Well, hello again

It’s been awhile since I posted here. Blogging and journaling was something I very much let fall by the wayside in 2021 and 2022, no matter how many times I added it to my MakseLife Weekly Actions lists or scheduled it in my planner. I am very much a writer who needs to “be in the mood” or have something I really need to share before I sit and type out my thoughts. But…2022 was also a year I fell into so many different ruts, the road is pretty much obliterated at this point. I think, no, I know, I have been in a rut for a long time now but 2022 really brought that home to me. It was a year of big change for me, I bought a house!, and I don’t do change well so, as you can imagine, I’ve pretty much been a highly functioning mess since 2020 at this point. In times of upheaval, I lean heavily into my comforts – my comfort reads, my comfort watches, my comfort foods. I pretty much stop reading/watching/consuming/doing much of anything new. I think we can all agree this is not healthy but I was able to coast for a long time in this mode. However, I would very much like to focus on new things in 2023.

So, my word of the year is Zest. I’d like to get some zest back in my life through just bringing new things into my life. This is as simple as reading a new book at least twice a month rather than just re-reading the same titles over and over. As simple as making myself watch at least one new TV series each month rather than watching the same episodes of Agatha Raisin and Brokenwood Mysteries over and over again (yes, my comfort watches are cozy murder mysteries…we won’t dwell). I know this isn’t hard in theory but oh, it’s so easy to just say, I’ll put on this episode in the background so I don’t need to pay attention while I do these other five things but…that’s the problem. I’m not actually doing anything useful or really fun at that point. I have noise. I have become a household that must always have noise in the background and I’m not OK with that. I want to watch and enjoy and pay attention to these shows and books I chose to send time with. Attention is a major issue with me right now. I pretty much lost the ability to focus and concentrate well on anything at least a year ago, if not longer and it’s long past time I acknowledged that problem and starting working on dealing with it.

So, I approached my 2023 yearly goals with this in mind. I want to rest and re-focus and enjoy and have zest for my daily life again. I have felt “meh” for a long time now and I am tired of it so we’re going to go slow and steady into this new year with a plan that will hopefully get me started on a newer, cleaner path. The ruts will take me some time to work out of – I’m not going to suddenly get out of habits I’ve been cultivating for almost three years now – but I think I’m ready to work my way out them, something I haven’t been interested in until now. So, here’s a 2023 in which I work to bring some zest back into my life, even if that’s simply me actually reading the TBR books on my shelf and making a dent in my ever growing to-watch lists on far too many streaming services to name. As one of my favorite goal YouTubers always reminds us, small progress is still progress so may we all have small progress in 2023 to feel like we’re heading in to the right direction.


Braiding Sweetgrass

This was an unexpected book for me. Not unexpected that I should read it – it’s been on my TBR list for awhile now as it comes highly recommended from tons of my environmental channels and rightly so. I picked up on a stop at the local indie store when I was in need of some book therapy and knew it would be a perfect Earth Month read. No, it was unexpected in that it felt like a gift from home. And also reminded me of how little I paid attention to certain things when I lived at home.

I am of the FernGully generation. We were the kids taught how to use the blue bins at school for recycling so we could go home and teach our parents about this new concept. In first grade, we literally turned our classroom into a rainforest out of paper and cardboard for a class project. Saving the planet was indoctrinated into us very early on. But it was always we need to save the rainforest, save the ocean, save the endangered species. We never talked about the ecosystems we needed to be protecting right in our own backyard. Maybe as a wealthy community far enough from Syracuse, we figured we were just fine so could put our energies elsewhere. All I know is I learned more about the ecological issues of my home from this book I read almost 20 years after leaving than I ever did while I was living there.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes so lyrically about the ideas of restorative ecology and using Indigenous land management and wisdom to do so that you very quickly believe her when she explains it was either going to be science or poetry for her college degree. But, what I think I loved best is she didn’t choose – to her science is poetry, combined with the teachings of her people which she generously shares. She uses tribal stories as metaphors to discuss modern scientific thought and experience. I especially loved her use of the Windigo to try to explain the systemic barriers to dealing with our ecological problems and her constant grounding throughout the book with the original story, with Skywoman. I had heard the Haudenosaunee (Iroquis when I was taught it though I am happy we now use the correct name for their nation) version as a Girl Scout on a field trip to “Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois” museum which thankfully is now appropriately named The Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center on the shores of Onondaga Lake. It also brought back that not only did European settlers take their land, we degraded a thriving matrilineal society created by a single woman who planted the world when we did so.

