Thursday, April 8, 2021

Book Stack ~ March 2021

A monthly post about my progress toward finishing a very large stack of books. Past months' posts:



Last month's stack is another mini one. I'm getting cranky about how much work is interfering with my reading time (I've decided to stop blaming television and point toward the real culprit instead--capitalism).

Nonfiction: Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams. I've been a huge fan of TTW ever since I was assigned to read Refuge in college. Her writing is just so beautiful and searingly truthful. This one so much so that it hurt a little to read--about the realities of climate change and the abuses to wild lands by the fossil fuel industry and the previous administration. There's none of the cheery optimism so many nature writers feel compelled to tack onto the hard realities of we're basically f*cked. So yeah, a hard read, but a necessary one.

Fiction: A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette. This book, by contrast, was just pure fun--an ice cream shop, a murder (okay, maybe that wasn't fun for the murder victim), and a number of suspects, including the narrator's father...all tied up in a nice bow after a mildly suspenseful scene, in the best cozy style.

What are you reading this month?

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Ordinary Days



Last month I was scrolling through my online bank records for 2020 while preparing our tax info for the accountant. I started in December and worked backward, and when I reached the early part of the year, before the pandemic and the lockdown, I became unexpectedly, unbelievably sad. Not because I had booked tickets for the vacation of a lifetime that would have to be cancelled or put a deposit on a venue for a major event that would never happen, but quite the opposite. The utter ordinariness of the transactions--a trip to Goodwill or the bookstore, haircuts for the boys, a pair of shoes--seemed so foreign to the way the world is now that I felt a deep, deep grief.

The pandemic did not change my life materially. My nearest and dearest have stayed safe and healthy so far. I would have been off of work for the entire summer and fall anyway. I might say I even thrived on the opportunity to be in the company of my family and to have the time that I would otherwise have spent socializing, ferrying my kids around, or running errands to focus on writing and spending time in nature around my home instead.

Many people are expressing optimism that now that vaccines are making their way into arms at a thrilling pace, we'll soon be able to go about our ordinary business. But this last year has driven home the reality that "ordinary" is relative. That what's ordinary to me is not an experience that is available to many: Black men and women who are brutalized and murdered by police and vigilantes while going about their ordinary business of buying a sandwich, going for a jog, sleeping. Elderly Asians who are attacked in the street by white supremacists. Asian women shot in their places of work, again by angry white supremacists. Women of all races beaten and murdered in their own homes by those closest to them.

The weather this year has also been anything but ordinary: wildfires going into December; tornados in February; blizzards in the Deep South; a town flattened by a derecho. Thirty years of denying and ignoring the science on climate change are coming home to roost. It seems unlikely we'll ever see an ordinary season again.

Early last year, I was working on a short story called "Soccer Moms at the End of the World." It was to be a somewhat comic, near-apocalyptic tale (quite possibly a genre I invented) about people going about their normal business as if a quite obvious catastrophe was not looming. As the coronavirus epidemic swelled toward pandemic, I felt the urgency of writing it and was making progress. Then, after my kids' school shut down, I lost my daily writing time, the half hour between 7:30 a.m. (when I arrived at work after having dropped them at their bus stop at 7:00) and 8:00 (when I had to actually go into the office and work). Then my work closed too, and what could have been a full-time writing schedule instead became a full-time doom-scrolling schedule. And the apocalypse had become all too real--bizarrely slow-moving but incredibly palpable--which made writing about a fictional apocalypse a little weird. Also, I didn't know where that story was going. I didn't know what to do with those moms, blissfully ignoring the burgeoning crisis as they bought snacks, drove their kids to soccer games, and sat on the sidelines chatting about everything but what was most important. I still don't know what to do with them. They have to get up every morning and take care of their families. As do we all.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Finish it Friday ~ Little Bird Embroidery

This isn't much, but I'm all for celebrating small wins this week. Several years ago C gave me an embroidery kit for Christmas (because I asked for it) by Cozy Blue Handmade. It has four patterns--all of the same image of plants and birds but in a different color scheme for each season. They're totally adorable, but the thing is, I don't really like following patterns or instructions (except while knitting). Also, it's harder to embroider while watching TV and the lighting in our house wasn't that great. Which is to say I hadn't gotten very far over three or four or five years since I got them.

This winter, I bought new lamps to make working and reading in the evening easier and more comfortable. And I found that if I'm watching something sort of mindless, embroidery and TV aren't totally incompatible. And so I finished the first of the four seasons: winter cardinals (which, truth be told, was the one I'd made the most progress on in the past, so it really is a small win, but still a win).


