Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Winter 2015 Storytellers: A Season of Books

"Who knew that in a world of digital entertainment, people still actually need the comfort of books when faced with the possibility of being homebound?" NorthJersey.com considered in an article on a rush on print books at the library before a blizzard that did not materialize.

I was at the library the day the storm was supposed to start too, for books and DVDs. Even though it was a small bill, we cancelled our Netflix account a while back, preferring the frugality of the library. While Steve was binge watching the library's House of Cards, call me an old soul, but I was binge watching their copies of As Time Goes By, an older British comedy series I've only seen bits of. I adored the witty writing and wonderful acting (oh that Mrs. Bale with her shipping forecasts and lunches that will be served in 8 and a half minutes). I loved just as much the scenes of the British countryside, the blue and white dishes in the pretty kitchen, all those cups of tea, and also the reading.  Lionel and Jean would read in bed at night and Lionel came back from the library once with everything from Moby Dick to Winnie the Pooh, the latter which puzzled Jean. Lionel said, "I've got more time for reading now so I thought I'd catch up on all the books I think I've read but actually haven't." After he read a few lines from it, Jean was so charmed and asked if she could borrow it next.

I read Winnie the Pooh too last year from the library to Grace. I love the coziness of the evening hours. We have the classical music channel playing softly in the bedroom, painted a soothing lavender color, with inviting lighting. What better way to end the day than a cup of herbal tea and a book?

Like Lionel, I'm also catching up with some writers I haven't read enough of, like John Steinbeck, and discovering new favorite authors, some alive and writing presently, others from over a century ago. I saw the film Wild this winter, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed of her adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She, like Chris McCandless in Into to the Wild, carried cherished books and words with her, and she left quotes along the way for others to find, including Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I carry words within my spirit too. I'm sharing favorite passages and reflections for other readers and for my own memory too.

These were my storytellers for winter 2015. So many had a common thread: home.

This storyteller had me thinking about loving my home: At Home With Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life by Jennifer L. Scott, the blogger of the Daily Connoisseur. I read her book, "Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris" from the library and bought a copy for my sister last year, and she returned the favor giving me her latest for Christmas. Jennifer's life was forever changed when she stayed with a hostess she refers to as "Madame Chic" in Paris for a semester while at university, and is a testament to how travel can alter your life's path. She writes on many topics, like decluttering, using all of your quality items, and savoring life to the fullest. Her latest book is on home life, and here are some favorite passages.

"Driving to see my childhood home was very significant for me. It taught me the importance of home, especially to children. Your home is more than just a shelter. It is more than just a place to showcase your design skills. It is more than just a means to an end (especially if you would rather live somewhere else). It is the most important place of your life. It provides you solace and refuge from the harsh world. It provides tangible comforts, like your cozy sofa and warm bed. But it also provides other comforts in the energy it gives off. You will have so many memories in this home. There will be many firsts here, and if you have children, they will remember even the smallest details about your home - especially all of its off-beat character."

We are celebrating three years in our home this April, and we have had so many happy memories here: our garden wedding party, the arrival of our daughter Grace and puppies into the world, fondues for Christmas, and large family gatherings like Grace's Christening last Easter.

When Scott visited her old childhood home, which once boasted a beautiful garden that was tended by her mother that had become wildly overgrown, she found ripped screens and various states of disrepair. She took solace though, reflecting,

"But even though our old home had physically seen better days, I knew in that moment that we had taken the soul of that house with us to our new home. And as I branched out and left our small town, I'd taken all the best bits of home life - the essence of its soul - with me wherever I went. It's the soul that matters most, after all. And even though over the years I've lived in everything from a cramped dorm room at school to a grand apartment in Paris and finally to our family town home in Santa Monica, I have taken the soul of home with me, wherever I am.”  

Jennifer talks about falling in love with your home again, remembering all the things you loved about it when you first moved in, and to not wish away the life you are leading now. I love our home and quiet street but not our congested area, pricey property taxes, cost of living and air quality when a nearby quarry is active. I sometimes wonder what life would be like elsewhere, but we're settled here for at least the next few years. In the film version of Lonesome Dove, Diane Lane's character is always dreaming of a better life in San Francisco to which she is advised, "Life in San Francisco is still just life. If you want only one thing too much it's likely to turn out a disappointment. The only healthy way to living as I see it is to learn to like all the little every day things."

