Sometimes I feel exhilarated and sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information around me–the piles of magazines and books sitting around my apartment, finishing the last week’s Economist only to find four more magazines in my mailbox. In the midst of all that, here are some things that have excited me and made me think:
Bon Appetit: Bon Appetit has one of the most distinctive brand voices I’ve encountered: biting and playful, inching just towards the edge of propriety, while remaining a mainstream, mass-circulation magazine. Some of the writing, especially Adam Rapoport’s letters from the editor, blows me away with its melding of glossy, aspirational New York food culture and down-home reality; this piece on Italian hoagies conjured sandwiches of my high school years in New Jersey and the Little Italy sub shops in Chicago where I used to go when I was researching my college thesis in UIC’s nearby archives. Reading its tweets during the day–filled with all kinds of puns, double entendres, and witty commentary–legitimately makes me happy.
This month, Bon Appetit is celebrating the 5th anniversary of its Rapoport-led redesign with an (iPhone-shot) culture issue. I have to think that given the increasingly hipster, Brooklyn, bro-ster tone that magazine is losing some of its former readership base (the redesign came around the same time Gourmet folded). But nonetheless, I love having a magazine that speaks to me.
Harvard Business Review: Remembering that I’d read somewhere that you should subscribe to different types of magazines every year to get exposed to new ideas, I signed up for HBR in January. The old management stalwart has gotten some good press lately for shaking things up online. And so far, I’m loving it: more substantive than Fast Company, but accessible (with executive-friendly bullet points on the first pages of each article), it feels like stretching different intellectual muscles and considering the how, not just the why of what I do.
Brooklyn: I saw the movie Brooklyn last fall and thought it was a nice, if uneventful film. I read the book, by Colm Toibin, earlier this year and had a similar reaction. (Both are the story of a young Irish immigrant to New York in the early 1950s, torn between home and a new life (and fiance) in Brooklyn). I liked how book Eilis stood up for herself and her ambitions a bit more than movie Eilis. But, in all, the book and Eilis’ story felt flat and too simple, relics of an earlier, less complicated time that’s now unrecognizable.
When Breathe Turns to Air: Sometimes I feel like a lot of what I read is driven by some kind of mass publishing juggernaut, where the same book is reviewed in every magazine one month and where I can guess the content of a link on Twitter (paging Robert Gordon) before even clicking. I discovered When Breathe Turns to Air, the memoir of a young Stanford surgeon diagnosed with lung cancer, through those terms. At first I liked the idea of the book better than the execution. But the last bit and Lucy’s epilogue. I cried. And then I made a list of things I wanted to do with my life.
The Intern: I rented the Intern off iTunes one weekend without a lot of expectations (and without realizing it was a Nancy Meyers movie). A lot of reviews (rightly) lauded Robert DeNiro’s performance, but I loved seeing a model of a female entrepreneur dealing with the successes and challenges of starting a business (or scaling, thanks HBR!). It reminded me of why we need more female-driven movies (here’s a great piece on the challenges of creating quality films) and prompted a binge-watch of other Nancy Meyers films.
Trainwreck: On that subject, I was really late to the party, but Amy Schumer is a genius.
CBS News/John Dickerson: I have a growing love affair with CBS News properties. CBS This Morning wins for being a substantive morning show. And 60 Minutes feels like watching The New Yorker. But ever since Tim Russert died, I haven’t really tuned into any Sunday show (maybe, like Hillary, I’m just not that into them). That means I’ve missed the rise of John Dickerson, amazing voice of reason that coralled GOP presidential candidates and frequents 14th Street. One more reason to watch CBS.
Obama in Springfield: It was a little surreal to see the President in Springfield earlier this month, driving by familiar buildings, throwing out familiar names from Illinois politics. I love this video for showing lots for taking Obama–and me–back to some of those familiar places.