While I had my embroidery box out, I tidied it up, winding all of the floss onto little cards. (I don't have a "before" photo, but picture a packrat's nest.) This was a useful activity for keeping the hands busy during interminable conference calls when knitting might be a little too obvious.


Also in the embroidery box was this little scene I stitched up a few years ago on a weekend trip to the pond. This is more my kind of embroidery. It might not be as professional-looking as the kit, but it was more fun and personal. I have to think of what to do with it, though.


I also found these embroideries from drawings M made when he was very little: a smiling, happy elephant and turtle and a very long, winding snake (which, apparently, was my Waterloo on this project). 


I don't remember what I planned to do with these and I don't know what I should do with them now, if anything. I could dig out my kids' old drawings and do a whole series, put them together in a wall quilt or something. But I'm not sure I could handle it. They are so far from the cute little kids who drew cute little animals (and, if I recall correctly, I had to really dig to find these little animals--M mostly drew robots and space and war scenes).

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Book (Mini) Stack ~ February 2021

A monthly post about my progress toward finishing a very large stack of books. Past months' posts:

I only managed to finish two books in February, but they're both from my Book Stack and they're both on my list of twelve particular books I want to finish in 2021, so I'll call it a win.


First, for fiction, I read Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. I'd read Tess of the d'Urbervilles way back when (in 2009! How is it possible that 12 years have gone by?) and absolutely loved it. I don't know why, but I never got around to reading any more Thomas Hardy since then. My sister had given me Far from the Madding Crowd sometime between then and now, but I never picked it up--a book that long is just such a commitment, you know?--until last month when I finally compelled myself to dive in. And you know what? I was reminded of what I loved so much about Tess. Hardy's lush descriptions of landscape and people and weather (there's a thunderstorm that goes on for three chapters). He does have a tendency to make unflattering sweeping generalizations about women, though I suspect these are tongue-in-cheek, since they're usually used as counterpoint to what the women characters (usually Bathsheba, heroine of this book) actually are like or what they actually do. I will admit that it got a little bit slow in the middle, and I didn't love it quite as much as I loved Tess, but I was happy that it didn't end tragically (for Bathsheba and the hero, Gabriel Oak, anyway; other characters did come to unhappy ends). Perhaps I'll read Jude the Obscure or The Mayor of Casterbridge before another dozen years go by.


In contrast to that nearly 150-year-old novel, my nonfiction for the month was nearly brand new: World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, subtitled In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. "Praise" is a fitting description; it's like a series of praise poems written in prose, which is apt, since Nezhukumatathil is poet. I won't write too much about this book here and now, because I'll be reviewing it in Literary Mama in a couple of months, and I'm already excited to read it a second time for the review. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Finish it Friday ~ Wavy Charms Quilt

This quilt began as a package of vaguely S-shaped charms my mom sent me several years ago as part of a de-stashing effort. I never got around to finishing it because: a) I didn't have enough charms for a whole quilt; b) I didn't have the original pattern piece to make new ones out of (nor nearly enough stash); and c) I had no idea how to sew wavy lines and get the resulting fabric to lie flat.


I decided to just let all that go and dive in. I made a pattern from one of the pieces my mom sent--this is a good way to introduce error, and indeed the new pieces I cut ended up longer than the others, but like the guys of the buildings and grounds crew where I worked the summer after I graduated from college used to say whenever someone started to get uptight about the imperfection of a small project, "It's not a f-ing piano." I'm not sure if I sewed the curved edges "properly," but I just kind of stretched and molded one piece to fit another and, when the two pieces were being recalcitrant, by using the occasional pin.


For the backing, I went with a romantic rose print, which I thought fit with the calicos on the front. I didn't like it at first and wished I'd gone with something more simple and monochromatic, since the front is so busy, but it's growing on me. Like the 70s quilt, I used fluffy batting and tied the corners, old-school style.


Even though almost no two of these prints would go together in any rational way, they kind of work as a big kaleidoscope of color.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Finish it Friday ~ That 70s Quilt

The first quilt top from this post, the one my mom started way-back-when and then passed on to me still not-quite-as-way-back-but-still-pretty-far is done! And don't you love the way the alternating rectangles and triangles make that cool diagonal pattern?

