The Bathtub Book Club: The Love Lives of Birds

The book: The Love Lives of Birds: Courting and Mating Rituals by Laura Erickson (Storey Publishing)

The beer: How about an Early Bird Breakfast Barley Wine from Cameron’s Brewing? The boozy brew is a marriage of two unlikely but totally compatible independents: Ontario maple syrup and cold-steeped coffee. This “barley wine” (aka STRONG beer in disguise) registers at 11.4% alcohol, so, enjoy with a stack of pancakes or you’ll be as flat as a pancake in no time.

The who: This one goes out to all the romantics, bird nerds, twitchers, listers, lifers and newbies. For fans of all things Attenborough, Peterson, Sibley and David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. If blue-footed boobies excite you like boobies excite teen boys (and just as many girls, to be fair), this one is for you.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Laura Erickson is an ornithologist and former science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so there’s no goofing around here. She showcases 35 species of birds and their quirky mating habits. They are often an embarrassing mirror to human (mis)behavior.

Birds have identical Twitter feeds that blow-up over messy divorces, non-committal partners, dead-beat dads and homewreckers. On the flip side, there are stories of monogamy that will warm the cockles and cockle-doodle-doo’s of your heart.

Really, this is one sex-ed class that you won’t want to skip! There are R-rated slow dances involving mallards that would make Dr. Ruth blush and excuse herself. For example: the male mallard has a corkscrew-shaped penis-like organ that “can be shockingly long: up to 8 inches, or more than a third of their body length. Now I understand the warning, “Duck, get out of the way!”

Red-winged blackbirds are the Hugh Hefner’s of the avian world, establishing harems of up to 15 females. The gals are wise to this and are “no more faithful to one mate than the males are.” Here’s the reality TV scandal: “About half of all red-wing nests contain at least one chick fathered by a male other than the mother’s mate.”

Florida Scrub-Jays represent the millennials without the laundry. They never leave home! They will wander no more than a mile or two from their original territory, making it impossible for the parents to Netflix and chill.

Erickson describes bird antics with awesome comedic beat from the pogo stick dance of the Whooping Crane to the nest trashing that’s synonymous with cowbirds. Known for their lazy parenting skills, cowbirds will lay their eggs in the nests of foster moms. If the unwilling foster parent kicks the egg out, the cowbird will trash the nest and destroy the other eggs in a dramatic hissy-fit suitable for TMZ coverage.

There’s so much to learn and snicker about in The Love Lives of Birds. It’s a lesson in love with feathered characters like boobies who are known to whistle at other females flying overhead like a construction crew. Male terns are equally deceptive and are known to pretend to be females during mating season. Duped male terns will present the great pretenders with fresh fish to woo them. Yeah, the catch of the day comes with a catch!

The accounts of murderous loons lynching competitors (male or female) are cutthroat! Actually, it’s usually a fatal stabbing that comes from a defensive loon’s attack from underwater. I was also amazed to learn that screech owls will sleep separately to protect their multi-roost real estate in the forest. Yeah, nature is cool.

Even if you’re not totally bird crazy, you can’t help but marvel at the wonders of nature and the parallels to human kind. Cedar Waxwings and hawks will show their age in the development of more red wing markings (for waxwings) or deeper orange-red eyes (for hawks). Scientists have dubbed this “assortative mating: older birds specifically choose to match with older mates—like Elite Singles vs. Tinder.

Peppered with pop culture nods, references to Austen, Bond, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Shakespeare and the Beatles, this book is a rich romp and spy cam on the sky-high romances that surround us with gorgeous watercolours by Swedish illustrator Veronica Ballart Lilja. Her talent can be found in Vogue Japan, Harper’s Bazaar and tropical Simon Col 70% cocoa + sea salt chocolate bar wrappers–among a bazillion other creds. Pour another beer and have a Scandi interlude via her Peppercookies gallery or crawl through Lilja’s arresting Food & Nature portfolio.

It’s a one-two punch of crunchy bird IQ and sensational, whimsical bird portraits.

If you have spring fever, this is the balm.

