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The Culture Diaries

A Week in Culture: Sadie Stein, Editor

November 14, 2011 | by


4:00 A.M. I can’t sleep. Because I just moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan, my books aren’t unpacked, and so my reading options are limited. The only books I have handy are on decorating—although it’s usually a pretty theoretical study in my case. The pattern of the boards on the floor of this new apartment reminds me of floors I saw in Kraków when I visited there with my father, and I’ve decided rather grandly to do a sort of prewar Eastern European motif. (Again, this is probably theoretical. ) Wonder vaguely where one would find a tiled stove in New York.

I read a few chapters of the inimitable Dorothy Draper’s Decorating Is Fun!, which is filled with gems like “It is just as disastrous to have the wrong accessories in your room as it is to wear sport shoes with an evening dress,” as well as the somewhat less helpful “I don’t believe anything can do as much for a room as a glowing fire in an attractive fireplace. Men and dogs love an open fire—they show good sense. It is the heart of any room and should be kindled on the slightest provocation.” (That said, I’m guessing Alexa Chung or someone is wearing sports shoes with an evening dress as we speak, and probably causing a sensation. Imagine a world with rules and dicta. The mind boggles.)

5:30 A.M. Finally manage to drift off for a few hours, until a handyman unexpectedly knocks at the door at 7:45 to wash the windows. It occurs to me that this is just the sort of dubious ruse a murderer or thief might use to gain entrance to someone’s apartment; let him in anyway.

9:00 A.M. I pass an angry-looking gentleman on the way to the subway.
“Hello,” I say.
“Bloomingdales, Bloomingdales!” he shouts.

3:53 P.M. I get some sad family news. Internet is in and out here, but in a good moment, I find my favorite Barbara Pym quote: “The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things ... the trivial pleasure like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.”

4:45 P.M. My old boyfriend e-mails me about a recent fight he got into at a dinner party, over collective nouns. “I was quite put out, let me tell you,” he says.

6:00 P.M. Go to meet a colleague at a venerable midtown bar. Some visiting businessmen tell me I remind them of “something out of a Woody Allen movie.” I respond with a Diane Keaton-esque, “Well, I’m from Philadelphia,” but they have no idea what I’m talking about and I feel a fool. Later, a woman tells me that if I blew out my hair and lost the glasses, I could maybe get a rich man. She has been at the bar, she tells me, since 3 P.M.


2:30 A.M. Awake again! I remember another Pym quote: “I stretched out my hand toward the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comfortable bedside reading.” I’m short on devotional matter but have a volume of Jane Grigson handy, which, with a glass of warm milk and honey, lulls me back to sleep.

7:00 P.M. I go to the book party for The Marriage Plot at the Boom Boom Room. The views are spectacular, the crowd is dazzling, the hamburgers delicious, and I am lousy company. I make it an early night.


2:00 A.M. This is getting ridiculous. I wonder vaguely if this new insomnia has to do with paint fumes, although why it would I don’t know. A friend has recommended Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility, and I find it absorbing late-night reading: I’m a sucker for Old New York stories.

8:00 A.M. Unable to sleep, I walk to the Time Warner Center, where the Botero man’s little penis has turned gold from all the touching and “Orinoco Flow” is piped in over the loudspeaker. I get a doughnut, sit on a bench, and work the crossword.

6:00 P.M. After work, I meet my dad for dinner at a German restaurant in Fort Greene. We talk about Van Gogh’s possible murder and Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece on Jill Abramson. But I have trouble concentrating because ...

7:30 P.M. I am part of a program at BAM devoted to food and identity. There are five speakers, with food to match: who knew that companies instituted in-building cafeterias to cut down on lunchtime boozing or that an egg-leavened pancake could be a vehicle for a poignant family history? I speak third, on learning to cook with my grandparents, and am accompanied by my grandmother’s signature recipe, a cake flavored with sherry wine. I can’t stop looking at a stony-faced woman in the front row who doesn’t crack a smile.


2:30 A.M. Had I known I’d never sleep again, I certainly wouldn’t have shelled out for a grown-up mattress, even if I did sort of enjoy the scanning process at Sleepy’s in which they magically calculate the right mattress for your body. Apparently my sleeping position, height and weight called for something really expensive.

4:00 A.M. I finish Rules of Civility.

