Postcard and wishes from an erratic December

Astronomy window at Bergdorf Goodman

I got back from New Orleans just in time for Christmas — and for the blizzard, which has been really exciting, I say from my perch on the sixth floor. On Wednesday I’m off again, to South Florida, where Max and I will be staying at the Biltmore Hotel. Writing and our Downton Abbey binge will keep me occupied till then.

I know I’ve made myself scarce here this year, and I can’t promise I’ll return in full force early next, but I’m grateful to you for reading, and I wish you all good things in 2011.

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My favorite books, and other highlights, of 2010

My favorite newish book of the year is (surprise) the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I wrote about it for Salon, where there are also best of 2010 contributions from my friends Laura Miller and Laura Lippman, and from other writers, including David Grann, Ted Conover, George Pelecanos, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Kolbert, Anthony Shadid, James Fallows, and Rebecca Traister.

And for The Millions,* I wrote about how, when I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. I want to be driven to write better. Reading Muriel Spark does that.

While I’m aggregating things from other places: not long ago I talked with Kate Donnelly about the incredibly exciting spot where I’ve spent most of my free time for the past twelve months: my desk. That’s a photo above and if you’re interested you can read more about it and its contents at From Your Desks. And recently I’ve started making more use of Tumblr; I really like the feeling of community and all the pretty pictures.

This year I also kept a Paris Review Culture Diary (part two) and wrote an ode to the (enchanted) Biltmore Hotel for Oxford American. I reviewed and admired Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, and Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, and was depressed and impressed by Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. I discovered the amazing John Jeremiah Sullivan thanks to Lorin Stein’s debut issue of The Paris Review. I reviewed the new Muriel Spark biography, and now worship her and her writing. I fell in love with E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat and Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking. I curated the Girls Write Now series featuring the talented Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Nami Mun, Marie Mockett, Lizzie Skurnick, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I realized I was writing two books rather than one, and after my beloved father-in-law died a few chapters shy of finishing his book, I really hunkered down to finish mine, and last month I read a previously-unheard excerpt from it. I contributed columns to The Awl about my obsession with Sarah Palin and far-out evangelicals generally, and I watched the first episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” with my pal D.E. Rasso and we recapped it for your amusement.

Other developments I haven’t mentioned online in any detail: I found out more about my grandfather’s (alleged) thirteen marriages (of which I’ve now confirmed at least seven), and identified (but have not contacted) some of the wives’ descendants, including the son and grandchildren of the one who shot him in the stomach (any ideas how to open that introductory letter?); I joined 23andme and discovered that my Newtons probably moved south from Massachusetts; and I started talking to my incomparable mother, who turned seventy in June, once a week. Nowadays she has something like nine dogs and forty-five fruit trees, and I hope to see them, and her, in Asheville next year, after I’ve gotten this novel out the door.

See also My favorite books, and other highlights, of 2009.

*Other contributors to The Millions’ always-outstanding Year in Reading series include John Banville, Lorin Stein, Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver, Paul Murray, Emma Donoghue, Sam Lipsyte, Stephen Elliott, Edan Lepucki (whose If You’re Not Yet Like Me is worth picking up), Tom McCarthy, Emma Rathbone, Emily St. John Mandel, and my friends Mark Sarvas and Second Pass editor John Williams.

Wintry chili, cornbread, writing, agoraphobia

Asphalt always gets to me, but the malaise is never worse than after the leaves fall, before the first snow, when the trees are bare and the sky is dark and all I see when I look up and down Ocean Parkway from my terrace is gray, gray, and more gray.

Even as I narrow in on the end of my novel, I relate more and more to Joan Didion’s feeling about the difficulty of writing in cities. The overstimulation, the crowds, the lack of natural beauty and the invisibility of the horizon — it’s a good thing I have Wednesdays off, because if I had to venture out in today’s cold and rain to cram my coat-clad body onto a train packed with a thousand other miserable, wintered-up New Yorkers, I would probably wind up at Penn Station, buying a ticket to Florida.

But I’ve got my mom’s Tex-Mex chili* bubbling in the slow-cooker, and later I’ll make some cornbread and some greens and a friend will come over for dinner, and we’ll drink too much and talk about Muriel Spark, Amitava Kumar, and Geoff Dyer (and, I confess, astrology). I feel better just thinking about it.

For now, though, back to this godforsaken book I’m writing. I can’t wait, can’t wait to be done.

* Don’t tell the Homesick Texan — the ultimate authority on Texas red — but it involves both beans and tomatoes.

Snowy Ocean Parkway photo credit: Max Clarke, 2009.