A Novel on the Rise: Robin Sloan and Kevin Nguyen Talk “Sourdough”

Robin Sloan’s acclaimed debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, boasted a glow-in-the-dark cover, giving readers even more incentive to purchase his compelling adventure story about an unemployed digital designer turned bookstore employee, his Google programmer love interest, their mutual encounter with a secret society, and their mutual quest to unlock a code and solve a puzzle. Himself a onetime Current TV strategist, Twitter media manager, app developer, and self-described “media inventor,” Sloan, thirty-seven, draws on his experiences on the cutting edge of digital culture in Sourdough, his equally inventive follow-up exploration of modern Bay Area lifeways, this time via the startup culture. It’s a love letter to food in the same way Penumbra is a love letter to books, but with even more heart and charm, as well as a larger sense of and focus on community. The protagonist, Lois Clary, a just-transplanted Michigan-born software engineer at a company that manufactures robotic arms, inherits a magical sourdough starter from a pair of mysterious brothers and becomes so good at baking bread that she is invited to take part in a wild new farmers’ market on a decommissioned munitions base in the San Francisco Bay.

Joining Sloan in conversation at Barnes & Noble’s Upper West Side store on September 12, 2017 was Kevin Nguyen,  digital deputy editor of GQ magazine.  The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kevin Nguyen: Even before you became a novelist, it seemed you were always exploring this intersection between technology and the humanities. We see that clearly in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Do you feel that same extension is happening in Sourdough?

Robin Sloan: I do think it is. One thing I’ve realized, though, about that tension, or that lineup of the old and the new, or one world and the other, is that I’ve tended to focus on the new stuff and tried to convince people that it wasn’t so strange. Digital books are just part of a continuing story. Or maybe new ways of making food are part of this continuing story.

But particularly with this book, I think it got flipped around, and I found myself more interested in trying to convince people almost of the opposite, that the things we think of as old or familiar, traditional or boring, are in fact super weird — and of course, they are all forms of technology. So I’m trying to convince people to look at this traditional stuff with new eyes.

Kevin Nguyen: Why baking? It seems it wants to be a food book, and baking is very specific.

RS: The actual seed of the book came from the world of wine. I had heard some stories about wine grapes being snipped from their vines in old vineyards in France and smuggled to California, and that whole vibe seemed delicious to me, full of story and totally with potential for a novel. As I started learning more about that world and building these possibilities. I realized that, one, I wasn’t that into wine, or at least not enough to write a whole novel about it; and two, that the tempo, like the clock of wine and wine grapes, was too slow. Almost by definition, you’re going to learn more about the grapes and the wine and the secrets that they hold, presumably, year by year, vintage by vintage. It was like: OK, you could write that story, but it would have to be this, like, generational tale. It would happen very slowly, and characters would age, and the seasons would change, and all that. It wasn’t the kind of book that I wanted to write, and it wasn’t the kind of book that I thought I would be good at writing. So I set myself the challenge of finding something else that, one, had some of those same characteristics, some of the same qualities; two, that I knew about; and three, that worked on a faster clock. It came to me almost like a vision. It was, like, “Oh yeah. Sourdough starter.”

KN: Do you bake bread?

RS: I do bake bread. I have to confess that I am not a great baker. In fact, I have remained a pretty poor baker. But I had a sourdough starter, and I was baking sourdough bread before I ever thought that I would write this novel. The problem is, I never actually formed that accord with the starter that the great bakers have. It was and still remains mysterious and temperamental to me.

KN: I think actually not a lot of people know what a starter is. Or they don’t even realize the weird chemistry involved with baking bread specifically. Because I think a lot of our impression of baking is it’s like cookie mix — you just put it in. Bread is not like that.

RS: I didn’t know this before I got this well-known baking book called Tartine Bread. There’s a sequence where my protagonist is learning how to bake, and she buys my fictionalized, somewhat satirized version of that book, and as she is sort of pecking in the name of the scale in a search in a general e-commerce site, it says, “Customers who bought this also bought . . . ” — all these other things it recommended, and then finally, the bread book itself. She’s like, “Oh, OK. I see what’s happening here.”

So I did that. I bought all that stuff. And my bread never looked like the bread in the pictures. It was always a little flatter, a little denser . . .

