Respect the New YA

We get it, Judy Blume helped you understand your hormones. You probably also recall the strange pleasures of Sweet Valley High (Diablo Cody is banking on it). You felt strange about having a crush on 12 year old Ender when you were 18. Maybe you have even furtively consumed some of the more recent YA offerings like Twilight and all the Harry Potter books when you were on Christmas break from college. You see yourself as an ally of the young adult genre, maybe even a connoisseur of its early period.

If this is your position, you are as bad as dansko-wearing baby boomer who believes that he learned everything he needed to know about “rock music” before 1975.

The YA fiction of today is not just more plentiful (now taking up whole sections of book stores), it is also . . . BETTER.

I know, I know, Twilight’s lack of sound sentence structure and female agency might have scared you off, but Twilight does not represent all of new YA. It doesn’t even fairly represent all of recent vampire themed YA books.

Take for instance Vampire Academy, the excellent series with a butt-kicking heroine and strange racial politics around vampires, humans, and people who are a mix of vampire and human. These books are funny, plot driven, and filled with the thrill of actual sex that neither exploits youthful bodies nor denies their desires.

Part of the reason you should be reading these books is that they will all be made into movies, and based on the failure of the first Hunger Games movie to live up to the complexity of the books, you should just read all the books instead.

The Hunger Games is the most recognized example of the kind of quality I am arguing pervades the entire genre. It might not be original, but it is one of the most masterfully paced books I have ever read. Pacing and economy of plotting are not valued in adult literature, and that makes many adult books unnecessarily long and boring.

So if you are wondering where to start in this brave new world of YA, you can either go to your local book store and ask the 13 year old girl dominating the one comfy seat what she is loving these days, or you can start with:

1. The Vampire Academy series (if you like the first book, you will probably enjoy the rest)

2. If you haven’t read the Hunger Games, get over yourself, and spend Thanksgiving day devouring these. Really, it is only going to take you a couple of hours.

3. Sarah Dessen’s work is the new Judy Blume. Parents are not always good parents. Sex can be both good and bad. Adolescence is hard because of hormones, but it is also hard because of poverty, gender, and class dynamics. It is not all universally good (the latest one sucked), but try The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, Lock and Key, or Along for the Ride.


Fan art from The Reading Girl


4. Eleanor and Park

5. Code Name Verity


How it feels to stay with all your lady friends in one hotel room during an academic conference


Another solution to dry, acne-ridden, pore-having skin: taking your face off.


Travolta and Cage teach us, in their classic 1997 film, that the face is far less static and immutable than we think.

In fact, the only way I have ever solved the duel problem of acne and dryness is speeding up the rate of cell regeneration (also known as exfoliation) in order to give myself more new skin. The side benefit of this is the “glow” of youth. Maybe you have enough money to get glycolic peels every two weeks, but you don’t need to. Just get yourself a handy glycolic cream or cleanser and watch the magic happen. Retina A also basically works like this, and if you are already using Retina A please disregard this whole post, because you already know the secrets of taking your face off.

The strategy is to use a low percentage of glycolic acid on a daily basis in order to have your skin constantly turning over. Bump up the percentage too high and you will get irritated. AHA is the same thing as glycolic acid, so look for those words in the ingredient list. I suggest keeping the percentage under 5%. I think the FDA makes them tell you if it is more than that, so if it doesn’t say the percentage it is probably around 2.5%. I suggest:

SkinCeuticals Face Wash


Or Peter Thomas Roth’s


Or my new favorite: Boscia’s black cleanser. The “black” is from charcoal and the cleanser smells like roses (utility of these qualities unknown).


Once you have got a bit used to this “warming” sensation of glycolic acid (that’s the low level acid eating away at your face), I invite you to also integrate a bit of AHA into your night time cream layering (AHA makes you sensitive to the sun, so keep this all in your night time routine). This “” stuff doesn’t look pretty, but that’s what pretty old jars from vintage stores were made for.


Side-note: I also wholly endorse this company’s approach to benzoyl peroxide.


One Weird Trick: Skincare

In high school, I had great skin. It was smooth, blemish-free and glowy. Basically hatefully nice. Sometime shortly after graduating though, I started getting massive breakouts. At one point I had a zit on my face that was so big and so deep, my doctor thought it might be a boil. A BOIL. After self-diagnosing rosacea as the root of my skin problems, I started using prescription lotions and the worst of the blemishes went away. However, I was still prone to major breakouts every month, especially in the summer. For ten years or so, I just accepted it as an unavoidable and unfortunate part of life.

