Tag Archives: books

the sublime maira kalman and my perfect french onion soup

maira kalman 1I made a giant pot of French Onion Soup for this cold, cold weather, and we ate it with the bread soaked in and the cheese bubbling over on top while reading The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman out loud.  This is such a wonderful book.  Ms. Kalman is an illustrator of New Yorker covers who’s children’s books we read years ago before I knew anything about her.  Max Makes a Million has been imprinted on my brain for all eternity, I’m sure, after the number of reads we gave it.  She has such a whimsical, dear, funny, heartbreaking view of the world!  Every contact I have ever had with her work makes me adore her even more.

Principles of Uncertainty is kind of a memoir, a visual journal, a bit philosophical, asking the big questions in the most childlike way, very New York, and it is utterly, utterly charming.  It’s about being moved by the effort that humans make—the often bizarre efforts (funny hats!  superb tassels!) to just plain old walking when we are old and walking has become  a trial—to get through our days.  Life is so hard and yet it is also full of moments of beauty, and joy, and wonderful desserts…do we need to ask the big questions when they seem to be unanswerable?  (Yes.  Maybe.  I don’t know.)maira kalman 2

Highly recommended.  Will crack you open in a sweet, delightful way.

Then, after the soup and the reading , I found a piece of paper where Sophie had written:

When you misplace something you can’t replace, like setting down a a friend, like setting down a piece of yourself, don’t try to be someone you’re not, don’t pretend to have feelings you are not feeling, I try to be my best but I slip up sometimes.  Don’t we all.

…and it took my breath and made me remember when she was ten months old, TEN MONTHS OLD, and she told me about the rain falling on the window and on the flowers outside, and how it was pretty, using sign language, because we did that (it was awesome), and it was so astonishing to realize there were deep thoughts and powerful experiences going on inside that tiny person.  I mean, of course there are, but so often people are opaque, we can forget, and then the curtain draws back for a moment and we see inside each other…

Maira Kalman makes me feel like that.  She is all about seeing those glimpses.

Here is Maira herself, giving a talk about some of her work, simply delightful:

And here is my recipe for sublime French Onion Soup, seriously it is that good.  There are these remnants from when I worked as a cook in my late teens and early twenties, like the few George Winston songs my fingers can still somehow play on the piano.  Mostly I don’t cook now, but sometimes I pull something out like this and my family gawks at me like I’ve started speaking flawless Swahili.  Yes, children, your mother knows how to cook, she just prefers not to….

FrenchOnionSoupSublime French Onion Soup

Thinly THINLY slice several large sweet onions. (Number depends on how much soup you want.  I did 3.)

Melt a half stick of butter in a large, dutch oven or soup pot and stir the onions around in it until they are coated.

Cook these on low-med heat for a while, stirring occasionally.  Maybe 45 minutes.  You want them to caramelize and you want some nice brown crusties to develop on the bottom of the pan, the more the better.  Not black!  Brown.

When the onions are translucent and the bottom of the pan is mucked up with brown, pour a generous cup of wine in and stir, getting all those brown bits off the bottom and dissolved into the wine/onion/butter mix.  I used some cheap marlot.  White wine will work, too.  Add a few minced cloves of garlic and a couple of bay leaves.  Keep stirring until the wine is mostly absorbed.  Some people add a few tablespoons of flour to this step, to make a roux, but I like a more clear broth, so I leave that out.

Add stock, veggie for vegetarians (it will be a little less rich, but still wonderful), or beef if you eat meat.  Enough to cover the onions and then some.  Add a couple of pinches of dried thyme.  Add salt until it tastes good to you.  This will depend on how salty your stock was.  I also like a bit of fresh ground pepper.  Simmer until it starts to smell wonderful.

Dish out onions and broth (which should be a rich brown color) into bowls.  Put in thick slabs of hard-toasted French bread, and grate cheese on top, Mozzarella is lovely, maybe a bit of Parm.  Some people use Gruyere.  Melt under a broiler for a few minutes.

