Issue #09: Let's All Read More Books
They truly are magic. 🪄
Morning Person is a weekly newsletter packed with obsessively-curated recommendations and ideas—let’s get to it!
🎥 Supernova: When Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is diagnosed with early onset dementia, he and his longtime partner Sam (Colin Firth) go on a road trip through the English countryside. Watch if you liked 45 Years (director Andrew Haigh produced Supernova), as both are rich with beautiful performances, intimate dialogue, and the discovery of a heartbreaking secret.
📚 In. by Will McPhail, a graphic novel: Nick hides from his inability to have meaningful connections with others behind overpriced coffee and pastries sold at stores like “Gentrificchiato”—until he meets Wren. I devoured this touching, laugh-out-loud funny graphic novel from New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail about living life in full color. (Also a good place to start if you’ve never dabbled in graphic novels!)
🎧 “Love and Hate in a Different Time,” EP by Gabriels: In their latest EP, the L.A.-based group Gabriels pulls from their background in the L.A. gospel community and classic jazz standards to create something entirely new.
Last week, I played hooky and visited New York for the first time in years. Between coffees and dinners with friends, I had hours on my own to wander (full recap coming later this week!). Most days, I trekked upwards of 15 miles, amassing a collection of books and pastries, pressed against the bottom of my tote. At practically every turn, I was reminded of just how much there is to see and do here, but also what a city of readers this is.
On the subway, it’s mostly phones and Airpods. But, on a walk through Central Park, nearly every park bench was occupied by someone with a book. On pilgrimages to Books Are Magic, the Center for Fiction, Powerhouse Arena, Bonnie Slotnick (for cookbooks), Three Lives & Co., and The Strand, my own “to read” list multiplied with every book I purchased. In the basement of McNally Jackson, I sat down with a pile of staff recommendations, including McPhail’s graphic novel, and didn’t look up until I’d read the entire thing. At drinks, a friend who works as a fiction editor produced a handful of books from her tote for me, with colorful recommendations for why I had to begin each one immediately. I dutifully followed her advice, reading one of her picks the next day in coffee shops and bars across multiple boroughs. And, honestly, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.
To kickstart your reading list, I asked two of my favorite writers, who are also voracious readers, to share a few of their reading habits:
Thao Thai is the Managing Editor at Cubby, whom you may recognize for her lyrical personal essays. We share a mutual love of memoirs (and even tried to start a “memoir club” together at one point!) and sprawling, multigenerational novels. She’s currently working on her first novel.
What is your ideal reading situation? This is really persnickety of me, but I really like to be alone when I read. If someone's nearby, I get distracted, and I crave the most immersive reading situation. As a mom, though, my daughter and I are often together; sneaking in a few pages while she plays is a wonderful treat too. Ideally? I'd draw a too-hot bath with CBD bath salts, a bubbly water, and snacks on the ledge.
How many books do you read each year (or week!)? On average, I'd say I read a book or two a week. I used to count, but I find that it made me focus on the quantity over the quality of my reading experience.
What is the last great book you read? I loved State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I went through a big Patchett binge, and even now, weeks later, I'm still thinking about the jungles of Brazil, the tenuousness of relationships, all the hidden terrors we all live through. Books that sustain my awe get the most brain-space, and this one was the most transportive one I've read in a long time.
Do you believe in "guilty pleasure" reading? I believe wholeheartedly in reading whatever feeds your soul, but nothing makes me guilty when it comes to reading. Someone once said, as a sort of backhanded compliment, that they were impressed at how I read "high and low," and I didn't like that notion that there's this hierarchy in reading. I read from so many great genres: fiction and memoir, YA, fantasy, romance. Good writing happens everywhere.
What does your writing process look like? I spend a lot of time thinking before I put things to paper; the shower is my favorite meditation spot. I make notes in my phone and on Post-its that my daughter hides. And then when I do sit down to write, it all comes out really fast and urgently. The real work is taking the logorrhea and shaping it into something that makes sense for another person. Revision is where the urgency becomes something more artful and controlled.
Do you have an ideal writing situation/environment? As before: I'd prefer to be very alone, writing in a blanket-lined cave where drinks and snacks magically appear in the doorway. These days, I go down to the basement and write after everyone's gone to bed, and that's very cave-like. The quiet lets me get weird, which is where the sweet spot of my writing tends to be. My family is also very supportive and they've allowed me a couple of nights alone in a hotel with just my laptop and the vending machine for company.
What were the most difficult/rewarding parts of writing a novel? Writing a novel is an entirely new experience for me, and it's an exercise in control in so many ways. Because you're pacing yourself across many chapters—vs. a few pages for an essay or short story—you have to maintain a certain level of tension and energy. Lots of things fall flat in the revision process, but the things that still rise to the top make it all worthwhile. And—when my husband reads my drafts. It's a special kind of romance to see him engrossed.
