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The Letter-Writer

I have decided that at this stage of my life I am as obviously a letter-writer as other people may be alcoholics or benzedrine-boys.
- M. F. K Fisher

I have become an abysmal letter writer ever since the advent of e-mail. My notes have become choppy, and I edit them all over the place. They're no longer organic, and rarely reflect what is actually going on in my life. I became painfully aware of this as I started reading A Life In Letters, the collection of letters written by M.F.K. Fisher to friends and relatives over the course of 60 years. They are impressively lengthy, detailed recollections of her life, a diary in intimate conversation with another human being. It made me gasp to see how much attention she gave to each person she was writing. It reminded me of letters I've received in the past, where I can feel the person breathing through the paper, letters that warm me to come across years later. It reminded me how good writing letters can be. And it reminded me to buy stationery.

Two days ago I set out to do just that. I owed a letter to my grandmother. I have a drawer at home filled with notecards, birthday cards, and thank-you cards, but none of these seemed appropriate. Too designed. Too small. Too occasion-specific. I needed a clean slate, several pieces of pure, blank paper. So I set out for the stationers. When I was young, I used to love going to the stationers. The pens and paper all seemed so peaceful, dormant, yet full of potential energy: pens waiting to be emptied, paper waiting to be filled. I never got over the habit of buying a multitude of pens and notebooks, even if I had unused pens and notebooks already lying around at home. But I hadn't bought stationery in years. I walked into the store, and was confronted immediately with my first dilemma: what color stationery do I buy?

I limited myself to the unembellished sale stationery, in the hopes of making the decision a bit less traumatic, but there were still enough choices to make that I had to stand around a bit longer than is normal for people to stand around staring at paper. These were my thoughts: Is grey too depressing? Is bright white over-confident? After walking around the store for half an hour, I finally settled on cream white, which I still think was a cowardly choice. Cream white is safe. Cream white is M.O.R. No one will really know who I am if I write them with cream white stationery. Joan Didion, for instance, uses stiff, pale blue note cards with her name embossed in silver at the top. Which I think just screams Joan Didion. (I found this out not by searching for "Joan Didion" and "stationery," but just through a general search on what the color of stationery says about you. Don't think I'm that obsessed.)

What color am I? Steel blue with a two grey pinstripes down the left margin? Bright white with my name in Courier Black? Who knows, I could even turn out to be pink.

But then I got home, took out my cream white sale stationery, and I sat down to write. The sensation of pen to paper wiped my insecurities away. The color of the stationery didn't matter. I turned to Emily Post and channeled M.F.K. to get me through the first paragraph, past the delicate "thank-you" part, and, if I may say so, I wrote the perfect letter to my grandmother. I don't know if I'm a letter-writer yet quite the way M.F.K. seems to be, and I need to find more people to practice on so that my grandmother doesn't become exhausted with my news, but I hope to work damned hard at it. Some day soon, I might even settle on a color.


I'm surprised it hasn't come up yet

I suppose that one day soon I'll go into detail here about the year I spent in Latvia, where I learned how easy it is to fall deeply in love with a place. At which point I'll write things such as

The silence of the birch forest captured the barest hint of our footsteps on the mossy ground. They were strangers to me: Agnese barefoot, leaping over pine needles; Igors stooping low in the distance in search of mushrooms. A row of fir trees obscured from view the slip of a path that would pour our giddy and breathless bodies out onto the thin strip of beach, to the sprawling Baltic Sea.
Men in felt boots hauled the sacks of our gathered potatoes up onto the tractor, the dimming October light seeping across the field, casting mechanical shadows. The other women were bent in half, fingers nimbly sieving the dirt; I knelt in the field and dug my arms in up to the elbows, overturning only dead moles and small, misshapen tubers, bit by the plow.
and other such sentimental, nostalgic, Tarkovskian drivel. Or not.

But that is for another day. I mention Latvia today because three links I wanted to share are all connected by some sort of Soviet theme, and the first comes from Latvia.

My favorite Latvian blogger has scanned his copy of a Soviet science book for children (roughly translated, the title means It Is Even Farther To Earth, or, perhaps better: Earth Is Still A Long Way Off). The art on pages like this is fantastic.

As are these Soviet-era bus stops. (via Langour Management)

In Slate, meanwhile, Keith Gessen (translator of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl and a really nice guy to boot) reviews the new Martin Amis book. I never made it through London Fields, the only Amis I've attempted, so I don't have much to say about the guy, although I do find his current obsession with Stalin kind of, um, kooky. The review makes for an interesting read even for those who couldn't care less about the new Martin Amis book; Keith's insight into Tolstoy's reasons for writing the character of Anna, for example, are spot on (first paragraph). Tolstoy's ulterior motives are probably why Levin's scenes stole the show, for me at least. Or maybe it's just my love of scenes involving that place, people working the fields, the perimeter marked by a strict and solemn forest of birch trees...


Graphic Translations

In the jackhammering chaos, I nearly forgot a link: the February issue of Words Without Borders is up, featuring graphic writing (the non-blue, work-safe, artistic type) from around the world. The David B. piece is my favorite.



Links for stuffing into my ears, like sweet, sweet cotton balls

Seeing as someone decided to start jackhammering holes in the street outside our windows at 3am and I have been awake pretty much ever since, I decided to use this precious morning hour (can you hear Grieg’s “Morning” playing in the background?) to post some Monday links, instead of sleeping, and instead of screaming out my window at men who are just doing their jobs.

I wonder how Simon Pegg would treat the situation? If only the Hot Fuzz would have answered my 311 call.

Two more from the Guardian: The reading habits of UK train riders, and the guilty pleasures of intellectuals. Steven Pinker likes the lexical semantics problem posed by rock lyrics. Bernard-Henri Lévy likes SAS spy novels. Christopher Hitchens likes “The Simpsons.” John Berger takes to biking when he doesn’t feel like being intellectual. And Antonia Fraser shares my love for Gary Cooper.

The New York Times looks into the influence of food bloggers, and also reviews the book I almost bought in Heathrow and now, in spite of the review’s perplexingly lukewarm final paragraph, wish I definitely had: Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park (about disgruntled 30-something mothers - because everything I seem to want to read these days is so incredibly uplifting).

Finally, since it’s the only bit I managed to really watch, I totally agree with the high praise for Prince's halftime show. (ADDED THOUGHT: I wonder how many Americans, like me, were inspired to bring "Purple Rain" with them to work today...)

That’ll do. I’m off to stuff as many objects into my ears as I can find.


Sunday Zen