If you loved The Love Lives of Birds, check this one out next:

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. If you’re just figuring out which end of the binoculars to look out of, this book will be the perfect companion.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Apron Strings

The book: Apron Strings—Navigating food and family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong

(Goose Lane Editions)

The beer: When in Rome (or in this case, Repergo, Italy)—Peroni Nostro Azzuro (pale lager). Ironically, Peroni’s headquarters are in Rome. When in Allex, France: Kronenbourg 1664 blanc is recommended, in the signature bleu bottle. When in Shanghai, China: Tsingtao (青岛啤酒), which is brewed with rice, barley, Laoshan mineral water and hops. Saluti, à votre santé and 干杯.

The who: For everyone who is feeling travel-starved due to the pandemic. For those who identify as food curious and are magnetically drawn to the stories behind the plate. For anyone who has visited Italy, France and/or China! For Anthony Bourdain loyals, ardent Food Network viewers and those who love memoirs interrupted only by recipes for Two-stir Risotto Al Porro and Tagine with Preserved Lemons.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Jan Wong goes where no mother has gone before by boldly asking her 22-year-old son, Sam, to tag along with her on an edible journey through France, Italy and China with no strings attached (aside from those pesky apron strings).

From Grenache to Gorgonzola, polenta to cannoli to choux pastry (pâte à choux), Wong guides hungry readers through the pantries, paddocks and woks behind iconic dishes like panna cotta and Carbonara. Her market crawls serve as closed captioning for those of us abiding by stay-at-home orders. The horns, the spitting oil, the exacting textures! For example: “the chef had sliced the fish crosswise, right through the bones, so each mouthful was like eating a pin cushion.” Her visuals sing out when describing the likes of Xiao long bao (“little basket buns”) that resemble “the onion dome on a Russian orthodox church.” Wong takes readers on an immersive shotgun sensory ride of eating river snails with darning needles and eyebrow-raisers like sweet and sour squirrel fish (I won’t spoil this one!).

There is such vital knowledge in this memoir that goes far beyond poached pears in red wine sauce and securing pigeons for a recipe (despite the mistral that carries away all enthusiasm and sunshine with it). Apron Strings is dense in food history, customs, traditions and all the contrasts in between from school systems, familial roles and even water consumption.

Sam and Jan immediately startle their hosts by the enormous amounts of water they drink. French, Italians and Chinese have historically eschewed water consumption due to the taxing sterilization process requiring precious and scarce firewood. Instead, wine or tea was de rigueur. Fuel shortages (due to deforestation linked to rising population numbers from the Ming Dynasty onward) meant that most Chinese didn’t have ovens. A simple stir fry conserved energy and was economical for the tiny cuts of meat it required.

In Italy, prior to World War II, community ovens and the local panetteria (bakery) allowed for lasagna and bread to be baked in a shared space. Flash forward to present day Bologna and sidewalk automat machines that dispense everything from dried penne to cat food.

Wong and her son quickly learn that eating elsewhere is about taste, not volume—regardless, they had to steel themselves for six courses in 70 minutes. Helpfully, she has included “Food Rules” for each country (ie. don’t expect bread with pasta or, worse, those tiny saucers pooled with oil and balsamic to swirl your bread ends in!).

Seamlessly, Wong integrates the paradox of famine to fasting in China. Why are the rich now afraid to eat? She explains the backward result of the Industrial Revolution plan in 1958. Peasants had to surrender and melt down their woks for steel. In fact, they also had to turn in their rice, bowls, kitchen tables, firewood, poultry and livestock and join the similarly stripped rural families in mess halls. “They” (but not them) called it progress. She handles the head-shaking concepts of communism, capitalism, Mao’s one-child policy, the nouveau riche of Shanghai and the migrant worker maids (who serve the nouveau riche) who see their own families but twice a year with grace.

On the flip side, in France, intergenerational relations were forever changed by French law, forcing parents to leave their estates to their children, regardless of their relationship. Not so strangely, French residents over the age of 65 account for a third of the suicides in France. Remember the 2003 heat wave when 15,000 people died in France? Bodies were unclaimed for weeks by younger holidaying family members quite confident in what the family wills dictated.