2:00 P.M. A group of creative nonfiction students drops by The Paris Review. I am younger than all of them and am conscious of lowering my voice in an absurd attempt to appear more mature. Meanwhile, one of them tweets the visit.

6:00 P.M. Family dinner at my aunt and uncle’s. Occupy Wall Street is debated. Afterward, everyone comes to look at the new apartment, and I make them sit on the mattress. My six-year-old cousin pronounces it soft.


8:00 A.M. I stand in line for a standing-room ticket to tonight’s performance of Don Giovanni. As I have no Internet and my stereo is still boxed up, this week has been curiously lacking in sound track.

2:00 P.M. At the main branch of the New York Public Library researching a lucrative and confusing piece for a glossy trade magazine. Am distracted from my work and the beauty of the main reading room by a woman clipping her nails across the table. I attempt to snub her by means of some severe glances but am ultimately forced to move.

8:00 P.M. Walk down to Lincoln Center. While I am generally to be found in sky-high heels, I have a pair of orthopedic nun shoes I save for exactly these occasions. I look slightly eccentric, but know nobody in standing room will judge. And indeed, on my way up the stairs, I spy three capes, a man in a kilt, and a little boy in an embroidered frock coat, buckled shoes, and a powdered wig. “He just adores Mozart,” I overhear his mother say, proudly. I am standing next to a man from Vienna who’s at the Met for the second time in two days. The lead is still out with knee trouble, but Peter Mattei brings great brio to the role.

11:00 P.M. The commendatore is slightly less menacing than one might have wished, but then, I’ve never seen one as terrifying as that in the marionette production I saw in Prague when I was twenty. (He was a man and towered over the marionette Don Giovanni.)


10:00 A.M. I walk over to the Seventy-seventh Street Flea Market, where I buy a lamp and two records: Sketches of Spain and Rachmaninoff (whom I noticed, on a plaque yesterday, died in the neighborhood). I take the time to walk past the building where I spent my earliest years and can’t believe how much the neighborhood has changed: the only places still standing are the Pioneer Food (which smells just the same) and a chicken restaurant and Chinese place, both of which I remember my mom decrying twenty years ago.

8:00 P.M. I’ve spent the day unpacking, writing, cooking, and reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices. A friend joins me for dinner and conversation. The talk turns to Mahler’s Fifth. “I hate you! I hate you, Gustav Mahler, and your Jewish music!” I cry dramatically, quoting the 2001 Alma Schindler biopic, Bride of the Wind.

She sits on the mattress—which, did I mention, comes rather ludicrously to my waist—and dutifully pronounces it comfortable.


7:00 P.M. After work, I go to visit my friend Doris. Eighty-eight, she lives in a small hotel not far from my new apartment; I met her last year in a grocery store when I complimented her jaunty hat. Doris is a retired actress and keeps up with the theater scene—her most recent enthusiasm is Sondheim’s memoirs. I acquaint her with the various tribulations in my family. “That calls for a good, old-fashioned New York oy!” She sympathizes. “Oy vey, even!”

8:00 P.M. Ravenous—all I had was a peanut-butter Nip at Doris’s—I fix myself a plate of leftover pot pie and eat in bed. I like to read about food while I eat; tonight it’s Simon Hopkinson’s Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.

9:00 P.M. A friend drops by with a bottle of Scotch and some ice, since I don’t yet have ice cube trays, to toast the new apartment. We sit on the floor. Later, I make him sit on my mattress.

I am beginning to suspect I was ripped off. Hoping for commiseration, I relate an indiscreet comment I made to someone on the subject of nineteenth-century medicine. “Were you drunk?” he asks unhelpfully. I loan him Rules of Civility.



  1. Joe Carlson | November 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I know, I know: it’s a diary. But diaries tend to be dull and, as endlessly fascinating as your mattress may be to you, interest for others flags quickly. Way too BRIDGET JONES, if you know what I mean.

    I say chuck THE CULTURE DIARIES and commence THE CULTURE MISSIVES. Letters from you to cultural figures, past or present, dead or alive, who you take to task one way or another. Give Mahler or Dorothy Draper a piece of your mind. A Moses Herzog approach, if you will, since the letters will never be sent, only e-published. May even be a book in it, though Renee Zellweger’s too old now.

