Reading Roundup: March/April

In the Woods by Tana French. I was slow to get on the Tana French train, but I read Faithful Place last year and knew I’d be back for more eventually. In the Woods is the first of a series: a riveting, page-turning dive into the murder investigation for two unusual cases. I hate, hate that a key plot device never really gets resolution, but I enjoyed the ride too much to be mad about it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gearing up for a fall exhibition. I read this book several times in college, and was surprised about (a) how inattentive my college-aged readings had been and (b) that I didn’t enjoy my re-read more. I loved reading Dracula for the first time, but it’s far more campy and less existential; perhaps that’s why. But there was so much I missed on my first times through that it was well worth revisiting.

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives. Have you ever disliked someone almost to the point of enjoyment? Maybe someone you know from work or school, someone who you ought to have a great deal in common with, except that they irritate you in thousands of small ways that you can’t stop thinking about or talking about? This book is that, for me.
On paper, we’re made for each other: it takes place in a large art museum not unlike one where I’ve worked, among overeducated and overmoneyed people not unlike some who I’ve met, driven by a sort of mystery that can only be solved by looking at books and art. Perfect, right? But this is not a good book. The narration is an irritating blend of purple prose and toneless slang. The characters are weirdly specific yet underdrawn, all quirks and little depth. The mystery fizzles out with an inconclusiveness that is not tantalizing. So, I kind of hate this book. But maybe I also love it? At any rate I couldn’t stop reading it. Make of that what you will. 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This novella was free on a Tor for a weekend, so I downloaded it and read it during the two hour duration of my latest tattoo. It turned out to be the perfect thing under those cicumstances. It’s a story about a school for wayward children who have visited other worlds, sort of like the Pevensies and Narnia, except everyone in this book hates them. It’s a fun gimmick–how many other worlds are there, how do children adjust when they return–but then on top of that there is a murder mystery, just gruesome enough to justify my white-knuckled grip of the phone during some of the more uncomfortable angles of my tattoo.
I mean, is it a good book? Do I love it? I can’t really say so; it’s not every author that can make the short novel form really work for a fantasy world. (The only Tor author I’ve read that does it really masterfully is Nnedi Okorafor.) All the same, I wholeheartedly recommend it to friends who enjoy the school-of-magic trope and want a short pleasant confection of a read.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a Book I Love. I can’t help it! It’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except in 19th century New York, and if the author had chosen to focus on the magic of women rather than men. There are delicious descriptions of herbs and teas and spells; a gratifying amount of attention to Victorian couture; a pleasing variety of textures in the inclusion of letters, book excerpts, and news columns; and a sort of encyclopedia of 19th century New York fads: Egyptomania, talking to ghosts, suffrage, and more. I was amused at the shout-out to several key figures of the era, including Madame Restell (whose portrait is included in a crime news broadsheet currently on display in the museum where I work) and Anthony Comstock (whose namesake law provided grounds to ban Ulysses among other major books).

Reading Roundup: January-February

Friends, one of the absolute best things about not being in school is that I can read what I want when I want. Here are a few books I read in the last couple of months. Not all of them will make it to the Books I Loved roundup at the end of the year, but I still want to talk about them with you.

Shrill by Lindy West
I haven’t been a Jezebel reader in a long while, but Lindy West’s writing is adored and widely shared in my social media circle and I’d read most of the articles that inspired or supported this essay collection. So it was more of a comfort-reading experience than a ground-breaking experience for me, but I still appreciate her bold, bawdy style.

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
If you’ve ever wished to read a novel that is actually an opera in book form, this is for you. Huge, sweeping story full of surprise twists and mistaken identities; elaborate, sumptuously-described costuming; opera and circus arts; espionage; thwarted love. This book made me temporarily obsessed with the Napoleon line; I know very little about the louche Emperor Napoleon III, for example, but the excesses of a self-anointed leader are understandably fascinating right now.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibin
Tóibin is a favorite where I work, and this book was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I would acquaint myself with his writing. The appeal of this quiet, subdued story of an Irish-American immigrant in Brooklyn snuck up on me; at first it felt a little too quiet after the all the drama of Queen of the Night, but I found myself really sinking into the story and setting, thinking about Eilis and 1950s New York long after I put the book away.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru
I picked this book up from a pile of ARCs at the library where I work, attracted by its title. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, but I think that is because this is a book of a peculiar genre that might be someone else’s exact jam but isn’t so much mine. It’s sort of a slow-burn technohorror novel, featuring a great deal of white class anxiety and detailed descriptions of recording studio equipment before you realize that it is a ghost story. I read it with an odd mix of appreciation for and disengagement with the author’s craft until the last few chapters, when all the vague creeping horror of the novel coalesces into a vivid, visceral payoff.