Apron Strings could hold its ground as the only required reading necessary for history, geography, or sociology class. Really, I’ve never learned so much—from what the heck the “Pope’s nose” is on a duck to growing specs for Barolo grapes to the early preservation methods of jarring fowl, fish and fruit in champagne bottles. I nodded along with the descriptions of Sichuan numbing dishes (yep, couldn’t feel my tongue for 20 startling minutes) and the seemingly mandatory and PAINFUL jade factory visits in China. There is so much to take away here, beyond a craving for soy-braised pork belly and firecracker chicken laced with red chilies.

The most fascinating bits include the endurance eating required in Italy (five-hour long lunches!) and the united worship and public praise of Ferrero Rocher’s founder. The most shocking is found in the confining license-issuing process in Shanghai (*If you steal a car here, above all else, make sure it has a plate that permits you to drive on the major highways at any time!).

The North American excess if evident throughout (without mention)—but Wong is sure to include the hilarity of the Milan bar owner who attends a conference in Colorado. Each morning, he and seven colleagues from Italy would order a single cup of Starbucks. “There was coffee enough for eight people!”

The lost in translation moments are peppered throughout in snappy dialogue. Wong’s relationship with Sam sees some hairpin turns as the pressures of travel and being a guest for so many months frays their nerves and balance, as we should all expect.

In the end, Apron Strings is a satiating, gorgeous buffet that you need to pull up a chair to. Don’t forget to put your sweatpants on first.

If you loved Apron Strings, put these on your NEXT list:

Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui (Douglas McIntyre). Talk about the ultimate road trip! Hui and her husband squish into a Fiat and drive from Victoria, BC to Fogo Island, NL, braking for all the Chinese restos along the way. Hui chats with the enterprising families that opened them and explores the sweet and sour history of chop suey and ginger beef in Canada’s smallest towns.

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell (Scholastic Books). First published in 1973 and now a major motion picture, this book was my childhood fave and still holds its weight. I just re-read it. Did you know that Rockwell is the son of illustrator Norman Rockwell? Yes, that guy! The worm recipes within make a night crawler dredged in cornmeal and pan-fried with a squirt of lemon almost tempting.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Eat a Peach

Let’s move away from impeachment talk for a moment. But, in the theme of peach, Chef David Chang’s memoir is just as sweet and satisfying.

If you’re of a certain age group (mine, age 47), you probably grew up on a steady feed of Just Like Mom. The Canadian television game show ran for five seasons on CTV (1980-85). It was hosted by a husband and wife and the premise was a spin-off formula of The Newlywed Show. Except, how well did children and mothers know each other? After a round of tell-tale questions, the kids did battle in the kitchen, baking chocolate chip cookies with wieners and Coca Cola, marshmallows and mustard. The kids had a full arsenal of barf-inducing ingredients that they could utilize and then dear ol’ mom had to guess which cookie their lovely little child made. It was seriously great, addictive TV. The kids walked away with big swag from Chuck E. Cheese, Playmobil, Robin Hood flour and for the luckiest grand prize winners: a trip to Walt Disney World! For chocolate chip wiener cookies!

Nowadays, food television is a simmering 24/7 monster. Martha, Nigella, the Barefoot Contessa. We love them so, don’t we? Their voices are like whipped frosting and as soothing as a simmering soup. Even if that soup is simmering on a burner on their TV studio. It’s just as easy to name 10 chefs as it is to call-out 10 actors. The kitchen has come a long way since the Bam! of Emeril and the *$#^%$## of Chef Ramsay.

From the cutthroat Kids Baking Championship to Top Chef Canada to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the fascination with food is real and insatiable. Maybe your introduction to David Chang was through his Ugly Delicious docuseries on Netflix. Or the PBS series, Mind of a Chef (which was narrated by Bourdain). If you want another big, selfish serving of him, Eat a Peach delivers.

