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Book & Bottle #2: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata* paired with Chu-Hi

The fantasy of owning a combination bookstore and bar has long buoyed me through bouts of tedium that are part of corporate life. The shop would be enlivened by a roster of visiting authors, and we would pair booze with their books for reading/tasting events. While this venture remains unrealized for now, I’ve started mentally preparing by pairing booze with my own reading list and writing down the results. In short, I have concocted an elaborate ruse to drink more booze and read more books.

Convenience Store Heaven

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is the punkiest heroine I’ve met on the page since Viv Albertine’s 2015 memoir of her time in the Slits, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

We meet Keiko when she’s thirty-six, having worked for the last eighteen years part-time at a convenience store, the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. It’s a job she started for spare money while at university and, much to the consternation of her family and friends, has never left. In the first twelve pages we also learn that her family is loving and intact—two parents, one younger sister—as well as three anecdotes from her childhood that demonstrate Keiko sees the world differently, in a way that sometimes upsets other people. The first and most innnocuous of these is when she was in nursery school and finds a dead bird in the park, which she suggests they take home and cook for dinner since daddy likes yakitori. Her bewildered mother insists they bury it instead, the logic of which seems especially suspect to Keiko since an improvised funeral for Mr. Budgie requires “murdering flowers.”

While she manages to get through high school and university without creating more of the troubling incidents from her childhood, she is mostly a loner and enters adulthood with the acute feeling that she “had to be cured.” While not exactly a cure, the convenience store offers a reprieve from the undecipherable rules of the outside world that have previously gotten her into trouble.

Inside the brightly lit box, Keiko finds a world she can make sense of, where things happen predictably. Each shift starts with the crew repeating in unison the scripted phrases they use with customers, starting and ending with “Irasshaimasé!”, which means, “Welcome, please come in!” A jingle of coins in a pocket indicates a customer who just wants to buy cigarettes or a newspaper. Hot weather means sandwiches will sell well, cold weather means croquettes will be hot. There are policies and procedures, from what to wear to when to press the alarm. The alarm is never pressed, although she comes close one day when one customer starts yelling at another customer. The manager handles the matter efficiently, and Keiko observes one of the books recurring themes about society and all its microcosms:

A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.

The staff may change—she’s on manager #8 of her tenure when we meet her—but for the most part things at the convenience store stay, mercifully, nay blissfully for Keiko, the same. This is also good for the store: Keiko is a kick-ass convenience store worker.

*

Wine Kimono
Things I considered buying in the course of writing this

Trying to decide what drink to pair with Convenience Store Woman was challenging. Keiko never drinks alcohol in the book, a fact that’s not commented on but makes implicit sense given the responsibility she feels to keep herself in shape “for the sake of the store.” Food and drink is strictly transactional for Keiko. She “heat treats” rather than cooks her food, and at dinner she stuffs “the food before me into my body so that I would be fit to work again tomorrow.”

One fateful evening—more on this later—while attempting to console a former colleague, Shiraha, she makes him a cup of jasmine tea while she sticks to hot water.

I hadn’t added a teabag since I didn’t really feel any need to drink flavored liquid.

Never has a single line more deftly skewered the world of the coffee and tea-swilling masses.

Keiko does occasionally deign to drink tea when she meets up with a circle of “normal” women coordinated through a friend from school, Miho. She does this not so much because she enjoys it but because they’re a precious resource for her to study the mores of her peers outside the world of the convenience store, from what handbags they carry to the way they coo at a baby or eat their cookies by breaking them into tiny pieces with their perfectly manicured fingers. She clearly sees how they, as well as her colleagues, “infect” each other with their behavior, mimicking clothes and patterns of speech.

Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.

Despite Keiko’s temperance, I pressed on with the conceit of Book & Bottle and resolved to meet the challenge of choosing something to pair with the book that was easily bought at a convenience store, while also honoring Keiko’s emotionless, non-indulgent relationship with food and drink. Unfortunately, the closest convenience store to my apartment, on a gentrified drag of San Francisco, is not a normal American convenience store. In place of hot dogs and Coors, it stocks Amy’s vegetarian frozen entrees and tallboys of craft-brewed, local IPAs sold at a hefty premium to Safeway. A specialist sake store across the street didn’t seem right either. Instead I headed to the busy Nijiya Market in Japantown, which, according to the ten-cent plastic bag I bought when I checked out, is a chain of Japanese markets in California, Honolulu and Hartsdale, NY.

Standing in front of a boggling array of what I incorrectly assumed was all sake, a young man appeared and pointed at a can called Chu-Hi, telling his friends this with the closest you can get to Strong Zero here in America. I asked him what Strong Zero was, and he explained it’s a Japanese diet soda that’s about 9% alcohol. The $2.99 can in front of me said 6% ABV, just below an image of a grapefruit sliced open and sitting on top of a blue block of ice. Bingo. I had found what I assumed was the Smirnoff Ice of Japan. The Internet later informed me Chu-Hi is fruit soda mixed with shōchū, a Japanese distilled liquor. Developed in eastern Tokyo in the 1940s, Chu-Hi pre-dates Smirnoff Ice by about fifty years.

Strictly speaking I was going off-piste from the “bottle” concept of Book & Bottle, but I liked the affinity my can of Chu-Hi had with the dented canned drinks Keiko buys to take home. Hers come in flavors like lemonade and a tantalizing-sounding chocolate melon, but she’s buying them because they’re damaged goods that can’t otherwise be sold in the convenience store. Keiko describes her motives as utilitarian, and yet I can’t help sentimentally attributing the behavior at least in part to some subconscious empathy for herself.

