Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Some essays, essaylets, essay-things

I wrote an essay on crying (joyous crying, proud crying, frustrated crying, sympathy crying, pain crying) for The Butter. (Thank you to Roxane Gay for publishing it.) Here's an excerpt:

I have always hated Sundays. Everything seems worse on Sunday nights, just like everything seems worse when you wake up at 3 a.m., each obligation and annoyance in your life a heavier burden. The worst kind of tears are frustration tears, when you cross the can’t-take-it-anymore threshold for some usually trivial reason, an inaccurate medical bill or horrible customer service agent. I’d rather cry from physical pain than frustration, though I can’t remember the last time I was injured badly enough to cry. I cried a little when I sprained my ankle doing long jump in high school, but I’ve never broken a bone. When I was 26, I got 13 stitches in my chin after fainting toward a French door and breaking a pane of glass with my face. Amazingly, this did not hurt at all. Not at the time, when I was unconscious, and not later, at any point during the stitching up or removal of stitches. The lack of pain, and the fact that I didn’t actually experience the fall, makes the “memory” cinematic; I picture it happening from the vantage point of the bed in the room; I see me stumble from the bathroom to the French door and down to the hardwood floor, where I later woke up, or was shaken awake.

I wrote an essay about punctuation (arcane commas, wrong commas, double equals, interrobangs, James Salter, Mary Norris, etc.) for the Smart Set. (Thanks to Richard Abowitz for publishing it.) Here's an excerpt:

I read Light Years just over a decade ago, when I was in grad school, during what turned out to be the last year of living with the first love of my life. I remember, as I often do, the room in which I read it, since I inevitably pictured the events of the novel happening in that room. (This creates cognitive dissonance, since Nedra and Viri would have had nothing to do with the cheap futon we used for a couch.) Beyond the languid quality of the prose, the suburban narrative like a dressmaker’s dummy on which to hang all that lush, sensual description, I only remember one scene from the novel, a fragment of a scene, where a man luxuriatingly humps a woman from behind. A cuckolding, with pillows. (One gets an impression of Salter as a man who enjoys sex most especially in the past tense, retelling it to himself.) I can’t help picturing this scene superimposed over that futon, which was only pulled out to serve as a bed when my boyfriend and I were no longer sleeping together, literally or figuratively, since he’d begun sleeping with somebody else.

Also, I wrapped up my Style Guide column for Real Pants. Thank you to Adam Robinson and Amy McDaniel for inviting me to write there. You can find all the columns here


Here's a bit from the latest one, on youth and beauty

I’m convinced I hit peak beauty at age 25. My husband sweetly insists I look better now, but the numbers are on my side: According to data from millions of users on OkCupid, the men that women rate as most attractive age along with them; at 40, they like 38-year-old men. Men, on the other hand, continue to rate 20- to 22-year-olds as most attractive until they’re 50. (This is called the Wooderson Rule, after the character in Dazed in Confused who says “I get older, but they stay the same age.” Check out Dataclysm by Christian Rudder for more insights along these lines.) Recently I ran across a stack of old pictures from my grad school graduation. “I sure was pretty when I was 25,” I tweeted, and a friend replied, “Just about all young people are pretty.” Certainly everyone looks good in old photographs, with their dated hair and silly clothes and bigger smiles. When I think of old photos, I think of people looking happier.

Thanks for reading! XOXO, Gossip Girl

Friday, March 6, 2015

Some notes toward an essay on male jealousy

Interesting how men will never admit to being jealous; they always claim it’s some other, more refined emotion. (Perhaps protectiveness on your behalf.) They must bristle at the stereotype of the simplistic, brutish, jealous man. But come on: Men often are simplistic and brutish, even when capable of gentleness and complexity.


Men also insist on distinguishing between envy and jealousy, as if we don’t know the difference. What does this buy one, anyway? Someone on Twitter said, “Jealousy is the gin, envy is the vermouth.” I love that, but what could it mean? Wanting what others have makes their wanting what you have more delicious?


In my experience, by and large: When a man is interested in you or has some claim over you, any amount of attention you pay to another man is too much. The assumption is not necessarily that you’re attracted to this third party, but that you’re “leading him on.” (Oh boo-hoo.) For some unclear greater good, you should make the terms of the relationship 100% clear. What men who want this don’t realize is: one, clarity is in the eye of the beholder and two, there are social consequences for that kind of behavior. (To quote Stephanie in Saturday Night Fever, “I bet it begins with a C.”) Further, drawing clear lines can be a kind of provocation, an invitation to cross them. For women, simple kindness is a kind of neutrality – conflict avoidance as strategy.