The book: Eat a Peach by David Chang with Gabe Ulla (Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House, 2020)

The beer: This one’s easy: Chang! Chang (ช้าง)is the Thai word for elephant, and the beer that is synonymous with Thailand will involve a 19-hour flight to access it. In lieu: Stanley Park Brewing’s Sunsetter Peach Wheat Ale. As a reasonable facsimile: McAuslan’s Apricot Wheat Ale.

The who: Foodie evangelists, rabid fans of Momofuku, chefs in the wings, galley staff, entrepreneurs of all sorts, Food Network devotees

The part you’ve been waiting for:

Chang is the first to admit that he’s an “egomaniac with low self-confidence.” He signed a daunting 10-year lease on his first restaurant at age 26. The control and numbing repetition found in cooking was his North Star, though his kitchen climate was often fuelled with rage and conflict.

He found easy company in kitchens full of the typical misfits, ex-cons, alcoholics and new immigrants. The stress was constant and with zero work/life balance, Chang’s mental health was in a pressure cooker.

He grew up in northern Virginia under the watchful eye of classic tiger parents, waterboarded by religion. Embarrassed by the foreign smell of his mother’s Korean cooking, he found solace in Hungry Man dinners, microwave burritos and ramen.

Many will be surprised to learn that Chang was destined to be a golf pro. He won back-to-back Virginia State championships at age 9 but then slowly unraveled by high school. He attended Jesuit boarding school—a likely path as his sister had become a missionary in Mongolia and most of his extended family sold Bibles or worked in Bible-adjacent businesses.

After a flop attempt at a corporate job Chang became a reservationist at Craft restaurant. His first glamorous kitchen job was prepping mirepoix (finely, uniformly diced celery, carrots and onions), learning his chops from PBS cooking shows in his rare downtime, and later, the French Culinary Institute in New York. In 2004, mirepoix nailed, he opened Momofuku (“lucky peach”) Noodle Bar in New York City and the foodie world scrambled and pulled hair to get a reservation.

There’s no spoiler here. Chang was suicidal and teetering. His recklessness took on many forms: downhill skiing through trees (on purpose), stepping off curbs into live traffic and finally, collapsing into a giant glass table on New Year’s Eve 2000 after a potent intake of booze, drugs and self-doubt.

Chang’s journey is monumental. Some might crinkle their nose and think he’s too cocky, too dude. But—his accolades and resume! He deserves to be a braggy blowhard! At one point, early in his career trajectory, his totally monthly responsibility between rent and loan payments alone was $47,000US. With every new restaurant opening under his brand (there are 14 now, in Australia, Las Vegas, LA, New York and Toronto), success was countered by bouts with shingles, panic attacks and paranoia.

It came from all fronts—the scrutiny and evaluation of performance. His goal was to introduce Asia’s “classless dining” concept to mainstream America—but he had to battle the bloggers, inspectors and fussy palates of cross-armed diners every step of the way. He wooed them with casual pork buns and poularde en vessie (a whole chicken stuffed with foie gras and truffles placed inside a pig’s bladder).

Christina Tosi, founder and owner of Milk Bar, Momofuku’s sister bakery, ate up every headline with her cereal milk panna cotta. It tastes “exactly like the milk that’s left at the bottom of the bowl when you finish all the cornflakes.” Tosi’s “compost cookies” became a legend. (*Note to my mom: Can you make these when we are permitted to visit again?? See what I did there? I put the “Mom” in Momofuku.)

If you’re expecting to have uncontrollable snack urges while reading this, you probably won’t. There’s actually very little food talk. Yes, everything surrounds food and the building of Chang’s empire but it’s a memoir that let’s you hang onto the tails of the chef’s whites and be rather glad to be on the receiving end of the kitchen.

For anyone who has entertained thoughts of having a go at it, this industry is designed to kill you, slowly. Cribbing a format established by Jerry Saltz’s How to be an Artist, Chang provides his own sage 33 guiding principles to be a good chef.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny the monumental success of the Momofuku brand and Chang’s personal resilience. His story is wholly empowering and will underdogs and visionaries. Chang confessed to a “99% failure rate” in his life because he was defeated and unsuccessful so many times. However, when you’re that unsuccessful, what do you have to lose?