8 years ago
The White House sold this year’s State of the Union as a little different: broader thinking, rather than a laundry list of specific initiatives. A strong emphasis on digital engagement before and after the speech. Even just shorter, as the President joked, since so many people just wanted to get back to Iowa.
It was one of my favorite Obama speeches (he looked like he was having fun up there) for its rousing, unabashed liberal vision in the context of the disruptive forces unleashed in the world today. But it also made me sentimental and a little sad. I started my freshman year at GW in the last few months of the Bush administration (Sarah Palin’s selection as vice presidential nominee was announced as I was getting on a plane to come to DC). I watched the debates and the half-hour long commercial in the common room of my freshman dorm. I stood in front of the White House gates the night of his election. I interned in Congress when the House passed health care reform. I interviewed for post-graduation jobs as Obama won his second term. I came of age professionally not just in Obama’s America, but in Obama’s Washington.
The Obama administration also feels like a proxy for how much time has passed and so quickly. Over the holidays, I cleaned out my childhood room, sifting through college blue books, high school papers, and other ephemera. I re-read Game Change and my notes and assignments from a high school senior seminar on the election (highlight: Jay Carney describing eating steak with Dick Cheney). Despite the yellowing of the newspapers I’ve saved from those days, the excitement and energy of 2008, 2009, 2010 seem like recent memories, rather than events of half or even almost a full decade ago.
This year, I read over 20 books–on lazy Saturday afternoons, in my old apartment and my new apartment, on planes and trains, on the Mediterranean coast, and in my childhood room. As life gets crazier and busier, I’ve found reading is a refuge and a recharger. It’s nourishing for my mind. I think and write better when I’m well-read
Some of the highlights:
Last year, I started reading fiction for the first time in years. This year, I fell in love with a series of critically-praised prose-driven novels: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Lauren Groff’s Fate and Furies. I read Station Eleven while seriously ill with the flu at the beginning of the year, the depths of its hopelessness coinciding with the worst of my feverish haze. I read Doerr cover-to-cover on the nine hour flight from Rome to Toronto, its theme of technology’s tendency to drive possibility and destruction resonating with my discomfort with over-connectedness in the Eternal City. And Fate and Furies, a split narrative exploring themes of partnership vs. self in marriage, reminded me of a more artistic Gone Girl.
I also loved Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, the life paths and pitfalls of six ambitious, creative people resonating at a time when I’m thinking about life directions. And I found that Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements the most heart-breakingly honest accounts of human insecurity (perfection and belonging, respectively) I’ve ever read.
There were also some disappointments: Good, but not great books like Peter Nichols’ The Rocks, which reminded me of Italy (though it’s set in Mallorca), but didn’t resonate beyond that. And I loved the concept and the setting of Garth Risk Hallberg’s (900-page!) City of Fire, but found it flat and filled with under-explored characters (Amory, the father), despite its breadth.
I didn’t completely abandon non-fiction. As protests and demonstrations unfolded on American city streets and on social media, and conversations around social mobility, race, and opportunity gained urgency, I read On the Run and Ghettoside, Our Kids and Generation Unbound. And in the midst of an increasingly hate-filled presidential race, I re-read Game Change, reminded me of the magic of 2008.
I also read others that less easily lend themselves to categorization: American Ghost, which traces an entrepreneurial, bootstrapping Jewish immigrant family in the U.S. and Europe through the prism of a ghost story, reminded me of my family history. The Royal We, a quasi-fictional account of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s relationship, harkened back to pre-teen fan fiction
So what’s next:
I specialized in European and Eurasian studies in college at GW’s Elliott School, but I’m finding myself increasingly also drawn to Asia. I’m turning to Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition as I make my own pivot.
I’ve had Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road since seeing her in-person at Sixth &I October at the closest I’ve been to a feminist rally. It’s time to pull it off the bookshelf and actually read it.
And already on the fiction pile for 2016: A trip back to Eurasia with Anthony Marra’s Tsar of Love and Techno.
The fall after I graduated from college, I took the midnight bus to New York (never again) to see a bunch of big name speakers discuss city design and urban policy at a swanky conference overlooking Columbus Circle, right at the juncture where the big towers of midtown turn into leafy trees of Central Park. Needing something to do before the event, when I arrived in the the city around 5am, I headed to Veselka for lots of coffee and some heavy Eastern European diner food.
New DC: 14th Street
My first year or so after college I felt comforted to have GW just down the road. I told a colleague it was like a “security blanket” (No, she corrected me, it’s your “network”). When I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. in history, I audited a couple graduate classes, skimming reading before class in the same old, dark hallways of Phillips Hall and checking out books from familiar Gelman library. Until early 2013 I worked within close walking distance of GW, returning to the then-new Whole Foods for tuna rolls and dry skim cappuccinos at lunch. Never one for school spirit, I nonetheless felt grounded by familiar territory.
A couple weeks ago I got on a plane for yet another trip Chicago. It was really early, a 3:15 a.m. alarm, take off and land in darkness over the lit-up street grid kind of morning. On arrival, O’Hare itself was just beginning to stir: 6:00 a.m. flights boarding, lines of barefoot travelers backing up at security, espresso machines picking up steam. At that hour, the marvel of aviation was made even more magical by appearing there, 700 miles from the East, before the day had really even begun.
The Blue Line into the city made its normal, on-schedule journey, passing from the suburban office parks of Rosemont and Cumberland into neighborhoods of bungalows and brownstones, the silver CTA cars gradually filling with a trickle of yawning passengers, the sun beginning to rise as the train grew closer to downtown.
I told myself I was getting of at Damen to get coffee at La Colombe and Uber directly home, but let’s be honest: it was really to Instagram a picture of the city in the red and yellow-streaked sunrise. Down into the labyrinthine wood and iron 19th century station, I crossed beneath the tracks for a better view, walking north along a narrowing strip of the platform, stopping at a promontory overlooking the juncture of three major streets dividing Wicker Park and Bucktown.
After the rush of Rome (let alone the travails of real life), this place is about relaxing, closing your eyes, being one with nature. Its endless blue sky over lush, green mountains, cascades of lemon and olive trees along windy one-lane roads leading to cliff-side houses and restaurants, tiny towns that close down at midday, and small churches with largely impressive art. Further down, the rocks and dark sandy beaches give way to the sea. Ships steam in the distance bringing tourists to shore and goods to port. By day, bright sun interchanges with cool mist. By night, the cluster of towns–witnesses to Etruscans and Romans, medieval traders, and Allied soldiers—glows over the Mediterranean. It’s quiet and otherworldly and nothing short of magical.
For some reason I’ve been gravitating more towards Middle Eastern food lately. At lunch at DGS recently, I found myself ordering the (most amazing) falafel plate instead of pastrami. And I desperately wish Cava and Amsterdam Falafel had locations closer to Dupont Circle to break up my weekday lunch routine of sad tuna sandwiches and Sweetgreen kale caesars.
Rome is magical. Imagine: a city that stays up late and doesn’t really wake up until 10am. Piazzas that transform from quiet morning solitude to bustling midday commerce to drunken evening revelry. A maze of winding, sun-warmed cobble streets, jam-packed with glass and leather shops, bakeries, and espresso bars. The sound of church bells ringing, emergency vehicles and motorinos whizzing by, a thimbleful of strong, potent espresso clattering on a saucer, sending a pile of half-torn receipts flying across the counter. The unfamiliar smell of cigarettes. Pasta, pasta, and more pasta, thrown into egg and parmigiano and guanciale (carbonara), with spicy, pancetta-studded tomato sauce (amatriciana), or even just parmigiano, pepper, and butter (cacio e pepe).
Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to visit this place a couple times a year: this real-city-with-tall-buildings that’s still a little unpolished. Genteel department stores, architectural landmarks, and real neighborhoods in a place literally built on meat packing and slaughtering animals. Norman Mailer’s “great American city.”