Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

9780525953005_custom-1a7b1faa66fe002fff8a3604f6c0f3534d546b1c-s600-c85James and Sadie Goodenough are stuck; figuratively and literally stuck in the Black Water Swamp of Ohio. Settlers from Connecticut, they head west in the 1830s with their children in a wagon. The wagon gets stuck in the mud of the swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio. There, James and Sadie remain, until the day they die.

At the start of the story, 1838, the Goodenoughs have already lost 5 children from swamp fever. All but their son, Robert,   have suffered from  the swamp fever.  It is a hard existence, made all the harder by the temperaments of Sadie and James. A dysfunctional family, James is quick to use the switch on his children, and the back of his hand on Sadie. Sadie provokes him, which does not make it right, but, she is downright mean and will sit and watch her children being beaten for something she herself has done, with a smirk on her face.

The Goodenoughs settle in the Black Water Swamp and set to raising apples. James adores the “eaters”, while Sadie craves the “spitters” – or, rather, she craves the apple jack made from the “spitters”.  The apples are at the core of their hatred for each other and are the seeds of their bitterness. Life at the Goodenoughs is hard and dark and often unbearable. For Sadie, the infrequent visits of a John Chapman are the only bright spots in her life.  Chapman stops by several times a year with apple saplings and seeds, and to take the “spitters” to be pressed for cider, which is used to make apple jack. Chapman is more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed.

So goes the first part of this book, told in the voices of Sadie and James. It is at times difficult to read and so full of darkness that one can almost feel the despair of the Black Water Swamp. One might say the Sadie drowns her difficult life in the apple jack, but, there are hints that she brings other issues to the Goodenoughs and I found myself wondering why they ever married each other in the first place. The first part ends in unbelievable violence, in the apple orchard. All of the living Goodenough children are in the orchard, and it is there that the author leaves them, taking us to the second part of the book, told in the voice of Robert, the favored son.

We follow Robert across the prairies, the mountains, the Gold Rush – and eventually to Northern California. Robert writes home to his siblings still living, he assumes,  in the Blackwater Swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio, asking them how they are, have they survived episodes of swamp fever, and he asks for them to write back at various addresses he gives them. Robert eventually ends up in the Redwood forests, under the great sequoia, collecting seeds and saplings for a company in England.  Robert is back in an orchard, though a much different kind.

The third part of the book brings surprises in the form of two women and some gentler, kinder characters as Robert suddenly finds himself face-to-face with his Ohio past.

“The Edge of the Orchard” had me spellbound, even in the hard, dark times of the story. Sadie was as bitter as the “spitters” she craved and James was hard and selfish. Both were as stuck in their anger toward each other as they were in the Black Water Swamp. The historical aspects of the story fascinated me. While I knew a bit about John Chapman and how apples were planted in part of the eastern United States, I did not know much about the redwoods and the sequoia in the west, or of the plant trade between the States and England. I found this section fascinating.

It was also surprising for me to find such a large part of this novel written around Perrysburg, Ohio.  My mother-in-law grew up on a farm not far from Perrysburg, and would talk about her early life on the farm, which was closer to a much smaller town. I did not know about the Black Water Swamp. Chevalier’s book had me on an adventure reading up on the Black Water Swamp, and then reading more on the sequoia.

“The Edge of the Orchard” had me, at times, on the edge of my seat, or, more accurately, sitting in my car listening to the audio of this book. I think that reading this book via a recording made it a bit easier. At least it did in hearing the voices of the main characters. This book was spellbinding; another notable book from Tracy Chevalier, who wrote “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”.

Have you read anything by Ms. Chevalier?

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Walther_Firle_The_fairy_taleBooks. Books. Books.

I love this painting! Three children seemingly attentive to whatever is on the pages of a book, warm light streaming in, potted plants on the window ledge, and pinafores. I’m a pinafore sort of girl. Penelope Pinafore.

