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Now more than ever, I enjoy cooking, especially in the colder months: hearty soups, crumbly scones, buttery scrambled eggs (with endless cups of tea). Last July, though, I moved into a studio apartment during an unusually hot Boston summer. After weeks of takeout, stovetop huevos rancheros and ready meals from Trader Joe’s, I needed some new kitchen inspiration.

Enter Cooking Solo, Klancy Miller’s brilliant, colorful cookbook about not only feeding yourself, but enjoying it. I’ve made her risotto, her lemon pancakes, her spicy coconut-sweet potato soup… the list goes on. But more than her recipes, I love Miller’s approach: she insists, as a longtime single person, that investing the time and effort to feed oneself well is worth it. As a recent divorcée, I need that reminder on the regular.

My success with Miller’s recipes inspired me to flip back through some perennial favorites, like Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. I bake Wizenberg’s Scottish scones at least twice a month, but recently made her ratatouille for the first (and second, and third) time in years. Like Wizenberg, when I am dining alone on something that delicious, “I lick my knife until it sparkles, because there’s no one there to catch me.”

For a broader perspective on solo cooking, I turn to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, an eclectic essay collection edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Inspired by Laurie Colwin’s eponymous essay (which kicks off the anthology), these pieces, some with recipes, recount the delightful, the depressing and the quirkily indulgent aspects of setting a solo table. Many of the contributors recall solitary meals (or seasons) with deep fondness, even nostalgia. Cooking for one can feel like a depressing prospect, but these books help remind me that there’s a wealth of flavor, adventure and–yes–true sustenance to be found at a table for one.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran at the end of March. I submitted it before the virus hit, but it’s more applicable in some ways now than ever.  

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rock-heart-hello-friend

Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

I’ve been seeing this poem everywhere recently, particularly the last lines: the current crisis has reminded us all how interconnected we are.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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We are halfway through April (how??), and I’m mostly able to focus on books again. The days feel both long and short and somehow suspended – time is moving differently, I suspect, for many of us. But I’m still reading, and here are the books I’ve been enjoying:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
Maggie’s poetry and “keep moving” notes speak right to my heart. This collection combines some of those notes with longer essays about dealing with loss, grief, upended expectations, and the surprising new spaces created by upheaval. She and I are both recently divorced, but I believe these essays will resonate with many people’s experiences. Wise and honest and so lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6 – it was originally May 5).

Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, Maggie Downs
Downs undertook a trip around the world as her mother was slipping into late-stage Alzheimer’s: she wanted to see and do all the things her mother never got to do. She has some rather harrowing adventures (and stays in lots of grubby hostels), but gains a few hard-won insights about her mother and herself. Compelling and moving, for fans of travel memoir and self-discovery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

American Royals, Katharine McGee
What if George Washington had been the first king of America? What would his 21st-century descendants look like, and how would they rule? That’s the premise of this fun YA novel (first in a series), which follows Princess Beatrice (future queen) and her siblings as they navigate the expectations that come with their crowns. Witty, juicy and so much fun – a perfect distraction for these times.

The Paris Hours, Alex George
Paris, 1927: the lives of four ordinary people intertwine on one extraordinary day. A struggling artist, an Armenian refugee, Marcel Proust’s former maid and a grieving journalist are all searching for different things, but their paths cross and recross in fascinating ways. With cameos by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and others. I have read a lot of Paris novels, and am glad I picked this one up: it was really engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

Waterlight: Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie
My friend Roxani has raved about Jamie’s essays, and I picked this poetry collection up at the library. Some of it, especially the poems written in Scots, didn’t really work for me, but some of them are melancholy and lovely.

Of Mutts and Men, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back on the case – this one involving a hydrologist who was murdered, a vineyard perched in a strange place, and a lawyer who might be up to something. Chet (the dog) is a great narrator, and I was so glad to escape into this series again. To (maybe) review for Shelf Awareness (out July 7).

