Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book Stacks

One of my blogger friends posted a picture of her book piles today. I realized that I love this sort of picture because it is a quick version of a browse over more extensive book shelves. It reminded me that I have similar piles around here. This first pile is the books I gave up on this summer, and will be shipping out. I'm still trying to find time to write about why I didn't finish them. Several of them are by writers I know are good, but I am not equal to them, or I don't have time for them, or something.

The second stack I just purchased at the library used bookstore yesterday. I went in with my eyes narrowed to paperbacks or very small hardcovers, because that is the category of book I am mostly limited to these days, as I read while lying in bed under the covers. There are already plenty of heavy hardcovers waiting on the shelves for me for those times when I am on vacation or sick or on a long car trip.

So I managed to find quite a range of authors and genres. My California is subtitled Journeys by Great Writers, but the only names I recognize are John Steinbeck and Dana Gioia. The Churchill book is a short biography published by The New York Times at his death in 1965. One of my teachers in junior high recommended the Thomas Wolfe book to me, and Annie Dillard is a longtime favorite. Perhaps some of these will end up starting a new reject stack, but in the meantime I feel prepared for some cozy times this fall.

Fewer Read Books at All

Is it still Banned Books Week? I might not have thought twice about it but for a couple of bloggers I check in on, each of whom sheds a ray of light from a different direction than the typical articles on the subject.

Semicolon writes briefly about how librarians complain about parents "censoring" reading material, while they quietly skew the contents of the library collections.

And Orrologion explains how the mainstream press is ignoring their own reluctance to publish a certain strain of unpopular works.

The most disturbing thing in my mind is that more and more people probably don't care whether books are banned or censored or whatever, because fewer and fewer people in our country read books at all.

When Dana Gioia was still Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the agency undertook an extensive study of the reading habits of the nation, which I heard him speak about recently. It's a topic that is always current with me, and I hope to post here later about some of the interesting things I learned.

But for now, I must get back to my books....

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Slow-Roasting Going on Here

In the last week I've had a few new adventures in the kitchen. What with the need to use the products of my garden yet-unharvested, I can't stick around here very long, so I'll be brief, and just now give you the link for the wonderful slow-roasted cherry tomatoes everyone seems to be talking about. You might have some little tomatoes around you could try this on. They are just as delectable as "everyone" says. If I had discovered them earlier in the summer....well, I didn't. But next year!

I still have all three types and colors of cherry tomatoes, which is why my end result includes some very babyish ones. The smaller ones I took out of the oven after 3 1/2 hours, but the large red ones I left in all 4 hours.

The original recipe creator, I think it was, said that she likes a good amount of fennel in her seasoning, so I used 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1 1/2 teaspoons of an "Italian seasoning" mix for my seasoning. The finished tomatoes were just perfect, so I'll do the same thing again tomorrow with what I picked today.

I can see why households with children wouldn't have any of these left over, but as there were only two of us, I put some in the freezer for later. If I hadn't exercised such discipline, though, I'm sure they would have quickly disappeared.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quote of the Week--Stevenson

"Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life."

-Robert Louis Stevenson
Thanks to Laurel, who posted this quote for me to discover on her blog Happy at Home.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Trying to Be Present

Sundays usually feel transitional, but they don't always strike me the same way. If the upcoming Monday is free of outside obligations, Sunday can feel restful all day, as I know that I can organize myself and accomplish quite a bit of work the next day, and get the week off right (although I know Sunday is the first day of the week, my mental calendar doesn't show it in that position.)

This week's Lord's Day falls in the middle of a season that is transitional as well. I'm just through a very busy time, and waiting for a Big Event, the birth of a new grandchild. It's a chance to catch up on little bits of work that no one is holding a deadline over my head about. Such as that slow de-cluttering I have a backlog of. This afternoon is providing some time for sifting. Much of the stuff is linked to my past, and I have to dispose of many things in the future--maybe the very near future, like tomorrow?

To remind me to enjoy this work, and to say hello, I give you another of Richard Wilbur's Opposites, #19:

Because what’s present doesn’t last,

The opposite of it is past.

Or if you choose to look ahead,

Future’s the opposite instead.

Or look around to see what’s here,

And absent things will not appear.

There’s one more opposite of present

That’s really almost too unpleasant:

It is when someone takes away

Something with which you like to play.

If I start to think about all the playing with words he does here, I begin to see that I could enter into two opposites of present at the same time by being discontent: miss the present moment, which is also taking away from myself, and thereby missing the gift/present God wants to give me.

And I don't want to miss it, so, "Hi ho, hi ho, It's back to work I go!"

Christ is Risen!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cherry Tomato Soup

B. and I have been eating bowls and bowls of cherry tomato salad, but are inundated with many more of the tiny love apples than we can consume fresh.

So I was quite pleased to read that another blogger had made soup from hers. Well, of course! I make soup from everything, so I don't know why I hadn't thought of that myself.

I got right to work and sautéed one onion and several large cloves of garlic in about 1/4 cup of olive oil.

Then I added to the 6-quart pot this many tomatoes...hmm...would that be about 4 quarts? I cut the long, larger tomatoes in two. Chopped up a few sprigs of basil, added about a teaspoon of salt and a few grindings of black pepper.

Cooked it all very slowly with the lid on, and after 20 minutes my soup looked like this.

I thought it would be nice if it were mostly creamy, with a few chunks, so I transferred about two cupfuls to a bowl, and then puréed the rest in the blender and added it to the bowl as well.

My batch made nearly 3 quarts, I think. My original plan was that it would be a soup base, but I tasted it, and it is perfect the way it is! Very sweet and lots of tomato flavor. Still, I'm not promising I won't add a little "good cream," as M.F.K. Fisher would probably recommend. I'm putting it in the freezer for more wintry days.

As soon as I finished this easy project, I saw that yet another blogger was showing how to make slow-roasted cherry tomatoes. Now I know just what to do with tomorrow's pickings.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grandma and Sweet Olive

The butter started to brown in the pan as I was frying eggs. Whoosh! Instant time travel, and I was back in my grandma's kitchen about 50 years ago.

Browning butter is only one of a dozen smells that bring her to mind. Stock flowers, juniper bushes, lamb chops on the grill...even the combination of hot coffee and a certain quality of morning air one breathes in summer near the San Francisco Bay.

My sisters and I would go by train to visit her in the summers of our childhood, and stay for some weeks. Truly, I don't know just how long we stayed, but in my consciousness those visits are huge, even if they were only a fraction of total hours and days.

The long and quiet days on our farm, where I wandered along the river nearby or read books by the hour, were certainly just as formative, but the events during those summer vacations with our mother's mother made a more noticeable impression for two reasons I can figure out.

The first is the common one, that when you are in a new and different place, your mind is stimulated to remember a larger portion of the sensory information it receives. I've had this experience on other vacations my whole life. And my grandmother was a very different person from my mother. Her town, her house, the climate, were like another world for me.

From the window of our bedroom in that world we looked out at night on the Bay, the bridges all lit up, beacon lights always scrolling the sky from somewhere down below and dissolving into the darkness above; street lights, skyscraper lights, traffic. There was so much happening. At home, if you'd looked outside at night, you'd see: nothing. It was pitch black, and no sound but the dogs' breathing.

A kitchen is another world--or universe. Grandma rarely used frozen vegetables, but sat us girls at the kitchen table to string beans or shell peas. Grandpa was at another table cracking walnuts. We would drive an hour east to buy boxes of apricots from the farm, of the sort that are so juicy and yummy they don't ship well. Grandma used real butter, whereas we were used to margarine, because it was cheaper. Lamb chops belonged only to her world; as a child I never knew them elsewhere.

Food differences bring me to the other reason for my piquant memories: my nose. Back home, the atmosphere was permeated with the smoke from my mother's cigarettes, and I think it deadened my olfactory receptors. When they got a respite from the fumes, they woke up and flooded my brain with news of the aromatic world. I can still bring her to mind in all her loving dedication just by thinking of Palmolive soap, the smell of the tiny backyard lawn when the sun shined on it, and the face cream she would smooth on her ever-silky skin at night.

Grandma died, 103 years old, the year that my eldest child married. She passed her behind-the-wheel driving test when she was 100 so that she could renew her license, the same year she visited the house she was born in and had this picture taken.

As I said in a rhyme to her at one of her birthdays, "I'd like to write a book of her life..." She was the most important person in my life for a long time, and there are many other aspects of her long stay on the earth that make a good story.

Today is her birthday, and I only want to post this small bit. And as delicious smells are so often linked to her sweet memory, I will also share with you a bush that didn't grow in her yard, but does grow in mine: osmanthus, or sweet olive. When it blooms several times a year, a few feet from our front door, the fragrance is like dew from a benevolent Heaven, or incense in church. I know God loves me, when I walk out the door and that smell greets me.

There's nothing flashy about the flowers visually. They are so tiny, I never notice them until they announce their bloom by their perfume. When I first caught that scent on the air, it wasn't coming from this bush, which had just been planted, but was on a path in our neighborhood. I said to the children, "Ooooh, someone is baking an apricot pie!" Funny thing was, a few days later they were baking pies again. Eventually I located the source of the fruity smell and realized that we also had it growing by our house.

