book crush thursday: Pie

To me, pie is poetry that makes the world a better place. Only it's better than actual poetry, some might say, because at the end of an hour or so, there emerges from your oven, or refrigerator, something really good to eat. -- Ken Haedrich

For me, it began in a tiny, soulless kitchen, with an impossibly small oven, during three weeks of a bleak Michigan January, around my homework for a class on Wagnerian opera.

Not an auspicious beginning for a love story, is it?

Or maybe it is. There was plenty of adversity--the ice, the snow, everyone dying during Gotterdammerung, all my friends gone home or to warmer places. I was lonely. And did I mention the ice? And all the singing in German? Maybe I was ripe for it, ready to be swept off my feet.

Some of the best cooking can come out of adversity. It was the same kitchen where I made my first creme anglaise, scores of buttery yeast rolls, and more than one brilliant impromptu pasta dish. And all this out of an airless kitchen, with brick-orange walls. This is where I learned to make pie. Just me, Wagner, and my new cookbook: Pie, by Ken Haedrich.

I got it for Christmas, after asking for a specialized cookbook. There's something exhilarating about a whole book devoted to sauces, or chocolate, rice, noodles, apples, coffee... I received one that has 300 pie recipes. Three hundred. And so my pre-existing affection for pie turned into something much deeper and more lasting. ("Slice of Book Pie" indeed... Can you imagine what this blog would be about, if I'd gotten, say, 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Sauerkraut? I might have been teaching polka steps, who could say?)

He's a brilliant teacher, too. Ken Haedrich, that is, not Wagner. (All I learned from Wagner was to always obey your father, and don't fall in love with the wrong person. Fine, as far as it goes, but you can't eat off of it.)

I devoured his introduction, that overview on the art of pie-making. Then I dashed out in the sleet to buy a pie pan and a rolling pin. And then we set to work. Three pies, one each weekend, came from that teeny oven, and I was hooked. Hooked. Like, love at first sight, daydreaming when I was supposed to be researching, planning more extravagant kitchen dates... I was in that kind of love. Still am, actually.

You can't see it so well in the picture, but my copy now bears all the honorable battle stains that a truly good cookbook should. There's caked-on pastry dough, stains from every kind of fruit and chocolate, oily smears, and crumbs of who-knows-what. Some pages are rippled with water damage, and the spine breaks in several places.

It's so well loved.

If you haven't made a pie before, you owe it to yourself to try. Really. Personally, I've never been much of a baker--churning out cookies and cakes and muffins and such? Doesn't really do it for me. But there's something different about making, and then eating, a pie.

If you start with Haedrich's All-Butter Pie Pastry, for instance, you'll see how pastries aren't so terrifying to make. This one rolls out like a dream, I promise. And as it spreads out over the flour, you can run your fingertips over the soft surface, admire the faint marbling of butter and flour, and then smell it, go ahead, take a deep breath.

That's what life's about, right there, and you haven't even gotten to the filling!

And what should it be? Wild Blueberry Lattice Top pie? Or the Apple-Pear White Wine pie? Maybe, to kick off autumn properly, the Caramel Apple-Pecan Pie, which just might make someone fall in love with you, not to mention pie, so go easy.

Or there's Banoffee, which will certainly change a life or two, or the Key Lime, or the Deep-Dish Blackberry Peach? The Shaker Lemon? Pear-Raspberry? All Strawberry? Maple Pumpkin? Grape and Fig? Or, if you're more daring than I am, the Spiced Parsnip, or the Avocado-Cream Cheese?

You make your filling, you swipe a taste, and then two. You take that perfect bottom crust and tuck it into the pie plate. (I love tucking in a crust. It seems I always hold my breath; I feel like I'm witnessing something important.) You spoon the filling over the pastry, smooth it out, and cover it with the top... it's as sweet as rocking a baby to sleep, I promise you.

And then it's in the oven--a normal-sized oven if you're lucky. You're passing by on tiptoes, peeking at it, watching the crust brown, breathing in deep, looking for the slow bubbling of juices on the edge... oh, it's heaven.

When it's done, a pie is a fleeting thing, at least in this household. Cakes, in my experience, can last forever--even the best ones. Not so with a pie. You seize the moment. You relish every bit. There is evening, there is morning, and the pie is gone. (And it was good.)

Like so many things, you learn by doing. For me, I learned that pies are about love. It's just that simple. If I'm making a pie, there is love involved. Love for the good work of creating one, and love for the people I share it with. I might make one on the spur of the moment, but never without a lot of heart.

My sister and her husband heard once that the average American eats six pieces of pie a year. (And then, my sister said, they looked at each other and basically said: Huh. Not in this family!) After I recovered from the shock, I decided I want to find these people, these under-privileged, under-pie-d people. Where are they? And can I help save them?

If, somehow, you are similarly undernourished, please do pick up this book. Don't be daunted by its size: that just means you're bound to like many of the recipes inside. And he's a fabulous teacher. Just be sure to let me know which ones you try.

