Cover Reveal!

Plus a title and a pub date, and some romantic and archival dramas

I got some exciting news since the last newsletter: My book now has a cover design! And a fantastic cover it is, too. Thanks to David Wilson, creative director at Belt Publishing, for coming up with the perfect design.

The book has also acquired an official title and a pub date, which make it seem…real, for lack of a better word. It’s been living in my head and on my computer for so long, it’s scary-exciting to think it will be out there in the world as a physical/digital object soonish.

Clutter: A History will be out Oct. 6, 2020. Read more about it (you can even pre-order it, if you are so inclined).

While I wait for edits and such, I’ve been following some dramatic situations involving (separately) the National Archives and the Romance Writers of America. Some related links work your time this week, plus a couple of things more uplifting:

1) Joe Heim of The Washington Post (my hometown paper and former employer) broke a big story this week that the National Archives’ blurred out the words “Trump,” “vagina,” and “pussy” in a promotional exhibit display that featured a photo from the 2017 Women’s March.

2) A NARA spox told Heim the Archives had been trying to sidestep political controversy. Instead, it caused one: The reaction from historians, archivists, activists, and almost everybody else was understandably fierce. Even the Washington Post editorial board weighed in.

3) NARA apologized. As it should have. Will that be enough? Probably not. I expect to see more fallout from this.

4) One winner here: journalism. Joe Heim’s account of how he got the story reveals a textbook case of a good reporter doing his job. (He also put in a plea to support local journalism, which produces stories like this.)

5) Lost in the controversy was the exhibit itself: “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” dedicated to the suffrage movement. I can only imagine how the curators feel. The exhibit, which I haven’t seen yet, sounds excellent. (Read Jenny Schuessler’s NYT review of it and two other suffrage exhibits currently on in DC.)

6) Because I live in DC, know many civil servants, and sometimes write about NARA and other Federal agencies working in my spheres of interest (including museums and archives, humanities and the arts), I’ve seen up close how tricky it can be to operate in the current political environment. Fear (of catching the wrong sort of attention, or of being defunded) can warp and derail decision-making. Perry Collins, a former NEH staffer, summed up the danger:

7) Meanwhile, over in Romancelandia, all hell’s been breaking loose. I won’t go into all the details here—there are a lot of them—but anybody interested in diversity and inclusion in publishing (and in professional associations in general) should be aware of what’s happening. The best summary I’ve come across is this deep dive by Kelly Faircloth in Jezebel. (See also the #RWAShitShow hashtag on Twitter.)

8) Speaking of romance, it’s not a genre I’m well read in, though I did write about it for the Chronicle of Higher Ed a few years ago (“In a Plot Twist, Scholars Get Serious About Romance”). But I have a forthcoming postapocalyptic romance title on my TBR list: Deal With the Devil, the first in the “Mercenary Librarians” series by Kit Rocha (the pen name of the writing duo Bree Bridges and Donna Herren). Honestly, they had me at “mercenary librarians.”

9) Some good enviro news, which we could all use more of: The state of Florida has protected 20,000 acres of Everglades that was going to be used for oil production.

10) Angry that Greta Gerwig was shut out of an Oscar nomination for “Little Women”? I am. Thank goodness the literary world has better sense when it comes to recognizing female talent.

Thanks for reading!



Twelfth Night Revels

The holidays end. A new year begins.

Happy tail end of the holidays to you! I hope family, friends, and travels treated you well, and that however you celebrated, if you celebrated, you’re starting the new year refreshed and grateful to be here in spite of all the horrors out there. I am—grateful, anyway.

One thing I’m most grateful for: I turned in my book manuscript on Dec. 31, a day before the official deadline. This project has been living in my head and on my computer for several years now, and I wanted to end the decade with it completed, as best I could get it to that stage. (There is surely a lot of rewriting and revising ahead.) I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish the draft and let go of it. And I did.

Truth be told, the final push took it out of me. I poked and prodded and added and deleted and adjusted and tweaked the draft until the moment I sent it off. Still, I wasn’t expecting to feel as flat-out exhausted as I did after I hit “Send” on New Year’s Eve. It took me a couple of days to feel more or less back to normal, and I’m still not quite there.

The closest analogy I’ve hit on is that wrung-out feeling you get after you’ve had the flu and you sense that you are through the worst of it but still feel vulnerable in body and spirit, not fully restored but glad to be on the mend. I’ve had milder versions of this post-writing collapse before, especially with longer stories, but the strength of the feeling startled me this time around.

