dear summer,

The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury. -- Charlie Chaplin

Dear Summer,

I think you'll agree that we got off on the wrong foot this year. There really was no need for you to raise your voice at us--how many days in a row did you murder us with a hundred degrees? And then covering our noses and mouths with the thick St. Louis haze... was it necessary? Did you make your point?

That's why last night was such a treat.

Have you done some soul-searching? (I've been doing a lot of that myself, lately.) Did you finally look up to see us, red and sweaty-faced and miserable, hoping you'd relent? Or were you just tired of your own temper? (I know that feeling too.)

Whatever it was: thanks.

Yesterday evening at the park was bliss. As I wrote at that picnic table, watching the little kids outrace one another, I realized that this is the sort of night they'll be nostalgic for. Those summer evenings where they play past a glorious sunset, as their friends turn to phantom-like shades of grey, and their shouts grow louder as they see less and less, but still never want to go home.

(If they're like me, they might also swallow a lot of accidental bugs.)

You can get drunk off sunsets like this...

The living really is easy on a night like that. The breeze after dark tingled over my skin, just cool enough. And all the way home, the scents rising off the sweet cornfields and roadside honeysuckle twisted into a midwestern perfume.

Today you're still in your mild, generous mood. The sky is so blue, it makes my throat hurt to look at it, broken by fiercely white torn-paper clouds...

There are possibilities, when you behave like this. You have me dreaming of outdoor eating (like that grilled pineapple recipe I was smitten with yesterday), of reading for hours under such a sky, of long lazy conversations that go from afternoon to evening to cicada-filled night, and like the racing kids, never want to stop.

If you can manage to stay this gracious, then I can manage to put aside my prejudices (as you forced me to do last July), and embrace you, summer, love you until the end.

(P.S.: Hula Seventy has a genius for summer love. Genius.)


book crush thursday: Inkheart

"It's a good idea to have your own books with you in a strange place," Mo always said. He himself always took at least a dozen. -- Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

Perhaps there's another, much larger story behind the printed one, a story that changes just as our own world does. And the letters on the page tell us only as much as we'd see peering through a keyhole. -- Mo

Badly told stories never come to life. -- Inkheart

If you've known me for a while and have asked me about books, chances are good that I've grabbed you by the sleeve and told you, in no uncertain terms, that you absolutely must read Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke.
I might even have come across as a little intense on this point.
This book makes me do things like that.
It is, in short, a book that explores the world of books. Book lovers, book hoarders, books stolen and books found, books written, books read aloud, books that come to life, books that snatch people into them, characters and their fates, and the ever-blurry line between fiction and our own world.
And I love it all insanely.
Cornelia Funke is a genius of a writer. In her rich world, books come alive when they're read properly. And on one particular night, as the book Inkheart is read, a villain comes out. And a woman falls in.
You see? The sort of book you stay up too late reading, a kind of flashlight-under-the-covers book.
As a girl who loves to read, I thoroughly enjoy how bookcrazy the characters are. (Makes me feel normal! Like I've found my posse.) Books are not a neutral subject in this story: people hate them, love them, heal them, burn them.
As a writer, I love reading about characters coming to life. I'm sure that this happens more than we would think. On three separate occasions, I've been ready to swear that one of my characters walked past me, only no one was there. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in my characters, so there you have it.
(Oddly enough, this little tidbit can stop a conversation dead. Especially when I say I'm not kidding. But hey, it's Thursday, and I feel like confessing strange things about my book life...)
So, in light of that, I'll just add that Funke writes some really brilliant and lovely characters.
And that I kind of want to marry Dustfinger, even though he's terribly untrustworthy. Terribly. ... Could someone who's read this please explain the psychology of this to me? What his appeal is? So I can stop worrying about myself?
... And after Dustfinger, I think I'd choose Mo. He's a bit safer and kinder, and--see the quote above--he travels with a dozen books. A man after my own heart.
(Note: I wouldn't recommend the movie on this one. Not at all. Unless you'd like to see how Paul Bettany is as Dustfinger--it's the only perfect thing about it. The rest is quite sad if you loved the book.)
Recommendation: Most of this takes place in Italy, so I'd recommend some really, really strong coffee, and--what, something sweet as well? Pastry-ish?
Is this what I recommend every time? If I did, would that be okay with you? It's certainly what I want every single day of my life: strong coffee, something sweet and pleasant, and a book I'm going to love.
Yeah. That would do it.


