2015 books

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: When I share with you what I’ve read and loved in the last six months. As usual, my list is all over the place, and the number one spot goes to a book I read, thought was brilliant, and only gets more brilliant in memory. If anyone wants to buy me a copy I have no specific preference about hardcover or paperback. You’re the best.

Ok, let’s do this:

5. Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo I swear this book made me breathe easier. It gives permission to be slow and plodding with your creative work and still count that time as productive. I’m on this kick lately where I’m anti-ambition. That sounds horrible, right? Here’s what I mean: We’re always told to strive for the top, and as women, we get an extra dose of “do it for the sisterhood. Blaze the trail, prove them wrong, honor those who came before you.” But who says your top is my top? What if the middle of your ambition scale is actually what fills my gut with that feeling of being alive and content and useful? So many of my large philosophical questions about life boil down to, IS IT OK TO BE DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER? Obviously, yes, but it’s more complicated than that. So this book. For me, it wasn’t just about taking your time with the process (and giving lots of practical writing advice), it also upended my high-performance striving and whispered, “you do not have to be everything right now.”

4. The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan So essentially, this is fan fic. Really well done fan fic, but fan fic all the same. I would write a huge rant here about how much fan fic bothers me with its derivative characterization and indulgent plotting except my 16-year-old self reminds me I have no stones to throw at that particular glass house. AHEM. The Royal We tells about an American woman who falls in love with the Prince of England and it is hard and public and basically a reimagining of William and Kate. Speaking of. At the peak of my William and Kate fever a few weeks ago–caused by Princess Charlotte’s birth and my reading this book–I watched the BBC/Lifetime William and Kate movie. I even began to live blog it for you guys. But it is unspeakably bad. Let me offer you this bit of real dialogue ripped from the first 90 seconds to prove it:

SCENE: Prince Charles and William walk in front of what’s obviously a university.
Prince Charles:
I can’t believe you’re all grown up. I want you to know I’m very proud of you.
A surprised Prince William: Thanks, Dad.
An overly affected Prince Charles: This is the kind of thing your mother would have wanted for you.
Me, incredulous: What? Like, a college education? 

Then William makes this face:

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To recap: movie = bad. This book = really fun. Find yourself a lounge chair in the sun and hop to it.

3. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech A 13-year-old girl’s mother leaves. She’s too young to know exactly the heartache that motivates her mother, but you won’t be. So from the very start, you’ll sympathize with Sal, the girl. You’ll laugh as she tells a story about her friend Phoebe. You’ll get that she’s actually telling more about herself than anyone else. You’ll be thankful for Sal’s grandparents when they take her to Idaho to find her mom. And because you’re older and wiser and know more, when Sal says “I knew” twenty pages from the end of the book, your heart will break.

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I hope I can say someday that this booked changed my life. I wrote about that here.

1. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill My friend Kristin read this book and wrote a succinct review: Dear god, so depressing. I’m here to tell you she is RIGHT. She usually is. I read this and loved the writing, but thought it was too much of a downer to be a favorite. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I kept wishing I owned it so I could read a few of the perfect sentences over and over again (“The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”). It’s the kind of book that’s told in small fragments. On their own, they’re clever. Through the course of the book, the effect gathers steam and the smallest bit of writing can bring tears to your eyes or make you laugh (mostly bring tears to your eyes). I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book where I’ve sunk so deeply into the context of the narrator and felt what I imagine she felt with each thought.

Honorable mentions:

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief You have to read this book about how nutso Scientology is. I read it and was all, Where is the petition I can sign to rid the world of these abusers of humans rights? FOR REAL.

Revolutionary Road Why do I like poignant, depressing books so much?

Lila Because Marilynne Robinson is perfect.

Skin Cleanse I am here to tell you I have had clear skin for three whole weeks because of this book. I’m going to write about it soon because it is to my skin and sanity what a life jacket is to a drowning person. (Maaaaybe overstating things?)

The Forsyte Saga Delicious Brit lit that spans decades, a category that will always be a success with me.

What about you?

 

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(Some quotes I jotted down on my phone while listening to the On Being podcast with poet Mary Oliver.)

You must make an appointment with your creative self. Otherwise your creativity gets tired of waiting around…or just gets tired.

If you’ve said what you want, by decorating it with more words, you’re not making it more intense. You’re repeating yourself.

You need empathy. Reporting is for field guides. (On paying attention to what’s happening around you and using it in your writing.) 

When I first wrote poems, they were rotten. But I kept at it day after day after day. Finally you learn things.

