Elisa Albert is the author of the nov­els After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short sto­ry col­lec­tion How This Night is Dif­fer­ent, and edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Freud’s Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fel­low and will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series. 

Peo­ple fre­quent­ly ask us where a giv­en nov­el came from, as though nov­els have clear ori­gin sto­ries (well, the dad­dy nov­el and mom­my nov­el love each oth­er very much, and they do a very spe­cial hug…). There is, alas, no sim­ple way to answer this kind of ques­tion. I’m not try­ing to be coy or eva­sive when I shrug and change the sub­ject, I promise. It’s just, well, how much time do you have? 

Nov­els are noble and doomed attempts to answer very long, impos­si­bly broad, and child­ish-in-the-best-sense ques­tions. Why do we have to die? What’s up with this man ver­sus nature thing? Why don’t I feel what I’ve been instruct­ed to feel? Why do I love some­one who doesn’t love me back? Why do we lie? Why can’t I stop think­ing about X, Y, Z? Nov­els hope­ful­ly beget new, unpre­dictable ques­tions, which echo long after you’re done read­ing. Nov­els are smarter than their authors. Nov­els are woven from almost untrace­able sources. Nov­els some­times reveal more than we wish they would. I think nov­els are mag­ic that way. Good nov­els, that is, but good” is sub­jec­tive, so feel free to get angry and wag your fin­ger in my face at a read­ing! Hap­pens all the time. 

I’m a vora­cious con­sumer of cul­ture, but only what I absolute­ly want to con­sume. I feel no com­punc­tion to keep up with what any­one else thinks is impor­tant unless it speaks– no, shouts—direct­ly to me, wher­ev­er I hap­pen to be. The alche­my of how we find our way to con­nec­tion with par­tic­u­lar works of art at dif­fer­ent times in our lives is not sub­ject to will, untold eye­balls on social media notwith­stand­ing. Tim­ing is everything. 

I went to a par­ty at a writer’s apart­ment once, and the floor-to-ceil­ing book­shelves were filled with every pris­tine hard­cov­er nov­el the New York Times had reviewed over the pri­or decade. Most of the spines hadn’t been cracked. Mere set dress­ing, alas. It made me sad. 

In a per­fect world, our book­shelves would be idio­syn­crat­ic, sin­gu­lar as fin­ger­prints. Each inner life fed a steady diet best suit­ed to its unique metab­o­lism. That way, find­ing com­mon­al­i­ties on a friend’s book­shelf would mean a lot, wouldn’t it? 

Any­way, some­times I like things I’m sup­posed to” like, more often I don’t; I’m not averse to trash, and it’s been a very long time since I forced myself to fin­ish a book that does noth­ing for me. As a nov­el­ist, every sin­gle thing I read, hear, and watch goes into the stew. I can’t trace or dia­gram pre­cise­ly how, but trust me. So, while what went into After Birth is by now long gone, blessed and ephemer­al as eye con­tact on the sub­way, there’s a new nov­el in the off­ing, and it demands to be fed. 

Here­with, a brief and some­what ran­dom con­sump­tion sur­vey of late. The next nov­el should be ready in, oh, shall we say three years? (I’ll aim for that, unless fate inter­venes. The uterus is a mys­te­ri­ous jok­er.) Regard­less, it all goes into the pot, and hope­ful­ly the stew will be tasty. 

  • Amy Poehler’s mem­oir Yes Please. Adorable, if a bit of a bum­mer in mak­ing light of inter­ven­tion­ist birth trau­ma and fear. Most­ly adorable. Of her many accom­plish­ments, the Upright Cit­i­zens Brigade is espe­cial­ly admirable. I love how she describes being asked by chirpy pseu­do-friends, as her career begins to take off, Can you believe it?” Yes, she dead­pans. I can believe it. I’ve been work­ing my butt off for years. 

  • Huff­Po arti­cle about addic­tion and con­nec­tion, specif­i­cal­ly a fas­ci­nat­ing new rat study that seems to trace the roots of addic­tion not to the chem­i­cal grip of sub­stances them­selves but to lack of con­nec­tion and com­mu­ni­ty, which makes so much sense. I like to refer to these kinds of rev­e­la­to­ry stud­ies, con­firm­ing our most pri­mal instincts, as Bears Still Shit­ting In The Woods. 

