In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
In past blog posts, I’ve mentioned that I hate books written in epistolary format. And in each of those posts, I admitted that I enjoyed the epistolary-formatted book in question. I guess it’s time to grudgingly concede that, no, I probably don’t hate epistolary novels (but yes, I still do hate Dear Mr. Henshaw).
For her writing debut, actress Mary-Louise Parker — probably best known for her starring role as Nancy Botwin in Weeds — has released a memoir that’s presented as a series of letters to different men in her life. Her fierce love for her father is a big theme throughout the book, but she acknowledges men both real and symbolic who have nonetheless shaped the person she is. She doesn’t usually name names — the letters are addressed to people such as “Movement Teacher,” “Lifeline,” and “Future Man Who Loves My Daughter” — but whether she’s writing about specific or hypothetical interactions, a startling amount of her own history is revealed.
The first time I bought tickets to see Sleater-Kinney, I was living in a basement apartment in Yonkers, New York. I was in grad school, completely broke, but I bought tickets for me and my roommate. I can chart a lot of my grad school life in New York according to The Woods; in fact, that album basically provided the soundtrack for most of my thesis-writing marathons (I literally thanked Sleater-Kinney for that in my acknowledgements). Shortly after I bought those tickets, the bomb dropped: Sleater-Kinney was going on indefinite hiatus. The New York show, the last they’d play there for almost a decade, immediately sold out. Suddenly, The Woods tour turned into a farewell tour of sorts; my first time seeing them would also probably be my last.
In the nine years that followed, the women of Sleater-Kinney went on to different projects. Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss went on to do other music projects, while Carrie Brownstein is probably most recognized now for her role in Portlandia. Sleater-Kinney reunited in secret a couple of years ago, released a new album in January, and have spent the better part of this year on tour (I got to see them twice…yay!). Carrie also just released a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (lyrics from a Sleater-Kinney song called “Modern Girl”). And while I’ll admit that my take on it is partially colored by the fact that I fangirl hard for Carrie, it really is a beautifully written book!
When does this story begin? Elizabeth Alexander muses in the opening of her memoir. She and Ficre Ghebreyesus were the great loves of each other’s lives but all of that was one in an instant when Ficre suddenly died of massive heart failure. And so, she wonders, does this story begin when they met? When they married? When he died?
Alexander — perhaps most famous for writing “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration — contemplates all of these different beginnings. More a celebration of Ficre’s life than an elegy, each chapter feels like a vignette focused on important scenes from their lives. The two met in New York City and had a passionate romance that quickly led to marriage and the birth of their first son; they eventually grew into a family of four. Alexander is originally from Harlem, while Ghebreyesus fled his native home of Eritrea amidst violent upheaval and eventually settled in the United States; they found what they needed — culturally, emotionally, and artistically — in each other. She made her mark as a poet, playwright, and academic, while Ghebreyesus was a well-loved artist (that’s his work on the book cover) and a chef. The loss felt by all who knew him is palpable and acute.
Growing up, Amelia Morris was never a foodie, and it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she decided to test her cooking skills. Despite never having made a cake from scratch — or having much of any kitchen experience whatsoever — she was dazzled by a beautiful chocolate-peppermint cake in Bon Appétit magazine and decided to try the recipe for a Christmas brunch that she was hosting.
Instead of creating a magazine cover-worthy cake to dazzle her friends with, the end result was a confection that had to be scooped out of a serving bowl, “unequivocal proof that if you work hard and follow the rules to a tee, your cake may still fall over and need to be scraped into a bowl on Christmas Day.” She took lots of pictures, was at peace with her epic failure, and ended up creating Bon Appétempt, a blog that’s charted her culinary journey over the past five years.