While waiting for baby to arrive, I might as well share what I’ve been using on my face lately. Researching skincare has been a long-time hobby for me, and I continue to enjoy experimenting, reducing old acne scars from my youth, addressing some signs of aging, and defeating hormonal acne. Everyone implies that I won’t have time to shower, much less adhere to a lengthy skincare regimen, when the baby comes, so I’m enjoying this while I can.
I’d describe my routine now as rooted firmly in K-beauty with a dash of American drugstore on the side.
Trader Joe’s Nourish Oil-Free Antioxidant Facial Moisturizer, mixed with a drop of The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5. The Trader Joe’s moisturizer is $4 and I have never found a moisturizer that can top it, both in terms of application and ingredients.
Taking care of my skin has become a very relaxing practice to begin and end each day. I look forward to it. Skincare gets a reputation for being the refuge of narcissists and materialists. While it can certainly support those insecurities, I think it is a simple form of everyday therapy for men and women alike.
Many people, like myself, come to skincare because of long-term skin problems. It becomes a hobby of healing. I also find that those who are the most critical of skincare enthusiasts are those who have never had to deal with serious skin issues themselves. In short, I know that it’s not my deepest or most edifying pastime, but it makes me feel peaceful and sane (particularly in these last remaining weeks of childlessness).
What are you putting on your face and loving these days?
The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.
I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.
. . .
Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.
These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?
I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.
. . .
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings
I had always expected that once I got pregnant that my adoration of dogs would wane. But here I am, lumbering well into my third trimester, and I continue to find dogs far more interesting than children. They catch my eye on the street far more than babies do. Perhaps I will love dogs less once I have a child of my own. I will, at least, expect to be less focused on them. But I think they will always matter to me. My grandmother, Loretta, shown above, never lost her lifelong love of dogs. We used to joke that she knew more about the family’s dogs than she did about her own grandchildren. And yet we did not resent her for it; it was part of her everlasting charm. She craved the company of dogs, perhaps because they shared her boundless enthusiasm for life.
Whenever I’m away from home, I look for dogs everywhere. They make me feel less homesick; they instantly brighten my mood. While in Charleston, Guion knew I’d want to linger by a dog park and so he let me ogle like a creep by the fence, just to watch the pups play for a bit. I recently returned from SXSW in Austin, where there was no shortage of street dogs to admire. A dog-loving colleague and I would take pains to point dogs out to each other. And then, when I come home to Pyrrha, I am Lazarus, fresh from the tomb: You never saw such rejoicing! Such disbelief! Such yips of ecstasy!
How can you not harbor a lifelong obsession with such a creature? A silent, joyful, juvenile wolf who sleeps in your home and gives you daily offerings of unending love?
. . .
In thinking about our unknown child, our fast-approaching firstborn, I wonder about the unseen inheritances that he or she will receive. I am particularly interested in the personality traits that skip a generation or two. Will she have her great-grandmother’s infectious laugh (and fixation on canines)? Will he have his great-grandfather’s gift of playing music by ear?
“Unseen” is the word that comes to me, although it is perhaps not quite right. “Unknown” or “unanticipated” are probably closer to what I mean. But I like the idea of being blindsided by a familial similarity. You look at your kid one day, when she is six years old, and you realize she has her grandmother’s eyebrows and her great-grandfather’s genteel manner of storytelling.
This interests me. I am not sure how to say more about it than that.
. . .
“The digital clutter of our lives doesn’t merely make us anxious, interrupting our train of thought and blocking us from longer periods of silence and the deeper thinking that can go with it. Our digital clutter redesigns our world around the temporary. Constant interruptions turn us into amnesiacs who are required to respond, reply, and react from moment to moment. This is why we have so little memory of what happened last week, let alone what happened last year or twenty years ago. We are constantly threatened with interruption, so we experience each moment as something that could easily be discounted, could easily be erased or subsumed by some more important message. Our minds, in other words, are filled with the clutter of what comes next: messages and tweets and texts yet to be received. We live in a world of past and future clutter. We are boxed in. There is no space for where we are right now.”
— Heather Havrilesky, “Stuffed,” from her new book, What If This Were Enough?
. . .
Learning more about birth continues to cement my feminist leanings. I continue to trust in the incredible power and strength and wisdom of women. The main things I have gleaned thus far are that women should labor in the place they feel safest, and women should guide other women through labor and birth, as they have done for millennia. I’m not sure this is a realm where men get to have much say (and, in this way, it feels right to treat birth as holy, in the “set apart” sense of the definition). We’ll see how it goes. I am trying not to have any expectations, because I know that none of it can be organized or planned. It will be a great exercise in surrender, an act that I do not typically welcome.
