Searching for apartments

Monica's_apt_2My main dream in life is the dream of all urban twentysomethings. It’s to live with my best friends in a too-large apartment in a hip neighborhood and have silly adventures.

However, that is a difficult dream to achieve, especially in the Bay Area. Last time I lived here, I paid $650 (+$110 for parking) for a tiny bedroom (maybe 10 by 8 feet) in downtown Oakland that I shared with a college friend and his girlfriend. Nowadays, that room would cost $1000. And if it was posted on Craigslist, it would probably attract thirty responses.

Searching for an apartment or a room in the Bay Area is now a topic that I know a lot about and I am here to share that knowledge. Anyway, suffice it to say that the first apartment I found (in North Oakland, on San Pablo) was an awful living situation. The price was right ($700), but it was basically a rooming house–the landlord rented out all the rooms separately–so nobody knew each other or talked to each other and I felt like I was trapped in my room all the time. And even the room was depressing. It was very narrow, and the windows started at chest height, so when I was sitting down, I couldn’t see outside. Miserable place. Truly miserable. And I’d signed a lease! So I was trapped there until May!

I have to tell you, those were dark days. After awhile, I started looking for ways to escape my room, even if it was temporarily, so I did some apartment-sitting in the Castro for six weeks. During that time, a friend from college also stayed with me for a bit. She too was living in a cheap but not-quite-satisfactory living situation, and we realized that it’d be way better if the two of us lived together.

I still can’t believe how much I hesitated over this, since the results were so amazing, but I waffled for awhile on whether to try to get out of my lease. Eventually, though I negotiated my way out of it with my landlord (and yes, I did lose money, although it was definitely worth it), and went to stay with my aunt in Mountain View for a month while my friend and I looked for an apartment.

People ask why I chose to live in the East Bay, but when we were looking for places, there was never really any question. If you want to pay less than $1200 for a room, the East Bay is where it’s at.

We were, ideally, looking to pay about $1000 a month or less, and we wanted to live near a BART station, so we started off by looking for $1800-$2000 two-bedroom apartments near the MacArthur and Ashby BARTs in Oakland/Berkeley. And those were, frankly, impossible to find. We’d go to these open houses and  there’d be forty other people there, and you just know that one of them makes $150,000 a year and is walking in with a huge deposit and maybe offering to pay more than asking.

I mean, we did all the things that you do. I assembled a little folder with already-filled rental applications and bank statements and pay stubs. And we walked in there with checkbooks ready. But the leasing agents were having none of it. They’d just take our folder (or sometimes refuse to even do that) and then brush us off. The only apartments that we could get were cracker-jack apartments in West Oakland, near MacArthur BART, with tiny windows and laminate floors and whitewashed walls. Not terrible places to live, but not exactly the sort of place you’re thinking of when you’re paying $1000 a month.

So eventually, almost against our will, we found ourselves looking at three and four bedroom apartments. In these cases, the understanding was that we’d rent it and then find a roommate afterwards. And, almost immediately, the search became much easier. Although there are fewer three- and four-bedroom apartments available, there appears to be much less demand for them. I assume that’s because lots of two-bedrooms are rented out by couples, whereas there are fewer groups of friends who are organized enough to hunt for an apartment. Also, we found that these apartments were more likely to be rented out directly by landlords (rather than leasing agents) and that it was easier to persuade landlords that we were good and deserving people.

Anyway, in the end, it all worked out. We walked into our current apartment in North Berkeley and immediately loved it. It was an appointment, not an open house, so there was no competition; I wrote a check on the spot, and we secured it easily. The place is at the upper end of our price range, but still doable. And, as I mentioned before, I think it might actually be the best apartment in the Bay Area. I’m paying about 50% more than I was for the old place, but I’m roughly 400% happier. However, I do feel for all the people in the world who don’t have the resources to make that kind of tradeoff =/

All in all, it took us about 6-8 weeks of active searching, but it was still about five months of nomadism before I really found something.


Some books that you may not have heard of or perhaps didn’t know were good book

10866233The second part of wrapping up my year’s reading is talking about all the books that were a surprise to me: the favorites that came out of nowhere. In many cases, these books were only a surprise to me, since some of them (most of them) were actually bestsellers within their categories. But still, you probably haven’t heard of lots of them, so whatevs, I will claim credit for discovering them.

