Friday, January 11, 2013

A Great Month for Books

It has been a great month for books so far in the Morgan household! Since school has been out I’ve been collecting books like they’re going out of style, which of course you and I both know will never be the case. Here’s a run-down of some of my recent good biblio-juju.

Alabaster Books, NYC          
The first great book day was a couple of weeks ago when I went to meet a friend for coffee in Manhattan. While we sat sipping our small black brews in the window of Think Coffee on 4th Ave near Union Square I noticed a small, unassuming book shop across the street with an unusual name: Alabaster Books. Not that either of us “needed” any new books, but we both love them and were in no hurry so decided to do some browsing. Alabaster is a small, jumbled place that felt quaint and inviting on a Sunday morning before the hordes had ventured out. We spent a long time in there and both walked away with some very nicely priced items. I got Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which I've never read before, and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, which I've read a lot about but also never read. We headed to The Strand after that and had a wonderful hour browsing in there, but I resisted buying more because the prices weren't as good as Alabaster and I remembered that my dearest step-dad had sent me a gift card to for my recent birthday…  
Of course, I used my gift card to buy books. I got: Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee (just finished reading it from the library but decided I needed to own it, too), Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell (to compare), Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, and Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. It’s amazing what you can get for $50 on Amazon! So cheap, but much more fun to go browsing at The Strand and little shops like Alabaster. Anyway, so far I’ve received all of my purchases except for Fun Home, but haven’t started reading any yet because right now I’m on Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang by Hunter S. Thompson, which I borrowed from a friend. Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, I have a Woolf (and also Wolfe) project in the works.

Propeller Books, Portland, OR
I love getting books in the mail! I love it even more when they’re beautiful, as the titles from Propeller Books always are. Because I’ve been writing a recurring column (titled Mostly Novels, wouldn’t you know) for their online magazine,, the good folks at Propeller saw fit to send me a couple of their books that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. The story collections, Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, by Mary Rechner, and Disorder, by Dan Deweese, arrived in my mailbox a few days ago, and I can’t wait to get started on them. Everyone says this about Propeller Books but I’ll just go ahead and repeat because it’s so true: they are beautiful objects. The covers are soft and supple, the papers are crisp and smooth, and the designs are uncluttered and soothing to the eye – all of this combines so that the experience of reading is elevated beyond the intellectual to the sensual. It all makes you want to arrange the rest of the reading experience to match – smoking robes and low light and just the right cup of tea. I know this because I did read another book published by Propeller, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, by Evan P. Schneider, which is beautifully sparse and sad, and about which I have been meaning to write a post for far too long now.

The Dude
As I told you in my last post, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of New York City. As such, I’ve joined a email list that provides information about free and cheap things to do around town. This email let me know (as did New York magazine before it, my subscription to which is part of the same plan) that The Dude from The Big Lebowski, aka Jeff Bridges, and Zen Master Bernie Glassman have written a book together called The Dude and The Zen Master, which they would be discussing in person at Barnes and Noble Union Square on Tuesday night. So off I went. I had to buy the book to get a seat (this was not the case when I saw Candace Bushnell there seven years ago), but it was worth it to see and listen to Jeff Bridges up close and personal. The talk was a little haphazard, but so far the book is nice. Not too heavy, man, but still deep, you know?

So now I need to buy more bookshelves, and/or find a bigger apartment.       

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Reflections: Doing What's Best for Me

 Happy New Year, novel readers! As is customary, I am spending today reflecting on the past year. 2012 was a big one for me: I got married, moved back to NYC, and turned 30. In addition to all that, I think I’m finally moving in a positive direction in my career. Writing, editing, and teaching jobs keep coming my way, piling up slowly but steadily. I feel more focused and engaged in my work than I have in a long, long time, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This is a result of other changes, of course – there’s a lot less partying in my life these days, a lot more cooking and running and writing and sleeping, but that’s as it should be as one grows older, or so I’m told. Which brings me to what I want to talk about today: how things, or rather how we, “should” be, and what that means to me lately. In the past few months, with the holidays and the end of the semester swarming all around me, I’ve come to realize a few things about “should” that I thought I would share with you.