Then again, I’ve never gotten a book of mine this far before. It’s unfamiliar territory. As I said, I’m grateful to be here.

Pretty soon I will start fretting about all the things I can’t control: What if my editor declares the book unpublishable? What if I got something hideously wrong? What if I make somebody angry or missed something essential (I’m sure I did—almost all books do) or wildly misinterpreted an argument or bit of evidence? What if nobody reads it? What if somebody actually reads it?

And so on and so forth. The writing life is a study in anxieties. The trick is not minding.

Some last-of-the-holidays links for your delight and perusal this week, especially if the headlines have gotten to be too much for you:

1) Today is the last day to see the manuscript notebook of A Christmas Carol at the Morgan Library in NYC. If you didn’t get there in person this time around to see Charles Dickens’ wonderful strikeouts and scrawls and improvements (see, he revised a lot too), the Morgan has the manuscript digitized. (Every year my family re-reads A Christmas Carol out loud; every year I hear something new in it.)

2) File this away for next December: As a diehard “Xmas” fan, I was thrilled to see this thread by dictionary maven Kory Stamper. (Read the full thread.)

3) I didn’t do best-of-2019 lists—there are plenty to choose from already—nor do I have Big Resolutions for 2020. But I have resolved to make it a year to celebrate the pleasures of tactile objects, including good pens and pencils and journals to write and sketch in. After I turned in my book, I stocked up on some very satisfying notebooks and planners, including these from Iron Curtain Press. They look washed out here but they’re a lovely shade of pale aquamarine in real life, and they’re a pleasure to hold and to write in.

As a reward for turning in my book manuscript (a day early!), I went to @eastcitybookshop and bought a lovely planner and task pad from @ironcurtainpress. Here’s to an organized new year.
January 2, 2020

4) The most beautiful book I got for Christmas has got to be Lydia Davis’s Essays One, with its gorgeous green rough-paper cover and hefty-but-compact feel. (I’ll quit raving about Lydia Davis in every newsletter, promise.)

5) I can’t draw worth a damn but I’ve decided to do a little sketching every day (most days, anyway) to give my brain a break from words and to remind myself to pay attention to the shape of things. Serendipitously, over on Twitter, writer Claire Ryan issued a #YearOfArt challenge for the year.

My New Year’s wish: that you remember the things and people that bring you joy and make time for them this year, whatever challenges 2020 brings.

Thanks for reading!



Small Surprises

Plus card exchanges, electric eels, and beautiful weeds.

The house I live in dates to 1922, a good year for Modernism and for DC Crafstman-style “daylighter” rowhouses. (“Daylighter” because they were designed to let in as much daylight as possible, so they’re brighter and airier than a lot of rowhouses.) Owning an older house prepares you for surprises, often of the unpleasant variety: a leak here, a creak there, a roof that really needs to be replaced, a door frame that used to be plumb and now can’t quite hold the door it once encompassed snugly.

But our old daylighter, which I love in spite of its idiosyncrasies, also surprises us in delightful ways. Yesterday we put up our Christmas tree, a yearly ordeal that requires a dive into the closet under the basement steps to pull out the boxes of ornaments and seasonal flair.

To get to the boxes, we had to take everything out of the closet: suitcases, cat carriers, flotation devices, a wicker picnic basket that gets used twice a decade. The usual domestic flotsam and jetsam.

Excavating our way to the boxes, we noticed the makeshift ceiling in the closet was falling down. We decided to pull it off—it was just a thin sheet of plywood nailed to the underside of the basement steps, hardly an Architectural Feature—and in the process we found a mess of cobwebs and dust.

We also found these:

They’re cartoon panels that feature Mickey Mouse, Clementine Cow, and Horace Horsecollar and some misadventures with a balky car and a leaky boat. I’m guessing they date back to the 1940s, when the house sheltered a tobacconist, his wife, and their two kids along with two lodgers. (Housing was in short supply in wartime DC, and many houses took in boarders. We found a vintage APARMENT TO LET sign in the garage when we moved in.)

Some long-ago child festooned the panels with red and green crayon or pencil, and then must have slipped them between the gapped risers of the basement steps, as kids do. The house kept these little slips of paper safe all this time for us to find. Thank you, house.

This week’s links include small good things to help make the run-up to the holidays a little more festive. [N.B. I had a couple of eco-catastrophe stories on my list to share this week that I am going to skip today because the sun is shining, the house smells like Xmas tree, and there is still much to be merry and bright about in the world.]

