academics?

I spent a long time trying to belong everywhere. And then I went to Iowa. And even though it didn't feel like it while I was there, something pretty amazing happened.

I found my people. The people who write.

A few weeks ago, I cleared out my Twitter account. I kept following people that I actually know and spend time with outside of work and started following a bunch of literary magazines and writers. Then I cleaned up Facebook. I hid the activity of anyone who I wouldn't be THRILLED to hang out with if they arrived in my city. The lack of noise has been amazing, but more than that, the targeted noise about writing has kept my brain in the writing world - even as I spend my working hours designing and building an iPhone app.

I'm getting off track here. This post is about the latest books I've read, but part of the reason there's so many of them is that reading (and writing) has become the focus this month. I'm plowing through books like they're going out of style. I guess my people are the book people, huh? Here comes the latest set:

18. Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn
I love the library and rarely purchase books for myself, but for some reason this book called out to me from across the independent book shop on our block. It's the true story of a group of bird watchers in Central Park who start tracking a couple of red-tailed hawks living and breeding in the park. It was not as magical as I'd hoped, but it really was a great New York read. I was flooded by memories of my college summers at Muscoot Farm, birding early in the morning when the grass was still wet and everyone was sleepy. When we went to DC the other week, I brought this book for Steve, the true birder of the family. I recommend it for all nature-loving readers out there.

19. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this book in high school and then Amber Dermont, my teacher at Iowa, taught from it during our novel course. Her enthusiasm for Fitzgerald's language and metaphor was enough for me to grab this at the library when I got back.

And the truth? The story reads like one of the Old Timer Classics. I love reading more modern books because of the feeling that you're INSIDE a character and I wasn't close enough to anyone in the story to feel that intimacy. But nonetheless, Gatsby is such a beautifully-written story; Fitzgerald's sentences made me swoon. For example:

With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water. (p. 162)

I mean, holy crap. "... accidental course with its accidental burden"?? Perfect, perfect repetition. Try this one:

The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever. (p. 153)

The sun spreading itself in benediction! The spot that she had made lovely for him! I mean, come on. Genius.

20. Nocturnes by Kazuro Ishiguro
Here comes a bummer. I love the idea of this collection of short stories. All five stories revolved around a musical theme. But I felt as though they were rushed and random; why tell these specific stories? At the end of almost every one, I felt disappointed, as though the language was distracting and pretty to disguise a lack of direction underneath.

I've heard good things about Remains of the Day, though, so I'm not writing Ishiguro off.

21. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I love how different novels can be. This books spans the entire lifetime of almost two generations, starting with an Indian nun who is sent on a mission to Africa in the 50s and her twin sons (yes! a nun with twins!) and their lives in Ethiopia. It's written by a surgeon and his deep knowledge of the human body is obvious. There are surgeon characters all over the pages and in some places, I felt as though I could use this book as a guide to doing a Cesarean section or transplant a liver.

I immediately wrote to my sister to recommend this book to her; totally interesting read for anyone remotely interested in Africa, medicine, or long and twisted family tales.

22. Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
I've never been particularly interested in visiting Turkey and Drew's book didn't really raise that motivation, but this book, which depicts an earthquake in Turkey and the lives of a family and their neighbors in the aftermath, was intense. You know how you read an article about the Middle East and think "what a freaking mess"? That's this book. The politics and the hurt feelings and the broken cultures and the traditional families... you just want to sit everyone down and tell them to cool it. But of course, this is the nature of humans. We hold grudges and we do stupid things in the name of gods and, in the end, there may be tragedy.

I hate the title of this book and I don't think it fits it at all, so don't go by title alone. A good read though, exotic enough to make it a good cultural read and universal enough that you're invested.


Not just a 4th grade sleepover.

Last night I had a Hoboken sleepover. Katherine, Anne and I ordered thai food and ate it at Anne's kitchen table, where we talked about work and life and love. Ben came over and we talked about running and our morning routines and they all tried to talk me into making spinach smoothies in the mornings. Maybe one of these days when I am not coming to the city early to write or walking over the bridge early for exercise, I will wake up early to blend spinach.

