8 January 2018

the year of planning colourfully.

As I had alluded to in my “2017 in review” post, some of the most fun I had last year was in transitioning my trusty Moleskine weekly planner from the era of black and white to one of colour, both literally and figuratively. I laid out some of the principles by which I would do so around this time in 2017, so I thought it would be appropriate to revisit their implementation and to think about what I can tweak for the year to come.

A planner, for me, has one overriding pragmatic objective: it should, you know, help me plan and remain organised both on a day-to-day basis and over longer horizons. I did not want it to become glorified sketchbook or a poorer version of the personal journal I already keep. In the end, though, the process of prettifying the notebook made me far more likely to rely on it as a central clearing house of information. For the first time in my seven years of using this particular planner, I found myself making almost complete use of ruled pages on the right. Yes, the lists of errands and chores – “housekeeping,” in my planner’s terminology – were unavoidable as they always are, but I also used that space to, for instance, work out my half marathon training cycle through its starts and stops, stay on top of travel logistics, and ensure that all the emails I had to send at the end of academic terms were actually sent out. Tidbits that would otherwise get lost all too easily among Post-It notes or the horribly messy and fragmented digital archives that seem to save both too much yet not enough – contact info for local car repair places in Ithaca, call numbers of books I wanted to check out from the Lenox Hill branch of the New York Public Library, a funny thing that a friend said over iMessage (“Hey, remember if we ever feel bad about running up against time with our work, the GOP is trying to remake the healthcare landscape with an all-nighter”) – are neatly preserved, and, even if their relevance fades with time, there is something charming about stumbling upon such miscellany after the fact.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

This was also the first year that I used the Moleskine planner’s monthly pages all the way through – getting to use washi tape here definitely helped! In 2017, I only used these pages to make note of important dates on the academic calendar, trips out of town, and holidays. Going forward, I think I would benefit from also including major academic deadlines (related to both teaching and research), weddings (it’s just that kind of time in the life cycle), and races (it’s more the associated training that can be tricky to plan around things like, um, trying to get my PhD). The “notes” section at the bottom contain monthly goals – I wasn’t the best at keeping up with those last year, so there is an obvious place for improvement.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

The daily tracker turned out to be something that I really enjoyed filling out at the end of each day! For 2018, I decided to make a few changes. I’ve swapped out tracking whether I wore lipstick to whether I managed to get more than 10,000 steps in a day, the directive to eat at least one piece of fruit has been upgraded to the more ambitious target of at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and “running” is now just “exercise” to account for my non-cardio workouts. I am also now arranging the activities in mostly chronological order, whereas the ordering in 2017 was arbitrary.

On the more fun side of things, I recorded quotes from books and articles that I read, developed a serious obsession with washi tape, and, after overcoming my initial hesitancy about my extremely limited artistic abilities, fully embraced the planner doodle as a welcome mental health break from work. It was more pleasant than I can say, to have a place where I could be a bit more improvisational than is my wont and to collect words and images that either inspired or simply made me smile. Goodness knows the graduate student existence can be scarce indeed when it comes to the latter.

I’ve taken to sharing mostly regular snapshots of my planner on a dedicated Instagram account, @planner_doodles, but here are some of my favourites from 2017:

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

This was the first thing I drew that was more than just a quick something in the corner of a page and realised that doodling could be pretty fun. (The dinosaurs were from some old Birchbox packaging.) I also enjoy the little cat-and-squirrel tableau I created out of washi tapes in the bottom corner.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

Birds were a common theme among my doodles. Here is a finch, followed by the half marathon training schedule that I used to get ready for the NYCRUNS Queens Half Marathon.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

I completed this line drawing of the Chrysler Building while waiting on Matlab one morning. I ended up using the space to the right to keep a running list of New York things to do. Unsurprisingly, most of them involved food.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

This doodle of two canoodling lovebirds was an experiment in blending different colours. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

I was so unbelievably nervous the week leading up to my half marathon, and I channelled all of that anxiety into this page. There’s a pre-race prep checklist (under the aegis of a feline fitness trainer), the weather forecast for that day, subway itineraries for getting from the East Side of Manhattan to Queens, my half marathon goals, and some positive self-talk to keep my spirits up.

moleskine weekly planner 2017.

For the final week of the year, I skimmed through my journal entries from 2017 and used my planner to record notable things that had happened in each month (or things that were notable enough for me to mention them at the time). Beyond simply refreshing my memory, it helped me to see that periods that had looked like mere stasis in retrospect were in fact not lacking in landmarks.