... and then everything was all right.

Yeah. It happened. I had a kitchen moment.

Mmm. Grandma's Wholesome Candy.

It's not about glamorous. And I kind of love that.

in the mood

It is not the quantity of the meat, but the cheerfulness of the guests, which makes the feast. -- Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon

It's been an uphill sort of writing day, and my brain feels like so much rubber. My poor little protagonist! If her writer keeps getting stalled out like this, she won't get very far, and certainly not very fast.

I should teach her to knit. At least she'd have something to do.

So, in between paragraphs of inspiring prose, I've been staring out the window at the sun cutting across our lawn. It's one of those very summery afternoons, the sort that reminds you of sidewalk chalk and freeze pops and picking burrs out of your socks.

None of which are in my novel. (Sidewalk chalk. That could add an interesting touch.)

Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking about all the things I'd do if I weren't writing right now. Things like

1. snagging another cherry lollipop. Cherry lollipop + funny sunglasses = a good enough reason to leave the desk.

2. going to the beach. Not that we have a beach in southern Illinois... but I feel homesick for a beach nevertheless. I wouldn't need much sun or time to swim--I just want to listen to the waves. Yes. I could listen to the crashing of waves for a very long time.

3. If I can't get a beach, I think I'd like a storm. A blizzard would be nice, to cool us off, but I'd settle for anything windy and a little dangerous. Ooh. With a mystery novel at my side. And another mug of coffee.

4. That naturally makes me think of browsing a used bookstore. Which is another way of saying going on a treasure hunt. Used bookstores fill me with a quiet kind of glee--I'm always recklessly excited, even in the sleepy, peaceful atmosphere. My favorite place is Redux Books in Grand Rapids. Hmm. Also far away. I'm noticing a theme.

5. making pasta sheets from scratch. I don't actually know how to do this, but I've been eager to try for a long while. And after arguing with a character for a few hours, rolling out pasta dough sounds like a stressfree experience. I think I'm in the mood for a culinary challenge...

6. or making Grandma's Wholesome Candy. This is not a culinary challenge. It's also not from one of my grandmas! It's from a battered little cookbook and we've been making it for as long as I can remember. Humble light brown "candies," which turn out to be insanely addicting...

Really. My sister spent a summer making these over and over again. Every week, a new batch. They're hard to get out of your head... though I don't know why I'm suddenly thinking of it. Or why, after much writing and brainstorming, it's all I can think of. Hmm. But I'll probably have to make a little batch, if I hope to get back to work.

It's an innocent enough recipe, and, heck, maybe it's an acquired taste, and has to be experienced young. Try it and let me know:

Mix 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/4 cup honey. Add 1/2 cup instant nonfat dry milk, until you have a dough-like consistency (not too dry but not sticky). Add more if needed. Roll into balls and place on waxed paper. Keep in refrigerator or freeze. Makes 24.

And there you have it. I feel like I just typed out the whole secret to childhood happiness... Certainly it's the making of a happy summer afternoon.


book crush thursday: Peace Like A River

Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe." -- Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

It sure is one thing to say you're at war with this whole world and stick your chest out believing it, but when the world shows up with its crushing numbers and its predatory knowledge, it is another thing completely. -- Peace Like a River

Sorry about the gap in posts... I've been under the weather all week. (I won't bore you with details: self pity is ugly to write about and ugly to read. Suffice to say, I'm slooowly getting better.) But I wouldn't miss Book Crush Thursday!

Okay. Chances are, you've already heard about Peace Like a River, by the incomparable Leif Enger. It was everywhere about nine years ago. You saw all the displays in the book stores, for months and months. You knew of book groups that were reading it, knew there were dozens of impassioned people calling it the best book ever... and still you walked on by.

If you're like me, that is. Snob that I am, my reasoning usually goes like this: if everyone else loves it, I probably won't.

I don't know why I'm wired like this. Maybe there's a smallish part of me that's a grumpy recluse, and is determined to hate what everyone else loves? I don't know. But in this case, I was very, very wrong.

