What I did this summer

I’ve been erratic about writing these last few months. That tendency, to be erratic, is probably one reason why I’m never likely to write the Great American Novel. Serious writers, in my experience, are highly disciplined and highly routinized—and that’s never been quite my cup of tea.

First of all, I probably ate too much ice cream, at Leo’s in Carlisle, PA. But if you had a taste of this luscious stuff, you probably would have indulged too much, too.

Save for a single weekend getaway—a reunion with some dear friends in Annapolis— we’ve spent summer at home. Considering that time with our precious Miss Puppy turned out to be so limited, I am very glad that we were home with her. Still, going into fall, everything feels a bit… fractured… which is a good word to describe today’s post.

I’ve been reading steadily, but after Frances Mayes’ masterful Women in Sunlight, everything has fallen short and—excepting my foray into Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie stories—has seemed way too sad. Thus, I’m really looking forward to Adriana Trigiani’s newest, Tony’s Wife, due in November. If you don’t know her writing, and you love a beautifully told story that is poignant and warm and always rings true—just as she does—you’ll want to put it on your reading list. See my previous post about her and her website, adrianatrigiani.com, where you can also read about the wonderful, life-changing Origin Project.

In the garden, the extraordinary amounts of rain have resulted in huge growth spurts for our shrubs and trees. For the first time in years, thanks to my daughter, we have tomato plants. I’ve rediscovered their unique scent and decided that, fo me, it’s the quintessential smell of summer.

 

There was quality time with kids, grands, cousins, and girlfriends—long walks, a picnic, visits to nearby gardens (one the work of fairies, as you can see in the cover photo), and an alpaca farm.

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For entertainment, we finished the six seasons of Republic of Doyle. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed this tightly written, sometimes hysterically funny nail-biter. The Doyles are father-son private investigators who get themselves and their entire family into all sorts of hair-rising trouble. The series was shot on location in Newfoundland, with fabulous ensemble acting headlined by Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley. All six seasons are available on Netflix although you can catch the first four on Acorn. Another winning Acorn series is Rake, starring Richard Roxburghan Australian series about a brilliant criminal defense attorney who is, to say the least, his own worst enemy. You will laugh copiously at this one. Both shows, by the way, have great soundtracks, and—like many other out-of-country programming—are better by leaps and bounds than 90% of typical US TV offerings.

In the kitchen, I’ve been determined to get out of my comfort zone. My next-door-neighbor Jamie joined me to try this zucchini galette, a King Arthur Flour recipe you’ll find here. It was a huge hit and went together in a flash.

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And that’s what I did this summer.

Just a note… I have always provided links to books via Amazon because it’s convenient and worldwide. After this post, however, I will be concentrating more on direct links to author pages and independent booksellers. Amazon has gotten way too big for my taste.  I’d rather support the writers themselves, or the “little shop around the corner”.  

 

 

 

Summer brain

Hot, sticky days fracture my attention span and–quite frankly–make me flat-out lazy.

I hate that feeling.

Today I decided that I absolutely MUST get something done. So that I don’t feel like a complete slug, I’m going to recount just about everything I did today.

I. Fed Miss Pup.
2. Walked Miss Pup.
3. Went to our farmer’s market with Hubby. Brought home those gorgeous peaches.
4, Made us grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. The farmer’s market tomatoes were sweet as candy.
5. Registered my new Nespresso Citiz and ordered capsules.
6. Successfully completed two online jigsaw puzzles of French chateaux, a meagre consolation prize for not being on the banks of the Loire.
7. Continued reading a pre-publication copy of Booked by my friend Marina Rezor. Happy to report that it’s every bit as charming as Fowled, her debut novel released last year.
8. Dusted the living room tables and washed the ornamental glass.
9. Shelled limas for dinner.
10. Walked Miss Pup.
11. Fed Miss Pup.
12. Contemplated whether I should make peach pie or peach cobbler or both with those gorgeous peaches. They won’t be ripe enough till Sunday, so I’m off the hook for now.
13. Signed up for a Netflix free trial so we can watch any episodes of Republic of Doyle that weren’t available on Acorn and catch the new release, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I loved the book.
14. Wondered if I should iron. Maybe later.

So that’s it so far. Oh, yes, I made the bed. I always make the bed.

Here’s Miss Pup telling me to get off my duff.

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‘Who knows where the time goes?’

Today’s title is actually the lovingly borrowed title of a  song written by Sandy Denny in 1967 and recorded by a variety of artists over the years—the signature recording, in my estimation, made by silky-voiced Judy Collins.

