Two TPM Pieces and Two Reactions

Twice recently people have tried to post comments on my Bio page. They don’t really make sense there, though; what Bio page comes with reader comments? I’ve decided to post them here where hopefully they can live more in context.

This first one is from “meg” in response to my piece for Talking Points Memo, “The Abortion Tipping Point.”

I just want to say how much I appreciated your article, “the Abortion Tipping Point.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about the fear of pregnancy in a way I could relate to before now. I also appreciated that you made a point of saying that maturity “may or may not include children”. So often when articles discuss ambivalence or rejection of motherhood, the message is that eventually every woman will realize what they’re missing. It’s very refreshing to hear the media acknowledge that some women will never come around and that it’s okay. So thank you.

The second is from Chip Zien (!), who originated the role of the Baker for the Broadway production of “Into the Woods,” and it came in response to my piece for Talking Points Memo about that show, the Disney reboot, and the AIDS crisis.

Dear Ms. Bloom,
I’m always fascinated by these thought pieces that seek to understand the “true meaning” of INTO THE WOODS. I’m also frequently annoyed by those who reduce the show to one enticingly narrow agenda. Particularly, those writers that never mention James Lapine  – who actually wrote the show and, yes, in close collaboration with Steven, decided what the music might be about and where it would be effective. You refer to “some institutions (?)” and “some critics” who have written what they thought was the show’s meaning and their dissatisfaction with Act 2. Personally, I have always thought the show is about lots of big things, but the show is also certainly open to various interpretations because, just like life, complexity is oddly accurate. I have also always loved Act 2.  I loved it in our original production and I loved in the movie.

Regards,
Chip Zien

My Year in Reading 2014!

My top three reads of 2014 were, coincidentally, books published in 2014; I did a lot of contemporary reading, perhaps more than usual, this year because I got to write lots of reviews. I really appreciated that opportunity, because it led me to books like Life Drawing, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and The Secret History of Wonder Woman that I might not have encountered otherwise.

TOTAL BOOKS READ: 47, plus at least four begun and, through no fault of their own, put aside for later; and lots of rereading of old favorites for comfort
BY ROXANE GAY: 2, both impressively good
BY DIANA GABALDON: 8, for an estimated total of 50,000 pages. These basically took over my life.
GRAPHIC NOVELS: 3, all remarkable
GENRE NOVELS: Kind of a lot
THEMES: Sexual violence, feminism, high-brow sequels, the Midwest

An Untamed State (Gay) – A
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Chast) – A
Lila (Robinson) – A

A Bintel Brief (Finck) – A-
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Gabaldon) – A-
Americanah (Adichie) – A-
Bad Feminist (Gay) – A-
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Ulinich) – A-
Life Drawing (Black) – A-
The Flamethrowers (Kushner) – A-
The Magician’s Land (Grossman) – A-
Voyager (Gabaldon) – A-
Written In My Own Heart’s Blood (Gabaldon) – A-

Demon Camp (Percy) — B+/A-

The Goldfinch (Tartt) – B+/A-
The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Lepore) – B+/A-
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Patchett) – B+/A-
We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves (Fowler) – B+/A-

A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Cantor) – B+
An Unnecessary Woman (Alameddine) – B+
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Gran) – B+
Not That Kind of Girl (Dunham) – B+
Small Victories (Lamott) – B+
Some Luck (Smiley) – B+
The Fault in our Stars (Green) – B+

Half Bad (Green) – B/B+
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Bradley) – B/B+
Lay It On My Heart (Pneuman) – B/B+
The Fiery Cross (Gabaldon) – B/B+
Outlander (Gabaldon) – B/B+
The Frangipani Hotel (Kupersmith) – B/B+
The Quick (Owen) – B/B+

