Emphasis On: Little Failure

Since starting Emphatic Hands, I have tried to find a way to write about things I like in brief. That rarely works out. But I’m going to try it from now on, once a week, every Tuesday. (Haha, I hope.) “Emphasis On” – shut up, I needed a title – will consist of brief, one-paragraph reviews of books, music, films or television. First up, Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure.



I suppose that I’m a casual Gary Shteyngart fan. (I have a hard time relating to contemporary male writers, so this is a big deal!) I follow him on Twitter, have read one of his novels – Absurdistan – in its entirety, and have read plenty of his fiction and non-fiction in publications such as The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure. I recently finished reading his memoir, Little Failure, and I thought it was very good. I enjoyed the experience of reading it more than I did the experience of reading Absurdistan. I am generally a fan of his style – this is a meaningless word, really, but I can’t find the word I’m looking for, so I’m sticking with this for now – and humor and found that these things, applied to writing his own life story, worked extremely well. I’m not saying you’ll definitely like it, but I think you should read Little Failure if you have read any Gary Shteyngart previously, whether or not you liked it. Also, read it if you have felt like an outsider as an adolescent or artist and/or have overbearing parents who do not easily or straightforwardly express emotion.

Home Again



Several years ago,  I moved back in with my parents, into the relatively large-ish bedroom that I’d shared with my sister during high school and my drunken, collegiate summers. I was interning at a PR firm for practically negative compensation and experiencing what I think I would now classify as a slow-building nervous breakdown, though at that time I just thought I was constantly “in a bad mood.”

One weekend, I invited two of my college friends to come up to my house for the night. I had invited a big group of my mostly unemployed high school friends over to my house and we were going to grill in my backyard and, I guess, get wasted while listening to Michael Jackson, because he had died that week. Before the party got started, I was showing my friends Jen and Liza my bedroom, which at the time featured a framed poster signed by the cast of my high school’s production of Grease and approximately 700 issues of Rolling Stone stacked and organized by date. My friend Jen was looking through one of my many piles of “stuff” on my side of the room.

“Yes,” she said. She was holding up a (CD) copy of Carole King’s Tapestry, like she was Rafiki and the CD was Simba except she was being at least a little bit ironic. I felt exposed. I hadn’t listened to Tapestry in years and there it was, sitting out in plain view in my bedroom.

I don’t remember what was said afterward, but the three of us laughed and probably quoted Liz Lemon. I suppose I admitted that I had loved that album a long time ago, when I first started seriously listening to music on my own. I doubt I was able to hide my embarrassment. But truly, if anyone was going to find a Carole King CD in my bedroom, I was glad it was those two and not, like, a boyfriend who publicly listened to more obscure music than me. (JK, I have had zero boyfriends who fit that profile, or even fit the traditional profile of “boyfriend” to be honest.)

Anyway, I was thinking about this the other day because I’m going to a karaoke event in a few weeks where I’ll be limited to singing only “sad songs.” Putting together my list of possible songs, one of the first artists I thought of was Carole King. So I ended up listening to Tapestry and am glad I did. I have so many memories wrapped up in this album that I hadn’t, uh, remembered in a while.

When I was very little, my dad used to sing me to sleep. One of his standards was “You’ve Got a Friend,” but in the style of James Taylor, I guess. We still listened to the Carole King version, obviously, but my dad is a dude, who also happens to like James Taylor. Anyway, that song – ugh, I know it’s cheesy, but I’m sharing something personal right now and I’d appreciate if you could stop judging me for one second – still makes me tear up when I hear it.

“I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” and “Where You Lead” were songs I grew up hearing on the radio constantly. My mom listened exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM, which I hated as I got older, but now appreciate for bestowing upon me an extensive knowledge of easy listening/soft rock/AM Gold. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know those songs.

By the time I reached middle school, I was stealing CDs from my dad’s collection and secretly listening to them. And Tapestry was one of the albums that I stole. (The CD that Jen found was probably my dad’s.) Why this listening had to take place in secret, or alone, I’m not sure. I suspect it had something to do with needing to experience something by myself in order to connect with it emotionally. The songs on Tapestry allowed me to imagine what it was like to feel things like love and loss – and other things too, but those are obviously the easiest/first things that come to mind – long before I would have those experiences myself.

“Home Again” and “It’s Too Late” became “shower songs” – these are songs that I often sing in the shower – that I “practiced” while I was home alone in middle and high school, though I still find myself singing them once in a while. Which brings me back to the karaoke thing. After listening to Tapestry the other night – in my apartment, alone – I sang a few songs from the album while taking a shower. Quietly at first, and then louder once I remembered that my roommates weren’t home. A few weeks from now, I’ll be bringing one of these songs out of the shower and into the public eye – or, actually, a big karaoke room filled with mostly acquaintances – for the first time ever. In a way, my secret relationship with Tapestry is coming to an end.

P.S. I tweeted about listening to Tapestry alone and the official Twitter account of the Carole King musical, “Beautiful”, tweeted at me:

beautiful broadway tweet

Four Favorite Costume Drama Miniseries That Aren’t Pride & Prejudice

This is the time of year when, inevitably, I get sick and end up spending a weekend or two on the couch, with only a pile of dirty tissues for company. When I’m under the weather, there’s nothing more comforting than revisiting some of my favorite (British) costume drama miniseries. (Those of you who read this blog on the regular know that I’m a little obsessed.) So, in honor of the cold I’m nursing today, here are four of my favorites (that aren’t Pride & Prejudice – the 1995 version – because everyone has seen and love that). All of them are pretty recent and easy to find on Netflix and/or Amazon Instant Video.



