Congratulations to Rebecca, my reading hero, who actually succeeded in completing our 2011 challenge to read 100 books over the course of the year! Read all about it here:

What’s up for 2012? Gotta get back on the reading bandwagon. Keep checking for posts. You may or may not see another one someday.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

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Reading “Remainder”

What would you do if you were totally in charge of everything and everyone around you?

(Get scheduled for exactly the right shifts at your restaurant job, for one thing. Perhaps have an unlimited supply of Anna’s Ginger Thins. Definitely not wait for the subway.)

This question is at the heart of Tom McCarthy’s vivid, bizarre, and slightly maddening debut novel, “Remainder.” I was so caught up the story- a man wakes after a mysterious and violent accident leaves him in a coma to find that the government is giving him 8 1/2 million pounds to keep the details quiet- that it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I realized the protagonist has no name.

Way to go, Tom. That was sneaky.

This man- unnamed but certainly fully realized in the novel- must relearn even the most basic actions: picking up a carrot, say, and getting it into his mouth. He remembers much of his past, but not all of it, and seems to be missing a large chunk of his social skills due to the accident. No one can reteach him how to feel, and the closet the man ever comes to talking about pain- emotional or physical- is when he describes a certain tingling in his head as being similar to the feeling you get when you eat too much MSG at a Chinese restaurant.

Obsessed with recreating “reality” as he once knew it, the man hires Naz, a genius ‘facilitator’ of projects for the fabulously wealthy, to rebuild an apartment he vaguely remembered living in. They hire actors to re-enact specific moments the man believed to have transpired in the building- a mechanic tinkers with a motorbike in the courtyard, an elderly lady takes out her trash, the building concierge stands still with her hands clasped behind her back. But there’s something terribly off about this re-enactment: black cats are set loose on the red rooftop, but instead of lounging around, they repeatedly fall to their death. Asked for a solution, the man nonchalantly orders Naz to ensure an extra large backup supply of cats is always ready.

The man is in complete control over everything that happens in this recreated world. People speak the lines they are given, when and how they are told. The man pays them vast sums of money to be constantly on call- whenever he feels like it, the man switches the building into “on” mode and wanders around, sometimes interacting with the actors (or ‘re-enactors’), sometimes laying on the floor and thinking about the sunlight.

I read the first third of this book on the M train home after a rather long and sweaty day. A thing I love and hate about the M is that it runs above ground in Brooklyn. That means that, for 20 minutes of my daily commute, I can check e-mails, send text messages, read the news, and listen to Pandora (thanks, iPhone!). It also means that everyone else on the train can call their cousin in the Bronx and bitch about the heat, or make plans with their boyfriend for dinner, or tell their boss that they’re only running late because the trains are all messed up (lies).

This particular afternoon, I had gotten a seat in a rather crowded car and was reading the disturbing section about the cats falling off the roof when the M broke above ground and started to chug over the bridge to Brooklyn. The girl standing in front of me- or rather, leaning over me as she hung onto the bar above me- immediately pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed a call. She had so little discretion, it was almost as if she thought she was alone. Not only was her stomach hanging out of her tank top, but the details of her life started pouring out of her mouth as soon as the person on the other end of the line picked up:

“I told you! The toast and the milk were making me sick so I started eating a bagel instead… No! I was throwing up every morning! So I switched to bagels…”

I zoned out as best I could to focus in on the novel, but was snapped out of the story when the girl angrily hung up the phone. She dialed a new number.

“I just hung up on my mother. She was being rude, so I called her lazy and hung up on her. But is it my fault that my own mother is too lazy to do my laundry so I have to give it to my little sister’s mother? And now I have to go pick it up myself. My own mother won’t even go pick it up for me.”

The next call didn’t go through, so she left a message:

“Antony’s laywer called and he wants you to come in at 11 on Friday. For the hearing. He wants you to tell them that Antony’s a good kid and that he never stayed out past curfew or something. I don’t know. Just be there. 11 in the morning on Thursday.”

Geez louise. This was a disaster. How was I supposed to read with all this drama going on right over me? If I had my way, if I got complete control over the subway, there’s be no cell phone use at all. People’s headphones would send their music to their ears only, not seep out and fill the whole car with just a little tiny irritating bit off tinny bass. There’d be a dozen people on every car- few enough to make sure you get a good seat without feeling creeped out. And did I mention- there’d be NO CELL PHONE USE ALLOWED?

But I’ll try not to get too jealous of McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist- judging by the novel’s inevitable yet unfortunate ending, McCarthy seems to subscribe to the “can’t buy me control” school of thought. The book is quick and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it, so I won’t tell you what happens. Suffice it to say, one thing leads to another, and you will be glad to have two feet firmly- and sanely- on the ground.

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The Best Use of a Book on the Subway

Ladies and Gentlemen of America, what is up with this heat wave?

I don’t know. I really don’t. But here’s another question for you- one that you can probably answer: What is the hottest place you’ve been in the last few days? The beach, perhaps? Or your car, after it sat in the sun for several hours and before you rolled down your windows? Or maybe your kitchen- you should have thought twice about making twice baked potatoes.

Do you have your answer?

Ok. Now picture yourself in that heat. Now picture yourself trapped in that heat underground. No beach breeze or highway gusts here. The air is as still, trapped, bloated as you are. Add to this hellish fantasy hundreds of commuters- sweaty, pushy, and intensely irritable.

Everyone looks prone to pass out or throw up, or punch someone else in the face for breathing too aggressively. (Though perhaps the breath of other travelers could be thought of as breeze? One’s internal temperature is, most likely, cooler than the outside air.) The six minute wait for the train seems an impossible task- you may find yourself close to tears, but you can blame the mood swings on the dehydration.

And then it comes to you- this stupid book you’re unable to read because your brain doesn’t function in this humidity, this burdensome book that is partly to blame for the shoulder-strap sweat stains on your new t-shirt, this heavy book you’ve been lugging around all day has an actual practical use.

Why, it’s a fan!

Wave it in your face. It feels remarkably good, doesn’t it?

All the other commuters will be getting jealous, but don’t even consider letting a wisp of that wind float away from your face. The children will be fine- their sweat is a good sign, you think. It’s cooling them down. And that rather large man, looking like his heart might give out at any moment? Well, what good would this little, insignificant book do anyhow? No. You safeguard that book. Just like in Fahrenheit 451 or The Handmaid’s Tale, that book is your link to salvation and sanity.

You fan and you fan and you fan, and then- miracle! A breeze, a real breeze, comes shooting down the tunnel and, behind it comes the air conditioned train.

You jockey for position and, when the doors whiz open, you shove yourself into the car and claim a seat with all aggression of a starved mama polar bear. The doors slide closed, and New York City breathes a sigh of relief. You breathe with it, and the cool air returns you (at least partially) to your senses. Your brain clicks back into gear and you realize you should really get up and give your seat to those sweaty, sweaty kids.

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Baby Books

Rebecca here!

Sydda, as impossible to get a hold of as ever, has been neglecting both my desperate I-miss-you emails and you, darling readers.

But today, I have things to say!

I have spent the majority of June reading, going out to lunch, making cool crafts, seeing movies, playing mini-golf, visiting the library, enjoying the park, trying out art and dance classes, napping, and eating homemade lasagna. The slight catch: each and every one of these activities was done with a child under the age of 13 (the majority under the age of 5).

As many of the 3 of you who read this blog may know, I am currently pursuing my career in acting professional babysitting. I love babysitting, I really do, and it is a wonderful, pretty easy job that pays my bills and gives me a lot of flexibility to go to all the auditions I want other houses to babysit more. One of my favorite parts of babysitting, which I enjoy during babies’ naptimes and 8 year old’s homework hour, is the opportunity to catch up on my reading (I am currently just slightly behind schedule with 48 books read since January). One of my other favorite parts of babysitting is getting to read to and with the kids. I love reading the books from my childhood, Clifford and Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight, Moon. I also love seeing all the awesome new children’s literature out there, and there is a LOT of wonderful stuff (Mo Willems, I’m talking about you). I hope so much that these kids will want to read as much as I did as a kid–I remember getting 7 or 8 books out of the library one day and going back in two weeks to get 7 or 8 more.

An 8 year old boy I watch has a required 20 minutes of reading every day, and usually it takes every bribe I can offer to actually get them done. Every five minutes, “how many more minutes?” and “Am I done yet?!”  Today it was “after dinner!” as he picked up a Garfield comic to “read” while he munched his tortellini (I mean no disrespect to Garfield–I was a huge fan as a kid, too, but I wouldn’t quite call that literature). When we finally settled down to reading time, he surprised me with his immediate quiet and stillness. I nestled in with my book (Mrs. Dalloway), took note of the start of the 20 minutes, and snuggled into the couch. 25 minutes later, and not a peep out of him, I was shocked. Then, “I only have 43 more pages to go!” I asked, “Should we work on your math for a few minutes?” and he quickly responded, “No! I want to keep reading!”

Tonight, he read for over an hour and finished the last 69 pages (he specifically counted his hour’s achievement) of his book, as I finished the last 70 pages of my own.  Granted, he became an obnoxious, overpriveleged kid again as soon as the cover closed, but for that sweet, wonderful hour, we sat in a living room on 5th avenue and went to other worlds.

You try to tell me time travel doesn’t exist, and I’ll set you straight. Time travel doesn’t involve fancy machines or scientific equipment. New Yorkers, young and old, are time traveling all the time, in the parks and subways and their cubicles and houses and restaurants.

And if you meet an asshole, or a child who’s giving you sass, try to picture them curled up, turning pages, time traveling.  Books give me hope that maybe people can be better, or if they can’t, that they’ll at least take an hour of the day to shut up and read anyway.


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Thank you for your patience; we will be moving shortly

Dear readers, (and I’m fairly certain there are at least five of you out there, so I feel comfortable addressing you in the plural),

I’m sorry for the delays. The STBR train has been a mess these past few weeks. I don’t know what happened. At first, I figured we were just being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher. Sometimes this happens: when the trains run especially close together, (read: if I barrel through too many books in a row), a hold-up in the station ahead can cause delays for all the passengers behind.

Such was my predicament: Four books in a row failed to get me out of the station. The doors would close, I would settle in for the ride, and then I’d find myself inexplicably back on the platform, empty handed and still in Brooklyn. I became increasingly frustrated and unwilling to leave the comfort of my quiet apartment. (In my metaphor, ‘apartment’ stands for ’empty head space.’ As in, I’d rather just zone out than focus on a book.) This, and I got an iPhone that is more fun, as it turns out, than reading about the economics of baseball.

When I finally got back on track, (‘The House of the Spirits’ by Isabelle Allende or BUST), the trip was excruciatingly slow. It was almost dangerous, really. The MTA should contact its lawyers- while we were stuck in the tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan (for WEEKS, it seemed) without food or water or bathrooms, more than one passenger was threatening to sue. After eons of fits and starts, I got off at Union Square and headed directly to Barnes and Noble, where I could reward myself for having a finished a book I did not enjoy by spending lots of money I don’t have on books I hopefully WILL enjoy.

(Please note: this writer feels extremely guilty for having disliked a book, especially by such a renowned author as Allende. She had such high hopes after loving ‘Daughter of Fortune,’ but simply did not care for her second foray into Allende’s Chile. But she supposes there will always be some bumps along the way. She is allowed to have opinions, after all, just as the MTA is allowed to make track repairs when necessary, public opinion be damned.)

Anyway, THE POINT IS: We’re back in business. And how! The train is running more efficiently than ever. And I have some summer reading suggestions for you. So grab a beach towel and a sun hat, and head out! The train is waiting to take you to Coney Island, the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore or, heck, c’mon out to my new apartment! (Don’t worry, I’m still living off the same L stop. No change in my commute, thank goodness!) There’s no beach in Bushwick, but there will be a fire escape and copious amounts of fresh mint growing especially for bottomless mojitos.

If you wanna laugh (and if you’re a woman, which, if you are reading this blog, I am fairly certain you are) read Bossypants, by Tina Fey. I saw a girl reading this on the subway with a perfectly stern expression behind her Ray-Bans, and thought that perhaps she didn’t speak English or was, in fact, blind. I literally had to clamp my hand over my mouth to hold in my explosive bursts of laughter. This was the first book I’ve read in a single day since Harry Potter 7, and though everyone has dramatically different tastes, I would recommend Fey’s irreverent, quirky autobiography to anyone who is literate.