Which brings us back to Onondaga Lake. A lake I lived next to for the first 18 years of my life and while I knew its dubious claim to fame, one of the most polluted lakes in the United States, no one had ever told me how it got that way or what we could do to fix it. Kimmerer, as a professor at SUNY ESF (my dad’s alma meter – another link to home), lays out the story of the lake clearly and then discusses how over and over the pleas of the Onondaga tribe were ignored in saving it. While a “solution” put in place is holding, it’s still a lake that is toxic. Slow victories of recovery are celebrated such as when a pair of bald eagles returned to the lake. I can only hope they didn’t actually eat any fish out of it as that would still not be the best idea. However, Kimmerer is an optimist, like me on my good days. Someone who believes we can heal the broken bonds with earth but she is also a scientist. She doesn’t hide from the truths of the planet we’re now faced with trying desperately to save from the Windigos in control.

So, if it’s not clear. I adored this book. It was the perfect Earth Month read, helped with the touch of homesickness I’ve been having, and has inspired me to continue on my sustainable goals for the year and beyond. It may seem little the few changes I can make but if we all made such changes, what a difference the world would see. As Kimmerer shares towards the end of the book: “We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making the earth again.” Hopefully we humans will remember our role sooner rather than later.

A book that made me hungry

I know I was hungry when I brainstormed the theme for my book club this Spring. I decided to go with books about food. The topic wasn’t super strict and we’re read books all over the place when it comes to food. A memoir, a classic romance, and a history of women through the food they ate so far. But this latest read. I may have drooled at one point. And I definitely made chicken biryani a week ago because I needed some Indian food in my house to save me from ordering a small fortune in it via take out. The Hundred-Foot Journey was just making me really hungry and while I itched the Indian food craving, I need to make a classic French dish here soon too.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is the story of Hassan Haji and his family. Raised in India in his family’s restaurant, the family flees India after their restaurant is burnt down during uprisings against Muslim-owned businesses. Hassan’s mother is killed in the blaze and the family flee to relatives in England to mourn and re-group. However, nothing good seems to happen to the family there so Hassan’s formidable father packs the family into a caravan of cars and sets off on an aimless road trip across Europe until finally one of the cars breaks down in front of a maison in a small French Alps town and they decide to re-start their restaurant empire with Hassan leading as chef. This does not go down well with their Michelin-starred neighbor, Madame Mallary. After a series of confrontations, Hassan becomes Mallary’s apprentice and it is a straight hill from there it seems for Hassan’s rise to foodie greatness.

Aside from the food, which the author’s descriptions were just good enough to make me hungry but also send me googling to get pictures of the dishes he described, I really loved the narrative style of this book. It is told by Hassan, many years after most of the events so it has an almost fairy tale feel to it. It doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of narrative details and as such, the book moves along at a good clip. I never felt bored or like it lingered at a time or place too long. It was a book that understood the usefulness of a montage – I don’t need to dwell on the hours of work Hassan put in, it’s enough for you to tell me he did. As such, it was a book that had some fabulously detailed characters – mainly Hassan’s father and Madame Mallary. I did not find either of them particularly likable if I’m being honest but they were interesting. Hassan’s father was so big and larger than life. I admired his tenacity, if cringing at his tact. Madame Mallary is mean, really mean, for most of the book. I appreciated Hassan and the author telling us why though. She was mean, mainly because she was terrified. While that didn’t excuse it, I could understand it.

I did think the book also had an interesting message about the role of immigrants in their adopted countries. Hassan is an outsider but he’s anointed the torch bearer for French haute cuisine by his mentors. They see in him someone who can appreciate and translate the old French cooking for a modern era, perhaps because he is an outsider, someone who learned and revered the classics from a different point of view and can make them fresh again for the new food establishment. I enjoyed the disdain towards “modern” cooking. I have never quite understood it either. I’ll say this, Hassan never used foam in any of his dishes so he’s a win in my book (the whole foam thing baffles me).

