January reads

January is that metaphorical new broom that sweeps clean. I like to start out the new year re-establishing routines, tackling those niggling little tasks that typically fall by the wayside, and trying to get back to my happy places, chief among them my reading time. After what I like to refer to as my “medical adventure” in the fall, and the marathon of holiday preparation that came swiftly on its heels, I’d gotten out of the  reading  habit. Although most of us reach this point now and then, my barren period had passed the two-month mark and was really driving me crazy.

I thought I’d have plenty of time for recuperative reading and had a stack of books at the ready. Best-laid plans. While I managed work responsibilities without a problem,  I just couldn’t read for pleasure. Meanwhile, those books on the nightstand sat there, glowering at me. Even worse, I’d failed my Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge after overachieving the year before. In retrospect, I fully acknowledge how silly and self-absorbed it was to  even think that my Goodsreads 2017 Reading Challenge mattered. Still, like book club (at which I fail repeatedly because I’m usually too stubborn to abandon my queue for the monthly selection), it was a motivator.

My neighbor, thank goodness, hauled me back from the abyss with a Christmas goodie bag containing  a hardbound copy of Fredrik Backman’s illustrated short story, “The Deal of a Lifetime.” I read it start-to-finish on New Year’s Day, which admittedly took only about 20 minutes, and thus started 2018 off in the right direction, the nasty dry spell broken.

Triumphant, I attacked the stack on the nightstand, barreling first through Glass Houses, Louise Penny’s latest installment in the Inspector Gamache series. If you love mysteries with a sense of place and can tolerate more than a little of the “dark side,” try this series set in the quirky village of Three Pines, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships outside of Montreal.

Next on my list, a gift from my BFF, was David Lebovitz’s L’Appart, a nearly unbelievable (but how could he possibly have made it up?) recounting of his experience buying and renovating a Paris apartment. Although not without its funny moments, it’s one of those “welcome to my nightmare” stories that makes any other renovation project seem like a walk in the Parc Monceau. It’s also full of fascinating perceptions of life, language, and culture in the City of Light. Lebovitz, who has a popular blog, has penned several cookbooks and was once a pastry chef at Alice Waters’ Chef Pannise. Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, another wonderful gift from my BFF, has taken on a whole new meaning since I found out how much he suffered to get that kitchen.

Then I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent My Name is Lucy Barton. Oh, how I loved it! Spare, honest, poetic, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize—I could go on and on and on. A perfect rendering of a mother-daughter relationship and all of the complexities contained therein. Read entirely in one sitting, early last Saturday morning. Note: Ugly cry guaranteed.

It’s now January 15, I’m four books up on my reading challenge, and well into my fifth—Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns’ 1984 novel about a family in a rural Georgia town in the first decades of the 20th Century. It was a thoughtful gift from my cousin Dorothy, who loves it and wants me to love it, too. So far, so good.

What is everyone else reading to start the New Year???









Happy New Year

It’s crazy cold here. Despite my respect for the change of seasons, and the fact that we’d danced in the streets at the Carnaval de Québec when the “real feel” was -30, I’ve since grown unaccustomed to day after day of temps in the teens and below.

Thus, these enticing glimpses of Greater Miami are my New Year’s greeting to you. Think warm thoughts as you pack away the holiday decorations and count the days till the Hallmark Christmas movies return. (That would be July, by the way, when even fake snow will be a relief from the midsummer heat.)

On this first day of a new year, I wish you and those you love good health, happiness, and prosperity in the months to come. And, since January 3 is the first anniversary of my first post,  I thank each of you for reading my blog.  I’ve enjoyed writing every subsequent post more than you could imagine—especially the singular connection between reader and writer that a blog creates. Technology at its best crosses the oceans and the (often silly) notions that separate us. Let’s face it— the world could use more of that.


Cover photo: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.

The urge to organize

My friend Teresa always used to say that December 26—Boxing Day—was her favorite of the year, since she was able to enjoy all the pleasures of Christmas with none of the pressure. I’ve kept her counsel for many years; the lazy day after Christmas is one of my favorites as well. This year, with the company gone, I announced early on that I planned to do absolutely nothing, which I did successfully… for a few hours. I watched an episode of Love, Lies, and Records on Acorn (it’s wonderful!) and read a bit (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore—I like it). I munched on leftovers. But by the time Hubby decided to watch a Jack Reacher* movie, I was ready for something more active.

The urge to organize that always hits me when the season or the year changes coaxed me into the kitchen. I emptied, then cleaned and reorganized, the pantry shelves and purged all some odd foodstuffs acquired impulsively in the international aisle. I know it’s stupid to waste money and worse to waste food, so from now on, with you, readers, as my witness, here’s my pledge: I promise never to buy a semi-exotic ingredient without a recipe and a commitment to use it immediately.  The days of keeping such things on the shelf “just in case I feel like making Chinese” are long gone.

A month or so ago, while recuperating, I was looking for productive things to do that didn’t require much effort. We were deep into fall and though the weather was still balmy,  scarf season was upon us. I’ve never been satisfied with scarves folded in a drawer or on a shelf. They wrinkle and slide and inevitably, you have to go through the whole pile for the one you want. Furthermore, I am nuts about scarves and even wear them inside when it’s cold. I remembered seeing a Real Simple  hanger expressly suited to scarves, so—while I hand washed every one and hung them on almost every towel rack in the bathroom to dry— I sent Hubby on a mission to Bed Bath and Beyond, armed with a photo from the BB&B website. He came back with three of these nifty hangers, per my request, and then sweetly went out a second time for the fourth when it became clear that I have quite a few scarves. This little project just thrilled me, and still does. Every day, I get to admire my scarves hanging in plain sight, organized by weight and color and wrinkle-free. Little things mean a lot.

