What I’ve Been Reading: Early 2019

3 words: varied, satisfying, random

Today the focus is on the books I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a nice mix of genres and tone and style, and I’m a happy reader these days. Here’s what we’ve got…

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein

3 words: immediate, fresh, candid

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about life inside the White House bubble, behind-the-scenes accounts, twenty-something memoirs, workplace narratives

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

3 words: evocative, unsettling, gradually revealing

Give this book a whirl if you like… WWII espionage, young women spies, two time periods in one person’s life, England during WWII, some twists and turns in the plot

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

3 words: unsettling, psychological, twisted

Give this book a whirl if you like… twisty stories, unreliable characters, hidden agendas, multiple viewpoints

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

3 words: clever, humorous, sad

Give this book a whirl if you like… a blend of humor and pathos, a clever tone, a story of a gay man examining his life at age 50, a mild-mannered protagonist, finding oneself when running away from problems

Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin

3 words: quirky, creative, evocative

Give this book a whirl if you like… delightfully eccentric characters, a short story collection offering a variety of life circumstances, the complications of love, interpersonal relationships explored through vignettes

Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood

3 words: warm, personal, evocative

Give this book a whirl if you like… essays about food and life and cooking, memoirs in essay form, reading about the life of an author

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

3 words: comforting, warm, book-loving

Give this book a whirl if you like… books about the power of books, stories of overcoming adversity through community and literature, the story of an author finding her next story, WWII, epistolary novels, stories of unexpected romance

What wonderful things have you been reading lately?

Currently: polar vortex & all that snow

Reading | I just finished reading Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and I can’t get over it. I’m sad I finished it, I’m sad I’ll never get to read it again for the first time, and I’m sad that she’s no longer living. Her love for life springs off the pages and infects the reader, and I was overjoyed by her words and then so sad there won’t be more of them.

Reading online | When I saw this post by Carson Tate, I immediately rearranged my weekend. By which I mean, I cancelled half the things on my to-do list and gave myself some margin and some time to just be. While she says “Balance does not exist,” she also offers alternative ways to view the situation, and I really like that.


Listening | In my car, The World’s Greatest Love Story by Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman has been keeping me entertained during my brief spurts of driving. The audiobook version is fabulous — two actors reading their own material is gold. And it’s more like listening to a really great podcast, cuz often it’s like they’re having a conversation.

Watching | We’ve been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and finding it delightful. Although the Dear Man isn’t a KonMari devotee like I am (though he is a declutterer by nature), we find plenty to discuss during and after each episode. Who knew decluttering could be so entertaining?  

Learning | We’re delving deep into the history of our schoolhouse and are so grateful to our local historical museum for the great research assistance they provided. Is it true that I burst into applause when we saw a photo of first graders in the 1910s standing alongside our schoolhouse with their teacher? Yes, that is true.

Loving | The kitchen rug: it’s new, it’s pretty, and the cat even likes it.

Cooking | During the polar vortex, we made soup in the Instant Pot and I baked these cookies. When it hits -25, soup and cookies: pretty much mandatory.

Pizza eating | Here are our recent discoveries… Aliano’s Express Chicago style pizza and Aurelio’s thin crust. So good.

Celebrating | During the recent snowstorms, we conquered the snowblower and liked it.

So, are you too experiencing deep winter? How’re you making it bearable?

Books I Can’t Wait to Read: Early 2019

Anyone else haunt their library holds list?

I revisit mine like a kid looking through the Christmas toy catalog (they don’t print those anymore, do they?) to eye all the lovely things she craves.

Though, admittedly, by the time I was in 3rd grade, all I craved were books.

Here are the highlights on my library holds list at the moment…

What books are you aching to read this spring?

Our historic (school)house: when truth is stranger than fiction

When talking about mystery novels with The Dear Man a few years ago, I commented that one of the tropes is that detectives in books often live in really cool, unconventional houses.

Think Kinsey Millhone in that rockin’ garage apartment that feels like the inside of a boat.