A few years ago, though, I started doing some new things that drastically improved the quality of my skin. One of the easiest fixes involved the purchase of ten or so new washcloths. Every time I wash my face, I dry it with a clean cloth. It adds very little to the laundry pile, and I swear it’s helped reduce the breakouts. I also wash my pillow case pretty often, which is a luxury I am able to indulge in because I have a washer and dryer in my home and a small child that produces enough dirty laundry to necessitate more than one washday a week. Anyway, try the washcloth thing if you’re having skin issues.



In Defense of the Real Housewives of Beverely Hills and New York City

You may notice that I am not defending the Real Housewives of Miami, Atlanta, or New Jersey (and nobody defends D.C.). Those shows might have a lot of wonderful things in them, but I can’t watch them because I sometimes worry that my disdain for the women slides over into racism. Why put myself in such a compromising position? There are a lot of Jews in the New York City show, but as Bravo has shown with its recent Princesses Long Island, the network’s deeply sensitive portrayal of Judaism allows the nation to encounter a much broader and diverse range of Judaisms than most Americans will ever see. Julie Klausner has of course argued that Jill Zarin is bad for the Jews, but I don’t think she is bad for my moral center, and that’s what I’m worried about.

Orange County is comfortably white, but I have begun to feel too much sadness for the women like Vicky who have now been a “Real Housewife” for 10 years and are clearly hurting their families by remaining on the show. Still watch it, but I won’t defend it.

But the Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills aren’t just good for a night of drunken decompression after a long day of childcare and fellowship proposals, they are also GOOD in a non-instrumental sense.

The Real Housewives of NYC and Beverly Hills, unlike the other cities, distinguish themselves with piles of money and/or fame that derives from outside the franchise. Not all of the housewives were truly rich before the show, but there are a couple of super wealthy ladies who actually don’t need to work or shill their own face creams.


This leads to my first point. The Real Housewives contribute to the important work of demystifying the American economy. Many Americans like to imagine that they will be millionaires someday, or they just want to join the 1% who make at least $400,000 a year.  This of course leads to all kinds of fantasies about what they would like to pay in taxes if they ever joined this cohort. Breaking through these fantasies, however,the Real Housewives usefully display the differences between the “leveraged” and the “super rich” and the various attached costs and benefits.

The Leveaged: There are definitely housewives like Taylor (whose husband killed himself last year), whose 1% status teetered precariously on a series of business deals (via the now deceased husband) that seem to have been based in borrowing huge sums of cash from banks and collecting money from other business people as investments. Often in Real Housewife land these business deals are about real estate. But the show beautifully displays the insecurity of this kind of money as the housewives dramatic personal highs and lows track their risky business deals. Divorces (and I guess death now) track the bubbles of the economy. The Queen of Versailles stole all its tricks from this franchise.


The Super Wealthy: These women include Camille Grammer (the ex wife of Kelsey), Yolanda, the Maloof (of the Maloof hoof), and Sonya pre-Morgan divorce. These people are making so much money, and are so inordinately free of any sense of social responsibility, that one of the major questions left open by the show is why they don’t just adopt all the leveraged ladies and buy them little cottages in West Hollywood.

Americans tend to fantasize about “being rich” in a highly generalized form, but there are real material differences between the rich and THE RICH, which Real Housewives lays bare. Forget about taxing the 1%, Yolanda and Camille Grammer could be subsidizing some single payer healthcare for the entire LA metro area. And Andy Cohen at Bravo doesn’t just stop at this important distinction, he goes on to clarify the difference between social capital and capital capital. In a brilliant move last season on the Real Housewives of New York, he hired Carole Radziwill–the widow of a now deceased Kennedy. Carole seems to not only have attended actual universities but also has all the social connections of an actual socialite. She is someone who actually gets invited to Met Balls and Opera Galas, unlike her New York cohort who betray their new money class status by actively using the word “socialite” to describe themselves. Carole might not have the biggest apartment, but she has ready access to book contracts and media tycoons that will insure her continued and secure access to money. You can’t buy the stability of social capital. Maybe that will be my tagline if I am ever invited to the Real Housewives of Brooklyn.

Also, these women are creating a new artistic medium based in the post-human cyborg body. No old-school “natural” body can do what they do.


Finally, unlike most reality TV, viewers are invited (the passive voice is absolutely necessary in describing the relationship between viewers, producers, and housewives), to love these women. Cathecting onto unlikely wives creates an emotional turmoil that I find very confusing and productive every season. Do I “like” Yolanda because she seems smart? Or do I just like her two acres of lemon trees that she grows for the exclusive purpose of making juice for the Master Cleanse? I’ll NEVER KNOW!


