Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hate reads and inspiration

I have a confession: I read a lot of blogs that make me angry. And here’s another confession: I don’t plan on stopping. But not for the reason you might think.

First of all, let’s talk about hate reading. I have a theory that anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet (yours truly included) will eventually accumulate a couple of hate reads along the way. This is a documented phenomenon. Last year, Jezebel (the notorious comments sections of which may themselves serve as a hate read, in a pinch) posted an article called “The Art of Hate Reading,” in which the author discusses the habit of “visiting a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing — or indulging your disdain for —the author and/or content.” I do this. Oh, do I do this. I have a whole section set up on my Feedly reader devoted to these so-called hate reads, and they’re the first blogs I read every morning. They get the blood pumping, you see.

My Feedly reader - note categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I've already read the Hate Reads.

My Feedly reader – note separate categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I’ve already read the Hate Reads.

But I don’t like the term “hate read,” because I don’t really hate these blogs. Hate is a strong word, right? Hate should be reserved for murderous dictators and people who club baby seals and the CEO of American Apparel, and so on. But blogs? This stuff doesn’t really matter. You can’t allow yourself to feel real bile when reading a blog because people say all sorts of ignorant and/or provocative things on the internet, and if you went around reacting emotionally to every instance of stupidity, I’m convinced you’d drive yourself batty. So I don’t hate these blogs that I read, but I do find them baffling, crazy-making, and frustrating. Often, I want to reach through my computer screen and shake whatever ignorant sod pecked out the words that I’m reading, but I never feel actual hatred. What’s the point? Haters gonna hate. (Science has proven it.)

The flip side of hate reading is that if you stick around long enough, you’ll get exposed to communities and ways of thinking that you’ve never before encountered, up close and personal. This can be off-putting, but also fascinating. I think of reading these blogs as a type of amateur anthropological study. Consequently, the exposure to communities of crazies on the internet has informed my thinking and, more importantly, my fiction writing. After all, it’s the extreme examples of weirdness that I find on the internet that provide fodder for some of my more interesting characters. If you spend enough time on blogs, reading posts and comments, you start to get a real sense of how certain people — people you’d never meet in real life — think and talk. And that’s a pretty valuable resource for a writer. You know that old chestnut “write what you know?” If you stick to only writing about people you know in your own life, the landscape of characters in your fiction might start to get a bit dull. Of course, it’s not that everyone I know in real life comes from the same background or holds the same beliefs, but generally, there’s some truth to the saying that birds-of-a-feather flock together (and I don’t mean that in some weird, covertly racist way). The fact is, the majority of my close friends are American, around my age (late 20s, early 30s), highly educated, politically moderate, agnostic, or liberal, and non-religious and/or non-devout (or, if they are religious, I’m not aware of it). Trust me, they’re all fascinating, wonderful people and they make my life infinitely better. But you don’t come across a lot of surprises when you hang out with people with similar backgrounds and beliefs to yours. That’s where the internet comes in.

My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I read blogs that have no actual relevance to my life, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not about to stop now, no matter how awful the content. This morning, for example, I read this comment on a blog that I peruse occasionally:

When you say your friend mouthed off about homosexuality, do you know exactly what he said, and how he said it? 

I ask because while I agree with your observations that freedom of speech should be sacrosanct and that Catholics have the right to believe (and, in my view, should proclaim) that homosexuality is an evil perversion, I also believe that we should not pour vitriol on those who are tempted into such a life, but rather should help them repent from it.

It seems to me that it is all too easy to forget one half of the maxim ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and easier still to express one sentiment in a way that crowds out the other.

If your friend was among the homosexuals at the perversely-named ‘pride’ event, trying to befriend them and at the same time enlighten them about the immoral and destructive nature of their activities, I salute him, and condemn those who set out to silence him with their drugs. I pray they didn’t sodomise him while he was under the influence, and if they did, that the does not now have HIV as a consequence.

I think if I had read this almost comically ignorant comment a few years ago, before I was an old pro at hate reading, I would have choked on my morning hardboiled egg/done a coffee spit-take/slammed my forehead on the keyboard repeatedly, etc. But now, I just find it fascinating! I mean, if I ever need to create a well-meaning but outrageously homophobic character in a book, I know exactly how he’ll talk and exactly how he’ll spell the word “sodomise” (the British way, apparently). You can’t make this stuff up… but you can learn from it and use it in your fiction.

So, to my fellow hate readers, I say go forth and hate read. And then take all of your frustration and pour it into great writing. That’s what I’m trying to do.