I’m looking forward to discussing this title in book club next week but I really need to make sure I have some healthy snacks in the house so I don’t just order in naan and call it day.

An ode to my planner

In news that will shock no one who knows me well, I have always been a planner. I think my favorite moment in 6th grade was when they handed me a year long planner (what they called an agenda) and taught me how to use it to track my homework and schedule. It was magic. I kept a paper planner throughout my school years because of it. In college, I upgraded to a Franklin Covey planner and that carried me through graduate school and into my first full-time job. Then, I decided I needed to go paperless and gave up my paper planner for about 3 years or so before I realized a) I really love paper and b) digital only was not working for me. I missed the “one stop shop” of a planner. It took at least 3 apps to replace it! I was missing things, I felt unorganized and I never felt I really knew what I was supposed to doing. Also, I really, really missed the satisfaction of physically crossing a task off my list. I needed a paper planner.

So, I did what I do. I started researching. What type of planner did I want? Did I want to go back to a tried and true planner or try something different? During this time, I came across a targeted add for a new planner from a startup called Ink & Volt. They were offering a digital version of their planner for you to look at before purchasing so I downloaded it and immediately felt I could make it work. I had so missed a paper planner and Ink & Volt was a good fit for me and then, about mid-2019, I started to chafe in it. I was running out of room in the weekly spread for what I wanted to list daily. I also figured out what wasn’t working for me in the planner. The “one-stop shop” syndrome was striking again and if there were lists or tasks elsewhere in the planner besides the page I was on, I wouldn’t look at them. It was also a very goal-orientated planner and I was finding that that wasn’t me. I liked the idea of goals but I wasn’t really into them in a way that would get the best use out of the planner. But, I just kept trudging along in my Ink & Volt. It was an excellent planner; I just had both grown out of it and never quite grown in it.

Then came the pandemic and my nicely ordered and routined life came crashing to a stop. I don’t even remember how I found it but one day, on Instagram, I must have followed some of the #planner tags and I found a whole new world of planners and stickers and washi and…I was overwhelmed and I wanted in. But, I’m also frugal and felt like I shouldn’t be buying a new planner in March when I had basically just started a new one. So, I drooled and followed so many Instagram and YouTube accounts. However, this turned out to be a good thing because it meant I got to really browse and watch and see and start to figure out…which one of these was going to work best for me?

It will probably surprise no one that I didn’t actually make it a year before buying a new planner. My Ink & Volt had only weekly spreads but at the rate I was trying to cram information into each day of the spread, I had figured out I wanted to try a daily planner. Lots of ladies in the planner community had multiple planners. And I mean multiple – I marvel at the ladies who use 5, 6, 7 planners at a time because I didn’t last long with two. After months of ogling, I ordered myself a daily Plum Paper planner in July of last year. I tried to maintain both the weekly and daily planners but the weekly just became redundant for me so I stopped using it in August of last year. But my daily? I am pretty sure I couldn’t live without.

Days from earlier in March 2021 from my Plum Paper Daily – not my most completed task days but it happens!

I did get on the sticker train…a little. I collected stickers as a kid so this idea of doing it as an adult is both delightful to me and also I have some guilt that it’s not what I should spend my money on. But I think I’ve found a good balance now (says the girl who literally just signed up for Plum Paper’s monthly sticker subscription but I am just trying it out to see if I like it OK? I think it might be too much for my planner to be honest but one has to check it out right?). I find having a daily spread gives me all the space I need for my daily schedule, tracking my meals, finally using all those quotes I have been saving for years AND a daily to-do list with priorities. I have even started to figure out how to use the monthly dashboard and calendar which I thought, due to my “one-stop shop” syndrome, I would never use.

The March dashboard pages in my Plum Paper Daily – I’m using them!

So, as I am all about finding the silver linings as we come into the new world, the pandemic gave me a community of planners to follow and marvel over on Instagram and a planner that I love and works best for me and my life right now. So, I wanted to share it with all of you.

Greek Mythology and Me

I didn’t finish any books last week so I was going to not post anything this week but I was kind of bummed to not keep up my streak. Luckily, my friends at Big Book Energy helped me out.

