What I’m Reading Now

After spending nine stellar days perched on the edge of Harlem in New York City, I’m back in Virginia. I don’t think I could ever live in New York–I couldn’t stop marveling at the mountains of trash bags heaped in bloated piles on every street–but I will miss the endless options for eating out. Erik and I roamed Harlem, the Upper West Side, and even braved the subway to Greenwich Village in our search for snacks and used clothes. I picked up a beat-up copy of Odelay! and a pristine two-disc set of Stars’ In Our Bedroom After The War, and a green flannel and a flowered skirt, and Erik patiently picked through heaps of ties until he found a few solid additions to his collection.

I thought my cabin fever would return with a vengeance once I arrived back in Leesburg, but even my fairly small town has proved capable of yielding surprises. For the past year, I’ve driven past a long-empty strip mall around the corner from my folks’ house, only to discover this week that a Hershey’s ice cream shop has taken up residence in one of the storefronts. Is Hershey’s Ice Cream an East Coast thing? A central East Coast thing? Either way, when the employee at the counter offered me a rewards card, I wisely refused. I sat at one of their metal tables with an old friend from high school for hours the other night, watching a storm illuminate the parking lot in flashes and ignoring the families who eyed our spot. Driving home through sheets of rain, feeling my car hydroplane momentarily on pools of water turned mirror-like by the stream of oncoming headlights, I thought of how much I have changed since the time when this landscape was most familiar to me. I’ve been taking the Metro into DC more and more often lately, shifting the center to my social life in ways that are unplanned and refreshing. Last weekend, Bridey Heing and I adventured all the way to a launch party hosted by The Intentional in a strange little warehouse-turned-art gallery/studio/apartment where two friendly dogs romped through the crowd and no one remembered to buy water and way too many WMHs (white male hipsters) stood around sipping from beer cans. Some of the art displayed there had been featured in The Intentional‘s most recent issue, and would likely be hanging on my wall right now if I had endless money. (Bridey is a freelancer and all around good person, and you should subscribe to the Tiny Letter she launched this morning.)

I’ve got 200 pages of Anna Karenina left to go, but the volume was too fat to drag across six states, so instead I finally read some issues of The Atlantic that I’ve been saving. I was a subscriber in 2014, and I let all twelve issues pile up, unread until New York. Reading them there gave me the odd sense of traveling back in time. Our Airbnb host, Lloyda, was lovely and endlessly hospitable, and her spotlessly clean apartment was cluttered with air fresheners that occupied every shelf and table in little pairs. I hadn’t seen an air freshener like that–one with a wax cone inside, and two plastic halves that you twist apart like an Easter egg–and it reminded me of a green air freshener that had sat in the basement of my childhood home and the way my mother always warned me not to touch the non-child-safe wax. So instead I stared at it, wondering at its danger.

I don’t even remember receiving the November 2014 issue of The Atlantic, probably because UVa’s campus was imploding after the Rolling Stone article came out, but two articles were especially astounding. One was the cover story, a predictably wonderful article by Hanna Rosin about a sexting case that unfolded a stone’s throw away from Charlottesville in Louisa County, Virginia. The article taught me what THOT stands for, which made me feel old in a good way, and I loved the way Rosin took teen girls’ sexuality seriously, and the way she explained why some adults don’t. A second article jumped off the page because it unpacked a landscape close to where I’m currently living. In “The Urban Future of the American Suburb,” I learned about Michael Caplin’s quest to transform the Tyson’s Corner area into a city in its own right. I transferred from Amtrak to the Metro’s Silver Line on my way home and sat near a window so that I could spot the half-finished buildings and plazas mentioned in the article, and there they were suddenly, whooshing below me, and then they were gone again.