My reading has been rather sparse lately, what with cleaning up the garden, fiddling around with flower arrangements, writing reports, walking down paths – and general socializing, my eyes tend to grow window shades when I sit down to read these days. There are a few tidbits I’ve dipped into, however, and I thought I might share them with you.


Our book group just discussed Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley; In Search of America”. While we were somewhat divided on whether or not we liked this classic, or finished reading it, we did have an engaging conversation around it. I was taken in with the simpler prose and rich language of the time and of a rural America that was already vanishing.  I found the photo above googling around. It is of Steinbeck’s traveling home, which he christened Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. The photo is from here.


An audio book kept me company during a long spell of meetings and things to attend that had me driving to and fro. It was Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927” and centers itself on events and personalities leading up to or following that memorable summer. This was a fun book to listen to. Bryson himself reads it. It is chock full of facts and numbers and tidbits of the times with a bit of Bryson’s own humor thrown in.

From the epic trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindberg in a “flimsy” plane to Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, Al Capone and Babe Ruth, professional boxing, the invention of television by a young man, and the many nuances of a spit ball, ” . . . 1927 ” was an interesting book that had me pressing “stop” often and reflecting on how the mood of the country and of the world then was in many ways similar to 2016.

Image of book from Bill Bryson’s website.


Wrapping this all up is a read I hope to get back to soon. On recommendation from our daughter, Katy, I checked out Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow”.

Jonas Crow is orphaned as a very young boy. He is taken in by an elderly aunt and uncle, who care for him lovingly and give him some of the happiest  and most secure times of his life. When they die, leaving him still a child, he is placed in an orphanage. Like all the children there, he is known simply by the first letter of his name.  J. J  learns his lessons just well enough to pass classes, knowing he can do much better, and feels he has a calling to ministry, which affords him a college scholarship.

Jayber, as he becomes known, abandons his studies, is a bit of a vagabond for a spell, and eventually becomes the barber of the small town of Port William, Kentucky, where he lives out his life and loves a woman he can never marry. It is where he struggles with his beliefs, and lives a simple life.

After several renewals, “Jayber Crow” found its way back to the library before I could finish it. “Jayber Crow” is actually a book I think I may purchase, for it is yet another book whose language and imagery are rich and whose pages I think I would return to often as it is a rather long, contemplative journey worth taking.

Have you experienced a good read lately?

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IMG_6084On a recent Saturday morning, a contingency of garden club members, clippers in hand, were led by library staff to the basement. They were on a mission of horticultural concern. The library, Elmhurst Public Library to be precise, was preparing for an open house in celebration of their 100th anniversary. The Elmhurst Garden Club, which is celebrating their 90th anniversary, was asked to make table decorations.

What an exciting, innovative time the early 1900’s must have been. All around the Chicago suburban area (not to mention the city of Chicago itself) growth was apparent. Passenger lines, such as the “L”, were winding their way out to the suburbs, where forest preserve park districts, local park districts and libraries were being established. These were visionary folks who looked toward the future with a sense of the common good that should be found in their communities. It was also a burgeoning time in which women’s organizations were formed; clubs where women had a chance to gather, but, more importantly, where they could do good things and make a difference outside of their homes.

So it was that on this particular Saturday morning, for several hours, at least a baker’s dozen worked, under the expert eye of Marie, arranging flowers in slim bud vases, chatting and laughing as women are wont to do. A few members took what was left of the flowers to make more substantial bouquets for the library’s reception desk, circulation desk, etc. They were beautiful.


The next morning, many of us wandered in for a delicious pancake breakfast. Imagine that!  Pancakes! In the library!  I keep saying, dear reader, that the most “happening” places today are local libraries.  Several of us, plates of buckwheat, s’more, or apple fritter pancakes found tables in the children’s section, while a combo played, and I enjoyed the best conversation on bakeries with my friend Jean’s husband.

Eventually, we were invited upstairs to one of the study rooms, where we all grabbed vases of flowers.  Imagine us, if you will; flower girls, again.