A Dragonfly in Amber (Gabaldon) – B
A Dual Inheritance (Hershon) – B
Bone Clocks (Mitchell) – B
California (Lepucki) – B
Can’t and Won’t (Davis) – B
Drums of Autumn (Gabaldon) – B
How Should a Person Be? (Heti) – B
The Price of Salt (Highsmith) – B
We Are Called to Rise (McBride) – B

An Echo In The Bone (Gabaldon) – B/B-

Frog Music (Donoghue) – C+
Good In Bed (Weiner) – C+

Too Hard to Be Objective
Cutting Teeth (Fierro) – N/A
Tender (Rikhter) – N/A
When I First Held You (Gresko) – N/A

Lovely But Unfinished — Will Return
A Fine Old Conflict (Mitford)
Cold Mountain (Frazier)
One Summer (Bryson)
The Paying Guests (Waters)

 

First Look at THE SEX LIVES OF OTHER PEOPLE and More!

(I sent a TinyLetter! If you want to subscribe, you can do so here.)

Hello friends!

I hope you are enjoying this festive holiday season the way God intended, by drinking too much and watching terrible television:

The goyim had “Peter Pan Live!”; now the Jews get their turn at a televised hot mess with the two-part Lifetime Original miniseries “The Red Tent,” based on the Anita Diamant’s book of the same title, and starring Brody’s wife from “Homeland” as Rachel and Jorah Mormont from “Game of Thrones” as patriarch Jacob. Chaverim, it does not disappoint. Every element of this production is best taken with a grain—or even a pillar—of salt.

Besides writing snarky reviews of Lifetime movies, here is a glimpse at what I’ve been up to lately:

  • Joyland Magazine has published the beginning of my novel THE SEX LIVES OF OTHER PEOPLE on its website. The excerpt is titled “You Said ‘Always'” and can be read in its entirety here. Meanwhile I have collapsed from in excitement in this other corner over here.
  • Don’t you think supermarkets should set up “Serial” aisles so that we can have a place to gather and exchange theories about the podcast phenomenon? Until that happens, there’s always my weekly recaps for New York Magazine’s Vulture blog.
  • Speaking of “Serial” — and “Transparent,” “Broad City,” “Obvious Child” and many other high quality pop cultural properties — I declared 2014 the year of Jewish women at Flavorwire.
  • The most recent episode of NPR’s game show “Ask Me Another” featured a game that I wrote for them. Someday perhaps I will ascend to the level of Puzzle Guru and be able to break boards with my hands.

Encompassing late-career epics and ambitious debuts, they consider the after-effects of everything from apocalypse to adultery, and reckon with religion and war using dreams, magic, science fiction, and occasionally nothing but the power of prose. Sometimes, in the grand tradition of The Wizard of Oz, they take us no further than the Midwest, America’s own backyard, to teach us about ourselves: our desires, our secrets, and our fascination with what makes an enduring story.

I’m still an editor at the Billfold, where you can find me on a daily basis asking the tough questions like “How Much Do You Spend on Tattoos” and thinking deep thoughts about boots. We’re having our live event at Housing Works in NYC at the end of January! More specific info TK.

Other delightful things:

  • Happy Release Day, Tara Leigh!
  • My It’s The Real cousins hanging out with Annie
  • Last night Lara bit me on the leg and then spent five minutes crying while I hugged her and told her it would be okay. #parenthood
  • You all! You’re running marathons and selling books and getting pregnant on purpose. Please keep sharing your good news. The regular news is so appalling we need all the local cheer we can get.

For more, follow me on Twitter @shorterstory. Many thanks for paying attention! Wherever you are, may it only rain when you’re sleeping and may your rent never go up.

SLEEP NO MORE and My One-Night-Hand-Stand

vanity fair sleep no moreLast night a strange man held my hand. That’s right: I, Ester Bloom, married lady, mother of a young child, partnered with the same dude since I was 18 years old, committed hand-adultery. I had an anonymous one-night-hand-stand.