Eat.  Try not to burn your mouth (I always burn my mouth).  It’s amazing.  And not very hard.  Maira, if you are ever in North Carolina, please come over for some of this soup. You would be most welcome.

Oyster: an ipad app that gives me the shakes like a meth head about to get a nice fat hit

Short version: Oyster is Netflix for books.  That is, Oyster is a subscription book reader with 100,000+ titles now available for unlimited reading, for $9.99/month on the ipad/iphone.  Check it out.  It’s cool.

Long version: Holy shit!  This changes everything!  Netflix killed the video store, and I love my local bookstore, but…how can they compete with an app that gives me all the books, all for the cost of one?

Seriously, Oyster is like walking into a bookstore and buying all the books, only I can magically carry them all in my pocket and it only costs me $10 bucks.

How is this not going to rewrite the entire game?

Confession: I am a bookaholic.  A heavy reader (doesn’t that sound kind of nasty? like heavy breather or heavy bleeder or something?). Which means, in addition to reading a shit-ton of books, that I have dealt with the frustration and longing of wanting to read books I couldn’t find, or couldn’t afford, for my entire life.  Then Oyster comes along and pats my hand saying, that’s all over, dear.  Here, have all the books.

Makes me tear up a little, you know?  Shut up.

Listen, I know Oyster books are not mine, I don’t own them, and if I stop my subscription, access to these books is suddenly denied.  I understand that.  I do.  But, it’s a mighty fine line when Oyster let’s me read any of these books, in part or in whole, whenever I want, as often as I want.  I mean, that’s pretty damn close to what I want from “owning” book.  The Venn Diagram of Owning a book and Oystering a book is very nearly two circles sitting on top of each other.  Not quite.  But pretty close.

Maybe saying Oyster is a library in my pocket is more accurate.  Only without the driving, parking, lugging, due dates, overdue fees, waiting for the one copy of what I want to be returned by some asshat who keeps fucking renewing it, oh and paying for the books I inevitably lose.  Oyster is like a library in my pocket, except for all those things.   Wait, maybe Oyster isn’t much like a library at all.

For the record: I ADORE libraries.  If there is a heaven, it is a city of libraries.  But they do have their downsides.

The reader in me, the book hoarder in me, got physically excited when I was looking at the description and the library on the Oyster site.  Seriously, my heart rate when up.  Probably my pupils dilated.  I started breathing faster and talking louder as I tried to explain to Sophie, 9, how amazing this was.  Seriously?  I can read all these books?  For $10 bucks?  For real?  You’re kidding me, right?  Maybe I’ve had this kind of response to a product three other times in my life.  One of those was probably my Macbook.

By the way, Sophie didn’t get it.  She has grown up surrounded by all the media she could want.  She has no idea what it was like to grow up with only the lame school library for my books, and  three network channels but no vcr or dvr, etc.  Yeah, I walked to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, you know I did, she has no idea how good she’s got it.  Etc.

“You don’t understand,” I tried to tell her.  “Do you know, for example, how much I wanted to read all the Oz books when I was your age?  And here they all are!  Twenty of them!  I could sit here and read them all right now!  This is amazing!”   Not that I want to read the Oz books anymore, not really, but that’s an example of that longstanding book-longing I was talking about.  It hurt when I was nine and couldn’t read those books.  The bookstore had them, but I couldn’t buy them.  But now I have them, here in my ipad.  They are finally mine to read!  If I want!

“Okay, Mom,” Sohie said, tolerant of my nuttiness.  “Read all the books.  It’ll be okay.”

I could not throw my money at Oyster fast enough.

(Is just having access to all the books what I’m really paying for?  It might be.  We’ll see in a month or two how many books I actually read.)

But seriously, since I was a little girl, my dream was just that, to READ ALL THE BOOKS.  What did I want to be when I grew up?  A writer.  But when my parents helpfully talked me out of that on the basis of income (they were right) (so what) my second choice was a librarian.  Just so I could hang out in the stacks.