As those of you who follow my blog (thank you!) have no doubt deduced, I have a time and discipline issue,  which is one of the reasons why I haven’t yet written The Great American Novel. On paper, at least. I’ve been joking for years that I’ve written it in the bathtub a zillion times—the problem being that all of those words fly off to Neverland once I get to the typewriter. Yes, I have been making this excuse since I had that most wondrous of typewriters, an IBM Selectric that I got for $10 when the junior college nearby was upgrading equipment. Best $10 I ever spent.

The honest-to-goodness truth—in the event that you’re not already way ahead of me on this one—is that I am highly unlikely EVER to write The Great American Novel, partly because I’m better at character than plot, and partly because I struggle terribly with focus. This blog keeps me writing, and that’s a very good thing. Writers, even those who are not destined for greatness or even for publication, need to write. Perhaps naively, I had thought that once the crush of intense, deadline-driven work assignments had eased, I would have no trouble finding time to write. But here’s the simple truth: I am now both busier and lazier, and the fact that I no longer have to obligate all of my day to work has made it much easier to obligate it to nothing at all. And so the time goes by—a little of this, a little of that. I am busy. Household chores, time with family and friends, playing around in the kitchen or garden, binging Euro and Brit TV (which, actually, is a good thing since it keeps me accustomed to hearing French, Italian, or German).

While there is great freedom is knowing that I don’t HAVE to do anything on a particular day because I don’t HAVE to be anywhere or do anything that day or even the next, there is also frustration that I haven’t been more productive, and that time is not slipping, but flying by.

Meanwhile, I have a paper folder stuffed with aborted writing attempts, some from nearly 40 years ago, that are probably worth revisiting. Plus an electronic file of remnants from the last 25 years. I used to say that I wanted to complete one fairly solid piece of fiction in my lifetime. The only obstacle to that goal is my own commitment. Thanks to the blog and Twitter world, some personal acquaintances who are accomplished and published writers, and to wonderful books like Parting the Curtains, I have no illusions about that the nature of that commitment. It is deep and unequivocal and definitely not for the faint of heart. Or the lazy and unfocused. You don’t play at writing.

Well, I may give it one last go. We will see.

‘I write in ink.’

Dear Frances Mayes,

The time I brought The Tuscan Sun Cookbook to you for signing in Chapel Hill, I remember saying, simply, “Can I tell you how much I loved A Year in the World?” You smiled sweetly.

I frankly never thought anything else of yours could eclipse that smashing book—which really wasn’t about travel, of course, but about how travel changes us, fundamentally. Then I read, and was surprised at, your gut-wrenching memoir, Under Magnolia. Suffice it to say that if I had thought about it,  I would have imagined your life-before-fame otherwise. We never really know what’s beneath the surface.

I finished Women in Sunlight yesterday, with tears streaming and that disconnected feeling of “What next?” that always follows on the heels of a book that knocks you silly.

You are—allow me to presume—among the best of the current crop of Southern writers, whom I have always loved for the richness of place in their work and their ability to make place a character all its own. Women in Sunlight has characters strong and multi-dimensional enough not to be subsumed in the glorious setting of a Tuscan village, or Venice, or Florence, or the Cinque Terre, or Capri. But Italy is the character, from the start, that brings them all together, in reality and in metaphor.

I love the intertwining of poetry in this book, the sense that, as in a poem, every single word was meticulously selected and weighty with meaning. I love the bits of poems interspersed here and there with the text. How brilliant—and full of gumption—to make the storyteller, Kit, a poet! One can sit on the surface, watching, or go deeper and deeper, just like Julia leaping off the cliff in Corniglia.

And there is that one stunning sentence—”I write in ink.” There is no undoing. Margaret knew that. Except, sometimes, if you are brave and your reach is wide enough, there is a chance at redoing. Camille, Susan, and Julia discovered that. Kit, too, in her new incarnation. I adored these characters, and also those in the periphery who egged them on.

How can I thank you enough for allowing me these two weeks in Italy, for introducing me to these fascinating people and allowing me to watch them grow, at a time in life when it would be all too easy not to?

Truly, you have outdone yourself.

Notes to readers:  Full disclosure: I’m a reader, not a critic, not even a book blogger. But I do like to write about books that I find extraordinary in some way, with the hope that others will enjoy them as I have.Of course, I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, too. Please don’t opt for “I’ve seen the movie” because the books are so much more wonderful.

#FrancesMayes
#Goodreads
#WomenInSunlight

Growing up with Yankee

I fell in love with New England—technically, my native New England—not on those tedious trips north from Pennsylvania when I was a tiny child, but month by month, on the pages of Yankee magazine.

