Reading Rituals: Books for a Heat Wave

sweet cream coverI’ll go ahead and add my voice to the chorus: it’s HOT. Hot like even too hot to curl up with a book. Unless, perhaps, you’re directly in the path of a fan on tornado speed. Or unless you want to read about ice cream.

In summers past, I’ve tried to cool myself with various types of reading material. One summer, I busted out Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, thinking that the idea of endless snow and unbearable cold would spirit me away (at least mentally) from the heat and humidity.

Unfortunately, not only is The Long Winter my least favorite of Wilder’s books, but it also happens to be filled with descriptions of toasty fires, heavy down-filled comforters, and fur coats. So that didn’t work out too well.

That’s why there are books about ice cream. Funny thing about ice cream books: They never make me want to actually make ice cream. Oh, I’ve whipped up a batch or two each summer to be sure, but what always surprises me is that ice cream-making isn’t exactly the chilly process you might imagine. There’s a lot of stirring over a hot stove to make the custard base. And during weeks like this one, I don’t care what the end result might be: I don’t want to be near my stove.

So instead, I’ll content myself with reading about ice cream. Ice cream books are fun and enticing after all–any time of year, really, but especially during a heat wave.

Reading Rituals, Part 6: Books for a Heat Wave

Ritual #1: Select your ice cream book. I tend to gravitate toward books with lots of great photos and flavors of ice cream that I’d actually eat. My favorites? Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, and The Perfect Scoop.

Ritual #2: Read it someplace cold. Air conditioned rooms of any kind are advised. But an ice cream shop works well, too.

Ritual #3: Salivate. This is pretty self-explanatory.

Ritual #4: Go get some ice cream. Sure you could make it, but that’s what September is for. In the meantime, have a cone and think of me.


To Grandmother’s House We Go

Me, age 5, in the middle. Grandmom Ware, milkshake-maker extraordinaire, far right.

Me, age 6, in the middle. Grandmom Ware, milkshake-maker extraordinaire, far right.

Summer makes me think of my grandma. When the air hangs heavy with humidity and the scent of freshly-cut grass, I remember summer trips to see her at her home in Pennsylvania. We were never bored at my grandmother’s house. There were blueberries to pick and croquet balls to hit in the yard. There were trips to the Dairy Queen my grandfather used to own and walks to be taken at Peace Valley.

And there were the flames of obsessions to be fanned.

For my sister and I, the obsessions ranged from the ping pong table in the basement (the site of hours and hours of rabid sibling competition) to the cuckoo clock in the front hall (noon was a special hour in my grandmother’s house). We liked pawing through the toys and books that my grandmother’s seven children had left behind, and inevitably claiming a few water-stained tomes, or aging Barbies, as our own.

And we were both obsessed with my grandmother’s “milkshakes.”

I thought of my grandmother this week, not just because the park crew was mowing the grass at the reservoir where I go running, but because I saw this article, featuring portraits of grandmas from around the world as they make their traditional cuisine.

To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what my grandmother cooked. What I do know is that I must get some of my obsessiveness from her, because she was obsessed with not wasting. ANYTHING. Heaven forbid you chopped too much off the top of a carrot, or hacked too much flesh off a zucchini if you were cutting out a bad spot. Into the soup pot, or casserole dish, those pieces would go. I even remember her eating the brown parts of bananas that my sister and I discarded.

“Mmmmmm!” she’d say, with relish that wasn’t even exaggerated. Our revulsion was probably not exaggerated either.

Her milkshakes, however, were a different story. Actually, what they really were were smoothies–although being a woman ahead of her time, as my grandmother was, she was making them long before the smoothie craze began. A little yogurt, some frozen orange juice, sometimes a splash of milk. And then a banana. Always a banana. And who cared if she threw in the parts with the brown spots, because it was all going to get blended up anyway.