I’ve become more willing to grow old. (On what she means by “I’ve grown more spiritual.”)

Poetry is ropes let down to the lost.

———-

I’m a baby in the world of podcasts. So far I’ve blown through Serial, season one of StartUp (and I’m up-to-date with season two), also listening to Mystery Show and Reply All, have rejected Call Your Girlfriend and Relevant, and am selecting a few episodes here and there from Spilled Milk and On Being. What else??? I’ve got a long commute AND I’m starting to train for a half marathon, so I’m all ears.

 

A further entry in the annals of Joanna Is Not As Cool As You Think: A few months I had to Google FOMO because all the cool kids, etc. I’ll let you in on what I learned: FOMO is Fear Of Missing Out.

I have FOMO right now. Not the fear of missing out on any certain experience or event, but a fear of missing out on producing.

Every day, I go online and see people who write about every book they read (and in a much more digestible format than my long, never quite figured out thoughts), have a specific job for their Instagram account*, those who recap each day or weekend with technicolor photos, offer a new brilliant recipe every other day, have side projects with their friends, or get their thoughts together/organized/online before I remember what day it is. I see people who have a wealth of material they can point to when someone asks, “What have you been up to lately?”

Sometimes I get caught up in the idea that nothing has really happened until I’ve shared it here, on Twitter, or on Instagram. How will you all KNOW that I had a large revelation that will (please, God, please) change and shape my life for the rest of my life if I don’t explain it all here? (I did, and I haven’t figured out how to say it here yet.) How will you KNOW I’m taking advantage of living here by going to cool places if I don’t point it out?

It reminds me of the time I read a blogger’s About Me page and felt bad for 15 seconds because she seemed so cool and so into the same things I am. Then I realized, she’s into the same things I am, she just wrote it down on stone of the Internet!

In this online-centric life, I have to remind myself the doing is the doing. The telling is not the doing. The telling is a nice thing we do when we think someone else might benefit from the telling, or when the telling makes us happy or makes us laugh. We do not do so we can tell. Or at least, I shouldn’t.

To close, a list of potential side projects for me if I ever have the spare time and energy to do them:
// A podcast wherein my friend Keri and I watch movies and talk through them because it entertains us endlessly and annoys NOBODY.
// A retail store of all the things I really really like: books, fine chocolate bars with good-for-you ingredients, wine, llama things. I even have a name for it but I’m not sharing because this is the Internet.
// A series of illustrated children’s books recounting the adventures of my niece Luci and her BFF Leila. Luci and Leila! It practically writes itself! But it does not illustrate itself, so I’m stuck.
// Mystery Project X with my friend Kristin. Don’t ask. We don’t know.

Now I’m dying to know: If you had a side project, what would it be?

*A very savvy friend recently told me he decided one night to start an Instagram account of the wine he drinks specifically so he can A) convince wineries to have him photograph their product lines (he’s a photographer, so this isn’t a pipe dream) and B) because he wants wineries to send him free wine. It’s actually brilliant and a thought I would never have.

americanah

“I didn’t feel black until I came to America.”

Out of all the true, surprising, maddening quotes in Americanah, this is the one–voiced by the Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu–that sticks with me. I’ve spent a month thinking about why. During that month, another black man died in the custody of police in Baltimore. The conversation is getting louder, but in my mind, these nine words ring louder still.

Before reading them, I think I naively assumed identity was self-determined by either intentionally taking it on or intentionally rejecting what other people try to put on you. Yes, I am a bookish disciple of Jesus who is proudly Midwestern, even when that means I’m a little too quaint. No, I’m not a selfish Millennial who doesn’t know how to, like, write without using emojis.

I thought I got to decide all that myself. And the kicker is that, more than most, I do. I’m a 29-year-old white woman raised in a middle class family, college-educated, surrounded by people who believe in me and tell me I get to call the shots in my heart, my life, and my career.

Americanah woke me up to the reality that a 29-year-old black woman raised in a middle class family, college-educated, and surrounded by people who believe in her is told in ways both overt and subtle that she doesn’t get to call the shots, not all the time.

Because identity isn’t always our choice. Identity is often a reaction to what makes You different from Them, and what You and Them think about those differences. Ifemelu wasn’t black until she came to America, where we notice it and mark it and wrap up generalizations and history and misunderstandings and shame in one word. (In an interesting paragraph, Ifemelu says class is Nigeria’s “black.”)