4 January 2018

time doesn't flow if you don't dream: resolutions for 2018.

While the iron that is all the hope and possibility represented by the new year is still hot, I should enumerate my resolutions for 2018. I’m aware that it is a rather contrived exercise, and, looking back at resolutions from years’ past, it is difficult to conclude that anything monumental in my life has ever truly come of the arbitrary decision to designate January 1 as the day of fresh starts. “Run a half marathon” was pointedly not among my resolutions from 2017, though I suppose the one about establishing a more consistent running habit did ultimately lay the necessary groundwork for tackling that challenge.

Anyway, the point is that, contrived though this may be, I nevertheless find it useful to set out a series of intentions over a longer time horizon. A failure to follow through on them is enlightening as well. For instance, almost every single year, I tell myself to get more sleep – back in 2015, I apparently believed five hours a night were sufficient! – and this specific resolution’s recurrence should tell me something about my pathological attitudes towards rest. (Whether I bother to listen is, of course, a separate matter.)

Some of what follows repeats content from my review of 2017, but I am not going to flatter myself by thinking that anyone other than myself paid close enough attention to the latter to notice!

1. Complete a first draft of my job market paper by the end of May. This is less an aspiration than a necessity, for 2018-2019 will – all deities that may or may not exist willing – be my final academic year as a student, and that means I must ready myself for the most gruelling series of trials yet: the academic job market for economists. The time for prevarications and existential crises is over.

2. Become comfortable with the half marathon. It would be false for me to claim that my thoughts have not wandered in the direction of the marathon, but I am certain that I do not want to attempt it until I can do it justice. (That, and the time commitment associated with marathon training may not play well with resolution #1.) I remain, after all, a neophyte in the world of running, and I will benefit more from using the next year, perhaps two, to increase my fitness, build up my endurance, and increase my speed at shorter distances. To be more precise – the measurable nature of running being one of its chief attractions – I would like to run a sub-1:50 half this year. (I, of course, have a bevy of other running/fitness goals for 2018, but this is the most important one to me.)

3. Meditate daily. I was diligent about this for a few months last year, only to abandon it by the summer. I had previously been using an app called Calm, but there seemed something perverse about relying on a smartphone to practise mindfulness. I will instead make use of my Fitbit’s timed meditation feature and plan on setting aside a few minutes after waking up each morning to simply sit still and breathe.

4. Practise piano twice per week. I neglected to do so almost entirely last year, which was a function of other activities assuming greater prominence in my life, as well as my frustrations with the state of the piano I do have in my apartment. While I cannot do much about the latter, the former is under my control. Since running is the primary culprit in crowding out my musical endeavours, it makes sense to schedule practise sessions on my rest days.

5. Blog every month. At this point in my life, I have to accept that it is impossible to keep up a frequent posting schedule, but I should like to eliminate the unplanned months-long hiatuses. Bridging them in my posts is bothersome, dredging up an unpleasant mixture of guilt and disappointment.

6. Sleep seven hours per night. It is high time I cease parading around my sleep deprivation as a badge of virtue and accept that I incontrovertibly function better when I sleep more. No more pretending that I can get away with five or six hours or, as I did last year, rounding 6.5 up and thinking that counted as enough. If running has taught me anything, it is that recovery is an essential part of training; that lesson is worth carrying over to the rest of my life.

7. Check my phone less compulsively. I want to feel at peace when separated from it, especially while doing things (reading, writing, coding, etc.) that benefit from the sort of sustained concentration that omnipresent push notifications render nearly impossible. I want to spend less time mindlessly browsing social media. The perpetual connectedness that smartphones enable exacerbates my tendency to worry about things preemptively and to allow problems that actually aren’t within my purview to fix to intrude upon my time and mental reserve – I want also to limit this phenomenon as best I can.

8. Align my eating habits with my running regimen. An active lifestyle calls for greater awareness of what fuels it. The challenge I currently face is to eat nutritious food while curbing the hunger pangs that I can only conclude are the consequence of working out six days out of the week. To that end, I want to be more disciplined about meal prep, paying more attention to breakfast and lunch in particular and resisting the siren call of convenient but unhealthy snacks, and increase my intake of fruits and vegetables. I also need to shift the composition of my current rotation of recipes to be a little less heavy on things like, say, baked mac and cheese. My sister got me a copy of Run Fast. East Slow. for Christmas, which I hope to incorporate into my cooking.

