Book review Friday: several quick takes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading ever since my lovely mother got me a Kindle Paperwhite in April. Its lit-up screen allows me to read in the dark while I’m feeding Lucia at night (or early in the morning) and want to keep her room dark so as not to wake her fully. With my old Kindle, I’d have to turn on the light to read, so I ended up playing on my iPhone and reading New Yorker articles on its tiny screen instead. Not awesome. Anyway, since my reading life has been restored to me, I’ve torn through a bunch of books, and thought I’d do some short reviews here while the baby is napping. One never knows how long one has when a baby is napping, so these will be short and sweet and probably not finely edited. Here we go!

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

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I had high hopes for The Circle, mostly because Dave Eggers and his wife wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, one of my favorite movies, and because I’ve volunteered at 826DC, a great non-profit also spearheaded by Eggers. Unfortunately, The Circle was a big disappointment. Well, let me qualify that: I did enjoy the first 40% or so of the book, which consisted of some great world-building and suspense-building, but hated the last 60%, when the entire thing came crashing down in a pile of heavy-handed metaphor, unrealistic outcomes, and an increasingly irritating protagonist. There are so many problems with this book, and I think this reviewer on Goodreads ably summarizes most of them, but what irritated me most was the squandered potential the book had to be great. The set-up, in which Eggers introduces us to The Circle, a utopic, monolithic version of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and every other major tech/social media company in the Silicon Valley, was interesting in itself, and the idea that the heads of The Circle had secretive, nefarious plans had great potential for intrigue and suspense. But the plot ended up flopping majorly when it became a dull-edged warning about the dangers of intrusive social technology in our lives. Eggers doesn’t have anything new to say about the overuse of social media, unfortunately, and in trying to impart the oft-repeated message that it can be dangerous and dehumanizing, he relies on such ham-fisted, hackneyed metaphor that the book’s message comes across as obvious and trite. When I was done reading the book, I realized that I wanted to rewatch Charlie Brooker’s excellent, super creepy, and incisive TV series Black Mirror, which provides much smarter and more unique commentary about the creeping dangers of technology in society. In fact, that’s my recommendation: skip The Circle and check out Black Mirror (and don’t watch alone and/or at night — you’ll have nightmares).

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer

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I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven), and his latest effort, Missoula, did not disappoint. The book provides a thoughtful look at the serious problem of non-stranger rape, particularly on college campuses, and particularly at the University of Montana in Missoula. Krakauer examines several cases of non-stranger rape in the college town and the way they were handled, variously, by the university, the police, the prosecutors, the media, and the public. I read in an interview with Krakauer in which he said that he and his publishers decided to release the book early given the disastrous, poorly researched Rolling Stone article on the alleged rape culture at UVA, because Krakauer felt that his book would provide a much-needed counterpoint to the idea floating around post-Rolling Stone debacle that many women lie about being raped. In fact, Krakauer points out, most women do not lie about sexual assault, and most victims of non-stranger rape do not ever report the crimes. This book provides an eye-opening and moving account of a disturbing problem that does not get talked about often enough.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

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It feels wrong to refer to a book about the devastating effects of internet shaming as a “confection,” but when I say that this book, like most of Ronson’s smart, wry work, is like a delicious piece of non-fiction fudge, I mean it in the best way. Ronson’s dry wit makes even the most serious and depressing of subjects, including the power of anonymous internet commenters to destroy strangers’ lives without so much as a backward glance, digestible and light. I tore through this book and loved every page of it. Granted, I am a giant Jon Ronson fan and will read anything he writes, but I think this is some of his best work. Highly entertaining but also chilling, this book will make you rethink that nasty Twitter post or forum comment you were about to dash off.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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I have mixed feelings about this novel, a dark tale about a bored, repressed American woman living with her Swiss husband and children in quaint, suburban Switzerland, and the ultimate consequences of her terrible decisions. I very much enjoyed the book’s strong sense of place and its sharp musings about Swiss culture. I enjoyed the deep character development. I enjoyed the sense of something dire lurking just around the corner. But when the Something(s) Dire finally happened, I ended up feeling deflated and depressed. The book became so heavy, so dark, so quickly, and offered no hope of a redemptive arc, that in the end I felt a bit cheated, or at least misled, by it. The writing is good, the story engaging, but the ending is a big bummer, and I’m not sure it served the story — or the characters — as well as the author seemed to think it did.