Last Train to Key West, Chanel Cleeton
As a hurricane bears down on Key West in 1935, the paths of three very different women – Cuban newlywed Mirta, former New York society girl Elizabeth, and battered wife Helen – intersect in interesting ways. I like Cleeton’s fiction about the Perez family and this was a solid historical novel. (Also the first ebook I’d read in quite a while.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 16).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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Hello, friends. Here we are, staring down week 5 (say it ain’t so) of what my former colleague Juliette Kayyem calls “the now normal.” It is also Easter Sunday, and the middle of Passover – and if you are celebrating, I hope you’re finding ways to do that.

These days are edged with worry and fear and loneliness, but also deep gratitude, and I still believe the small good things are always worth sharing and celebrating. In my quarantine stories I am trying to be honest about all of it, but today I really want to focus on the good.

So, even while this is hard (and it is, y’all), here is what’s saving my life now.

  • Watching the birds in the apple tree out back – there’s a pair of cardinals, several blue jays, some tiny house wrens, what I think are yellow finches.
  • That same tree, leafing out and getting greener every day (with a few blossoms showing up, too).
  • Online yoga – with Adriene, the crew at Savin Hill Fitness, or Renee at the Point. My old green yoga mat is getting a lot of use these days.
  • Daffodils, crocuses, early tulips and cherry trees, which are blooming away, oblivious to anything but the light and the warmer weather.
  • The saucer magnolias in the neighborhood, which are pure pink-and-white glory.
  • Tea in my favorite mugs – I stocked up on my favorites from MEM Tea just as all this hit.
  • Texts from friends near and far, FaceTime with my sister, phone calls with friends and my parents, and the occasional video message on Marco Polo.
  • Running – my usual route along the harborwalk and greenway here in Eastie is keeping me sane.
  • Walks, when I’ve been inside all day or even just for a couple of hours.
  • Juliette’s smart, pragmatic commentary in the Atlantic and on Twitter.
  • Occasional trips to the bodega for necessities and human contact.
  • Fresh flowers – my beloved florist has closed for now, so I’m getting both my flowers and groceries at Trader Joe’s.
  • The #LivefromHome music performances online, spearheaded by Chris Thile and multiplying beautifully.
  • This video, made by students from Berklee, where I work – it has gone viral in the best way, and it’s sweet and wonderful.
  • Good books: the last few (for now) physical review copies, the last of my library stack, a reread of Rilla of Ingleside.
  • Seeing my colleagues’ faces during our weekly Zoom meetings.
  • Long walks and bear hugs with my guy.
  • Sidewalk chats with my friends in the neighborhood – we are all staying home/staying six feet apart, but it’s good to be together in person.

What is saving your life in these strange days? Please share, if you like.

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For several years now, I’ve been following Jenny Williams’ work online – she runs the adorable Carrot Top Paper Shop on Etsy, and her Instagram account and newsletter are full of sweet literary goodness. She sells prints, mugs, bookmarks and stickers with quotes from our favorite heroines (real and fictional), and like me, she’s an Anne Shirley fan from way back.

I ordered Jenny’s literary heroines calendar for my kitchen wall this year, and I love the simple design: each month features a drawing of a beloved character, along with a banner naming one of her essential qualities. When I flipped the calendar to April this week, Fern Arable was looking back at me. The banner under her portrait says simply, “Compassionate.”

Fern is the (human) heroine of Charlotte’s Web (though we all know the real heroine is that wonderful spider). She saves Wilbur the piglet from certain death at the beginning of the book, and she cares for him until he’s sold to her uncle, at which point she still comes to visit him. She is tenderhearted and kind, and she’s the only human in the book who can understand animal conversation, at least for a while.

It strikes me that in this moment, we need a dose of Fern’s compassion: we are all doing our best to tend to ourselves and our people, while supporting the healthcare workers and others who are working to heal the sick. I am sure Jenny couldn’t have known what an apt heroine Fern would be for April, but I’m glad to have her face on my kitchen wall this month.