We had a sleepover because there are ways you miss talking to your friends late at night. When everyone lives in their own apartments (and our rooms are no longer preceded with the word "dorm"), you often only have the kind of catch-up conversations at bars and restaurants that can insult the very friendship you're fostering. What is it about late at night and in your pajamas that lets you talk quietly about different subjects?

As we were falling asleep, Anne and I talked sleepily about what we like best about being grown-ups. I said (not as eloquently into my pillow) that I like being in charge of my own happiness, that I can change my life and see different people and do challenging things to result in feeling content. I forget what she said, but I think, in a way, it was the same. I love these friends that I've known since we were nerdy and on campus and am amazed at how we've all navigated so well. We grew up.

This morning Anne got up and went running and I got up and took the bus into the city to write and I knew Katherine was blow-drying her hair and making smoothies for Ben and I thought about how important it is to make time for these moments together. It is like anything you're trying to balance: not possible to do it every day, but critical to do it enough that the threads hold tight.

Here I am, about to go into the 8th month of the year, and I think Balance Beam '10 just hit me. Balance is never about doing everything all the time, but doing everything some of the time, an illusion that you keep up, a trick that allows you believe that it is possible to have it all.


Some thoughts on blogging

I've been thinking a lot lately about content. Part of this is because we're talking more about Readability at work and where it's headed. (If you don't know or use Readability, check it out… it is uber-useful.) What is good content? What are ads? When, if ever, are ads useful?

I've been thinking about what people like to read. There are certain dramatic life events (pregnancies, weddings, cheating spouses, etc.) that will always attract readers. Hello, the sick marketing genius behind Mommy blogs. Suddenly anyone who has ever considered a baby adorable is a potential reader.

When I think about some of the most popular Mommy bloggers, I think about how famous they've become. We're more interested in following their personal story than we are in how they're communicating. They become celebrities and instead of relishing the words in their posts, it starts to feel like eating junk food when reading new posts. (Is this just a post whining about bands selling out when they get a record deal? Maybe.)

But I think people like to read about those events because they mark keystone moments in a life story. We know how they fit- in fact, we predict a blogger's pregnancy as soon as she's married. Then we predict second kids. There's something comforting in reading those kinds of stories. They're engaged?! Read on to hear more about the wedding… It generates its own marketing: sequels and series that we can look forward to.

So here's the thing. Writing about those kinds of events is not hard writing. You could post a cute photo of a baby and a totally incoherent sentence underneath it and no one's going to mind. They are too distracted by the EVENT that they don't notice the WRITING. And that's fine… unless they confuse the two.

When you're learning to write fiction (a state, incidentally, that I consider myself in), you are tempted to use those kinds of events to move the story forward.

"What's going to happen to Sarah in the story?" my classmates asked me in Iowa.

I had planned on getting her married. But suddenly that felt like a cheap trick, the distracting thing you wear on stage to disguise how terribly you sing.

"She needs to have something to do," my teacher said. And it really got me thinking… what are you suggesting when the best adventure you can think of for a character is finding a man?

This is all really subjective, obviously. And I totally write the easy moments all the time. I post photos of my cat, for Christ's sake. But I want to think longer before I hit publish. I want to publish less and say more with my posts. I don't want to drag you all through my life, record the weekends away and the recipes that I slog through in the kitchen. Because there's no challenge in that... and I don't take pride in it, either.

I guess I mean that I want my blog to be about writing. I want its inspiration to come from translating a moment of life perfectly into words. I want my fiction to be the same. I don't want to take the easy road, to throw a character a husband or a lover to remain interesting. I want to dig deep and find some confidence in telling a more subtle story… and hope that it ends up being just as compelling.



Whoah. How did a whole week just go by? I don't have the brain for a whole post today, so how about some snippets? Yeah? Cool.
We went to DC this weekend to visit Kate and Steve. Do you know how balls hot DC is in the summer? I made a silent vow to myself during a long (loooong) walk on the Mall that I will only visit DC in February and October from now on. Whose idea was it to make a huge lawn with no trees, anyway?! Way to go, Lafayette.

Some of my favorite people:


Gee whiz, I worked on this book a decade… it's so easy to be a writer or an athlete or a business person if all you're doing is succeeding. The true test if you're a writer to me is can you remain in failure for a long time but still believe you have talent.

- Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz (in a podcast about The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao)


I've been working a lot lately. I get in pretty early in the morning and try to leave around 5, but that doesn't happen. Last night I spent over an hour in a subway that was stuck because of a sick passenger. I look at the weekends from now til October and see how booked they are and it gives me shallow breath. My time is not my own. It's starting to piss me off. And yet it's no one's fault by my own.

I've been trying to write in the mornings for 30 minutes, but these little sessions aren't long enough to get invested in the text. I'm craving free time and space (hours of it) to spend with the piece in front of me.

Extricating myself from social obligations needs work.


A public thank you for all of the lovely comments people had on my story in Podium. Emails and face-to-face and Facebook... sharing The Leaving with people has been an awesome experience, both exhilarating and depressing at times. Lovely Margaret... where will she go? What will she do now? That's what I'm figuring out now, while writing her adventure. I'm excited for the day that I know the answers to those questions... and especially for the day I can share them with all of you.


Notes from my Short Story class that helped this morning

  • good lines in the first paragraph
  • give characters some obstacles

  • development.
  • development.
  • development.

  • it has to feel inevitable
  • truth has to be spoken



"Ow, I just got bit three times by a mosquito," I say to Chris, scratching at my ankles on Friday evening. Famous last words on the platform of the 4-train. Neither of us worry too much. It's Friday! What mosquitoes?

Fast forward 24 hours. I am at a lesbian bachelorette party in Chelsea (just you wait for the post on that one. HELL of a time). I am drunk. Everyone keeps mooning us. This is hilarious and yet my ankles still itch. By the time I get home, I have to pee like a race horse and want to chop my legs off. ITCHY. Chris gets me water and puts me to bed.

Fast forward 8 hours. I wake up and the three bites are swollen as hell. I call Nurse Mom, who tells me they were probably spider bites. "Maybe you should get yourself to the ER before all the skin sloughs off."

Somehow, I manage not to DIE at that suggestion. Instead, I decide to try to walk to the bathroom to brush my teeth. On the way, I realize that I can no longer bend feet at ankles and Chris finally starts taking my bites seriously.

"I'm Concernicus," he says when he is being funny and serious at the same time.

All day long I sit on the couch with my feet on a stool. All day except for the times I am in bed, sleeping off the Benedryl stupor. All day except for when we went to the movies. Everything was pretty swollen but under control when we left, but the long line at the concessions brought out a darker (see: ruder) side of me.

"DUDE," I yelled to the next man on line who was spacing out. Chris looked at me as if he wanted to disassociate himself. "I'm going to blame that on the bites," he said. I laughed and laughed. I had become such a swollen New York jerk!

Fast forward 18 hours. I've told everyone at work that I can't walk and so I hobble myself to the doctor, who asks me if I'm sure it wasn't something with FANGS that bit me. Then she makes a joke about Twilight. Then she takes my blood and sends it out for venom testing. VENOM! I feel simultaneously bad-ass and at the edge of my death.

So the verdict is (probably) spider bites. And the location is (probably) my office. Here I thought I was kicking back, giving the flip-flops a rest while I pushed through my Friday afternoon. Turns out I was inviting the most ridiculous medical mystery since the last one.

I am looking forward to the whole shooting-web-from-my-wrists thing, though. That's going to be FUN.


How to go to bed happy and healthy.

Ask a friend for one simple thing to do to turn your unhealthy day around. Like the idea about making something homemade. Remember that Anne sent you a salmon recipe last year. Find it in your email. Google "fishmonger." Leave your house and tell the monger you've never cooked fish before. Think the scales look like snake skin. Ew.

Marinate the fish while you and your boyfriend read on the couch. Think about how nice it would be if there was always reading hour before dinner. Eat the fish and find that you like it. Eat the asparagus and find that you love it. Feed some fish to the cat and laugh with your boyfriend when he licks his chops and paws for 20 minutes after.

Decide to have a tag team clean-up. Cleaning needs: Swiff, vacuum, garbage, dishwasher. Take turns choosing who does what. Revel in your clean apartment. Slice a peach for dessert. More reading on the couch. More laughing at the cat. More laughing at silly internet sites.