One of the best treats of the morning was hearing my name called out. “Penny”. At first, I thought it to be the aforementioned Jean, but, quickly realized it was the woman behind her. Well, by gosh and by golly, it was none other than Dawn of Petals. Paper. Simple Thymes. We have been trying, for ages, to meet up and there we were, face-to-face, in a place we both love – the library.

Dawn and I met up again, upstairs. We chatted some more and decided to have our photo taken. What fun! As we walked out, a staff member asked if we would like to scan our photos and send to our phone, email, etc.  Isn’t it amazing?  100 years after its inception, in a public library, perhaps working on a term paper – or looking to build a chicken coop – you can scan the pages of a book and send it to your computer or phone?


But wait. There’s more.

Many libraries now have meeting rooms for big groups or small. Card holders can check out tools and blenders, knit with friends, watch a movie or attend a lecture. One can request a book, from another library, and have it waiting for you, and many libraries now have designated spaces for teens.

As a teenager, I was often in the library. I relished the day I was old enough to go the main branch of the Maywood library. I loved browsing the shelves, doing research for a term paper, and discovering all sorts of magazines I never knew existed, but, I did so in a hushed atmosphere, where even turning the pages of a book were quiet pursuits. Today, teens can meet up in a room like this, work on projects, write on a glass-like board, study, or, just hang out. Pretty wonderful, I think.

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Elmhurst Public Library!




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IMG_5832. . . on yet another bookish adventure in my inter-library loan system, this time at the Indian Prairie Library,  I noticed this poster as I started to walk out. I decided right then and there to sign up for the lecture, which was to begin in about thirty minutes. Sometimes spontaneity becomes an illustrative page in time.

The meeting room was close to being a full house as interested library patrons and others gathered for the lecture. I was actually surprised at the 1 pm turnout. It looked to be at least 60 people – a good number on snowy weekday afternoon.

Isn’t it amazing what public libraries provide?  From the Lannon stone structure in Western Springs that recently gave me solace, to the day I was “mullioned” –  and lived to tell the tale – libraries have also been havens for me. They not only house books; they instill knowledge and awareness through lectures and provide places to meet, to learn, to expand our knowledge. Public libraries are such treasures, but, you already know that.

The Chicago ‘L’ is an integral part of the City and suburban transport system. It grew out of the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire with its early transports taking patrons to the Columbian Exposition. The Windy City and the ‘L” grew in tandem, raising the City of Big Shoulders up from the ashes and expanding it outward to the north, the south, and the west, part and parcel to eventual urban and IMG_6010 suburban sprawl.

I found Greg Borzo to be an interesting, entertaining and engaging speaker.  A noteworthy historian with a passion for the City of Chicago, I know I would enjoy having him for a docent on a Chicago tour. He proceeded to bring the steel and beams of Chicago’s elevated trains to life as he mapped the history of early means of transportation in the late 1800’s with many vintage photos, some of which I am showing here and credit to Greg Borzo’s book, “The Chicago “L” ” .

I am most familiar with the Lake Street “L” and can vividly remember my first time on it, catching the “L” in Oak Park with my mother, heading downtown to the dentist, whose office was in the Field Annex  of Marshall Fields.  So clear is my memory of all the stops along the way and all the stations, up in the air, where people got off and people got on. I remember Ma saying,  “Penny, we are now in the Loop” as the train circled round, making a loop, squeaking as it turned, the upper floor windows of businesses so close I could see in them. I hoped it wouldn’t fall down while in awe, catching the sun as it would  play hide and seek sun, peaking around the skyscrapers.

Greg Borzo spoke of the many train lines that are all a part of the “L” system and how the subway eventually came into being, an underground system of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). He showed photos of workers digging out the mud, underground, to form the tunnels that would accommodate the underground trains.

I was particularly interested in the funeral train cars, recalling childhood stories of how my paternal grandfather’s coffin, family and mourners were taken from the City to Elmwood Cemetery in the suburbs. The train my Papou’s coffin was transported in would not have been on the “L”, but, the funeral car would have looked similar to the one I show here from the book.  I can only imagine the long ordeal of sadness and grief, riding the rail out of the city to suburban areas during the Great Depression.

