All Quiet on the Blogging Front

At some point every single day during the last few weeks, I’ve considered how long it’s been since I posted here and I wonder, what can I write about?  It occurs to me that I’ve yet to work up my thoughts on Of Human Bondage, that maybe I should reintroduce Poetry Peeks, or that perhaps I should read that essay of Emerson’s on Experience.  Then there’s also writing about reading, or making one of those lists I never stick to, and if all that fails, well,  there’s always food.  But nothing inspires me to sit down put forth the effort.  I’m in a slump, a writing slump.

Whenever I find myself in a writing slump, it’s inevitably accompanied with all sorts of irrational thoughts like, “Oh wellthat was fun. It’s over“.     I become convinced that I’ll never come up with anything to write about ever again.  Tonight I started wondering what I ever managed to write about in the first place.  How did I possibly keep this thing up for the past two years when I apparently have so few ideas?  So I combed through my archives. . .

Low and behold there appeared a post dated July 12th, 2011 which I titled “Summer Writing Slump.”  I think I breathed an audible sigh of relief.  I suddenly remembered, this is normal!  MY normal.  Of course I can’t think of anything to write about.  It’s 95 degrees outside and so humid I can see it.  Everything that touches my skin feels like it’s making me 10 degrees hotter.   Mornings are consumed with contriving ways to keep my naturally curly hair from frizzing into a hazy football helmet around my head.  In between hunkering down in our tiny half bath to wait out ferocious wind storms, I’m squeezing lemons into tea, making chilled pasta salads and vanilla chocolate chunk ice cream, and arguing with my husband about the thermostat and how I will most certainly die if it’s one degree higher.

I’m not quite sure how long it takes for something to stick in my memory, but apparently I get like this every year, and yet I still find myself panicking that I’ve suddenly lost any trace or illusion of ability I ever had. I imagine having to tell people, “I used to write about books, but I can’t anymore.”  Which is even more ridiculous because I’m not in the habit of telling anyone about this blog and I’m pretty sure no one I know in “real life” even reads it.  It’s just one of those lamenting thoughts I torture myself with.

I also remember that for the most part I have to just go with it.  I can try very hard to clear the mists from my head, but I will likely need to squeeze lemons and experiment with anti-frizz serums just a little bit longer.

In the meantime, here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been reading this summer.

1. Traveling Mercies : Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott : I discovered Anne Lamott when I was in college and in the length of a semester I read most of her fiction as well as non-fiction books.  She has a combined poignancy and hilarity that makes her work a breeze to read.  That’s all I’m going to say for now as I may work up a post about this one soon.  Gasp.

2. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin : After watching season 1 of this show, I had little interest in reading the books.  The show was enough.  But the second season was like some sort of secret society for book readers only and it took me 3/4 of the season just figure out what the heck was going on.  Besides, this series just makes for good summer reading.  They’re the kind of books you can take outside with a slushy root beer that’s been left in the freezer for too long and bake in the sun while you read them.  Last week I (finally) completed Game of Thrones and have (finally) started A Clash of Kings. 

Okay, that probably looks like a rather unimpressive rundown.  It appears that I’ve been slacking off, I know.  Truthfully I have been reading a bit slower than my usual slow pace lately, but I have been reading some other things too, I’m just leaving those books off the blog for the moment.

What have you been reading this summer?  Anyone else experiencing a summer writing slump?

Of Books and Blueberry Tarts

“Sam loved to listen to music and make his own songs, to wear soft velvets, to play in the castle kitchen beside the cooks, drinking in the rich smells as he snitched lemon cakes and blueberry tarts.  His passions were books and kittens and dancing, clumsy as he was.”

Such are the words used to describe Samwell Tarly, a character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.  I’m familiar with Sam’s character as I’ve been watching the series on HBO and I just this week passed the chapter in which the valiant Jon meets him for the first time.  Ousted by his family, Sam ends up a member of the Night’s Watch, where all manner of outcasts are sent to guard “the Wall” and protect the Seven Kingdoms from what lurks beyond it.  Awkward and fumbling and goofy, he doesn’t exactly fit the description of one who could defend against much of anything, but as Jon recognizes early on, he exerts his own sort of courage.  In a world where cowards feign bravery in order to avoid shame, Sam readily admits his ineptitude for battle.  He is who he is, and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and that requires it’s own brand of “courage,” though not the sort that’s yielded with a sword.  Sincere, smart, and loyal; he’s the sort of character I wish would spring to life and be my friend.  And if he did, I’d make him these blueberry tarts . . .

