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Bookshelf Project 2016: #2 The Colossus of New York

2016 January 31


I deviated a little bit from my original Bookshelf Project plan for this one, but New York’s been on my mind this week, so I decided I needed to read about it.

I picked up Colson Whitehead’s essay collection about New York City, The Colossus of New York, at a thrift store in Jamaica Plain this fall, during one of my parents’ weekend visits where we stroll up and down JP’s main drag, visiting the shops and getting ice cream.

I actually met Colson Whitehead once, at a reading at McNally Jackson, my favorite Manhattan bookstore. My husband, at the time, worked for Doubleday and introduced me. I told him I liked his shoes.

Tomorrow marks my second year anniversary of living in Boston, having left New York City and my life there in the rearview. I’ve been back a few times, but visiting is not the same as living there. Not by a long shot. In fact, I’m pretty sure the expression, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” was inspired by New York. That said, I still miss it sometimes. Or maybe I miss what my life was while I lived there. I’m not sure I can separate the two. Which is why I had to leave when it all changed.

It seemed fitting that just as I opened the book for the first time, on the orange line T platform on my way to work, I ran into a friend–someone I met in the two years since I moved back. It was a good reminder of all the things I love about living in Boston, and Jamaica Plain especially–frequently running into friends, a commute that’s 100% more pleasant than the one I had in New York, a place that feels more like a community and less like a juggernaut set on destroying you.

It sounds like I hated living in New York, but I didn’t. Not most of the time. It was only after I moved away that I appreciated what a toll the constant stress and anxiety had had on me. But even despite that grinding stress, it was also the happiest time of my life in many ways. But it becomes apparent reading Whitehead’s essays that most people who’ve lived in New York share this complicated love-hate relationship with the city.

The book is separated into 13 essays, each named after a different New York landmark: Central Park, the Port Authority, Times Square, Coney Island, rush hour. They’re short and written in a kind of scattered way, as though an omniscient narrator was looking down on the city and narrating the thoughts of every New Yorker as they went about their days and nights. Many of the lines had me nodding or shaking my head in recognition. From the long bus trips I used to take every other weekend (“Across three states the empty bottle of juice rolls up and down the bus between shoes and bags. No one claims ownership.”) to the dreaded subway commute (“It’s just a piece of candy wrapper but no one touches it for fear that it contains the world and so one empty seat on the crowded subway car.”) to the brutality of a rainy day (“Forming an attachment to an umbrella is the shortest route to heartbreak in this town.”) to a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (“Bronze plaques here and there maintain history. But nothing to commemorate the magic spots of people.”).

And that’s the most important point of the book–there is no one New York City. We all, visitors or residents or former residents, have our own version of the city. My version has lines of demarcation on the Valentino Pier in Red Hook, and the coffee shop on Henry Street that closed after we left, and the specific path I would take through Grand Central in the mornings to avoid the crowds, and how Times Square looked lit up that one night from the back of a taxi, and the spire of the church at the end of my block and how it was like a beacon of home from the BQE on those long drives home, and countless other corners and intersections and hallways that mean nothing to anyone else.

And sometimes it’s nice to stop and remember those places,even knowing you will never visit them again, even when the remembering is hard, because you knew those places once, and that’s enough.


Bookshelf Project 2016: #1–Pitch Dark

2016 January 23



One of the tenets of Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering method is that if you haven’t read the books on your shelves yet, you never will.

This is a tenet I flat out eschewed as I recently weeded out my book collection. (That one and the one where Kondo calls for total and complete silence as you declutter–podcasts all the way). I have dozens of books on my shelves that I’ve acquired over the years but haven’t gotten around to reading yet, for whatever reason. But just because I haven’t read them YET doesn’t mean I will never read them. That’s like admitting failure and I won’t do that.

However, these unread books have been nagging me a little bit more as time passes. What if I actually don’t read them? What am I waiting for?

So, in 2016, I’ve decided to work through all of the unread books on my shelves, in a somewhat systematic order. The plan is to tackle my unread books (and some books that I haven’t read in so long they’re begging for a reread) in alphabetical order, alternating genre. Ideally, I will go back and forth between fiction, nonfiction, and short story collections. I will still break for new books from time to time, but I’m aiming for the bulk of my 2016 reading to come from my own bookshelves. And I’m hoping to document the project here on the blog…because why not? It’s not like I’ve really been documenting anything else around here lately.

First up: Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark.

I picked up this first edition in a dead man’s basement in October. While ambling through the South End on a gorgeous fall afternoon with two friends who were visiting from Ohio, we came across an estate sale. Not one to turn down the chance to poke through someone else’s life (ok, that sounds shadier than it is…I like to look at people’s books and art and stuff, ok?), I asked my friends if they’d be into it. They agreed, and we descended into a dark old townhouse, crammed with piles of books and other decades-old ephemera. We spent the better part of an hour looking around. I tried to put together a picture of the man who’d lived in the house, but it was difficult. I asked the man out front who was running the sale if the man had been in publishing because of all the books–many of which he had multiple copies. The man said no, he’d just really enjoyed books. Most of the books were old history books and spy novels, but I found this first edition Adler in a cabinet in the basement and decided that for the $1 price, I could take it home with me.

I read Speedboat a few years ago in Brooklyn, in the midst of the Adler renaissance. And honestly….I didn’t really get it. I started Pitch Dark yesterday and so far…it’s disjointed and befuddling, but there have been some really beautiful moments, so I’m optimistic. I think she’s just a writer that has a different rhythm that I need to get used to.

Have you read Renata Adler? What are your thoughts? Do you have any books on your shelves that are still waiting to be read? What are you waiting for?



New Year, New Resolutions

2015 December 30

ts eliot quote


I’ve accepted that I’m a New Year’s resolutions person. I like to make goals for myself, as cliched and arbitrary as it can feel to declare these goals/hopes on January 1. It can also feel pretty crappy when you fail, inevitably, to fulfill all of your resolutions. Looking back on the resolutions I’ve made over the last few years, it seems I fall into the same patterns–of wanting to write every day, and work out more, and save money, and be a better friend, and lose weight, and blog more–more more more. But I guess resolutions are ultimately about hope–hope that this will be the year we can be different. Or at least that we can believe we will strive just a little bit more than we did before.

At my writing group’s annual holiday dinner (which went much better this year than last year), I suggested that we all share some writing goals for the new year. Here are mine:

  1. Submit at least five different pieces for publication
  2. Update Looks & Books three times a month
  3. Write for at least ten minutes five times a week
  4. Take a writing class or workshop
  5. Work on starting a novel

I think these goals are a tiny bit more realistic than past goals. Not by much, but it at least gives me something to shoot for. It’s important to have some concrete goals, especially when it comes to writing, because for me, “write every day” just isn’t enough. What do I write? Does blogging count? A page in my journal? An email? I’d like to start scheduling in writing time with a specific goal, and these resolutions might help me get there.

I have some other goals too–and I’m trying to be more practical and action-oriented with my goals this year than I have been in the past. Here are a few things I’d like to accomplish in 2016:

  1. Pay off my credit cards
  2. Finish reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kondo-fying my apartment
  3. Volunteer regularly
  4. Take at least one day trip a month
  5. Find a new therapist
  6. Organize digital photos and files–get a portable hard drive for back up
  7. Learn how to ride a bike

Honestly, I will be over the moon if I actually accomplish half of these goals, but I think writing them out in public at least will hold me a tiny bit accountable.

What are your feelings on New Year’s resolutions? Do you have any to share?

I hope you all have a safe and joyful New Year’s–and here’s to a brighter 2016!


2015 Year in Reading

2015 December 21

There’s an old saying that the way you start the year determines what the rest of the year will be like. I began 2015 with friends in Canada, in a snow-covered ski town north of Montreal. It was one of the most idyllic New Year’s I’d ever had, spent cozy with friends in a beautiful house, drinking wine and playing games and cooking together in the kitchen. And 2015 did include a lot of time with friends and a lot of wine, but it also included a whole lot of other things, big and small, good and bad, happy and sad.