That sentence–and the rest of the book–made me look hard at myself. I’ve always been taught and always believed that color doesn’t matter*, that we’re all precious souls on equal footing with our Creator. But at the same time, I recognized some of the stereotypes she brings up, some malicious, some not (assuming every woman in Africa is some kind of Earth Mother, assuming they need our help and our technology, assuming our literature/fashion/music/you name it is higher quality). I dug into my mind and saw work that still needs to be done on my heart.

It’s hard to say this publicly. I practiced by telling Brad, telling my coworkers, and telling my friends. This is the power of storytelling–to put you in someone else’s skin and realize how you judged that skin before. You come out at the end a little different, if you’re honest with yourself. I’m trying to be honest with myself. It’s been a month since I read Americanah, but it’s still making me examine each thought that comes into my mind. Some are good, some are bad. Each one needs to be held up to the light that will make it shine brighter or burn away what’s not true.

_____________________

*Our church is currently going through a sermon series examining movies and the power they have to show us God and Truth. Each week there is a podcast that digs deeper into the topic. A few weeks ago, the topic was Selma and justice. In it, one of the guests made an excellent statement about how being “color blind” is a mistake because that erases a huge part of someone’s identity. Instead, recognize difference, try to understand difference, and celebrate difference. The whole podcast was challenging and encouraging. You can listen to it here. (Episode 3.)

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Update: I originally gave the date at the head of this post as “August 31, 2015.” It’s been a WEEK, y’all. xo

// “What happens when the muscles of cruelty grow too strong?” (FYI: Some strong language.)

// The author behind The Power of Quiet is starting a site and social media account meant to encourage, help, and mobilize introverts (you know, from the comfort of our homes with no one else around). I’m following it and am excited to see what it turns into.

// The winners of last year’s wine competition as chosen by the esteemed brand that employs me. You know, just in case you’re in Whole Foods and have burning wine questions.

// I just discovered a number of gorgeous artisanal magazines: Life & Thyme and The Gentlewoman among them. I love seeing people with a niche passion go out and do their thing.

// The Mill (home of $4 toast that is Totally Worth It, even to this frugal Midwesterner) uses these glasses for water and I love them and will someday get a whole set of them. (Also the site of the photo above. I could move in.)

// Ask a food expert to develop a handful of recipes that use a single ingredient and what do you get? Really adorable, really focused mini-cookbooks. I will take one of each, THANKS.

// These Broccoli Parmesan Fritters are going on our weekly rotation for awhile. So good.

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Have you ever daydreamed about being surrounded on all sides by your favorite thing, be it book, food, puppies, brand of clothing, whatever? When I was a kid I had a serious candy cane addiction. One Christmas I bought a friend a specialty candy cane the length of my forearm (now, as an adult), then wanted it so bad I ate part of the crook and then STILL GAVE IT TO HER.

Yes, the memory of it still burns me with shame. (Sorry, Heidi.)

I used to go outside, look around, and try to imagine the entire world carved out of peppermint. The lawn would ripple red and white, giving way to wider stripes on our house, or pure white peppermint when it snows. And then I imagined eating it all the time. All day, every day. I literally wanted to lick a doorway into our house.

I worked Sunset’s International Wine Competition for four days this week. (6,000 bottles of wine do not move themselves, my friends. Nor do those bottles open themselves, pour themselves out, or push themselves down an uneven tiled hallway to the waiting rock stars of the wine world.) At one point, I looked around at the unrelenting sea of bottles and realized this is that daydream come to life. And honestly, the abundance was hard to fathom. It became silly.

I’m writing this at my dining room table where I can see two boxes and four tote bags filled with dozens of open, half-drunk bottles from the competition and it still seems silly. But I’m using them as an object lesson of grace. The grace of surprise windfalls and unexpected excess. And to remind the person inside of me who has a hard timing accepting good things that it’s ok to receive. No, it’s completely necessary to receive.

It’s also completely necessary to have friends come help us enjoy the excess. Does anyone want to come over for a silly wine tasting bash?

blackberry biscuit cobbler

Things I am good at:

// Reading books about writing instead of writing.
// Talking through movies and TV shows.
// Memorizing song lyrics.
// Breakfast.

Yes, breakfast. Eating breakfast, making breakfast, thinking about breakfast. I’m not sure I’ve gone one day in life without eating breakfast. I can’t even fathom missing it. When someone tells me they’re “not a breakfast person,” it’s like they’ve said, “I kick puppies for fun.” It’s horrific and I must stage an intervention.