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

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Amy Poehler’s memoir is a quick, light read with quite a few laugh-out-loud passages. Poehler is a good writer and a smart person, and her book, while not particularly hefty or revealing, is a fun read. One feels that one knows Poehler much better after reading about her childhood, her early career in improv and then at Saturday Night Live, and a few dustups with famous people. She talks about her achievements as a female comedian and actress without ever veering into arrogance or Gwyneth-like cluelessness, and she comes across as a genuine person who has managed to keep a good head on her shoulders despite her enormous success.

As an added bonus, here are a few even shorter reviews of books I read so long ago I can’t remember plot details, necessarily, but can recall how I felt about them overall.

Descent, by Tim Johnston: I read a glowing review of this novel on NPR and was expecting great things. The book was good, if plodding at times, but not great. There were genuine moments of suspense that paid off very well toward the last quarter of the book, but there were also wide swaths of boring prose and side-story that I could have done without.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: This book has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and rightly so. An excellent, tightly constructed psychological thriller. Very, very good.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: I waited far too long to read this gorgeous book about the world after a devastating pandemic has drastically reduced the human population. The book is weird, and sad, with surprising, uplifting moments of beauty and lightness. It’s also one of the few books with descriptions of art that didn’t bore me to tears. Highly recommended.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi: I wanted to like this book, a unique spin on Snow White, more than I actually did. Interesting premise, good writing, but often boring.

The Damned, by Andrew Pyper: A friend whose taste I generally trust recommended this horror novel that takes place in the suburbs and city of Detroit. Unfortunately, despite the setting, I didn’t connect with Pyper’s writing. I found the style affected and distracting, particularly the author’s fondness for peppering his paragraphs with incomplete sentences, which I suppose were intended to provide dramatic heft, but came across as unpolished and trying too hard. I’m such a stickler for good writing in the novels I read that I couldn’t get past the author’s style and ended up not enjoying this book much at all, even though its premise — a man being haunted by the ghost of his malevolent sister — had potential.

Deep Down Dark, by Héctor Tobar: A fascinating look at the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for months and the highly technical rescue operation that finally extricated them. Some of the technical aspects of the rescue were lost on me, but the human stories of the men trapped below the earth were touching and engaging.

Whew, okay! That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think! I welcome a lively book chat any time! Especially when the baby’s asleep.

Writing and mothering and the waiting game

My baby was born 15 weeks ago today, and I am still not back to writing.

I guess that’s not totally true: I am writing a bit, like right now, for instance, and I do one freelancing piece a week for Previously.TV (and will soon be resuming my duties as their resident Bachelor(ette) maven). So, it’s not that I’m not writing at all. But I’m not writing full-time, the way I used to, B.L. (Before Lucia). How could I? Taking care of this baby consumes my whole day, even when she’s napping, which is when I try to clear the mountains of laundry and dishes that accumulate while I am actively taking care of her. In the rare moments when I have free time — when the laundry is put away, the dishes are done, the errands are run, and the baby is actually asleep — all I want to do is sit on my butt and watch Shahs of Sunset. I’ve been so exhausted — mentally, physically, emotionally — for the last 15 weeks, I haven’t even been knitting much. Horrors! It’s only in the last week or so that I’ve picked up the baby sweater I was working on before Lucia was born, and even working on that single, simple project takes a concerted effort. I have to reach for my knitting needles and get out my measuring tape and look at my pattern, and boy, was it always this much work to relax?

Obviously, if my leisure activities have fallen to the wayside, you can imagine the hit that my work life has taken over these past three months. Before I had the baby, I had fuzzy visions of working on my novel while she napped, getting shorter projects done piecemeal over the day, and writing on the weekends while Al took care of her. These rosy-hued visions have proved to be entirely unrealistic, given the way that actual babies work, and the amount of intellectual energy and focus it takes for me to write productively. Long story short, I can’t write while I’m in the same house as this baby.

