Posted in Books

On Just Being a Reader

I am drowning in good books these days.

I just got back from a long work trip, where I read Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties. It wasn’t fantastic, but I love Stephen King and the way you just get sucked into his insane plots. This was perfect to read on the long plane rides and in the middle of the night as I struggled with jet lag. Then I got home to a backlog of holds at the library. I breezed through Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts. Are teenage boys really that obsessed with sex? I realize that sounds like a stupid question–of course they are–but I was sort of freaked out by just how much the protagonist thought about sex. Like more than seemed possible.

From there I blew right through Fangirl, which was funny and sweet (and fast), and then I started Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, which is really fascinating. It’s probably something I should have learned in school, but as you probably remember, I spent an awful lot of time at school doing shots and skipping class. Before I could get very far on that one, though, I cheated and started John Green’s newest, Turtles All the Way Down. That John Green, he’s amazing. I stayed home an extra half hour this morning just because I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

My TBR pile is promising, too. We’re reading Lincoln in the Bardo for book club, and I bought the new Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust. I have a memoir by Michel Faber called Undying that will probably make me weep, but I still can’t wait to read it.

It’s luxurious to have so much good stuff to read.

For a long time I was really worried that my career-change meant I wouldn’t get to enjoy this kind of heavenly excess. I worked in books for almost 20 years, in a ton of different roles, from bookseller to publisher. There were SO MANY good things about being in the books business. Tons of free books. TONS. I was surrounded by people who loved and lived books. I got to talk about my favorite subject at work all of the time. I always knew the latest scoop on new books, on authors, and on controversies. Authors were my rock stars, and I got to meet so many of the very best of them.

I worried for years over leaving that world, so afraid of losing all the benefits.

But in the end I was just burnt out. The pace was insane. Media coverage of the work I was a part of was relentlessly negative (and often wrong). And those periods of not being able to finish a book–those black holes where nothing at all is connecting with you?–I kept having more of them, and they seemed longer and more precipitous every time.

I finally left books in early 2013, at least five years after I’d begun to think it might be time. In hindsight, I wish I’d left earlier.

The change was good for me in a lot of ways, right away, but I also felt like I’d lost the right to have an opinion on anything books- or publishing-related. I was an outsider. It took me a few years to get myself settled into my new life and career and to settle my brain, and of course I’ve realized that I am still entitled to my opinions. And I’ve found that I actually love and enjoy reading MORE now than ever before.

So what’s different?

Reading isn’t work any more. Even with all of the great things that came with working in books, at the end of the day, opening up a book to read was, at some level, working. It was an excellent type of work, no doubt. But it was work. And in many ways what I chose to read felt like a political decision. Maybe the book was self-published, or published by someone we had difficult business dealings with. That meant something. Was the editing a little loose or the cover not quite right? I would think about the person I knew who was responsible for those mistakes and fret about whether I had something to do in order to fix it. Now I just peruse covers, read reviews, and decide whether a book is something that floats my boat at the moment. No politics, no work.

I decide which books are important. There’s no pressure to read all of the big new important books. There was never a set rule that I had to read a specific list of books, of course, but it was expected that you were current on everything that was important. One of the things that made me realize it was time to leave books was when I was at a dinner in New York with two publishing people, catching up on what we’d each been reading. I mentioned a memoir I’d picked up about a woman who spent a year in Japan. I really liked it. One of my dinner mates, a lovely woman, said, “Hmmm, I don’t know that book.” And the other one said “Don’t worry, it’s not an important book.” Ugh. So gross. That elitism was my least favorite thing about publishing. Anyway, now that I’m not in the books business I can go on benders and read nothing but YA or memoirs or books about hiking the Camino de Santiago for months on end. I don’t have to feel guilty about it. I can even go back and read–or reread–backlist titles, something I couldn’t imagine doing when books were my job.