The ladies at Big Book Energy I am lucky enough to call friends and work colleagues. They inspired me to start writing on the blog again after I spent way too many of their episodes yelling at the recording, trying to enter a conversation that was already done. So, I decided to return to the blog and write out my thoughts instead about what I was reading, watching etc. However, in a week in which I have nothing done to report on, I thought I would revisit Greek mythology thanks to BBE’s second to latest episode (I am always a few behind – I marvel at people who seem to have all the time in the world to watch, listen and read all the things).

Not only did BBE convince me to add Song of Achilles to my TBR (Achilles is one of my least favorite characters of the Greek myths), some of the discussion questions took me down memory lane and I thought it would be fun to write out what my history with Greek mythology is. It doesn’t have a very auspicious start (Hercules and Xena may have been involved) but remembering reminded me of some old favorites.

I first studied Greek myths in 6th grade language arts class. We read a version of Eros and Psyche that I immediately connected with. It wasn’t until many years later I realized that story was basically the original Beauty and the Beast plot (I can be slow). We also wrote our own myths for an assignment for that class. I was a rock collector at the time so I wrote a story of how rose quartz came to exist. It involved Aphrodite, a rose, a mortal, and Zeus. In the end, not the most unique myth plot but it got the job done.

Next time I remember studying myths in school was 9th grade. This was where I first read my favorite version of Persephone and Hades’s story. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the original story of rape and kidnapping – I was very upset to discover how terrible Hades actually was once I read other versions. Luckily, this particular myth is having a bit of renaissance and so there a lot more fun versions of it floating around right now. Instead of being tasked to write our own myths, our assignment in this class was to pick a god or goddess and research their myths. This is when I found my girl Hestia, goddess of hearth and home and so much cooler than her later counterpart in Rome, Vesta (though the Vestal Virgins have a lot to dig into with their own mythology). Hestia though, took no part in the struggles of men and gods and therefore featured in no myths. So…I sort of had to make one up for her. I made her the storyteller of Olympus, the witness to the struggles of men and gods, someone who via some slight of hand, could have some influence on the myths as they played out. All, I basically made her the archivist of Olympus before I even really knew archives were a thing. One wonders how I took so long to figure out my career…

My senior year of high school, thanks to my general nerdiness, I already had a lot of college credits so chose to preserve some of my sanity and not take AP English. Instead, I took an entire year-long class on Mythology. It was glorious. It was during this class I read my first excerpts of the Iliad and the Odyssey and also started the lifelong hunt for the myths retold from different perspectives and voices. While I dug a lot into Irish mythology for this class, I would say my favorite remained the Greeks. They were all train wrecks and it made for such good fiction. While I have managed to avoid reading all of the Iliad, I read the entirety of the Odyssey for at least two different classes as an undergraduate student and for this high school class. Odysseus is pretty terrible, per usual for men in the myths, but his adventures were riveting AND he did have one of the most kickass wives in all of fiction, Penelope. Did he deserve her? No, but apparently that is what happens in myths.

Re-tellings are some of my favorite reads and I do need to read more of the Greek myth revisions. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood gave Penelope her day finally and lady is cynically resigned to her story. Bonus, she clearly does not like Helen and I feel that though I was bummed her son Telemachus doesn’t come off very well in this retelling. I had always written a much happier ending in my head for him. I have to do that a lot in the Greek myths. They were a society that loved tragedy after all. I have also read a few other myth retellings but they don’t stick out in my mind. I need to add more to my TBR so I am thankful for BBE for adding one, even if it is about that prat Achilles and for reminding me of how much I do enjoy the myths.

A week of re-reading and re-setting

I read a lot this week – yay! To the point where I didn’t even turn my TV on most nights this week. I was so excited to finally be in a reading mood again! That I promptly worked my way through several books on my TBR shelf…however, a lot of those books are re-reads as I was working on buying copies of books I had enjoyed and wanted to own. I usually try to read a book before purchasing – I wouldn’t buy a movie I haven’t seen; why would buy a book before I read it? Some authors get a pass on that rule but generally, if I love a book from the library, it goes onto the “to buy” list and I keep an eye out for it in used bookstores or add it to my Amazon list for others to gift me in the future. Most of the books this week fell into this category. As I am a big re-reader, I was excited to dive into some books I had enjoyed in the past.