It wasn't until it was assigned in a young adult literature class that I had to get over myself and read it. (Oddly enough, though the narrator is eleven years old, It's not a young adult book. Why was it part of the class? Probably because I needed to read this book.)

Oh my. I loved it. Loved it. The characters are stunning--Swede Land, the narrator's little sister--is one of my all-time favorite characters. Ever. I want to be like her when I grow up... even though she's nine years old.

So yes, the characters are brilliant, the adventurous plot is tense enough to keep me from putting it down, and Enger's prose is swoon-worthy. He's one of those writers I wish I were related to... couldn't he be my adoptive uncle or something? Some kind of third cousin? I'm still working on that.

I can't think of a better book for your summer reading list. In fact, wrapping yourself in Enger's world for a few days, you'll feel like you've been on some grand and marvelous vacation. Most of it takes place in winter. Do you love reading about winter during summer? I certainly do--it's like really cheap air conditioning.

Here's a little warning, though: don't read the back of this book. It sails out and gives away what happens on page 49. I guess in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter much, but why spoil it for yourself? If it's a mystery, then you can sit bolt upright, gasping, just like I did.

Can you believe-- I asked of others in our class. They looked back at me, a bit cold and pitying, saying Of course we knew about that already, it was on the back! So. If you like surprises, avoid the back.

Oof. Just writing about this book makes me want to read it all over again. And it makes me excited for you, if you haven't read it yet. It's the kind of book that makes you want to be a different sort of person... and you have to talk about it when you're done. No wonder it was a huge sensation.

Recommendation: This begs for something homey and good. Black coffee, I'd say, and an excellent cinnamon roll. Put a bit of coffee in the roll's frosting--I recommend PW's recipe. It's gorgeous, and perfect for this book. (Page 191, my friends.)

Enjoy. Really. This is a book to be savored.


book crush thursday: Apples for Jam

As a child, I wanted orange soda and special sandwiches held together with mystery. I wanted tiny colored cakes and other things that I'd read about that impressed me. ... These are the things I want my children to have now--now, as I watch them lying in the grass hugging only this moment, while my mind is spinning with the washing machine and wondering what school lunch should be tomorrow. -- Tessa Kiros, Apples for Jam

I love the name apple bread--it carries me off in my fantasy to some very green hills with chunky plates and bowls of fresh cream, with rosy-cheeked children skipping about here and there. -- Apple bread with sugar and cinnamon topping.

It is a dullish Thursday afternoon, hazy, still, the sky a bleak blue. I was ambushed by a cold last night, so I've crawled to the computer despite a roaring sore throat, feverish cheeks, and a deep fondness for my bed.

In other words, it is a perfect day to tell you precisely why I love Apples for Jam, by Tessa Kiros.

Apples for Jam is one of those rare books that I wish I could somehow tumble into. I was as surprised as anyone about that... I normally have my book-jumping dreams over novels, not cookbooks. But Tessa Kiros's beautiful book draws me in.

It's the stunning pictures--not only of the food, but of Tessa's home, her children, her life. It's the way she uses her children's drawings to illustrate. It's her wonderful prose, her clear imagery as she describes memories from her own childhood. And how can you not love a cookbook playfully arranged by colors instead of food type?

I came across this book last summer, when I was going through a rough time. So that might explain some of my love for it: I flipped through its pages, studied the pictures, enjoyed the prose, dreamed about recipes, savored them. (The sweet crepes! The cranberry syrup!)

I feel like it helped restore my sanity. It took me in and nurtured me when I needed it, with its brilliant childish marker drawings, its bold pastas and cakes, the wonderful color-connections. Why not have broccoli soup and peppermint crisp pie in the same chapter? Why not?

It soothes and inspires at the same time, which is much trickier than it sounds. The way Tessa writes and cooks makes me want to participate in a life like hers. She makes me want to be a fabulous mother (someday), or a fabulous aunt (now!). To savor every single day, every meal, every moment with the people I love.

Also, this book makes me want to go to Italy. Hmm. Failing that, I'll at least make the tomato pesto with the ricotta gnocchi, soon. And maybe make some crayon drawings of my own to go with it.

... Well, I had one coffee-mug's worth of energy to write this post, and it's just worn out. So I'll slink back to bed, and curl up with--what else? Apples for Jam. And my naps will be about brightly colored pasta and childish drawings.

It just might cure me.

Recommendation: Do you eat and look through a cookbook at the same time? Of course you do. So do I. Get yourself a bowl of fresh berries with cream, and maybe a café au lait, and spend a long lazy day dipping into this book, earmarking recipes as you go.


it doesn't take much...

It might be my favorite time of day. I admit: I'm a sucker for good theatre, for this kind of drama. I still turn into a little kid when the lights go low, and the talking hushes, and the spotlight kicks on. My heart stops, and I twist my hands in my lap. I'm always breathless for the first line, for the moment that launches the show.


this is the recipe that saves you.

Only give a woman love*, and there is nothing she will not venture, suffer, and do. -- Wilkie Collins

* I'm pretty sure that by love, Wilkie Collins meant chocolate. Pretty darn sure.

... It's a rainy day here, and I've been listening to Edith Piaf songs and seeing how long I can make my mug of coffee last. And in such a mood, I can think of only one thing to write about: Chocolate Mink.

I owe this recipe--and the many, many splendid moments it has created--to the one and only Gourmet magazine (may it rest in peace, weep weep...).

Take a long, soulful look at their picture:

Mmmm. Doesn't it do something good for you, just looking at it?

I first saw that picture four and a half years ago, as a stressed out college kid, dashing through the grocery store. I had a million things on my mind, but that photo, as the Gourmet cover, stopped me short. Needless to say, the magazine came home with me.

I wish I could tell you that I made a batch of Chocolate Mink then and there, ate both servings, and then completed my thesis with wit and grace... but in reality, I put the magazine on our coffee table, and except for a few wistful looks in its direction, I did nothing about it.

It wasn't until recently that I suddenly felt haunted by that photo again, and the notion of Chocolate Mink, this gooey concoction that promised to make my life one deep dark chocolate dream.

Four ingredients: butter, sugar, bittersweet chocolate, egg. And it only cooks for half an hour. And then... ohhhh, and then...

That picture doesn't lie, my friends.

Chocolate Mink is the Platonic Ideal: it's what chocolate always wants to become, and it's what you want when you want something chocolatey. This is the essence of goodness--I'm not kidding. (One can't jest over something this delicious.)

If I actually had a café (I wish!), I'd whip this up for anyone having a rough day. By the time they were settled in and sharing their story, the mink would be done. And while chocolate can't erase troubles, it can make them taste better.

(One note: the recipe says to let it cool an hour. That's the only bit of silliness in the recipe: who wants to wait an hour?? I think we managed to wait a full two minutes the last time we made this, our spoons twitching at the surface of the chocolate...)

This is the best thing I can do for you: Go make it. Right now.



When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this--you haven't. -- Thomas Edison
So, news from our Etsy store: I've come to the end of my backordered Captain Serif Hats! So much fun, and I'm excited to imagine all those red earflaps keeping people cozy next winter.
What am I also really excited about? A new challenge.
Try as I might, I can't think of any brilliant knitting projects when it's 98 degrees out. Yes, really. (Ice sculpting sounds a lot more appealing... though hard to ship.)
So, I'm trying my hand at a new medium! Gathering new supplies, new ideas, new possibilities.
I'll let you know when there's more to know--I'm starting from scratch, and don't really have a clue what I'm doing yet! But here's a little peek at what I've been playing with...

Stay tuned...


book crush thursday: Beowulf

Grendel was the name of this grim demon / haunting the marches, marauding round the heath / and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters.

"It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. / For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death." -- Beowulf

Yes, I am actually recommending this, with two requirements: get Seamus Heaney's translation, and put your miserable high school English class memories out of your head. Beowulf is better than you remember.

And, okay, I admit it: I'm also recommending this because I'm a complete English major geek. After studying this in my Medieval Lit class and choosing it for a term paper, I'm pretty sold on Beowulf. I even have a soft spot for Grendel, so yes, I'm pretty far gone.
But this book really does have it all. It's part gory epic, part monster movie, and part old- (old-)fashioned fantasy.
And don't you think it's pretty cool that this edition has the Anglo-Saxon poetry on the left side? I can't read it either, but I think it looks gorgeous, and I feel smarter just looking at it.
Recommendation: Black coffee. Or mead, if that's the sort of thing you have on hand...