On a lighter note, we were also reminded of the many movies with scenes filmed on the Chicago “L”.  Can you name any?

Do you have an elevated transport system where you live?  Have you ever ridden on an elevated train?


I can’t wait to see what my next library visit brings.

Photos are from The Chicago “L”  by Greg Borzo


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House_on_carroll_street_posterTwo movies, viewed a weeks apart, both set in the early 1950’s, one viewed many times, one just once in the theater.

One, a thriller, was a bit of a sleeper, though the venerable Roger Ebert gave it three stars.  The other, a coming of age/love story, is a bit under the popular radar, but, deservedly, up for awards on both sides of the pond.

The House on Carroll Street and Brooklyn both take place, in whole or in part, in New York. Both are rich in setting, mood and nuance, often evoking more in the wordless moments than in the dialogue, especially The House on Carroll Street. Both movies delve into issues of their day, though, in my view, issues not all that different from many issues of these days we live in.

The House on Carroll Street begins with Emily Crane refusing to name names when summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She is subsequently fired from her job and takes on a part-time position reading to an elderly woman on a quiet street. Curious about an open window and voices across the street from the elderly woman’s dwelling,  Emily snoops from the hidden garden as she leaves her reading. Later, she bumps into one of the men she saw in the window. The other she recognizes as the government official who questioned her at the hearing. So begins a quietly menacing thriller, ala Alfred Hitchcock, with Emily an unlikely heroine in a world where there are still Nazis.

Brooklyn is based on the book written by Colm Tóibín.  I enjoyed the movie so much 11201971_orithat I now have the novel teetering on my ever-present TBR pile. The movie came to my attention through recommendations, trusted blog reviews, and my own instinct that Brooklyn was a movie I wanted to see. This is a simple story, a slow journey through the agony of leaving what was once home, the long ocean voyage in cramped quarters, the bustle of New York City with new sights and smells and foreign faces. It is of life in a boardinghouse, full of all the comes when woman board together. It is the story of adapting to a new country, to working, attending night school to become a bookkeeper (and being the only female in the class). It is about being a young Irish lass, as Eilis Lacey is, and meeting a young Italian boy at a dance, falling in love, meeting his big family, coming of age, and of choices we make, their consequences and their rewards.

Both films are set in the early ’50s. Both are rich in costuming, details, nuances and the unspoken words as much as the spoken. Both evoke an era we sometimes look back to as simpler times, which were, in truth, often fraught with underlying changes and unspoken fear. Both have an unseen character of menace. The menace in one is McCarthyism, the other small-mindedness.

I would like to recommend both movies if you have not seen them.  If you have, I welcome your thoughts. Is there a movie set in the ’50s that you especially enjoy?


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IMG_4821My Christmas books have slowly appeared on the coffee tables and sit on the occasional chair. There is even a children’s section on a low bookcase in the hall. I’m hoping a youngster, or two, finds them to read. I adore children’s literature. Over the years, I have acquired a nice  sampling of books of the season; both through my own purchase and as treasured gifts from family and friends.

A few gifts have been purchased, but, I am running behind. I have started gathering ingredients needed to begin my holiday baking. For me, it IS holiday baking. Not everyone I share the gifts of my kitchen with celebrate Christmas. What we do all celebrate is a collective godliness and goodwill during our holy days, and I find great joy in the gift of giving food whenever I can.


A theme of this season and one that has been visiting me often lately.  “A Woman’s Christmas; Returning to the Gentle Joys of the Season” was the first of my Christmas literary treasures to find its way back into my hands. It was in this little volume where I found the quote in my previous post. This is a lovely little keepsake book, full of joyful quotes, photos, a few recipes and short essays. It found me last year in one of my favorite antique haunts, Jackson Square Mall. I gravitate to books Victoria Magazine published, especially those of the late 1990’s. There is a gentleness of spirit and sensibility to them that calls to the old fashioned girl in me.


