Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe
Mid 1980s London comes to life with Nina Stibbe’s letters home to her sister. Funny, poignant, refreshing, and thoughtful, I really enjoyed reading this memoir. At 20, Nina becomes the live-in nanny for Sam and Will Frears, who live with their mother, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Sam has some significant health issues, and they are mentioned but not a focus of the book. Literary celebrities like Alan Bennett frequently stop by, and this makes for some unusual dinner table conversations. Great books are discussed, as well as how to swear in German. Nina’s sister sends her recipes, and some are more popular with the family than others. Nina and the boys have adventures in London, comment on Mary-Kay’s dates, and casually refer to Nina’s trouble parking the family car. Nina is encouraged to consider college, and struggles with the recommended reading list in English literature. Even after she starts school, she maintains her close connection with the family.
Adventures in Yarn Farming by Barbara Parry
No, I don’t plan to raise sheep, dye wool, or harvest hay. But I really enjoyed reading about the seasons on a hillside fiber farm in western Massachusetts. Transitioning from a suburban house with 2 sheep to a large farm with dozens was far from easy, and Barbara and Mike are still learning what not to do after several years. One of their original ewes, Cocoa, is almost 17, and leads a pampered life. There are gorgeous photos throughout, of the seasons on the farm, the sheep, llamas and goats, and yarn. Some knitting patterns with photos are also included. I don’t knit, but they look enticing. Lots of planning and outside help are needed with shearing and harvesting hay. Lambing season is exhausting, though helped by a baby monitor and video feed of the barn on a screen in her fiber studio’s bedroom, 2 miles by road from their hilltop house. Working with small mills to process the fleeces into yarn is explained, and the time-consuming dyeing process is described. Annual trips to sheep and wool festivals and markets give Barbara a chance to see regular customers, and even to see her yarn turned into socks and sweaters. For more about Springdelle Farm, visit Barbara’s blog, sheepgal.com.
Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall
Carol Wall writes a moving memoir about how a slowly developing friendship with her Kenyan gardener, Giles Owita, helps her embrace life. Carol’s writing is very frank; she is a cancer survivor and does not pretend to be optimistic. She worries about her health, her marriage, and her parents, and argues with her husband Dick when stressed. Resistant to flowers, especially azaleas and roses, Carol doesn’t want to work in her neglected yard, and is frustrated when Giles doesn’t follow instructions. An English teacher, she is surprised to learn that Giles has a Ph.D. in horticulture, even though he works part-time at a grocery store. His formal, distant wife Bienta has a secret she can’t manage to share with Carol, even though she considers her a friend. After three years, her yard is gorgeous, Carol enjoys flowers and gardening, and counts Giles as a close friend and confidant. Family and major health issues affect the Walls and the Owitas, but Carol’s outlook on life is forever changed.
I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn
At the end of 2009, Lu Ann Cahn is feeling stuck. She’s happily married, on good terms with her grown daughter, a long-time cancer survivor, and respected for her work as a news reporter in Philadelphia. But still, not happy. And also not happily embracing new technology or social media. So she begins 2010 with a project to embrace and blog about a Year of Firsts. For 365 days in a row, she tries something new, or something (like hula hooping) that she hasn’t done in over a decade. Her firsts include: a polar bear plunge, taking a ballet class, baking a chocolate cake, zip lining, using an ebook reader, paying other people’s parking meters, sewing on a button, and going to the opera. Some were fun, others took more daring, some days weren’t very successful, but every day Lu Ann tried something new. She learned to embrace change, say “yes” more, got recharged and changed her life in surprising ways. Read more about her firsts on her website, and link to short video clips of her experiences. Looking to make 2014 different from last year? Lu Ann’s book may inspire you to embrace change, too.
Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
After watching at least one episode of the comical television series “Parks and Recreation” (thus a chance to familiarize yourself with the masculine, carnivorous, neoliberal, and mustachioed Ron Swanson character—played by Nick Offerman) you may then want to read Offerman’s memoir “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” Offerman is a loveable humanist who encourages others to live a “delicious life” that entails getting out into the great outdoors, creating something with your very own hands, and best of all finding a partner to share and enjoy life’s adventures with. No doubt his book will appeal to those who love his Ron Swanson character’s deadpan humor as he delivers his personal history related to sex, drugs, rock and roll, theatre, and film—and to small town America. He hails from Minooka, Illinois, attended U of I in Champaign-Urbana, and is a well known professional in the Chicago theatre scene. Offerman is a wordsmith. By the time you finish his book, you’ll be ready to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) and pass it with flying colors, so long as you do your homework and look up the words he cherry picked to vividly describe his childhood, his years as a not so starving (yet very poor) artist, and his current status as “one lucky bastard” (his expletives are common knowledge, so no need to have a dictionary on hand for this half of his book). I would especially recommend this book to anyone who is the least bit interested in the life of a modern day thespian. Offerman has had an extensive, successful career in theatre and in front of the camera. He offers sage wisdom in a very direct, endearing, and humble manner. He is a family man to the core, a loyal friend, and one of the funniest individuals on television today. As a woodcraftsman, he is a force to be reckoned with. And to boot—he is an intelligent and engaging author. This is one of my top picks for the 2013 year of great reads! It is also enjoyable to read a local author. –Jeanne
Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes
I’m not a runner, so why would I pick up a book titled Ultramarathon Man? I had recently seen the documentary of the same name about Dean Karnaze’s quest to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, and his family’s support of this challenge. I was curious about what makes Dean run and how he does it. The book takes place much earlier than the documentary, and talks about why someone might attempt endurance running. Dean had a happy upbringing until his sister died at 18. He ran one year of cross-country in high school, then stopped running when his coach left. He had a wife and a busy job at a corporation in San Francisco. Then he turned 30. After his birthday party, he literally started running all night. Running is clearly a stress reliever for Dean, and he likes the solitude. But it’s also a huge challenge and isn’t always fun, even for him. He decides to see how far he can run, and participates in a 50 mile race, in preparation for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Along the way his wife Julie becomes a dentist, and they have two children. His family, including his Greek-American parents, are very supportive, and act as support crew on his races. He shares the agonies of long-distance running with the readers, the blisters and cramps, thirst, dizziness and more. A more entertaining part is how he fuels his runs, including getting pizza and cheesecake delivered to him along an empty highway, and eating them on the run. He runs for charity, but also to make his life more meaningful and fulfilled. He feels most alive when he runs, especially at night, continuing to work during the day. I still don’t know how he does it, although I have learned that ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles) have become increasingly popular and even runners in their 60s compete. The book really kept my interest and I wanted to find out what Dean would attempt next. How about running a marathon to the South Pole? Affirmative. For more about Dean and endurance running, visit his website.
On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.
The Tao of Martha, by Jen Lancaster
Jen, a Chicago area writer, closes out a very bad year by deciding to tackle her house, garden, and life with tips from Martha Stewart. She figures that if Martha can bounce back from adversity, the practical advice in her books and magazines should help Jen. For his New Year’s resolution, her laid-back husband Fletch resolves to grow a beard. Jen is funny, tends to take on more than she can handle, swears a lot, and is devoted to her dogs, especially Maisy, who has major health issues. Guests arriving for a party are likely to be handed a recipe card and directed to the kitchen. Thinking like Martha helps Jen clear out her kitchen’s “Drawer of Shame”, organize and decorate her house, learn about gardening, throw some great parties, become an obsessive disaster prepper, and get her priorities straight when life throws her a curve, such as forgetting that Thanksgiving was just around the corner. Jen finds that while learning new crafts can be rewarding, if you’re not having fun, it’s not for you. For example, pumpkin carving is tough and messy, but decorating pumpkins and gourds with glitter is a breeze. And if you’re going to stop wasting food and cook more, you might as well learn to make comfort foods that are expensive to buy, such as cheesecake. I enjoyed this entertaining and insightful memoir of the year Jen chose organization and happiness.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.