We are headed for autumn and this traditionally is the time for new beginnings, such as starting a new hobby: learning a language, attempting an exotic sport, making all kinds of other promises that in my case will roughly last until the end of September.
I just finished reading Lara Williams’ novel Supper Club, which introduces another type of interesting hobby: a women-only club where food is properly indulged, space is properly occupied, and as a result the physical bodies, too, will grow and expand.
The book is very foodie-y, but in a fabulously outrageous way. The protagonist enjoys cooking for her various boyfriends and is clearly an excellent chef, but it is the meetings of the Supper Club where food stops being admired and savoured in a sophisticated manner – no, it’s when the women attack the meat on their plates, throw the bones over their shoulders as they go along, undress from the waist up and make a big mess with sauces, risottos and dessert soufflés that they often end up eating with their bare hands.
As a consequence some of them gain weight, all of them become more outspoken and start claiming more space. The club is not about eating. To become a member of Supper Club each candidate must answer the question “What are you afraid of?” and have their reply recorded. The women have been cheated on by their husbands, raped by their university professor, experienced loss, gone through sex change.
“I felt the weight of myself press into the carpet. I thought about how I was carrying only that weight, how I was responsible for no weight other than my own. All I had to carry through life was myself. I wished someone had told me that sooner.”
While Supper Club at times appears a millennial mixture of everything that is du jour, I liked the bacchanal, inappropriate and messy descriptions of the Club meetings. The undercurrent plot lines regarding the other characters were sometimes a bit patchy, and the emphasis was clearly on the main character’s awakening. This is how her lunch meeting with her once-lover is described in the end of the book:
With my mouth full, I began to speak. – “You must be really embarrassed,” I said. “You must be really embarrassed you just explained feminism to me.” When I laughed, a little bit of chicken flew out of my mouth and landed on the table. I wiped it away with my finger. When he tried to tell me about some renovations he was having done to his home office, I said: “Oh, I don’t think I’m interested in hearing about that.” I carried on talking. I spoke all of my unspoken thoughts and ideas. I spoke any notion that popped into my head. When I didn’t think he was properly listening to me, I repeated myself. When he interrupted, I said “I’ve not finished yet.” When he told me something I already knew, I said “Thank you, but I obviously already know that.”
I recommend this book warmly. It’s funny, dark and includes some good cooking tips as well (how to make kimchi and how to separate your soufflé dough from the mould before baking in the oven, for example). For anyone who likes to read about food and complicated relationships.
For reasons I cannot fully explain I continue to be obsessed with finding out what kind of daily routines interesting people have. Therefore imagine my delight as I ran to Daily Rituals – Women at Work this weekend. It’s a compilation of habits of 143 female authors and artists by Mason Currey, whose first book on the habits of great minds concentrated on men, and he wanted to make amends with the second book dedicated to women.
My work does not allow me to fully be the master of my calendar and I live in a busy-culture. With busy-culture I mean the kind of culture where people ask “Are you busy?” instead of “how are you?“, and you’re expected to reply by assessing your busyness on the scale of “yes, very” to “it’s fucking killing me”. You must be busy, otherwise there’s something very seriously wrong with you or – and this is the worst – you are not very important. The busier you say you are, the better you are allowed to feel about yourself.
I’m interested in habits and routines because I believe they must be the key to creating more space for thinking. Hands up everyone who has taken part in an office brainstorming session where people are seated in a meeting room with a numbingly meaningless consultant-speak slideshow on the background and those who are not jumping up and down, excusing themselves for “having to take this call” are checking their social media feeds on their phones?
Our brains are required to produce creative ideas in the most absurd of circumstances.
While (successful) creatives might have the autonomy to decide on their daily comings and goings, I thought I could still get some transferable inspiration. Herewith some of my favourites:
– Coco Chanel’s team would spray a mist of Chanel No. 5 near the entrance of the rue Cambon offices every day so that Coco could walk through the cloud of her own signature scent when she came to work. There was an alert from the Ritz when Mademoiselle was on her way so that the perfume-spritzer could get ready.
– Elsa Schiaparelli was famously punctual to the minute. She rose every morning at eight, had a glass of water with lemon and a cup of tea, read the papers and tended to her private correspondence. Oh, and gave the menus of the day to the cook.
– Songwriter Carole King found that the key to not having a writer’s block was not to worry about it. Ever. “If you are sitting down to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back and do something else. Then you come back and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back.”
