book crush thursday: Billy Collins

To be honest, I only took the Poetry Writing class because it sounded marginally better than Journalism. Poetry wasn't something I wanted to be associated with, not really. It sounded like I might need a beret to read or write it well, and to make snooty comments using my postmodern vocabulary.
I can do a lot of things, but I'm not so great with snooty comments. And I hate postmodern vocabulary.
But I was pleasantly surprised, and I learned that ignoring Poetry is like ignoring Fiction or Nonfiction. You can't just chuck literature like that. So I read a lot of poetry, and I wrote a bunch. I'm not a poet by any stretch, but I finished class with a huge appreciation for good poetry.
I'm guessing that poetry is a lot like wine: you can listen to the critics tell you what to like, or you can sample and determine on your own, regardless of prices or rules. To me, good poetry sounds effortless, like the poet stumbled upon this piece, whole, and just copied it down, amazed and relieved.
Good poetry makes me draw my breath in sharply, and then stare out the window, trying to absorb the words and the way that this little poem suddenly changed the quality of the light, the mood, the day.
Good poems. Mmm. Nothing like 'em.
This brings me to Billy Collins, the hero of today's book crush. Have you read much Billy Collins? I don't know what the supercool, superchic poetry crowd thinks about him, but honestly, I don't really care.
He was the poet laureate, so I'm not alone in loving his work. And, hey, The New Yorker wrote that he makes "an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment." I had to look numinous up in the dictionary--it means "filled with a sense of divinity" if you want to know--but I think The New Yorker has it right. That's exactly what Collins does for me.
He describes normal life in a way that makes me live differently, makes me appreciate the small imperfect things that crisscross my days. And, amazingly, he does it in a way that doesn't sound pretentious. I feel like I can usually grasp what he means, even if it makes the top of my head lift off a bit. That, in my book, is what poetry should do.
Collins is also my all-purpose language rescue kit. I carry one of his books when I travel: when I start itching for a gorgeous linguistic nugget, I browse his work for a while. I pick him up when I'm about to edit something, so I can tune my ear and remember all the possibilities in a phrase.
And, perhaps most importantly, he pulls me to the surface when I'm completely dead in my work. During one devastating week, when I felt like I didn't have two words to set together, and I was pretty sure I hated all novels and mine in particular, the one prescription that worked? All Billy Collins, all the time. I binged on poetry, and when I wasn't reading, I napped. Next Monday found me at my desk again, restored.
You see? He's magic.
Here--are you comfortable? Read his stuff for yourself. (It's slightly tragic to read good poetry on a screen... but it's still better than no poetry at all. Find one of his books when you have a chance, but for now, dive in...) This is one of my favorites. Oh, and this is good. And this. This one takes me back to Medieval Lit class, in a good way. And this makes me laugh, I think it's gorgeous...
(I could keep going, can you tell? But for now, I think I'll let you read in peace.)
Recommendation: Cafe au lait and biscotti--extra dark chocolate. That'll do.


this & that

So, I've been gone for a few weeks! I know, I didn't say anything. Evidently it's bad form to announce that your house will be empty for a while. For all I know, people would break in and steal my Dickens novels and all my Billy Collins poetry.

At least, that's what I'd take.

Me and Moxy, my traveling buddy. We have very serious conversations.

But, yes: my sister, Mom, and I spent about eighteen days driving through Georgia (stopping with my cousins at this awesome doughnut place) and then hanging out with my little sister and my niece. We had a fabulous time, of course. Lots of conversation, cooking, and playing games with my amazing little niece.

it's been a corn salad summer

When we did get home, I was so exhausted (though happy) that I just moved really slowly for two days. (Not missing Florida itself--our two weeks in Florida set the record for "most times I've been leered at by old men." What a weird place! I mean... seriously.)

I spent the weekend looking through all the great photos from the trip, watching that one movie--the one where my niece lets loose her contagious laugh--over and over.