If you love Eat a Peach, put these books on your NEXT list:

Anything and everything by Anthony Bourdain, especially Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jenn Agg. She’s the force behind Toronto’s Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner and Agrikol. It’s a saucy and authentic tell-all for the Toronto set.

I can go on: Comfort Food for Break-ups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl by Marusya Bociurkiw, An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof

Okay. I’ll stop.

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2021: Spirit Restoration (and I’m not talking about gin)

Author Sarah Selecky recently wrote about what satiated her soul and restored her spirit after a year of chronic sucker punches and pin-pricked balloons of hope. She shared her list of what nourished her and suggested that it was a good time for all of us to craft our own list to ensure that we’re getting enough of what we need. This is the day when this sort of stuff resonates. The last day of this blow-out year is closing in on the iconic apple drop. I think we’re all ready to be brand new people when we wake up on January 1st.

Now is the time to establish your word of the year and to wrap a pinky around that dried out turkey wishbone and crack its marrow. Sarah’s list is a clever and balanced list of sundries from energizing podcasts to beet smoothies. Her followers have added DIY prescriptions of their own too. Here’s mine and you should definitely do yours before you pop the cork tonight. It’s the perfect homework assignment for the 365th day of the year. Deadline: Midnight! Or, if you are a thoroughbred procrastinator, well, you have until December 31st, 2021.

Here’s my list of what saw me through a sustainable 2020, in no particular order:

Kim (especially her head + jaw massages to temper my new found love of clenching my teeth at night)

February in the Seychelles

Reading obits (Really. They’re like wonderful mini memoirs.)

Nashville fried chicken sandwiches from anywhere

Fantasy trip planning: Yukon, Camino Portuguese, Madagascar, _____________.

The Sketchbook Project: Order one, fill it will colour + doodles. You’ll feel remarkably better.

Site #441 in the dunes at Long Point Provincial Park

Supporting the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre and senior rescue animals at SAINTS

Following the antics and expressions of Pockets Warhol, the painting capuchin monkey at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary

I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann (*Warning: you’ll dream of it too.)

The Perseids meteor showers of August + campfires below them

Our front row molten unsets on West Little Lake

Kitten’s cover of Blondie’s One Way or Another

My never-changing but ever-changing running route across the Ferndale Flats

Revisiting and self-publishing my fromage fest diary circa 1985 “Dear Diary: I was a 10-year-old dork!”

(*Free Kindle edition for those who are so inclined!!)

Scarlet tanager sightings in our woods

Learning about bonsai

A DW HOME Warm Tobacco Pipe-scented hand-poured candle

My coveted Toronto Life mag subscription

@whiskedbyalicia: Irresistible eye candy by a Toronto cookie artist

@worldbykriss: A Prague artist (+ dancer) who turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even broccoli.

Prowling realtor.ca for drop-dead-gorgeous homes

Tanqueray Rangpur gin

Hazy IPA beach days and egg salad picnics at Black Creek

Animal Kingdom—both interpretations—especially the one starring stone/Botox-faced Ellen Barkin

My library card! Overnight oats! Trying to out-GIF my parents on emails. Darn Tough socks + long johns.

I could go on. I’m great at stimulating myself and should probably pick BREVITY as my word for 2021 but I won’t.

My word for 2021: ELEMENTAL (Or, Emmental cheese. Either will do in a pinch.)

My wish(es): That the world tilts upright again so we can see the other side of it.

And how about the return of thirtysomething?

Here’s to a vibrant 2021. Thank you for following me here (and there) for all these years!

And thank you to my sister for the flying pig.

x Jules

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The Bathtub Book Club: 2020 in Review

In 2013, I started keeping a list of all the books I read throughout the year. I’m not sure what inspired this move, but I’m glad for it. I haven’t stopped. There have been distinct patterns in my reading life and the last seven years of my “year books” reveal this:

1. Farmer Fantasies

There are always farmer memoirs—memoirs from idyllic farms in Spain, Ireland, Africa. I’m not sure why farming sparks me as it does. There’s zero compatibility.

a) I find it impossible and inhumane to wake up before 10am.

b) I have a wonky back that permits lifting nothing.

c) I have an inability to fix anything but grammar (sometimes) and dinner (sometimes).