Not all the books were re-reads however. Beastly Deluxe Edition by Alex Flinn I picked up in the bargain bin at Books a Million a long while back. I had seen the (truly awful) film a long time back but I am a sucker for a Beauty and the Beast retelling so had hopes the book may be better. No luck; the book is just as terrible but in other ways. It’s a hard story to make really comfortable for a modern reader. I think the one saving grace with Beastly is it is told from the perspective of the Beast and that sort of…not really..makes it a little less creepy? It was a quick read if nothing else.

The other unique read for the week was Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury which was a book I added to my to buy category based on fellow Janeite reviews. It is a delightful coffee table book that examines each of Jane’s novels through the contemporary lens of pop culture and includes reproductions of documents in envelopes scattered throughout the book. I can’t resist a book with envelopes! But overall, this is a fun primer for Jane’s novels and would be a great introduction for someone who is new to Jane or for the Janeite who just collects all books Jane (exhibit a: me).

Otherwise, I took my reading mood to get some re-reading done for books on the TBR shelf. The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables is as gorgeous as I remembered. If ever there is a book one wishes you could climb into to travel to the place it’s picturing, it’s this book. Not only does the photography capture Prince Edward Island in all its many glories, it shares a lot of photographs L.M. Montgomery took as well, given a unique glimpse to how Maud saw the island while she called it home. I also appreciate the book follows Maud beyond PEI and yet calls back to how PEI, and Anne, were always with her.

Lastly, I dug into some historical romances I picked up from the used bookstore when I was there last time. I like to collect from certain authors and series so when I find the books, I grab them. I think I have single-handedly cleaned the local used bookstore out of Amanda Quick novels in the past. I adore Amanda Quick books – they are such comfort reads. They are pretty much exactly the same each time; change some names and locations but it really is the same plot over and over and yet I love them so. Historical romances are always what I use for a reading re-set. They are predictable, I can read them in a few hours, and the ones I favor always have good banter which make for fun weekend reads.

A quirky town and a love of books

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a hodgepodge of a book with some of my favorite narrative devices and plots. There are letters, quirky townsfolk, a heroine who doesn’t see herself as one, and her very reluctant knight in shining armor. It’s a book about books, about small towns, and about adventures that can happen in your own backyard. It ambles along nicely until about halfway when all of the sudden the author decides the book needs all the cliches. One chapter gives you the repressed older woman falling for the dashing younger man, the next chapter thrusts you into a fake marriage plot. Suddenly, there is a Customs agent nosing around town and always, at the heart of the story, is a bookstore, improbably open on a dying Main Street in the middle of nowhere Iowa. I wonder if the Swedish author set out to write a classic American romantic comedy and just couldn’t decide which plot to use…so used them all.

Cover from Goodreads

I kid because I enjoyed. This book is full of all the weird and wonderful cliches that fill my favorite romantic comedies. It all begins when a young Swedish woman, Sara, becomes pen pals with an older woman, Amy, living in Broken Wheel, Iowa. When Sara finds herself out of a job, she makes plans to come and visit her pen pal. Only to arrive after Amy has passed away from a long illness she’d neglected to mention to her pen pal. Hi-jinks ensue, but in trying to repay the town’s kindness to her, Sara opens up a bookshop in an old store on Main Street and proceeds to sell off Amy’s extensive book collection. As she’s only there on a tourist visa, she’s not paid for her work and nor does she want to be. To Sara, this is the only thank you the crazy town will let her give. Books to a town of people who aren’t readers. Slowly, of course, Sara wins them over and the journey is the fun part. I do enjoy a story populated with so many quirky characters but I found some of them got the short shift due to the author trying to cram every plot line she could think of into the book. I would have loved to know more about John, Amy’s heartbroken beau and sole storekeeper left in Broken Wheel. I felt there was so much more to his story and we just never get it due to the focus on other, juicer stories.