We went away to Charleston for a long weekend, a final, celebratory jaunt as a family of two. We walked miles and miles every day and ate incredible amounts of delicious food (on any holiday, walking and eating are my primary ambitions). And then we spied some of the most grand old rowhouses, cheerful dogs, a trio of dolphins, and an injured bald eagle and maimed kestrel (at the aquarium, where they somewhat incongruously reside).
After eight years of marriage, we’ve become very compatible travel companions. He knows that I will be unnecessarily anxious about the airport (not about flying, but about being in an airport, for which I reserve a special kind of loathing) and accommodates in advance to reduce my fretting. I know that he will find the best restaurants in any given city, so I don’t spend any time researching them. He knows that I will want to find some animals to admire, wherever they exist, and I know that he will want to stop and photograph unfamiliar flowers or vines or shrubs. We rarely need to even voice our desires, which frees us up to have conversations at dinner about inconsequential abstractions (gender politics, music theory, creative expression, the value of performance art, the frequency with which one should shampoo).
If there is anything I fear, it is the dread of the unknown, the simmering concern that a new person in the family will ruin our happy relationship. Parents we trust and respect tell us that raising children will, in time, deepen our relationship. Our sorrows and joys will both be more extreme. But as an emotionally illiterate person, I can’t help but hear this reassurance as deeply troubling.
. . .
“Lord, give us what you have already given.” — A character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa
. . .
I’m feeling burnt out on baby books, so I have been reading a history of the heroin epidemic, a field guide to North American trees, and a hefty novel by Elsa Morante. I am now feeling a little bit more like myself. Baby books are stressful.
I despise the cold, but I’m finding some joy in the winter this year. This attitude has been helped along by daily walks, with the aid of competent warm-weather gear and my good German shepherd, the perfect walking companion; more time to read, and read by the fire; and the quietness of the landscape. This winter, more than others, feels like this restful season of anticipation. Spring brings new life (literally for our household this year), and I am enjoying thinking of winter as a time for appropriate dormancy.
A poem along those lines:
How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,
my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go
separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you
perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping
to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.
And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
For all of its well-deserved successes, the demagoguery of the #MeToo movement has led to this widespread belief that all women are powerless victims, controlled by and subjected to the sexual appetites and whims of all men. American women, according to 21st-century progressive feminism, are perpetually under the boot of The Patriarchy and are helpless to save themselves from men, who are, by nature, evil.
I call bullshit. Women, are we childlike puppets, or are we free agents, equal in intelligence and power to men?
Of course, there are vast, interconnected systems of injustice still at work in our country. It is both blind and naïve to pretend otherwise. And many continue to perpetuate the myth that women are weak and bad and less than. But what I cannot fathom is why modern feminists are repeating this very same lie. Can we not see that we are working with misogynists when we invest so much in this victim mentality?
We lose—and our daughters lose—if we continue to parrot the myth that women are powerless. As a recently pregnant person, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous strength of women. It is one of the hallmarks of our sex. We are incredibly powerful, capable, and beautiful creatures. We are long-suffering and determined. We are intelligent, wise, collaborative, and creative. We bring forth life, for God’s sake. (Relatedly: Stop patronizing pregnant women.) I trust women immensely, and I trust us to take our lives in our own hands.
Yes, men continue to perpetuate great harm against women, every day and all across the world. Yes, countless women live in daily fear because of the men in their lives. Yes, I continue to conduct myself as a person who should mistrust unfamiliar men, choosing the routes I walk and the public places I frequent with great caution.
And this may be our situation for a while. I hope and pray that the world continues to get safer for and more supportive of women everywhere, as it has been trending toward lately. But I think so often of the shallow platitudes that we offer our little girls. We read them books about Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart and tell them about “girl power” and dress them in silly onesies that declare that “the future is female,” but we don’t seem to believe any of it ourselves, wallowing instead in fear and investing in this fashionable identity of helplessness.
We are doing the dirty work for our oppressors: You want women to be subservient? Great, we’ll strip ourselves of power so you don’t have to! We’ll continue to only talk about ourselves as underlings and victims. That’ll make it easy for you to carry on with the oppression and fear tactics and stereotyping. You’re welcome.
