Category Archives: Reading

The more things change…

I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray for the first time. I waver between feeling like I enjoyed it and feeling like I’ll never get those hours back. It’s rare that I read a book and find nothing to like about any of the characters, but this one succeeds in that dubious distinction. The thing is, given that its a satire of the behaviors and psychology of people during the Regency period in England, and that the subtitle is “a novel without a hero,” I don’t think I was supposed to particularly like any of the characters. While a good plot is probably the most important thing for my enjoyment of a novel, liking even one character is also pretty important. (I’m also a sucker for “good writing,” which certainly existed in this novel, even though his sentences were sometimes tortuously long and winding…and then kind of irrelevant to the main plot.) The plot of Vanity Fair is well-woven and held my interest, but the characters fought against that and sometimes made picking up the book feel more like a duty.

I couldn’t help making comparisons of the world Thackeray is satirizing with modern times in America, and I was rather amazed that the follies and faults of his characters didn’t feel dated at all. Greed, a longing for power, a shallow fascination with being entertained above other matters, hypocritical piety, adultery…it sounds like a selection of articles in the Sunday paper. It seems to support the idea that human psychology is pretty strongly wired in certain ways (which I think is probably the case for the good in humanity, as well, but that doesn’t really show up in the novel, so…).

Oddly enough, as these things so often work, in the final episode of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday night, Mary alludes to Becky Sharp, the female antagonist of Vanity Fair. If I hadn’t been reading it, I would have missed the allusion entirely. It wouldn’t have made my enjoyment of the show any less, I think, to have missed it; however, knowing the reference did add a layer of understanding of the scene that would have been lacking. It’s this, I think, that leads so many educators to call for a canon of works that students read in school, and it helps me sympathize somewhat with their cause. When we read many of the same books, we have a common language that helps add layers of understanding to our communications through our allusions, connections, and references.

What should be in that canon, however, is not something easily agreed upon, and I don’t think I’m going there in this post.

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A** in Chair

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Ass in chair.

I don’t completely remember who gave this writing advice to whom; I think it was either Donald Murray or Donald Graves who gave it to Nancie Atwell. But it doesn’t really matter, because from the time I heard the story the phrase has stuck with me. It doesn’t just apply to writing, does it? It applies to anything we don’t feel like doing in a given moment. Ass on riding mower, ass down to weed the rows, ass in front of canning pot… Well, the last one could be someone passing judgement on me while I’m canning, but you get the point.

I have, in fact, been mowing, weeding (though not so much…) and canning in order to avoid writing. I have an idea for a story, and have self-doubted myself into staying away from the computer. Because who am I to think I have a story anyone will want to read? For that matter, who am I to think that anyone will want to buy my vegetables/eat my cooking/support whatever business I decide to engage in? The self-doubt is strong in this one.
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But today, after I canned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings, froze a pound of Romano beans and a pound and half of green beans, and started blanching corn–after taking the dogs for an hour drive in the Jeep–I asked myself what I was avoiding. The first answer is, “Thinking about the fact that if I were still teaching, I would have gone back to work today.” Just not touching that one. The second answer is, “Writing.” So, ass in chair, indeed. I thought I’d warm up with a blog post, since there hasn’t been one since the last third of July, and then I’ll move to that story.

Grow:
Tomatoes. Please ripen. I need you so I can continue avoiding writing can lots of tomato sauce and salsa and jam.

On a happier front, I got beautiful, juicy peaches from our older tree. Not a ton–about twelve–but they’re delicious. Fingers crossed that the peach tree borers don’t kill it; they’ve moved in pretty good, which is disappointing.

I also have beautiful peppers growing, which is a first for me. I’ve always bought seedlings and watched them fizzle out, but this year I started them from seed, and most of them are producing well. The trick is to be patient enough, and to get the weather, to wait for them to turn red. More fingers crossed.

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Cook:
There’s been a lot of that going on. Peach Jam. Peach Chutney. Dilly beans. Pickled Zucchini. The aforementioned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings. Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika.
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Dear Universe: Thank you for Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika. And for author Marissa McClellan, whose book I found the recipe in.

If you like canning, I highly recommend Food in Jars (the blog and the book) and Preserving by the Pint, both by Marissa. She’s keeping me happily busy. The recipes I’ve made have been delicious (and the eggplant will clear your sinuses while it cooks) and I haven’t at all minded the odd amount that didn’t fit in a jar for processing. Especially that Tomato Jam. It took everything I had not to open one of the cans I’d just processed, so I could keep eating the stuff. Her recipes are easy enough to keep newbies calm, and interesting enough to keep non-newbies coming back. I fall somewhere in between.

