Commonplace Book, 31 (Week 18)

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • She lives! The usual brownies and this Indian stew and my go-to cobbler with my trusty cobbler sous-chef, and this cornbread which will henceforth be considered my standard cornbread recipe. (Not for those who like a nice, sweet cornbread. Also, can we agree that corn kernels in cornbread are repugnant?)

What I’m reading:

  • The Fellowship of the RingI missed the Well-Read Moms book group meeting that discussed it because we’ve had a quick progression of houseguests and all my reading time has gone to visiting — a welcome change from the slow slog of first trimester. This is, I think, my third pass, and I love it more each time. Can I confess, as a woman with a child named Pippin, that I didn’t enjoy it much the first time, reading it in high school to impress J? My love for the brave melancholy that imbues it has grown with age, though. As someone says (Aragorn?) — my notes are pretty bad — “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.” Also, how is this for #homemaking goals?

“Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”

She’s two tomorrow and they’re becoming friends and it makes my heart so glad

Commonplace Book, 30

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • So rude of you to even ask.

What I’m reading:

  • Blood Red, Snow WhiteI don’t know if I’ve talked about our family’s ardent affection for Swallows and Amazonsa book that kicks of a series in which kids float around on a little sailboat in the Lake District and, charmingly, almost nothing happens. But did you know THE AUTHOR WAS A RUSSIAN SPY? And someone wrote a lovely, lyrical, fairy-tale-y account of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia, and you can read it, and agree with me that although it’s basically the opposite of Swallows and Amazons, it’s really very good.
  • Till We Have FacesCurrently reading. Was supposed to finish for WRM, but since I was too sick to go, I have the luxury of reading it slowly in epsom salt baths that are not curing my morning sickness but still qualify as one of the more fun possible remedies.
  • Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of PregnancyI’ve been gushing about this one over on Instagram. I thought I had found the best of faith-oriented books on the sanctifying suckiness of pregnancy (if not a genre, it should be), but au contraire! I’ve been underlining a lot. So glad it’s in the world.

“Pregnant women learn through pregnancy to trust others for their basic needs. They learn their own limits. They learn to ask for and receive help. They learn to surround themselves with communities of support…They learn to trust that God will meet their needs through the people around them. In short, pregnant women learn to live by faith.”

Currently book people even more than normal. (Also TV people…)

Commonplace Book, 29

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’ve been fixing:

  • Nada. My most masterful culinary accomplishment in weeks is buying potatoes for John to microwave and serve with chili I had made with my mom back at 5.5 weeks. Also, sometimes I make toast and sit on the grimy kitchen floor as it toasts.

What I’ve been reading:

Well, that’s a horse of a different color, or something. Here goes:

  • The Screwtape Letters: reread for Well Read Mom. I love that with each new pass, new things convict me — this time discussions of who time really belongs to and a striking critique of delicacy, which definitely comes into play when you’re trying to evaluate how much of your morning sick life is legitimate survival and how much is fretful selfishness.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: I know the title is supposed to be cutesy, but it drives me nuts. Otherwise, loved this one about life in the Occupied and postwar Channel Islands. Told in sly epistles for bonus points!
  • The Light Between Oceans: In the early 20th century, an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife discover a baby and a dead man washed ashore their isolated island. They keep the baby. Hypnotically depressing but with an unexpectedly hopeful ending. (See below.)
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: Not as good as I was hoping — kind of weirdly veering in places — but still fun. Major Pettigrew has lived his life in genteel English society in a way to uphold the family honor, but when his adult son’s behavior becomes increasingly crass and the Major himself strikes up a friendship with the village shopkeeper, he must decide how important the status quo really is.
  • Blythewood: See, here is where I got really wretchedly sick at nine weeks and dropped all literary pretensions. Young adult; girls at a mysterious boarding school in the early 20th century learn to fight the mysterious denizens of Faerie. But are all the creatures as evil as the girls have been taught? Fine. I don’t know. Probably not worth reading.
  • Red Rising: Life on Mars mining below its surface is hard to the point of slavery, but one miner discovers the truth: other castes rule this and other planets, living in unimaginable luxury. A little like Hunger Games, a little like Ender’s Game, way too violent for me. Also YA.
  • Edgewater: the YA parade continues as I demand plot and escapism. This was more nuanced than I was expecting. A girl raised by her eccentric aunt in their crumbling beachside manor is suddenly reduced to poverty just as she meets the tabloid boy of her dreams. See? It sounds ridiculous.
  • The Shade of the Moon: this is the fourth in a series I read so long ago I had forgotten some key plot points. In short: four years ago a meteor hit the moon out of orbit and towards the earth, causing mondo natural disasters and destroying society as we know it etc. Now our man Jon is a lucky resident of an enclave, a sort of fortress that exploits workers who live in comparative poverty. He’s a spoiled teenager till a new girl in the enclave opens his eyes to social justice. Then he does a bunch of bad things but eventually mends his was. This series is mysterious in its pull for me because parts are really, really grim for YA (rape, brutality) and yet some plot and dialog ring almost middle grade in their triteness. Luckily the series is finally over now so I can’t be lured back in.
  • Everything I Never Told You: in 1970s small town Ohio, the golden child of the biracial Lee family is found drowned in the neighborhood pond. As above, hypnotically depressing, but with an unexpectedly redemptive ending. And look! Twelve weeks and back to adult books, for the moment at least. 

Commonplace Book 28 (ish)

So, my last Commonplace Book posted, but was backdated, and when I tried to fix it, I deleted it. It was all very livejournal circa 2004. So, picking up where we left off:

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Sausage barley spinach soup. (Slow cooker, obviously, or are you new here?) You can add the onions and garlic and sausage in raw, but I’ll warn you that the ground sausage will fuse into a strange puck you’ll have to chop haphazardly with a wooden spoon later on, so consider wisely…
  • Scallion pancakes. These are kind of a major pain, but not really hard: just labor-intensive. But the payoff! Almost exactly like the cheap Chinese dive version I love, but with a certain something reminiscent of the hot “chapat” we used to get at the hospital canteen for breakfast in Uganda, warm and wrapped in grease-spotted notebook paper. Is this not helping to sell them? Seriously. Delicious.

What I’m reading:

  • Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and MeThis one is doubly personal for me, because a.) I am an Anne devotee and b.) I married into a family that also includes an adopted mother and adopted Korean little sister. I had expected to love the reflections on Anne but often I find them prone to dull summary, which may just be loyalty or jealousy  — I can nearly quote the original. But parts of the personal storytelling ring like Shauna Niequist’s essays, which is never a bad thing: sensory details and bustling families and warm, intimate friendships.
  • Dumplin‘: I had read a recommendation for this from, I think, Annie of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia (who I knew casually in high school, and who is now a real-like Kathleen Kelly), and audiobook is definitely the way to go on this. J doesn’t like the profanity emanating from my iPhone as I wash dishes in the evening, but the narrator, a prickly, overweight teenager from rural Texas named Willowdean Dixon reminds me of some of my favorite Southerner college friends.
  • Someone tell me if it’s worth reading all of The Well-Trained Mind right now all at once. I’ve made it to middle school and I’m losing steam because my oldest child is, in fact, four. But I’d like the big picture! Please advise.

Commonplace Book, 27

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Samosa Pie. We loved this. I used ground beef instead of ground chicken because the use of poultry substitutes is grounds for abandonment in J’s mind. I also halved the jalapeño because I was also making a batch for a newly postpartum friend and her children. And then I stained our counter quite impressively with turmeric. But still. Worth trying.
  • Things with our friends’ Whole30 leftovers. (Don’t pity them. They’re in Hawaii now. Don’t grudge me my cashew milk chocolate pudding and carrot coconut milk soup.)

What I’m reading:

When we stop feeling like we need to make every moment of our kids’ lives picture perfect and enjoyable, it leaves us some room to breathe and (get this!) really, truly enjoy more of their childhood.   These year are precious, there’s no denying it; but more important than just enjoying them, we can actually be at peace in them (and not just in retrospect), knowing that we’re fully present and accepting of both the good and the hard.

  • The Boxcar Children series with Pippin. I remember reading these as a kid and delighting in them, in the kids’ independence and housekeeping, and P loves them, too. But reading them as an adult is so surreal, this weird double vision, a haunting awareness of how Gertrude Chandler Warner walks this tightrope around all the darkness in the children’s lives. As an adult, I think of the real bitterness of orphanhood when the Aldens mention casually their parents are dead; I think of the children I saw climbing in the dump in Uganda when the kids go hunting for treasures in the junkyard. And yet the passages where they forage blueberries and wash them down with a bottle of milk cooled in the stream are just as bewitching.
  • I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklynand despite my early reservations, I really loved it and had trouble putting it down by the end. I’ve never felt very at home in New York City, but I loved reading about Francie looking out over her Williamsburg neighborhood, thinking of the evening I spent on my sister’s roof almost 100 years later, when she spent a stint in Bushwick:

She looked out over Brooklyn. The starlight half revealed, half concealed. She looked out over the flat roofs, uneven in height, broken once in awhile by a slanting roof from a house left over from older times. The chimney pots on the roofs…and on some, the shadowing looming of pigeon cotes…sometimes, faintly heard, the sleepy cooing of pigeons…the twin spires of the Church, remotely brooding over the dark tenements…And at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River and was lost…lost…on the other shore. The dark East River beneath the Bridge, and far way, the misty-gray skyline of New York, looking like a city cut from cardboard.

Francie feels like the kind of character who becomes a watchword for discerning kindred spirits, like Anne, like Harry. You love Francie? Me, too! Katie I just adored and forgave all her limitations; Johnny I struggled with. When did you first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

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The high class A+ photography you come here for; Brooklyn roof life, 2013

 

Commonplace Book, 26

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • It’s possible I’ve shared this before: pesto bread machine bread. I’ve found if you add something like pesto or pureed pumpkin to your dough, it often tastes less “bread machine-y” than a more basic recipe. Do you have any favorites?
  • Everyday chocolate cake from Smitten Kitchen. But I forgot to sift the flour, and it mattered.
  • Add to the vaguely ethnic slow cooker recipes: vaguely French slow cooker cassoulet.
  • Quick tip obvious to everyone but me: if you do a whole chicken in the slow cooker, if you stick it in the oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees before serving it, you will make the chicken-skin eaters in your crowd really happy, because the oven will crisp the skin, while the slow cooker leaves the white meat tender and lovely.

What I’m reading:

  • Minimalism gets it wrong: This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit since reading some of the Little House books with Pippin at the end of last year. It’s not that we should have fewer things because the material world and everything bodily is bad; it’s that we should have fewer things because we only acquire those that are good and useful and beautiful — not to pass the time, or keep up with trends, or any of the other reasons we accumulate junk. The Ingalls family values their meager possessions, from the beautiful impractical ones, like Ma’s china doll, to the direly essential ones, like the horses that transport their wagon. An orange, or scattered Indian beads, are noteworthy treasures for Laura, and as our Christmas approached, this struck me all the more. A truly lovely Catholic church, like my college church, manifests this truth: it is in no way minimalist, but there is nothing trendy or junky or extraneous, either. I guess Marie Kondo hints at this, talking about things that bring you joy, but that’s not quite the same, is it?
  • A Tree Grows In Brooklynthis is the first time I’ve read this, and it’s beautiful and lyrical but so sad that I’m not enjoying it as much as I expected. I wanted something like Shadows on the Rock or Little Women, with lots of light amidst its lyricism, and this is much grittier than I’d expected —

    “The sad thing was in the knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all the people in Brooklyn seem lost when they day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn’t give you warmth when it shines on you.”

  • Housekeeping (audiobook) because I think it’s the only Marilynne Robinson novel I haven’t read yet. I don’t love it as much as Gilead but that’s not to say I don’t love it, if you see what I mean.
  • Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating because, you know.

Commonplace Book, 25

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Once I read a piece that talked about the culinary creativity that comes with “nap jail,” but I like “serendipity of the (pantry) shelf” — to modify a library term — better, as some of my innovations have to do with working around sleeping children, but a lot is just me being cheap and using what I’ve got. Anyway, earlier this week, the thing I was going to make ended up being impossible because I was completely out of soy sauce, but I had thawed chicken breasts, and this recipe — fragrant garam masala chicken stew with peas and potatoes — fit what I had on the pantry shelf without too many substitutions. And maybe it’s just that we ran out to the local ethnic deli for their lovely spiced rice to accompany it, but we ended up loving this dish probably better than what I’d intended to make.

What I’m reading:

  • At our Advent party, a friend and I got to talking about Children of Men when she saw it on my shelf and how it compared to the film. And I wish I could say the book is better but…it’s really not. I was reminded again reading this reflection on the movie, ten years after its debut.
  • This Christmas, I read In this House of Bredewhich I feel like has been recommended by every Catholic literary type ever, and it totally lived up to the hype — I think I’m still wandering the hushed and peaceful halls of the monastery now. There’s so much I’d like to excerpt, but I’ll stick to just one. A young nun reflects on Holy Saturday:

“As the candles caught their light one from another, Cecily had a vision of the flame running in the same way from one church to another throughout Christendom, far around the world: new light, new joy, fresh hope. Thousands of candles, pure wax, wax of bees, made through the year by the wings and work of infinitesimal creatures like us, thought Cecily, made for this night.”

I remember thinking something similar — though infinitely less lyrical — as a teenager in Mass, imagining the same feast being celebrated the world over, century upon century. And look! Dwija is reading it now, too!

  • My read-this-so-you-don’t-gasp-at-the-interstate-traffic book this year was Uprootedby Naomi Novik, which I doubt I would have picked up if it hadn’t come recommended by a friend. I’d describe it as a vaguely Polish fairy tale, but that would do it a disservice. It subverts all kinds of fairy tale tropes, self-consciously evaluating its own story in light of tradition. I especially like the way it doesn’t stoop to action movie scenes, as when the protagonist looks down from a high tower at warring soldiers:

That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse. I wanted to go and speak to that boy, to ask him his name, to find out what his story really was. But that would have been dishonest, a sop to my own feelings. I felt the soldiers understood perfectly well that we were making sums out of them—this many safe to spend, this number too high, as if each one wasn’t a whole man.

Don’t you just love that! I hate action movies and skim action sequences in books (also: Quidditch), but Uprooted highlights the humanity between warring sides, and its fantasy is truly innovative: spooky and unpredictable, deep and wide, like there’s a whole world just beyond the scope of the story. Anyway, highly recommend.

Profesh shot of me by the four year old in Cabbagetown, Atlanta, last week beside a mural made by an acquaintance