And then on Sunday, I had a wonderfully indulgent crafty moment: thanks to Elsie's blog, I found this. Made myself a pair late on Sunday, and have been tromping around in them since.
(The careful observer will notice that the pattern is for Mary Jane Slippers, and, well--it just doesn't look like I'm wearing Mary Janes. I guess I was using a big crochet hook, and I have tiny feet. So... it's not exactly a Mary Jane, is it? Still cute.)

I still have a massive amount of laundry to finish, and plenty of writing to do. One novel is screaming toward its first draft, and I am oh so happy about that...

Otherwise, this week I'll be plaguing my librarians with interlibrary-loan requests, helping plan a culinary tour of St. Louis, knitting new things for our store's fall season (I know, it's been ages since a real update!), and planning a new feature for this blog!

And of course, I'll be back tomorrow with a new idea for your I just have to read this next! list. (You have one of those, right? Me too.)


the next wonderful thing in your life

So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible. -- The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
Quirky confession: I am most at home baking things that are a little tricky. Pies, for instance. Let me make an intricate cherry lattice pie, and I'm quite happy. Or that honey caramel peach pie? Fabulous. No sweat.
And yet, I find myself in a panic over a chocolate chip recipe. (You think I'm joking? Ask my little sister, who witnessed my absolute spazzing out over a simple muffin recipe. Yes really.)
I can't explain this. It doesn't make any sense. But it just might explain why I fell so hard for this stunning Espresso Blackberry Macaron recipe.
You really need to witness the smell of espresso powder + vanilla extract... rather gorgeous over the whipped egg whites...
It is, admittedly, intricate. There might be a bazillion steps, but I found it fairly manageable altogether. And the results?
Well worth the effort.
Ahh. There it is, my friends. Blackberry jam (we loved Hero's blackberry preserves for this) sandwiched between light, sweet espresso meringues. Stunning.
There are four other variations, should you be interested in, say, the coconut-passion fruit macarons.
(Seriously, now: did your brain explode just the littlest bit when you read that? Mine did.)
Anyway, with our usual restraint, my sisters and I are planning a time when we can make all five in one day...
Because we do things like that.
Meanwhile, maybe they can teach me how to make muffins without a panic attack.


book crush thursday: Educating Alice

One of the sneaky, hidden agendas of curiosity, I believe, is to make you go forward in the face of fear. -- Alice Steinbach, Educating Alice

If Amalfi were a man, I thought, he'd be dressed by Calvin Klein and reading Tom Clancy. Positano would wear Armani and carry a book by John le Carré. But if Ravello were a man--ah, Ravello!--he would be in chinos and a fresh white oxford shirt with no tie, buried in a book by Graham Greene. -- Alice Steinbach, Without Reservations

I'm not a big fan of nonfiction, in general. (That is actually a massive understatement.) I will, however, stay up terribly late at night reading travelogues. If I can't be touring the world myself, I'm very happy to read while someone else does it.
And so I loved Educating Alice (and the book before it, Without Reservations). Alice Steinbach is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, and reading her books feels like having a wonderful conversation with a very smart, cool friend. Who's traveled everywhere. And learned all kinds of interesting things.
Maybe that's what makes Educating Alice especially compelling for me. Not only did she travel around the world, but she took a class in each place. So ... she talks about each destination through the lens of the course she is taking, like Cuban architecture, Jane Austen, French cooking, and Japanese traditions.
And though I first read it in 2007, I still think about her chapter on gardening (in Provence) every time I stare at a tree, and Border collie training (in Scotland) whenever I "meet" a new dog.
Perhaps the best part of this book? It gives plenty of inspiration to plot my own classes-round-the-world tour. I mean, seriously. There is some major daydreaming fuel. What would I like to learn and where? Oooh. I could spend all week thinking about that. Or all summer.
Recommendation: Wouldn't it be best to celebrate one of the cultures she's writing about as you read? Two chapters are devoted to French destinations, and I won't argue with that. Have yourself an omelette, or perhaps a crepe, with a cup of strong coffee. Mmmm. The makings of a perfect afternoon.


