Upcoming Reads

I recently rediscovered the magic that is the Free Library. It happened a few weeks ago, on the way back to work from lunch with some friends. The conversation went something like this:

All: I love books! (Me too!) (I love books too!)
Lynn: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to get free books? As many as you wanted?
Me: There is. It’s called…the library.
Herbie & Chris: [lol]
Lynn: Okay, fuck you guys.

I recognize now in the retelling that my response comes off as super sarcastic, but I promise it wasn’t (I am apparently only capable of sounding sarcastic, as anyone who knows me in real life will attest to). Lynn’s inquiry had honestly sparked a realization, though; something so simple and obvious, given my growing book collection and dwindling B&N gift cards, that I can’t believe it took me an unintentionally sassy, Phở-brained comment to remind me: the Free Library is amazing. When I was a kid, my library card got a serious work out, and the joy of visiting the main branch each week and coming home with a stack of new, exciting, hard-backed adventures to dive into –accompanied by the gloriously familiar crinkle of the plastic book covers– remains a highlight of my childhood. Why hadn’t I carried that into adulthood?

Well, I finally did. I renewed my library card and have been singing its praises ever since. And while the intervening years have seen some changes to the way the library operates (I can place holds on any title online, for pick up at my local branch; they don’t use rubber stamps or check-out cards anymore) the overwhelming enchantment hasn’t faded in the slightest.

Herewith, some upcoming reads:

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1 // Ajax Penumbra 1969, Robin Sloan
I was so smitten with Sloan’s “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” that I can’t believe I didn’t know until recently there was a second (prequel?) book in the same story. All I can tell you about the first one, if you haven’t read it  already(why haven’t you read it already??), is that it is set in a bookstore in San Francisco, involves a secret organization of book lovers (where do I pledge my allegiance?), and that the cover glows in the dark. It was one of the best books I’ve ever read, hands down, and I am beyond thrilled there’s another one in the same vein.
2 // The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
I recently checked this out from the library, with the intention of waiting to finish Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend” first, but there was no way I could restrain myself. I’m already 100 pages into “The Painted Girls,” and it has everything I love: Paris in the 1880s, ballet, Degas, did I mention Paris? The story focuses on three young, impoverished sisters, one of whom becomes a figure model for the famous artist’s series of Danseuses. The narrative flips between the older two sisters, and I am so far loving all of the historical details.
3 // Red Joan, Jennie Rooney
I actually received this book for free from Europa Editions, a wonderful and welcome surprise in my mailbox one afternoon. I’d joined their mailing list and was rewarded with this hefty historical fiction (I’m sensing a pattern), about the KGB’s longest serving British spy, thus making it the first time joining a mailing list has ever benefited anyone, ever. I love Europa Editions, from their selection of authors to the binding and paper choice of their books, and had recently finished their edition of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” when “Red Joan” showed up. This may be getting ahead of myself, but I’ve been toying with submitting my manuscript to them when the time comes.
4 // Gilded Youth, Kate Cambor
This book had been in my Amazon cart for months, as I’ve been intrigued by the plot since I first came across it: a coming of age story set in the early 20th century of the scions of three of France’s biggest cultural influencers, including writers Victor Hugo and Alphonse Daudet. Cambor’s book captures the “hopes and disillusionments of those who were destined to see the golden world of their childhood disappear.” You know how I feel about late 19th/early 20th century Paris, so this seems like an obvious book to place on my “to-read” shelf.

What are you guys reading these days? Any recommendations?

Friday Five

Hello, kiddos! How has your week been? I’m sorry for having been absent; the pesky, time consuming minutae of my day-to-day threw me off balance. It seems plenty of us are struggling with that recently. But! I’m here now and, as it’s Friday, I have five interesting things that caught my attention this week to share with you:

1. Happy 126th Birthday to this beautiful lady!
La Tour Eiffel, Summer Solstice

Earlier this week, my favorite grand dame celebrated a special milestone: the 126th anniversary of her first public opening, all the way back on March 31, 1889 during the Exposition Universelle. I know this is brand new information (ha), but I have a deep, unwavering love of the Eiffel Tower; I’ve read books about its construction and books about fictional murders that occurred on it, and then of course there’s the precious habit I have of bursting into tears whenever I see her. We only have about 50 more days before we head back to Paris (by way of Italy this time!) and aside from deciding how early to start packing so as not to be judged too insane, I’m also getting so, so excited (understatement!) to see my special lady friend.

