I should have written this review much closer to finishing Let’s Bring Back – sometime in July – as I would have been able to share more delightful specifics. The book is a celebration of nostalgia, of the manners and customs of a better time.
One aspect of the book that I loved was the broad definition of ‘a better time’. In skimming the book together, Mom and I both found aspects of our childhoods – hers from the 50s, mine from the 80s. My grandma, born in 1918, could have done the same. There are remembrances of early 20th century cultural figures – and entries advocating for the return of naps. There are recipes for drinks, and bon mots such as the following list of quotes attributed to Edith Head:
“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”
“The cardinal sin is not being badly dressed, but wearing the right thing in the wrong place.”
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady.”
“Clothes not only can make the woman; they can make her several different women.”
“I say sacrifice style any day for becomingness.”
It was thanks to this book that I knew exactly what a remarkable find I’d made when I found a pair of Elsa Schiaparelli stockings in a lot of six pairs for $12. And thanks to this book, I have yet another argument in support of my favorite color scheme: brown and pink and cream, the colors of Neapolitan ice cream: “Strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate side by side: This combination of pink, white, and brown should be made into the flag of some languorous, pleasure-oriented country.”
A languorous, pleasure-oriented country. I like that. Let’s bring that back as well.
So if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, right? What nice things can I say about How a Person Should Be?
It was a quick read, and parts made me laugh out loud. My book club chose it because one of us had heard it was controversial, and while ‘controversial’ is a bit strong, it was definitely polarizing.
But beyond that? The New York Times reports that “the novel’s (occasional) action and (incessant) dialogue are largely, though not entirely, factual”, which makes me even more sad about the main characters’ miserable lives. Oh, and you should know that there’s a chapter called “Interlude for Fucking”, and it’s just that: eleven pages dedicated to the worship of the narrator/author’s lover’s cock.
Pretty terrible. I’m glad we decided not to discuss it.
I started Bluets on the train the other week, or at least that’s how I remember it. Where was I going that taking the train was the best option? I don’t know, but that’s when I tend to reach for the Kindle, as at home I have the luxury of carrying a book from room to room, leaving it in this stack or the other, picking up again and taking it into the bath, setting it down for the night after reading under the covers in my cool room.
But Bluets was on the Kindle, and so it was read in passing, a few sections on the train to wherever it was, then forty-five minutes on a misty commute to work, and finally on Amtrak headed home from Champaign, another weekend spent between home and home. And I finished it with a gasp for breath, hot tears in my eyes, as the Nicolas Jaar mix unfolded in my ears and the miles slipped by in the darkness.
I don’t know how to write about this book. I don’t even know where to begin. As I think about it, I keep coming back to the idea of a tone poem, a single extended meditation on a single theme – in this case, the idea of blue. Blue of lapis lazuli, of sadness, of pornography. A love affair with a color, an exploration of the sensation of perceiving color, of the experience of feeling, of the feeling of loss, of the loss of a love.
203. I remember, in the eighties, when crack first hit the scene, hearing all kinds of horror stories about how if you smoked it even once, the memory of its unbelievable high would live on in your system forever, and you would thus never again be able to be content without it. I have no idea if this is true, but I will admit that it scared me off the drug. n the years since, I have sometimes found myself wondering if the same principle applies in other realms- if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue, for example, or letting a particularly potent person inside you, could alter you irrevocably just to have seen or felt it. In which case, how does one know when, or how, to refuse? How to recover?
I don’t know how to express how deeply parts of this book resonated with me. I have pages and pages of highlights and bookmarks, of passages that caught my breath, that I will no doubt return to when my heart is aching and I need to remember that what I’m feeling isn’t unique in the world, that others have experienced and thought and felt these same things, and have moreover been able to put them into words more eloquent than anything I could hope to write.
193. I will admit, however, upon considering the matter further, that writing does do something to one’s memory – that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps that is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.
I can’t promise you’ll like this book. I make no such offers. Perhaps you should start here first.
I woke up this morning sick as shit. I don’t know where it came from, but it felt a little like several essential parts of my body got together and decided to put me in time out. You’ve been doing too much, they said, and it’s time to stop. I ignored the message for a while, but when I looked in the mirror at work and didn’t really recognize myself, it was time to go home. I took photos with my phone to prove the point; when I checked just now, they’re not there.
