June Reprise

June was your basic lazy summer month. I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction and 3 poetry). The theme for the month was award-winning books (any award will do). There was a pinch towards the end of June as I tried to finish up multiple books at once (the one drawback of having a monthly reading theme), but I managed to pull it off (even though I perhaps gave short shrift to the last 100 pages of Slaves in the Family).

There were two major league standouts: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (fiction), a novel that takes place during WW2, from alternating perspectives of a young French girl who is blind, and a German boy who becomes a soldier (at age 16) even though he doesn’t believe in the Nazi creed. Short compelling chapters made for several fine afternoons of reading on the front porch.

The other particularly notable book of June was Things That Are, by Amy Leach. One could call these nature essays, or one could call them flights of fancy. They could also qualify as prose poetry; the writing is often playful and sometimes humorous, delightful and whimsical. I also learned a lot about sea cucumbers and jellyfish.

I’ve been tending the garden, harvesting rhubarb, blueberries, and calendula and just starting to see raspberries. I opted out of growing any vegetables this year, since with the exception of tomatoes I tend to fail miserably. More room for rosemary and chamomile!

A major highlight of June was seeing South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater. I had never seen it before (either the play or the movie) and it was wonderful! I knew many of the songs, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” which I associated with Clairol hair coloring, but not a musical. Good humor and great dancing. I Love the Guthrie; it rarely disappoints.

Minor highlights: I got rid of several more bags of books (what a good feeling!); of course this makes room for more books, which is also a good feeling. One of my favorite restaurants closed—Le Town Talk Diner. A sad day. And I continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, sent on postcards to my friend in Montana)—nearly three years now! Here are some of my favorites from June:

another bag gone
gently used books seek new home,
a new adventure

adieu Le Town Talk
you have loved and served us well
I will miss your quiche

out the front window
two swallowtail butterflies
in the lilac tree

award-winning books
just a few days to finish
six hundred pages

Happy summer and good reading!

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May Reprise

May was mostly about establishing new patterns and routines with both of us home on a full-time basis. It is hard! I am a major lover of solitude and silence and will be forever grateful for these last two years. I found having full days to myself led to a desire to write. Ideas bubbled up based on books, conversations, current events; I would develop a framework in my mind.

The ideas aren’t bubbling up so much anymore, much less the framework to hang them on. I thought about taking the summer off from the blog, or even stopping. But I don’t want to quit writing (and I did keep up with the daily haiku project) and I think I’ve come up with a nice bridge/solution. That’s my next blog post.

Back to May: I read 12 books in May, and for the first time in a while, poetry ruled (5), followed by fiction (4) and nonfiction (3). My hands-down favorite book of the month (2 stars) was Farmacology, by Daphne Miller. This feels like an important, ground-breaking book, kind of along the lines of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I’m not sure why it has fallen pretty much under the radar. If you are interested in health issues and/or our ‘write a prescription to take care of a problem’ medical culture, you should definitely take a look at this book.

The May reading theme was one-word titles. Super fun. Here are my titles:

  • Georgia
  • Farmacology
  • Pinhook
  • Exterior
  • Fidelity
  • Nurture
  • Fortune
  • Gravity
  • Nimona
  • unflux
  • Pure

Doesn’t it make you want to go to your bookshelves right now and look for one-word titles? I thought so.

I did not do as much birding in May as I should have or wanted to. Lots of rain, and then busy on the days good for birding. Ah well. Still, I added 23 birds to my year list, with highlights of Northern Harrier, House Wren (backyard), Sandhill Cranes (about 30 of them!), Common Loon, Hermit Thrush, Indigo Bunting, and Gray Catbird (also in the backyard, and nesting nearby—very loud!).

In the kitchen I made apple-rhubarb sauce (very good, includes a lot of cinnamon), ham steak (also good though a little dry), scalloped potatoes (first try, not so good), and braised turkey legs (excellent).

We got rid of 6 more bags of books. I can actually see most of the floor in the blue room. Progress.