9. Complete weekly and monthly reviews. My weekly review involves reviewing my upcoming calendar, filing away papers, and other such mundane tasks that keep my day-to-day life in order. My monthly review is a bit more structured: I set smaller constituent goals over a 30-day horizon in the service of broader objectives and assessing the progress I have made at the end of each cycle. Like meditation, these were done haphazardly through 2017, and I want to resume them in earnest. I enjoyed the sense of accountability they engendered: they prevented large swaths of time from seeming like they had vanished altogether.

10. See it through. I underwent profound growth last year, discovering within this once brittle frame a strength, a solidity, a vitality that I had never before believed was mine to claim. My mother commented a few months ago that I carry myself differently now. At a literal level, it was a remark concerning the physical changes brought on by running, but that was only ever a single facet of a far more elemental transformation at work. It will always be at work, in the sense that this enterprise of living is a process, but, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I have an intimation of what it means to feel joy, to exist in a state of peace with the world around me, to look at myself and think, “I am not perfect, and I am okay. I am enough.” It has taken a lot of work to get here, but I am not done. I am ready to make something of myself now.

2 January 2018

2017 in review.

Since 2009, I have faithfully posted this end-of-year survey that I originally originally picked up during my LiveJournal days in the mid-2000s. As with many things from that era of my life, I have felt myself outgrowing it for the last few years now and had clung to it largely for purposes of continuity. But, as you will no doubt read at least a few times in the text to follow, if I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that a healthy disrespect for received wisdom and and old habits is vital for personal growth.

To that end, I’ve taken the plunge and am giving Anuschka Rees’s “Your Year in Review” exercise a spin. It contains 40 questions designed to facilitate reflection on 2017 and a final 10 questions to spur plans for 2018, so here goes!

1. If you had to describe your 2017 in three words, what would they be?

Revelatory, idealistic, and surprising.

2. What, or who, are you most thankful for?

I am thankful for the very fact of my physical existence – that I should be so fortunate to have a body that lets me breathe and run and dance and love.

3. What new things did you discover about yourself?

That I am stronger, in both body and spirit, than I think.

4. What single achievement are you most proud of?

nycruns queens half marathon.

I ran my first half marathon in the previously unthinkable time of 1:54.

5. What was the best news you received?

central park.

Learning that the boyfriend would be doing his residency in New York City. Out of his top three choices, it was the closest location at which he could have ended up.

6. What was your favourite place that you visited in 2017?

anastasia state park.

It’s tempting to say New York, but, since that became something of a second home, I will disqualify it as a possible answer. I’ll go with St. Augustine, Florida.

7. Which of your personal qualities turned out to be the most helpful this year?

I am quite anxious and risk averse when it comes to many things, but this was a year when I let my resolve carry me into situations designed to provoke precisely those tendencies yet emerged the better for it. Is that a sort of courage? That is such a weighty word and perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous to apply it here.

8. Who was your number one go-to person that you could always rely on?

The boyfriend.

9. Which new skills did you learn?

In the academic realm, I picked up a new programming language, Julia, and also learned OpenMP (parallelisation FTW). Outside of the ivory tower, I spent most of my time learning about running, which feels like a rather funny thing to say. Running, after all, is a fairly instinctual activity, and some parts of it will always resist overthinking (or, indeed, any kind of thinking), but it is an art, like everything else. Speaking of art, an unintended consequence of dressing up my heretofore plain Moleskine planner was that I sharpened my doodling, cursive, and crafting skills more generally.

10. What one event are you going to tell your grandchildren about?

That time I found myself at a party of Ukrainians at a rooftop bar in Williamsburg as proof that, occasionally, I am capable of having fun as it is conventionally understood.

11. If someone wrote a book about your year, what genre would it be?

It would probably be a collection of personal essays about running in the style of Haruki Murakami’s, only not as good, unless Murakami himself were the one to write it.

12. What was the most important lesson you learned in 2017?

To have a healthy disrespect for received wisdom, particularly my own.

13. Which mental block(s) did you overcome?

This is a perpetual project for me, so I’m sure that there will be some regress in the future, but I think I have finally figured out how to feel more at ease in large-scale social situations. I used to think that the only way I could make a party bearable was to find that lone kindred spirit to whom I could talk about, say, how Tony Judt’s Postwar changed my life, and, while I did sometimes strike gold with this strategy, it mostly had the deleterious consequence of making interactions with everyone else – non-kindred spirits by definition – feel tiresome. But I am better now at accepting a certain fundamental superficiality of the entire enterprise. Not every conversation has to advance beyond the usual roll call of introductory material, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is okay to just make small talk sometimes!