Since my mom got the original pattern idea from a movie about poverty and tragedy (she still doesn't remember which, but I still think it was along the lines of Coal Miner's Daughter or The Dollmaker), it wouldn't have been right to pay a hundred bucks to have it professionally quilted. And besides, tying is more appropriate to the 70s aesthetic. So is puffy polyester batting, which is all my quilt lady had in stock when I finally made it to her shop--she's moved way out to the boondocks (boondocks that are far away from the boondocks where I live), and she's downsized, becoming more of a longarm quilting service than a fabric store, which makes me no end of sad. But she did give me the idea of turning the quilt, which saved me the hassle of making and sewing on binding.

The purple part of the backing is a length of fabric I bought at our local department store--Reny's--way back when they still carried fabric, with this project in mind. I thought it had a groovy 70s vibe. Unfortunately I didn't buy enough for the whole quilt back. At the quilt shop, I picked up some plain muslin to finish it off with, but that seemed far too dull for this particular blanket. So I dug through my stash and came up with this orange that has an almost imperceptible leaf print. I had just enough to make two strips along two edges of the purple. I spent several TV-watching sessions threading embroidery floss through each corner and the center of each block, and voila! A bright, cheerful, totally cozy, ecstatically retro throw for those chilly evenings in front of the TV (yeah, a lot of TV happening these days).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Dollhouse Updates ~ Tiny Carpentry Projects

I thought I was done with the dollhouse, but every once in a while, I get something in my head that it absolutely *needs* and I don't rest until I've made it come to pass. One thing I planned to add all along, was a desktop tablet--everything the writer/artist living in the house would need for creation. I had this piece of lucite-like material in a desk shape (something my dad brought home from work a good 40 years ago for me to use in this very dollhouse). It makes for an ultra-modern workspace. 


I honored that aesthetic with a lamp made of two buttons and a thin plastic tube (found in my "box of random things that might come in handy some day") and added a blotter (I don't really know what purpose a blotter serves, but I've always wanted one), a set of watercolors (piece of popsicle stick, painted) with a brush (toothpick) and a water jar (bead), a pencil (toothpick again), and a small book (paper, folded and sewn). A spool stool and a groovy rug make this corner of the attic bedroom the coziest little workspace.

For the other projects I've wanted to complete, I've had to take up carpentry--very tiny carpentry. First I gave the bathroom mirror (a piece of shiny silver paper that I'd added when the boys were little) a popsicle stick frame. Then, using some little plywood pieces (also from the "box of random things that might come in handy some day") and a toothpick, I built a shelf with towel bar for the wall over the tub. A fancy towel, groovy bathmat, and pair of shampoo bottles (glass beads), along with some seashells (every bathroom needs seashells so that bathing feels like a trip to the beach) and a cup (bead), finish the room.


My Fiesta ware-like dish collection continues to grow, and so the kitchen needed some more storage space (just like my kitchen in real life). So I built a little wall shelf (more little pieces of plywood and a popsicle stick) to go over the table.


A set of colorful mugs necessitated a mug tree (chop stick, toothpick, and button).


Here's how the kitchen looks in its current state:



Finally (but not really finally), another problem that corresponds to one of my own: the growing book collection necessitated a bookcase. I made this one with more pieces of plywood--they have an angle at one end, and I made use of this to create a dictionary-stand-type bookshelf--and a toothpick (to keep the books from sliding off the top).


I didn't think about the books being mostly dark green when I decided to paint it that color, but I think it works okay. (The books here are field guides to wildflowers, birds, and moths/butterflies, Pride and Prejudice, plus two "dummy" books that look old; in other parts of the house are Winnie the Pooh, The Night Before Christmas, a dictionary, and the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook--see the kitchen photos--which is a pretty good collection of essential books, if you ask me.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Book Stack ~ January 2021

Last year my book challenge was to read 52 of the books in my to-be-read stack. Not only did I not come anywhere close to this number, but my stack continued to grow over the year, because I kept ordering more books as a coping mechanism for dealing with the apocalypse. So I'm trying again this year: The stack on the right is fiction. I plan to read it "all" (there are somewhere around 30ish). I'm also not allowed to buy any more fiction until this stack is done. The stacks on the left are nonfiction. I plan to read the lower, front stack (as part of a long-term project I'm working on) and *some* of the others, but no definite number. The lower stack on the right is poetry, which I also plan to finish. (The very leftmost stack--basket and bag--are magazines I need to deal with; either read and recycle, pass on, or file if there's something essential I want to save within. Wish me luck!


I'm already off to a good start, having read five from the stack in January.