KN: Though you’re obviously crossing a lot of genres, there are science fiction elements here. Now, I’ve read a decent amount of science fiction, and food rarely comes up. It’s such a base thing, the survival of humans. Why did you want to make something that was kind of sci-fi about it?

RS: Actually, I had a plan. I am hoping to collect evidence, one way or the other, about whether my plan came to fruition. The intention is to lure people into reading this book who think it’s one of those books about how wonderful and warm baking is. Oh, so nice, like South of France stories. Then, as you know, having read it, about halfway through, you’re like, “This is not what I thought it was going to be.”

KN: It gets kind of dark.

RS: It gets weird. I don’t want to give anything away, but it gets kind of blobby and alien. So my hope is that I basically tricked those people into reading this book, and at the end they’re not mad about it — they actually think it was pretty cool.

KN: I work at what is historically considered a men’s magazine, so we still have a little bit of that audience. So whenever we do something smart, we always call it “Hiding the vegetables.” This is kind of what you’re doing here.

RS: Yeah, I’m hiding the sci-fi.

KN: I want to talk to you about the tone of the book. Some people have asked me if it’s like Penumbra, and I tell them it’s like Penumbra but a lot darker.” It sounds like that was deliberate. What changed? Is it just a different story? Or is it a different time?

RS: All those things. To write about the San Francisco Bay Area today and not have it be a little darker — or at least more fraught — than Penumbra, would be naive, or you didn’t bother to pay attention to what was happening around you. The place has changed, and the way that people talk about it and the way that people live there has changed. The other thing that gave it that shade, particularly in the beginning, is an autobiographical experience. When Penumbra opens, you’re perched on the shoulder of a mind that stands toward the world as, like, “What’s next? All right, cool, let’s see what’s around this corner.” In this case, the protagonist is pretty stressed out in the beginning, and her stress has a lot to do with this basic question of feeding herself. Not that she doesn’t like food, but she has this job and she’s young and she’s from Michigan, and so she just doesn’t know what people eat. She doesn’t have that literacy. That was me for many years.

KN: What was your diet like?

RS: It was super beige. It was a struggle. It was never “Oh . . . what should I eat for lunch?” It was more like, “If I don’t put something in my body, then things will start to shut down, so I guess I have to figure this out.” The answer was usually humus or cheese pizza…

KN: That’s the entire pyramid.

RS: It was dark. That’s not unheard of, particularly for young Americans, I think, because we don’t have that backstop of some cuisine. Our cuisine is freezers and cars. You can really find yourself at sea when you’re becoming an adult and suddenly have to feed yourself for the first time.

KN: In subtle ways, the book is thematically a lot about work and labor. People in Silicon Valley suffer from this, and so do I, especially when I work from home. Lunchtime rolls around, and it seems like so much effort to figure out what the hell I’m going to eat. That anxiety is captured in this book.

RS: Yes. The connection to work is right on. I’m glad that was clear to you. I’m happy to have it marketed as a book about food and have a loaf of bread, a little bâtard, on the cover. But I think it actually is a book about work.

KN: It is easier to sell a book about food than a book about labor.

RS: Yeah. The politics of automation and . . .

KN: Hide those vegetables.

RS: Exactly. Baking bread — it’s so delicious, so warm.

KN: I want to talk about slurry.

RS: People know it as soylent. It’s like a liquid meal replacement. Which, of course, has existed for a long time; what’s different now is that it’s being marketed to young males who are working in tech, particularly through this prism of psychology: “I know this stresses you out, so here, take this.” They claim that they’ve done some work engineering it to be more nutritious. I don’t know if that’s credible or not.

KN: Have you had soylent?

RS: I tried it. It definitely was not repulsive. It just was not anything else.

KN: If you ever want a good time, there’s a Soylent Reddit with pages upon pages of people being, like, “I can’t stop farting.”

RS: But then, at the end, the answers are so blasé. They’re like, “Oh, dude, upgrade to version 2.7, Beta 9.”

KN: Patch your body.

RS: Yeah. In retrospect, there would have been space for precisely that in this book — thinking about your food, your cuisine as software that you’re systematically and deliberately upgrading over time.

KN: There’s a cool parallel with the sourdough and the starter, like it’s an evolving piece of technology or software. Do you think that’s the strongest connection between coding and baking?