Haiku for May:

rampant raspberries
want to march across the yard
cheers for the home team!
early morning dark
before getting out of bed
I smell the lilacs
the saucy catbird
ever bold and curious
poses for Kathleen
last night I dreamt that
god is a small blue corner
dusky seaside blue

On to June. In the meantime, good books, good birds, and lots of laughter.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

February Reprise

February was mostly reading and writing with a little shoveling thrown in. We finally got a nice dumping of snow in early February—about 10 inches. The book launch party I was planning to attend was canceled, so instead I made a tuna casserole, shoveled, and read.

I read 13 books in February, pretty evenly divided between poetry (5), fiction (4), and nonfiction (4). My favorite book of the month was Iron Hearted Violet, a YA novel by Kelly Barnhill. I loved this book for many reasons and was completely captivated. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that I loved it because it has lots of strong female characters, a mistress of falconry, a princess who isn’t beautiful, a dragon, a runty god, and a dab of physics.

Other than that it was just kind of a blah reading month; nothing else really grabbed me. I think it’s the February blues. Not that it’s been a particularly rough February (on the contrary). But my heart wants to be puttering in the back yard, pulling weeds and harvesting herbs. Two months to go yet.

I continued the GMO postcard project through all of February (a postcard a day to my two senators, with a fact a day about GMOs and what we know and don’t know and asking them to vote against the Dark Act). It was a lot of fun but kind of intense. I really got quite immersed in the GMO world (learned a lot, too) and while the postcards themselves only took about an hour a day, the issue occupied my mind for many more hours. I did give myself Sundays off, but it was still pretty intense.

And I’m still continuing my daily haiku postcard project. From February:

white-breasted nuthatch
calls from the top of the tree
is it springtime yet?

winter storm warning
gleefully anticipate
5 to 9 inches

the perfect snowstorm
not too cold, nowhere to be
Groundhog Day indeed

The final thing that took a good chunk of time in February was politics: It’s been a bit of a wild ride and a lot to follow. From the presidential candidates to the Supreme Court to the many strains of populism being displayed by the citizenry. It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

Again, scary but fun.

October Reprise

October was about reading, presidential debates, repairing, and replacing. It was also a much more social month than is usual for me. But first, the books.

I read a lot in October—24 books. Half were fiction (and three of those were graphic novels, two of which were Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I read 5 poetry books which was nice after last month’s drought, and 7 works of nonfiction. The reading theme for October was scary/Halloween. Some sample titles:

  • Ghostwritten (David Mitchell)
  • Boo (Neil Smith)
  • Goest (Cole Swensen)
  • Night With Its Owl (Anne Love Woodhull)
  • Talking to the Dead (Helen Dunmore)
  • A Man Lay Dead (Ngaio Marsh)
  • The Boggart and the Monster (Susan Cooper)
  • Ghosts in the Garden (Beth Kephart)
  • Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  • Murderer’s Day (E.M. Schorb)

FC9781844673315The best book I read last month was The Food Wars, by Walden Bello. I learned so much about agriculture and world trade (scary things, depressing things and yes, some hopeful things)—too much to get into here. That will have to be a separate post. My other favorite book of the month was fiction, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. I read this in one day. If you have a friend who loves books (I’m not just talking loves to read, but loves the books 9781616204518in and of themselves), hie thee to the nearest independent bookstore and purchase The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for the next gift opportunity (a sunny day will do).

Also in bookworld, we attended the Twin Cities Book Festival at the state fairgrounds. This is always a fun event with lots of authors and speakers and books for sale. I got 6 poetry books for $3 (total, not apiece), which was amazing.

As for the repairs and replacements, we have a new computer (which I’m slowly getting used to) but still a less than perfect (am I becoming too impatient?) internet connection. Also, the dryer vent fell away from the wall/vent hole and I could no longer fix it with duct tape, so that was replaced. And then the sewer backed up (doing laundry, always more pleasant than other indicators) so we called Ron the Sewer Rat and that problem was resolved. Whew.

And such a social month. One of the highlights was my mom’s 95th birthday. We went out for a birthday lunch to her place of choice, thinking it would just be a few of us, and imagine how fun when all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren showed up. They found a table big enough for all of us and Mom just glowed.

Also in the social world were the presidential debates. We prevailed upon our TV-owning friend Kathleen, who kindly invited us over for the first Democratic and the second Republican debate. Go Bernie!

Plus visiting the apple orchards with my friend in Hastings, making more dishwasher soap with my neighbor (love it—cheap and works well!), a reception and lecture at the University of Minnesota, happy hour with some former coworkers, and sundry lunches and other engagements conspired to fill so many days, I see a couple notations of “blessed day alone” in my journal.

I also turned up the stove in October and did more cooking. Nice to be back in cooler weather where I actually want to turn on the oven. Mostly the basics: beef stew, Cuban beans, applesauce, chicken adobo, spaghetti. I want to make a soufflé. Maybe in November.

October is a lovely month in Minnesota. We had our first hard freeze so I picked all the tomatoes and took in some herbs for hopeful overwintering. Then it warmed up again, and I took advantage to immerse myself in reading on the front porch while I can. They are rare days now and to be savored.

September Reprise

September was mostly about not having a working computer (also part of August and much of October). Not having a computer makes a lot of things different. Sure, I could check email and get the internet on my phone. But I mostly use email for lengthy correspondence, and small screens don’t work so well for that. I found myself sending more things through the mail.

I missed my morning email update from the Washington Post; I missed reading news in general (again, not as fun on the small screen). I started reading the newspaper in the morning. I find it a fine start to the day and even just paging through the paper for 15 minutes I realize I am gleaning a lot more than I do when I catch the news online. All those inside stories.

I missed blogging but I didn’t miss blogging. I got a lot done around the house. I slept better.

We have a new computer now, and I’m starting to learn at least some of the new gadgets that have been added in the many years since my last computer purchase. It’s a mix of annoying and fun. Annoying if I’m in a hurry or it crashes (still some glitches to work out) and fun when I have the “aha!” of “Oh That’s how that works!” Whether I’ll be able to figure out pictures for this post remains to be seen.

We also took our first vacation in several years in September, to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Highlights: Northshire Books, a new independent bookstore in downtown Saratoga Springs (it earned several visits); a drive through the beautiful Catskill Mountains; a few hours wandering around a relatively deserted state park, where we lost ourselves in a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies; and a most wonderful dinner with the in-laws (sister and husband) which was a perfect blend of banter and laughter and serious talk, and everyone had a second drink. I bet we sat there for three hours. It is very rare for me not to want social engagements to end, but this one I would have liked to extend for an hour or two.

As for the rest of life in September, I read fewer books than average (only 9), but it was a bit unusual in a majority (5) were nonfiction and none were poetry. The huge standout of the month was Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Who hasn’t had this experience? The experience Solnit relates was particularly egregious (but oh so funny): She was a guest at a party in Aspen, and the host said he heard she was a writer and asked what she had written. Solnit mentioned her most recent book at the time, River of Shadows: Edward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. He cut her off and asked if she had heard about the Very Important Muybridge book that had come out recently. He then proceeded to tell her about her own book. When he finally realized she had written the book he was lecturing her about, he at least had the grace to turn ashen. Punch line: He hadn’t even read the book; he had merely read a review of the book! Men Explain Things to Me is a slim volume, easily read in a day. I recommend it to everybody.

Much of the rest of September was about being outdoors. Harvesting, pruning, weeding, and just hanging out. We also finished the seventh (and final) season of West Wing, which I found to be a most excellent television series that I missed when it was airing. Perhaps not as good as Star Trek or Buffy or Xena, but still probably in the top five.

Oh. In the kitchen I made crabapple sauce and it was a total disaster. So much work with those tiny apples, for just a little amount of sauce, that was way too sour and crunchy. I also made my first batch of applesauce from the apple orchard season, even though it was a bit early in September. I now have Honeycrisp and Haralson apples, which will make the most excellent applesauce of substance.

Finally, we celebrated the equinox. The balance of light and dark, the start of autumn. The trees are beautiful here. The maples are flaming. The trees turn early in the Mississippi River valley, so I am happy to experience a really long autumn.

More soon I hope!

August Reprise

August was mostly about cleaning and cooking and culling. Part of this burst of productivity was due to the fact that our internet was down for nearly 2 weeks. Without that distraction (though I did learn a lot of new tricks with my phone), I turned to other forms of entertainment. Plus we were very lucky to have an unseasonably cool and rainy patch which gave me a boost of energy and made both cooking and cleaning more enjoyable.

As for the book culling, that was done mostly in the basement on the hottest days. I found it a fine way to while away a hot afternoon: going through old books that I’ve read and loved enough to keep, thinking I might read them again. But tastes change, time gets a little shorter, and new books keep coming out, and often a few years after reading it is easier to part with a book than immediately on completion. I did it at a good time, too—I was feeling quite ruthless. (It’s worthless to try book culling when in a sentimental mood. You’re lucky to find even one book you can part with.) In all, I culled about 500 books. When I saw the piles and piles and bags and bags, I hesitated. Wasn’t I getting rid of a sizable portion of my collection? But then I thought that perhaps I was merely getting rid of as many books as I’ve purchased since moving into this house 8 years ago. And then I decided to find out (because I keep track of these kinds of things). Oh. Well. I just did the calculation. From 2008-2014 (the most easily available data), I bought 1,350 books. I have barely culled what amounts to one-third of the books that I’ve brought into the house since moving in! But there are two more bookcases and another cabinet of books in the basement to cull, as well as others tucked here and there in nooks and crannies throughout the house. Maybe I’ll get to 1,000 before the end of the year!

EvermealBut August was also about reading, of course. I read 15 books in August, mostly nonfiction (8), but also 3 books of poetry and 4 novels. The best of the pack was An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. I started this book intending to give it to my sister-in-law as part of her Christmas package (we have a “no new gifts” policy). It took me less than a chapter to wonder if I would be able to part with this book—so many things I wanted to try, cooking techniques and recipes (e.g., baked ricotta, parsley salad). Adler’s book also contributed to my August bean frenzy, with an entire chapter devoted to beans. By chapter two I had used my pencil gingerly, and by chapter six I was wielding it with abandon. This is a book that will go on my kitchen bookshelf to be consulted often, and reread on occasion. For those of you out there that love food-related literature, An Everlasting Meal is modeled on M. F. K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf. I’ve not read any Fisher, but we happen to have How to Cook a Wolf in the house, and I expect to read it before the year’s end.

[Note: My sluggish computer is not loading pictures. I hope to come back and add more in later.]

The other best book was My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman. This book is a visual treat—the type of book that I adore. I have loved all the books of hers that I’ve read, but this, more than any other, made me smile.

As for the cleaning, I won’t bore you with that much, except to say that the dust bunnies behind the poetry were more akin to dust hares, and vacuuming stairs is seriously unpleasant.

I’ve already written about my foray into the world of beans, and that has continued. I made a batch of kidney and pinto beans in the slow cooker (with just an onion, several garlic cloves, and salt, with the salt added toward the end) and they were great!

My efforts to limit my eating of factory-farmed meat have been moderately successful (in large part because it’s summer when I tend to eat less meat anyway) and I’ve surprised myself at how many meatless days I have (18 of 31 days in August). Eating out less has definitely been a factor in the increase in meatless days (and it has been good to my wallet!).

Also in the domestic realm, my neighbor and I made dishwashing soap and laundry soap. It was a fun afternoon of grating (bar soap—we used Dr. Bronner’s) and stirring and mixing and pouring. I’ve tried both the laundry and dish soap and have no complaints. Cheaper, fewer chemicals, and better for the environment. As long as it works, I’m there!

But the huge event of August was seeing The Music Man at the Guthrie Theater. In fact we loved it so much, we went back two weeks later and saw it again (from a completely different vantage point). A total luxury and worth every penny.