Like so many other years, there were achievements and failures and disappointments and fights and weddings and funerals and dates and break ups and concerts and trips. I don’t know if I place a lot of stock in that saying about how you start the year–where you go and what you do and what happens to you is totally unpredictable.

In 2015, I got a promotion. I went to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, London, Edinburgh, and Huntington Beach. I saw more snow than I ever want to see ever again. I lost my grandmother and my great uncle. I had my first “real” publication. I made new friends. I ran two 5k races. I gave up on things. I was disappointed by people. I discovered new tv shows and bands and movies and podcasts. I took walks and cooked meals and wasted too much time on the Internet. faraway nearby

I read a lot of books–52, according to Goodreads. Reading is the constant in my life, one of the things I’ve always counted on, because reading nearly always comforts me, takes me away from whatever is bothering me in my actual life. I feel incomplete when I’m not reading a book. I don’t know what to do with myself.

I began 2015 reading Lord of the Rings, a total departure from my comfort zone. I’d joined a LOTR “book club” with a few friends in New York–I was curious what all the hype was about. The book club only met once, over Skype, and I made it about halfway through Return of the King, sometime in April, before I gave up. Just one of the things I started this year that I didn’t finish, but I can always go back. Maybe someday I’ll even watch the movies. But I think it’s fitting that I began the year reading the same book with friends, in an effort to understand, to learn about a world I knew nothing about, because this year, for me, friendship was hugely important.

The winter dragged on. I made my way through hip-deep snow and the epics of the LOTR trilogy. I read a few other forgettable books when I needed something lighter. In March, I read Tender is the Night, which I’d always thought I’d read before but never finished. This time, I finished it, in the midst of a Mad Men haze (another 2015 loss).


In the spring, I took a writing class I loved, and I read two novels: one I loved that no one’s heard of (Dorothy Baker’s underrated Cassandra at the Wedding), and another that I wanted to love but just didn’t (Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You).

In 2015, thanks to a coworker who gave me The Faraway Nearby for Christmas last year, I discovered the magic of Rebecca Solnit and I now want to devour everything she writes.

In June, I read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which I read after another coworker gave it to me for my birthday. It was one of those rare books that so totally surprised me–it was so strange and unpredictable and delightful and lovely. Another unexpected delight was Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which sharply divided my book club between those of us who loved it and those who hated it so much they couldn’t finish it. folded clock

I treated myself to Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock, a deconstructed diary told in vignettes over two years, on a trip to the bookstore in early summer. The book, along with meeting Heidi at the Slice writing conference in September, cemented her as a hero of mine.

I began my Ferrante journey on my trip to the UK in July, reading My Brilliant Friend as I sped through the Scottish countryside on a train.

Other summer reading included Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Amor Towle’s delightful Rules of Civility, Ann Patchett’s book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and Hannah Kent’s shimmering Burial Riteswhich takes place in 19th century Iceland–a nice distraction from the July heat. I read most of these while sitting on a bench in the Public Garden during my lunch break, an indulgence I don’t take for granted.

In August, I read Station Eleven lying in the grass in a park in Minneapolis and Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me on a plane ride to a friend’s wedding in Chicago. I’m already looking forward to rereading that one–I don’t think I gave it the attention it deserved the first time around, too distracted by whatever else was in my head. turner house

I read Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts and Bluets in quick succession, trying to absorb some sliver of her poetic genius.

September’s book club pick was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I really should have read before now. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been as shocked by an ending as that book.

Then there was Fates and Furies, which I bought nearly as soon as it came out because I was so intrigued by the description. I think I’m still trying to process my feelings about it.

October–Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, which was definitely one of my favorite books of the year, and Helen Oeyemi’s genre-bending Mr. Fox.

I finished The Light Between Oceans and tried not to cry while on a plane back to Boston from Seattle in November. And then, it was finally time to continue my Ferrante journey with Story of a New Name, which…wow. I can’t wait to get my hands on the third book. Thanksgiving was a good time to finally read Olive Kitteridge, which was a lovely book about love and loss and aging.

That’s a lot of books–and those are just the highlights. Looking over the list, I’m both proud and unsurprised to see that nearly every single book I read was by a woman.

2015 was a big, messy, sad year–but there were beautiful places and beautiful people and beautiful books.