I love to find ways in which to combine one love with another, so when I read the above quote, I knew I’d soon be making some blueberry tarts.  I’ve already tackled and mastered lemon cakes, but tart-making I’ve only just delved into, and this pastry cream was my first (though really not so different from making basic egg-based ice cream custard).  I slightly adapted Dorie Greenspan’s recipe and while I need to work on my consistency (it wasn’t quite as thick as it should’ve been), it tasted amazing.  I’d be perfectly happy with a spoon and a bowl of pastry cream.  Done.  However, I managed to spare enough to fill a batch of mini-tart shells (for which I also followed Dorie’s recipe – I think I’ve said it before – I’m a fan).  While I think I need perhaps one more go in order to perfect the pastry cream, these made a perfectly lovely dinner.   No, not dessert, you read right, dinner.  Some days weeks just call for a dessert dinner, ya know?

Pastry shells cooling

My Top Five Summer Reads

I’m pretty sure that not too long ago I said I was going to stop making lists because I never stick to them . . . but apparently I can’t help myself.  It’s too much fun to think about the possibilities, even if in the moment I find myself pulled towards something else.  Whatever the calendar says, Memorial Day seems to mark the beginning of summer, so here goes . . . in no particular order, the top five books I’m (hopefully) looking forward to reading this summer :

1. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham : With 100 pages left of Of Human Bondage, it might be too early to say for sure, but I believe I’ll find myself working through his entire body of work.  Though I don’t yet have words for how I feel about Maugham.

~

2. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky : I’ve had The Brothers K on my bookshelf for almost two years now and I keep thinking I’ll read it but it keeps just sitting there collecting dust.  I have an idea that perhaps Notes from Underground will provide a bridge to this longer and more daunting work, while also exploring themes and ideas of interest.

~

3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell : Another book that’s been a mere ornament on my shelf for far too long.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but this book screams August to me.  I’m also pretty sure I put it on a similar list last year . . .

~

4. A Song of Ice and Fire #s 1 and 2 by George R.R. Martin : At the pace that I’ve been reading so far this year (=slow), getting through the first two books in the series by summer’s end probably isn’t very realistic – but one can always dream . . .

~

5. Machiavelli : Philosopher of Power by Ross King : I could be mistaken, but it feels like an exploration of Machiavelli would pair well with Martin’s A Game of Thrones.  And if I’m really feeling ambitious, I’ll throw in The Prince.

~

What’s on your summer reading list?

Top Ten Tuesday : Quotes from Books

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

I keep a handwritten “Common Book,” if you will, of my favorite passages from literature, so I quite enjoyed perusing it this evening to pick out ten of my favorites.  Apparently and perhaps unfortunately, I tend to like very verbose quotes; some of them are not exactly succinct.  I’m not even sure they qualify as quotes, more like passages, really.

In no particular order . . .

From Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes :

“It is with cliffs and mountains as with persons; they have what is called a presence, which is not necessarily proportionate to their actual bulk.  A little cliff will impress you powerfully, a great one not at all.  It depends, as with man, upon the countenance of the cliff.”

From Thoreau’s Walden :

1861

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 :

book image

“Do you know why books such as this are so important?  Because they have quality.  And what does the word quality mean?  To me it means texture.  This book has pores.  It has features.  This book can go under the microscope.  You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.  The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are.  That’s my definition anyway.  Telling detail.  Fresh detail.  The good writers touch life often.  The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her.  The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.  So now you see why books are hated and feared?  They show the pores in the face of life.  The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless…”

From George Eliot’s Middlemarch :

photograph of eliot“But the effect of her being was incalculably diffusive : for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

From Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

-Atticus Finch

From Emerson’s Self-Reliance :

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.  He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.  Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”

From Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge :

After Henchard, in a drunken stupor, auctions off his wife :

“’Is she gone?’ he said

‘Faith, aye; she’s gone clane enough,’ said some rustics near the door.

He rose, and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load.  Some others followed, and they stood looking out into the twilight.  The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the willful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place.  In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey.  Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet.  The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed.  To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium.  In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.”