  2. Sadie Stein | November 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Joe. Since you address me directly (which I appreciate; not everyone acknowledges that there’s an actual person reading his words) I’m going to respond. First of all, thank you for a thoughtful and not unduly personal comment; it’s clear that you read and care about the Daily and that means a great deal. I knew going into this that it would probably draw some critical commentary, as Culture Diaries tend to be polarizing. At this point, I’ve received a lot of Internet comments, not all of them kind, and while I’m not so thin-skinned as I once was, I can’t pretend it ever feels good to know that someone has taken the time to write something negative. I understand that this feature doesn’t appeal to you and we’re glad to know. That said, the beauty of a blog like this us that it’s varied and if one thing doesn’t appeal to you, chances are something tomorrow might. I’d only ask you to keep in mind that writing publicly is not easy, and as in all things, civility is much appreciated.

  3. David | November 14, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Well I for one really enjoyed this and was happy to see Human Voices get a mention. I’d definitely consider it one of Fitzgerald’s best and the part where Annie’s father is tuning the piano features some of her finest writing:

    “With the bass she felt more at ease. There was danger, that if a string broke it couldn’t be replaced and had to be spliced there and then, but the tuning itself was easier, the strings ran easily and willingly over the bridges, and their warm growl took her downwards into a region of dark fur-covered animals crowned with gold who offered their kindly protection to the sleepy traveller.”

    See, this is why I like A Week in Culture. You get to share in that initial enthusiasm of discovering new stuff as well as be reminded of something you already liked.

  4. George | November 14, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Well done, Sadie! I enjoyed it.

  5. Jonathan | November 14, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Lovely piece – I’ve copied out the Barbara Pym quotes! Where can I find them? Here’s (one of) my favourite(s) from Penelope Fitzgerald – “Twice in your life you know that you are approved of by everyone: when you learn to walk, and when you learn to read.” And ‘Human Voices’ is ace.

  6. Michael | November 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Enjoyed your post very much! Your Manhattan experience beats Harriet’s (today I finished “After Claude,” based on the Paris Review’s recommendation). Stay clear of the “Institute” and “rats,” and you’ll be golden.

  7. Pierre | November 14, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Joe: fussy or what? this has nail clippings, Sondheim, and roast chicken. what is WRONG with you?

    can’t think of Sketches of Spain without thinking of the Midge/Don culture clash in “Mad Men”: “pack a bag, we’re going to Paris”.

  8. Sadie Stein | November 14, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    @Jonathan – the two i quote from are “Excellent Women” (a good starting point!) and “Jane and Prudence.” You are in for a treat!

  9. Richard | November 14, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    Hello Sadie Stein,

    I am a first time reader. I enjoyed this piece, and I have to be honest I was taken back by Joe Carlson’s comments. I am not playing the white knight, nor do I feel you need saving from this sort of personality or anyone, but his comments struck me as particularly annoying. I thought this piece was entertaining and insightful. I won’t pretend I knew what a lot of the references were off hand. In fact, I being a Google-Lookup-Scholar, I have added some things to my need to read and listen to list. Its just a fact of life that I haven’t read or listened to everything. That’s why I appreciate your writing so much. I got a front seat view into a life completely different than my own. I am a California MFA Poetry student who talks to everyone and too much in general. I don’t have wonderfully lucid conversations with my parents. My mom was a two job having, no sleep needing nurse for 40 years, so our conversations consisted of ZzZzZz Oh! And my ex’s are too few and too dumb to ever call me about confrontations over nouns of any type. So I say, Joe’s genitals must be pendulous to not only criticize your writing but to think it is even remotely okay to suggest alternatives. Pretense like that expressed by mister Joe would result in a swift kick to the johnson in my neighborhood. But hell, I more often just yell, : I am Bandini, Arturo Bandini!”

  10. Marietjie Luyt | November 14, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Well, Sadie, I enjoyed the read. Two years ago I spent five glorious days in Manhattan, 20 hours by aeroplane from Pretoria, South Africa, which is something like Washington, DC, only twenty times smaller and more run-down. So I thoroughly enjoyed reading your diary and imagining what it must be like being young and living the literary life in NYNY. I wish I could go to the NY Public Library at the drop of a hat. No, really. Good luck, Marietjie

  11. liamc | November 15, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Joe Carlson is a meanie. This was a treat!

