Category: Essays (Page 1 of 3)

Ten Things I’ve Googled This Week that are NOT Corona-Related

1. Distilled water in iron. When I was a teenager, one of my occasional chores was ironing. My mom taught me to pour distilled water in the iron, and I remember asking her why the water had to be distilled. She made a face and laughed a little and said, “Huh. I’m not really sure. That’s just the way I was taught to do it!” This would have been in the very late 80s, so there was no easy way to look it up, and I filed it away in my brain with the many unknowable, pre-Googleable things that were part of life. 

This memory leapt up at me recently, out of the blue, the way memories will. I Googled it and the answer is that distilled water has no minerals so the iron won’t get clogged. Clogged? With minerals? I think this just means the salty deposits that can form around things, which you can just wash off. My mom bought special water at the grocery store her entire married life–she was an upper-middle class woman with an education and enough wealth to afford drycleaning, but she was an all in housewife who did her own ironing–without even knowing why. And she was okay with that. She died in an accident some years later, and I wonder all the time what she’d be like today, with the internet at her fingertips. She’d use it, that’s what she’d be like. She’d see it’s  wonderful, horrible potential, but she’d use it, to look up movie times and recipes. I think she’d have a little business of her own now; she was so smart and creative. She’d probably have stopped putting distilled water in the iron, but I bet she’d still do her own ironing. 

2. Kinds of Crepe Myrtle Trees and Pinky Tuscadero. My husband thinks the huge maple in our front yard is not long for this world, and the only thing that gives me comfort about this potential loss (and the kidney one of us will need to sell to have it taken down) is that we could plant a crepe myrtle tree. I fell in love with these marvelous pink and purple beauties in 1987, when we moved here from Evergreen, Colorado, a place of majestic rockies and pine trees. Northern Virginia seemed to be a place of traffic and allergies. My first spring here, it wasn’t the cherry blossoms that impressed me, it was the hundreds of crepe myrtle trees people had in their yards, the smooth, dove-gray trunks giving way to puffy pink blossoms that burst out in a riot. They are girly and gorgeous and they seem to say IN YOUR FACE, WINTER! SPRING IS HERE! Turns out there are fifty kinds of these, Latin name Lagerstroemia, and I have to be careful when we get one because they’re all lovely but I want a specific one called the Tuscerora. Tuscarora reminds me of Tuscadero, as in PInky Tuscadero, Fonzie’s girlfriend in Happy Days. I was five or six when my sister and I saw Pinky, with her Daisy Duke shorts and that shirt tied way up high. We were scandalized. And fascinated. When I tied my nightgown high above my belly button and pretended to be Pinky Tuscadero, my sister told me I shouldn’t do that because Pinky was “trashy and not a nice person.” I was ashamed and puzzled: Fonzie sure seemed to like her. 

3. Can you survive on 500 calories a day. This is an interesting one because Google’s answer was something along the lines of not really; your body will go into starvation mode and your metabolism will shut down and you’ll get very sick and die. However, if you google can you survive on 600 calories a day, increasing the caloric amount by the number of calories in eight baby carrots or one hardboiled egg, the answer is: you bet! And you’ll feel great and live longer, too! There is so much conflicting advice on the internet about dieting that I’m sure if I wanted to find a chocolate chip cookie diet that was great for weight loss and healthy too, I probably could. 

4. Was Joseph Pulitzer a bad person. Every theater nerd knows all the words to this catchy musical, and some people who shall remain nameless may have even memorized the entire script from the 1992 movie with Christian Bale because he was so dreamy. (He was even dreamier two years later in Little Women, the much better movie than the recent one.) Pulitzer is the Newsies villain, the monocle-wearing newspaper publisher who hikes up the price the newsboys must pay for papers, sparking the famous strike of 1899. He’s rich, so he’s bad, and basically a child abuser, but we named a huge prize for intellectual endeavors after him, so how bad could he have been? Wikipedia’s answer is that he was good and bad: he was responsible for putting crowd-pleasing garbage in newspapers, but spearheaded many philanthropic projects and was by all accounts a solid family man. He did indeed raise the price of newspapers and refuse to lower them, but it was after the Spanish American war when all papers raised their prices. He was against child-labor and didn’t think children should be selling papers in the first place, and said he wished parents wouldn’t send boys out to do men’s work, though of course that was easy for him to say from his mansion. His daughter, Katherine, may have been spunky but she does not seem to have been an aspiring journalist.

5. Lloyd George Knew My Father Song. This got stuck in my head, I have no idea why, and I suddenly had to know why there was a song about a prime minister knowing someone’s dad, and if there were any more words to it. Turns out the song is as nonsensical as it sounds and  has no more lyrics than those in the title. But it lead to a search about Onward, Christian Soldiers (same tune), my parents’ favorite hymn when I was growing up, and an inspiring hymn in hard times; I wish it were in Catholic hymnals, and I have a whole other article about that. Turns out the lyrics to the hymn were written by Arthur Sullivan, the greatest lyricist of all time. He’s half of Gilbert & Sullivan, the duo who wrote comic operas like HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. I was in a professional production of Pinafore once, but I’ve  kind of forgotten about Gilbert and Sullivan for two decades, and suddenly I am sad that no one seems to know what it is anymore. Those songs used to be part of pop culture, and now pop songs are mostly trashy. I’ve heard rated R songs blasting away at the grocery store and doctor’s office like it was no big deal, and it makes me cringe and think: who are we? The US would be a better place if we played better music in stores and offices and all public places. I’m convinced this is why everyone is so happy and well behaved at Disneyland; they play big band music in the streets. 

6. Wiper blade movie. There was a movie I watched years ago when all four kids were little and went to bed early, and we had time to watch a grown up movie in the evenings but were too tired to stay awake or remember it later. This movie had Greg Kinear in it, and I’d had a crush on him since his Talk Soup days when I was in college, which my husband knew, but he agreed to rent it anyway. I think it was one of the last movies we rented from a Blockbuster. It’s a true story, about the guy who invented intermittent wiper blades for a car and pitched his idea to Ford, only to have them use his invention on the latest Mustang without giving the guy credit. He is so distraught, he checks out of family life and temporarily lands in a mental institution. But really it’s a story about pride: when Ford eventually offers him thirty million dollars to settle, but without admitting wrongdoing, he won’t take the deal. His family has crumbled and thirty million would pull him out of crushing debt and set them all up for life, but he won’t take the deal, because he wants justice. His own way. It’s called Flash of Genius, and it reminds me that God wants us to follow our principles, but not everything is a moral issue; we sometimes mistake principles for foolish pride, or let perfect be the enemy of good. Sometimes, I think God is telling us take the deal, you idiot, take the deal. (If you like Greg Kinear, the remake of Sabrina is a better bet. He’s adorable in that, and Julia Ormond is even more adorable.) 

7. Mrs. Beasley doll. There was a TV show I watched in my very early childhood, all sepia-toned and blurry in my memory. It had two children, a boy and a girl, and the girl had Cindy Brady ponytails and a strange-old lady doll in a polka-dot dress whom she called Mrs. Beasley. I was fascinated by this girl (perhaps Buffy?) and coveted her curls, and even though I had a good father and a lovely family life of my own, I had a strange dad-crush on the father figure in the show. So I Googled Mrs. Beasley and discovered the show was called Family Affair, already in reruns by the time I watched it. The kids were Buffy and Jody, and the doll is even stranger than I remember, and you can buy an Ashton-Drake replica of her for a hundred bucks. (The father-figure, it turns out, was played by Brian Keith, the John-Wayne-like dad from the original Parent Trap movie and I do remember the dad-crush I had for him in that. I think we all do, am I right?) In hindsight, I can see why I wanted to be like Buffy, and it wasn’t just the curls. She was winsome and beloved and smart, like Shirley Temple. (I also wanted to be like Shirley Temple. And when I got older, Hayley Mills, and then an obscure actress named Amanda Peterson who played Sunny on a TV show I watched with my mom called A Year in the Life, and then Jennifer Connelly in that white dress in The Rocketeer, and then Meg Ryan with that cute haircut in You’ve Got Mail, and now Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary.) 