Do you have any tips for reading more? If time is something you struggle with, consider audiobooks. I have a friend who takes long walks while listening to books, and it seems like a very rewarding way to multitask. I'd like to try it! I also tend to find that most people have a time of day where there's more focus and imagination for reading. I don't want to be reading in the morning—that's when I'm tidying up, scrolling through social media, trying to rationalize myself out of pajama pants as workwear—but in the evening, when I'm winding down ... that's my time. Yours may be during your lunch hour or right after work or on Sunday mornings. Find a corner of your day (or week) that feels like peace. That's usually the spot where you'll find your Reading Self.
Three favorite books:
Cleyvis Natera is an award-winning powerhouse writer (and all-around incredible person) who teaches creative writing in New York City. Her first novel, Neruda on the Park, comes out in May of 2022. You can (and should!) preorder it here!
What is your ideal reading situation? My ideal reading situation involves sitting beachside in Boca Chica, my favorite beach in the Dominican Republic, sipping from a strong cup of coffee while I glance up occasionally to see my husband play with our two kids. In this scenario, everyone has forgotten I exist, and I can read uninterrupted for hours on end, maybe, even (GASP!) cover to cover. In real life, I’ve given up the concept of an ideal situation. I listen to audiobooks while I drive to work, I read hardcovers when I take my kids to the park, I read on my kindle app on my phone while I wait to check out at the supermarket, even sneak in a few minutes once the kids go to bed, if my husband gets up during TV time to use the bathroom. Reading for me changed drastically when I realized reading chapters at a time was a thing of the past. Now, I can read even a sentence at a time. Holding the book in my mind as I go about my day helps me feel connected to the world in a visceral way. When I return to a book, it’s like an old friend, a bit grouchy, wondering where the heck I’ve been.
What is the last great book you read? I recently finished reading What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy. It’s a novel that tells the story of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath in interconnected stories. It’s beautiful and breathtaking in scope, managing to stay rooted in the horrors of the day but also branching out to show us a nuanced view of the Haitian diaspora in Haiti and abroad.
Do you have a favorite genre? What is it? My heart belongs to fiction.
Do you belong to a book club? I belong to three book clubs! The longest one I’ve been in I started over a decade ago when I lived in NYC and for most of its existence was just an excuse to drink wine with girlfriends. Now, we actually read the books and on occasion have the writer come talk to us. Nothing beats talking about a book with people who love books.
What does your “guilty pleasure” reading look like? My guilty pleasure is re-reading books I love. It often seems an indulgence when the world is brimming with such talent, and every month there’re new voices to discover. My favorite book The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison I’ve read at least twenty times. And, maybe this says more about me than the brilliant Morrison, but every single time I read it I discover something new in the book that mirrors something new in me.
What does your writing process look like? I’m an early riser! I wake up at 5 am and write straight until 7 am most days, before my kids get up and going. Just as with reading, I find that I make do with whatever time I’ve got. I also know that sometimes the work pushes you away and you have to leave it alone—live a little to come back to understand what’s missing. I give myself a really long runway to craft work and revise it over and over again until it feels done.
Do you have an ideal writing situation? Maybe sitting beachside in Boca Chica… HA! No, I don’t. I usually write on the island in my kitchen because I need close proximity to my greca. I drink coffee non-stop when I’m writing. Being a mother revealed the preciousness I held dear in my twenties—around what the best writing environment had to be to invoke the muse—has no place when the day is never long enough.
What were the most difficult/rewarding parts of writing a novel? Neruda on the Park is a novel about an immigrant community in New York City under threat. The story finds the two main characters, Eusebia and her daughter Luz, thrust into a situation that forces each woman to confront what it means to own the direction of her life. While Luz pivots toward love, Eusebia pivots toward violence. What follows is a wild ride: funny, sexy, heartbreaking and exhilarating. I wrote Neruda on the Park over fifteen years and part of the reason it took so long is because I kept trying to conform this story into a simpler narrative. But to pull it off, this narrative required I give into an unexpected originality—I had to write a book unlike any I had read. Once I gave into that reality, it was the most rewarding creative experience.
Three favorite books:
One of my favorite places to find book recommendations is in the “staff picks” sections in bookstores. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts I came across in New York:
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris: I was fully engrossed in the text from the first page on to the very last. I laughed out loud. I made audible gasps. I sucked my teeth and screeched ‘yesss’ throughout my commute. — Victoria, McNally Jackson
Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes by Phoebe Robinson. A hilarious and poignant collection of essays that touch on performative allyship, being childfree by choice, and the commodification of “self care.”
Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Two Tuccis in one newsletter?? How lucky are we? Tucci’s memoir reflects on his deep love of food as an Italian American, and is as charming as you might imagine.
If Goodreads isn’t cutting it for you: a minimalist site for tracking what you’re reading. A list of book recommendations from my friend Prianka, who writes a great newsletter here! Actually chic reading glasses. Lights designed for working (or reading!) from home.