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I also picked up this book from the ARC table, and against all odds I love it. It’s a collection of short stories, which is usually not at all my thing, but these stories have the feel of snapshots or fairytales that are precisely the right length. Some of the stories are magical or fantastic, exploring relationships (especially parent-child relationships) through supernatural elements in a way that reminds me of the short stories by Karen Russell which I also loved against all odds; the fantasy elements aren’t weird just to be weird, but seem to perfectly express the inherent weirdness of being human. Other stories play out more ordinary conflicts in everyday settings, but are infused with that sense of magic and otherness. I love them and can’t wait to read a novel by this author.

Home by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the sequel to Okorafor’s novella Binti, which I really enjoyed, but I wish I had taken the time to re-read it before beginning Home. It took me a little while to catch back up with the world–which is beautifully imagined and vivid enough to step into, but the action is a little confusing if you’ve forgotten (for example) that the lead character was physically altered at the end of the first novella.

In the reading queue

I am still reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in preparation for my workplace’s annual Bloomsday celebration. I admit that I do not love it, but I appreciate having a once-a-month seminar to discuss the book with a dozen other folks of various ages and educational backgrounds. Class discussion is lively and human and helps me warm up to the book.

My workplace had an incredible event in early February which featured local poets and blues music: I walked away with a stack of new books: The T-Bone Series by Quincy Scott Jones, She Was Once Herself by Trapeta Mayson, Orogeny by Irene Mathieu, and Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher.

I’ve downloaded The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, a 1920s mystery novel writer who I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before now.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.

 

Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

apple1 apple2 apple3 apple4 apple5

6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.

Job hunting real talk: second edition

At the beginning of 2015, I posted a roundup of all the job applications I sent out and the responses I received. Several friends responded in person that it was helpful for them to see my ratios of applications to interviews to offers. As I noted in my previous post, when you’re in the midst of jobseeking it can feel like you’re sending out a million applications with zero returns, and it can be reassuring to see (a) that is an exaggeration and (b) you are not the only one having that experience.

The job I landed after that particular search did not work out in the long term. It would not have been long-term anyway, since it was a part-time position. In addition to that, it was a deeply troubled workplace, and every day I spent in the office was tense and uncomfortable. I worried for awhile that the problem was me, that I simply hated work. Now that I am safely installed at a job that I really enjoy, I know that isn’t true.

I was so unhappy at that job that I put in my notice before I had something else lined up–always a risky move, and there were two uncomfortable months of unemployment that summer. Another complicating factor is that I was still trying to finish at least a draft of my dissertation by the year’s end, and I already knew that I couldn’t balance that with a full-time job. So, this job seeking report is divided into two parts to address two very different job searches over the last year.

Phase 1: Seeking part-time employment

From May to July 2015, I looked primarily for part-time or freelance employment. My goals were to secure a baseline level of income and a schedule that would permit long uninterrupted stretches of time for dissertation writing. I cast my net wide–retail, customer service, clerical–but I was hoping for something that offer some continuity with my previous work experience, so I also applied to jobs in editing, copywriting, etc. Some were remote, but many were right here in Philadelphia. It’s not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to offer part-time positions because they can’t afford a full-time staffperson; I was careful to avoid “part-time” jobs that specified 30 hours or more a week.

During this period, I sent approximately 24 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews, 1 of which was by phone.
I declined 1 interview (job was grossly misrepresented in its listing) and withdrew my application after 1 interview (pay too low).
I had no second interviews.
I was offered 3 jobs, all of which I accepted.