Recommendation: If at all possible, read the first introductory chapter while sitting in a kitchen. Preferably a well-stocked kitchen, full of flour and butter and some good fruit. And have yourself a coffee. Then flip through the recipes, and when a pie chooses you, waste no time.

It could be your own beautiful beginning.


i'm sure this has my name on it somewhere.

... i'm really, really sure.

Because how perfect is this????

Just one more reason to keep looking through Etsy.

a mental kick in the pants

Found this quote on a calendar page. Made me laugh...

Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do. -- Bertrand Russell

... and then it made me resolve to read more non-fiction.

Like, a lot. A lot more non-fiction.

How do you check yourself out on that? Am I thinking? Am I thinking enough?

On the non-fiction note, I'm reading A House in Fez, by Suzanna Clarke, in answer to number 18 on this list. It's a fabulous story of life in Morocco, and it lets me travel, even though I'm wrapped in a blanket on the recliner. And truly, I'm a sucker for any love story between a girl and a country.

I didn't know much about Morocco, other than liking mint tea, orange tea, couscous, and Casablanca, so Clarke's book is a fascinating wonderland. Mmmm. Maybe I'll make the North African meal from this fabulous cookbook to celebrate such a good read?


writer in progress: the novel journals

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! -- Emily Dickinson, #42

Part of being a writer is paying extraordinarily close attention to what is on your mind. -- Heather Sellers, Page after Page

It's funny, but one of my dullest mornings as a writer birthed one of the best strategies for my writing life. 

It was January 2009, and I was staring at a blank Word document on a Monday morning. It was the day I was starting the next draft of my novel: I'd prepared everything I could, I had psyched myself up, I was on the brink of the next big project... and I had nothing to say. Absolutely nothing.

I stared at the blank page, and the blank page stared back.

I wanted a brilliant opening line, attached to a brilliant opening paragraph, which might lead to a brilliant opening page, and then a brilliant opening chapter... but all I had was a wad of insecurity and a deer-in-headlights stare.

So I started writing, but I wrote about not knowing anything. I wrote about how the weekend was still in my brain while my characters weren't. I wondered what my characters were doing. Probably having a party somewhere, without me. I wondered who brought the drinks and who brought the peanuts.

I wrote about not being smart enough to write a novel. I wrote about being basically unemployable, so this had better not fail. I wrote about how fast the morning was going, and how I still hadn't started. I decided that the characters were probably going to be finished with their party soon, and they might come looking for me.

I scraped together a reasonable opening sentence. I decided I'd just play it out, see where it went. And then I opened another document, and began my novel. Just like that.

But I kept that first document, and it became a habit to write in it first, before each day's draftwork. I offloaded all my insecurities, fears, or whatever little drama was filling my mind. I whined about a lack of ideas, or I gloated that I was brilliant beyond my hopes--the next publishing prodigy for sure. All my craziness went into that document, all through the drafting process.

And now it's a tradition--each major project has an accompanying novel journal. Anything goes: I write huge memos to myself in size 72 type, telling myself to get back to work, or to stop worrying, or to make the next chapter a genius one. I wonder about settings and character voices and if the point of view is right or wrong.

It's such a relief to have a place to put all that noise. It's like a mudroom for my novel: I scrape off all the dirt from outside, or I jump around and get all the craziness out. I stash my wet mittens or the leaves I collected over the weekend. Pick the spiderwebs out of my hair. And then I get back to work, reasonably balanced, reasonably ready.

Sometimes fabulous planning sessions happen in the novel journal. Some truly great booklical changes are born there. Sometimes it's just a place where I ramp up to the novel work, tricking myself back into approaching it again.

As I've listened around, I've heard of other writers doing this too. John Steinbeck kept journals for both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath--we have a copy of one, and I love browsing it, hearing what's on Steinbeck's mind as he works. Makes me feel a little more normal.

My journals, though, aren't anywhere close to being fit to read... I sound about three steps away from a mental breakdown in most of the entries. Either that, or like I'm trying to bore myself to death, and it just might work.

And yet, they get the job done. They get me writing, even if it's writing about whatever's in my head at the moment. And then, eventually, they get me drafting my novel again.

... Which is just what I'm going to do. Right now.


book crush thursday: One Man's Meat

The cat, David, is lying beside me, a most unsatisfactory arrangement, as he gives me cat fever. My sensitivity to cats defeats the whole purpose of a cat, which is to introduce a note of peace in a room. -- E.B. White, One Man's Meat, "A Week in April"

The first sign of spring here is when the ice breaks up in the inkwell at the post office. A month later the ice leaves the lakes. And a month after that the first of the summer visitors shows up and the tax collector's wife removes the town records from her Frigidaire and plugs it in for the summer. -- One Man's Meat, "Town Meeting"

I have to say, I never was a fan of Charlotte's Web. Far too traumatic. But One Man's Meat, a collection of E.B. White's columns and essays, has been a favorite of mine for eight years now.