Womenfolk, let’s return to our true selves and to our deep, inborn reservoirs of strength. Let’s look to our mothers and grandmothers and all who came before us. Let’s stop talking about ourselves as if we’re indentured servants in a vast, conspiratorial patriarchy. There is much to be done. Less whining, more work.
I love our doula for a number of reasons, but one of the first moments in which she stole my heart was when she looked and me and said, “You don’t need to go to the gym.”
She didn’t say this because I’m exceptionally fit; she said it because she believes that no one has to go to the gym. I have always believed this, but now, thanks to her, I finally have a more comprehensive philosophy to back up this long-held personal conviction.
Before sharing a short primer on what I’ve learned, here are the cards I brought to the table.
Gyms are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy
The American relationship to “exercise” has always struck me as counterproductive. It clearly has roots in our Puritan heritage, in which “no pain, no gain” breeds a vicious cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, then more guilt and more self-flagellation.
“I’ve been bad,” my friends say. “I haven’t been to the gym in a week.” We create a direct relationship between our personal worth and our time exercising. If we’ve been “good” at working out, we can call ourselves righteous and actually feel superior; we love ourselves (and our bodies) a little bit more. If we’ve been “bad,” we feel guilt—but a guilt that only has a superficial effect on changing our behavior (i.e., we don’t actually end up going to the gym more or feeling joy in our hearts when we do). And then we get trapped in this hellish, Spandex-y cycle. The problem with this legalistic approach to our bodies is that it doesn’t work.
(Diet, of course, is an enormous part of a holistic portrait of health, which I won’t address here. There are a million polemics and books about it from far more qualified sources, and you already know the Pollan dicta: Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.)
So, here’s the rub: Americans love to strip pleasure out of everything. Eating? It’s a chore; let’s do it as fast as possible, preferably in our cars or in front of a TV. Let’s obsess over calories and carbohydrates and develop deeply unhealthy relationships to our bodies! Physical movement? It’s a moral obligation; let’s pay an absurd monthly fee to do it indoors, on machines, and judge each other and ourselves while we do it!
The whole concept of “doing exercise,” as if it were this one-hour cardio burst you have to check off your list and then you can laze around on the sofa for the next eight hours, is ludicrous. I lived with a young woman in college who lived on a diet of chicken breasts, literal platefuls of ketchup, and egg whites. She’d then go to the gym for an “intense workout,” in the hopes of earning herself a “free pass” for the rest of the week, but then she’d collapse at home on the sofa or on her bed, exhausted and malnourished.
If you enjoy the gym, that’s fine; knock yourself out. I also like spending money on unnecessary things, like Korean skincare and handmade beeswax candles! We all have our thing; we’re American, after all. But we’re all so overworked and undernourished. And gyms aren’t helping us with these problems. Our American approach toward “exercise” creates a deeply messed-up attitude toward our bodies and the way we move them. It’s no wonder we’re so fat and so sad.
Learning from people who never go to the gym
Thanks to my doula, I now have a more unifying worldview in which to place these long-held convictions. She introduced me to Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Bowman is a biomechanist who advocates, in a nutshell, for moving a lot more, in highly variable, natural ways, to break us out of our deeply sedentary modern lifestyles. (Watch this 5-minute video for a quick introduction to her philosophy.)
“Modern living does not require that we move, and to add insult to injury, it actually limits full use of our body. For example, a couch, although super comfortable, limits the full use of your ankles, knees, and hips. It sets the distance over which your legs and hip muscles can work. If you’re leaning against something right now, that something is doing the work your core muscles would be doing were that thing not there. We’ve effectively outsourced the use of our bodies to our stuff. And then when we ask our bodies to hold us up, and hold stuff in, they fail. Make no mistake, it’s not only the tissue that’s broken; it’s the habitat.” — Katy Bowman, Diastasis Recti
Before I had even heard about Bowman, I thought a lot about the locals we saw and lived next to in the Amalfi Coast this past May. We were worn out by the extremely terraced layout of the towns of Positano and Praiano, which are carved into cliffs. Furthermore, we were gobsmacked by the very old people who were climbing hundreds of stone steps a day with no assistance, no walkers, no human aides. (Praiano is perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible town I’ve ever seen.) They passed us easily on the steps, while we (many of the family in knee braces) had to pause often to catch our breaths.