14. What five people did you most enjoy spending time with?

The boyfriend, for one, but I also treasured the opportunities I had to catch up with friends from afar.

15. What was your biggest breakthrough moment career-wise?

This is a hard question to answer when all I can think about 2017, from a grad school perspective, is how little I feel I managed to do, but I suppose I did manage to solve a no-frills version of the model that I will be using my job market paper. It isn’t “done” – is anything ever truly that in research? – but, to quote one of my advisors, at least the machinery is in place.

16. How did your relationship with your family evolve?

I’d like to think it gets better as I get older. I do get to see my parents a bit more frequently than I used to, since I stop over in New Jersey en route to New York. It gives me a chance to at least have dinner with them once every few weeks.

17. What book or movie affected your life in a profound way?

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels reforged my soul (see here).

18. What was the best compliment that you received this year?

One of my mentors from the undergraduate days sent me a very thoughtful email when I was not at all expecting it.

19. What little things did you most enjoy during your daily life?

sunday journalling.

Listening to podcasts while commuting to campus, doing chores, etc. Making a cup of tea and curling up on my sofa or in my reading nook with a book/the New Yorker. Doing a bit of colouring, whether in this book or my Moleskine planner. Writing.

20. What cool things did you create this year?

I made an honest-to-goodness scrapbook for my dad on the occasion of his retirement from full-time work. It was the most involved creative project I’ve undertaken in some time.

21. What did you think about more than anything else?

Running, obviously...

22. What topics did you most enjoy learning about?

The history of ballet, the Viennese Secession, and half marathon training. One of these things is not like the other.

23. What new habits did you cultivate?

Waking up early. Doing yoga, however poorly. Learning to recognise when a problem was not my problem – or that it had not yet become my problem – and thus not worth the mental energy.

24. What advice would you give to your early 2017 self if you could?

It will work itself out.

25. Did any parts of your self or your life do a 180 this year?

I go to the gym now. Like, what the hell?

26. What had the biggest positive impact on your life this year?

I sleep now more than I used to – on this as with so many other things, running kind of forced my hand – and I think it’s made me a less stressed and irritable person.

27. What was your most frequent mental state?

Nervous, whether tinged with anticipation or terror.

28. Was there anything you did for the very first time in your life?

the running of the balls 5k.

I ran my first 5K, 10K, and half marathon races.

29. What was your favourite moment spent with friends?

The single best moment was playing Cards with Humanity with some fellow grad students at a conference.

30. What major goal did you lay the foundations for?

I suppose it’s just the curse of the graduate student to feel that no progress has ever been made, but I did make an important advance on the empirical front of my research during the spring and a comparably important one on the theoretical front during the fall (see #15). I want to be better at acknowledging these milestones when they do occur, if only to mitigate the sense of overwhelming hopelessness that research engenders.

31. Which worries turned out to be completely unnecessary?

In retrospect, a lot of the fretting over my patellofemoral pain was excessive: in my worst moments, I worried about never being able to run again or being limited in the progress I could make with my running. A few visits with the physical therapist fortunately cured me of those worries, and, as I continue to incorporate regular strength training into my workout regimen, I have definitely noticed my knee pain recede.

32. What experience would you love to do all over again?

I can’t wait to have my second attempt at a half marathon. Only fifty-something more days to go!

33. What was the best gift you received?

Last Christmas, celebrated in Orthodox fashion in January, the boyfriend got me Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami. It was absolutely perfect.

34. How did your overall outlook on life evolve?

I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin, as the saying goes, and hold faster to the things and people that bring happiness into my life.

35. What was the biggest problem you solved?

In February, I at last saw a dermatologist to address the acne issues with which I’ve been battling since starting grad school (because you know what’s really fun? having one’s stress level literally written on the face in the form of unsightly red pustules). One ongoing prescription for tretinoin cream later, my skin has cleared up dramatically. And, yes, I realise acne isn’t the stuff of earth-shattering importance, but being able to leave my house without makeup on and worrying that I look like a distant relation of the Wicked Witch of the West is liberating.

36. What was the funniest moment, one that still makes you burst out laughing?

I love Crooked Media, I love their universe of podcasts, but, most of all, I love Jon Lovett. This rant of his about Marco Rubio – I lose it every single time when, egged on by a live audience, Lovett works his way into a thundering, “AT LEAST PAUL RYAN HAS THE DECENCY TO HAVE DEAD FUCKING EYES.”

37. What purchase turned out to be the best decision ever?

BARToC.