8. Why is Jesus’ Passion called Passion. I should have known this but I didn’t. Of course I knew the definition of the word: a strong emotion, or deeply felt enthusiasm, etc., but not really how it applies to the days before Easter. Turns out the etymology of Passion means suffering, and it was mainly used as a noun that meant Jesus’ crucifixion until Shakespeare came along and toyed with it a bit, like he did with all words, so that it could mean a deep affection for something or a mild agitation, or anything in between. He even used it as a verb, the way people will take a noun and verbify it, like incentivize, and dialoguing, and trending. Now we associate passion with either romantic love (sometimes tawdry romantic love), or a strong affection for something, like cars or silk scarves. It’s strange that someone can say they are passionate about pugs, for example, or environmental issues, but if I say I’m passionate about Jesus, or my family, it would be kind of weird. People would smile and back away real quick. Although, I think we can all agree that it’s okay to be passionate about dark chocolate. 

9. Mulligatawney stew. Heard this in a novel I was listening to (Amy Snow, by Tracy Reeves. It’s like Jane Austen meets Rosamund Pilcher, and it was perfect for listening to). I lived in England for a semester of college and have been there a few times since, but never eaten this very English take on an Indian soup, so I Googled recipes and discovered there are more variations on it than any dish I’ve ever heard of. The stew in my novel involved beef, but of course it wouldn’t have had beef in India. The name is a version of a Tamil word (had to look that up to; the language of the Southern third of India) that means “pepper water,” but the recipes I saw only had a shake or two of pepper. Think of chicken soup with rice instead of noodles, with coconut milk and curry powder, and you’re close. Since I love coconut milk dishes, I made some, and the result was so wonderful I wondered where this soup has been all my life. It’s pretty popular in Ireland, too, I think because the name sounds like an Irish village or type of thick-yarned sweater, or maybe a Celtic dog breed. It’s the best comfort food ever, and I’m going to make it a tradition for some cold weather holiday. I just haven’t decided which one.

10. Texaco Star Song. My dad was born in 1941 and went to high school in the 1950s, so when he sings and whistles songs from his youth, I’m fascinated. Everything from that time is just dripping with nostalgia; we may have been recovering from a terrible war and approaching the mess that was the 60s, but the music of the 40s and 50s is wholesome and catchy and somehow heartbreaking for it’s bye-gone-ness. One of the things Dad will occasionally sing while walking or tinkering with something is Fire Chief, fill up with Fire Chief… I assumed this was a commercial from his childhood, maybe even on the radio since his family didn’t own a TV until he was in his late teens. Turns out it was part of the theme song of the Texaco Star Theater Show, which started on the radio in the late 30s and was on TV until the early 50s. Fire Chief was a type of Texaco gasoline, and Texaco was the sponsor of the variety show, so the opening song featured four guys in gas station uniforms singing about how great the service was at Texaco stations. They ran out and filled your tank when you pulled up, especially if you were female or elderly, which didn’t offend anyone back then, and they wiped your windshield or checked your oil for free while the gas pumped. There was a gas station near my house that did that until a few years ago, and when they stopped, my heart broke. Not because I can’t pump my own gas, but because of what they’d represented; a gentler time. I think it must be hard to be seventy-nine years old like my dad; to remember a time when even the most “racy” pop-culture was pretty tame; when men wore nice hats and women wore gloves to go out to the store or a movie. When everyone held doors for everyone else and pop music, if it was played in public places at all, didn’t make you cringe and cover your twelve-year-old’s ears, and the half-time show at football games didn’t make you send kids out of the room and feel ashamed for women everywhere. I hope when this is over–I know I said I wasn’t going to write about this pandemic, but–I hope there are some changes. I hope we think about the public good a little more, and I don’t mean by washing our hands and sneezing in our elbows. I hope we hold doors. I hope we clean up after ourselves more, and try harder to help people who need it. I hope we make more TV shows the whole family can watch, and stop associating trashy vulgarity with “empowerment.” And I hope I never hear Beyonce in the doctor’s office again.  

Paige’s Favorite Books and Best Things of 2019!

To clarify, these are not the best books in the world, or the best things that have ever happened to me. This list is fifteen books I really loved in 2019, five books I loved listening to, and five little things I discovered that made my life just a teeny, tiny bit better. Not in the way that family and faith make your life better, but in the way that a really great pair of jeans makes your life better. (I am yet to find the jeans.)

I will begin with books. But first the obligatory preface: the books I like to read are not the same as the books I like to listen to. Audio books and book-books are not interchangeable for me. When I’m driving, I need plot. Not layered or complicated plot, just plot that develops in a straight-forward way with characters I can keep track of even while looking for my exit. Not Danielle Steel or Twilight, but let’s just say I’m fine with less beautiful prose and depth if the storyline keeps me entertained on the long drive to Blacksburg, and the narrator’s voice doesn’t annoy me. When I read, I want gorgeous stories with writing that’s so good it’s almost painful, and layered, observant characters; a rich narrative that is beautiful, sentence by sentence. I want literature, but not the boring stuff they inexplicably make high school students read; not graphic war stories and sexual awakening stories or drugs-and-suicide stories. I want great but not perfect heroines, humor, beauty, and distinctive prose. (Whereas in the car, listening, I just want to stay awake and be entertained.) Some of the books I read might make for good listening as well, and vice-versa, but in most cases I’ll stick by this list.

To Read: 

I’ll start with the classic coming-of-age novels, though Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards might have made the top of my list over-all, regardless of genre. It’s about a girl named Frankie, an apple orchard, and a family pulled in different directions by change. Set in the 1950s and rich with family dynamics, seen through the eyes of a girl, I loved this one in the way I love Jane Smiley’s Some Luck Series, or Edna Ferber’s Giant. Deep and mysterious and bittersweet and funny, I felt full yet emptied when I finished it.  

Another coming-of-age novel about family and a decade full of change is William Kent Kruger’s Ordinary Grace. If you can get past the first few pages, where the main character recalls the death of a little boy about his own age when he was a kid, it becomes a mysterious and moving story about childhood’s end, in a Stand By Me sort of way. Funny and heartbreaking and unpredictable, the book is about a family doing it’s best one strange and difficult summer, with characters so subtly flawed and believable it hurts. 

Alice Mc Dermott’s Child of My Heart was one of those books about nothing and everything; about a fifteen-year-old’s observations as she babysits the child of a local artist one summer. There are no murders or great tragedies, but her description of families and human nature that idyllic summer are can’t-put-it-down compelling, and the narrator’s intelligence and storytelling made me sad to finish it. And After This, also by Alice McDermott, was a pull-you-in saga about a marriage and a family that narrates the little moments of ordinary family life in a way that makes you relieved that someone else noticed the beauty in the quotidian. John and Mary’s romance and years together will remind you of families you know, if you grew up Catholic in the suburbs; it hurts almost physically when the kids grow up and get pulled in different directions. It is an homage to how things used to be, the good and the bad.

Speaking of family dynamics and the American Dream, Matthew Thomas’ We are Not Ourselves was a sobering, beautiful book about another Irish family. The main character was born in 1941, and raised in Queens in a Tree-Grows-In-Brooklyn childhood. She marries a scientist and has a son, and is constantly yearning for a shiny reality she can’t quite get to, where the grass will be greener. A psychological shift in one of the main characters becomes a mystery that the others must solve with tenderness and loyalty, giving the story and narrative unusual depth. It is epic in the real sense as well as in the vernacular “epic.” 

I didn’t love her other books but Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things astonished me with it’s breadth. I can’t believe this ambitious, epic masterpiece of a book was written by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. This one is about a 19th century English family whose patriarch makes a fortune in South America, and his American-born daughter who grows up to be a brilliant scientist. I learned about so many things: botany, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Experience in general, but through fascinating characters and a storyline that doesn’t feel as though it is supposed to be educational. There is adventure and romance in this novel, and the heroine has that strong-delicate voice that transports you to another time. It’s not especially thick but it is a BIG novel. Quietly breathtaking. 

The best book about friendship I have ever read has to be Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss. Two friends growing up in 1960s Pasadena, it has a Mad Men aesthetic, but it’s about a childhood bond. It’s a mystery wrapped up in dreamy friendship narrative that occasionally makes you laugh aloud and wish you were friends with them, despite everthing. 