[By the way, I don’t want to name names regarding the blogs I read, mostly because I don’t want to drive traffic to their websites (however modest that traffic may be), but also because I’d feel bad calling out specific blogs, no matter how insane their authors are. But let me direct you to a meta-hate-read, the wonderful website Get Off My Internets (GOMI), where hate-readers come together in actual forums to discuss the bloggers that most irk them. The phrase “get off my internets” (as opposed to “stay on my internets”) is directed toward bloggers who have crossed the line from entertaining to obnoxious — but really, we don’t want these people to get off our internets, because then what would we hate read with our morning coffee? I’ll give you a hint: I spend some time in one of these forums. Not saying which one. I don’t write anything, but I lurk, and read what other people have to say about a certain irritating, self-promoting blogger I follow. There’s something validating about finding out that others are irritated by the same behavior on the internet. Don’t judge me.]

Facebook etiquette

The other day, someone I know posted this blog post on her Facebook page, exhorting her Facebook friends to keep in mind seven basic rules of Facebook etiquette. The post’s title, “7 Ways To Be Insufferable On Facebook,” initially grabbed me, because, hey, I hate seeing updates on So-and-So’s progress in Farmville as much as the next person. In fact, I’ve spent a not insignificant chunk of time over the years building a mental list of some of the most obnoxious behaviors on Facebook, including, but not limited to, “liking” every “Happy Birthday” post on one’s wall; inviting one’s Facebook friends to join one’s inane online game of choice; whining about one’s job incessantly; starting any post with the word “Dear,” and then writing a hackneyed “open letter” addressed to, for example, the weather; writing status updates in the third person; posting “chain statuses,” especially ones that contain inaccuracies, misquotes, and/or urban legends; and, my personal least-favorite, spreading the news of a death before family members have had a chance to receive the news via non-Facebook means (this happened to me, by the way: this is how I found out my grandfather passed away. Not kidding, unfortunately).

Let’s face it: there are a lot of ways to be inconsiderate, boring, and/or irritating on Facebook. So I went into this post, from the blog wait but why, anticipating that I’d be totally on board with whatever behaviors this blogger (who I’ll refer to as WBW, since I don’t know his real name) was calling out. The post started off strong, ridiculing a horrifically self-aggrandizing status update that WBW had run across. I’ll reproduce the status update below; hopefully we can all agree that it is, in a word, ghastly.

2012 was a biggg year for me. I left my amazing job at NBC to move back to Chicago. I started dating my angel, Jaime Holland. I started yoga (thanks Jake Fisher & Jonah Perlstein!). I wrote an album with Matthew Johannson. Wrote another album I’m proud of. I got to hang with Owen Wilson, and worked with Will Ferrell on an amazing project. Had a conversation about Barack Obama with David Gregory. Danced. Joined a kickball team. Won a couple awards. Helped my sister plan her summer trip. Swam a lot. Golfed a little. Cried more than you would think. Read The World According to Garp. Saw Apocolypse Now. Went to Miami for the NBA Finals. Drank the best orange juice I’ve ever had with Davey Welch. Tweeted. Went to amazing weddings in Upstate New York. Drank a ridiculous amount of milk. Learned how to make sand art. Saw a great light show. Saw the Angels and Lakers. Fell in love with Jawbone Up. Cooked with Jaime. Gardened with Jaime. Watched Homeland with Jaime. Wrestled with Jaime. Laughed for hours with Jaime. Fell in love with Jaime’s family. Worked on a play. Played World of Warcraft. Did some improv. Played a ton of the guitar. Really just had a wild, amazing year. What a world.

So, yeah, this is bad. It’s really bad, and on so many levels. The humble bragging. The non-humble bragging. The name dropping. The misspellings. The inanities and mundanities. The repeated use of the word “amazing.” The casual references to guitar playing. I mean, there’s a lot to hate here. So I was on board with WBW for calling this out, because surely, everyone in the world except the author of this terrible status update should be able to agree that this type of unabashed self-promotion-disguised-as-gratitude should be illegal and potentially carry a prison sentence.

But then, WBW lost me when he started listing his seven rules that we all should adhere to on Facebook.

WBW’s basic message is that one should not post anything on Facebook that “primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it.” Okay. This seems like a reasonable framework to start from. After all, who wants to wade through a bunch of self-involved, uninteresting Facebook statuses on one’s Newsfeed? Not I. But when WBW went on to elaborate all of the behaviors he finds unacceptable on Facebook, I balked. In most cases, the rules he sets out are based on some general principle that I might agree with (for instance: don’t brag), but the rules as he states them are far too broad to be workable or even desirable. Indeed, the guidelines WBW lays out are so sweeping as to ban most behavior on Facebook.