The decision I’ve come to is that I’ll resume my real writing when my parents move here in a month. I can’t wait for them to move close for a number of reasons, but having built-in, loving childcare for Lucia is a BIG one. My plan, as it stands now, is to drop Lucia with Grandma and Grandpa for a few hours each day while I get some writing done. We’ll have to see how it works in practice, but that’s the goal. In the meantime, I feel surprisingly okay with not working on anything day to day other than taking care of my little squid. Being a mother, turns out, is a tremendous amount of work. Yes, taking care of an infant can be stultifying and frustrating and crazy-making at times, but it’s also temporary. Lucia won’t be this small and dependent forever. This too shall pass, and when it does, my writing shall resume.

Until then, the baby is napping, and I need to see how Reza’s bachelor party drama shakes out.

(Cook)book review: A Good Food Day, by Marco Canora

I haven’t done much cooking over the last six weeks, since, you know, baby, etc. But our last round of parental visitors left yesterday and I figured it was a good time to restart my normal cooking routine. I’d been wanting to crack open Mario Canora’s cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great since I’d gotten it. I liked the fact that the recipes seemed healthy but not diet-y, with lots of fresh, whole ingredients and flavors. Canora’s philosophy, as laid out in his “10 principles for a good food day,” involves making eating enjoyable through consciously, mindfully eating a wide variety of real, high quality foods. This jibes with my philosophy, too, so I was excited to give the book a shot.

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I chose the recipe for braised chicken thighs with garlic, lemon, and Greek olives, since I’m a sucker for a good bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh. I started cooking just as Al was dropping his dad and brother off at the airport, and Lucia was awake (sort of), so I threw her in the sling, covered her with a receiving blanket so that no hot oil would come anywhere near her, and got cooking.

Cooking with Lucia

Cooking with Lucia

I realized as I was cooking that I didn’t have the Greek olives that the recipe called for, so I substituted some capers, figuring they’d provide the salty, briny kick that the recipe needed. I also didn’t bother peeling the garlic cloves as the recipe instructed — who has the time, right? The recipe was easy to make and came together quickly — definitely do-able for a weeknight. And, I’m happy to report, it tasted great.

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I am not always a fan of cooked lemons — I think sometimes the tartness can verge on the sour and overpowering — but in this, the lemon-y taste was counterbalanced by the sautéed onions and garlic (yum). The chicken came out perfectly tender and juicy. I served the dish with baked sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus.

Dinner, complete

Dinner, complete

Overall, a very satisfying meal! I’m looking forward to cooking more out of Canora’s book soon. Al has requested the cacio e pepe popcorn, so that’ll be my next project. Recommended for those who want to cook with healthy, whole ingredients without skimping on satisfying flavor.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

My dad’s lentil soup

Since Lucia’s birth, I’ve been lucky enough to host all three sets of her grandparents in succession: first my parents, then Al’s mom and stepdad, and then Al’s dad and stepmom (and youngest brother). Al and I have really enjoyed kicking back (ha!!) these past few weeks and letting our loved ones cook for us and do our laundry (and of course we’ve enjoyed their company and emotional support). Turns out that infant care does not leave much room for domestic chores, including cooking, which is something I used to do every day. So I’ve let others make me food, and it’s been pretty great.

Snow day

Snow day

Today is a cold, snowy day and Al’s stepmom is cooking us dinner tonight. I suggested lentil soup, which is hearty and warming. I’ve always enjoyed my dad’s lentil soup, which he makes from scratch. Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and first learning to cook, I asked my dad to send me his recipe for lentil soup. He didn’t have it written down (I’ve never seen the man cook from a written recipe in my life), so he typed the whole thing out in prose form for me. It was like my dad was talking me through the recipe, step by step. Having a recipe in that format was really helpful at the time, when I didn’t know my butt from my elbow in the kitchen, but now I’m used to reading recipes written out in the traditional form. Today, I decided to transcribe my dad’s recipe so that I (and others) can more easily use it. So here is my dad’s delicious, foolproof lentil soup recipe: perfect for a cold winter day! Bon apetit.