Read:
I’m late to this party, I’m sure, but I recently finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and I adored it. The Grimke sisters are fascinating, and I’ll be looking up some of the recommended reading Kidd provides.

I also read The Town that Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. It’s about Hardwick, Vermont, which is the location of High Mowing Seeds (love, love, love their seed varieties), Pete’s Greens, and Vermont Soy, to name a few of the food-related companies that have taken off there in the last decade. I enjoyed it a great deal, and thought Hewitt did a good job of naming his biases and writing through them.

Right now, I’m reading Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. It’s pretty hilarious.

Write:
Yeah. I’m working on it.

Carrots! And teen pregnancy and Sarah McLachlan.

Grow:
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After a strong spring-planting showing, life got a little crazy around here, and I didn’t plant a lot of other things until late(r) in the season. Carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes…they all got a later-than-I would-have-liked start. But the hot weather is here, and the plants are psyched. The winter squash are starting to run, the summer squash are producing a million little baby squash, the tomatoes are taking over their area, and the eggplant has doubled in height and width the last week and a half. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m pulling carrots for the first time this week, and they’re uh-maze-ing. I’ve never grown them before, so this is very exciting for me! The only carrots I’d eaten for the last seven years were from our CSA shares, and when I had to buy grocery store carrots to bridge the gap between our last CSA stragglers in the veggie bin and the ones from the garden, I was very sad. If you have only ever had a grocery store carrot, even an organic one from Whole Foods, I beg you, PLEASE find your nearest farmer’s market and buy some of their carrots. You will be astonished. And if they’re pretty freshly pulled, all you have to do is scrub them really well; no peeling required.

Cook:
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The spring lettuces are bolting in the recent heat spike, so I pulled a head of Romaine yesterday, along with radishes, some four to six inch zucchini, green onions, basil, mint, and parsley. I–well, my niece, Maddie, who is staying with me right now and a huge help in the kitchen–diced the zucchini and the radishes, slivered up the herbs and green onions, and then we tossed them with a can of drained tuna, some olive oil, cannellini beans, salt and pepper. Maddie pronounced, “More pepper,” so we made it happen and then served it over a bed of Romaine. It was the perfect light lunch for a hot day. (Today, we had ice cream.)

Read:
I read two books last week: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva and Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles. I picked up One Man Guy because I so, so, so loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sanchez. Lately, I’ve enjoyed reading about romance written from the guy’s perspective, by guys. One Man Guy was funny, and Alek’s best friend Becky was an hilarious character. All of the characters were enjoyable, actually, even when they were doing things you didn’t want them to do. It isn’t as beautifully written as Sanchez’s book, but it isn’t by Sanchez, so…

Living with Jackie Chan is a sequel to Jumping Off Swings, though I’d say you don’t have to read the first one to enjoy the second. It’s another one from the guy’s perspective, and is about Josh, who has moved to a new school district for his Senior year of high school, to get away from the daily reminder that he casually impregnated a girl in a one-night stand. Josh is having a hard time dealing with what happened, and the book is a look at his story the year after the baby is born and given up for adoption. I enjoyed it, and think both genders probably would. If students were doing a genre study, they could use this with Hanging onto Max by Bechard, and The First Part Last by Johnson to look at the male perspective of teen pregnancy.

Write:
Larry and I saw Sarah McLachlan in concert this past weekend! She was amazing! I never wanted the show to end!

I experienced a first at the concert. This past year, I and the students chose song lyrics that were meaningful to us, and we annotated them with an explanation of why. I chose “Fear” by McLachlan. Though it’s primarily about a relationship, the chorus of, “And I fear, I have nothing to give, I have so much to lose here in this lonely place…” hit me hard each time I heard it. Leaving teaching had me wondering all year, “What else do I have to give?” She performed the song on Saturday, and in the middle of it I just started sobbing. I still don’t know the answer, and it is frustrating. I’m trying to be patient with myself, but…well…not always my strong suit!