First, WBW says that one shouldn’t boast on Facebook. Fair enough: no one likes an online braggart. But WBW defines bragging as the sharing of any positive news about one’s life. He writes that if something exciting happens in your life, “the only people it’s okay to brag to in life are your close friends, significant other, and family members—and that’s what email, texting, phone calls, and live talking are for. Your moment of self-satisfaction is profoundly annoying to people you’re not that close with, and they make up the vast majority of people who will be subjected to the status.” So if you get married, don’t mention it. You just got into med school? Keep it to yourself. First-born child? Shush. Don’t annoy others with your joy. Maybe WBW finds other people’s happy news “profoundly annoying,” but I’d venture a guess that most people on social media don’t feel that way; otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be on social media. I enjoy seeing wedding pictures, even if I haven’t spoken to the bride or groom since high school. I also don’t mind when someone shares excited or happy news about school or a job. It’s a natural human reaction to want to shout it from the rooftops when something exciting or wonderful happens. Why quash that?

I also disagree with the basic premise  that the sharing of all positive news is necessarily bragging. Anyone who’s read a truly braggy, self-promoting Facebook status can tell the difference between that (“I got to hang out with Owen Wilson”) and a genuinely heartfelt sharing of personal news (“Yay, I finally got accepted to law school”). It’s all about intent. Sharing happy news because you’re excited about said news is a different beast than “image crafting,” “attention craving,” or “jealousy inducing” posts, but WBW seems to lump these together. Any sharing of positive news must have an ulterior motive, in his eyes; and even if it doesn’t, it still shouldn’t be allowed because it might make someone else feel bad. He thus outlaws all statuses referring to vacations, social events, and loved ones, because these might induce feelings of envy in the reader. Also: no photos. Don’t ever post photos. So, according to WBW’s first rule alone, most Facebook statuses would be deemed “annoying” and therefore unacceptable. (Anyone else getting kind of a Taliban-y vibe from this?)

But WBW’s not done. One must also never post about what one is actually doing that day (Rule 3); write on anyone else’s wall (Rule 4); tag anyone else in a status or photo (Rule 4); express gratitude (Rule 5); express an opinion on a current event (Rule 6); or quote a great thinker or anyone else (Rule 7). The only one of WBW’s seven rules that I unequivocally agree with is Rule 2, which bans “cliffhanger” statuses, also known as “vaguebooking,” where one posts a cryptic status that invites curiosity from readers but then plays coy and refuses to provide further detail. That’s super annoying and needs to stop. But the rest of these rules go too far; they suck the fun and life out of Facebook.

All of this begs the question: what would be okay to post on Facebook, according to WBW? I am wracking my brain trying to craft a hypothetical status that would not run afoul of any of these rules, and it’s tough. WBW says in the beginning that jokes that uplift the reader are acceptable; so unless you treat Facebook as a Twitter feed exclusively for fun jokes, you’re going to break one of WBW’s rules at some point.

My Facebook page today: undoubtedly super annoying to WBW

My Facebook page today: undoubtedly super annoying to WBW – look at all the photos! The horror!

These rules are bunk and should be rejected for two reasons. First, if you outlaw the expression of all human emotion on Facebook, you deprive Facebook of its purpose. People use the service to interact with people they know, care about, and/or are interested in. If the only allowable use of Facebook is to share jokes, then you might as well shut down your account and switch to Twitter, which is a much more streamlined vehicle for writing and reading jokes. Second, WBW has basic Facebook etiquette backwards. If you’re irritated by someone’s postings on Facebook, the burden is on you, the reader, to filter that person’s posts out. We all have different sensitivities and proclivities. As someone posting on Facebook, I cannot tailor my status updates or photos to suit the individual needs of all several hundred people who might be seeing them; I might as well not post at all. The only workable system is for users of Facebook to decide what they want to see and what they want to be hidden; this is easily accomplished through Facebook’s Newsfeed controls. If someone always posts annoying statuses, hide him. Or even unfriend him, if it’s that bad. But you must not demand that everyone in your social media universe conforms to your individual and highly specific sensitivities.

With that, go forth and post on Facebook!*

*(For actual guidance on what’s obnoxious, please refer to my first paragraph, above.)

Edinburgh

We spent this weekend in Edinburgh, one of my favorite places in Scotland, visiting family and attending some shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh (or the Festival) since 2008, so it was fun to be back in such a beautiful, charming city and to hang out with Al’s family, some of whom I hadn’t met yet.

Edinburgh sunset

Edinburgh sunset

Al and I took the train from London on Thursday evening, got in quite late, and then spent Friday working; playing with Sweeney, the dog owned by our hosts, Steve and Alan; walking around Leith, their neighborhood; and attending a show at the Festival.

