Book Report II

It has been exactly one year since I posted my last book report (see it here), and I'm pleased to have averaged one book per month this past year, even though one of them took me all winter (see the fourth book listed and you'll understand). It was a good mix this time - a number of classics, a couple I've been wanting to get around to based on recommendations, and a few that were basically hot off the press. I'm not elaborating much here in the interest of mental energy, but I'd be happy to discuss them more if you're interested. Let me know any favorites of yours I should add to this year's list!

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: A coming-of-age story set at a 1970s creative arts camp that weaves the present generations with the past. Kind of unbelievable, kind of pretentious, but if you take it for what it represents in finding your place in the crowd, and the complexities of responding to the kind of peer pressure that allows you to reinvent yourself, it’s worth a read.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: This book was recommended to me by several people, and it was probably the most delightful of this bunch. My only complaint was that for the creativity of the storytelling mechanisms (i.e., email messages between characters), there wasn’t much variety in voice or tone. Everyone was a little too clever. But I got sucked in.

The Dinner by Herman Koch: About halfway through this book, I started asking myself, “Am I supposed to like anyone in this book?” The answer is no. Nevertheless, a great anti-hero story that is compelling and complicated. I love the structure, which uses the various courses of a dinner at a fancy restaurant in moving the story along.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: This was a bucket-list book. I read the unabridged version, though I abridged it a bit on my own, skimming past a bit of the deep historical set-up. I will never regret having read this book, or how sore my hands and wrists got while trying to keep a 3-pound book out of the bathwater. Having been so familiar with the story (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber), reading this book allowed me to grapple with the moral quandaries of Jean Valjean and Marius in a much more profound way. The ending brought me to tears, not only because I was so proud of myself for getting there, but because I had truly experienced something divine.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro: This was my first dive into the beautiful world of Munro’s prose. It won’t be my last. I sunk so far into some of her stories that days later, I was thinking back on them as though they had really happened to someone I knew.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: It’s hard for me to read books like this that base themselves on actual events and writing, and on as much as we know of historical figures’ characters. Still, I truly admire those who write them, and I thus try to read them without wondering how true a scene was to the actual event. This was based on the accounts of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and I loved the portrayal of her as a strong, practical woman who was nevertheless insecure in her love for her husband. I read this as much for the portrayal of Paris in the 1920s, which is an era and a place to which I would love to take a time machine.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: This was a re-read because it didn’t stick with me the first time, but I can’t say it stuck with me much the second time, other than the fragmented style of storytelling and my continued disinterestedness in it. However, there were a few lines that I found to be quite lovely, like "...how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked."

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill: When I first picked up this book, I thought it had to do with 9/11 and how a Dutch family copes with relocating to New York, but that was hardly it. I read a review that likened it more to a modern-day Great Gatsby, and the more I thought of that comparison, the more it seemed to fit. The main character, a Dutch guy, hooks in with a cricket club in New York, and there’s a lingering mystery about its leader. Totally bizarre. But I kind of liked it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I loved this book. We live in a world that markets countless ways to keep us looking young, and this is that classic story that shows how that obsession can eat one’s soul. I love Oscar Wilde for writing things so dark and humorous (though this was lighter on humor). 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I cried twice while reading books this year. Les Miserables was the first, and this was the second. It might be one of my top 10 of all time. There is so much to this book, from the haunting images to the unlikely relationships, to the beautiful symbolism of the Goldfinch painting – and the writing was just so elegant and still approachable. If you haven’t read this, you must.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: This was a fun read that made me wish I knew the city of Oakland a bit better. It reminded me a bit of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a record store is practically one of the characters, along with the soundtrack it provides along the way – in this case, it was a lot of jazz.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson: I was aching for some good nonfiction and this totally delivered. I’ve loved Bryson’s writing for years, and this was a lovely return to his fascinating and approachable encyclopedic research. It is all about the summer of 1927 – the baseball, the tabloid scandals, the mob, the bootlegging, the electric chair, the strangest president, and the sad life of Charles Lindbergh. And so much more. You have to read it to believe it.