Online this week, I’ve read about the postmodern idiocy of Minions. This weird court case in Charlottesville. A list that cracked me up for days. The Planned Parenthood story that has everyone all upset. This WordPress help page, because I broke a website that I’m getting paid to fix by accident. This sad article about heroin, and this obituary which is extremely brave and for that reason even sadder. President Obama engaged national discourse about race, and Trump did too, but in a different way. I finished watching Season 1 of True Detective, which more than lived up to the hype, and then decided not to bother with Season Two. Instead I’m watching Murder, She Wrote, unironically, because I actually like it and might explain why at a later time. Say what you will, but Jessica Fletcher kicks ageism’s ass.

tumblr_n4mgq1qNvf1rw31jto1_400This weekend I’ll be finishing up a story about Wylder, formerly known as Save the Arcadian, and another long, collaborative piece about what went wrong in Virginia colleges this year. I’ll continue the great X Files rewatch of 2015 so that I can be extra-ready for the new miniseries that’s coming out this January. I might even make it out to the National Building Museum’s indoor beach, which looks too cool to be real. I’ll be writing pitches. I’ll be drinking Earl Gray. You know where to find me.

Happy Bloomsday!

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

For those who are not Modern literature enthusiasts and/or residents of Dublin, Bloomsday is a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Notorious for being banned for obscenity in multiple countries (including the U.S.), Ulysses is ironically recognized as the most influential but least read book of the twentieth century. All of the book’s events take place during the course of a single day – you guessed it – June 16, 1904, a day that gained personal significance to Joyce when he went on a first date with his wife, Nora Barnacle, on a June 16.

The first few episodes of the novel are narrated by Stephen Dedalus, an intellectual utterly trapped in his own mind. The novel picks up with Dedalus where Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man left him, but Joyce shifts the narration to a Jewish Dubliner named Leopold Bloom in the fourth episode. Bloom is the antithesis of Dedalus: where Dedalus’ language is elevated, Bloom’s is plain; where Dedalus’ thoughts stew in memories, Bloom’s are saturated with sensory details of the present.

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the photo I posted above, so with that background information out of the way, I can explain. Since 1954 (50 years after the events in the book take place), Dublin has brought Ulysses to life by celebrating Bloomsday, a unique literary holiday during which visitors and residents of Dublin relive the events in the book by traveling the route Bloom and Dedalus take as they wind their way through the city and knit their experiences together. I plan to visit Dublin during my time abroad in order to make my own pilgrimage, but in the meantime, thousands of miles away in Charlottesville, I needed to find another way to immerse myself. My encounter with Bloom, I decided, had to be sensory. Specifically, gustatory.

We meet Bloom as he’s preparing breakfast:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I’d never eaten kidneys, but I’m an adventurous eater and was up for the challenge. My search for kidneys began two days ago and took me to six different butcher shops, my path criss-crossing through Charlottesville. At the second Kroger I visited, the butcher eyed me curiously. “I’ve been here since the 1980,” he told me, “and when people would hear about us getting a lamb carcass in, they’d be here first thing in the morning to make sure they could get the kidneys if they were still attached.” He shook his head. “That’s the last I’ve seen them, though.”

He sent me over to the Carriage House, alternately called Anderson’s Old Fashioned Butcher, a dimly lit, linoleum floored building perfumed by the slabs of fish resting in glass coolers ringing the room. “You need help with somethin’ honey?” a grizzled woman called out to me as I peered at a fleshy white plank of halibut. Her eyes bugged out when I asked about my kidneys. “We don’t have anything like that here,” she said. “But I used to work at Food Lion and I have some connections. Hold on.” I waited patiently as she dialed her friend.

“No? You don’t have any? Okay. Thank you, baby boy. You take care.” She hung up. “You might want to try Reid’s. They usually have weird — ” She glanced around. “Pardon my French, but weird shit like that.” I thanked her and drove to Reid’s. “No, we don’t have any. A lady had us special order some a few weeks ago, so we could do that if you don’t need them right away.” (I did need them right away.) “She fed them to her dogs,” the butcher added.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense -- they're rare because no one seems to want them any more.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense — they’re rare because no one seems to want them any more.