My opinions are finally my own. There’s no need for me to be diplomatic or to champion titles purely for business reasons. I am proud to say I never lied about liking books that I sold or published, but there were certainly a lot of things I chose to remain silent about. I never even made negative comments about books published by other houses–who knew who might end up being inadvertently offended? No longer! I am free to say, for example, that I hated Alec Baldwin’s memoir, Nevertheless, with the burning intensity of the sun. What a narcissistic fucker that guy is.  Also, e-books are too freaking expensive! Publishers ripped off American readers but somehow won the PR war against Amazon on the subject. I still refuse to buy any e-book that’s more than $10. Instead, I go to the library. Speaking of which,

I’ve rediscovered the library. I’ve had a library card my entire life, but I didn’t really use it when I was working in books. Now my local library is an important part of my everyday life. I was there this morning and will probably be back again before the week is over. I love how busy it always is–full of kids and all kinds of adults and people learning English and old men sitting in the carrels in the back watching romcoms on their laptops (at least that’s what I hope they’re watching). It’s a little microcosm of our entire city. I feel good in there. And going there regularly makes me feel like I’m really part of my community.

I guess all of this is to say that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world because I got to work in books every day. It certainly was a wonderful experience. But there is an awful lot to be said for being a reader, just a reader.

Posted in Books

Don’t go to sleep!

I arrived in India yesterday and in between napping and trying to figure out what day it is, I’ve been reading Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King. It’s my book club book this month and is especially great to read right now because the plot revolves around a sleeping sickness that only affects women. In the book I am reading about women desperately trying to stay awake just as I am desperately trying to stay awake. It’s trippy and I think making the book better for me. More on this once I’ve finished it.

Posted in Books, CPB


We’ve been writing about commonplace books –these old fashioned collections of quotes from books and readings– and working on our own versions for a few months now. When we started, a little bit of digital sleuthing quickly showed that most people break their CPBs down by category. I considered this for a few days, and even tried to come up with a short list of categories for my collection, but it seemed an impossible task. It’s hard to think about organization when you have nothing but blank pages in front of you. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, however, I can look back and see some categories starting to emerge.

2017 has been a difficult year. My husband received a big and terrible diagnosis early in January and one of my ways of coping has been to just write this year off –I’ve said at least a dozen times something along the lines of “2017 isn’t a good year for me for ______. Let’s talk next year.” It applied to everything from socializing to taking on big projects to traveling to spending money. Although it sounds kind of pessimistic, I actually found it quite freeing — it was a little confirmation to myself that yes, this year would suck, but with any luck things wouldn’t suck forever. As long as you see an end to a difficult time, it’s much easier to get through it.

And I think because of this state of mind instead of using my reading to escape I’ve dug deep and read little that wasn’t about K’s illness or about how others have dealt with a shitty turn of events.

The big question that has been running through my head all year is “how do we comfort the people we love?” and the truth is that I’ve yet to come across any great answers. But I have started to build up a pretty sizeable fountain of other people’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with hard shit. I have lots of thoughts on this and will probably post about it again, but for now I thought I’d just share a few of the quotes from this year’s reading that have resonated the most.

“The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It’s not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is to simply show up. It’s about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all — this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it’s how, for me, everything turns holy.” Glennon Doyle, “The Secret of Life Is Simply Showing Up”, O Magazine July 2017

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (found on a comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post 7/25/17)

I am reminded of an image…that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more — sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life

These are only from things I’ve read in the last ten months. I find myself wanting to go back and reread things I read long ago, things I read before I was keeping track of quotations in my commonplace book. I want to re-read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, the best book on grief I think I’ve ever read, about the terrible year that Didion lost both her husband and her only daughter. I want to go back and re-read Late Fragments by Kate Gross, which I listened to on a solo road trip through the desert a few years ago. It was wonderful, if wonderful is an appropriate word for the memoir of a very young woman with a horrible cancer that kills her soon after she finished writing the book. I want to go back and re-read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Lifeby Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a book that I absolutely adored when I read it more than a decade ago. Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer earlier this year, just ten days after the NYT published a heart-wrenching dating profile she wrote for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I want to revisit the wisdom in Will Schwalbe’s The End-of-Your-Life Book Club and Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life.

I see now that this is not a new category for me. It’s just become more important to me this year. So, what should I call this category? Illness? Grief? How to live with death in your rear-view mirror? Oh. I guess that’s just called Life.

Posted in Books

“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood.

My fourth favorite book in the whole world is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I had to read The Sun Also Rises in high school and I hated it and because of that, I didn’t pick up another Hemingway until I was in my early 30s. If I’m going to be absolutely honest, I have to say it was because of that Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels. I sincerely love that movie, embarrassing as it is to admit. There’s a scene where the two of them are in a library and Cage’s character picks up A Moveable Feast and reads from it:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

And the very moment I saw that scene, I wanted to eat an oyster, which I had never done, and I badly wanted a glass of cold white wine. I love oysters now and for me there’s no such thing as a white wine that is too cold or too crisp and I’m pretty sure it’s because of that sentence. Could there be a more perfect description of that taste combination? The words are so simple and the sentences so unadorned and right this minute, at 10 am on a Wednesday sitting in a library carrel, I am nearly desperate for a cold glass of crisp white wine.

I read the whole book a few years later, immediately skyrocketing it to near the top of my favorite books. This is Hemingway before Hemingway was the Hemingway you’re introduced to as a student. There is no bull fighting, no wars, and no womanizing. It’s a memoir of the years he spent in Paris in his 20s. He was very poor, and in love, and he had a small child who he adorably refers to only as Bumpy. If you’re into literary history there are a whole bunch of to-be-famous friends he writes about: Gertrude Stein, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound. I found that stuff interesting but not the main draw. The main draw was how Hemingway talks about food.

“I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry.”

Roasted chestnuts and mandarin oranges don’t actually sound like they’d go together, but this sentence, in a section about how cold it was in Paris then and how they were too poor for regular food, so he squirrels away little treats to eat when he’s done with his writing for the day? It makes chestnuts and oranges sound like the most spectacular luxury you could imagine.

“They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a plateful. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”

Same thing here — eating fish bones and all isn’t that attractive to me but I read this and I want to be on a coast somewhere in a big fat fisherman’s sweater, ready to eat even a lowly sardine, if I have to.

“I knew several of the men who fished the fruitful parts of the Seine between the Île St.-Louis and the Square du Vert Galent and sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.”

Does that not sound like the most perfect lunch you can imagine? I big jug of good cheap French wine, a soft baguette and some charcuterie. Jesus. I’m so hungry now.

“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes à l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.”

YUM. I don’t even know what pommes à l’huile  is. No wait, I do, because Elise is a good influence on me and I looked it up. Warm potato salad with fresh herbs.  I will say it again: YUM.

Hemingway explains this obsession food well, I think, when he says, “When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal completely makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink.”

Lest we think that Hemingway was an entirely different man than his reputation would lead you to believe, one of the best quotes in the book is this: “There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.” Blerg. Whether he really was the machismo asshole history paints him as, or just the product of a much different time, you have to at least give him credit for being so honest.

PS: As an aside, I have recently listened to this book on audio. It was summertime and I listened to it with the top down on my car, quite loud so that I could hear above the hum of traffic. I awkwardly listened to a very un-PC exchange about homosexuality between Hemingway and Stein in the hospital parking garage one day. Ms. Stein was a lesbian who happened to hate gay men. Yowsers. I got a very very very dirty look from a woman walking past my car.

Posted in Books

Memories survive on a wisp of fragrance

I am in love with Abigail Thomas.

​My friend Laurie gave me a copy of her book A Three Dog Life back in 2006 and it sat unread on my shelf for almost ten years. I was worried that the titular dogs died and I had to emotionally steel myself for that. Of course, when I finally picked it up I learned that the dogs were practically the only things that made it through that book alive. (Reminder that it is almost never the things that you worry about that break your heart. It’s the things you can’t even fathom to imagine.)

Abigail Thomas is 73 and has had a rather ordinary life so you wouldn’t think there was enough material for four memoirs but somehow she found it and each of the books are wonderful. I just got the fourth, Thinking About Memoir, from the library yesterday and I have been savoring every single word. It’s a tiny little thing, part of a series the AARP put out back in 2008. It’s meant as a guide for retired people to write their memoirs — at least that’s probably what the editors had in mind — but it’s truly gorgeous and more widely applicable than that. It’s a very gentle encouragement to mine your life for stories, interspersed with beautiful examples from the author’s life and with a number of exercises you can try when you need the help.

