Wednesday, January 9, 2013

what i read.

2012 was a rich year in reading for me. The first half of the year saw texts that mostly related to my dissertation research (i.e. dry and technical), but the second half yielded some substantial and deeply satisfying literature. Here are my favorites, appropriately instagrammed with accompanying beverages.

A Place of Greater Safety
Hilary Mantel
Lingered over alongside a hard cider at the heavenly Montague Book Mill.
If you've read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, then you already know that Hilary Mantel is a genius. A Place of Greater Safety brilliantly tells of the French Revolution through young, flawed and idealistic revolutionaries Robespierre, Danton and the glorious and insufferable Desmoulins (who will forever be one of my favorite literary characters). Astounding in detail, language and wit. The fact that Mantel wrote it at age 23 makes it all the more stunning.

Midnight's Children
Salman Rushdie
Red wine and San Francisco garden tomatoes.
Since college, I've had the goal of reading all of the Man Booker Prize winners, so of course Midnight's Children, the Booker of Bookers, had to be on that list. And holy cats. This is a book to which you must just surrender if you're to make it through. Simply put, it's the story of India's tumultuous early statehood as told by one of the mystically-powerful children born at the stroke of midnight, the same moment at which their country gained independence. But it's not simple. One gets the sense that Rushdie didn't write the book so much as channel it, it is such an inspired, consuming and complicated epic. Worth every bit of the (measurable) patience required.

Number 9 Dream
David Mitchell
A perfectly nice stout at DC's Meridian Pint.
David Mitchell is among the most inventive and surprising writers I know. He's most known for Cloud Atlas and his more recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but this novel is a gem. It tells the story of a teenage boy in Japan who's come to Tokyo to seek out his father, and incredibly blends dream with reality, the seedy and the sublime. Once you finish, this Bookworm interview with Mitchell about the novel and writing in general is a treat.

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Cuppa on a cold morning.
A curious thing happens when you graduate from college. You've been guided through four years of deep immersion in political theory, philosophy, Victorian literature, economic modeling. You feel expert and capable, completely prepared to assume a role of considerable responsibility when you graduate - something like, say, getting straight to work on Middle East peace, or writing for the New Yorker or tackling inner city poverty or making a documentary. And you have been led to believe, by encouraging professors and similarly-minded friends that you will do just that. And then you graduate and in your first year, you realize it is nothing like you expected and you are woefully unprepared for any of those tasks and you feel just a bit cheated. And then you begin to wade through the considerably more complex world and profession before you. And it all works out in the end and you're better for it. This is a difficult crisis for many-a-starry-eyed-student (myself included years ago when I first worked in Cambodia and gutted as to why I was making no difference whatsoever) but I love this crisis. It is a terribly productive crisis. Coaching students through this crisis was the best part of my most recent job. Eugenides gets this awkward year and narrates it so beautifully here. Beginning with three college students on the verge of graduation from Brown, it narrates how the ideals they formed through academic theory and personal relationships as college students are applied, explored and challenged as they encounter the complexity of real life (and themselves in it). Mitchell was my favorite character - very near to my heart and own experience. Read it and read Eugenides' recent advice to young writers.   

On Beauty
Zadie Smith
Afternoon tea, stripes on the side.
White Teeth didn't hold my attention, but On Beauty was a treat. Smith has an uncanny ability with dialogue and especially miscommunication and misunderstandings over class, race, gender, cultural nuance - she has empathy for all her characters but bares them completely, too. I devoured it - language, academic plot line and roots in Howards End. Bonus points for giving herself a cameo on page 324 as a "feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship."

As I mentioned above, most of my dissertation-related reading is on the duller side, but one text this year that makes this list was Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame) by Samantha Power - the biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. Sergio is a legendary figure in the UN and humanitarian aid system, fundamental to relief efforts in the Balkans, Cambodia, East Timor, and, finally, in Iraq, where he was killed in 2003. Power's writing is always exquisite, but this story hit especially close. By retelling Sergio's life, she illustrates beautifully - better than anyone else I've read - the incredible complexity of the UN system. The enormous bureaucracy, the constant and often dangerous politics played by member states, the risks, ideals and lives at stake. The flawed but sincere individuals in any institution, many of whom I've encountered in my own work in this field and certainly alongside my husband who is an aid worker himself and often in similar environments and crises. Sergio's life is fascinating and his death is a shocking tragedy, both needfully told. Try it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

happy, new.

On New Year's Eve morning, I woke up early and knew immediately that it was going to be a rough day. I had a splitting headache, which was soon followed by (sorry) a whole lot of retching. Food poisoning just in time for our last days of holiday. Boo.