This discrepancy made sense, though, once we started watching the locals a little more closely. Almost everyone had a garden, and all throughout the day, senior citizens could be seen tending their little plots of land: their tomatoes and olive trees and rows of tidy vegetables. We also watched them walking back and forth from the little markets, carrying their bundles and baskets with aplomb. Old men and women spent time eating and drinking with friends on balconies, hanging their laundry up to dry, and fastidiously sweeping and cleaning their homes. They had lived their entire lives moving up and down these impossible and endless flights of stairs. Living there is hard work, and that’s the point. They’re all probably going to live to be 115.
“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family. Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.” — Kelly Toups, nutrition director for Oldways, quoted here
Likewise, my time in Japan influenced me profoundly when thinking about lifestyle and movement. There are hardly any gyms in Japan. People eat well and walk everywhere. They take good care of their homes; they garden; they participate in neighborhood clean-up day with their children (photo below). And they also live forever.
I remember feeling like I needed to “exercise” and go for runs in Japan (this, even though I was bicycling and walking miles to school and eating the best seafood of my life). My host mother Keiko was utterly baffled by this. “But, Abby-san,” she said, “why? I don’t understand. What are you running for?” She was worried about me. She looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed. What was I running for? Because that’s what college girls did; that’s what they were supposed to do so they wouldn’t hate themselves later. Thankfully, I grew up and out of this toxic attitude.
The healthiest people in the world—people like the elderly men and women in Praiano and my Japanese host family—don’t go to gyms.
Because who has time for the gym, really? No one does. Instead, movement should just be a part of our everyday lives, worked into every part of our day.
How I’m moving now
I share all of this with you with great joy, not at all with judgment! I am simply so happy to have discovered an approach to movement in life that is free of gym memberships and guilt and polyester tank tops with built-in bras. I just want to share the good news with you. So, here are some the happy ways that I am moving.
I’m walking as much as possible. We’re lucky that we can walk to work and to church, and so I have been walking every day for the past few weeks—even though it’s winter, even though I hate the cold, even though it gets dark so soon. I now walk at least 2 miles a day, and I’d like to work up to more than 5 miles a day (which I accomplish only on the weekends, when I take Pyrrha for longer jaunts around town). We use the car so much less now, and when I do, I park as far away as possible from my destination.
I’m sitting as little as possible. This is difficult, because I have a desk job, but I’m moving around a lot at work. I downloaded a Chrome extension that reminds me to get up and walk every hour, and I change my position a lot. I will sit in seiza on my chair; fold my legs in different positions; refuse to use the back of the chair and sit in straight alignment instead. When my boss or clients aren’t around, I will also sit on the floor in various positions with my laptop. I also realized that I don’t need to sit when I’m offered chairs. When I’m in a waiting room, I now stand awkwardly near a wall. It’s fun.
I’m resisting the inclination to sit when I get home. Now, I try not to sit down when I get home at the end of the day until dinner. While Guion cooks, I sweep; I tidy; I walk the dog; I read a book or write a letter standing up. If we watch TV, I sit now on the coffee table or floor or on an exercise ball.
I’m rejecting supportive shoes and heels. This one threw me for a loop. Birkenstocks and Dansko shoes are not helpful, and heels are absolute murder on your body’s alignment. Heels turn us into misaligned monkeys, and supportive shoes are big casts for our atrophied feet, which have been ruined by decades of walking on flat, manmade surfaces with cushy soles. The most minimal footwear possible (zero rise) is preferable to re-train and strengthen our feet. I’m also trying to walk on varied terrain as much as I can, which means walking in the grass or in the woods or on pebbles instead of on concrete or asphalt. Pyrrha also prefers this.
There’s a lot more that I can do, and I’m far from breaking myself out of a sedentary mold, but I feel energized by the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m excited about the weather warming up and returning to gardening, which is one of my favorite activities.
In sum, I feel very joyful about moving through life this way. It has been a pleasure to adopt these new practices, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s honestly been easy and pleasant. Treadmills and yoga classes have always felt like absolute drudgery to me. I’ve always hated being in a room with other sweaty people, performing exercise. Now, I can just live and move and breathe, with a little more philosophical support behind this lifestyle I had already bought into without knowing it.
Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.
1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant
Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)
2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams
The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.
(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)
3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías
Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)
4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac
I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)
5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges
There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)
6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima
I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.
The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)
7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)
8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner
So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)
9: Florida, Lauren Groff
Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)
10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov
I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)
2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).
1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)
2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson
Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.
This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)
3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole
I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?
This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)
4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil
Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)
5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser
This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.
Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)
6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan
Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.
This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)
7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen
Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.
Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)
8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit
In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.
It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)
9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt
American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)
10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)
Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee