Friday, July 28, 2017

What you reading?

your summer reading

Hello, he said. What are you reading?
Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.
Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
A constant what? Elisabeth said.
A constant constancy, Daniel said.
They went for a walk along the canal bank. 
Every time they passed someone, Daniel said hello. Sometimes the people said hello back. Sometimes they didn’t.
It’s really not allright to talk to strangers, Elisabeth said.
It is when you’re as old as I am, Daniel said. It’s not all right for a personage of your age.
I’m tired of being a personage of my age and of having no choices, Elisabeth said.
Never mind that, Daniel said. That’ll pass in the blink of an eye. Now. Tell me. What you reading?

Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn, is incredibly good. (If you want to read a more thorough analysis than I have to offer, try this.) I finished it in a day and every page or so stopped to reread some astounding passage so I could really let it sink in. I love the way she juxtaposes profundity with lightness, even absurdity. This book is full of big, serious ideas (about Brexit, age, time, love) but is also quick and witty and you never feel weighted down.

I can’t stop thinking about Daniel’s remarks about reading. Throughout the novel, instead of the usual and often meaningless “How are you?” Daniel asks people: “What you reading?” As he explains in that passage, he isn’t necessarily inquiring about a book (though characters in this novel read a lot of books), he’s asking: What is on your mind, what are you picking up from the world that is preoccupying you at this particular moment — what project, what political disaster, what cultural argument, what movie, what food trend — and what is the related narrative that’s unfolding in your head?

Or at least that’s what I think he means. At least that’s what I want him to mean. 

And isn’t that a better question than “How are you?” Obviously, “How are you?” is important — I always want to know how my friends are, whether they’re in any kind of physical or emotional distress, but when they’re not, and they’re usually not, thank God, the next thing I want to know is what they’re reading, either in terms of books or in that broader sense. A couple of my friends and I cut straight to “What you reading?” by mutual understanding, but I have never been able to put a name to that dynamic like I can now.
My baby girl polishes that glass!
It seems that this blog has become about what I’m reading, both in terms of books but also in that broader sense. I mean, it always has been, but I used to “read” about food and cookbooks and backyard chickens more than I do now. Hey, what do you expect? When I started this blog my kids were cute, naughty little chipmunks. Life is different now. Owen will be a senior in high school and Isabel appears to be all grown up. We went to visit her last weekend in Walla Walla, Washington where she’s working at a history museum and living in a bungalow with some friends. She has potted snapdragons on the front steps and goes to the farmers’ market on Saturdays to buy kale and potatoes, cooks herself dinner every night. It’s the young, pretty millennial who should be writing the food blog, not the chubby old lady with the reading glasses and the empty nest!

Except I’m the one who likes to write, so there.

Saturday morning when you are twenty and your enthusiastic parents texted you at 7 a.m. from Starbucks
Autumn. It’s brilliant. You should read it. It’s not a plotty book so if a propulsive plot is critical to your reading enjoyment, perhaps this novel isn’t for you. But why not give it a try? One of the characters, preoccupied by world events and sitting at a dying friend’s bedside, reads the opening passage of a classic novel* and thinks: 

The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all in seconds. They made everything happening stand just far enough away.
It was nothing less than magic. 
Who needs a passport?
Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
I’m reading. 

John McCain’s vote notwithstanding, everything happening right now is pretty gross. Autumn will make it stand just far enough away.

*I used to feel bad linking to amazon rather than an indie bookshop, but since Trump started hate tweeting at them, I feel not quite good, but definitely less bad. 


  1. You forget that there are other chubby older women that like to read your opinions about what you're reading. :) Please keep on!

    1. Yeah, I tend to avoid those young-person blogs that have hipness oozing out of every pore! Chickens, perfect lighting, and color sprinkles on everything! I prefer our middle-aged concerns.

    2. Everyone is always more interested in our own age than reading about an age we have already lived through! Thank goodness, or I would still be reading Cosmo about how to have mind blowing sex EVERY TIME! I now file that under fantasy.