Happily, Christopher was home this time, which meant I was in good, comforting hands with a steady supply of hot tea, cold compresses and ginger ale. (And if you don't yet have Morris Kitchen ginger syrup and a bottle of fizzy water around for just this sort of situation, what are you waiting for?) It meant that we didn't spend the last day of the year as we often do, talking about the year past and planning for what's next, but instead tenderly and simply (if sickly) resting around the apartment.

By afternoon there were books and reading. By evening, I was better. We made our annual New Year's Eve feast of mushroom bourguignon and popovers and drank a bit of bubbly, and I even made it to midnight (must have been all the morning dozing - that never happens). It worked out fine.

In the morning, we woke up to mimosas with pomegranate seeds and made Heidi Swanson's delicious spinach strata from Super Natural Every Day (do drizzle with olive oil, as suggested - it's perfect). Then we bundled up and embarked on one of my favorite of our traditions, a long walk in the woods to ring in the new year.

We talked about our work, about what we want from the next couple of years before kids enter our lives. We talked about trips we most want take, friends we want to see more of, how to better balance our contrarian city mouse-country mouse natures. We brainstormed about projects we want to begin, reinforced support for each other's goals, considered whether we should live abroad again next year and wondered if and when we'd ever settle in one place. It was just the cleansing sort of chat best had on a long meandering walk and we are lucky to have Rock Creek Park right in our back yard to enable it. When we came home late in the day, the new year felt begun, and our hopes and plans for it aired and mutual.

I love to set New Year's Resolutions, and especially ones that push me to learn new skills or grow creatively. In 2011 I resolved to start knitting, and have since found so much pleasure there that each year since I've decided to dabble in another new craft. Here are a few of my resolutions for this year.

Read more short stories
My preferred narrative format has always been the novel. I typically don't decide whether I am enjoying a book until I hit page 100, which seems to be just the right length to gain a feel for the story's gait, the character's potential and past, the author's language. I like a long, slow story that I can savor, and it's the kind I prefer to write, too. That said, there is so much skill involved in trying to develop a character and story in just a few brief pages. I'd like to learn more about it.

Read lesser known authors
More often than not I work through books that have been nominated for or won major prizes (the Booker especially - I'm trying to read them all) or books by authors I've already enjoyed in the past. I'm aware though that this method exposes me to a group of writers with considerable approval already and there's little risk or surprise in reading them. I'd like exposure to authors who are lesser known (to me at least) with hopes of learning something new.

Journal again
From 2001-2008, I wrote in a journal almost daily, and now have an incredible and treasured record of my twenties. Once I met Christopher, however, and we started our relationship at a distance, I gradually stopped journaling and replaced it with long emails and letters to him. Journaling faded. As much as I treasure that correspondence, I also regret those missing years and that daily introspection and hope to return to it again.

I've always been a confident writer, but never an even slightly brave visual artist. Nonetheless, it's a talent that I envy and so admire. I want to conquer that fear this year and begin to sketch, perhaps as a part of my journaling. Some new pencils, a special Italian notebook and some guides, all from Christopher for Christmas, seem the right beginning.

There are others as well - drink more water, write more letters, de-clutter more regularly, cook with less common ingredients - but, for this space, for now, these seem just right.

Happy New Year. May you continue to learn and grow in 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2012

when in rome.

When in Italy, in Rome, in the heart of all things romantic and ancient and bold, it is important to learn a few words of Italian.

So as to share with a fellow traveler the feeling of awe inspired by the quiet light of an early morning trip to the Pantheon.

Mandorla, Pistacchio, Nocciolo
So as to seek out and sample every variety of nut gelato you can find.

So as to explain to the gregarious and generous shopkeeper at the little neighborhood deli that you are embarking on a wee walking adventure and seek a grand but portable feast.

So as to indicate that you would like your coffee standing at the bar, please, for eavesdropping on locals and saving your euros.

For everything.

But most of all, you learn to hear bella.

Because on a dark wintery night six months on, when you've had too little sleep and a terrible day of writing. When you've received a rejection letter for yet another grant. When your husband has been overseas for too many weeks and you miss his cheer and his cooking. When you are dressed to the nines and on your way to a party but would quietly prefer just to hide away in bed, you will be waiting for a bus, and an Italian man - a stranger - will pull over in his car, roll down his window, and ask if you are Italian. He will proceed to tell you that seeing you waiting for that bus made his night, that that you are a very beautiful woman, and then drive away, shouting Ciao, bella! 

And thus he will leave you on cloud nine with a smile on your face and a bus ride full of memories of perfect biscotti, of sublime little churches, of cobblestone piazzas at dusk with a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, of simple pasta, of long strolls hand in hand with your love, so soon to return. A little dip back into a perfect summer week with the love of your life in Rome.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween, ghouls and gastlies. I hope you made it through Sandy just fine and are starting to see your neighbors put their pumpkins back out on the stoop.