Fiction: 
I *finally* read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, which is one of those books one should already have read, and one I've been *meaning* to read for a long time. And it's soooo good. Just really fascinating delve into the lives of these characters--four Chinese women immigrants and their four first-generation American daughters. The characterization is tremendous and the storytelling and atmosphere are wonderful. So glad I finally read it. 

I also read The Knocker on Death's Door, a mystery by Ellis Peters that my mom sent me around Christmastime in a box of books. It was a pretty entertaining read with a twist ending, and a fun old-style puzzler, with an omniscient, head-hopping narrator that you don't usually get these days.

Several of the books on the stack are collections of short stories. I think I burnt out on short stories during my MFA program, when that's all I read, because I almost never think of grabbing a book of short stories when deciding what to read next. So I've decided to assign myself one per month, and schedule Short Story Saturdays, to make sure I get these read. January's read was Waltzing the Cat by Pam Houston. I'd read Houston's first book of short stories a few years ago and didn't love-love it, but this one I enjoyed much more and I liked the stories better as the book went on...probably something to do with there being less focus on the main character finding a man.

Nonfiction:
While I was reading that mammoth collection of nature writing I wrote about last month, I got in the habit of starting most mornings with both a poem and a nature essay, so I kept that habit up and finished reading The Colors of Nature, edited by Allison Hawthorn Deming and Lauret Savoy, which I'd started in the fall, an anthology of nature writing by writers of color. I love how this book expands on the notion of nature to include not just the wild or pastoral, but also the agricultural, the urban, the compromised and broken, and it challenges the genre to not only praise and sentimentalize but also argue and fight for environmental justice and make seen the invisible people and pollution.

Coincidentally, I read Lauret Savoy's essay collection, Trace, which travels through different American landscapes, searching for Savoy's family stories and revealing aspects of US history that are usually ignored or papered over. It's a lovely book, quiet in tone but powerful in message, and one I expect I'll return to again and again to let the words make a deeper impression.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Finish it Friday ~ Two Quilt Tops

Over the past year, thanks to the pandemic, I’ve dealt with a lot of deferred maintenance, big (like repainting the exterior trim on our house) and small (like repairing my favorite bracelet). It felt good to get these nagging tasks off my list, so I decided to make my word, and theme, for 2021 “finish,” and I wrote a list of 21 things that I’ve either started and left hanging or have been meaning to get around to doing—from writing projects to reading lists to crafts. Enter these two throw quilts, both of which started with my mom and have been sitting in my to-do pile a very long time.

The first is this retro number that my mom must have started in the very early 80s, and passed on to me, partially assembled at least 20 years ago. I finished putting it together way back then—mostly. I was short a couple of rectangles and had assembled on block backwards. It was the work of less than an hour to take apart the bad block, cut a few rectangles, and finish it already.

Many of the fabrics in the quilt I recognize from dresses my mom made me when I was little.

Others predate me, but are seriously groovy.

The alternating blocks of rectangles and triangles makes a neat diagonal pattern overall. I recall my mOm telling me got the pattern idea from a quilt in a movie—something tragic like Coal Miner’s Daughter or The Dollmaker.


The second quilt project also came from my mom—she cut out a zillion “wavy charms” during a destashing episode a number of years ago and sent them to various quilters in the family. Two things stymied me on this one—there weren’t enough pieces for a whole quilt, and I wasn’t sure how to sew together the wavy edges of the charms. I solved the first problem by letting a lot of years and my own stash build up, and the second by just diving in with sewing.


A little stretching here and a pin or two there, and it worked out fine. This quilt was a walk down memory lane, too, with fabrics that go back at least to my first communion dress (tiny strawberries on a white background). In putting these very disparate prints together, I mainly focused on alternating light and dark, warm and cool, floral and geometric, older and newer, since there was otherwise no rhyme or reason to them. And though you’d never choose any of these fabrics to “go” together, I like the overall effect. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A New Hope



My suffragette Christmas tree ornament had an inauguration party in the dollhouse
on Wednesday. When asked what she thought of the first woman being elected
Vice President 100 years after women gained the franchise, she said,
"What took so long?" and also, "
Vice President?"

The insurrection at the US Capitol two weeks ago shook me, hard. I had bad dreams. I felt sick all over. I could not stop scrolling the news, searching for stories of consequences for the rioters. When I went grocery shopping two days later, I felt suspicious of every person in the store. Of each I wondered if they were likely to be driven to mayhem and murder when things didn't go their way, when driven to the edge of insanity by lies and misinformation. 

