My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead (edited by Jeffrey Eugenides) – Not your typical love stories in this collection. A few favorites: "First Love and Other Sorrows" by Harold Brodkey, "Love" by Grace Paley, and "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro.
A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) – Sad, funny, richly written. One of those books where the characters are so well developed it's hard to remember they don't actually exist. I'm sure I'll read this again one day.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra) – A bleak but beautifully written story, and I'm in awe that this is his first book. I can't wait to see what else he writes.
How about you? Read anything great lately?
You know, I thought I'd be done with the first draft of my novel by now. For several months I had a daily habit of writing and was feeling like I was on the right track. But then Bodhi got sick, and we started looking at houses, and somewhere in there I stopped thinking about the novel altogether.
Today marks two weeks since officially moving into the new house, and in that time a daily routine has slowly started to take shape. Last night I even pulled out my yellow legal pad. I re-read a couple of old sentences. I tried to write a new one, just one new sentence, but the words wouldn't come to me. It's okay, though, because at least I tried. And trying is better than nothing at all.
Was it already Berabrack season? "It has to be," my sister says, "They're everywhere. Can't drive into town without almost hitting one." Whenever they show up, they cross the street in pairs, act like they never hear you, leave their paw prints in the morning dew. At Handy Hardware, I linger in the sign aisle, considering the one that reads: Warning: Berabracks not tolerated. But what is that supposed to mean?
"How long is it going to last this time?" I ask my sister when I'm back home, standing in her bedroom doorway. I have a plastic shopping bag hooked on my finger, but she doesn't ask what's inside. She's watching the 6-inch black-and-white television on her desk, tapping it every so often to clear away static.
"Two weeks," she says. "That's what they said on TV, anyway."
At night, you can hear them squeaking gibberish to each other. Sometimes it sounds like a real word. I swear I've heard them say sayonara. And salty. I lay awake those nights, the plastic bag on my nightstand, counting the painted-over spots on the ceiling. Six nights of this. "You don't look so great," my sister says. "Can't sleep?"
"Not at all," I say. "You?"
She nods. It occurs to me that she never turns off her desktop television, and that it probably drowns out the Berabracks. I go into town again that day, but all the department stores are sold out. Backordered until August, the salesgirl informs me. They've got radios, she says, but she wouldn't recommend them.
The Berabracks are still here after two weeks. At midnight, on a Sunday, I yank a sweatshirt over my head, grab the plastic bag from my nightstand, and open the back door. There are hundreds. A few stand up on their hind legs, eyes wide at the sight of me. I open the bag. I pull out a contraption that I'm not sure I can use properly. Then I realize I don't even have to use it. I'll just show it to them. I'll shake it at them, to show them I'm serious. "It's time for you to go," I say. "So go." Then the squeaking starts again, a squeaky laughing. I swear I hear one of them say: so silly. But that night they make their way to another yard, hopping slowly, as if saying they would have done it anyway.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
I've been wanting to grow vegetables for the longest time. The longest time. Eventually, I'd love to have a full garden. But I'm starting off slowly. I bought one small tomato plant, a container, and some potting soil. I gave it a smidgen of plant food, and I've been checking it almost every day, watering it when the soil feels dry, watching it get bigger. The fact that it's actually getting bigger somehow seems miraculous to me.
At first, its leaves didn't even touch the first ring on the cage. They've shot up past it now, and I'm sure I'll have to add a stake pretty soon. I know tomato plants can be finicky, but I'm hoping for the best. Fingers crossed.
How was your weekend? I spent most of it unpacking boxes and the rest of it redesigning the blog. It just felt like time for an update. I switched to a two-column layout, redid the handwritten logo, and added more functionality back in, like the search bar and the categories and the clearer shop links. I hope you like the new look. As always, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by.
Life at Hotel No. 9 went like this: breakfast was served at eight o'clock, featuring Wake Up Waffles, Let's Go Eggs, and a few dozen pots of Super Extra Coffee; afterward there never failed to be at least one fist fight in the lobby, but by the time peace was made and gauze was wrapped, the reason for it had been forgotten. The pool opened at ten o'clock, but fresh towels rarely made it up from Laundry before ten thirty, and the city children had to be chased out of the deep end anyway. At noon, lunch was only eaten by those who had nothing better to do with their day; most Hotel No. 9 residents slathered on their SPF 500 and grabbed a bottle of filtered water from their mini fridge and headed into city, because for those four hours each day it never rained and the shops were open and happiness, in general, was agreed upon.