Mr. Ben and I were at SLEEP NO MORE, the immersive theater experience where you wander around a huge, five-floor, dimly lit but extravagantly designed set that was once a hotel, forbidden to speak or to remove your opaque white mask. Around you, actors and dancers silently recreate scenes from and inspired by “Macbeth.”

To reach peak surreality, as an audience member, you are encouraged to explore the dreamscape solo. Mr. Ben, who takes this shit very seriously, waved me goodbye early on and dashed off to try to get as many one-on-ones as possible. (That’s when certain cast members take you “off-stage,” into a small enclosed space, for a special bonus dose of weirdness.)

So there I was, be-masked, silent, and alone, watching the banquet scene in the basement, when another audience member — a well-dressed white dude — took my hand. TOOK IT, LIKE IT WAS HIS. Like he was Christopher Columbus and my hand was America.

I cycled through several immediate thoughts:

+ Oh, how embarrassing for him! He must think I’m someone else.

+ Is he a member of the cast who’s going undercover, The Prince and the Pauper-style, by wearing the mask of an audience member?

+ His hand-holding sure is confident! He probably works in derivatives.

+ If I can’t speak, how can I say “no”?

+ Is this like improv, where I’m not supposed to say “no,” at least unless he does something super creepy?

While I was wrestling with all that, Christopher Columbus assertively led me out of the ballroom and to another scene, and then another. After a few minutes it became impossible to shake him off, not just because he was holding my hand so tightly but because perhaps I had missed my window of opportunity. Soon we would be joined together for life! What would I say to Mr. Ben and Babygirl? “Sorry, Christopher Columbus grabbed me. Gotta go. See you maybe in twenty years when he lets go!”

His hand was very warm, yet dry. I didn’t hold his hand back, per se, but I did allow my hand to be held. In almost fourteen years, this is as close as I’ve come to sexual contact with a person besides the father of my child.

Finally, Christopher Columbus led me to the bar on the second floor, which is the oasis in the SLEEP NO MORE desert: the place where you’re allowed to eat and drink and catch your breath and talk.

“Hello,” I said, because I’m exceedingly clever and make my living using words.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he said.

“No thanks?” I said.

He shrugged and smiled and disappeared. That was the last I saw of Christopher Columbus. I put my mask on and went back to SLEEP NO MORE.

“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” —
Romeo & Juliet

Writing Life Update #2, 7/31/14

Here is a quick round-up of exciting events in the writing life of Ester Bloom:
  • Last night I finished a series of four readings in four months. Thank you so much to everyone who came out! For one, in honor of Father’s Day, I read my essay about love, language, and whether we can ever really know our parents, “Papa-loshen.” For the others, I read the beginning, middle, and end of my award-winning (!) essay about Year 1 in New York City, “One Way to Shut Her Up.”
  • The New York Times feature Op-Talk is a curated selection of thought-provoking reads from the web. It has featured a piece I wrote for the Nation, my work on The Billfold, and most recently my advice column at the Toast, Aunt Acid. I wouldn’t say the Gray Lady has embraced me exactly, but she is allowing me to approach near enough these days to touch the hem of her garment. 
  • Speaking of Aunt Acid, her second column is now up! This one’s about sisters. I may not know anything about having a sister but luckily Aunt Acid knows all. Got a bellyache? Email advice@the-toast.net
  • For Longreads, I recommend a couple of heartbreaking, fascinating New Yorker essays that are available to read for free for a limited time. Rachel Aviv, call me! Let’s get cannoli and watch something fun on Netflix.
  • Lastly, in the mood for some fiction? An excerpt from my novel Applebaum, Agent of God, is up at Zeek. It’s called “Angels Out of America” and includes a co-starring role for the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center.
More? You can find me at Barnes & Noble, where I have been reviewing some great literary debuts by female writers, or the Billfold, where I write at least three posts a day and recently summed up the costs and benefits of taking a year to DWYL (Do What You Love). The piece has been turned into an audio file, so that you can listen to it on the go, by the folks at Umano.me.