RS: I think the strongest connection is actually not a resonance but a tension. Lois feels it, and it actually becomes an important choice, a moment of choosing a path. That’s something that I stress about a lot. Baking and coding involve using the same parts of your brain and a lot of the same skills, like being able to follow directions or create directions in a very systematic way. Fundamentally, you do all this work, you bake a loaf of bread, and you give it to someone and they eat it, and it’s awesome — and it’s gone. So if you want someone else to be able to enjoy it or appreciate it, you have to bake more — every morning, day-by-day-by-day. Whereas of course, the beauty of code and “Let software eat the world” is that you only have to do it once, and it works everywhere for everyone. That is unresolved in my mind. In some ways, books are much closer to that regime of software than they are to baking bread. Like, you write this once, and it’s not consumed . . . I assume. On the other hand, bread is awesome, and the things we eat are awesome.

KN: Was this book always called “Sourdough”?

RS: No That’s actually an important difference from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, where a lot of things changed, but it had its title from the start. “The Starter” was the first name of the document, which I thought had a cool, a very kind of punchy American energy to it, but was just not clear. The starter? Of what? Starting what? A football game or something? I won’t tell you what all the titles were. But it was actually a somewhat fraught process, until, in fact, my editor did that trick of slicing the Gordian Knot and said, “What if you just called it ‘Sourdough’?” And that was immediately, obviously, the title of this book.

KN: Do you feel science fiction is inherently cynical?

RS: I definitely don’t. I think that some of the archetypes and works of science fiction that have pierced pop culture and stayed there are the darker ones and the dystopias. But there is a whole tradition of science fiction that I wouldn’t want to call “utopian” because that sounds naive and sort of Pollyannaish. Some of these books are complicated, and they present futures — far futures — that are fraught. But they are optimistic, I would say, and I think ultimately suggest good things about human nature. Iain Banks wrote a series called The Culture Novels. These are not boring stories of people just eating snacks in, like, star-domes: “Oh, life sure is good in the twenty-ninth century, isn’t it?” “It sure is.” End of book. They are complicated. There’s adventures and murders and mysteries. But they are definitely not cynical views of the future. That happens to be the science fiction that I find most inspiring. That’s my lodestone.

KN: A lot of the science fiction I’ve read is pretty cynical, which I like. I like things that are cynical. But I love your work, because what you imagine as San Francisco doesn’t seem that far out, if we’re not close to that already, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel judgmental. How do you avoid writing something that looks into the future that doesn’t feel judgmental?

RS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that I know the answer or that I apply it in any kind of systematic way. I think of something like The Circle, Dave Eggers’s book, which I only read in excerpt, but I know by reputation. I think it’s telling and important that Dave Eggers, by his own admission, did not spend a lot of time in or around the world of computers or the Internet, and there’s no real evidence that he has any deep personal curiosity about how that all works. I do. Why, I don’t know. I was always a computer kid, and I grew up with the Internet and always found it fascinating. That’s one of the things that drew me forward into the world. If you have that kind of native curiosity and, I guess, affection, that becomes your bulwark against, “Man, the future sucks, just the thought.”

KN: I’ve been calling your work “science fiction” all night, but it definitely hews more literary, and everything I’ve found at that intersection, books like The Circle, to some degree some Gary Shteyngart, you feel like those authors went to the mall, saw, like, teens on their phone, and went home and wrote a mad novel about it. But I feel like you go to the mall, and you’re just curious about the teens. “What are they going to grow up to do?”

RS: That’s right. Totally. You want to be like, “Hey! Hey, what’s that app? That’s disturbing. Show me more.”

I have a question for you. Since we’ve entered this slightly more sort of broadly critical mood here: For several years you ran Oyster Review, which is still one of the best online literary reviews. It’s carried my books for many, many years. I think you’re the best capsule reviewer in the game. I’ve been thinking about this, because in the past few years I’ve been asked to write a few book reviews myself, and of course now I’m contending with book reviews of Sourdough. My question for you is: In the year 2017, and in the sort of media milieu that we exist in, what is a book review even?

