Tired and Worried

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I was new at this [National Geographic journalist], this was my big chance, and I knew I was going to mess up. So, every night, tired and worried, I would climb into my sleeping bag, under my mosquito net, and I would read from my book. And, instantly, I would be in another world, a world in which, whatever happened, it wasn’t my fault.

— Candice Millard, National Book Festival Gala, September 23, 2016

The full context of her remarks

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Frederick Law Olmsted

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Morton Arboretum, the closest photo I had to landscape architecture

I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years. — Frederick Law Olmsted

So many surprises in A Clearing In the Distance. Olmsted was an autodidact. A slow starter, a dabbler in disparate enterprises, he kept afloat with his father’s loans. He himself was his father’s ‘Central Park’, the long investment whose glories would become apparent in the future. Fame first came as a journalist. He sailed to China; he bought a farm; he traveled to Europe; he started a magazine; he managed the largest gold mine in California.

It is the breadth of Olmsted’s curiosity that makes his writing compelling.

His genius was made manifest when he, along with Calvert Vaux, created New York City’s Central Park. After that, Olmsted designed other huge city parks, the suburb of Riverside, IL, university campuses, cemeteries, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Biltmore Estate. I enjoyed reading about the projects he didn’t get: Golden Gate Park, the city of Tacoma, WA.

The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space.

The timing of my reading was delicious! In some ways this is the daylight to the darkness of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Riis writes extensively about the Children’s Aid Society, started by Olmsted’s closest friend, Charles Brace. Olmsted’s work on Central Park was more civic than aesthetic, giving residents the space to soak up sunshine and fresh air.

Other reading intersections: Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City made me thirsty to know more about FLO. Michael Pollan referenced Olmsted’s ideas in Second Nature. By chance, I’ve landed in books set in the late-19th century. The wider I read, the greater my familiarity grows and the joy of recognition sparks.

Finally, I believe growing up in Lombard, IL, walking through our own Lilacia Park, designed by Jens Jensen, and nearby Morton Arboretum, a 1700-acre tree museum, predisposed me to love this book.

For myself and those interested in cultural history: 5 stars
For those who like biographies, history, and books with an index and maps: 4 stars

Deep Reading (All the Books)

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There is a moment when you’re charmed / challenged / bedazzled by the writing and you resolve to read every book this author has written.

(Sometimes, though, in the middle of the fourth book by that beloved author, one recants! Alas, true story.)

My reading life began with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Twice a year — on my birthday and on Christmas — my dad and mom gave me a brand new hardback, the next Little House in the series. Oh how rich I felt, how lovingly I smoothed the dustjackets, how often I re-read those early books.

Wilder was the first author who inspired me to ‘read the canon’ (not to be confused with reading the cannon!) even though I didn’t know the word canon. As long as we’re talking about obscure words, I like oeuvre. (←three vowels in a row!!!)

In my early twenties I embarked on reading James Michener — always skipping the first boring chapter — immersing myself in family sagas set in Hawaii, Israel, South Africa and the Chesapeake Bay. At some point I forgot what I loved about them and moved on. I have his book, Poland, unread on my shelf, curious what I will think of it after all these years.

Somewhere in my thirties I read Jane. Dear, dear Jane. There is only one Jane whose whispered name thrills the soul. Jane Austen. Seven books that I’ve enjoyed multiple times. My beloved Latin teacher would say, “I was reading Mansfield Park, and came across the ethical dative.” There is more than one reason to read Jane.

Fast forward to 2012. I fell victim to a Kindle Daily Deal and bought all of L.M. Montgomery’s books for $2.99. More astonishingly, I read them all! I had known and loved Anne-with-an-e, but I never knew Emily! A few got a ‘meh’ response, but I enjoyed almost all.

I began to compile a list of authors. David McCullough. Anthony Trollope. (Same beloved Latin teacher remarked, If you like Jane Austen, you should read Trollope.) Jan Karon. Wendell Berry. Miss Read. Marilynne Robinson. Colin Thubron.

[Wait for it! Here come the initials!] A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien (I can’t. I’m flawed. Because The Silmarillion.) P.G. Wodehouse. G.K. Chesterton. N.D. Wilson.  P.D. James. D.E. Stevenson.

A few authors I vowed to read all and then recanted: Mark Helprin. Alexander McCall Smith. Bill Bryson.

This year I succumbed to Shakespeare. I joined a Facebook group that is reading All of Shakespeare in 2017.  While I don’t love all of the bard, each play or poem rewards the discipline of reading it. It feels like being back in school, with a schedule pressing. I copied a friend’s idea to document the quest.

A friend calls this deep reading. I like that.

Next year I’m thinking of reading all of C.S. Lewis. It will require diligence and discipline. But why wait to read some of the best writing on the planet? Harper One has reissued Lewis’ books in gorgeous paperbacks with deckle edges. (Go ahead and click on the link just to see the covers.) Here is an even better glimpse. Even though I own almost all of CSL in various and sundry editions, I’m jonesing (← am I allowed to use the word jonesing with Lewis?) for this collection. I’ve already mentioned it to my husband. Birthday with a zero this year, dear. This is what I want. I dearly love matched collections.

Last month two young friends invited us to join them for lunch. As I passed through a bedroom (the only route to the only bathroom) I noticed her shelves full of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. What fun! She has her own quest, yes?!

How Can I Keep from Reading?

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Why I Read, 1

The first answer is easy: because I can’t not read.

I grew up in a book-filled house, the youngest of seven kids. We read in bed, we read in the bathroom (picture a child pounding on the door: “I really have to go. . . and I know  you’re reading!”), we read on the porch swing, we read on the front steps, we read on the couch (we called it the davenport), but we didn’t read at the dinner table. That was considered rude. In the same way people today sneak a look at their cell phone under the table, we all at least once tried to read a book on our laps. We always got caught.

After dinner, we grabbed RSV versions of the Bible and read a chapter of Jeremiah. I know we read other books, but I only remember Jeremiah. (Honestly, in second grade my teacher asked us to define rent. I threw my hand up and swirled it around until she called on me. To tear your clothes.)

We read at the same table while gulping down cold cereal. Every inch of the cereal boxes. Over and over and over. Riboflavin, B12, sold by weight not by volume. Battle Creek, Michigan. 49037.

My dad never left the house with less than four books. Because, you know, you never know.

We grew up without a television (my dad’s choice) so reading was the first avenue of diversion available.

Reading became a habit that followed me into my adulthood. It is my default.

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The Best of My Reading Life: 2016

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Here are this year’s favorite books in quirky categories, along with sample quotes.

Hello, Again (the second time together)

               

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. ATGiB

I love mankind, he said, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular. TBK

Think Tanks (books that made me pause and ponder)

                  

We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. tGC

Work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. SCaS

Franklin could never see chaos without thinking of order. BF

Waiting is the primary recreation of Russia. You could try getting used to it. tFT

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Where Have You Been All My Life? (a book I wish was available years ago)

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We spent that midsummer reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the backyard, and I will always remember my surprise when the children laughed in the right places. MM

Sweet Comfort (sure, they’re about food, but the prose is delicious)

             

And, please—enough with the supposed health concerns. I mean, it’s not as though the obesity epidemic was caused by overconsumption of duck legs. NK

It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal. tPCC

But cooking is a way of paying attention, of really being in this world. When you look closely at a mango and inhale its scent, everything else stops. Life feels rich and easy. G-FG&tC

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Cover Story (the cover drew me in)



In Scotland, one does not ‘mend’ anything or ‘fix’ it in any way. One ‘sorts’ it.
CtN

 

Core Strengthening (soul-building books)

     

Over and Over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy. MOC

The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper. TRoG

Upper Story (two memoirs and a history a cut above )

               

Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It is an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface. FSiR

At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran. In other words, I was an anomaly. HE

Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. DW

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For the Children (for me, too…my husband & I are reading HP series for the first time)

                    

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. HPG0F

Books can ignite fires in your mind, because they carry ideas for kindling, and art for matches. LB&BB

Whatever it means to be friends, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it. WW

(Amazon affiliate links included: thank you!)

Getting Paid to Read

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I have repeatedly said, I would love to get paid to read!

What I really mean is: I would love to get paid to read whatever I want on my own schedule. Basically, I want a stipend to breathe air.

Because having to read what someone else has chosen is too close to being back in school.

At times the promise of free books has tempted me to consider pursuing review copies from the publisher, but the obligatory nature of reviewing has slapped me on the cheeks and snapped me out of it.

Because of my reputation as a reader, I am often given books to read. People love a book and they want me to love it with them. Which obligates me to read that book. [This is fitting payback, because I’ve been that friend/acquaintance/stranger who pressed unsolicited books into hands with the words You. must. read. this. book.] Don’t get me wrong: I love gift books and I love loaned books. I love the discussions they engender. I just don’t like feeling disloyal to my books which migrate to the bottom of my pile.

Recently, I started following Anne Bogel’s blog Modern Mrs. Darcy. This girl reads for a living. She is fun and welcoming: a literary, book-loving version of The Pioneer Woman.  Anne’s content is beautifully linked to Amazon and I’m sure she gets sweet monthly referral fees. It hit me one day: She gets paid to read!

My next thought was But. She must read newly released books to get Amazon referral fees. You can’t recommend Anthony Trollope (whose books are free on Kindle) and make money. And I am quickly back to contentment. I get to read the books on my shelves, yay!

Anne has a podcast called What Should I Read Next? While I am probably 38% compatible with Anne’s picks, the moment I wait for is when she describes her guest’s reading pattern, based on 3 books loved and 1 book hated. These diagnoses are often Aha! moments; guests use words like uncanny, crazy, I’ve never thought of that before!  It’s as close to book therapy as you get. Here is a sample analysis:

You’ve chosen books about women who had to learn to be strong, because life threw some stuff their way. And they had to rise to the challenge. And they did. And whether the story is written in first person or third, these books show us these women’s lives through their own eyes. We get their side of the story, their version of events, and we, as the reader, have the privilege of walking alongside them as they get a little older and a little wiser and really come into their own.

I have my own What Should I Read Next? dilemma, but not in the way of needing a book recommendation. My question stems from having far too many choices staring at me from my bookshelves. I want to read them all. The job doesn’t pay well, but there are benefits.

5 Cookbooks To Read

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Little did I know, last fall when I read Shauna Niequiest’s Bread and Wine , that soon I would employ one of her coping mechanisms for dealing with grief—reading cookbooks. Without a plot there isn’t story grip, but that works well when it is hard to focus. Shauna’s book is simply a memoir with a few recipes. Besides introducing me to Nigella, I found her thoughts on hospitality and on feasting/fasting helpful.

  Nigella Kitchen is the first full-length cookbook that I read like a novel. Ah, Nigella! This was the best choice for me.  She writes with sparkly and surprising words, tosses in literary allusions, and takes unalloyed pleasure in alliteration. (I was at the stove, pontificating and pottering, occasionally pushing and prodding what was in front of me with a pair of tongs…) Her words are cozy and comforting: those of us who warm our souls by the stove and the solace of stirring. The pictures are sumptuous. This is all the joy of butter pecan ice cream without the calories.

A friend gave me Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef , a gluten-light person (except when I’m not). Two things drew me to Shauna Ahern: her response to a celiac diagnosis—saying ‘yes’ to everything she could eat instead of mourning what she couldn’t— and her deep/high/broad respect for her chef husband. There’s almost too much dancing and kissing and gazing and shopping-is-foreplaying, but I’d rather that than the condescending tone Molly Wizenberg had towards her husband in Delancey.  My cookbook shelf was crowded and I had expected to ‘read and release’ this. The recipes are highbrow, more Julia Child than Pioneer Woman. But I have to make a few, so I’m keeping this one. I love the way Danny and Shauna formatted the recipes.

When How to Cook Without a Book appeared on a bride’s wish list, I did the tightwad cha-cha-cha and read it entirely (after washing my hands) before I gave it to her. Then I repented and bought a copy for myself. Pam Anderson is earnest and straightforward. But this is a book to be read more for education than entertainment. Many good tips, including using won ton wrappers for ravioli.

There is a kind of woman who makes all sorts of people consider her their best friend. That’s Ree Drummond! The Pioneer Woman Cooks welcomes you to her ranch and kitchen and walks you through recipes step-by-step. Rich in photography, in conversational writing, and in wacky humor, this might be the best place to start if you want to read cookbooks like novels, too!

After I’ve consumed these cookbooks, I’ll write another post: 5 More Cookbooks to Read