The Sunday Salon: Currently

The Sunday Salon

Time and Place: 2:10 p.m., in our family room.

Eating and Drinking: Nothing right now. Cooked brunch for the family: omelet with goat cheese, hash browns, and veggie bacon.  I’ve been awake since 4:15 a.m. (tug of war with the covers and Husband; I let the husband win and I decided to get up) so brunch feels like it should’ve been dinner.

DevotionReading: This morning I finished Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro, which I enjoyed and thought was well written. Dani Shapiro has been an author I’ve been meaning to read for awhile, and I think this book found me at the right time. I have her earlier memoir Slow Motion (1998) out from the library and I think I will start that later today.

Watching: The Yankees’ game. Earlier, The Husband, a longtime James Garner fan, was watching a 1978 episode of “The Rockford Files” via Netflix on his iPad. He’s decided to do a mini-Rockford Files marathon this afternoon in honor of James Garner’s passing. After the Yankees.

QuietListening: Finished listening to the audiobook of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and started Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. This will probably last me this week and next. I’m not too far into this – only to page 16 (I have a copy on my Kindle).

Buying: Groceries at ALDI, right after I hit publish on this post. Typical Sunday afternoon errand.

Wanting: Summer camp to be over. My girl is not an outdoorsy kind of kid and she’s having a tough time at camp. We thought this would be a good experience – new activities like fishing and archery to try, some friends she already knew from school and the chance to meet other kids from other schools – but she is unhappy. She only has four more weeks and she gets a break for our Philadelphia trip in August when One Direction invades my hometown to sing a few songs for us, so the end is in sight.

Loving: The picture-perfect, fantastic, mid-70 degree weather we had in Pittsburgh this week. More of the same, please. Also? The blueberries appearing in our backyard. (We have five blueberry bushes.) I’ve had fresh-from-the-garden blueberries on my yogurt every morning for breakfast. Doesn’t get more locally-sourced than that.

Blueberry bush 2014

This week’s blueberry harvest:

Blueberries 7-2014

Hope you’re having a great Sunday!


Weekend Cooking: Conflict Kitchen

Conflict Kitchen

I’ve been spending my lunch hour in Venezuela.

Or, rather, as close to Venezuela as one can get without leaving the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which is where Conflict Kitchen has set up shop. You can find Conflict Kitchen on scenic Schenley Plaza, right in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Judging by the lunchtime crowds (there were 14 people ahead of me in a fast-moving line on Friday, including four of my coworkers) and a recent Pittsburgh Magazine blog post naming it one of The 8 Best (Not) Restaurants in Pittsburgh, I’m not alone in my love for this place.

The concept is fantastic: Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events. (From the Conflict Kitchen “About” page on its website.) 

This week was a spectacular one weather-wise in Pittsburgh: mid-70s most days, a light breeze, no humidity, just absolutely perfect. Truly, it doesn’t get better than this, in July or otherwise. Feeling adventurous, I checked out the menu online and decided to take a short stroll across Schenley Plaza for lunch.

I was undecided between the tequenos (crispy -fried pastry wrapped queso blanco served with guasacaca, a fresh avocado salsa); the cheese empanada, the ceviche salad, or the arepas domino. I settled on the domino.

Conflict Kitchen - arepas domino

It’s a griddled corn cake (two patties) stuffed with queso cheese and black beans.


For $3.50.

Trust me on this: you cannot get lunch in the “Burgh for the likes of $3.50. And this works just fine for me as lunch when I haven’t brown-bagged my own. If I was especially hungry, I might add a second domino to my order or perhaps a tequeno (assuming I can get my hands on one, that is; they’ve been sold out of the damn things almost every day this week when I’ve gotten there).

I’m completely sold on Conflict Kitchen now. (‘m a bit late to the party, as usual; friends have said that the Cuban and Afghan incarnations were very good, too.) The service is pleasant and efficient; on the day when 14 of us were in line, a gentleman came out and took our orders, brought them back to the kitchen, and they were in progress before we got to the front. Conflict Kitchen knows their clientele is mostly a working crowd on their lunch hour – mixed in with the Pitt and CMU students, of course – and does a good job catering to both.

Venezuelan food is nowhere in my culinary repertoire – I’m pretty certain I’d never eaten anything from there until Tuesday – and Venezuela’s politics and why we’re in conflict with them did not even enter into my mind until this week. I mean, it simply didn’t.  I like to think of myself as a fairly educated person, but the reality is I’m a suburban wife and mom of two kids who works full-time. Not that that’s an excuse – it’s not meant to be – it’s just not where my day-to-day focus is.

