Three to read and one from my soapbox

There’s always another read waiting on my bookshelf!

My road thru the pandemic has been paved with a significant stash of books. Reading has been (as it nearly always is) my salvation. Like many of you I often tilted these months at something a little lighter, or at least from another time period. I didn’t want to feel like I was reading the news. But along the way I also read three memorable titles.

Some books are challenging, but you still can’t put them down. There are those that are challenging to the point of troubling, but still compelling. I recently read three novels in short order that fit that description. Each had some uncomfortable moments and pushed my thinking — about the pandemic, African Americans, and immigration. And that, of course, is the “reader’s curse.” You read things that make you squirm, feel sad, maybe even make you want to walk away, but then you come back to see what happens next.

First, An American Marriage

I wrote briefly about the Tayari Jones bestseller here. It’s a popular title on a number of reading lists. The story centers on an upwardly mobile African American couple in Atlanta. They are married for just a short time when, on a visit to the husband’s family in a small town, the husband is accused of sexual assault. You can see where the story spirals. He is arrested, tried and jailed. And while he depends on her as his link to the world, she begins to move on.

I am probably over-simplifying here, but Jones does a remarkable job with characters whose life spirals in a predictable way, but one that is perhaps foreign to most readers. I read this earlier this spring, weeks before the death of George Floyd. If you haven’t read it yet, think about doing so now.

Then my daughter shared Valentine

Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel was one of Jenna Bush Hager’s recent picks for her Today Show book club. When she announced this title she noted that readers from West Texas will really get this book (and I’m paraphrasing here). Well, I’m not from West Texas, but this is one compelling read. I understand why my daughter couldn’t put it down, because I couldn’t either.

Set in the 1970’s the story revolves around women in a dirt-poor town in West Texas. They are thrown together after a fourteen-year-old girl — an immigrant from Mexico — is savagely attacked. Yes, there is violence, racism and poverty, but there is also strength, humor, hope and bravery. This is Elizabeth Wetmore’s first novel and I think she hits it out of the park.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

.My book group is discussing this title on Friday at our monthly Zoom meeting. (Also a Jenna Bush Hager choice.) This book opens in Palestine in 1990 when seventeen-year-old Isra is married off to a Palestinian husband from Brooklyn, New York. Her sheltered life hasn’t begun to prepare her for the new home she & her husband share with his family. Isra quickly gives birth to four daughters — but no son — and is expected to shoulder most of the cooking and cleaning for the extended family. Her husband works long hours and she is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned.

In alternating chapters Rum tells the story of Isra’s eldest daughter Deya, raised by her grandparents after Isra and her husband are killed in a car crash. Deya longs to know more about her mother and what happened, and she dreads the string of suitors her grandmother forces her to “sit with” as she nears high school graduation. Deya’s quest for the family’s truth makes for a good mystery, but the real story here is how a family clings to its cultural ways, no matter how restrictive and controlling. I suspect it’s the story of an endless number of migrant families.

I surfed the web for comments about this book, as well as reviews. A number of readers with similar backgrounds were painfully honest, saying, essentially, “This is what life is for Arab women.” Most of these women also said they were blessed to have families who embraced western customs. The bottom line: this book made me think about how little we really know about the rest of the world.

And now, a moment from my soapbox.

We know that masks, social distancing and hand washing slow the corona virus. Experts in communicable diseases  aren’t making this up. But inexplicably in this country that believed so much in science that we eliminated polio and landed a man on the moon, many have decided to ignore the experts. It’s boring. No one wants to be told what to do. It won’t happen to me. There’s always an excuse.

Now simple actions to slow the pandemic have become political footballs.

Meanwhile the pandemic numbers are rising to frightening levels. According to the CDC’s webpage, there were 52,228 new cases of the virus on Sunday, July 5th. More than fifty thousand in one day. It boggles my brain and it’s heartbreaking. I know we all have to work out our own comfort zone, but, please, wear a mask.

I hope you enjoyed a safe and relaxing holiday on this unforgettable July 4th.

Thanks for stopping by and see you again soon.

Saving February

I did my part in February to organize and reshuffle shelves and cabinets.

Is February a bore? The holidays are over, but in Illinois, Spring is is still far off. This year the weather has been oddly warm and way too cloudy. Now the sun is out, but it’s bitter cold. (Although honestly, if I can have only one, I’ll take sunny over cloudy whatever the temperature.) The more I thought about February being a bore, the more I realized it wasn’t. I was just sitting in a mental slump. Does this happen to you?  I think I was letting the calendar play mind games, especially on all those cloudy days.

And now, just to prove February’s not a bore, here are three fun things from the month.

A is for Audio

As an avid reader/book lover and participant in more than one book group, I have listened more and more to fellow book readers enumerate the virtues of audio books. They listen while they walk or ride the train or do the laundry. On one hand, it’s a great way to spend otherwise “mindless” time. On the other, the purist in me — the English major — thinks it can’t possibly be the same as actually turning the page, marking a passage, etc. (Yes. I write in my books and even dog-ear the pages. I like to really own them and reread all or parts of favorites.)

Last year my husband and I listened to a book on our drive to the Carolinas. It was a good way to spend the time, though we often got caught up in the drive or a conversation and lost track of the book. Recently, however, my son gave me a really cool pair of wireless earphones for my birthday. (I’m always late to the technology party.) I love them, and I’m becoming a devotee of Audible. I can listen while I walk, “read” in bed without disturbing my husband, and I can’t wait for a plane trip to try them out. I’m certainly not giving up on reading a “real” book, but audio books do help me enjoy more reading experiences. However, I do find that I’m listening to one book while reading another. Do you do that?

Instagram gardening

I was cruising thru some of my Instagram favorites the other day and realized that I’ve been saving garden shots, lots of them. Hmmm. I think I’m getting anxious to get outside, get my hands in the dirt, enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. My garden is not big and, if anything, I aim to simplify the tasks that go into maintaining it. But, my daily morning walk outside to check on plants (and weeds!), deadhead a few spent blooms, snip a few more to bring inside, and consider what more needs to be done nourishes me mentally and physically. But as 
I write this, it’s 12-degrees out, so enjoy a few photos I’ve saved as I plan ahead for spring.

How’s this for lush?I’m a sucker for vines.

 

I’ve never tried foxgloves, so this may be the year.I love the contrast the upright flowers have with the mounded greenery.

 

I also really enjoy somewhat monochromatic colors. I think a single-color garden shows off the diversity of the greenery.

 

This birthday cake

My nine-year-old grandson is currently obsessed with Rubik’s Cube. He has solved not only the original 6-sided puzzle (which leaves me in the dust!) but also the other multi-sided versions. “It’s all about the algorithms,” he explains. I actually looked into its history and the puzzle was designed by a professor who wanted to teach students about solving spacial problems.  For Jack, it’s really all about today’s math. It may not be Grandma’s math, but it sure does look like fun.

Back to the cake. My daughter-in-law always tries to tie cakes into the honoree’s interests. (I should have known what was coming when she ordered a globe-shaped groom’s cake for the rehearsal dinner.) She searched around and found ideas for Rubik’s Cube, then baked a 4-layer cake and carefully decked it with color-coded M&M’s. Is this not awesome engineering? (Okay, one corner is a little wonky, but that’s because the finished masterpiece sat in the fridge for a day!)

What about you? What’s kept you going in February?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Fall started with a manicure

My husband gave me this bowl years ago, and I really do love it! It’s perfect for big, mixed arrangements.

I stopped for a manicure the other day, then realized, as I was heading back to my car, that Trader Joe’s (which shares the parking lot) had an interesting variety of pumpkins piled outside. Of course, I checked out the display and they were even more appealing up close, not to mention well-priced!

And that was the nudge that pushed me into fall.

In truth, I had already picked up a few cute pumpkins and updated planters with mums, the latter because the previous blooms had totally withered in the last of summer’s heat. Now, however, I was into the new season. I cut two big buckets of drying hydrangea blooms and arranged them into several plump bouquets.

More than that, however, I began my quest for my own pumpkin patch in the front yard. It’s a challenge to see how many different kinds of pumpkins I can find — green, pink, white, orange — and I also have to protect them from from nibbling by squirrels, rabbits, and whoever else stops by for a bite of pumpkin. And don’t get me started on how easily specimens with soft spots or tiny breaks in their skin can readily rot into messy, mushy piles. (If it sounds like I have had experience with this, you are right.)

Here’s the font yard patch: three different oranges and a pink (!!!) pumpkin.
This is my patch from a few years ago.

This year I armed myself for serious pumpkin protection (or maybe I just need a hobby?). I washed them with soapy water seasoned with a splash of bleach. After they were dry, I spread them on a drop cloth and sprayed them with a clear coat sealer. I have no idea if these precautions will work, but they come from other bloggers who seem to know what they’re talking about. (Which really means they take their seasonal decorating much more seriously than I do.)