2. Surfer/Yachtie Delusions

I have no interest in surfing in real life, but I sure do love everything about it. The locales, the locals, the cool boards, lingo, shorts, flip flops, salt-stiff hair and open-top Jeeps. However, my preferred place is safely on the beach, not bobbing in the sea with things that can’t be seen below your neck. Mysteriously, I also love memoirs about ocean wayfarers who do transcontinental voyages with a dog or, make a beeline to Caribbean isles with some fishing line, some dried rosemary and star charts.

3. Everest Hallucinations

I’ll read everything and anything about Everest even though I start getting goosebumps on August 1st and they last for nine months of the year. My teeth begin to chatter around this time too which is great for gum-chewing but nothing else.

4. Sommelier + Chef Phantasms

I no longer have interest in being a sommelier—where would I work? The Lion’s Head Pub? Do they even serve wine? Wine gums, maybe. Every year I find books about the legendary somms and love the genesis stories and poetic descriptions—wines that taste like horse saddles and poured cement and cut grass and butterscotch pudding. I also adore cookbook-y memoirs even though there’s a very big chance that I won’t be inspired to recreate a single recipe. *Save for Alice B. Toklas most memorable one.

5. Africa

All of it–from chimp stuff to the Dakar Rally.

Your homework: In Iceland, there is a gorgeous Christmas Eve tradition that the whole world should get on (surf)board with already! During jólabókaflóð, or the “Christmas Book Flood,” books are exchanged on December 24th and the rest of the evening is spent reading. Iceland’s 330,000 inhabitants read more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Chew on this stat: One in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime! Reading has been dubbed a national sport in Iceland—it’s time for the rest of us to get off the bench and into the game. Has someone invented a reading Fitbit yet?

Your beer: This is a very special edition of The Bathtub Book Club. It’s a year-end “tub crawl.” Here’s a smattering of some of the best pours I had this hazy IPA and coffee porter-soaked year.

The books: In chronological order, here’s my coveted list of 2020 books (41!) and 41 one-word reviews. Do you know how hard that is to do? I mean, one-word reviews…not reading 41 books. That was the easy part. Also: Here’s a 2020 Top 5 slide show for the visual learners among us.

The part you’ve been waiting for:

Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants by Ann Hui

“Savoury!”

Transit: A Novel by Rachel Cusk“Introspective”

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffery Steingarten“Stale”

Confetti at the Cornish Café by Phillipa Ashley“Saccharin”

Highballer by Greg Nolan“Pompous”

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky “Luminous”

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens“Remarkable”

Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest by Sharon Wood“Influential”

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books by Marta McDowell“Joyful”

Birds and Beacons of Michigan by Kimberly and John Kotzian“Erudite”

Nobody Cares by Anne T. Donahue —“SAUCY!”

The Natural World of Winne the Pooh: A walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto“Whimsical”

In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch by John Zada“Enchanting”

Greenwood by Michael Christie“Disturbing”

The Dome Chronicles by Garry Leeson“Ambitious”

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid“Perplexing”

The Life and Destiny of Isak Dinesen by Frans Lasson and Clara Svendsen“Triumphant”

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss“Complicated”

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rochman“Intelligent”

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook–“Indulgence”

Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow“Necessary”

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food by Gina Rae La Cerva“Enlightening”

The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, Compassion—Surprising Observations of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben“Evocative”

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir by Julia Zarankin“Uplifting”

Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass by Natalie MacLean— “Bottomless”

My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman– “MARVELOUS!”

Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive Compulsive by Emily Colas“Peculiar”

County Heirlooms: Recipes and Reflections from Prince Edward County by Natalie Wollenberg and Leigh Nash“Galvanizing”

Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey into Wild Land by Jill Frayne“Meditative”

The Shark and the Albatross: A Wildlife Filmmaker Reveals Why Nature Matters to Us All by John Aitchison“Wondrous”

Blaze Island by Catherine Bush“Ominous”

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald—“FIERCE!”