To be honest, I'd forgotten it is Halloween today until I saw the jack-o-lanterns and (waterlogged) cobwebs around the neighborhood during my morning run. It's not that I don't love Halloween - I do - but more in a harvest, kids in costumes, trick-or-treat, whimsical spooky kind of way and less in the boozy, sexy cat/witch/maid shenanigans that seem to be the norm for celebrations for the 20-30-something set in which I presently find myself. No matter. Tonight a friend is coming by to consume some delicious food and gobble up some chocolate from Theo's and decorate some gingerbread ninja zombies.

As the storm roared through DC this week, I found myself in the mood for some Halloween flicks of the non-horror (and somewhat non-obvious) variety. Here's what I came up with.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir
(available on Netflix Instant)
Upstart widow Lucy Muir moves into a cottage by the sea haunted by the ghost of a salty old sea captain. Ghostly pranks, shenanigans and smitten-ness ensue.

Arsenic and Old Lace
(available on Netflix Instant)
A hoot. Slapstick heart throb Carey Grant returns home to tell his batty old aunts about his marriage, only to find they've been up to something sneaky in the cellar. Spooky in a goofball kind of way.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
In my top five movies of all time, who can forget the Halloween scene where Elliot and his siblings sneak E.T. out of the house or the importance of E.T.'s favorite candy - Reese's Pieces - to the plot?

And of course, the best of the best, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!, which will be on at least twice at our place tonight.

Happy Haunting!

Friday, October 12, 2012


I grew up in New Hampshire in a little suburban town. For most of my years there, we were in a large house that backed up on woods where we'd build forts with tree limbs and bury treasure in tin coffee cans. Holidays were spent caroling with close family and friends. Bikes were ridden in endless loops around our circular driveway and down our street. My mom had a proud and beautiful garden in the front yard. Birds were everywhere and always adored.

In September, after months of agonizing over the decision, my empty-nest parents decided to trade in their house by the woods for one by the sea. The New Hampshire house is too big, the snow clearing is too much, the town lacking a center and sense of soul. While friends nearby were many, they are also starting to look elsewhere. My parents took the plunge and now move in just under a month.

I flew up last week to help them sort and pack.

While I expected the week to be bittersweet, I was unprepared for how joyful (if exhausting) the whole process felt. We came across my childhood art and stories (I wrote dozens of my own Little Bear books) and letters to Santa (I had Care Bears and a set of little farm animals on the brain) and old letters from camp, dolls and Valentines. We laughed at (and said goodbye to) some truly terrible vacation chachkies, and recounted memories of loved ones, now gone, whose blanket or bowl or pie plate we now treasure as we delicately packed them away.

The most moving aspect of the week, though, was finding mementos of my parents' decades-long relationship. There were books (like a collection of Abigail and John Adams' letters) where my mom inscribed her own deep feelings of love to my dad, notes of tender consolation as they struggled to become pregnant, a note from my father on the back of a photograph of mom reminding her how gorgeous she is, Christmas notes celebrating another year.

Each time I found such a message, I'd bring it to each of them and they'd light up. Dad would blush and beam. Mom would giggle and look his way. Such sweet pauses amongst the chaos of moving.

It's good for the soul and for a partnership to come across these things from time to time; reminders of all that you've been through together, how smitten you have felt and feel, the value of taking the time to record and save such tender thoughts. It's thrilling for a daughter to come across them, too. As my parents move now together to a little town by the sea, they do it very much as companions in all things. It was a delight to be reminded of just how long and lovingly those bonds have been tied. Houses may go, but those assurances stay. I'm proud of them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Process and Pesto.

Rock Creek Park. Valley Trail, Washington, DC.
And just like that, it's autumn. Summer in the District was brutally hot and (as our beloved local weather gang calls it) juicy, and so it is with enormous relief that the cooler weather has arrived. I'm back in my running shoes most mornings. We pack apples and layers to take on city and woodsy walks. My favorite beers come back onto local tap lists (and into our own brewing queue), and tea is always at my side.

With the change in the air comes a boost in my writing. My dissertation traces the twenty-year history of the United Nation's work in one small area. Beyond the usual library work, It involves travel near and far, finding finding funding for such travel, archival access and what will likely be a couple of hundred interviews. Never mind all the writing. Deciding where to start, since August when my proposal was approved, has been daunting. While the narrative interests me, the immensity of a project whose final value might be considered esoteric at best, has been discouraging.

When I fall into writing paralysis, that last bit is usually the cause. Why spend years working on a project that few will likely read, whose importance is rather limited, whose result will be a degree that I am only 60% confident that I will professionally need (and even then not for another decade or two). Never mind that I am not spending these months in a nice job and professional community, not making money that will further our own goals of paying off loans, saving for a home and yearly travel abroad. When I think about it that way, what a waste. I should walk away. And usually tell Christopher as much quarterly over some anguished supper.