Ingredients:

1 c. lentils (any kind will do, but my dad favors the brown kind)

14 oz. can of tomatoes, diced

1 medium carrot

1 medium onion (yellow or white)

1 stalk celery

2 cloves garlic (or more to taste)

4 c. chicken and/or beef stock

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried parsley

1/4 tsp. ground cumin (optional)

1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)

1 c. chopped spinach, fresh or frozen

Bread or crackers (optional)

Method:

Rinse lentils and place in a soup pot. Add chicken or beef stock. Heat on medium-high. While mixture is coming to a boil, peel and cut up the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery. When the lentils are rapidly boiling, add in all the veggies, including the canned tomatoes. Stir well. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Mixture should be at a high simmer/”medium boil.” Add in all spices. Cook soup uncovered for about 45 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. If the mixture thickens too much add broth or water to regain the correct consistency.

After 45 minutes, add in spinach and lemon juice, if desired. Bring to high simmer/medium boil for another 20 minutes or so, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick on the bottom of the pan, adding stock or water to keep it soup-like. Cook until lentils are soft and seasoning is just right. Serve with crackers and /or bread (pita is great!) for dipping.

The fog of motherhood

My baby will be three weeks old tomorrow. In some ways, it feels like I gave birth yesterday (that whole otherworldly experience is still vivid in my mind and even in my muscle memory), and in other ways, it feels like I’ve had Lucia in my life for years. It’s like she’s always been there; she’s always been my child. It’s hard to remember what it was like not knowing her. It seems bizarre that three weeks ago, she was still inside me, and all I knew about her was how hard she was capable of kicking me in the bladder.

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Since she’s arrived, I’ve muddled through each day in a haze of exhaustion and wonder. The hours blend together and the days and weeks turn into a blurry stream of nursing, burping, diaper changes, and, yes, blissful snatches of sleep. My days and nights revolve entirely around the baby. This is not a complaint; it is just a statement of fact. I have accepted this as my new reality and I’m rolling with it. I think if you had asked me before I had Lucia if I would enjoy having my life entirely dictated by a tiny, hungry person with a preternaturally large capacity for pooping, I would have said, and I’m just guessing here, “Oh, hell no.” But, funnily enough, I am enjoying this. It’s not easy — dear God, no! [insert maniacal laughter here] — and some days, I cry just as much as the baby, but despite that, it’s wonderful.

Logically, it’s difficult to understand how caring for an infant, which is a largely thankless job filled with uncertainty and stress and frustration, is actually fun, but I think it comes down to how utterly fascinated I am by this baby and how much, and how purely, I love her. Even when she’s being a pest — fussing and batting me away and peeing in my bed — I think she’s adorable. I mean, this face, for one thing, right?

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I’m meant to understand that his crazy newborn period (you know, the one in which the baby eats every one to two hours and poops and fusses and pees and spits up constantly) does not last. “This too shall pass” is a reassuring mantra for me at the moment. Even though I’m enjoying this experience immensely, sleeping in one to two hour bursts is not something I want to be doing for the rest of my life. So, I’m hanging in there and not trying to worry about the fact that I haven’t done any real exercise or writing in three weeks, or that I wake up each morning covered in various bodily fluids, or that I’ve had to let obligations that I thought I could handle drop, or that I can’t even finish the simple knitting projects I had going before I gave birth, or that I haven’t called half the friends I want to talk to on the phone, or that I’m completely reliant on my parents (who are staying with us) to do my laundry and cook for me and take out the trash and buy toilet paper. Because this period won’t last, and then I’ll be faced with other challenges, and I’ll have to roll with those, too.

In the meantime, I am loving staring into this face. And if this period never passes, that’s okay, too.

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Lucia Wren

Last time I wrote, I was super pregnant and counting down the days until our baby — who, while being very real, still felt a bit, um, theoretical — made her appearance. I had a feeling — just a feeling — that she was going to come a bit early, and this feeling was bolstered by a premonition from Al’s stepmom (and she has crazy strong intuition) that the baby would show up at around 39 weeks. Incidentally, my chiropractor also predicted that the baby would show up around January 27 or 28. These predictions proved to be quite accurate, because six days before her due date, on January 28, Lucia (pronounced “Loo-CHEE-uh”) Wren made her debut.