Long before wheatgrass or protein powder or chia seeds made smoothies fashionable, my grandmother made us milkshakes in the morning, fueling us for a day of running in the sprinklers, or prowling around her garden, or drawing at the cluttered kitchen table. I like to think that she was ahead of her time not just for making the smoothies, but also for her not-so-secret ingredient, which she included in her cooking, and in everything she did: love.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (besides grandmas and their cooking), July 17, 2013:

1. I’d love to be any of these places (and not just because of the air conditioning). SWOON.

2. Try not to spend all day looking at this. Though admittedly, that’s hard. (Here’s an explanation.)

3. When it’s this hot, Mr. Darcy needs to cool off, too.

4. For classics nerds like me, these are hilarious!

5. And just because it’s been a bookish kind of obsession week, I have to end with these fantastic literary Google doodles.

Happy Wednesday!

This Week’s Sort Of, Kind Of, Almost Favorite

Enticing, no?

Enticing, no?

Certain books send me into fits of ecstasy. Books by authors I’ve loved in the past. Books with particularly intriguing premises. So yes, I pretty much had a fit when I saw that one of my favorite authors had written a new book that could be mine, ALL MINE, in e-galley form this week. I had to have it. I had to read it. I paced the floor of my apartment, racking up a solid half-mile on my pedometer, until the heavens opened, angels sang, and I received the notification email that I’d been approved to read Steve Watkins’ newest: Juvie (due out October 8, 2013).

Here’s what you need to know. Juvie tells the story of Sadie Windas, a basketball star, good student, and all-around nice kid who takes the fall for her delinquent older sister’s mistake and ends up in juvie for six months. Sadie tells herself that her sister will clean up her act, that she’s doing the right thing for little Lulu, her sister’s three-year-old daughter. But lockup is lockup, and while Sadie suffers through hell inside, who’s to say that Carla is actually going to make good on any of her promises?

I was predisposed to like Juvie. I love Steve Watkins’ writing and his command of realistic fiction. I love the gently spiritual overtones to a lot of his stories, and his commitment to his characters’ redemption. Plus, the topic was intriguing: What happens when a good kid ends up “inside”? I wanted to know where Sadie’s journey would take her, especially as she encountered a cast of interesting, heartbreaking, and terrifying supporting characters.

So here’s the giant bummer. Even though I wanted to love Juvie, even though I tried to love Juvie, even though I enjoyed the story in many ways–especially Sadie’s relationships with her fellow inmates, and her believable response to the mental torture of being locked up–ultimately, this book just didn’t go anywhere.

Sadie lands in juvie because she’s trying to save her sister. So, one might think that the message of this book is that we can’t save anyone else–we can only save ourselves. The thing is, Sadie’s sacrifice does work (spoiler alert: her sister does get her life back on track), which is at cross-purposes with Sadie’s big emotional moment in a juvie crisis situation–that she’s no longer going to take the fall for anyone else.

Here’s another problem: It’s pretty clear that Sadie’s relationship with her boyfriend, like most of her close relationships, is fairly one-sided. She’s there for him; he’s rarely there for her. (Or he’s there when it’s convenient.) And yet, at the end of the story (another spoiler alert), even after Sadie’s big realization that she needs to let go of this savior complex, she still contemplates re-forging a relationship with him. Um, what? He’s not a bad guy but…really Sadie? You want to go back to the guy who couldn’t even bother to show up for your court date?

There were a lot of beautiful moments in this book, even moments of deep insight into human nature and behavior. But what I couldn’t get past was the feeling that Juvie just wasn’t sure what it was about. I’m not saying don’t read it; I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t quite deliver.


make wayBoston was a city I became obsessed with almost instantly. It’s a storybook city, really. Enchanting, cobblestone streets. A waterfront with crumbling wharves and bobbing boats. Neighborhoods where you can practically still hear the sound of hoofbeats, and the hustling of rebel forces as they prepared to fight for their independence. It’s a mix of old and new–soaring office buildings and modest, ancient churches. And let’s not forget the landmark that charmed me most of all: the “Make Way for Ducklings” statue in the Boston Public Garden.

