Summer Reading

charlie + skating + summer = happiness

Summer’s arrived here at the bloglily household.  There is general happiness, and a movement spearheaded by the non-parents to suspend all routines, including the one that gets everyone into bed before the sun rises.  So far the adolescents and the ten year old who’s actually 40 are winning that one.

If you’re surly enough, and I’ll admit that this describes my general demeanor about half the time, you might trudge through summer without acknowledging its wonderfulness because you, after all, don’t get to suspend all routines.  But at least you get to read summer books, which is way, way better than going to see summer movies.  Summer books, at their best, leave you satisfied.  Summer movies, even at their best, make you feel like you’ve eaten at McDonalds, and although  maybe it was okay at the time, you really wish you hadn’t.

So.  Summer books — for me — mean spy books.  I love spy books.  I like the whole noirish atmosphere of a good spy book.  I love the lone operative, the hero who behaves well, but somehow all the odds are against him.  (Why can’t I think of any spy books where there’s a decent woman spy?)  A couple of days ago I spent the whole day reading, which meant that we had frozen costco lasagne for dinner (here in Berkeley, that’s when they send the child protective services to your house).  What kept me from whipping up an organic, vegetable-filled dinner was Alan Furst.

Spies of the BalkansI really like Alan Furst’s books.  They’re all set in dark, rainy corners of Europe, on the eve of the second world war.  There aren’t any Americans in these books, or hardly any.  The most recent one is called Spies of the Balkans. I will not tell you what happens in it because you could probably guess.  Okay, I’ll tell you some things.  Is there a spy who’s a Greek police officer, who’s ethical, but not above trickery when it’s necessary to protect the innocent?  Check.  The occasional furling and unfurling of an umbrella because it’s always raining in the countries Hitler’s about to invade?  Check.  Sex?  Check.  Daring rescues?  Check. A general atmosphere of a world going to hell, during which tremendous acts of courage occur?  Check.

Like I said, I read the whole thing in one day.  I never do that.  Happy Summer!

June Report

It isn’t June anymore is it?  I love the summer, but July always makes me a little nervous — you’re suddenly in the MIDDLE of summer, and you feel some urgency to get your summer things done, which is crazy because the whole point of summer is to not do much, and to enjoy the not-doing of much.

In contrast, June was a month when a lot happened.  Because I am spending more and more time writing 140 character accounts of myself on twitter and facebook, I have fallen a little out of practice with the longer form that is a blog post.  So I am going to make a list of what June looked like, thinking I might fool myself into thinking that a blog post is as simple as stringing together small accounts of yourself, which, in a way, it is:

1.  I discovered this month that death and sickness, which are with us always, need not be disasters.  My Uncle Martin died early in the month, and then two weeks later, another uncle, a lovely man we’d just seen on our way down from my Uncle Martin’s funeral, also died.  Jim Berlin was his name — a man whose preferred form of communication was the three line joke,  a guy who drove a truck for a living, fished and hunted and camped and swam and loved my aunt and my cousins, who were just toddlers when they married, and who are now grown men with trucks of their own.  His funeral was a few days ago in Colusa — one of those places in California where it gets really hot in the summer and people grow things like rice and tomatoes, and the gathering after the funeral is in the park in the middle of town, under huge shade trees, right next to the municipal swimming pool.  People bring macaroni salad and five hundred different versions of chocolate cake. And a lot of cold drinks.

What I learned in June  is that small communities are rich places.

2.  I spent a lot of time in  June refreshing my e-mail inbox, waiting to get editing suggestions from my new agent, waiting to hear about a writing residency I applied for, waiting to hear about stories I have out.  The results:  new agent is a terrific editor so far and really busy, as all people who sell books for a living are; I will be doing this great writing residency with Antonya Nelson in the fall in Florida for three weeks; and no one at the remaining literary journals that have my stories is alive anymore.  I can only hope that in small towns across America people are eating macaroni salad and chocolate velvet cake with cream cheese icing to celebrate the lives of those literary editors who are no longer with us.

What have I learned about waiting?  That if you aren’t careful, and don’t guard against it,  you can divert your attention from the stories you want to tell to the business of writing.  I’ve spent far too much time in the last year doing that, and am slowly weaning myself off the e-mail inbox refresh button.  Maybe I will write a blog post instead of opening my e-mail to see what’s in there besides offers to grow the penis I don’t have.