loving in spite of myself

[I] am as subject to heat as butter. -- William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
So, as I've repeatedly confessed, I have a hard time loving summer unless the weather's something like this. And as the temperatures creep up and the humidity wraps its rags around my face... my patience wanes.
Still. I hate to waste a whole season by kicking against it... and so, in the spirit of Hula Seventy's brilliant lists... here are some things I'm determined to celebrate this summer, no matter what.
1. sidewalks
2. the smell of sparklers
3. ice cold watermelon
4. the rare cool breeze
5. bats at twilight
6. relearning to walk and eat an ice cream cone at the same time
7. morning rain
8. picnic tables
9. the smell of warm concrete
10. fresh strawberries
11. swingsets
12. firefly legs across my palm
13. sudden thunderstorms
14. peach pie. ... especially this peach pie: my reigning favorite. (In fact, you probably should stop reading and go make this right now.)
15. air shows
16. and air conditioning
17. jump ropes
18. cicadas creaking in the evening
19. aloe vera & the smell of sunscreen
20. long drives in the country, between the
21. familiar walls of corn
22. honeysuckle
23. stargazing, picking out the constellations I know
24. summer dresses
25. snow cones and
26. funnel cakes
27. marching bands, of course!
... What else? What's on your list?


book crush thursday: P.G. Wodehouse

What could be pleasanter than a little literature in the small hours? -- Something Fresh

[There was] a young woman, who, at first sight, appeared to be all eyes and hair. -- Something Fresh
He looked like a dentist with a secret sorrow. -- Laughing Gas

Peckish is not the word. I felt like a homeless tapeworm. -- Laughing Gas

So, it's not a single book this Thursday, but every single thing that one author has written. I hope you're okay with that.
How to introduce P.G. Wodehouse? I feel like I grew up reading and listening to his work. And my sisters and I know the Jeeves & Wooster movies by heart (one instance where the movies are truly worth seeing).
No one else was quoting him in third grade, so I guess he's not a widespread childhood favorite...
And, admittedly, I didn't understand everything about the world he was describing. London in the twenties, the dance clubs, the valets and butlers, golf matches and stiff cocktails. Nope, a lot of that was over my head. (Though the Drones club has always appealed.)

But even then I could tell he was funny. Really funny. He has the ability to render my whole family helpless with laughter. So I feel like he's like an honorary uncle. Yes--that feels about right.
Because, after all, finding someone else who loves Wodehouse is like finding a long lost cousin. You realize that you share the same stories, have the same people in common. "What? You know Bertie and Bingo? Lord Emsworth and Uncle Fred? Honoria and Stiffy?"
Hang on to these Wodehouse cousins. They have wonderful senses of humor.
I can't pick a single book of P.G. Wodehouse's to recommend. He's just so overall brilliant that I can't narrow it down. The Blandings trilogy is fabulous--start with Something Fresh and go from there. Or, track down the Mulliner stories. Or find a compilation of the Jeeves stories. (Right Ho, Jeeves is pretty fabulous.) And for goodness' sake, get a copy of "Uncle Fred Flits By."
But for now, just to start, this is one of my favorite Wodehouse short stories.
Recommendation: I understand that Bertie Wooster drinks Darjeeling and Earl Grey. Why don't you?


lost & found

"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you." -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

I've been bitten by a nostalgic mood lately. Not sure why--maybe it's my birthday out there on the horizon, reminding me of years past. Or maybe, after straining forward with project after project, my memory gets lonely and insists on a long look back.
Whichever it is, I find I'm deeply missing the people I've shared life with. Whether our paths crossed for half an hour, half a year, or half a decade, they're suddenly back in my mind again. So many people that I've lost track of, and others I'm still in touch with but we're far away... Separated by time zones or oceans.
Anyway, if this is you, know that you're missed. And that I'm remembering the many cups of coffee we shared, or the late rainy walks through unfamiliar streets, or the long long dinners that were outlasted by the brilliant conversation. That I miss cooking with you, I miss your funny laugh, I miss your off-the-wall insights, I miss your kindness. I miss the way you sometimes finished my sentences better than I could, or the moments when we didn't need sentences at all.
I know it sounds like I'm gearing up for a Beatles song--I promise I won't start singing at you. But consider this my love-you letter to all you distant friends, chance acquaintances, people met for only a moment.
Katrine in Paris, if by some miracle you are reading this, know that I want to be exactly like you in fifty years. Down to the way you walked, your grace, your enthusiasm, the three dogs swarming around you. You still inspire me, and I'm still grateful to you.
And Jane in Michigan, we only talked once, but I still think about your fabulous advice. Steve and Helen, you're two of the coolest people I know. (And I'm haunted by those brownies.) Yuli knew what I needed one afternoon more than I did. Maria is one of the wisest and dearest people, not to mention a splendid cook and a lifesaver. Jen made every Sunday better that year. Karen shared scones and long chats about church. Bob believed in me long before I could. And sometimes Sarah makes me laugh so hard I almost turn inside out.
And there are so many others... So, if you're out there, reading this, know that I'm raising this mug of coffee to you. And I hope you're happy, safe, and well. And that we somehow see each other again, soon.


i'm not trying to be rude, really...

I just noticed that occasionally Blogger and I disagree. I'll approve a comment, Blogger says it's approved, and yet it somehow vanishes.

So, if you've recently posted a comment and it never appeared... it isn't because I was offended! I really can't explain why Blogger swallowed it.

I hate losing anyone's writing. It's like a miniature version of my worst nightmare. ... Hopefully those friendly comments are all getting acquainted with one another in their own little comment netherworld. A place which is full of good coffee and kind conversation, even if it's otherwise a little like purgatory.

Anyway. If one of them was yours... sorry!


book crush thursday: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot. -- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I'll admit it: I'm nervous to talk about this book. I'm half-certain that as soon as I get started, my second grade teacher will come out of nowhere and say sternly, Inside voice, Jennifer!

And she'd be right. Every time I recommend this book to someone, I'm pretty sure I deafen them... BUT I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

I was at the dentist's last week, and when the hygenist found out I was a writer, she asked for book recommendations. My brain went absolutely blank for a moment, lost in the land of fluoride. She went back to work as I thought, and then the cover of this book came into mind.

Forgetting that anything was in my mouth, I blurted, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!" nearly harpooning my tongue on that sharp hook that dentists use.

So. I could have bled to death in my earnestness to talk about this one, but it would have been worth it, it's just that good.

It has all the makings of my favorite sort of story: it is, once again, a book about books and about people who love them. It's also an epistolary novel--a story written in letters... which makes me so giddy I could just fall off my chair... ahem.

But I love letters. I believe in letters. And this is a book full of them.

The characters are brilliant. Juliet Ashton is a writer living in post-World War 2 London. She begins corresponding with a group of people on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. And as I got to know Juliet, her London friends, and the people of Guernsey through their letters and stories, I really wanted them to be my friends.

No, I mean really. Could someone please teleport me into this book? Right now, please?

I don't know what I was expecting when I first read this, but it blew me away. I wasn't expecting to love a novel that deals with World War aftermath--I usually shy away from war books of any kind. Not sure why--if I'm just spineless, or if I'm stressed out enough that I don't want to read anything with "gripping!" on the cover.

But I couldn't call this a war book really. Maybe because it's the characters that are front and center. The warm, wonderful characters, not the ugliness of war. It serves only as the backdrop for these amazing people.

And I really did adore every single character. The quiet ones, the suave literary one, the crazy outspoken ones... especially them. (If anyone meets Isola, please let me know.) A few times, they had me in absolute hysterics. And then several pages later, a letter would stun me with another haunting story from the war.

As soon as I finished it, I wanted to read it all over again. I also wanted to write letters to everyone I knew, as well as everyone I didn't know. I most definitely wanted to get back to England, to see the Channel Islands this time, to get my own cottage, to befriend a child as amazing as Kit, and to read and discuss books with other dear people.

It is, altogether, one of the most perfect books I've ever read. There.

Recommendation: Well, I suppose you could make a potato peel pie... yeah, it doesn't do it for me either. Maybe an apple pie instead? With coffee, of course. Or tea, if you'd like to be properly British. Pie, tea, and a sunny window seat.


now and then I learn things. and that's so nice.

Today was the first day of a new draft, and it demanded the usual sacrifices.

Required: one blank Word document. One girl's ego. And the razor-sharp edge of really atrocious writing.

It's funny: I forgot how bad my first drafts are! Whew! It's been a while since I had to face them.

I've spent the last few months rehabilitating this plot and rethinking every element of the story. And now is the time when I put all of it through the mill, and catch it in sentences on the other side.

I somehow thought it would be easier this time, because this is technically the fourth draft of the book. I mean, I should know some things by draft four, right? After half a million words with these characters, we should all be on good terms?

But this is more like the fourth first draft of the story. In other words, I'm starting from scratch, from the top of page one, and not just tinkering around with decent paragraphs that already exist.

And these new sentences are terrible!! I mean--they're really bad. I'm not being modest, cute, or polite. And I'm not just saying what writers are supposed to say, "oh it's so miserable!" The kind of statement that requires a "I'm sure it's not that bad!" from the long-suffering listener.

It's not the kind of bad that can be brushed aside or excused. This is the kind of bad that has no illusions whatsoever.

But what amazes me today, even more than the stink rising from the words? What's truly, truly worth celebrating?

I'm okay with bad writing.

Really! After the initial shock wore off, I looked around and everything was still standing. I'm okay. The book's okay. The characters shrug. Seriously? they say, glancing over at me. You forgot about this part? The beginnings are always terrible. We forget our lines. So do you. And it will get better.

So that's where we are. The first thousand words are milling around in draft four, and I'm not having an identity crisis. ... That's a very, very good thing.

Truly, I used to freak out when I would read my own terrible writing. This is from me? I thought. And then I'd look around the room and kind of hide the paper. Maybe we can keep anyone from finding out. Because I accidentally told a lot of people that I'm working on a novel.

Now I know it's just part of the game. And after a while, all the critical voices in my head will shut up when they see I'm not paying attention. I'll muddle through this draft like all the others.

It's so bad right now. But I know--with a certainty I didn't used to have--that it will be very, very good.



book crush thursday: Brat Farrar

"You don't have to be young Ashby. Just look like him. And believe me you do! ... It is worth a fortune to you. You have only to put out your hand and take it." -- Alec Loding

- "Tell me ... do you play cards?"
- "Not with strangers," said the young man pleasantly.
- "I just wondered. I had never met the perfect poker face until now, and I should be sorry if it was being wasted."

Have you read Josephine Tey's work yet? She's fantastic, one of those masterful British mystery writers of the early twentieth century. Brat Farrar (it's the main character's name... bizarre, I know) was my first and favorite book of Josephine Tey's, and I can't think of a better introduction to her style.

There's an estate, known for its horses. There's a family, with a few tragedies in its past. And there's an impersonator, poised to step in and inherit the estate... but on his way, he begins to wonder: what really happened to Patrick Ashby, the boy he's pretending to be?

And it's good. Because--if you're like me--you can't help liking Brat, the impersonator. And you can't help loving the family that he's lying to. And you can't really put it down until you get to the end...

It's perfect for when you want a good, quiet sort of mystery to puzzle over. Brat Farrar is also one of those rare mysteries that won't be harmed by a sunny day: stunning, but true. In fact, it might be read best on a cloudless day. From a hammock, I think. Yes. That's perfect.

Recommendation: Earl Grey tea and some high quality toast, with the best strawberry jam you can find. Period.