Book #15: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

I’m struck by how many memoirs I’ve read so far in this 50 book adventure. If you had asked me if I read a lot of memoirs before, I would probably have said no, which is clearly not true (4 of the 16 books I’ve read so far have been memoirs). I don’t really know why I like memoirs so much, but it’s definitely a genre that I go to pretty frequently. It probably has something to with the way that it feels like sitting down to coffee with someone who is totally willing to open up to you completely and expect nothing in return. They’ll tell you stories that will make you cry, some that will make you howl with laughter, and others that leave you speechless. All you have to do is snuggle up, drink your coffee and listen. 
In A Girl Named Zippy, I met young Haven Kimmel: a girl so fiercely independent and funny that I could hardly believe her stories. I especially love kid memoirs, but a major pitfall of the genre is the tendency of the author to use the book as an opportunity to analyze their relationship with their parents, to view their childhood through a decidedly adult lens. I feel like that isn’t really necessary (or even all that interesting). Zippy really does force you to see the world that the story takes place in through the eyes of a child. It’s a world where a mom could sit on the couch and eat cheetos and read sci-fi novels without ever leaving the house and no one needs to stop and explain why. Where a story about a Christmas like any other kid’s Christmas could fall just after a blunt list of all the things a girl’s father won and lost in a lifetime of gambling (we’re not talking small potatoes, an engagement ring was on the list of lost things). This memoir could easily become a sad story of a poor middle-American family: a distant father with a gambling problem, a depressed mother, a child who permanently sleeps in a sleeping bed for lack of enough bedrooms. Instead, it’s a series of sweet, small tales of a happy young girl zipping around town on her bicycle, learning how to make friends, how to be a friend, and confronting the bully next door.
The list so far:

Thanksgiving Essentials

1. Friends. Mostly just because you have to have someone to feed/someone to do the dishes. But also because it’s the time of year to draw the people that you love close to you. I think people tend to forget about their friends at Thanksgiving–we’re so used to spending the holiday with family. I say invite eleven of those friends over to your tiny studio apartment and cook way too much food for them, and drink way too many bottles of wine, and tell them that you’re thankful.

2. Cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. (The recipes for cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes are at the end of the post.) Honestly, when I taste these sweet potatoes or smell this cornbread dressing, it’s Thanksgiving. Add them to your menu–it’s not too late!

4. Laughter. Yes, it can be stressful to make a whole bunch of dishes be hot and delicious at exactly the same time–especially when you live in a tiny apartment with a mini-oven–so laughing is an essential part of the mix. When you can laugh at yourself, you’re living right in my book. The sweet potatoes might not be quite hot enough, and the apartment might be 350 degrees by the time you sit down to eat, but it’s okay. It’s Thanksgiving!

5. Lots of people to help do the dishes. Because really, that’s a lot of dishes. They might also clean up the rest of your apartment, too. If they’re good friends, which mine most certainly are.

6. Going around the table so that everyone has a chance to say what they’re thankful for. When we did it, we did a toast for each person, and it was really great. I’m thankful for these people who were willing to spend their day squeezed into a too-tiny apartment together. I’m thankful for new friends, for old friends, and especially for Jason (he’s the one who makes sure that I don’t freak out when things go a little bit wrong).

When it’s all said and done, if you combine all these ingredients, you should be able to look back fondly on your Thanksgiving. I know I’ll always remember this one, and not only because of the scar that I will probably have on my wrist following an unfortunate pie related skin-on-oven-rack situation.

Pureed Sweet Potatoes and Carrots (recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook–via my mom):
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut in half
1/2 cup creme fraiche
2 1/2 cups water
1 Tablespoon sugar
12 Tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Wrap the sweet potatoes in tin foil and bake them at 400 degrees for about an hour, or until they’re easily pierced with a fork. Let them cool, then peel them and put the flesh into the bowl of a food processor.