2. These incredible (and incredibly detailed) custom book jackets:
Juniper Books

Juniper Books sells custom book covers and book collections, and can curate a bespoke library straight out of your dreams. As an unabashed bibliophile myself, it’s thrilling to see companies committed to not just selling books, but selling beautiful books. I first heard of them on CBS Sunday Morning last year, and they popped up again in this month’s Vanity Fair. Thatcher Wine, Juniper Books’ founder, says “the point is to enjoy looking at them as much as you enjoy reading them.” If I had the money (their custom libraries can cost $750 per foot), I’d redo my whole book collection to be a giant photo of Fitz. Obviously.

3. These three basic requirements to avoid gender bias in fiction:
Renoir, the Louvre

Have you guys heard of this? I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under, but I came across this test and had to share. It’s called the Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Behdel, and it asks three simple questions of a work of fiction (movies or books) to avoid being considered sexist. The work must:

  1. Have at least two [named] women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man

Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised! The only things I can think of that fulfill these requirements are the movie “Clue” and the book “An Object of Beauty,” which doesn’t surprise me because that book is flawless and could never do anything wrong. Those three little rules have helped me rethink and reshape some of my own novel, and shamed me a little bit in how much I’ve fallen prey to the traditional gender roles so common in fiction.

4. This perfect line from “The Little Friend”:

“…a mysterious longing had possessed her, a desire to travel far and do great things; and though she could not say exactly what it was she wanted to do, she knew that it was something grand and gloomy and extremely difficult.”

Sometimes you read something so perfect, it begs to be remembered. I’m still not a fan of “The Goldfinch,” –I’ve read it twice now– but there’s no denying Tartt possesses a great talent for language. “Grand and gloomy and extremely difficult.” Oof.

5. This visually stunning video of Paris & New York, side by side:

Paris / New York from matel on Vimeo.

I’m not just saying this because I’m obsessed with Paris, but there really is no competition between the two cities. If anything, I’d love to see a comparison video of Paris and Philadelphia, which is a far lovelier city than NYC. In unsurprising news, I was able to identify every single street and landmark on the Paris side of the video, because my brain is basically a Paris Encyclopedia. (I’m also a sucker for a good time-lapse video with delightfully cheery music.) Thanks to my brother for sending me this!

Friday Five

1.  This hilarious commercial for…well, I’ll let you watch & figure it out:

I don’t know what made me think of this again after all this time, but the first time I saw this on tv in Paris I laughed out loud. There are several variations on the theme and all are equally brilliant. This is one of the best marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen (though it doesn’t make me want to buy the product, so maybe I should say it is the most entertaining, rather than the best).

 2. This beautifully symmetrical photography project:

Symetrie du Spectacle

French architect Gilles Alonso has been traveling around France taking photos of famous, grand, and even simple theaters from center stage. There’s something eerie and yet satisfyingly balanced about these photos that I find just captivating. And I can’t be the only one picking up major Phantom of the Opera vibes from these, can I? Thanks to my brother for sending me this!

3. This fantastic, futuristic clock:

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For someone for whom it takes just a half-beat longer to read a face clock than normal (I’m pretty sure I was absent the day we learned this in Kindergarten), the QlockTwo is the answer to my prayers. Minute hands, seconds hands, forget it; blame it on the digital age we live in. Words, however, I can understand, and QlockTwo literally spells out the time in complete sentences, turning time “into a statement.” QlockTwo is 17″ square, can be wall-mounted or free-standing, and comes in a variety of colors, which adhere to the solid wood base with magnets. It doesn’t hurt that it’s typographically stunning, either. At nearly €1500, however, it is also prohibitively expensive.

4. This spot-on illustration from my favorite Tom Gauld:

Tom Gauld

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I love everything Tom Gauld creates.

