winter nonfiction

new_years

I finished a French memoir from the ’60s over New Year’s. The Paper House, by Francoise Mallet-Joris (yours on Amazon for the price of one cent!)  It’s a memoir, but more of a catch-all journal of ruminations for this woman who was an intellectual force of her time. She recounts arguments with her housekeeper and tiffs with her husband over household tasks. She has something of an intellectual crush on her aged hairdresser. She smokes, drinks, types on her typewriter, makes dinner, conducts television interviews, attempts to get work done. Her household is populated with her partner, her three younger children, and an older son from a previous relationship, a son she gave birth to when she around 20, who she regards almost as a peer, if not a confident.

The respect she displays for her children and their opinions reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. A book (this one from the ’50s) by another female novelist who also seemed to regard her young children as fellow thinkers that happen to live alongside her.

Francoise spends many, many pages baffled at her household’s constant state of chaos. She describes sitting in her bath with a cigarette to get a moment’s peace. Then her housekeeper plops down with her in the bathroom, also to get a moment’s peace. All of Francoise’s children and her housekeeper’s child troop in shortly thereafter. Every organizational task seems to elude her. She personifies the curtains that never seem to exist–she hopes they will come to visit her someday, she hopes they will settle with her family at some point.

n-y-e

She relays wonderful conversations with her children about religion (she’s roman catholic). She sets out to stay the party line, to tell the doctrinal truth, but is quickly confused and trapped into agreeing to strange things by the way her children phrase their questions. Most of the dialogue she shares depicts her bravely arguing a point only to get talked out of it. Exactly how I imagine my discussions with the girls going someday.

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I don’t really have a clean-clasped way to tell you why you might like to read it, except that you might.

And now I’m reading the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the lady writer of the Anne of Green Gables series. They are quite a different thing. She struggled deeply and lonelily with depression, with isolation and with the terrifically cold and dark winters of Prince Edward Island. She is as wonderful as you’d imagine, but haunted in many ways. I’ll write about them when I finish them, but Francoise handed me off to Lucy in some way. Women. Thinkers. Rejoicers and puzzlers, unedited for the most part and mulling over life.

It is a gift to one’s conscious to read things, honest boring brilliant passing things, like this. Particularly in the winter? They can be metronome, a tick tick of real households to balance your world against.

 

photos from New Year’s Eve, with one by my friend Elizabeth Mclellan. Because they felt wintery. 

review: the smartest kids in the world

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My friend Ashley lent me The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley before Christmas and I ate it up as we traveled. It compares education in South Korea, Finland, Poland, and the US by following exchange students from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Along the way she discusses international testing, interviews teachers and students, and gives a sense of what it’s like to be a kid learning in each of these countries.

Before I read it, when I thought about education and my little family, I imagined us focusing on reading together and verbal comprehension stuff before formal schooling began. Reading together is probably one of the activities that comes to me the easiest in child-care. Joe has mentioned to me before that it might be nice if I started doing math with Lux, and perhaps science experiments, once in awhile. I told him I thought those things came in time. Maybe intuitively? Maybe when they were six? It was all vague and far away. Perhaps I wouldn’t even be the one to introduce them to math at all, I thought to myself. Suffice to say, it wasn’t on my priority list.

Now I know through Ripley’s book that this is a specifically American view: that one learns math through story problems and osmosis, certainly not through worksheets, repetition, or emphasis. I had heard rumors that the US tested miserably on most fronts in comparison to other developed nations. Now I recognize that in the context of math, we don’t seem to take it seriously, we don’t think it’s an applicable life skill, and we’d rather our kid took an easy test and did well than get a bad score and feel bad about themselves.

Which led me to wonder how I could help my kids be as good at math as they were at reading. How to be as casually conversant in equations as explaining a new vocabulary word. How to value rote memorization and convey its value. How to make numbers as familiar and intriguing as a new library book.