Peel the carrots and cut them in half, then put them in a small saucepan with the water and 2 tablespoons of butter and salt and pepper. Bring the water to a boil, then let it simmer until the water has evaporated, the carrots are sizzling in the butter, and the carrots are soft. Then, take them out and put them into the food processor with the sweet potatoes. Process until smooth.

Add the nutmeg and the creme fraiche, then process until smooth and well-mixed in. Pour the mixture into an oven-proof bowl and bake it, covered, at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes. Serve hot!

Cornbread Dressing (recipe via my Dad):

4 buttermilk biscuits
1 12-inch skillet of cornbread
1 onion, diced small
3 celery stalks, diced small
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
a ton of ground sage, probably upwards of 2 Tablespoons(?)
3 eggs

Bake the biscuits and cornbread the day before you want to make the dressing. When they’re done, break both up into small crumbs into a large bowl. Try to use a wide bowl so that most of the crumbs get air on them. Leave the crumbs out overnight and let them get stale.

When you’re ready to make the dressing, dice the onion and celery, then use your hands to incorporate the crumbs with all the other ingredients. It should be wet and just barely hold together when you squeeze a handful of the mixture. Add sage and salt and pepper to taste.

Press the dressing into a buttered pan, then bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Cut into squares and serve warm with turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce.

 

 

 

Cherry Oatmeal Cookies

Here’s my beef with oatmeal cookies: They’re always too chewy, and way too sweet. I feel like an oatmeal cookie should really be something that’s between breakfast and dessert. It should be sweet, but in the same way that a bowl of oatmeal is sweet–not overwhelmingly so. A sprinkle of brown sugar, some cinnamon, and maybe some dried fruit. Last complaint: I don’t like hot raisins. I know, it’s weird that I like hot cherries but not raisins, but it’s true.

These particular cookies are soft and tender, not too sweet, and totally acceptable for breakfast or dessert. The cherries rather than raisins really cut down on the sweetness. Is it just me or are most raisins really sugary-sweet? These dried cherries are sweet, but not sugary. They’re just the right amount of tart. When I was a kid, my grandmother would visit Michigan every summer, and she would bring me two things: petoskey stones and a big box of dried cherries. (The dried cherries were probably not just for me, but I liked to think they were.) I’m sure my mom used the cherries for lots of things, but I just ate them by the handful. Here’s the kicker: I ate them frozen. I don’t know if my mom intended for me to eat them straight from the freezer (she didn’t) or if she even knew that I was eating them straight from the freezer (she definitely didn’t) but frozen is the way to go. Believe me.

I get dried cherries from Costco now and I totally keep them in the freezer.

Here’s the recipe: (adapted from the Quaker Oaks box)

1 cup plus 6 tablespoons butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs (room temperature)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

dash ground nutmeg

dash ground cloves

dash ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups old fashioned oats (not quick or steel cut)

1 cup dried cherries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. In a second bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) beat the sugars and softened butter until combined. It’ll be grainy. Then, add the eggs and the vanilla and beat until smooth. Try not to dip your fingers in it and eat it like that. Raw eggs are bad for you or something…

Now, gently mix all of the dry ingredients into the wet ones, and stir until just combined. Then, stir in the oatmeal and the cherries. It will seem like way too much oatmeal, but go with it. It’ll happen.

Drop the batter in tablespoon sized balls onto a greased or foil/wax paper lined cookie sheet. Sort of flatten them out a little. Bake for 13-15 minutes or until the tops of the cookies are golden brown. The cookies will keep at room temperature for a week or so.

You have my permission to tell people that these are breakfast cookies and eat them as such.

 

 

 

 

Book #14: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

This book really does defy review. It’s a collection of advice letters and their answers, written by Cheryl Strayed under the pen name “Sugar.” Instead of trying to tell you how lovely and tender this book is, let me just excerpt a piece of it for you. Will that be okay? Sugar says everything better than I ever could. This is long, and you don’t have to read it. But I would if I were you. It’s about love and loss. It’s really stunning.

The question is from a man, “Bewildered,” who is engaged to a woman whose mother has just died. He asks how he can best support his fiance.