I still don’t know the answer, but McLachlan’s music is again helping me think. Her latest album, “Shine On,” has a number of songs about being strong(er) and positive, and the song, “In Your Shoes,” is where I want to be right now. Here’s a link: http://www.sarahmclachlan.com/lyric-lounge/in-your-shoes/

Meanwhile, the weeds grew as fast (faster?) than the eggplant, there’s kale, spinach, and other greens and root veggies to be sown, and there’s a lot of summer left to enjoy. Tomorrow: more ice cream. And some carrots.
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Mid-summer

Grow:
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Cortland Onion
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Rhubarb Swiss Chard
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Garlic Scapes
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“Black Cap” Raspberries (do these count as “grow” if they’re growing wild taking over the property?)
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Sparkle Strawberries

Cook:
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Chinese Cabbage, Black Bean, and Bacon Saute
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Swiss Chard with Freekah and Pomegranate Molasses (adapted from Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipe in Jerusalem)
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Strawberry Muffins
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Strawberry and Black Raspberry Cobbler adapted from The Seasonal Baker by John Barricelli<a
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Chicken Salad with Romaine lettuce, Watermelon Radishes, Basil, and Mint

Read:
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Write:
The garden continues to do its thing, while I try to keep all the plates spinning. Unpacking boxes is a fits-and-starts ordeal, and trying to decide whether to grow, cook, read or write is a constant tug of war. There has been a bit of all of it the last week and a half. Balance is over-rated, right? An eight hour day in the garden, followed by a ten hour day reading, followed by a five-hour round of cooking/baking/preserving is fine. As long as it all gets done, right?

Right.

The black cap raspberries are coming in strong right now, and I’ve picked three and a half quarts in the last week. One quart went into a cobbler, and the rest went into today’s jam. I sweetened it with honey and brightened it with lemon juice, and again followed the instructions on the Pomona’s Pectin box. After licking the spoon, I couldn’t figure out why the dogs were looking at me so strangely. Then, on a walk past a mirror, I saw the huge blob of it on my chin. I’m glad I didn’t leave the house that way! It looked like a dried but particularly nasty wound.
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Jam!

The raspberries are the very devil to pick. I have yet to collect any without new scratches. They’re worth it, though. I could wear long clothing, but it’s hot. I’d rather be scratched, honestly. I’m sure there’s some fun psychology there.
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The kale, collards, Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, onions, scallions, and lettuce are doing well, and providing lots of green to eat. Watermelon radishes are adding some crunch, and garlic scapes add some zing. Alpine strawberries continue to grow like mad, and I stand in the garden and reward work with mouthfuls of the tiny berries. They’re too fragile to survive the trip to the house, which suits me just fine.

Grow, cook, read, write. And on we go.

Saucy carrots and ordinary evenings

We have 13 days of school left. I’m trying not to think about it too much, particularly since I’m split down the middle as to how I’m feeling. One minute I’m so excited I could weep, and the next minute, I’m so sad, I could weep. My classroom is mostly ready for my exit, except for the disaster area space behind my desk, and a week ago, two students helped me box and neatly label the books that I’m keeping. (Our dining room is a bit crowded these days.)

While at work I’m still so busy I can’t see straight, (final Isearch papers turned in today!)I seem to be just drifting through my afternoons and evenings. If I had to account for my time, I’d be in trouble, because I can’t tell you what I’ve been doing.

Let’s see: I read a really good book the other night, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews (I was snorting uncontrollably with laughter by page 150). I made some lemon blueberry cornmeal muffins last weekend, and I’m going to tinker with the recipe; more honey, I think. We went out to dinner at a restaurant new to us, M.C. Spiedo (good, though everyone was dressed like they were going to Walmart–Target, at best–and on their damned cell phones…neither being the restaurant’s fault, of course). We went to the SoWa Open Market on Sunday. I went to a student’s house, because they have chickens and were lovely enough to invite me to tea, and to see their set-up. Actually, I had a great afternoon there, and it’s probably the most memorable of my recent activities.

I won’t be winning any thrill-seeking awards, will I?

That’s okay.

Tonight, dinner was a happy somewhat-orchestrated-accident. Remember those lamb ribs, and the sauce I said I was going to de-fat and do something with? Tonight, I added some more dried fruit, about a cup of chicken broth, and some oil-cured Moroccan olives and simmered it until it was a loose sauce. I served it over bulgur wheat, with small cubes of lightly smoked goat cheese (that we got at SoWa) and slivered almonds (next time, I’d add thinly sliced scallions, and on mine, some cilantro). On the side, we had sliced carrots that I sauteed with some onions. Then I added a half cup of water, a heaping teaspoon of honey, and a heaping teaspoon of harissa, and cooked the water away until the carrots were tender and the harissa and honey glazed the carrots. When the water was almost gone, I added a tsp of butter, to make them glossy.

The contrast of the sweet and occasionally smoky and/or briny sauced bulgur with the spicy-sweet carrots was a good one, and we were glad we ate at home.

Sometimes, being a homebody is delicious.

Divestment and a Coconut Curry

I have spent the last 18 years collecting books for my classroom.

One person can collect a lot of books in 18 years.

Now that I’m leaving teaching, it seems insane and somewhat criminal not to make sure that most of the books wind up in the hands of students. I started this process last year, filling many boxes with books that students could take from, and then passing on the remainder to colleagues and the school down the road from our home. But I still have probably 2,000 left.

I started the divestment process in earnest today. I have already filled five boxes from the “realistic fiction” section, and still have all of the other genres to go. The kids will get first dibs on most of the titles, but I’m setting aside some literature circle books and author sets for the teacher who will take my place. (Fingers crossed that it’s a certain someone I know…) I am also keeping a fair number of them, on the off-chance that I decide to go back to the classroom. My deal with myself is that if I haven’t returned to teaching in two years, I will get rid of most of the rest of them.

Some, I will keep forever. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson; Winger, by Andrew Smith; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, all of John Green’s books…the list is actually pretty long. Some books are meant to be read over and over again, and I have encountered many, many of these books in the amazing world of young adult fiction. It is one of the things in my life for which I am most grateful: that I had a career that led me to such amazing places.

And now I’m getting weepy, so let’s talk curry. This one, in particular: http://www.rachaelraymag.com/recipe/coconut-chicken-curry/

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There will be no Rachael Ray bashing on this blog.  Along with my family, she taught me to cook and I will be forever thankful for that.  The fact that she isn’t a trained chef is what still makes her food so approachable, in my opinion.  And no one who has ever eaten one of her recipes in my house has complained, so she must be doing something right.

I didn’t change too much to this recipe.  I had regular coconut milk, so used it (creamy and silky and coconutty…light, schmight–use the full fat, unless you’re on a diet).  I didn’t have sweet potatoes, but I did have cauliflower and regular potatoes, so I chopped those up and used them instead; I put them in when the recipe called for the sweets.  I added chopped dried apricots with the vegetables.  (This recipe could easily be vegetarian; use the sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and potatoes, and you’ll have a filling, spicy, fragrant meal.)

I also added shredded coconut as a garnish, along with chives and micro-greens (no basil in these parts yet).  Oh…and I goofed and added 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, instead of 2 tsp.  But they weren’t packed, because apparently it’s still winter here (Snow!  This morning!  Dammit!) and my brown sugar is as hard as a rock.  I had to chisel it out, which is probably why I got distracted and used too much.

The extra sugar wasn’t a bad thing, though, because I used a spicy curry powder; the two balanced each other brilliantly.  The house smelled like a cozy Indian restaurant, and it was nice to have a big bowlful of warm for dinner.  Since, as I mentioned, it’s still frigging winter here.  Not that I mind, or anything.

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People I don’t know are follow…oh…

I was all excited this afternoon when I checked my email to see that two people I don’t know are following me.  I clicked on their blog links…and they’re both selling things.  Welcome to the consumertastic world, right?  Oh, well.

I’ve been reading  a lot of Mary Oliver’s poetry lately.  Her poem “The Summer Day” inspired my most recent tattoo, and there is something about her precise use of words as she lets us in to see what she has been observing that is right where I need to be.  I read “Whelks” the other night, and cried, and had to read it again four times.  Here’s a link to another blogger who has posted it.  http://beautyfromchaos.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/whelks/  (The line that has the word “shanking” should be read “shaking.”)

The lines that walloped me are:

All my life
I have been restless –
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss –
than wholeness –
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.

I have, at various times in my life, felt this…urgency.  This need to be doing something different from what I am doing.  Sometimes it was related to my love life, sometimes to my career, and sometimes to…well, “I have not been sure what it is.”  The love life part of the equation went away when my husband and I connected, but the others have never disappeared.  They diminish and surge, but are never truly gone.  And I have always wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”  While it’s perfectly human to want, I’ve often thought, “Greedy girl–you have a great life.  Why can’t you be happy and content?”

And now I know that I’m not alone.

Mary Oliver Teaches Me to See

I watched the wind today

     blowing the browned and crunchy leaves,

          sending winter’s refuse skittering.

Trees’ bare branches shook,

     clicked and clattered against each other,

         squirrels tightrope-walked, no nets.

Spring is coming on

     in soft red streamers of maple leaves

         and sun-bursts of forsythia.