Commonplace Book, 22

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:

  • Ree Drummond’s Chicken Pot Pie, which, for better or worse, is pretty unrecognizable when I get done with it, having used frozen pie crust; a combination of roasted onions, carrots, mushrooms, potatoes and frozen peas; subbed thighs for a full chicken and milk with a couple spoonfuls of yogurt for the cream, etc., etc. But it always helps me to have a template to work off for ratios, temperatures and times. Are you a more intuitive cook?
  • Slow Cooker Vegetarian Pumpkin Chili for Pippin’s birthday party which pleased even the determined meat-eaters and pumpkin-avoiders among us.

What I’m reading:

  • All the Light We Cannot See still and again, as a combination of audiobook and hardcover. (Now I know how to pronounce “Laure,” so that’s something.) J came in while I was changing the sheets and listening to Werner solve trigonometric equations the other night and I really hoped he’d notice and be impressed but no dice.
  • Little House on the Prairie with Pippin. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read this as a kid, or if I did, I have zero memory of it, which is maybe worse. But Pippin’s way into it and keeps asking for more chapters. The descriptions are more beautifully lyrical than I somehow expected, although occasionally I get Giants in the Earth flashbacks, as below:

“It was strange and frightening to be left without the wagon on the High Prairie. The land and the sky seemed too large, and Laura felt small. She wanted to hide and be still in the tall grass, like a little prairie chicken.”

Grab me my trunk, folks. I’m going in.

  • Entirely too much election coverage. But who isn’t?
Pretzels and books to the rescue on a disastrous afternoon

Commonplace Book, 19

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:

  • Roasted garlic ciabatta. I linked to my basic ciabatta recipe here but if you add roasted garlic after the initial mixing, you get little chunks and ribbons throughout the whole loaf, and it is so good that I made it twice this week and used up all the roasted garlic in the house. (Hint: you can make a ton of roasted garlic at once with a bag of garlic bulbs from Costco and your trusty slow cooker.)
  • Beefy butternut squash chili. Still more or less like this, but this time with carrots and celery instead of zucchini, diced fine in the hopes J wouldn’t notice it was in there. (He did, but he didn’t mind.)

What I’m reading:

  • Instagram, Social Media, and Keepin’ It Real — It is fashionable to trash social media, and while Instagram is probably responsible for my relentless pursuit of good light and tidy surfaces (one succeeding more than the other), I always think back to a photo album I made a couple springs ago. The pictures were all taken during the fall and winter I was pregnant with Scout, an era that felt long and dull and monotonous, when Pip watched a lot of tv, I ate a lot of cheese (and threw up some of it), and we waited for snow to melt and life to move forward. But the album of that time is beautiful, chronicling the day I strapped on my lower back support and took Pippin to the arboretum’s bulb show with friends; the slow mornings we spent reading and wandering around the apartment; my proud and hopeful face over a blooming belly in the photos I shot in our little dated bathroom. That’s the power of photography: to wrest the good moments from the chaotic and messy and hard.
  • All the Light We Cannot SeeI read it while I was pregnant with Scout, and liked it very much, but I probably wouldn’t be re-reading it if not for Well-Read Moms. So thanks, WRM, because I’m enjoying it all over again:

Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a profession of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

  • Queen of Shadows, now that I’m done with The Raven King, which had beautiful passages but kind of a flat, tone-deaf ending, I thought: more like the strained optimism and normalcy of HP7 than the haunting LOTR-esque melancholy I would have expected. I don’t know.
  • Present Over Perfect. My least favorite of Shauna Niequist’s stuff, which is not to say I didn’t like it, because she’s wonderful. But I was discussing it with the friend who first introduced the author to me, and we agreed that the shift from primarily narrative to primarily addressed to “you” felt a little self-help-y and less rich than some of her other books.

I now leave you with a picture of Scout and fall leaves, lest you worry that I only photograph my firstborn with autumnal foliage.

The Right Book, the Wrong Time

On Instagram recently, I got into a discussion about just how much I’ve been hating Dostoevsky this time around. I’ve been reading The Brothers Karamazov literally all summer, and as I slowly whittle it away as an audiobook on my morning runs and during evening clean up, I’ve been stumped as to how I can hate it now when I loved it as a college senior.

Because it felt like a revelation when I read it as a 22-year-old, newly back from her first stint abroad, engaged to be married, living out and loving her last semester of college. And now, as a mother with two very small, very needy children, it feels like a slog. When I tried to knock out a few pages in the passenger seat of the car during vacation, frequently interrupted by small people in the backseat, I could hardly keep my place. As I tried to hold up the tiny-print tome one-handed, lying in bed, sick this summer, the sheer weight staggered me. As I wheezed my way up a hill, listening to Librivox, I choke out, “Hurry up!”

As my fellow book club member, the eloquent Abbey points out, “I understand that my dislike of it probably says more about me than about the book.” And…that’s kind of my point.

Some books you just have to be ready for — I remember starting and abandoning The Secret Garden several times before I could make anything out of the Yorkshire dialect that peppers its pages. That’s especially true for big books like Broski which represent significant commitment. The timing really has to be right, but when it is, the book can be pure magic. My friend Haley had recommended Kristin Lavransdatter to me a couple times, but I’d never really considered it, since she’s tricked me more than once into reading Evelyn Waugh, who I loathe (#unpopularopinions). So with some trepidation, I finally settled down to Kristin on my new Kindle Paperwhite when I found myself sitting around in dark rooms pretty often with my fitfully sleeping new babe. And it blew me away. I can’t imagine having easily slipped into the unfamiliar rhythms of medieval Norway before that point in my life, but I found myself seeking out more time to sneak away in the dark and read.

A Tale of Two Cities I read too young in early high school, but Great Expectations, taught with patience by my Victorianist professor, struck a chord my freshman year of college. Similarly, I read Wuthering Heights on a tiny iPod Touch screen on an Ugandan bus from Kasese to Kampala. I’d never possessed the slightest inclination to read it before —  if, as Cassandra Mortmain argues, you either prefer Bronte with a bit of Austen or Austen with a bit of Bronte, I’m Austen all the way — but I plowed right through it with real delight on that stuffy, monotonous bus ride. It was just the right book at the right time.

There are also books I think you can miss the boat on. I suspect that happened for me with both The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, although possibly I was never angsty enough for them. I suspect they have their own value and yet I don’t get it, personally. And while my love for Anne of Green Gables runs so deep from twenty years of re-reading that I can barely see it objectively, I can also understand when someone says they read it as an adult and just didn’t get Anne.

This year for the Well-Read Mom Book Club, I’ll be re-reading All the Light We Cannot See, Wuthering Heights, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces and The Fellowship of the Ring, and reading for the first time a couple classics I’ve previously missed. We’ll see if revisiting these books is like revisiting old friends, or meeting as strangers. We’ll see if it’s too late for me and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I expect to be surprised.

You have to be gentle with yourself, I guess, when you’re dealing with classics, especially. Maybe it’s not that this is an overrated book, and maybe it’s not that you’re some uncultured dummy who can’t appreciate the Finer Things. Maybe, instead, you just need to set the book aside for now and find the book that’s waiting for just such a moment.