The three jobs I accepted did not really follow the conventional application-interview-offer arc. First, I simply asked a local grocer if I could clerk in their soon-to-be-opened branch. No interview, no application; I had been a long-time customer in my more financially stable days, and I started as soon as the new branch was opened. Meanwhile,  I responded to a Craigslist ad to clerk at a store that sold local wine. I was familiar with the shop and wrote a poetic email about doing a tasting there with my family; the manager replied almost immediately to set up an interview. He also hired me during the interview, which is not common, and which for some jobs would be a red flag–in fact it made me a little nervous–but this decision made sense when I got to know the job and the manager a little better. Between the grocery store and the wine store, I was working 40 hours a week, but this still helped meet my goals: both shops were small; I was often alone; I was permitted to work on my computer between customers.

The third job was unusual. I applied to be a tour guide at a local historical site even before I left my unhappy marketing position. I did not get an interview, and I wrote back to ask why. There is a non-obnoxious way to do this, but that is not the way I did it. For some reason, though, the hiring manager responded by inviting me for an interview. I did not get the job. Some months later, though, she reached out to offer me a slightly different job: historical tours, but at night. I took it. This job involved a night shift five nights a week during one month, which mostly precluded getting any writing done that month, but it was a cool experience and I was grateful for the money.

Sometimes, fellow academics who are new to non-academic jobseeking ask whether their educational background will be an impediment to their job search. Overall I would say not, although of course this varies by employer; one firm responded to my application with “Your beautiful resume certainly shows your creativity and attention to detail, but we are concerned with your happiness in an admin position.” I also had a few interviews for part-time jobs that would have better suited my academic and professional interests: audience engagement manager at a local art center, advertising coordinator for a sculpture magazine, program assistant at a university writing center. I do not know (since we usually never get to know) why I wasn’t offered those jobs, but if anything it’s likely that the timeline of my education was a factor. Employers don’t expect people to stay in part-time jobs forever, but few want to hire and train an employee who is going to take off in less than a year.

Aside from that, the lesson here is that higher ed and professional experience don’t make you unfit for jobs like the ones I took; my application-to-interview ratio wasn’t terrible, and many managers are just happy to hire someone who seems competent and knowledgeable. There are certainly challenges to working behind a counter: customers all day long; a high likelihood of poor management; the unnecessary yet involuntary embarrassment when answering the question “What are you up to these days?” But all three experiences offered opportunities to learn and meet people, and I did scrape by financially and complete my dissertation. I can’t say  that I regret that period of underemployment.

Phase 2: Returning to full-time employment

Once I had a complete draft, I began looking for full-time work. From December to June, I applied to jobs that drew directly on my writing and marketing experience as well as a few that were more administrative in nature; my primary goal was to achieve financial stability and start paying off the credit card debt I accrued in my underemployment. In February I reapplied to the historical site as a daytime tour guide, and left the wine and grocery clerk positions. This turned out to be the best possible decision: the historical site offered slightly better pay, excellent co-workers, and a fascinating day-to-day, but I still really needed the flexible schedule it offered to finish dissertation revisions. I left for my current full-time job in July.

During this period, I sent approximately 34 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews.
I declined 2 of these interviews; one was offered after I accepted my new position, and the other turned out to be a pyramid scheme.
I had 1 second interview.
I was offered 2 jobs–the historical site and my current position a few months later–and I accepted both.

I also interviewed with two staffing companies that claim to place marketing and communications professionals in local jobs. These interviews felt thorough and promising, but I applied to approximately 50 positions between the of two them and got zero interviews, so I can’t really recommend this strategy. I haven’t included this tally with the rest in part because it didn’t take much time–just click and submit through a website once you’ve uploaded a one-size-fits-most application–and because I don’t really know what the deal is with these companies. If this is a scam, the con must be on the the other end, as the process didn’t cost me anything. Maybe they are just badly managed; one staffing company did helpfully reach out just last week to see if I was interested in interviewing for a specific position. I am 3 months into my new job; 7 months since I’ve spoken with anyone from that company. I choose not to inflate my tallies with these outliers.

The lesson here is that it is a little harder to land full-time, salaried, specialized work; the jobs are there, but the applicants are numerous. All the same, patience and perseverance do pay off. My interviews were for positions with a variety of responsibilities: editor for a travel magazine; project coordinator for a med school research program; marketing and communications manager for a couple of different museums. Any of these would have suited; landing one or the other was partly a matter of being in the right place at the right time.