I'm pretty sure the osmanthus is blooming this week in honor of Grandma's birthday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Three Truthful Fictions

In early summer I read three works of fiction in a short space of time:

Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful by Alan Paton

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Folding Cliffs by W.S. Merwin

These were all pretty dramatic stories of historical fiction. Paton's book follows closely the events in South Africa mid-20th century. Hosseini writes about Afghanistan in the last 30 years, and Merwin's book is an epic poem about Hawaii, mostly in the 19th century.

I was sitting around after surgery with my foot up, and that was what had made it possible for me spend more time reading and thinking. Some things I thought about: How funny that the settings of these three books were at three corners of the globe. Obviously they were not part of any theme. So were there some ways they were alike? What made them all worth reading to the end, when so many books I’ve tried lately were not?

Suffering was a large part of all the stories. The Afrikaners in Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful were treating all people of color unjustly and inhumanely. Whites who did otherwise suffered along with the oppressed, and often sacrificed their careers, homes, and reputations.

All the women suffer miserably in A Thousand Splendid Suns. War and famine, selfish and sinful men and women supported by bad cultural traditions, all combine to keep the women trapped in complicated and painful predicaments. Factions of Muslims hate one another.

The Folding Cliffs makes vivid the way conquering peoples oppress the vanquished, all the while thinking it is “for their own good.”

What benefit is there in dwelling on Man’s Inhumanity to Man? Don’t we already know how wretched we are? If that were all one gets from these stories, I don’t think they would be worth reading, but there is another bigger part to all of them, and that is Man’s Love. Just as Christ gave His life in love for us suffering humans, so He gives grace to men to rise above their suffering, show compassion to their fellow man, and do deeds of mercy.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” said C.S. Lewis, and it is this courage that is shown by the young parents in Cliffs who flee to the hills and fight off government agents with guns rather than have their family torn apart by the health officials who are shipping off lepers to Molokai like so many unclean animals. Their love is demonstrated in the test of courage.

In Land, the author and his companions find joy and fellowship in realizing the sacrificial, mercy-giving aspect of their humanity as they fight what seems to be a losing battle against political power. Perhaps they were living what Winston Churchill was talking about when he said, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”

Alan Paton in his autobiography Towards the Mountain writes of the experience:

"...the inhumanity of man to man could be made endurable for us only when we manifested in our lives the humanity of man to man....there is a wound in the creation and...the greatest use we could make of our lives was to ask to be made a healer of it."

I haven’t lived with the kinds of suffering I read about, and that is partly why I think these writings are valuable, for as we read we take as our companions in mind and heart characters who are historically real or fictionally true, who can train us in Christian virtue.

Khaled Hosseini has given his countrymen and all of us a wonderful gift in the two books of his I am familiar with. In Kite Runner and in A Thousand Splendid Suns he paints a backdrop of horror, including much personal moral failure. Kite Runner exposed my own innate cowardice as I empathized with the protagonist, and as he was able to find healing and hope after repentance, I was also comforted.

In Suns the author gives a tender role model to women everywhere who are beaten down by life. The character of Miriam is the ultimate in misery, as she has no friends and no family who care about her, and she is barren, so her husband hates her. Then a young woman comes into her life, a woman who could easily slide into being another tormentor. But instead she shows kindness and becomes a true friend, and Miriam finds hope and courage, as well as other parts of her humanity and womanhood that had been obscured. She is transformed from a passive recipient of abuse into a woman who can return love, and she is happy, even in the face of continued abuse.

These stories have the potential to become part of the collective consciousness of a people, and help us to live more humanly, more humanely. I hope that Suns in particular can give vision to the women of Afghanistan, a vision of themselves as able to rise above their circumstances by means of love toward others.

We won’t eliminate the oppressors; our hope does not consist of that, as Father Alexander Schmemann has summarized:

“The fundamental Christian eschatology has been destroyed by either the optimism leading to the Utopia, or by the pessimism leading to the Escape. If there are two heretical words in the Christian vocabulary, they would be ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism.’ These two things are utterly anti-biblical and anti-Christian….It is for us, Christians, to reconstruct this unique faith, in which there are no illusions, no illusions at all, about the evil.”

Keeping with the theme of inspiring fiction, I’ll end with a quote by Whittaker Chambers from Witness (which book I love, but it is not fiction) about a novel that was formative for him. I haven’t read Les Miserables, but I noticed a few years ago that at least three important writers I knew of had mentioned they read it more than once as children. Sorry, I can’t remember who the others were. Chambers describes what can happen when a good writer connects with the reader:

“I read and reread Les Miserables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things--Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not a justice of the law, or as we say, human justice, but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one....”