My book group’s been around longer than yours

recentreadsHow do you get 35 women to agree on 11 books to read over the next year?

I belong to a remarkable book group, known as A.M. Lit (it meets on the first Friday morning of the month) and sponsored for 40-ish years by my local branch of the American Association of University Women.

You could say it’s a bit of an institution.

Like many of its members I initially joined thirty-odd years ago (yes, many members have been a part of the group at least that long!) when I had toddlers at home and desperately needed something beyond Sesame Street. Part of the charm back then was that we used to hire a local college girl or two to babysit our kids in the hostess’s basement or playroom while we discussed that month’s book over coffee upstairs. It was wonderful and the source of many of my earliest suburban mom friendships.

When I returned to a full-time job and was no longer free on the first Friday morning, A.M. Lit fell by the wayside. Fast forward a career later; when I retired, one friend who had remained active the entire time encouraged me to return. It was like coming home. Several women had remained active in the group the entire time, others had drifted off and come back as I was doing. And there were several great new friends to make as well.

But I digress.

Despite ample chit chat before and after each meeting, A.M. Lit is serious about discussing each book. A volunteer leads each each discussion, researching the author and reviews of the book. But this is all just background, because it’s the discussion that drives the group.

These women are not shy. They like it or they don’t and they say why. Because there is a collective body of shared reading history for many of the members, they often draw on that criticism to illuminate the current book and/or make their point. Newer members present yet another point of view. It’s always dynamic, never boring and I frequently come away with more on my reading list.

septreadBack to the matter of book selection.

We choose a year’s reading list at the regular September meeting. Potential books are submitted ahead of time, then briefly recapped by their advocate at the meeting. The resulting discussion is a thoughtful, deliberate process, peppered by frank debate (“I can’t read one more book about WWII;” “This is a best seller we’ll all read eventually anyway; let’s not waste a choice on it here;” “That’s too many pages!” and my personal favorite: “I didn’t read this until after I recommended it; it’s awful and I’m withdrawing it.”).

This group purposely chooses titles that we know are going to stretch our reading interests and our minds. We don’t necessarily choose from the best seller lists and we often throw in a classic (All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind. Not only did we like the book and enjoy a lively discussion, but many of us admitted we had somehow never read it before!) Not all selections are fiction. Last year we read The Boys in the Boat and Dead Wake. Both great reads; a number of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed them.

We winnow down the final choices by voting (hatchmarks next to each title listed on a whiteboard). Not surprisingly, with 30 or 35 people participating, it often takes more than one round of voting to get the list pared down to 11 choices. It’s not the Electoral College, but it works.

So, what are we reading this year? Redeployment by Phil Klay, Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan, Doc by Maria Doria Russell, The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, Someone by Alice McDermott, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

Many of us are in other book clubs, some more academic and some more social. But for me, A.M. Lit will always offer a benchmark.

So, what are you reading these days? I’d love to hear.

See you next time!

(More than) a few thoughts on Labor Day

I’m always a little hesitant about making plans for Labor Day. My husband is a hayfever sufferer and this weekend is often the pinnacle of his misery. I’ve learned not to make big plans for this holiday, at least for the two of us.

So, I was really excited when my daughter found a new flea/antique/vintage market for us to explore Saturday. It was an easy hour-or-so drive south of Wheaton, and a beautiful day (as in notably cooler and without significant humidity), really perfect for this kind of an outing.

Our destination was Wilmington, Illinois, a small town on the Kankakee River and right on the original Route 66 (a route I fantasize about road-tripping on). Although a lot of the vendors along the street were focused on crafts and vintage toys (as opposed to the furniture, ironstone, etc. that we might prefer), it was still fun to look. And, behind the vendors, was one antique shop after another. We spent a lot of time looking!

We found a few things (and I passed up a really neat brown transferware platter because I got distracted looking at all the other stuff!). But Maggie had the best find, this cool, divided tin tray. It’s not an antique, but it definitely has that Joanna Gaines/Fixer Upper vibe.