Me and my baby

Me and my baby

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the labor and delivery process, I’ll say that giving birth was the most intense, crazy experience of my life. I know those two words (“intense,” “crazy”) don’t do much to impart how mind-bending it is to experience a fully formed human emerging from one’s body, but it’s the best I can do. It. Was. Crazy. Also: awesome, wonderful, empowering, and overwhelming, but mostly just CRAZY. Anyone who’s given birth (especially without the aid of painkillers) knows what I’m talking about right now. Dude.

The VERY abridged story: The contractions show got on the road at around 10:00 am on the 28th and Lucia was out at 7:22 pm. I was on another dimension (an astral plane? who knows) for much of the labor process, but the whole thing was pretty peaceful, all things considered, and fast, especially for a first baby! So, lucky me, and lucky Lucia.

Chillin', baby style.

Chillin’, baby style.

She was born at George Washington University Hospital under the care of a fantastic team of midwives and nurses. We also had a doula, who happened to be tied up with another birth when I went into labor, so she sent a replacement doula, a very nice lady named Laurie, who showed up at my bedside while I was still laboring at home (and was not entirely in the same universe as anyone else) and gave me fantastic support and encouragement. Everyone at GW, from the midwives and nurses who helped deliver the baby, to the postpartum nurses, pediatricians, and lactation consultants, were really, really great. We feel really lucky to have given birth there. To quote Travis Birckenstock, “a very enthusiastic two thumbs up.”

We named the baby Lucia because, first of all, it’s a gorgeous name, but also because it’s a family name. My dad’s mom was born in Italy and her maiden name was Santa Lucia. I always loved the sound of the name and the fact that Lucia means “light.” And let me tell you, this baby is the light of our lives so far. I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s fair to say that she is one of the cutest babies in the world, if not THE cutest. Also, she’s a bit of a mini-me, based on photos I’ve seen of myself as a baby. We have the same chin. And kind of the same mouth. And the same hands. Did I just asexually reproduce and not know it? Because, if so, sorry, Al.

Baby Steph

Baby Steph

Baby Lucia

Baby Lucia

She’s also super chill. Her hobbies include sleeping, pooping, eating, and mewling. She doesn’t cry very much and occasionally gives us big smiles, although I suspect this is probably related to gas. I’ll take it! Even though Al and I are both super sleep-deprived and a bit overwhelmed, we are overjoyed, and are having so much fun taking care of her and just staring at her.

Daddy reading baby a story... about Bruce Jenner's transition to becoming a woman.

Daddy reading baby a story… about Bruce Jenner’s transition to becoming a woman.

I’m tempted to flood the internet with a million photos of her, but I am holding back since I’m not sure she’ll appreciate that when she’s old enough to make her own decisions about what she shares online. So, for now, this will have to do. In the meantime, blogging might slow down a bit since I spend large portions of the day with my hands full. But expect more tales of Lucia down the road, and more normal posts once I figure out this parenting thing!

Pregnancy: the finish line

I am 38 weeks pregnant. This makes me, I realized today, the most pregnant person I know.

38 weeks of baby growing, completed.

38 weeks of baby growing, completed.

It’s weird, because occasionally, I feel like I just got pregnant, like, yesterday, but most days I feel like I’ve been pregnant since Jesus was a baby. Some days I really like being pregnant, and other days I am ready to eject this baby from my body and get on with the next step, already. I’ve been having more and more of the latter type of days over the past several weeks as being in my body has gotten less and less comfortable. Please allow me to complain about the many aches and pains of pregnancy for a moment. Putting on and taking off pants, in particular, has become one of my least favorite things to do. Oh, the groin pain! Bending over to put on shoes? Horrible. Waking up in the middle of the night with the whole side of my head throbbing from being compressed on the pillow? ALSO NOT FUN. I guess this is why everyone says the last few weeks of pregnancy are the worst, physically. They weren’t kidding!

But up until just a few weeks ago, I could still put on my pants without making grunting noises. I could still bend over without getting winded. So, like a chump, I thought I was going to escape the worst of the fabled pregnancy aches and pains since I’d had such an easy time of things, for the most part, up to that point. But the last weeks of pregnancy come for us all, eventually, and none of us escape unscathed. I guess what I’m saying is that I won’t miss the physical complications that come along with hauling around a fully cooked baby inside one’s body. It ain’t easy.

