I love reading biographies, autobiographies, journals, and collections of letters. I think these are my favorite genres of literature, especially when they’re about writers or other artists.

I’ve wondered why I like reading these things about people even when I don’t so much enjoy their main expression of their talent. For instance, I loved reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being. I loved reading about life in the rural South (where I’ve never been), in the fifties and early sixties (before I was born).  I enjoyed, as I always do, reading about the creative process and her writing routine. As a Catholic woman, I was very interested to read her theological musings and her defense of the Church (even though, as she said, she knew “all her hair-raising history”). I liked how she had a wry and sarcastic streak, was self-deprecating, and had a biting wit.

I don’t like her fiction.

I had read a few stories early in college and barely remembered them, so after reading her letters about 2.5 times, I ordered the collection of her short stories. Other than “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” I was really just depressed and disturbed by every one of them, and not disturbed in a good, thought-provoking way. Just creeped out. I know that she had arguments with her mother about the tone of her writing, and I know she was not interested in writing pleasant fiction that appealed to the masses, so it’s not like she missed her mark. I just don’t ever want to re-read her stories.

Savage Beauty is another book I devoured. Loved it, pored over the photos, re-read it. Edna St. Vincent Millay did have an interesting life with some peculiar twists, and I loved reading about it.

I don’t like poetry at all. Not just hers. I don’t like any poetry. Which also means that while I actually made notes in Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, I only went to hear her read because I wanted to see her in person, not because I wanted to hear poetry.

I could go on, but the point seems to be that I prefer personal nonfiction. I know that one reason I love life stories is that they’re just real, and nothing is in service to a plot. Nothing shocking needs to happen; a person, however gifted and successful, can have a fairly straightforward life, or a less-straightforward life but one without jaw-dropping twists and turns, and that’s that. It’s probably related to how I love to watch European films where not much happens in terms of plot — I just want a slice of life in a culture I don’t get to live in.  Car chases in LA don’t excite me very much.

Also, as someone who has always felt a bit of an odd duck, I love being able to get inside someone else’s life and even, in the case of letters and journals, somewhat into their head. Other people’s thought processes fascinate me, and when I find someone with whom I agree about a lot of things (distressingly, I have a lot in common with the Sylvia Plath of her journals), I rejoice. Another odd duck! And an odd duck who was successful or talented enough to warrant the book in my hands being published.

Spiritual memoirs are often different, because I will read books about theology, liturgy, Church history, and the like. I loved The Seven Storey Mountain but have also read other works by Merton (though not, of course, his poetry).  I’m reading, off and on, The Book of Margery Kempe, and The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, but in those cases I’m interested in more than just what they did and what their daily lives were like (though that fascinates as well).

I do feel a little awkward, though, looking at my bookcases and seeing so my biographies, autobiographies, and collections of letters by and about writers, whose actual works appear nowhere in my home.

A topic for another time: How I read cookbooks like novels.



I’m sitting here at the table looking at my kitchen, and contemplating the (lack of space on the small) counters, the appliances, the rack of pots, the two big French rolling pins sticking out of the jar next to the stove… and my almost complete lack of kitchen activity lately.

I have gotten pretty good at a quick-and-dirty version of Marcella Hazan’s chickpea and tomato soup — her less quick version is tastier, but my “don’t have to look at the book and it’s done faster” version is plenty delicious for a weeknight dinner for me alone.  If I share it, as I might be doing for a Lenten supper with a friend, I will do the longer version, with sautéed garlic instead of garlic olive oil, etc.

Beyond that, my dinners have been spinach salads for about a month now.

I haven’t made bread since sometime last year.

I haven’t even made banana bread or any other quick bread. I did make brownies once in January.

Thinking over this situation, it occurs to me that if I were just willing to stop at the store more often than once a pay period, I might have better luck. There’s a farmer’s market nearby on Saturdays that I haven’t been to in years, and unless I am flat out of something I really need (like bread), I grocery shop on payday and then I don’t go back. If I didn’t mind running to the store — or had someone to send — I might be much creative in the kitchen.

OK, to be honest, the lack of a dishwasher, in either mechanical or human form (any human form other than mine) plays a part. As does the tiny apartment counter space, although I do use folding TV tray tables as extra counters when I need to. I was remarking to a friend of mine, a Francophile who has read a lot of the same French cookbooks as I have and knows the size of Parisian kitchens:  “It’s really no excuse on my part. If Chantal can do it, so can I!”

These days, though I am all about the lazy, when it comes to food. I am working on a somewhat complex knitting project,  have another easy one on the needles, am spinning some luscious merino, studying linguistics (yuck), doing some writing — but no kitchen puttering. This is odd to me, since I used to spend my Sunday afternoons baking to ward off the Dreaded Sunday Gloom, and I love reading about other folks’ culinary adventures. I was just reading someone’s posts on a forum about buying raspberries and wondering if they could make raspberry cake, someone else’s response about being in the process of making a raspberry quick bread, and then the first person mentioning they’d just picked up some organic Meyer lemons and musing about what to do with them.

And now I want to go to the store, buy a bunch of bakable goodies, and come back and spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. Except I won’t, because I’m a) broke and b) about to go visit a sick family member.

Damnit, though, I’m going to put my jam pan to use this spring, starting with my first April paycheck. I am going to the farmer’s market and I’m going to go crazy.