Sparkling Selection
A sparkling selection at Nijiya Market

*

My assertion of Keiko’s essential punkiness rests on how utterly radical it is of her to be happy with what is generally considered a dead-end job, without a partner or children of her own, which she translates into flatly delivered, direct insights, like:

When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.

The tension in the story arrives when Keiko bows, sort of, to the pressure from her friends and family to lead a more normal life—husband, kids, a real job. Realizing a lowlife former convenience store colleague, Shiraha, suffers many of the same problems of failing to meet expectations that she does, she opportunistically hatches a scheme where he will move in with her—he’s been kicked out of his apartment—so that they can both appear to have found a partner and be settling down.

The book stays firmly rooted in reality, but the recurring language of “eliminating foreign objects,” especially as the plot takes this extreme turn, is reminiscent of the surreal dystopia of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 film, The Lobster, in which single people are given forty-five days to find a partner or be turned into an animal of their choice. Fittingly, Keiko thinks of her new arrangement as adopting a pet; Shiraha is nothing more to her than an animal she has to feed. And yet everyone around them is delighted.

On the first night that Shiraha moves in, Keiko calls her sister on a whim, as an experiment, to tell her the news. She starts by asking about her nephew, who her sister reports is fast asleep, before delivering yet another of her deadpan, inadvertent reflections on what society recognizes as success:

My sister’s life was progressing. At any rate, a living being that hadn’t existed before was now there with her.

Her sister is over the moon at Keiko’s news of a man in the house.

She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might just as well have been saying I was “cured.”

*

Without wanting to give away too much more of Convenience Store Woman, there’s a period where Keiko loses her profession, and the plot has a brief, eerie overlap with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation as Keiko takes to mostly full-time sleeping. We never get to see the moment when Keiko zips up her uniform and reclaims her rightful mantle of Convenience Store Worker—a wrong I’m hoping will be righted in a full superhero-suiting-up montage if the book is ever adapted to film—but the book still ends with a scene that suggests rebirth. Alone, Keiko sees herself reflected in the window of the convenience store, reminding her of the hospital where she first saw her newborn nephew. She hears the clerk behind the glass call out the familiar refrain:

“Irasshaimasé!”

Welcome, please come in! My best advice is to heed the invitation. Grab yourself a Chu-Hi—Fresca with vodka would make a convincing facsimile if there’s no Japanese market near you—then head back outside. Cherry blossom season is here. Sit under a tree, crack open your drink and lay into the book. But beware: both have sly charms that will leave you wasted before you know what hit you.

*Convenience Store Woman is translated from Japanese to English by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Books

Book & Bottle #1: The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman paired with Burgundy & Bordeaux

The fantasy of owning a combination bookstore and wine bar has long buoyed me through bouts of tedium that are part of corporate life. The shop would be enlivened by a roster of visiting authors, and we would pair wines with their books for reading/tasting events. While this venture remains unrealized for now, I’ve started mentally preparing by pairing wine with my own reading list and writing down the results. In short, I have concocted an elaborate ruse to drink more wine and read more books.

Blundering through Bordeaux & Burgundy (with Bake Off on TV in the background)

It’s hard to think of a book that suggests itself more for a series about pairing wine with words than Anne Fadiman’s memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, which aims to preserve her father, the late Clifton Fadiman, in the public memory. Fadiman was a prolific book critic, editor, and writer, as well as popular radio host and committed oenophile. His daughter writes of him:

My father had long associated books and wine; they both sparked conversation, they were both a lifetime project, they were both pleasurable to shelve, they were the only things he collected.

I first came across Clifton Fadiman through the book he co-wrote with John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan, a compendium of no less an ambitious topic than world literature. He also co-authored, with Sam Aaron, The Joys of Wine, a similarly ambitious encyclopedia of wine. Ambition, or at least extreme industriousness, was a theme in Fadiman’s life. As Anne Fadiman explains, “That’s how he afforded the wine.”

Clifton Fadiman was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster at age twenty-eight and the book critic of The New Yorker at twenty-nine. Before that he worked his way through Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1925. Next he secured an assignment to translate Nietszche in order to finance a trip to Paris, where his first wife had run off with a member of the Italian aristocracy. Their marriage ended, but not before his then-wife facilitated Fadiman’s Damascene moment with wine: an inexpensive bottle of white Graves ordered with lunch at the Bon Marché department store.

This, I thought, was the perfect candidate for a wine pairing with the book. In addition to its symbolic importance in Fadiman’s life story, Graves is in Bordeaux, his favorite wine region. Anne Fadiman attributes her father’s preference for Bordeaux over Burgundy, which he also loved, to this:

Bordeaux are named after châteaux. Castles. The antithesis of an apartment over a Brooklyn drugstore.

Her father’s angst over being the son of lower-middle-class immigrant Jews is a recurring theme in the book. One painful anecdote reveals how anti-Semitic discrimination at Columbia deprived him of his aspiration to be a professor in their English department. While he went on to achieve tremendous success outside of academia, Anne Fadiman writes that her father never got over that snub.

The choice of wine also adhered to my own taste: white Graves varietals are sauvignon blanc and sémillon, which I much prefer over the chardonnay of Burgundy. The die was cast, and I headed to my local wine store where I asked to be directed to the white Burgundy from Graves. The clerk, perhaps accustomed to such gaffes, flatly noted that Graves is in Bordeaux before explaining that they only had red Bordeaux in stock. Reeling with embarrassment—my WASPish self-consciousness as deeply ingrained as Clifton Fadiman’s own insecurities—I followed the clerk across the store to survey the mostly lavishly-priced reds of Bordeaux. Sensing my hesitation, he suggested I try the $30 bottle of Château Tour Peyronneau 2015 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Merlot they were currently serving by the glass.

