Literary Names I Might Steal For My Future Daughters

Let’s be clear: I never want my future children, should I have them, to feel like they have to grow into an impossible mold. I want them to grow into themselves, not, say, into a literary icon. That said, why not use a pleasing combination of sounds and syllables that just so happens to have an epic connotation? I like all these first names. I like their legacies. If I should have a daughter I’d want her to have these books on her side.

  1. Luna, Harry Potter
  2. Ramona, Ramona
  3. Zelie, Children of Blood and Bone
  4. Calypso, The Odyssey
  5. Denver, Beloved
  6. Lisbeth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  7. Astrid, Crazy Rich Asians
  8. Matilda, Matilda
  9. Lara Jean Song Covey, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
  10. Jane, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, why not
  11. Oryx, Oryx and Crake
  12. Katherine Clifton, The English Patient
  13. Serena, The Trumpet of the Swan
  14. Hero, Much Ado About Nothing
  15. Camille, Sharp Objects
  16. Portia, The Merchant of Venice
  17. Natalia, War and Peace
  18. Arya, A Song of Ice and Fire
  19. Daisy, The Great Gatsby 
  20. Jo, Little Women
  21. Madeline, Madeline series
  22. Tacy, Betsy Tacy
  23. Zora, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  24. Lyra, His Dark Materials

Yes, yes, you’ve got me — in addition to collecting favorite books I also collect a) paint chips b) baby names and c) pretty words. This is a collection of b) and c).

Maybe next up I’ll match books with colors….

book round-up of the past so & so months

What have I been up to, aside from becoming obsessed with Billions, cooking with Antoni Porowski, wondering what Mary Berry would make of the various baked goods I eat on any given week, buying too many Uniqlo loungewear culottes (they’re floral and perfect).

I’ve been reading! Penelope weaves, I read, same way of making people think I’m not paying attention but I am. The number of times I have pretended to be reading but really just was listening in on conversations is…well, it’s staggering.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read since we last spoke. Which is a while. Perhaps I will write more regularly. I had a lot of thoughts (Thoughts with a capital T) about the vast terribleness of the  Amazon brick and mortar bookstore which are certainly enough for its own post but for now, let me get in a word: It’s entirely organized by algorithm. Displays based on which books Kindle readers rush through the quickest, shelves composed of books with Amazon ratings of 4.8 or higher. There is no human touch in this bookstore. No staff picks display. No almost out-of-print gem that a staff member had loved as a kid and now was putting front and center. No books that I hadn’t heard of because all the books were already best-sellers.

So baby, I’m bringing back the human touch! I made a shelf of Books I Liked In The Last Few Months. Lately, I’ve almost only been reading fiction by women for work — but there are quite a few books on my TBR list that are more eclectic.

Annihilation and Authority by Jeff VanderMeer: READ THESE BOOKS. Just please read them so I can stop squawking about “what innovative and amazing sci-fi they are seriously they’re like nothing you read just prepare to have your mind be somersaulting! is annihilation by way of area x really the worst thing?! etc etc”

The Power by Naomi Alderman: Goddamn, this book was good. In The Power, women suddenly unlock the ability to shoot lightning out of their collarbone. Instead of being like, “ok! that’s kind of cool,” their power compels some women to want to topple the patriarchy. A thrilling thought experiment, and a damning indictment of power’s corrupting influence across all gender lines.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: This is Halliday’s first novel. HOW is it Halliday’s first novel. If this were my first novel I’d take myself out for an ice cream sundae every afternoon and get extra whipped cream. The book is divided up into three sections — a surprisingly sweet romance between a youngish book editor and a brilliant writer in 2001, an Iraqi man detained in the London airport trying to visit his brother in 2008, and an interview with an author. I’ll keep it short: The book made me consider the repercussions of our family & our circumstances in shaping the body of our lives.

