The Week of Beautiful Flowers and Sneezing

Pittsburgh is at its most beautiful in May. The extended winter put a dent in the annual display of daffodils and tulips, but roses are blooming now in full force. I've been trying to work a bit more exercise into my days by going for short walks through my neighborhood, and I am constantly stopping to snap photos of gardens.



Business is busy, busy, busy right now so I'm having to work a bit throughout the weekend, but we're hanging out with friends tonight and I couldn't be more excited to kick back with a glass of wine and shoot the shit with people I love. 


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson, which I stalled out on because I picked up and finished two other books this week. I mostly read Educated, by Tara Westover, in one sitting yesterday morning and found it enjoyable but not radically different from Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle. If you loved that book, you'll find much to like in Westover's memoir, but you might also be underwhelmed by Westover's insights into the value of education.  

The other book I devoured this week, The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, kept me reading past my bedtime each night. On Tuesday I actually went in to work two hours late because I had to finish it. It's the story of Helen Watt, a historian in London who is nearing her retirement. She receives a call from a former student who recently inherited a house and discovered a stack of documents hidden in the woodwork underneath the stairs. He summons her because he remembers she is an expert in early modern Jewish history, and some of the documents seem to include Hebrew. Watt enlists an American graduate student to aid her, and the two discover that the documents were written in the 1660s by a woman scribe. Alternating between the perspectives of Helen and Aaron (her graduate student) in 2000 and Ester the scribe in the 1660s, The Weight of Ink slowly unfurls the mystery of how Ester came to be a rabbi's scribe, how the documents survived until the twenty-first century, and how Helen and Aaron manage to decipher their significance.

I loved this novel for reasons both particular to the story and personal. I cannot emphasize enough how much historical research went into its writing. Every period detail is specific and vivid, from how linens were laundered to what it would have felt like to walk through the London Bridge. Meanwhile the modern sections accurately capture the militancy of archivists and the petty egotism of academia. The result is scenes that construct themselves in your minds eye, without the prose ever being overburdened by descriptive flourishes. It's a beautiful read, but never difficult.

Furthermore, The Weight of Ink asks provocative questions: How do you balance your personal truth and desires against the beliefs and standards of a broader world or community? And who do you hurt more in the process, yourself or others? Is self-preservation a selfish or a radical act? I do not want to say much more, for fear of spoilers, so trust me when I say that Kadish skillfully incorporates these questions into the narrative in a way that feels organic to the characters and organically complicated--there's enough resolution to feel satisfying, but not pat. 

Finally, this novel reminded me why I should not give up on being a historian. Since leaving academia, I've been more keenly attuned to the groupthink, egotism, and elitism that pervades professional historical practice. That's my own baggage, for another post, but reading The Weight of Ink helped me recall what I love about writing history: ensuring a legacy for those who can no longer tell their stories. For too long I've focused on "uncovering truths" and "connecting the past and present," both of which are important and essential functions of the historian--but not the only functions. Sometimes it's enough to tell a person's story, if you believe that the work they did in life mattered. It won't necessarily interest anyone else, or get published, or get you tenure. But we should not always write history to further our own ambitions, nor should we neglect our own desires as storytellers.

tl;dr: I highly recommend The Weight of Ink

I'm listening to: The new album from Columbian pop star Maluma, F.A.M.E., which just dropped this month. A beauty influencer I follow on Instagram was really excited about its release so I saved the album to my Spotify library and have been really enjoying listening to it on my walks around the neighborhood and while I'm cleaning up the kitchen. Most of the tracks are peppy reggaeton, so it keeps you upbeat without tipping over into hectic. 

I'm watching: Hip hop choreography videos on YouTube. From what I glean, if you live in Los Angeles you can go to hip hop dance classes and learn from the dancers who choreograph music videos for famous performers. Then, if you're a good enough dancer, at the end of the class they'll film you doing the moves and put it on YouTube. And, if you're someone like me who watches all sorts of random mindless pop culture on the internet, you can sit for hours watching these dancers' interpretations of the same moves to the same songs. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! 

The Week of Anniversaries

One year ago today I officially received my diploma and became Avigail S. Oren, Ph.D. It was the best week of my life: I had my family and friends in town to celebrate with me; my mom and mother-in-law and dear friends Desiree and Kip coordinated to throw me a big graduation party (and the weather was truly perfect); and I also got married the weekend before.

As if an omen, that week kicked off what has been the best year of my life. I started a business and found that self-employment really suits me. I joined a co-working space and met smart, kind, and funny co-coworkers, and through the internet I met other self-employed PhDs; all have been mentors and cheerleaders. I took on the role of webmaster for the Urban History Association and began co-editing The Metropole, which has kept me active and engaged in a field I still love. I experimented with Living Room Learning. I found an amazing collaborator in Ada Barlatt and together we developed the DEVONthink for Historians guide. I launched Brisket. I started reading fiction again. I escaped winter and became a snowbird. I was more active in my local community.

I admit that there's a paranoid, superstitious part of me that feels this year has been too good to be true. The other shoe is bound to drop. A new challenge will surface soon. 

That may be true, or it may not be, but I think what's certain is that graduate school was a drag and took a huge toll on my mental health. Earning my PhD and leaving academia gave me sovereignty over my career--and I have made the best of it. For me, that freedom has been the key to happiness.  


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: some good, and varied, books! I had several holds come in from the library all at once--popular new books with long hold lists that I would not be able to renew--and so I put aside I Hotel and the Adrienne Rich collection. I want to focus on the book that I managed to finish, though I'm in the midst of two others--Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson and The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish--that I'll circle back to next week.

I made quick work of Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. I'd had it on my TBR (To Be Read) list since its publication was announced, even though I don't generally read true crime, because the backstory intrigued me. McNamara died tragically at age 46, leaving the half-finished manuscript for this book to be pieced together by fellow amateur investigators. That fact ultimately handicaps I'll Be Gone in the Dark. By the end I was skimming because there was so much repetition and redundant presentation of data, which I can only assume is the result of there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Nevertheless, the parts that McNamara did write were gripping. The Golden State Killer is a compelling and creepy-as-hell character, a multi-hyphenate criminal (prowler, burglar, rapist, and killer) whose compulsions organically escalate the tension and plot of his narrative. McNamara writes gracefully and humanely about the victims of his crimes, and is self aware about the obsessiveness that both the investigators and the criminal himself share. So it's a book I would recommend, with the caveat that it's a little bit of a mess.

I'm listening to: A new single by El Kuelgue, "Con Dios," which I hope presages a new album.

I'm watching: Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. This show is so underrated, and I cannot understand why it's not getting more buzz! It's a bizarre premise--realtor Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) dies and comes back to life as a more energetic and assertive version of herself, but now with a taste for human flesh--but the show fundamentally explores how families endure dramatic transitions. Yes, an undead mother is an extreme example, but it allows the show to tread universal territory in a way that is SO funny. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have snappy and sharp dialogue to work with, making what could have been simple, stock characters into dynamic and energizing personalities. What else do I have to say to convince you to watch it!? 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! 

The Week of Publishing My Favorite Thing I've Ever Written

Today's post is late because this morning was the annual Pittsburgh marathon. Open Hand Ministries asked me if I would be willing to volunteer at the fluid station they man every year, and so I spent the first part of the day cleaning up used cups thrown on the ground by marathon runners. Some time ago I read on the internet that races are ecological disasters, and I can now confirm that is true. I picked up hundreds of half-eaten goo packets and even a big hunk of watermelon. 

So it was a dirty and gross end to a week that started off on a fairly high note. I put the finishing touches on my essay about YouTube decluttering videos and launched the second issue of Brisket out into the world. I've never been happier with anything I've written. Part of that is due to the generous but firm guidance of expert editor Beth Anne Macaluso, but it's also because solving the mystery of why 600,000 decluttering videos exist on YouTube brought together my interests in pop culture, political economy, mental health, and makeup. It was a joy to struggle with the narrative and the argument of this essay each and every morning during my #shutupandwrite sessions.

I've now moved on to writing about feminist entrepreneurship, which grew out of a spectacularly thought-provoking and productive conversation with a friend who has years of experience working in tech start-ups. It's giving me the opportunity to finally write about the Kardashian-Jenner family and their history of entrepreneurship, so I'm stoked. I think I'm trying to turn myself into Anne Helen Peterson.


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Not much, honestly--I barely read anything this week. I did so much writing most days that by evening all I wanted to do was watch television. But I did read another issue of True Story and a few articles in the most recent New York magazine. I'm hoping to finish a few books this coming week, so I'm tentatively promising a more robust write-up next Sunday.

I'm listening to: Childish Gambino's This Is America

I'm watching: Videos of marbles racing down elaborate tracks. I discovered this genre by asking readers of Brisket what they watch on YouTube. Someone said that she watches marble racing videos, and after my shock subsided I devoured (and greatly enjoyed) a number of them. The swooshing of the marbles down the tracks and the clacking of marbles against obstacles is reminiscent of other ASMR triggers. Indeed, I found that these videos can be quite soothing. That's why I wasn't surprised to find that marble racing videos are just as popular as decluttering videos, also numbering around 600,000. If I've piqued your interest, I recommend the channel Jelle's Marble Runs

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! 

Brisket Vol. 1, No. 2: On Relieving Anxiety with YouTube

Yesterday I published the second issue of Brisket, a meaty essay of almost 4,000 words that asks (and answers) a hard-hitting question: why in the world are there so many videos on YouTube of people decluttering their stuff, and who the heck is watching them?

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I became completely preoccupied by this question in January, when I realized that I'd been neglecting a very enjoyable book that I was in the middle of reading. Instead of reading every evening before bed, I was watching decluttering videos on YouTube. All I wanted to do at the end of those long winter day was watch one of my favorite beauty YouTubers get rid of old bronzers. 