More things than that happened in June:  my oldest sons are off to high school in the fall, and there is a lot of new teenage energy in our house, and then there is the next novel, which has to get in a higher, faster gear, now that I have come close to settling the business of the last one.  Also, if I am going to be sitting around a table with a woman who actually writes amazing fiction, shouldn’t I be producing something that could at least be described as a credible effort?

But in July it would be lovely if there could be a day or two here or there when nothing at all happens, except lying around and reading and dreaming.  I hope that’s the kind of July all of you are getting to have.

The Old Bowl


When I first moved to Berkeley — in the early 1980s — my roommates at the time were old (in their late twenties) and sophisticated (they knew their way around an artichoke). They shopped at this place they referred to as “the Bowl.”  I imagined it was named after a  big bowl of fruit, because that is what they usually brought home after they went shopping.  They also brought home this wonderful cheese I’d never heard of before.  It was called Havarti.

Berkeley was a paradise in those days.  Now you can buy havarti at Costco, so paradise is more widely available in America, which can only be a good thing.  I mean, even in this wretched economy, you can still afford the occasional good thing to eat and you have a much better chance of being able to find it than you did in the early 1980s. Cheese has a way of making the worst things seem a little bit better.  At least that is what we believe here in Berkeley, which is why I live here.

Anyway, it turned out that the Berkeley Bowl was actually an old bowling alley that had been turned into a fruit and vegetable market which also sold cheese (at a long, exciting cheese counter) meat, seafood and, sort of as an aside, things like recycled paper towels and earthy moisturizers made by people who lived in Ukiah.  To successfully shop there you really did have to have some skills, just not with a bowling ball.  Basically, you had to be aggressive with your shopping cart, and willing to snatch fruit out of the hands of elderly ladies who wanted it too.  But you’d go cart-to-cart with these ladies because you wanted those raspberries MORE, having grown  up in a place where fruit (and tomatoes!) just did not taste so real, and fresh and amazing, thus making your desire for them really strong.  At the time, I didn’t have a car, so I had no idea the real challenge of shopping at the Berkeley Bowl was finding a place to put it.

And now there is a SECOND bowl in Berkeley.  It opened today (it is called “Berkeley Bowl West”) and it amazes me that this could be so — mostly because this means there will FINALLY be a place to park at the Berkeley Bowl in my neighborhood because all the shoppers who wanted my parking spot will be at Berkeley Bowl West.  And I will not have to get into unseemly altercations near the apricots to score the perfect ones that have my name on them. Still, in honor of the time that has passed since I first discovered havarti and artichokes, the Bowl in my neighborhood is now called the Old Bowl.  (At least that is what I’m calling it.) I am now the old lady you have to face down to get to the apricots first.  (I will add that I am not really that old, and I imagine the ladies I thought were so old probably weren’t either.  It’s funny how perception depends a lot on where you stand.)

Summer’s almost here.  Three years ago, when I was just beginning to write this blog, I was up to my arms in raspberries, making jam. A day or two after I wrote about that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I haven’t boiled fruit and sugar together since then.  This is to say that my hiatus from jam is over.  Raspberries at the Old Bowl were .99 a basket when I was there tonight — I swear to God.  And the apricots, which are slightly more expensive, are so beautiful this year.

This weekend, it’s jam time.

A Week at the Lazy S

We’ve been staying at the Lazy S Lodge, in South Lake Tahoe this week. It’s been perfect for all of us — we all love Tahoe, although for different reasons. My husband went to high school up here, and ski raced in the winter and worked at a boat rental place in the summer. This is his home, in a way, and he is perfectly at ease with things I find utterly foreign, like jumping off cliffs into icy cold water. I think it’s just the best thing for him, to spend a week here with his three boys, initiating them into that kind of thing. We’re leaving later today.

Right now, they are all out on the boat — William’s driving it, something he cannot actually believe he gets to do, given how much noise it makes and how satisfyingly fast it goes. Jack and Charlie are doing all the things you can do behind a boat driven by your younger brother, all of which are pretty fun for them, because they involve going really fast and occasionally falling off into the icy cold lake. It astonishes me that anyone would like that, but it’s absolutely clear that they do.

Me? Well, I like the way the wind sounds in the aspens when you hike up a trail, and I do like how cool it is at night, even after a very hot day. I love it that it’s fine for me to be alone sometimes when they jump off cliffs are go out on the Lake. The boys? I think they love it all — the cliffs, the lake, the boat, even the hiking. They’ve also really been into watching the Olympics (we are big fans of beach volleyball, and all of us agree that maybe they didn’t need to show quite so many diving events).