Mentor by Tom Grimes – Fantastic book. One of the best writer memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s about a writing professor who made a big splash with his debut novel and then sold a much-hyped follow-up, but who never quite lived up to his initial promise. Here he charts both the decline of his career and the progression of his friendship with the famed director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop: Frank Conroy. This book is honest and sad but also very alive. I’ve never read anything else like it.

Friendship by Emily Gould – The internet loves to hate on Emily Gould. In fact, this summer some dude published a twelve thousand word article about how terrible she is. And yes, I can sort of see how someone might be annoyed by her article about blowing through a 160k book advance or the blog post about negotiating down her credit card debt. But I thought this novel was fantastic. I stayed up all night reading it, and it made me feel emotions. It’s about two aspiring writers who live in Brooklyn and are best friends and are sort of getting to the place where they want more stability in their lives but they don’t have that stability and they’re having issues with their professions and their personal lives and those issues eventually start to damage their friendship. Great stuff. Very vivid. It’s also about people who’re a lot like me, and that’s part of what I like about it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – A character study. Angel is a working-class girl in early 20th century Britain who decides, one day, that she’s going to write books. And then she does: horrible, schlocky, romance novels that horrify the literary world. And she also has a very brutish, nasty disposition and abuses everyone in her life. But I loved the book and, on some level, I also loved Angel herself. She has such an indomitable will to survive. I suppose she’s a lot like Scarlett O’Hara, but without that veil of flirtatiousness. The section where Angel falls in love is one of the subtlest and most remarkable performances in literature.

The List by Vivian Siobhan – I somehow thought that everyone in the YA world knew about this one, but I was at a lunch with a bunch of other YA writers and they hadn’t heard of it. This book is amazing. One of the two best YA novels I read this year (the other was Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now). The book is about a school where an anonymous prankster releases an annual list of the most beautiful and ugliest girls in each grade. The novel is told from the point of view of the 8 girls named in this year’s list, and it’s a stunning performance. Eight points of view. Eight stories. Four different grades. And each voice is so distinct. I was captivated.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff – This was the year where I read a lot of really good literary memoirs. In this one, Rakoff describes her first year in New York, when she worked for JD Salinger’s literary agent. The ‘hook’ for the memoir is that Rakoff at some point started answering Salinger’s fan-mail. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s really just about being very young and still feeling entranced by the glamor of the literary life and the way that glamor contrasts with the squalid way you need to live if you’re part of that life. Everything in this book, from the agency to the character of Salinger himself, has that dualism: beautiful from one angle, but very lonely and wretched from another.

As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams by the Sarashina woman – A memoir by an anonymous court lady in Heian Japan. Written a thousand years ago, but instantly captivating, from the very first paragraph. Also, a very interesting and calculated document. It is not a diary. It was written as a single, unitary document when the woman was nearing the end of her life. And it’s a sort of ode to the interstices of her life. To the quiet moments. To the romantic moments that never came. To the journeys she took between one place and another. To the times when she was shut up alone and all by herself. She spends maybe three sentences talking about her children and her husband, but goes on for pages upon pages about the man that she met on one rainy autumn day and how he asked her which was her favorite season.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill – In very short vignettes, this chronicles a young writer’s journey into marriage, success, domesticity, motherhood, and divorce. Loved it. Each little paragraph has so much voice. And the picture that develops is so careful and nuanced.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett – The third literary memoir on this list. Novelist Ann Patchett writes about her lifelong friendship with Sarah Lawrence and University of Iowa classmate Lucy Grealey (Lucy was, in turn, famous for writing a memoir about the facial deformity that had rendered her mostly chinless). I loved the portrait of Lucy that develops in this novel. She’s capricious and bitchy, but you also see why Patchett loved her. Also interesting to see the ups and downs of a young writer’s life. Very honest look at the schooling, at the fellowships, and at the financial aspect of the writing life.

Ten books I read this year which are exactly as good as you think they are

count-of-monte-cristoNormally, I divide my year-end book list into two categories: books that are as good as you think they are and books that are surprisingly good. I do this just because it’d feel weird if I stood up and was like, “Hey, I read this amazing book. It’s called Anna Karenina! Have you heard of it?!?!” However, I do think there’s value in noting which classics / much-hyped books are actually worthwhile.