Wonder by R.J. Palacios: Hey adults. I don’t care if you know kids or not. READ this middle grade book. It’ll make you cry and then after it’ll make you kind!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Of course this made Oprah’s book club. It’s awesome. Only a year into Celestial and Roy’s marriage, Roy is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to jail. When he’s away, Celestial’s life moves forward. Their marriage, which was so new, struggles under the weight of Roy’s sentence. Since An American Marriage has three narrators, your sympathies will be pulled in every direction. Expect to argue with yourself and your book club friends.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney: Goddamn, I wish the conversations I had with my friends were this smart. Like Assymetry this book featured a compelling relationship between a young woman and an older creative type. This is such a trope, but Rooney and Halliday write it so it’s fresh and doesn’t really feel tropey but rather just another human pairing. I wonder why men in books (and life) always date younger women. I won’t hold this against the books.

Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman: If you liked Call Me By Your Name, read Aciman’s ridiculously wonderful memoir. His family is something out of a tall tale. He captures Alexandria at the last of its days as a multicultural, multilingual city.

There have been a bunch more — Girls Burn BrighterThe GunnersEmergency ContactChildren of Blood and BoneThe Merry Spinster.

I’ll write more about them soon!

 

But That’s MY Favorite Book!

The past few weeks have unpeeled some ugly layer to my personality. Ugly, perhaps, because it’s not surprising. I take pride in having read things First. Sometimes I forget I’m not in monogamous relationships with my favorite books. I approach the books I love with a little flag of my heart and stick it in the pages and say okay, this book is my favorite. Go to the library. Find your own.

Only that won’t work anymore because suddenly Call Me By Your Name is everyone’s favorite book! This book I’ve cradled in my heart – turns out other people have been cradling it also. And even more are flocking to read Aciman’s book now that the (resplendent, sublime, perfect, I’ll admit) movie is coming out. Now when I see Elio I see Timothee. Now when I see the book I see everyone else’s hands on it.

Ultimately YES, I’m thrilled because I get to talk about books with people. The same sentences rocked different lives. The same paragraphs woke people up from their lives and into some higher plane. Am I allowed to feel possessive over those hours on the train I spent reading CMBYN? Can it be my book, still? Even though I’m sharing it with everyone?

Do you ever get possessive over a book? Like you’re not reading the book so much as you are creating an experience, and you want to own the experience? This doesn’t happen to me with movies. I think it’s because you walk towards a book. You create the book. It’s a process of which your imagination is a part. Think of how many CMBYNs exist. Each person who read it put their flag in its pages, I mean, marked it as theirs.

I did lose street cred, though, now that the book is so main stream. Have to start reading weirder and weirder and more obscure and “this is never gonna be made into a movie” stuff. I just love books that are going to be made into movies! What can I say? I guess I’m not that original at all.

The Books of 2017 (So Far)

2017’s been a slippery creature to pin down, in terms of blogging. While I’ve been writing up a storm for work, the same prolific tendency has NOT appeared on my little project. That said, I’ve been reading quite a bit. Here are the books I should have been writing about, and will be in the future.

  • Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
  • The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin
  • A Sport and a Pasttime by James Salter
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman
  • Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • The Girls by Emma Cline
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  • Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
  • Pond by Claire Louise Bennett

And I may be forgetting some, but I think that sums up 2017 so far! I’ll be writing more soon.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

As if I didn’t have enough on my list of non-edible things to consume, I had to go and discover The School of Life, a youtube channel that satisfies my craving for the well-designed and informative and earnest and twee. There are a bunch of different channels catering to different topics. I like the ones about relationships and maximizing happiness. There are a few characters in books I wish had these videos to watch to educate them about where they’re going wrong in their relationships and their life choic

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carried this book around with me and it never ceased to make me gape with its revelations! 

 

But in addition to discovering the School of Life I also have the founder, Alain de Botton, himself. And I have the book The Architecture of Happiness, which has spewed incredible trips down hypotheticals for me, in a way that fiction just can’t. In this book, de Botton acts as the smart, kind friend willing to hold your hand and walk you through exciting ideas that keep building up. What de Botton is arguing in this book is tremendously appealing. He’s trying to get to the heart of why we like the things we like, and how the buildings we live in impact our mood. Why do we decorate the way we do? How do we surround ourselves with pieces of ourselves that we want reflected in OBJECT form? Essentially, he says the objects and buildings we buy, covet, and love, are manifestations of the qualities that we admire. WOW!