Jennifer reminded me about the excitement I felt when we drove past the house before we moved in. I love the little things about home, which make up the soul of it. What does the soul of home mean to you? Home to me is where my family and dogs are, where I can savor a cup of tea and a book, and other little things, liking hang drying laundry. There's nothing like the sun beating down on freshly cleaned laundry in the summer. I rented for years and had no outdoor space to do this, and how I love it.

Home is also tending a garden. Our herb container garden, and my beloved geraniums.

Home is savoring life. This is our own little paradise out here.

Jennifer encourages us to keep our homes and our tables clutter free. Clutter is my constant enemy. When my parents came to visit one weekend, I  put a pretty lace table cloth on, lit a candle, and baked a cranberry apple crisp, with pineapple and coffee on inviting blue and white dishes. Why don't I dress up my table like this all the time?

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, 50 cents from the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey. I can never resist looking at the books at charity shops or library sales with prices like 50 cents for a paperback. You never know what storyteller awaits you, and even though I have so much to read, Steinbeck wanted to jump to the top of my list.

This passage reminds me of a different kind of home, the home of our planet and it recalls how much life something like a river we take for granted gives. So many of our rivers here in New Jersey and elsewhere are polluted, treated recklessly by mankind.

"The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn't very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is damned to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. Frogs blink from its banks and the deep ferns grow beside it. Deer and foxes come to drink from it, secretly in the morning and evening, and now and then a mountain lion crouched flat laps its water. The farms of the rich little valley back up to the river and take its water for the orchards and the vegetables. The quail call beside it and the wild doves come whistling in at dusk. Raccoons pace its edges looking for frogs. It's everything a river should be."

Here a river in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

I love the bookends of the day, the quiet hours of the evening and of the dawn too. Of the early morning, Steinbeck writes, "It is the hour of pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself."

The hour of the pearl in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Cinnamon Mornings bed and breakfast.

Last year we did day trips with Grace instead of a full vacation to save money and to make life easier. I loved the comfort of home at day's end with baby, being with our dogs and the frugality, but I also really missed the road trips Steve and I took in Washington state, California and the Southwest. There's almost a religious experience of being out there with just you and the land. Everywhere around where I live in New Jersey is so congested there's no escaping it. Steinbeck's Doc sees America firsthand.

"He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and Georgia clear to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountain people, among swamp people and fishermen. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.
Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot."

Setting foot onto Rialto Beach in Washington state, and making imprints in sand, and on my soul too.

Becoming a mom has me thinking not just about enjoying the present, and hoping for the future, but reflecting on the past too. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim was a Christmas gift from Shaw's Book Shop in Westwood, New Jersey. I looked this up after a mention of it on Downton Abbey, when Mosley loans Anna a copy of it. I now count it as one of my favorite books.

There's a heavily run Verizon commercial which may be my least favorite ad ever. It features a young girl and boy being dropped off at their grandmother's house, and the father tells them he knows her house isn't the most exciting, but when they get inside to their delight there's movies, video games, and face chatting, all high speed glory. They beg to stay. I have to beg the question, what values are being sold to us, especially by corporations seeking to profit from our behaviors and that of our children? I'm nearing 40 and everyone my age I've talked to says they are so glad they grew up before all this technology. My favorite memories of my grandparents involve making mashed potatoes, geraniums, eating summer fruit tarts, petting their rabbits and their overall warmth. We had a language barrier since I didn't speak the Swiss German dialect but it didn't matter. I reflect on how close I feel to them even though I didn't know them well, and what memories my soul picked up as a small child. Von Arnim reflected,

"Nobody told me about him [my grandfather], and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well. It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowing back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks."

Red currant berries one summer ready for pie, a culinary and time travel portal to summers in Switzerland in my youth.

Brookfield Days, Caroline #1, from the Little House Chapter Books series, from the library, tells the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother, Caroline in her youth. Like all Little House books, simple pleasures transcend centuries. There's something so timeless like waking up to pancakes.

"Hotcakes were her favorite. She loved to drop a pat of butter on the steaming cakes. Then she'd pour sugar syrup over the stack and eat them before the syrup even had a chance to drizzle off the hotcakes onto her plate. Her stomach rumbled just thinking about it.

As soon as Martha was dressed, the three girls rushed downstairs. The kitchen was warm and cozy. Joseph and Henry had already brought the wood in from the woodpile. The fire in the heart hissed and popped. The sunshine made the room glow with light."

Blueberry pancakes at my favorite café of all: our patio.

I also had at the great pleasure this winter of meeting Melissa Gilbert who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie series when she did a book signing at Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey for My Prairie Cookbook, which is part cookbook and part scrapbook and filled with memories of the show. I got her to sign it for myself and for Grace, and for Grace's library I got her children's book, Daisy and Josephine, a story of a young girl and her French bulldog, which has a few French words which I'm excited to share with Grace.

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown from Better World Books, is a page turner true story of Sarah Graves, a young woman traveling with her new husband and family alongside the ill-fated Donner Party who were trapped by a snowstorm after taking an ill-advised short cut in the Sierra Nevadas. This tale will never leave me. It is a miracle anyone walked out of those mountains at all. I was reading this book the same time I saw the film adaption of Wild, and I kept thinking of modern day adventurers seeking thrill, a challenge or escape versus these almost mythic pioneers making their way into the unknown world. Imagine packing your possessions and leaving cherished friends and family goodbye to travel thousands of miles into the unknown. I recall David McCullough looking at the Brooklyn Bridge in awe thinking of the people who built it in the 1800s, who were those people? I think the same when traveling out West. Brown notes,

"For Sarah, everything on the far shore, everything unseen beyond that line of trees, was outside the United States and outside the normal scope of her life. It  was a vast unknown, a blank slate on which her entire future and much of her country's future, both real and mythical, were about to be written. Everything she hopes for, and everything she feared, lay beyond those trees, and she could not yet know in what proportions they would me mixed. Whether she and Jay would prosper, what kind of lives they would live, what sort of children they might raise, what nation's flag they would live under, what hardships they might be forced to endure, what friends they might make, what  deaths they would eventually suffer - all that and more waited, unrevealed, beyond those trees."

Rock climbers in Utah.

Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales was a Christmas gift for Grace. While I knew classics like Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, I loved other stories just as much, one favorite being The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse. In it a country mouse Timmy Willie ends up by accident in the city, finding that life there much disagrees with him. Johnny Town-Mouse tells Timmy Willie his garden sounds quite dull, but to the contrary Timmy Willie tells him,

"When it rains, I sit in my little sandy burrow and shell corn and seed from my Autumn store. I peep out at the throstles and blackbirds on the lawn, and my friend Cock Robin. And when the sun comes out again, you should see my garden and the flowers - roses and pinks and pansies - no noise except the birds and bees, and the lambs in the meadow."

Pink petunias in my summer garden.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, from the library. This book may reflect on life in Paris in the 1920's, but nearly a century later, I found so much of its beauty timeless.

"With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

At the New York Botanical Garden this spring. New life, in all its glory, budding again.

When We Were Very Young, A.A. Milne, a birthday gift for Grace, a charming poetry collection. Here, a passage from Spring Morning.

""Where am I going? The high rooks call:
"It's awful fun to be born at all."
Where am I going? The ring-doves:
"We do have beautiful things to do."

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
"That's where I wanted to go today!"

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow--
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know." -

Tulips and bleeding hearts in our garden from the spring of 2014. Happy Spring and Happy Reading.


  1. Your photo of currants reminds me of picking this delicious tart berry and making it into jelly at our childhood home in the Catskills. Currants were banned in New York from 1911 to 2003 - and during my childhood. But we had a few bushes still that provided us with more than a dozen jars of wonderful jelly that lasted throughout the winter. Thank you for the wonderful collection of books you review here, with tender remembering of home. Happy Spring!

  2. Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. This was so interesting to learn about the currant berries. I looked up the history and found it was believed to spread a fungus which threatened pine trees and thus the timber industry. My mother remembers picking them as a child and the pests in the bushes. The delicious berries were off to the markets. They appear so briefly in the summer they are a precious and treasured treat when I have them in pies, and a reminder in our food age when everything is available in the four seasons what a gem something is for the soul when eaten in the season nature intended.