Looking back at this hectic old year, I am reminded of that Nora Ephron quote: “Whenever I read a book I love, I start to remember all the other books that have sent me into rapture, and I can remember where I was living and the couch I was sitting on when I read them.”
Not many books sent me into rapture this year. About a year ago I became an official book recommender, and with the absolutely immense privilege of reading for work sometimes comes the frustration of not always being able to give books all the time you’d like to, as well as the danger of reading as obligation, which can occasionally lead to burnout. I had to find a way to keep up with the current releases while I was simultaneously working on my own writing and attempting to gravitate towards my own personal reading list (which isn’t all, you know, books that came out this year)—all the while dozens of books started arriving through the door every single day, threatening to take over the small apartment in which I live. Let’s say it took some adjustment.
I do remember some random moments of pure peace, like being immersed in Fire Sermon in Berlin, last winter, and reading it all on a leather armchair which sat under an old GDR poster of the life cycle of the malaria mosquito. The city was raging with life and plans, but it was winter and the weather was brutal—and the book was pulling me in harder than the possibility of all the raves in the world. Or like the weeks in spring that I spent on a Cheryl Strayed binge—I finally caught up with her books and, combined with her podcast, putting myself in her orbit for a while felt like healing.
The following felt like cheating, and I enjoyed these books so: reading The Folded Clocks on a solitary week on the beach; reading Cool for You this fall, as the days got abruptly shorter in London; rereading Too Much and Not the Mood on a writing residency in the summer as the rain just would not stop pouring, and underlying almost every sentence.
I read some splendid debut novels: Freshwater, Ponti, America Is Not the Heart, Pretend I’m Dead. And second novels: Normal People (even if its extreme hype can feel a bit exhausting) and Circe are stunning.
I read some breathtaking (literally—I remember gasping at several points during all of them) story collections: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Mothers by Chris Power (which, like Normal People, isn’t out in the U.S. yet and American readers are in for a treat).
I found solace and channels for my rage in Heather Havrilesky’s What If This Were Enough? and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. I found permission and awe in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I laughed with and felt endless tenderness and admiration for Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin, and recently finished How to Murder Your Life which left me broken and wishing I could hug Cat Marnell.
This year was also full of fantastic fiction and nonfiction by some faves (Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Deborah Levy, Rachel Kushner, Melissa Broder) but that, as they say, is not news by this point.
I ended the year listening to the audiobook of Becoming, which meant more than 19 hours of Michelle Obama reading me her life story, which did GOOD things to me and I recommend.
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As I think is the case for most writers born after 1980, the first outlets to publish my work were online. To be more specific, they were blogs—online spaces that valued ideas and abstraction over narrative and detail. My writing followed an outline similar to the five-paragraph essay: here’s what I’m trying to communicate, here’s how it affects you, here’s how you should respond.
I am grateful for these online outlets: they gave me deadlines and creative autonomy and a reason to write outside of the college classroom where I took my first creative writing courses or, later, my nine-to-five office job. But writing for the Internet did not teach me about concreteness or precision. It taught me to come up with an argument and explicate, maybe with a brief anecdote to catch the reader’s interest. The actual substance of the material world rarely made an appearance.
I learned about particularity from literature. Books reward attention to detail by virtue of being physical objects. You can flip to the end of a novel if you like, but it feels like cheating—much more than skimming an online article, index finger flicking across the mouse. Books aren’t designed to seize the reader with wild titles or to funnel her through a story using lists and bite-sized sections. They are designed to construct worlds furnished with smells and objects and memories, and this construction requires the accumulation of concrete and specific building blocks.
In Brown: the Last Discovery of America Richard Rodriguez writes, “Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince…Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.”
Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, is a ranging, intricate work crowded with lush detail. Her prose blends commentary on pop culture with the precision of literature. It flows to the particular, just as Rodriguez suggests literature should. Nothing is irrelevant: not the examination of an emoji, not Allen Iverson’s voice, not a “lathery shade of peach” in a painting at the Met. Chew-Bose is meticulous in recording what it feels like to be alive, down to the most unassuming observations: “A poorly painted wall. Its cracks. The ceiling fan’s chop. A woman on the C train pulling her ponytail through its tie, not once or twice, but six times.”
