Tag Archives: books

Reading Room: The Blue Jay’s Dance

I started the book yesterday, parked in the grocery store lot, waiting for Emmett to wake from his nap. I read it last night and then in stolen moments this morning, finished at lunchtime, wiped the tears from my face and immediately hopped on my bike, pedaling to go press it into the hands of my dear friend who is expecting her second baby in late December.

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Cara sent me The Blue Jay’s Dance months ago as part of a care package from California. The cover is a lot bit 1992, and it didn’t scream READ ME, NOW — so it sat on a side table until what was apparently just the right time.

This was a gorgeous, richly worded essay for me to appreciate at a moment my baby is growing into a toddler, when I can see that birth year from a close distance. Louise Erdrich is my mother’s age, but with this book she is my sister. She and I share “mother-writers,” a heritage of the Brontes and Virginia Woolf and Joan Dideon, the same primal need for long, rambling walks in the woods and to feel deeply, inviting in a profound sadness and longing alongside the joy.

(For those of you who share my canon, The Blue Jay’s Dance felt like Great with Child, that fantastic book of letters to a young mother that my friends all passed around when we were pregnant, mixed with the natural/spiritual existentialism of Annie Dillard, mixed with the frankness and humor of Anne Lamott.)

Erdrich lives the writing life, introspective, and reflects herself back so honestly to us that I see myself in her words. The book is divided into seasons, and within each season snippets of life on the acreage, with her family, the flowers, pets and wildlife, and alone with her thoughts, and even a few recipes — meals that punctuated that birth year for her. Erdrich’s lyrical prose:

“I see myself frozen in a clutch of mothers, a flock, a panic of mothers…In talking to other women over the years, I begin to absorb them somehow, as if we’re all preamble…Mothering is a subtle art whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as from instinct. Women without children are also the best of mothers, often, with the patience, the interest, and saving grace that the constant relationship with children cannot always sustain. A child is fortunate who feels witnessed as a person, outside relationships with parents, by another adult.”

I urge other expectant and new moms to fill their shelves not just with baby and toddler-rearing instructional manuals but with works like these to nurture the soul.

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Liking lately

I’m in denial about this whole summer-being-over thing, although once I unpack my sweaters, I’m sure I’ll change my tune.

Here are a few things I’ve been into:

To eat: A few friends hosted “Meatfest” last weekend, a backyard barbecue with insanely good smoked meats and a smorgasbord of sides. Great weather, better people. I asked Joe to make this roasted potato salad with shaved fennel and salsa verde, a killer potluck-pleasing dish he’s mastered. It’s for real.

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To read: I felt compelled to go to the library the other night, and made it to the Forest Avenue branch just before it closed for the evening. I’d never been there before, and the selection isn’t huge (they seem to cater to the ESL population that lives in the area), but this Sticks banner between two big tree sculptures made me smile.

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I picked up “The String Diaries” and raced through it this week. I can’t rave about the prose itself, but it’s a fast-paced thriller that reminded me of Gone Girl in ways. It has elements of the magical, but it uses one of my favorite techniques of bouncing around time periods and intertwining plots.

To make: Truth – I basically showed Joe this project and he made it for me. I have a huge empty wall in my office that’s been aching for artwork these past six months, and when I saw this, I felt like it would be a cool installation piece. Just a big frame, chicken wire, staples, spray paint, spacers and paper strips.

{photo via Sugar & Cloth}

{photo via Sugar & Cloth}

The project is by Sugar & Cloth, but I first saw it linked from Going Home to Roost. I have yet to get the paper and cut strips for it, but I might treat it like a gratitude journal, curling up messages of thanks as a daily meditation. I’ll probably post something to Instagram once it’s up in my office.

 To conquer: Emmett and I ran out first 5K together last week. DMU did a Friday evening run from campus, down around the sculpture park and back. We definitely didn’t PR or anything, but it was my goal to at least jog the whole thing, and I followed through. The kid didn’t even break a sweat.

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Nicole and Everett also ran, and Mollie and her daughter, Kaydin. I’m really starting to feel like part of the DMU community. It’s crazy to believe next week marks six months in my role there.

