Blurbs and birthdays

Advance praise for CLUTTER, plus what I'm reading this summer

Hey, hey, today’s my birthday! I’ve always enjoyed July 12, whatever age I’m turning, because its annual arrival reminds me I’m still here—and because I really enjoy birthday cake (yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting, please).

Is it odd that I enjoy my birthday more now, in the middle of life, than I did when I was in my salad days? I don’t think so. We should all have a chance to celebrate being here, and to celebrate being ourselves.

This year I have something other than birthday cake (mmm, cake) to look forward to: the birthday of my first book. CLUTTER: AN UNTIDY HISTORY arrives Sept. 1, less than two months from now, and while I’m anxious about its imminent arrival—I could write many posts about authorial anxiety—I’m also excited. I have been working and waiting for this book birthday a long time, and today of all days I want to focus on reasons to be happy.

One very good reason: some lovely advance praise for the book from Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Minter, two journalists and writers whose work I admire and have learned a lot from:

Here’s Gladwell:

"Jennifer Howard has written a brilliant and beautiful meditation on the nature of our attachment to things. Reading Clutter made me long for a life without clutter."—Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author and host of the "Revisionist History" podcast

And here’s Minter:

"In Clutter, Jennifer Howard offers a fascinating and insightful account of what becomes of the stuff that we accumulate in our homes and lives. It's a powerful reminder of how the deeply personal acts of daily life are shared across families, cultures, economies, and countries, and a moving account of how one author's struggle to manage her family's clutter led to a deeper understanding of what matters most in all of our lives."—Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

Kirkus Reviews, one of the major outlets for advance reviews of forthcoming books, has also weighed in, and they like it, they really like it!

Like George Carlin’s infamous riff on “A Place for My Stuff,” Howard’s exploration of one dark corner of consumer culture is quick-witted and insightful—and, appropriately for the subject, refreshingly concise….

A keen assessment of one of society’s secret shames and its little-understood consequences.

A George Carlin comparison? Now THAT is a good birthday present. (If I ever get a tattoo, I may go for “refreshingly concise” in, say, a nice classic Garamond font.)

[My publisher would like me to remind you that pre-orders make a HUGE difference these days. With pub date less than two months away, this would be a fantastic time to preorder CLUTTER if you haven’t already. If you feel like talking it up to book-buying friends, relatives, booksellers, and librarians, that would be extra-awesome. Thank you!]

One of the best ways to kill time while waiting for your book to arrive in the world is to read other people’s books. My current #amreading/TBR pile includes S.A Chakraborty’s just-released THE EMPIRE OF GOLD, the conclusion to a mesmerizing fantasy trilogy that draws on Islamic folklore, along with a book that’s older than I am: CALL FOR THE DEAD, John le Carré’s first novel, in which he introduces the memorably melancholy British intelligence officer George Smiley.

Le Carré hooked me from the first sentence: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Tell me more, tell me more.

I needed a good Cold War page-turner, having gotten bogged down in the Tudor interiority and court intrigue of Hilary Mantel’s THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT, volume three of the Wolf Hall trilogy that features that another plain but not so ordinary middle-aged man, Thomas Cromwell. A friend pointed out to me that without Anne Boleyn (she’s executed in the novel’s first pages), Mantel doesn’t have a foil worthy of Cromwell to work with. I’ll get back to the last volume eventually—I respect Mantel’s work enough to want to finish out Cromwell’s story—but for now my reading heart belongs to George Smiley and his no less treacherous world of midcentury bureaucrats and spies.

Happy reading, friends!



Motherly Love

Sweet and sour(dough), plus a new pub date!

Happy Mother’s Day, friends. I realize this is not an easy day for many people—including those who have lost a beloved mother or maternal figure, those who are estranged from or never knew the women who birthed/raised them, and those who wanted but did not get the chance to be somebody’s mom. If you do have a mother figure in your life who means something to you, I hope you’re able to tell her that today, one way or another. And for those of you who are mothers, I hope your nearest and dearest treat you like queens today and every day.

Mad respect to all of you (dads too) attempting to be good parents and children and partners and workers and home-schoolers and all the things we’re called on to be these days. (I’m just trying to keep the sourdough starter alive—it’s like a third child at this point.) I’d send you all flowers if I could.