 

IMG_3979I managed to snag us two tickets to see David Sedaris speak on Friday evening. Sedaris is one of my favorite authors and I love his speaking voice. I had actually seen him speak years ago in San Francisco, back when I was in college, but it was at a big venue (The Warfield, I think) and I was in the nosebleed seats. This time, the venue was much more intimate and, to my delight, Sedaris did a book signing after and Al and I got to meet him! This was terribly exciting for me. I was a bit nervous when I approached, clutching my new copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, but Sedaris is utterly charming and immediately put me at ease. We talked about TV and he recommended that I check out two shows (Inside Amy Schumer and Please Like Me). He also expressed his fondness for Tim Gunn, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Tabitha’s Salon Takeover. All the more reason to adore this man. And, of course, he signed my book (and drew a little owl). I was on a high for the rest of the weekend, post-Sedaris encounter. 

Recommendations on TV shows

Recommendations on TV shows

I would like to note that David Sedaris' handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

I would like to note that David Sedaris’ handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

On Saturday, while Al was working, I went for a run along the Water of Leith. Everything was going great: the sun was shining (through sprinkles of rain), birds were chirping, the world was in harmony — and then I fell. Hard. I fell so hard that I managed to scrape both knees, both hands, and my left thigh. I also seemed to have sprained the little finger on my right hand (did I do a full-body roll? I can’t remember! It’s all a blur). But the worst part, beside the fact that my tumble was witnessed by several kindly (read: pitying) Scottish people, was that I shattered my iPhone screen. Here’s the thing: skin will heal. Bones will knit. But a shattered iPhone screen is forever. The last time I shattered my iPhone screen, four years ago, I was in Boston and took it to the Apple store. They glanced at it and told me that my phone had clearly suffered from “customer abuse” and was therefore not under warranty, and I was forced to pay $180 for a new screen. The outrage! But in the UK, if your iPhone screen breaks, you just bring it to a phone repair store — not an official Apple store — and they’ll fix it for you in an hour, charge you 50 GBP, and be done with it. So I got my screen fixed at a kiosk in the mall, and all is right in the world again. Except for that sprained finger. But whatever.

Edinburgh

After recovering from the excitement of my fall, I headed into town with Al, his cousin Kathryn, and her boyfriend James, to attend our next show at the Festival, The Ginge, The Geordie, and The Geek, a three-man sketch comedy team. I enjoyed it, especially the last sketch, which was a reenactment of the final dance scene from Dirty Dancing featuring a man on a diet and a giant slice of pizza. After that, we met up with Steve and Alan and went to see Tig Notaro, an American comedian who I love. I had never heard or seen her standup before, but I listen to her podcast, Professor Blastoff, and I’ve heard her perform on This American Life, so I was expecting good things, and she did not disappoint. I was laughing my face off — almost crying, I was laughing so hard — so when it was over, I was pretty shocked that Steve and Alan didn’t like it. They thought her style was “awkward.” Um, yeah, I thought. That’s the point. It got me thinking about the differences between American comedy and UK comedy, and the fact that some American comedians play on timing (especially long pauses) to make their jokes funnier. I think awkwardness, done well, can be hilarious — and I wonder if I think that way because I’m American and we’re more used to that style of comedy. Steve and Alan told me that in Britain, comedy is more straightforward and fast-paced, which is fine, I guess, but it surprised me that they didn’t appreciate Tig’s style, which was unscripted and involved a lot of audience interaction and improvisation. Then again, I’m sort of a comedy nerd, so maybe I’m just accustomed to the weirdness. But to be fair, reviewers seemed to love the show, so it’s not just me (see, for example, this review from The Telegraph). In any case, I had a blast and came away from the Festival feeling satisfied with everything I saw (although, to be honest, I could have just gone home after meeting David Sedaris and called it a day).

We spent the rest of our time in Edinburgh visiting with Al’s family, playing with dogs, eating good food, and hanging out. It was a great weekend.

Breakfast at the beach, Portobello

Breakfast at the beach in Portobello with Steve, Alan, and Sweeney

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

IMG_4014

Gratuitous selfie

See you soon, Edinburgh!

Book review Monday: My Education, by Susan Choi

Susan Choi’s My Education is an enjoyable but often frustrating read. It’s enjoyable because Choi is a great writer with a keen understanding of complex human relationships, especially those relationships in which power dynamics are irredeemably skewed, but frustrating because of the maddeningly insecure and irritating main character, which, I suspect, was Choi’s intent. The book is about the frustration of loving someone more than he or she can love you back; so I suppose it makes sense that the reader should experience a similar sense of frustration while reading.

my-education-by-susan-choi

The book takes place at an unnamed Northeastern liberal arts college — there are references to gorges, so I’m guessing Cornell or its fictional clone — in which the main character, twenty-one year-old Regina Gottlieb, a grad student in English literature, becomes a teaching assistant to Nicholas Brodeur, a brilliant, enigmatic professor with a reputation for inappropriate contact with his undergraduate students. While working with Nicholas and his other teaching assistant at Nicholas’s grand house one afternoon, Regina comes into contact with Nicholas’s wife, Martha, a professor at the same university. Martha, who has just had a baby and is on maternity leave, instantly fascinates Regina, and soon after their first meeting, the two of them kiss at a dinner party. What happens from there is unexpected and quite dramatic: Regina and Martha embark upon a torrid affair, Regina becomes obsessed with Martha, things do not go as Regina had hoped, and Regina begins to throw her life away, piece by piece. Along the way, other people get involved, feelings are hurt, and several melodramatic gestures are made. I will keep my descriptions of the love triangles (and quadrangles) intentionally vague so as not to spoil the plot, but really, the main pairing the novel is concerned with is that between Martha and Regina.