There were scenes to make you laugh; I laughed so hard I may have cried at the first fake wedding ceremony. An earnest pastor, a bride and groom not really sure what’s going on, a drunk diner owner with a shotgun and then a customs agent who interrupts in spectacular fashion made for a very cinematic chapter. But there are also quiet moments in the book. Sara and Tom’s relationship is so quiet and lovely compared to the chaos swirling around them once the town decides Tom should marry Sara so she can stay in Broken Wheel forever. Tom also makes the requisite Green Card joke so he got props for that. But mainly, I loved how Amy, though gone, is still very much present in the story through her letters to Sara which are shared periodically between chapters. You learn through the letters that Amy was the heart of the town and you get the impression that she wants Sara to come because she knows they are going to need a new center and she chose Sara for the job.

So, it’s a hodgepodge book but a hodgepodge of so many of my favorite things that I couldn’t even be annoyed at the chaotic feeling to the narrative sometimes as it jumped from one story to the other, from one trope to the next. Broken Wheel is full of people I would love to meet and a bookstore I would adore to spend some time in.

A lovely exchange of letters

I love getting “real” mail – not the fliers or bills or the million envelopes I get from all the charities I’ve ever given a dollar to (and I lot I haven’t). I mean, real letters and cards from friends or family who took the time to sit down with paper and pen and send me their thoughts. It is truly a lost art for most. Is it any surprise then that I adore a good epistolary novel? Something about the intimacy of a story told only through letters – through the thoughts that a character shares with only one other reader in mind – draws me into the story like no other narrative tool can. It can be a frustrating narrative format in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand what to do with it – you may get too little information and not be able to follow the story or you may get so much information that it’s implausible you’re reading a letter anymore – but when someone gets the balance just right…these novels can sing. Their modern day equivalents aren’t so bad – I’ll read a book in emails and texts any day as well – but a good long letter always seems so much more to me and my latest read, Meet Me at the Museum, does not disappoint.

This short epistolary novel is letters between Anders and Tina, two people who find their best friend on the other end of a letter at the exact right time. Tina is still mourning the loss of her best friend and realizing her life, while not terrible, isn’t one she wanted. Anders is still mourning the loss of his wife and trying to navigate being on his own and also being a part of his grown children’s lives. Originally, they meet because Tina is trying to reach a professor who’d written a book about the Tollund Man, a man found preserved in a peat bog when she was a child, and writes to the museum which houses the specimen. Anders, a curator at the museum, responds and their correspondence grows from there. It is a lovely, quiet story of two lonely people trying to figure out what the next act in their plays will be and they both elegantly write about their struggles and triumphs through their correspondence. I enjoyed their children’s stories as well – both have daughters that have adventures through their correspondence which also cause Tina and Anders to grow and change as well. The letters are written that you are drawn into these lives, that while not exciting, are fighting to find their way through the murkiness of finding one’s self in the later years in life. I adored both Tina and Anders and even forgive them the slightly ambiguous way the book ends. I can write my own ending from the correspondence shared easily enough.

Looking at Women’s Stories through their Food

For the book club I run, I try to pick themes that guide what books we’ll read. This spring, I chose to focus on books focused on food in some way. We read one of Ruth Reichl’s memories for January and then the delightfully zany Like Water for Chocolate in February. For March, I wanted another non-fiction book as I’d noticed, even if the other ladies hadn’t, we often have our best discussions with our non-fiction reads even though the other members are always kind of lackluster about suggesting them when I call for titles to include in a book line-up. So, I hunted through my TBR list on Goodreads and found Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories which fit the bill nicely. It was a bit more dense potentially than I would normally suggest for book club but still a very approachable biography for six very different women.

I will admit I knew nothing about the first two women featured in the book, and not as much as I would have liked to know about the rest. Getting to know these women through their relationship to food was such an intriguing way to learn their stories. First up was Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s over-devoted sister who kept house for him during some of his most productive years prior to his marriage. Her story was sad to me; after William’s marriage, she just sort of plods along behind and eventually keeps house for her nephew again briefly and then suffers from dementia until her death. Food, so glorious to her when she was using it to fuel someone she loved, became a backdrop to her rather depressing life. A portrait of a lady who potentially could have been more than just a sister or aunt in a different era.