5. This reflection of a still-unsolved museum heist: 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Keith Meyers/The New York Times

On March 18th, it will have been 25 years since two thieves dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, bound and gagged two guards in the basement, and “for 81 minutes, brazenly and clumsily cut two Rembrandts from their frames, smashed glass cases holding other works, and made off with a valuable yet oddball haul” including several Degas sketches, Vermeer’s “Concert,” Manet’s “Chez Tortoni. In the intervening quarter century, the paintings have yet to be recovered, and the frames still hang empty on the walls at the museum. This article from the NYTimes details the case –including new (to me) information about paint-chip samples sent anonymously to the FBI for testing, an alleged sighting of one of the Rembrandt’s in a warehouse, and about a hundred possible suspects and leads– and reads more like my type of thrilling fiction than the sad, strange reality it is. Definitely worth a read over the weekend if you love a good art heist.

Speaking of art heists, I have one to share with you on Monday. What are you up to this weekend, kiddos? My mom’s birthday is Sunday and my best friend returned from a whirlwind trip to Italy, so I will be brunching at Parc…twice in two days. What more could I possibly want?

Loving Lately, vol. 4

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Pivoine Flora Hand Cream / Scarf / 50mm f/1.4 Lens / Repairwear Laser Focus Eye Cream / The Goldfinch / Dior Sunglasses / Rose Gold Slip-On Sneakers

Fun Erin Fact: I am the most moisturized human being you’ll ever meet. Seriously. I have a day and night face and body lotion routine that takes half an hour and leaves me feeling like I could bob sled on an ice luge using nothing but my body (or, more accurately, like this Boy Meets World scene with Cory’s silk sheets). So it’s no surprise that I’ve now added an eye cream, from Clinique, to my regimen. Say what you will about the futility of using an anti-wrinkle cream when I don’t (yet!) have wrinkles, but to the naysayers, I refer you to this brilliantly apt scene from the short-lived BBC series “Coupling,”:

Sally: Death is the best argument for moisturizers.
Patrick: You can’t prevent death with face cream.
Sally: Yeah? That’s what everyone thinks, but no-one’s ever used it in the quantities I do.

I can also be found applying hand lotion roughly eighty times a day, an estimate that more-than-doubles in the winter, when even the slightest exposure to the elements leaves my hands cracked and raw. I stopped into L’Occitane over the weekend, and fell madly in love with their peony scented line. It is non-greasy and the smell is heavenly, not overpoweringly cloying or floral.

In other news, I’ve decided to give “The Goldfinch” a second chance. I know, I know. I was pretty firm in my original assessment last January (and in my end of year book review) that the book was overrated, but I read Tartt’s earlier work, “The Secret History” on our honeymoon a few months ago, and I’ve been ruminating on it since. All of the characters in that book range from “Not Entirely Likable” to “Downright Reprehensible,” but I think you’re not supposed to like any of them, and that’s part of what made it so good. I wish I’d read “The Secret History” first, as an intro to Tartt’s writing style, as it would have colored my initial read of “The Goldfinch” differently. As it is, I’ve been thinking more and more about the plot and characters of “The Goldfinch” in the last few weeks, and I figured I have nothing to lose with a revisit (except, of course, hours and hours of my time. Again). I’m coming at it with a new appreciation of her writing voice, though before I even started it I’ve realized she reuses several of the same character archetypes from “The Secret History.” I’ll delve into that more in a separate post, when/if I finish this for the second time.

Friday Five

1. Charlie Hebdo, Before the Massacre:

In French class this week we discussed the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and our teacher, Rachel, had a copy of the latest issue of the satirical magazine for us to read. It’s hard enough to find the words in English to describe the atrocity of the shootings and the anguish that followed, let alone in French. But we tried, even if as much I could say was, “C’est insupportable, que la liberté d’expression a été attaqué.” Rachel showed us this New York Times Op-Doc of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters during a production meeting in 2006. To say it was difficult to see the cartoonists and editors drawing, discussing, and choosing a cover illustration featuring the prophet Muhammed, unaware of the fate that would befall them and their beloved magazine both five years later, when their offices were firebombed, as well as two weeks ago, would be to cheapen the very acute sense of loss. “We laugh at everything. This is what we do. No subject is off-limits…We are lucky. France is a paradise,” Georges Wolinski says in the video.