But for a few minutes in line at lunch, while reading Conflict Kitchen’s handout accompanying my arepas, I can learn something I didn’t know about the Venezuelan people and their culture, their perception of Americans and our government, the influence of oil, and the internal polarization of their country.

And come September, spend my lunch hour in another country doing the same thing.

Note: This post was NOT solicited, sponsored, endorsed, or affiliated in any way by Conflict Kitchen. It represents only my thoughts and opinions. All arepas consumed were paid for out of my and The Husband’s paychecks. 

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) Weekend Cooking - Newreviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

READIN’AT: Mornings Like This: Found Poems, by Annie Dillard

Mornings Like This

Mornings Like This: Found Poems by Annie Dillard
Harper Collins 
75 pages

All right. Here’s what’s meant by the notion of “found poems.”

Imagine being at a flea market or perusing a library shelf, and you come across obscure or little known books. You know, like M.G.J. Minnaert’s The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air (published in 1893), or Aspects of the Tongue, by Robert Froriep, who is not, as one may assume from the title, Miley Cyrus’ new biographer. (The folks publishing this tome in 1828 probably didn’t have such tongue twerking in mind.)

As a whole, these books – while probably useful back in the day – may not be too appealing today. But there may be a nugget or two of literary greatness to be mined.

That’s where the idea of “found poetry” comes in. It’s taking phrases from existing work and mashing them together to make something completely new. Passages from a dull textbook become a poem with a totally different meaning, if you will.

I like the idea of the concept.  I mean, I think I do. It sounds like something I would like. As is usually the case with me and poetry (especially lately; the poetry I’m reading isn’t always agreeing with me) I wasn’t entirely sold on this collection. I’ve read Annie Dillard previously – I liked The Maytrees – so perhaps it really is just me. Some of these poems felt like they were over my head. The meaning seemed vague. Maybe those are the ones that are “just jokes,” as Ms. Dillard writes in her author’s introduction.

In their entirety, the poems “The Writing Life,” (“Bring in an eggbeater.” “Break apart stones to see if they contain fossils.”); “I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken,” and “A Letter to Theo” are probably my favorites. The last two are based on original letters from Vincent van Gogh, letters 1873-1890, edited by I. Stone, translated by Johanna van Gogh.

There are also some memorable lines and images in these poems, and maybe that is our takeaway from Mornings Like This. Maybe Dillard’s purpose here really was that simple: to give us a few beautiful lines of poetry to ponder.

“So much is wrong, but not my hills.” (from “Mornings Like This,” a poem which feels so very Pittsburgh.)

“Give me time enough in this place/And I will surely make a beautiful thing.” (“Mornings Like This”)

“Think over what you have accomplished. Was it all that you wished? Has this story been told before?” (“Junior High School English”)

“I think of innumerable things; steal out/Westward at sunset, take oar, and row/In the dark or moonlight. In the evening I scribble/A little; all this mixed with reading./ I have a piano, but seldom play./ Books are becoming everything to me.” (“From a Letter Home”)

“To better my life – don’t you think I eagerly desire it? Cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good? Do you think we too shall be at the evening of our life?” (“A Letter to Theo”)

Annie Dillard grew up in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh and is the author of the books An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and The Writing Life, among several others. Visit her website here.

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” my weekly blog column focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works and the writers who call this awesome city home. Look for READIN’AT every Thursday in this space. 


Me and Chris Bohjalian in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Chris Bohjalian returns to Vermont as the setting for his 17th novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, and I return to the Book section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today with my review

When 11th-grader Emily Shepard says her world is ending, she’s not simply being a dramatic teenager. She’s alone, living in the shadowy aftermath of the fictional Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant meltdown, located in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom.

By Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday ($25.95)

Emily’s father, an alcoholic who was reportedly drunk on the job, is responsible for the deadly disaster. Both of Emily’s parents are presumed to be among the fatalities. With her dead father the target of the community’s vitriol, Emily runs away to reinvent herself as Abby Bliss, a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.   Read more:

As always, my thanks to both the Post-Gazette for this opportunity and to Chris Bohjalian for sharing the review so widely on social media.






READIN’AT: Creative Nonfiction (Issue 48): Lust, Lies and Bad Behavior: True Stories of Southern Sin

Creative Nonfiction - Issue 48
One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” my weekly blog column focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works and the writers who call this awesome city home. Look for READIN’AT every Thursday in this space. 