“To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with our own prized internal song.”

He has this one part of the book where he essentially conjectures that we give human traits to pieces of furniture, cars, and so on. So we choose what type we’d like to be “friends” with. That cold, sleek faucet, or the ornate, floozy one? Which one seems more trustworthy? More fun? Who’d we want to be friends with? It was ausch an interesting way of framing a thought process, and one that actually made a lot of sense to me.

What we call “home” is, in essence, a physical space that aligns with who we are. It affirms the truths within us.

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the friend who manages to be wicked smart AND kind

It was a humanist approach to architecture. A way to understand buildings in the way that regular people (ie us) live in them and experience them. And an affirmation that buildings shape our happiness, because we make them ours, and the ones that align with what we think we need are the best ones.

Reading this felt like talking to a very smart and articulate friend who wanted to make you a better, more observant person. The kind of friend, say, that I’d like to be myself! It is so thought provoking that surely, after reading it, not only will you look at buildings differently but you’ll be looking at faucets and wondering: would I be your buddy?

 

Oh Goodness…

Oh goodness, it’s been a long time gone without writing.

Which is really a shame, because the whole time, I’ve been reading. And reading. And reading! Good books, bad books, interesting ones, disappointing ones. Although it’s not fair to boil down works into one adjective, just like it’s not fair to assign one adjective to a person and leave it at that. That’s why I really should be writing a post for each book I read.

This summer I worked at a literary agency. I spent my mornings reading query emails from writers hoping to be published. Even if I didn’t like all of their work, I respected them all tremendously. Writing a novel, no matter the apparent “quality,” is a real act of devotion and discipline. It’s a worthy endeavor. And so the least I can do is to write more frequently in this blog to encourage other people to read — because someone spent days holed inside, turned down plans, spun around and did years worth of somersaults in their minds, all to bring you a story. WHAT a world! I’m so happy to exist in a world where people tell stories just because they damn well don’t want to do anything else. That’s why though I love Bob Dylan and get it, I get why he won, I hope it’s the last time a songwriter wins. Writers don’t get enough pats on the back for thankless work, for lonely days.

I’m going to get into the books I’ve read in more detail in further blog posts, but some of the HIGHLIGHTS of the summer include:

  • Wise Children by Angela Carter, who is hands down the scariest smart witty wonderful woman writer and there must be some conspiracy against why EVERYONE doesn’t know about her, because everyone should.
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which made me take hour-long lunch breaks just so I could get pulled back into the intoxicating paragraphs and larger-than-life characters. On my walk to work, I’d take a pit stop at a small community garden just so I could sneak in a few paragraphs. Yes, I was an addict for this book.
  • Happy City by Charles Montgomery, a book that explores how urban design impacts our general happiness and quality of life. This book made me furious about cars and urban sprawl, and terribly excited about the possibilities of more green cities that have public transportation, public space, and ways of bringing people together. I don’t read much nonfiction, but this book was so well-written and exhilarating that I blew through it like a novel. And, since I knew I was lEARNING something, it was almost more gratifying.
  • Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, because I could read all of her books five times and still find sentences that make me swoon. Was reading this next to my boyfriend and he asked why I was smiling and I said sorry, this book will give away too many women secrets, you can never know. Which isn’t altogether true, of course, but this book made me angry and proud in the best way.

Okay, I realize these are all vague sum-ups that explain the reading experience instead of the actual book, but I’m really just using this post as a warm up for when I do my summer in review post.

Right now I’m reading An Unnecessary Woman by one of my favorite authors, Rabih Alammedine, and sometimes it makes me fall asleep and sometimes I really like it. But one of the best parts is that the protagonist, a woman who relies on literature more than food for sustenance, throws in great quotes. So I’ll end with the ending of an Edward Hirsch poem she loves that describes joy:

“My head is skylight / my heart is dawn.”

With that, I leave you. But I will be back tomorrow. Maybe I can be disciplined enough to make this a daily thing? Hm…let’s not get TOO ahead of ourselves, now.