Last night Erin and I saw David Byrne and St Vincent at the Chicago Theater. We both had to temper our slight disappointment with the knowledge that this was David Byrne AND St Vincent, not Talking Heads. But the sound was fantastic and Chicago got on its feet and danced, and when they closed with Road to Nowhere, it was like something out of an old revival, hands in the air, voices united.
I’ve fallen into that city-dwelling habit of eating out too often while observing evolution in action in my crisper. Every couple of weeks, I buy a bag of produce from Edible Alchemy and dream big dreams about what I’m going to make – and then I devour the fruit while letting the zucchinis go soft, the potatoes grow eyes, the onions shed their dusty skins.
A week submerged in The Diaries of Anais Nin. I’m not sure that I can neatly summarize it. It’s been a complicated, emotional year, and so many of the things she described resonated with my experience while also being completely foreign to me. Perhaps this, from November 1933:
Allendy took pains to delineate my character, my true nature, my human attitudes, but it was by a process of oversimplification. The mold into which he tried to fit me came to a climax the day he suggested I should take love more lightly, give it less importance, to evade tragedy. That I should take a playful attitude towards it. It should be sweet and casual, easygoing and interchangeable…This was the natural conclusion to the formation of my human self, to normalcy; and if he was right about overcoming tragedy, par contre, he overlooked the deeper cravings of an artist, for whom deep full love is the only possible form, no simmering life but a boiling one, no small compromise with reality.
Fall has arrived right on schedule. Last night the thermostat dipped low. It is 6:45pm in my living room, and my space is illuminated more by my laptop than by the waning sunlight. Laurie said that we’re losing 2 minutes of daylight each day. But still the ice cream truck sits on the corner, and I dream of swimming in the lake and of all of the summer things that didn’t happen amidst all that did.
Six months in Chicago, and Jeremy said that it sounds like I’m home. Two and a half years in Ann Arbor. Two years in DC. A year each at MPub and Kresge, two years at Gelman. Five years in this goddamned profession. Six years in a relationship, seven months out. I love Chicago. Chicago exhausts me. I’m envious of friends who have recently moved to quieter places. I worry that my life here will burn me out. I don’t know.
Wherever love comes from, whatever is its genesis, it isn’t like a quantity of gold or diamonds, even water, in the earth – a fixed quantity, Fos thought. You can’t use up love, deplete it at its source. Love exists beyond fixed limits, beyond what you can see or count. It isn’t something measurable, something you can say okay, this is love from here to here. But if you take that river down there, Fos was thinking, you know darn well despite the tricks it plays to make you think it’s something that can last forever.
My book club read Evidence of Things Unseen on the recommendation of my friend Angie, who wrote in her Goodreads review that the book “had [her] crying on public transit a bit more than I’d like — as often for the glory of the language as for the heart-wrenching aspects of the story.”
For the last month I’ve been carrying the book back and forth between work and home, intending to chip away at this review, intending to copy down the many excerpts from dog-eared pages that made me gasp, gave me painful goosebumps, pricked my eyes with the beginnings of hot tears. Back and forth in my bag and on my bike, pulled out and set on the desk, then dropped on the coffeetable, waiting for my attention.
He believed there was an order and a method in the ultimate design of things but he believed that that design was the end result of a lot of trial and error. Trial and error as a fact of life was the first thing Fos expected every time he put on his shoes, turned the tap on, lit a match. Statistically he knew the odds were in his favor that his shoes would fit, water would come out of the tap, and combustion would occur – but he also knew that for no reason there existed chances that the opposite might happen. No use asking why or how: why and how were part of the design. As soon as you construct a thing you give its opposite a license to exist – you build a tower then you also build the chance it will fall. You fall in love with safety then you also fall prey to its failure to prevent the necessary trial and error. To think of life as foolproof is a fallacy of fools, he thought. Things happen, he believed, and there’s nothing you can do to keep them from occurring without taking out the magic spark plug, the genius of invention that ignited the adventure in the first place.
Evidence of Things Unseen is a love story. It is small and domestic, but it is also about science and technology and the ways those things disrupt and transform. It is about two very ordinary people who meet at the cusp of an era. The jacket description alludes to lawlessness and heartbreak, and while these things are present, they are in many ways incidental to the rest of the novel, to the interior monologues of Fos, Opal, and their child.