If you like books and movies about parents and their adult kids, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore could be made into one of those dramadies where the kids bring home their adult problems in one memorable summer. William and Ginny are the parents who must always be parents, and they are such well-drawn characters that you’ll identify with them even if you are the age of their children. A little examination of a modern family that somehow reads as literature with just a touch of chic-lit.

A Piece of the World by Christine Baker Kline uses the rather dull (and yet super well known and often shown in movies) painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, as its subject. The main character, Christina, was indeed one of the real-life models for the painting, and this loosely historical fiction is about this young disabled woman’s tie to the family farm in Maine, her dreams and regrets and inspirations. 

Another strong New England Heroine is Bea, in Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear. One of those stories about abandoning a baby to escape shame, only to be reunited with her years later, it’s a page-turner with beautiful prose. The book reviews will say something about how it speaks to family and class and xenophobia, but I loved the writing and the post-war backdrop, and the abandoned baby and yearning mother plotline. I read this one at carpool and was so engrossed that got honked at when it was time to pull forward; I could not put it down.

Which brings me to the other abandoned baby book: M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans. Everyone else probably read this years ago, and it became a Spielberg movie with Michael Fassbender, but I only recently got to it. No wonder they made a screenplay; this one has the post-war backdrop, but with an isolated lighthouse, a woman who yearns for children, a husband who just wants to make her happy but also do the right thing, and gorgeous writing. Haunting and unusual, this is one of those books that is why people say reading is “escaping to another world” even though it is not fantasy.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles surprised me with the distinctive voice of it’s ten-year-old narrator, and it’s sweet, haunting mixture of real and surreal, of childhood story and sci-fi. Julia is a precocious ten-year-old, worried about best friends and bullies at the bus stop, when scientists announce that the rotation of the Earth is slowing every day. Birds and the tides and human behavior are affected, and gravity sickness becomes normal. Julia’s family begins to fray, and she must discern what is a symptom of “the slowing” and what would have happened anyway, and what her future will look like. It will break your heart, and make you think about time and childhood and disater, but also leave you spellbound. I think someone is making a movie.

Another sci-fi-ish novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, made my list even though I generally dislike anything even vaguely apocalyptic. I only started reading this one because it opens with a production of King Lear, and seemed to be about artists and musicians, but it turns into an altered-universe story wherein a flu pandemic changes life as we know it. The main character is travelling around nomad-style with a group called the Travelling Symphony, who are trying to keep art and music alive. It is weird and depressing/exciting in the way that apocalypse stories are, but this one is set apart by its focus on the human need to see and hear beauty. For some reason it made me crave popcorn, like a good movie does. 

The Curiosity, by Stephen P Kiernan, is a Frankenstein-ish thriller, time-travel novel, and chic-lit all rolled into one. It’s main character falls in love with a man from another century who has been frozen in ice, Captain America style, and whom scientists discover a way to re-animate. Their romance is  delicate and doomed, but it is strange and beautiful while it lasts and makes you think what if through the whole story. 

Last but not in any way least is Eizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. The only short story collection on my list, this is like a little dessert sampler or tapas platter for readers, by a writer who is one of the heavyweights of our time. All the characters in these vignette-type stories are real and flawed, Olive Kitteridge style, and will make you laugh and break your heart. Strout’s observations of human nature and love and loss and longing rival any of the great writers, and she does it with humor and an economy of words that filled me with awe. She’s a female Hemingway, but uplifting instead of despressing. 

To listen to while driving:

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon. Time travel and romance with really decent writing and an Irish backdrop. Listened to this one on my phone when I wasn’t even driving. 

Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Hilarious and sad with a hopeful ending, Eleanore is like A Man Called Ove, but British and with a girl. 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Based on a shocking true story about the Georgia Tann kidnappings, this is a well-told story with an old-school child heroine. 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. World War II story about sisters and love, it will shock you and the ending makes you gasp.

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes. Part one is a World War I story that revolves around a Mona Lisa type of painting and the love story behind it; part two feels like a different story at first but circles back to the painting, and the resolution of part one. Great for a long drive. 

Other Best Things I discovered, in no particular order: 

  1. Pomegranates! I knew I liked the strange, juicy-crunchy little seeds on my yogurt, and that they have tons of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, but getting those seeds out was too annoying until my sister told me how to peel them in a bowl of water. The membrane floats up and the seeds sink, so you just skim the top and drain. PLUS, they apparently have exactly 613 seeds, the number of Commandments in the Bible, which is random but interesting. PLUS, I read a book about Catherine of Aragon, who had pomegranates stitched into her clothing when she came from Spain at age 15 to marry King Louis of France, and she kept these “apples of Granada” as her personal symbol, though they were a symbol of fertility, all through her marriage to Henry VIII and beyond. Not that this matters to my health today, but Catherine of Aragon was steadfast to the point of bad-ass, so now I like pomegranates even more.
  2. The Instant Pot! I’m pretty set in my ways cooking-wise, but when the crock pot broke we replaced it with an instant pot that can double as a slow cooker. I decided tob e open to new things, and this one turned out to be low-key life-changing. Apparently pressure-cookers have been normal in other countries for decades, and were a big thing here in the ‘70s, but they were pea-green plastic and dangerously hot on the outside. Now they are back, and the Instant Pot brand is just a new name on the oldest trick in the book for turning big, cheap cuts of meat into tender, shred-able stew and taco meat. I actually think ceramic makes a better slow cooker, but it doesn’t matter because my instant pot can do everything a crock-pot can do but better and in less time. Chili, amazing beef stew, carnitas for soft tacos, fall-apart coq a vin, etc. all in under an hour. Plus you can make homemade yogurt in them, if you’re into that.
  3. Madam Secretary! Having never watched 24 or Homeland or Designated Survivor or really any non Masterpiece Theater show in a long time, I am surprised that I started watching this at all, and surprised how much I like it. Tea Leoni plays a former CIA agent-turned-professor who is asked to be Secretary of State. She’s polished and quick-thinking, smart and funny, and also the mother of three teenagers. Plus she’s soooo pretty, in an authoritative-yet-approachable way that seems natural and real, not like she’s trying too hard. The show has the West Wing quick dialogue, but the diplomatic crisis scenes are interspersed with warm, realistic plot-lines about her family, including her hot-but-cute husband, a CIA agent turned Catholic religious scholar, which has probably never been done on TV before. And her clothes! Her clothes make me drool. 
  4. Hollywood Glamour Beauty Queen hand cream! It’s in a bubble-gum pink tube and smells like cherries and childhood, and moisturizes hands like nothing else I’ve ever tried and without feeling greasy. I want to take a bath in this stuff, it’s so awesome, but it seems to be available only at those old, dated Rite Aid stores that are about to be taken over by Walgreens. If you find it, buy several. 
  5. Online grocery pick up! GAME CHANGER. What started as a one-time thing has become my norm: I fill my Giant cart while sipping decaf Earl Gray at home, and the next day I pull up and a nice lady comes out and loads me up. IT’S AWESOME. My groceries come in nice bags with handles, and the produce is nicer than what I could have found in the store. I used to think I had to see the food before I bought it, but I’m over that. (A decade ago, I never thought I’d do my Christmas shopping online either. Hahahaha.)  I like having someone else gather up apples and onions and roast beef and  for me, after I plan my recipes from the comfort of my own home. I like letting someone else find the arugula and the exact right kind of shampoo my teenager requested for his combination hair. I see other women in the store with huge carts, waiting in long lines and then loading up their own cars, and I want to roll down my window and yell Save Yourself! Order online! Grocery delivery still costs extra, but I’m fairly sure that ordering online and picking them up does not incur a fee. And if it does, it’s worth it. 

Some Good Movies to Watch With Teens!

*First Published on

Your teenager is home on a weekend night and you want to watch a movie with actual character development, a movie without animated animals or explosions (including the F-bomb), and without an OSS (obligatory sex scene) that makes you all cringe or dive for the remote. The plot has to really grab them right from the start, which rules out award winners like Chariots of Fire or A Man for All Seasons; if they can’t relate to it, they’ll pass. Maybe you also have a twelve-year-old who might decide to watch the movie, and you’d like them to understand it, enjoy it, and not be traumatized. You want a movie that sucks you in and makes you laugh and feel things, a movie that inspires discussions (un-forced, organic discussions of course) about loyalty or ethics or what really matters on the chance that your teen feels chatty when it’s over. So here’s a list of sleepers that weren’t made in the last eighteen months but hold up exceptionally well, and pair well with teens and popcorn.

