Monthly Archives: December 2013

Season’s Greetings!

BATT holiday 2014 card

To all of our wonderful Books Around The Table readers – here’s to another creative, courageous, resourceful, inspired, productive, and successful new year. Thank you for joining us!

‘Tis the Season of Top Ten Lists

A Deep, Deep Hole

A Deep, Deep Hole

Help! I have fallen into a deep, dark hole and I can’t get out! It’s called “The Top Ten Somethings of 2013” hole, and for obsessive list-makers like me, it happens predictably each December.  The New York Times’ Ten Best Illustrated Books of 2013 and their Ten Best Books 0f 2013, Time Magazine’s Top Ten U.S. News Stories, Atlantic Magazine’s Top Ten Movies, The Nation Magazine’s Progressive Honor Roll 2013 (16 on the roll, 2 of them based in Seattle,and hooray for that!) The “Best” lists keep going – gadgets, inventions, dramas on Broadway, best goofs by anchormen…it’s endless. The dis-ease I feel about loving lists evaporates when I read poets like Paul Violi, who wrote many list poems, or when I come across whole books that are written about the writing of list-poems.

My mother has always been a great maker of lists, and I suspect I got the gene from her. Mom’s lists, though, are usually of the productive variety (starting with the words “To-Do”) and mine are more commonly headed “My Favorite….”

My lists are seldom useful; they’re not made to help me remember all the errands that have stacked up. They’re not meant to accomplish anything more than situate me in the current moment by naming several things that are either 1) favorites or 2) what I call “wish-listing.”

Wish-listing goes like this: “Name ten things you will do/buy immediately if you win the $648,000,000 Mega Millions lottery.

MegaMillion tickets...

MegaMillion tickets…

I make lists like this because they’re fun, no other reason. There are a few rules: First, it’s a given that I would donate a generous chunk to organizations like Doctors Without Borders, so I don’t have to put charities on the list. Ditto with even bigger chunks to my kids – that’s assumed. And the list can’t have anything that smacks of delayed gratification – like opening a savings account. So the list is pure fantasy. A restored centuries-old farmhouse in Italy keeps heading the list. A cabin on no-bank waterfront in the San Juan Islands. A first edition of Robert Frost’s first book – signed by Mr. Frost, of course. I fall asleep making lists like that, but I don’t keep a record of them. No need. I didn’t win that lottery.

I didn't win, so I won't be buying this.

I didn’t win, so I won’t be buying this.

The Top-Ten type of list is something I actually write down. It’s for fun, too, but it’s also an act of reflection and a measurement of what my priorities and tastes are at any particular moment in my life. My sister and I used to write (and revise, every so often) lists of The Top Ten Qualities in a Mate – this is both before and after we were married. The list accommodated our mood swings, jumping between truly ideal qualities (kind, generous, affectionate) to practical qualities (likes to weed, is good with fix-it jobs, screens my phone calls.)


Loves to weed…

Loves home improvement projects...

Loves home improvement projects…

Screens calls.....

Screens calls…..

The challenge going around on Facebook the past couple of weeks is a perfect example of the Top Ten list: Name ten books that have “stayed with you” over the years. To me, that means books that haunt me, books that changed me, books I keep handing to people and begging them to read, books that made a difference to me when I read them. Here is the list I posted; I immediately longed to revise and/or lengthen it. In chronological order, according to how old I was when I read them:

1. The Secret Garden (Burnett)
2. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Thomas)
3. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
4. Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
5. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)
6. Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
8. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce)
9. Pale Fire (Nabokov)
10. On the Natural History of Destruction (Sebald)

That will do –though — OMG — where is One Hundred Years of Solitude?? Poetry by Seamus Heaney? Jane Austen?? How about my top ten, with several hundred on the Honor Roll?

Still, making the list helped me reflect on what kind of writer I hope to be. There’s a children’s book that tells a fine, layered story and is still character-driven. Also, it’s optimistic – I need to try harder with that. All ten of the books have language that is carefully crafted. There’s poetry that cares about form, made for reading quietly by the fire. There’s poetry that is full-throated, made to be read aloud, to be almost sung.  There are several that care about social justice and that remind me writers can be political and still tell a good story. There’s fiction that’s funny, and there’s fiction that combines the political with the humorous. There’s non-fiction that looks at the human heart and sees the dark along with the bright.

Making the list confirms what I believe now about storytelling – that it needs structure, form, heart, humor, song – and a conscience.  Tomorrow I might put different books on the list, and I’d reflect again on how those choices speak to me as a writer.

It’s not a bad thing to do when the year is ending. Try it – give yourself ten minutes. Reflect. Make a list like this of books that remind you what kind of writer you want to be. January 1st, 2014 is coming – when it does, it will be time to work hard  at being that writer.


CHRISTMAS means music. Last night our ukulele band performed as part of Volunteer Park’s magical holiday celebration. The Seattle drizzle may have had its way with the thousands of luminaria that lined the park’s paths, but it did little to dampen our spirits and songs.

Here we are setting up at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum.

Here we are setting up at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum.

IN SONORA, California, where I grew up, the yearly tradition is a Christmas Sing in the Courthouse Square. My dad’s newspaper, The Union Democrat, started this event 34 years ago, so I got to design some of the early posters.


ALL my favorite Christmas memories are tied to music:

Like the Christmas we youngest three sibs donned our parents’ bathrobes and paraded into the livingroom singing We Three Kings of Orient Are. (My brother’s rework of the lyrics: “King forever, sneezing never, over us all to reign.”)

And the Christmas when I was a young mother and five families gathered at our house, including Julie and Fernando Larios and their three kids. We staged a Christmas pageant, complete with almost-baby Michael Larios in the laundry basket creche, his little brown boots hanging out over edge.

And the Northwest Girlchoir concert where the choristers processed through the aisles of Meany Hall, singing Dona, Nobis, Pacem all around us.

And the Christmas when my husband and I gave each other ukuleles, unbeknownst to each other and much to our kids’ entertainment. A sort of Gift of the Magi without the irony, Julie Paschkis said. Also without the loss of hair.

IN SEATTLE we’re down to about eight hours of light per day now. As we eagerly await the turn of the solstice, music and Christmas memories fill the darkness.

EACH Christmas, I like to re-read Dad’s Sierra Lookout column about Christmas, first published in 1966. He writes from the perspective of his own foothill town of Sonora. Here’s how it ends:

IT IS NO wonder, then, that in small communities like ours there burns brightly the single hope for all men, brotherhood.

And as we look with agony and dismay upon the storms that may swirl around us, we need not despair.

For along the ravines are heard again the words that say all that can or need be said of Christmas. They are the words of the Christmas angel:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will toward men.”

 If I could, I’d sing that with you.


This is a good time of the year for sweets, so here are some sweets for your eyes. Bilibin painted this Tsar’s cake.

bilibin feast cake

For a lighter confection, perhaps a trip to Vienna is in order. A friend gave me a book about Demel, the famous bakery there.

demel book coverThe book includes photographs of the bakery displays and of confections.

demel cookie

demel theater

demel boat and cakes

It also includes these drawings (and many more).

familie confect

baron petit four demel

The Demel book inspired me when I was working on Apple Cake.  The Demel drawings also reminded me of some confections by other artists. This character is by Anita Lobel.

anita lobel lollipops

From the Danish artist Bjorn Wiinblad:

Bjorn Wiinblad Praline

wiinblad poster

And from Andy Warhol:

warhol ice cream dessert

I hope that you have a December full of pastries, mit schlag. You can start with a slice of this cake from Alois Carigiet.

carigiet cake