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Books I'm listening to in the car

  • Sena Jeter Naslund: Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette (P.S.)

    Sena Jeter Naslund: Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette (P.S.)
    I don't like historical fiction. I have very little interest in the French monarchy. But Sena Jeter Nashland, whose first novel could not've been more different, is a brilliant writer, and has me utterly pulled into this world, time, and place, and given me sympathy towards a person to whom I had none. A novel like this reminds me of why I fall in love with fiction, over and over again. Transporting, tragic, and deeply fascinating. (****)

  • Markus Zusak: I Am the Messenger

    Markus Zusak: I Am the Messenger
    (***)

  • L.A. Meyer: Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary 'Jacky' Faber, Ship's Boy (Bloody Jack Adventures)

    L.A. Meyer: Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary 'Jacky' Faber, Ship's Boy (Bloody Jack Adventures)
    (***)

  • Robert Mnookin: Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight

    Robert Mnookin: Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight
    (*****)

  • Curtis Sittenfeld: American Wife: A Novel

    Curtis Sittenfeld: American Wife: A Novel
    Alice Lindgren Blackwell's normal-enough middle-class Wisconsin life goes through the windshield twice, once quickly and literally (a car wreck when she is in her early teens, in which she kills the young man who just may have been the love of her life) and once very slowly, and for a long, long time (when she marries Charlie, a super-wealthy, basically incompetent charmer with fierce political ambitions, who ends up --- somewhat to everyone's surprise --- in the White House). An imagining of a life loosely based on Laura Bush's, Sittenfield's writing is unshow-offy, as unobtrusive and accommodating as her careful protagonist, who tries to walk the impossible line of being "good wife" to a public figure with whose actions, public and private, she does not always agree, and cleaving to her own conscience, which may have gotten lost somewhere along the way. The book is inhabited by carefully drawn, detailed, dimensional characters: Alice's off-again-on-again best friend, her wise, quietly lesbian grandmother, the members of the dynasty into which she has married. An endless war, a weak wealthy husband saved from being a total wash-up by the embrace of a Christianity Alice herself does not understand, a bereaved parent whose son has died in the war, who attempts to meet the president ... all these echo the tragedy of the Bush years from an imagined perspective. Yet finally the novel rings true not because of this echo, but because Sittenfeld has created characters and a plot as complex, flawed, and mysterious as life itself. (****)

  • Nora Ephron: I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (Vintage)

    Nora Ephron: I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (Vintage)
    The wry, funny Nora Ephron, in her own words. She forgot more than many of us knew. Highly entertaining, and makes me grieve her recent death even more. (***)

Books in my (culinary) office

  • Mary Donovan: The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook: A Collection of Favourite Receipts from Thirteen Exemplary Eighteenth-Century Cooks With Proper Menus for Simple Fare
    Early American recipes and lots of good quotes from period source material, this is just the kind of thing that fascinates me. (***)
  • Kevin Young: The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink

    Kevin Young: The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink
    (***)

  • Michael Natkin: Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes

    Michael Natkin: Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes
    (****)

  • Ben Hewitt: The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food

    Ben Hewitt: The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food
    Hewitt raises more questions and hypotheses than he answer... one has the sense that he was grappling with issues that were too large for him, and the subject of the book, the food-centric (sort of) hardscrabble town of Hardwick, Vermont. I got frustrated with his asides and a certain precious town that occasionally crept in, but I couldn't help but find it enthralling. He tries to make peace with the fact that environmentally sound, home gardening, and incremental agricultural semi-self-sufficiency may be elitist and nay not be economically sustainable. But that our present-day food system is also frighteningly fragile and unhealthful in any way, and simply would work unsubsidized: 1 single fast-food mega-ag calorie on the plate takes an average of ***95*** calories of fossil fuel to get from seed to plate. A gardener himself, Ben Hewitt writes: "The scale on which my family and I grow food is arguably inefficient, in terms of economics, efficiency, and land use. We don't utilize chemical fertilizers, synthetic weed and pest control, or genetically modified seed; these things could probably boost production in the short run, but then, we don't farm for the short run. "I can buy a fine potato from any number of local farmers, but (not) the May afternoon I spent w/ Penny in the garden, sticking our hands deep into the cool soil. I can buy a head of lettuce, but (not) the pleasure & pride of my boys returning from the garden w/ a basket of greens & saying 'We picked it ourselves, Papa.' " And, in this Monsanto-fast food-fake-food world... being willing and able to feed yourself, even partially is a true "Occupy" act. Hewitt quotes a farmer named Eliot Coleman: "Small farmers are the last bastion protecting society from corporate industry. When we feed ourselves, we become unconquerable." I wish this book had been better edited: someone needed to keep Hewitt more on track and focused, with fewer asides. He needed to be less anecdotal and more fact-based, or more anecdotal and... Well. Still very much worth a read. (***)