It showed up again in Sunday’s sermon. Our pastor is a gifted speaker and his message sang out to me as he spoke of the difference between happiness and joy. He seemed to expand on the words in the aforementioned quote – a coincidence I soaked thirstily up. His words and those of scripture spoke to me, making a “joyful noise” inside my soul.


Later, as I pushed my shopping cart through T. J. Maxx, looking for the perfect gifts while gravitating to decorations I did not need, I thought of my happiness at learning that our family will all be together on Christmas this year, then, the pure joy of anticipating a full house overcame me.

My Tasha Tudor Christmas books will eventually make an appearance, especially her book, “Take Joy”.  I have written of it before, here on the Cutoff, and will try to share it again sometime soon.  In-the-meantime, dear reader, I wish you joy.

” . . . No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instance. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy! Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty . . . that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it, that is all! . . . And so I greet you, with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

“Letter to a Friend” by Fra Giovanni, 1513

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IMG_4678It’s been far too long since we’ve talked books.

My reading has been rather erratic these days; a season of life where my mind tends to wander as randomly as the snowflakes on this post. I’m on the computer, running more errands than Speedy Delivery, and the “this and that” of life that sometimes overtakes our best intentions. This season of reading lapses has been rather long and chronic, but, I’m thinking a cure is at hand; at least, I hope it is, for books have been calling me.

Here are few books I’ve been dipping into, even double dipping, and I’m finding them to be very tasteful morsels.

Nan, who writes wondrous Letters from a Hill Farm, manages to consistently steer me towards authors I might not otherwise hear of. Her engaging post on Heather Lende’s books, which she wrote about HERE, intrigued me so much that I promptly ordered Lende’s “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name”. Then I remembered Sallie, visited Haines and its vicinity last year, posting about it HERE, where she lives a Full Time Life, taking us along on her adventure.

I love the way blogs interconnect.


Belle, whose charm and grace always come through in her posts on Belle, Book, and Candle, graciously and generously sent me “Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion”. Belle wrote about this compilation of one page commentaries by David Brinkley HERE. Some of you will remember David Brinkley (and his on air news partner, Chet Huntley). I miss the long ago days of the likes of Huntley/Brinkley, Walther Cronkite, and their ilk. Still-in-all, there are good writers like Heather Lende who give us snapshots of life in well written ways.


As if these weren’t the only books to keep me company for a brief spell whilst sipping tea in a favorite chair (though not the one that got away), or a hot latte in a coffee shop,

My collection of Christmas books are starting to creep into the scene. Books I never tire of and that feel brand new each season. Perhaps I’ll share a few soon, but, right now, my main Christmas book is “Advent and Christmas from G. K. Chesterton”. A quote, a verse, a prayer, and an action. It helps me to remember the season and keeps me a bit grounded in a month of busyness and in a time of such worldly turmoil. Today, the action, in part, is to “turn one would- be grumble into an occasion for thanks”.  I’m working on this.


Our December book group discussion will be on  Marina Chapman’s “The Girl With No Name”. I’m just getting started with this read and finding it a challenge to put it down. We will, I am sure, have a lively and engaging discussion in a few weeks along with our (wait for it) annual book exchange and food is always involved. I promise, no double dipping there.


Well, time’s a wasting. The sun is out, temperatures are mild. It is a good day to get the car washed, for salt and snow and soot and such wreak havoc on cars in our climate. My Christmas shopping has barely begun and there is all that baking, which I love to do. Did I mention our garden club meeting on Monday? Oh, I should have, for this month we are celebrating the 1950’s and all things Disney. I can’t wait to see what our members wear, but, first, I need to consider what I’ll use for a table arrangement. Hmmm. I think I will turn this grumble into an occasion for thanks; for this remarkable consortium of gardeners, for the ability to do the work needed, and for all the joy it brings.

How about you? What are you reading?

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Juliet Batten

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