“Dear Bewildered, 

Several months after my mother died, I found a glass jar of stones tucked in the far reaches of her bedroom closet. I was moving her things out of the house I’d thought of as a home, but that no longer was. It was a devastating process–more brutal in its ruthless clarity than anything I’ve ever experienced or hope to again–but when I had that jar of rocks in my hands I felt a kind of elation I cannot describe in any other way except to say that in the cold clunk of its weight I felt ever so fleetingly as if I was holding my mother. 

That jar wasn’t just any jar of stones. They were rocks my brother and sister and I had given to our mom. Stones we’d found as kids on beaches and trails and the grassy patches on the edges of parking lots and pressed into her hands, our mother’s palms the receptacle for every last thing we thought worth saving. 

I sat down on the bedroom floor and dumped them out, running my fingers over them as if they were the most sacred things on the earth. Most were smooth and black and smaller than a potato chip. Worry stones my mother had called them, the sort so pleasing against the palm she claimed they had the power to soothe the mind if you rubbed them just right.
What do you do with the rocks you once gave to your dead mother? Where is their rightful place? To whom do they belong? To what are you obligated? Memory? Practicality? Reason? Faith? Do you put them back in the jar and take them with you across the wild and unkempt sorrow of your twenties or do you simply carry them outside and dump them in the yard?

I couldn’t know. Knowing was so far away. I could only touch the rocks, hoping to find my mother in them. 

Not long before my mother died, a friend told me a story about a woman she knew, a resident at the group home for those with brian injuries where my friend worked. Several years before, the woman had been attacked as she walked home from a party. Her head hit the sidewalk so hard in the course of the assault that she’d never be the same again. She was incapable of living alone, incapable of so very much, and yet she remembered just enough of her former life as a painter and teacher that she was miserable in the group home and she desperately longed to return to her own house. She refused to accept the explanations given to her as to why she couldn’t. She had come to fervently believe that in order to be released she had only to recite the correct combination of numbers to her captors, her caretakers.

93480219072, she’d say as they fed her and bathed her and helped her get ready for bed. 6552091783. 4106847508. 05298562347. And on and on in a merciless spiral. But no matter what she said, she would never crack the code. There was no code. There was only the new fact of her life, changed irrevocably. 

In the months after my mother died, I thought of this woman an inordinate amount and not only because I was distressed by her suffering. I understood her monumental desire and her groundless faith: I believed that I could crack a code too. That my own irrevocably changed life could be redeemed if only I could find the right combination of things. That in those objects my mother would be given back to me in some indefinable and figurative way that would make it okay for me to live the rest of my life without her. 

And so I searched. 

I didn’t find it in the half-empty container of peppermint Tic-Tacs that had been in the glove compartment of my mother’s car on the day she died or in the fringed moccasins that still stank precisely of my mother’s size six feet a whole year later. I didn’t find it in her unfashionably large reading glasses or the gray porcelain horse that had sat on the shelf near her bed. I didn’t find it in her pen from the bank with the real hundred dollar bill shredded up inside or in the butter dish with the white marble ball in its top or in any one of the shirts she’d sewn for herself or for me. 

And I didn’t find it in those stones, either, in spite of my hopes on that sad day. It wasn’t anywhere, in anything, and it would never be. 

“It will never be okay,” a friend who lost her mom in her teens said to me a couple years ago. “It will never be okay that our mothers are dead.”

At the time she said this to me she wasn’t yet really my friend. We’d chatted passingly at parties, but this was the first time we were alone together. She was fiftysomething and I was forty. Our moms had been dead for ages. We were both writers with kids of our own now. We had good relationships and fulfilling careers. And yet the unadorned truth of what she’d said–it will never be okay–entirely unzipped me. 

It will never be okay, and yet there we were, the two of us more than okay, both of us happier and luckier than anyone has a right to be. You could describe either one of us as “joy on wheels” but there isn’t one good thing that has happened to either of us that we haven’t experienced through the lens of our grief. I’m not talking about weeping and wailing every day (though sometimes we both did that). I’m talking about what goes on inside, the words unspoken, the shaky quake at the body’s core. There was no mother at our college graduations. There was no mother at our weddings. There was no mother when we sold our first books. There was no mother when our children were born. There was no mother, ever, at any turn for either one of us in our entire adult lives and there never will be.