Happy and healthy. Check.


Les livres de 2010, round 5

One of the most valuable things I took away from my novel class in Iowa was the importance of reading. "Your writing is only as good as the stuff you read," our teacher said. Some people in my class vowed not to write for the rest of the summer, but rather, to read and dissect a few strong novels.

"It is only by reading and taking apart the best novels that you can learn how to write one," our teacher said. This was the inspiration for reading two books by Ann Patchett over the past two weeks. Bel Canto was a re-read; Run was a new read. Both are brilliant in their construction and powerful in their language.

So here's another chunk of book reviews, some pre- and some post-Iowa. There are five this time, which brings me well past my goal for the year and should give you some indication of what I was doing all week among the corn fields.

13. Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Skersh and Sneibs sent me this is a package last year but it wasn't until they were visiting again this summer that I finally got around to reading this book. It's a non-fiction piece about the woman who used to be the New York Times restaurant critic and it's really pretty compelling. To avoid being recognized, she develops a bunch of characters and dresses up in wigs and personalities to get the kind of service that most of us get, which is to say, shitty.

The book was published in 2005 and it's odd- I felt that it was that old. It might have been the types of restaurants she reviewed or the lack of emphasis on organic food (our fair city's latest obsession), but it doesn't feel like her reviews still hold up well against the kinds of conversations New York is currently having about food. Decent read though, for sure.

14. The Other Boelyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory
First off, let me say that I didn't read this book because of the movie that stars the two Hollywood actresses that every dude wants in bed. I confessed my recent obsession with English history to British Katie when she was here visiting in May and she gifted this to me.

It's the story of Anne Boelyn's sister, Mary, who was Henry VIII's mistress before he even knew Anne. For a while I thought I was reading the story of the woman who gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth but then as I was explaining it to Chris, a woman walking out of the subway corrected me. Thank you, helpful New York transit riders! I stand corrected!

If you're at all into English history, read this book. You're going to feel like you're carrying a giant romance novel around, and you are. But it's pretty spicy and historically informative. Nice one!

15. Run by Ann Patchett
Here's the weird thing: I went to hear Ann Patchett read from Run a few years ago when she was touring with the book. I always like hearing authors read their own work and I'd loved Bel Canto. But for whatever reason, the plot didn't appeal to me that night and I went home without a book.

Run is about a family, two adopted sons who live with their widowed father (and a biological son who comes around once in a while). It's also about a car accident, a teenage girl and her mother. Since I started this in Iowa, I was reading for structure. How does Ann Patchett write 300 pages centered around 48 hours? How does she stretch time (or slow it down) to pace the story well? Since I'm thinking about this for my novel, it was interesting to watch her at work.

In the end, it was a great story. I don't know how Patchett goes from being an expert on opera in Bel Canto to fish studies in Run, but she does it with grace and total authenticity. The way she opens and closes chapters with similar images is so amazing and reliable as clockwork. I recommend.

16. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
There are about five novels that I consistently recommend to people looking for a great read. This book is always on that list. I read it for the first time about 6 years ago and found myself craving it toward the end of the Iowa week. I got home late on Saturday night and was tired as hell, but the one thing I managed to do before falling asleep was to read the opening. And, like any good opening, it begins with a kiss. (OR DOES IT, YOU SNEAKY ANN PATCHETT?!)

"When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete."

This time through, I didn't read for plot (although I did find that I had forgotten much of the story). I read for the way she moves through point of view- now we're with Gen, now we're with Ms. Coss, now we're with Simon Thibault. It is deft and clear even though she changes views frequently. And though it appears effortless, I know that it required much effort on the back-end. Lots of thought and strategy and craft went into the seamless story we have in front of us.

17. The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
You know you're getting old when you start accidentally re-reading books you read before, especially those you didn't like.

For whatever reason, I had it in my head that I'd always seen this book in stores but had never read it. Oh, I'd pick it up for the first page or two, but I always put it down again. So when I saw it in the library before I left for the airport, I thought it might be time to read some Paul Auster.

Imagine my surprise when 40 pages in, I knew exactly what was going to happen in a scene. How weird, I thought! Had this been published as a short story elsewhere? Maybe I had read an article about the book? And then suddenly I remembered the whole damn thing.

I had some anxiety about declaring Paul Auster's book poorly-written until I looked on Amazon and saw that many people agree. Compared to Bel Canto, The Brooklyn Follies moves through space and time in such a clunky way that you don't know who you're following anymore- and, more importantly, why you're with them. It's a book about a cast of characters from Brooklyn (and Vermont and South Carolina and Chicago, etc.) and while there are some compelling moments, I suspect those have more to do with the fact that I live where the book takes place more than the way they are crafted.

So... skip this one. I say that to you and I say that to myself so that I don't go and reread this thing a third time. Sheesh.

Iowa rule #4: Listen to the Southern ladies. And listen to yourself.

The thousands of nasty bugs you see all over the pavement each morning are locusts.

There are two kinds of cows: dairy and beef. Dairy cows don't belong in Texas. That's what makes it funny.

Read whenever there's an open mic. You get to know your words better that way. You feel what stumbles, where the crowd (however small) is lost. Listen for laughs, look for bored stares, sense when people are connecting. This is invaluable feedback.

Never say you'll come back, as much as you hope you can. Be responsible and talk about kids and the price of weddings and the price of vacation days. Secretly wonder about doing a MFA. Secretly wish you were free to move to a place like Iowa for two years. Secretly realize you don't want to.

But still, make a promise. Promise it to whatever you believe in, gods or Gods or the universe or main characters named Margaret. You will find time to write. You will give up what you need to. You are a writer.

It's part of the job.


Iowa rule #3: Notice the sky.

You will never see this blue in New York so you wake at 7 every morning. Sit on the steps of the old capital to read from 7:30 to 9. Walk to get a tall skim chai at Starbucks. Find a bench in the shade. Read more. Find a spot in the back of the Java House mid-morning. Write. Take a break to hear a lecture at 11. Write while you eat lunch. Sit on the steps for 10 minutes before class, reveling in fresh air and sun. Try not to think about how much time you spend indoors while you're working in New York.

Instead, focus on the sky. It's really that blue.


Iowa rule #2: Make a new friend.

Spot someone who looks friendly at orientation. Sit next to her. Ask her where she's from. Realize you don't know anything about Singapore. Enjoy her stories about being a dating coach. Make coffee plans, attend extra-curricular lectures together, read each other's work. Make a pact to buy a copy of whoever's book is published first.

Leave Iowa four weeks before she does. Try not to feel jealous.


Iowa rule #1: Make yourself comfortable.

Arrive at your hotel room after midnight. Feel its grayness. Stick the coffee maker and stuff you'll never use on top of the TV bureau. Stick your clothes in the closet and drawers. Use a coffee mug for your pens. Stack the books so that they remind you they're there. Add a pillow to the desk chair because it's old and worn. Choose a new and comfortable dress to wear the next day.

Get a good night's sleep. You're going to need it.


Status update: writing a novel.

I'm feeling stingy with my words. I got back on Saturday night and other than short phone conversations with my Mom and Chris, I've been able to push all my words into my writing. That feels good. It also feels a little bit anti-social, but I know that this precious quiet time is only valid until Chris comes home from Wisconsin tonight and I go back to work tomorrow morning. I have mere hours left until real life swoops down and reclaims me.

For once, I feel centered and focused. It's paying off.

Of course I have lots to say about my week in Iowa, the two classes I took, the stories I started, the novel work I did while I was there. Meeting people from all over and spending my days in exactly two modes: Reading and Writing.

I think that all of this is to say that I need more time. I have a few photos from the trip and I'm going to set this up so that something posts each day this week as I ease back into real life.

In the meantime, here's a little something you might be interested in reading. My short story, The Leaving, was published last Monday in Podium. This is the piece I worked on all spring and I'm currently using it as the basis for my first novel. PHEW. That's an ambitious sentence! And yet it's true.

I'm home from Iowa. I'm working on a novel and I'm juggling a couple of shorter pieces on the side. And I really, really couldn't feel more like this is the right direction.