Consider this crumble your intervention. It’s almost like dessert and it’s rare for someone to “not be a dessert person.” And it’s easy. I mixed it up last Saturday morning in one bowl and the pan I baked it in. While it baked, I planned our meals for the week and made a grocery list. Between bites, Brad and I played this game I love where we go through a food magazine page by page, read the recipe titles on each one, and decide which on that page we most want to make. It is FUN. Don’t ask questions. Unless it’s How did you guys get so cool?

blackberry biscuit cobbler
makes four servings for the gluttonous (us) and six for the normals

Adapted from Sara Forte’s adaptation of a Bon Appetit recipe, which happens to be one of the magazines we looked through while eating this. The circle of life!

1 cup plus 3 Tablespoons organic einkorn flour
1/2 cup organic rolled oats
3 Tablespoons plus 1/2 cup organic coconut sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons chilled butter (I used Kerrygold, salted. It is my desert island food), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup plain organic yogurt
4 cups (roughly) frozen blackberries
juice from half a lemon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bowl, whisk together 1 cup flour, oats, 3 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add butter, using your fingers (or a pastry cutter if you’re profesh) to mix and smoosh until you have pea-sized butter covered in flour (try not to overwork it). Gently stir in yogurt.

Pour berries in an 8 inch-by-8 inch baking dish and top with the remaining flour and sugar. Squeeze the lemon juice over it and toss to coat. Spoon the biscuit dough evenly over the berries.

Bake until the biscuit topping is brown and sounds hollow when you tap the top and the juices are bubbling, about 40-45 minutes.

 

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Dear reader,

Did you, like me, grow up in the era of low-rise jeans? Did “hip huggers” not only embrace your midsection but squeeze it into the loathsome muffin top? Did you, as a result, grow up thinking you just had a bad-shaped middle?

If you answered yes, yes, and yes, today I’m setting you free.

WEAR MID-RISE PANTS!

Yes, it deserves the caps because friends: You are not born with a muffin top. It is not an anatomical part. It is not your fault, it is the fault of bad pants. And it’s maybe our fault for succumbing to the trends of our era.

But now you are a grownup and now you must buy mid-rise pants and watch your middle resume it’s smooth(ish) contours. Never worry about bending over again. Never worry about pulling a Britney and showing off your belly button.

I recommend the Dannie pant from J.Crew (I have two pair and they were my personal PSA pants), and these jeans from Madewell that a friend of mine wears and loves and looks awesome in.

Love,
Joanna

P.S. I know that photo is not even remotely demonstrative of what I’m talking about, but I was too embarrassed to ask someone to take a photo of me and my pants.

 

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Time: A weekday, a few weeks in the past.
Scene: at work, drinking hot mint tea and eating cold raw cheese, remembering the day I learned to drink something hot when eating cheese. My Swiss friend Regi was giving me (and a few others) French lessons. One day, she planned an outing for us at the Thoreau Cultural Center in Des Moines. I think it was a meeting of French expats and students. They served so many cheeses, plus fondue, and lots of hot tea. Regi’s native-speaking friends asked us in French to pose for photographs with them–and I understood what they were asking. There’s a weird endorphin release when you understand something out in the wild you previously only knew by the book.

Thinking about it today, isn’t it interesting that when learning a language, the skill that comes first is listening and understanding? I could barely croak out a oui oui, but with careful listening, I knew the gist of the conversations around me.

In English, too often my first impulse is to talk, to share, to get it all out and wait for a reaction. But think of the riches–the endorphin hits!–I’m missing by not sitting back and listening intently, focused on what the talker is saying, really saying in between the words.

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With a title like that you might think that I’m quitting this blog (ha! you can’t get rid of me that easily), or that I’m quitting my job (and miss out on homemade steak fries, grilled steak, orange citrus pound cake two days in a row, apple pie and Pabst Blue Ribbon beers to celebrate a co-worker’s recent citizenship? That’s just this last week. And we’re having a picnic together next week on our lawn. So no.), but it’s not! The big news is that Sinead O’Connor has announced she’s retiring this song.

Part of her explanation (which you can read here), says:

“After twenty-five years of singing [Nothing Compares 2U], nine months or so ago I finally ran out of anything I could use in order to bring some emotion to it. … My job is to be emotionally available. I’d be lying. You’d be getting a lie.”

Her words made me stop and think. For all of us, but especially those of us in creativity-first jobs, if you realize you’re phoning it in, it’s ok to say phoning it in defeats the point and then stop doing that thing. Purpose isn’t found in the tasks we perform by scraping our internal reserves. Idealist Joanna is done speaking and now Realist Joanna will start: If only we could all be in position where we get to make that choice ourselves.

photo: of a recent tour of the design studio responsible for Heath Ceramics, and where it appears as if they never need to phone anything in.