All of the parts that constitute my PC, BARToC. Without it, the research I am currently doing would be almost literally unfeasible.

38. What one thing would you do differently and why?

I wished that I could be less timid about discussing my research with faculty. Why? Because my professional future depends on it.

39. What do you deserve a pat on the back for?

Making it through another year of grad school intact.

40. What activities made you lose track of time?

312 Reading List 2017

Setting up, doodling in, or otherwise adorning my planner.

41. What do you want the overarching theme for your 2018 to be?

See it through.

42. What do you want to see, discover, and explore?

2017 was the first year in a long time that I failed to go abroad even once, so that’s certainly one oversight I’d like to correct. Closer to home, I’d like to explore new running routes in both Ithaca and New York.

43. Who do you want to spend more time with in 2018?

My sister. I’ve been meaning to visit her in Chicago since she moved there but have yet to make that happen. Maybe this will be the year.

44. What skills do you want to learn, improve, or master?

To the extent that doing research is a skill (or a set thereof), as opposed to some alchemy that either happens or does not, I’d like to be better at that.

On the running front, my goal for 2018 is to focus on the half marathon and to get my time for that distance into the 1:40-1:49 range. This is because my goal for 2019 (or 2020) is – and I can’t back down from this now that I’ve made it blogging official! – to run my first marathon. Although simply completing it is, of course, itself an achievement, I am not interested in trying it until I think I am capable of running it well (however I choose to define that standard when the time comes).

45. Which personal quality do you want to develop or strengthen?

I want to get better at mitigating my anxiety, especially in my capacity as a graduate student.

46. What do you want your everyday life to be like?

I have this fantasy of waking up early, going for a run, making it to campus by 8:30am, working efficiently and thoughtfully until dinnertime, going home, working some more, indulging in some free conscious activity, then sleeping sufficiently early so that I can get about seven hours’ rest. I’d like my days to feel busy but not rushed, and I want to turn in every evening feeling that I accomplished something.

47. Which habits do you want to change, cultivate, or get rid of?

I’ve noticed that my phone checking habit has gotten both too frequent and too compulsive for my liking. The fact that I’ve started feeling bereft without it is not a good sign. I’d like to be better about ignoring it and working with fewer distractions on that front.

48. What do you want to achieve career-wise?

I hope to have a completed first draft of my job market paper by the end of May so that I can spend the summer/early autumn polishing it and generally getting as job market ready as possible.

49. How do you want to remember the year 2018 when you look back on it 20 years from now?

I want to remember 2018 as the year in which I started establishing my own professional identity as an economist.

50. What is your number one goal for 2018?

To put myself in a position to be gainfully employed by the time I finish this PhD.

28 December 2017

books read in 2017.


A collection of my “bookstagrams” from 2017, as I’ve taken to using Instagram to document my reading in real time.

My annual round-up of books that I’ve read in the last year has always been one of my favourite posts to write, and this year’s is no exception. I completed a total of 37 books this year. That is the most I’ve read since 2007, when I notched 51 titles, was still in high school, and had plenty more free time on my hands. I am, frankly, astonished that I flew through as many books as I did, but maybe that’s what happens when one spends much of the summer waiting on Matlab.

My lone reading-related resolution for 2017 was to start and finish one intractable book in its entirety. I accomplished this by getting through Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, which I wrote about here. I also finished The Brother Karamazov in February, about nine months after I started it. Alas, that book and I went through too many temporary separations for me to have any truly coherent thoughts about it, which means that it is due for a re-read sometime before I, um, pass from this earth.

The most unusual aspect about my book selection this year was my tendency to repeat authors. Part of this was due to picking up book series that simply demanded immediate completion (see Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels), but that cannot account, say, for the two Kazuo Ishiguro novels, David Foster Wallace essay collections, or Nicole Krauss works. And many authors who appear once on this year’s list – Zadie Smith, Charles King, Charles Rosen, Italo Calvino, Julian Barnes, and Eric Hobsbawm – have shown up on previous years’ lists. Of the 270 unique authors I have read since I began keeping track of my reading history in 2006, only 48 have more than one read books to their names, which underscores how atypical this reading pattern was. Compared to previous years, I found myself imperceptibly guided by a principle that, later in the year, I heard Jennifer Egan articulate impeccably on the New York Times Book Review podcast (which, just as an aside, I cannot recommend enough to my fellow bibliophiles out there):

“If I try to read a book I’m not hungry for, I won’t enjoy it, but if I wait until I have a real appetite for something, I’ll devour it.”