Bleak House (2005)

Based on my favorite Dickens novel, this eight-episode series follows the many individuals involved in a decades-long case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, in which the legality of several wills are being contested. Sound boring? I promise it’s not. This is Dickens’ most complex and impressive story. There are enough murders, orphans, sword fights, creepy old houses, and disfiguring illnesses to keep anyone entertained. The cast in this one is great – Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan are a few of the wonderful actors – and I think that the dark mood of the series perfectly captures that of the novel.



Cranford (2007)

This five-episode miniseries is based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and takes place in the mid-nineteenth century and follows the residents of Cranford as the modern world approaches their rural village on all fronts, most obviously in the form of the railway. You’ll probably recognize at least seven of the cast members – more if you frequently watch British films and television. Cranford is certainly sentimental, but it hits all of the right notes in terms of humor and drama.



Emma (2009)

There have been about a million versions of Jane Austen’s Emma at this point. I’m not saying this is the best one. I just like it a lot. Romola Garai stars as silly, scheming Emma Woodhouse. Opposite her is Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Mr. Knightley very nicely. For whatever reason, I’ve been happy to revisit the four episodes of this one a few times since it premiered in the US in 2010.



North & South (2004)

Another miniseries based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. This one is about a smart, serious daughter of a country parson from the south of England who moves to a northern city (modeled after Manchester) and butts heads with her father’s student, a textile manufacturer. Angst, longing, cotton mill union strikes, and a makeout scene that will bring you to tears ensue.



Writing While Female

This past weekend, I finally got around to reading the Rebecca Mead’s profile of Jennifer Weiner in The New Yorker. I don’t read The New Yorker cover to cover like I used to, which I’m sure is due to the fact that I go to the gym less these days. Say what you will about my gym routine, I get a lot of reading done while “doing cardio.” But because I’m lazy about working out, I also am lazy about reading the magazines I subscribe to, so now I pick many of the articles I want to sweat on before I go to the gym, mostly because I’ve seen people talking about them on Twitter. In the case of the Weiner profile, not only had I read a lot of tweets about the article, but I’d also read many tweets about her and what she had to say about the state of fiction being written by women.

As an occasional writer and reader of fiction, the profile gave me a lot to think about. Weiner is right about many things. Reviewers and readers don’t treat fiction written by women the same way they treat fiction written by men. And we simply don’t see much coverage of commercial fiction or the fiction that exists in what New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul called “the vast middle.” I’ve been guilty of not reading – and “writing off” – certain female authors precisely because they write commercial fiction or “chick lit.” I even wrote a little bit about this last week when I talked about my relationship with historical fiction over the years and my dismissal of the genre during college as too fluffy for me, though I read Philippa Gregory novels than I had time for.

I think it’s hard to be a female writer and not care about being taken seriously. I didn’t think I could write anything at all until a few years ago because I felt that no one would care about anything I had to say. I don’t mean that I actively though that. Rather, I dismissed the idea of being a writer for a lot of reasons, and when I finally sat down and thought about it in the midst of an extremely frustrating summer as an unpaid intern the summer after I graduated from college, I realized that underneath all of the very rational reasons I had come up with for not being a writer, there was a fear of being unsuccessful. And at that point I’m sure I thought I would only achieve success if I wrote a big, literary novel.

I started writing anyway. I took a few fiction writing classes at NYU. In one of them, I found one of my biggest fans, an older Swedish poet and writer named Gun, who was a little crazy and a lot amusing. She was always positive about my manuscripts – many of which were sloppy and amateurish – and for that, I thank her. But there was one time when she said that my work reminded her of “chick lit” and I almost lost my shit. I brooded over that one for days, thinking that if what she liked about my work was its chick littiness, then maybe her liking it didn’t matter. Maybe I needed to write differently.

That never really happened, though I did start trying not to judge what I write. I’m a 26 year-old woman and what comes naturally to me is to write about things that I’ve experienced and some of those things are dating and struggling with my weight and working on my self-esteem and generally trying not to fuck up at being a person. Though it’s not totally out of the question, I’m probably never going to be a traditional literary writer. So there’s a chance that, if I do eventually write a novel, someone will classify it as “chick lit.” I won’t be mad about it though. I hope I’ll be happy enough to have written something (or to have finished writing something) at all.

Anyway, just read the profile. It’s good and you don’t need to subscribe to The New Yorker to access it, which is nice. Let me know what you think.

Somewhere On My Own: A Playlist

somewhere on my own

I started making this playlist a few weeks ago when it was snowing. It was going to be…a snow playlist, I guess. But then I started thinking about how January is always such a lonely month. Not in a bad way. I just find that, after the overwhelming togetherness of December and the holidays, I like to spend more of my time alone. So, this turned into more of a wintertime not-really-loneliness, more like alone-ness playlist. I don’t know. Listen to it. Just don’t put it on at a party or anything.

Somewhere On My Own


01 Vashti Bunyan, I Want To Be Alone
02 Julianna Barwick, One Half
03 Karen Dalton, Green Rocky Road
04 Neil Young, Sugar Mountain
05 Julie Doiron, Heavy Snow
06 Sharon Van Etten, A Crime
07 Galaxie 500, Ceremony
08 Sam Prekop, Something
09 Gram Parsons, $1000 Wedding
10 Grouper, Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping
11 Broadcast, Tears In The Typing Pool
12 Jessica Pratt, Casper
13 Atlas Sound, Shelia
14 Sibylle Baier, Tonight
15 Young Marble Giants, Salad Days
16 Camera Obscura, Books Written For Girls
17 Magnetic Fields, Busby Berkeley Dreams
18 The Langley Schools Music Project, Desperado
19 Connie Converse, Roving Woman
20 Grateful Dead, I’ve Been All Around This World
21 Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Only In My Dreams