From Hardy’s The Woodlanders :

“The physiognomy of a deserted highway expressed solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools.  The contrast of what is with what might be, probably accounts for this.  To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the edge of the plantation into the adjoining thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.”

From Wordsworth’s Ode : Intimations of Immortality :

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,
               Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
                      We will grieve not, rather find
                      Strength in what remains behind;
                      In the primal sympathy
                      Which having been must ever be;
                      In the soothing thoughts that spring
                      Out of human suffering;
                      In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

From Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why :

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”

~~~

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday has been brought to you, as always, by  The Broke and the Bookish.

A Blogging Manifesto . . . sort of . . .

At least several times per year it seems, there’s  a post which sparks some debate about the nature of book blogging, what makes a good book blog, or if there’s a better/best way to blog one’s thoughts about books.  I look at these flutters of disturbance as opportunities to assess and reassess my own purposes and intentions as a blogger and to conduct a self-critique of my own blogging practice. The  latest flutter has to do with the “responsibility” of the book blogger to the larger reading community.  Do bloggers have a responsibility?  If so, what is it?  How do we know if we’re meeting it?  And does that “responsibility” extend beyond the blog to other outlets like Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari?  (Goodreads is the only one that I use.)

I’ve felt conflicted about this topic since it popped up.  I read Adam’s initial post several times over, I took in Jillian’s response, as well as Allie’s and O’s.  And still I couldn’t figure out quite where I stood.  A LOT of different issues are brought up in these posts, so many that if I were to attempt to cover them before proceeding to my own thoughts I’d spend the entire post just in recap mode.  So if you’re unfamiliar yet interested, I urge you to read these posts for yourself.  Having said that, my comments below should in no way be considered a direct response to any of the ideas presented in the posts above, they merely inspired me to compose my own statement on blogging, my blogging manifesto, if you will.

For what they’re worth, my thoughts on the nature of book blogging, responsibility, and community:

In an ideal world, everyone would be thoughtful and prolific, justify every claim, support every argument, and never say anything stupid.  We don’t live in an ideal world.  Life is messy and complex. People are messy and complex.  Everyday (and I’m making this personal because I’m trying to avoid making general statements) I brush against people who say things I don’t like, who don’t share my interests and fascinations, and who often want to spout their opinions but have no interest whatsoever in a conversation.  This happens.  By the same token those same people, who are passionate about different things, may very well feel exactly the same way about me.  I’m just another person they can’t talk to about what’s really pressing on their mind.  People have jobs to go to, families to feed, lawns to mow, cars to wax, sports teams to cheer on, television to watch, and on and on, and by and large most don’t really care to discuss the symbolism of the green light in Gatsby, or how it’s hard to find a good translation of Flaubert, or the mystery of Shakespeare’s life.  What draws me to the book blogging community is that being part of it lets me know that I’m not the only one in the world who feels profoundly impacted by Thomas Hardy, or who has a burning desire to discover the ins and outs of Dostoyevsky, and who spends hours upon hours compiling a list of 200+ books to read.  You, all of you, help me to feel less alone in my passions.

I mean, let’s be real about this, it’s nearly 9:00pm on a Friday night and here I sit, writing about “the responsibility of the book blogger.” )

I am also aware that my passion is not always front and center on my blog.  I conduct myself in this community much like I do in “real” life.  I am a quiet person of quiet passions.  I observe more than I speak, I watch more than I participate, take in more than I dish out.  That’s just me.  And rather than be critical of how others write their blogs and conduct their blogging/reviewing experience, I’m more likely to say, “That’s just you.”

I think we have to be as forgiving and accepting and understanding in this virtual community as we would be in person.  I see the book blogging community as one massive book club, only we’re all reading different books and instead of meeting up at a cafe or a library, we hop around to each other’s little spaces and offer what we have to offer.  That’s all that I can promise really, I will offer you what I have to offer, and I will provide some space for you to offer what you have to offer.