Oyster is better.

Oyster is the best online “bookstore” experience I have had, including Amazon.  And I love Amazon.  Oyster’s interface is terrific, attractive, relaxing, enjoyable.  Strolling through it is very much like strolling through a nice bookstore with curated tables of handpicked titles, me looking at the book covers, finding books I didn’t know about, rediscovering old favorites (with their new covers).  Really, very enjoyable.

Only, whenever I found something that looked good, I just stuck it in my “reading list” to read whenever I want.  Boom.

Any book I see is “mine!”  No having to choose just one title (only one, because that is all I can afford today).  Heck, I’m not even limited to the number of books my arms can lift.  Just, yes, I’ll have that one, and that one, and that one, and oh, that one over there….

GAH!  I get excited all over again just typing that!  Free-for-all in a bookstore!!!  [me running around in circles waving my arms]

Two less than perfect points:  1) Like any bookstore or libray, there are titles I want that they don’t have.  The selection was pretty exciting—I found a ton of stuff I wanted to read—but definitely I came up against its limitations.  For example, the sci-fi section is a bit thin.  Maybe half of my direct searches yielded fruit.

Counter to this, apparently they are adding  hundreds of titles a week.  That’s a lot of books.  I look forward to the expansion.  But right now, there are gaps.

2) So, like any bookstore or library, Oyster may have 100,000 titles, but 99,000+ of those are books I don’t want to read.  It’s a misnomer to focus too much on that big number. The real question for any reader is going to be how many of their titles are in my circle of interest?  Some readers are more niche than others.

One thing I didn’t expect: with my limited budget, going to a bookstore means picking out one book (maybe two) that I guess to be the pinnacle of my current interest that day.  Oyster, on the other hand, opens up a world of books that are slightly less interesting to me—meaning, I would probably never select these titles to buy because they are not enough of a bull’s eye to warrant buying—but they are still in my field of interest.  They’re my second or third or even tenth choice.  Books I want to try, or books I want to read part of (history books or cookbooks or biographies, not my primary interest, but still, cool stuff).  Books I would never give a try if I had to pay full price, or even lug home from the library, but that I would love to cozy up with for a while…these suddenly become possibilities.  That’s cool.  It’s a world of books I don’t usually indulge in.

Jeez, there’s not enough TIME to read all the cool books.  I like time being the limiting factor much more than selection or money, you know?

Suggestions to Oyster (just in case they’re reading, 🙂 ):

1) Make your “related” title searches deeper.  For example, when looking up Fay Weldon the “related” titles returned only more Fay Weldon (because she’s written a bunch of books) but it didn’t have room to give me “like” titles by other authors.  On the whole I find the “related” titles pretty interesting.  If it’s an algorithm, it’s doing a good job.  But give me more titles to choose from.  More rows, keep it coming.

2) Give me a way to look at every title you’ve got in a given genre, or, heck, in your whole store.  Your lists are great, but they are too short.  Give me the lists, yes, but, just as in a bookstore, I want to be able to look at every title you’ve got, scanning the covers, in a given section, just like I will scan the entire bookshelf in say, the fantasy section in a bookstore.  An alphabetical search would be fine for this.

3) Give me a way to search for kid books, or a way to turn off adult titles when a young person is searching.  My daughter was getting some racy results on her “related” screens.  I’d have liked to have been able to easily screen those out with a check box.  But I want the option to turn it back on for myself, too!  Don’t take away the racy stuff!!!

4) Reader reviews on the info pages would be terrific.  That’s the one thing I missed from Amazon.

Bottom line: if you’re a heavy reader, I highly recommend Oyster.

On the other hand.

As an author, Oyster terrifies me.  What portion of my $9.99 are the authors of the books I read there this month going to get?  It can’t be much.