Podcasts: Pop Culture “Health Food” Edition

Like D, I am an inveterate lover of podcasts. From early on in our friendship, we’ve shared a regard for Slate’s Cultural Gabfest and its slightly younger sibling, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I listen to both of these shows almost as soon as they show up in my iTunes feed. Both have segments that are long enough to generate interesting discussion but short enough that even if I’m absolutely bored by whatever they’re talking about, I can suffer through them without hitting fast-forward. The only times I do skip through a segment are when PCHH indulges its propensity toward taxonomy (so much fun to discuss if you can take part, sooooo dull if you can’t). I also end up hitting the fast-forward button when SCG chooses a topic about which none of the three panelists know the least little bit (they seem to be aware of this problem and have lately been bringing in expert guests, or at least guests who have spent more than five minutes Googling the thing). Like my favorite comedy podcasts–Stop Podcasting Yourself and Jordan Jesse Go!–or my favorite story/documentary podcasts–This American Life (no doi) and The Longest Shortest Time–I never feel as though I’m forcing myself to listen to them. Sometimes I’ll even “save” a current episode of one of these shows for a long walk or drive, when I know I won’t be distracted or interrupted.

There are a few shows in my feed that, while I usually love them, I often feel as if I’m forcing them down like one might force down a salad. I know it’s good for me, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood for raw cabbage and green apple. However, like a good salad, I find myself regularly surprised by how much I’m enjoying the show and feel really great afterward. The podcasts taken from Fresh Air are consistently fantastic, but I’ll sometimes see an interviewee like Linda Ronstadt and think, ugh, do I really want to hear this? As it turned out, yes, yes I do. The other podcast that I sometimes have to “force*” down like a salad is Bullseye. The reason that I rarely skip an episode of either is because the interviewers Terry Gross and Jesse Thorn are just SO GOOD at what they do. I trust them both to take an interview that seems completely uninteresting to me and do amazing things with it.** By making a habit of listening to almost every show they release, I inject a good deal of variety into my pop culture diet.

Other contenders that don’t consistently succeed, but can still provide pleasant surprises every once in a while:

How Was Your Week : I always look forward to the monologue, but the interviews can be touch and go at times.

Judge John Hodgman: Sometimes the case is just boring, but sometimes I find myself moved to tears by Hodgman’s ruling.


* Such a strong word given the high quality of these shows and the fact that I mostly am excited to listen to them.

** Thorn’s recent interview with Elizabeth Gilbert made me cry. I need a friend to listen to it so that we can discuss, because I find myself troubled and embarrassed by my enjoyment of Gilbert and her work. Is she selling me a load of snake oil? Or am I embarrassed to like her because of her audience?

Planning a Week of Meals

I can’t cook dinner every night without a plan, which allows me to buy all the groceries for the week at once. I also don’t get home until 7 at night, which means I have to outsource some of this cooking. I spend a little time on Saturday morning flipping through my best cookbooks and food blogs in order to get inspired. Basic principles: I need to plan to use all meat and fish at the beginning of the week since they shouldn’t be sitting around in my fridge, anything I make needs to take less than 30 min., and every dinner needs at least one substantive vegetable component. Here’s what we are eating this week:


Siracha and lime salmon, with sauteed kale and mashed celeriac, cauliflower, and potatoes (from Gwyneth Paltrow’s “It’s All Good”)



Spaghetti Squash with peanut sauce, brussels sprouts and sauteed shrimp (I’m off this day so I can make this 40 min recipe)


Roast chicken and arugula salad (husband will make this). As simple as it gets: salt and pepper a dry chicken, pop it in 445 oven for 55 min.


Roasted tofu with hoisin sauce, sauteed red peppers and quinoa (husband will make this)


Chard Frittata (from Alice Water’s “The Art of Simple Cooking”)


Go out for pizza



Dressing Like a Grown Woman: Bag Edition

For (too) many years, I used a tote bag to carry all of my womanly essentials.* On the days when I dressed casually (most days), the tote bag looked pretty cool. I think. But as I rapidly made my way through my early thirties, I began to wonder if maybe I should transition to a bag that was designed to carry something other than picture books from the library. On occasions that required dressier clothes, the tote bag looked dumb and I had to resort to a purse** which made me feel a bit more put-together, but also a little frumpy. However, any time I attempted to shop for a large, nice-ish bag, I was always quickly bored and also turned off by the quality-to-price ratio.*** So I continued to carry around the tote and missed who knows how many calls because no matter how organized I tried to keep it, turned into a bottomless carpetbag every time the phone rang.