Delighted & Disappointed by John Irving

In the fall of 2015, I walked into the Housing Works book store and made an impulse buy from the Staff Recommendations table. Lying there was the fat, devastating book that I’d carry around with me for the entire month of November: The World According to Garp. I likened finding that book at that point in time to be fate. Days before, my friend recommended it before our class. He’d told me that The World According to Garp was his favorite novel.

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the cumbersome book itself, whose cover reveals itself in all its gruesome glory once you read the book

“Because it’s true,” he said. High praise for a novel, whose worth is predicated on it being convincing–but also entirely made up. But I knew what he meant. He meant that the characters are people.

I always take friend’s recommendations into account, but rarely so quickly, because usually the friends aren’t people that I’m trying to impress, because I don’t want to date most of my friends. So, perhaps I read Garp under the spell of wanting to like it because I wanted its recommender to like me. Either way, that book ensnared me. I snuck away from Thanksgiving dinner to read it. I began to use its vocabulary (the ominous “Undertoad” coming to get you) in my daily language. I cried when, waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner, I came to a character’s unexpected departure. I had to explain to Rose that I had lost a good friend, well, a character, but a friend nonetheless.

So–that was my experience with Garp. I just believed it. I just loved it.

And then, July came. I needed a book for a Hamptons beach weekend. Why not take the other book I know by Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany? Whereas I had connected with Garp‘s cast of incredible, weird, off-kilter women (including one trans football player named Roberta who beats Caitlyn Jenner in terms of personality any day), I struggled to find one–one!–character in Owen Meany that I liked. The title character, Owen, is dogmatic and loud and I definitely would not be his friend. But even worse is the narrator! I had no idea if Irving was on his side, or hated him as much as I did. The narrator is a snooze. He’s angry, he lives in the past. He’s the opposite of Garp–who bristles with energy, who writes novels to win over Helen, who runs. John Wheeler doesn’t do much at all but sulk and recount his childhood.

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really, why does everyone like this book

This is coming from someone who reads a lot of books. One day, someone might pay me to read books. I have patience for characters, and they tend to grow on me. Literally, there was no one in this book I remotely liked.

Without a doubt, Irving is a great writer. All of his characters have sharp and weird idiosyncrasies. The town in Owen Meany is populated with great, unique characters. There are some incredible scenes–especially the one where they pray for Owen himself. But jeez, it made me angry to read it!

I guess I’ve discovered that I am a fallible reader. I don’t need perfect characters, but I do need ones who I find interesting, and I need ones whose struggles I find compelling, whose flaws I find interesting.

Owen Meany is about war and Christianity, and Garp is about writing and, well, the wildness of life. The one I loved, then, comes as no surprise.

 

“Howl,” The Soundtrack of New York

The poem “Howl” transformed Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbian, into an “epic vocal bard.”

It’s something else to hear Ginsberg read “Howl.” This poem should be read, shouted, probably, from every rooftop in the city so it keeps vibrating, so the beat (or Beat?) goes on. My class on the Beat Generation just moved on to Ginsberg’s work, and I must say–it’s nothing short of electrifying. “Howl” hit me before I understood it. Hell, there’s so much I still don’t understand and that’s fine. It’s fine to be plunged into imagination blindly and be gripping around language for something concrete to hold on to, if that language is exuberant and exalting and inspiring and wants you to be angry and passionate and speak and wants you to be.

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“Howl” is a giant exhale. Each stanza is meant to take one breath to read, and the effect is certainly best appreciated if it’s read out loud. Ginsberg smashes words together that create sparks of understanding where you wouldn’t think there could be (“grandfather night,” “midnight streetlight smalltown rain,” “who ate the lamb stew of the imagination”). Each stanza’s a story about someone he knew. Each stanza is a world and a  whirlwind.

Most importantly I think it’s a poem that needs to be heard. It’s not a private poem. Allen Ginsberg is speaking to an audience–and the audience is not just you, but it’s all of America. So it should be read aloud because so much of it is aural, but also because it’s for an audience that’s bigger than yourself. Get swept up into the collective. Join the crew. He’s seen the best minds of his generation go mad, and he also goes mad, so we must conclude that he is truly one of the best minds of his generation.