1) Send a fellow book-lover a holiday card via LibraryThing’s annual Holiday Card Exchange. (The deadline to sign up is Tuesday, Dec. 11.) If you don’t know LibraryThing, it’s a personal-library-cataloguing site that’s also a hub for readers and authors. I love it and mean to use it more.

2) Speaking of holiday cards, we’ve been enjoying a letterpress renaissance the last few years. I am a big fan of D.C.’s own Grey Moggie Press. This year’s newest card offering: “All I want for Christmas is to get Baby Shark out of my head.”)

3) I want to know more about this project that explores the raw materials and carbon footprint required to make Henry David Thoreau’s eco-classic Walden. (Tangentially related: Thoreau and I share a birthday, though I expect my carbon footprint is a lot higher than his.)

4) While we’re talking about Thoreau: The loveliest thing I read this week was “Cohabiting with Beautiful Weeds,” an essay in the TLS by the incomparable Lydia Davis, who could make a grocery list lyrical and startling. Prompted by a book of Thoreau’s observations on wild plants (this one, I think), Davis celebrates the small botanical treasures that fill her yard year-round once she learns to see them and let them be. It’s a call to notice the small things.

There was a more sombre reason for my interest in wild plants this year. I felt more acutely now, as increasingly grim news came in every day, that the generosity of the earth and the seasons, even in one yard, should not be ignored or carelessly dismissed, but consciously valued and noted. Thoreau lamented that so few people noticed the wildflowers. It is hard to miss the beauty that flashes by the car window: the pastel phlox, the wild roses with their sweet fragrance, the dark orange day lilies and blue chicory, the white dogwoods in the woods. But in my own yard I had ignored the more humble volunteers in the waste places, had uprooted pretty intruders from the flowerbeds, and trampled, in the lawn, the drifts of ghostly white Antennaria (called pussy-toes in my books and admired by Thoreau as mouse-ears).

5) Miguel the electric eel is lighting up the Tennessee Aquarium. (He also has a zippy Twitter feed.)

6) “If I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all”: Tim Dowling discovers that audiobook narrators do a lot more than just sit there and read. (I was fascinated by this article.)

7) This list of the “essential” books about Washington left me dissatisfied—did we really need a roundup of “books about Brett,” especially at this time of year?—but it’s not a bad starting point if you need one. I was especially glad to see Edward P. Jones’ essential collection Lost in the City included, along with Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

8) “The best thing you can do is not buy more stuff”: Adam Minter talks to NPR’s Terri Gross about his new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. It’s a good listen for this season of frenzied shopping. I finished the book this week; it’s a deeply reported, eye-opening investigation of where the world’s discards go.

Wishing you small surprises of the delightful kind, this week and every week.

Thanks for reading!




Holiday greetings from the sunny side of the street.

I hope your holiday travels, if you had travels, treated you well. I’m just back in Washington from a couple of days on the road to visit family in central Virginia.

Say hello to Hamish, who hails from the Scottish hamlet of Port Appin and whom I look forward to seeing on my occasional visits to Charlottesville, where he now resides.

It was good to have a change of scene. But it’s good to be back home. I’m a month away from my book deadline, filling in holes and adding transitions and smoothing rough spots and generally making peace with what I won’t have time or space or knowledge enough to explore.

Whatever the outcome, I’m happily engaged in this last round of work. Yesterday, holed up at a favorite coffee joint in downtown Charlottesville, I hit that writerly sweet spot of relishing the process rather than obsessing about the finished project. The doing is all.

Forward motion, in other words. When I get stuck in revising, or when I get sad because it gets dark too soon these days and because the world’s a mess and I can’t fix it, I go for a walk.

I’d been feeling especially sad, or SAD, the last couple of weeks. And so I walked: from home to the coffee shop, or the library, or the Library (of Congress, where I have a study shelf). I walked, and it helped.

I walked in the middle hours of the day, striking out in search of the sun. I thought about Louis Armstrong and stuck to the sunny side of the street. I savored the slanting light of autumn and the incandescent reds of the maple trees, which have blazed forth seemingly all of a sudden here on Capitol Hill. I thought about the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who made a not always uncontroversial career out of walking. (I wrote my master’s thesis about him but that’s another story.)

So, whether or not you have a book to finish, whether you hate the dark days or love them, here’s my advice: Take a walk if you can. You won’t regret it.

Recent linkage worth your time:

1) A dispatch from Kansas City with yet more evidence that the nationwide indie bookstore revival (huzzah!) keeps gathering momentum.

2) Speaking of indies: This holiday season, consider buying direct from your favorite indie or university presses.