– Writer Susan Sontag believed it would be the best to write every day, but she barely managed this herself, usually writing in “intense, obsessional stretches”, often motivated by “an egregiously neglected deadline that she finally couldn’t ignore any longer. She seemed to need the pressure to build to an almost intolerable level before she could finally begin to write”.
– Virginia Woolf valued privacy and “space to spread her mind out in”. This meant problematic relations with real people. ”The truth is, I like it when people actually come; but I love when they go”. Woolf’s friends remembered her as an inattentive and borderline rude host, to which she responded “I wake filled with a tremulous yet steady rapture, carry my pitcher full of lucid and deep water across the garden, and am forced to spill it all by – someone coming.”
– In the acknowledgement section of her novel NW writer Zadie Smith thanked two pieces of Internet-blocking software called Freedom and Self Control for “creating the time”. Smith does not use any social media.
– Artist Tamara de Lempicka strived to have a regular routine for the sake of her daughter. After she had put the child to sleep, Lempicka hit the Parisian nightlife in search of her preferred drugs: pellets of hashish dissolved in sloe-gin fizzes, or hits of cocaine sniffed from a miniature silver teaspoon – together with anonymous sexual encounters. She claimed “it is an artist’s duty to try everything.” Returning home, she would paint nonstop for hours. To calm her nerves for sleep, she turned to herbal supplement valerian. No matter what, she made sure to be up in time to have breakfast with her daughter, regardless how little sleep she’d gotten.
– The French novelist, playwright and screenwriter Francoise Sagan did not want to fall into habits: “The material problems of day-to-day living bore me silly. As soon as someone asks me what we should have for dinner I become flustered and then sink into gloom.”
As various as their approaches to their creative processes were, there’s the one thing they all have in common, and Sagan put it very simply: “I had a strong desire to write. I simply started it.”
There’s another excellent book about writing by Stephen King, and his message is very much the same as Sagan’s. In his book he discusses his writing routines at length, but what I loved best was his reasoning why writing retreats are not all that:
It is the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.
I know, no one has time to read because everybody is busy. Therefore it is good for us Europeans that the law forces us to take some time off during the summer months. Because everybody is busy, I have put together a short reading list to ease the holiday prep. Not everything is hot from the press, but all of them are fairly recent, all written by women, and every one of them will give you instant street-cred when you take to your poolside lounger the way the MeisterstückWhen Life Gives You Lululemons never will.
I have written about some of these books earlier and have linked to those blogposts. Herewith ten contemporary, indie reads:
Despite the cover blurb announcing that this book will make you cry, consider it still (if not for hiding your tears, what else are large sunglasses for, anyway??). It’s a collection of self-reflecting short stories by the wonderful Irish Emilie Pine, and I call her wonderful despite not knowing her, because she’s had a remarkable life and has an extraordinarily touching style to tell us about it. Nearly every aspect of woman’s life will be dealt with. I repeat, this is not a tear-jerker, but a very good book about being a woman.
We shall move on with a stylish take on modern society by the British Olivia Laing. Crudo is a beautiful book (I was initially drawn to it because of the cover) about summer of 2017 when writer Kathy is getting married, Trump’s tweets are bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war and the Brexit has paralysed the UK (funnily the book is a novel, not a documentary). Crudo is kind of a real-time account of the apocalyptic summer and the protagonist, who is also the alter ego of the real-life Kathy Acker. Very difficult to put into words, but the book is really funny, and pairs extremely well with chilled rosé.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Despite it being rather a quick read given its form, I am quite sure you will keep going back to it. The narrator builds sort of a pillow book around the colour blue, and observes depression, sickness, alcohol, desire, and the end of a relationship through the colour and its appearance in various associations, such as music. Despite this highly shaky descriptions, Bluets is not at all some pretentious shit woodoo. It is a beautiful book, I really do recommend it.
Talent by Juliet Lapidos is a surgically poignant take on procrastination, wasting talent and meeting your full potential. Set in the world of academia, it will fulfil also the needs of those who gravitate towards campus-literature. Talent is hilarious, not funny ha-ha, but excellently to the point. I read a large part of the book while eating lobster ravioli with some rosé , and can thoroughly recommend this combination.
For some reason I have photographed also my La Bouche Rouge -lipstick. I will share thoughts about that venture very soon.
I wrote about Liar earlier, and am including some comments here:
Set in Israel, the book tells the story of 17-year old Nofar who would like to spice up her teenage life, but is not quite sure how. Then a life-changing chain of events takes place in the ice-cream parlour where she works during the school recess, and she becomes a national celebrity overnight. Only her celeb-status is all based on a lie, or rather other people’s assumption she did not correct on time.
Things spiral out of control and it soon becomes evident to her that it is impossible to unscramble the scrambled eggs. And the fame feels delicious! The interviews, the attention, the free clothes, the sympathy! Her schoolmates’ interest! She’s finally someone!
The book is very summery, therefore perfect for the poolside. Don’t let the fact that the protagonists are teenagers scare you off.
If the first book on the list is going to make you cry, We are never meeting in real life. will most definitely make you laugh. Samantha Irby records her coming of age in a hilariously self-deprecating way, I recommended this one earlier and am much looking forward to reading her latest. If this book were a word cloud (why am I even coming up with examples like this? I hate word clouds) it would feature feminism, body image, race, sexuality, social standing, having a horrible cat for a pet.
If you watched Orange is the New Black, you will like Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room. It’s also set in women’s prison, or Women’s Correctional Facility, but as with “Orange”, it’s so much more. There’s the undercurrent of the events that led to Romy’s two consecutive life sentences in California. There are intelligent, not in your face -references to the struggles many women face as they are trying to muddle through their lives. Kushner is a masterful writer and Mars Room a fantastic, entertaining, funny and dramatic summer read.
If you liked Donna Tartt’s Secret History (by show of hands, who did not like Donna Tartt’s Secret History???) you will likely enjoy Tangerine by Christine Mangan. It’s set in Tangier, Morocco and it’s constantly hot in there, so this book screams summer read. There’s a bit of psychological drama and suspense, and frankly I’m still not quite sure whether the two leading women were not in fact just one. An easy read that you will wolf down with some crisps and rosé.
If you live on this planet, you will have noticed the hype around Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The author was on a book tour in Brussels the other week and I went to listen to her talk about this book, which I loved. It’s basically about a young American woman who wants to fall to medicated sleep for an entire year, and almost reaches this goal with the help of one of the most incompetent psychiatrists in the world. Despite the subject matter, the book is not depressing. It might have a slightly millennial feel to it, but on the other hand it takes place in 2000/2001, so it’s fantastically free from social media references and such. “My Year” was, and continues to be much hyped, but Moshfegh deserves much of the hype because her writing is excellent.
Finally, you will want to pack My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It is kind of a murder mystery/thriller-y deal, but without some of the traditional suspense. Set in Nigeria, it tells a story about two sisters, one of which turns out to be a serial killer who rather routinely does away with her lovers citing self-defence. Then, as luck would have it, the sisters fall for the same guy. Who gets the guy and who gets to live? Also, what is the role of family and family tradition? Less about slashing throats, more about sisterhood, the book is a mixture of family saga, loyalty, satire and slapdash – especially towards the end.
We shall establish the facts first: life is too short to read shit books. This applies to many other things as well, ranging from relationships to footwear to types of rosé wine. Shit is not good.
I know people who plough through books even when they hate reading them, because apparently once a book has been started, it shall be finished. No, it shall not. Books have no feelings. They will not be offended. I have a 50-page rule. If the book makes no sense in the first 50 pages, I shall leave it. Life’s too short. Also there are too many really good books to read, which would take more than a lifetime anyway, so.
Against the aforementioned, the following probably makes little sense: I occasionally read bad literature (sometimes by pure accident, sometimes on purpose) so as to cleanse my literary palate, as it were. Even the most pretentious of chefs and culinary snobs sometimes go to McDonald’s to satisfy certain urges. This is perfectly normal. I am a literary snob, and on occasion read junk to again appreciate really good writing.
Airplanes are good places to indulge in such pleasures. This behaviour is facilitated by airport bookshops that specialise in selling blockbusters that rarely qualify as good literature. When a colourful When Life Gives You Lululemons -covercaught my eye recently, I had to have it. I knew exactly what I was getting – I had done my TheDevil Wears Prada both in a movie – and book form (both aforementioned books – and many others of the same genre – are by Lauren Weisberger). It was kind of awkward, mainly because I was trying to hide the cover from the co-travellers, which made reading complicated, but at the same time kind of delicious, like wolfing down a Quarter Pounder (with cheese) meal.
My French teacher once asked me to bring some French books to the class, because he knew I read a lot by American and English authors. I had made the classic beginner’s error at Parisian La Hune earlier and bought books that were advertised as “current bestsellers”. I brought a specimen of my haul to my class, and my teacher was staring at the Katherine Pancol with certain disbelief “Can you explain, in French s’il te plait, why we are having this book here today?” I had bought the French equivalent to Lauren Weisberger, and had difficulties negotiating my way out of the situation.
In the next class we discussed the French translation of Joyce Carol Oates’ La foi d’un écrivain (The Faith of a Writer, an excellent essay about writing). Pancol was never to be mentioned again.
What Weisberger and Pancol have in common is the immense popularity of their respective literary oeuvres. It’s insane how many millions of books each of them have sold, and how many languages they have translated into – in the case of Pancol, some of her biggest bestsellers to over 30! Both have sold movie- and TV-rights to their books. The Lululemons -nightmare was a New York Times bestseller, a fact that does not restore my faith in humanity.
And there’s more! What’s probably more painful than reading clumsy novels is reading clumsy autobiographies. Another New York Times bestseller (I probably should stop considering this a relevant endorsement), by comedian, activist, TV-host, writer, Chelsea Handler’s Life Will Be the Death of Me… And You too! was another recent experience that is complicated to put in words.
I like Handler’s political activism and the stuff she does about white privilege (a Netflix documentary coming up), so I was intrigued to see what she writes about her life. Turns out, an awful lot about her dogs Tammy and Chunk. Like a lot. The book is a jumpy breeze to read, but I sort of failed to see the point it was trying to make, except possibly time a book-tour to coincide with the launch of the Netflix-documentary. Also Handler has made a whopping fortune with her several books, such as Are You There, Vodka? It’s me, Chelsea.
I am not here to make fun of other people’s tastes and books (I for one have not published a single book myself so who am I to judge). Chick-lit is a difficult genre. There are the good, the bad and the toe-curlingly embarrassing. It’s not for me, but I see why many (apparently millions) people gravitate towards the literary equivalent of a Happy Meal. At best it is a perfect escape when sunning self in an exotic location, a mojito at arm’s length (it possibly helps to digest some of these books if one is in fact drunk while reading them). No judgement.
Following these literary escapades I needed a quick detox, so I grabbed the trusty Virginia Woolf essay Am I a Snob? And to really bring home the point, I read it in the language of the people who do snobthe best in the world – French.
I love walking, and walk almost everywhere. I cannot deal with public transport first thing in the morning, so I try to avoid it as much as possible, so weather permitting, I’m also doing my work commute by foot. The best walking, however, is flânerie, or boulevardier-ing. This means to wander around aimlessly, or with very little aim, absolutely without rush or particular purpose. Flânerie is my all-time top favourite pastime activity.
Until just a couple of decades ago, aimless wondering in the city was considered a masculine privilege – possibly also dictated by the realities of life: it was rare for women to have all kinds of time in their hands to think deep thoughts while pounding the streets. City streets were dangerous places for women, and any female caught walking around without a chaperone and without a particular purpose was most certainly considered a prostitute.
In the olden days camouflages were necessary, and the French writer George Sand was known for dressing like a boy to be able to lose herself in the 19th-century Paris. The emergence of department stores was a big, liberating breakthrough for urban women – finally a place to spend time, do lunch and catch up on goss and merch while feeling safe.
In a student coffee shop near NYU, two young women are talking. "Guess what?" one says. "I saw Romeo and Juliet on Broadway last week." "Oh, yeah?" the other says. "Is that thing modern?"
I walk around cities to clear my head, to observe people (in a non-creepy way) and to find interesting things par hazard. Recently in New York I walked into one fashion shoot, one TV- shoot and went to check out how far the renovation work of Sarah Jessica Parker’s house had advanced (still ongoing).
Each day I leave the house, I tell myself I’m going to walk up the East Side. Yet I seem always to find myself on the West Side. On the West Side life feels positively thematic. All that intelligence trapped inside all those smarts. It reminds me of why I walk. Why everyone walks.
Few observations about walking in cities:
– Boulevardier is a solitary hobby, best done alone. This consequently, unfortunately means there are safety issues to be considered. I only ever walk around on a daylight (in a city I don’t know, obviously this is less of an issue in a place I know well). I never take risks, which possibly makes me a boring flâneuse, but so be it. I’ve only ever had to take a sharp U-turn once. Parks: never after sunset.
– Google maps is your best friend, therefore a properly charged mobile phone is a must.
– I avoid the generic high streets of zero character (= the ninth circle of Hell with all the chain clothing stores and McDonald’s of this world) and the obvious tourist traps. In most cities the old towns are most interesting, have the best cafés, parks and urban landmarks, and small streets almost always come with more interesting, independent things to see, buy and eat than the big boulevards.
“Did you hear?” the woman in pink says. “The pope appealed to capitalism to be kind to the poor of the world.” The woman in blue responds, “What did capitalism say?” As we’re crossing Seventh Avenue, the woman in pink shrugs. ”So far it’s quiet.”
– I try to have as little stuff with me as I possibly can. Mobile, keys, wallet. If it’s hot, a bottle of water. Sometimes I take my camera. I can’t be bothered with umbrellas (generally in life). If I’m going to be doing hard-core people-watching, a book makes for a nice camouflage.
– Always sunscreen. Always, always. City favourites at the moment: Tatcha “Silken” with SPF35, de Mamiel “Daily Hydrating Nectar” with SPF30 and Drunk Elephant “Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense” with SPF30. I will go for higher SPF in the summer.
– Shoes. No heels, no ballerinas. Asphalt is tough on your feet. Have proper footwear.
New York belongs to me as much as it belongs to them: but no more so. We are all here on the Fifth Avenue for the same reason and virtue of the same right. We have all been walking the streets of world capitals forever: actors, clerks, criminals; dissidents, runaways, illegals; Nebraska gays, Polish intellectuals, women on the edge of time. Half of these people will be lost to glitter and crime - disappearing into Wall Street, hiding out in Queens - but half of them will become me: a walker in the city; here to feed the never-ending stream of the never-ending crowd that is certainly imprinting on someone's creativity.
Why do I walk? Because I want to explore places at my own pace. Because I want to see and do my own thing. To me it’s the only way to understand my surroundings. Some people do a bus/tram/metro –tour d’horizon in a new city to get an idea where everything is. I walk.
I also walk because I can, and because the joy of walking in the city belongs to me, too. Space is not neutral. Space is a feminist issue. As Lauren Elkin writes: The space we occupy – here, in the city, we city dwellers – is constantly remade and unmade, constructed and wondered at. A female flânerie not only changes the way we move through space, but intervenes in the organisation of space itself. We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms.
For aspiring female city-walkers I would like to recommend two excellent books about this exact topic, namely The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick (all quotes in cursive are from this book, which is a memoir about walking in New York City) and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (her book covers flâneuse-ing in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London).
This week, I had the best and the worst of the land of the free and home of the brave. New York City, the centre of the universe, offered personal refuge in a liberal, literate La La Land where life is fast and exhausting, but possibility lurks around every corner and living can also be a shiny, spectacular and over the top dream. With lots of long hair.
Then Wednesday came and burst the bubble that I had firmly established in the SoHo and West Village coffee houses. Alabama made abortions illegal.
There are (at least) two ways to look at this: who has access to healthcare and who decides on behalf of women.
I’m a white, European woman of comfortable means. I will never be affected by decisions like these. I am insured up to my eyeballs, and can access healthcare anywhere. Like most Europeans, I will get treatment. If not in my own country, then somewhere else in Europe. Such is the system we have created.
Famously, there is no system in the U.S., except that you buy your way out of sticky situations. Rich people will always get by. What happens when it’s the raped underaged daughter of a minimum-wage single mother whose employer does not cover family members’ health insurance? How do you explain the newly minted law to Alabama girls and women who are impregnated by their abusive family members or relatives??
The political swing to the right in the U.S. has set in motion a movement to overturn the landmark nation-wide ruling on women’s right to abortion, Roe v. Wade (Hello Ruth Bader Ginsburg!). There’s an excellent documentary about this called Reversing Roe v. Wade, and it should be still available on Netflix. It does a superb job in explaining the American sentiment around this issue.
It’s not just the abortion procedure that’s being targeted. As collateral many states have already experienced cuts in services for poor children, medical care for pregnant women and affordable contraception for women as well as attempts to hinder sex education at schools.
The second question is who gets to decide. You are free to worship at whichever altar you wish, I don’t judge/discriminate, but if we leave out the Jesus-factor here, the question is simple: why cannot women decide for their own bodies? Or, more simply:
Why do men get to decide over women’s bodies?
We should not watch the Alabama-spectacle as some soap opera unfolding before our eyes. Anything can happen anywhere. Including in Europe. People can walk backwards in here, too.
That women’s actual, physical bodies are still being used as a political playground in 2019 I cannot comprehend. If men could get pregnant, abortions would be handed out at every gas station and drive-thru across the world. For free.
In case you are already half-way rereading your Handmaid’s Tale, let me suggest another American giant on this matter, again offering a tremendously moving context to the great abortion spectacle in the U.S.: A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates.
Finally, for anyone who says that feminism has gone too far and we should instead focus on the equality of opportunity, I have but two words: Fuck off.
I know it’s not you people, but I just had to put it out there.