You come to know a person, you live together every day, you’re not really conscious of the changes taking place. Parenthood had come to them like a sudden shower or a gust that, unexpectedly, overstayed like climate, and in a blinking of an eye, without their ever knowing it, Lightfoot had become the context of their day, of every word they spoke, of every look they shared. But now Fos saw a way where they could be together again, and what she saw in his expression when he realized this was the sparkle of relief. He’d missed her…In the sunshine, once, beside a stream that gave into the Little Tennessee where they had stopped to stretch their legs and have some lunch on their way to Fos’s next assignment, Opal hitched her skirt around her waist to wade into the stream to wash the plates and Fos’s heart had skipped a beat. He’d never thought of her as someone who could turn heads, but as he stood there on the bank looking at her body, at her legs, he realized what a fragile thing possession is, how no one person ever owns another, how tenuous our hold is on another…
I found myself thinking about The Wild Palms as I read this book – not because I think Marianne Wiggins is an heir to Faulkner, or because I can make any comparative value judgement on the two novels. Rather, the similarities in time period and geography and selected events made me reflect on the differences in the way intimacy is written – whether they were artifacts of the author’s style or gender or time period or life experience. I tried to quantify this for my book club but couldn’t, not quite, perhaps because both rang true for me in subtly different ways.
The author takes on the following Slow topics: The Age of Rage and Do Everything Faster situate the Slow movement in opposition to our increasingly mechanized, routinized, and optimized lives. He points the finger at Ford and Taylor for pushing us in the direction of ‘time sickness’, and quotes Milan Kundera: “Our period is obsessed with the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered, that it is tired of itself, sick of itself; that it wants to blow out that tiny trembling flame of memory.”
Slow Is Beautiful then introduces the Slow movement and its proponents: individuals, groups, and societies that are exploring different ways of living, finding precedents in the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, and the Arts & Crafts movement, among other, more contemporary examples. I think it was around this point – 50 pages in – when the capitalization of Slow started to wear on me.
Food: Turning the Tables on Speed: A lot of knowing nods while reading this chapter. We all lived in Ann Arbor, the Portlandia of the Midwest. We knew about or were involved with SELMA. We went to the farmers’ market. We had or dreamt of having gardens. We prayed at the great altar of good food. We know and value this stuff, but I’m willing to bet you rolled your eyes at least once.
Cities: Blending Old and New: In lieu of discussing this chapter on new approaches to urban planning that favor pedestrians, mixed use spaces, and the ever popular ‘third place’, I present a Talking Heads interlude:
Mind/Body: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano: meditation, yoga, SuperSlow weight lifting, and other physical activities that join mind and body in deliberate, slow motion. I read this chapter while completely zoned out after 90 minutes of aggressive exfoliation and massage at King Spa. My mind and body were totally disconnected, and I couldn’t have been happier, though had I put this book down at this point, I might have, in fact, been happier in the long run.
Medicine: Doctors and Patients: anyone who has spent any time utilizing the American health system could have written at least half of this chapter. Every week for the last two months, I have spent three hours at the orthopedist’s office. Of those 180 minutes, 5 each were spent with the x-ray technician, the nurse practitioner who took my vitals, and the doctor who told me that everything was basically the same as the previous week. Slightly more time was spent with the person who applied and removed my cast(s). And this doesn’t reflect the amount of time spent on the phone with the incompetent practice of my primary care doctor, as each visit to the approved specialist requires a separate referral. When you’re working with a system built on billable hours, usual and customary charges, and enormous malpractice premiums, it’s hard to see any other way out. Also homeopathy and alternative medicine are cool.
Sex: A Lover with a Slow Hand: did you know that Sting is into Tantric sex? And that you can have better sex if you actually communicate with your partner and try to understand his/her body and desires? And I quote, “It was a revelation. I really had no idea that there was another approach to sex that was about giving time to each other, about bringing your head and your heart completely into the sexual relationship.” Whaaaaat.
Work:The Benefits of Working Less Hard: After decrying the recommendations of Taylor etc, the author then advocates working smarter, not harder, and more efficient rather than longer hours. Hmm. I’m also reading Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, which makes the same, albeit considerably more self-satisfied, argument.
Leisure: The Importance of Being at Rest: we work too hard, and we play even harder. I’m guilty of the latter, if not always the former. Slow activities like knitting and gardening and reading books can help. I was fascinated by the part about how contemporary performers play classical music too quickly, but it quickly devolved from there into high-art Slow Music concepts. Moving on.
