Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

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I spent New Years Day gardening. This would be unremarkable except that I live in Montana. Livingston, Montana. Where it is supposed to be winter, real winter, not like the fake winters when I lived in the Bay Area. Don't even get me started on my season's pass to Bridger Bowl ... that pass has yet to make it off my bulletin board and onto my jacket.

So, I'm a little superstitious about New Year's day, and I think you should start the year out right. Since, in the brave new world of global warming, it was 40 degrees and sunny (and for once, there was no wind. We've had 50-75 mph winds most days since early December. I'm told this keeps up until at least April.) I decided to finally attack the bed just alongside of the living room windows, and to move the rocks from where the vegetable garden used to be, over to where the herb/rock garden will be. The bed along the south side of the house has kind of defeated me since I moved in in August. There are some wonderful overgrown rose canes, and way way too much mint, and a lot of slightly scary debris -- old seashells and roofing debris and weird stuff that accumulated during all that time since 1903 that the last family lived here. I don't know why it was scary, but it seems like that bed in particular held Mrs. Warnick's ghost longer than some of the others -- it just hasn't seemed like it was my bed to mess with until now.

But suddenly, on New Years Day, it was time. So, I got out the clippers and lopped down the now-dead mint, and raked out all the vegetative debris -- mint, weeds, some grass, and some old flat dianthus that didn't look terribly interesting. By the time I got all that stuff cleaned out, I could cope with the roses. Clearly, they needed pruning, and I briefly considered cutting them all the way back, but I really want to see what they look like next summer. So I sort of topped the tallest ones (way over my 5 foot head), clipped out the dead wood, clipped out a few extraneous suckers, and we'll have to hope for the best. I got a whole quart jar of lovely fat rosehips out of it, so that was something. After some vigorous raking, and much sorting of rocks from leaves, and roofing debris from rocks and leaves, I had a pile for the trash, a pile for the compost, and a pile of rocks for the herb/rock garden. I want to put a cold frame there by the back door, and although the soil is going to need some serious amendment, because it's hard as concrete now, I can see where this might work. Also, if the roses are swell, I may put more in later, but first I need to see what color they are.

My rock-moving project was enormously satisfying. The tire has gone flat on my wheelbarrow, which was a problem, so I had to use my hand truck. It was Fun with Levers and Fulcrums ... I've been remaking this yard all fall. It was cut into all sorts of fussy little spaces, so I've been pulling out weird little fences and trying to open it up. There's a vegetable patch that is approximately 20 by 30 feet, which even as enthusiastic as I am about my future garden, seems excessive. The plan is that I'll have about a 12 x 12 raised bed vegetable garden (in a sort of classic kitchen garden configuration), a flower bed along the fence that separates me and my neighbor, Paula, and then I'll seed the rest with grass. The vegetable garden had a very old rock border, so I spent my day digging the rocks out of the southeast corner of the garden and hauling them over to the southwest corner. There were a couple of really big ones ... like the biggest pumpkin you've ever seen, but rock. The hand truck was essential ... but it felt so good to do something real. So I now have a pile of rocks, organic matter, and dirt in one corner which I need to cover with plastic to start solarizing (and to keep the dogs out of it), and a big bare patch of soft dirt that the puppy thinks is his new sandbox.

It was nearly a year ago I saw this house for the first time, and although it's been slow going, I'm beginning to see how the yard and gardens are going to shape up. There's part of me that feels like I've lived here forever, and part of me that stands out in that yard and still can't believe that I pulled this off. I bought my own house. By myself. And if I can come up with the mortgage payment every month, I never have to move, ever ever again. That felt like a great way to start a new year.

posted by Charlotte at 1/02/2003 09:48:00 AM


Book Alert Although this summer was a tough one for the UC Davis Creative Writing community, as we lost both Walter Pavlich and Louis Owens, one happy result was that I found my old friend Margaret Young again. I ordered her first collection, Willow from the Willow months ago, but for some reason I'm still not able to pin down, I've been unable to read poetry for a couple of months. It happens sometimes. My brain just won't work for poetry and it all just sits there on the page looking like words that have been arranged, words that fail to cohere. This never has to do with the quality of the work, just some strange thing in my brain. The other day, while waiting for a friend to come pick me up to go hiking with the dogs, I opened Margaret's book and found myself transfixed. I spent half an hour standing in a doorway reading these poems. And then I came home and read them all again, slowly. They're beautiful and tough, full of vintage dresses and inconsolable grief, food and landscapes. This is a collection deeply engaged with the beauty and heartbreak of the Ten Thousand Things. This book is a treasure and my heartfelt thanks go out to Margaret for not only writing it, but for opening up my poetry-head again. Check it out.

posted by Charlotte at 12/31/2002 11:01:00 AM

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for pointing out this terrific essay by Jeanette Winterson on the problems of publishing a posthumous collection of Italo Calvino's nonfiction prose. Considering that he was such a tough self-editor, and non-documentary artist, Winterson ponders the ethical ramifications of the collection, noting that: "The cult of celebrity that surrounds writers now is rather like those sonic frequency machines that force moles above ground. In this collection, Calvino talks enthusiastically about the 'dream of being invisible' and he goes as far as to say that 'writers lose a lot when they are seen in the flesh'. For Calvino, to be 'just a name on a book cover' seems like 'the ideal condition for a writer'."