Quiz Show

It might take some convincing, because nothing explodes in this movie except a man’s ego, but this little gem of a film, based on a true story, slowly grips you like a well-paced thriller. A young and super good looking Ralph Finnes plays Charles Van Doren, a college professor from a family of good looking intellectuals, who is asked to be a contestant on the wildly popular Jeopardy-like TV show, Twenty-One. He’s slumming a little–his family doesn’t do this sort of thing–but the fame is fun until the previous contestant, an awkward Jew from Queens played by John Turturro, gets jealous and begins to tell everyone the game is rigged, they give out the answers to whomever they want to win. The book the movie was based on was written by the lawyer brought in to investigate, played by a young and also handsome Rob Morrow. Just being real: handsomeness is a factor if your teen is female and maybe even if they’re not, and attractiveness, or lack of it, is part of the plot in this case. The movie takes place in the late 1950s and has a gorgeous, Mad Men-like aesthetic and Bobby Darin on the soundtrack, used in a way that somehow makes his catchy tunes unsettling. There’s even smart and carefully placed humor in the script, while it flawlessly illustrates vanity, deception, greed and envy, and the other side of the coin–the one that modern teens, used to reality TV, would think of on their own: ambivalence.

Apollo 13

Even if you saw it twice when it was more recent, here is a movie that’s easy to watch again because it takes an archetype that’s big and impressive and different than your average person–an astronaut, back when they existed and were larger than life–and shows him in a lens that makes him deeply, incredibly human. This achingly relatableness is where Tom Hanks’ brilliance lies, even when he plays a bad guy. In this case he plays real-life good guy Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded a 1970 mission that suffered a critical failure on the way to the moon. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that viewers are riveted even though they know how it turns out, although modern teens, who didn’t learn about the Apollo missions in school or remember them like parents and grandparents, may not know if they guys make it back to Earth or not. The story revolves not just around getting the men back home safely, a feat of brilliant, spontaneous engineering and leadership, but around the personalities and relationships involved. The acting is superb, the pointy collars and big hair make you feel like you are really there, and unlike the more recent First Man, the writers didn’t throw in a lot of puff-the-story-up fiction (the bracelet in the crater…). These things really happened, and according to the guys who were there, were every bit this dramatic. Director Ron Howard puts you on the edge of your seat at the end and if you don’t cheer out loud or feel a few tears welling up when that capsule drops into the water, you have no soul.


Catch Me If You Can

At the risk of putting ideas into teens’ heads, this movie is worth watching because Leonardo DiCaprio makes you simultaneously root for the hero and hope he gets caught. The fact that this is also true story is astonishing; DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a nineteen year old who begins dabbling in check fraud and impersonations, and eventually successfully poses as a commercial pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Abagnale is being chased by an FBI agent throughout the movie, played by Tom Hanks; the two actors are so good at what they do that you can’t decide who the good guy is. The agent discovers something about the criminal: he’s young and brilliant and funny, but he’s lonely, which makes the end of the movie more interesting than just the facts would lead you to believe. This is one of those movies you have to pause just to get another soda because you can’t miss a single thing.


Here we get to see Captain America (Chris Evans) play a regular guy with problems and some family baggage in this movie about loyalty and parenting. Evans plays the caretaker to his brilliant niece, played by a precocious kid who manages to be adorable but not saccharine, and makes viewers of all ages want to watch her reactions. It’s a fairly predictable plot: her uncle must fight for custody of her and convince the authorities and a grandmother that whatever his less-than-perfect life is lacking, he can make up for with his unconditional love for this little girl. The film gets viewers thinking about choices and repercussions, sacrifice, and wanting something for the right reasons–and the wrong ones. and the It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it makes you smile often, and the characters are so darn convincing that you can’t look away. Teens will like the storyline because they can relate to both the child and the uncle, and watching this flawed thirty-something try to be a good father figure is endearing and inspiring.

We Bought a Zoo

The animals on the cover image of this movie make it seem Doctor Dolittle-esque, but this is a funny, heartbreaking story about a widower and his kids, trying to grieve and heal and move on. I’d personally watch Matt Damon do laundry, so seeing him play a Dad trying his best at taking care of wild animals and, even harder, a troubled teenage son, is pretty darn engaging. It’s unpredictable and funny and heart-wrenching, but in a good way. Scarlett Johansson plays the obvious love interest realistically, and Thomas Haden Church provides comic relief when it gets a little sad. Mostly, it’s not a sad movie, it’s just a movie about a family trying something out of the box so they don’t get too sad, and fighting for it when they have to. Without being heavy-handed, it paints a beautiful picture of what a family can be.

The Martian

And speaking of Matt Damon, in this movie, based on a self-published manuscript, we get to see him grow potatoes in space while fighting for his life and making jokes. Most people know the premise of this one or have already seen it, but it bears watching with teens because it tackles loyalty, ethics, and survival; it’s science fiction but realistic, even a little playful. Some viewers might not be able to get through the nearly-opening scene where Damon must pull shrapnel out of his chest, but he tempers that and everything he does with humor, even the Cast Away-like scenes of loneliness. There are no aliens or computers trying to kill him, so even non sci-fi fans will enjoy the plot.  

Some runner-ups, not chosen for this list because of language, violence/death, or the OSS, are: A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting, Castaway, and Interstellar.


Hancock Fabrics


The two of us would go with our mom to the fabric store on summer days, when we all needed to get out of the house.

That’s how she phrased it, let’s get out of the house. And she called it Hancock’s, made it possessive, even though it wasn’t, and dropped

the “Fabric” part altogether, as though they were on a first-name basis. Sometimes she actually needed fabric, or a pattern, or notions;

I loved that section, zippers and pincushions and piping; I told her that once, saying I liked the notion of notions, and she was amazed at my cleverness. I didn’t

have the heart to tell her I’d heard it somewhere else:                                                 Mrs. Harless, down the street.

She would shop and my sister and I would look at patterns: our favorite was Simplicity and Butterick Girls, their main girl-model was so pretty.

She’d get straight A’s, you could tell, and sleep in a pink canopy bed with a cocker spaniel in a basket on the floor.

You’d look good in this one, we’d say, or I want a skirt like that but blue, or we’d find the pictures of boys in homemade sailor suits and laugh at them,

see if there were any cute ones. We could look at buttons for ages without getting bored, picking out our favorites, reds and yellows and blues and all shades of brown

spilling over the sides of the bin and making the loveliest sound when you lay your hand flat and swished it back and forth,

or dug both hands in deep and pulled up fist-fulls, letting the buttons pour back into the button ocean. Unattainable, unless we’d saved allowance.

She, my mother, bit her lip a little, in concentration, scrutinizing the isles of calico or chintz or damask or seersucker, big purse under her arm, big sunglasses

on her head, pulling back short blond hair, gold stud earrings from Tiffany’s in her ears, the only ones she ever wore and only thing she ever owned from there

and I would think: she is beautiful, she is beautiful, and I am lucky, I am lucky and my chest would hurt a little, I remember that, from the happiness of it.

My sister was bored, I knew, and growing weary of handmade clothes, but I was younger and wanted to stay forever.

Once, when we got home, the gross boy next door asked where we’d been and when we told him Hancock Fabric, he laughed his nasal laugh,

making a gesture with his hand that made no sense, saying Get it? Hand-cock? Get it? I did not but my sister’s face pinched up

and she shoved him into the gravel on the sides of his driveway and his mother came out and yelled at her, saying she was older so she was a bully, which 

temporarily ruined Hancock Fabric for me, but I see now                                    that she was trying to save it.


Christmas Mood Swings

In the magical weeks before Christmas, I seem to have the mood swings of a fourteen year-old girl, and I wonder if it is my own weird cross to bear or if it is common. Christmas is so freaking beautiful; white lights twinkling on trees that line the sidewalks, colored lights on the houses up and down my street, Christmas music in the stores, wreaths on the doors and anticipation in the air that is palpable. It is as exciting and wonderful as the songs say, and I still get a warm fuzzy, excited feeling in my chest like a kid.