  2. I hear there is an opening at the Times for someone who likes to read...

  3. Long time, first time, love the whole shebang around here. Has anyone read The Professor and the Madman? I have many, many things to say about that book and no one to say them to (not up the alleys of my reading cohort for some reason). I should admit that one of my theses is kind of juvenile.

    To be more food-specific, thanks so much for the English muffin analysis. I resent their price but resented making them even more. Bays on sale for me.

    I can't figure out the sign-in protocol, but I'm monicaludditeATattDOTcom.

    1. I would love to hear what you have to say about The Professor and the Madman. I do a lot of my "reading" on Audible and listened to it this year; thought it was fascinating.

    2. Much later and possible SPOILER so quit reading if you haven't already...My juvenile point is that the epigraph for the "Monuments" chapter offers as an illustrative phrase 'monumental erection' which (that?) is just so apt and almost coy. Anyway, I felt so smart that I 'got' it.

      I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and still think about it quite a bit. I mean, psychology, geography, murder, filing systems -- it's got it all!

  4. I have Autumn out of the library, and now I will move it up the stack. But if you need a palate cleanser, try Katherine Heiny's Standard Deviation, if you haven't read it yet. I'm a long time fan of hers (ever since her single New Yorker story in 1992, which I adored!), and this novel makes me love her more. It's very, very funny, and even though I get irritated whenever someone is compared to Laurie Colwin (b/c they're almost never really like Laurie Colwin), Heiny does have a Colwin-esque spirit to her. (Plus, she uses actual Colwin as her epigraph.) Also, it's funny--did I mention that? (Like, I couldn't get through reading a passage aloud to my boyfriend b/c I was laughing so hard, funny.)

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I know what you mean about Laurie Colwin. There is only one, of course, but I get your point.

    2. Sue Dickman, have you discovered Barbara Trapido? Someone described her as Laurie Colwinish, which immediately made me seek her out. I don't see the connection but I think her books are delightful. I particularly loved Brother of the More Famous Jack, but they're all great.

    3. I think that was me! I've written about Trapido a few times and have connected her to Colwin (and vice versa). For me, it's something about their mutual love of the domestic detail and something else I might not be able to name. They feel a bit like spiritual cousins to me. I interviewed Trapido a few years ago (she is, as you might imagine, lovely and delightful), and she said she was working on new novel centering around Jane Goldman's 80th birthday party. I hope she finishes it!

    4. Too funny! I bet it was you! I don't think Tipsy would mind if I told you I passed along your recommendation and she has read and enjoyed some of Trapido's books as well.

      It's been way too long since Sex and Stravinsky was published, and I would love to read another book by her.

    5. I just looked at your google profile. I'm writing this from Greenfield.

    6. How funny. What a small world. I also met someone who works at the Jones Library in Amherst from the comments section here. Now, when she checks my books out, we talk cookbooks! I think BT is a slow writer in general with 7ish years between each book. I interviewed her in 2013, I think, and the last book came out in 2010, so it's really about time!

    7. I'm currently reading Standard Deviation and absolutely loving it. I'd come to the comments to say how much I loved Autumn, funny to find this post too. Both great books, but great in different ways.

  5. I read Autumn as soon as it came out because I loved How to be Both and recommend you read it if you have not already done so. The year it came out I gave it as Christmas presents to my favorite readers after searching the shelves at the bookstore to make sure I got copies with Eyes first, not Camera. If you are not familiar with it - and I would be surprised if that is the case - the book was written as two related but separate parts, Eyes and Camera. Half of the books were published with Eyes first; the other half, Camera. Of course you can read it both ways, but you cannot go back and read it first anytime but the first time. After reading many reviews (which I hardly ever do because instead of really being reviews, they are usually synopses) I deliberately opted for Eyes first and was glad I did. This is a book that is worth being read in written form AND listened to. It is one of my all-time favorites.

    I recently read two other books I thoroughly enjoyed - The Essex Serpent and A Gentleman in Moscow, each highly recommended and will recommend one more - A True Novel, off the radar but, I think, excellent.

    Please keep writing. It helps keep me sane in these not only troubling but insane times.

    1. I loved both of the above books. I will have to seek out True Novel and How to be Both. Thanks for the recommendations!

  6. I always wonder how people are and what they are reading, not necessarily in that order, but more and more, I am wondering where they stand on what is happening in our country. I'm from a decidedly red state and I utterly fail to understand how anyone can justify their allegiance to the powers that are currently mucking things up. These people include extended family, more's the rub. I find it refreshing that you aren't afraid to own your dismay, as are many of my friends. I am tired of feeling a powerless bystander. How do we effect change on a meaningful level with a malignant, mentally constipated Tweeter in office? Seems that all the like-minded, chubby, middle-aged empty nesters should form some type of coalition. At the very least, we would have epic discussions! Loved Professor and the Madman, started Standard Deviation last night.

    I love your blog. Write about whatever your like!!

  7. When my kid was about seven, my seldom-seen dad initiated a conversation with them with "so, ___, what are you thinking about these days?" We both have been making fun of him for it ever since. It seemed to us like such a ridiculous question to ask a seven-year-old. Should we not have been so judgemental?

    1. Most definitely should have encouraged the question and the answer, IMHO. Children have absolutely fascinating minds/sponges, and they often have the most intriguing things to share as they have not yet been indoctrinated. I think it is refreshing for anyone to have an "adult" conversation with a child.

    2. What I mean is, my child themselves thought it was the funniest thing ever. I have always had real conversations with my child; it just seemed so pretentious and artificial to us. I guess you have to know my dad and his general absence from our lives...

  8. For pete's sake, your audience waits for your next post with such anticipation! I so wish you could return to the frequency of your earlier postings. All of us love whatever you are thinking about. But I admit, the cookbook playoffs (Piglet) this year lost a lot of luster for me because we didn't have your running commentary to accompany them. Reading? Affluence without Abundance; Spaceman of Bohemia; On Art and Mindfulness; and re-reading Commander's Kitchen due to inspiration from the fabulous documentary on Ella Brennan currently on Netflix. It is marvelous, as is she.

  9. I am reading the Essex Serpent, but I highly recommend News of the World and Grief Cottage. Thanks for the recommendation, Jennifer. As all the above noted, we loved the conversations with have with you and others in this space. Please do tell us what's on your mind whenver you can.

  10. After Birth by Elisa Albert!!! Currently electrifying my world and brain.

  11. Reading YOU whenever your post. Sometimes read your old cookbook posts when I have insomnia. Also reading the "Call the Midwife" books. Inspiring me to think about how we can approach prenatal care, birth and post partum care with a more human spirit. (I am a doctor.)

  12. Always a red-letter day when there's a new Tipsy post! I have always wondered about the whole "A Novel" designation on covers. When did publishers start doing that? Who decides whether it's added or not? To be honest it's always seemed a bit precious, but would love to know more about why it's even added

  13. I'm reading King Solomon's Table by Joan Nathan. I haven't been this intrigued by a cookbook in years and years. I took it out of the library but I think I'll have to buy it.
    I have Allegra Goodman's The Chalk Artist queued up on my phone and am looking forward to that. I adore her books.

  14. I love David Sedaris' books and just finished Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977 - 2002). Before reading it I thought maybe he was cheating by making a book from his diaries but this is really great .. I kept laughing all the way through.

  15. Appreciate it for all your efforts that you have put in this. Very interesting information. "There's folks 'ud stand on their heads and then say the fault was i' their boots."

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  18. Awhile ago, I read an article about little girls--and how we speak to them--and it changed the way I talk to children (and especially little girls), by pointing out how lame it is to compliment a child on her cuteness. I now always initiate a conversation with a little girl, not with "What a cute dress!" but with "What are you reading?" or "What's your favorite book?" It is a much more interesting conversation.

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