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BraveCompanionsI was looking for something to read; a book to pick up with a stand-alone chapter to pass an hour or so on my Independence Day afternoon. David McCullough’s” 1776″ and “Truman” were standing at attention as I reached for his “Brave Companions: Portraits in History”.  A bookmark with early scenes of Boston rested inside. It reminded me of the charming bookstore, Toad Hall, where I purchased “Brave Companions ”  on a trip to Massachusetts several years ago. Just what I needed on a slow, holiday afternoon.

I enjoy reading David McCullough’s books. His conversational style of writing brings historical characters, events and places alive.His unique voice and storytelling style often make me want to learn more. Be it about Harry Truman or the first year of the Revolutionary War, I always come away from McCullough’s books feeling a wee bit more knowledgeable about subjects I love.

So it was on this Fourth of July that I opened “Brave Companions”, surveyed the chapters’ topics,  landed on Washington on the Potomac, and took a brisk stroll with Mr. McCullough. We walked past historic venues and notable spots, with bits and pieces of the people and places and occurrences that make Washington, D.C. a remarkable capital city.

I finished the chapter, a fitting essay to read on this day, then I rested my eyes for a spell, thinking about my favorite Fourth of July. It was the summer we took our girls to D.C. for a family vacation. We did the touristy things one does in D.C., but the memory that stands clearest was how we spent the Fourth of July.  We walked from our hotel across the Mall and heard a dramatic early morn reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of the National Archives. We took the trolley to Arlington Cemetery, then to the Lincoln Memorial, several buildings of the Smithsonian, the Vietnam Wall . . . and walked and rode on and on, ending our day with fireworks on the Mall, the Washington monument looming above as if holding the colorful display for all to see.

It was nice to remember that Independence Day, appreciating Mr. McCullough’s words on the pages just read, and feeling grateful for what I have.

How about you? Have you read any history or historical fiction lately? Have you read anything by David McCullough?

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Ever since reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Secret Garden” as a child, I have been intrigued by garden doors, imagining myself as Mary Lennox, wondering what is beyond a locked door.

So it was upon entering the Rotary Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin that my imagination grew like Jack’s beanstalk and I squealed in girlish glee “oh, this is wonderful“. There I was, hopping around, opening and closing garden doors, peering into windows and otherwise embarrassing Tom who, after all these years, is used to my childish ways about these bookish gardening “things”.

There were doors opening on doors as groomsmen in gray – and senior citizens in greige -averted their eyes to the gleeful granny and her indulgent companion.

Isn’t it grand to discover something creative and open your imagination for a bit? Maybe it was because we had just spent several days with our darling grandchildren who love to pretend that images of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy and Toto following a yellow brick road came to mind.

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Well, dear reader, when one door closes another opens, and so it did as something else caught my eye.

Can you see it? Click on the photo for a better look.

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Scattered about the gardens were many of these boxes. They reminded me of the Little Free Libraries and were painted in all manner of whimsy and creativity.

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A volunteer in the gardens told us that the boxes were made by a group of men. They were sold at a nominal cost to be painted and appointed however the artist saw fit. They will be raffled off (or was it auctioned?) and I, of course, imagine them filled with gardening books and secret doors.

What would you fill them with?

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“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”

Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine. 

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I have started this post several times, never adequately expressing my thoughts . It is not that I did not enjoy Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act”. Enjoy it I did, however,  I have struggled with how to navigate my feelings over the intriguing plot and characters. This is not a “fun” read, nor a page turning thriller. It is not funny, though I have read a few reviews that imply parts of it are. “The Children Act” is a provocative novella that left me pondering the unexpected consequences of one’s decisions, even the most thoughtful ones. Yes or no? Right or left? The blur between the lines. The unfathomable outcomes.

I finished the audio of “The Children Act” several days ago. It sits in the car, patiently waiting its return to the library, where it needs to go today. There was this underlying feeling that if I held onto it, the words would come to me on what to say.

They didn’t.

Some words just seem to take longer to percolate in one’s memory grooves. A walk in the garden, even the mindless task of pulling weeds, always seem to help me harvest my thoughts, so I did just that. I took a walk about the acreage, hovering over this book-loving garden fairy. Lo and behold, the words started to perk into sentences, which I will try to express now.

Judge Fiona Maye is charged with finding a legal judgement regarding whether or not a boy, on the cusp of adulthood, should be allowed to die because of his faith or ordered to live. The case falls into Fiona’s hands just as her husband asks for permission – to have an affair.

Of course, it is not that simple a decision, the court decision, that is. Or is it?

