“I think I don’t care about whether I do the puzzles or not,” Notley declared when I spoke to her, but the more we kept talking about them, the less I believed her. Our phone connection crackled. It was snowing in Brooklyn (on my end) and in Paris (hers); I pictured Notley looking out from a balcon as city lights began to twinkle. “I have a completely overactive mind,” she told me. “If I want to relax, I have to be working with words. I either read or do crossword puzzles.”
Notley started doing crosswords when her father died. “I associate them with grief,” she told me. While cleaning her father’s house, she found a collection of diacrostics, a particularly fiendish variety in which you have to fill in a quotation at the center and the name of the author and book title around the side. “I sat and did all of them,” she said. “I didn’t want to think. There was something very vivid about doing them.”
I have always insisted that writer’s block isn’t real; that you don’t have to be inspired to write; that sitting down and putting words on the page, even when they’re terrible, is the only way through a writing slump. My favorite teacher told me that in sixth grade, and I took it as gospel for 21 years.
But then it was a few days before Halloween, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t write. It wasn’t a question of motivation or time management or even not having ideas. One day, I opened my computer and burst into tears. For the next two months, I couldn’t write so much as a pitch email without becoming anxious to the point of nausea.
Today, we know the Earth is shaped like a sphere. But most of us give little thought to the shape of the universe. Just as the sphere offered an alternative to a flat Earth, other three-dimensional shapes offer alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space.
We can ask two separate but interrelated questions about the shape of the universe. One is about its geometry: the fine-grained local measurements of things like angles and areas. The other is about its topology: how these local pieces are stitched together into an overarching shape.
In his memoir, “Lucky Bruce,” Bruce Jay Friedman gave three reasons why there are relatively few Jewish junkies: 1) “Jews need eight hours of sleep.” 2) “They must have fresh orange juice in the morning.” 3) “They have to read the entire New York Times.”
In his obsessive, melancholy and hungry-making new book, “The Dairy Restaurant,” the writer and illustrator Ben Katchor suggests that orange juice is hardly the primal elixir of the Jewish diaspora. About New York City at the end of the 19th century, he writes: “For the poorest Jews of the Lower East Side, healthful affordable milk was a taste of paradise.”
Katchor’s new book is a study of, and love song to, the American dairy restaurant and the development of the expressive “milekhdike,” or dairy, personality (consider Zero Mostel sighing over a platter of blintzes). Dairy restaurants began to flourish in New York City and elsewhere in the late 1800s; a century later, nearly all were defunct.
“What does it mean to be connected to faraway people and places through everyday things?” Sedgewick asks in his early pages. Coffeeland offers a fascinating meditation on that question, by rendering once-obscure lines of connection starkly visible.
Going now to dark, going now to write in the dark
love-cabinet. The red fish like a stuffed glove on the desk,