Virtues & Vices: Reading in the New Year

The reading theme for January is Virtues and Vices. This includes the formal virtues and vices (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance; and wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony) as well as everyday virtues and vices. For example, the other day when I was looking at my poetry shelf, I decided Simplicity was a virtue, whereas Materialism is a vice.

Since we’re halfway through the month already, I’ve got several books under my belt. My first book of the year was Book Love. What could be more appropriate? This 137-page graphic novel by Debbie Tung was a gift from my reading friend in Colorado. A perfect start to the reading year.

Moving to the Vice end of the spectrum, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly was an eye-opening book, even for this feminist. For those of you who like numbers, there’s a lot of data here (lots of endnotes, too).

Back to Virtues: The Lost Art of Gratitude, the 6th book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith, was one of my favorites so far. A philosopher by trade (and editor of a philosophy journal), Isabel is more philosophical than usual in this book, and I enjoyed watching her work through her dilemmas. Staying in the land of virtue, I next read Faithful, by Alice Hoffman. Not my favorite Hoffman, but it certainly won’t put me off reading more of her in the future.

I’ve finished one poetry book, A Slender Grace, by Rod Jellema; and I’m about three-quarters through The White Lie, by Don Paterson. My current nonfiction book is Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Subtitled Finding God in the Faith of Others, I am loving this book as it evokes happy memories from the Comparative Religion course that I took decades ago. I had forgotten how cool Hinduism is: Recognizing people are different, it offers different paths to union with the divine (e.g., meditation, devotion, scholarly study). I’m only a quarter through, and it’s ridiculously early in the year to say, but this book has the potential to be one of my favorites of the year.

There are nearly two weeks left in January. Plenty of time for a few more Virtues & Vices. Most of my remaining potentials are virtues, but there are a few vices to be found. For fiction, I’m considering New Mercies, by Sandra Dallas (she can be perfect on a snowy day); Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym (this would be a reread, but I’m considering it purely for the Prudence); Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (surely Civility is a virtue?); and An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (I’ve decided Unkindness is a vice, as I wanted to add a science fiction book to the pile).

In nonfiction, my next book will likely be All About Love by bell hooks. I’m also very interested in White Rage, by Carol Anderson, but I think maybe one book of rage a month is enough. Instead I might move on to Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. Oh, I also have a fast-read gift-type book from the library, Life in the Sloth Lane (because who could resist Sloth?)

I think Sloth will win. It’s winter, after all.

Pork Chops Delicious

My first new recipe of the year (see resolution to cook at least one new thing every month) is for baked (though I might call them braised) pork chops.

I found this recipe in my mom’s recipe box, clipped from an unknown newspaper. It intrigued me, and it was one of the few meat recipes in the box that didn’t require a can of condensed soup.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 8 pork chops
  • 2 cups soy sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

I didn’t want to make 8 pork chops as I only had 2. But quartering the rest of the recipe was tedious, so I just halved it. I do not regret this decision. (Also, I used an entire clove of garlic, and not a small one.)

Steps

Mix all the ingredients excepting the pork chops in a sauce pan, heat and simmer for two minutes. Let cool.

Pour the cooled mixture over the chops, turning the chops around in the marinade so they are thoroughly drenched. Make sure a lot of the onion and garlic pieces are on top of the meat. Marinade, covered, for at least 2 hours in the fridge, or you can also marinade overnight. (I just put the chops right in the pan I plan to bake them in—less to clean up. Mine had a lid. You can also use foil.)

Using a shallow baking pan, bake the chops (with the marinade, again with lots of the good bits on top) tightly covered, at 375 degrees for one hour.

After an hour, remove the cover and bake for another ½ hour or so, when the sauce is reduced and the chops are done.

This was excellent. It would have been even better had I adjusted the cooking time to reflect 2 pork chops rather than 8 (I believe half an hour could be shaved off), but it’s a very good starting point.

Thanks Mom!

Resolutions for 2020

I usually do three resolutions for the New Year, and I’m pretty good at keeping them. Most years, it seems they just come to me, but this year, I’ve struggled a little bit. Does that mean I shouldn’t do them? Well, no. Let it simmer a little bit.