But there are things about pregnancy that I think I will miss. For one thing, people have been SO NICE to me since I’ve become visibly pregnant. People offer to carry things for me and let me go ahead of them in line. Strangers smile at me. Strangers COMPLIMENT me. Just today, I was blow-drying my hair at the YMCA in my bra and underwear (that locker room’s a sweatbox, but I’m not about to go full old lady and let it all hang out — yet), and a woman smiled at me and told me my belly was “beautiful.” Another woman in the elevator the other day told me how cute I looked. Listen, never in my life has a stranger told me I looked cute without an ulterior motive. But people genuinely love a pregnant woman, I’ve found, especially ladies who have been through it themselves. Something about seeing a round belly seems to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings in people and they want to share them. At least, this has been my experience. I have heard horror stories about people saying all sorts of outrageously insulting things to pregnant women. But I’ve been lucky in that people have been nice to me, with nary an insult thrown my way. And I have to be honest, I’ll miss the special treatment when this baby is on the outside.

Speaking of which, I still haven’t totally wrapped my mind around the fact that I’m going to be a parent in approximately two weeks. Most of the time, I float through my day in a cloud of denial. That sounds bad, but I don’t know what else to call it. It’s not that I’m not insanely excited about having a baby, it’s just that thinking about the fact that I’m going to be responsible for another human’s ENTIRE LIFE in a fortnight is a little overwhelming. I mean, just typing that sentence is giving me a mild panic attack.

Is this really happening?!

Is this really happening?!

But I hear that feeling overwhelmed at this stage of pregnancy is normal. After all, it’s easy to pretend the kid’s never going to come out when you still have months and months stretching ahead of you on the baby countdown. But when you start counting down to your due date in weeks instead of months, and then days instead of weeks, things start looking pretty real — and kind of scary. Scary wonderful! I think! …Eh, I don’t know. I’m basically a walking bag of hormones these days, so take everything I’m saying with a grain of estrogen.

Anyway, since I don’t think I’ll be writing about this topic again over the next two weeks, this will be my final word on the matter. And that final word is: EEK!

(Cook)book review: A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse, by Mimi Thorisson

In the Glorious Age of Pinterest in which we live, I’ve found that I do less and less cooking from cookbooks. There are a couple of tried and true favorites on my shelf that I refer to again and again, but mostly, if I need a recipe, I dig it up on the internet. It’s just easier, most of the time. But does that mean that I’ve thrown my old cookbooks out? No! Cookbooks have taken on another function in my home: objects of beauty and inspiration. Oh, how I love paging through a well presented, gorgeously shot, visually pleasing cookbook! Even if I never cook a thing from a beautiful cookbook, it’s still nice to have on the shelf, to take down and look through if I’m feeling like I want to create something in the kitchen.

Mimi Thorisson’s cookbook, A Kitchen in France, is one of those lovely books that looks good on the shelf and is pleasing to page through. It’s full of photos of the author and her family in the picturesque French countryside and the sumptuous French dishes she creates in her farmhouse kitchen. It’s a very pretty book.

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It would be enough for me to just look at the photos in this book and drool, but I decided to attempt a recipe and see if I could manage it. A couple of caveats, before we begin: I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant (oof) and so preparing meals that require lots of time and effort has become less of a priority as my energy levels have steadily fallen. I used to love to hole up in the kitchen and cook elaborate meals if I had extra time on my hands, but these days, I struggle against the temptation to order in take-out every night, and so must keep my home cooking simple in order to continue to eat healthfully. When I first looked through A Kitchen in France, I was drawn to the more ambitious dishes, like coq au vin and blanquette de veau. But just reading the recipe for coq au vin made me feel like I needed to take a nap, so I decided to scale down my aspirations and cook a dessert. Second, the book is organized by season, so I decided to pick something from the winter menu, just to play by the rules.