While I wouldn’t say that I am quite so intuitive in my choice of books – I believe there is considerable virtue in maintaining a good balance across different genres and voices – there does seem to be merit in prioritising sheer enjoyment when it comes to reading. Indeed, it’s been a while since I remember reading being as joyful as it was this past year.

But that’s enough of a preamble. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2017 where, per usual, entries in bold are those that stood out to me in some way. Discussion of some books (or groupings thereof) in particular follow.

  1. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith (January 2)
  2. A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (January 7)
  3. Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, Haruki Murakami (January 13)
  4. Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans (February 4)
  5. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (February 17)
  6. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi (February 18)
  7. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, Charles King (February 20)
  8. Regeneration, Pat Barker (March 10)
  9. The Eye in the Door, Pat Barker (March 26)
  10. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (April 3)
  11. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, David Foster Wallace (April 12)
  12. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Simon Schama (April 28)
  13. Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, Charles Rosen (April 28)
  14. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (May 25)
  15. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (May 28)
  16. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett (June 1)
  17. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steve Johnson (June 11)
  18. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Culture and Politics, Carl E. Schorske (June 24)
  19. The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (June 26)
  20. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (July 8)
  21. The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis (July 15)
  22. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante (July 25)
  23. His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, Graeme Macrae Burnet (July 27)
  24. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (August 7)
  25. The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (August 11)
  26. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante (August 22)
  27. The Curated Closet: A Simple System for Discovering Your Personal Style and Building Your Dream Wardrobe, Anuschka Rees (August 27)
  28. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante (September 3)
  29. Heart: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Heroic Organ, Johannes Hinrich von Borstel (September 10)
  30. Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace (September 15)
  31. Digging to America, Anne Tyler (October 5)
  32. Great House, Nicole Krauss (October 11)
  33. An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (October 20)
  34. The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, Eric Hobsbawm (December 14)
  35. Run Fast: How to Beat Your Best Time Every Time, Hal Higdon (December 14)
  36. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (December 22)
  37. A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor (December 26)

I loved many of the books I read this year, but there is no competition: 2017 was my year of Ferrante. The thousand-plus pages that constitute her Neapolitan Novels can be summarised quite simply – mundanely, even. They tell the tale of a friendship between two women, Elena and Lila, from their impoverished childhood in Naples in the postwar years through the present day. It is not a precious work of contemporary fiction in which characters sit about and contemplate deeply the dust motes drifting through the air. The pages are littered with violence – physical, verbal, emotional – and the world that Ferrante evokes within them, with its social hierarchies and internecine feuds, is depicted with such verisimilitude that the world beyond faded out of focus whenever I would sit down with the books.

For all of their melodrama, however, the Neapolitan Novels are not mere pulp fiction. It is Elena’s voice (and, here, I suppose I wouldn’t be wrong in referring to either the character or the author herself) that gives them their art. The story is told from Elena’s perspective through a first-person retrospective. Now in her old age and grown estranged from Lila, she (and the readers) learns in the opening chapter that her old friend has vanished, leaving nothing behind. The emotion Elena feels is neither alarm nor curiosity but, rather, a barely concealed anger that Lila, who had been threatening to do something like this for years, has finally pulled it off. Thus begins Elena’s protracted attempt to commit to paper all that she remembers of their lives, as if the act of enshrining Lila in words might countermand her disappearance.

I wonder if part of the reason the Neapolitan Novels spoke to me as strongly as they did is that I, too, am an inveterate chronicler of my own life. There are those of us who turn to the blank page for succour because it permits the imposition of a sense of order to the otherwise tangled threads of existence, thereby placing the self in the middle of that narrative universe, a self-proclaimed tyranny of “I.” Then there are those of us – and I count Elena among their number – who use this canvas as a filter, perceiving their lives primarily through the negation of others. Indeed, perhaps the most notable feature of Elena and Lena’s relationship is the extent to which the former is forever positioning herself as a foil to the latter while the latter, no matter how much proverbial ink Elena spills on her behalf, is set at something of a remove, driven by demons and desires that somehow just escape the descriptive capacity of another person’s language. Even Elena cannot escape being a mystery to herself. This passage from the start of The Story of the Last Child drives that point home quite nicely:

“Now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between [Lila] and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.”