  • Ani DiFran­co show at the Egg in Albany. I’ve been to maybe thir­ty Ani DiFran­co shows since my fel­low Rohr Prize nom­i­nee and for­mer camp coun­selor Ari Y Kel­man intro­duced me to her music at Camp Ramah cir­ca 1992. (Thank you for­ev­er, Ari.) It’s been thrilling to wit­ness her evo­lu­tion over the years, and more than a lit­tle uncan­ny to be aware of my own in rela­tion. I brought my hus­band along to this one. He was a great sport, espe­cial­ly giv­en the, ahem, inten­si­ty of crowd, the sing-along aspect, and my tears of joy throughout.

  • Broad City.” Adore this show. Makes me nos­tal­gic for being young and care­less in NYC. (But not too nos­tal­gic.) What insou­ciant hilar­i­ty. There’s no need to stress,” in the wise words of Ilana Glazer. 

  • Wild,” the movie. Woman ver­sus nature: what an idea. Beau­ti­ful­ly done. Great story. 

  • Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man! This was one of my broth­er David’s favorite books. It’s been more than six­teen years since he died, and when a friend hap­pened to rec­om­mend it, I real­ized: hey, it’s about time I read that. Delight­ful. I can feel David absolute­ly all over it. Read­ing very slow­ly so it lasts as long as possible. 

  • Our Androm­e­da by Bren­da Shaugh­nessy. A col­lec­tion of poet­ry from a scar­i­ly bril­liant poet. This con­ver­sa­tion about the book between poets Joy Katz and Eri­ka Meit­ner is an excel­lent exam­i­na­tion of what Shaugh­nessy is up to. Dev­as­tat­ing and cel­e­bra­to­ry and a wel­come reminder of what poet­ry can do. 

  • Us Week­ly mag­a­zine. Just read on the train because I’m tired and truth be told tabloids relax me like a hot fra­grant bath. Should I buy The New York Times instead? A cur­so­ry glance at the front page reminds me that I will be cry­ing and/​or buzzing with rage/​fear/​hopelessness if I involve myself too deeply with its con­tents, so… Us Week­ly it is. I no longer rec­og­nize half the celebri­ties fea­tured there­in, which weird­ly does lit­tle to lessen my total enjoy­ment of this dumb rag.

  • Ruth Fowler’s piece on Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, which offers an impor­tant overview of exact­ly what’s going ever so wrong with our society’s treat­ment of child­bear­ing women. I’m grate­ful for Fowler’s ongo­ing con­fronta­tion of misog­y­nis­tic taboos regard­ing women’s bod­ies in birth.

  • Rebbe, by Joseph Telushkin. I grew up with Telushkin’s books, and was curi­ous to know more about Schneer­son. What a delight to find, in this engross­ing por­trait, a riv­et­ing human being whose insight, intel­lect, and infal­li­ble abil­i­ty to con­nect changed the face of world Jew­ry for­ev­er, one yechidus at a time. I hap­pened by the Chabad Sukkah in Wash­ing­ton Square last fall, and felt com­pelled to duck in and say the bless­ings. The three young ortho­dox men inside were friend­ly but slight­ly robot­ic until I asked them if they’d read Rebbe. Then they stopped what they were doing, looked at me with sur­prise, and agreed: what a phe­nom­e­nal book, what a phe­nom­e­nal biog­ra­ph­er, what a phe­nom­e­nal sub­ject. We prob­a­bly didn’t have much else in com­mon, me and those boys in the sukkah, but we con­nect­ed for a minute, and exchanged gen­uine good wish­es, as I went on my way I felt uplift­ed by our shared appre­ci­a­tion of Telushkin’s achieve­ment, and renewed in the cer­tain­ty that art and lit­er­a­ture have the poten­tial to unite us all, soon­er or lat­er, one way or anoth­er, if only we let it.

Read more about Elisa Albert here.

Relat­ed Content:

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2015), The Book of Dahlia (2008), How This Night is Dif­fer­ent (2006), and the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Freud’s Blind Spot (2010). Her fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in Tin House, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Com­men­tary, Salon,Tablet, Los Ange­les Review of Books, The Believ­er, The Rum­pus, Time Mag­a­zine, on NPR, and in many anthologies.

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