Recently I’ve been reading back issues of Creative Nonfiction, which has quickly become one of my favorite literary journals. It has a national circulation and was founded here in Pittsburgh by Lee Gutkind, who continues at the helm as its esteemed editor. Each issue has a thought-provoking theme, and Spring 2013 was on the concept of “Southern Sin.”

I love Southern literature. Ever since being introduced to Flannery O’Connor’s work in college, I’ve gravitated to this genre. This issue reminded me why I liked this writing so much. I mean, c’mon … the characters in Southern novels and whatnot are simply not to be believed. Here in this issue of Creative Nonfiction, it gets real – because these people are real and as the publication’s tagline says, these are “true stories, well told.”

Indeed. That they are.

Several essays in the “Lust, Lies, and Bad Behavior: True Stories of Southern Sin” issue that stood out to me were:

  • Rachel Michelle Hanson’s “Prism,” which recounts the juxtaposition between an employer’s daughter killed in a dating violence incident and some similarities in the author’s family dynamics;
  • Sonja Livingston’s historical look at “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie,” a tragic story of forbidden love;
  • “The Renters,” by poet Chelsea Rathburn, about the author’s financial decision to rent a room in her home to a pair of adulterers in the aftermath of her newly-finalized divorce;
  • “Shacked Up” by Mary Helen Kennerly, about the emotions of telling (and not telling) one’s parents about the decision to move in with a significant other.
  • Michael Copperman’s heartwrenching piece “Harm,” recounting an incident from his days of teaching in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta.

Chelsea Rathburn’s piece is my favorite in this issue for its pitch-perfect blend of humor and sadness combined with the parallels of the adulterers and a woman moving forward from a marriage that didn’t work out.

A sinfully delicious literary delight, this issue of Creative Nonfiction.


The Sunday Salon: Go Fourth and Read

The Sunday Salon

It has been a spectacularly gorgeous Fourth of July weekend here in Pittsburgh, one that lent itself to some quality time spent reading on the deck … which is exactly where I’ve been most of the last three days. Part of me feels a bit guilty for not partaking in all that Pittsburgh had to offer during this weekend (the regatta, fireworks, etc.) but the reality is that we don’t particularly like huge crowds and the kids are outside and active all day during the week with their day camp. Reading on the deck and watching baseball games suits us just fine.

The Signature of All Things

Last night I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. I haven’t read anything of hers before (I never bought into the whole Eat, Pray, Love hype) and frankly, Signature just wasn’t on my radar until I heard that a) there was a Philadelphia aspect to this one and b) Elizabeth Gilbert will be part of the upcoming Monday Night Lectures series with Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures this season. I’m on the fence about whether to get tickets for Elizabeth Gilbert, but in the meantime, I’m trying to read as many of the PAL authors as I can.

Big Book Summer Reading ChallengeThis is a chunkster and thus qualifies as my book of choice for the 2014 Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book. I love this reading challenge and I try to participate every summer. It’s easy; all you have to do is commit to reading one book of at least 400 pages. There’s still plenty of summer left to participate, as this one goes to Labor Day. (This post counts as my official “I’m signing up to participate.”)

Some other reading recaps from the week:

My audiobook of the week was French Lessons by Ellen Sussman, a new writer friend of mine. If you happen to find yourself on a beach this week and in need of a light, fun, escapism, sexytimes sort of read, French Lessons is it. I’ll admit, this strayed a bit into the romance/chick lit realm for my typical taste, but whether it was the fact that I was just getting back from vacation, this was a fun listen during my daily commute to and from work.

On Friday, I finished reading Paul Monette’s extraordinary memoir Borrowed Time, which I reviewed here yesterday. This is likely going to be one of the best books I will read this year. It left me speechless.

And speaking of this year, can you believe we’re already halfway through 2014? As of June 30, I’ve read 33 books this year, with exactly 1/3 of those being audiobooks. My goal is 75 books total by the end of the year, so I’m pleased with that.  Interestingly, this happens to be exactly where I was this time last year. I’ve read more female authors (23) than male (10), which is typical for me.

Of the books I’ve read, 10 were fiction; nine were memoirs; six were nonfiction; three were short story collections and three were poetry. The other two were historical fiction. My average rating for a book is 3.6.