Yet I suspect this absence of a grounding narrative ego has something to do with why these books became so passionately beloved by seemingly everyone who picked them up. It’s what allows the Neapolitan Novels to address – with a perspicacity that I have rarely encountered in fiction – the struggle to craft for oneself a place in the world when one’s only inheritance is an almost fatalistic powerlessness, whether by dint of poverty, gender, culture, or the millions of other things that force a lifetime of acquiescence. It’s what lends the characters’ fleeting moments of happiness and self-actualisation their thrill and invites us as readers to find in Elena and Lila’s lives, meticulously derived from a particular milieu though they may be, something universally true. I don’t think I cried at any point during the novels, but I also felt like I didn’t breathe once as I barrelled through their denouement. These books are staggering and magical and visceral; Ferrante is a god.

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If I hadn’t contracted Ferrante fever, I’d say that my favourite books from the year were Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which trains a lens on the less visible traumas induced by the British experience of the First World War. In spare but haunting prose, Barker devastatingly deconstructs the ethos of masculinity and militarism circa Europe during the early 20th century and conveys the almost irresistible collective urge for self-immolation that defined the age.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that a year like 2017, when day after day the world has felt perched on the edge of some great cataclysm, found me drawn to books about the last time Western civilisation was pulled to its extremes. On the nonfiction side, there was Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (discussed here) and the third instalment of Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of” quartet, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. Midnight at the Pera Palace by Charles King (I took comparative politics with him at Georgetown!) takes place in the territories of the ex-Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I and is a timely reminder that the some lines are never drawn as clearly as nationalists would like. And, back on the fiction side, I am currently halfway thorugh Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, but, since I doubt I will manage to finish it by December 31, you’ll have to wait until my forthcoming “books that I read in 2018” post to see what I thought of it.

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A book that sounded an unexpectedly personal note with me was Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, Thien’s novel unravels the saga of two Chinese families through the tumultuous events following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 with particular focus on the Cultural Revolution and the student protests in Tiananmen Square. The content had obvious appeal to me, which was why I picked up the book in the first place, but getting through the first half of it was a struggle. The prose felt stilted, the characters behaved histrionically, and it almost read like a translation despite being originally written in English. Then, all of a sudden, it struck me that this was a feature, not a bug, that Thien, in conjuring these characters and placing them in their proper setting, must have been writing this book as though it were in Chinese because, well, the Chinese language is full of allusions and proverbs that give even the most pedestrian of conversations an inevitable flourish and China is a place that has always been self-consciously larger than life. I began to imagine the book’s dialogue unfolding to the cadences of Chinese, and everything fell into place.

I highlight my experience with reading this book because it says something about the representation of marginalised voices in literature. Thien is, like me, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, and what felt special about Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the author’s determination to write this story for and from a Chinese (and occasionally Chinese-Canadian) perspective and the pointed refusal to mollify Western readers. It only seemed off-putting until I realised that, of course, heteronormative white dudes (to put it somewhat coarsely) write with that level of cultural and linguistic specificity all the time: it’s simply taken as given that, as readers, we too ought to have a comparably easy felicity with their touchstones. That Thien assumed similar authorial privilege for herself was truly admirable.

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I suppose I did read a lot of serious books this year, but you can’t beat His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet – another member of the Man Booker Prize shortlist in 2016 – for pure rollicking fun. It’s a fictional true-crime story presented via a series of documents, cheeky in form but never pretentious. Its depiction of a squalid town in the Scottish Highlands riven by local squabbles is pitch perfect, reminding me not a little of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy in their pettiness and viciousness. The last third of the book, which presents the accused murderer’s own take on the events in question, is terrifying and impossible to put down. It recently came out in paperback, so what are you waiting for?

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And now we’re at the point where my willingness to write long paragraphs has fallen off a cliff, so here are some arbitrary superlatives to round off the post.

Favourite David Foster Wallace essay collection: Consider the Lobster. It contains “Authority and American Usage,”, which you will be a better person for having read. But Both Flesh and Not gets bonus points for giving me an excuse to revisit the ultimate catechism of Church of Federer.

Favourite Nicole Krauss novel: Great House. The History of Love I very much enjoyed while reading, but, if I try to recall it now, I can’t seem to remember anything. When I think about Great House, I can instantly feel this overwhelming funereal gloom descend upon my thoughts.

Book that reduced me to a sobbing wreck: When Breath Becomes Air. Curiously, I didn’t cry at all until I got to the afterward, written by the author’s widow.

Book that probably wasn’t worth finishing: Digging to America. It came highly recommended by a friend and, on paper, seemed right up my alley (immigrants! multicultural families! in America!). Alas, all but all but one of the characters fell extremely flat to me.