This expectation that women will define the terms is closely related to the common wisdom that whatever attention you attract from men is your own fault: the “she was asking for it” school of thought. And further, that career-wise you’re consciously using men, manipulating situations to “get ahead.” Multiple times (but only by men) I’ve been told I got one or another opportunity because somebody wanted to sleep with me. The sad thing is, it’s probably true.


Men want it both ways: You’re supposed to be suspicious of all other men and their nefarious intentions, but not the man who is imparting said wisdom to you; he has transcended. But by showing suspicion they are playing their hand: Men are jealous because they know men’s nature.


I have an ex who was rarely jealous, that truly rare specimen. The only time I ever saw him react with jealousy was when we were breaking up, after a five-year relationship. We had agreed to see other people (completely his idea, an idea I went along with only in hopes of saving the relationship). I spoke candidly of flirting with someone at a party he hadn’t attended, my way of proving to him that I was making an effort; later that week we ran into the guy at another event, and I pointed him out. My ex turned hostile. I was astonished – he was jealous! Of this performance I was doing for him!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reading in Cambridge 2/20 with Daniel Handler & Janaka Stucky



Boston area folks! Please come to my reading, hosted by the Harvard Book Store, this Friday night, Feb. 20. I'm joining Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), who will be reading from his new novel We Are Pirates, as well as Janaka Stucky, poet and Black Ocean impresario, whose first full-length book is coming soon from Third Man Records. The reading is at First Parish Church in Harvard Square at 7 pm (doors at 6:30) and includes a Q&A and book signing. Tickets are $5; you can purchase them here. Poetry cures snow madness!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

7 thoughts on style, sex & beauty

I suppose I should save these for my style column, but whatever:

1. Who cares if men don't like red lipstick? Men are wrong.

2. I don't understand why women say they need long shirts to wear with skinny jeans. I see/hear this all the time? The "skinny" in skinny jeans refers to the leg; the ass part is only going to be particularly tighter than other kinds of jeans if they're jeggings. I am much more in need of long shirts to wear with boyfriend jeans, because they sit so low my underwear/hipbones will show if my shirt is too short. (I'm reminded of this absolutely SCANDALOUS shot from the Sartorialist.)



3. Some great things about being in your 30s: a) It's much easier to be hot for your age. Everyone is hot in their 20s. b) The stuff you wear to be "sexy" is actually sexy; in your 20s, "sexy" means trampy. I'm not slut-shaming anyone, I wore trampy stuff in my 20s too. I'm just saying, 30s-sexy is sexier and I knew that even when I was a teenager, I just wasn't ready to pull it off. c) Unrelated to style, when you're 35 you just do what you want and you don't do what you don't want, for the most part. It's the dream. Not that the suffering is over, but at least you skip a LOT of the bullshit.

4. More on 30s-sexy: Buttons are everything. Also: ankles, wrists. (How Victorian!)

5. There's an interesting interview in the new Believer with Dian Hanson, the "sexy book editor" for Taschen, where she says there's a theory (?) that men who are into legs are "introverted, intellectual, passive, shy," because their mothers didn't snuggle them to their chests enough when they were babies, or something like that. Whatever: I feel an affinity for men who are into legs, because I myself find women's legs much more interesting than women's breasts, and I myself am intellectual. (Ha. Ha. Ha.)

6. It's a shame they've become such a Halloween cliche, because fishnet stockings are truly the most flattering optical illusion to legs, exaggerating every curve. I would like a mathematician to explain this effect to me. (The nude, if not black, option is still permissible in some day-to-day contexts.)

7. Also in the Believer, from a brief piece about Philip Roth by an Italian journalist who befriended and made a documentary about him: "It reminded me of a game I'd encountered before with men of power, who first come on to you, and then once they've set their web of seduction, withhold because they expect you to make the decisive move." (Everything is about power except power, which is about sex.)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thoughts on How Should a Person Be

I've been sticking to my new "strategy" AKA resolution to use the library more, and as such I've been reading a lot. This is all good except for the sad fact that I have to return the books to the library when I'm done with them. I'm especially sad to part with How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (featured in my "How Writers Read" series), which I kind of never wanted to end. Super-recommended IF YOU LOVE LEARNING.