But there’s a part of me that might, in the midst of all this happiness, think to myself: But the trees have no leaves! They’re just bare, and they look a little mournful! Or: Some of those houses on my street with lights on the roof have people in them who are SAD or have CANCER or are getting DIVORCED and it makes my heart ache to think of it! And sometimes the Christmas music in the stores is not the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams that I grew up with, but Ariana Grande or some awful group called 5th Harmony belting about having a sexy Christmas. (These may not be the actual lyrics of their songs but it is definitely the message.)  Instead of making me think of holly and sleigh rides, I suddenly think: How will my daughters’ generation ever reconcile the fact that we tell them they are not objects, but the pop music of their time tells them a woman’s role is to be both promiscuous and victimized? To demand both equal treatment and special treatment? To look and act provocative and be angry that it works?  Holly and sleigh rides would be a much easier thing to think about. 

Sometimes, right in the middle of making gingersnaps, (see recipe for life-changing gingersnaps here), I might hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and I’m overcome with melancholy. Or, worse, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, the saddest Christmas song ever. I have to fight it like a soldier, strapping my apron strings tighter and switching the song to, say, Michael Buble’s version of  White Christmas, the catchiest Christmas song ever, and refusing to be overcome. I have to shake my head a little like a boxer between rounds and think like a winner: Okay, Christmas, BRING IT, we’ll see who’s boss.

My mother once said to me, “Oh, kid, you feel too much. It’s gonna be a rough road for you.” (She grew up in 1950s Hollywood, literally, and talked like it sometimes.) I wondered about that, and years later realized I must have gotten my over-sensitivity from her, but she’d toughened up a little. Motherhood’ll do that to you. I can’t help it any more than I can help having allergies; I just feel things too much. As I kid, stray dogs and homeless people and even trash on the street made me overcome with a wave of sadness, like nausea. When ET nearly died beside the creek, and when Luke Skywalker had to hide in the body of that dead yeti-thing called a Tauntaun, my sister had to carry me out of the movie theater and drag me back home, sobbing. (I didn’t really care about Luke but I cared deeply about that poor dead Taunton.) If I saw an old person eating dinner alone in a restaurant, I couldn’t eat my food. My mom once found me watching Bambi on a rented VHS tape and shouted at my sister like someone in an action scene, “Stop the movie! Stop the movie! SHE’S NEVER GONNA MAKE IT!”

I don’t know if other people feel this way. I know Christmas is hard for many people, that depression rates are higher than any other time of year. But I am not depressed, and “sad” isn’t even the right word because I’m also immensely happy; I’m just experiencing great joy and deep awareness of the painful beauty in this world. My teenage daughters call it having “the feels,” which is awkward and apt.

It occurs to me that God intended for us to feel all those pangs of joy and sadness, sometimes even at the same time. I probably do feel too much, and it is a bit of a rough road, but everything about Christmas is both ends of bitter and sweet: the king of the universe, highly anticipated with great joy and some fear, but also in danger from the moment of his birth, outranking every king and emperor in the world but born to peasants and raised to work with his hands, rising to some fame for his holiness but destined to die like a criminal, only to be raised from the dead in the most fabulous, glorious event in the history of the universe. You’d have to be made of stone to not feel an emotional roller-coaster just thinking about it.

I knew a poet once; a philosophical, brilliant, long-haired actually-published poet  who forgot to tie his shoes and carried around a pocket-sized works of Rilke. His name was Hansi, which he said was Sri Lankan, though he was not. He was whip-smart and odd, and he intimidated me because he spoke in riddles and threw around grad-school words before the rest of us had learned them: tautological and Proustian, hermeneutic and hegemonic, Derridian, dystopian, and dichotomy. One evening after class when it began to snow, another student remarked that the snow was really pretty, except that it just turned to gray slush in the streets. Hansi waved to us, walking in the direction of some other parking lot or place, and said over his shoulder, “Love the dichotomy, man! Love the dichotomy!”

The weird poet was right, all you can do is embrace it. Get the feels and love the ups and the downs for their particular beauty. It’s probably exactly what God intended when the King of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger.  


If I Could Eat Anything for a Day


If I could eat anything–if calories didn’t matter and the normal laws that govern human  stomachs were revoked–I’d start my day with pie. I don’t know why Americans are so rigid about breakfast food. We seem to have acceptable breakfast foods, like eggs and toast, various meats and very specific starches, but not, say, a hamburger. A hamburger makes a very good breakfast, but it’s not acceptable to ask for one at seven in the morning. Pancakes, waffles, danishes and doughnuts are fattening but acceptable breakfast foods, but not, say, snickerdoodles and milk. Snickerdoodles and milk can’t possibly be as bad for you as some of the garbage at iHop and Taco Bell, but nobody ever serves cookies for breakfast. The thing is, my snickerdoodles are light, fluffy pillows with Madagascar cinnamon and just a dash of nutmeg; they are so lovely that they really ought to be given to people with clinical depression, just to help raise their endorphins. They would make a very encouraging breakfast, but not a culturally acceptable one. Lasagna is also taboo in the morning. Eat cold lasagna for breakfast and your husband, all smug with his greek yogurt and coffee, looks at you like he found you at the kitchen counter picking lint out of your toes.

Pie, though, seems to me to be a perfect breakfast food. Sweetened, baked fruit, cuddled by a buttery blanket and served warm! On a fantasy day, I’d start with pie and a cup of tea. Not a store-bought pie; this would be homemade pie I would eat when I woke, up, the peach pie I made the summer my husband built the playhouse. It was 2003, we had two small kids and a baby on the way and he spent several weekends in the heat, building a playhouse in the backyard, the kids fluttering around him and in his way every moment while they pretended to be Peter Pan and Wendy. I made a peach pie without using a recipe, crust and all, sprinkling in turbinado sugar and nutmeg on instinct. I sat outside and fanned myself while it baked, listening to them chatter (“Come on, Wendy!  We can fly to the lagoon and see mermaids and alligators!”), named it Peter Pan Peach Pie, and then served it to everyone with cold milk. It was the best peach pie in the history of the world, made even better by my fondness for my strong, clever husband and outrageously winsome children.

I’d follow up the pie and reading with protein: grilled salmon, the way my husband does it. He is not a “foodie,” though people sometimes call him that. He enjoys food and cooking but really dislikes name “foodie” because foodies are often people who class-signal by advertising their affinity for branzino or truffles or anything with the word “confit” in it. People who own cookware that costs as much as a mid-size Toyota, and have their dairy products delivered by an “organic” farm so that they can feel virtuous and slightly better than the rest of us without actually admitting they feel this way.

My husband buys groceries at Walmart so he can buy batteries and lighter fluid at the same time. His favorite pot is a cauldron in which to make jambalaya over a fire, and he named the pot Adalida, like the George Strait song. His grilled salmon is the best salmon in the world. He seasons it with salt and pepper and honey, then grills it on an old garage sale grill til it’s perfectly moist and golden, and I like to eat it a couple hours after pie. With a caesar salad. And a diet coke.

After the salmon I’d be temporarily full, and I’d do some things, like go parasailing. I went parasailing once, and it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life, up there with bringing home each of my babies, seeing the Pieta, and going on the To Fly! ride at Disneyland.

Then I’d take a short hike near a waterfall of some size, maybe read a little more of a great novel–I might re-read All the Light We Cannot See or Bel Canto or begin Jane Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, and then it would be time for a snack. I’d snack on honeycrisp apples and potato chips. Potato chips are terrible for you, if you’re going to eat them you might as well start smoking and drinking too, so I would pair them with apples. I don’t normally buy honeycrisp apples, since they are roughly five bucks per apple, they spike your blood sugar as much as Skittles (it’s true) and are about as addictive as crack. But they are sweet and crunchy and beautiful. They are the pretty, popular, rich cheerleaders of apples, and I tend to buy the band geek apples that cost less, but honeycrisp are my fantasy apple; biting one is like taking a bite of happiness.

Then I would go see a Broadway musical.