I think the changes to publishing—the system-wide reworking of book-life that we have been in these last few years—I think they are just getting going.

howl’s moving castle has a sequel! how did i not know this?!

We just finished listening to the audiobook of Howl’s Moving Castle. Oh!  It is SUCH a good book, such wonderful characters and also a tight and twisty plot, both sides of that coin strong, resilient, and surprising.  Diana Wynne Jones was a master.  A young hatter finds herself under a curse that makes her look ninety years old—and she finds she likes it.  She heads out to seek her fortune and ends up in the house of a mysterious wizard and his fire demon, with a door that leads to alternate dimensions. Plus there is a cackling dry humor all the way through, AND its a love story, only its love between two cantankerous, flawed people that are also, somehow, completely endearing.  It’s so wonderful, if you like fantasy at all, SMART fantasy, give a try if you haven’t already.  We had finished up Harry Potter and were at a loss to find another book until Luc hit on this one.  Yay, Luc! Good choice!

He thought of it because, of course, we are already huge fans of the Miyazaki movie of the same name, have been for years.  I can quote that whole movie to you and I simply adore parts of it, but wow, Miyazaki has some howling ginormous plot holes in his version.  Sometimes I can’t help but wonder WHAT he was thinking?  Especially when the novel he was working from is so strong, not a hole in sight, its as tight as a drum and delightful the entire way through.  Zero angst!  I can get so sick of angst.

Of course, Miyazaki also added some bits that aren’t in the book that I love.  Like this scene:

Honestly, his movie and the book really aren’t the same story at all even though there are entire scenes almost word for word the same in the first half.  So many lines have entered our family’s language.  “Not ready, not ready!”  and “Now I’ll have to mop again.”  And, “You’re going to eat while I do all the work?!?!”  Good fiction, whether book or movie, is like medicine, isn’t it?

Anyway.  Only TODAY I discovered that Castle in the Air—which I had long thought the same thing as another Miyazaki that I have to admit I’m not very fond of, Castle in the Sky, (it suffers from the Superfriend’s Ending, that is, they find something huge and amazing and destroy it lest it fall into the wrong hands)—is really another Diana Wynne Jones book!  AND GET THIS: it’s got Howl and Sophie in it, the two wonderful characters from Howl’s Moving Castle! How did this information elude me for so long?  How could I not have known this?  Except that I was busy mistaking the movie for the book or something.  But really, this is a huge discovery, like finding gold in the attic or true love in an old friend…

At any rate, I’m downloading the audio of Castle in the Air from audible.com as we speak.  And after that there is House of Many Ways, which I’ve read, and which also has Howl and Sophie, in a background kind of way, but it’s been years and I can’t wait to listen to it with the kids.  Aren’t audiobooks divine?  I simple love them.

But here’s the thing: finding a book by an old favorite author, a book that I didn’t even know existed, plus there are the audible credits just waiting for me, and there is the book, listed on the site, so its only a matter of a few clicks and I’m settling in to hear a discovered treasure.  It’s like Christmas!

I hope someone someday feels that way about one of my books.  It’s my fervent prayer, right after my kids being super happy and outliving me, and me not getting some painful disease. Let my stories matter to someone the way stories like Howl have mattered to me.  What is that, really, like, let me matter?  Let my little thoughts matter?  Is that lame or what?  For god’s sake, Maya, get some therapy.

But whatever, I’m making the last pass on Children of the Fallen this very weekend and then it goes off to the copy editor (assuming I don’t discover something major and awful that I have to fix first).  Cross my fingers, its coming out in a few weeks!  And it does matter to me, so I reckon that’s enough.

so many yoga books, so little time

Grimmly over at Ashatanga Vinyasa Krama Yoga at Home has one of the best yoga blogs on the net, if you ask me. He is consistently inspiring with his dedicated home practice and his inquiry into this whole crazy asana thing we do. Anyway, he had a really cool post the other day about yoga books shelves, inviting folk to send him pictures of theirs. I found myself scrunching up close to the monitor, trying to read titles, ha!