This is all on my mind right now because after Lux hit 3.5 years, she’s able to focus a bit more and has really got that sponge quality to her. I can actually imagine us sitting down to work on something for a bit, or learning and reviewing something over a couple of days. We’ve recently done a couple science experiments, things like vinegar + baking soda + balloon, and they were really fun.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating read and helped me correct my sights a bit on education. Since reading is a given for us, I’m going to be more aggressive with integrating math and science into our days. To start, I ordered this simple workbook to do with Lux for twenty minutes or so, when Joan is napping. I’m hoping it will help me familiarize myself how she approaches these things and give us a shared language.

 

The Orangette Reading

lilacs

photo from this morning. The lilacs in the city are in bloom!

It’s easy to add up the ways Molly has influenced my life because all of them are tangible and concrete. I make the oatcake recipe she borrowed from 3191 Miles Apart for many play dates, always to accolades. Her writing introduced me to The Breakfast Book, the now-most bespattered cookbook on my shelf, the foundation of many cozy mornings. Her blog introduced me to my now-internet friend Andrea of Book-Scout, the blonde bookworm of Portland.

I was so happy to be in a basement in Wellesley last night, listening to Molly talk about her life. Happy to have a new book in my hands, full of stories of food and experimenting and taking risks for dreams. Happy to leave with my friends and walk next door to share crusty bread and pink cocktails and split a butterscotch budino at the end.

At the reading I spotted Jess Fechtor of Sweet Amandine, a food blog she writes from Cambridge. I’ve liked Jess’s writing for a long time, and it was treat to meet her in person. She was towing along her littlest newborn daughter and accompanied by her friend Andrew Janjigian (on twitter here), associate editor of Cook’s Illustrated and pizza-dough-expert. It just so happened that I’ve had several concerns the last few times I made pizza, namely: 1/ does parchment paper placed on top of my pizza stone negate the crisping power of the stone? 2/ Is the new baking steel now more legit than the long-favored baking stone? These questions jumped to the front of my mind when Andrew mentioned he occasionally teaches pizza-making classes out of his apartment! I was delighted he allowed me to corner him for a few minutes with pedestrian-sometimes-baker concerns. Please forgive me for finishing up this long tangent, but for those of you who also love homemade pizza: Andrew recommended getting a super peel to solve the depended-on-parchment problem, and verified that the baking steel was the real deal, not just a trend.

Anyway, there we were, waiting for Molly to sign our books, surrounded by more books, lined up next to people who were just as curious about the next food-book event in Wellesley: a book signing with Jeni from Jeni’s Ice Cream, talking about dough, and good writing. It was my ComicCon moment: the happy glory of these are my people and we are happy here. 

a book I’m enjoying

100_best_books

A book I’m really enjoying: 100 Best Books for Children, by Anita Silvey. I was afraid it would be another list of ways to make your child a genius, but instead it was written by a book-lover all about those books you remember reading as a child. For each entry she has researched the stories behind the author and the author’s life when they wrote that book. For example,

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: Virginia Lee Burton first wrote a book called The Trials and Trails of Jonnifer Lint…yikes. Publishers turned it down and suggested that she see what her boys thought of it. They fell asleep while she was reading it to them, ha! So she wrote something about what she knew they would love: steam engines.

Arnold Lobel, the author of Frog and Toad are Friends, was from New York City and afraid of the countryside. Else Holmelund Minarik, who wrote Little Bear, taught at a rural school and originally wrote the books for her students. Lucy Maud Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables, had to fight to get her book published. She was first offered a flat fee of $500, but fortunately, she took the other offer of .09 cents per book!

I picked it up at our library (our children’s librarian has exquisite taste). If you see it, grab it!

 

Alice Waters’ Book for Children

I refer to Alice Waters The Art of Simple Cooking with an obsessive devotion. Her recipes are so simple, elegant, and delicious that I quickly became addicted and wanted to cook only as she said to do it.

So when I saw her book for children at the Boston Athenaeum, I scooped it up to take home with me.

It’s written from the perspective of Alice Waters’ daughter Fanny who grew up at Chez Panisse. Sort of Eloise-style, without the spoiled brat and the pug.  (I love Eloise, but I think we can agreed she’s a bit of a brat.)  I read it like an-easy-to-read memoir, thinking “what would it be like to be the daughter of a restaurant owner like Alice?”

This is what it would be like:

The illustrations are by Ann Arnold and they are so lovely you want them to fill your kitchen. The text is cheerful and all about food. Below, an illustration of composting:

She includes 46 recipes at the back, mostly really classic things like pizza dough, candied orange peel, and plain white rice. I was in the mood for a new bread recipe so I tried it. It’s a good one! A nice mix of whole wheat and white flour, hearty with salt and just a touch of milk. I recommend checking it out.

Freshman Year English

if you want to find a great novel I don’t think you can go to a bookstore anymore. I think you need serious recommendations. My younger brother Wilson is in his freshman year of college, the territory of professors either directing you back towards the books you heard about in high school or directing your forward into the books culture is actually talking about. Fortunately his English professor is the former latter (will those ever make sense??).

When I saw the list, and recognized five books I’d read and loved, I knew I’d have to read them all. Meet my list for 2013, fresh from a text message from Wilson:

on my gcal

The Wendesday Chef, one of the cooking blog greats, will be at the Harvard Bookstore on October 2nd (Tuesday). I’ll be there, anyone else? Should we bring baked goods to share? (photo by xobreakfast)

The Smithsonian is sponsoring a free museum day this Sunday. All sorts of museums on there, and they email the ticket to you. We picked the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Can’t resist that old fashioned place. But the Great House at the Crane estate is also on there…and the Gropius House…

Also on Sunday, this fun yard-sale in Cambridge hosted by my friend who is an amazing stylist. I’ve always wondered how she’s managed to have the perfect thing for every shoot.

Looking forward to anything this weekend?

 

GIRLS & the Summer Solstice

The season finale of GIRLS happened this past week, and one highlight for me was book-spotting grumpy Ray reading I Capture the Castle. Have you read it? It might be one of my Top 10. It was written in 1948 by Dodie Smith about a poor family living in a washed-up castle, making do and having fun. Coming of age of a seventeen year old girl, journal style, eccentric father, unexpected visitors…I know that sounds predictable but truly, it is a charmer!  I recommend, as Ray did by saying, “This book is so fucking incredible. Anything by a British woman is just…fuck.” (or you could read my longer review here.)

Very apropos too, because the Summer Solstice plays a lovely role in that book and I always wish that I had some sort of tradition or rite to do on the longest day of the year. Is there anything you like to do to mark these kinds of holidays?

what your children will think of your blog

Frequently I wonder what my children in the future will think of my internet presence now. If my mom had a blog, I wonder, would I find it and go back through the archives, reading all of it? Would I ignore it? Would I be embarrassed by what she shared there?

So I was delighted to read this bit from Sam Lamott, whose mom Anne Lamott famously wrote an entire book about Sam’s first year of life. In the preface to their new book (about his son, Anne’s grandson), he writes how he feels when reading the last book:

To this day, that book is the greatest gift anyone has given me; I have a very special relationship with it. When I read any of my mom’s books, I hear her voice talking as if she were in the room right next to me. But when I read Operating Instructions, I hear and feel my mother’s love for me, her frustration and dedication, her innermost feelings and favorite moments of my first year with her. I will always cherish these memories of our funny family and our friends, and I will always be able to come back to them even when my mom is too old to remember them herself.

a great tribute to the possibility of blogs, right?

Annie writes again

I literally do the same thing every day. I believe that discipline and self-love are the total secrets to freedom. I sit down at the same time every day because I don’t want it to be an issue. I’m like a teenager. If you give me a chance to negotiate around sitting down at 9 a.m. and beginning the piece, I’m going to be like a 15-year-old. I may have a reason why that doesn’t really make sense and why you’re trying to bum my trip.

My dad taught me that to be a writer is a decision and a habit. It’s not anything lofty, and it doesn’t have that much to do with inspiration. You have to develop the habit of being a certain way with yourself. You do it at the debt of honor. I’ve written 13 books now. It’s not really important that I write a lot more books, but I do it as a debt of honor. I got one of the five golden tickets to be a writer, and I take that seriously. I don’t love my own work at all, but I love my own self. I love that I’ve been given the chance to capture the stories that come through me.

-Anne Lamott, interview on goodreads.com

Comes out March 20th.