If you wanna cry (which you probably don’t want to do at the beach) read What is the What, the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, essentially ghost-written into a novel by Dave Eggers. In an immaculately clear first-person narration, Eggers and Deng blend their voices to bring to life the decades of suffering Deng endured as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and, later, in his relocation to America. I put off reading this book for almost two years (it was a gift from Christmas ’09) for fear that the horror would overwhelm my sheltered sensibilities. And it did (hence the sobbing on the train during rush hour). But the real kicker is the humanity and compassion of the writers. The story isn’t about what’s awful in the world- it’s about the soul’s ability to endure, and the fundamentally human desire to share our stories in order to make meaning out of our lives. You can save this one for later, but definitely read it eventually.

If you want to have your mind twisted in knots read Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s sometimes about the weather. When Leo ‘discovers’ his beautiful, young Argentinian wife Rema has been replaced with a doppelganger, he goes on an international hunt to track down the real woman (introducing me to lots of new words in the vein of ersatz, simulacrum, etc. in the process.) This book, read on the buses of Minneapolis, pulled at my heartstrings for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s about love’s power to undo you, or conversely, to save you from madness. Maybe it’s about impostor syndrome- that fear we sometimes have when we believe we are undeservedly given something wonderful and that it’s only a matter of time before we are found out, recognized as unworthy. It’s certainly worth reading.

Alright. I’m going to stop telling you what to do. Except I still insist that you come over for a mojito. Whatever you’re reading on the train, I look forward to discussing it with you in the Bushwick backyard sunshine.

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I’ve been listening to music instead of reading on the train…

“There’s no such thing as privacy on the subway,” a friend pointed out to me the other day. He gestured to the woman next to us, applying her make-up in the reflection of the dark train window; to the man wiping a bit of his egg sandwich off his suit jacket; to two teenagers in matching navy and grey school uniforms, lips-locked, backpacks discarded at their feet. And I thought to myself: My god. He’s RIGHT!

How did I never realize this before? New Yorkers do anything and everything on the subway. We eat breakfast and take shots of vodka from water bottles (though not usually at the same time). We talk finances and relationship statuses and diets. We discipline our children, feed them McDonald’s, wish they would stop screaming. We sing, dance, and strum guitars. We panhandle and sell and steal. We smell each other’s cologne and body odor when we’re pressed into each other’s bodies on a crowded train. We argue, we cry, we kiss and make up. We blast our music. We lose at video games. We read the newspaper. We sleep.

Art Garfunkel wrote a song that he performed with Paul Simon in their Concert in Central Park in 1967. I like to listen to it on the train. It’s called “A Heart That Lives in New York.” He sings:

New York, to that tall skyline I come, flyin’ in from London to your door
New York, lookin’ down on Central Park
Where they say you should not wander after dark
New York, like a scene from all those movies
But you’re real enough to me, but there’s a heart
A heart that lives in New York

It’s a beautiful song, Mr. Garfunkel, but I think you’ve missed the point entirely. You can’t see the heart of New York from the skies. The iconic Manhattan skyline, the green block that is Central Park, the wide water that drifts around New York’s many islands- these symbols certainly house the city’s heart, but just like in any living organism, you can’t know the blood pumping through its veins by observing its skin and hair and eyes. I’m not the first one to call the subway tunnels “arteries,” or to notice how they pump the 8 million New Yorker blood cells to the major organs of the city in all five boroughs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

On the subway platform yesterday, I watched a man pull a box of Fruit Loops and a quart of half-and-half out of two separate plastic bags. He poured their contents into a McDonald’s soda cup and ate his breakfast with a plastic spoon. After a moment, he produced a banana from a third plastic bag, poked it a few times, and held it up to his ear like a phone. Without hesitating, he shouted into it: “HELLO? CIA? I HAVE TO PLACE A COMPLAINT. SOMEONE IS DIGGING THROUGH THE TRASH.”