I’ve mentioned before that my father, a first generation Italian-American, grew up in a papermill town in Western Maine. Think Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or Monica Wood’s stunning memoir, When We Were the Kennedys. As a kid visiting family on summer vacation, I had trouble connecting with those visits—everything just felt too different and far away. (I got over that as I grew older, of course.)

My parents loved magazines, and I absorbed their addiction, lapping up every Life, Look, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, or whatever the minute it arrived. But one magazine was extra special, for on its covers and in its pages the idea of New England began to take shape in my imagination.

Back then, Yankee was half the size it is today, which in and of itself set the magazine apart. I still miss the old book-size format, with its distinctive original cover art. Sometimes fanciful, sometimes near photographic, the covers invited you into village life or mountainscape, stormy seas or apple orchard, lighthouse or schoolhouse. Beatrix Sagendorph, wife of Yankee founder Robb Sagendorph, was responsible for many of those inimitable illustrations, starting a tradition that other talented artists would follow in the years to come.

Between those covers, black-and-white newsprint pages bore stories of “Old Salts” and boiled dinners and folk remedies, general stores, and regional history, of famous Yankees important to history and literature. There were poems and recipes and little jokes here and there, and pages of classifieds that this school kid read from beginning to end. If you could read the tiny type, you could find anything from farm equipment to a fishing camp on a lake, a sure-fire mosquito remedy, or a priceless heirloom recipe you could call your own for just a dollar and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Come to think of it, the pages of Yankee were probably the first virtual general store.

With the changing times, Yankee has changed as well… first adding inside color, then giving up the compact, book-size format, then developing online content. Nonetheless, there is still much to love: enough “zip” to attract younger readers and sufficient  old-fashioned sensibility to keep long-time readers like me happily engaged. Subscribers these days have access to a website that offers free downloads of tourist information, recipes, and other good stuff.

The most recent innovation has been the addition of the WGBH-produced TV series, Weekends with Yankee. The show, just now beginning its second season, airs on public stations; you will need to check your local outlet for day and time. The content has been delightfully varied thus far. If you love New England, or, if somehow, you’ve never been there, watch this show. Writer-explorer Richard Wiese and Amy Traverso, Yankee’s senior food editor, are enthusiastic yet relaxed hosts with the savvy to let the stories unfold naturally. It’s a great half hour. And if, like me, you still like something you can hold in your hand, try subscribing, and you can enjoy the varied pleasures of New England year round.

 

Cover photo: Rumford Falls, Oxford County, Maine.

Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The books I keep

Whereas buying a book now and then requires minimal space—I can always accommodate another book on my nightstand or the coffee table if need be—the haul from the thrice yearly book sales is another matter.

To be sure that I have sufficient space for half a dozen or so treasures, I’ve adopted the ritual of deep-cleaning and “editing” the bookcase before each sale, in February, June, and October. It works out rather nicely. The books I’m ready to part with go into the donate bag, those I want to share go to family, friends, or neighbors, and those I keep are lovingly dusted and restored to their home on my shelves.

I know people who never hold on to books. I know people who only buy used books. I know people who don’t buy them at all. Either they’ve gone totally electronic, or they rely on the library. Which is fine. But I still buy “real” books, and I still keep them. Among them are a few childhood favorites, my Rockwell Kent-illustrated Shakespeare, and two of my mother’s treasures—a gilt-edged edition of Webster’s and a Metropolitan Opera Guide from many, many moons ago. The only college text I’ve held on to is the expansive English Romantic Writers. What can I say? Every now and then, I need a dose of Wordsworth.

There are several reasons why I continue to buy “real” books. One is the pure joy of browsing through a bookstore.  We don’t have any really good “indies” around here, but when we travel north or south, bookstores are always on the agenda. At home, I rely on Amazon and our local Barnes & Noble. Another is that a book you love becomes part of you in ways that only a committed reader can understand. A third is that I like to support the writers I love, the writers who consistently show up in my pre-release queue. They represent a mix of genres, for sure: Andrea Camelleri, Louise Penny, Richard RussoDonna Leon, Alan Furst, David McCulloughMonica Wood, Frances Mayes, Gail Godwin, MFK FisherDoris Kearns Goodwin, Pat Conroy, and, of course, the inimitable Adriana Trigiani.

If you’re a reader, chances are, like me, you check out the bookshelves when you visit a home for the first time.  “You love Paris, too! Who knew?” Our book choices, at least the ones we choose to display, are revealing in so many ways.  For instance, have a look at some of my  keepers:

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I love reading about France and food.

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Mysteries and Annie Lamott.

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My daughter introduced me to this series, set in Sicily, that was also adapted for television. Commissario Montalbano is irresistible in either version.

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Perennial favorites.