2. An Infographic showing the age famous authors published their first book:

Infographic

According to this wildly fascinating infographic, I’m either a few years late at publishing my first novel (Kerouac was 21!) or I have plenty of time ahead of me (Jane Austen published “Sense and Sensibility” at 37!). Also interesting, F. Scott Fitzgerald only published four books in his lifetime (and one posthumously) while Nora Roberts has published over 200, giving stock to the age-old “Quality over quantity” adage.

3. “A Museum in England Is Hiding a Forgery Among Its Masterpieces”

Dulwich Picture Gallery

photo courtesy of Matt Lake

In a move that is sure to spark a conversation about how we value and valuate art, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London is placing a £120 forgery amongst its collection of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Poussin, and leaving it up to visitors to solve the mystery. Part of an exhibition titled, “Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project,” set to open in February, Fishbone commissioned a replica from a Chinese company that exists solely to churn out copies of great works. He says hanging the replica in the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery “gives our [replica] some provenance, and it’s interesting to see if that changes its value.” While the artist is quick to say this is not a cheap “spot the fake” stunt, the museum might sell “I Failed to Spot the Replica” t-shirts. Because as my father always said, every good cultural experience must end in a retail experience.
Thanks to Samantha for the link!

4. “Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu?” (“What did we do to God?”)

Also from French class, the preview for this movie had us in (much-needed) hysterics. A stuffy, not-so-mildly racist French couple with four daughters and four “undesirable” sons-in-law. Deemed too politically incorrect for the US by some film critics, the movie doesn’t make fun of the interracial marriages, but rather makes fun of the conservative, “old French” parents, and uses humor to have a more serious discourse on an “I’m not racist, but…” culture in France. At least, that’s what I think Rachel was saying.

5. Charles Marville, the Photographer of Paris:

Rue de Constantine

photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For Christmas, Jamal bought me the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog from last year’s exhibition of Charles Marville’s photography of Paris. I didn’t get to see the show when it was at the Met or the National Gallery in DC, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting getting my hands on a copy of the exhibition catalog. It was backordered until after the new year, and it just arrived this week. I have been pouring over it nightly since. The book is a behemoth, at over 250 pages and almost 5lbs, with hundreds of Marville’s photographs of Paris in the mid-1800s reprinted with striking clarity. I can’t tell you how incredible it is to see the wide avenues, some still under construction, completely empty, void of people and carriages. It is an absolute gem.

2014 in Books

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My year in books:

Book Goal: 30
Books Read: 39 (well, 38, but I’m on track to finish my 39th, Gary Shteyngart’s memoir “Little Failure” by Wednesday)
Books Set in/About Paris: 15
Favorite Book(s): “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman, and “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin (read for the second time).
Least Favorite(s): “An Extraordinary Theory of Objects” by Stephanie La Cava. Utter drivel that never made any sort of narrative sense. Thankfully it was short. “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. Conscious style choice or not, the book read like a 5th grader wrote it.
Longest Book: “Paris” by Edward Rutherfurd, 832 pages. Runner up: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, 784 pages.
Shortest Book: “Babylon Revisted, And Other Stories” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 94 pages
Funniest: “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson, and “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain
Saddest: “The Paris Architect” by Charles Belfoure (fiction). A French architect in Nazi-occupied Paris during WWII builds hiding places for Jews. Achingly sad.
Books That Belonged to My Dad: 3 (“Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Sun Also Rises”, and “Einstein’s Dreams”)
Books Bought in European bookshops: 6 (Paris: “Babylon Revisited”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “The Innocent Libertine” by Colette, “The Haunted Bookshop” by Christopher Morley, “The Secret Diary of Adrien Mole, Aged 13 3/4”, bought for me by this lovely lady. From Greece: “The Da Vinci Code”)
Prettiest Covers: (Oh, don’t judge. You know this matters to you, too.) “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter, and “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan, because the latter GLOWS IN THE DARK (!!)
Most Overrated: “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, “The Goldfinch”, and “White Teeth”

I already have a long “To Read” list for 2015, though I don’t think I’ll participate in a challenge on Goodreads again next year. It sapped some of the fun from reading, knowing I had to chug through a book (or books) that I otherwise would have shelved without guilt, just to add to my goal. If I can average two books a month, I’ll be happy.

What did you read this year of note?