This is from the very first paragraph:

This book is about writing memoir…This book is also about being in the here-and-now, because memories survive on a wisp of fragrance, or a particular shade of blue, or a song that reminds you of a song, and you don’t want to miss anything. Keep your eyes and ears open, also your heart. This is about letting the mind open up and wander, about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details. Detail is the antidote to boredom, and it tends to keep depression at bay.

And my favorite thing about this book? The print copy I got from the library was read the same way I’m reading it. Someone who had it before me took notes, marked it up, and savored all of it. More than once as I read a passage I wanted to remember, I would go to dog-ear the page and it went down smoothly along a crease that was already there. Some stranger had marked the very same page. It had been neatly straightened it out again before the book made its way back to me but I could tell that the dog-ear was there. Maybe this stranger loved the very same lines I did.

I like that a lot. You know I almost always prefer to read an ebook but this is one of those experiences you just can’t get digitally.


Anyway, I love this book. It’s out of print now, unfortunately, and the only used copies I could find were $20+. That feels too expensive. I think I’m going to renew this library hold as many times as they’ll let me and if I continue to love it the way I do now, I will definitely suck it up and buy myself a copy.

PS This new style of reading, where I’m thinking about the CPB while I’m reading and making note of things I will either want to add to the book or tell you about on the blog — I really really dig it. I feel like it’s opening up a brand new type of reading and comprehension for me.

Posted in Books, CPB

The Carnegie-Morrissey Connection

​Yesterday Elise and I had this text exchange:

I’d been sick the entire day and all I did was lay around reading, snacking, and napping. After this exchange I ending up thinking about all of these business plans I have. In addition to that brilliant scheme for middle-aged shower products, I have pretty well developed ideas for the following:

  • a luxury spa designed for working women
  • a cleaning service with citizenship support for recent-immigrant cleaners
  • a tinder-like book recommendation app
  • a plus-size bicycling and outdoors clothing line

I’ve been obsessing over business ideas for the past five or six years, part of my long thinking process as I was deciding to leave my comfortable corporate job. During that time I read a ton of business books, some good, some bad, but the business idea craze was definitely kicked off by Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup. I started to compose a post about this book but then I had a vague recollection that Elise and I had already discussed it. Sure enough, it’s in my email archives back from 2013.

​Sweet! I’m so glad I had record of this conversation. These diatribes we’ve been writing to one another for 10 years have created such a great trail of breadcrumbs!

Anyway, so now that I know we both had the same point of reference for this book, I went to my Kindle archives to see what I’d highlighted in the book. I was surprised that despite how influential this book has been to my thinking, I barely highlighted any passages and the ones I did were not particularly meaningful. I flipped over to look at popular highlights (things other people highlighted) and that helped a little bit, but not really. I need to go back and reread the book. I kind of resent having to do that — I’ve got a whole thing about re-reading books. Re-reading books, even good ones, pulls me away from something new I could be reading. (I think that’s leftover PTSD from my days working in books — there was always so much pressure to be reading the newest thing that it felt sinful to go backwards in any way.)

But it made me think about a feature I’d like to figure out — as long as we’re making our CPBs digital, we should take advantage of the medium and make it collaborative.

Right now we each have a CPB going in Evernote, and we’ve shared them with one another which means that I can see Elise’s and she can see mine but there’s no obvious way to comment or highlight on one another’s entries. At least not that I can see.

I’m going to mess around with it to see what we can figure out.

In one of Elise’s recent CPB captures, she quoted Dale Carnegie — “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.” — which is a great line, but every time I see it I immediately think of The Smiths song “I Know It’s Over”. One, I loved The Smiths (so dramatic) and two, that song in particular was one of my favorites. I used this quote in my high school yearbook.

So I wanted to make note of this in Elise’s CPB. There’s no obvious way to do that — I was looking for something like the comments you can create in Word, like a little bubble with the author noted. So I just wrote my comment in next to Elise’s and marked it in red, like so:

This is kind of a sloppy hack though. Elise doesn’t get a notification about my note; she has to be randomly reading through her entries to notice it. Does anyone know of a more elegant solution?