On Books, Grief, and Bread

My best friend and I have a bit of a theory: When someone gets REALLY into making bread they’re probably not okay.

We laugh at this as people who occasionally like to bake bread for parties, nourish sourdough starters, and generally like carbs. 

But everytime we hear a new friend or acquaintance talk about their new found love for breadmaking we think “are you okay?” 

This week I have made a lot of bread. This week I haven’t felt okay. 

Yesterday I cried. I cried listening to some of my favorite music. I cried watching the news. I cried talking to my mother, my boyfriend, and my friends. 

I couldn’t always name the specific reason I was crying, but I know it was all varying kinds of grief. Grief at not seeing my family, for seeing my brother’s wedding canceled. Grief over not being able to water my plants at work. Grief over the sudden new fear and anxiety that accompanies me anytime I step outside my house, or whenever one of my loved ones does. Grief for my country and my state as I watched our president shit talk my governor instead of sending emergency supplies. 

Baking, much like reading, has always been a form of escape for me. There is something relaxing and imminent about combining ingredients and watching them form something new. With bread there is the added benefit of watching something living grow. I particularly love shaping dough after it has risen. The smell of baked goods in a small house also can’t be beat.  

I’m finding that this week I have taken solace in my kitchen and my couch. My kitchen, while small, is a space I control, and the things that come out of it nourish me in more ways than I can count. My couch has become my go to spot of reading, and after a few weeks of spott focus and anxiety I have found books are again my escape from this crazy world. Sometimes, after a particularly good reading session I can almost forget that I can’t go to my favorite restaurant, even if just for a few minutes. 

Earlier this week I spent some meditative time making a chai banana bread. It helped keep me grounded when I felt like my meager routine wasn’t enough.

Today I am combining my escapes. Today I made a lovely herby focaccia. I listened to my seemingly infinite Outlander audiobook as I made the dough. I turned it up as I did dishes. I wondered if I would be stuck at home long enough to finish the almost 50 hour Drums of Autumn. 

While waiting for the dough to rise I sat down with A Thousand Ships and lost myself in the Trojan war. Again. For those of you following along, yes, I am still obsessed with mythology retellings. I have no shame. What’s more, I was surprised when my timer went off an hour later to shape my dough. 

Today I had a morning full of self care and mindfulness. I didn’t chide myself for not reading faster. I didn’t get flustered when the pepper I was adding to my oil infusion opened up like an angry vulcano. This is life, and while I can’t control what is happening outside my walls I can control how I respond to the things happening inside of them. 

The bread was still fantastic, even if it made me sneeze. I plan on using it for breakfast sandwiches this morning and to sop up sauce from dinner tonight. I’m sure I’ll continue to snack on it as I read. 

I hope you all are practicing self care in whatever form makes sense to you. I hope you have tasty snacks and friends who will play games with you online or tandem watch a netflix show with you. I hope you’re coping well in these trying times.

And until we are free to go out in public again, I hope you make as much bread as you need. 
As ingredients are scarce right now I didn’t test my own Focaccia recipe and instead used Inspired Tastes tried and true version. It was totally worth it, even with the excess of pepper.

On Moving My Bookish Community Online

Over the last year my bookish community has grown. Not only do I have all of you lovely readers to chat with, but I have found more friends who love to read and am a part of 2 very active book clubs. 

The last couple weeks have really thrown how I communicate and interact with my book clubs. For a start, my work book club missed our last meeting. Last week was the office’s first full week working from home and no one had the capacity to figure out how to meet over something as frivolous as book talk. This week we are all feeling the pangs of social distancing and in search of comfort. As my regularly scheduled meetings add time to discuss our mental health, and as wel get more comfortable using Teams to run virtual meetings my book club has finally jumped on the bandwagon. 

Our belated meeting to discuss An American Marriage will meet next Wednesday. As of now I am the only one sharing fun bookish links and recommendations but I hope to see active conversation among my friends and coworkers. I know that by next Wednesday we will all be ready to chat about something other than disease, dog walks, and Tiger King. 

My other book club, the one I have with my close friends who enjoy reading has already met once online. It was the most comforting moment of last week. Seeing my friends and talking about The Mercies was a shot of happiness in this time. We’re upping the frequency of our meetings and now have an active group chat full of gifs, book recommendations and recipes to keep us sane during this time. 

And of course I have you guys, the online book community. I am able to find more time to read your blog post, enjoy your reviews, and comment on your thoughts. I hope to grow closer to all of you during this. I hope to expand my twitter presence (@EstateWoodring) and make new friends in the bookish community there. 

I’ll stay on the lookout for more opportunities and try to find new writers, readers, and book lovers during Michigan’s Stay at Home order. 

Stay well, readers. Stay well.

Review: Prince Charming/Royals by Rachel Hawkins

Right now there seems to be 2 bookish camps:

Team Bring on Pandemic Fiction
Team please no give me something light

I fall into that second camp. I can’t do sickness in my books right now. Maybe some mild drama. Maybe some ancient wars. Yes to period pieces, palaces, and love stories. 

What I really needed at the start of the social distancing was a fluffy royal romance.

And how could I say no to Prince Charming (Previously published as Royals) with Scottish royalty and highlands and a geeky girl just trying her best to not ruin her sister’s new decadent life? 

Prince Charming is the story of Daisy Winters, who’s sister, Ellie, is about to marry the Crown Prince of Scotland, Alex. Because of this (and some unfortunate paparazzi incident ) Daisy must now spend her summer with her sister learning all about royal life. Unfortunately this also means dealing with Alex’s notorious brother Sebastian and his crew affectionately dubbed the Royal Wreckers. 

I went into Hawkin’s multi titled novel with low expectations. I just needed a little fun. It delivered. I wouldn’t say her characters were particularly memorable or that their motivations were always realistic, but they were compelling and I am more than happy I spent several hours with Daisy, Ellie, and Sebastian. 

Prince Charming didn’t follow the prescribed boy meets girl, girl hates boy, they fall in love dynamic that so many love to hate romances trade out. I was pleasantly surprised with the love story and all of the twists and turns, even if the stakes were always low and the drama was sky high. 

Overall Hawkins delivered on a perfectly pleasant novel. Perfect for a little escapism if you keep your expectations in check.

On Trying to Love the American Classics

I like to think of myself as well read. I think statistically it must be true. However over the last few months it has come to my attention that there have been large swaths of the American Classics Canon that I have outright ignored or disliked to the point of disregard. 

I cared about Poe only so much as it was popular. I tried to like Hemingway to seem interesting. Faulkner bores me to tears. Twain…I just can’t.

I have never read Steinbeck. Gone with the Wind gathers dust on my shelf. Wharton, Cather, Melville all remain a mystery to me. What’s more is they are a mystery I have never been particularly interested in solving. 

A few months ago I wrote a post in defense of the classics. I meant what I wrote then. They are important for a variety of reasons. They teach us many lessons. I generally enjoy classics that take me across borders to other cultures. I’m a big fan of Victorian era fiction. I go crazy for Austen and Shakespeare. I enjoy Hugo and Tolstoy. I’m more likely to try Cervantes than most Americans. 

The more I think about the deep divide in my classic love the more I think it is due to education. I was raised in an US public schools. I learned US history. I understood the dustbowl without Grapes of Wrath and Slavery without Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where fiction would make these topics more lively, more real, I felt I already had an understanding of the timeframe, the situation, the overall setting.  

Whereas when I read Wuthering Heights I learned about the English Moors. Anna Kareinin gave me insight into Russian life. The Iliad and the Odyssey are backbones of storytelling. I feel like I am experiencing new places and learning new things. I feel like it is an adventure, not a slog through History 101. I can understand the broader history of the world from stories, not just lessons. 