Pumpkins getting the “preservative treatment.”

I’ve also done my best to spread some autumnal cheer inside. I have an admirable collection of dried gourds, collected over several years, that I rely on for inside scene-setting at this time of year, but they are currently trapped under the basement stairs behind bookcases and toolboxes re-located for the duration of our drainage repairs (which should be wrapping up in another week or two. Hooray!!). So instead, I’m using more pumpkins, fruit, fresh and faux leaves to set the scene inside.

I piled my ceramic pumpkins from Berea, Kentucky, along with some some baby boos and a few real ones here on the antique dresser in the living room.

 

Then I thought about how good orange looks with blue and white, so I tried this in the dining room.

 

Finally I paired one of my buckets of hydrangeas with these pumpkins on the back porch!

Most importantly this has fed my puttering/tweaking gene, which spills over into a bit of fall cleaning, polishing and generally dusting-up. (My grandma would be pleased.) My house needed the attention and I needed the “therapy.”

I’m so glad I stopped for that manicure!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

A Christmas story for 2017

A dear friend gave me this adorable mini tree, which I love. If you look closely at the antique glass beads, you see bits of candle wax, left from days of lighting trees with candles.

Every Christmas, I think, has its own story. Some happy, some downright funny, some even occasionally sad. This year, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that you have time for one more holiday story. I couldn’t tell this sooner, because it took until now to unfold.

Christmas 2017 flew by in a rush of excited little boys, lots of legos, snow flakes, champagne corks, and last minute cookies. After the “dust had settled” as my dad would say, and I got over my Christmas cold, disposed of the paper and boxes, and the returns had (mostly) been taken care of, I was thinking about the blessings of the last year, and what I might blog about, when a lightbulb went off in my head.

As has become the custom, my husband, my daughter and I traveled from Chicago to Ohio to spend the holiday with my son, his wife and our grandsons aged 4 and “almost” 7. Jack & Ben’s excitement is palpable and exhausting. It’s also magical. (Has Santa left yet? Where do you think his sleigh is right now? China? Antarctica? Do you think Santa would like a star cookie or a snowman? How many carrots for his reindeer?)

After an early start and a longer than average drive, we pulled into their Ohio driveway. First one and then two boys were bouncing in the window (I love this welcome). By the time we got in the door my daughter-in-law was sweeping up a broken ornament, the casualty of that exuberant welcome.

Since Columbus is my daughter-in-law’s home, we’re also joined on Christmas by her mother (otherwise known as Grandma B), her sister and brother-in-law, her Aunt Rosie and cousin Joe. There are at least three or four conversations going on, along with the beeping, honking or hum of some vehicle Santa has left under the tree. There are more presents to open, toys to show off, toasts to be made and news share. We’ve added extra chairs to the table and the little boys will eat at their own table. Now, this is Christmas.

(I’m just setting the stage here, but the lightbulb is about to click.)

Although I have no siblings, I grew up celebrating Christmas surrounded by an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends who were family. I miss that. I love, and am so glad, that we have been embraced by Jen’s family. Though I think all of us — in Chicago and Columbus — would find it strange to celebrate any other way, I know not every family does.

In this, we are blessed.

I have to admit that my first few Christmases in Columbus were a challenge. I missed opening packages under our tree. I missed being the hostess. I missed having my family at my table. But then I realized I was just missing the past — my parents, my grandparents and my aunt & uncle. I had lost the last of them before we adopted this new tradition which I now realize we are so lucky to have. This is the shape our family has taken.

I hope your holiday story included time with family and/or friends-who-are-family, on Christmas or another day, because there are no rules in these holiday stories.

Thanks for stopping by to read my Christmas story. I’ll see you in the New Year!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

From pumpkins to Christmas Curtains

My non-orange pumpkin patch.

How elaborate is your “fall decorating?”

When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!

After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.

Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make  point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.

One “real” pumpkin with my ceramic ones from a Kentucky artisan.

Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.

The Christmas Curtains

I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)

The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)

Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.

No images of Christmas curtains, but here are my Grandmother and Grandfather with a Christmas tree in 1943 or 1944. This is a favorite photo. I love those smiles. War-time holidays were melancholy, but these two always made the most of every holiday.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.

So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.

My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.

What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?

Thanks so much for stopping by! See you soon.