I’m ready for 2016.

Against the Wind

2015 December 9


There are two things I want to be: a writer and a runner.

You could argue that I already am both of those things, given that I run and write on a pretty regular basis. But for whatever reason, to BE either of these things seems to involve far more than simple repetition of a particular action. I know a lot of people who write who would never call themselves writers. I’ve struggled with it for a long time myself. Maybe all you need to BE a writer is the drive to write, to enjoy the process of writing more than the rewards (paltry as they are for most of us). You don’t need to have written a novel or published a certain number of short stories, or gotten an MFA, or won a contest to be a writer. Yet it can feel like the practice of writing alone is not enough to validate that vaunted state of being–that of a writer.

For me, running is the same way. I’ve never been an athlete. I would sulkily walk laps around the soccer field in gym class, not even trying to run during the annual physical fitness test. The mile run was torture. Even though I never tried, I made up my mind that I couldn’t do it–it was hard, and I didn’t like things that were hard. It wasn’t until college that I started working out–without a gym teacher forcing me to move my body, I found that I actually kind of liked it. Sometimes I’d run laps around the track behind the gym or on the treadmill, taking breaks to walk when I got out of breath. After college, I signed up for a charity 5K my sister’s nonprofit was involved with and ran into a friend near the starting line. She was running and though I’d planned on walking, I ended up joining her and ran the whole 3 miles.

In the decade since that race, I’ve run off and on, mostly interval training on the treadmill or a mile or two outside when the weather’s nice. I ran one more 5K with coworkers one summer but the race, through downtown Boston, was so crowded that everyone was forced to do a kind of shuffling trot rather than a full jog or run. Though my relationship to running has been off and on for years now, I’ve always harbored this secret desire to be a runner. A runner is not just someone who runs sometimes. A runner is someone who enjoys running, finds a zen peace in the movement of their arms and legs, actually experiences that mythical “runner’s high” you hear about. There’s just one tiny problem with this desire: I hate running.

I ran a 5K a couple of days after Thanksgiving, jogging in the drizzle through the hilly streets of a town in Rhode Island in $17 sneakers I’d bought at Wal-Mart a half hour before the race started because I’d forgotten my sneakers in Boston. I was frazzled and angry at myself for my stupid mistake, but I still finished the race in a decent time–not great, but not terrible. Most importantly, I managed not to hurt myself in those terrible shoes. Since then, I’ve made an effort to run for three miles a few times a week, and I signed up for another 5K race in a couple of weeks. Sunday morning, as I ran around the pond near my house with a friend who’s run a marathon, I lamented that I was too slow, too out of shape, my legs hurt too much, I just wanted to stop. She reassured me I was doing fine and gave me some tips for breathing and dealing with shin splints.

Last week I read an article about how running is the ideal pastime for writers because it allows them the time and space for creativity, to think about new story ideas or work out a problem with plot. In running, the miles stack up, just like pages in writing!  I know three miles is nowhere near marathon distance, and really doesn’t qualify as long distance at all. But it’s a good distance to me–at least thirty minutes alone with my thoughts (or a podcast). But when I run, I think about two things: how much longer I have to go, and how happy I’m going to be when it’s over (and what I’m going to eat).

Writing and running are similar in that I dread doing them, but am really happy and proud AFTER I’ve gone on a run or sat down to write. However, they differ in that while I’m writing, even though it’s hard and terrible and I doubt every single word I put down, it’s peaceful and I know it’s what I love doing. But running–no. I don’t feel peace. I don’t feel creative. I don’t even feel like it’s all that good for my body.

After explaining this all to another marathoner friend over drinks last night, she looked at me and said, “You know you don’t have to be a runner, right?” And I whined, “I know, but I want to be!”

I suppose there’s something valuable about the challenge of it–of wanting to achieve something that’s always been difficult for me. Maybe it’s enough that I’ve managed to work up to three miles, which is the longest distance I’ve been able to run without stopping, ever, I think. Maybe it’s enough to keep trying. I know I may never consider myself a runner, or a “real” writer for that matter, but it’s nice to have something to strive for.


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