Next featured was the colorful Rosa Lewis, an Edwardian caterer and hotelier who, from her humble Cockney upbringing, cooked her way into the best drawing and dining rooms in Edwardian England, including becoming a favorite of the king’s. I think my favorite part of Rosa’s story was her superfluous husband whom she clearly didn’t much care about and kicked to the curb fast enough once he was no longer useful. But she understood her world. Being Mrs. Lewis did more for her career than any talent ever would have. Following on Rosa’s flamboyant story was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor has such a sad story in many ways but she always seemed to make the best of it, especially in public. I hadn’t heard the stories around food in the FDR White House (it was apparently absolutely terrible) and while I don’t think I agree with all the conclusions Shaprio makes about Eleanor’s food story, I enjoyed the idea that part of the reason Eleanor let the terrible housekeeper keep serving awful food was a bit of an F-you to a husband who’d betrayed her.

Eva Braun was next, a jarring change from the steady and sober Eleanor. Eva was someone I knew one thing about – she was Hitler’s mistress. Telling her story through food was fascinating as it was often just people eating around Eva, not Eva herself. Eva loved to play hostess and loved to play the part of Germany’s leading lady. It was one of the few things that made her pathetic but sympathetic to me – all she wanted was to publicly play the role of Hitler’s wife and it was always denied to her. She had to hide, and sneak, and never been seen when certain people were around. She was shallow, willfully ignorant, and terrifyingly obedient to a monster of a man. I don’t think Eva deserved better – she wanted exactly what she got – but I was sad for her to never have wanted more.

After Eva, Barbara Pym was a delight. I will admit to not liking the one book of Barbara’s I have read but the idea of them still appeals. I love nothing better than a cozy story and Barbara practically invented the post WWII cozy novel. She herself also sounds pretty delightful and someone I would have loved to go to tea with and then eavesdrop on everyone sitting near us. Because, she did that ALL THE TIME. Took herself out to lunch or tea and then sat and wrote down all the bits and pieces of conversations she could hear and used them in her books. How fabulous is that? I also appreciate someone who didn’t shy away from British cooking. I think it has a bad reputation unfairly, and enjoyed everything I ate while in England, and I like that Shapiro and Barbara acknowledge that no, it’s not the best (and it’s certainly not French) but it isn’t terrible either.

Lastly, we reach Helen Gurley Brown. Potentially the most infuriating woman in the bunch because she just so…ugh. Everything I try not to be she prized so highly that I feel mostly sorry for her. To her, food was an enemy. There doesn’t seem to have been any enjoyment or pleasure from food at all. Her only goal was to be skinny and that was how she defined herself. Her stumbling over how to write about food throughout her career was funny and sad. She reminded me most of Eva among the other ladies. Their one ambition seemed to have been to be pretty and seen. The most I can hope for them is they were happy with that in their lifetimes.

I didn’t mean to end on a bit of a downer. I really enjoyed this book. I loved this intimate look at these women through their relationships with food and also how food and culture affected their lives and the paths it took as well. I also appreciated the Afterword where Shapiro shared a little bit of her own food story. It added a personal touch to the book but also showed me this is an historian who sees herself as part of the larger tale and I always appreciate that. History is not simply the past; it continues to work on us long after it’s gone and food especially is a part of our stories as human beings that we carry with us, long after other parts are forgotten.

Hello Shakespeare. You’re tricky to adapt

I have a complicated relationship with the Bard. My first introduction to him was not pleasant in 8th grade. I, to this day, hate Romeo and Juliet with a passion that one would not expect from a fan of romance. Because, to me, two teenagers falling in love at first sight and a lot of people dying because of it just…doesn’t do it for me for some reason? I am apparently weird in this way. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year that I thought maybe this guy was onto something. I am a fan of Shakespeare’s comedies. The tragedies and histories are not my thing (I mean, Hamlet? Don’t get me started). So, I have read all the comedies and the tragedies only when forced by a class assignment and I have pretty much managed to avoid the histories so go me!