KN: I used to have strong delineations between what is a book review and what is book criticism. Some hold one higher than the other. I think they are both of value. I think that a book review explicitly should tell you whether you should read a book or not. With criticism it’s more to put something in a broader cultural context, which is I think why people revere it more. I think you just want to find the nugget of it that makes it different from anything else. Whether that thing is good or bad kind of doesn’t matter, though hopefully you’ll get to that in the review, if you’re doing a good job. A book review is a form of service journalism. It’s not this hoity-toity thing. We’re weirdly reverential about writing around books, probably because we’re reverential of books. This thing has happened in the past few years, where we’re, like, Books must be protected at all costs. Which is true. But now you don’t see negative reviews in a lot of major publications.

RS: Very notably, actually. I read this amazing review, a gem of great writing about a recent novel called Less by Andrew Sean Greer, another San Francisco novelist. I had not heard about it, I had not read any of his books, but on the strength of this person’s enthusiasm I picked it up, and it turned out to be one of the great San Francisco books of the twenty-first century. It’s awesome, and I’m so glad that I read it. And I would not have if not for this service, actually.

KN: It’s also interesting that we’re seeing fewer negative reviews. I kind of get that. There’s this thing that you don’t want to run a negative review of, say, a debut novelist, and unnecessarily destroy their career. At the same time, when everything is good, the service function of it dissipates. If a publication is recommending everything, then what value does it really have?

RS: In my own personal, casual reviewing, both on Twitter or my email list, or even to friends, I’ve come up with a mental model that I personally like a lot — to preserve that dynamic range. The problem is that if everything is just great, then everything is actually not great. Everything is sort of meh. So to sort of preserve the option to super-recommend things, I think about it like those old arcade games, where you’d be flying your own ship around and you’d be able to shoot your blaster infinitely, but you only get like three super-bombs that clear the whole screen. I think of those as my super-reviews, and I usually label them as “This one of three I will deploy this year. Please. Heed my words. Buy this book.”

KN: That actually ties back thematically to Sourdough. Again — fear of a post-scarcity world. I think the digital landscape has not just changed, like, the mediums, but now we could hypothetically publish infinite numbers of reviews, and that actually would be a bad thing.

RS: This has been a particularly weird time for publishers of all kinds, as it’s been a weird time for everyone living in this country. One realizes that in this post-scarcity world where there’s basically an infinite number of really good books to read, there’s also all these other competitive draws on your time and your energy. There needs to be some sort of reorganization of the way we talk and think about books — and movies and everything else. It’s not like it was. When a president or a hurricane that happens somewhere else can change what people feel like reading, or change whether they feel like reading or not, that’s actually really interesting.

The post A Novel on the Rise: Robin Sloan and Kevin Nguyen Talk “Sourdough” appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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Nuclear Apocalypse Now?

The most telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech was, after threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” his calling the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?


Splendid Isolation

Christopher Nolan’s epic movie about the rescue of the British army from the beaches of northeastern France in May 1940 has become a worldwide box office success. This is splendid news for its makers, and can do no harm to American, Taiwanese, or for that matter Rajput audiences. In the eyes of some of us, however, its impact upon the British people is calamitous at this moment in our fortunes. Dunkirk contains no foreigners except a few understandably grumpy French soldiers. It is a British tale that feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union: there is splendor in being alone.


Remodeling of an Apartment in Loannina, Greece done by G2 LAB

This project, designed by G2 LAB, is located on the ground floor of a two-level house dating back to the 1960s, one of the few still in the center of Ioannina, Greece. For its transformation, both its structure and its history were respected. The façades were restored and the necessary work was done to achieve the energetic improvement, as well as the modernization, of the building. The interior was rebuilt..


It’s the first day of fall, and we’re looking forward to amazing…

It’s the first day of fall, and we’re looking forward to amazing autumn colors. Soon, public lands across the country will transform into a tapestry of red, orange and gold. Where is your favorite place to go leaf-peeping? Here’s a breathtaking shot from a previous fall at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Photo by N. Lewis, National Park Service.

Modern House in Myslowice, Poland Designed by Studio Czajkowski Kuźniak Architekci

Studio Czajkowski  Kuźniak Architekci designed this fabulous and modern family house of 270 square meters in the city of Myslowice, Poland. Its interior, full of light and excellent good taste, shows us modern minimalistic spaces done in shades of white, black, and gray, combined with the use of light wood, creating a warm look in each room. Plants have also been used to give greenness to the spaces, which is..