I don't know what got into me, but I'm on a roll. I knit two hats in one month. One as a gift, another for me (the yellow one, so people can see me when I'm out with the dog on dark mornings). Now that I've remembered how quick and satisfying they are to make, even when the pattern is moderately complicated, I am kind of thinking it's all I want to knit anymore. Who wants one? (Just kidding. Christmas is coming and I'm all queued up.)

"Hammer Time" slouch hat

Lotus hat
I've been getting over my first cold of the year and am trying to settle back into my regular routines. But we just enjoyed a quick weekend of sports in Seattle (my first time at Safeco and CenturyLink!), and now that we're back home I'd love to hole up for a spell with a hot beverage and basket of yarn and fancy magazines. Lazy, lazy. But productive! These are the times to pull out that old Maurice Chevalier record and let him sing to you in his jolly way, "Enjoy it!


Saturday Sentimentalist: my partner in crime/comedy

"Do you know what prank calls are?"

The question was obviously not an innocent one. When Laura asked it as we sat in the way-way-back of her parents' van on our way home from fourth grade, I should have known she was hinting at an after-school dare.

"Um, no...?"

"It's where you call a phone number and say something funny, then hang up."

Laura was my best friend. Being funny was our thing; catching people off-guard and being generally goofy were the activities we enjoyed most as friends. Once we choreographed an elaborate show for the pizza delivery man that involved toilet flushing and other carefully timed background noises for when we opened the door to hand the guy our money. We regularly recorded radio programs on our tape recorders, which featured original music about class picture day. After a family trip to Connecticut to visit my brother and meet his new fiancee, I couldn't wait to tell Laura about how I rattled off the entire "Hi, my name's Chubby" routine in front of everyone at dinner. This was that classic "joke" where you squish your face together (because you're "Chubby") and recite a brief monologue about going on a motorcycle ride with your dad, who's not going fast enough. You plead with him to go faster, when finally Dad goes so fast that the force stretches your once-squished face back to your ears. We tucked these things in the "We Are So Hilarious" folder in our friendship filing cabinet.
Comedy victim

So naturally, a question about prank calls was sure to turn the wheels of a couple of partners in 'tween comedy. Plans would be made, and soon.

On normal afternoons, we'd spend the after-school hours jumping on Laura's trampoline, eating nachos and watching "Batman: The Animated Series" or "Full House" until Mom came to pick me up at 5:30. We were about age 10, with Barbies stuffed under our beds and coloring books shoved in the back corners of our closets. We were always looking for something different to do, lest we succumb (as we often did) to the ever-present temptation to play make-believe.
The night we discovered MadLibs, circa 2nd grade.
On the afternoon of the prank call discussion, we lucked out when we got to Laura's house - her mom announced she was headed back out to Waremart for groceries. With Laura's sisters gone, too, we would have a guaranteed clear phone line. When we heard the van back out of the driveway and the garage door close, we went to the rotary-dial phone in the master bedroom. That thing was practically glowing with comedic opportunity. We looked at each other for a second when Laura picked up the handset. "What are we going to say? Who are we going to call?" I asked, pushing down the receiver button. Knowing a few common prefixes of Boise numbers, Laura suggested we dial random combinations, so we did. When a person answered, we'd ask for Sarah. Or Billy. Or any other name we thought of, maybe an outlandish one like Bertha. And the person on the other line would tell us we had the wrong number. "Oh, ha ha, sorry!" (more giggles.) Within minutes we were comfortable with the concept of calling strangers and making small talk. It was fun, but not funny. Not yet. After a few calls, we were ready to make the next bold step:

Farting noises.

Some randomly dialed elderly woman in a Boise suburb would say hello, and within seconds, her ear would be filled with the obnoxious and crude sounds of mouth-made flatulence, followed by a "click" and dead air. These calls were so simple, so irreverent! We kind of knew we were being bad, but gosh, it was too funny; surely no one would call the cops on someone for this stuff. Besides, we felt protected by that phone line. The person on the other end couldn't see us, didn't know how old we were or where we were.