A similar organizing adventure was the $10 shirt-folder I bought from Amazon three years ago. This piece of cheap plastic—which is literally duct-taped together in one spot—remains one of my favorite gadgets. Tee shirts  and most sweaters fold flat and line up beautifully on the shelf.
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Slightly obsessive? Perhaps, but there’s absolutely nothing “concrete sequential” about me when it comes to thought processes or conversation (ask Hubby), so these little islands of  “hyper” organization are something of an anomaly. Still, like a Hallmark movie, such projects give momentary order to chaos and more or less immediate gratification. Which is not a bad way to start a new year, right?


*Matthew Bourne meets the Liam Neeson character in Taken, except it’s Tom Cruise. Definitely not my cup of tea.





The way it used to be

Over-idealizing the past definitely guarantees you a berth on what my witty brother-in-law calls the “bullet train to Geezerville.” Still, there’s no denying the natural human tendency for nostalgia, which, since it’s pretty selective, is always fun, especially at Christmas. The Hallmark Channel, as we all know, makes a mint on it.

Except for the reliable constants of church, tree, cards, and presents, the middle-of-the-middle class Christmases of my childhood were dramatically different from anything that kids today experience. All trees were real. Nattily dressed shoppers crammed the stores, which were open two nights a week. The big treat was a night-time trip to town to visit Santa and see the animated department store windows—different every year, and always enchanting. Mail arrived twice a day, and there were so many cards that we lined the entire bannister with them, straight up to the second floor. Kids asked Santa for one special gift, just like Ralphie. While the stockings may have been stuffed with candy or tiny books or trinkets, and other family members may have provided more useful but modest gifts, that one present from Santa was what most children were thrilled and grateful to find under the tree. Christmas carols* and the secular holidays songs were on all of the radio stations, almost all of the time.

But above all,  in our big, noisy Italian-American family, Christmas was about being together. The celebration started with Midnight Mass, and, once Christmas dinner was over, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was spent visiting. We’d crowd around the table on one night at our house, on others at the homes of aunts, uncles, and cousins, where we were amply supplied with whatever leftovers were on hand and tray after tray of cookies. The grown-ups had a beer or two, or coffee and anisette, while we kids played with each other’s toys. We laughed and sang, disagreements were friendly and without repercussion, and no one felt left out. That’s one of our Christmas get-togethers in the photo above, at our house. That’s my mother, in the center, with the dark dress and pearls, and my father, on the right, in front of the china cabinet.

Our once-huge extended family has dwindled, and family members, with a few exceptions, aren’t close. Over the years, as children left the steel mill behind and began to make their way in the world, they lost interest in family celebrations, even disdaining them as quaint and unsophisticiated. The Christmas I knew as a child became little more than a hazy, idealized memory.  Still, I am so glad to have it.

I confess to a trace of envy when I hear of a family large enough, energetic enough, and committed enough, to celebrate in the noisy, crowded, overstuffed old-fashioned way. My own family, whom I love dearly and appreciate every single minute of every single day, is small; our Christmases are quiet but precious nonetheless.

Whatever you make of Christmas, may your day be filled with joy and gratitude for the blessings around your table, and may you have good health and prosperity in the year to come!

*Hear this, Hallmark Channel, although you know I love you, please stop the dancing to “Silent Night.” It just isn’t done.



Open concept

If you’re anything like me, you fairly gag at the monotonous “one script is all” banter that occurs on House Hunters and all of its variations:

“It’s a good size.”
“I love the granite counter tops.”
“It’s pretty small for a master.” (What would you expect in a house built in 1920, folks?)
“This would fit my furniture.” (One of the most offensive and awkward misconstructions I have ever heard. The furniture fits into the room, House Hunters, not vice versa.)
“I could see myself sitting here, having coffee.”
“This would be great for entertaining.”

“I wanted open concept.” 

It’s the last that’s on my mind right now, as I sit here surrounded by a pre-holiday mess. “Open concept” is an invention of the last 30 years. There was virtually no “open concept” until roughly the last decade of the 20th Century. The point was to HIDE the mess in the kitchen. And for the cook to be able to concentrate while making the soufflé or Beef Wellington—or tuna noodle casserole, for that matter—without the distractions of a blaring television or bickering siblings.

Now, everyone on House Hunters, and, apparently, everywhere else, prefers not to be isolated from the rest of the household while working in the kitchen. That’s a nice idea in theory; it’s true that an open concept living area allows you to keep an eye on the kids, participate in family discussions, and enjoy your guests. But unless you are one of those people who thinks the only real dream kitchen is an unused one,  an “open concept” living area also means a mess for all to see. And while the perfume of bread in the oven may be pleasant and comforting, it is not necessarily pleasant or comforting to get a whiff of the sausage and peppers—or worse, fish—that you made for dinner when you’ve settled down for the evening in the den. Trust me—you can’t open a window when it’s 20 degrees, and the fan on full force and the candles don’t always do the trick.

I like living on one floor. I really do. And I love my house. But do not expect to see kitchen counters cleared of clutter and punctuated with fascinating decorative items à la Joanna Gaines (of whom, incidentally, I’m a committed fan). That’s fine for people who don’t really cook in a big way. And since Christmas is an especially messy time of year, you will at any given time this week find, in our lovely little home, not only a floury mess in the kitchen, but also a tangle of gift wrapping in progress on the dining room table—wide open to all who cross the threshold. Some time between now and Christmas Eve, all will be put in order. But until then, let’s just say we have that “lived in” look, right out there in the open.

PS That’s Adriana Trigiani’s delightful new edition of Cooking with My Sisters in the photo above.. The stories are wonderful, as you would expect.