Buses took everyone back to the hotel in late afternoon. Each was equipped with a small child who plodded up and down the aisle, demanding in a quiet hiss, "Tickets to Amsterdam, tickets to New York! Only three left, and then they'll be gone forever." You had witnessed a sly exchange between one of these young scalpers and a man who, later, you realized lived down the hallway from you. After he left, no one ever saw or heard from him again. Maybe that was a good thing, but nobody else wanted to find out.
At Hotel No. 9, dinner almost always featured Sleepy Spaghetti, and sometimes Relax Me Now Soup, and once in a while an Everything's Okay Salad Bar. After dinner there were never any fist fights. There was only the slow shuffling of residents back to their rooms, and doors clicking open and shut, and television sets crackling on. Yours tended to stay off. Each night you simply said a prayer, tucked yourself into bed, and watched the moon rise through your big oval window.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
I have news about the house hunt – we found one! For a while it felt like the right one would never come along, but then this house was listed. As with any house it's not perfect, but it checks off so much on our wishlist, the main appealing factor being that it was built in the 1940's and updated in the last few years. I also love that it has a good sized backyard (by city standards) and that I'll finally have an office instead of having to work in the corner of our bedroom.
After renting for the last ten years, it's sort of surreal to finally own a house. We've talked about it for years and have worked really hard to save for a down payment. Now comes the (hopefully) fun part of painting and decorating and making the space our own. Stay tuned for more updates.
I was too distracted to read very much this month, and most of my library books went back into the return slot with hardly a chapter read. But one I did finish was Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Most of it I enjoyed, and parts of it I really enjoyed. Like this, from "On Going Home", written about her daughter's first birthday:
In the evening, after she has gone to sleep, I kneel beside the crib and touch her face, where it is pressed against the slats, with mine. She is an open and trusting child, unprepared for and unaccustomed to the ambushes of family life, and perhaps it is just as well that I can offer her little of that life. I would like to give her more. I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother's teacups, would like to pledge her a picnic on a river with fried chicken and her hair uncombed, would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that. I give her a xylophone and a sundress from Madeira, and promise to tell her a funny story.
If you're a Joan Didion fan, do you have a favorite essay of hers? Or book? (The only other one of hers I've read is The Year of Magical Thinking, which was depressing but good.)
We said we were there for the wedding. Palmer wedding? asked the hotel clerk. No, we said. Flynn wedding. Sure enough, there were two banquet halls, one on each end of the ground floor.
"Wouldn't you hate that?" I asked Isaac. "Every time you had an anniversary, you'd be thinking, 'It's those other people's anniversary, too.' All your life."
"As opposed to us," said Isaac. "I'm sure nobody else got married that day."
"You know what I mean," I said. We were up in the room then, and I was counting all the wrinkles that my dress had incurred during the car ride. I brought the dress over by the window to get a better look, holding it up to the blue mid-morning light, but then I said, "Look, there they are," because I spotted their figures in the distance, out on the grassy knoll behind the hotel.
"Who?" asked Isaac. "The Palmers?"
I was about to say no, when it occurred to me that maybe it was the Palmers. It was too hard to be sure from this far away. All I knew was that there was someone in an ivory dress, and someone else in black. They were arguing, arms being thrown up in exasperation. Then the figure in black turned, and kicked at a rock, and left the bride standing alone, crying, on the empty hill.
All through the wedding I watched for a sign. I held my breath when they were asked Do you?, but they did not hesitate. They did their first dance, they cut the three-tiered white chocolate cake, they kissed on command when silverware clinked wine glasses. Later I snuck out, went down the long, mauve-carpeted hotel hallway, and peeked into the other banquet hall. It was, more or less, exactly the same, minus one thing.
"Where's the bride?" I tried asking someone, but just then a new song came on, and my question was inaudible. I backed out of the room. Headed back down the hallway. I was halfway there when she came out of a door, holding her long ivory skirt up so she wouldn't trip. Our eyes met.
"Everything okay?" I asked.
She looked confused. Then she smiled, and asked, "What do you mean? Hey, you're Katie's cousin, aren't you?"
"No," I said. "I'm not."
"Well," she said, and looked impatiently up the hall.
"Never mind," I said. "Congratulations."
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
Many thanks for all the heartfelt comments on the last post.