It couldn't get better than this. We farted on the phone line for days.

But it did get better. One day it occurred to us that we had a school directory. It was one of those publications teachers send home with students, knowing that the delivery may never make it all the way to the parents. In most cases, students like us kept them, drew flowers and stars next to our friends' names, frowny faces next to the boys we didn't like, and teeny tiny hearts next to our crushes.

We began with Trevor, a nice boy in our class who loved cars and lizards. We dialed. It rang. His mom answered. We hung up.

That was often how we warmed up.

Then came Gabe, the boy I thought was the cutest in our class. Hearts big and small were drawn everywhere around his listed family residence. He picked up (though perhaps it was his sister - hard to tell in those pre-pubescent years) and we did the fart-noise-hang-up routine. We envisioned him still holding the phone, very confused. I was already moving on to a daydream of me explaining it to him later, he being so impressed by my farting noises that he would realize how foolish he was for overlooking the girl who sat next to him in class.

We did a few more, when finally, we got to Mark. He was a new kid at school that year and we thought he was mean. We even thought his older sister was mean, purely by relation. We dialed his number and it rang over to the answering machine, so we hung up. But then it occurred to us that perhaps answering machines were another opportunity.

I grabbed a cassette player and queued up Amy Grant's "Baby Baby" on a nearby "Heart in Motion" tape. We dialed Mark again. As soon as the machine picked up, we pressed "play" and unleashed the upbeat synthesized intro. Laura and I could hardly control our laughter. Right around the time Amy started singing, "The birds above are singing you a chorus," we heard the machine beep again, cutting us off. We simply stopped the tape, redialed, got the machine again and carried on. Several more times.
Me and Laura in the principal's office, circa 4th grade

The day after the Mark call, my teacher pulled me aside on my way out to recess and told me I needed to visit the principal. At this point, I should mention that Laura's dad, Mr. M., was the principal of our school where we got these handy school directories. Because my family was friends with Laura's, my first thought was something had happened to my mom or dad, and Mr. M. was going to break the news. Heart attack? Accident? I was scared. When I got to his office, the office aid motioned me in. I rounded the corner to find Laura facing her father's desk. Mr. M. walked in after me, sat down and leaned forward toward the two of us.

"Girls, we have a problem," he said with concern, though it didn't feel like the kind of concern that preceded a statement about my becoming an orphan. That rotten feeling in my stomach was telling me we were in big trouble.

"Mark's mother called me to say that there were several annoying messages left on their answering machine yesterday that came from our phone number. Can either one of you explain to me what's going on?"

What was going on? The invention of Caller ID was what was going on, and we had been entirely clueless about its existence until Mr. M. explained how this little device displayed his last name as Mark's family listened to Amy sing, "Baby, I'm so glad you're mine" across multiple messages.

We were crushed and totally embarrassed. As we sat there in the office, staring down at our feet, we confessed to all of our crimes, from hanging up on strangers, to making fart noises, and yes, to playing light rock over the phone and misusing the school directory. My ears were tingling because that's what they do when I'm trying not to cry. I looked up for a moment to see Mr. M. frowning at us through his big black beard. We would have to apologize to the meanest boy in class, who would undoubtedly just laugh at us through his gleaming mouthful of braces.

But really, more devastating than being caught that day was the life lesson we were learning. It was something that even the best comedians have to learn at some point: not everyone thinks you're funny.

I think back on those days every so often, and how more prank calls were made after we learned how to block the Caller ID. But it was also around that time that Laura and I kind of drifted apart in our friend circles, she being more interested in playing sports, me being more interested in living the life of Anne of Green Gables. Little did we know that the years that followed would bring heartbreaking events at our little school that would cast a bittersweet hue on those earlier years. But our friendship continued to weave in and out through critical points, changing with the times and adapting to new environments. Laura and I went on to different high schools. Then I went off to college and she spent some time in Sweden. As far as we've moved beyond those days of our after-school scheming, to this day we can still easily slip back into our old routines when we get together, even if multiple years have passed between visits. All this is to say, I guess, is that of course not everyone thinks you're funny, but it's nice when you know there's at least one person in the world who does.