This is how I learned that I have unconsciously—perhaps a hangover from the wine snob’s opinions in Sideways—been shunning merlot at my expense. It was delicious, easy-drinking, ripe, fruity stuff. Perhaps too easy since I had not eaten lunch. While waiting to pay for a bottle to take home, I inspected some half bottles by the counter. In my wine-emboldened state, I mistook the two syllables of Bourgogne (the French for Burgundy) for Bordeaux and believed I had in fact found a bottle of white Bordeaux in the shop. At $105 it was not the cheap white Graves of Fadiman’s department store lunch, but Fadiman was all about French vintage wines and I was gripped by the 14%-ABV-induced urge to splash out.

But wait! I spotted ANOTHER half-bottle of white Bourdeaux-nay-Bourgogne, a relative steal at $38. I brought both to the counter, along with the merlot. The clerk, silent if he had in fact detected my latest blunder, rang me up, making me the proud, foolish owner of $143 worth of my least favorite white wine, chardonnay.

This seems like a good time to acknowledge that my enjoyment of wine outstrips my knowledge of it. With French wine I’m most comfortable choosing from other regions, including, in rough order of who’s paying from me to not me, riesling from Alsace, Sancerre (sauvignon blanc from the Loire), and Condrieu (viognier from the northern Rhône).

*

The daughter of Clifton Fadiman would have never mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux. In a sixth-grade school report she explained that “Bordeaux is bottled in abruptly-shouldered bottles, while Burgundy bottles have more sloping shoulders,” adding parenthetically: “Duh. I’d known that since I was six.” In sixth grade she also knew the names of Premier Cru, and some Grand Cru, Burgundies; a slew of oenological terms; and that most of the Great Years were odd numbers, including ’29, ’45, ’49, and ’59.

Despite knowing her way around a cellar, Anne Fadiman serves her memoir in mostly short chapters, a friendly list of wines-by-the glass rather than an imposing carte des vins. There are charming anecdotes and trivia, from a letter Hemingway drunkenly wrote to her father—in response to reviews of Hemingway’s short story collection Winner Take Nothing—to the revelation that the glass Julia Child raised when she toasted “Bon appétit!” on TV was filled with nothing more than water tinted with Gravy Master.

Fadiman’s vignettes portray a childhood that was generally idyllic and her love for her father is evident, but she’s also able to assess him with relative clarity. When she can’t she allows others to do so, as when towards the end of the book—long after the reader has already deduced the same—she lets her older brother explain why neither of them particularly like wine: “Because we didn’t need to escape our origins.”

Although Clifton Fadiman seemed to carry the burden of impostor syndrome with him no matter how famous or wealthy he became, he was also willing to admit when he made a mistake. When he was at The New Yorker, his last column of each year reappraised the books he had reviewed unfairly, or missed, over the past twelve months. His taste in wine, which had been dominated by old Europe, also changed, becoming more expansive. In his late sixties he moved up the coast from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and developed an interest in California wines. By his mid-eighties, Greece, Chile, Australia, Corsica, and Yugoslavia had made forays into his wine cellar. Anne Fadiman writes that:

I knew he’d really loosened up the night he drank a German white with a large plate of spaghetti.

As for me, the bottle of Château Tour Peyronneau is now gone, most of it drunk with a bowl of lentil soup and a za’atar flat bread at a BYOB Lebanese restaurant. It may not have been a classic food and wine pairing, but it was in the spirit of Fadiman, who always drank his wine with food—sharing a bottle with his second wife and Anne Fadiman’s mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman, with dinner every night. My two pricey half-bottles of chardonnay remain untouched as I mull over the possibilities for their disposal. I could give them away to a friend who loves chardonnay, but there would be stubbornness lurking in the gesture. Better that we share them; if Clifton “Kip” Fadiman can drink silvaner with spaghetti, there’s hope for my palate yet. It would be delicious to be wrong.

Books

2018: My Year in Books

Ramon Casas i Carbó’s After the Ball, one of the images featured in Stefan Bollman’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous

When I was in second grade, my teacher held a contest to see who could read the most books in a month. She hadn’t set any rules about the kind of books that counted, and I quickly realized I could rack up my tally by opting for short books that were meant for younger children. Little Golden Books, which were sold near the checkout at our local grocery store, Food World, were just that sort of book. My mother, perhaps relieved I was begging for books instead of candy bars, indulged me. I won the contest handily.

This year, short books have once again dominated my reading. I could blame Twitter for strip mining my attention span, but whatever the reason, I credit short books for getting me over a mid-year reading hump. First to break the impasse was writer and activist Sara Marchant’s novella, The Driveway Has Two Sides, which I devoured in a weekend. After that Nancy Mitford’s slim comedy of manners, The Pursuit of Love, gave me a British fix full of interesting women navigating the period between world wars. Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams was the perfect choice for October—not exactly a ghost story but a spooky masterpiece in 116 pages. Olivia Laing’s much-talked about contemporary novel Crudo wasn’t as enjoyable as I hoped but was more than curious enough to sustain its 133 pages. I had moved onto Deborah Levy’s brief, excellent memoir (the second of a trio) about womanhood and writing, The Cost of Living, before it dawned on me that my recent run on reading had been fueled almost entirely by books under 200-pages long. 