The house feels so much emptier, but I have been keeping myself busy. I've donated some old books and clothes and deep cleaned the fridge. I've been catching up with friends. I've been paying so much attention to Rufus that he's sick of me, which just makes me want to cuddle him more, because he's even cuter when he's grumpy. And I've gone on walks when there have been warm days. There is color everywhere, all sorts of flowers sneaking out of the green. It seems like only yesterday there were none at all.
We had to say goodbye to Bodhi a few days ago.
He had been having health problems for months, but I didn't mention it here, because I just couldn't. I don't know – maybe I thought there was a chance he would get better. But there were too many problems, including a cancerous mass that was discovered when he mysteriously came down with pneumonia, and then there were issues with his spine, which eventually meant he could hardly stand up on his own or walk down the stairs without falling. We took care of him the best we could, but when his personality faded, and when he lost his appetite and stopped wagging his tail and stopped caring about his toys, we understood that it was time.
I'll be taking this week off from blogging, but I'll be back next week.
I would bake banana bread all the time if it wasn't so easy to overindulge in. If there's a freshly baked loaf sitting on the kitchen counter, I can't keep my hands off it. So, unsurprisingly, when I made a test batch of these mini banana muffins a few weeks ago, the same thing happened. "Just one more," I kept saying, popping another into my mouth. Again and again. Luckily this time around I have no choice but to leave them be, because I baked them for my best friend's baby shower tomorrow. (It's her first! It's a boy!)
Mini Banana Muffins (makes 48 mini muffins)
recipe from All Recipes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F. If using liners, place them in a muffin pan. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, combine bananas, sugar, egg, and melted butter. Fold in the flour mixture, and mix until smooth. Fill the muffin liners* and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (And, of course, you can make these as regular sized muffins too; they'll just need to stay in the oven longer.)
*it's a good idea to do a single test muffin to avoid under/over filling an entire pan of muffins!
My favorite book this last month was The Old Man and the Sea. Now that I think about it, isn't it often read in high school? But I'm glad I didn't read it then, because a younger version of myself would've likely written it off as dull. The current me loved how pure and precise it was. Here are all my favorites from April...
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Two good things today: the prettiness of windblown blossoms everywhere, and my new pair of Avarcas arriving in the mail. (I haven't bought any new shoes for a long time, and I think these will be perfect for the spring & summer. Mine are the Classic Style Strap in brown.)
Over a number of years Helen had accumulated almost two dozen students, who cycled through her front door and then clumsily filled the house with music as she sat in a chair beside the lacquered piano bench. When a student didn't get it right after two or three tries, she moved to the edge of her seat and demonstrated the phrase on a higher octave. Sometimes the student hadn't practiced that week; those were usually the ones who were forced into the lessons (and whose mothers chose to listen in during the hour, and who tried to bargain with Helen over her weekly rate). Then there were the kids who truly wanted to be there, who practiced and thanked her and showed up on time when she arranged a recital at a retirement center in town. And then there was Karl, her only adult student, who she was in love with.
But Karl always forgot to play the E's flat, and he had an unapologetic weight to his fingers which made everything he played sound serious and sad. And there was the difficult detail, too, that he was married. Once when he opened his wallet after the lesson to write a check, a snapshot of a woman's face peeked out through a smudged plastic sleeve, staring directly at Helen. "Is that your wife?" she had asked Karl, feeling embarrassed when he said yes because her mind was already imagining what her own photograph would look like in its place.
"I'll see you next week, then?" he asked. He was heading toward the door.
"Yes," she said. "See you then."
This was a scenario she had considered: refer the students to someone else, sell the piano, throw away the sign that was out in the front yard, maybe cut her hair, or just dye it, and then go away. She would be someone else entirely, meet a man, wear a dress that clung to her hips, never again hear another beautiful sonata spoiled. She thought, vaguely, of Wyoming. Or Alaska; she had been there once, as a child. She wondered if she had a good enough winter coat. But then the next week Karl said, as he sat down on the bench, "You know, this is the highlight of my week, Helen," and that was that. She could not leave. Once he had said that, she could not do it.
At night, after hours of the house being quiet, she took a seat on the bench. She let her fingers lay on the keys for a long time before playing. Sometimes, even, for a full hour, periodically checking the clock over her shoulder. How long it felt when she was alone; how quickly it passed when Karl sat beside her. Finally, when the hour was up, she played.