The same is true for your fiance, Bewildered. She is your joy on wheels whose every experience is informed and altered by the fact that she lost the most essential, primal, and central person in her life too soon. I know this without knowing her. It will never be okay that she lost her mother. And the kindest, most loving thing that you can do is bear witness to that, to muster the strength, courage, and humility it takes to accept the enormous reality of its notokayness and be okay with it the same way that she has to be. Get comfortable with being the man who says “Oh honey, I’m so sorry for your loss over and over again. 

That’s what the people who have consoled me most deeply in my sorrow have done. They’ve spoken those words or something like them every time I’ve needed to hear it; they’ve plainly acknowledged what is invisible to them, but so very real to me. I know saying those cliched  and ordinary things makes you feel squirmy and lame. I feel that way too when I say such things to others who have lost someone they loved. We all do. It feels lame because we like to think that we can solve things. It feel insufficient because there is nothing we can actually do to change what’s horribly true. 

But compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love you’ve got. 

So give it. It’s clear that you’ve done it already. Your kind letter is proof. But I encourage you to stop being bewildered. Have the guts to feel lame. Say you’re sorry for your lover’s loss about three thousand times over the coming years. Ask about her mother sometimes without her prompting. Console her before she asks to be consoled. Honor her mother on your wedding day and in other ways as occasions arise. Your mother-in-law is dead, but she lives like a shadow mother in the woman you love. Make a place for her in your life too. 

That’s what Mr. Sugar has done for me. That’s what some of my friends and acquaintances have done. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes it better. 

It’s been more than twenty years since my mother died. So long I squint every time the thought comes to me. I’ve finally convinced myself that there is no code to crack. The search is over. The stones I once gave my mother have scattered, replaced by the stones my children give to me. I keep the best ones in my pockets. Sometimes there is one so perfect I carry it around for weeks, my hand finding it and finding it, soothing itself along the black arc of it. 

Yours,

Sugar

 

Book #13: Divided Minds by Pamela Spiro Wagner and Dr. Carolyn Spiro, M.D.

The other night, I was about to leave home to go to book club when my mom called. We chatted for a minute and then she said, “I’ve gotta go, I’m leaving for book club.” What? I mean, I understand that book club isn’t exactly the most stereotypical 20-something thing to do in the world, but come on! I’m going to book club on the same night, at the same time, as my mom? Goodness gracious.

My book club is brand new–my friend Hadley and I just started it, so there are only four of us. In all honesty, we talked a little bit about the book, but just a little. Mostly, we drank pumpkin beer. Can we be blamed?

This memoir is told by twin sisters about one of the twins’ struggle with schizophrenia. Pamela Wagner is the twin that has schizophrenia, and for many years, her twin sister Carolyn was her sole family connection. Their jointly-told memoir is really lovely, and it’s also terribly sad and scary. The story told by both sisters highlights the difficulties that people with mental illness face on a daily basis–medication and its side effects, lack of services and support, not to mention the illness itself. In Pamela’s case, her schizophrenia means battling delusions, hearing voices that constantly drag her down, and living in a near-constant state of psychosis.

Carolyn is, for most of the twins’ adult lives, Pamela’s only family support. However, Carolyn keeps Pamela’s illness secret from her own husband and children. She answers late night phone calls from the hospital alone, and bears the burden of her sister’s descent into psychosis alone, without help from anyone else. Their story is one of sisterhood, of a connection that cannot be undone. No matter how different the lives of the twins are, they are forever connected, interdependent, and necessary to one another.

If you read this memoir, google the twins’ names when you’re done–the book ends rather abruptly, and you can watch videos of the two speaking in the year after the book is published.