Also, as a Columbia student, I’m so amused by the idea of a young graduate saying the best minds of his generation are these crazy wanderers, not his hotshot professors. I’m sure they loved that. Columbia isn’t fond of its Beat progenies and rarely acknowledges that on this very campus, a couple of scraggly students redefined American literature. But hey, it happened, and if you’re going to read it, howl it out loud, the way it should be read.

 

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is smart, weird, and when you’re reading it you can’t help but think it’s far ahead of its time. The title character, Orlando, changes gender halfway through the book. One day, he wakes up a woman. While society treats her differently as a result, the core of her reohbj1cov-1mains the same when as a man or as a woman. Virginia Woolf is at her wittiest in this spoof of a biography of a person who never existed. It’s so entertaining that I almost overlooked all the subtle brilliance of it, too, the way she makes us think about our selves–and men and women and what’s bigger than those categories.

While Orlando merits a long post just to itself, for now I’ll just share a passage where Woolf confronts the search for the single self. After living for over three centuries (!) Orlando is aware of the many selves within her. Throughout the book, Orlando’s character changes–her habits and proclivities and passions alter as the times do. Now, she’s in the present moment and is searching for her “present self,” the true self.

Before she achieves her composite self, though, comes this fantastic passage. So, while I may not be gender-bending heroines (and heroes) of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Woolf puts her finger on something inexpressible. That’s her job, after all, expressing the inexpressible better than anyone!

When this happened, Orlando heaved a sigh of relief, lit a cigarette, and puffed for a minute or two in silence. Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, ‘Orlando? For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not–Heaven help us–all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends. But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando? still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine–and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his different selves have made with him–and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.

Virginia Woolf: Peering Into Another’s Mind

I begin my Tuesdays and Thursdays with a class called Virginia Woolf. Unsurprisingly, what we do in Virginia Woolf is talk about Virginia Woolf’s books. It’s only a few weeks in, but the class already feels like a tremendous privilege. I couldn’t think of anything better for the mind and soul than to spend eight weeks discussing ea693a1462f5cef89fd435f374d4aabeMrs. Dalloway. Her books are works of tremendous empathy, and while they may not bring the rush of a good plot twist, they do something better–make you feel like you can actually know someone (which, given our distance from every other person’s consciousness, you sort of can’t do in real life).

The experience of reading Woolf’s books is like the opposite of the way I tore through The Secret History while on the beach in the Dominican Republic. Her books require you to slow down and take each sentence slowly, let it melt in your mouth like dark chocolate, so the meaning isn’t lost. If you read her book like it’s a normal book a) you won’t have any idea what’s going on and b) you’ll miss what makes her books so magical–processing the world through glittering language, slowing time down because they require so much thought to process. But they’re so rewarding! And they should be savored.

Each of her books is perfectly constructed, and if you’re paying attention, it’ll turn into a treasure hunt of piecing together shards of brilliance just waiting for you to piece together into a whole. For example, Septimus Warren Smith’s first proclamation in Mrs. Dalloway is that “men should not cut down trees.” And how does Clarissa’s sister die? Her father cuts down a tree that falls down on her. I mean, really.

What I’ve realized is that her books are as close as I’m ever going to get into the mind of another person. In the book Mrs. Dalloway, we flit from the perspective of character to character as they come into contact with one another. It makes me more aware of an obvious but easy to overlook fact: every person I encounter has the same nonstop train of thought I have, but with thoughts I will never hear, thoughts they’ll neversay. And, as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse show so well, saying what you think and feel is incredibly difficult. As Mrs. Ramsay sits frozen, unable to say she loves her husband, she is assured that he knows she does. But he never hears it. We never know if he does really know that she loves him. Richard Dalloway wants to tell Clarissa he loves her, (“for it is a thousand pities not to say what one feels”) but ultimately is unable to. Are we ever able to jump the gap between what we feel and what we’re brave enough to express?

Virginia Woolf lets us, for a moment, understand what it’s like to be another person. If I can take the experience of reading her characters into the way I interact with the people that I meet, I’ll be a more conscientious, kinder person. We all will be. Read Virginia Woolf!