Last night, at William’s suggestion, we playing miniature golf at Magic Carpet Golf.  We each competed on behalf of a country. W was Senegal, in honor of our wonderful Senagalese friends, Jack was China, because he was pretty sure that’d secure him the gold, Charlie was France, and conducted himself in the cheesiest French accent since Steve Martin was Inspector Clouseau, William was the United States, for obvious reasons. Me? I was Canada. I didn’t expect to win, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I did win, in fact, hitting two miraculous holes in one, which shocked everyone, including me. It’s always like that when Canada wins, isn’t it?

Summer Pleasures: Design Blogs and Iced Coffee

(This photo comes from Infusion Cofee & Tea — a great Philadelphia cafe.)

It’s very hot here in San Francisco today. I mean, relatively hot, if you really think about it, because it is obviously much hotter most places right now than it will ever get here. We are weather wimps in the Bay Area. Still, it is almost 100 degrees out there, or it will be soon and we are not in any way, shape, or form prepared for that. I have a big work project and am feeling such malaise — it’s the price of gas, I’m pretty sure that makes me feel very Ford and Carter-era today.

Back then, though, there were no design blogs, just a wild combination of orange and avocado and Nixon’s resignation to keep you from sinking into despair as the lines at the gas pump got longer and longer. (I know, I know — those things did not happen at exactly the same time. But I was a kid, and they all seemed to blur into each other.) Anyway, the answer to a little mid-summer malaise is, obviously, a summer pleasure, which I think of as something that doesn’t ask a lot of you, but does inject some life into your too-hot-to-move-very-fast day. Today’s summer pleasure is the design blog. These are blogs without a lot of words. There’s something beautifully orderly about these blogs — they don’t take on big things, but every once in a while, a photograph of a bunch of handkerchiefs somebody found on ebay makes everything in my life work just fine.

Here they are, in case you’re looking for that kind of thing. But really, come to think of it, all you really need is a couple of links — the first being one of my favorites. I like this blog because every once in a while this woman does something I love (in this case, it’s the recipe for iced coffee). Go over to the orange blog, and then just poke around in her blog roll. I mean, if you’re into pictures of fabric, and iced coffee and ebay coffee pots.

And an update on the author, author interviews: I’m putting together my first of these, which I think is best done in the form of a questionnaire, because then the writer gets a chance to think things over. Actually, how else would you do this? I guess I could try podcasting it, but man, that is so out of my league, tech-wise.

Now, go check out: How about Orange and then, while you’re at it, a little Design * Sponge

And here’s another, thanks to litlove:  tasting rhubarb.  Lovely images, fine writing.

And oh, oh, oh, how could I have not put this up too:  It’s Jana (of Jana’s Sketchbook) new blog:  A Postcard a Day

Tomorrow (or, you know, a few days) there will be more summer pleasures.

Shelley! Byron! Water! Cats!

I never thought I’d take such an extended vacation — I blame it entirely on the Italian people, because it was in Italy that I discovered how much I really like lying around and staring at the stars, the ceiling, and out the window which, basically, is what I’ve been doing this entire summer, when I was not grilling or eating peaches.

But I did have one or two thoughts about Italy and now that I am out of my extended vacation haze, I realize that mainly they are about the romantics and water.

Hiking along the Cinqueterre with my English professor friend C, which is where I went after London, we kept coming across places where romantic poets had spent time in the sea, sometimes tragically, sometimes not so much.

I’d like to say first that it was really fabulous being on vacation with someone who has her English literature down cold. While I struggle to remember when Hardy died, and whether he is a Victorianist or something else, C not only can tell you the answer to these questions (I think she would say he might be both) — but she can tell you what happened to Hardy’s heart (not to mention Shelley’s) (ick), and a little bit about Hardy’s wife. More on that later, after encounters with water.

The Cinqueterre is quite beautiful. In fact, the Ligurian coast, where there is pesto and lovely fish everywhere you sit down, is a wonderful place. Many of you probably already know that. I, however, did not, so I am going to say it several times, because the wonder of it all is still fresh for me. Italians are kind, gracious, fun, and have an interesting habit of always asking you when you arrive at a restaurant without a reservation, even if the restaurant is completely empty, whether you have a reservation. Upon learning that you do not, shoulders are shrugged, mouths are twisted around in expressions that vary from regret to hope to disdain, and then prego a table is produced. This is the theater of the miraculous, and after a while it became a delight, sharing in the sorrow of not being able to have something and the giddy joy at having it produced after a small emotional struggle. Yes, it was only a table in an empty restaurant, but it stood for all of life, and we felt it as such. Particularly if we had already had a drink or two before dinner, which, dear reader, we sometimes had.