I've long been a fan of reality TV, and I'm not a particularly discriminating viewer--I'll watch some pretty mindless stuff. But decluttering seemed pretty dumb, even by my usually low standards. So  I began to wonder why, exactly, I kept watching. 

My quest to find an answer led me in some pretty surprising directions. Over the course of my research, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and several scientific studies about Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). I did a lot more quantitative research than I expected, in search of YouTube viewership statistics. And I watched a lot of videos of people pretending to brush my hair. 

I now finally know why I love watching decluttering videos--but through this investigation into the genre of YouTube decluttering videos I also came to understand YouTube’s ascendent popularity and gained some insight into how anxious people are spending their free time. This issue of Brisket tackles big questions about changing global economies, anxieties, and aesthetics but never loses focus of the fun and pleasurable spirit of YouTube. After all, that's the essence of Brisket: delicious and nutritious. 

Become a Brisket patron to read this month's essay!

The Week of Intentional Restoration

As the days get longer, I find myself waking up earlier and with more energy. This morning I was up and in the kitchen by 7:30 AM, prepping batter for a banana bread. I hadn't listened to Ornette Coleman in a while, so I put on The Shape of Jazz to Come and the improvisational musical approach had an influence on my baking. I added date syrup in place of honey after finding that ours had crystallized, and yogurt to augment the mashed bananas after realizing I didn't quite have the required two cups. Far from it, actually... I only had one. The good news is that it turned out great. I'm writing with hot coffee and a slice of banana bread that's fresh from the oven. 

Yesterday was also pretty heavenly; I took the entire day off. Before leaving the office on Friday afternoon I powered down my laptop and promised myself that I would not turn it on again until this morning. So I spent most of my Saturday reading, but also went to a spin class and took a nice long walk over to a local bookstore to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day. As much as I loved doing the writing retreat last Saturday, a day spent reading is more restorative. I've begun to think about energy in week-long time spans rather than daily ones. I can have several long workdays in a row as long as I'm getting enough sleep, but eventually that exertion catches up to me and no number of evenings spent watching mindless television is enough to replenish my energy. So I'm trying to be intentional about taking off at least one full day per week and two half days.

The result, at least this week, is that I have a lot of great books to report on!


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: a new essay on women and lying from Adrienne Rich's On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, and I read her analysis of Emily Dickinson's poetry this week as well. I also picked Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel back up and finished the first section, and now I feel sucked into the book's momentum. I doubt I can finish all 600-something pages before next week but I will have more to say about it in the coming weeks. Because that book is so heavy--I mean literally, my wrists start to hurt after reading it for a while, though the content is not light either--I am also reading Stewart O'Nan's svelte 200 page novel City of Secrets. I bought it yesterday at White Whale after the first few pages piqued my curiosity. The main character is a Holocaust survivor and refugee who smuggled himself into Mandate Palestine in 1945 and joined up with the Haganah. I'm positive this one is not going to have a happy ending, so I'm mentally preparing. 

On Thursday night I finished Thomas Mullen's Lightning Men, which was excellent. It focuses on a crime perpetrated by the KKK against another KKK member, and builds on the themes of police corruption, racism, and brutality that were central to the mystery in the first book (Darktown). Focusing on an internecine squabble within the Atlanta Klavern is such a smart move on Mullen's part, because as Officers Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw investigate the crime their probes highlight ideological divides amongst whites about how to best deal with the changing Jim Crow racial order, and the ways in which both black and white Atlantans turned to violence (by choice or force) to protect their real estate interests. And as a historian I can confidently tell you this book is well researched. You passively absorb a lot of Civil Rights history through this detective mystery. I cannot wait for the next entry into this series.

The other book I read this week was Charles Soule's The Oracle Year, which was my Book of the Month pick for April. The premise is that Will Dando (a nobody musician) wakes up one morning from a dream with 108 predictions about events that will occur over the next twelve months. As the first few begin to come true, he has to decide what to do with this knowledge--and to figure out if his actions can change the future, or if he has no free will and has become a pawn of ... God? The U.S. Government? The Universe? I think this book can best be described as a comic book novelization, and the author is indeed a comic book writer. Will is like Spiderman, a normal guy who one day finds himself with great power and great responsibility. The pacing of the plot is fast, and I got so sucked in that I read all 400 pages of this book in under 24 hours. The ending did not disappoint, and although The Oracle Year asks fairly weighty philosophical questions, it never became pedantic or pretentious. Highly recommended!

I'm listening to: Janelle Monáe's new album, Dirty Computer. Though I have always enjoyed Monáe as an artist, activist, and actor, I have never gotten into her past albums. So far, however, I'm liking Dirty Computer and its raunchy double entendres. 

I'm watching: old episodes of Lip Sync Battle. The show is so dumb, but who doesn't love Chrissy Teigan? The episodes are also only 20 minutes long, so it's hard to get sucked in. I like turning it on while taking a quick snack break. Also, last week's season premiere of Westworld was excellent, and the new season of Silicon Valley is getting better and better. So I've got the high-low covered.

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! Next issue drops this Tuesday, May 1st.