 

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After all this shopping, we rewarded ourselves with burgers, fries and onion rings at a local diner before heading for home. On the way back we tossed around different ways to accessorize the tin tray. This lead to a “shopping” expedition in my basement storage boxes and cabinets, which led to these pretty plates from my mother’s best friend, a vintage tablecloth with matching napkins, some craft store pumpkins, and two old wood boxes all going home with Maggie.

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And on day 2

But this was just the beginning of the three-day weekend. I had accepted an invitation to a late-season cookout Sunday afternoon. The hosts are two of the nicest people I know. They share a the “gracious gene,” warmly welcoming guests to their beautifully restored Victorian home. Elizabeth is a fabulous cook and loves cooking for others. (Are her friends, family and co-workers lucky or what?) We don’t get to see them often enough. If my husband felt truly awful, it would not be the first time I went to an event alone and made his apologies.

Happily, thanks to a new prescription regime, my husband was able to join me for a wonderful evening catching up with a few old friends as well as some engaging conversation with new acquaintances. Our hosts’ home is surrounded by gardens and patios, clearly designed for entertaining as well as a setting for their home.

Enough talk, look at their garden! All I had was an iphone and dwindling light, but I think I was able to get a sense of the color and abundance of the garden beds genuinely overflowing with blooms and herbs. Not to mention the garage with the roofline that mimics the house, the lantern and the clock. The best designs are always about details.

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LambertGarage

 

That brings us to Labor Day itself

While we we driving to Wilmington on Saturday, a friend texted to ask if we’d like to join them to cookout Monday afternoon. Once again, hoping Steve would feel better, I said yes. It was a lovely, low-key time with just six of us sitting around the table on the hosts’ porch talking travels past and future and what the grandkids have been up to. At some point late in the evening I walked into the kitchen (which looks this pretty after dinner) and snapped this picture, the best evidence I know of time well spent with good friends.

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And thinking about Labor Day

My maternal grandparents (the only ones I knew) raised my mother and uncle, along with a niece and nephew, in a small house in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They knew only too well the value of having a job to go to every day, because they also knew people who weren’t that lucky. When I was a little girl and would sometimes spend the day with them, Grandpa would ask at the dinner table what I did to earn my dinner that day. And I would report that I dusted or I helped Grandma bake pies or maybe I washed my doll’s clothes while 
Grandma did laundry.

As an adult I have often thought of those dinner table conversations. I did my homework, did the laundry, took my kids to the library, got the magazine to the printer, wrote a blog post. What I do in a day matters. And the work that we do matters a lot. When I was in the business world and someone was really ripped by a co-worker or a superior or even a client, invariably another co-worker would say, “it’s not personal, it’s business.” But, you know what? Our business — the work we do — is personal. It defines us and makes us who we are.

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This is my salute to workers past and present. Wishing you a week with lots of good work.

See you next time!

August is for antiques & tomatoes

A recent Instatgram post by Delores Arabian of Vignette Design (one of the first blogs I followed) said, “August is like the Sunday of summer.” So true. The routine changes, no matter what your routine is. August just feels different. The light is shifting. People seem to move a little more quickly and with more purpose.

I’ve spent the last week deciding what to do with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes and looking for fall inspiration in a few antique stores.

Start with a bucket of tomatoes

First, a little background. A few years ago, we took our kitchen down to the studs for a much-needed renovation. Thanks to a great designer, who took the time to understand what Steve and I each wanted in a kitchen, we got all that and more. It looks great; more importantly, it really works! I can easily spend an entire day puttering around in my kitchen. In fact, yesterday I did. I started with a five-gallon bucket of fresh tomatoes from my husband’s garden (I think you could easily call this “high tomato season”), and things just kept going from there.

VegetablesSweetgrass

This is not the first bucket of tomatoes this season. Despite a slow start, the garden plot has been prolific. It began with radishes and beets, then moved on to cucumbers and beans. Lots of cucumbers and beans. I gave them away, there were so many. Now we have buckets of tomatoes.

I think everyone has their own favorite ways of dealing with tomatoes. We love fresh tomato bruschetta and have been serving it to everyone who’s come to dinner in the last month. BLT’s are a regular feature on the menu. My grandma used to can tomatoes, in glass jars in a water bath. It was a hot, labor-intensive process. Instead I drop the meatier tomato varieties, like Romas, into boiling water for just a few minutes to facilitate skinning. After letting them cool briefly, the skins slide off and I slit them to seed them, then crush this “tomato meat” with my hands (As Ina Garten always says, clean hands are the cook’s best tool!) and pack in quart containers for the freezer.

Then, because there were more tomatoes, I made this fresh tomato soup recipe from The Cafe Sucre Farine (A delicious food blog; if you’re not into cooking, just enjoy the pictures!)  It was super easy. No skinning or seeding the tomatoes! Blending at the end takes care of that. (Hint: I did it in batches with my immersion blender.) It’s so yummy, I wanted to lick the bowl. You can find the recipe here.

TomatoSoup

And, as long as I was in the kitchen, I made a pot of chicken stock. I know this sounds crazy, but I was using my last carton in the tomato soup. I knew I had the ingredients to make more stock, so what’s another pot going on the stove? Now I have cartons of fresh tomato soup, chicken stock, and tomatoes in the freezer.

Tomorrow I’m baking a cake!

When in doubt, go antiquing

Every so often I feel the need to spend some time shopping a few local antique malls. Sometimes I come away empty-handed, sometimes I find a new treasure, and sometimes I come home with inspiration to use what I already have in a new way. But the bottom line for me is that antiquing always fuels my creativity. And I’ve been looking for ideas for a bit of a “fall refresh” around the house.

IronstoneAntiqueShop1

This display in one booth (above) stopped me in my tracks. My love for ironstone is “well-documented” so I studied this carefully. I have a number of similar pieces, but it was hard to tear myself away (and I’m not at all convinced I don’t need that stack of covered dishes). I did come away with this small ironstone tray and a few hand-painted pieces. (Full confession: I gave the footed bowl and saucer to a friend. It was made for her collection!)

AugustAntiques

In another another booth, I found a few new blue and white transferware pieces. I’m especially excited about one plate, since a previous owner added this information on a small strip of tape to the back: “from C.C. Penney This came to America is 1830 Given to me May 4, 1969 (from Peggie)”. Isn’t that amazing? Now I’m wondering if I should do the same with a few of my favorite things.

What’s inspiring you this August?

See you next time!

A sweetgrass story

DSC_0411I suppose there are people out there who don’t like baskets, but honestly, I don’t know who they are or what they are thinking.

I began collecting baskets because they are an attractive, useful means of gathering and holding a variety of things. (Remember my post about Mary Emmerling?) Things like plants, onions, and sewing projects. Next, I acquired a few antique baskets, which I treasure. They are often fragile, but I find ways to use and enjoy them, like on top of cabinets where they can be seen but not touched. Then I found new, hand-crafted baskets. They’re pretty sturdy. I especially like large, utilitarian ones that can hold magazines or paper trash beside my desk. That way I can enjoy the basket maker’s artistry every day.

However, my sweetgrass baskets from South Carolina are the rockstars of my collection.

SweetgrassCollection

Sweetgrass baskets are fashioned from tightly coiled grasses and long-leaf pine needles at the hands of a small group of artisans. Each basket is one-of-a-kind. They are beautiful and functional on their own, but more importantly to me, they are an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 300 years.

A bit of history

In eighteenth-century South Carolina, the prosperous plantation lifestyle and its urban counterpart in Charleston owed much to the booming rice economy. And the rice economy depended on the labor and expertise of West African slaves, many of them rice planters in Africa before their captivity. They arrived in this country without personal belongings but holding close to the traditions and culture they had left behind, including basketmaking.