Or Travis McGee, who actually lives on a houseboat.

Or Magnum, P.I. (OK, that’s 80s TV, but stay with me), who lives in the guest house of that grand estate in Hawaii.

Or my favorite literary abode: Scot Harvath’s home in an 18th century stone (former) church and rectory owned by the U.S. Navy. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

Detectives even get amazing office spaces: Walt Longmire has an office in an old Carnegie library, and Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro run their business from an old church belfry.*

It was one of those things that I thought only happened in books.

Until it happened to us.

We bought an old schoolhouse.

Actually, we bought half of it. There’s an 18-inch-thick brick wall that runs right down the center of the place, and we’ve bought the side we loved best.

The school was built in 1906—and while it’s been remodeled, it still has serious old-building character—and we get to live in it!

I love love love old houses. All my life (except during college, library school, and the first year after) I’ve lived in old houses, and I love their charm and their quirks and their history. Ever since childhood, I’ve adored sitting in my old house and thinking about the former residents reading the newspaper and finding out about the sinking of the Titanic. Or women winning the right to vote. Or the end of a war.

It makes me feel connected.

With this place, it’s an even twistier path to the past, because we’re envisioning students and teachers and the principal, living out their school days here. The other night, we were talking about “duck and cover” during the Cold War and I said, “Oh my gosh. They did that right here.”

So when it comes to listing my favorite things about this house, I get stuck. There’s the history, there’s the delight of living in a school, and there’re those brick walls, and the floating staircase, and the 8-foot tall windows, and the original doors and transoms…

We’re flat-out in love with this place. Sometimes we just sit and gaze at it. Often we don’t want to leave.

What’ll actually launch us out of the house: We’ve made an appointment at the local historical museum, where we’re gonna dig into our schoolhouse’s history. We’re hoping to find photos.

In the meantime, we’ve got a little chalkboard that says Comfort and here we are… reading and cooking and watching the cat and decoding the secrets of our schoolhouse and talking about all the things…

It’s no mystery where you’ll find us.

So tell me…. Has there ever been a point in your life when you’ve said, “I thought this only happened in books…”

*authors:

Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone series)

John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee series)

Brad Thor (Scot Harvath series)

Craig Johnson (Walt Longmire series)

Dennis Lehane (Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro series)

Theme for 2019: Comfort

Serendipity is the one word that describes the path to my choosing a one-word theme for 2019.

I was listening to the Happier podcast while doing strength training, and the episode was about choosing a one-word theme for the new year.

And without really giving it much thought, my endorphins delivered unto me a word:

Comfort

And I knew instantly that it was right.

What do I want more of? Comfort

What do I want to give more of? Comfort

It’s a word that inspired me, that same evening after my workout, to sit down and read a book. Even though there was filing and tidying to do.

Happy cat, cozy slippers, snuggly throw, hot tea, good book, happy home

So now I’m thinking of ways to make our home more comfortable and our lives more relaxed. There’s gonna be comfort food and comfy clothes and cozy evenings. I’m looking forward to it.

Anyone else have a one-word theme for 2019?

Advent calendar for book lovers

Advent calendar, full of quotations!

Remember how my wonderful and talented friend made me an Advent calendar?

And remember how every year she and I gather quotations to populate each other’s Advent calendars?

We did it again this year.

I love this tradition so much.

And also the related tradition that is practically a holiday in itself: each year, the first time we meet for dinner after Epiphany, we bring the favorite quotes we received from the other.

Here are our favorites from Advent 2018…

My favorites of the quotes I received:

His most remarkable gift, as Laura saw it, was a deep and profound contentment with what he had.  


Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires





He looked up at her. Kindness was something he didn’t even know he wanted, and here it was.


Marilynne Robinson, Lila







My friend’s favorites of the quotes she received:

Be tough and patient; one day this pain will be useful to you.

Ovid



One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.


Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea







It’s a beautiful thing, this tradition, and I feel really lucky to have such a friend.