  12. Jenny Tripp | November 15, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Bloomingdale’s! Bloomingdale’s!

  13. Irene | November 15, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Loved the Barbara Pym quotes. When I can’t sleep, hers are the books I reach for: familiar and cozy but never dumb. Anyone else have 2 am reading favorites?

  14. Amie Barrodale | November 15, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Sadie, maybe you could consider a second advice column on civility. People like me need guidance.

    Also, I liked, in particular, the parts about insomnia.

  15. ellie | November 15, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I am charmed by this. It’s affectionate and funny. Very warm. Thank you.

  16. Richard Katzev | November 15, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Great fun Sadie. You are something else entirely.

  17. Jessica Ferri | November 15, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Nice work, Sadie. Did you enjoy ‘Human Voices’? I’m with David, above. That quote is my favorite part of the novel.

  18. Joe Carlson | November 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I lead the 1%. We dine on sweet ambrosia while the 99% scarfs its horrid peanut butter.

  19. Ayah | November 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Someone said Bridget Jones, but this was a pale imitation of Dorothy Parker’s ‘From the Diary of a New York Lady.’

  20. February Vok | November 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    I have, most likely, an inappropriate (but quite intellectualized) crush…

    It’s not friggin’ Bridget Jones, it’s not Dorothy Parker. It might be Elizabeth Hardwick. But maybe it’s not Elizabeth Hardwick, either. Perhaps comparisons might not be made at all. Let’s leave out Fran Lebowitz and Mary McCarthy and Rose Macaulay and…everyone. Perhaps we might spare Ms. Stein these easy connections, these first mundane impressions. A new sensibility is expressed here and everyone must make simple associations? It’s literary and inane to kvetch and compare.

    Ms. Stein earns her insomnia; her wakefulness has something hidden and original about it. Some new melancholy–an original melancholy–might be deepened and defined in the future. If it is, I suspect the condition–which might not need to be called melancholy–will be free of common anxiety, anxiety to which we’ve come to give simple names and meaningless definitions.

    Ms. Stein is looking to reclaim and rescue our discomforts. Let’s permit her that. Let’s encourage that.

  21. Tom May | November 16, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Ahhhh, “Sketches of Spain.”

  22. Gina | November 16, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Sadie, be my pal.
    We’ll read and bake our grandmother’s signature dishes, and write and stroll and clink glasses and wear jaunty hats and frock coats and never lose our glasses.
    Keep up the good work and writing.

  23. Seymour | November 17, 2011 at 2:32 am


  24. matthew kosak | November 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article. It reads like an excerpt from a book, I would imagine, of the same title. A piece dotted with so many witty and action appropriate references to cultural icons, Woody Allen, Mahler, Rochmaninoff, boom-boom room, etc., creates richness, and could hardly be called light reading or be relegated to “diaries”. And I’m able to make the appropriate cognitive twirking to not read a title literally. And I don’t quite understand some of the comments that attempt to say it is something else. Shifting the discussion ‘out of the room’ seems unfair. Why pick up the book if you don’t wish to read it?
    The recurring matress theme worked ,in my mind. I got the dysfuntionality and vulnerability of it, that makes for great humour.
    There was something I was going to add along the lines if over-intellectualism and sparring and a Richard Feynman quote about the names of birds and why it doesn’t matter- getting it right, but I’ll save it. Looking forward to more!

  25. Dawn. | November 18, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Nice work, Sadie. Insightful and entertaining. Now I must see Bride of the Wind.

  26. Lisa Rogers | November 22, 2011 at 3:20 am

    I really love this post. More of these from everyone on staff! Showing how literature and culture infiltrates into everyday life, and in yours it is surrounding a new apartment and a horrible new mattress now causing insomnia (a tiring situation I closely relate to).

  27. Maharishi | November 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    This culture diary would not be getting so many comments if Sadie were less attractive. In fact, since it was first posted, you’ve ‘blown out the hair and lost the glasses.’ I’m not suggesting that Sadie is just a pretty face, only that this ‘literary symposium’ is a facade. Sexual desire supplants intellectual interest. This won’t worry the editors of a journal which champions Nicholson Baker as a leading voice in contemporary fiction. I’m not really complaining… the article was amusing.

  28. Egon | January 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    I enjoyed this very much. I hope that you’ll write another soon.

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