All of which is to say that it’s good to get away, but it’s also good to get back–a truism reinforced by this gorgeous timelapse video of some of my favorite sites around Boston. Watching it, just a few hours after I returned from my West Coast jaunt, I was reminded once again that, while I may not stay in Boston forever, for now at least, it’s my home.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (from the comfort of my New England perch), July 3, 2013:

1. It was HOT when I returned. Good thing I’ve discovered the perfect summer lunch.

2. Why sure, I’d love to ogle my favorite women writers at work. Noel Streatfield all the way.

3. One of my favorite books, now a TV series? Swoon.

4. Yeah, I’m a word nerd, so I found this etymology of the word “cracker” (the insult, not the cheese vehicle) fascinating. Leave it to Shakespeare, right?

5. Just YES.

Happy Wednesday!


Favorite Books: Summer Vacation Edition

It’s one thing to talk about reading rituals for travel. It’s another thing entirely to find just the right books for those long hours on an airplane, or in the car.

Of course, we all have our summer vacation favorites–mostly beach reads (yes, this is an actual category in some bookstores, but it might as well be the romance section). But in case you’re on the lookout for books to take with you on the plane, or to the beach, or to that cabin in the woods this summer, I offer up this list of my own favorite summer reads, in hopes that at least one might become your new go-to vacation classic.

divergentDivergent/Insurgent by Veronica Roth. Dystopian fiction is not something I’m used to liking–or recommending–but I have to admit that as guilty pleasure reads go, these are at the top of my list. Main character Tris is a badass–a teenager in a not-so-utopian society who finds herself on a quest to uncover the truth about her messed-up world, and then to fight for it. 1984 these books are not. (Meaning: There’s not much nuance to the dystopia, nor does it have any significant lesson to teach the reader.) These are, however, great books to make the hours fly by, especially if you like a mix of action, suspense, romance, and girl power. Oh, and the third book in the trilogy comes out on October 22, so if you read the first two titles this summer, you’ll be all ready for the big release.

disreputableThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Speaking of girl power, Frankie is one of my favorite protagonists in YA lit, and this novel’s boarding school setting is totally juicy. Prepare yourself for hot guys, lots of pranks, and secret societies. Really, what could be better? If you love humor and/or main characters who challenge authority (and the patriarchy)–and then almost get away with it–you’ll eat this one right up.


afterWhat Comes After by Steve Watkins. Light reading this book is not, but as realistic fiction goes, I can’t think of a title I’ve liked more in quite a while. After her father’s death, main character Iris Wight ends up at horrible Aunt Sue’s, where she is mistreated and abused in increasingly destructive ways. Iris, however, is a survivor, and what makes this book so compelling is not just the fact that she does survive, but how she survives. Parts touching, parts traumatic, but also humorous and sweet, this is a book that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

boyBoy Nobody by Allen Zadoff. Now here’s a book I wish I’d had to read on a plane. It’s suspenseful. It’s chilling. It’s got a breathless, fast-paced plot…and (here’s where I was surprised) something kind of profound to say about growing up. Spend a little time with Benjamin, the teen assassin at the heart of this novel, and you’ll see what I mean. (Just make sure you have an empty afternoon or evening ahead of you, because you won’t want to put this book down.)

orangeOrange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. Hello awesome, compelling, laugh-out-loud funny nonfiction. When Piper Kerman is sent to a minimum security prison for a crime she committed years before, she’s at first in denial about how her cushy Manhattan life has suddenly been turned upside-down. But prison, it turns out, is just the reboot Kerman needs. I loved this book for Kerman’s believable and touching emotional journey, but I loved it even more for the relationships (some profound, some interesting, some truly bizarre) that she forges with the other prisoners. Did I mention that this book is also the basis for a new TV show, being released on Netflix on July 11? Heck yeah.

frisbyMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. I can think of lots of children’s books that I’ve torn through in one sitting, but this one rises to the top because I know several other people who have inhaled it as well. Brave Mrs. Frisby is a character you’ll fall in love with right away, and who can resist the freakishly intelligent rats of NIMH? Light fantasy (with all the charm of an animal story) at its best.


scienceScience Fair Season by Judy Dutton. I read this book on a plane! I really did! And it was fabulous. If you like documentaries like Spellbound, featuring brilliant, quirky teens on a quest to win it all (in this book, they’re out to take home the prize in the mother of all science competitions), then you’ll love the light nonfiction of Science Fair Season. You don’t even have to be a science geek to appreciate these teenagers’ stories. Sure, some of them are building nuclear reactors, but others are working with horses, or researching leprosy after a diagnosis makes science personal. Science Fair Season is equal parts heartwarming and heart-thumping, and it definitely made the miles fly by.

seraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartman. You’re probably surprised to see a fantasy title on this list given how little fantasy I enjoy, but Seraphina is another book I read on a plane, and not only was it a totally compelling read, but it was also just a darn good book. Court musician Seraphina has a secret–one that threatens her status in a kingdom where humans war with dragons. But what seems to be a curse turns out to be an unusual blessing after a member of the royal family turns up dead, and Seraphina is the only one who can get at the truth. Mystery, romance, and terrific world-building combine to make this a title you won’t want to miss.

every dayEvery Day by David Levithan. Ohmygoodness, READ THIS! Every Day is one of those books that I sat down to read and literally did not move until I’d finished it several hours later. Main character A is a body-snatcher of sorts. That is to say that each day, A wakes up in a new body of an individual approximately A’s own age. Which makes A, well, a soul–always inhabiting another being, but never having a home of A’s own. This may sound like a strange premise, but it works. And I loved the opportunity to think about what makes us who we are, and what makes us able to love (or be loved by) someone else.

darkThe His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I won’t say I’ve saved the best for last, as you know I have a hard time picking favorites. But having almost blown finals week my junior year of college because I started reading this trilogy and COULD. NOT. STOP., all I can say is: These are books that inspire compulsive reading, no question about it. In the epic world of Pullman’s trilogy, there are adults who seek to stop children from growing up, and children who seek to stop them. There’s a strange substance called Dust, and charming soul-animals called daemons. Most of all, there’s richness to this trilogy like I’ve rarely seen. This may be the most brilliant–and engaging–set of novels written for 10+-year-olds that has appeared in the last 50 years. Best of all, if you’re going on a long car trip, the cast for the audio version is magnificent!

Happy summer reading!

Reading Rituals: Books for Travel

hollywoodLast week, I was in LA. Land of endless traffic and bad plastic surgery. Oh, and some of my favorite hiking trails, friends, and foodstuffs. (How can you not love a place featuring an eatery called “Take a Bao”?) On the one hand, I look forward to this trip every year. On the other, braving airport security, and being wedged next to perfect strangers for hours on end, and watching as an overstuffed overhead compartment pops open and threatens to dump 300 pounds of luggage on my head do make me wish that there was a way I could visit LA without having to actually travel there.

It’s true: I’m spoiled. I don’t travel often, so when I do, the quirks associated with modern-day aviation can seem like an awfully big production. Thankfully, the whole experience is made slightly more bearable with the help of my travel rituals.

* First, removable clothing is key. (Um, I don’t mean it like that.) In other words: Layers. In other words, when I’m headed out via planes and trains and airport shuttles, I start with light layers, and travel with a collection of additional layers. Clobbering your seatmate while adding or removing said layers is completely optional.

* Snacks. I will not use this as an opportunity to rant about airport food and the $12 “snack basket” for purchase on the plane. Suffice it to say, I travel with my own food, and the process of envisioning my travel picnic starts weeks in advance. (You already knew I could be a little obsessive.) For this week’s trip, I planned on a tomato/basil/feta salad, this delicious quinoa affair, and raspberries. And I always have a granola bar on hand in case delays cause an additional snack attack.