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As it happens

I was going to tell you about my day last Thursday, about how — after the funeral for Joe’s grandmother, I took the train from East Chicago into the city to take the bus back to Des Moines, and had a few hours alone.

How wonderful it was to walk past the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my most favorite places, and wander into the Lurie Garden and dip my feet into the shallow urban creek and read a few chapters of a book in solitude. The sound of jazz in the distance. The scent of midsummer blooms with names like ‘purple lance astilbe’ and ‘white dragon knotweed’ and ‘queen of the prairie’ transcending the Chicago’s smells. The view of the Lake and sailboats bright blue and white, just like the clouds. The skyline and street-level architecture familiar to me. The energy of the city streaming in through my smile. I drank it in.

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But really, sometimes it’s just relishing the aloneness. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of event-planning and logistics, and quiet time by myself allows me to recharge so I feel like I have the mental capacity to get. it. done. Also, I think we readers are never alone, and never get annoyed by waiting when we have our books.

(On the ride out, we listened to The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime on CD. Personally, I’ve finally discovered Joan Didion and am ob-sessed, although I sometimes have to read a sentence three times and I really have zero knowledge of the politics of Latin America. This week, I finally tore through Someone Could Get Hurt and did a lot of out-loud laugh-snorting.)

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Stop scrolling

When I’m tired, it’s really easy for me to kill 45 minutes curled up on the couch, tapping away at my phone, re-checking Instagram or Facebook. I wish I had more time to read, or work on projects, and then I realize I do – I just threw away an hour mindlessly scrolling away. I think I’m going to just shut my phone down after 7 or so a couple nights a week to just completely eliminate the itch.

I’m almost finished with “The Most of Nora Ephron,” a collection of news stories, essays, a  novel, a play, screenplay and magazine pieces by the late writer.

The Most Of Nora Ephron

I appreciate her personal, chatty style, and have found it interesting to see how her life experiences recycle throughout her work. Certain themes – food, marriage, divorce, infidelity, Jewishness, etc. run throughout all of the pieces, and certain anecdotes show up multiple times in some form or other.

It’s a brick, but a quick read. It was a good book to bring on our road trip to Saint Louis – short chapters or at least easy spots to leave off and pick up. I’m sad I missed my book club’s discussion, though!

Last night I actually used the sewing machine that I had sitting in a corner of the dining room. It felt good to sew and accomplish something tactile after spending hours at the computer. I mean, these sweet fabrics are hard to resist.

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What are your weekend plans? Joe got an invite to a Winefest event where he might meet Lynne Rossetto Kasper! Otherwise, we don’t have much on the docket aside from babysitting and maybe swinging by CelebrAsian.

 

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I’m a scaredy cat

I’m a pretty big scaredy cat when it comes to creepy, haunted things. (Or, let’s be honest, certain films for children. It took me until I was 28 to get through E.T. without hiding under the covers.) A few years ago after watching Amityville Horror (the newer version that features lots of Ryan Reynolds being sexy) with friends, I made Joe come outside and walk me from our car to the apartment, 10 yards away. I blame it on my overactive imagination.

So I probably shouldn’t have gotten hooked on True Detective, the HBO show everyone’s been raving about. It centers around some occult murders, which felt just real enough to completely terrify me. We’d finish an episode before bed and I’d be checking behind my back whenever I’d take Wilbur out on his nighttime walk.

I mentioned this to my cousin, who is also a fan of the show, and he said the trick is to have a “palate cleanser” show or piece of entertainment to put a buffer between the scary thing and sleep. My palate cleanser has been a fun book Andrea loaned me: Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

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It has been on my list for ages, and is a quick, funny read. The title character is a (fictional) cult figure in architecture and her husband is a genius at Microsoft who has the fourth most watched TED talk. Lots of the humor pokes fun at the nerdy stuff I geek out about, so I’ve really enjoyed it. If you’re looking for a beach read, it’s in paperback!