Anyone else gather favorite lines from books? If so, I’d love to hear one or two…

Deciphering the life of a codebreaker

Elizebeth Smith Friedman
(source: NSA)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

3 words: engaging, journalistic, myth-busting

Holy Toledo, people. This book.

I didn’t want to put it down. It just kept surprising me at every turn.

Here’s the situation: In 1916, a young woman visits Chicago, looking for a job. A librarian at the Newberry Library, after talking with Elizebeth Smith, calls an eccentric millionaire, who zooms up in a big car, grabs Elizebeth by the arm and whisks her away. (That part freaked me out.)

Dude was George Fabyan, whose grand estate, Riverbank, is only a couple of miles from our house. So that had my eyes bugging out. But then I read on, and the story of Elizebeth’s life became even more surprising.

Fabyan hired her to work on his highly questionable quest to prove that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. But then, thank goodness, she directed her sharp mind to the other work of Riverbank Laboratories: codebreaking.

And during her years at Riverbank, she began her work as one of the most influential pioneers of cryptography. Thing is, partly because of the highly confidential nature of the work, and largely because of her gender, history has tended to overlook the contributions of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The thing that had me spitting tacks was learning that J. Edgar Hoover claimed credit for much of the work Elizebeth Smith Friedman did. And she could do nothing about it, because she was sworn to secrecy. Infuriating!

So this book reveals many such truths and grants her the credit she deserves.

It’s also the story of the remarkable partnership she shared with her husband, William Friedman. They met at Riverbank (where they lived in a windmill after their marriage; I find this completely charming) and together wrote important textbooks about codebreaking. The early years of their marriage, when they truly worked in partnership as cryptographers, are a beautiful thing to read about.

Then: war. And another war. During the two world wars, the Friedmans both worked on codebreaking, but they no longer worked together. And the secret nature of the work meant that they no longer worked as partners. This made me sad, and it also seemed like it could have diminished the incredible synergy of their collaborative work. But still, they both continued to break codes that saved American lives during war. It’s pretty amazing that two self-taught people could develop such ability.

This book astonished me on many levels.

  • First: I learned the life story of a woman I wish I’d known about earlier. Why haven’t we heard of her? [rhetorical question, obviously]
  • Second: It tells the truth about the contributions she made, and it reveals the lies of those who claimed credit.
  • Third: It’s stunning to think about the unlikelihood of her being hired to do work that morphed into codebreaking — her natural talent.
  • Fourth: Living so near the place where she began her work makes the story even more exciting.

Give this book a whirl if you like… narrative nonfiction, the early days of codebreaking, really smart women, stories of marriages, WWII espionage, celebrating a woman who never got her due

What’s the biography that most astonished you recently?

Domestic goodness

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl

3 words: intimate, multifaceted, soothing

Twitter is not my natural home, but this book, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s delightful Gmorning, Gnight!, kinda made me wish it were. Both books are filled with some of the best tweets I can imagine. My Kitchen Year is one of those magnificent books that does all kinds of things at once, and it does them all well.

It’s a memoir of Reichl’s difficult first year after losing her job when Gourmet magazine abruptly folded. And that’s a scary thought: job loss. And Reichl doesn’t sugarcoat it, but she also gets on with life. And for her, recovery begins in the kitchen. It’s very soothing to spend time with her as she begins to rebuild after the loss. For a couple of weeks, this was my bedtime reading, and it was perfect — beautiful and creative and calming and bite-sized (each section consists of a short description of the day, followed by a recipe).

It’s a cookbook filled with dreamy food writing. Sometimes I’d just savor the way she described the way to mix ingredients. Reichl knows what she’s doing with food, and she’s creative in the way she writes about it, and we benefit from all of it. (Although I said to the Dear Man: “Clearly I’m over-ambitious about my cooking abilities when I read recipes before bed.” When I looked through the recipes I’d marked, at least half of them seemed 20% more complicated than this lackadaisical cook can handle.)

It’s almost a book of poetry because the tweets that begin each section capture the essence of a day with just a few words. Each tweet reminded me of haiku in its ability to convey a mood and a scene with precious few syllables. It made me want to tweet like that. (As if that’s gonna happen. But a girl can dream.)

It’s a coffee table book that’s more than a coffee table book. The thing is bursting with luscious photos of food and nature. It made me almost want to buy a copy so I could flip through each season as it happens each year. In the Acknowledgments, Reichl writes some glowing words about the photographer who spent months capturing her cooking and some other quiet moments of her life. Lovely.

It’s a book I waited too long to read. This book’s been on my radar ever since Michael Kindness raved about it on the dearly departed Books on the Nightstand podcast a few years ago. And I wonder why I waited, and then I think, Maybe I read it when I was ready for it. Here I am, jubilantly over-reaching in the kitchen and making a happy new home. This book is a celebration of home and cooking and the simple comforts.

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cooking, memoir blended with recipes, beautiful books, reading about recovery from a job loss, rebirth, poetic tweets, gorgeous food and nature photography

So, my fellow bibliophiles… Anyone else a reader of cookbooks?

19 for 2019

Last year I was inspired by the Happier podcast to create a list of 18 goals for 2018. And I got ’em done!

Now I’m excited about 2019… cuz I dearly adore the setting and pursuit of goals.

Here’s what I’ve got in mind for the year ahead…

Yes, it’s lovely… but does it type??
  • Learn Instagram Stories with the Dear Man
  • Spend some serious quality time with our sisters
  • Learn & use 12 new techniques on the blog
  • Decide whether to catalog our home library
  • Perfect my Caesar salad
  • Set a twice-a-month grocery shopping rotation and stick with it
  • Style our kitchen island seasonally
  • Find out if my vintage typewriter actually works… and if so, use it
  • Write a series of blog posts
  • Go on at least 3 history geek trips with the Dear Man
  • Actually go through all those boxes in the basement
  • Have dinner twice monthly with a good friend
  • Do at least 3 of the activities in This Is Where You Belong
  • Fix formatting on all blog posts (cuz that Blogger import was not perfect)
  • Maximize the use of our new Instant Pot
  • Go on a field trip with a good friend
  • Figure out the layout of the den
  • Get the TVs set up
  • Research the history of our (school)house
Home sweet schoolhouse

And yes, it occurs to me that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew… but that’s nothing new.

So I’m launching into the new year with big goals and too many of them… and I’m ready to have at it!

And I mean it when I say I adore goals, and I’m love to hear yours. What are your plans for the new year?

2018: Year in Review

2018… you’ve been completely exhilarating. And completely exhausting.

While my 2018 reading stats are none too impressive, I accomplished all of my 18 for 2018 goals.

And I’m feeling good about that, especially since we accomplished so many other big things that weren’t on the list.

We did some big vacation-y things with our sisters in the first half of the year.

Then there was some mildly unpleasant medical stuff (not part of the plan), which resolved itself well — but still, not fun.

And then we threw ourselves into the search for a home.

And preparing two houses for sale.

And the selling of two houses.

And the setting up of a household together.

And ten zillion little things, like replacing the food processor after both of ours broke at the same time. (For real.)

When I look at the to-do lists we conquered, I’m stunned that we’re still standing. It’s exhausting just to contemplate.

What I learned re-learned: one step at a time. Just focus on the next small act. It’s all we can handle, and it eventually gets the job done. So simple, so comforting, so true.

And now… here we are, and we have a harmonious household and a house we’d choose again & again & again. It’s a good place to sit and contemplate all we’ve managed to accomplish in the past six months. (Though it’s best not to contemplate it too much, cuz we both end up with stunned looks on our faces merely recalling all the work that went into it.)

And now we’ve decorated our new house for the holidays, and it’s so lovely I can hardly stand it. This place is some serious cozy. And we get to live in here. It’s good, my friends.

I wish you all a very happy New Year!