3) Five wedding rings: The always-excellent Margaret Renkl, one of my favorite writers on the natural world, on drawing strength from the women in her family.

4) Yet another reminder that good science journalism matters—and that you shouldn’t believe every alarmist claim you read: Yes, the recent bushfires in Australia have been hard on many animals, including koalas. Contrary to a claim widely circulated on Twitter, though, koalas are not functionally extinct.

5) Headline writers having too much fun. (Yes, I laughed. Also, props to Thor, an absolute unit if ever I saw one.)

Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this newsletter, share it with a friend (or, if you’re feeling flush, buy me a coffee, because I will never meet this book deadline without a regular stream of caffeine!).



Two Readings and a Funeral

Secondhand stories, Dorothy L. Sayers, and foremothers

One of the biggest questions that lurks behind my clutter investigations:

Where does it all go?

I’ve been happy to find some well-reported answers in the work of Adam Minter, a journalist and columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. I went to hear Adam talk this week about his new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, at the Politics & Prose outpost at The Wharf.

Minter knows his stuff. He comes from a Minneapolis junkyard/scrapping family, and he’s been reporting in depth for a long time on the global recycling and e-waste trade (the subject of his first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade).

I’m in the middle of Secondhand now. It’s helping me better understand the shifting interplay of market pressures, demographic changes, cultural habits, and emotional reckonings that make this such a rich time to be writing about clutter. Thanks to Adam for his work and for signing his book for me.

One bookstore reading this week I wanted to get to and couldn’t make featured Mo Moulton and The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. Moulton’s new book provoked the New Yorker essay I linked to last week about Sayers and her “overlooked” (heh) novel Gaudy Night.

I picked up Gaudy Night in a used bookstore a while back and read it for the first time. Published in 1935, it doesn’t obey the rules (or deliver the pleasures) of a classic detective story. But it fascinates me as a study of smart women—chief among them Harriet Vane, more than a match for Lord Peter Wimsey, not to mention a stand-in for the author—in the throes of figuring out how to put their smarts to work in a world opening up but not yet fully open to them. They could vote at last and attend university. What happened next was harder to figure out.

Gaudy Night raises some questions that must have been very much on the minds of Sayers’ contemporaries: Is the life of the mind the wrong choice or the only choice? Does romantic partnership help or hinder women as they make something of themselves?

I’d have liked to hear Moulton dig into all that. I will have to content myself with reading the book instead. BTW, she did a nice thing afterward: She put together a Twitter thread to thank all the indie bookstores that hosted her on tour.

Sayers and Gaudy Night were on my mind as I drove down to Richmond, Va., yesterday, for the re-interment of my grandmother Marie. Born the year before Sayers, Marie died in 1934, the year before Gaudy Night appeared.

My dad was 18 months old when she passed; he doesn’t remember her. The story was she’d suffered a burst appendix; we later learned she probably died of an ectopic pregnancy, a condition she might well have survived today.

She was buried in her hometown in Pennsylvania; my father had long wanted to bring her back to Richmond and reunite her with my grandfather and uncle in the family plot. It was moving to see that happen yesterday. I think and hope she would be happy to be with her family again, though I expect that such physical arrangements matter most to the living.

I was born decades too late to meet Marie, but I wouldn’t be here without her. I learned yesterday that she was a graduate of Smith College. What did she major in? What did she pursue in college? I want to know more about the lost intellectual life of this woman who lives in family lore as the gone-too-soon wife and mother.

What could she have done if she’d lived longer? Did she ever exercise her right to vote? I hope so.

My stories of her will always be secondhand; I’ll never get to have my picture taken with her. In her honor, here’s a photo taken last night at a party to celebrate the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thank you, Alice Paul and Anna Julia Cooper and all the foremothers who opened the doors for us.

Some links worth your time this week:

1) Marie Kondo launched an online store, prompting raised-eyebrow comments from people who like to conflate decluttering and minimalism. (They are not the same thing, in case you’re wondering.)

2) Other commenters observed, not for the first time, that some Kondo backlash has a racist/sexist tinge to it.

3) Pro tip for library designers: Remember to make the books accessible to all patrons. Oh, and don’t create a design that enables upskirting.

4) When Lydia Davis offers advice on good writing habits, I pay attention.

5) How do you compile a book of daily Sherlock Holmes quotes? With the help of a co-editor who has an almost Holmesian devotion to “making lists of lists.”

6) Which reminds me that these darkening days (oh, the fading of the light!) are my favorite time of year to reread some Sherlock Holmes stories. The game’s afoot!

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with a friend.

Thanks for reading!



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