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How Dark the Beginning

All we ever talk of is light—
let there be light, there was light then,
good light—but what I consider
dawn is darker than all that.
So many hours between the day
receding and what we recognize
as morning, the sun cresting
like a wave that won’t break
over us—as if  light were protective,
as if  no hearts were flayed,
no bodies broken on a day
like today. In any film,
the sunrise tells us everything
will be all right. Danger wouldn’t
dare show up now, dragging
its shadow across the screen.
We talk so much of  light, please
let me speak on behalf
of  the good dark. Let us
talk more of how dark
the beginning of a day is.


It’s no secret that Maggie’s words have been saving me for months: first her “keep moving” affirmations on Twitter, then the poems in her most recent collection, Good Bones, and now an advance copy of Keep Moving (out in October), which combines some of those same affirmations with longer essays.
This poem feels particularly apt right now: it is dark, and there is danger, and we don’t know when or how or even whether everything will be all right. I love the light, and I am looking for it everywhere I can find it (see photo) – but I still love Maggie’s musings on “the good dark,” and how it engenders new beginnings.


April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

 

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Hello, everyone. March is (nearly) over – I don’t think anyone expected this month to go the way it has. But here we are. Photo of the last stack of books I was able to pick up before my beloved Boston Public Library closed for a while. And here are the ones I’ve been reading:

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
It is impossible to overstate how much I love de los Santos’ work. I turned back to this novel for some deep soul comfort, just as everything was going sideways. It’s the story of Clare, who inherits a house right after she calls off her wedding, and Edith, who gave Clare the house. Lovely, luminous and wise, like all her books.

Every Reason We Shouldn’t, Sara Fujimura
Olivia Kennedy is the daughter of two Olympic champions, and she had medal dreams, too, until a disastrous performance. When speed skater Jonah Choi starts skating at her parents’ ice rink, Olivia is forced to deal with her fears (and she might also be falling in love). Sweet and funny – I especially loved Olivia’s friend Mack, aspiring roller derby queen.

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels, Hannah Ross
Cycling has long been a male-dominated sphere, but women have been riding for decades and they’re damn good at it. Ross charts the history of cycling and feminism, and calls for more representation in the industry and better bike-friendly infrastructure. (Yes please.) Well-written, informative and interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 9).

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, Camille Pagán
Libby Miller has always tried (relentlessly) to look on the bright side, since losing her mother to cancer at age 10. But then her marriage implodes in the same week she’s diagnosed with cancer herself. Libby escapes to Puerto Rico, where she tries to avoid (but eventually sorts out) her feelings about treatment and her future. Surprisingly light and funny for such serious subject matter.

The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee
Chinese-American Jo Kuan and her guardian, Old Gin, don’t quite fit on either side of Atlanta’s strict racial divide. When Jo loses her job as a milliner’s assistant, she becomes a maid and also starts writing a newspaper column (anonymously). I’ve enjoyed Lee’s previous books, Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, and I really liked this one: it draws together race, family, horse racing and feminism, with warmth and wit.

The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life, Samantha Seneviratne
I grabbed this at the BPL: mouthwatering recipes and brief essays about (among other things) navigating a divorce? Yes please. I liked the author’s voice and have marked a couple recipes to try during quarantine baking.

I’d Give Anything, Marisa de los Santos
At eighteen, Ginny Beale loves her life (in spite of her difficult mother): she has a brother she adores and fiercely loyal friends. But one terrible night changes everything. Nearly twenty years later, when Ginny’s marriage falls apart, she learns some new truths about that night, and about herself. Moving and lovely and well written, like all de los Santos’ books (see above). To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, Hope Jahren
I loved Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, which I read back in 2016. This slim book is a cogent, straightforward explanation of how population growth, technological advances and (hugely) increased consumption of energy and food have led us to the current climate crisis. It’s packed with data but highly readable. The diagnosis is daunting, but Jahren does offer some practical tips and reasons for hope.

Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief, Anna Meriano
Leo Logroño is finally learning some of the magic recipes that her family uses at their Texas bakery. But when her paternal abuelo shows up, telling her new things about her own magic, she’s not sure what to believe. And a new café in town just might mean trouble for her family. I like this sweet series, and this book was a fun conclusion.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident. I love them and it’s especially important to support independent bookstores right now. 

What are you reading?

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