Year In Reading, 2013

40 43 books read or partially read, not counting the re-reading of comfort food books (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and Pride and Prejudice) but totally counting War & Peace, because I read the shit out of that, except the epilogue, which I skimmed the shit out of, because UGH TOLSTOY I GET IT NAPOLEON HISTORY EUROPE. Other than the epilogue, though, it really was pretty good! That was a pleasant surprise.

 

Here is the full list, roughly in order:

The Orphan Master’s Son (Johnson) – A

Life After Life (Atkinson) – A

Finishing the Hat (Sondheim) – A

Lonesome Dove (McMurtry) – A-

War and Peace (Tolstoy) – A-

Tenth of December (Saunders) – A-

A Tale for the Time Being (Ozeki) – A-

On Writing (King) – A-

Just Kids (Smith) – B+/A-

[all five of] The Patrick Melrose Novels (St. Aubyn) – B+/A-

Dear Life (Munro) – B+

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Waldman) – B+

Speedboat (Adler) – B+

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Sloan) – B+

Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble (Ephron) – B+

Half the Kingdom (Segal) – B+

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Semple) – B+

The Long Goodbye (Chandler) – B+

Foreign Affairs (Lurie) – B/B+

The Golem and the Jinni (Wecker) – B

Parrot and Olivier in America (Carey) – B

Your Baby and Child (Leach) – B

The Song of Achilles (Miller) – B

The Middlesteins (Attenberg) – B

The Burgess Boys (Strout) – B

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (Wentworth) – B

Double Indemnity (Cain) – B

The Interestings (Wolitzer) – B/B-

The Private Patient (James) – B-

Angry Conversations with God (Isaacs) – B-

Thrones, Dominations (Patton Walsh) – C

 

PUT ASIDE FOR LATER AND NOT BECAUSE OF QUALITY

When I Was a Child, I Read Books (Robinson) — UF

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky) — UF

 

PUT ASIDE, KINDA BECAUSE OF QUALITY, OR MAYBE I JUST WASN’T IN THE RIGHT MOOD

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Greer)

Love, In Theory (Levy)

Telegraph Avenue (Chabon)

Bringing up Bebe (Druckerman) <– If Carrie from SATC had not just gone to France but stayed there, had a baby, and written an inane memoir

 

UNRATED BUT EXCITING

Flashes of War (Schultz) — by a friend! Can’t rate it objectively but can kvell.

Without Risk, Can There Be Reward?

Spain in August, as perhaps you’ve heard, is hot. The house we’re borrowing has no pool, no A/C, no fans, even. If you leave anything outside the fridge, it is, in mere moments, claimed by flies, colonized by ants — or it collapses in on itself, like a black hole.

The house’s primary occupants only ever come here during the winter, and they warned us. “August?” they said politely, when we unfurled our plans. So excited were we to get a chance to come to Spain that we didn’t think too clearly or ask too many probing questions, like “How far is the beach?” or “What do you do for Internet?” It was a house! In Spain! How important could such quibbles be? And, of course, we’re grateful, stupidly grateful to be here. Don’t mistake me. This expression you see on my face, between the mosquito bites? That’s gratitude. It’s just: Oh man, those bites. We all have so many red dots everywhere that we look like ongoing games of Connect Four.

Last night we played the house copy of the original “Risk!” which hails from before the Kennedy assassination. The game has since divested itself of the exclamation point, perhaps in acknowledgement of our grimmer, postmodern times. In essentials, it remains the same. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Setup time: 5–15 minutes

Playing time: 1 to 8 hours”

It took us much longer since neither of us knew the rules — Mr. Ben had never played before, and I only vaguely recalled the endless furious battles for world domination that once took over my childhood. In fact, I think we’re still playing, even though we’ve long since packed away the board, complimented each other on a good game, and declared it a draw. In marriage, there is no draw; there is only victory assured and victory delayed, and each of us continues plotting that devastating sneak attack to secure Ukraine.