Anyway, the nine predictably-good books I chose to highlight for 2014 are as follows. All links are links to my original blog posts about those books.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas – One of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Some people on Twitter said they thought it started to drag somewhere in the middle, but not for me, I was on tenterhooks the whole time. The Count Of Monte Cristo is driven by a very simple engine. Basically, you get introduced to the families of the main villains, and then you see the count begin to ingratiate himself with them. But all the villains’ relatives turn out to be relatively cool kids, and you’re like “Oh no, is the Count actually going to revenge himself on them?” And you just don’t know. Because the Count is, maybe, just crazy enough to destroy the lives of innocent people in order to get back at their fathers. The book is incredibly long, but it’s one of the few books that I wished was longer. (Here are my original blog posts about it)

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos – My other favorite novel of 2014. I can’t get over the fact that this book was actually written in the 18th century. Its heroes are so unspeakably villainous (they’re French aristocrats who plot to despoil a virtuous woman) that they’re shocking even by today’s standards. However, the real fun of the novel comes from its incredibly intricate construction. It’s an epistolary novel where each letter is, itself, a plot point. The receipt of one letter triggers the sending of another letter. And when letters get intercepted or forwarded or stolen, things get even knottier. It really puts you in scene: you realize that each letter is not only being written by someone; it’s also being read by someone.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov – Ivan Oblomov is a 19th-century Russian nobleman who’s completely useless. He doesn’t even get out of bed for the first 200 pages. In the end, I think Oblomov ends up being a character who almost escapes his author’s control. I think he’s meant to be a pitiful figure: an object of satire; or perhaps an allegory for the schlerotic condition of the Russian state. But he ends up being much more than that. There’s something very sympathetic about a man who refuses to undertake distasteful activities.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – Can’t believe it’s only been a year since I read the first book in this series. Since then, I’ve read both the sequel and the final book, so I can state, for the first time in a long time, that I’ve read a series to completion. None of the books, though, are more worthwhile than the first book. There’s something very dreamy and beautiful about it. It’s one of the few books that manages to interrogate the unsavory parts of fantasy wish-fulfilment novels…while simultaneously being a fantasy wish fulfillment novel that evokes all those escapist feelings in the reader. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, has drawn a lot of flak for being arrogant and self-absorbed, but I found him very sympathetic. Maybe because I saw a lot of myself in him.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata – I don’t think I wrote about this book when I first read it, though I can’t think why. It’s an extremely simple novel: a writer goes into the city to see a woman with whom he engaged in an adulterous affair when she was just a schoolgirl. Afterwards, he wrote a novel about her which became something of a success. Nothing much happens in the book. He just wanders around, looks at cherry blossoms, and talks to her. But you feel the, err, well, the beauty and the, like, the sadness and stuff.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee – Another book about terrible people: a Wall Street banker and his wife. I think the book is meant to be more sociological in nature: there’s lavish detail of how they live; their social set; how they spend their time. You keep expecting something to go dreadfully wrong, but it never quite does. The ending does go off the rails a little bit, but whatever. I enjoyed this book so much that I can’t even quantify it. First of all, these people had a passionate, but mature, love for each other: the kind of thing you rarely see in literature. Second of all, they’re just so brilliantly alive. Even at their worst, they never succumb to ennui and inertia. Also, in my opinion, the first chapter (their wedding) is beautiful and subtle and touching in a way that I’ve rarely seen done: you see all of the young couples’ petty rivalries and spites and disappointments…and then you see how their marriage manages to transcend those things.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (second post) – This book actually explains how they made the atomic bomb. It explains it on every level, from the theoretical to the technical to the organizational. I’ve never seen anything like it. The most amazing thing is that the first third (of this very long book) has all of this detail on theoretical physics that seems like it’s a bit too much…but then all of that stuff becomes very relevant in the rest of the book. After reading it, I finally understood how and why building the bomb was such a massive operation.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding – This book was written in 1742. Aside from the work of Defoe, this is the oldest English-language novel I’ve ever read. And it made me laugh. Laugh out loud. Multiple times. Sometimes multiple times per chapter. Just think about that. The humor of this book is not just translatable across more than 270 years…but it also comes across so clearly and instantaneously that it can make a modern person laugh. The middle, where Tom is traveling, does kind of drag a bit. But the end, where he becomes part of London society, is really good. I also think the characterization of Tom is very subtle. He’s not exactly the steadfast and constant Romantic hero that he thinks he is. He’s a bit of a knave. But his heart is in the right place.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf – I’m sure we all kind of know that our beauty standards are socially-constructed, but we’re so much in the grip of them that it’s hard to really understand that the things we see when we look at another person are the things we’re being made to see. The most valuable thing Wolf does is put our beauty standards in their historical context. According to her, it was not as important, before the 1970s, for women to be beautiful. She argues, somewhat convincingly, that the depth of our modern anxiety over beauty is something new.