Finally, Foods of All Nations came through with a shelf full of frozen lamb kidneys. (Bloom actually eats mutton kidney, but finding any kidney at all was so difficult that I was satisfied with settling.) By this point in the day, I was really enjoying the odd looks I was receiving. Kidney isn’t in high demand, but especially by my demographic (early 20s American female).

Having never cooked kidney before, I needed to do some research before I dove into cooking. I thawed the kidneys overnight in the refrigerator and rose early the next day so that I would have time to cook before I had to go to work. A thread ominously entitled “Kidney Fail” suggested soaking the kidneys in a salt water and white vinegar bath to help reduce the kidneys’ tell-tale whiff of urine, so I set them up in a bath and added some ice cubes to keep them fresh while they soaked for an hour.

Everyone thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

My mercifully non-judgmental housemates thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

Meanwhile, I picked out an audiobook recording of Ulysses on YouTube and began my breakfast with my version of the Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich Bloom enjoys for lunch. Bloom visited Davy Byrne’s Pub, a restaurant still frequented today. Until I make it to Dublin, my version of Bloom’s sandwich would have to make do, and it actually turned out to be a startlingly delicious combination of flavors.

I've found my new favorite sandwich.

I’ve found my new favorite sandwich.

The Gorgonzola was creamy and salty, and the Dijon mustard I used blended with the tang of the rich blue mold that marbled the cheese. Thin leaves of arugula added texture and a refreshing pepperiness that balanced the richness of the cheese. With no soda bread (and actually no bread at all, since I don’t eat bread – Laura, if you’re reading this, I owe you a slice), I ate a half sandwich on wheat. I decided against port wine, the other vital component of Bloom’s meal, since it was only 9 o’ clock in the morning. This is a sandwich I will make again, Bloomsday or not.

As my little kidneys soaked away and Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus annoyed each other on the audiobook, I nervously Googled for recipes and instructions. Although Bloom eats his kidney plain, with only pan drippings for dressing, I opted for a recipe that called for a red wine vinegar/Dijon mustard cream sauce, hoping that the strong flavors would soften the kidneys’ peculiar flavor. Additionally, I stumbled across this incredibly helpful video:

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

That white membrane is no joke. I ended up having to wash the scissors from my desk because they were the only ones sharp enough to snip through the slippery white spines of gristle.

I know I cooked the kidneys correctly because the texture was just right — the bite was juicy with just the right amount of resistance, like a firmer version of a scallop. My taste buds had been primed by the smell of the soaking kidneys, and I waited curiously for their conclusion. They buzzed skeptically as I chewed, waiting until I swallowed to offer a verdict. “That is not food,” they said in unanimous agreement. “Do. Not. Eat. More.”

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The kidney didn’t taste like excrement by any means; don’t be fooled by the horrified reviews you may find online. Unfortunately, the “fine tang of faintly scented urine” lingered in my palate for the rest of the day, a briny, bitter-saltiness paired with a rich meatiness unlike anything I’ve tasted before. Uncharacteristically, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the rest of my kidney and made a bowl of oatmeal instead. However, by the end of the day, the taste had settled comfortably into my palate, tinging the rest of the foods I ate but not unpleasantly.

I think on some level I always knew I'd end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

I think on some level I always knew I’d end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

Leopold Bloom is drawn to the most pungent flavors available, a sensory dimension to his character that can’t fully come to life from the page alone. He takes pleasure in his food, giving great thought to planning and obtaining his meals. Ulysses is a daunting book, and there are still entire episodes that I missed as I followed the sporadic but thoughtfully chosen stabs my survey of Modern literature took at it. But after spending this Bloomsday exploring Bloom’s particular tastes, I’ve found a new way into a book that continues to captivate me.

What I’m (hopefully) reading this summer

Sometime during the 9th grade, reading for pleasure became difficult for me. I think it’s fair to say that I was hitting my resume-building stride during that year, starting a club with a friend and working on my unwittingly ballsy History Fair project about Richard Nixon (that’s a story for another day). Since then, I’ve struggled to find my way back to the time when I would race through arithmetic and grammar so that I could get back to reading stories that enthralled and excited me. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read almost all of the fiction novels in the library, but each school year I’ve become less inclined to add to the thousand or so pages my professors assign per week.

Nonetheless, after a week or so of Netflix (read: Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I feel ready to unplug and delve into some good books. I am a compulsive buyer of used books, so addicted to building my library that I once hid a stack of books in my car to conceal my spending. With so many unread books on my shelves, I decided to choose titles that would give my summer a cohesive theme. It’s a short stack, but considering that I’ll be starting my 45 hour, 7 day work week soon, I wanted to set a goal I actually believe I can accomplish.

So, here are my picks. My dual themes are travel and writing; I’m interested in what these authors have to say and eager to learn what I should look for in my own travels and writing about them.

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  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig. This book is part of a three-book collection recommended by my friend and former teacher, Michael DeLalla. Michael is a professional guitarist whose gigs have taken him all over the world, and the guitar workshop he taught each summer changed my life. I discovered the joy of playing music with other people and met some of my best friends, including Billy, there. Zen is one of three books Michael recommends that everyone read. Curiously, Barnes & Noble shelves it in the religion section. I took an incredibly interesting class on Tibetan Buddhism at U.Va., and although it by no means gave me expertise on the subject, I’m interested to see whether this text emphasizes nothingness, simplicity, and fantastic mental feats the way The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Life of Shabkar did. The back cover of Zen sounds somewhat Disneyfied to me (“”a profound personal and philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions…the small, essential triumphs that propel us forward!”) so I’m hoping for something a little more reserved and modest.
  • See Under: Love by David Grossman. I’m currently halfway through this one; one of my professors assigned parts of it for class, so I’ve returned to finish it up. Grossman is an Israeli journalist/novelist whose creativity is actually unreal. The book is about a lot of things, but its frame is essentially the story of a young boy named Momik who grows up to become a writer struggling to deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust, which his parents refuse to discuss with him. It’s about imagination’s power to transform and create and the messy human relationships that form the underpinning of momentous events. This summary misses so much; the book is full of wonderful and surprising images and ideas, like this passage:

The next moment we were no longer alone. The air was all aquiver. My hand began to tremble as though it had a life of its own. My fingers pulled and pressed together. I looked at them in astonishment: they started to pull, but there was nothing there. They didn’t stop moving. They groped. They prodded the air to make it flow toward them in a certain pattern, they propelled it wisely, stubbornly, churned it into a thicker substance, and suddenly there was moisture on my fingertips, and I understood that I was drawing the story out of nothingness, the sensations and words and flattened images, embryonic creatures, still wet, blinking in the light with remnants of nourishing placenta of memory, trying to stand up on their wobbly legs, and tottering like day-old deer, till they were strong enough to stand before me with a measure of confidence….

  • The Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. This book was a high school graduation gift from my friend and mentor, Paige. Paige happens to be friends with Tony Horwitz and Geraldine Brooks, two married writers who are jokingly referred to as “the Pulitzers” by friends like Paige. Tony Horwitz is basically my hero; I decided I wanted to become a writer while reading Confederates in the Attic, my first exposure to creative, journalistic, history-based nonfiction. It’s a pretty specific blend but encapsulates everything I care about. Last summer, I read Baghdad Without a Map, Horwitz’s account of the time he spent in the Middle East after Geraldine’s job took them there. The Nine Parts of Desire is Brooks’ counterpart to that story – the Middle East from the perspective of a female Australian journalist. The parts of this book I’ve read so far provide an interesting look at the role of translators and translation, something other writers often gloss over.
Tony Horwitz visited Charlottesville while promoting his most recent book. He laughed, a little bitterly, when I told him that I wanted to become a writer like him. "Good luck!" he said, referring to journalism's collapse.

Tony Horwitz visited Charlottesville while promoting his most recent book. He laughed, a little bitterly, when I told him that I wanted to become a writer like him. “Good luck!” he said, referring to journalism’s collapse.

  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I was the kind of first grader who hauled Harry Potter books out to recess, so I was surprised and humbled when The Sound and the Fury completely eluded my comprehension when I attempted to tackle it in the 11th grade. Now, with some experience reading Faulkner in a college class, I feel ready to take on Faulkner once again. I actually really need to catch up on him, as I recently proposed my interdisciplinary Modern Studies thesis on his work. Choosing Faulkner as the subject of my thesis makes a lot of sense; he was writer-in-residence at U.Va., so we have a huge archive of resources, and Stephen Railton is one of the leading Faulkner scholars around. I’m interested in the broken family in Modern literature, so Faulkner’s saga of the Compton family fits my interest nicely. I hope to have read the majority of Faulkner’s catalogue by the time I begin work on my thesis, so I’m starting now.
  • Dubliners by James Joyce. I owned Ulysses for years, nervously keeping it on my nightstand beneath my clock radio, before I was forced to read it in a class last fall. Despite my fear of the text’s massive size and reputation for being difficult reading, I was blown away by Joyce’s work. My professor said in lecture that it would make our pulses race, our hearts pound. “Yeah right,” I thought. “Maybe if you’re a literature professor!” But something happened to me when I read Ulysses; there’s some exciting energy packed into that text, and if it makes me a total nerd to say so, that’s fine. I’ll be so incredibly close to Dublin that I’m definitely planning to make at least one visit during my time abroad. I found an incredible literary itinerary on Dublin’s tourism website, but I need to catch up on reading if I want to make the most of it.
  • Telling True Stories ed. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. This is a book of essays that I’ve picked up and put down many times in the past few years. It’s another book given to me by Paige upon my graduation, and it’s wonderful and extremely terrible in the best kind of way. The book is composed of essays from journalists and nonfiction authors, who select a story from their portfolios and then analyze its making. I love the way this book teaches writing; it’s engaging and inspiring. What drives me absolutely crazy is that with each new essay, I want to drop everything and race out to buy the book that the authors describes. Last time I put Telling True Stories down, it was to read Newjack, a fantastic book by Ted Conover, who contributed an essay about it to Telling True Stories. It’s a rabbit hole, but it’s a wonderful one.
  • Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that I’m interested to see how Steinbeck characterizes his poodle, Charley, as well as America. My American Studies classes at U.Va. emphasize the point that the America encountered by white male writers like Steinbeck does not encapsulate the experiences of minority communities and vast excluded populations; still, there’s an undeniable allure about Steinbeck, who some consider the ultimate American writer, setting out to “discover America.” How can one “discover” a place so vast and varied? If Steinbeck figured it out, I want to know so that I can put that knowledge to use in Europe. I view the idea of this book with skepticism, but honestly I want to love it, and if that makes me shortsighted so be it. We’ll see.
  • Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat Moon. This is another of the books Michael recommended. (The third is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and I’ve already read it.) Blue Highways is named for the fact that on old maps, main routes were depicted in red and backroads were coded in blue. William Least Heat Moon focuses on traveling through the forgotten towns, off the beaten path, in search of some kind of understanding of America. I want to know how he mapped his route – was it by accident, chance, or did he have a plan? How do you choose where to go among options that you probably know little or nothing about? How far ahead can you plan that type of trip? All of these questions are obviously relevant to my own trip planning.

And in case anyone was wondering, the print in the background of the picture above is the one Andrew Bird signed for me at his Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden concert last July. It was sheer luck, but after years of listening to Bird’s music, it was a great moment for me. I guess this is bragging, but that’s okay sometimes I think – let’s think of it as show and tell instead.

Andrew Bird was frailer and more exhausted than I expected him to be, but it's understandable considering his punishing tour schedule. He was quiet and kind to me, as I'm sure he didn't feel like signing a poster but offered anyway.

Andrew Bird was frailer and more exhausted than I expected him to be, but it’s understandable considering his punishing tour schedule. He was quiet and kind to me, as I’m sure he didn’t feel like signing a poster but offered anyway.