Speaking of Mr. Ben, my life’s companion, my heart’s desire, and my co-lugger of suitcases through five different airports, he has discovered in himself an ability to drive stick. Thanks to his intrepidity, we’ve also made it to a small public pool not too far away, and to the beach, where we have submerged our miserable bodies and found some relief.

We’ve also wandered around the distressingly touristy, overpriced Costa Blanca town of Denia,waiting to be inspired. Instead, we have mostly encountered mediocre food at alarming prices. In rough moments, I think Denia has all the charm, grace, & beauty of Tel Aviv, only without the character or the quality meals; then I repent and admit that some of the streets wind pleasantly through plazas, and there is, after all, a castle. Anyway, we’ve decided to take a break from our vacation and run away to the more gracious inland city of Cuenca, capital of La Mancha, for a few days. Next week, before we fly out via Madrid, we will probably spend some time in Toledo, too.

Basically, what I’m saying is, we are snobs, and also I am spoiled from having so recently, and at long last, been in England. History! Literature! Architecture! Quaintness and cuteness and politeness, oh my. If only I could package up some of Spain’s excess sunshine and bring it to Gloucestershire, I would lack for nothing.

As my reading list reflects, I have only left the UK physically. Since coming to Spain, thanks partly to the excellent library of my hosts, I’ve been on a mostly anglophile tear, making my way through:

* Foreign Affairs, the largely forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie

* At Lastthe final Patrick Melrose novel, by Edward St. Aubyn

Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

* The Private Patient, by P.D. James — not her best

* One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White — American, but with a very proper British appreciation for dry humor, the past, and the foibles of his fellow man. And to give you a sense of how blurbs have evolved since the 30’s, when White first wrote this collection of essays, this edition quotes the Yale Review as proclaiming it “Good writing.”

* The second half of Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers — for the 52nd time, because it is here, it is her best (well, one of them), and I cannot help myself.

To Cuenca, I will probably bring Parrot and Oliver in America, and, of course, the game of Risk!

Tumbling Through Europe

The Great Escape is almost half over! We have made it through Lithuania and the Cotswolds in rural England; still ahead, a week in London, to which we’ve just arrived, and then the coast of Spain. Hopefully there at last we’ll get more than 24 hours between rainstorms.

View from the Woolpack pub in Slad Valley

After a drive that took us through Oxford, at which I panted out the window of the car like a forlorn hound, we’ve made it to our AirBnB rental in town. It turns out to be a boarding house we’re sharing with our host, her daughter, a fellow from Barcelona, a couple from Italy, a black-and-white cat, and possibly David Copperfield. Not 100% what we expected but no matter.

Quite close is a neighborhood called Shepherd’s Bush, and I will try manfully not to snigger every time I walk by. Considering we passed Maidenhead on the way in, I’m assuming the British have excellent restraint, or perhaps are merely used to giggle-inducing names. Can you imagine a suburb of DC called Virginity? I mean, really.

Although of course there is “Virginia” …

Anyway. London! At last! England is my Oz, which makes London my Emerald City. I almost cannot contain my excitement at finally getting to explore this place I’ve read so much about, except that I must, because I’ll be on baby duty all week and will only be able to accomplish so much. Life is long and will bring me back to London, right? There’s no need to maximize.

I wrote more about Vilnius for Lilith Magazine and about the traumatic trip from Eastern to Western Europe for The Billfold. For more regular updates vacation updates — pictures, quick thoughts, and the like — check out my new Tumblr.

Summer Abroad

The “Great Escape” Mr. Ben and I originally considered involved going away for six months or a year. We figured that while babygirl was between nine months and two years old, she would be portable — or, at least, as portable as she would ever be outside the womb. (Taking her anywhere, even as a small ten-month-old with few material possessions, is still reminiscent of the scene in the desert in Spaceballs, when the crew has to shlep all of the Princess’s matched luggage. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for the relative ease of pregnancy.)