A few feet away an elderly, well-dressed couple barely glanced up from their Jersey Boys Playbill. Cloaked in her floor-length fur coat and mellow demeanor, the woman couldn’t have appeared more different than the young oddball demanding a police investigation of an imaginary trash thief; yet there they were, breathing the same air, waiting for the same Uptown train, pulsing through the same viens.

And there you go: that’s the heart of New York. You get a world that is beautiful precisely because of how little sense it makes. The subway epitomizes the diversity of New York. We are the blood cells, working tirelessly for our own aims that inherently and inevitably serve the greater good of the city. There are no walls. There are no secrets. We act as a single organism, as if we have nothing to hide. For what need have we for privacy when are all part of the same life force?


UPDATE: Here’s a comment from an anonymous poster in the great midwest:

“This post applies to C—— too.

We nurse our babies with bottles filled with orange pop. We stab each other with penknives. We masturbate behind a newspaper. We pee into a cup.


Thanks, friend. You are right. Yikes.

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Making the Connection

The subway is a surprisingly comforting place to have an existential crisis.

This is what I have discovered while reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Eloquent and erudite, Barbery’s book explores intelligence, loneliness, and Art though the journals of two women living in the same high-end Parisian apartment building. There’s Renee, the cloistered, brilliant concierge bent on convincing the rich people for whom she works that she’s only a lowly idiot, and Paloma, the equally brilliant and cynical 12 year old daughter of the weathly 4th floor residents.

Barbery explores our consistent failure to really connect with other human beings: “We have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves,” writes Paloma in her journal of profound thoughts. “We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.” Enter: my crisis of faith. Thoughts include, “Does this mean I’ll never get out of my own head?” “The heart really is a lonely hunter!” and the general, “What’s the point?” Suddenly I was that girl, crying by herself on the subway, making a regular scene while everyone else was just thinking about what they were going to have for dinner.

So there I was on a crowded 4 train, heading uptown, feeling lonely and lost and not at all like Rebecca in her previous post, when I heard the man seated next to me make a sort of indiscernible yelping noise. At first I thought the sound was directed at me, so I buried my head deeper into my book. He made the noise again, and this time he got a response from a young Asian couple standing directly over him. The noise wasn’t a noise at all; it was a greeting in a language I don’t speak. Silly, sheltered American, I thought. I stopped scolding myself long enough to listen to the conversation.

I understood absolutely nothing, but no longer being a tourist myself I can easily (and smugly) pick travelers out in a crowd. Camera, map, nice clothes and hair, quiet voices- their adornments and body language told me (and the man beside me) they were definitely foreigners. The boyfriend dominated the conversation, while the girlfriend hung back. I guess the man must have asked where they had come from, because I heard the boy respond: “Tokyo.”

Not only has Japan been on my mind lately, and yours as well, I presume, but also on Paloma’s and Renee’s. Paloma reads mangas (widely distributed Japanese comic books), Renee loves Japanese films and interior decoration, both drink tea and read haikus, and when Monsieur Ozu moves into the building (could he be the famous Japanese filmmaker himself?) both women’s lives are turned upside down.

Given all this literary and media attention focused on and around Japan, when the conversation next to me turned out to be in Japanese I read as much meaning into the coincidence as I could. Look: right here in front of me were people connecting to one another. True, the connection was fleeting at best (the conversation fizzled out, amicably, after a few exchanges), and the speakers were really only connecting based on a part of themselves (their country of origin) that they had in common. So yes, perhaps they were looking at each other and seeing a part of themselves.

But so what? What’s so wrong with latching onto the common ground between yourself and someone else, and using that as a springboard for real connection?

And I get it- Freud would tell me that we’re all alone, alone, all all alone. But that’s depressing. (In fact, does anyone else think maybe he was just using this type of downer philosophy to tip people off the edge of sanity and thereby increase the supply of neurotic patients??)

As it turns out, despite the characters’ initial alienation and desperation, the beauty and the redemption of the story is in Barbery’s eventual insistence that we’re all whole lot closer than we think. I won’t tell you what happens because you should read this book, but I will say that things look up when people start opening up their hearts to one another.

I think Barbery would like my coincidence. I think she’d want us to recognize ourselves in the other, to seize that point of recognition and to throw all our effort into building a bridges between ourselves and those around us.

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