I think it’s important to remember that behind the banners, behind the logos and gravatars, behind the “about me” and “interest” boxes are real people.  I would never want to isolate, embarrass, or call out a blogger or reviewer for offering an opinion I didn’t like or for not thinking about something as deeply as I think they should.   I want to hear what you have to say, whatever it is. If I say something that you don’t agree with, tell me why.  If I got very little out of a book that for you was earth-shaking, tell me why.   If you want to speak profoundly, then speak profoundly.  If you want to share a memory, then share a memory.  If you just want to leave a brief remark to let me know you were here, then by all means be brief.  I’m glad you stopped by.  Whatever you have to offer, whatever you want to share, I thank you for it.

We accept the profound with the mundane in real life, so why not in the virtual one too?

That brings me to what I see as my main responsibility (I won’t attempt to define it for anyone else) as a book blogger, and it boils down to three words :  Open for discussion.  Whether I write 3 pages or just say, “meh . .” every thing I communicate here or at Goodreads, or anywhere else is open for discussion.  I cannot promise that everything I say will be insightful or eloquent or well supported. I can’t promise that every argument will be backed up with sufficient proof or that every feeling I have about a book or author will be justified.  The only thing I can promise is that I’m willing to talk about it.  I’m all ears if you want to help me see the light.  But then I can’t promise that I will see the light.  You might convince me, you might not.  But I’m open for discussion.  Discussion fuels growth;  and that’s why I’m here.

Some of my early reviews on Goodreads as well as my early posts here make me cringe to reflect on them.  At times I’ve considered deleting them, but I haven’t, because they are part of my process and I needed to write those  posts in order to get where I am now.  I still have a looong way to go, but I’ve grown a tremendous lot from the work that I’ve done here.  And that never would have happened if I hadn’t just started putting my thoughts out there, for better or for worse.  I’ve learned by writing and continuing to write, and continuing to read and eek my thoughts out of the muck.  If I worried constantly about whether or not those thoughts were the right kind of thoughts or whether they were “worthy” of publication. . .  well, I wouldn’t still be doing this.

I am sometimes objective, sometimes personal. I might be inspired to share a memory of the orange marmalade massacre that was my kitchen after my first attempt at canning, or I might be inspired to think about how a novel fits into the romantic movement.   Sometimes I have so much to say I have to break it up into three extra long posts, other times I only feel inspired to write a paragraph.  Sometimes my thoughts flow easily and other times I fear I’m not making any sense at all.  But in order to keep growing as a reader and as a writer, I need to keep pushing my thoughts out there.  I will offer you what I have to offer, and that’s all I can promise.

My opinion, as it stands now is that this “responsibility” issue is a rather personal thing. My responsibility as a blogger is driven by my individual decisions.  And those decisions are quite different from the paths chosen by other book bloggers.  We all have to decide what audience we hope to reach and what our goals and intentions are, and I believe that those decisions are what ultimately drive our “responsibility.” I write because I don’t want to put a book like Middlemarch back on the shelf without forcing myself to at least try and think about it a little more deeply.  I write because if I didn’t I wouldn’t remember a single thing about most of the books I read.  Rather than in a private journal I choose to write here, on a public space, because knowing that you are going to read it motivates me.   And because connecting with you enhances my journey.

I’m just here to listen, to contribute, and to keep the conversation going . . .

Bookstore Adventures (a.k.a. Tales of Distraction)

Ah, nothing like riding around looking for party balloons on an otherwise hectic Saturday and getting, um, distracted . . . Am I really supposed to see this . . .

. . . and not stop?

In the moment it feels like some sort of test of loyalty, but no, I don’t have that much self-control.

There’s stuff to be done, cakes to be picked up, the perfect color balloons to be found, drinks to be bought, people are waiting.  And here’s where I find myself. . .

Amongst these dawdlers, lingering through the isles, slowly perusing each shelf as though I have all the time in the world.  Contrary to the general image I seem to project, I’m really not all that disciplined.  I get distracted easily and I can’t avoid shirking obligations in favor of something that glitters, even if what glitters to me isn’t the same as what glitters for many . . . .

. . . a little cube devoted to my Mr. Hardy (even if they didn’t have any titles I don’t already own) with his name scribbled on the side . . .

. . . a mis-shelved book that I just happened to lay eyes on . . . a critical analysis of Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles, one of my early classics and my first Hardy.  Looking back at my archives, I see that it’s been two years since I read that book and with this newly found companion, I’m feeling like it might be time for a revisit.