posted by Charlotte at 12/31/2002 09:09:00 AM


Book Alert When two writers become friends there's always an interesting moment when you exchange books. It's fraught, especially if the new friend is someone you really like, because there's always that chance that the book will, well, not be quite what you had hoped (we all have writer friends who we like better than we like their books). I spent the weekend totally engrossed in my friend Maryanne Vollers book Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South (try Alibris since this fine book is shamefully out of print). This is a great book, a book that relentlessly documents the insitutional nature of Southern apartheid, and how this insidious and ubiquitous policy both inspired and impeded revolutionary figures like Evers. Maryanne then methodically and relentlessly traces the evidence against De La Beckwith, the two failed trials, and the dogged prosecutors who finally convicted him. More important though, she documents how the history of apartheid in the South still haunts that country, and the nation. Aside from being a shining example of fine investigative journalism, this book is a wonderful read -- Maryanne captures the character of the place and these people with the kind of vivid characterization one expects from a great novel (and since I know her to be wild about her dogs, and mine, I was quite amused to note her narrative concern for Heidi, Evers German Shepherd). In the wake of the Trent Lott episode, and the current efforts by the Republican Party to portray themselves as a party who have moved beyond racism, this should be a must read for everyone. If you can't buy a copy, go get one from your local library.

posted by Charlotte at 12/30/2002 09:48:00 AM

Amazon and LivingSmall -- what's with all the links to Amazon on the site? Doesn't the behemoth Amazon represent everything that is Big in just the way that this site is seeking to question? Well, yes. I have a vexed relationship with Amazon -- as a book-addict it is almost impossible to resist the lure of their speedy delivery of almost any book one might want. So, more often than I'd like, I find myself ordering from Amazon. However, Amazon's size isn't the only problematic aspect of their business -- their practice of putting links to used book sales for new books is enormously injurious to first novelists like myself, for whom sales figures are crucial. I had a vigorous, if futile email exchange with Amazon over this when my book came out in hardcover, and was told, essentially, to suck it up. So I put the links to Amazon on this site as a convenience to any readers out there, and because as a former bookseller, I love to sell good books. As mitigation, however, this morning I'm putting up links to several great independent bookstores who will ship books to you, and who have good websites for orders. I urge everyone to buy books from their local independent bookstore (if you still have one), but for those times when you just can't wait for a bookstore to order a title, well, there's always Amazon.

posted by Charlotte at 12/30/2002 07:30:00 AM


It's over, thank goodness. Some years I'm all Christmas cheer, but this year I just couldn't get into it for some reason. Because I'm new in town and don't know when they pick up Christmas trees (and since we've had 50-75 mph winds the past three days) I compromised by taking all the ornaments off the tree and putting them away, but I left the tree, with its white lights, in the living room. It was sort of a Charlie Brown tree to begin with (but once you've walked into the Round Barn at the fairground, you're pretty much committed to buying a tree from our local Boy Scouts who went out into the woods and cut them down) and I think it actually looks better bare ...

I've been feeling sort of kludgy after all this holiday cheer, and thus, when I was in the store yesterday, the kale suddenly looked like just the thing. I'm not normally a big fan of kale, but there it was, all dark green and crinkly and it seemed nearly to wink with the promise of health and well being. So I made a batch of kale and white bean soup. It's one of those slow all-day kinds of soups that fill your house with the rich scent of cooking, a scent that seems like it alone can repel the howling winds that swirl out of the Absarokas. Here's the recipe (which I adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant) :
Step One: The Beans
(If you use canned beans, you can skip this step altogether, but I don't like the tinny taste or mushy texture of canned beans, and it's not hard to cook your own).
In a big pot, bring to a boil, and then simmer until tender:
2 cups small white beans
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
2 or 3 big cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
pinch of salt
water to cover the beans by at least 2 inches

Step Two: the sofrito
1 onion, chopped
1 big carrot, chopped
1 heart of celery, with leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves (or 1tsp. dried)
3-4 tbsp olive oil

When the beans are tender, saute the chopped vegetables and spices until the onions just begin to turn brown around the edges. You want to concentrate the flavors of the vegetables, so err on the side of overcooking, rather than undercooking. When the vegetables are colored, add to soup pot with beans. Check the water level, you'll want it to be pretty soupy still. If needed, add more water. Cook on very low heat until about 45 minutes before you are ready to eat.

Step three: finishing the soup
1 bunch kale, rinsed well, stripped of tough central veins, and chopped
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
juice of 1/2 lemon
4-5 cloves garlic

When it's getting close to dinner time, add the kale to the soup and stir it in. (If the soup has cooked down to just beans, you'll want to add more water and bring to a simmer before adding the kale.) Bring the heat up a little to a vigorous simmer, and cook the kale for at least 1/2 hour until tender. When the kale has cooked, mix the lemon juice and cornmeal together, and stir into the soup. Cook for about fifteen minutes, stirring often. This will thicken the soup a little and give it a really nice yellow color. While the cornmeal is cooking, add the garlic to the soup -- I used a garlic press because it's easy, but if you want to chop it very fine, that would work as well. What you want is a nice spike of garlicky flavor at the end of the cooking process.

Ladle the soup into wide plates and top with freshly ground parmesan cheese. Eat with some nice bread (I had some of the sourdough I've been working on, but more about that later) and a green salad and you'll feel virtuous and clean again after all that holiday excess. This serves a lot of people, six to eight, although you can freeze the leftovers. Be careful when reheating this soup as re-boiling the kale will render it unpleasanlty cabbagy -- I reccommend heating up one bowl at a time for a nice midweek lunch in the microwave.

posted by Charlotte at 12/29/2002 09:34:00 AM


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