The Week of "Spring"

Like many areas of the northeastern United States, Pittsburgh spent its first day of spring digging out from under 10 inches of new snowfall. As it has melted over the past two days I have seen a few courageous crocuses poking out from the ground... but it feels like we are still far from that idyllic spring moment when every park and garden is filled with daffodils and tulips. Maybe next week. 

The seasons may not be cooperating, but I am springing ahead on a new project--and it directly stems from these Sunday morning roundups. I began writing them in September, a point at which I found myself without much to say about either my academic work or my new business. I thought these weekly posts could provide some filler content to keep my blog updated; I wanted to give the impression that my site was active. 

Almost immediately, I realized that these posts clearly were more than filler. They inspired me to find new books, articles, albums, podcasts, movies and television shows to talk about each week. I began spending time thinking critically about what I was reading, listening to, and watching, so that I could write reviews that were informative and evaluative. And then, I began hearing back from readers that I didn't think ever read my blog that they had taken my recommendations and liked them! On Friday, for example, I had drinks with a longtime colleague who downloaded Fates and Furies onto her Kindle at the airport after reading the post where I described finishing the novel on my flights back to Pittsburgh. She loved it, although we had very different interpretations of Lotto and Mathilde's marriage. 

These Sunday morning roundups also eased me back into a regular writing habit, and more importantly they gave me a chance to practice writing about topics other than history (and for readers who were not only historians). I began sitting down for an hour each morning to write, and so, while you have been reading these posts from week to week, I was also writing essays. They all started with questions that were preoccupying me. What is a public intellectual? Why is it relaxing to watch other people clean? Why are all of the historians I most admire Jewish? I wrote and wrote and wrote until some were done and I felt satisfied that I had answered the question. The others? Well those may take more time. 

I was left wondering what to do with these essays. They didn't really fit with the interests or voice of any publications I was familiar with, and are not on topics that are particularly newsworthy. But I knew that there was an audience out there for them, because they are written in the same voice and with the same thought and care that I put into the Sunday morning posts that inspired them. So I came up with an idea that I will announce tomorrow.

Before the snow

Before the snow

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

I'm reading: I struggled to get into a new book after finishing The Soul of an Octopus. I sat down most evenings with a book and ended up watching YouTube videos on my iPad. Yesterday it occurred to me that my tired brain might just needed a good thriller--a fast paced, plot-centric mystery--and I picked up and proceeded to devour all 308 pages of Ruth Ware's In A Dark, Dark Wood. The premise is that, after ten years of not speaking to her ex-best friend Clare, the protagonist Nora agrees to attend Clare's bachelorette weekend. In an incongruously modern glass house in the middle of the Northumberland woods, Nora finds out that she has not shed her past as thoroughly as she thought she had... and then finds herself a suspect in a crime. A useless description, I know, and I'm sorry--but why spoil it for you? I found the book to have the right amount of puzzles and twists. I felt pretty sure I knew who committed the crime, but not so sure that I lost interest. My main complaint is that Ware literally incorporates Chekhov's gun into the plot. I found it amateurish and hard to overlook. 

I'm listening to: Akimbo, the new podcast from Seth Godin. For those unfamiliar with Godin, he's a "motivational influencer" who had a long career in marketing before transitioning to writing business books. I've found some of his advice helpful over the past year as I've tried to better understand my value and position my business accordingly. I've been enjoying Akimbo because it pushes back on some common misconceptions about how business should work: you need to have a big idea, hold a grand opening, market to a huge audience. In these short episodes, Godin argues that you really should start small and work with a committed, enthusiastic base of customers who will help you iterate on your idea and improve your business. It's a reassuring message to hear, and I recommend it to anyone who is trying to start a public-facing project--these lessons are as applicable to academic or not-for-profit endeavors as they are to entrepreneurial ones. 

I'm watching: Last night we went with friends to see The Death of Stalin, the new satirical film from (former) Veep showrunner Armando Iannucci. We went to get drinks beforehand and arrived at the theater late enough that the only seats left were in the first row. Despite craning our necks and feeling like we could see up the noses of all the actors, the movie got two thumbs up from all four of us. If you like the distinctive patter and physical comedy of Veep, you will also enjoy this film. I would also like to note that the two non-historians in our quartet knew nothing about Soviet history and it did not diminish their enjoyment. I do think I got a bit more out of it having recently read Paul Goldberg's The Yid and Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow. Stalin's death is an essential plot point in both novels as well, and so I was familiar with the foibles of Molotov and the machinations of Khrushchev. Between these two novels and The Death of Stalin, I've read/watched three fictionalizations of this period in as many months--perhaps I have an unconscious desire to better understand Russia, considering how dominant the country is in our national politics right now. 

What are you reading, listening to, and watching this week? And check back tomorrow for a big announcement.