My husband totally rescued me from my bag problems this summer by giving me this for my birthday:

2013-11-10 10.48.58

Isn’t it lovely? Perfectly simple and streamlined, and it works with both my professional clothes and my every day outfits. How he decided upon this wonderful item in the first place, I have no idea. I’ve never dropped any hints, nor is my internet history full of bag searches. He just somehow F*CKING NAILED IT, right?!

This bag (I’m sorry I can’t provide a more specific link–it was on clearance on Amazon and doesn’t seem to be available any more****) is not only a means of helping me look less like a college student and more like the grown-ass woman that I am. It is also–wait for it–super practical:

2013-11-10 10.51.00

I know this is like, grown-up bag 101, but I never cease to be delighted by the little pockets that are perfectly sized for wallet, keys and phone. And it has just the right amount of interior pocket-age and just the right amount of open tote-iness. No more rooting around for my wallet at the checkout line. No more missed calls. Instant access to the pea gravel.

Another reason to consider investing***** in a somewhat expensive bag like this is that I think it’s pretty timeless in terms of fashion (or at the very least, seems like it will carry me through a good five or so trend cycles). And unlike a tote bag or leather-like thing from Target, I’m pretty sure it won’t fall to pieces in a few months.

And best of all, EES SO PRETTY.

*Ten used Kleenex, half a hot dog and some pea gravel.

**Purses are kind of gross, right? Someone convince me I’m wrong.

***$40 for a leather-like thing that will begin to flake immediately and smells like a burning tire? TRY AGAIN TARGET.

****The prices currently listed for similar bags are super high. Definitely wait for  them to go on clearance–I think he paid roughly half to a third of the average listed price for mine.



Best Food Blogs

Do I browse these blogs for the “food writing”? No. I am really only into two forms of “food writing”: restaurant reviews for restaurants I’ll probably never go to, and meditations on food trends like yogurt. But a couple of blogs have become excellent resources for dinner ideas and I browse them weekly for this purpose.

Of course, you probably already know about Smitten Kitchen. There are way too many cake recipes on this blog, but once in a while she really nails the simple dinner dish. Case in point, the tomatoes and farro dish we now make all the time. The only thing I add is a bit of truffle oil at the end (because a little smelly shoe taste never hurt any dish).

Photo by Smitten Kitchen

Photo by Smitten Kitchen

Dishing Up Dirt does not take the prettiest photos, or even make very sophisticated dishes. But if you are wondering how to eat about twice as many vegetables every day, her recipes will help you. She is an organic farmer in Oregon so her recipes also provide a kind of guide to eating in season. I like her chickpea stuffed eggplant.

From Dishing Up Dirt

From Dishing Up Dirt

Dinner a Love Story suffers from an overabundance of food writing (for instance endless narratives about the quirky things their children say), but if you just head over to their recipe index they have so many simple and good dinner ideas. They are all about teaching you a technique that you can use over and over. For instance, cooking fish in parchment paper.

Finally, if I am being really honest, no DIY food blog is as good as the corporate Epicurious, which is essentially back issues of Bon Appetit. The great thing about this website is that you can use it to get a new idea in their recipe of the day section, and you can use it to figure out a dish that you already know you want to make. I actually think you become a better cook by looking at three different recipes for the same dish, like roast pork loin, and then figuring out the principles of that dish. Then you tinker with the recipe to suit your needs. Or you can just make their pretty and perfect featured recipes, like this pumpkin salad.




Towards a theory of distraction, concentration and boredom

As a part-time childcare provider, I subscribe to the theory that boredom is good for children. However, as an adult I resist boredom’s virtues. I don’t really know if we are any more distracted than we have ever been, and unless you work as a food critic (how does one get this job?), I think we continue to experience boredom. Yes, we can distract ourselves with our iPhones, but have you ever had a conversation with a 4 year old about cars? Have you ever had to collate notes? Stock shelves? We might have arrived in the future of the future, but life is still boring. So I would like to get better at all three of these modes of being–distraction, concentration, and boredom–because none of them are going away. So here are my best versions of each:

Concentration: the 30 min. of writing I do at the beginning of my morning. It only works because I am not allowed to write for more than 30 min.

Distraction: walking anywhere while listening to my Podcasts. I have never been fitter than when I walk for at least an hour everyday. And I am distracted from the labor of moving my feet by the sweet mewling of Stephen Metcalf.

Boredom: Fortunately I have access to a child, the true secret to perfecting boredom. I don’t know how long its been since you’ve played 20 questions, but it is a pretty great game. It is both boring, satisfying, and the child adds a nice soundtrack of giggles.

*Important note to lame adults who want to count their evening bath, or lying in bed considering their navel, as effective boredom: boredom is not the same as relaxation, zoning out, or pondering, all of which require no labor.



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