Not surprisingly, essay collections that bring the satisfaction of completing something in a handful of pages have also featured in my reading list for the year. David Sedaris’s Calypso provided the expected dose of wince-inducing humor as well as stark, raw writing about his family. The “Best American” series of anthologies produced its first ever edition on food writing (what took so long?), including one of my favorite tweeters and food writer at The New Yorker, Helen Rosner, and the late great Jonathan Gold, plus exposing me to terrific pieces by Tejal Rao, Lauren Michelle Jackson, and Khushbu Shah. I’m currently dipping in and out of Human Relations & Other Difficulties, a collection of pieces by London Review of Books editor and woman-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up, Mary-Kay Wilmers.

My peak good-things-come-in-small-packages literary moment was when I bought a dwarsligger edition of a John Green novel. Dwarsligger is the Dutch term for a deck-of-cards-sized horizontal book, a format that’s popular in the Netherlands. I had no desire to read a YA novel, but I was curious to know if the form factor delivered on the promise of one-handed reading, and the concept was being tested in America with reissues of Green’s books. A New York Times article had likened turning a dwarsligger’s page to “swiping a smartphone,” but my hopes for tricking my brain into replacing my Twitter addiction were quickly dashed. Reading a dwarsligger was decidedly a two-handed experience, and mine is being re-purposed as a stocking stuffer for my tweenie niece. Maybe she’ll get it.

Vintage Trailer Rally Happiness

At the other end of the size spectrum, 2018 was the year I started buying coffee table books. I suspect this might be an indicator as telling as my reading glasses that I’m utterly middle-aged, but I enjoyed buying books I felt no particular obligation to read. These included Vintage Camper Trailer Rallies, a purchase that foreshadowed my husband’s and my purchase of a 1959 Shasta, complete with silver wings and an avocado-upholstered banquette. We even attended our very first vintage trailer rally, but as visitors rather than campers. Turns out getting a camping slot in these events is more challenging than getting past the bouncer at Berghain. Still, the visual feast of a day visit was well worth the trip.

Not content with physical objects, 2018 was also the year I delved deeper into book-related podcasts. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is my favorite for reading-while-walking, and Harriett Gilbert’s A Good Read is just my favorite. New, welcome discoveries were Between the Covers and Literary Friction, the latter of which featured an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, writer of my favorite full-length novel of the year, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I liked it so much I wrote about it here, as I did with my other favorite novel of the year, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Oh, and I’d hate to leave out my other other favorite novel I read this year, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m looking forward to delving back into the Between the Covers archive to listen to the interview with him.

My year in books unwittingly extended itself to film, too. My favorites all have some connection to books, like Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the late writer Lee Israel’s memoir about how, when down on her luck, she began to forge letters by authors like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are a delight in it. I also loved the post-Hundred-Acre-Wood Christopher Robin starring Ewan McGregor. For sheer froth, it doesn’t get dishier than the documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, based on a memoir by Scotty Bowers about his role arranging liaisons for gay actors and celebrities in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, watching the film adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife (with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce) made me feel less bad that I haven’t managed to read her 2018 novel that showed up on almost every best-books-of-this-year listThe Female Persuasion.

What I hate most about those best-books-of-the-year lists is how they all come out in November or early December, well-timed for encouraging holiday gift purchases of books, but almost crass in their dismissal of the possibility December might bring. I, for one, am not giving up on my reading for the year yet and just bought National Book Award-winner Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. At a mere 212 pages, I’m pretty sure I can fit it in before the year’s out, which will bring my tally of books read for the year to twenty. The pleasure I get from reading is far beyond a number on a list, but twenty is pleasingly round and the second grader in me is grinning at the prospect of hitting it. 

Books

Best of the Best-Books-of-2018 lists

Are these the best books of 2018?

 

Earlier this year I had the idea for Booketlist, an app to help avid readers create and manage a lifetime reading plan—because so many books, so little time. To determine what classics should be included, I’m turning to books like Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and Michael Dirda’s Reading Classics for Pleasure for inspiration. But when it comes to contemporary literature, the task gets harder. Has enough time passed to know what the classics of the twenty-first century are? How best to keep the app up-to-date each year as more and more books are published?

To examine that question, I took a look at three of the recently published 2018 end-of-year lists from prominent English language (two American, one British) media organizations:

  1. NPR’s Book Concierge for 2018 (319 books)
  2. The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 (as you might expect, this list encompasses the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2018)
  3. The Financial Times Books of the Year 2018 (195 books)

Each list is a different beast that I’ll talk about in a separate post dedicated to making sense of these lists. For now, I’ll jump straight to the results of which books show up on all three lists. In alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction, the nine books that are common between these three best-of lists are:

Non-Fiction

  1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  2. Educated – Tara Westover (This title made this list thanks to a reader nomination on the FT list. The FT is the only list of the three that includes a readers’ best books section.)
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  4. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction

  1. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  2. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  3. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  4. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
  5. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

What does this list of nine books tell us about 2018? Perhaps it’s the wrong question since they would have been written in the years before their publication. But do they contribute to some kind of thematically linked contemporary portrait? In non-fiction, we find a tale of misdeeds in Silicon Valley, a memoir of a woman who grew up with a survivalist father, a re-examination of LSD in an age of increasing legalization of drugs from the man who taught us about the ethics of food, and a critique of the elites’ ability to change the world for good—a nice link straight back to Bad Blood and the misdeeds of Silicon Valley.

In fiction, we find a novel comprised of two novellas, one about an affair between a younger and older person, the other about the detention of an Iraqi-American; a Wall Street bro on a road trip; a novel about feminism and women’s mentoring relationships; another about suicide and womanizing and power imbalance; and finally, one about slavery and adventure. A line from the synopsis of Halliday’s Asymmetry seems a neat summary of the group of all nine books as well, each of which in some way “explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.” While these imbalances are timeless themes, they have particularly contemporary resonance in our age of #metoo, BLM, refugee crises, wealth inequality, political strongmen, and the Kardashians, to name a few.