Well, we had to scale back the dream a bit, for various very sensible reasons. But the dream lives. For an entire year, I will focus on writing: the manuscript of the novel I’m currently working on, a revision of the novel I wrote when I first came to New York, perhaps more short pieces for the Internet, since the thrill of contributing to Slate and the Hairpin and those kinds of places has yet to wear off. To start the year off with a bang, I signed up for the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, Lithuania, to study fiction with Jami Attenberg in the mornings and non-fiction with Alex Halberstadt in the afternoons. Since both of these writers are Jews living in Brooklyn, it feels appropriately inefficient and complex — you know, Soviet! — to come halfway around the globe to an Eastern European capital from which my ancestors fled in droves to take workshops with them.

Best of all, Mr. Ben knit together seven weeks of leave from his job of vacation time and FMLA leave so that he could come too and bring babygirl. (By contrast, I parted ways with my job, where I spent four interesting and meaningful years and still have coworkers I care about.) After my two weeks at SLS, we go to Britain in order to fulfill a dream of Mr. Ben’s (about which more later), and then the coast of Spain, where family friends have an empty house that they have offered up. Old-world capital, English countryside, Mediterranean coast: this is “Eat, Pray, Love” done the Balynker-Gloom way. As my Aunt Marjy put it, Lara’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay is going to be the best ever!

Basking in the Eastern European sun
Basking in the Eastern European sun

Our passports got stamped in Copenhagen, where we spent an endless layover thinking wistfully about the sophisticated Scandinavians — so clean and organized, and yet so child-friendly! — and whether we were crazy to take an infant to the Baltic. Then a plane as long as two minivans lashed together whisked us away from Danish paradise and dropped us off on a rainy Lithuanian tarmac. The weather only got soggier as we made our way to the apartment we secured on AirBnB, and babygirl only got more upset as we set up her travel crib and put her in it for the first time. (Eighteen hours on the road and all I get is this big mesh box?) There were bright spots even then, though, specifically the apartment, which reflects the taste of its owner, a talented graphic designer. It’s hard to be unhappy in a place with a bright yellow vintage fridge.

The next day the sun came out, as cheerful as a bright yellow vintage fridge, and we ventured forth into a walkable and surprisingly lovely, low-key city that didn’t feel too different, after all, from Copenhagen. We’ve met a couple of motorcycle-riding Lithuanians who have a daughter Lara’s age, and a plethora of poets (“Which MFA program are you in?”) with inner-arm tattoos, which seems to be the thing these days, like side shaves. We’ve overheard some live foreign-language Christian rock (“Yesu, Yesu …”) and lots of recorded hip hop, which is a bit jarring in a country full of pale blond people, and eaten lots of dill and some ham already by mistake and really good Latvian yogurt.

Even my ancestors would, I think, appreciate this town. I can hear them crowded around me as Lara plays in the sandbox at the heart of what was once the sprawling Jewish ghetto: “Hmph. Not too bad, when the clouds disperse. It has potential.” And then, inevitably, “Her hat! Make sure she keeps her hat on!”

Six Months Have Rolled Around My Head, And What Have I Done For God?

In honor of a certain person’s half birthday, fun facts via WolframAlpha:

1) Popularity of the name “Lara” hit its only peak in the States in the late 60s.

2) The movie “Dr. Zhivago” came out in 1965.

It featured Europeans playing Russians with British accents

3) The most common age for a person named Lara is 41.

Lara Flynn Boyle, born 1970

4) Our baby Lara may be the cutest Lara in the country not named for a Julie Christie character.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Julie Christie

5) The other Laras, however, can probably all feed themselves by now.

We're still working on it
We’re still working on it

Happy half birthday, my crazy critter! We’d love you even if you wore a tutu to the Oscars. (But better not to test that, okay?)

full of pith and vinegar