. . . a volume of John Cheever’s Pulitzer prize winning stories.  Though I know nothing of Cheever, this book has been on my list for years.

. . . two Willa Cather titles, O’Pioneers and My Antonia.  Cather is one of those authors who repeatedly calls to me but keeps getting pushed aside.  I’m hoping that these finds will remedy that.

. . . and a copy of Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter.  Yes, I can see your face scrunching in a wince of confusion.  From Cather to Pekar?  I know, not exactly peanut butter and jelly.  What can I say?  I’m a reading enigma.

As for those other obligations, well, the cake arrived at the party in plenty of time and a little bundle of balloons were purchased in the perfect shade of pretty, feminine (pepto bismol) pink.  So while I didn’t learn any lessons in not getting distracted, it turned out to be a pretty successful Saturday all around.

Cheers!

Tuesdays with Dorie : Hungarian Shortbread

This TWD post is going to be short and sweet and mostly pictures. Any bookish or film related connection I tried to concoct was, well, a stretch.  So I’ll just stick with the basics.

Hungarian Shortbread : a variation on your standard shortbread with a layer of fresh rhubarb jam in the middle.  The most notable thing about it was the butter.  No, make that the BUTTER!  Not two sticks, not three, but a whole whopping POUND of the stuff!  I think I started to wheeze just looking at it and I’m pretty sure the motor of my Kitchen-Aid might have skipped a beat trying to whip it up.

The second most notable thing about this recipe is the dough construction.  Once all the ingredients are combined the dough is frozen so that it can then be shredded into the pan, which I must admit does contribute to a nice crumbly texture.

Fresh rhubarb was nowhere to be found in my neck of the woods, so I substituted lingonberry jam, which, though Swedish and not Hungarian, seemed somehow fitting.

It baked up nicely and made the kitchen smell all homey and rustic.  But this one was not my favorite.  I couldn’t get past all the butter for one thing, and the flavor could have stood a little more complexity.   I mean I’m all about simplicity when it comes to cooking and baking, but there was something lacking in this for me.  If I make it again, I may try adding some toasted walnuts to the filling, or substitute finely ground hazelnuts or almonds for some of the flour,  or perhaps add the vanilla bean to the dough rather than putting it in the jam mixture.

I unintentionally omitted the powdered sugar topping and while it would have been pretty, it was plenty sweet without it. Overall, straightforward and unfussy.  The most cumbersome aspect was grating the dough (I think my arm was sore the next day) but with all that butter, it’s not a bad idea to kick things off with a little workout.

Until next time . . . Bake on!

~

To see what others thought of this week’s Baking with Julia recipe, visit Tuesdays with Dorie.

Tuesdays with Dorie : Lemon Loaf Cake and Victorian Visions

This cake  makes me think of cloth napkins and floral table cloths and sugar cubes picked up with little silver tongs.  I envision lacy gloves, “mutton leg” sleeves, crinoline skirts and cameos, and pale, pasty skin.  I hear feigned laughter and the clinking of teacups and words like “ghastly” coupled with knowing glances and raised eyebrows.

I can imagine Isabel Archer’s eyes passing over such a cake at one of those hilltop tea parties.  As Henry James noted;

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

It would look just lovely cut into little rectangles and arranged on a multi-tiered cake plate.  And of course it would fit right in on a plate of fresh blackberries, strawberries, perhaps a mound of clotted cream, and a little watercress finger sandwich.

After all that, I have a tiny, little confession.  I didn’t have any tea – at all – ever, with this cake.  But it’s a nice thought though, isn’t it?

Here’s how I enjoyed my Lemon Loaf Cake :

I combined some lemon juice and confectioner’s sugar for a glaze, which I drizzled over the top and then I poured a simple glass of cold milk.  It was quite nice.  I can think of only one thing that might have improved this dainty, yet flavorful cake.  Lemon curd!!!  Why didn’t I think of that?  A little dollop of lemon curd and this cake would have been divine.

I’m making a note of it in my cookbook.

With it’s fresh lemon flavor and moist, spongy texture, Julia and Dorie’s Lemon Loaf Cake is a fabulous little recipe to have in your recipe box for quick entertaining or an afternoon snack, and it’s lovely with or without tea.

To see what others thought of this week’s Baking with Julia recipe, visit Tuesdays with Dorie.  

The Great Gatsby : can’t buy me love

It’s hard to know what to say about a novel that’s so often referred to as “…a timeless classic….the Great American Novel…”  It’s just as hard to see it that way when most of the characters in it are so unlikable and when it left me with such a sad, hopeless feeling.

