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

Au revoir, Monsieur Mayle

I teared up, almost as if I’d lost a friend, when I saw that Peter Mayle had passed.  After all, he had given me Provence—first on the printed pages of his charming, insightful trilogy—A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, Toujours Provence—and thereafter the engaging, lighthearted novels he set there, irresistible confections all. Hotel Pastis and A Good Year were my personal favorites.

When we traveled in Provence, I confess to looking for Peter Mayle on the cobbled streets of Menerbes and Lourmarin and Gordes. There were no sightings, but I have seen many online comments from folks who did run into him there, and found him ever gracious and engaging. I hoped they thanked him for all the pleasure his pen provided; I surely would have.

If you haven’t read A Year in Provence, please do, then watch the British TV adaptation with the great John Thaw, whom you might know as the original Inspector Morse, as Peter, and Lindsay Duncan as his wife.



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???









Sweet distractions

I’ve been lean on writing  this last week; sometimes, real life just intervenes. In this case, in a good way. Here is where my time usually devoted to writing has gone…

The kitchen cabinets
I set out determined to clean both pantry cabinets and all the kitchen drawers, and I did. They are beautifully organized, old stuff has been pitched, and some goodies I’d forgotten I had have been used or scheduled for use in dinners or other delights. Some of you will no doubt think I’m sick, but cleaning closets and cabinets is really the only household task, apart from cooking and baking, that I truly enjoy, perhaps because it fairly screams, “Fresh start!”

The garden
We’ve spent considerable time enjoying our backyard garden and the roses and clematis that give our house the look of a little cottage on the Maine coast. Everything we planted, moved, replaced is thriving this year; all we need do is take the time to savor it. We added a climbing rose this week and hope it will be happy in the place we chose.

Long walks with Miss Pup
Our walks have been extra pleasurable on the sunny days that followed what seemed like ages of damp and dreariness. One of the things I love most about our neighborhood is that people are always out and about—kids playing on the green, mamas and papas walking their babies, and lots of other doggies taking their constitutionals. Everyone smiles; everyone waves. The world needs that.

My first Tana French
Faithful Place is a dark crime novel set in Dublin. Oh, my goodness, what skill with voice! This one is really hard to put down.

Our local berries, the real ones, bear no relationship to those big, tasteless California imports in the grocery stores. We’ve been devouring our local berries for over a week, both in biscuit shortcake mounded with real whipped cream and just out of the dish, unfettered.

Every now and then, I catch myself frustrated with how few tasks I’ve completed in the course of a day. Sometimes, I still feel unproductive or even a bit guilty. But really enjoying your #retired life isn’t about changing the sheets, is it?

Photo: In my history with azaleas, which goes back to childhood, this may be the fullest and most beautiful. I take no credit for planting or feeding it—that all goes to our “tree whisperer,” Don. I would have posted a photo of the strawberries, but they disappeared before I could say, “Cheese.” I did include a link to my favorite shortcake recipe, just in case you’re interested.

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren. 








Oscar, mother, and those jelly jars

I’ve loved The Importance of Being Earnest, one of dear Oscar Wilde’s funniest, since we staged the show in high school. Many of its epigrammatic quips have stayed with me all these years.  It’s possible that I like this one best:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.

The value of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams cannot be underscored. Their essential truth, well cloaked in satire, sticks like chewing gum under the dairy bar counter. They grow with you. When I was 16, I thought this was just a funny line. When I was 21 and trying to assert my independence, being “like my mother” was the last thing on earth I wanted. When my own kids came along, I wondered if they’d be like me. By the time I was 40, I began to hope I was at least somewhat like her. And now, of course, I am—at least in one notable way.

Which is to say, my kitchen in fully of jelly jars. Specifically, Bonne Maman (“good mother”) jelly jars. Like Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Whereas my mother saved commercial jelly jars for her own wondrous jams and preserves, I use the Bonne Maman jars for everything from baking soda to chopped onion to leftover sweet potatoes. I find they’re ideal not just because I’m a “brand loyalist,” but because the mouth is fairly wide, the lids are an adorable red-and-white check, you can easily see what’s in them, and they stack. More than that, Bonne Maman jams take me back to June in Provence, where Françoise, our charming hostess at Hôtel l’Hermitage, at breakfast served baskets of just picked strawberries and cherries from the orchards around Mt. Ventoux. Plus, as you’ve probably discovered, if it’s French or Italian, I’m in.

Recycling is always a good thing, and since many of us are trying to make the switch from plastic storage to glass, why not try some Bonne Maman—non-GMO, by the way—and put some of these great little jars to handy new uses?

Bon Maman






Islands in the laguna

For a daydreaming Pisces, a novel with a sense of place as strong as any of its characters is irresistible. Writers from the American south have always been very good at this—Gail Godwin, Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, and the like.

Place is typically very important to ongoing mystery series are as well. My personal favorites are Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, which take place in and around Montreal, and the Commissario Montalbano series by Andrea Camillero, set in Sicily.  Each of these series is far beyond a collection of simple detective stories; they are highly literate, with both principle and supporting characters who are impeccably fleshed out, who grow and change as the series progress. You get to know, respect, and probably love them as you read one after another. Tip: If you are interested in any of these, do read them in order!

I’ve just finished Earthly Remains, the latest in the Commissario Brunetti series. The story, which takes place on Sant’Erasmo and Burano, islands in the Venetian lagoon, brought back some lovely memories of our 2012 excursion to Murano, Burano, and Torcello.  I’m sharing those memories for my own selfish pleasure as much as for yours.

(1) If I were doing the trip again, I would skip Murano. If you read this book, you’ll find out why.

(2) Both Brunetti and Montalbano have been transformed into fabulously entertaining TV series—the first is, ironically, a German production and the second, an Italian one. You can enjoy them in the US, as well as many other European offerings, with a modestly priced subscription to the streaming service MHZ Choice.