Jojoba and witch hazel

I post a lot of recipes on here, but this one is a little different, more in DIY personal care category. It's a recipe for your face.

Your face!

I don't expect every one of my readers to care about this post. But I'm posting it anyway for those who appreciate simplicity and less overall fuss in their lives. This has been a recurring theme in my adult life; maybe it is in yours, too. That's why I'm happy to share how I've basically whittled my whole skincare routine down to two ingredients: jojoba oil and witch hazel.

Since college I had a very regular night and morning face-cleansing-and-moisture-replenishing routine. All of my products came from the Body Shop because I have always appreciated their (perceived) ethical practices as well as the effectiveness of the actual product. After years of dealing with my finicky sensitive skin, it worked well. The problem, however, was shopping at the Body Shop. I won't go into all the details, but suffice it to say that if you ever go into the store to buy one thing, expect to be upsold or made to feel bad when you insist you're only buying what you came in for. I was tired of their tricks.

Sometime last year a friend of mine who is a champion for DIY personal care products told me that she "washes" her face with oil. Because she's in her 40s and has youthful skin, I figured it was worth a try. It's not much different from washing your face with other non-soap based products like cold cream, but people say the oil cleansing method is effective because oil attracts oil (though it is a common tendency to think oil will clog your pores), and you're still left with moisturized skin without all the chemicals.

The method is to pour a dime-size amount of oil (or a blend of oils) on your palm and massage it onto your face. No need for water just yet. And yes, you can rub around your eyes, and gently across your eyelashes to get your eye make-up off, too. After 20 seconds or so of giving your face a luxurious massage, get your water as hot as your hands can handle and soak a washcloth in it. Ring it out and place the steamy washcloth on your face for about 20 more seconds, until the washcloth is no longer hot. Do this once more and begin to gently wipe the oil from your face. Repeat a few more times as necessary. This is your daily facial and one of the loveliest ways to end a long day. Technically, you don't need to do anything else, unless you'd like to dab a little oil under your eyes and across any typically dry areas.

Since I began this routine, I've noticed I never get flaky skin with the change in seasons and I haven't broken out once. You can research this all over the internet and the majority of the reviews seem to say the same thing. I'll let you do that on your own if you're skeptical.

Witch hazel is my other go-to product for looking lively in the morning. I love Thayer's lavender- and rose-scented, alcohol-free varieties. I wipe it on my face after my morning shower to wake up my skin a little and, if necessary, I pat on a tiny amount of jojoba oil and let it absorb before putting on my make-up.

I choose jojoba oil because of what I've read about its similarities to natural skin oil, but many others seem to use olive, coconut, vitamin E, almond, avocado and/or castor oil (mix castor oil in if you have especially oily skin) with nice results.

Both jojoba and witch hazel are good remedies for a host of other things, too, acting as lip balm, scalp treatment, wrinkle reducer, neck moisturizer (jojoba); and as a pore reducer, puffy eye treatment, and skin softener (witch hazel).

A caveat: This isn't the most ideal system for traveling. Lately I've brought my own washcloths on trips so as not to oil up my hosts' supply of them. (Oh yeah, and you'll need a good supply of washcloths.) And you better make sure your bottle of oil is secure when you pack it. Most of the time I just suck it up and bring travel-size makeup wipes and have dry skin for a few days.

Overall, though, this couldn't be more simple. You feel like you're treating your skin every day. It's also inexpensive. I pay $13 every few months for good quality jojoba oil and $10 every few months for the Thayer's witch hazel.

Are you ready to try it? Have you already tried it? Let me know what you think.


Summer Journal: late-August moments

I would like to remind all you back-to-schoolers that it is still technically summer. But because Labor Day signifies an unofficial end to summerish activities, and because it is definitely colder and darker in the mornings, it's time to wrap this up for another year.

A photo to which my parents might respond, in song, "But whaddaya do, whaddaya do, on a dew, dew, dewey day?" Which is the song that followed me long after I took the photo.