First off, that cover is one of my favorite writerly photos of all time. It's enough to jumpstart a writing session, right there. And it's a fine introduction to the style of the book itself.

I grabbed One Man's Meat for the first time on a particularly terrible day, a day with a bleak, eight-hour wait. And E.B. White made for marvelous company. It was like listening to a fantastic great-uncle. He told me all about his saltwater farm in Maine, about life in the late 30s, early 40s. About war, about eggs, about his dachsunds, the sheep, the people in his town.

He effectively distracted me that whole day. His essays kept me sane and civil, and better still, tuned my ear to his fine writing style. You'd hope that one of the men behind The Elements of Style would, in fact, be a good writer, and this book shows that you won't be disappointed.

I have a hard time describing his writing, actually. I keep wanting to say that it's simple, but that isn't really true. Or I want to call it plain, but that sounds demeaning. Maybe it's more accurate to call it straightforward or clear.

However you classify it, any time spent with White's essays does for me what good poetry does. He makes me see and feel my own life more distinctly. After showing me the details and observations that make up his days, he releases me back to my own, and I find myself thinking about the hope I feel when grinding coffee, or the blanketing kettle steam on my hand as I pour the water.

So. See what you think. It's a great collection to get lost in for a while, to browse through when you have a moment, or to read steadily, night after night. (It also stands up to a nerve-wracking day, take my word for it.)

Recommendation: To celebrate this book, I'd make some kind of hearty Sunday supper. Roast chicken, new potatoes, cornbread, fresh fruit. Some meal with basic food, simple but soul-warming, fit for farm life. At the very least, scramble some eggs or find yourself a custard, with a tip of the hat to White's productive hens.

PS: While looking up information on White's North Brooklin farm, I found this awesome website. Literary travels? What? What?? Hello daydreaming material!


a word on revision

I found this fantastic quote while skimming through No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. ... And I roared. If you've ever been in the throes of revision, this just might bless you:

When you realize that most novels on the bookstore shelf were not rewritten once but numerous times, you will begin to see why even the youngest professional novelists have the skittish, prematurely aged appearance of people who have endured a lifetime of unspeakable tragedies.

Why thank you, Chris Baty. You nailed it.


writer in progress: write everywhere

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. -- Abraham Maslow

One of the best things about being a writer is how you can work anywhere. And I mean it: anywhere. If you're blessed with a pen and a notebook and the merest scrap of thought, you can write. No matter what.

I think that's a benefit of starting to write immediately after college: I already knew I could do homework just about anywhere. I'd drag some element of my work with me, no matter where I went. Flight delayed? I read my philosophy assignment. A few spare minutes waiting for friends to show up? Sketch out the points of that essay due on Friday.

I carried that mentality right into my writing life. My writing studio is everywhere that I am.

I never had a chance to believe that I needed perfect conditions to write: one of the many huge myths about creative living. (Maybe a corollary to the "I have to be inspired to work" myth? Sounds like it.)

Perfect conditions? Who needs 'em? If I had to find the absolutely perfect place, time, moment, chair, desk, computer, air quality, idea, word, etc., to write? I'd never write. Nothing's perfect.

So I practice working with the imperfect. There's plenty of imperfect.

I never go anywhere without paper (probably three different pads or books, of different sizes) and pens (about seven, all different colors and types). Even if I'm just dashing out somewhere, I stick an index card in my pocket and grab a pen and I'm ready, ready for anything.

It's a skill, and it's well worth developing: learn to do your creative work anywhere and everywhere.

By now, I've written in scores of cafés and coffeehouses; on beaches and in parks; sitting in the bathtub during a tornado warning; scribbling gingerly on my niece's back while she napped. I've written with numb fingers at an abandoned picnic table in February, in dozens of waiting rooms (perfect for an essay on anxiety). In an Omaha concert hall, in a jasmine-scented garden where my sister was dog-sitting. I've written in airports and on planes; on trains; perched on an English wall; on a little-used staircase; on a bench by the harbor in St. George's, Bermuda.

I've written in pain, while half asleep, surrounded by noise, surrounded by a throbbing silence. Many, many times I write in the absolute dark.

Conditions to write? There are no conditions to write. Something to write with, and someone to hold the pen. That's about all it takes.

Of course there's more to it than that, like a mind that's willing to write. Sometimes mine isn't. I try to wrestle with it, and make it more and more often one that is. To will to write, and then to actually write: this is probably the whole secret to having a writing life.

I'm guessing it's true of other creative fields as well. I've spent lots of spare moments in random places sketching out ideas that later became pillows, scarves, and hats for our store. And I've knitted in lots of places... again, it's the willingess and having the tools at hand: that's all it takes.

I know it can sound like I have the ideal situation, and in many ways I do. But it certainly isn't a life full of unclaimed hours and idyllic writing afternoons. It's full of family, the shared joys and shared concerns that come with living together; it's full of phones ringing and errands to run and laundry and busyness. Writing time doesn't come easily. I think it never does.