Children:Raising an Unhurried Child: None of us currently have children, and I don’t know if any of us are planning to procreate, so our responses to this chapter will likely be more smug than those of actual parents – however, I agree that like adults, kids today are too damned busy. However, childhood is a relatively ahistorical phenomenon, so while we may have fond memories of endless summer days riding bikes with our friends instead of studying languages and being ferried to volunteer gigs to build our college application profiles, it really isn’t that long ago that we would’ve all been working in the factory or on the family farm. So what’s the happy medium?
There’s a lot to be said for the Slow movement. I feel like this summer has been a constant, unrelenting reminder to slow down, to be intentional, to make connections, to live simply. But the people who need that advice probably aren’t going to indulge in 300-or-so self-satisfied pages of case studies of couples who have slowed down – and those who don’t probably don’t also need another reason to pat themselves on the collective back.
So I spent most of the summer in a cast, but just before that happened, I spent the day at the beach. Karen and I packed snacks and drinks and books and met up at Montrose Beach on one of the hottest damned days of the summer – 106 at 6pm, so I don’t want to think about how hot it was earlier in the day. We spent the afternoon alternating between soaking up sun on our beach towels with our books, sipping cheap-ass margaritas that were cold once upon a time – and running as fast as we could across the crowded, scorching beach to wade out into the lake as far as the teenaged lifeguards in rowboats would allow.
I’m a new beach-goer. Last summer was the first time I really understood what you do at the beach – which is to say,nothing. You do nothing at the beach. A whole lot of nothing. If you’re anything like me, you’re not used to doing nothing – but that’s the subject of another, long overdue post.
Last summer, for the first time in my life, I got a sunburn on my butt from lying on the beach at Devil’s Lake. We laid there long enough that I read a thick issue of Vanity Fair cover-to-cover. I wore my vintage-esque strapless suit, occasionally ventured into the very clear water, and generally idled away a lovely afternoon. When we got to Madison the next day and I used a real shower, I was shocked to discover the red lines on my butt – and took them as an indication of how relaxed we’d gotten by the midpoint of our week-long vacation.
The beach and the associated burns were signature elements of my early summer – M and I getting burned at the Dunes, then again on an overcast day on a Chicago beach in May. Biking to Foster Beach to meet Carrie and Stef, the former avoiding sunburn despite her porcelain skin and aversion to sunscreen, while I burned stripes on my back because, oops, I forgot that I would be in the sun for an hour before getting to the beach and applying sunscreen. M and I falling asleep by the ocean in Imperial Beach and waking up with possibly the most absurd sunburns ever.
The sunburns went along with a fair amount of beach reading: Let the Great World Spin in Indiana, the bleakness providing a strange contrast to the exceptional beauty of the sand and the lake. Hemingway’s letters by the ocean, reading about him falling in and out of love with Agnes von Kurkowsky. Finishing Hack for my book club on the beach at 12th Street in the middle of a day of biking all over the city – brunch with Mike in University Village, east to the lake, north to dodge a storm, further north to Foster, south to Lincoln Park for iced tea and Lush, east to the beach after the storm broke, northwest to Wicker Park for drinks and gelato with Julie, then finally home, 36 miles later.
I was reading The Other Boleyn Girl at Montrose the day I broke my arm, and finished it over the next few days full of hours spent in the emergency room (4) and assorted waiting rooms (2×3). I have to say – I’m pretty sure it is the perfect book to read in those circumstances. It’s trashy enough – a young married girl seduces a king! who is then seduced by her sister! who convinces him to leave his faithful wife and take on Rome in order to get her in bed! and then maybe seduces her brother because she can’t manage to give the king a male heir! – to pick up and put down between dips in the lake or shots in the arm or x-rays. It’s enthralling enough – lush descriptions of food and dancing and sex and the countryside, at least reasonably accurate English history – to keep the reader distracted from the fact that her arm is in traction and her summer plans have been derailed. And it’s thick enough, at 672 pages, to last through those interminable appointments, waiting for bad news but hoping for good.
In short: an excellent beach read. Maybe not an excellent read, but an excellent beach read, and just what the doctor ordered for my broken arm summer.
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke – stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.
I heard about the book from a Diane Rehm Show podcast in 2009. It was a hot summer day, and I was walking around Foggy Bottom transfixed by the author reading his fictionalized account of Philippe Petit‘s walk between the Twin Towers.