Roma tomatoes: before and after 3 hours of working on their "base tan." Or, just another metaphor for life. But mostly, my favorite beginning to a stunning tomato sauce.

 Sights (and car window reflections) along I-90. The golden days.

Destination: Bellingham. This family has a thing for the Tour de France.
We killed it at Sunday night trivia at Boundary Bay Brewery! Can't beat a place that gives a cash prize for second place.
 On the Ferry to Lummi Island.
Biking around an island is such a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.
 Back at home, she must be fed.
 Crabapples are ready (or maybe they're regular apples?).
 Can't get enough of that succulent stuff.
 It's beginning to look a lot like... I won't go there.
 It's still summer, after all.
We sent the summer off with the 1812 Overture in Comstock Park with the Spokane Symphony.


Summer Journal: holding on

Summer 2014 is closing in on me. I know it when the fields start turning golden. I've fallen a bit behind here, which I've often found to be a good sign. Here are a few photos from the last couple weeks anyway.

That weekend when I made those chickpea cakes and the jam? I also made this, my Opa's German Cream Coffee Cake. When I'm alone, I am in the kitchen. One of these days I'd like to tell you more about this special treat. It's a pull-apart cake and boy, is it ever good.
This summer has been unusual in that we've not been able to vacation much, and when we have, it's been separately. But this past weekend it was us, and Luna, and the winding, ever-beautiful drive through Idaho to Boise.

We stop more often with our furry friend and thank her for being so accommodating in the backseat. She was a real trooper.
It was good for us to stretch our legs, too, even if it was along the stinky banks of the Clearwater River in Lewiston.
 I love the varied landscape of Idaho: wheat fields, desert canyons, prairies, and river rapids.
Monday, Monday. Our annual summer parting shot. We bring the color.


Chickpea cakes: when your food could be a petname

I had the whole place to myself on Saturday night (plus the dog and cat), and when that happens, I usually fix a meatless dinner. So it was me and chickpea cakes in a nice romantic setting, with a bright little tomato salad and mini bottle of Prosecco. Because why not?

And several episodes of Mad About You. I just can't help it.

The recipe is from America's Test Kitchen's The Best Simple Recipes magazine (they call it a bookazine, apparently), which promises "foolproof recipes that cook in 30 minutes or less." That's only true for about half of those I've made (quicker the second time around, usually), but regardless, they are simple, and they are reasonably quick, for ATK.

Chickpea cakes with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce
adapted from America's Test Kitchen: The Best Simple Recipes bookazine

For the chickpea cakes:
2 slices hearty sandwich bread, torn into pieces
2 large eggs
2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. 2-percent Greek yogurt (you'll need more for the sauce - see below)
1 shallot, minced
1 tsp. garam masala
1/8 tsp. cayenne
3 T. scallions, thinly sliced (slice more for the sauce - see below)
1/4 c. olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and adjust oven rack to middle position. Process the bread pieces in a food processor until course crumbs, about 10-12 pulses. Spread crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet and bak 10-12 minutes. Cool completely. Make yogurt sauce while bread crumbs bake (below).

Whisk eggs, 2 T. oil, garam masala, cayenne and 1/4 tsp. salt in a medium bowl. In a separate large bowl, mash chickpeas with a potato masher, or by hand if it's easier (it was for me). Pour egg mixture in  with the chickpeas and add the shallot, bread crumbs and 1/2 c. yogurt (not the sauce you just made), and scallions, and mix well. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes to firm up a bit.

Form the mixture into 6 to 8 1-inch cakes.

Heat up 1 T. oil (or more, if you're not using nonstick skillet) in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add 3 cakes and cook until well browned, 4-5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and tent loosely with foil. Repeat with remaining cakes.

Serve with cucumber-yogurt sauce

For the cucumber-yogurt sauce:
1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded and shredded
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
Pepper to taste
3/4 c. 2-percent Greek yogurt
2 T. scallions, thinly sliced
1 T. cilantro (I didn't have this and it tasted just fine without)
1 tsp. (or more) freshly squeezed lemon juice