Shelley — I have to get to Shelley. In the interest of actually posting something before August ends, I have not looked up these facts, so please don’t use them if you are writing a term paper on Shelley, because you might not get the grade you want. Apparently, Shelley and his friends came to Italy in the winter — for obvious reasons. My impression is that they were a dark, brooding lot, with a lot of sexual experimentation going on, a loosening of constraints both social and literary, and also, they were likely there for the food.

During this trip, Shelley apparently went out in a boat and, in a storm, the boat sank and he drowned. When the body washed up on the shore, and his friends found him, someone (probably Byron) had the bright idea that they should make a funeral pyre right there on the beach. Unfortunately (and I am sorry, but this does make me laugh, even though it is very disgusting), they didn’t realize that it is not a good idea to try to make a funeral pyre with a body that’s water-logged and they couldn’t get the whole thing to blaze up in the way they’d imagined. So, this group of insane and impractical writers and lovers and hangers on, removed Shelley’s heart and brought it back to England with them, the body being a lot more complicated to get home.

And then, being on a roll with stories of hearts and writers, I wanted to tell you too that (according to my friend C, in whom I have complete faith), when Hardy died, his literary executor, who sounds like a bit of an idiot, had the bright idea of storing Hardy’s heart inside a biscuit tin, but without a lid. Apparently, one of Hardy’s cats … well, do I really need to go on? This, apparently, is the sort of thing you learn in English graduate school — along with the interesting fact that Hardy did not speak to his wife (although they lived in the same house) for over a decade — and when I asked my friend C why he began speaking to her again she informed me that the decade of no speech ended with Hardy’s wife’s death, not with some event that got him talking to her again, although she might have been a help in choosing a better literary executor, had he only thought to ask.

So, what’s left? Ah. Byron. Byron is memorialized all over the Cinqueterre in part because there doesn’t seem to be anywhere he didn’t take a long swim from or to. And what a swimmer! In addition to a lovely grotto named after him, there is a little sign in Portovenere that tells you he swam from that small village to another larger place that took us quite a while to get to on the train. Perhaps it was faster to swim, but I’m afraid if I’d tried that, I would have met Shelley’s fate.

My next post, which I hope will be far more timely than this one, will be about Dickens, and the conference in Genoa I attended with C and a bunch of Dickens scholars who assembled there to discuss Dickens’s sojourn in Italy. More conventional than the romantics, and certainly more practical, Dickens was nevertheless no less interesting. More on that next time, dear reader.

Oh, and by the way, when you hike this weekend, don’t wear those cute high heels, okay?

Summer’s End

Around here, summer always ends in a blaze of cake baking and party-giving, which is why you haven’t heard a peep out of me for a while. (No, I was not buried under an avalanche of shopping bags or so stunned by my clean office I was rendered paralyzed: I was up to my elbows in cake batter.)

Here’s the cake.  It’s a small round chocolate cake with about eight cupcakes arranged around it. The thing in the middle is a dowel with ribbons tied onto it. My favorite part? The grapefruit fruit slice on the top.  It looks sort of jaunty.

Yesterday, the youngest of the BlogLily boys celebrated his birthday at a family dinner. Earlier, over the weekend, he had a little party with his friends. It all sounds very simple, but honestly, it’s not really possible to celebrate a birthday in the United States of America simply anymore. And that, dear readers, is because of goody bags.

How the tradition of giving gifts to someone other than the celebrant at a child’s birthday party is unclear. My guess is that it came about because of some desire we have to help our children avoid unpleasant experiences, thinking — wrongly as it turns out — that avoiding them is the same as learning to handle them.

The worst and best part of a child’s birthday party, when I was a child, was the moment when the birthday child opened the presents. It was the stuff of which drama is made: would your present be acceptable, would there be something you wanted so badly you could imagine tearing it out of the birthday child’s hands and running away with it? Would the birthday child have a little manners misstep, and how would their mom handle it?

This present opening ritual was generally not very pleasant, despite the potential for an entertaining moment or two. I didn’t go to a lot of children’s birthday parties, not that I remember anyway, but I do remember the time we gave a barely literate girl in my class — the girl who struggled every time she had to read out loud — three books from the book order thing you do at school. I can still remember her look of utter disgust and the way her mother busted me with a mean little laugh, I’ll bet you read those first, she said. Indeed, I had, trying not to bend the pages, not thinking anyone would notice, knowing that it wasn’t the thing to do. It was terribly humiliating.