Not only does Chew-Bose welcome life’s minutiae into her writing, she delights in it, a fact that lends even her densest and most tangential prose charm. No object or observation is too mundane to elicit wonder. Under her attention, there’s awe to be drawn from a scene in The Godfather or the emotional power of cheap pop songs, the kind with “nowhere lyrics that repeat one word over and over like a hymn written in neon-tube lighting.” That is, songs that send us singing down the freeway, gleefully unabashed and willing to roll the windows down even in a drizzle. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
Too Much and Not the Mood celebrates the minute experiences that heighten our capacity for wonder. The book reminded me that an event, a trip, or a day is the sum of its concrete parts, a compilation of every miniature, material detail: the bricks that form a home. Under Chew-Bose’s keen-eyed observation, a wedding is not a wedding in the abstract sense of the word; it is the glimpse of gold sandals under a dress, a chilled red wine, “sequined strings of twinkle lights blurring with purple bougainvillea vines,” desert mountains turning jewel tones, and cake abandoned on plates while guests dance.
I read Too Much and Not the Mood in my final residency of graduate school. I was leaving behind two years of immersion in language, and my preemptive nostalgia meant paying closer attention than usual to my surroundings and sensations: the spike of sage in the air, the rock-salt rim of a margarita, a poem recited aloud as trees waved in agreement outside the window. I read Chew-Bose’s essays at a courtyard table in Santa Fe as thunderstorms rolled in and out and rain speckled the book cover and my cohort and I reached across one other for snacks and hummed over words.
That’s what her writing did for me: it made me hum in recognition. Even though her particulars are not mine, she reports them with an accuracy that generates recognition. They are specific enough to jolt my own memories. When she writes that she is happiest “barefoot in [my parents’] home eating sliced fruit,” I felt my parents’ hardwood kitchen floor under my feet and tasted crescents of peach, placed one after another onto my tongue. That is the essence of childhood summers for me, and the essence of what I’ve left behind in becoming an adult: the backyard in Santa Barbara, a warm towel under my stomach as I lay in the grass reading a library book, cherries or a peach within reach.
I imagine Chew-Bose’s wonder ignites a similar emotion in most readers, if not through recognition than purely through the aesthetics of her language. Take this passage: “Palm trees pipe my sense of awe into its purest form. Puppies asleep on their sides, lattice piecrusts, and women in perfectly tailored pantsuits generate a similar response. So does young Al Pacino. …Those young Pacino eyes capsize me.” That specificity of example and those pitch-perfect verbs—pipe, capsize—supply plenty of wonder on their own.
Reading Too Much and Not the Mood reminded me I could write about these things—nostalgia for my parent’s kitchen, lattice piecrusts, cheap pop music—and not only that, but by honing in on the specifics of my own life, I could reach through the screen or the page and speak to the specifics of a stranger’s life. Chew-Bose’s zeroing-in on the miniature proves that experiencing beauty often requires paying close attention. Which is perhaps good advice for writing as much as for life. “Thinking of someone the way he was is really just another way of writing,” Chew-Bose asserts in the opening, sprawling essay “Heart Museum.” “Thinking about someone I was once in love with—how he’d peel an orange and hand me a slice or how is white T-shirt would peek out from under his gray sweatshirt. … Thinking about that crescent of white cotton is a version of writing.” Too Much and Not the Mood can be read as a manual for how to write: pay close attention, and write about what captures.
A number of the essays in Too Much and Not the Mood first appeared in online publications like The Hairpin. I’m thankful that Chew-Bose is one of many writers restoring particularity to the Internet’s prose, as well as delight. A phrase like “a dragon fruit’s Dalmatian-speckled insides” is a reprieve, pointing me back to the tactile, intricate world outside my book or screen. Chew-Bose’s talent is to hold up objects to the light so they refract, expanding beyond their material existence—the concrete speaking to abstract concepts of affection, nostalgia, loss, and wonder. There’s something mischievous about giving attention to these objects, if only because they’re so likely to go unnoticed. In her exactitude, Chew-Bose points out what many of us miss: the glints, the one-offs, the seconds that normally scurry past. Look there, her writing seems to say. There it is—pay attention.