Top 10 Cheap European Car Hire Destinations

If you’re planning a European getaway sometime soon, you need to start considering arranging a cheap car hire for your trip. It will give you the freedom to explore, save you time on your trip and you won’t have to worry about your own car being stolen or damaged.

But, as you’ve no doubt discovered, car hires can sometimes prove to be a confusing process. Some cities are more suited to be explored in a car than others and that will depend on what time of the year you are traveling. There are, however, some staple cities across Europe that always offer an enjoyable holiday and hidden gems to discover by car on a budget.

Here are the top ten wallet-friendly European car hire destinations – plus some top tips on saving money while you’re there.


the colosseum rome

Total Cost: £178.09 | Car Hire Cost: £10.21

Three places to go: You must visit the historical masterpieces while you are here. Great choices include the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Vatican.

Money-saving tip: Entry to lots of Rome’s museums is free on the first Sunday of each month.


Total Cost: £176.26 | Car Hire Cost: £10.86

Three places to go: The architectural delights of Antoni Gaudí (you’ll see his work all over the city), unparalleled views from Montjuïc mountain and Raval, Barcelona’s literary quarter, are some of the places you shouldn’t miss here.

Money-saving tip: Avoid the overly-touristy areas and explore a side street. You’ll find quality food at good prices.


tower of pisa italy

Total Cost: £165.18 | Car Hire Cost: £10.32

Three places to go: Head to the world’s most famous architectural mistake, the Leaning Tower, the beautiful Duomo (cathedral) and enjoy some quality natural gelato at Gelateria De’ Coltelli.

Money-saving tip: Book your trip to the tower online. You’ll be able to skip the lengthy queues.


gran vía madrid

Total Cost: £157.16 | Car Hire Cost: £9.14

Three places to go: Enjoy cheap tapas from street vendors, visit the expansive 19th-century park Buen Retiro and take a stroll along the Gran Vía, Madrid’s main thoroughfare.

Money-saving tip: Save money on food, gifts and lots more by taking a trip to one of Madrid’s flea markets. El Rastro and Rave are two of the most popular.


Torre de Belém

Total Cost: £150.58 | Car Hire Cost: £15.28

Three places to go: Don’t forget to visit Torre de Belém (Lisbon’s Gothic tower and a UNESCO world heritage site), Ler Devagar (the city’s cultural centre) and São Jorge Castle (11th-century castle with an archaeological museum).

Money-saving tip: The Lisboa Card gives you free entry to 28 museums, monuments and places of interest. It will also get you discounts on local services and shops.


manchester united stadium

Total Cost: £148.12 | Car Hire Cost: £7.87

Three places to go: Be sure to visit one or both of those world famous football stadiums, Manchester Art Gallery and John Rylands Library, a late-Victorian architectural wonder.

Money-saving tip: Free walking tours taking in the best of Manchester run every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Be sure not to miss them.


gibralfaro castle
Via travelguidemalaga

Total Cost: £131.96 | Car Hire Cost: £5.02

Three places to go: The Picasso Museum, Gibralfaro Castle and Tivoli World, a family-friendly theme park, should never be out of your list while you’re in Malaga.

Money-saving tip: Avoid the Costa del Sol’s toll roads by downloading a sat nav app that helps you steer clear of the hassles.


birmingham oratory
Via birminghamheritage

Total Cost: £130.39 | Car Hire Cost: £9.01

Three places to go: Visit the Bullring for shopping and Birmingham Oratory and St Paul’s Church for a taste of the city’s architectural past.

Money-saving tip: Download the Bullring’s PLUS app to get free parking at the retail center.


la laguna tenerife
Via holaislascanarias

Total Cost: £129.29 | Car Hire Cost: £13.10

Three places to go: Take a cable car to the summit of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain, visit La Laguna, the former capital of Tenerife and enjoy a couple of hours in Malpaís de Güímar, a natural park.

Money-saving tip: Many of Tenerife’s best museums are free to enter all day on Fridays and Saturday afternoons.


santa barbara castle alicante
Via Expedia

Total Cost: £110.93 | Car Hire Cost: £7.83

Three places to go: Climb up to Santa Barbara Castle, browse the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art and do some snorkeling on Tabarca Island, just off the coast of Alicante.