*

I started this process by comparing The New York Times’s 100 to NPR’s list of 319 books. I assumed I’d find almost all the NYT books on the NPR list, but there were less than half—45 to be exact—in common. Here’s that list, also in alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction 

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. Arthur Ashe: A Life – Raymond Arsenault
  3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  4. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis – Sam Anderson
  5. Calypso – David Sedaris
  6. Educated – Tara Westover
  7. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress– Steven Pinker
  8. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  9. God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State – Lawrence Wright
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  12. In Pieces – Sally Field
  13. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade
  14. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown
  15. Small Fry – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
  16. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War – Joanne B. Freeman
  17. The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
  18. The Library Book – Susan Orlean
  19. There Will Be No Miracles Here – Casey Gerald
  20. These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore
  21. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction – Here I noted if the book had been nominated for a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, as well as genre where the book is something other than a novel of literary fiction. The inclusion of four Man Booker nominees on the list highlights the omission of the winner, Northern Irish writer Anna Burns’s Milkman, and the folly of publishing best-of lists at the end of November: the novel’s US release date is December 4, 2018, and it was included in the British FT’s best-of list.

  1. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (National Book Award finalist)
  2. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  3. Crudo – Olivia Laing
  4. Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
  5. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  6. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  7. Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel – Lawrence Osborne (thriller)
  8. Sabrina – Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
  9. Severance – Ling Ma
  10. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  11. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  12. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez (National Book Award winner)
  13. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (National Book Award finalist)
  14. The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
  15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
  16. The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  17. The Overstory – Richard Powers (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  18. The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani
  19. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst
  20. The Witch Elm – Tana French (thriller)
  21. There There – Tommy Orange (National Book Award finalist)
  22. Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Man Booker Prize longlist)
  23. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  24. Your Duck Is My Duck – Deborah Eisenberg (stories)

A final note: I built these lists mostly with Excel and eyeballing titles rather than by dumping the data into a database and systematically querying it, ie there may be mistakes. Please let me know if you notice any.

Books Britain England

My England Diary

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.

 

In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.

***

After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.

***

And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.

Britain England

London in a single street

Golborne Road: a tale of two cities

 

London is hardly a one-street town, but sometimes it feels possible to experience the entire city on a single street. Such was my feeling about Golborne Road—a stretch of pavement that starts near the top of its more famous neighbor, Portobello Road, then runs a few blocks before it spits you out in a community garden along the Grand Union Canal—on a late spring visit earlier this year. We have a minuscule flat in Maida Hill, five minutes farther on the other side of the canal, that was unexpectedly free of tenants when we were there, and so we used it to stay overnight before heading home from Heathrow the next day.

My sharpest memory of this road from when we last lived in the neighborhood, almost a decade ago, was seeing David Cameron strolling with his small children during a weekend market. Back then—pre-Brexit disgrace—he was the opposition leader, and it was striking to see such a prominent politician without security out amongst us common folk. The street has gentrified considerably since, so much so that it perhaps no longer offers the backdrop for the sort of man-of-the-people positioning Cameron was likely after at the time. Still, much remains the same, including the tiny-yet-labyrinth Moroccan homewares shop, Fez. Inside we admired cheerfully painted, octagonal side tables, and I sprang for a straw summer bag decorated with a silver tassel and a snail-shaped spiral of sequins.

Other stalwarts of the street include the antiques shop, Les Couilles du Chien, which always reminds me of the Harry Enfield sketch, I Saw You Coming, featuring a shop that’s “basically a bunch of crap that I’ve rather tastefully displayed and a few smelly candles.” (Note: having never actually gone into Les Couilles du Chien, I have no reason to think the “crap” contained therein is anything less than the dog’s bollocks.)

We next turned our attention to two adjacent and new-to-us cafés, both with inviting pavement seating. At Snaps + Rye, we went off piste from the Danish menu and enjoyed a glass of rosé outside. This gave us an excellent vantage point from which to spot a table freeing up outside at Kipferl next door. We swooped in and ordered a carafe of Grüner Veltliner, which arrived on a silver tray with another carafe of water, in the same appealing manner as Viennese coffee service.

Scandie-Austrian on Golborne Road

From here, I watched people doing their shopping at two independent markets directly across the street. One of them, E. Price & Sons, had the most striking visage: on the left, a boarded up, graffiti-strewn incarnation of the exact same cheery, Union-Jack-festooned shop on the right. The only other difference was the description of the shop painted in cursive script underneath “E. Price & Sons.” On the old shop, it read “English & Foreign Fruiterers,” while the new sign had dropped the distinction entirely for the more generic “Fruiterers & Greengrocers.” It seems wholly appropriate on a street featuring Moroccan, Portuguese, Pakistani, Lebanese, Danish, Austrian, and Italian—to name the ones I remember—shops and restaurants, that the words “English” and “foreign” had been rendered superfluous. The notion works equally well for London as for this tiny street.

There are other things I liked about this side-by-side contrast of the old and new shops, not least of which is that there is a word in the English language that makes a retailer of fruit evoke a life of excitement akin to being one of the three musketeers. While “English & foreign” were summarily dismissed in the recommissioning of the sign, “fruiterer” was wisely retained. I also like how, in a world where we are relentlessly tasked—especially by our social-media-platform overlords—with reinventing ourselves, the reincarnation of the fruit shop seems to be giving us permission to say sometimes it’s OK to pack it all in and start from scratch. And it’s just fine to leave our past failures on display. I very much hope to find the dilapidated old shop in exactly the same state when I next visit. If you happen to be there before me and notice it’s been reinvented, please feel free not to tell me.