But I did file away for the future something about how not to treat a child who makes a mistake when a guest in my house. I also learned that it is not a good idea to give someone the very gift you would most like for yourself. Not everyone is like you. It was a vicious way to learn this, and the mother and girl were nasty too. Still, it was an experience that helped shape me as a social person and for the better.

What happens now, at a lot of parties among my children’s school friends, is that the presents are hustled out of the way, into a room out of sight, like they’re shameful. They aren’t heard from again until you get a thank you note. You never see them opened, never find out if anyone else gave a better gift than yours. I’ve done this myself, thinking to avoid any unpleasantness on an important day. The rest of the party goes like this: the children are entertained in some way: bowling, a clown, a craft project, a magician. After a while, a cake comes out, the song is sung and the guests are handed a goody bag, full of candy and little nick-nacks that quite possibly cost as much if not more than the gift the child brought to the party. This is the signal that the party is over.

It occurred to me once that goody bags were like a potlatch — a tradition I learned about when we studied the Indians of the Northwest, during the time I lived in Tacoma, Washington. (By that time, the Indians of the Northwest made a living selling tax free cigarettes from their land in Puyallup, but that is an entirely different story.) Anyway, when a tribe had a potlatch event, they’d load up their canoes with every valuable thing they owned and then they’d row over (paddle over, sorry!) to the neighbor tribe and drop the whole damned load off with their neighbors. And then you know what? The neighbors would have to turn around and give all their stuff away. I remember sitting in the classroom watching the filmstrip about this and wondering what would happen if all the other tribe had to give away were books.

Anyway, the goody bag/birthday present exchange does resemble a potlatch, although it has a different impulse at its core: it’s not so much about a kind of militant generosity (take that: here’s a Mercedes! Well, well…. here’s War and Peace..) but more about something I alluded to in the beginning of this post: goody bags disguise the truth that sometimes other people get the presents. Your turn will come — but you will have to wait for it. Instead, we’re telling children, Yes, that kid got a lot of presents. But you got some too, so it’s okay.

It is very hard to learn that you are not at the center and quite understandable that parents might want to short-circuit coming to terms with that knowledge. Certainly this is a painful truth in our own family of three children, where each boy struggles with the knowledge that there are others who command attention and resources, others who have things to say at dinner and want to use the bathroom or the computer.

But I think that handling this fact of life need not be a stark lesson in self-denial and stiff upper lip. It is also the case that the person who is the center of attention must learn how to make his guests feel welcome and important. And that’s why the things you do at the party matter. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more children who attend, and the more complicated the event or entertainment is, the less fun the party is.

It turns out that the most entertaining parties we’ve had have been the ones we put on in the street in front of our house (we live at the end of the street and no one drives down it). We set up a little carnival, hand out tickets and have prizes for the games. (No goody bags — but then there are the prizes, which are a lot of fun to win, even if all they are is a tootsie roll.)

This year, the youngest brother wanted to have his own carnival, having watched his brothers’ parties for most of his life. Except he didn’t want to have a lot of guests. In fact, he had two. And that made it unlike any other birthday party I’ve ever given or been too. It was just incredibly low key. The carnival was a piece of cake, since we’d made the games years earlier. And the cake, was too because it’s the same one I always make. A few neighbors, the two friends, the BlogLily brothers, my husband and I.

In case you are interested in what the carnival looked like, here it is:

An obstacle course:

A ball toss (our neighbor Pam, for the third year in a row, dressed up as a clown and ran this game, bless her heart):

Toss the football through the hula hoop.

Fishing (a BlogLily older boy crouches down behind the screen and eventually clips something to the clothespin that’s on the fishing pole.)


And then when the games had all been played (the children had a little bag with enough tickets to play the games a few times each), the BlogLily boy opened his presents — both of them — in front of everyone. The children who gave the presents explained why they liked them so much and the birthday child said thank you quite genuinely, because the whole idea of being given a gift was as fresh and wonderful as it should be. There is nothing sadder than a child who gets present fatigue after the fourth gift and begins to open packages with the resignation of someone opening a past due bill he can’t possibly pay. And then we all ate chocolate cake, played the games for a while longer without prizes, and went home. Until next year, when we have another carnival party.