In short, I felt traumatized. Maybe it was because the day before the insurrection I'd had my own run-in with people loitering around the Statehouse, looking to start trouble (I won't call them protestors; I've participated in many protests, and no one has ever screamed in the face of a passerby--or anyone else). But I believe that anyone of conscience in this country, anyone who's gotten teary-eyed while humming along to "My Country 'Tis of Thee," anyone who, despite knowing that the reality falls far short of the ideal, believes deeply in the promise of liberty and equality, must have felt the same visceral horror and shock at the desecration that took place in the heart of our democracy.

As the days passed, the inauguration neared, arrests started to roll in, and quiet began to settle over the land, the full-body revulsion I felt began to be replaced by a different feeling--hope. Not the grand, lofty hope we all felt at the start of Obama's presidency, the hope of a changed world, of the arc of justice bending more sharply, but rather a more mundane, bureaucratic hope. The hope of competent people setting out to govern not out of spite but for the good of all. Hope that children will be taken out of cages and returned to their families, hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will be addressed in a coordinated and centralized fashion, hope that people will receive some economic relief, hope that climate change will be approached as the existential threat that it is.

I know people who are already agitating that this administration won't be the paragon of perfect progressiveness they believe this country needs, but for now I'll settle for the righting of the ship of state. I'll settle for articulate speeches about possibilities. I'll settle for a moment of silence to acknowledge the 400,000 people who died of COVID-19 over the last year and who had been dismissed by the previous administration. I'll settle for immediate administrative actions to erase some of their more egregious policies.

I will also celebrate the FIRST WOMAN Vice President, the first African-American Vice President, the first Asian-American Vice President. As Kamala Harris took the oath of office and my eyes filled with tears, I realized that we didn't get a chance to celebrate this monumental achievement after the election amid all of the noise and rancor about election results generated by the merchants of lies and disinformation. But now we can breathe deeply again--for the first time in four years--and we can embrace and enjoy this moment for what it is--huge, earth-shattering, beautiful, and long overdue.

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Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book Stack ~ December 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugustSeptemberOctober, November.


December was a bit of a slow reading month, like November, and not for any *good* reason, like my hands being busy making a lot of holiday gifts, because this year I made nothing. Rather it was a combination of returning to work and watching way too much television. But I've made some changes that I hope will make it easier to incorporate reading into my life more regularly in 2021.

First, the nonfiction:

I finally finished reading The Norton Book of Nature Writing, College Edition, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder, which took me at least all year (I wish I'd noted when I began reading). It doesn't look that thick, but it has onion-skin pages and clocks in at 1,135 pages before the permissions section. Most traditional nature writing anthologies include a whole bunch of white dudes plus Rachel Carson. With this one, you can tell that the editors went to some pains to include more women and some more diverse voices, and these appear more toward the back of the book, among the more recent selections. But still, there's a whole lotta old white dudes represented. Nevertheless, it's an excellent survey of the genre, and it introduced me to several authors whose books I have acquired and read or plan to read soon.

As a companion, I read A Natural History of Nature Writing by Frank Stewart, which is a book that shows how American nature writing evolved since the time of Thoreau, and how Thoreau influenced some of the more influential writers of the 20th century (Aldo Leopold, Ed Abbey, Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben; in other words, a bunch of white dudes plus Rachel Carson). Unfortunately, I spread the reading of it out to coincide with reading the excerpts by the relevant authors in Norton, which means I didn't really take in the author's thesis as well as I might if I'd read it straight through. It's one I might revisit later, as I continue to hone my understanding of and approach to nature writing.

For fiction:

I listen to the #AmWriting podcast pretty religiously, so I heard a lot about the development, delay, and eventual release of The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia, so of course I had to read it. It's the entertaining story of a decades'-old family feud, conflict between a pair of modern-day sisters, and a reality TV show. Oh, yeah, and fried chicken. If you're looking for something fun and lively to read to escape from the insane moment we find ourselves in right now, check this one out.

Finally, I read The Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd, which is a collection of the essays/short stories (they seem to blur across the line) on which the movie was based. We were late comers to the movie, which my sister sent us a half-dozen Christmases ago or so, but it's since become one of our favorites. I think it gets more amusing every time I watch it, and the grinchy teenagers even seem to enjoy it still. I thought I'd never read it before, but now I see I read it in 2018, which is really strange, because none of it seemed familiar to me, except the parts that show up in the movie. If my book memory starts to go, I'm going to be really upset. In any case, it was a fun, fast read, and Shepherd's humor style is super engaging and fresh, even though the essays were originally published decades ago (and the events took place in the 30s).

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