My picks, then, for The Best Books I’ve Read During the First Half of 2014:

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Stories by Maile Meloy
Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Transatlantic, by Colum McCann
Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (to be published 7/8/2014)

Nest. Flight. Sky, by Beth Kephart
Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan
In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler
Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to send out get-well wishes to one of my very favorite authors,  Colum McCann. It’s a holiday weekend, so some may have missed the news that Colum McCann was attacked in New Haven, Connecticut while trying to assist a woman involved in an apparent domestic violence incident. (“An Author Known For Empathy Has None for His Attacker,” NYT, July 3, 2014). I was horrified to hear this (although not surprised to hear that he intervened, because that’s the sort of person Mr. McCann seems to be). I’m glad to hear that it seems that Mr. McCann is going be all right, as this could have been much, much worse. Not that I think he reads this blog or anything (but, hey, you never know) but I hope Mr. McCann makes a full recovery and that his attacker is caught and brought to justice for both incidents.

I also hope that the woman involved in the incident seeks support, for on Independence Day and every day, everyone deserves to be free from that type of abuse in their lives. Next time there might not be someone to come help.

Hope all of you who were celebrating had a happy – and safe – Fourth of July.

Book Review: Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette

Borrowed TimeBorrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir
by Paul Monette
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
342 pages 

During a critique session, someone in my writing group asked me about my motivation for my novel-in-progress. It’s set in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and is a young adult novel based on real-life experiences. It’s a story that I’m compelled to tell for several reasons.

I thought about my answer for a minute before responding to my friend.

“I don’t want this story to be forgotten,” I said simply, adding that for my kids’ generation, the fear and the panic of AIDS – not to mention the blatant indifference from the government – has become the stuff of ancient history.

Borrowed Time brings it all back.

Paul Monette’s memoir about caring for his partner Roger Horwitz during his fight with AIDS is, without a doubt, one of the most powerfully affecting memoirs I’ve ever read – about AIDS or otherwise. It doesn’t matter that this was published in 1988. This is timeless.

Drawing heavily from Paul’s journals, Borrowed Time has a chronological feel to it, giving the reader the feeling of being in medias res during the nineteen months from Roger’s diagnosis in March 1985 to his death in October 1986.  It’s unabashedly human and raw, as Paul spills emotions of anger and frustration, admitting what he doesn’t remember and portraying vividly what he does.

Living with AIDS feels akin to living on the moon, Paul writes, and that metaphor – along with the symbolism of light and dark – shows up frequently in Borrowed Time. In 1985, that’s how it was; AIDS patients and those caring for them were very much on a different planet than the rest of society.

The writing in Borrowed Time is spectacularly gorgeous. There’s not a single page where Paul Monette doesn’t leave a piece of his heart while taking part of his reader’s.

“Hope had left us so unprepared. We had grown so grateful for little things. Out of nowhere you go from light to dark, from winning to losing, go to sleep murmuring thanks and wake to an endless siren. The honeymoon was over, that much was clear. Now we would learn to borrow time in earnest, day by day, making what brief stays we could against the downward spiral from which all our wasted brothers did not return.” (pg. 183)

Borrowed Time is a lot of things. It’s a roller-coaster ride; one minute Roger is well and the next he is near death. It’s a testament to the bond of friendship, because not only do Paul and Roger have a support system of close friends, they also know the right people in 1985 to be able to access drugs like suramin and AZT and protocols that buy Roger extra time.

Borrowed Time is maddening as hell, because of what we know now. (“It will be recorded that the dead in the first decade of the calamity died of our indifference.” (pg. 18).

It’s about family. “Craig’s mother cut him off one night as he complained about the blood tests and the circular doctors’ appointments: ‘Listen, this whole thing is your own fault. I don’t really want to hear about it.’ That turns out to be rather mild, and at least it’s honest. The real hell is the family sitting in green suburbia while the wasting son shuttles from friend to friend in a distant place, unembraced and disowned until the will is ready to be contested. And even that is to be preferred to the worst of all, being deported back to the flat earth of a rural fundamentalist family, who spit their hate with folded hands, transfigured by the justice of their bumper-sticker God.” (p. 205)

It’s about the very real emotions of being the primary caregiver for someone who is terminally ill. It gets at the unbearable burden of secrecy that was absolutely necessary to protect the people we loved.

Above all, Borrowed Time is a story about what it means to truly love someone. It’s impossible to come away from this without realizing how very much in love Paul and Roger were, which is part of what gives this memoir its overwhelming sadness.

Paul Monette died of AIDS in 1995, nine years after Roger’s passing. From a literary perspective, the mind reels at the loss of such an immensely talented writer as Paul Monette. It’s impossible not to think of what might have been if things had been different, in so many ways.

5 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended.