The Three-Day Kingdom or, One Afternoon in Tuscany
From where I’m sitting, at a table under a canopy that’s shielding the sun but allowing the breeze, a mostly empty bottle of wine, along with glasses, frames a plate of bread and cheese, also mostly gone by now. A stone path leads to a large stone patio. Beyond that, the place we’re staying, Montorio, perches on the top of this little hill just outside the much higher hill of Montepulciano. To my left, there’s a grassy space and then a gravel lawn with a table for four, too hot now without any afternoon shade, but beyond words in a few hours, with the sun behind the cypress trees that line the hill. Past that still, Montepulciano sits there above us, houses dripping down its sides, miraculously unchanged in 800 years, but for details that don’t seem to count, like a new stucco facade here, or an electric lamppost there.
My cousin-in-law* Jordan Ellenberg published a book last month that is currently #19 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Jordan is insanely smart and eloquent, and even more importantly, he helped me a lot with the chapter in my own book on David Foster Wallace when I was having ridiculous trouble with it. Last year at Thanksgiving we geeked out about Wallace for a good 45 minutes while everyone else was like, who’s David Foster Wallace, oh wait is he married to Yolanda from Housewives?
Even more more importantly, Jordan is beating Bill O’Reilly, and you should do your part to perpetuate that trend.
Oh right, the book is called How Not To Be Wrong, and it’s about using math to understand things like why good-looking guys are jerks. Jordan is so all-around smart that he has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard AND an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins. Don’t even try to compete, just let his way with words and mathematical aptitude wash over you and help you understand things better.
*I am only domestic partnered with S. Jam Fitzgerald, so Jordan is really just my domestic partner’s cousin—a relation that has no name.
“I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.”—
The best parts of our trip to Tuscany: One night, heading to the nearest restaurant from our room in the country, a place at a small-road junction next to a gas station and nothing else, and once there eating the most exquisite food: an asparagus salad that was fresh and sweet, a cheese plate with a side dish of truffle-specked honey, gnocchi that was fluffy, which I hadn’t been aware was possible; sitting at night with a glass of wine and our feet in the pool; the rustly early evening breezes; old men on bicycles; old men with canes; old men calling out to us with a smile as they climb the hearty hill into Montepulciano.
I’ve been wandering around Rome by myself for a few days while S. Jam Fitzgerald is off doing his save-the-world work with the crazy Italian government. This afternoon, I tried to go to the restaurant with “the best pizza bianca in Rome,” says my guidebook, but when I got there it was closed for renovations. I sat down at the next restaurant I came to, at a table placed on the cobblestone outside, with the occasional car passing by not feet away (the lack of rules pertaining to what can and can’t be done with the city streets is one of Rome’s best charms).
At the table next to me, two Spanish girls in their twenties nibbled on pasta and chatted away and made me remember about the last time I was in Rome 15 years ago with my friend Amanda. I was so taken with the reflection they offered of my own twenty-something trip to Rome, so eavesdropping on their Spanish conversation I could sort of understand, that when the waiter came with my food I said “Gracias,” instead of “Grazie,” and the Spanish girls looked up, and I looked down, and I will never recover.
I have been MIA from Tumblr and life in general because of my book, yes, but also because I recently became the editorial director of Strolby, a website that brings amazing small shops and the limited-production goods they sell together on one e-commerce site. It’s been so fun to shape the editorial voice of the site and …
If I weren’t working like a maniac on this book, you more than likely would have been privileged to read posts on this Tumblr about how surprised I was to really like Spring Breakers, about S. Jam’s too-frequent work trips that leave me succumbing to reclusive tendencies in a way that might be making even my reclusive friends uncomfortable, about how our imminent move has led me to discover that Brooklyn rents are no longer cheaper than Manhattan’s, etc etc.
Sadly, those little bon mots will never exist. So instead, think of these things that didn’t get written as a taste of what you have to look forward to IN FOUR WEEKS WHEN I’M DONE WITH THIS EFFER.
I also expect to start offering up sentences that make sense right around that time. Right now every such sentence, scarce as they are, has to go straight into the book, and I got nothing left over.
S. Jam Fitzgerald can complain all he wants about how my books take over the surfaces of the apartment and every time we move they ruin everyone’s back, but he should step back and be grateful he’s not dating Junot Diaz, for lots of reasons, but also because Diaz did this:
I have three storage units, and that’s no lie. Three storage units. All books.
And then I get sad because even Junot Diaz can’t afford an apartment big enough for all his books.
I miss this little Tumblr. Holy moly I am itching to write something that is not about the writing of someone else. Good news: I’ve got like 15 pages left to write of my book (PROCESS: THE WRITING LIVES OF GREAT AUTHORS—they tell me it’s time to start promoting), and then revisions. I need to share this because S. Jam is out of town and I haven’t talked to anyone but my dog since Sunday. SOS.
Niether Scott’s nor Zelda’s parents attended the wedding. The only witnesses were Scott’s Princeton friend and best man, Ludlow Fowler, and Zelda’s three older sisters, who were by then married and living in New York. Scott, who was nervous, insisted the ceremony begin before Clothilde (one of Zelda’s sisters) arrived. There was no lunch or party after the wedding, which Rosalind (another sister) considered rude and never forgave, and the couple promptly left for their honeymoon at the Biltmore Hotel.
-From Jeffrey Meyers’s F. Scott Fitzgerald biography.
The way that I know that I love Zadie Smith’s writing is that as I’m reading her, I from time to time find myself fundamentally disagreeing with her, and even so, find her presentation of that argument lovely, the words used to express it making the argument worthy of my attention, whether I am ultimately swayed or not. I feel the gush that usually comes with reading something that perfectly encapsulates your own feelings, but the gush in this case is about something else, which has to be her writing.
That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about when I think about Zadie Smith this past week.
The other thing is how often the gush is indeed because she just slayed all previous attempts to encapsulate a certain concept.
In that vein, the following is not a Zadie Smith argument to be disagreed with. It is instead the most devastating, cut-to-the-core critique of Facebook I’ve ever come across:
If [Facebook] were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul.
This quote from Zadie Smith explains why the technically competent and even expert writing in the New York Times and, often, outlets like The New Yorker has a sameness to it that flattens you:
I kind of feel suspicious of pure writing, of something that never embarrasses you, which is completely clean. It’s just, in my experience, writing which is completely clean is writing that has had shorn from it almost everything that’s of interest.
“Fiction has to surprise me. If a character is going around doing only what such a person would do, I get very bored. I want to know more. Or have them come to a point where they’re not what I thought they were. Or that they’re not what they thought they were. It’s probably a form of childish curiosity that keeps me going as a fiction writer. I probably want to open everybody’s bureau drawers and see what they keep in there. I’m nosy.”—
Margaret Atwood, in a 1986 interview for the book Canadian Writers at Work. (via behindthepage)
I find this so instructive when thinking about writing characters.
“I think [society’s] general attitude towards me when I started to be a writer was that I was crazy or somehow undecorous … I think that’s society’s attitude towards anybody when he’s first starting. But if you become successful, then it’s an okay thing for you to be doing because, as we all know, this society pays a lot of attention to success. But that is not a respect for writing per se as a legitimate activity; that’s a respect for success, which is a different thing. It would have the same respect for you if you were a successful used-car salesman.”—
Margaret Atwood, in a 1972 interview with Graeme Gibson.
This is exactly why we, in spite of ourselves, continue to accept and even extol the “accomplishments” and lifestyles of Wall Streeters.
It’s probably also exactly why I still sometimes get uncomfortable calling myself a writer out loud, even though there’s nothing else to call myself by now and it’s where my money comes from. Does this mean I am successful, but not quite successful enough?
It should also be said that even the writing industry at large (magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, etc) continues to see the working writer as crazy or indecorous, right up to the moment that writer becomes a household name. To break this attitude in industry insiders is the number one factor in attaining a successful writing career (much more so than the writing itself, I have found).
I have so many problems with the way the women’s figure skating shook out tonight. And for once, I am qualified to make such a judgment. See?
In the interest of brevity, bullet points:
Eventual champion Adelina Sotnikova, in her short program, did a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination, while silver medalist Yuna Kim did a triple lutz-triple toe loop combo. I’m not sure that most viewers realize how much easier a triple toe is than a triple lutz, but the judges surely should have. Which makes it super problematic to attribute Sotnikova's win to her technical superiority. She should have been way behind Kim after the short program, not even taking the artistic score into account.
Yuna Kim’s overall level of figure skating is so far superior to Sotnikova’s, Sotnikova should have to land two triple axels to come close to surpassing her.
Without taking the time to google it, I’m pretty sure the only women who have ever landed a triple axel are Midori Ito, Mao Asada, Tonya Harding and one other. None of those women won the Olympics, because of deficits in artistry, as it should be.
Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic, the commentators covering the event, should be feeling pretty terrible about themselves right about now for failing to point out the shortcomings of the current scoring system, if indeed that’s what’s to blame for this clearly incorrect outcome.
Saturday Afternoon, Somewhat but not very Sentimental
Sometimes the most miraculous things happen when I’m staring out my window; steam coils up from the top of a building across the great open space of the city, a light goes on in an all-glass apartment as the final light of day recedes, snowflakes as big as a feather float upward before remembering to fall down, seasons change, a flock of birds takes flight from a roof, choreographed, musical, and long after they’re gone, a single bird circles the earth.
Reading Richard Ellman’s monumental (if sadly lacking in details about physical writing spaces) biography of James Joyce, I came across an anecdote once offered by Joyce to a friend of his, which illustrates beautifully the importance Joyce placed on small details and facts in fiction: