Marginalia: On the strange thing.

Hi all, 

I hope you and your loved ones are well, wherever you find yourselves on this magnificent and difficult blue orb of ours. Like many, I am finding it onerous to get through anything that requires deep attention. I won’t be one of those people who have taken this opportunity to read War and Peace/Moby Dick/any other long classic. Still, I am forcing myself to reach for the book rather than screen on most nights, and slowly getting through some pretty fantastic stuff.

I am finding, too, that rereading is bringing me much comfort. Perhaps it’s the ease of visiting a familiar place, a book read when the world was different. In a different context, though, the same books reveal other truths. Are you a re-reader? As always, I love hearing from you – about anything!



1. I loved this very moving – and delicious – piece by Bill Bufford in The New Yorker on learning how to bake the perfect loaf of bread. 

2. I spent a long morning reading this wonderful compilation of reflections on the pandemic in The New York Times. Some of my favourite writers are in here: Teju Cole, Helen McDonald, and Leslie Jamison. 

3. “Shakespeare did his finest work under quarantine, I keep hearing. I wonder how the Bard would regard today’s ‘craft hour’ in our apartment, which ended after eight minutes. I’d Googled ‘easy art projects anyone can do,’ and selected ‘DIY jellyfish.’ We forged ahead, with the same delusional optimism that has fuelled our recent ‘pantry meals,’ when we have three of a recipe’s twelve ingredients. We had to improvise a little, since our shopping list had prioritized diapers, medicine, Clorox wipes, gallon bags of dour legumes and their party-girl cousins, coffee beans. Of the many things I’d failed to foresee: a need for googly eyes, hole punchers, and vials of glitter. We wound up with a Styrofoam coffee cup stabbed through with neon straws. ‘Mama, this is not a jellyfish,’ my three-year-old son, Oscar, said, with a preternaturally mature sorrow.”

4. While I don’t intend to mention the pandemic in every single one of these newsletters, I truly felt every word of Maggie Nelson’s extraordinary reflection on her time in lockdown. This led me to the essay she meditates on, “Winter in Abruzzi” by Natalia Ginzburg, which I have never heard of but will now read as a matter of absolute priority.  

5. A few weeks ago – feels like years ago now – I stole a few hours and spent them with William Maxwell’s quietly beautiful book,  So Long, See You Tomorrow

6. Nick Cave on grief…just, wow: 

“Susie and I have learned much about the nature of grief over recent years. We have come to see that grief is not something you pass through, as there is no other side. For us, grief became a way of life, an approach to living, where we learned to yield to the uncertainty of the world, whilst maintaining a stance of defiance to its indifference. We surrendered to something over which we had no control, but which we refused to take lying down. Grief became both an act of submission and of resistance — a place of acute vulnerability where, over time, we developed a heightened sense of the brittleness of existence. Eventually, this awareness of life’s fragility led us back to the world, transformed.”

7. The British Library is asking kids to make miniature books. We are already addicted to making zines in our house, so we will definitely be giving this a go. 

8. Ann Patchett described her discovery of Kate DiCamillo’s oeuvre as the most satisfying literary adventure of her life. I bought every one of her books I could find, and we have been devouring them at a fast pace. Because both of my kids find it very hard to sit down at the table, we are reading at nearly every meal, with DiCamillo’s stunning, funny, and bright characters keeping us from shouting “sit down!” every bloody second. 

9. I am so in love with these photographs of Toni Morrison. What a legend.

10. I want to print this a million times and put it up all over my house. Samuel Beckett in a letter to his friend, in 1963:

‘‘I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’’