  • Ayun Halliday: Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste
    A feisty memoiristic series of vignettes, from growing up in Indiana and aspiring to Betty Crocker Enchanted Castle cakes with a mom who aspired to Julia Child and a fried-chicken-and-mashed-potato cooking grandmother to the author's own "postcoital breakfasts", labor, deliveries, and childrearing (one picky eater, one not). Categorized on the jacket as "FOOD / HUMOR" it is both, sort of. A recipe, written slap-dash but followable, and certainly with personal, um, zest, follows each chapter. It kept me somewhat amused; it kept me reading; and it did warn "questionable taste." The latter was over-the-top for me; a combination of TMI, reliance on gross-out, and a few too many gratuitous 'fucks' crossed the just-have-to-drop-the-#-of-stars line. Ayun's a good writer; a little less smart-assiness and a little more depth to the revelations, and I could be done for the cause with her. (**)

Books by the bed

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Biography

I'm a freelance writer (much published), a cornbread-loving, genre-bending 56 year-old. Writing is work, play, the way I make much of my living. It's occasionally highly anxious-making, always surprising. I teach, and am constantly taught by, writing.

My published work includes fiction (novels, a few short stories), cookbooks, memoir, poetry, children's books, magazine articles. My unpublished work contains a lot of rough drafts of the previous, plus countless other writing pursued for fun, self-knowledge, curiosity, experimentation, out of pique. There is no limit to what the act of writing does for the writer. It is a generous discipline.

I live on 35 acres in Vermont, after having spent 33 years in small-town Arkansas (but probably not what you think of as "small-town Arkansas.").

I still haven't decided if I'm a Yankee Southerner or a Southern Yankee. My social and personal style is pretty firmly Southern --- the personal and easygoing warmth that is often labeled "Southern hospitality" is no lie, and I think Southern speech is the single richest American idiomatic language.

But my politics are right at home in this bluest of green states, Vermont, where I have learned what civic hospitality and functionality look like. While I considered it the greatest of compliments when even after I moved north, my friend Mary Gay Shipley, who owns That Bookstore in Blytheville, (Arkansas), said to me, "We still claim you," I have to say I love agreeing with almost every Vermont bumper-sticker I see, and the fact that they just come plow and grade your road --- you don't have to call the county and grovel.

My current residence is what was for many years my aunt's summer place in Vermont. She's now 99; I'm buying it from her (I have a hefty double mortgage that, as I like to say, was done with "financing so creative I should have gotten a MacArthur for it." )

Here, there are moose, deer, bear, foxes, beaver, porcupines. Winters are long, but not as long as I feared they would be when I lived in the South and was contemplating moving here. I've learned to snow-shoe; I go on a bundled-up horse-drawn sleigh ride at a nearby farm, each winter solstice, at which point, of course, I know the earth is moving back towards the light.

In sugaring season, the roads are impossibly muddy, and the still-leafless maples, teeming with life, are tapped for sap. Soon after, it's time for the annual vernal wildflower walks in the woods, which I often take with my friend and neighbor Gaelen. Gaelen and Richard, who live down the hill from me, are hands-down the best, more truly neighborly neighbors I have ever had.

Then summer: the garden, and swimming in the pond. Then fall. Then winter again.

I also live with two cats, and, about 3/4 of the time, my filmmaker boyfriend, David Koff, with whom I share (among many other things) huge pleasure in our vegetable garden, an insane love of goofy improvisational word play and speaking in funny voices, and fierce, fairly erudite discussions about politics, spirituality / materialism, etc. (When David is not here he is either in Los Angeles or on the road, doing film-related work.)

"Boyfriend." What a concept. See, I had twenty-three years with my adored soulmate, Ned Shank, with whom I shared adventures, enterprises, work, play, joy and just plain time and growing up (we met and married in our early twenties).

One day Ned went out on his usual 3-times-a- week bicycle ride. It was late afternoon, a sunny, exceptionally warm November day: this was back in Arkansas.

He and a red pick-up truck intersected. He bicycled into eternity, dying (or "leaving the body," as they say, I think aptly, in parts of India) on a stainless steel emergency room table at a hospital in Springdale, Arkansas.
It was November 30, 2000. He was 44.

An event like that knocks over everything in your life.

Grief is like nothing else. It's not within the human capacity to imagine it until you're in it. "Getting over it" , it being grief (and oh how one wants to be over it) is not an option. When grief wants you to feel it, you feel it. It is pure in the sense of absolute or undiluted. It's not volitional. I have never known an emotion more powerful, excoriating, and, because it is so beyond your ability to think your way out of it, humbling.

Yet, over time, one composts the agony and loss: love, absence, presence, experience, the acceptance of how little control we have over the biggest things in life.

And as all this decomposes, it slowly amends your existing mental/emotional/spiritual ground, the soil from which you grow. And yes, ultimately you are enriched (though I think, always, part of you would give up the enrichment in a heartbeat if only, if only, you could have the vanished one back).

But you can't.

That being so, eventually --- the length of time is different for everyone, and much depends on the particular relationship and the circumstances of the death --- one is able, and has to, choose. Will the loss of that person enrich or impoverish the survivor?

Impoverishment doubles the loss, by making it meaningless. Too, I think it does disservice to the one you loved; disservice, even, to love itself.

Ned, as I've said, was my soulmate. But, it turns out, not my sole mate. It's surprising and miraculous to love and be loved in a wholly different manner, as an adult, relatively late in life. David, my boyfriend/partner, and I walked, as opposed to fell, into love (in contrast to the some-enchanted-evening, instant recognition thing Ned and I had together). This slow, sweet amble David and I are taking is not something one hears much about in the tropes of love with which we're familiar. I think, as with writing and other creative processes, one is always being schooled by the practice itself.

Discovering this capacity for resilience, which is to say, a hunger for joy and life that will not be denied, is as humbling in its way as grief is. But love and resilience lift you up, while grief casts you down, down, down. Can I say, honestly, that I am grateful for the gifts of both? Yes, at long last, I can. And I do, daily.

Presently the caring-for-aging-elders thing is big in my life: my mother's 94, my aunt 99. ("What good genes you have, " say people affably, but yikes, they were SO much more financially together at my age than I am). At the moment we are all doing pretty well with it. My fingers are crossed, because the journey of these last years with them hasn't always been this smooth.

Oh, and I also do quite a bit of public speaking, creativity- and resilience-oriented, often centered on understanding and using the way our individual narratives shape our lives. Though I cringe at the word "motivational" , I've come to see, based on what others tell me, that I am a motivational speaker. Given my twin beliefs --- that narrative is powerful and within our control, and that nothing is wasted on the writer --- that motive has to do with recognizing the rich source of material that is our inner and outer lives, and using its vast, incalcuable gifts to create still richer lives.

I also teach a workshop I developed, Fearless Writing, as well as other workshops about creative reinvention. I do this at conferences, retreats, art schools, all over the place ("Place" being the whole world). The book on Fearless Writing, which I'm working on now, will be out in 2011, with Ten-Speed Press.

"You always teach what you most need to learn," said the psychologist Richard Price. Amen. That's why I keep teaching. That's why I keep writing and loving. Writing, teaching, and loving are the most formidable and exhilarating schools I know, and from which there is no graduation; only Continuing Education.

I think that finally, at this late date, I am becoming more patient with "all that is unanswered in my heart," as Rilke famously advised, "learning to love the questions themselves."

Not easy for a former know-it all... Lord, how I used to love a good definitive answer! Now all answers appear to me provisional: one of the strange gifts of loss.

It was my late father, also a writer, who gave me one of what has proven to be a large life wisdom-key: it was he who used to say, often, "Nothing is wasted on the writer."

I think when one lives right, or as rightly as one is able according to one's perspective at a given time, nothing is wasted, period.

Interests

gardening, npr, new england, grief, cooking, reading, cats, swimming, fitness, poetry, novels, sustainability, da ali g show, the american south, farmer's markets, muddy waters, resilience, if i didn't write, people would call me a dilettante and a flake. ah, books for children, ecology in its broadest sense, articles. thus i get by with excessive interest in almost everything. reading, reading. i'm extremely sex-positive, though only in the context of a long-term, committed, vibrant partnership. i love the blues (think mose allison, lou rawls) and british folk/rock (think pentangle). i love improv (both seeing and doing it), eating and cooking plant-centered cuisine, but i do write: culinary memoir, wondering why people make themselves and others miserable at times when they could do otherwise, debating ideas (as opposed to attacking people). my chocolate? bittersweet. tv? non-existent; but i am devoted to netflix. humor? stephen colbert, black adder.