(Flower arrangement by Ursula, designer/proprieter of fleursDC, a local business I discovered just in time to have the above arrangement delivered to my mother at her locked-down assisted-living facility.)

My relationship with my own mother has been mostly vexed and complicated, which is one reason I wanted to write about what it felt like to clean 50 years’ worth of stuff out of her house. Writing about that gave me a chance to confront some of my feelings about my mother more directly, and to try to understand her a little better—and then look beyond our individual dynamics to the bigger forces that pushed her to become the consumer she was.

The result—now officially titled Clutter: An Untidy History—will be out at the end of the summer, on September 1, a month early. The good folks at Belt Publishing pushed the pub date up, which is aces with me. Hard to believe that the book will be out in the world, in some kind of final form, in less than four months. It’s taken years to get here, and I feel very lucky to have made it this far. If you are able to pre-order it, or ask your local library or bookstore to order it when circumstances allow—or just spread the word to anybody who might enjoy a brisk and bracing read about how we wound up obsessed by/slaves to clutter—my publisher and I would be thrilled.

And if you’re an assignment editor and would like to see a galley, please let me know—or get in touch directly with the wonderful Martha Bayne, Belt’s marketing director!

Meanwhile, Darcy has some page proofs to check.

Some links worth your time this week:

1) My friend and former Chronicle of Higher Ed colleague Marc Parry did a neat roundup of how archivists are working to preserve all kinds of voices from the pandemic. (This story made me want to dust off my reporter’s notebook and get back on the library/archive beat. I have some ideas…)

2) Pandemic publishing: Some modest good news for the book industry: Print sales rose last week, according to Publishers Weekly. Meanwhile, in less good news for those of us with fall pub dates, some publishers have bumped spring books back a few months in hopes of waiting out the worst of the pandemic. Close to home, my neighborhood indie, East City Bookshop, and a couple of other local businesses have teamed up to safely coordinate orders and pickups. Ingenuity abounds in these strange times.

3) Tech is keeping a lot of us connected to friends, family, colleagues, but Zoom can be exhausting, especially for introverts.

4) Who’s Zoomin’ Who? OTOH, the ubiquity of Zoom has given me an excuse to blast this Aretha Franklin classic while warming up for yet another remote yoga class:

Be well, and thanks for reading!



Six Feet of Separation

Zoom and gloom, hand-washing, and hope

How fast things change. When I wrote my March 8 newsletter, I knew The Virus was headed our way, but it still felt distant—a threat OVER THERE, wherever THERE might be. Now the threat is HERE, among us, wherever we are.

I hope you and yours are safe and well and practicing good hygiene. If you missed the Google Doodle this week that features Ignaz Semmelweis—known as the “saviour of mothers” for his crazy idea that obstetricians should, you know, wash their hands before interacting with patients—check it out. (Bonus points for the jaunty music.)

My family’s list of disrupted routines might look a lot like yours: On Tuesday, March 10, I could have dropped by my mother’s assisted-living facility to bring her a coffee and one of the pastries she loves; by Thursday, the facility had banned all social visits. My kids’ school cancelled exams and in-person classes, and implemented its distance-learning program. My husband, a civil servant, has been told to telework for the foreseeable future. Etc.

As an independent writer/editor, I’m not tethered to an office. Normally I love that, but right now I kind of wish I had one to regret not going to. (I do miss my coffee-shop work/social time and my cubby at the Library of Congress.) My reporter instincts have kicked in, and I am looking for ways to document and understand what’s happening—how academic libraries have responded, for instance.

Two weeks ago I was relieved to have turned around the revisions on my book; now I’m wondering if it will get published on time, or ever, and if anybody will care. Like every author who has a book coming out this year, and every publisher and bookseller with a stake in seeing books find their readers, I hope so. Books are no small endeavor.

All of us will roll with these and many other disruptions, because we have to, for everybody’s sake. Who knows how many more disruptions there will be?

Truth: It is hard not to know how bad things will get, how long it will take for the worst to pass, how grievous the human, social, and economic losses will be, and what our lives will look like post-pandemic, whenever that time arrives.

As it will. I do believe that. Hope springs, as my garden reminds me this time of year.