I have a friend who thinks musicals are so weird they are surreal, what with the characters bursting into song and dance, and this friend is beautiful and cool and wears clothes from stores that aren’t a chain. She is witty and casually sophisticated, and if I’m honest, a little jaded about everything, and she cannot stand musicals. I think they pain her a little with their dorkiness. But I like the bursting into song, the goofy, unapologetic old-fashionedness of it all. And Broadway isn’t our parents’ Broadway anymore, they’ve modernized. Now there are musicals where famous colonists rap about the Declaration of Independence, and musicals where the plot revolves around a suicide, but somehow it’s funny and uplifting. But I would go see a classic, one where you laugh and cry and get transported back in time, like Carousel or Camelot. I want to cry a little when Julie Jordan’s ghost is singing You’ll Never Walk Alone to her daughter, or when King Arthur tells the little boy to go tell everyone that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot. And if I can’t see it on the actual Broadway, I want to at least be at a performing arts center where the soprano lead is so good that I can’t even be jealous.

Then it would be dinner time, and I would eat Vietnamese infusion food. American food is where my heart is–I’d be fine with a great burger, or chicken pot-pie made with herbs and white wine, or maybe a garlic-rubbed, roast pork loin with peach-rosemary gravy. But if I’m going to pay for dinner at a restaurant (which I probably will after seeing a Broadway show), I want to be wowed. I want to eat something I would never make myself, and that would be something like  “Bo Xao Vit,” or “flank steak and scallops with gingered haricot vert and cilantro-peanut sauce, served with coconut rice and caramelized onions,” which is served at a local restaurant called Sunday in Saigon. I like that name, and Vietnamese food is so yummy, I think if our soldiers and Marines had been introduced to it during Vietnam, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. I’m never going to make bo xao vit, but I would love to have it served to me with some not-too-minty green tea, in a restaurant with soft, pretty music, sitting on a cushion that is not under the air conditioning vent.

I’d be full at that point, so I’d go home, get into pajamas, and curl up with a movie about time travel or space travel or aging backwards; a movie that really grips you and takes you on an emotional journey and has you still thinking about it the next morning. Interstellar, or Benjamin Button, or A Beautiful Mind. Something like that, where I am completely sucked in, and I’d watch it with a warm homemade brownie (the things you make from a box are not as good, don’t fool yourself that they are) with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a cup of earl grey tea. Decaf, but black, not some herbal nonsense.

That’s it. That’s how I’d spend a day where I could eat anything. If there was time, I might squeeze in a couple more things: a bowl of gnocchi from a restaurant we discovered in Florence,  the “Duke of Windsor” sandwich like the one my aunt bought me at the mermaid bar in Neiman Marcus in Dallas when I was nine, or a cup of warm “vanilla milk” like my mom made me when I was thirteen and came home crying because John Lambert, the class heartthrob, did not want to go to the dance with me. I think it was just a mug of warm milk loaded with sugar and vanilla extract. It was comforting, and my lady-like mother served it to me on a saucer and said John Lambert was “kind of a butt-head anyway,” which was also comforting.

 Of course I can’t eat anything I want, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and I’d fall into a glutenous rut wherein I wouldn’t appreciate food anymore because I’d be eating whatever I wanted. But a girl can dream. People who think food is just fuel and should not be tied to emotions has never eaten Peter Pan Peach Pie for breakfast. 

Books I’ve Read

I’m not sure if teenagers fall in love with books anymore, unless they are weird. The thirteen year old girls who are self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers do (you know the type: they already pronounce theater with re at the end, they already dress like an aging librarian, their first love, at age twelve, was Mr. Darcy), but I don’t think the normal ones do. Plenty of normal kids loved Harry Potter so much they read it under the table in social studies and again–twice–over summer break, and sure, lots of millennials say Divergent and The Hunger Games changed their lives and made them want to read, but I’m talking about loving books, books written for grown ups, all books, even the ones they didn’t like.

But I did. It was the 80s, and I was a fairly normal kid; I pronounced theater normally and thought Mr. Darcy was overrated. But Lord, I loved books. I loved their look and smell and the weight of them, from the garish, brightly colored paperbacks that smelled like pharmaceuticals, to the old leather bound copies of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo that smelled like dust and sour milk. They were my friends, my secret comrades. I loved all of them, even the ones I hated, like Catch 22 and Animal Farm. I’m not the first person to say books were my safe place, my escape from hurt feelings, boring teachers and long bus rides. They were also my way of stepping into the adult world to figure out people,  what made them love and hate and aspire, argue and despair and yearn and get married or decide not to.

I loved nonfiction too–any book really, especially if it looked old or the cover felt nice in my hands. Throughout most of ninth grade I carried around a copy of poetry by Byron (The only one I ever really read was She Walks in Beauty) and Selected Works of Galileo. I was fascinated by the stars, though not enough to actually learn about astronomy, and mainly I liked Galileo’s works because I liked the idea of being someone who carried around a book about stars. (I experimented with dark eye makeup that year, too, but it didn’t work out.) Fiction was my main obsession, though. I came home from school and went to my books (though not my school books) the way some kids in the eighties spent entire afternoons playing video games or listening to Duran Duran or talking on telephones for hours, the curly pea-green or golden cords tethering them to the wall.

I hesitate to write paragraphs about the books that moved and shaped me and taught me to think and write and be myself, because it seems a little precious. (It is not lost on me that using the word precious in this way–not as in valuable but as in affected and self-focused–is, in itself, precious. But I can’t think of another word that is right.) I was at a party last month, and I should say first that most of the guest were literary-types, and I heard someone say, “The other day while I was reading Proust…” and I thought, Lord, please let me never sound like that. But I have now had three or four friends ask me, plead with me in one case, to write about the books I have loved, as an adolescent and all the way up to now. Not in a list, but “more of an essay.”  Books that branded my brain enough that occasionally I still think of them or their main character, even if they were purchased from the checkout line of a grocery store. (I’m sure that guy who reads Proust for fun never bought a book in the checkout line at a grocery store.)

So here they are, in chronological order, meaning the order that I read them beginning at about age thirteen. What is missing are the books I loved as a very little girl, and almost any book I ever had to read for school. And of course of the ones that are here, some were deeply meaningful because I was going through something as small as a high school friend being unkind to something as large as the death of my mother. You never know with books; they are like strangers that walk across your path: sometimes you forget them immediately and sometimes you realize later that they came to save you.

I’ll begin with my Madeleine L’Engle phase, and I’m not talking about A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t even like A Wrinkle in Time, except the parts where Meg and Calvin have kind of a moment and he takes her hand. I stumbled on Madeline L’Engle when I read Ilsa (see more on that here:) and a little paperback called And Both Were Young. It was your typical lonely-girl-in-a-boarding-school story; she was misunderstood, and a boy (who was both athletic and intellectual!) came along and taught her to ski and saw her real beauty, especially when she took off her glasses (surprise!). It was an artsy, intellectual book, in a middle-school kind of way.

That book got me searching for anything by L’Engle I could get my hands on, including the series about a big family called the Austins. They were boisterous and wicked smart, and the youngest–the pretty one–was selfish and vain but they loved her anyway. The main character in these books, Vicky Austin, grew up, traveled abroad, solved mysteries and fell in love, and made all the bad choices that sometimes come with falling in love very young, if you know what I mean. That was an eyeopener at age thirteen, I can tell you. But L’Engle, with her tesseracts and regenerating starfish arms, renewed my realization that that science could be beautiful and awe-inspiring and not incongruous to literature. I asked for a telescope for Christmas  that year (and a neon yellow sweater and a Wham album on cassette). If Dava Sobel had been writing then, I’d have been her biggest fan. I picked up the Austin Chronicles recently and skimmed them, and thought the 70s intellectual element was too heavy handed, but they were great stories.

Then there was my Victorian novel phase, around age fourteen, where I reveled not only in the descriptions of the English countryside and the desperately romantic plots, but in the fact that I could actually read and understand these very grown up literary books. I purposely dropped my copy of Wuthering Heights three times in front of a substitute math teacher I had a crush on, so that he might pick it up and say “Wow, you’re reading this?” and be impressed by my maturity and sophistication. Being a math teacher, he picked it up without looking and said, “Uh, you dropped this,” until the third time when he looked at me like I had a disability of some kind, and started speaking louder whenever addressing me.

I remember liking Jane Eyre and Middlemarch around the time my family moved to a new state and I knew no one. It took me over a year to make any real friends, so I figured I might as well be a girl who drank tea after school and read Jane Eyre. But my favorite was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which taught me that the handsome men are sometimes scoundrels (this idea having not been introduced in Disney movies yet) and the nice men are sometimes weak, and basically a girl had better be smart and never fall asleep in the woods. (I had to read that part three times to make sure I understood correctly what Alec did to Tess. Could that be in a book this old?)

Then there was my southern fiction phase, beginning around age fifteen. It started with Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides I picked up at a bed and breakfast I stayed at with my parents. If you don’t know that book, it involves an abusive father, a suicide attempt, a rape and a tiger eating someone (at least it was the bad guy), yet it has all the lyrical language, nostalgia for the south and haunting beauty southern fiction is supposed to have. But holy cow. That one grew me up a bit.  I would not want my own daughter reading it at age fifteen, but my parents had gotten used to seeing the Victorian novels in my hand the year before and decided I had good judgement, and stopped paying any attention to what I was reading. I also read The Great Santini, which temporarily made me think all Marines were abusive jerks, until I realized that a few of my dad’s friends were Marine officers, all of them kind, funny family men. But that father character… wow. He made me think about husbands, and what to avoid. I don’t own a dog, but to this day I can’t look at a can of dog food without thinking of serving it to a person you loath and passing it off as dinner.

Thankfully, I moved on to Anne Rivers Siddons novels, still southern fiction but gentler, and with more complicated, less traumatized characters. I read every single one two or three times, beginning with either Sweetwater Creek or Nora, Nora. Siddons is famous for capturing southern, aristocratic society in the 1050s and 60s, but she’s just as good at capturing the confusion, angst and loneliness of being twelve or thirteen. Being from Colorado, I was baffled and captivated by her descriptions of the culture of Atlanta back then, and Siddons was the first to open my eyes to the civil rights movement, how that went down and what it meant to the “colored” people who lived it. I understood that her stories were fiction, and she was white, so maybe this part wasn’t quite right, or was hyperbolic or one-sided, but mostly she got it right, whereas my history textbook taught me facts, which amounted to absolutely nothing meaningful.

I still read Siddons’ older novels sometimes (the newer ones have an older-gal, chick-lit vibe I don’t care for) and they seem dated now, but they make me draw in a sharp breath of nostalgia for a time and place I never lived in. In retrospect, I see that her novels are a bit like paintings by Thomas Kinkade; real heavy handed with the brush–all those bright colors!–but your eye is sure drawn to them. They make me see all over again the bittersweet dichotomy of something–or someone–being very flawed and very beautiful. (Hey Proust-guy? I actually just said bittersweet dichotomy. But it’s not as bad as what you said.) Or even just problematic and beautiful, which pretty much sums up marriage and motherhood and parenting and parents and religion and growing old and death.

Also Southern fiction taught me it is never a good idea to fall in love with your first cousin.

Eventually I went to college and majored in history because I was afraid if I majored in English I would never get a job. I thought with history, at least I could work in a museum or go around to schools impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt or something. But I did minor in English, and I had to read a bunch of stuff I don’t remember. I think I read Homer, Milton, Donne and Goethe, and I have a vague recollection of a terrible group project wherein we acted out Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. (I can’t even remember which character I played, but I rang a bell and tried to look hungry, and there was a boy whose character, in my memory, was called Swiss Cheese. I just Googled that and it’s true, and the plot sounds horrendous.) This is to say that mostly I don’t remember the stuff I was made to read, except for the Shakespeare, which made it all worth it.

After college I found that I was a real live grown up with an apartment, and once again I could read anything I wanted. My friends were all reading John Grisham and Stephen King if they were reading at all, but by now I was an English teacher and I felt it unseemly for a teacher to walk around with a copy of The Firm or The Dead Zone. In my mind that would have been like walking around with a Danielle Steele novel. (Not walking around with a book at all wasn’t really an option. I took a book everywhere so that I could reward myself when I had to do boring things like grade papers. Three papers, one chapter. That’s how it went.) I was twenty-two and I’d had enough of old English stuff, so I picked up My Antonia, falling in love with poor Jim. Jim was good, and relatable and kind, like a pioneer version of Jim from The Office, so it was kind of like The Office meets Little House on the Prairie, though The Office wouldn’t be on TV for over a decade.

I loved Willa Cather’s descriptions; you can see the sun setting heathery-gold, and smell the wheat and sorghum fields. I was still pining for Colorado and the west in general, so after My Antonia I picked up some Edna Ferber. I will always have a deep affection for Giant and that time in the American west when everything started to change because oil was replacing cattle. Ferber’s characters, especially the father–Rock Hudson in the movie–are flawed and lovable and larger than life when they’re strong, painfully human when they’re weak, like real people. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of books that teach you about families, fathers and daughters, America, bad boyfriends, prejudice, pride and love, Giant would hit all those marks.

Then my mom died suddenly, and I write that not to elicit pity but because when something like that happens, you can’t even go to the post office without every move you make to get there being over-drenched in meaning and pain and grief, much less read a novel. But I had to escape in novels, so I read the novel equivalent of chicken pot-pie: comforting stuff that was like a warm, fattening blanket. I read Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers about five times because my mom liked it and I remember seeing the silver and pink paperback on her nightstand. What a lovely fluff novel. Penelope Keeling is a mother figure, which I needed, and I fancied myself similar to the lovely Antonia: smart and “different” and unhappy with my blond eyelashes. Then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was somehow comforting despite the poverty and despite all the sad, hard things that happen to Francie. She’s a fighter, and at the end when she decides to be a writer, I thought for the millionth time that’s what I would do, too (still working on it). I still think of Francie when we buy a Christmas tree every year, and when I save change in a hidden jar, and I feel like she’s still alive and out there somewhere, observing beauty.

The book that really saved me from my grief over my mom, or at least showed me that grief could actually be funny, in a way, was Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. The main character’s young husband has died of cancer and she is muddling her way through a support group with weirdos and a job she hates until she suddenly loves it. She’s an observant, sarcastic gal so I loved her and thought, “It’s okay to laugh.” By then we sort of had the internet, and some primitive Amazon search told me I might enjoy the novels of Elizabeth Berg. There has never, ever been a more spot-on suggestion to me on a shopping website; Elizabeth Berg is just amazing. She is not Willa Cather or Edna Ferber, and she doesn’t try to be, but she captures life and people in this way that is perfect and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring and comforting all at once. I guess a publisher would market it as chick-lit, but that is not being fair to the beautiful, funny writing. I can’t even write a paragraph about which one I liked best because that would be like writing about which one of my friends I like best; I can’t do it. (Wait, I totally can, but my point is they all have their strengths.) They are all so freaking readable, with characters that break  your heart while making you laugh. But if you’re going to start with one, start with We Are All Welcome Here or Dream When You’re Feeling Blue; you’ll see what I mean.

I went to graduate school and compromised slightly less than in college: I got an English degree, meaning I got to read a lot, but officially the degree was in “The Teaching of Writing and Literature,” so that I could teach again if I got desperate. I had to take a bunch of education and psych courses that I didn’t care for and don’t remember, but my English professors were marvelously accommodating. We could read whatever we wanted (!)  and then talk write about it. I remember wishing I could have gone to graduate school first, instead of college. So I read Shakespeare’s comedies, interspersed with whatever I felt like, from Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter (the first one came out about then). (As a side note, I had two small kids by the time I was in graduate school and one professor told me to deconstruct Goodnight Moon when she noticed it fall out of my backpack, which was also my diaper bag. She was a humorless woman and I didn’t know if this was her idea of a fun challenge or a punishment for the indecency of dropping Goodnight Moon in her classroom. This was before you heard about professors saying cool things like, “Can’t find a sitter? Bring the baby to class!” I’d gotten so good at writing papers that I wrote sixteen pages on Goodnight Moon and got an A. I wish I knew where that paper was now.) But once again none of the books I read for my classes really stuck with me, because even though I chose them, it wasn’t the same; I wasn’t reading for pleasure.