* Books. You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? Travel is the perfect opportunity for solid reading time (provided the child behind you is not kicking your seat and endlessly singing jingle bells–which really did happen to me). Solid reading time or not, however, planes are not the place for just any old book. So, without further ado, I bring you the most important portion of this post:

Reading Rituals, Part 5: Books for Travel

Ritual #1: Think very carefully about your selection. Books for travel mustn’t be slow or ponderous or require deep engagement with facts, or retention of said facts. Your reading will be interrupted. Those with whom you are sharing your teeny tiny bit of airspace will want to go to the bathroom, or stand up and do awkward airplane calisthenics, or chase after mobile children whom everyone else really wishes were immobile. You will have drinks served to you. You will watch as said drinks proceed to spill during the ensuing turbulence. Choose wisely, my friend. Books for travel must be enthralling, absorbing, and (here’s the added challenge) easy enough to dip into and out of.

Ritual #2: Bring a back-up book. You know what’s the worst? What’s the worst is bringing a book on a plane which you think meets all the criteria above, and which you think you’re going to love, and which you’re convinced will make the seven hours from Boston to LA speed by (because yes, you just happen to be flying on the day when headwinds are at their most epic)…only to find out that you hate this book, or that the book is boring, or that you’ve read so many books like this one that you’ve already figured out whodunnit and why 15 pages in. Enter the back-up book–either a book you’ve already started (and are enjoying) or an old classic that’s begging for a re-read. Trust me: The year I brought The Da Vinci Code on a pre-Christmas flight (oh, the shame), I was very grateful to have also toted along The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Ritual #3: Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And do not, I beg you, purchase one of those audio-challenged pairs of airline headphones for $2. You will regret trying to watch a movie. You will not be entertained by the TV. You will, however, love yourself for tumbling deep into the universe of whatever book you stuffed into one of your two airline-authorized carry-ons. I did. Though as for what books transported me this trip…well, you’ll have to wait til I’ve recovered from my travels to find out.

Dog Days of Summer

fernSomewhere, deep in the recesses of the Sawyer family photo archive, there is a picture of our golden retriever, Penny, wearing an old t-shirt and a pair of my mom’s modified underwear.

To be clear, my mom does not wear “modified underwear” (whatever that might be). What I’m trying to say is that the pair my sister and I salvaged from the rag bin was modified with our dog in mind. Yes, we added a tail-hole.

Dressing up one’s pets seems to be some sort of childhood right of passage. All my friends did it with their pets. Fern did it with Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. We never dressed up my sister’s bunny (who, I’m still convinced, was possessed). But we definitely fashioned a number of outfits for Penny, and I’m quite certain that I tried to dress up my hamster using an item or two of Barbie clothing.

What this behavior comes down to, I suspect, was our obsession with creating lives, and backstories, and narratives for these creatures. It wasn’t enough for them to be furry and friendly and ever-so-lovable. They had to be part of our childhood fantasies. They had to be transcendent in some way: more human than they actually were, more talented than they actually were,  just more more. Wearing a Ryder shirt and my mom’s undies, I suppose Penny was briefly that. A dog with a wardrobe. A dog who was just a little more like us.

Penny (bless her patient soul) sprang to mind this week because of a story that nearly pushed the obsession meter off the charts: This one, about a program in which children read to shelter dogs. No, the kids don’t get to dress the dogs, but they do get to do something better. They get to give those dogs the gift of stories. And, no surprise here, the dogs actually seem to benefit.

In spite of my own obsession with books, I remember more about dressing Penny than I do about reading to her. But I do know one thing: Stories? Penny would have loved them.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (some canine-related), June 26, 2013:

1. Another dog story that will melt your heart.

2. I don’t want to eat these. (Ever.) I just want to know WHY.

3. Really interesting article about how failure can lead to creativity. I hope this helps me become better at embracing my mistakes in the future.

4. Dance like nobody–or everybody–is watching.

5. Man’s best friend is pretty great. But so is Mr. Rogers.

Happy Wednesday!