That said, the comedies have their own problems and none more so than The Taming of the Shrew. It is also, for some reason, the one that we all seem to like to try to adapt for the modern audiences and I am a bit baffled by this. Is it because it’s the one we most want to make more palatable to modern audiences? Is it the one feminists are most anxious to reclaim? I mean, we’ve been adapting that one for years. I can count several modern adaptions of Shrew but strangely, not one of Midsummer (I mean, fairies and men becoming literal asses might also be the reasoning there) and while you a lot of modern stories get their inspiration from Much Ado About Nothing (hello one of the original enemies to lovers trope!), I can’t think of a movie that purports to be a direct adaptation of it (other than the weird B&W version Joss Whedon made…that we’ll just move on from).

So, why Shrew? It’s kind of a terrible plot line but is, I must admit, comedy gold. A younger sister is the pretty popular one and lots of men want to marry her but her father has dictated that she can’t get married until her older sister, a terrible person because she has opinions, does. Hijinks ensue to marry off the older sister so her younger sister can marry one of her suitors and basically the older sister gets married off to a man who cheerfully tortures her into becoming a compliant wife, the younger sister elopes with her trickiest suitor, and they all live happily ever after. It sounds awful right? I mean, somehow we’re still debating if the play is misogynistic or not. Let me settle this. It is. The older sister, Katherina, is fabulous in the beginning and somehow by the end is this meek shadow of her former self. Enter centuries-worth of adaptations trying to fix that, the most common having the actress playing Katherina wink at the audience as she performs her final monologue to let the audience know all the fools on the stage only think she’s tamed. Still, it’s terrible. I know this. You know this. So why do I adore all the adaptations of this play? Kiss Me, Kate is one of my favorite classic musicals. McClintock! remains one of the few westerns I actually like and let us not forget the classic 10 Things I Hate About You was also based on this play. I think on film and stage, we’ve managed to work our way around, and just out right delete, the parts that cause the most problems. On paper, it’s trickier.

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler, has been sitting in one of the stacks of books I bought at the used book store for awhile now. It’s one of the novels in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, an effort to have best selling authors re-tell Shakespeare’s plays in modern contexts. Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a part of this series, a book which I take off my TBR list and add back on at least once a year since it was published (I also have a complicated relationship with The Tempest – welcome to the life of a recovering English major). I was intrigued enough to buy Vinegar Girl and bolstered by my recent return to reading (thank you Mindy Kaling!), dove into this relatively short novel. And immediately realized that trying to stick to closely to the plot line of Shrew in a modern context is just…icky. Kate Battista has such potential as a 21st century Katherina. She’s in a rut but smart. Could do things with her life but isn’t sure where to start and is pretty sure her father and sister wouldn’t last a day without her anyway. She was kicked out of college for disagreeing with a professor (does this actually happen?!) and so is wasting away as a preschool classroom aid where she hilariously doesn’t lie to the children to make them feel better and gets reprimands from the headmistress when parents call and want to know why she didn’t make their child feel like a special snowflake (the kids LOVE her by the way; honesty is always appreciated by children). Enter Pyotr, her father’s research assistant who is about to be deported because his student visa is running out. But her father NEEDS him so…he basically makes Kate marry him. I mean, Tyler tries to make it less icky than that and the characterization of Pyotr goes a long way to making this not as gross as it could be. But still, her father marries her off. In the 21st century. And then is upset when her and Pyotr decide not to live with him and her teenage sister after the wedding. I just…I had a lot of feelings.

It is a gorgeous cover though – I also really loved the idea of Kate as a botanist but we never really get to see that in the book. [Image: Goodreads]

Mainly, that Kate deserved so much better. I mean, as I say, the fact Tyler makes Pyotr a fairly forward thinking guy who is excited to think about Kate going back to school and treats her like a person and not a live-in servant, made this sort of OK? But like, Kate sort of talks herself into the marriage because Pyotr is a way to leave her family home and get herself out of her rut and she’s excited to have her own apartment and I am just…you have more choices than marrying a man who needs a green card to do those things sweetie! She’s sort of wishy-washy in the end and don’t get me started on the modern version of her final monologue because I threw the book after I read it. Just…it didn’t work for me. It worked at times. and I kind of loved Bunny (Bianca) in this book because, while still a spoiled brat, she does try to save her sister (and, SPOILER ALERT, commit lab theft at the same time with her inappropriate older boyfriend), but just overall I was left with the same feeling I often have after reading Shrew or any of its adaptations. I liked it but I really shouldn’t.