I chose to make salted-butter crème caramel. Just the name made my mouth water, plus, I’d never made a custard before so I was excited to try it. I started cooking, reading the recipe as I went along. And immediately, I encountered an issue. The first instruction in the custard-making process is to add water to powdered gelatin and set aside. I did that, and then read on. To my dismay, the rest of the recipe never mentioned the gelatin again. It was set aside, but never picked up. I turned to Google to try to figure out when one should add the gelatin to one’s custard (the query felt very modern-day Julia Child) but I couldn’t find a clear answer, so I just dumped the gelatin in when I added the sugar to my boiling cream and vanilla. I still don’t know if that was right. The world may never know.

Custards in process, with cookbook

Custards in process, with cookbook

In the end, the custards (and the caramel) turned out well. I can’t tell if the custard was the right consistency as I’ve never made custard before and don’t typically eat it, but it sure did taste good. Al and I each scarfed a bowl after dinner and it felt very indulgent.

Caramel in process

Caramel in process

Overall, this book is beautiful to look at and, based on the one recipe I’ve made from it, full of good-tasting food. However, I suspect it needs a good going-over by a copy editor to make sure that instructions aren’t missing from the recipes (like the gelatin confusion in the recipe I tried). The book could also do with a clear master index in the front. It’s organized into four seasons, each with their own menus, but an overall table of contents listing each recipe in the front of the book would have been helpful (although there is an index in the back). These are small complaints, however, and I am looking forward to cooking more from this book soon.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

On New Year’s resolutions

I used to be a big New Year’s resolutions person. At the start of each new year, I’d come up with an ambitious list of things I wanted to better about myself. My mother recently sent me a whole box of my old journals (I was a prodigious journal keeper from age nine to age nineteen, when I finally evaluated the wisdom of writing my innermost thoughts and feelings down on paper, where they might become discoverable by other people). I was paging through a journal that I kept in 1996/1997 (so, when I was fourteen — eesh), and I found this amusing snippet from January 1, 1997:

“A resolution… hmm… to wash my face more fervently. Maybe that’s not the right word. Just to be more committed to doing my face. Another resolution: to become my new self and be so cool (not “cool” like kids think, but cool, like my kind of cool), that people will be inspired by me. When I say cool, I mean … artistic, etc. And really nice to everyone, and indifferent to those who are less mature. I think those are reasonable, don’t you? I mean, I’m not going to resolve to cure cancer or solve world hunger. People who do that are unrealistic! Well, the first one might be feasible for a team of brilliant scientists.”

I like how I thought inspiring people with my “coolness” and maturity was realistic, but curing cancer wasn’t. Sure, fourteen year-old Stephanie. Dream big.

This was the girl resolving to inspire people with her coolness.

Resolutions are bunk. Case in point: this was the girl resolving to inspire people with her coolness. 

I made New Year’s resolutions well into adulthood, but a few years ago, I kind of stopped. I think this is because as an adult, the things I need to work on about myself have become so immutable that to resolve to chip away at them afresh year after year feels pointless, or worse, discouraging. If every single January I resolve anew to be less neurotic, worry less, stress less, etcetera, I have to begin to wonder if I’ve made any progress at all over the last year on those exact same resolutions. Because for adult me, my resolutions always boil down the same thing: don’t be such a stress case. Be more Zen. Stop worrying so much.

Another problem with my particular perennial resolution is that it’s hard to measure whether or not one is worrying less than the year before. How would one ever track such a thing? A year-long spreadsheet in which one tallies the time and energy one has spent worrying? That seems, to put it mildly, to defeat the point. And resolving to not worry at all feels, if I may borrow a word from my fourteen year-old self, unrealistic. My solution to this conundrum has been to simply stop resolving to worry less — or resolving to do anything else differently, for that matter.

Part of this failure to make resolutions is informed by my understanding of what a resolution actually is. To me, a resolution is a promise you make to yourself (and others, if you declare it publicly) to do something better or different: quit smoking, eat healthier, spend more time with family, make the bed every morning, etc. And, as I said, the principal thing I want to do differently each year usually comes down to going easier on myself and not stressing over things that ultimately don’t matter. Unfortunately, I suspect that this is something I’m going to have to work on until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil, because I’m sort of a tightly wound lady, and that’s just how it is. So what’s the point of restating the same resolution every year? Better to just keep it in the back of my mind and remind myself not to blow a gasket when things go wrong. That’s seemed to work for me so far. Yoga helps, too.