Dinner that evening was at the excellent Pizza East, at the Portobello-end of the street, then back over the railway bridge where we couldn’t resist stopping in for one last drink at Southam Street. What used to be a pub is now an ambitious-seeming multi-level bar and restaurant with a doorman wearing weather-inappropriate, ominous leather gloves. The wine was more inexpensive than the context implied. As we walked back towards the canal, we passed what appeared to be a very-fun-to-hate members-only club just in the shadow of the brutalist landmark, high-rise residences of Trellick Tower. This caused me to suddenly remember, and curse, a painter who had once dropped and smashed a beloved mug that was decorated with a drawing of Trellick. I was fairly drunk.

On our final morning we crossed the Harrow Road, then the pedestrian bridge over the canal, and headed back to Golborne for our last hour in London. At the Portuguese coffee shop Lisboa, we joined the queue of commuters for inexpensive, delicious black coffee. I mourned my dairy-free diet as I watched my husband consume not one but two custard tarts. (In my pre-vegan days, I particularly enjoyed the chicken croquettes, coxinhas, at Café O’Porto, another Portuguese café on the opposite side of the street.)  It was soon time for us to leave London, and even though the past twenty-four hours had been spent largely on a single street, I felt remarkably well-traveled.

California

In praise of one-street towns: Point Arena

Franny's Cup and Saucer

Franny’s Cup and Saucer, Main Street, Point Arena

About four years ago, my husband and I discovered Los Alamos, California, a one-street town in Santa Barbara County, just off the 101. It’s of course more than just a one-street town, but not by much. At the time it had already been discovered, at least by some of Hollywood. Emilio Estevez had started a craft-beer bar there, and Kurt Russell owned a saloon/tasting room.

Still, it was not quite given over to tourists the way other parts of the Santa Ynez Valley were post-Sideways. The local motel was still crappy (although in the midst of being converted by the same people who had converted another formerly crappy hotel in Ojai into an outpost of the now ubiquitous Coachella-meets-ranch style), and the hours at the businesses along the main street were erratic—many still only open Thursday through Sunday. While the town’s main drag, Bell Street, has continued to morph in recent years, Los Alamos has remained a favorite of ours for a one-night weekend away.

Part of it’s appeal is the one-street package. Los Alamos is not demanding of its visitor.  You can eat, drink, nap and browse your way along Bell Street for an entire day, starting with breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread at the 101 end, eventually finishing with dinner at Full of Life Flatbread at the other. This geography of idling is part of the reason we were so excited when on a recent trip along Highway 1 in northern California, we discovered one of Los Alamos’s one-street brethren in Point Arena, a tiny town some 130 miles north of San Francisco in southern Mendocino County.

On our first of two visits, a barking Pomeranian drew us into the open-fronted Zen House Motorcycles, a shop that specializes in restoring high-end bikes. Inside I admired their branded tee-shirts and hats, bearing a logo that riffs on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while my husband admired the bikes, and the friendly female mechanic gave him details of each one. She even listened politely as he described the joy he’s found in riding his recently-acquired, used knock-off Vespa. The shop adjoins a full-service gas station, and later when we filled up there it was such a pleasant, human experience that it made me hope for a full-service resurgence.

Next door we poked around the outside of the Wildflower Boutique Motel, which was under construction. It still wasn’t done when we returned a few weeks later for an overnight visit, so we booked a room at the Wharf Master’s Inn. It’s a mile or so off the main street, with views of a Pacific cove and easy access to the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room. But we had a date with main street, so we rode our bikes up the gentle hill into town and headed to 215 Main, where we met the librarian and basketball coach at the local high school who was having his first day on the job as a bartender, too. His moonlighting was a reminder that while one-street towns may still exist in America, the middle-class security that they evoke is long gone.

The bar specializes in regional wines, which means it has an excellent selection from the nearby Anderson Valley. There’s food, too, but we were there before dinner time and the only thing we saw plated up was when an elderly cowboy sitting at one end of the bar pointed at a salami hanging from the wine glass rack and asked for a few slices and some tomato to go with it. This was not on the menu, but the bartender made it for him anyway. When we later went across the street to Sign of the Whale, a classic small-town boozer, the cowboy was at the end of the bar again.

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse

In between, we stopped in at an art show on the premises of a stylish homeware store that was closing down, admired the baked goods at Franny’s Cup and Saucer—which included an exquisite dish of “eggs and bacon” made from mango curd-topped meringue and pink-striped shortbread—and fantasized about buying Fogeaters, a now-empty Victorian property with a restaurant on the ground floor and an apartment upstairs. There’s also a small grocery store, a couple of coffee shops (one at the front of the grocery store), a pharmacy, and a library, all on a few blocks of the main drag.

Back at Sign of the Whale, the proprietor wandered in, fresh from his shift at the fire department. A few minutes into our conversation he mentioned he’d worked on the Thomas Fire in December, which had threatened our home in Ventura, and showed us a set of jaw-dropping pictures on his phone. Flush with gratitude, we thanked him profusely and bought him a beer before heading through the swinging doors that connect the bar with Bird Cafe & Supper Club. Our dinner of borscht followed by sweet potato gnocchi was superb.

In the morning, we drove a few miles out to the lighthouse and took a walk in the whipping wind. There’s a Victorian bandstand that sits on a lone spit of land to the east of the lighthouse, a perfect place to sit and enjoy the view (or re-enact an eighties music video). When we visited, sea lions had miraculously hoisted themselves onto the jagged-rock islands around the point and were lolling in the morning sun. To join them in this splendid isolation you can rent one of the lighthouse cottages, but then you’d miss out on the many pleasures of this one-street town.