As I am not actually a Historian of any era or place I should probably broaden my reading habits. I am starting with Little Women, more out of a desire to watch the new movie while stuck at home than anything else. So far I find it dry and keep comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, mostly due to the abundance of sisters. I will finish, but it won’t be a book that defines my life like it has been for so many of my reader friends. At least I’ll be able to speak intelligently about my favorite March sister going forward. I don’t think it will be Jo.

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This week I was supposed to host 2 book clubs. One has been outright canceled and the other is in talks to happen virtually, much to the chagrin of the toddler parent in our group. Last week I posted a review of The Mercies, which I read for my Thursday meeting, and while great doesn’t seem like it will promote much discussion. 

Today I want to talk to you about An American Marriage. 

I will start by saying wow. Just wow. I will trust my friends when they hype up popular books. I won’t ignore them because they become incredibly popular. I will read difficult topics because An American Marriage was such a fantastic and mind blowing experience. 

An American Marriage is a story of 3 people. Ray, who’s life is turned upside down by a wrongful conviction, his wife Celestial, and her best friend Andre. It is a story of black America, love, and longing. It is a story about hurt, betrayal, and duty. It is a story that feels real. 

An American Marriage is an ambitious story. Prison, race relations, family units. All of these topics can go off kilter fast. Jones doesn’t pull punches but she doesn’t dwell. Her success is in creating real characters that you both root for and want to smack. 

Throughout the novel it is easy to root for each character while recognizing they are in the wrong. Everyone is in a shitty situation and it feels so true to life that you can’t blame anyone for their actions. Under anyone else’s hands I suspect Celestial would be a hated woman, but here she is complex and unyielding. She doesn’t always make the right choice or the easy choices but something in between. She is a pillar of realness in fiction and I am kind of obsessed. 

Lastly, I appreciate that this is a story told from 3 perspectives. Seeing the events of An American Marriage through the eyes of all major participants gives clarity and an emotional connection that could have easily been lost through a single POV. I also liked the inclusion of letters as a storytelling device. They moved the story along with enough exposition without taking up pages and pages. 

In short: Don’t be like me. Stop putting off reading this challenging modern classic. Jone’s masterpiece is well worth your time.

On the Social Distancing Blues, featuring TBR piles and Pizza

I’m not what you would call a homebody. I like going on adventures big and small, going to book shops, libraries, restaurants, and bars. I like seeing friends for trivia and for game nights. In short, I am having a hard time with the general shutdown of my community. 

Here in Michigan schools are closed until April. Community libraries have followed suit, and some small businesses are shuttering up until this virus business blows over. My museum has closed for the week and has asked everyone to work from home, though I suspect this will also turn into three weeks of working from my small laptop in my pajamas while my dog barks out the window. 

I’m trying to find the good in things. My boyfriend and I agree that distancing is the right thing to do when we need to go out in public. We carry hand sanitizer when we grocery shop. He is still unemployed so he has been home for a few weeks already, and somehow isn’t going stir crazy while looking for jobs and attending interviews. 

So I’m taking a note from his book and changing my point of view. While I dread being at home in the same spot on the same couch for an undetermined amount of time I do love my new found reading time. I am soaring through audiobooks as I clean, cook, and generally move items from one location to another in the hopes of feeling productive. I just finished my second book of the week, which I will review for you tomorrow. I’ve been serious about using the food that was bought to sustain us several weeks, and have enjoyed several tasty meals already. 

Today I decided to embrace my books, and the library closure, and take a look at some upcoming reads from my TBR pile. The one good thing about my library being closed is that due dates, those things that sometimes come with fines and imposed timelines, are a thing of the past. As I was just freaking out last week about cutting back on my spending and managing my library hull as it becomes available I am relishing this brief break from speed reading through new releases while panic picking up holds every other day. 