What seems clear to the reader from the start is that this love affair between Martha and Regina is not going to work out. For one thing, Martha is still married to Nicholas. She has a baby, and a house, and a career. But more importantly, she is over a decade older than Regina and in a completely different stage of life. She has responsibilities. She understands what is realistic and what is not. Regina, on the other hand, is blindsided by her love for Martha, and will do nearly anything to keep her. Regina’s desperate longing for Martha reads as grasping, naive, and immature. We, as readers with some remove on the situation, can see how farfetched it would be for Martha, a married professor with a child to raise, to run off, permanently, with a twenty-one year-old girl, but Regina can’t see this. Choi does a fantastic job of conveying Regina’s frustration with Martha’s inability to return Regina’s feelings of uncomplicated love and loyalty. Regina thinks that she and Martha are fated to be together; Martha thinks of Regina as a thrilling — but ultimately short lived — sexual fling. This disconnect, this failure to see the relationship in the same terms, becomes the central tension of the novel.

Any amount of time later I’d far better understand what at that time I barely understood at all, though Martha might have approved of my incorrect, seafaring view of our progress: sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it, but always forward. She might have approved, in her maritime way, but she would have been equally wrong. We weren’t zigzagging forward but wildly seesawing, the ups ever higher, the downs ever lower, our fulcrum nailed smartly in place. Martha’s flights of hedonism — Martha’s brooding resolutions and remorse. Martha’s desire — Martha’s duty. I’d like to say I defied gravity just as often as feeling its snare, but my efforts were more likely spent clinging on with white knuckles to not be dislodged. Still, that was my heroism — my tenacious fidelity to her, though it was based on a grave misperception. I thought desire was duty. No trial could not be endured nor impediment smashed in desire’s holy service, or so I believed, with naive righteousness. I didn’t grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often do.

Regina wants Martha to acquiesce, to say out loud that they will be together, that they are the loves of each other’s lives, but Martha can’t do this. Martha constantly reminds Regina of her responsibilities, especially as a mother. Regina, meanwhile, feels as if Martha uses her duties as a mother and wife as a weapon to make Regina feel unimportant, to convey to her that her opinions or desires do not count as much because she is young and unencumbered. Regina can’t understand why Martha can’t throw everything away for the sake of pursuing love.

Years later, of course, Regina gains some perspective on her relationship with Martha. She narrates the story when she herself is a married mother, and now understands intimately the demands that were on Martha back when they undertook their affair:

Again I thought of Martha, and her very imperfect example of motherhood. And, though I might have expected to judge her more harshly, I found myself forgiving her instead, for those countless superiorities of hers, by which I’d felt crushed, which she turned out to have never possessed. She had not been infallible. The realization was melancholy instead of triumphant, and I remembered my confusion, a few years before, when I’d found myself having lunch in Manhattan at the same restaurant where amid untold glamour she’d treated me to my first oysters. The intervening decade alone could not have accounted for how small and out of style and even shabby it had somehow become.

One can be fooled into thinking the grown-up Regina has matured completely and left her old, desperate self behind; however, in the very last scenes of the book, Regina does something that made me question whether she learned anything from her disastrous affair with Martha, at all. Overall, My Education was a satisfying read, despite the ending, which felt pat, unrealistic, and deeply unsatisfying. I was frustrated that the character made the choices she made; but really, I was frustrated with Regina’s decision-making throughout the novel, so perhaps the ending is merely in keeping with who Regina fundamentally is, as a person.

I would recommend this novel for fans of university-based fiction and those who enjoy quiet, emotion-driven drama. There are no big twists, turns, or surprises here, but it is packed with emotionally resonant storytelling.

Corsica

We were lucky enough to spend our vacation in Corsica this past week, staying at the lovely villa owned by the family of Al’s cousin’s wife, Camille. She’s French and her grandfather bought the property decades ago (before it was cool, in other words). Not a bad investment!

View from villa of town

View of town, from villa

View from balcony, villa

Another view from balcony of villa

The villa is located in Morsiglia, in Cap Corse, the northern tip of Corsica. This part of the island is known for being rugged, with sweeping views, winding roads, steep hills, and rocky beaches.