Originally made of bullrush and palm, which were prevalent in both Africa and in the South Carolina lowcountry, the basketmaking tradition allowed the West African slaves to continue an important cultural connection to their past. In addition, the baskets, like their knowledge of rice planting, were in high demand in the agricultural community. Flat, fanner baskets were used for winnowing rice. Large work baskets were used to store and transport a variety of materials.

Soon these baskets were incorporated into more domestic uses and new designs, like covered sewing baskets and bread baskets, began to appear. Basketry was an important skill in the slave community. There is evidence to suggest that some slaves were allowed to make and sell some of their wares.

CharlestonBasketsMeetingSt

Despite the eventual decline of the plantation economy, the basketmaking tradition continued, though the products were smaller and more suited to household use. Sweetgrasss began to replace the bullrush and long leaf pine needles were added to make the coiled designs more interesting. In the early thirties, when increased car travel brought more tourists to the Mount Pleasant area just north of Charleston, interest in the craft increased and the first roadside basket stands appeared. Many of them remain today. Contemporary basketmakers also sell their wares at the Charleston City Market and at the “four corners of the law” at Meeting and Broad Streets (above). I’ve probably bought most of my baskets at this last location.

Putting a value on tradition

There are no written instructions for making a sweetgrass basket. This is a tradition handed down from generation to generation, and the basketmaker’s wares are distinguished by his or her expertise and personal style. Each of my baskets was handmade by someone who learned her craft from a mother or grandmother, who learned it from her mother or grandmother and so on. This is what makes them so valuable to me. Watch a basketmaker at work (and they are always working on another basket) and you can see what a painstaking project each basket is and the skill required. Even the simplest designs can take a dozen or more hours to complete. Larger designs take much more.

Although many basketmakers make what seem to be the same styles (probably dictated by what buyers want), the closer you look, the more differences you see. Some are woven tighter than others, some have little knots as embellishments, many are clearly designed to hold popular casseroles or baking pans.

I tend to favor simpler designs, that will still offer some utilitarian use. My first pieces of sweetgrass were actually two trivets. (Twenty-plus years later, we continue to use them almost daily, which I suppose says a lot about their sturdiness and usefulness.) This year I spent some time at the City Market (at the Meeting Street end) talking with basketmakers Corey Alston and his sister Charlene. They pointed out some of their work with newer, “fancier” designs and a few much more traditional pieces, including an almost flat fanner that I continue to dream about but just could not afford.

Sweetgrass1

Sweetgrass baskets are what my mother would call “pricey.” Few fall in the $50 range and many designs are hundreds, even thousands of dollars. I looked at baskets for years before I bought anything beyond my trivets. Eventually I set aside birthday money and added to it to purchase one of the designs I had been eyeing. (It was all downhill for me after that!)

In addition to the time and skill necessary to make each basket, the sweetgrass (which really has a distinctive, sweet or fresh smell when you “stick your nose into a basket” as my husband says) itself is harder to come by. Once plentiful in the lowcountry marshes, the plants have been threatened by growing development, although now I believe it is somewhat protected.

Many basketmakers are willing to negotiate prices for serious buyers, especially on expensive pieces. While I always negotiate (it’s part of the fun), I do so when I am committed to a purchase. I don’t negotiate a lower price, then walk away to “think it over.” I am very conscious that I’m not just buying a basket or even a significant African-American craft. I’m investing in a one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted piece of art, part of a tradition that will hopefully continue indefinitely.

I’m also aware that I’m very, very lucky to collect these woven “rock stars.” Do you have a “rock star” collection or one you would like to start? I’d love to hear about it!

See you next time!

Charleston snapshots

We just returned from what has become our annual week on Kiawah Island, just 20 miles from Charleston, South Carolina. We love the broad sandy beach and the quiet pace of the island, which is a private, planned community committed to preserving its natural setting. I have always thought of it as the ideal respite from our otherwise busy suburban life. We also love Charleston — the history, the architecture, the gardens.  And although today it is a top travel destination in the U.S., I think my family believes that after 25 years of summer visits we have a more personal claim on the city.