You have to rush out and find it, literally find the time, anywhere you look.

Maslow said (a bit grumpily it sounds to me) that if you have a hammer, you see nails everywhere.

I would echo, far more cheerfully, that if you have a notebook and a pen, every place looks like a writing studio. And that's how we get the work done.

So work where you are, with whatever you have. Embrace the imperfect now. You never know what might come of it: it just might be your masterpiece.



My breathing is not yet coming naturally. I feel a sort of catch and hesitation in it. Let it do as it pleases, though, so long as the sighs aren't heartfelt. -- Seneca, "Asthma"

So I've been sick now for eleven days. No worries--I'm not going to relate symptoms. (Bleh. I'd never do that to you, I promise.) But I'm pretty sure that I've been walking around with walking pneumonia, which is now an old friend.

I've entertained it about four times in the last six years, and for each stay, it requires six weeks. Just long enough to catch up on what's been happening since last time. Hey pneumonia, how are you. Me? Can't complain...

But it's long enough to erase my already-miniature social life. And long enough to make me furiously frustrated at having no energy.

Last week, as I was revising my diagnosis from "cold" to "uh, this is going to take longer," I started considering something. Or rather, someone. Someone I met years ago, and who gave me some of the best advice of my life. I can't even remember her name, we met so briefly, but I remember her advice all the time.

Rewind six and a half years: I'm studying in London. With two friends, I've planned an eight day trip over spring break: four days in Venice and Florence, four days in Paris. And then, we ... uh ... oversleep. A lot. And miss the plane to Venice.

There was weeping and gnashing of teeth. But it was too late to recover, to book another flight. We'd lost so much in deposits, we couldn't spend any more.

We poured out our tale of woe to the aunt of one of our fellow students. She listened, and I'm sure she was sympathetic, but not overly so. Actually, I doubt I would have been able to hear her advice, if she had showered us with pity. Her sympathy was far more practical. She told us to seize our unexpected days here, and do something with them.

She said: Do something special, something you wouldn't otherwise have done. So that you'll look back on these days not as "augh, the days we weren't in Venice! or Florence!" But maybe they could be, the days we saw that awesome show at the Old Vic, or saw that exhibit at the National Gallery.

I loved her advice. I loved it. The money was a problem, but I will remember those days as some of the best weather we had in London. I read all of Hamlet lying out on the bright English grass, eating all my meals outside, and memorizing the views from the school. Four days later, we took a train to Paris, and picked up with the second half of our vacation.

Okay. Come back to the present, to me, pneumonia, and my six weeks of no strength.

I usually combat pneumonia by ignoring it. Yes, I'm denial's poster child. That's usually a disastrous strategy, though. There's something about no energy. Pretty hard to whip yourself up to maintain a steep, six-hours-of-writing-a-day pace. Hard to have any pace at all, except one with lots of naps. (Heck, I can only blog because I'm running on coffee.)

But this time, with that genius aunt's advice in my ears, I took a hard look at things. I thought, oddly enough, Does pneumonia have any good points? Any usefulness at all?

Well, it's not good, necessarily, but it means I basically hold still for six weeks. I don't run errands, I don't make phone calls, I don't handle business of any kind, I don't attend anything at all. I sleep a lot. There is orange juice. I might read.

Six weeks, I thought. Hmm. Hmmmm. And I have five of them left.

And then it hit me. Five weeks. Six days a week, taking Sundays off like usual. That works out to... thirty days? Thirty "working" days. Thirty days of writing. What does that sound like? Where have I heard that before? Oh. Right. Nanowrimo. Thirty days of writing, at approximately 1667 words a day, yields a 50,000 word draft.


So I grabbed our copy of No Plot? No Problem, Chris Baty's hilarious anyone-can-do-this guide to Nanowrimo. I read and laughed my way through it. And I hatched my brilliant plan:

I'm going to draft my sequel. Before I get well.

I can do it, too. I'm sure of it. My schedule is completely clear, aside from all those naps. And I've found a huge stack of index cards: I'm going to draft on those. There's something very undaunting about saying "let's just fill in this side of a 3 x 5 card." I mean, anyone can do that, right?

(I admit, I stole the index card idea from Vladimir Nabokov. I'm not a fan of his, but after seeing a copy of The Original of Laura, and opening it up, the idea hooked me.)

So there it is. I just have to fill out eight index cards, front and back, by the end of each day. I fill out a card, I nap, I fill half a card, snooze, reach for another. I've managed to stay on track since Tuesday, and I'm hoping to keep it up.

I feel pretty optimistic about it. And I'm certainly much healthier mentally with this kind of a project. Not working makes me feel like I'm rotting from the inside out. Having a draft to sink my teeth into, even though I have to write it lying down, well. It keeps me mostly happy.

Now and then, I wonder if I'm sane. Who writes a book with pneumonia? Am I nuts? But mostly I wonder what the next sentence should be.

I don't mind being feverish, as long as it lets me write feverishly.