Money-saving tip: Mercado Central is Alicante’s most popular food market, offering cheap meat, vegetables, bread, dairy and sweets.

Now that you know where to go, how can you ensure you get a cheap car hire deal no matter where you go?

Here are some tips you can use:

  • Book early

As with most things, booking ahead can save you some serious cash. If next year’s holiday is booked and your dates are locked down in your diary, why wait to sort the car hire? Do it now while you’re thinking about it and save some money in the process.

  • Do you really need a luxury vehicle?

When booking a car hire, it can be tempting to take out a high-end vehicle and imagine yourself zooming around picturesque mountain roads in the latest high-performance car. Unfortunately, such vehicles are often more expensive than their rather more run-of-the-mill brothers and sisters.

Ask yourself if you really need something swish. When you’re on a holiday, what probably matters most is space. There should be enough for your stuff and for the people coming with you. Opting for a standard vehicle that suits your needs could be a much more affordable and practical option.

  • Understand the extras

Some car hire deals look cheap but once you look under the bonnet, they are actually a little more expensive. To avoid getting tricked, make sure you know exactly what your deal will cover before you book.

  • Get your arrival time right

Give your car rental provider an accurate idea of when you’ll be picking up the car. If your flight is delayed, your reservation could be cancellled, especially if it’s at a busy time. This is annoying but it could also incur additional costs. If you can get in touch with the car hire check-in desk to let them know you’re running late, do so.

  • Make sure any pre-existing damaged is logged

When you hire a car, you’ll usually get an inspection form before you drive away with it. This form will detail any damage that’s already on the car. If you spot some damage but it’s not on the form, make sure it gets logged immediately. Otherwise, you could end up paying for damage you didn’t cause. And, of course, make sure you take care of the car when you’re exploring the city.

Hiring a car can transform a holiday. Giving you the freedom of the open road, it allows you to get out and explore. Next time you choose a car hire, do your research, follow some top tips and you’ll be well on your way to bagging a great deal that won’t break the bank.

The post Top 10 Cheap European Car Hire Destinations appeared first on Dumb Little Man.


Redesigned Apartment by Miguel Marcelino in the Beautiful City of Lisbon, Portugal

Telheiras Apartment is a private residence located in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and remodeled and redesigned by Miguel Marcelino. The home covers a total ground area of 115 square meters and was completed in 2016. The original home was constructed in the 1980s, and had the typical problems of the apartments of the age: low ceilings throughout the house, subdivided spaces, long and narrow kitchens, winding corridors, and pillars..


Great Expectations

On one of my many daily scrolls through Instagram a few months ago, I came across one of those typically beautiful photos of a book and a coffee, the kind of aspirational post that makes it impossible for a book lover not to double-tap. But my friend’s caption gave me pause: “There isn’t too much I miss about my pre-baby life, but getting a break and sitting in a coffee shop for an hour to leisurely read makes me feel like the old me for a while.”

Once I confirmed I was indeed pregnant, I was shocked at how much time of the day I spent just thinking about it: searching online for medical advice, going to doctor appointments, anxiously awaiting doctor appointments, trying to decide how to answer sideways looks from my friends when they see me pass on a martini at the bar. I went through the entire first trimester without having made my way through a single book — a long time for me, and when Twin Peaks premiered on Showtime I only got two episodes in before I just stopped watching.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be pregnant to be distracted in 2017. Social media is full of memes about the world burning down around us, and the endless stream of push alerts coming from the White House are enough to distract anyone from making progress on anything except therapy bills, much less the ability to focus on a great novel. But as I entered the third trimester I realized if I wanted to read, I had better do it now.

So what does one read when she finds herself on a one-way collision course with a major life-changing event that may prevent her from finishing any books in the near future that she doesn’t read aloud?

Before my pregnancy, I had never read Proust. In college I attended a lecture about Bloomsbury and Proust given by the brilliant Mary Ann Caws. When I shyly admitted that I hadn’t read Proust, she asked how old I was and told me that I shouldn’t read Proust until I was older, “with a little more life behind you.” Thirty-two and with child, I figured it was now or never, so I asked my husband to get on the ladder and pluck down the copy of Swann’s Way I had purchased at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris many moons ago.