Best book pairing: Gilead + A Time to Keep Silence. The former is a beautiful meditation on the nature of grace; the latter is an exploration of monastic traditions in Christianity. Both felt very appropriate for the end of the year.

22 December 2017

the last four months in brief.

Notwithstanding two dispatches about running, it has been a while indeed since my last substantive post. With 2017 entering its concluding weeks – and, from a blogging perspective, that means I will soon start working on my usual spate of end-of-the-year posts – this is about as good, if late, a time as any to recap, more or less succinctly, what I’ve been up to since moving back to Ithaca for the fall semester.

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Here was a big thing: one of my dearest friends Carson got married in October! Although I am firmly at a point in the life cycle when peers tying the knot has become a commonplace occurrence, it does take on added significance when the genesis of my friendship with the person doing so goes back to taking the bus to and from middle school together. It was also my first time serving as a member of the bridal party; indeed, I had the distinct pleasure of being Carson’s maid of honour. (Incidentally, I was drafting my toast on the same weekend that I was frantically making slides for a research presentation, and I would have been hard pressed to say which occasion had the higher stakes!)

wedding prep selfie.

It was a magical experience from start to finish. Everyone in the bridal party got along swimmingly – my admittedly limited understanding of contemporary American weddings suggests that this is not always the case – and it was more moving than I can say to bear witness to the consecration of the love to which Carson and her husband have tended through the years. My tears were restrained only by the fact that I was holding the bride’s bouquet alongside my own during much of the ceremony, which would have made any attempt to wipe them away ungainly indeed (and liable to being memoralised forever in photographs!).

With the wedding coinciding with my fall break, I had a few additional days for hanging out with Shapiro. We were reunited over the strawberry cheesecake at Cafe Latte in Saint Paul, which ensorcelled my senses utterly the last time I visited the city, and otherwise bro-ed out in our identical “Straight Shooter Respected on Both Sides” shirts. It was swell.

caffe latte.
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I managed to make it down to New York City every three weeks or so, usually opting for the cheaper option of driving to my parents’ house in New Jersey and taking the train into the city from there. Adventures of note included renting a rowboat in Central Park, a sort of diversion that I would absolutely recommend doing but no more than once. Navigating past the bottleneck of tourists at the dock was a bit perilous, but it was smooth sailing after that.

rowing in central park.
rowing in central park.
rowing in central park.

We followed that with dinner at Piccolo Cafe on the Upper West Side that my sister had recommended me to me over the summer. “Bloody charming” is how I would describe it: the establishment seated maybe no more than twenty people at once, had repurposed yellowing Italian newspapers as wall decor, and boasted a wait staff that would natter away in Italian – fluently, as far as I could tell – when not attending to diners. I had recently finished the last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, and the meal, in addition to being objectively delicious, fulfilled some deep aesthetic need that the books’ withdrawal from my life had engendered.

There was also another excursion to the West Village, where we had fancy brunch at Buvette before taking in art and stunning views in equal measure at the Whitney.

whitney museum of american art.
whitney museum of american art.
whitney museum of american art.
whitney museum of american art.
whitney museum of american art.

The timing of things was such that I fit in one training run in Central Park following my injury-induced layoff. I remember that return to what is now to me a sort of hallowed ground – how much I had felt and learned in the course of traversing its paths during the summer – as the sun rose over the autumn foliage and Midtown skyline in particularly joyous terms. I wish I had stopped to take a picture, but I have strict rules about not pausing a run for anything save vehicular traffic.

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Although I’ve made a pledge to not speak overly much of grad school here, it would feel a touch remiss if I did not at least mention it once in a while. The fact that I am not currently on the job market means that, officially, next year – my sixth – will be the last that I spend in this purgatory. The good news is that I can say without equivocation to others’ inquiries about my educational/professional status that I am almost done. The bad news is that it is all uphill, vertiginously so, until then. I try to draw comfort from something my sister texted me once during a moment of crisis (I am less struck these days by the fear that I’ll be mastered by my own incompetence, which was the case during the first few years; rather, I sometimes find myself wondering why I am doing any of this all, and my ability to so well or poorly seems almost beside the point), which is that I am too far into this now to give up. Yes, I know, sunk cost fallacy, etc. etc. etc., but I never did claim to be as rational as the agents in the models.

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What constitutes a life, when one gets down to it? There is the work, there is always the work, but, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there are other things too that seem just as worthy of cheer. I think, with reason, that running is to blame for creating space – forcing it, really – for those other things to flourish. But I’ll save all further reflection for a later post.