I don't mind being breathless, if it means I'll soon be gasping at a completed draft.


book crush thursday: A Writer's Paris

I am only asking that you use Paris not as a tourist destination, but as a place to write, and that you make Paris one of the stopping points on your creative journey. It is that creative journey that I am really talking about. -- Eric Maisel, A Writer's Paris

There are always reasons not to write. ... Entertaining those reasons even for a split second is the path to uncreativity. Write, even if you have a twinge, a doubt, a fear, a block, a noisy neighbor, a sick cat, thirteen unpublished stories, and a painful boil. Write, even if you aren't sure. -- Eric Maisel

It's never someone else's fault that we aren't writing. -- Eric Maisel

It's all right just to stare at that beautiful book cover for a while. Perfectly okay. I do it all the time. Or, actually, since I've read this so often that the glue holding that little half-cover-thingy has come off, this is what I'm looking at:

Mmmm. Still lovely. This book is one of the most perfectly designed little volumes that I own, it really is. The fonts, the pen-and-ink illustrations, the size, the fabric cover... it's all gorgeous. (Go here for a peek inside...)

A Writer's Paris is one of those books that's been absolutely essential to my writing life. It's one of my desert island books: if I could choose only five books for my writing practice to depend on, this would be one of them.

And that's even factoring in all the arguments I've had with Eric Maisel. I disagree with him on just about every philosophical point, except writing and the motivation to write. So every time he strays into other discussions about humanism or athiesm, I'm usually snarking at him. (The chapter on "Maya and Lemonade" makes me scream every time.)

So why the recommendation? Why do I love this book, in spite of our disagreements?

Because Maisel sells me on his writing plan every time. Every single time.

See, he wants me to go to Paris for six months and write a novel. He wants me to write for six hours a day, in three two-hour stints. Write for two hours at a café, then go for a walk. Write for two hours at a park, then browse a little museum. Go back to my cheap Parisian studio apartment, and write for two more hours before bed.

And I am there, every time. I can see it all, see myself there, and what's more, I can see myself writing, writing, writing. He pulls away any excuses, all excuses. And before I know it, I'm back at my desk, scribbling notes, pecking away at my keyboard, finishing a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter.

Dreaming of croissants and French-speaking pigeons and views of the Seine, but writing just the same.

I pull this book off my shelf whenever I feel bleak about my work. If I've been talking about too many people about my writing, I usually feel dry and cold and want to be anywhere but my desk. (Weird, but true: talking about my current projects usually deflates my will to write.) A few chapters of Paris is like a shot in the arm: my heart is in Paris and my fingers are on the keys and I'm a writer again.

And as my family can attest: I am a thousand times happier when I'm working. So this book really is my best medicine.

In fact, reading a handful of the best chapters is like a mini writer's retreat. If I reread, say, "Apricots" (on accepting your flaws), "Writing in Public Places," "Your Novel in Six Months' Time" (which says wonderful things like Celebrate by writing or Exult. Exult by writing), "Three-Week Books," "Not Writing" (The plan in a nutshell: Get up, go out, and write.), and "If Not Paris, If Not a Year" ...

If I read all of those in one sitting, perhaps with a mug of coffee at my side, well. The literal caffeine will hit my heart rate, and the literary caffeine will hit my spirit, and off I'll run back to my novel, unstoppable, working again.

And I think that, if you're skilled in translating such things for yourself, this book could be well-applied to any creative endeavor. "Celebrate by writing" could also be: celebrate by sketching, celebrate by sauteing, celebrate by scrapbooking, celebrate by sewing.

Wherever your creativity lies, I think you'll find this book a stirring invitation to dive back in, and let nothing stop you, whether in Paris or Grand Rapids or Nashville or St. Louis.

Recommendation: No contest here. Strong coffee (from a French press, if you can manage it) and a croissant, buttered. It can be a golden afternoon, or a bleak rainy day, either one works. Just don't forget the coffee.


writer in progress: me and my word horde

"When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra." -- Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

I heard a story once, of a man who became a painter because he loved the smell of paint. And I wonder, did I become a writer because I love words so much? Or do I love words because I'm a writer?