And one day a week or two ago it occurred to me there are so many new things—foods—I want to make in the kitchen, and yet I keep making the same old same old. Why not a resolution to make at least one new thing a month? Ever since I happened upon the idea, it keeps growing on me. There are so many things I want to make! I bought a Somali-American cookbook a few months ago, and that in itself could provide the requisite 12 dishes. But I also have a book of Mediterranean recipes for the slow cooker, and that would also provide 12 candidates. And then I found two in my mom’s recipe box that I want to try: macaroni and cheese (which I’ve never made except from a box), and marinated pork chops.

There are also some very common things I want to make that I never have: scalloped potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, quiche. Also some less common things: falafel, samosas, sticky chicken.

As I got to thinking about this resolution, I thought 12 isn’t nearly enough, I should do at least 24, or maybe 1 a week—that isn’t really so much. Perhaps not. But it wouldn’t be fun; it would be something hanging over my head all the time. One a month I think I can do, even in the brutal months of July and August with temperatures and humidity in the 90s. I have a secret goal of 25, but I will be quite happy with one new dish every month.

The second resolution is financial, which is boring to everyone so I’ll glide over it, just to say cutting back on both groceries and eating out by 20%. We’ve gotten a bit frivolous on both counts.

The third resolution I struggled with the longest. I had ideas for this or that, but they were all so me-focused. I wanted something more community, something outwardly positive. And then today it occurred to me: Do a kind thing every day. I love this idea. I know that I’ll invariably fail, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ll try. And as I keep trying, I’ll get better at it and notice more opportunities to be kind.

They don’t have to be big things: waiting an extra second to hold the door for someone with a bag; complimenting someone on something (I think this only works if you mean it); clipping a coupon for a friend; giving up your seat on the bus; sending a birthday card; washing out a bowl that someone left behind.

Of course there are bigger acts, like shoveling your neighbor’s walk, helping someone stuck in the snow, paying the tab for the next table in a restaurant, or buying movie tickets for the people behind you in line. I hope to do some of those, too. But for the most part, I’m focused on the small, everyday acts of kindness. The more the better.

I’m quite excited by the 2020 resolutions. A nice mix. I like the creativity and learning involved in the cooking resolution; the discipline and numbers involved in the budgeting resolution; and the challenge, rewards, and potential long-term impact of the kindness resolution.

Any other resolution makers out there?

December Reading Theme: It’s a Winner!

The December theme is Prize-Winning Books. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this theme; in fact it’s the fourth. But I’m particularly excited about it this year because I’ve taken a new approach.

In the past, I researched awards and went through lists to see which books I might have on my shelves (or, perhaps, venture to buy or get from the library). This year, I turned that approach on its head. Instead of searching award winners, I searched the books on my shelves that I really want to read, and then checked to see if they had won any awards. Total score!

Well, not total. But a lot. More than half. What this means is that I’m pretty much looking at the cream of my crop for books this month. I dived head first into this theme on November 30, as I was ready to leave Taste (the November theme) behind. My first pick (and the first book I checked out online for a possible literary award) was No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (winner of the PEN America Literary Award). These are short essays, and they warm my heart. I keep reading one more and one more, and I’m about a third through the book already.

For fiction, I chose Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor (winner of the Locus Award, the Lodestar Award, and the World Science Fiction Society Award for Best YA Book). Note, this is the second in a series and the third is not yet published. However, if this is like the first (Akata Witch), it will have a satisfactory conclusion rather than a cliffhanger. I’m about three-quarters through this compelling book (nearly 500 pages). It’s fantasy and takes place in Nigeria. I’m loving it.

For poetry, I’m reading Billboard in the Clouds, by Suzanne S. Rancourt (winner of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award). I’ve made good progress on this, also—nearly half done.

I have a feeling this is going to be a Really Good reading month.

Other top-of-the-line nonfiction: Call Them By Their Real Names, by Rebecca Solnit (Kirkus Prize for nonfiction), Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, by Peter Kalmus (Nautilus Book Award), Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss (James Beard Award), Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, by David Treuer (winner of the Minnesota Book Award).

The Minnesota Book Award was quite lucrative in terms of my shelves. I also have The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang; and Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, by Linda LeGarde Grover.

My fiction stack is even taller. Highlights: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (Orange Prize), An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (Women’s prize for fiction, Aspen Words Literary Prize), Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (Akutagawa Prize), Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (Oregon Book Award), Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (National Book Critics Circle Award), and that skims the surface. (I haven’t even looked at mysteries, except to find out that my next Louise Penny book has won at least one award. I feel like I’m in heaven.)

My poetry stack is not so high, but I haven’t pushed that one so much. Next up is You Won’t Remember This, by Michael Dennis Browne (thank you again, Minnesota Book Award). I didn’t read any poetry at all for the November theme, so I don’t want to push it. I do have The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (National Book Award), and that would make a fine December read.

So glad this month has 31 days. Happy reading!

On Books You Hate, and Ways of Hating Books (for book nerds only)

It is not often that I hate a book, and I was pretty sure I had a good handle on the kind of books I have learned to avoid—generations-long family sagas (where you have to develop a family tree to keep track of things), books with overt sexual violence, books with gratuitous sexual violence, and books set in Ireland (no idea where that comes from, but I also tend to avoid books set in Australia—probably I should read more books in these two geographic areas, and suggestions are welcome).

The sexual violence pretty much explains itself. The long sagas—well, I think you love them or hate them. Ireland and Australia (my aversion)—I don’t quite get that. I’d sooner visit them than read about them, and that is hugely strange to me. But there you have it: If I pick up a book (especially a novel) set in either place, I immediately put it down. It could make one wonder about past lives, but I’m not going down that road.

Instead, I’ll mention two novels I read this month that I hated. I rarely hate books, and it is exceptionally rare for me to hate two books in such a short time span. Rarer still is that they have very similar structures, and I realize that I think it’s the structure that I hate, rather than the books themselves.

The two books are quite different: Umami, by Laia Jufresa; and The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein. Note: Do not read the penultimate paragraph of this post if you intend to read either book, as it contains a spoiler.

But the structures are similar: Umami has four parts. Each part usually with five chapters, told from different perspectives, and they always go backwards in time, a year for each chapter. By the time I got to the next part of the book, I had lost the thread of the previous several narrators. Going backwards in time only confounded things for me. It wasn’t always clear whose perspective I was hearing (I’m moderately sure they went in order, chronologically, backwards, but I didn’t go back to check because overall, I found it jarring and annoying and I didn’t care enough).

This was top of mind, this confusion of switching perspectives from chapter to chapter, when I started The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. I read a few chapters, I looked ahead, it seemed cohesive. I proceeded.

It had five parts. Again, the perspective changed with every chapter. The characters were hard to keep track of, time is fluid, and by the end of the book, I didn’t even care about Leonora (basically the star character) because she ends up taking just a very few pages in each part. Despite my initial caution, I had jumped into another disjointed book.

And what I realize, after reading two such different and yet similar books within a couple weeks of each other, is that both of the books change perspectives in ways that make you work to figure out whose perspective you’re hearing.

How many times did I page back though each book to figure out who was who? Who is narrating? Who’s mother-child-neighbor-friend was Goldie? How do these threads tie together?

For both books, by the time I got about halfway through, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about going backward in time, I didn’t care about Goldie, and I didn’t care about Ana’s neighbors. But I was halfway through before I realized I totally didn’t care (and was a bit annoyed to boot) so I slogged through. I just don’t want to work this hard to read a book that I can’t even figure out what it’s trying to say. They both feel like an annoying waste of time.

Also: Both books hinge on dead people, which is to say dead young women, actually girls, in particular. And this annoys me even more. I am tired of dead young women as tropes.

Has anyone out there had a similar experience? Books you’ve hated? Themes that get repeated to an annoying pitch? What have you hated and why?

The Taste of Books

November’s reading theme is Taste (as in sweet, bitter, sour, salty, umami). I don’t have a huge pile for this theme, but I have a few major winners (at least in terms of theme fit). For fiction, I’ve found Umami, by Laia Jufresa; Sourdough, by Robin Sloan; Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki; Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile; and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.

In nonfiction, I have Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss; Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat; and Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A short but very rich list.

Poetry was a major bust. My best contenders: Sesame, by Jack Marshall; and Wise Poison, by David Rivard. I had Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, until I realized I was thinking of pinyon. I may still read Pinion. I’m that desperate.

I’ll certainly go further afield than the five specific tastes mentioned above. I’ve already finished The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick. I also have Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell; and Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde for back-up fiction. In nonfiction, I have Honey From Stone, by Chet Raymo; and Lion’s Honey, by David Grossman.

Whoa! I just went to put some of those books back on the bookshelf, and what should I happen to notice but Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, right there big as life (hardcover, no less) on the to-read shelf. How in the world did I miss that in my initial sweep?

Still, I think Something Rotten might be my next fiction read (after Bitter Sweets, which I’m about one-quarter through and quite enjoying). I haven’t read Jasper Fforde in years, and I think I’m ready to visit his wacky literary world again (this is the fourth in his Thursday Next series, and I loved the first three).

Next month’s theme is Prize Winners. Yes, it’s early to be thinking about next month’s theme, but I’ve exhausted my search in Taste. (Despite having overlooked Sweet Tooth, I am not going to review the entire collection for other misses—far too tedious! Much more fun to look forward.) This is the fourth time we’ve done the prize winner theme, and I’ve turned my methodology on its head this year. Previously, I’d check the awards lists—Pulitzer, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Man-Booker, Lambda, Tiptree, Hugo, Nebula, Edgar (there are so very many) etc. Then I’d check my shelves to see which of those I had (I remember a lot of the books I have, but not all of them).

But this year, I’m just looking at my shelves, and saying: What have I been wanting to read, but not yet gotten around to? And then I check it online to see if it’s won an award. Well. What a great idea! The very first book I checked had won an award. I’ve been running about 50/50, with half of the books I check having won an award (state awards are a great boon).

I do love playing with books.

Happy reading!

Magazine Madness

I’ve never been good at keeping up with my magazines, but about two years ago I seemed to mostly stop reading them altogether, without ending my subscriptions. Well, you might know trouble lies there.

Just recycle the lot of them, maybe keeping the newest issue of each, I hear you say. A good strategy, which worked with exactly one magazine that I found worthless (only a one-year subscription, thank goodness), and old poetry magazines that I subscribed to specifically to find out about new poetry.

It all came to a head when I was looking for a particular magazine which caused me to have to upset the precarious balance of all the magazines piled on top of my seriously overflowing magazine rack. This stack went on my chair, awaiting . . . something. After three days of not sitting in my chair, I hauled the stack to the rack and started sorting. I arranged chronologically by magazine, oldest to newest. I figured I’d read the oldest ones really fast, and slow down as I progressed. I have six magazines I can’t part with without at least glancing through: Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Mother Earth Living, Orion, Yes!, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

But as I finished organizing, I thought—wouldn’t I rather read all the October issues of my cooking magazines now? When they’re talking about fall foods and recipes? Why, yes. And doesn’t the same hold true for Mother Earth Living, with the seasons and such? And certainly the Conservation Volunteer is seasonal.

Fruit basket upset! Clearly the best way to get through the magazines is seasonally, rather than some vague start with the oldest magazines and read fast sort of approach. Granted, this way it takes a year (maybe), but at least, if I stick to it, I will be caught up in a year. This is a pretty good deal to me, since the tower has been building for a few years now (I decreased magazine reading several years before stopping altogether). So I went through and reorganized the magazines by month/season.

I love it, and I’m having great success!  I started the project just one week ago, and I’ve gotten through about 20 magazines. I have all the October magazines done, as well as all the Autumn issues. I have started on November. Actually, I have a good chunk of November done, because one of the cooking magazines is October-November. As such, I read three November cooking magazines in a row. I got a lot of Thanksgiving cooking tips, and was able to do a lot of quick page flipping because how many articles do you need to read about roasting a turkey for a large crowd when you usually go out on Thanksgiving?

I have even made a spreadsheet to track my progress, with the months and seasons in the left column and the six magazines across the top. It’s nice to see two entire rows (October, fall) already completed. I like to see progress this way. When I feel the magazines are still so many, I can look and see how much I’ve already done. If I finish November early, I might read a July issue of something—sort of a vacation. In this way, I think I might get the project done in less than a year.

This is not a solution that will appeal to everyone. But if your magazines are overflowing and you truly can’t part with them, this might be the perfect approach for you. It’s certainly working for me! I love really sinking into the season across the magazines. I love that I’m honoring each magazine by looking at every page, finding good recipes, poems, ideas for saving the world, and beautiful pictures to send to friends. I also love that I’m finally doing this, after continuing to add magazine after magazine to the tippy tower. I love that already the magazines seem manageable instead of overwhelming.

This will be a good New Year’s resolution–finishing the magazines (preferably earlier than later, but no later than end of September).

Fall. It makes me plan ahead. My favorite season.

Happy autumn!