Books California Christmas Letters

2017: My Year in Books

I’m not sure if I’ll muster the will to write a Christmas letter this year, mostly because my will has been sapped by much of 2017 on both the personal and political fronts. As the saying goes, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.

There is, however, one thing about which I have only nice things to say, and that’s all the lovely books I’ve read this year. Sure, I’ve read far less in 2017 than 2016, a fact I attribute directly to the draining of my attention and energy by the personage currently occupying our White House. But I’m grateful to my bones for the knowledge and enjoyment provided by every single one of those I did manage to get through, so I’ll turn my festive cheer their way.

Let’s keep up the positive vibe with a shout out for Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge. I first read Stibbe’s charming collection of letters, Love, Nina, about her time as nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, and it turns out she’s a terrific novelist too. Paradise Lodge is the second novel in a series about the Vogel family, but you needn’t have read the first—I didn’t—to enjoy this one. The protagonist, teenager Lizzie Vogel, who works at a decaying but somehow still charming nursing home while trying to finish school, is so deftly drawn that I loved every minute I spent with her. Also, I don’t think it spoils things to say it has a happy ending. I suspect people might need one of those just about now. (I’m not sure why the cheery yellow cover of Paradise Lodge doesn’t appear in the photo above, but I hope it’s because I gave my copy to someone else to enjoy.)

Now that I’ve sweetened you up, I’m going to go ahead and hit you with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a post-apocalyptic—by which I mean a totally believable, especially after this year’s fire season, twenty-first century version of the dust bowl—novel about a couple fleeing California with a neglected baby they’ve kidnapped, who ends up an unlikely messiah figure. The writing is stunning and cinematic, and someone better make a film out of it so I can bluster about how the book was better.

Two other novels I enjoyed this year were Rachel Cusk’s Transit, mostly because I’m deeply drawn to her detached protagonist Faye, and Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which has a much more conventional (read: likable) protagonist in the form of Lois. If you work in tech and like food, I think you’ll like Sloan’s story, which includes gentle send-ups of both those cultures. I also got to see him read at Mrs. Dalloway’s  (more on this special store below) after I read the book, and it was fun to hear him talk about writing it. I like that he’s a developer and a writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I bought this a few years back at a literature festival in England (not sure why it was there since McCullers is long dead), and randomly picked it up to read earlier this year. I subsequently gathered she’s famous in some corners of the literary world, but why McCullers is not as well-known as Harper Lee is beyond me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the nihilist version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s brilliant. The novel is populated by an ensemble cast, but the young female character of Mick Kelly slayed me. I once worked with a guy who had named his daughter Scout after Atticus Finch’s daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have kids, which means the highest honor I can bestow a character in a book is to name a pet after him or her. Let’s just say there’s a cat called Mick Kelly in my future and leave it at that.

Now for the non-fiction portion of my reading list, starting with three books of author’s diaries: Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding, and Joan Didion’s South and West. I wrote an essay about them here, so I won’t say more except that if you like these authors I also think you’ll like these books. Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration is a terrific book that reminded me I like science and is a great example of how to riff on a theme in non-fiction. This book is so much more than a story about someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Finally, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a lovely book for anyone who adores books, with the bonus that each essay is the perfect length for a bath. If you’re still looking for a gift for someone, you could do worse than this book packaged up with a nice bottle of bubble bath.

A few of the books I read this year don’t show up in the pictures in this post because I checked them out from the library. I’ve spent much of 2017 in Berkeley, and one of the benefits has been access to two remarkable libraries—the downtown Deco and Craftsman extravaganza just a block from my office and the mock-Tudor Claremont branch, complete with a gas fireplace and comfortable chairs. Three cheers for libraries and all their card-carrying members.

The other delight of Berkeley is its terrific independent bookstores, including Moe’s Books on Telegraph; Revolution Books, where I made a point of shopping after alt-right bullies decided to intimidate the staff; Pegasus Books, from whom I buy the Weekend FT (mostly for its terrific Books section) each Saturday, plus whatever else they tempt me with, whether a cute greeting card or a little tin of “impeachmints”; Issues on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, quite possibly the most wonderful newsstand left in America; and best of all, the gem of my neighborhood, Mrs. Dalloway’s. This is a beautiful bookstore with a helpful staff and a sparkling roster of author events, and I thank them for making the neighborhood feel, well, like a neighborhood.

For all my trepidation and uncertainty about 2018, one consolation remains: it will come with more great books. Happy reading!

Bought but not read in 2017. Something to look forward to in the year ahead!

Cotswolds Walking

What’s in a name?

Dry-stone-wall porn

I will be the first to admit I have a habit of propagating the concept of Twee Cotswoldia. My version of this part of rural England is all idyll and no ills. I have anthropomorphized every tree and animal within a ten-mile radius of our cottage to within an inch of its non-human life. You can always tell when I’m here because my tweets turn into a feed of hardcore dry-stone-wall porn.

This narrative of the countryside suits me—an outsider who comes here to relax—but of course I know this is a curated concept of these hills. I was reminded of this truth last weekend at the local wine bar when, for some reason, the origin of the name “Helen’s Ditch” came up. I had known it for the decade we’ve been coming here as the way everyone refers to a footpath that runs across the top of a field on the southern edge of town. I always thought someone named Helen owned the land behind it or loved walking there and therefore became its namesake, but it turns out Helen’s Ditch is called that because it’s where her body was found sometime in the 1980s. I wondered if someone was pulling my urban-rube-of-a-leg, but the story was corroborated by one of the more sensible patrons of the wine bar. There is no happy ending here. Nobody knew, or at least remembered, who killed Helen, and her legacy was the most prosaic of landscape features.