I thought I would send mine over. And then I thought I’d post here, too, why not. But then I realized my yoga books are spread every which way all over the yurt so instead of a shelf, I spread them out on my manduka. And THEN I realized I had missed an entire shelf of Patanjali, so there is a separate photo of those. And I can think of several more that I’ve got that I just couldn’t find anywhere. And, of course, it doesn’t include the ebooks I’ve got on the ipad. So, I guess this photo is just a portion, maybe 80%.

This is a big image, if you click on it, it should blow up to full size, if, like me, you were curious. EDIT: oh, that’s funny, wordpress just scrunched the image to fit into my blog-column width.  Tall skinny yoga books!

Here’s a few more, lots of versions of the Yoga Sutra–I think I got a few duplicates in there….

That’s a lot of books! As a home yogini, books and videos are the primary sources. That’s my excuse. What’s yours?

(I should take a picture of the dvds, too…)


A book can travel a long way with a person, physically carried through space, and psychically, carried in one’s mind.

I recently finished re-reading, Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany, for, perhaps, the fifth time. Dhalgren is definitely one of those books.

Below is a picture of my old copy, at one time duct-taped together, now left with a grey, duct-tape residue, the back cover gone, the spine completely circular (like the story). I bought it when I was 15, out of a “5 for $5” bin in the back of the Second Foundation, an old hole-in-the-wall SF bookstore, now lamentably gone. This dingy paperback has been with me through a dozen moves, all my various relationships, cross country, through babies and marriage, and has been living lately, squished into the back of an overcrowded bookshelf, in the yurt. And with a sticker on the cover from “Interlude Books,” presumably yet another bookstore, who knows how many hands it went through before landing in mine? Next to the old copy is the new copy that I bought last week, when the mold smell on the old one started making me sneeze (I still read the old one while in the bath—the new one was so pretty, I was afraid to get it wet.)

I remember sitting at my desk in my mother’s house in Hawaii, reading Dhalgren (instead of doing some idiotic homework assignment that I have long since forgotten—now which was a better use of my time, long run?) reading it for the first time with the experience of having my head softly blown apart. I remember walking around my high school with various of its sentences stuck verbatim in my head. I remember that feeling of the world looking different to me, when I finished. And I don’t think the world has ever gone back to its old shape.

This most recent reading, maybe ten years since the last time, I keep noticing things—thoughts, ideas, images—that have occupied my mind for twenty-some years now, things that I had forgotten came from Dhalgren, including fragments of images that have shown up in my own writing, or writerly moves I hadn’t realized I had learned from Delany. Which is cool. This is a book that clearly takes a long time to digest.

The plot is simple—a young man with partial amnesia enters the burnt out remains of a city that has undergone some disaster, though it is unclear what that disaster was, and whether it was a human creation (riots are mentioned) or semi-mystical (strange moons appear in the sky, the topography seems to change, time seems altered). The young man moves through the landscape, meets people, has experiences, and leaves. But the events are not really what the book is about—how the cast of characters relate to each other and their world is more important than the events themselves. Race, sexuality (graphically portrayed—you have been warned), money, leadership, sanity, and art are some of the issues explored. The writing is gorgeous and complex. The story seems to fold in on itself, giving an experience of temporal shifting in the reader that mimics what the main character, who is possibly insane, experiences. The end of the book appears to be what comes before the beginning of the book. My mind folds in on itself with wanting to understand, always coming out the other side with a question instead of an answer. But this, oddly, doesn’t feel like a problem, but rather a revelation.

William Gibson, in the prologue of the new edition, says Dhalgren is a riddle that isn’t meant to be solved. I like that. But I would add that the impulse to solve the mystery of the book, the way the back of my mind has chewed on it for over twenty years—finding new meaning and depth with each re-reading—that action of engaging with the book, itself, changes the reader, has changed me. Like an oyster making a pearl, only in reverse—instead of covering over, something is exposed. Perhaps this action, my brain following the path of the book around and around, is the point.

