Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Favorite Books of 2009

I have always kept lists of books to read, books to buy and give, and, of course, books read. True, there are still some reading days left in 2009, but in our Christmas letter sent to family and friends, I promised to post this year's list of "favorites" on my blog. Here it is:
* In Hovering Flight - Joyce Hennefield
* War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (My first reading was when I was in college. I loved it this time around so much more.)
* Two books by Pamela Carter Joern: The Floor of the Sky and The Plain Sense of Things
* American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld (Smart and sexy and how much is true and when will the movie come out and who will play Laura Bush?)

* The House on Fortune Street - Margot Livesey
* The Piano Teacher - Janice Y. K. Lee
* The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - Shaffer and Barrons (Awful title and wonderful book)
* The Space Between Us - Thrity Umrigar
* The mystery series by Susan Hill. Start with the first one, The Various Haunts of Men. (I decided August was mystery month and devoured this series. The latest has just been released.)
* Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout
* A Happy Marriage - Rafael Yglesias
* A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore (Madison writer and this book is on the NY Times best of the year list)
* Jhumpa Lahiri's two book of short stories: Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies. (Overcome your unwillingness to read short stories and read both of these.)

Nonfiction: I am reading far more nonfiction these days and along with books specifically related to spirituality, I am reading a number of books about nature.
* The Forever War - Dexter Filkins
* The Buddhist Path to Simplicity, Spiritual Practice for Everyday Life - Christina Feldman
* Beauty, The Invisible Embrace, Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity and Hope - John O'Donohue
* The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50 - Sara Lawrence Lightfoot
* Seeking Peace, Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, Mary Pipher
* Listening Below the Noise, A Meditation on the Practice of Silence - Anne D. LeClaire
* The Morville Hours, The Story of a Garden - Katherine Swift
* Small Wonder - Barbara Kingsolver
* On Moving, A Writer's Meditation on New House, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again - Louise deSalvo
* Teaching Trees, Lesson from the Forest - Joan Maloof
* We Two, Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals - Gillian Gill
* Facing the Lion, Being the Lion, Facing Inner Courage Where it Lives - Mark Nepo
* Life List, A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds - Olivia Gentile (about Phoebe Snetsinger)
* This Year I Will...How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True - M. J. Ryan
* Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness - Lynda Lynn Haupt
* Traveling with Pomegranates, A Mother-Daughter Story - Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
* The Seven Whispers - Christina Baldwin (One I return to periodically)
* Epicurean Simplicity - Stephanie Mills
* A Book of Silence - Sara Maitland
* Writing from the Center - Scott Russell Sanders

Perhaps in an upcoming blog posting I will offer a selection of favorite quotes from these books. Stay tuned. In the meantime there is Christmas and entry into the new year. I wish you joy and hope and a deepened awareness of how Spirit is moving in your life. And a new book or two--and even time to read them.

The Spiritual Practice of Cherry Walnut Bread

Four bread tins await. I have returned from a snowy walk to the grocery store to get eggs and butter. When the butter has come to room temperature, I will make cherry walnut bread, one of my Christmas traditions and spiritual practices.

The first year I made cherry walnut bread we were living in St Louis where Bruce was in his last year of medical school , and I was teaching high school English. I was pregnant with our first child, but I didn't know it yet. The recipe came from a magazine, an inserted booklet of quick bread recipes, and was actually for cherry PECAN bread, but walnuts fit our budget better. I can afford pecans now, but cherry walnut it shall remain. I think about baking in that tiny elf-sized apartment kitchen where the only counter space was about a foot long. Somehow good food still was created. I think about the friends to whom I gave bread that first year; many of whom have since died. I am grateful for all they gave to that newlywed and novice teacher.

I'm not much of a cookie baker, except for gingersnaps in the fall or snickerdoodles occasionally, so the bread became my Christmas baking trademark. I wonder if people who receive the bread think of it as Great Aunt Hilda's Fruit Cake that sits on the shelf all Christmas and finally is thrown out with the used wrapping paper and tinsel from the tree. Do they smile and say "thank you" and then hide it at the bottom of the bread drawer? Oh well, I love making it and in the making I encounter a newsreel of memories.

At first I used a pale blue deep pottery bowl from the 30's or 40's, but then I realized how expensive those bowls have become, so I thanked it for its faithful service and decided not to use it so casually, so regularly. Funny, other people only bring out the china and crystal for special occasions, but I relegated that old bowl to infrequent use and "saved" status. Instead, I bought "new" old bowls, not as precious--large yellow Pyrex bowls. Functional, as well as cheery looking, but I must admit I wondered the first time I used it, if the bread would taste the same. I guess it did. No one commented, unlike the year I had a new food processor and used it to chop the cherries. Such protests from the kids. The cherries were too finely chopped. Where were the chunks? I went back to chopping by hand with cherry juice running over and under the cutting board, leaving a red stain on the counter. Eventually I returned to using the old faded blue bowl--just for cherry walnut bread. I missed it and I thought it must have felt useless, put out to pasture. I've always believed in using what I have, enjoying it, so what got into me? It saddens me when I am antiquing and see vintage linens with the label still attached. "Never used," the price tag says. Why not? What happened? Did that special occasion never come?

Well, that's why hometending is a spiritual practice for me. I am reminded that every moment is a special occasion. Every moment is an opportunity to feel the presence. Every memory is a chance to whisper a blessing. I think about the people in my life who have received my offering. I smile and think about my son, who when he was quite young ate several jars of cherries and hid the empty jars behind the couch. Now grown and married, he is making the bread himself. I think about how I created a family cookbook for each of our children before they got married and, of course, the cherry walnut bread recipe is included. I remember the teachers to whom I gave a small loaf along with their Christmas gift, as a token thank you for the love and inspiration they gave our children, and the gatherings where I took a loaf as a hostess gift or the potlucks where a loaf of bread accompanied my salad or casserole. The loaves I make today will go to neighbors and also to Minnesota where we will drive tomorrow to spend Christmas . Perhaps Kate has made loaves herself, but I am the Mom and I need to bring the cherry walnut bread.

Nancy Agneberg's Cherry Walnut Bread
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup butter
2 eggs

Cream together sugar, butter, and eggs. Add alternately with 1 cup buttermilk, 2 cups flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp vanilla, 1 jar chopped maraschino cherries, and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts.

Butter loaf pan. Bake 325 degrees for 55-60 minutes.