On Saturday, I started and finished How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I tweeted a little about it and got lots of "engagement" because, clearly, this is a book that a lot of people have read and have strong feelings about, one way or the other. So I thought I'd share some thoughts here (I ain't got the time nor inclination to organize these into a real essay, sorry):

1. Much has been made of the supposed formal innovation of this "novel from life." Miranda July, for example, called it a "new kind of book." Meh. How is this a new kind of book? It's metafiction or it's a fictionalized memoir with some hybrid-y bits (lyric essay, play dialogue, etc.). Are we all in agreement that none of this is new? Great, we agree. (Similar memoir that I don't recall being hailed as a new kind of book: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. I guess we've experienced hybridity inflation in the last ten years.)

2. It's to the book's credit that it's entirely possible to read it without constantly being reminded that you're reading something HYBRID and INNOVATIVE and AMBITIOUS. If you ignore all the jacket copy and hype surrounding it, HSAPB is really just a fun read. I could easily compare it to the other two books I recently finished in one day (each): The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker and Think Like a Freak (by those Freakonomics guys). All three books are quite smart, but they're also constructed to go down like candy. They're like healthy candy; you'll think while you're reading them but not too hard. You won't need to take breaks to re-examine your life choices or place in the cosmos.

3. Let's compare/contrast with some recent books that absolutely insist you read them as highly ambitious novelty objects: Reality Hunger and 10:04. I enjoyed these books in real time, but the more time that goes by since I read them, the more distaste I feel for them. (Incidentally, the same thing happened to me with White Teeth.) Reality Hunger is interesting throughout, but why does it have to be so gimmicky? (And all the interesting ideas are borrowed anyway.) And 10:04 seemed designed so that the reviews would write themselves; accordingly every review I read sounded exactly the same and quoted all the same lines. God, how boring!

4. A note on the sex in HSAPB: It's a perfect example of a book that gets called "sexy" in the reviews/blurbs just because the author is an attractive young woman and it includes some sex. The sex in here is absolutely not sexy; it's over-the-deep-end absurd, funny but quite grim:

I don't know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don't know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard---with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don't understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done. [...] I don't see what you're getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson, pulling down your arms, adjusting your face so he can see it, stuffing your hand in your mouth, and fucking your brains right out of your head.

I grant that men might find all this ironical cock worship sexy (of course you do!!!) but that's the point: you obviously find all sex sexy, so describing a book with sex in it as "sexy" is redundant by your standards. It's also demeaning and feels like a way of complimenting the author instead of talking about the book. Dig deeper, assholes.

5. If you look at the "character arc" (someone told me "Sheila" in the book is not Sheila Heti but isn't this true of any autobiographical work?) it kind of goes like this: "I am an empty shell of a person ...... but in my narcissism I want to be recognized as incredibly special, a genius ....... but I also want to be good, how can I be good? my friends are good ........ I will try to be good like my friends ........... I have failed, I am a waste and a fraud .......... but wait, my friends tell me I am good and smart and interesting ......... and if my friends are good ...... maybe I really am special after all!" So yeah if you just look at that it sounds like a really annoying book. But it wasn't, to me. Despite Sheila's being an "unlikeable character" I found it charming and fun to read. YMMV.

Have you read How Should a Person Be? What did you think?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Some quotes from "100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write"


I read this excellent book the other night, by playwright Sarah Ruhl. I love books like this that are divided into lots of thoughtful little chunks or essay-lets so they're easy to finish in one or two sittings (since you can always read one more, similar to how you can always add another paperclip to a glass of water, or keep getting Google results no matter how many zees you add to the end of "pot rulezzzz..."). It's a lot like the Misha Glouberman book I mentioned recently, but in the end I liked it better, as Glouberman's self-congratulating got a little tiresome at points and Ruhl doesn't do that.

Here are some interesting quotes I pulled from the book:

"I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life."

"The umbrella is real on stage, and the rain is a fiction. Even if there are drops of water produced by the stage manager, we know that it won't really rain on us, and therein lies the total pleasure of theater. A real thing that creates a world of illusory things."

"In ancient Greece, comedies used to be appetizers in the form of satyr plays performed before the main course---a tragedy. Now we don't have daylong festivals of both comedies and tragedies, so now do satyr plays need to be contained inside tragedies? (That is to say, the dark comedy?)"

"Be suspicious of an expert who tells you to cut a seemingly unnecessary moment out of your play. The soul of your play might reside there, quietly, inconspicuously, glorying in its unnecessariness, shining forth in its lack of necessity to be."

"So what is a bad-to-indifferent poet to do? Enroll immediately in playwriting school. Put the bad poetry in the mouths of outlandish characters. It might make the bad poetry funny instead of sad."

"Nakedness is always real on stage, just as eating on stage is real, and kissing on stage is real, and dogs on stage are real---and one can only bear reality in small doses."

