Category Archives: nostalgia

I’ll always love you, New York, and other thoughts from a family book club.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a reading family: my mom and brother devour novels, my dad reads an insane amount of news, my aunts and cousins frequently provide me with book recommendations and have kindred shelves in their homes.  My Aunt Patty recommended a book to my mom called Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which my mom also really enjoyed.  Knowing that my cousin Carolyn was coming out to visit and is also a reader, she thought it would be fun to have a mini book club while she was in Kentucky.  She bought two more copies, mailed them to Carolyn and I and included a letter about her plan.  (Well, she wrote Carolyn a letter about the plan.  I already knew.  My note said, “Kristen, here’s the book.” Ha.)

{my mom is awesome. also, props to my dad who mixed the drinks and took the picture for us.}

The story follows the narrator Katey through one year of her life–as a 25 year old in 1938 in New York City.  It is bookended with the narrator speaking from middle age, though still in New York, thinking about how there are certain decisions in life that end up shaping the rest of one’s years.  We talked about this for a few minutes at our screened-in porch book club meeting, and it has been the topic that has lingered with me since and settled into the forefront of my mind last night when I was organizing a few boxes of pictures and a trunk that holds old photo albums and journals.  When my mom asked the question if there were decisions we had made that had shaped the outcome of our lives, my obvious answer was moving to New York.  I ran across this picture last night which was taken a month or two after I moved to Manhattan:

{Central Park, fall 2003}

 I made albums documenting each of the first two years, certain that I’d only be in the city for a couple years before I moved back to “regular life” in Ohio.  I wanted to make sure I documented the adventure.  Ha. But somewhere in that third year I decided to stay, and I think it was that decision, more than the one to move to New York for graduate school, that has had the biggest impact on my life since.  That is when I began to count this city as home and stopped thinking about what I was going to do the next year.  I settled in and invested in the people and places around me.  I’m sure there will be decisions in the future that change my life and carry weightier meaning, but my 9 year relationship with New York has been one of the greatest influences on my life and who I’ve become.  Looking at this picture, I remember what it was like trying to find my bearings here–simple things like traveling by foot and subway and more complex ones like trying to concoct a blend of urbanity and midwesterness.  That feels so far away, especially when I realize that I’m about to enter my 10th fall in the city, my 9th year at my school and my 6th year of walking ten minutes to get there.

a kindred article on reading from the NYT.

{Julia Kuo for the NYT, 7/30/11}

In my morning internet reading, I ran across a link to an opinion piece from last summer in the New York Times called Reading and its Rewards.  The author, Maile Meloy, writes about the summer she was ten and her dad decided that before she could have a ten speed bicycle she needed to read ten novels more serious than her diet of Trixie Belden and Archie comics and write about each one.  She did it, returned for a while to the stellar books written for kids like Narnia and The Westing Game and Madeleine L’Engle and then moved on, on her own accord, back to more challenging titles.

I completely related to the idea of reading toward a goal.  My childhood summers were spent picking out books at the library, carting home a big bag and then getting my summer reading map stamped by the librarian upon return, working towards the small prizes that the Centerville Public Library had cooked up for us right before school started.  As the type A person that I was, watching my card fill up with stamps was incredibly gratifying. Ha. My hometown library still sponsors this program, which I love.

Meloy’s piece also got me reminiscing about other reading traditions I had growing up: it was household rule for my brother and I to read for at least a half an hour before we went to bed.  This requirement soon became a part of our daily rhythms and we both still read every night to this day.  And, especially in line with my thoughts about the book A Short History of Women, I love that my best book recommendations come from family members: cousins, aunts, my mom, my brother.  Reading is one of the best ways to bring people together.  

And, of course I loved her descriptions of the bicycle that eventually accompanied her adventures.  Her article was not just about reading, but about growing up.  It is worth reading, if you, too grew up as a reader.  All that to say, I would love to hear about other people’s reading habits: do you have a summer reading list each year? What kinds of books did you read when you were younger? Did your library have a similar summer reading program? These are the kinds of rhythms I can only hope my students either keep or eventually rediscover.

The inanimate protagonists among us.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a novel in which each chapter focuses around a different protagonist, all of whom work for an English language newspaper in Rome.  In between each chapter is a short section in italics about the history of the paper.

The title made me think about who the imperfectionists are.  Each chapter’s protagonist envelopes perfectionism in a different way, while simultaneously embracing–sometimes unknowingly–the imperfections in other areas of their lives.  It actually brought me back to my sophomore year English class discussing Stradlater, the secret slob in The Catcher in the Rye.  Since there are so many characters, each chapter really felt like I was peering through a window into the messy details of their lives that their newspaper coworkers had no idea existed. And, all the while, these imperfect beings–who still have incredible strengths–create a daily paper, which is the true protagonist of the story. It is no more perfect than those putting it together, but it breathes and ignites a certain passion, making it a most interesting character.

In response, I’ve been thinking about the inanimate protagonists of my own life–places and objects that could command their own story within mine and perhaps thousands or millions of others’ lives, connecting us with some giant spool of thread.  Through time some are delegated to mere supporting characters in my past as others step up to help define my current era of life.

I loved thinking about all of the stories that the paper had witnessed throughout the years–and the way that people feel an attachment to it throughout.  I think about places like my high school’s football stadium and the innumerable Friday nights I spent there from age 10 or so through high school, and then everyone else who has done the same, past and present.  Or walking through academic quad on Miami’s campus in the fall.  Or making peace with the city on the Hudson River with tea in hand.

For better or worse, I know that I can kind of be a sentimentalist, but these are what create community across generations–the kinds of things that anchor people and make them feel at home.  And, as a lover of fiction, thinking of them provides me with endless fodder for imagining all the stories that have unfolded before them–and a little sad that most will not be written down.

And I think, just to flip this idea for just a second, that if we all stopped to think about what our mutual antagonists were–the visible or invisible forces that also connect us with spools of thread–if it would deepen the sense of community and understanding and empathy?

Nostalgia as strength.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time.  It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie–in their relative youth and in their more middle age.  In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.

As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I’d have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand.  After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories.  Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.

The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha’s 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal.  The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written.  A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters.  This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.

The “What I’m Afraid Of” slide came after she had gone on the kind of long walk with her dad where the world seems incredibly far away.  This is what she is thinking as she walks back to their house.
page 299

My heart hurt in a way I can’t describe when I read this.  I remember having moments like this when I was little, but not having a way to express it: feeling, as a child that I would long for the moment I was standing in later as an adult, and feeling despair for the fact that it was impossible to hold on to it.  Alison’s voice as a character is different from the rest of the characters, possibly because she is youngest of all narrators, and possibly because what she imagines missing is so pure.  The other narrators, when they are older, miss the teenage and young adult years: the freedom and the hope of what it yet to come.  

“Mom’s Art” slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):

“She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they’re precious because they’re casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look.”


This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now “steals” objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life.  As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath.  I think it’s significant that Egan uses the word shellacs–it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.

I’ve found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately.  This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life.  Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life–and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.


First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven’t read it since.  I’ve been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell’s family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn’t get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other’s presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: “We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist.” 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father’s things and creates a quest to find what it opens: …until I found it, I didn’t love Dad enough.”  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book–which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is–and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis–and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

“I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.”

“We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.” 

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.” 

“[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!” 


It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.


 Emotional safety is fleeting–and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won’t tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt–and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.