Proust is a revelation. As a lover of Virginia Woolf, Swann’s Way brought her work back to life for me. I had flashbacks of long afternoons spent reading and underlining. And I could see the link between Proust’s endless, breathless sentences and the work of some of my other favorite writers, like W. G. Sebald, Javier Marías, and Thomas Bernhard. Maybe Dr. Caws was right. Reading the narrator’s obsession with his mother coming to kiss him goodnight in the Combray section not only made me think of my own childhood but of my baby as well. Would he wait in desperation for me?

The only problem with reading Proust is that it made me want to read all those other books again. I wanted to re-read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years — I wanted to re-read Austerlitz and The Emigrants and A Heart So White, The Loser, Frost, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle! But I couldn’t rightly re-read now, there wasn’t time! There isn’t time. Also, reading Swann’s Way made me too full for anything else. I tried to read it on the train, but there kept being sections I wanted to underline, and no one would give me a seat. I tried to read it while waiting at the doctor’s office, but it was too emotional, trying to focus on Swann’s futile search for love while pregnant women endured the anxiety of waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat, or for test results, to make sure everything was okay.

Even Swann’s Way remains unfinished at this point. I’m stuck at page 219. Should I keep reading? Who can say? I took a break to read — of all things — true crime. On a flight to Los Angeles I devoured Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail, on the manhunt for James Earl Ray. At first I thought: This is ridiculous, you should be reading Crime and Punishment. (I haven’t read the Russians, either. I’ve only read Anna Karenina; it’s shameful, I know.) But instead I was reading this book about Martin Luther King’s assassination! And though I still want to read Crime and Punishment, I’m glad I read Hellhound on His Trail. I was dumbfounded by just how little I knew about the crime. What kind of a parent would I have been with this huge hole in my knowledge?

But as you can tell, that just opens up a whole other can of worms. What kind of a person will I be — what kind of a parent will I be — if I’ve never read Crime and Punishment?

Then there are the new books. Rachel Cusk’s Transit, the second in her trilogy, has been out for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it, so I did so on the way back home from Los Angeles. Was I really reading, though? At this point my anxiety over finishing things had reached a fever pitch. I read Transit like a depressed person on a gluten-free diet reaches for that second doughnut. And believe me, that wasn’t just an analogy. Home and exhausted, I scroll through my Twitter feed for what feels like hours, reaching for that second doughnut, that we all know will end in guilt and self-punishment. At night, even though I should be reading . . . A Tale of Two Cities, finally finishing Middlemarch . . . I’m just amped-up on Twitter. And then, with visions of the apocalypse dancing in my head, I can’t sleep.

In one of the early episodes of the popular TV show This Is Us I caught a glimpse of Mandy Moore’s character holding a copy of Stephen King’s novel Misery under her arm while she was preparing breakfast for her many children. I thought: Well, she’s just getting in her reading whenever she can. Maybe it’s possible. Another friend of mine said that she read lots of books when her daughters were little — while she was breastfeeding — but only “trashy” books, scrolling with one hand on her phone.

Curiously, I didn’t immediately think to seek out reading that addressed the central fact of my life. But the same friend who had posted the caption about reading and time on Instagram recommended Rachel Cusk’s wonderful A Life’s Work. It immediately made me feel less alone and terrified — I wanted to give it to all the people close to me who were not pregnant, so that they could understand. “My experience of reading, indeed of culture, was profoundly changed by having a child,” she writes. Uh-oh. But she goes on: “In the sense that I found the concept of art and expression far more involving and necessary, far more human in its drive to bring forth and create, than I once did.”

Another deeply satisfying book on becoming a parent, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, acknowledges that there’s no time for reading, let alone writing. But, after her daughter was born, “the world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma [the baby] made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”

So maybe it’s not so bad, after all. Whether you’re expecting, anxiety-ridden, exhausted from other means, or if your thumb is about fall off from refreshing your Twitter feed, maybe we’re just too hard on ourselves. The fact is, none of us know what’s coming. Our “expectations” are just that — expectations. I don’t know if my baby will sleep through the night, if I’ll be able to breastfeed, or if I’ll ever be able to have any time to myself ever again. None of us know when the next news alert will signal the beginning of the end, or if the sun will just cease to shine one day. A friend and father of two children said to me, “Look, lots of people are going to give you advice, and I realize I’m about to do the same thing, but . . . if you aren’t worried about something, don’t worry about it. Just enjoy it.” It seemed like an oversimplification of magnum proportions, but it actually makes sense. So instead of forcing myself to forge through War and Peace, I’m off to re-read To the Lighthouse. And I’m going to enjoy it.