Whichever wins, the chicken or the egg, I dearly love words. I love them for their own little sakes, just as I love them in combinations, in perfect sentences, breathtaking paragraphs, or the massive symphony of the novel.
Words. Bring 'em on.
Early in setting up my writing practice, I started reading dictionary pages. It seemed a good way to kick off my writing day--spend some time browsing the tools of the trade, right? After all, words are the bricks and mortar, the notes of my scales and arpeggios, my paints and brushes, my salt and pepper.
What would a novelist do, if she didn't love words? Or, if she didn't keep plunging in, and finding new ones? Would she end up with a slumping, shambling vocabulary? A kind of lowest-common-denominator familiarity with words?
And so I read my dictionary still. It is, after all, the place where the words hang out.
It's a massive one, collegiate, deluxe. I love the colored little drawings of the coyote, the guppy (male and female), houndstooth check, the oriole, rebec, sugarcane, uncials, a wren... (Speaking of which, have you seen this?? Swoon!)
So I read, copying down the words that grab my attention, for whatever reason. Maybe they have hopelessly confusing definitions, like this one:
chance: the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings
Doesn't that make you laugh? I feel like I grow taller, just reciting it. For a synonym, they simply write: luck.
On the other side of the spectrum, their definition for gossamer has to be the most beautiful one in the book:
gossamer: a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather
Mmm. Not just a word, a beautiful and complete setting.
So I write them down, and they keep me company, all these words. I even introduce them to one another, putting them into dozens of different documents. Lists and lists of words, according to whatever theme strikes my fancy. (I know other people do this professionally--like these--but it's so fun, and addicting, to spin off a bunch of DIY word lists...)
You never know what might happen, getting all these words together. Last year's Nanowrimo novel? I relied almost entirely on my various word lists, just for inspiration.
And besides, how can I resist? I have a list of colors, things like argentine, bloodred, camel, carroty, damask... Or words that have to do with the land: eddy, firth, freshet, graticule, howe.
I have two huge lists of words that just have to do with words, or anything literary. And that's where I go to see incunabulum, jape, kern, lexeme, and logology.
Or occupations. Imagine meeting these people at a party: a martyrologist, nightwalker, oologist, printer's devil, and a quidnunc. Write that conversation, why don't you? I mean, how could you not?
And then, of course, there's an ever-growing list of words that I love, just to love them. Fabulous things to say, to spell, to try and drop into a sentence. Words like runcible spoon, scapegrace, and sylph. Tenebrific, welkin, or widdershins.
Zaftig. Zenith. Zephyr...
Probably, I am a terminal nerd. Probably, I will always be shuffling around in the dictionary, scribbling in the margins as I do, writing those perfect little words on whatever scraps I have nearby.
But I'm not worried. It doesn't seem like a bad way to spend my time (decennium, ember days, evenfall, gloaming, lobster shift, seedtime, and thenceforth...)


all quiet on the bronte front?

Really? Really??

No hateful comments yet about my dislike of Jane Eyre? No nasty messages, no boxes of dead roses? No rants about my profaning a literary classic? No one sticking up for Rochester? Or mousy little Jane?

... If I'd known that, I'd have kicked the Brontes a bit sooner.

(Do not get me started on Wuthering Heights. Just don't. I suffered through half of it before deciding I'd like to throw Heathcliff off a wuthering height.)


book crush thursday: Nine Coaches Waiting

I said impetuously, "I shall love it here! I know I shall!"
The gloved hands moved in her lap. "I hope you will, Miss Martin." The words were kind, but formally spoken, and the smile had gone. -- Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting

So presently, having shared a stick of chocolate and said our prayers, from both of which exercises we derived immense comfort, we settled down for what remained of the night. -- Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting

I love this book for so many reasons. Most of all, I love it because it's everything Jane Eyre should be, but isn't.

Yes, I know. I just committed literary heresy. Being a female English major, I'm obligated to adore Jane Eyre. I probably even signed a paper along the way, swearing to uphold her ideals. And I've tried. Believe me, I've tried. Sometimes, I kind of do.

But most of the time, I think Jane is a twit, Rochester is completely rude, and what is going on with St. John Rivers? Please!

Eyre-ites may leap to her defense, but before you try to burn me at the stake, let me at least say: I have always loved the atmosphere of the book. Gothic? Absolutely. The romance, the suspense, the pins and needles uncertainty. I love the mad wife and the called-off wedding. I even love a disconsolate Jane wandering around the moors. That's all fine and wonderful. And in spite of wanting to wring Rochester's neck, I do always think of reading Jane when the weather turns from summer to fall. I can't help it.

But now I've found the perfect substitute.

Thanks to this brilliant book catalog, I was introduced to the name Mary Stewart (how cute is that photograph of her? I love it). And I picked up Nine Coaches Waiting.

I read it in one long wonderful day, curled up in the sun. I was sick with a cold but forgetting it, thanks to the twists and turns in Stewart's marvelous novel.

So, let me say it again: It's what I always wanted when I thought I wanted Jane Eyre.

After all, there's a huge rambling estate, a proud noble family. There's a powerful and enigmatic master in Leon de Valmy, there's his icy elegant wife Heloise, and then their nephew: young Philippe, a ten-year-old count.

Linda Martin is the English governness hired for Philippe, and as she learns to care for this quiet, formal child, she begins to uncover the secrets of the family... and falls in love. Foils a few murder attempts. Gets to run for her life. All those good things.

Also, she has a lot more pluck than other governess-heroines I could mention. And she's more outspoken. Possibly more determined. She makes for a wonderfully engaging narrator.

So there it is, the perfect book to kick off your autumn reading list. It was certainly enough to skyrocket all Mary Stewart titles to the top of mine.