"If you are acting in a play of mine, and I say this full of love for you, please, don't think one thing and then say another thing. Think the thing you are saying. Do not think of the language of the play as a cover or deception for your actual true hidden feelings that you've felt compelled to invent for yourself. Don't create a bridge between you and the impulse for the language; erase the boundary between the two. Think of subtext as to the left of the language and not underneath it. There is no deception or ulterior motive or 'cover' about the language. There are, instead, pools of silence and the unsayable to the left or to the right or even above the language. The unsayable in an ideal world hovers above the language rather than below."

"Being dead is the most airtight defense of one's own aesthetic."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Things to try in 2015

Let's not think of these as resolutions; let's think of them as strategies.

1. Go to the library more

I've been underusing the library for the past few years, mostly because there are so many books in our apartment. J is kind of a book collector, so we have a huge library, and new books are always coming in: we get review copies, friends who are writers send us books, and J goes to the library weekly. So there is always something around that I could (or feel I should) be reading. The problem is, they're mostly J's books, and I've discovered that if there aren't lots of books around that I'm specifically excited about reading right now, I won't read as much. So my new strategy is to go to the library more and have more books around that speak to me at this moment, even if some of them inevitably get returned unread. I also think the due date works as a kind of hack to get me to read faster, similar to the way a workshop deadline might get you to finish a poem.

2. Spread out my drinking

I read an interesting article this morning about the under-reported health benefits of alcohol, and this point in particular resonated with me:
Second, drinking 10 drinks Friday and Saturday nights does not convey the benefits of two or three drinks daily, even though your weekly totals would be the same: Frequent, heavy binge drinking is unhealthy. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? If you don’t distinguish binge drinking from daily moderate drinking, that would be due to Americans’ addiction-phobia, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addictive.
I do think I have ingrained cultural anxiety about "drinking every day," which is seen as a problem or a sign of a problem. So what happens is, I feel virtuous when I don't drink on weeknights, which in turn gives me a sense of permission to drink more on the weekends. But I really enjoy having a glass of wine while I cook dinner (which makes the whole process feel like more of a ritual treat than a chore), and a second glass while we eat. So my new plan is to give myself permission to do that every night if I want (or not, if I don't feel like it), and hopefully I'll then feel less compelled to overindulge on the weekends.

There are other things I should commit to doing (go on more walks so I get more ideas for poems and can finish my manuscript; buy fewer lipsticks) but I don't want to overcommit here and feel guilty later.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just a few more links, OK?


* The final installment of How Writers Read is up; you can read the full series here. Thanks to Hayden at the Believer for publishing the interviews, and thanks to Alice, Teju, Darcie, Jordan, Graham, Ruth, John, Ada, Leigh, and Laura for their fun and fascinating responses. I truly think it helped snap me out of my reading funk.

* I contributed to the EAT | READ series over at Everyday Genius, which will be a weekly beat on the forthcoming Real Pants. (More about Real Pants here -- I'll be writing a style column there starting in January.)

* I made a list of some of my favorite literary tweets of the year for Electric Literature.

* Also, check out Okey-Panky, another new magazine that will be featuring some of my Judy poems early next year. It will be weekly and is part of the Electric Lit family.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Image via George on Flickr

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My year in reading and some links

Hi guys! Happy December! Can you believe the year's almost over? I'm still writing 1976 on all my checks....

Anyway, I wanted to share a few links with you. First, I contributed to Open Letters Monthly's annual "Year in Reading" feature, writing about two of my favorite books of the year (that is, books that I read this year; they weren't published in 2014; sorry, I'm a slow reader). I wrote about Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (more on that here) and To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust. Here's a quick excerpt:
It’s so good I don’t want to finish it, and I keep going back to the beginning and starting again, afraid I may have missed some nuance through a moment of inattention. For example, I read the first three sections of the long poem “Ten Notes to the Muse” without having fully absorbed the title; I had to go back to discover the meaning of the “you” in lines like “Comes upon and at me does your gone-tinged promise,” and “You look like no one else; you look like smoke; I look like me.” There’s so much to latch onto in this poem – so many hooks, sounds, images, ideas – I’d love it even if I didn’t understand it as an entry in the tradition of muse poetry. But the poet is also, of course, talking to himself, as he does more explicitly in the poem titled “To Graham Foust on the Morning of his Fortieth Birthday”: 
You and I are one another in the ways the closest whisper might be called a kiss, and here we are – kiss or no kiss, kiss or not – up close and vanished as per standardized desire.
That said I’m both camera and satellite, so let’s cut live now to where it’s night to catch crowds rushing out of various overpriced events converting their initial impressions into speech they can’t be bothered to commit to memory. 
In your sad and American manner, you get as choked up about the collective as you do over the individual. 
When it comes to songs, you’re up and down for them, whether anthem or unfathomable murmur. 
The tone is often wry and the sentences often knotty. At his best, Foust has the ability to bend simple language into something startlingly complex, like the twist that turns a strip of paper into a Mobius band: “I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.”
Honestly, I read very little poetry this year, mostly just the Foust and Culture of One by Alice Notley, both at a snail's pace because I love them so much I want to savor them. When I turned in my piece, I had forgotten that I also read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy this year, or I would have included that as my favorite nonfiction read; it was beautiful and so intelligent. I am also really enjoying The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti, a book of funny little philosophical essays on topics like compromise, talking to strangers, and how to be better at charades. A few other novels I read in 2014: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (very interesting short novel translated from Spanish; John reviewed it here), The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell, Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (loved it but I think I loved Good Morning, Midnight more), Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman (the longest novel I managed to read this year; very funny and reminded me a lot of Gabriel Roth's novel, The Unknowns, one of my faves from '13). Oh, and 10:04 by Ben Lerner of course (I reviewed it here).

Also, The Believer Logger has been publishing a three-part interview I did called "How Writers Read." I asked 10 writers in different genres (Alice Bolin, Teju Cole, Darcie Dennigan, Jordan Ellenberg, Graham Foust, Ruth Graham, J. Robert Lennon, Ada Limon, Leigh Stein, and Laura van den Berg) 13 questions about their reading habits. In Part 1 I asked the authors if they ever get "reader's block" (which I've been suffering from this year), what genres they read most, and where and when they read. In Part 2 I got the dirt on whether they read YA, genre fiction or other guilty pleasures plus whether they prefer shorter or longer books. Some samples:
3) Where and when do you usually read? In bed? On the train? 
TEJU COLE: Everywhere. How long does it take to pee? Twenty-five seconds? I like to have something in hand even while doing that. (Don’t look at me that way, it’s not such a tricky skill.) 
DARCIE DENNIGAN: At a coffee shop is best. That way, if I’m reading something good, something worth reading, it will be ok—I’ll be safe, there will be people around, my life won’t be totally changed because there’s the world going on right there and I can step back into it. 
5) Do you gravitate toward shorter books or longer books? 
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Shorter. A lot of my favorite novels—The Lover, The Loser, The Naked Eye—are under 250 pages, if not shorter. There are many long novels I love, but sometimes I have a low threshold for doorstoppers. Especially if the book is really really long and historical and involves some sort of multi-generational family saga, all handled with great loyalty to the conventions of realism; in all likelihood I will never read such a book. I have a horror of boredom. That is entirely my own weird failing and I’m sure I’m missing a lot. I will have to console myself with yet another viewing of Demolition Man.
Finally, thank you to Entropy Mag for including The Self Unstable on its list of the best non-fiction of 2014, even though it technically came out in late 2013.

What were your favorite reads of the year? 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Elisa Gabbert's salsa recipe

There is a brownie recipe known as "Katharine Hepburn's Brownies." This salsa is my version of Katharine Hepburn's brownies. I have made it for many people and am frequently told "This is my favorite salsa." It's not complicated or especially spicy or anything like that; it's just really good basic, Tex-Mex restaurant style salsa, perfect for eating with chips or beans and rice or breakfast tacos, etc. I make a batch almost every week. (An earlier version of this recipe was published on Carrie Murphy's food blog, but she appears to have taken that down.) So here we go. 


Elisa Gabbert's Salsa 
Half a small onion (roughly)
1 clove of garlic
1 jalapeno OR serrano OR Fresno chile, or a combination of the three
1 handful of cilantro, leaves and small stems
1 small can of fire-roasted tomatoes (plain or with green chiles)
1 handful of grape or cherry tomatoes (optional, but better with)
1 lime
Salt and sugar to taste 
In a food processor (or blender if that's all you have) chop the onion, garlic, chiles, and cilantro pretty finely, but not to a liquefied paste. Then add the tomatoes and pulse until it's all combined and looks like salsa. Transfer the mixture to a pot, add the juice of a lime (or just half a lime, if it's really juicy) and salt and sugar to taste -- start with about half a teaspoon of each. Simmer for 15-20 minutes to take the raw edge off the onion/garlic and bring the flavors together. Delicious warm, but keep the rest in the fridge. It lasts for up to two weeks if you don't finish it first. You can adjust the spiciness level by leaving the seeds/core in your chile or using more than one chile.