In some ways, this book reminded me of Netherland, and in others, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The interwoven stories hinge on two events: Petit’s 1974 walk, and the trial of a prostitute. These events dance around the periphery of the life of an uptown Jewish doctor’s wife grieving for the death of her son. An African-American woman who has also lost her sons takes in the children of the prostitute, dead in a car accident shortly after her trial. A woman tangentially involved in the accident feels responsibility for the death of the priest who had befriended the prostitute, and seeks out his brother, the one-time john of the prostitute’s mother, left behind in prison. It’s a complex and emotional book, wonderfully written, and deserving of the National Book Award, though I’m not sure what makes a book National Book Award worthy.
I copied these lines down weeks ago when I first finished the novel on a hot Sunday when I needed a laugh more than a cry on my friend’s couch, her cat next to me, feeling absolutely alone, gutted in the same ways that I was when I finished The Wild Palms:
I walked in the woods, around the lake, out onto the dirt roads. Gather all around the things that you love, I thought, and prepare to lose them.
Runaway has lingered on my nightstand since November, and I can’t rightly explain why. I’m an avid reader, but I read in cycles – a hundred pages in the bathtub, then nothing for a week or two. Two thick magazines on the plane, but no more than one short story a month. It’s easy to lose the subtlety and flow of a story, particularly when spread over a few months.
That is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think, soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.
The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you can barely remember.
That is what happens.
And Runaway is subtle. This review by Jonathan Franzen captures the beauty and challenge of Munro’s writing – it focuses on small but compellingly human stories. Nothing happens on a historically momentous scale, but the stories she tells are full of those small events that feel historically momentous: meeting a stranger, deciding to leave, making a promise, learning the truth, falling in love, remembering.
The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities – see the humanity – in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.
The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact is this: in 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay for Harper’s Magazine on the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Jim Fingal was his fact-checker. The book presents the original essay, the verified and controverted facts, and a conversation between the two men spread over seven years as Fingal challenged the veracity of D’Agata’s work, and D’Agata in turn challenged the legitimacy of Fingal’s complaints.
The format of the book made knowing how to read it challenging. The original essay is in a square in the center of each page, with the fact-checking surrounding it in black (verified) and red (challenged). Fingal and D’Agata’s conversation follows in the appropriate color. I originally started reading the essay straight through, then cycling back to the beginning of each chapter to read the fact-checking, but eventually got into a flow of reading the two simultaneously, laughing out loud at the absurd things Fingal found to challenge:
“…archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood…” Factual Dispute: This happened on June 28, 2002, fifteen days before Levi Presley killed himself, so it wasn’t discovered the same day he died. In addition, the bottle was discovered in Virginia City, which is 20 miles southeast of Reno – about 450 miles away from Las Vegas. So the relevance of this bottle’s discovery to Las Vegas is a little specious.
“My mom was beading jewelry to make some extra cash.” Since he won’t give me his mother’s contact information, I can’t confirm this, nor whether or not she really has a cat, and a need for “some extra cash.” Though she must be quite the artist to be able to sell her handicrafts for extra cash.
D’Agata repeatedly pushes back on the challenges, often placing more weight on the “flow” of the narrative than on the truthfulness of the facts. And admittedly, he’s right. In one case, thirty-four flows better than thirty-one. Referencing the coroner as County Coroner – rather than the suggested “the former coroner” or “the then-coroner” – makes more sense to the reader, who frankly probably doesn’t care that the coronership has changed hands since the original interview.
But for the reader, these small untruths add up to an unsettling sense that all non-fiction is inherently fictitious. And we know this, right? We know that even if events are documented as they are happening, they are captured through a particular lens with a particular set of biases and values. Even the most uninvolved observer brings a part of themselves to the act of observation.
It’s just that we selectively ignore these facts when we’re reading non-fiction.
Because we’re adolescent when it comes to art. We’ve almost entirely disenfranchised art in our public schools, in our homes, in our culture at large. Of course we’re going to stomp our feet and scream when we’re suddenly thrown a curveball after emotionally opening ourselves up to something and then learning that that thing isn’t exactly what it seems. And of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal. Because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before. Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us.
And that? That is why I loved this book. Because it reminded me that the lines between truth and fact and between art and artifice are inherently blurry, and that crossing that line should be painful and exhilarating.