And, if you're about to hunt me down for disparaging Jane, please at least read this book first. It has some wonderful Jane-y moments, I promise you. Including a mishap during a foggy walk--you know what I mean--as well as calling the meek governness out in front of a glittering party... really. And a kind hearted Englishman who is a far better stand-in for St. John Rivers. (I don't want to kick him every time he appears. Huge improvement.) They even call Linda "Jane Eyre" a time or two.

You'll love it. If you don't, then you can hunt me down.

Recommendation: Linda always makes Philippe cocoa before bed, so why not start there. Drinking chocolate would be even more elegant. Just make sure you give yourself a long afternoon to dive into this book, maybe in a patch of sun. And if you're going to have a rainy weekend like we are, well, so much the better.

(Really, my Eyre friends. I promise.)


writer in progress: the well-placed quote

You already knew I loved quotes. (And if that didn't convince you, this did.)

Probably no surprise, then, that I keep a huge list of quotes specifically to get me writing. Huge list.

... Actually, it's less like a list, and more like a massive, bulging file folder, crammed with scraps of paper with my scribbling on them. Like a snowdrift of writerly inspiration.

I always make sure a few of them land on the bulletin board above my desk. If I zone out for a while, and my gaze lands on one, it's the right spark to get me back to work.

Here are the three genius quotes keeping me at it this week:

The only way to change culture is to make more of it. -- Darrin Patrick

If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it? -- Stephen King

(This next is one of my all-time favorites. Makes me want to pull out my writerly superhero boots and cape.)

Learn your craft, by any and all means. ... Then practice it with all the art and magic you can muster. Be worthy of your vocation, which is, after all is said and done, truly a career of danger and daring. -- George Garrett

And if those don't work, it means I'm overthinking, or worrying, or spending time in some other mental ditch that is utterly unhelpful. To that end, here's one of my own quotes. It usually does the trick:

Subtle, isn't it? But sometimes subtle works.


five for your weekend

I realized recently that I'm intoxicated by the concept of the weekend.

Not in the sense of TGIF, etc. But I love the idea of two days as bookends for the week. Two days. The perfectly small grouping, just enough time to do something to reset your mind, your outlook, your surroundings. It's why I'm crazy for books like this and this and this.

Life can change between Friday night and Monday morning. Weekends. Gorgeous.

So, in that spirit, here are five sites to change your weekend.

1. Habit is a lovely blog that I enjoy just getting lost in. Each entry is a perfect little slice of photo and text, just enough to make me pause and consider. Browse it for a while and see what you think.

2. Cannelle et Vanille might be the most beautiful blog in the universe. Truly. Reading it feels like a vacation, every time. Beautiful food pictures? I'm so there.

3. If you're looking for a new take on your surroundings, Apartment Therapy is the place to go. I absolutely vanish into this site whenever I go... so many brilliant ideas, I can't stand it.

4. All right, I admit that I haven't actually read this next one. I haven't. Gasp. So it could be terrible, it could be excruciatingly bad, and then you can send a torrent of grumpy comments asking me what the deal is...

But how could I resist? If you're up for a literary adventure, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure is the coolest idea ever. Ev-er. Click through and see what I mean: as they say, it's not what you think...

A bunch of super-fabulous authors are collaborating on this, each one writing a chapter and passing it on. A partial list: Katherine Paterson, Kate DiCamillo, Susan Cooper, Gregory Maguire, Shannon Hale, Lemony Snicket, M.T. Anderson... are you shrieking yet?? Seriously. My brain explodes every time I think about it. And sometime, sometime, I have to read it. Beat me to it this weekend, and let me know what you think.

5. And then, to round out your weekend of awesomeness... my wonderful sister Kristen just gave her blog a makeover. It's incredible!! She is so talented. So go visit Mango Squirrel and see what my brilliant sister can do. (Mango Squirrel... Serif's Yarn Cafe... Squirrel and Serif... yup, you just figured it out.)

Have a life-changing weekend.


book crush thursday: A Platter of Figs

This is a book about eating as much as it is about cooking. About eating with friends--and cooking for friends--and why that matters so much. -- David Tanis
This isn't so much a recipe as a way to think about tomatoes. -- David Tanis
We are all cooks, each in our own fashion. Cooking is learned in the same way as we learn to speak, write, act, dance. We observe, then we copy, then we interpret. -- David Tanis
In short, here is my advice: cook. -- David Tanis
So, I was going to feature another cookbook today, but then I got this beauty for my birthday, and I was so out of my mind in love with it that I had to bring it to you today.

But excuse me, I'm hyperventilating a little.