Adam Henry, just months away from his 18th birthday, is being treated for leukemia. A Jehovah Witness, he has refused the blood transfusion he desperately needs, which is forbidden by his religion. Still legally a child, his parents concur, as do the elders of his church. Adam’s doctors are seeking a legal decision in favor of a transfusion in order to save his life. Both sides pose formidable arguments.

After listening to both positions, Fiona suspends court proceedings and goes to visit Adam in his hospital room. She finds a desperately ill boy who is bright, engaging, thoughtful and inquisitive. Adam writes poetry and is learning to play the violin even as he is dying. She also finds that Adam, who insists on referring to Fiona in the courtly “my lady”, is rooted in his belief system, quoting chapter and verse of the Bible and resolute in his refusal of a blood transfusion. He seems to know his own mind.

My Lady and Adam form a courtly bond of sorts, he playing the violin, she singing along and gently correcting him on wrong notes. She is also an accomplished pianist and it is through her own musical performance that revelations about her decisions are later shown. Both boy and judge are moved in profound ways by the hospital visit – and transformed by Fiona’s ruling in unanticipated ways.

I found “The Children Act” to be a story that lingers still and leaves me with more questions than answers. “The Children Act” is about making thoughtful decisions after much discernment for all the right reasons only to be faced with unfathomable consequences. There is a particularly revelatory moment when Adam expresses in writing his feelings at the ruling. It is so well-formed and executed that it lingers, rather like the audio that sits on the seat of my car, patiently waiting for me to do something with it, which I can’t for it would give away the storyline.

I’m not sure that this post expresses my thoughts as I wanted them to, but, I tried. I think it best that I leave my words here and take another stroll about the garden and ponder a bit more about “The Children Act” . Have you read “The Children Act” or any of Ian McEwan’s other works?

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William James Glackens (American artist, 1870-1938) Portrait of PennyI seem to be in a bit of book lag; I pick them up, put them down, forget where I put them, go on to another, find the first . . . the point is that I’m in one of those passages in life where I am not getting hooked in the first chapters.  It is not the fault of the writers but of myself.  I seem to be in a distracted spell, needing a magic wand to whisk me back to literature.

I have three library books, now overdue, that need rapid transit to the library. They have been renewed so many times that they are now non-renewable. Does that ever happen to you?

I keep meaning to start “The Light We Cannot See”; even more so now that the author, Anthony Doerr was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

“Ironweed”, by William Kennedy, has been gathering dust along with “Spook”, by Mary Roach and a host of other books that are begging me to opening them up – and keep them open.  I will.  I know I will. Sometimes a book just needs to bide its time until the words resting inside become comfortable on the reader’s eyes. Like the books about me, I was biding my time.

I’ve been busy with our garden and the garden club, household chores and my many activities, life in progress. I did find time to stop in at charming gift shop in nearby Clarendon Hills.  Ebenezer’s is filled with antiques and vintage items, ribbons and cards, jewelry and dolls – and a lovely  collection of teacups and serving plates. I wandered around, the music of Downton Abbey floating through the air as I hobbled up the wooden staircase, admiring a table set with flow blue, old cookbooks and glassware, before returning to the main floor, whose boards squeaks in that companionable way that old floorboards have of telling their tale. I checked out the jewelry and stuffed animals, then noticed the wide array of classic, and soon-to-be classic, children’s literature.

Do you know what I found?  It was a book I’ve been looking for ever since seeing a documentary last winter about children’s author/illustrator Virginia Lee Burton. Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place, is wonderful production about her life, her marriage, her family and her work. Many of you know “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” and “Katy”. I’d forgotten about “Choo Choo”, which I bought for our Ezra, who love, love, loves trains and hoped to one day find “The Little House” after seeing the documentary.

“The Little House” is available online and at bookstores, but, I had it in my mind to find it, just like the great great granddaughter of the man who first built the little house finds it in Burton’s story, I needed to find “The Little House”, and I did, there in the charming shop called Ebenezer’s, late in the afternoon. It seemed to be waiting for me to come upon it, to open its covers, and to bring it home.

This is an endearing children’s story, which is really about urban development encroaching upon country life. This little house is built on a hillside  looking out over the pastures and fields and up to the sun and the moonlit skies. As the pages turn, trees and farms and schools and roads, then stores and trains and skyscrapers appear until the little house is alone on a city street, sad and boarded up, no longer relevant (or so it seems), until a young woman walks by and remembers her great great grandfather’s house.

Historic preservation in a children’s book, written mid-twentieth century, “The Little House” is refereed to as Rachel Carson for kids. First published in 1942, this is a cautionary tale for adults as much as a sweet storybook for children.