Maybe now is the time I actually get through Little Women? I can read about the history of the book during my work from home hours! My Brilliant Friend has been judging me from my nightstand ever since I bought it in Nashville and I am so excited to read it. Oh, and the book club books! Even though my book club will probably meet virtually this upcoming week we have already made our April pick. I can get ahead. This coronavirus scare may not be great for my social life, but damn my TBR is already feeling lighter.

In celebration of all things bookish I made a pizza. I cracked open a beer. I sat down and enjoyed the last few pages of Prince Charming. 

Pizza is always a good choice. Today I made a BBQ chicken concoction that was both tasty and filling. Ingredients and steps are below. Feel free to pull out this recipe when you are ready to yank your hair out later on this week. 

Ingredients:
Pizza Dough (homemade or store bought fine)

Shredded chicken, equal to about one chicken breast

1 green pepper

1 small onion

5 pieces bacon

Bar-b-que sauce. 

1 package shredded colby jack cheese. 

Steps:

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a pizza pan and spread out the dough. 

Top dough with a healthy layer of your favorite bar-b-que sauce. Cover with veggies, chicken, and bacon. Top with an additional few squits of of the sauce and then top with a bag of shredded colby jack. 

Back for 25 to 30 minutes. Enjoy!

On Learning Through Listening

Today I am going to take a step back from books. Not a big step. More like a little shuffle. By now you are all aware of my affinity for audiobooks. They’re the best. I always have a book going while I’m at work.

Or at least I am always listening to something at work. My audiobook habit actually comes from a deeply ingrained love of podcasts. As I was finishing grad school I found that I needed noise to work, and music was distracting. So I found Podcast Republic and never looked back. It took a while for me to find my Podcasting genres of choice, but eventually I settled on current events, politics, and history. Despite being a bookish person I only listen to a couple bookish podcasts, and even then I cannot seem to keep up with their feeds.

Sidenote: All of the Books is great and should not be blamed for my inattention. 

Anyway, I’m here today to talk to you about some of my favorite history podcasts. This feels like an easy jump as lately I have been talking a lot about historical fiction. So I’ll combine my loves and give you some solid recommendations for when you are all booked out with nothing to do. 

Stuff You Missed in History Class: Holy backlog! Stuff You Missed in History Class s a fantastic podcast, currently hosted by the lovely Holly and Tracy. Each episode delves into a history deep dive, and yes,  usually the topics are centered around things you wouldn’t have learned in your high school history class. SYMiHC also does a fantastic job of representing minorities, women, and other marginalized groups and are always chasing exciting new topics. I’m a big fan of their now quarterly episodes on new archeological finds. 

The History of Rome: Mike Duncan is historian goals. The History of Rome is just that: an incredibly deep dive into the history of Rome told in an incredibly accessible way with just enough humor to make it funny. Duncan excels in taking complex, intertwined histories and making them easy to understand for people without a background in ancient history. The Netflix doc on Roman history has some bases in Duncan’s work and he has also written a book on the subject. 

Revolutions: Another Mike Duncan gem. Revolutions takes a close look at different revolutionary movements throughout history. Different seasons cover different movements, such as the English Civil War, The American Revolution, The Hatian Revolution, and lots of different French Revolutions/Uprisings/Issues. Again he is funny, he is clear, and able to make history interesting while remaining highly listenable. 

1865: 1865 was my favorite podcast find of 2019. It covers the Lincoln Assasination and Johnson Administration through the eyes of Edwin Stantin, then the Secretary of War. Stay with me, because this radio drama is super addicting. Each “fictional” episode is paired with an behind the scenes dive into the historical facts, any added drama, and recording techniques. 

Tudor, I Hardly Know Her: Easily the least well known of my list, this Tudor podcast is hilarious. Non historians giving history lessons while also watching shows like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn girl, and just generally trying to understand England in the 1500’s with only a love of the people. 

Am I missing any of your favorite history podcasts? Let me know. I clearly need more in my feed to keep me from buying all of the audiobooks on my wishlist!