 

The list so far:

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

6. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

7. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut

8. My Life in France by Julia Child

9. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

11. The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel

12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Homemade Cranberry Sauce

In my family, there is always canned cranberry sauce, sliced into rounds and still shaped like the can. I love that stuff. It’s exactly the best thing that happens at Thanksgiving and no other time of the year. That said, my family also always has real cranberry sauce with whole cranberries in it. And I love that stuff, too. What can I say? I’m a flip-flopper. I’m wishy-washy. I totally ride the fence on this issue. There should be both kinds of cranberry sauce on any Thanksgiving table. Always both.

So, the canned kind is pretty easy… it’s just a slicing issue. (It’s funny that I say that because last year at Thanksgiving, that was my only job and when we sat down, there was no canned cranberry sauce on the table because I forgot about it. In my defense, I was really busy stirring pots and holding babies and sneaking tastes of things.) Anyway, the canned stuff is sort of a day-of thing, but the real stuff can be made way ahead of time! I say do it now. The grocery store is definitely not out of cranberries yet, and the smell of the sauce cooking will get you all excited about Thanksgiving.

This year, Jason and I are having a little pre-Thanksgiving at our house for our friends, which I’m really excited about. I never get to host Thanksgiving (aka cook), so I’m making it happen this year. The whole shebang, just on a smaller scale. Then, I’m going to my best friend’s house for the real deal. This means that I get to have two totally separate Thanksgivings, which is the best possible situation.

If you make your real cranberry sauce early, you can give your friends a jar and save them the trouble, too. All things considered, cranberry sauce is a really easy thing to throw together. It’s just cranberries, orange zest and a little juice, cranberry juice, and maple syrup. It takes about a half hour to throw together.

Here’s the recipe: (yields 2 pints)

2 bags frozen (or fresh) cranberries (20 ounces)

2 cups 100% cranberry juice

2 cups pure maple syrup (not pancake syrup)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice

zest from one orange

Put everything in a large, heavy bottom pot and bring it to a rolling boil. Let it boil while stirring, for about 4 minutes. Then, reduce the heat to medium and stir for 10-20 minutes or until the sauce thickens considerably. (It will still be a little loose while it’s hot, but it’ll gel more when it cools.) When it’s done, pour the sauce into 2 pint jars or 4 half-pint jars. Process it in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.

Serve with turkey, gravy, dressing, mashed sweet potatoes, and yeasty rolls. DUH.

 

 

 

Book #12 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you were ever interested in reading a book about a marriage gone horribly, terrifyingly wrong, this is the book for you. If you wanted to read a book about a kidnapped woman that has a happy ending, do not–I repeat–DO NOT read this book. It’s a really sad, scary tale of the worst possible facets of human nature. The characters are all dark and twisty and they will make you feel dark and twisty, too.

That said, I liked it. It’s compulsively readable. I guess you could classify it as a thriller? Maybe a mystery? It’s more psychological thriller, perhaps? Maybe that’s some of what I liked about it–it was hard to classify. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything quite like this novel.

In less than 600 pages, your loyalty will waffle again and again. You’ll be sure that the husband, Nick Dunne, is guilty. You might be a little bit right. Throughout the novel, I changed my mind so many times, it’s hard to remember exactly what I believed at each turn. The end is so mind-bendingly bizarre and horrible that I had to stop several times to let what was happening sink in. It’s a shock–let’s leave it there. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

I will say that I loved the way that this novel made me examine my own reactions so intensely. I found myself pulling for certain characters, and then I was absolutely horrified that I was on their side. Somehow, Gilliam Flynn was able to make me care deeply about even the most vile character; I believed their lies even when I know that they are lies. At times, I had to step back and stop to examine the way that I felt as the story progressed. I hated the way that I fell for the character’s lies, and I loved them no less for it. That, I think, was the most psychologically trying part of Gone Girl: the way that I reacted to the story.

This one would be a good book to choose when you have a lot of other things going on. You won’t have any problem turning off the television and opening this book.

The list so far:

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

6. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

7. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut

8. My Life in France by Julia Child

9. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

11. The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel

12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn