2020 in Books

Total: 64. That’s significantly more than in any year since I started tracking. Thanks, pandemic??? (Past lists linked to here.)

Fiction Favorites:

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler: knocked me on my butt and kept me completely horrified and obsessed through early fall as I drove to physical therapy.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: I’m always interested in speculative fiction that explores what our lives mean and how changes in their trajectory might affect the wider world (My Other Children is another good one) and yet I couldn’t get through the bleak sequel to this at all.
  • These Nameless Things by Shawn Smucker: a fascinating contemporary companion to The Inferno and The Great Divorce.
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her (Station Eleven and The Lola Quartet so far); the nuanced characters with haunting backstories, the unexpected overlaps, and the events and characters that resist overlaps. I don’t always know why she’s doing what she’s doing, but I’m along for the ride.

Nonfiction Favorites:

  • Drawn To Nature: Through the Journals of Clare Walker Leslie: completely inspirational without being intimidating. Should be required Charlotte Mason reading — teaches how to keep a nature journal in a very casual, approachable way.
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry: read to me in the dulcet tones of Ron Swanson, no less. Seriously, though, 2020 was the time to really think about the disservices our global, consumerist economy has rendered and consider how we might build a more robust and loving local community.
  • A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy by Steven W. Mosher: fascinating and horrifying. I can’t believe I read this in the aftermath of the miscarriage, but it helped reinforce the tragedy of any life lost, somehow, and completely pulled me out of myself when I desperately needed it.
  • Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (of All the Light We Cannot See fame): just eclectic and beautiful and uncategorizable.

Notes & Trends:

  • % digital (audiobook/ebook): about 55%, across platforms: Librivox, Scribd (audiobook and ebook), Libby (audiobook and ebook).
  • % reread: 24% I re-read most of Jane Austen this year, which makes sense — comfort and wisdom and escape all rolled into one. Some Anne, no Harry.

What were your reading habits like in 2020? Did you find yourself unable to focus in the face of the headlines, or diving into more books than ever?

Adventures in Imperfect Sourdough

Our imperfect, reliable daily bread

Look, maybe your days are a wide vista and you welcome the complications, structure and challenge of the float test, careful ratios, and monitoring of bulk rises. That’s fine. Your sourdough will be better than mine.

But I’ve been baking sourdough for over two years, and I’ve pioneered a lean, mean Good Enough method. Care to join me for a walk through?

Here is my Good Enough recipe, Splendid Table’s Almost No-Knead Sourdough, which a friend gave me a year or so back. It makes a round, chewy loaf with enough crunch to please our grownups but not so crispy that the kids struggle to eat it. Mostly, though, I like it because its timeline is forgiving, so even when life gets in the way, you still end up with a tasty loaf.

Here are the absolute minimum supplies I need to make my loaf:

  1. a really big bowl — metal is ok, Katie of Hearts Content Farmhouse assures me; that rule about metal and sourdough is a myth, apparently.
  2. a big mixing spoon — I like wooden.
  3. liquid measuring cup, teaspoon, solid measuring cup — I feel stupid listing these things, but I learned how to cook in a very ill-equipped Ugandan kitchen, so I’m trying not to taken anything for granted here.
  4. parchment paper — I have not gotten silpat mats to work properly in a round dutch oven, please let me know if you figure something out.
  5. dutch oven — This seems to be nonnegotiable for this recipe; friends’ attempts to substitute or skip have failed. Remember, if you are also frugal, that you can probably borrow a dutch oven from someone to try out the recipe before buying one yourself for $30 or so.

If you are feeling fancy, I’ve incorporated these next-level items into my routine and appreciated the results. Notice I don’t link to where to buy them, because I’m trying to wean myself off Amazon and don’t need to hook you, too.

  • reusable shower cap for the proofing dough — I use this instead of cling film, which never sticks that well, or one of those disposable shower caps you can get from motels, which stays in place better, but still requires you throw it out.
  • bench scraper — this was a marriage saver for me, because it helps to get the counter really clean, especially after kneading or when you drip starter, which dries cement-hard. You can also use it for jobs like cutting buns.
  • grits, polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal — definitely not required, but sprinkled on the parchment paper just before you place your dough there to rise, it makes a loaf seem more artisanal — consider it just another example of one step up cooking.
  • scale — this is not even a little bit necessary, but I’ve had one for about six months now and it makes feeding your starter more precise and opens up more recipes for you, because many sourdough recipes are alarmingly fussy about measurements.
  • instant read thermometer — also not a must, but a much faster way to determine bread doneness than judging by time or color.

Beyond that, you just follow the straightforward recipe. It takes awhile to learn to plan so far in advance, but generally, I feed my starter the day before I want a new loaf of bread at dinner. I do not feed my starter except for when I’m planning a new loaf, because I bake frequently enough that this isn’t a problem.

That night of Day 1, I mix up my dough and let it sit. I do use the recommended King Arthur all-purpose flour whenever I can get it, and it’s often available in massive, inexpensive bags at my local closeout grocer. (Yes, even during a pandemic.) In the summer, when the house is warm, I need to mix the dough a bit later, say 9 or 10 pm, so it doesn’t overproof on the counter.

This lasted us about three months and cost around $20.

The next morning (Day 2, I guess), I aim to knead the dough and set it for its second rise by 8 am, but sometimes it’s later. (And honestly, even if it overproofs, it’s still going to be an edible loaf, just less pretty and harder to work with.)

So then sometime midday on Day 2, I’ll bake the bread. Sometimes I make a slice in the top but don’t find it to be all that necessary when shape is restricted by the sides of the dutch oven. Sometimes I’ll sprinkle everything bagel seasoning on top to shock and appall my kids. I usually determine doneness by temperature, and if it’s hot enough but still a bit pasty, sometimes I’ll set the loaf directly on the rack in the oven for a few minutes more.

That’s it, that’s all.

And I’d be remiss not to point you toward other guides to getting started in sourdough — Katie has a good one and has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about baking. But the important thing here is not to let all the demanding regimens and confusing terminology make this hard. In my experience, I can’t make myself care any more than I just do about the complications and challenges of a hobby; I just want to limp along and find my own way and not get fussy about any of it. So here’s one unfussy path forward, among many.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Will it be a blip, or is it the end of the world, or is it something in between? It’s a question people have asked themselves through all kinds of crises, trying to fathom the way their own stories will turn out. And it’s why I’ve been finding books about World Wars I and II so comforting these past weeks.*

As present-day readers, it is reassuring to find ourselves in the middle of a story in which the characters don’t know the ending but we, in general terms at least, do. We know what kind of story these wartime books are, how their crises will ultimately turn out in broad terms, even if we don’t know the fates of each character, and that balance helps us to learn how to live in our own uncertain, still undetermined story.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson is a wartime journal written during the London Blitz, where in a letter, Hodgson notes, “I am still alive at this particular date, but whether I shall be when you receive it is another matter. However, everyone in London is in the same state of questioned animation” (September 23, 1940). That sensation of questioned animation — or suspended animation — is one that dogs our steps these days.

In World War I Canada, plucky teenager Rilla Blythe grapples for a script, and “after the first shock, reacted to the romance of it all, in spite of her heartache.” She is able, at least temporarily, to situate herself in a familiar narrative — the brave, heartbroken woman left behind at the front, and while this story will not completely sustain her through the coming years of war, it gives her a template to follow, expectations to attain. Similarly, Susan, an elderly maiden housekeeper of the Blythe family, never given to the temptation of romance, still determines to be, as she says, a “heroine”:

“I am not […] going to lament or whine or question the wisdom of the Almighty any more as I have been doing lately. Whining and shirking and blaming Providence do not get us anywhere. We have just got to grapple with whatever we have to do whether it is weeding the onion patch, or running the Government.”

Still, it’s hard to be patient in the middle of the story, waiting for it to unfurl. After my miscarriage earlier this year, I talked to several friends about their past miscarriages. There were women who immediately conceived after their loss and had to grapple with all the fear as they carried their next baby to term; women who conceived soon after and found solace knowing that this baby wouldn’t exist but for that previous loss — only to lose again; women who lost and did not conceive again. Each woman had spent so much time trying to fit her experiences into a narrative that made sense — and I assure you, in the weeks after my loss, none of the stories I told myself about my miscarriage ended with “followed almost immediately by a worldwide pandemic.”

So what is the point of all this work we do, trying to make up stories about events still in progress, trying to predict the future with almost no evidence? All I know is that we are a story people. It’s almost impossible to rest in uncertainty.

I keep thinking about that movie Stranger Than Fiction, where a pretty boring guy played (delightfully!) by Will Farrell, suddenly begins hearing his life narrated by a mysterious literary voice and sets out to try to figure out the kind of story he’s living. On his quest, he encounters a professor of English played by Dustin Hoffman, and then a montage follows in which he keeps track of the evidence in favor of his life being either a tragedy or a comedy.

Image via

The scripts we’ve thought we were following have all been thrown out by this pandemic, or else veered in a direction no editor could have predicted. So we are left grappling with the evidence for and against, making marks in the “tragedy” and “comedy” columns with each day’s events: a new outbreak near us, another person we know distantly infected; the kindness of neighbors we never knew, our toddler’s delightful antics, observed without rush during the slowness of quarantine. It’s why every columnist, every guy with an Internet connection, is throwing out predictions on what the next weeks, months, years might hold.

I don’t have any advice or predictions of my own to offer here. All I know is that we aren’t in this alone, and that we certainly aren’t the first people in history to feel this way. So we don’t know what our stories hold for us. (We never really did.) We don’t have a handy script to follow, what our parents or big sister or mentor did, and we feel unmoored from the past and all that went before. (We always needed to find our own way.) There are no shortcuts to the kind of lives we wanted from where we find ourselves now. (Life was always going to require patience, more patience than we thought we could muster.) As T.S. Eliot wrote in his Blitz-era poem “Little Gidding“:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”

*(I’m not the only one — Haley Stewart has a beautiful reflection on Rilla of Ingleside over at Public Discourse.)

Commonplace Book, 51

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:

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