Reading statistics for the first eleven months of 2014

I felt this year like I didn’t read that many books, but it turns out that I read almost exactly as many books (and put in almost exactly as many hours of reading time) as I had by this time last year. So I guess I’m pretty much holding steady on that. In total, I read 137 books this year and put in about 593 hours. As the title notes, this is just my eleven month statistics since, obviously, December hasn’t really happened yet.

Looking at my book list in broad strokes, I’m seeing more contemporary literature than normal. Normally, I’m not too big on reading fiction published in the last twenty years, but this year, I read novels by Jonathan Dee, Jonathan Franzen, Jenny Ofill, Donna Tartt, and Edward St. Aubyn. There are also way more YA novels than there usually are. I really liked books by Tim Tharp, Leila Sales, and, especially, Siobhan Vivian. I think her book The List was one of the most purely enjoyable YA novels I read this year and it was a complete surprise to me, since I plucked it randomly off Amazon.

I also read lots of Japanese literature, including a number of works by Tanizaki and by Yasunari Kawabata, and a bunch of Ancient Greek and Roman writers (Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Seneca). Oh, and I went through a period where I read a number of 18th and 19th century French novelists as well. I thought that was going to be a bigger thing than it was, actually, but I ended up really enjoying de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter was unbelievably fun.

I’ll go into more detail on specific books in subsequent posts, but here I’m giving some summary statistics. Mostly, this year’s statistics were pretty in line with my overall stats, except that I read more female authors this year. The percentage of books that I read which were by women was about 34% this year, as compared to 25% across the last five years.

Genre Number % Overall 2014 % This Year
Novel (All Genres) 545 53.38% 76 55.47%
Novel 385 37.71% 54 39.42%
Nonfiction 232 22.72% 38 27.74%
Memoir 73 7.15% 12 8.76%
Stories 47 4.60% 3 2.19%
Crime 49 4.80% 6 4.38%
Play 40 3.92% 0 0.00%
Graphic Novel 40 3.92% 3 2.19%
Speculative Fiction 34 3.33% 4 2.92%
Young Adult 40 3.92% 10 7.30%
Magazine 17 1.67% 0 0.00%
Poetry 13 1.27% 1 0.73%
Thriller 13 1.27% 2 1.46%
Chicklit 10 0.98% 0 0.00%
Paranormal 9 0.88% 0 0.00%
Epic 7 0.69% 0 0.00%
Children’s 5 0.49% 0 0.00%
Total 1021 137
Ethnic / National / Identity # of Bks # of total 2014 % This Year
British 165 16.16% 14 10.22%
French 81 7.93% 5 3.65%
Greek 29 2.84% 1 0.73%
Queer 24 2.35% 3 2.19%
Russian 46 4.51% 4 2.92%
German 22 2.15% 1 0.73%
African-American 17 1.67% 0 0.00%
Japanese 29 2.84% 7 5.11%
Jewish 19 1.86% 4 2.92%
Indian 13 1.27% 0 0.00%
Asian-American 10 0.98% 0 0.00%
African 10 0.98% 1 0.73%
Austrian 8 0.78% 0 0.00%
Carribean 6 0.59% 1 0.73%
Latin American 6 0.59% 0 0.00%
Canadian 5 0.49% 0 0.00%
Hungarian 4 0.39% 0 0.00%
Roman 7 0.69% 3 2.19%
Czech 3 0.29% 0 0.00%
Spanish 9 0.88% 0 0.00%
Australian 2 0.20% 0 0.00%
Hispanic 2 0.20% 0 0.00%
Iranian 2 0.20% 0 0.00%
Irish 2 0.20% 0 0.00%
Pakistani 2 0.20% 1 0.73%
Polish 3 0.29% 0 0.00%
Bangladeshi 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Belgian 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Byzantine 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Chinese 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Egyptian 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Icelandic 2 0.20% 0 0.00%
Korean 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Lebanese 2 0.20% 1 0.73%
Medieval 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Native American 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Swedish 1 0.10% 0 0.00%
Total 539 52.79% 46 33.58%
# of Bks # of total 2014 % This Year
Female 235 23.02% 47 34.31%