In the meantime, how do we muddle through? I’m trying, in yogic/therapeutic parlance, to sit with the uncertainty, and to practice what my therapist (still available for tele-therapy!) calls flexible thinking. So many possible scenarios to roll with, and so many questions that don’t yet have firm answers.

My immediate uncertainties involve family and friends. When will I see my parents in person again? (I have to believe that I will see them again.) Will my oldest kid, a high-school senior, get to experience the group rituals of prom and graduation, even if it’s in some form she and we never anticipated?

College decisions have been rolling in, bursts of welcome normalcy and news. Will L and her cohort be able to start college in the fall, and what will that experience look like? There is no way of knowing right now. But we can hope.

Speaking of hope, we decided last weekend that we’d foster a dog. Meet Allie, a lab mix rescued from rural North Carolina:

Cute, no? Adding a country gal with questionable manners to an urban household might not have been the wisest move right now. But we figured we’d be home for a while anyway, and might do something kind for a fellow creature (and ourselves).

The good news: Kindnesses abound these days. Neighbors on my DC row-house block have been checking in with and checking up on each other. Friday night, following the lead of another DC neighborhood, we had a porch-and-stoop singalong. (I look forward to many socially distant porch happy hours—not to mention Zoom yoga classes, webinars, and meetups—in the near future.) Those who can have been supporting local businesses by ordering takeout and books and locally sourced products.

Turns out we really are part of a community. I expect you are too. How lovely, even in the shadow of contagion, to be reminded of that.

Some linkage worth your time this week:

1) Want to help but not sure how? The Washington Post has a great roundup of suggestions on how to step up and help out.

2) Indie bookstores keep on keeping on, bless them. My neighborhood indie, East City Bookshop, has switched to an online-and-curbside delivery model. (Maybe yours has too?) DC flagship Politics & Prose has launched a multi-pronged response, including live-streaming author events that can’t take place in person.

3) Related: “Booksellers are great underdogs. We’ve got to be.” (From “Bookselling at the End of the World,” by Stephen Sparks of SF’s Green Apple Books on the Park.)

4) Indie publishers, too, will be hit, are being hit, by the COVID-19 crisis, as my publisher Anne Trubek explains in this installment of her excellent newsletter, Notes From a Small Press. (While we’re here, please go buy one of Belt Publishing’s excellent titles. Bonus: They’re having a sale!)

5) If you’ve been looking for an excuse to read Elizabeth Gaskill’s novel North and South, your moment has arrived.

5) Like my family, many people have decided it’s a fine time to add an animal companion to the household.

6) Okay Zoomer: Zoom has fast become the go-to platform for many of the virtual meetups and hangouts and meetings and other socially distant get-togethers we need right now. Two weeks ago, I had never heard of Zoom, or the phrase “social distancing.” Now they punctuate and shape my days. Go figure.

7) What I’ve been watching and reading this week:

“Picard,” of course, lifelong Trekkie that I am, though I never really got on the Next-Gen bandwagon. Bonus: Enjoy @SirPatStew reciting one of Will S’s sonnets:

March 21, 2020

“Prince of Egypt,” the 1998 Disney animated movie about Moses and the Exodus (plagues, peril, and hope—sound familiar?).

—the audiobook of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope mystery series set in WWII-era London. Because we’ve had darkest hours before, and because spies and intrigue are always fascinating.

—the Kindle edition of Pale Rider: The Spanish Influenza of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney, which I am reading out loud to my children (more positive than it sounds, really!). Because it’s good to be reminded, as Spinney observes, that pandemics are socio-cultural as well as biological, and to understand how humanity has survived them in the past.

Stay well, friends. Thanks for reading.



In Like a Lamb

Book revisions, weather, and MYBAS

Happy early March, friends. Here in DC the daffodils are busting out, along with redbuds and plums and the other lovely trees of springtime. I’ve seen honeybees, likely from the hives down the street at Congressional Cemetery, at work on the dandelions and flowering weeds that have claimed my front yard. (The struggle for an eco-friendly lawn alternative continues.) It’s all lovely, and too early. What happened to “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” March?

Regardless, I’ve opened the windows to enjoy the spring air. Tomorrow I’ll worry about the climate crisis, the coronavirus crisis, the political crisis, and any other crises that present themselves. These last few months (years) have been a hard slog for many people. Set down the burden when you can, even if it’s just for an hour or two on an unseasonably mild day.