IMG_5835 IMG_5857

Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Wind farm

Wind farm

Corsica is an interesting place. It’s a territory of France, even though geographically, it’s closer to the Italian mainland. France has been in charge since 1769 (before that, Corsica was briefly independent, and before that, it was ruled by the Genoese). Although everyone speaks French (seeing as Corsica is, technically, part of France), the island also retains Corsu as its native language, although not many people (i.e., perhaps only 10% of Corsicans) speak Corsu natively anymore, and it is a “potentially endangered language,” according to UNESCO. Corsu, as far as we could tell, is basically Italian with lots of u’s and j’s and h’s. According to our Lonely Planet guide, though, you should never even hint that Corsu sounds pretty much exactly like Italian, because the Corsican people will become deeply offended. The Corsican people, according to our Lonely Planet guide, get deeply offended by many things, including foreigners attempting to speak Corsu to them. (By the way, I’d be willing to hazard a guess that the author of the Lonely Planet guide might have tried to speak Corsu to people and received a blank stare back either because he was butchering the language or because not a lot of people actually speak it.) Anyway, almost everyone we encountered on the island seemed quite friendly and not prickly (although we didn’t attempt any Corsu, just to be safe). Most road signs are in French and Corsu, although we did see a few signs with the French spray-painted over and/or crossed out, which I suppose is some sort of Corsu nationalist statement, although I’m not sure.

Signs in Corsu

Signs in Corsu, with smaller French sign

We spent most of our time in Corsica eating, hiking, sleeping, and lazing on the beach. Pretty great. I especially enjoyed local Corsican cured meat (they’re known for their charcuterie, especially coppa) and sheep’s milk cheese. We also sampled some Corsican wine, some of which is quite good, especially the Muscat. I realized later that drinking three glasses of Muscat a night is probably the equivalent of injecting sugar crystals directly into my blood, which explains why my jeans were tight when I got back to London, but dang, it was tasty.

Domaine Pietri vineyards

Domaine Pietri vineyards

As with any vacation, there were a couple of wrinkles in the trip, including the fact that we were redirected to Milan on the way there because our plane had a crack in its windshield (good job, EasyJet) and the fact that I suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment for half of the trip (but once I recovered, things were great). Overall, though, we had a great time and I’m happy we got to see this beautiful little corner of the world. À vedeci, Corsica!

Book review Monday: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

I’ve read several enjoyable, thought provoking, stick-in-your-craw-in-a-good-way books recently, including Stephen King’s The Stand, Susan Choi’s My Education, and Monica Ali’s In The Kitchen. Perhaps I will review some or all of these in the coming weeks. But today, I want to talk about a book that I can’t stop thinking about, even a week after finishing it: Anthony Marra’s spectacular novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

ACOVP (as I will abbreviate it) did not immediately suck me in. In fact, I started it a month ago, read ten pages or so, and then put it down, because I couldn’t engage with the story. In the meantime, I read several other books (see above) and then picked up ACOVP again, and this time, something clicked. After getting over an initial hump of confusion in the opening pages, I became completely lost in this book and its fascinating, sad, weird cast of characters, all of whom are trying, imperfectly, to navigate their way through a hellish and inescapable situation.

constellation

The story begins in 2004, in and around the city of Volchansk, Chechnya. In the opening scenes, a man, Akhmed, is helping a young girl, Havaa, escape from “the Feds,” the government forces who have kidnapped her father — believing him to have been colluding with Chechen separatist rebels — and are now looking for her, as well. Akhmed and Havaa were neighbors, and Akhmed is now the only adult left in the village who Havaa can rely upon. Not seeing any other options, Akhmed brings Havaa to Hospital No. 6, a bombed out wasteland with few supplies, which is staffed by one nurse, the ill-tempered Deshi, and one doctor, the bitter and haughty Sonja, an ethnic Russian who returned to her native Chechnya from London in 1996 to try to find her missing sister, and never left again. Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but was spectacularly unsuccessful — he is renowned as the worst doctor in Chechnya — offers his services in return for Sonja’s allowing Havaa to stay at the hospital, hidden away from the Feds. Sonja reluctantly agrees, given the hospital’s desperate need for extra hands, and so the story begins.