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How to Make Every Day Count

You’re reading How to Make Every Day Count, originally posted on Pick the Brain | Motivation and Self Improvement. If you’re enjoying this, please visit our site for more inspirational articles.

Life is really complicated. It’s, at times, almost impossible to make sense of. There are moments that we feel absolutely clear on who we are, what we are doing and all our energies align, but a lot of life is spent in a whirlwind of busyness that feels productive, but in reality isn’t at all.

When thinking about why we get swept away into these bursts of activity that seem quite out of control, we must consider our relationship with our subconscious.

Of course, our subconscious is vital in running the show efficiently and quietly in the background. We need it to take care of simple repetitive tasks so that we can be more energy efficient machines. Because of the subconscious, the brain can conserve energy-draining conscious processing for the stuff that counts: activities that require our full attention and focus.

When we drive a long distance and can’t recall huge chunks of the journey, it’s because our subconscious took over so that we don’t deplete our mental energy with taxing conscious thought.

The challenge is that as time goes on and our 24/7 lives become busier and busier, the subconscious deliberately chooses patterns that it recognizes and we therefore become more and more habituated in our daily life.

Now some may say that the more habituated we are, the easier life becomes. And there is some truth in that. The problem is that when the subconscious runs the show most of the time, we lose our shine and the feeling creeps in that somebody else is running our lives. We are running on autopilot. We can start to make some pretty disastrous decisions as a result.

If you find yourself buying more things than you need, that is driven by the subconscious.

If you find yourself reacting to situations in ways that you feel a little uncomfortable about, that is driven by the subconscious.

If you eat too much, drink too much, watch too much television, spend hours on social media, that is driven by the subconscious.

We know we need our subconscious to function well and to help us live our lives efficiently, but we do also need to learn how to escape autopilot deliberately every day, to ensure we are not being swept away by hundreds of small decisions that add up having a big impact on our life.

We have all had moments of clarity and connection when everything feels just right and we are totally present, when it feels like we are in the right place at the right time. These are moments of consciousness. They happen to us almost accidentally in an array of situations, like when we are walking by the ocean, playing with our children, talking about our passions or feeling inspired.

We all have these moments but what we often struggle with is making them happen on demand.

Wake Up! is a series of experiments for us to try to see if we can deliberately escape autopilot once a day and then see what impact it has on our lives.

Thousands of people have taken part so far and what we know is that its impact can be profound.

We call them experiments because everybody is different and therefore what works for one person may not work for another. But what we do know is if you try them out over a couple of weeks with enough positive intention, there will be a shift in your consciousness.

Small things can have a huge impact. The experiments are not big or clever or technical but simple, playful actions that take little effort but have a big payback.

Some of my favorites include:

  • Spend the first 10 minutes of the day outside without any digital distractions of any kind and take a moment to connect with what’s important.
  • Share the love – find one person a day in your life and tell them what it is that you love about them.
  • Only buy food and water so that you free your mind from constant consumption and realize what really counts.
  • Climb a tree and remember how good it is to be playful.

It doesn’t really matter which ones you choose as long as you keep trying new ones and you deliberately make time for yourself to see the world differently.

By becoming conscious and escaping autopilot you can then step back from this frenetic world in which we live and ask, “what’s needed here?”

By answering that you may just have the most extraordinary day.

Chris Barez-Brown is a TEDx inspirational speaker and the author of Wake Up!:  A Handbook to Living in the Here and Now (The Experiment Publishing, September 19). Wake Up! the app is available through The App Store and Google Play. He’s at www.barez-brown.com/ @barezbrown

You’ve read How to Make Every Day Count, originally posted on Pick the Brain | Motivation and Self Improvement. If you’ve enjoyed this, please visit our site for more inspirational articles.