Today I went out alone on a walk and was halfway along Helen’s Ditch when I remembered the story. I wasn’t scared as much as morose: somehow Helen’s Ditch seemed a fitting metaphor for the current hurricane season with its combination of benign names of elderly people and deadly consequences. My parents, who live in South Florida, had thus far refused to evacuate ahead of Irma, and I was feeling more furious at them than scared for them. I made it to the end of the ditch path and headed down a dead-end road I had never explored—one of the boons of the Cotswolds is its never-ending supply of new forks in the road. At the end was a gate into a field and the ever-welcome badge-on-a-post indicating it was a public path.

I walked through long grass that soaked my feet through my running shoes, while nettles scraped my ankles. I walked alongside a pond and turned right before turning around to take the route that would lead me into a wood where I would startle a fawn and watch it pogo away. Soon I was at a large pheasant pen, a sort of ginormous chicken coop with tunnel-like entrances fashioned out of chicken wire and metal grates every twenty feet or so. A dozen of these skittish birds had made their way into an adjoining field and were lined up along the fence like they were waiting to face a firing squad, which, sooner or later they would (pheasant season here opens October 1st).

From here there was no way to get into the hamlet I had been aiming for, and so I walked back down the hill around the pen, slipping in mud and scattering pheasants as I went. I fashioned a path through a copse to avoid another particularly treacherous patch of nettles, emerging in a farmyard off a road at the far end of the hamlet. I was happy and out of breath and had forgotten about the world and its ills for an hour, reminding me my narrative of the countryside isn’t so naïve after all.

California Random

Lessons from the 51B: How riding the bus helps me be less of an asshole

Berkeley bus stop

I skipped kindergarten, which may explain why at age forty-five I still haven’t learned everything I need to know. I require periodic reminders of the most basic tenets of human decency, which is where the bus comes in.

I hadn’t intended to start riding the bus when I moved to Berkeley for work back in January. I rented an apartment less than two miles from the office so I could walk or bike my commute. Then California had one of the wettest winters on record, and the advantages of a bus stop two blocks from my front door became clear.

The bus route to my office runs alongside the Cal campus, and my fellow-bus riders were often college students. The first time I heard one of them say “thank you” to the bus driver as she got off the bus, I assumed it was an oddity. This student was surely from Kansas or someplace where people still said “aw shucks” and “gee willikers.” Then I noticed everyone—except me—said “thank you” when they got off the bus, and the bus driver usually said “you’re welcome” back. I briefly felt like an asshole, then I, too, started saying “thank you” when I got off the bus. This felt good in a way that was disproportionate to the act. It was shocking how nice it felt to be nice.

(In fairness, I don’t think my failure to vocalize gratitude after every bus ride was a breach of global public transit etiquette. A decade earlier I had lived in London and been a regular bus commuter. There I witnessed many interesting behaviors aboard a double-decker, occasionally involving the expulsion of bodily fluids—but nobody said “thank you.” The closest I got to a life lesson from that experience was to wash my hands a lot. I’ve never had more colds in my life than my first six months in London riding the 23.)

The next thing I started to notice while riding the bus in Berkeley was how many wheelchair users rely on it. Roughly every third time I boarded a bus, someone in a wheelchair did the same. There’s a procedure for this, starting with the driver lowering the bus, extending the ramp, then leaving her seat to fix the wheelchair in place using a set of straps with hooks. Nobody else can board the bus until the driver is back in her seat and the ramp is up.

The whole thing usually takes a few minutes and yet it’s long enough to notice. And what I noticed is how rarely in daily life I, a non-parent, defer to the needs of someone else. I operate my life in a series of maneuvers designed to maximize, well, me, and the on-demand economy is complicit in my selfishness. The few minutes of stillness, of waiting, while someone else goes first reminded me that most the time I’m in a hurry for absolutely no reason other than to be in a hurry. I’m addicted to self-inflicted stress. Waiting my turn was good for the soul.

***

In late spring the rain finally stopped and I mostly traded the bus for my bike. Occasionally I make exceptions, like when I need to be in the office for 6:00AM calls with my European colleagues. This happened twice in the last week, and the timing couldn’t have been better. My experience on the 5:34AM showed me I had relapsed and was due for a refresher course in decency.

That early in the morning most stops on the route are empty, and the bus makes it to my destination in half the normal time. But on Tuesday we stopped somewhere near Cal for a gentleman with a cane. I was nose-deep in my phone reading work email and yet somehow felt annoyed when he chose to bypass the priority seats in the front. The bus waited while he instead made his way to a seat up the half-set of stairs, just behind the rear door. There I was again, in a hurry when I wasn’t even late and being an asshole in the process.

On Thursday, we stopped at the same stop for the same gentleman. As he got on, the bus driver bantered with him about the Oakland victory parade for the Golden State Warriors later that day. Then I watched as again he made his way to the same spot behind the rear door. He was dressed impeccably: a white fedora with a black-ribbon band decorated with a small feather, a single-breasted overcoat atop a suit, and a crocodile-embossed bag hanging diagonally across his shoulders. I was reminded of an episode of the nineties sitcom Just Shoot Me! in which the character of Nina Van Horn, a fashion-magazine editor, blames the downfall of civilization on the rise of casual separates. It seemed to me this gentleman was making a similar case.

I was lost in thought about it when we arrived at my stop and mechanically got off through the rear doors. As I walked by the outside of the bus I snapped to, just in time to say “thank you” to the driver through the still-open front door.