I brought “The Little House” home and settled upon the rocker which Tom’s great grandfather rocked, in my own 90+ year old house. Some of the resident herd of deer were grazing on the clear cut lot next door. A hawk circled overhead, then a raucous gaggle of geese. There are remnants of an apple orchard and walnut trees stain the street with their bounty. Our soil was once tilled as farmland and old traps can be found when wandering about. It is as idyllic as it is not,  bounded by a road cut off and two major highways, a railroad yard close by and sloughs as ancient as the earth itself but a few miles away. As I rocked and read my newfound book reminded me of how children’s literature can snap me out of a bit of book lag and carry me home to where I ought to be.

Then, I remembered the painting above by William James Glacken, titled Portrait of Penny. A book not yet opened, a cookie to be nibbled, and a bit of the young girl hidden within.

Sigh.  I think I’m over my book lag.

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Unknown`

“This we know: All things are connected like the blood that unites us.  We did not weave the web of life.  We are merely a strand in it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

Attributed to Chief Seattle.

Cover image from Susan Jeffer’s “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky”.

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I just ate a book.

IMG_7116Well, I didn’t really eat it; it was more of a pleasurable chew on a good book.

Robin Mather’s book, “The Feast Nearby”,  had been napping on my bedside pile for so long that I wondered if it had  started to ripen. It is one of those books whose cover called to me in the gift shop at the Morton Arboretum. Actually, it called to me on several occasions until I finally gave in to temptation, figuring it had fewer calories than a bar of chocolate. (I can rationalize anything, especially a good looking book.) I plucked it up and brought it home, where it languished, as books often do. It even posed for a photo shoot once before.

After a very busy week, I was ready to slow down a bit and take a bite into Mather’s book, which I did in three delectable sittings.

The full title of Robin Mather’s book is “The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).  A mouthful. Just typing it makes me hungry.

Robin Mather’s book is about her personal journey of discovery after simultaneously losing her job as a food reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the cutbacks a few years ago and her husband asking for a divorce.  A native of Michigan, she returns to their small cabin on Stewart Lake in Western Michigan, with Boon, her dog, and Pippin her parrot, determined to live locally on $40 a week, which she chronicles engagingly in her essays.

“The Feast Nearby” is just that; a book filled with the nourishment close at hand. It is of personal stories about fireflies and cheese, chooks and coffee production, with insightful information on eating locally, canning and preserving, bartering and knitting. Robin Mather writes in  a humorous, friendly, conversational style; one that invites the reader in for a cup of coffee whose beans were roasted in her own kitchen, laced with real cream that she has skimmed from the top of milk.  It is not preachy, nor did it leave me intoning mea culpa over what I purchase or eat. Instead, “The Feast Nearby” invited me, and will you as well, to explore the foods and the services that are closest to us and our tables.

This book is a written invitation to become a locavore.

The bonus? Dozens of recipes for real strawberry shortcake, homemade yogurt and cottage cheese, canning techniques, hunting for morels and finding the best bramble patches. Why, there is even a recipe for knitting a snug cap, which Mather does for Wally, a friendly neighbor who buzzes about the lake helping his neighbors, except in winter when he is busy ice fishing, hence the newly knit hat.

To add to the pleasure of easy, nutritious, recipes with what one has on hand (or in pantry), there is a wonderful conversion chart in the back. I now have an easy find, right where my bookmark is, to convert the recipes of my blogging friends from around the world who tempt me with their delectables.

To say that “The Feast Nearby” is a gentle read would only be half the reason to open this book. It is also a cookbook that follows the midwestern seasons. One does not need to live in the midwest, however, to know the value and pleasure of eating what is growing nearby and of putting up, away, or by for the lean months – or how gazpacho really is better for the palate and the body on simmering, hot days.

A gentle read.  A user-friendly cookbook.  A dash of humor and a dusting of hope. What more can be had from “The Feast Nearby”? Well, each chapter has whimsical titles, such as On snapping turtles and strawberries  or On cicadas, sweet corn, and the pleasure of a job well done. There are locals with whom Mather barters with – and befriends – and reasons for buying Jiffy Cake mixes; even though she bakes from scratch and the flour is harvested elsewhere. She buys the mixes because they are manufactured in a nearby town, providing jobs for many, which has prompted me to check labels and seek products that are manufactured closer to me.

My friends,  you will enjoy this book.

While I gorged myself on its pages in just three days, don’t be afraid to taste it for yourself, for it is a worthy grazing feast that can be picked up at any chapter and read with ease. When I get up from my easy chair, I will find a proper spot in my cooking queue for “The Feast Nearby”, sandwiched among my favorite ladies; Gladys Taber and Ina Garten, Betty Crocker’s “Kitchen Gardens” illustrated by Tasha Tudor and my 43-year-old dog-eared, gravy stained, batter spattered copy of the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook”.

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