As we learn about the characters and how they are all connected through messy webs of birth and death, the novel flashes back in time to paint a startling, chilling picture of war-torn Chechnya. I was not familiar with Chechen history before reading this book, but Marra makes Chechnya’s troubled past vivid by showing how individual characters’ lives are shaped — and often stunted — by their homeland’s constant unrest. The primary narrative of the novel takes place in 2004, during the second Chechen War, which began in 1999 when Russian troops invaded Chechnya in response to the invasion of Dagestan by a Chechnya-based Islamist militant group. The war between Russian forces and Chechen separatists continued into 2009. The novel also looks back to the first Chechen War, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, also between Russian forces and Chechen separatists, and Marra looks back even further to Chechnya’s long, turbulent history of subjugation and war, including the mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia during World War II. One of the characters, Khassan, is a historian who has written a long and painstakingly detailed history of Chechnya, beginning in prehistoric times. The novel describes Khassan’s difficulty in keeping his book up to date as Chechnya rapidly changed with the fall of the Soviet Union:

Everything did change, faster than his fingers could type. What he had been too cautious to hope for was pulled from his dreams and made real on the television screen. At that momentous hour on December 26, 1991, as he watched the red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — the empire extending eleven time zones, from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic coast, encompassing more than a hundred ethnicities and two hundred languages; the collective whose security demanded the sacrifice of millions, whose Slavic stupidity had demanded the deportation of Khassan’s entire homeland; that utopian mirage cooked up by cruel young men who gave their mustaches more care than their morality; that whole horrid system that told him what he could be and do and think and say and believe and love and desire and hate, the system captained by Lenin and Zinoviev and Stalin and Malenkov and Beria and Molotov and Khrushchev and Kosygin and Mikoyan and Podgorny and Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko and Gorbachev, all of whom but Gorbachev he hated with a scorn no author should have for his subject, a scorn genetically encoded in his blood, inherited from his ancestors with their black hair and dark skin — as he watched that flag sink down the Kremlin flagpole for the final time, left limp by the windless sky, as if even the weather wanted to impart on communism this final disgrace, he looped his arms around his wife and son and he held them as the state that had denied him his life quietly died. 

What I loved about this book, apart from Marra’s skill in bringing human context to the horrors of war in Chechnya, was the beautiful, evocative descriptions of places. Marra’s writing allows the reader to picture, perfectly clearly, places where the reader has never been or even dreamed of going. For instance, I loved this description of a nightclub in Chechnya where one of the characters, an ethnic Russian named Natasha, used to frequent:

She spent her Fridays at a nightclub called Nightclub, situated in what had been an aviation assembly plant. The floor spread across the eight-story hangar, wide enough to contain the gyrations of half of Chechnya. Nightclub had never reached, and never would reach, capacity.  After downing drinks at the bar, Natasha and her friends shimmied their way to the center of the hangar. There, red velvet ropes created a ten-square-meter dance floor where the young, well-dressed, and secular could press against each other, shrieking and shaking in epileptic spasms of floodlight, freedom found in the ruins of empire.

Finally, this book is remarkable for its ability to meld humor with tragedy. The characters’ lives, in many ways, are hopeless, because they are in an impossible situation with no conceivable escape. But there are still moments of levity, and even joy. One of my favorite conversations in the book takes place between Sonja, the foreign-educated surgeon, and Akhmed, an unskilled doctor from the village. Akhmed, who is not stupid but who is rather unsophisticated, reveals to Sonja that he thinks the President of the United States is named Ronald McDonald. Sonja heaps scorn upon him, but later, feels badly and tries to apologize.

“I’m sorry I called you an idiot.”

“You only implied it. Do you want to make it up to me?”

“Not really,” she said.

“Then tell me who Ronald McDonald is.”

“Very soon I’ll have to apologize for calling you an idiot again.”

“Imply,” he reminded.

“No, this time I’ll likely come out and say it.”

“I already know he isn’t the American president.”

“I think you’ll be disappointed.”

“I almost always am.”

“He’s a clown.”

“A clown?”

“A clown who sells hamburgers.”

“Does he cook the hamburgers?”

“Does it matter?”

“I may be an idiot,” he said gravely, “but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown.”

There are plenty of other instances of dialogues that crackle with dry wit, despite the horrifying backdrop to the conversations. These moments of lightness are part of what makes this book, which otherwise might be bogged down in doom and gloom, readable, enjoyable, and lovable.

Highly recommended for one and all. Here is what the NYT had to say, in case you’re interested.

On sewing, knitting, and the impulse to make things

I’ve always loved making things. As a kid, I did latch-hook; I made beads; I wove hemp necklaces; I painted; I sketched; I sculpted. I was always making something. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t have several projects, of various sorts, going. As an adult, I never lost my desire to be constantly creating things, but there were long years during which I figured making things just wasn’t something I got to do anymore. There was never enough time. Or energy. Working at a law firm, I found that I was so unhappy with my work life, I had little energy after work to devote to being creative. Instead, I’d come home from work and watch TV, or read, but I wouldn’t create anything more elaborate than dinner because I just didn’t have the energy. Consequently, my creativity languished for a long time. Then, I quit my job and rediscovered unstructured free time, which has been an absolute joy. I am now an adult who gets to make things during my day. In fact, my job now requires me to be creative: I get to tell stories for a living. Best job ever, right? (Well, best job ever for me, anyway).

Me and one of my masterpieces

Me and one of my early masterpieces

As I mentioned a while ago when I talked about knitting, I love to do activities in my downtime in which I am creating something — that is, in which I am making a product of some sort, whether it’s a hat or a casserole, that I did not have to invent from scratch. I like following a knitting pattern or a recipe and ending up with something I can be proud of, but which I did not have to pull out of thin air. I love knitting, especially, because in the end, you have a product — something you can wear or use — and, best of all, the knowledge that you made that product with your own two hands. So satisfying.

There's something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

There’s something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

So, I decided, given my love of knitting, to seek out sewing classes in London. I’ve wanted to learn how to sew for years but never got around to it (see: law firm job), and I figured there’s no time like the present. Thus, early last week I reported for a four-day, twelve-hour Intro to Sewing class at the lovely Sew Over It in Clapham North. And I loved it! I came back from my first day of class, completed pillow cushion proudly in hand, and told Al that I was “pretty sure” I could “master” sewing. Yes, I used the word “master.” No one ever accused me of hedging my bets. I was encouraged, you see, by my early success at creating things made entirely up of square pieces of fabric sewn together in straight lines. To give you an idea, here are the projects I completed in my intro class:

Cushion cover

Cushion cover with buttons

Tote bag

Tote bag

Makeup bag

Makeup bag with lining and zipper

Feeling on top of the sewing world, I immediately signed up for an Intro to Dressmaking course, figuring that after another twelve hours of instruction, I’d basically be able to start a side business as a seamstress and/or make all my own clothes from here on out. But oh!, dressmaking brought me low. My first day of class was intensely humbling. We made a circle skirt, which is so named because when you hold it up, it’s in the shape of a large circle with the waistband in the middle. It sounds simple — and the pattern looked simple — but that circle skirt nearly broke me. I messed up the hem line, the waistband was bumpy, and, when the dratted thing was finally done, I found that I had made the waist just a tad too small, so that the back would not stay closed if I so much as breathed. Ugh.

I was convinced, the entire first two days of dressmaking class, that I was the dolt of the classroom. I had trouble visualizing what the teacher was telling us to do. “Stitch here,” she’d say, and I’d wonder, “But why?” I didn’t understand the why of any of it. Why do those stitches go there? What will happen if I put them somewhere else? What larger purpose are these stitches serving? This inability to visualize my final product, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between my experience with knitting and my experience with sewing. For whatever reason, perhaps because knitting is necessarily a much slower process of construction and one has time to wrap one’s mind around the contours of what one is making, knitting is just not as confusing as sewing. Sure, while knitting I may have trouble executing certain tricky maneuvers or I may accidentally mess up the measurement of a piece of work, but I generally understand why I have to do a certain thing when I see it on a pattern. With sewing, though, the patterns are just big pieces of paper, and I don’t think my spatial visualization skills are quite finely tuned enough to picture said pieces of paper arranged into items of clothing. Folds, in particular, confuse me. There are no folds in knitting.

Long story short, my first two days of dressmaking class were stressful. My Type-A, detail-oriented inner lawyer (who, let’s face it, is probably always going to be with me) was freaking out at every mistake and berating me for not understanding the instructions. I was dismayed that other people in the class seemed to zip right along, with no signs of nervous sweating. This made me even more nervous (and sweaty). I left class that day feeling discouraged, with my misshapen, ill-fitting skirt stuffed into a plastic bag.

The next day, though, we started on a simple shift dress, and things began to make a little more sense. I understood a little more clearly why I was doing things. Yes, there were certain parts of the pattern that I found confounding, but mostly, things made sense. And, in the end, my dress came out really well. It actually, believe it or not, fits me. I’ve sewn my first piece of wearable clothing. Huzzah!

Summer shift dress

Summer shift dress

So, what have I learned from the experience of learning to sew? One, I can’t expect everything to come easily to me right away. Not to brag, but I was a bit of an (idiot) savant at knitting. I was good at it right away, and could master new skills easily by looking at a book or watching a YouTube video. No teacher required. Sewing is not like that for me, and that’s okay. It is going to take a bit more practice and patience on my part to get good at it. Second, it’s good to learn a new skill, even — and perhaps especially — if you’re not good at it right away. Keeps you on your toes. Life gets boring if you don’t have to stretch now and then, after all. On her blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the three levels of fun: challenging, accommodating, and relaxing fun. Learning to sew is challenging fun. It’s hard and frustrating at first, but as you get better at it, it gets more fun — and that’s more rewarding than coasting at something you’re already good at.

Here’s to more challenging fun, then, and to always making time for making things.