With over a million copies and 30 years of availability (though it was out of print for a period in the 80s), Dhalgren is undeniably an SF classic, and Delany, winner of the Nebula (four times!) and the Hugo, is undeniably a classic SF author. But Dhalgren is also like some bastard child that SF loves to hate. With its wandering non-plot, over 800 pages, and no clear order of events, it is certainly… different from most of SF. Harlan Ellison famously declared, “I hated it! I threw it at the wall!” And it does have the reputation as a ‘difficult’ book. I don’t know about that—to me it is compulsively readable. That probably says more about me than the book, but it must be true for some others out there, with such a long publication history. It is not a clean, neat reading experience, with ends tied up and points clearly made. It’s a journey.

I highly recommend the journey.

And for fun, here is an on-line exploration of the book, based on the Dhalgren MOO of the 1990s.

If you’ve read Dhalgren, or are reading it now, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

a thousand good reads

A recent conversation with some writerly folk yielded a plethora of fringe culture art references from steam punk, to webcomics, to you-name-it. As a result I ended up reading all 1000+ comics at Questionable Content.

I highly recommend–it’s like watching Friends only with grunge, swearing, and indie music references. Start with #1 so you get the whole saga. And if you click those two QC links, you’ll see how much J. Jacques, the writer, has changed in his drawing style in the couple of years he’s been at this.

I love that he is supporting himself doing it. The internet is awesome! Artists can connect with fans directly and distribute their work practically free, allowing Mr. Jacques to support himself and his girlfriend doing something he loves. Cool.

I also just finished re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.

I think it was about fifteen years ago that I read it the first time, so I had forgotten most of the details. When I was in my twenties and worked in a bookstore, I could not fathom how these people could come in to buy something and not be able to remember if they had already read it, or if they had, how it ended. Now I am one of those people. Age really does seem to fill one’s brain up. Things fall away. I didn’t understand that before. What would it be like to be 100? Awash in a sea of almost-accessible memories….

Animal Dreams takes on big themes, but keeps them so personal that it never feels preachy. I really enjoyed, this time, how all the pieces fit together. No references was a throw away–if peacocks are mentioned in the beginning, then peacocks are important to the whole. The characters are all loveable and the sense of place is detailed and gorgeous.

One of the most interesting parts of reading it this time was noticing how I had changed. For example, the lost baby stuff kind of blew past me the first time–no frame of reference in my early twenties. Now, with two babies of my own, that part of the story was devastating. (And no, I didn’t give anything away, there, it’s all near the beginning.)

But the thing I remembered most from my previous reading was Loyd (not a misspelling), one of the the hunkiest literary boyfriends you’re going to find, right up there with Mr. Darcy, only with muscles and long black hair. Yum. Not to be missed.

the best book I’ve (not) read in years

Well, I didn’t read it because it doesn’t have any words. But The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, is about the most beautiful and moving book I’ve seen in years.

Go get it at the library or buy a copy–get a new one so the author can get a little money–and be prepare to be amazed. It takes about thirty minutes or so, longer if you really examine the drawings–which is worth the time because they are deep, beautiful, full of surprising details and strong emotions–and so far every time I go through it, it makes me cry both with great sadness and happiness. And, I’m telling you, that’s Art, in the most capitalized sense of the word, or nothing is.This one, in context, breaks my heart every time.

I picked the book up at the library the other day after Neil Gaiman mentioned it on his blog (saying it ‘is a book I tend to force people to read,’ which I totally understand now), and so I had no other preconceived notions about it, and not a clue what it was about. Which served me very well, as the entire thing opened out before me new and surprising. And so it is with hesitation that I link to this interview with the creator, but it is a good one, so, go get the book first, and then read the interview. Really, go out and find a copy of this book. Go on. Hey, why are you still reading this?