Bright Spots | Week Twenty

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A belated bright spots, for the week that was: the night a storm threatened, the air crisp and crackling, clouds racing overhead like skaters on a pond. Dusk arrived early and there was a bite to the air so we stood by the stove and between us stirred risotto, rich with lemons and salty stock, the remnants of a courgette, a halved cauliflower and long lashings of spinach. Reading in bed, mostly this book, which was everything I hoped it would be. I enjoyed the crisp crackle of the pages as my eyes raced across its pages, full of stories so incredible you’d think they couldn’t possible be real but that they are – real as they come. A night of small plates, blood orange soda and girl talk (giggles), the pavements outside slick with rain. Feeling happier, more contented, in my choices —for what will be will be. My grandfather, dancing into the room with a cup of tea and my grandmother, always chuckling about something. The tomato plants, which grew several inches in a week! Anticipation for my first trip to the far, far east – see you soon, Singapore & Saigon! Wrapping up odds and ends at work, appreciating the grey and the gloom. A lunchtime walk with a favourite colleague, discovering a churchyard rampant with forget-me-nots, late spring blooms. Taking the long route home. The sandwich and carrot cake he brought home on Sunday, eaten in the southern light of our dining table, his eyes hazel and sparkling. My family, their health and happiness, and him – family now, too. I’m so grateful for it all, this week more than ever.

Poem For The Weekend #52

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In your next letter,
please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please

promise I’m missing the right things.

– Carrie Shipers

The Best Holiday Reads

I love to read, and have for as long as I can remember. It’s the worst-kept secret in the world. I raced through the library at the end of my street when I was little and dragged my parents to another London borough so I could join a new set of bigger, better book-lending establishments. I worked in a library for several years during university and, now, a trip to the library or an illicit visit to the cavernous Foyle’s on the Charing Cross Road is my favourite and most foolproof way to unwind after a long day at work. Oh, books! In honour of an upcoming thirteen-hour plane ride, I thought I’d share a selection of my favourite holiday reads – books that are inherently readable, engaging without being overly weighty, marked by characters you fall in love with. Please share your favourites with me so I can race to the library/bookshop before my flight to Singapore later this week!

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr
The prose is beautiful, and although I found parts of this novel strayed from the historical truth (for example: don’t have your French wartime characters speaking in American slang!), this is a truly readable book that tugs at the heartstrings. I raced through it on a flight to Seattle and may have even sobbed into my seatmate’s elbow.

AMERICAN WIFE, Curtis Sittenfeld
One of my favourite books of all time – a sweeping romantic epic based on the life of Laura Bush. The characters are – perhaps surprisingly for Republicans – sympathetic and charismatic and the setting is so well-drawn that you’ll feel as if you’ve inhabited it yourself.

BROOKLYN, Colm Toibin
Gorgeous prose, relatable characters, a classic love triangle. Make sure you read it before you watch the film (which is also, if not quite as, lovely.)

SOMEONE, Alice McDermott
Set in Brooklyn like the aforementioned, this charts a young woman’s coming-of-age and middle years as she confronts love and loss. I’ve read it twice and not yet tired of it.

THE RULES OF CIVILITY, Amor Towles
A rip-roaring, knees-up hurtle through 1920s New York. It’s light-hearted, sure, but no less enjoyable for it.

GREAT HOUSE, Nicole Krauss
Another favourite book that is so incredibly gripping I first devoured it in a single sitting. One imposing mahogany desk connects a cast of characters and the novel slowly untangles their associations in a style reminiscent of the best thrillers.

MY SALINGER YEAR, Joanna Rakoff
Not strictly a novel, but it reads like one: Rakoff spent a year working at a literary agency in New York and chronicles the highs, lows and Salinger sightings she experienced.

I’m sure this post warrants a part two, and that there are many more I’ve loved and forgotten. In my rucksack for this week’s flight: Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff) and Burial Rites (Hannah Kent). What else would you recommend? 

Been There | Landeau, Lisbon

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Lisbon in May is a rather different beast to Lisbon in February. The orange trees are past their harvest, having budded into full lime leaf, and instead bougainvillea, wisteria and the most eager roses drape the city streets. The avenues are full. Tourists armed with guide books and cameras lurk at every miradouro in Alfama. The quiet nooks that I first fell in love with, that rain-soaked Valentine’s weekend, were a little harder to find.

In fact, much of central Lisbon – particularly the district of Baixa-Chiado – feels like a tourist trap designed to ensnare even the canniest traveller. It was something not so marked during a wet Lisbon winter but this spring, as the sun set the streets alight with gold, it was harder to ignore. Much of the city centre is marked by gaudy pastelerias piled high with overpriced pasteis de nata, cavernous souvenir shops hawking tile-printed wares and ‘snack bars’ designed to take your money and maybe give you food poisoning for the privilege.

But on our stormy last day we were desperate for somewhere pleasant, away from the hordes, to while away the hours after a rather grim experience at one of aforementioned snack bars (we were hungry, exhausted, we thought with our stomachs and they failed us!) when I suddenly remembered Landeau Chiado, the sister cafe to the Landeau at LX Factory.

We covered a 12-minute walk in a mere 8 (the promise of chocolate, you see) and soon found ourselves happily seated at the communal wooden table with a pot of mint tea and what Landeau call a pure hot chocolate (exactly as it sounds). Bliss. If you find yourself in Lisbon, be sure to while away an hour or two here. We didn’t have room for the rich chocolate cake the cafe is famous for, but it comes with legendary reviews. The table is piled high with magazines and journals – Le Monde, Vogue, Foreign Affairs and the like – and the atmosphere is just right. Lovely in the rain but lovely as a welcome respite from summer heat too, I imagine, with its cool stone walls refashioned from ancient cloisters and dim, ambient lighting.

Should you go, find it here:
Landeau Chocolate, Rua das Flores 70, Chiado, Lisbon 

Bright Spots | Week Nineteen

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I could talk about the tomato plants, a pair of them ripe with promise, on our windowsill or the novels I purchased from my favourite bookshop this breezy afternoon. I could talk about the lilacs, tulips, wisteria, roses all over the city; London daubed, suddenly, stupendously, in splashes of spring colour. I could talk of the delicious, lip-licking coffee we brewed for breakfast and the simple joy of sitting out to read the paper in the morning sunshine.

But instead, I’d like to talk this week of those living, breathing bright spots, without which my weeks would be void of joy – the humans I rely on and hold dear. My grandfather, his cockneyed ‘sweetheart’ echoing down the telephone line. He gave us those tomato vines, complete with instructions for care, and takes care of my little elderly cat as if she were his own. My grandmother, always laughing, who bakes and bakes, just to see us smile at the sweetness even though she flat-out refuses to eat her own cooking. My sister, for her dedication, for always being a phone call away. My parents too – endlessly supportive, even while some seven thousand miles away. Sweet friends, always game for an evening walk, a coffee date, a bookshop adventure. Darling Americans, the best pen-pals a girl could ask for. My Matthew – his grin, his kindness, and his unending affection. And, you, too. Hearing from you always makes my day.

It’s been an odd week – change is afoot, which I know, deep down, is a good thing even though it makes me nervous – and I’m oh-so-ready for a new one. Hope yours gets off to a splendid start tomorrow!