When I start to think about what I'd want to do instead, though, my answer is always to move forward with my writing. In my past as a researcher and advisor, it is writing - the clear, creative and helpful process of conveying and convincing - that always excites me most, whether my own (telling the story of a community in Uganda surviving famine and war, or explaining why labor disputes in Cambodia tends to resolve more easily than conflict over land), or mentoring my students to tell their own stories more personally and effectively in their own writing. Nothing gives me more professional pleasure.

Photo and text from Robyn Davidson's article on traveling with India's Rabari in the September 1993 issue of National Geographic. Photo by Dilip Mehta. For stellar travel writing, look for Davidson's Tracks and Desert Places.
When I think about my dissertation in that way - as getting to my desk everyday, as telling a story, as crafting my words - and make space for this blogging and some creative work as well, the dissertation project and the narrative I am developing there takes on more value. When doubt creeps in, I spend my morning with old National Geographic magazines, with the latest New Yorker, with whatever book I'm currently consuming or on blogs whose authors' voices I particularly admire. Thinking not just about a daunting task, but about process, is beginning to help. Each day I'm reminded that I'm working on a craft, a story and a profession, as well as on a thesis that will satisfy my committee one day.

Now that a wickedly hot summer has given way to a temperate fall, I feel my writing and focus begin to settle as well. It's welcome.

And on that note, I leave you with a fall favorite around here: kale pesto with a garlicky, walnutty bite.

Heidi Swanson is a household name around here, and when reaching for a cookbook or scanning a blog in planning for supper, it is always Heidi's that we go to. Her recipes are wholesome, creative, nourishing and delicious. Not a dud in the bunch.

This pesto is inspired by her winter pasta recipe, but uses fewer ingredients, zero stovetop time and comes with a bit of a bite. We serve it on pasta and on pizza, either as the sauce base or in globs (my preferred method). Christopher likes it on crackers. Either way, a marvelous way to get your kale with a raw garlic edge. Try it and serve it to friends and lovers from whom you don't mind potent kisses.

Kale pesto
based on Heidi Swanson's recipe for Winter Pasta

1 bunch of kale (I prefer lacinato, but use what you've got)
1/3 cup walnuts
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
3-4 cloves garlic
Olive oil (enough to reach desired consistency)
A splash of lemon juice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

De-stem and rinse/dry the kale, and put the leaves in your food processor. Add the walnuts, parmesan and garlic. Puree.

With the machine running, add the olive oil, checking as you go for consistency. You'll probably use 1/3-1/2 cups. If desired, add the lemon juice at this point.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

To begin.

Let me take you back to this time last year.

There we were (husband and I) one morning in our nice bed in a little but longish farmhouse apartment in western Massachusetts describing to one another what we wanted out of the next year. There was probably tea (hers) and coffee (his). If it was Sunday, there were biscuits and a crossword. It was probably a beautiful, brisk, autumny, yellow leaves on the birches kind of day and the window were probably stubbornly open despite said briskness. We were probably planning an afternoon bike ride into town or a country drive to find favorite apple brie sandwiches and local cider. Precisely the kind of day for which you move into a small, longish farmhouse in western Massachusetts to begin with.

I was probably on the verge of miserable.

At the time, I had a full-time job at a little liberal arts college that I loved. I had also just finished the first draft of my dissertation proposal, which took two years longer than advisable because of said job (it was another year before the darn thing was actually approved and in final form, but that's another story). It was realistically about to go on hold again as the new school year began, which neither my committee, nor my own sense of worth, was likely to tolerate for long. I was wracked with anxiety and in doubt that I would ever finish the degree.

In addition to that, there were the dinner parties proposed, the newlywed homesteading, the occasional knitting nights, the novels on my bedside table, the weekend hikes and beer-brewing, the simple dinners cooked and feasted upon together - things our little partnership wanted and needed time and space for. I wanted to invest in those activities without guilt that my time perhaps 'should' have been spent writing my dissertation.

Something had to go.

While I had too much on my proverbial plate at the time, husband had too little. He'd made a big professional sacrifice on my behalf, moving his career from managing humanitarian relief programs abroad to trying to consult on those projects from western Massachusetts so that I could pursue this position. He did so happily (good feminist husband that he is), but it wasn't satisfying. It wasn't enough. Where I was anxious and overworked, he was frustrated and bored.

And so as much as we loved our New England nest, our little garden and big fields, the river down the road, the bookshop in the mill, the nearby camping, our hardy neighbors (who traded us their eggs for our homebrewed beer), we knew it was time to go.

So, six months later, we moved from rural farmhouse overlooking a pumpkin field into urban treehouse overlooking Rock Creek Park, and one year later we are properly settled into our nation's capital. Husband has himself a super job, I have myself time, a writing desk, and some zucchini bread. We're glad.