I bought this print from a vendor on the High Line in NYC a few years ago. (I don’t have the artist’s name or I’d credit them here.) It hangs in my kitchen now, a gentle reminder not to get sidetracked by regret or anxious anticipation.

Since my last newsletter, I did keep up with current events (so many reasons to be anxious, plus the heartbreak for all of us on #TeamWarren), but I had even more pressing things to keep me occupied: book revisions. Nothing focuses the mind away from the news like having to turn around a rewrite of your manuscript in less than a month.

Luckily, I have a super-smart editor (hi, Dan!) who sent me an edit letter in early February. Author friends had whispered to me about edit letters, in which editors lay out what works in a manuscript, gently (or not-so-gently) point out what doesn’t click, and sketch out some ideas about how to make the book in question better, stronger, faster. (We’re also debating a more market-friendly subtitle tweak: How does “Clutter: A Tidy Little History” sound? Tantalizing or twee? I’d love some opinions.)

Dan’s letter did all those things, in the nicest and most encouraging possible way. You know you have lucked into a good editorial relationship when your editor wants MORE of your thoughts—more analysis, more conviction—not less. Dan encouraged me to embrace the chance to go beyond reportage and share what I actually think about the roots and consequences of this contemporary culture of consumption of which clutter is one symptom.

Here’s the thing: As a female writer, nothing feels more liberating than being told, “I want to hear more about what you think.” We don’t hear that a lot.

So I dove back into the manuscript. Was it easy? Hell no! Turns out that revising is just as hard as drafting! Luckily I was able to capture some of the process on tape:

After I dislodged some boulders and busted through some walls, I ran out of steam and sent the thing back to Dan. Now I can distract myself with the news again while I wait to hear what he thinks of the revamped manusript, assuming I haven’t massively fucked the whole thing up in my quest to make it better.

Time’s moving along. Seven months til pub date!

If you want to pre-order Clutter now, my publisher and I would be eternally grateful.

Meanwhile, some non-panicky links worth your time:

1) Happy-making public-domain news from the Smithsonian:

For the first time in its 174-year history, the Smithsonian has released 2.8 million high-resolution two- and three-dimensional images from across its collections onto an open access online platform for patrons to peruse and download free of charge. Featuring data and material from all 19 Smithsonian museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo, the new digital depot encourages the public to not just view its contents, but use, reuse and transform them into just about anything they choose—be it a postcard, a beer koozie or a pair of bootie shorts.

2) Today is International Women’s Day, which is as good a day as any to celebrate the inspiring work of women everywhere. As this year’s IWD theme puts it, “An equal world is an enabled world.”

3) This quote from Valerie Jarrett gives me hope that I’ll live to see a woman in the White House, in spite of Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the presidential race and that godforsaken question of gender and electability:

“Women will not be perceived by some as electable until we’re elected,” saidValerie Jarrett, a top adviser to former president Barack Obama and a friend of Warren’s. “I often say progress always seems impossible until it’s inevitable. There was certainly a time when our country might have thought that an African American man was not electable. And what happened? We just kept trying.”

4) I looked at my bedside stack of books and realized that most of the books I’ve been reading lately are by women, from French writer/laywer Hannelore Cayre’s prize-winning crime novel, The Godmother (recommended!), to Lydia Davis’s Essays One, which I’m slowly savoring, to a couple of historical romances I picked up at one of my neighborhood Little Free Libraries. (I have thoughts on those I’ll save for another time. For now suffice it to say that I am not one of those people who gets snobby about genre.)

5) My next reads are also by women: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope WWII-London mystery series by Susan Elia MacNeal, which I borrowed from the DC Public Library as an audiobook, and Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather.

I happened to wander into DC indie stalwart Politics & Prose when Offill was doing an event there recently. She’s oh-so-mordantly delightful and witty (this profile of her gives you a sense of that), and I am looking forward to the book, although I expect it won’t make me feel better about the state of the world.

Weather forecast. #jennyoffill @politicsprose
March 1, 2020

MYBAS, it turns out, is a prepper joke: “May You Be Among the Survivors.”

MYBAS, friends. Be well, wash your hands, and enjoy a little spring, even if it’s early. Thanks for reading.



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!



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