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A friend’s memoir

My friend Josh recently had his memoir, “Down from the Mountaintop,” published by the University of Iowa Press. I haven’t read it yet, but he’s an incredibly thoughtful and talented writer, so I’m sure it is excellent.

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(The book is on sale for $10 through April 15 with the promo code IAAWP2014.)

The blurb:

A lyrical coming-of-age memoir, Down from the Mountaintop chronicles a quest for belonging. Raised in northwestern Montana by Pentecostal homesteaders whose twenty-year experiment in subsistence living was closely tied to their faith, Joshua Doležal experienced a childhood marked equally by his parents’ quest for spiritual transcendence and the surrounding Rocky Mountain landscape. Unable to fully embrace the fundamentalism of his parents, he began to search for religious experience elsewhere: in baseball, books, and weightlifting, then later in migrations to Tennessee, Nebraska, and Uruguay. Yet even as he sought to understand his place in the world, he continued to yearn for his mountain home.

For more than a decade, Doležal taught in the Midwest throughout the school year but returned to Montana and Idaho in the summers to work as a firefighter and wilderness ranger. He reveled in the life of the body and the purifying effects of isolation and nature, believing he had found transcendence. Yet his summers tied him even more to the mountain landscape, fueling his sense of exile on the plains.

It took falling in love, marrying, and starting a family in Iowa to allow Doležal to fully examine his desire for a spiritual mountaintop from which to view the world. In doing so, he undergoes a fundamental redefinition of the nature of home and belonging. He learns to accept the plains on their own terms, moving from condemnation to acceptance and from isolation to community. Coming down from the mountaintop means opening himself to relationships, grounding himself as a husband, father, and gardener who learns that where things grow, the grower also takes root.

Congratulations, Josh!

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To-read

The other day I had a note from a friend who finally read a book I’d recommended something like nine years ago. It’s funny how books can sit on a shelf and find us at the right time, isn’t it?

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Book Journal image via Julianna Swaney

A few books I have on my to-read list:

A White Wind Blew. Picked this up from Beaverdale Books the other day at the suggestion of a friend. Maybe I’ll nominate it to my book club next week. I have a feeling my dear friend Sophia, a classical pianist, could get behind it.

Dr. Wolfgang Pike would love nothing more than to finish the requiem he’s composing for his late wife, but the ending seems as hopeless as the patients dying a hundred yards away at the Waverly Hills tuberculosis sanatorium. If he can’t ease his own pain with music, Wolfgang tries to ease theirs—the harmonica soothes and the violin relaxes. But his boss thinks music is a waste, and in 1920s Louisville, the specter of racial tension looms over everything.

When a former concert pianist checks in, Wolfgang begins to believe that music can change the fortunes of those on the hill. Soon Wolfgang finds himself in the center of an orchestra that won’t give up, forced to make a choice that will alter his life forever.

Set against a fascinatingly real historical backdrop, A White Wind Blew raises compelling questions about faith and confession, music and medicine, and the resilience of love.

Someone Could Get Hurt. My cousin loaned us his copy, which is awesome because I’m always linking to Dadspin articles.

No one writes about family quite like Drew Magary. The GQ correspondent and Deadspin columnist’s stories about trying to raise a family have attracted millions of readers online. And now he’s finally bringing that unique voice to a memoir. In Someone Could Get Hurt, he reflects on his own parenting experiences to explore the anxiety, rationalizations, compromises, and overpowering love that come with raising children in contemporary America.

In brutally honest and funny stories, Magary reveals how American mothers and fathers cope with being in over their heads (getting drunk while trick-or-treating, watching helplessly as a child defiantly pees in a hotel pool, engaging in role-play with a princess-crazed daughter), and how stepping back can sometimes make all the difference (talking a toddler down from the third story of a netted-in playhouse, allowing children to make little mistakes in the kitchen to keep them from making the bigger ones in life). It’s a celebration of all the surprises—joyful and otherwise—that come with being part of a real family.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I always want to read the books elephantine recommends. Although am I the only person who has no interest in The Goldfinch? I LOATHED The Secret History.

Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.

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