This book is about 50% highlighted; the green highlighter comes from the first time I read it in college, and the yellow is more recent. When I was 19, I fell in love with Nabokov for his sentences, and my crush has never diminished. And no book better illustrates the memoirist’s task—not to simply tell the story of what happened, but to draw a line between the past and the present and tell the story of what happened to the narrator beneath the bridge. When I came back home and walked my old Main Street, I had the strong feeling that I was walking all over my past, as if time didn’t really exist. I wouldn’t have had the courage to admit this if I hadn’t read these words so long ago:
“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”
The Taste of Country Cooking
Cooking from the garden is a gift—sensory, vivid, and more precise than it first seems. Few cookbook authors describe the details of fresh ingredients as well as Edna Lewis, the queen of Southern cookery. She died in 2006, and was the chef of the famed Cafe Nicholson and Gage and Tollner in New York, but her legacy really lives on through her cookbooks, which transmit through simple words and quiet imagery the larger-than-life flavors of rural cooking. Check out what she says about the first peas of summer, where she reminds us that shopping is the most first step in any recipe: “When buying peas, it is better to get them when they first come into the market. They are usually more tender; otherwise tender peas and overripe ones are mixed together, and unless you are allowed to pick out the tender pod or pods containing the small peas, you’ll be disappointed at the taste.”
Several Short Sentences About Writing
Verlyn Klinkenborg, who used to write the Rural Life column for the New York Times—of which this is my favorite—wrote a book that contradicts the prevailing winds about writing. At the same time that he rails against making outlines, he dislikes free-writing and “volunteer sentences.” He advocates a thoughtful, plodding, intentional sentence-making, and everything he says is infused with old-fashioned common sense. In times when I was stuck, Klinkenborg’s razor-edged rationality was almost maddening, but when I was writing well, in the late hours when I felt most porous, I related deeply. The book reads like an epic poem, short stanzas like sips. You can crack it open to any page and drink it down like a glass of water. Here’s one:
“You can almost never fix a sentence—
Or find the better sentence within it—
By using only the words it already contains.
If they were the right words already, the sentence probably wouldn’t need fixing.”
Give a Girl a Knife
My memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, chronicles how my obsession with food and cooking led me away from my small hometown to the fine dining brigades of New York City and then ultimately drew me back home. As I wrote about my past—from my childhood, to my first spark (the love of cooking on the line), to my return to the Minnesota woods at age 34, which is where this story ends—I burrowed way down under the covers into my first love: books. (When I’m writing, I often fall asleep with books around me; it drives my husband crazy, but he knows that books are my milk-before-bed, my insomnia-defeaters.) While I was writing this memoir, these are the books I drank and ate and slept with as I figured out how to tell the stories of my relationships with food, cooking, the Midwestern wilderness, and memory itself.
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