Making a list of yearly goals, though — that I can get behind. Goals, to me, are far more satisfying than resolutions. Goals are things you can check off a list, or at least work toward checking off a list. They’re fun to think about and to imagine. And, best of all, they don’t require making an inventory of one’s weaknesses and failings, as resolutions do. I have so many goals for the new year, including getting a novel published (or on the way to being published), publishing another short story in a reputable literary magazine, expanding my freelancing work, and keeping a new human alive and healthy. (That last one’s kind of a big one.)

If I had to pick my number one goal for this coming year, it would be to keep another human being alive, and not go crazy in the process. Now this is something I can measure, come New Year’s 2016. If I’m institutionalized next year, we’ll know I failed. As for New Year’s resolutions, who needs ’em?

Happy New Year, by the way.

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I love a good house-cleaning binge. Every year or so, Al and I go through our stuff and do a giant purge, tossing out things with wild abandon, and we always feel SO GOOD afterwards. It’s like a workout for the spirit, getting rid of unnecessary stuff. There’s something deeply satisfying about putting things you no longer need in trash-bags and hauling them to the curb, or, even better, loading them into boxes and dropping them off at the Salvation Army. Yet, despite our periodic purges, over time, stuff — different stuff, but stuff nonetheless — always manages to creep into our house again. Thus, a yearly purge remains necessary for our household. I think this is a typical problem — too much stuff, and negotiating how to get rid of it — but it still bugs me, and I spent a not insignificant amount of time pondering it.

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This preoccupation with purging superfluous stuff and preventing clutter rebounds is why I was so intrigued when I got a copy of Marie Kondo’s slim, attractive little book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo is a Japanese organization expert — don’t you just instinctively trust someone with those credentials? — and she’s devised her own method, the KonMari Method — for tidying up and, here’s the catch, having your house stay tidy. The basic message of Kondo’s method is that you should surround yourself only with things you love, and in her book, she provides step-by-step guidance on how to achieve that.

Kondo’s basic method is different from many other organization experts’ in that she rejects the idea that one should tidy a little each day to make a dent in your clutter. Instead, she supports the idea of one, giant purge, treated as a “special event,” and done methodically, by category. That is, instead of tidying room by room, Kondo recommends tidying by category of thing: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellany, and finally, mementos. The single selection criteria for each item, Kondo stresses, is whether or not it brings you joy. She provides actual guidance about how to determine whether an item — say, a book — brings you joy, which often involves placing all items on the floor and picking them up one by one and waiting for a spark.

There’s a ton of solid, practical advice in Kondo’s book about how to effectively tidy and organize, including tips on efficiently folding clothes and socks, but what I found most useful were the lists in the book of various types of komono (miscellany) that people tend to hold onto “just because.” These include cosmetic samples saved for trips, electronics packages, spare buttons, and unidentified cords. I found Kondo’s observation that “Mysterious cords will always remain that — a mystery,” and that it’s easier and faster to just buy a new one than to dig through a giant tangle of cords, to be particularly liberating. I kept it in mind as I tossed out a huge box of cords and plugs Al and I had been holding onto for a rainy day.

I’m a huge fan of this book and I do plan on using Kondo’s method to tidy my own house from top to bottom — just not right now. We’re having a baby in a month and I know that means we’re going to have a huge influx of new stuff into our house, like it or not. Undoubtedly, some of that stuff will be less useful/joy-provoking than other stuff, and that’s okay. We can make decisions about what to purge later, once we figure out what we need to be parents. Instead, pre-baby, Al and I opted for a stop-gap purge  of our basement, getting rid of tons of cardboard boxes, wires, old papers, books, and household gadgets we’ll never use. I kept Kondo’s advice about interrogating whether an object sparks joy in mind, especially as I cleared out my books. I tend to cling to books (and given the content of this blog, that probably shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone), so in the past, it’s been hard for me to part with them. This time, though, I found myself easily tossing books away because they didn’t bring me joy. I guess the method works! Recommended for those who are ready to get their stuff organized — for the last time.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.