This year our visit came in the midst of a record-setting heat wave (which is saying a lot since any summer day here is typically hot and humid). However, my intrepid daughter and I still managed to take our own walking/photography tour of Charleston. I thought I would share some of what we saw.

Charleston2016YellowHouse

It’s easy to get caught up in the genuinely grand houses along Charleston’s Battery, but this may be more typical. It’s a little more modest and obviously well cared for. I love the piazzas and those beautiful doors!

Charleston2016Greensoverwall

More piazzas, this time behind a brick wall topped with greenery. I’m sure there’s a wonderful garden behind that wall!

More brick walls. The walkway on the left was “calling my name,” but it clearly went to private property. I love the detail, all done in the same simple brick, in the wall on the right.

CharlestonTinyHouse

This image is a little fuzzy, but I had to share. Isn’t this charming? I imagine it may have started out as a kitchen house on a larger property. Today, it’s the perfect “tiny house.”

CharlestonHouseGaslight

Look at the gaslight on this porch. Many homes have them. I think it’s just one of the details that sets these homes apart. And it’s the details that matter in Charleston. Look at the window boxes below.

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The good news/bad news about wandering in Charleston is that there is always another alley or lane that beckons! Love this green “wall” backed by palmettos.

 

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No walk through Charleston south of Broad Street would be complete without stopping to admire the sweetgrass baskets for sale on Meeting Street. The baskets are woven by hand from local materials using techniques that have been passed down for centuries. Stay tuned for a separate post on these beautiful collectibles.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little walk thru Charleston. It’s really more eye-candy than a history/house/garden-loving photographer can take in!

See you next time!

Loving Instagram

When I launched Ivy and Ironstone, my daughter suggested I join Instagram as a way to promote it. Oh, yuck, I thought. More social media. I’ve already admitted I’m not very good at FaceBook, (which I pretty much think of as a place to view pictures of my friends’ children and grandchildren). I still have so much to learn about blogging and now I need to learn Instagram?

However, this is what Maggie does for a living, and she’s good at it, so I started scouting some of the Instagram feeds of the bloggers I follow. I fond lots of great photos, and I could choose the kinds I wanted to see: gardens, travel, decorating, entertaining, food. This is like putting together your own, special-interest, electronic magazine.

Like other social media, Instagram intuits what you like and sends you more of the same in a separate search feed. So, I started following (on Instagram) some of those bloggers, a few designers, and so on.

Now I’m enjoying it so much, I’m spending way more time on Instagram than anything, and definitely more than I should. Of course, it helps that I now have a few (very few) “followers” and “likes” (what a boost for my ego!).

So, as they say, without further ado, here’s just a small sampling of my Instagram feed.

I love missmustarseed.com. She likes blue and white transferware and white ironstone (sound familiar?).  I also really admire her keen business sense.

I had some fun setting a simple summer tablescape… #hydrangea #farmhousestyle #mmsmilkpaint #farmhousewhite #antiques #mmshome

A photo posted by Marian aka Miss Mustard Seed (@missmustardseed) on

 

Frances Schultz is the author of The Bee Cottage Story and blogs at francesschultz.com. Her Instagram is loaded with images from her homes, travels, and much more. Her wide-ranging interests make her feed especially interesting.

Love this friend's herb garden on a farm near Roaring Gap. #herbgarden #raisedbeds

A photo posted by Frances Schultz (@francesschultz) on

 

The French Tangerine was one of the first blogs I found and followed, below. (You can see her attention to French detail in this image of nesting birds beside her door!) Then came  Sharon Santoni’s My French Country Home and The Enchanted Home both favorites not just for their style, which is beautiful, but because of how their love of home and blogging has led them into remarkable new directions.

Babies grew up and are leaving the nest!

A photo posted by 🍊 jan vrana (@thefrenchtangerine) on Jul 19, 2016 at 5:51am PDT

 

 

 

Travel. Instagram is loaded with travel photos, domestic and international, funny and breathtaking, but I don’t think anyone captures Paris (though we all try) like Georgianna Lane does. And I enjoy getting a regular Paris “fix.”

Focusing on the long view today. Peace and love to each of you. 🙏💕🌎 More @aparisianmoment and @photosbydcp

A photo posted by Georgianna Lane (@georgiannalane) on Jul 18, 2016 at 9:22am PDT

 

Because a part of me would secretly like a bit of a farm, and I love his approach to gardening, I’ve been following P. Allen Smith. Aren’t these chickens wonderful? His gardens, flower and vegetable, are gorgeous.

 

Finally, in a world in which the news has lately been so bad, so often, words to live by from Ted Kennedy at Watson Kennedy He is witty, wise, and always, always gracious.

It so often comes down to the basics… This is always such a simple reminder that I come back to time and time again.

A photo posted by Ted Kennedy Watson (@watsonkennedy) on Jul 19, 2016 at 6:17am PDT

 

I could go on and on, but you can link to my Instagram on the left so see more of what I follow. If you are on Instagram, please share. If you aren’t, give it a try.

See you next time!

My miscellaneous file: gardens, a geeky book and crepe-y skin

This point in the summer seems a bit of a lull to me. The flush of spring is past. The fourth is behind us. Our trip to the beach is still a few weeks away. And it’s finally getting hot, which always makes me feel a little foggy at first. So today’s post is a bit of this and a bit of that from what I think of as my miscellaneous file.

Stalking my garden

Although I love spending time puttering in the garden, my skills often seem a bit sketchy. Or maybe it’s just that gardening is so dependent on weather, water, bugs. There really are a lot of variables. However, my daylilies are awesome this year. I honestly don’t know the names of these, but this is one of those times when a picture says it all. Aren’t these grand?

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I have also been nurturing a white garden in one area. I have never done one with a theme before, but I am really enjoying this.

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When one book leads to another

I’ve been reading Max Perkins, Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Yes, I realize this is a geeky read. But I was an English major in college, concentrating on 20th century American literature, so a bio of the venerable Scribners editor who introduced the world to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, to name just a few, holds a particular place in my literary heart.

This is the flip side of reading these novels, learning how Perkins struggled to focus Fitzgerald to complete The Great Gatsby, how he convinced Thomas Wolfe to cut thousands of words (and hundreds of pages) from Look Homeward, Angel to make it readable. However, Perkins was much more than an editor. He was a friend, counselor and financial planner to his remarkable stable of writers. Most importantly, by nurturing their talents he introduced some of the most important literary voices of the century.

Now that I’ve read the backstory, their works are on my “to read” (or in some cases re-read) list. I’ll let you know how that goes…

In the meantime, if you are looking for a fun beach or back porch read, pick up White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen. Jordan Walsh is a recent j-school graduate (from a family of writers) who goes to work at the Chicago Tribune in 1955.  These are  heady times (Richard Daley has just taken office as mayor), but women like Jordan are relegated to the society pages. Of course, she is determined to change that. This is a fun and fast read, especially if you are familiar with Chicago or the pre-feminist workplace.

All the talk about “crepe-y” skin

As I was puttering around in my kitchen this weekend, cutting, chopping and dicing to make potato salad for a pre-Fourth barbecue, I realized that I was listening to a 30-minute infomercial on the plague of “crepe-y skin,” the dry, finely wrinkled dermis of women of a certain age and the lengths to which they will go to cure it.

Well, as much as I hate to admit it now that I’ve made light of it, I too am afflicted with this condition. Somehow my mother’s finely crinkled, crepe-paper textured arms and hands have become mine. I’ve been aware of this for some time and have just pretty much looked the other way. (Although it’s getting harder.) If you pay attention to the informative television presentation, this same condition impacts the skin on our necks, chests, legs, etc!

Apparently there are some treatments (endorsed by the likes of Dorothy Hamill and others). My question is this, have any of you tried this? Does it work? The cure seems a bit pricey, but if I get my own arms and hands back, I’m willing to try.

What’s in your miscellaneous file?

See you next time!