Good Advice

A few weeks ago, over drinks in a dark, downstairs bar, I asked Jamal, my newly minted husband, how he would feel about having a Write at Home Wife. It’s sort of like a Stay at Home Wife, only I’d be devoting myself to writing. I haven’t written anything substantial since Paris, a fact that is simultaneously depressing and incomprehensible. I felt the happiest, most alive, most fulfilled those eight weeks in Paris, because I was writing every single day. That was my job. Surely Paris was only part of the magic, and if I chose to make writing my full-time focus here, I’d find myself as productive and contented as I had been there. Or at least more satisfied than my current 9-5 situation, without question.

But I asked his opinion because I’m told that’s what you do in a marriage, and because, truthfully, a part of me is concerned about how it would look to other people. Girl marries older, successful career man, immediately quits job to stay home (and write). Jamal’s friends’ wives are doctors, lawyers, PhD holders. My own friends are no less impressive; two of my best friends are nurses, one keeps people alive after furious gunshot wounds, the other delivers babies into the world. Another jets off to Prague and Buenos Aires, assisting on commercial shoots for a major ad agency. My own mother earned her Masters Degree while shuttling me back and forth to school and ballet class. Isn’t it lazy to stay home? Wouldn’t it appear opportunistic to let my husband provide for me while I sit at my desk and nurture my inner Hemingway? Isn’t this so typically millennial of me, needing to feel wholly indulged in what makes me happy? I have nearly a year’s salary in my savings account (the idea of spending Jamal’s money makes me too uncomfortable), but isn’t the feeling of needing to justify my choice with some financial fact wrong in some way, too?

I asked Jamal, as we stirred our speakeasy cocktails with unpronounceable ingredients, “And what happens when I finish this novel? What then?”

“Then you write another one,” he said, thus affirming every decision I’d made to this point in my life with regards to his place in it.

But really, what happens then? What happens if I finish this novel, if I take a year and make writing my full-time job, and nothing comes of it? Do I write another one? And another? And if none of these manuscripts see the light of day, what do I have to show for my time? For my life? Am I still a writer if the only thing it achieves is making me feel fulfilled?

So when I came across this Ask Polly feature in New York Magazine’s The Cut, it hit so close to home I almost could have written the question myself. A woman, an artist, in her early thirties, is struggling with devoting herself to her art without feeling guilty. She writes, “My husband makes the living, but I would like to carry some weight. Am I just a shameful lazy bum who wants the world to carry me so I can be an Artiste? I want to create art, but I want to be socially accepted as well, as more than a dreamer.”

Ding ding ding.

The advice “Polly” gives is so poignant, so encouraging, that I’ve been coming back to the article near daily, just to feel reaffirmed. I haven’t made a decision yet, and I’m still plugging away at my desk job, with the slow burn of my novel somewhere in the background. At some point, this balance will change. But damn am I grateful for these words:

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Last Love

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I watched a wonderful movie the other day, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before Netflix suggested it as something I might like. “Last Love,” starring the incomparable Michael Caine as a windowed American professor living in Paris, was released last fall and somehow escaped my radar of all-things-Paris. I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because it’s a really beautiful, sad film, and it’s worth seeing if you can. Clémence Poésy is in it, too, flawless and charming and divinely Clémence Poésy-ish as usual. But without giving away the plot, I did want to share some of the interior sets, because, obsessed as I am with Parisian real estate, the sets were so perfectly designed I found myself distracted by the details in the background, a stack of old newspapers, the herringbone wood floors. The film is set in Paris in the late fall/early winter, and the light that diffuses every room and scene ranges from dusty blue to pale golden. It was visually stunning.

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Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? I can’t believe I missed it when it was first released!

Look! A Post That Isn’t About Paris!

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I forget where I first came across illustrator Tom Gauld, but I do remember being instantly charmed by his adorably witty and topical (to me) work. His cartoons appear weekly in The Guardian, but it’s his spot-on drawings of problems faced by writers and book-lovers that really get me. “Pauses, Tea Breaks and Naps” and “Advanced Workspace Rearrangement” are two classes I am sadly well-qualified to teach.

I haven’t written anything in the month that I’ve been back from Paris. I just haven’t had the time, which I’ve learned means I haven’t cared enough to make the time, which makes me sad. What are your best “get back on that horse” words of wisdom, kiddos?