The reasons why I know that you, too, will flat out love A Platter of Figs, by David Tanis:

1. Let's start with the fact that it's a well-designed book. I mean, a book that understands what it means to be a book. The type is flawless, the margins are wide and beautiful ... it's all arranged like your own private art museum.
I feel like a better human around this typography. Might sound crazy. Might sound like I've been around words a little too much. But I promise you, it's true. ... In the midst of our hyper-electronic age, it's a gift and a pleasure to hold a truly well-conceived book.
2. The photography. What is a cookbook without stunning photos? Not much. These photos (by Christopher Hirsheimer) are exquisite. I kind of want to lick them. They're that convincing.
3. Okay, then the recipes. Not only is each recipe a work of art in its own right, but he has them arranged in menus. And each menu is its own little universe, a perfect little food experience, with a fantastic name, photographs, and an introduction, with serving advice or a story about his inspiration.
So where will I start cooking? The "Yellow Hunger" meal, or "Feeling Italian, Part II," or "Too Darned Hot, Alors!" Or maybe it's the "Simple Moroccan Supper," maybe that's what I really want.
4. Oh, and the menus are arranged seasonally. Score.
5. Also, if you didn't notice, it made the Gourmet Cookbook Club. And they know what they're talking about. So if you don't believe me, believe them.
6. Finally, and not to be underestimated, this man can write. I mean, he's as artistic with his words as he is with ingredients and dishes. The writing is as beautiful as the photographs and book itself.
Seriously, now. I love how he describes food. Listen to this: The first cold weather wants bean soup. If possible, eat this soup outside, preferably with a little fire going, after raking leaves or chopping wood.
There. Now how can I not make "Zuppa di Fagioli with Rosemary Oil" when that first truly autumnal night hits us? How can I not? How can you not? We'll be making bean soup, you and I.
I think that's it, that's why I love this book. It makes me want to cook boldly.
Make a huge, glorious mess in the kitchen, and then eat it all with the people dearest to me. Pass the plates, talk, laugh helplessly, get my fingers all greasy with olive oil, smile 'til my face hurts, forget there's flour in my hair, sit on the deck with dessert until it's too dark to see each other but we don't want to go inside yet...
That. And a book that makes me feel that way... well, I'll sleep with it under my pillow. And hope all its goodness soaks into my brain, until I'm cooking and thinking like this, all the time.
Recommendation: I can't imagine eating something while looking at this book, simply because I want to eat everything I see in it. So maybe it would be best to just have a glass of wine, to accompany the meal in your head. And savor them both together, the wine and the inspiration.
(Note: Yeah, so, the pages look a little blue in those pictures. That's my fault, not the book's. In real life, I promise they're white. That is, until I start cooking, and they get spattered with tomatoes and oil and berries...)


26 things before i turn 27

What's past is prologue. -- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The future must be my proof. -- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Yesterday: I turned 26.

Today: I start making my next year the best so far.
Good beginnings usually mean: a list. Of 26 things I'll do before I turn 27.

I love this sort of list, crammed with wonderful goals made for the next year. Saw it first on Hula Seventy, as well as Elsie, and I love Julia's blog for the same reason.

It's inspiring business, after all, to think of how you can shape your next year. And how that next year will shape you.

I've made this kind of list before, half-heartedly. But this isn't half-hearted. This is full heart.

115% heart.
Deep breath... here we go:

1. purge my shelves of the books I'm holding onto because I feel obligated to read them... the classics that I don't think are classic (goodbye, Jude the Obscure), the dreary literary fiction that others might rave about but I find tired... get rid of them, and make room for the books I love -- done! hooray!

2. go to the Soulard Farmers' Market

3. visit a nearby winery and have a long, leisurely picnic

4. design five new scarves for Squirrel & Serif's fall collection -- done! woo hoo!

5. get started on a running routine: it's happening! Yeah!

6. make jam from scratch -- whoa. Revelatory. Also, done.

7. read Les Miserables -- we're on our way! -- done!

8. design a new knitted ornament for our Squirrel & Serif Christmas -- done! yum.

9. learn calligraphy

10. stop freaking out about the time it takes to write a novel... this is the year I get over that... completely. A surprising answer to this. But an answer nonetheless.

11. make Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon

12. knit myself a skirt (the beautiful one on the cover of this book): Mmmm, we nixed the skirt. How about a snuggy granny square quilt instead?

13. buy all my Christmas presents through Etsy, supporting my fellow crafters: okay, it didn't happen, but this did.

14. read a collection of letters ... I own so many! letters of T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers, E.B. White, and Jane Austen, as well as a general collection... but I've never read a collection straight through

15. visit the beautiful public library in downtown St. Louis

16. learn how to change a tire

17. see Gone with the Wind for the first time! Did it! Didn't like it much, I'm afraid. Kinda want to shake Scarlett, don't you?

18. read four travelogues about places I've never been

19. learn how to make a coptic bound book (with the help of this book), and then mail one to a friend

20. make myself a photo album of the last five years... actual pictures! not just digital copies on a screen!

21. join the greeting/hospitality team at church -- so much fun.

22. go to Bissinger's chocolate bar for drinks

23. finish the first complete draft of my sequel--done! Yeah!

24. go with my niece to the St. Louis Zoo

25. make homemade ice cream

26. see a live play

Mmmm. The kind of list that gets me up in the morning. 26 things before I turn 27: it starts now.