I recently did a fun freelance project for Wisconsin Cheese, developing a recipe that showcased their cheese and then filming the recipe. I decided on a three-cheese flatbread because a mix of different cheeses is more complex and tasty than just one, and it's great as a quick, easy appetizer. So, here's my recipe + the video!
(Video credits: raw footage shot by me, all editing done by Wisconsin Cheese.)
Wisconsin Three-Cheese Flatbread (approx. 8 appetizer size portions)
1/2 pound fresh, store-bought pizza dough
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup Wisconsin Mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup Wisconsin Gouda cheese
1/3 cup Wisconsin Parmesan cheese
6 fresh basil leaves
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F. Grate the Wisconsin Mozzarella, Gouda, and Parmesan cheeses, then mix together in a bowl. Stack the basil leaves, roll, and slice into 1/4 inch wide strips. Set the toppings aside. Roll out the fresh pizza dough into a 6 x 12 inch rectangle, approximately 1/8 inch thick. Place the dough on a foiled-covered baking sheet. Brush the dough with olive oil, then sprinkle the shredded cheese on top. Add crushed red pepper flakes, if desired. Bake the flatbread for approximately 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is starting to brown. Remove from oven and top with the fresh basil. Slice into eight pieces and serve.
When she arrived, they were tearing down the stage, packing up the equipment into hardback cases, sweeping clean the parking lot. She approached one of the sweeping men. Gently cleared her throat. 'Scuse Me, she said. Is Oleander nearby? She had a package for him, she explained, tapping the butcher paper wrapped tube tucked under her arm. The man shook his head. She kept walking. She asked another sweeper and was answered with a shrug. But he is here, right? This was met with another shrug. She almost grabbed him by the shoulder, wanting to demand a real answer. But she knew what would happen. She'd done it before, gotten into a fight, had a permanent note added to her file.
Ah: there. She spotted his feet dangling off the back of one of the semi trucks. Slowly she walked around a mound of trash – which, she noticed, was made up of a lot of crumpled Magic Fries wrappers and burnt matches and neon business cards – and went around the back of the truck, clearing her throat again, and then saying: Delivery for you, sir. I just need a signature right here... while holding out the tablet and a pen, and trying not to look directly in his eyes. When he handed back the tablet his hand briefly touched hers. His skin was warm. He mumbled something that sounded like a thank you. Or maybe it was: now leave. You never knew with him.
She turned to go. She walked away from the truck, passed the sweepers, and looked back only once: just long enough to see the bright light glowing in the corner of her eye, and hear the laughing that echoed afterward.
What I read in the last month: exquisite dystopia, quirky POV, modern poetry, tales that unfolded and unfolded, and lots of beautiful descriptions of buildings. I already want to read some of these again. Here are my favorites from March:
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long
How about you? Read anything great recently? I'm always looking for more to add to my 'to read' list on Goodreads...
Making fries from scratch is one of those "kind of time consuming but fun nonetheless" recipes. We ate these last night with hot dogs (okay, a veggie dog for me; I don't like hot dogs) and this amazing broccoli slaw (which is already one of my favorite recipes and I've only made it twice). Anyway, back to those yummy fries. Here's my recipe...
Baked French Fries (serves 2-3)
2 large russet potatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
any other seasoning you like
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400°F. Wash and peel the potatoes. Slice into small strips (they can be as thin or thick as you like; just keep their size as consistent as possible and bake longer if your pieces are thicker). To prevent the fries from sticking together when they bake, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least ten minutes, then drain and pat dry with paper or cloth towels.
Toss the sliced potatoes with the olive oil, paprika, garlic powder, and any other of your favorite seasonings. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and crispy, turning halfway through. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy!
Serge was always telling me useless facts about food: did I know that Worcestershire sauce was made from anchovies, bones and all? Had I ever heard that coconut water, in an emergency, could be used as a substitute for blood plasma? They were the sort of arbitrary statements that sounded like bad pick-up lines coming from anyone else's lips, but when Serge said them, in his honey-thick Belgian voice, they were somehow endearing. That, and the fact that his enthusiasm was genuine. There was all this stuff out there that nobody knew. It was like he was discovering it before anyone else.
"Guess what food dynamite is made of," said Serge one evening. He was on the computer, reading one of a seemingly endless supply of More Amazing Facts About Food! articles online.
"I haven't a clue," I said. He waited for me to guess. I shrugged.
"Peanuts," he said, after a beat, his eyes widening.
"I don't believe that," I said. "I think someone just makes some of this stuff up."
He motioned for me to read it with my own two eyes, as if that would convince me. I leaned over his shoulder and read, adding a little ah-ha at the end. I kissed the side of his face, just above the jagged line of stubble. I said: I'm going to order in. You want the usual?
If I'm counting right, I haven't seen him for seven years. But I still remember those facts he rattled off. His voice recites them to me when I grocery shop, or times like now, when I'm standing barefoot in my stuffy kitchen preparing beef brisket. A bottle of Worcestershire sits open on the countertop, sauce clinging to the lip. Anchovies... says Serge in my head. This image I can't get out of my mind: all those fish and their glistening thin bodies and their tiny eyes, an endless number of them swimming against the current.
Anchovy bones, he whispers.
"Stop," I insist, trying to forget. I picture Serge on a train, and the train speeding away into the distance, until it's just a speck. A trick my therapist taught me, if you have to know. At first I'd been skeptical. I'd asked: but what if the train comes back? And my therapist had said: well, maybe it will. In fact, it probably will. But at least it's gone for a while.
It's been ten weeks since I started writing the first draft of my novel, and I think I'm about 40% of the way through it. I no longer have any doubt that I can finish it. It's just a matter of putting in the hours and staying focused. In time I will tell you about it in more detail. At this point it is still too messy and raw. So I'll just say this much: it's set in the Pacific Northwest. It's multi-generational and partially coming-of-age. It is, at its essence, a sequence of love stories.
I am so enthralled by the habits of writers: Nabokov and his index cards, Capote lying down, Hemingway standing up. This is a great post to read if you, too, find that kind of thing interesting. In the last ten weeks, I've done my writing in one of two ways. The first is in bed, right after I wake up or right before I fall asleep. Beginnings and endings of days are nicely meditative. The second is sitting at a desk or table. Hot tea helps. So do earphones and music that makes me feel nostalgic or sentimental or energetic or whatever type of mood I need to slip into for the scene I'm working on.
The best part of all of this is that I no longer have that terrible procrastinatory thought that goes: "One day, when I'm writing my book..." It's a thought that has passed through my mind hundreds if not thousands of times. But not anymore.
Every Saturday afternoon our stepmother drove the four of us to the ice arena in Somersville. If you got in trouble that week, you'd still get to come, but you weren't allowed to skate. Take Gemma, who'd stolen a ten dollar bill out of dad's wallet: she'd been properly scolded, had to pay him twenty dollars back, and at the arena she was forced to watch us from the benches shielded by sheets of plexiglass. "This is so stupid," she sulked, when I stepped out of the rink to peel off one of my three sweaters. "Why did I even have to come?"
But we both knew the answer to that. It wasn't really about us skating. It was about our father having some peace and quiet in the house. He'd been working on his novel for almost a year, and these Saturday afternoons were the only time he truly got any work done. Each time we got back from Somersville, the stack of typed pages on his desk had grown the slightest bit taller. The stack was held down by a paperweight that looked like a crumpled up sheet of legal paper, a Christmas gift from the year before.
"Can I read it?" I'd asked once, and he'd said, "When it's published," then shooed me out of the room.
But how could I not? I convinced myself that I had a right to. And if you thought about it for long enough, I had an obligation to read it, really, because what if our house happened to catch fire in the middle of the night, and he wasn't able to save his manuscript, and he'd be forced to reconstruct it from memory? If I read it, too, his task of rewriting wouldn't be so daunting. I could help him out. So there: it was practically a necessity.
In the end, Gemma wormed her way into my plan, of course. Getting involved in things was her specialty. After two hours of searching we found the key to the study, went in, snatched the first twenty pages, and read them as quickly as we could. Then the next twenty, and the next twenty. We were done with what he had written so far in just enough time to put everything back in its place.
"The kids in the book..." I said to Gemma, grabbing her by the arm before she ducked back into her room, "That's not – that's not us, is it?"
She understood what I meant: that the kids sounded a lot like us – ice skater aficionados, four sisters. But these kids in his novel were awful. They were bratty. They whined all the time. One of them had even gotten hit by a car because she didn't check for traffic before running out into the street. Who would write something like that?
Gemma shrugged. It could be, she said. But probably not. "Don't worry about it," she said. "It's just fiction, after all."
Hi! I'm Rachel, and these are bits of my days and things I like. I run the online shops Elephantine and Mignon, am working on a novel, and live in Seattle with my husband and two cats. Read more about this blog...
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