In the years that I was a young mother (an identity I’m having a hard time letting go of, even though a couple of them are about to go to college), I read to get a break and go somewhere interesting, at least in my head. I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto when my oldest was eight; I remember this because it was so good that I snuck it into the second and third graders’ spring concert at school and tried to read during the boring section of “songs from other lands.” People were openly astonished that I would do this, including my husband who knows me, so I had to put it away. It’s a weird, wonderful story I never would have thought of in a million years, and at the end it’s basically a literary thriller you can’t put down. By now we really had the internet, and Ann Patchett led me to Jane Hamilton and A Map of the World. That’s a tough one to read when you have young children but it’s beautiful and hard and deep. For whatever reason, I didn’t read anymore of her books until recently, when The Excellent Lombards came out and I read in the space of ten hours, while taking care of work and home and life too. It’s an odd sort of page-turner and a tribute to farmers and family.

Which leads me to Jane Smiley. I can’t really say when I first read Jane Smiley, but I think it was A Thousand Acres, another book about farming and family, and this one won a Pulitzer so it’s no chick-lit fluff.  I’ve been reading and re-reading her novels ever since. They are my go-to when I have to grab something to read and I don’t want to spend money on the kindle app and have no time for the library; I just grab some Jane Smiley novel I haven’t read in awhile. There was a movie of A Thousand Acres with Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, and it was fine if you’d never read the book, but without the omniscient narrative of the main character it fell flat. It was just people acting out a script, which wasn’t at all the same. The book was a powerful look at fathers and farming and sisters and marriage. I think there was some infidelity in there too. But the books of Smiley’s that really leave me speechless are her  Last Hundred Years trilogy, starting with Some Luck. Here is a portrait of America as big and fascinating as Ferber’s Giant;, it begins in the 1920s and takes the reader through American history in novel form, reminding me of the time my grandparents were becoming adults, then my father, then me, then my children, with all the strong wills and personality conflicts and tensions and loyalties that would be in any big family, with a gorgeous backdrop. Seriously, this trilogy needs to be a movie–this one might work as a movie– except that I can’t think of a single actor who could do Frank justice; he’s so selfish and bad, but not entirely bad. Alec Baldwin is too old and too funny, so maybe Matt Bomer. But back to the books: if I was stranded on a desert island and had to read the same three books over and over, these would at least be in the running.

Then a few years ago I went through a Kingsolver/Quindlen/Shreve phase, alternating books by the three writers until I’d read mostly everything. I think I would disagree with these women on just about every issue in the world–they have such strong, independent voices as writers, but from what I have read, all three dutifully tote the party line and have the “correct” opinions on politics–but all of them are astonishing with words and plot. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is reminiscent of those Pat Conroy novels (the dysfunction, the childhood trauma and beauty all at once) but with dangerous African snakes and spiders, and a strong anti-Christian message, if I recall correctly. But the characters and plot hook you and suck you in and it’s useless to try to get out, and somehow it even makes you laugh sometimes. Kingsolver’s other novels, especially Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are like fingering some exotic and beautiful tapestry in a foreign marketplace: you don’t want to buy it, necessarily, but it’s so beautiful and you can’t stop looking at it.

Anna Quindlen has written some lovely novels; Blessings was the first one I ever read and it lived up to it’s name, so her Every Last One was a bit of a shock in terms of plot. I don’t want to give it away, but this one will make you want to keep your children home. The main character’s oldest daughter reminded me of mine, so I couldn’t shake this story for weeks after reading it, and I had trouble letting her out of my sight. But the writing is hypnotizing.

Anita Shreve captured everyone with her Oprah’s book club pick The Pilot’s Wife, but Stella Bain is wonderful (amnesia!) and my personal favorite is Light On Snow because it involves a grieving father and daughter–been there–and a baby and a young woman who isn’t what she seems. It isn’t a feel-good book, but it is. It’s redemptive somehow, and Shreve writes with an economy of words, which I have grown to admire. And after reading about Nicky Dillon and her dad, I had to go back and re-read Elizabeth Berg’s trilogy about Katie, starting with Durable Goods, one of my favorite books in the world. Yes. Read that one.

Somewhere around 2010 I was given a Kindle, and started reading anything it recommended, obeying it. I still love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but with a kindle or the app on an i-pad you can read free samples, which is a bit like going to a candy store without ever leaving home. If I had to say without thinking too much, what books I read in the last five years that I remember finishing and thinking, “Damn, that was amazing. I wish I had written it and I want to be that writer’s friend and I’ll probably read it again in a few years,” they would be, in no particular order, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon, And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore, and The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog.

All of those above were amazing, beautiful books. But there are three that I cannot just put on a list; it just so happens I read these three in actual book format, with pages and a spine and what-not. We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another one of those epic stories about America, and it is also about family and frailty and dreams you can’t quite reach but want so badly. I don’t know why this book isn’t more well known; it is important and rich and beautiful. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was astonishing; gorgeous historical fiction that leans toward mystery. Gilbert she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, though this is nothing like that. Signature is full of adventure and horticulture, abolitionists and sailors. Just amazing. Finally, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it disappointed me only in that I loved the characters and wanted total happiness for them, but of course Doer knew better. That was the thing about this book–the beauty of it, despite all that suffering. How did he do that?

And real quick, the non-fiction: David McCullough and William Manchester. I know scholarly people scoff at them for writing history books for regular people, but that’s just because they’re jealous. When I had small kids and felt like I needed to re-grow the brain cells I lost every time I watched Barney or had a long conversation about going potty, or why goats are goats, I’d read a history book or biography. I loved being a stay-home mom, and thought I had the cutest, funniest kids in the universe (and truthfully, I did), but I needed to keep alive some small part of my brain that enjoys learning. Fiction alone couldn’t quite do it, so I alternated Manchester and McCullough. My father, I knew, liked The Last Lion books and American Caesar (about Churchill and McArthur, respectively), but the middle ages was more my cup of tea so I tried A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester made this “dark period in time” (that’s what text books always say–it was just darkness and plague and starvation with a little Church corruption thrown in) seem so alive and fascinating that I briefly (briefly!) considered going back to school to study medieval history, and The Glory and The Dream reminded me why I love American history more.

David McCullough’s John Adams makes this seemingly dull second president seem larger than life, and even–oh man I can’t believe I’m saying this–a little sexy. If you absolutely can’t read a huge book about him, watch the documentary with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. I also tried The Great Bridge (seriously, you ask? A huge history book about a bridge? Yes! It’s totally not boring!) and Mornings on Horseback, (Teddy Roosevelt–what a MAN that guy was!) and I’m about to start The Wright Brothers, having once again reached a point where I think my brain cells are dying. (The kids are older now and don’t talk about goats and going potty, but now I work in a school library where all anybody wants is Elephant and Piggy books. Makes me want to cry).

Last but not least, the three best books I’ve read in the last three months: Olive Kitteridge, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and A Man Called Ove (yes, I KNOW, I read books for older people sometimes now! So what of it?) Elizabeth Straut’s Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize too, and in about five pages you can tell why just from the voice of Olive. The book may be fiction but it says something profound about humans and families and getting older, and Olive is funny in the way of a difficult-to-love grandmother. The same goes for Ove, and if you ever tried to read that one and put it back on the shelf, try again and give it a few more pages. It’s actually a joyful little book. I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for giving me a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which involves the English countryside I’m so fond of, a guy that reminds me of my dad, and a love story that is delicate in an age when love stories never are. It’s funny and light-hearted with a below-the-surface depth and profundity, and Helen Simonson didn’t get it published until her kids were grown and she was in her forties or something, which gives me hope.

So there it is. Everything I ever read, or at least the stuff I remember. And my original point about kids not loving books anymore except the weird kids could, I think, be remedied, if we…what? Took away their phones for three hours a day–that would be a start. But it’s unfeasible and unlikely, and they’d just find something else to do. (Where I live, kids don’t even have one hour a day of unstructured time, much less three.) I swear, kids are getting dumber every year. So the weird kids out there who are reading Bronte and Hardy or Manchester and McCullough for fun will, one day, rule the world. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.



P.S. I never read Angela’s Ashes, I think Wally Lamb’s books are just too depressing, and The Goldfinch? I read it, it was amazing, but that part in the middle? What? And I forgot Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Wow. I have to go look for my telescope.

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