First of all, Christmas. You should be with your family at Christmas, right? Well, I’m from Iowa, my husband is from Oregon, and we have family all over. We both love our family and treasure the time we get to spend together, but with the prices for plane tickets at Christmas astronomical, and the expectation of gifts nearly as high (expected by “society,” that is, not by our family necessarily) Brian and I decided that we were just not going to do it this year. We’ve had a big year, and, truth be told, New York and our jobs have been wearing us out. We needed sky and air and trees and rest, not events and presents and all day eating fests. So we went skiing in Vermont for five days, just the two of us, and it was perfect. It was exactly what we needed, and when we came back to New York we were rested and rejuvenated, not fat and exhausted. This is not to say that next year we won’t want to go home, or plan a joint trip with our family. It’s also not to say that if you went home and sat around eating for five days that you did it “wrong.”  It’s just that we knew that right now, this year, flying far away didn’t work for us, and so we didn’t let anyone else’s idea of what we “should” be doing deter us from what we really wanted to do.

I should clarify something – the “should” in this equation is, in a sense, not real. No one actually said that we should do anything in particular at Christmas. No one literally told us to travel anywhere or buy anything. Our family were 100% supportive of our plans. The “should” I’m referring to is, mostly, in my head. It’s some little voice inside me that tells me what other people are going to say, either to or about me. Yes, there are the advertisements; those are real. There are the Christmas songs, and those are real too. But I knew (or at least I expected) that our families would be fine with our Christmas plans; it was only my inner critic that was hounding me, a critic based on my real or perceived understanding of American traditions that I seem to have been cultivating all of my life, to my own detriment. Let me give you another example.

What are you supposed to do on New Year’s Eve? You know the answer – wear a sparkly hat, blow a noisemaker, and get drunk, right? But what if you don’t want to? What if you live in New York City and you just want to go out and get dinner with your husband in your quiet Brooklyn neighborhood? Is that okay? According to my inner critic, and plenty of real people I have heard over the years, it is definitely not okay, not if you want to be cool. On the other hand, according to the new, older and wiser me, who’s learning to ignore that bitch, it’s totally okay! And so that’s what we did. We hung out with some neighborhood friends and chatted and drank very little and had a relaxing, if not terrifically exciting, New Years Eve. Maybe next year I’ll feel like getting drunk. Or maybe I’ll feel like staying in and going to bed at 10 o’clock. Either way it will be okay, as long as I’m doing the best thing for me on that day, and not living my life based on other people’s ideas of how it should be done.  

Figuring out what works best for me does not mean that I have to go against convention; it also means that I don’t have to follow it. It does not mean doing the hardest thing, and it does not mean doing the easiest thing. It definitely does not mean being selfish – I’m not saying I’m doing what’s best for me at the expense of everybody else. I’m doing what’s best for me so that I can better love and cherish and appreciate and inspire everybody else. Taking care of ourselves is good for each other. You taking care of yourself is good for me.

Obviously, the hard part is figuring out what’s best for me. It doesn’t come in a daily email; there’s no app. It’s hard for the same reason that writing is hard – because it changes every single day, every single moment, because you have to constantly accept new data and reevaluate. But that’s where reading comes in handy. I know that a big part of the reason I’m coming to these realizations at all is because of what I’ve read, both fiction and not, and because I’ve been reading extensively (some might say excessively) since I can remember being alive. Books have taught me that there is no standard response to life’s complexity. From reading novels I have learned that people do things differently, feel things differently, have different religions, and different priorities. But underlying all of these differences are general truths – kindness and generosity are universally acknowledged as positive forces. Forgiveness of self and others seems less obviously a shared value in our everyday culture, but in novels it is. I have traveled near and far, but most of what I know comes from reading novels. One thing I know is that judgment, both of self and of others, is a negative force that helps no one. This is something that I’m going to try to do a better job of remembering in 2013. May I read books that remind me of it, in a million different ways.

A few other things I want to do in 2013 are:
See more live music
Do more yoga
Make better use of all NYC has to offer
Write more posts for Mostly Novels!

Thank you so much for reading my blog. May you know what is best for you this year, and have the strength and faith to act on that knowledge.

Happy New Year, everyone!