Putting that aside for a moment, Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is a reflection of the roaring twenties era in America, a time when decadence drowned out the despair of a grim World War, a time when the nobility and honor of “old wealth” was set aside for the reckless pursuit of pleasure at whatever cost, a time when the passage of the 18th amendment turned Americans into thrill-seeking teenagers in pursuit of the forbidden fruit.  In that context, it’s easy to envision what a great Gatsby Saturday night affair might have been like, even without seeing images like this one from the 1949 film adaptation:

As a “self-made” man with humble beginnings, Jay Gatsby embodies the ideal American dream.  We feel his abiding optimism and the perceived promise of his success with images like this one, put forth by the involved narrator, and Gatsby’s friend, Nick Carraway;

“He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced – or it seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you, with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Gatsby so fully embodies optimistic idealism that it’s difficult to grasp how such a character could fail, could so completely and miserably miss the mark.  But fail, at least in the sense of attaining what he really wanted, is exactly what Jay Gatsby does.  If he is a symbol of the American Dream, he is a symbol of that dream gone terribly, terribly wrong.  He has what most associate with success – a large estate, an extravagant lifestyle, frequent well-attended parties.  Gatsby seems to have it all.  We should envy him, right?  We should be clamoring to tap into the secret of his success.  But there’s one key element missing in Gatsby’s picture perfect life - love.    In the end Gatsby is just a spectacle, like a sideshow act at the carnival that everyone loves to gawk at but no one really cares enough to get to know or understand.  If The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel, then it’s the Great American Novel of Futility.  All that grandiosity, the opulence, the optimism – it all comes to nothing.

Nick speaks of the sadness of looking at things “through new eyes” and that remark hints at the real tragedy of the novel; perhaps the greatest tragedy of The Great Gatsby is the loss of wonder; the abrupt awakening that things may not be quite how we envisioned, that there is emptiness where we perceive substance, illusion where we perceive reality.  To recognize that the life that we’ve dreamed about and worked so hard for, the life that has cost us so much, doesn’t give us all the things we thought it would . . . In some ways, there’s nothing so terrifying as that realization.    And for Jay Gatsby there was no redemption, no lessons learned, no second chances.  For all the dreaming, the effort, and all the things he acquired, he never grasped what would truly make his life worth living.  He couldn’t buy happiness; he couldn’t buy friends; and he couldn’t buy love.  And really, what is life without those things?   His efforts amounted to little more than a hollow, utterly pointless, pursuit.

Truthfully, I wanted to hate this book, because it felt so shallow and hopelessly superficial, but then I guess that was the point. . .

“And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.  He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Traditional Irish Soda Bread : with a pinch of history and a dash of art

This bread is the easiest thing I’ve made in a month, two months, heck it’s probably the easiest thing I’ve made in a year!  Four ingredients, thrown together, popped in the oven, and voila!  You’ve got bread.  Not only that, you’ve got pretty darn good bread.  I mean it’s not going to inspire poetry or make you call and brag to your mother and it probably won’t win you any awards; but slice it up, put a little jam on it and you’re holding a piece of tangible comfort right there in your two little hands.

Really, what else is there to say?  Except for maybe a little history on soda bread . . . The earliest references belong to the Native Americans who used potash or pearl ash as a quick leavening agent for making bread.  We also know that it was popular among the Colonists in the late 18th century as it was mentioned in such publications as American Cookery by Amelia Simmons and then again in 1824 by Mary Randolph in her book, The Virginia Housewife.  It became a staple in Ireland in the early to mid 19th century due to limited resources.  Though you can find many variations on the recipe today, traditionally it included four humble ingredients; flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt.

It is precisely that simplicity that adds to its appeal.  There’s something so charming and satisfying about combining a few frugal ingredients and producing a staple that’s appetizing and enjoyable.

Estimated date : 1657 - 1658

Vermeer captures that domestic simplicity in his painting, The Milkmaid.  Though her surroundings are unassuming, there’s a sense of tranquility and comfort about the scene.  Perhaps it’s her intense focus, the look of contentment on her face, the simplicity of her action, the natural light upon her.  I get the feeling that this is not at all a woman who is unhappy with her lot.  In fact, she’s elevated, dignified, romanticized perhaps, for her ability to turn those lowly ingredients in front of her into something pleasurable.

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Recipe from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.