Wine Girl: The Trials and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James — “Disappointing”

The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston – “Impelling”

If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging by Jann Arden— “Gospel”

Educated by Tara Westover–“STARTLING!”

The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature by John Burns–“OM”

I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann“TRANSCENDENT!”

The Earth Almanac: A Year of Witnessing the Wild from the Call of the Loon to the Journey of the Gray Whale by Ted Williams“Purity”

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King“Uninhibited”

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen“Mesmerizing”

Here’s to 2021 and all the pages and pints in waiting! Thank you for following me here. And there. x Jules

Categories: Bathtub Book Club | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Bathtub Book Club: The Year in Review

In 2013, I started keeping lists of all the books I read throughout the year. I’m not sure what inspired this move, but I’m glad for it. There have been distinct patterns in my reading life and the last seven years of my “year books” reveal this

  1. Farmer Fantasies

There are always farmer memoirs—memoirs from idyllic farms in Spain, Ireland, Africa. I’m not sure why farming sparks me as it does. I find it impossible to wake up before 10am, I have a wonky back that permits lifting nothing and I have an inability to fix anything but grammar (sometimes) and dinner (sometimes).

2. Surfer/Yachtie Delusions

I have no interest in surfing in real life, but I sure do love everything about it. The locales, the cool boards, shorts, flip flops, salt-stiff hair and open-top Jeeps. However, my preferred place is safely on the beach, not bobbing in the sea with things that can’t be seen below your neck. Mysteriously, I also love memoirs about ocean wayfarers who do transcontinental voyages with a dog or, make a beeline to Caribbean isles with some fishing line and star charts.

3. Everest Hallucinations

I’ll read everything and anything about Everest even though I begin to get goosebumps in August and they last for nine months of the year. My teeth begin to chatter around this time too.

4. Sommelier + Chef Phantasms

I no longer have interest in being a sommelier—where would I work? The Lion’s Head Pub? Do they even serve wine? Every year I find books about the somms and love the genesis stories and poetic descriptions—wines that taste like horse saddles and poured cement and cut grass and butterscotch pudding. In the same vein, I love reading cookbook-y memoirs even though there’s a very big chance that I won’t be inspired to recreate a single recipe.

Your homework: In Iceland, there is a beautiful Christmas Eve tradition that the whole world should get on (surf)board with already! During , jólabókaflóð, or the “Christmas Book Flood,” books are exchanged on December 24th and the rest of the evening is spent reading. Iceland’s 330,000 inhabitants read more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Chew on this stat: one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime! Reading has been dubbed a national sport in Iceland—it’s time for the rest of us to get off the bench and into the game.

Your beer: This is a very special edition of The Bathtub Book Club. Let’s do a “tub crawl.” Here are the 1st place finisher of all the pours I had this hazy IPA and coffee porter-soaked year: Great Lakes Brewing Coconut Coffee Porter.

The books: In chronological order, here’s my list of 2020 books (41!) and 41 one-word reviews.

Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants by Ann Hui

“Savoury!”

Transit: A Novel by Rachel Cusk“Introspective”

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffery Steingarten“Stale”

Confetti at the Cornish Café by Phillipa Ashley“Saccharin”

Highballer by Greg Nolan“Pompous”

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky “Luminous”

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens“Remarkable”

Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest by Sharon Wood“Influential”

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books by Marta McDowell“Joyful”

Birds and Beacons of Michigan by Kimberly and John Kotzian“Erudite”

Nobody Cares by Anne T. Donahue —“SAUCY!”

The Natural World of Winne the Pooh: A walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto“Whimsical”

In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch by John Zada“Enchanting”

Greenwood by Michael Christie“Disturbing”

The Dome Chronicles by Garry Leeson“Ambitious”

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid“Perplexing”

The Life and Destiny of Isak Dinesen by Frans Lasson and Clara Svendsen“Triumphant”

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss“Complicated”

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rochman“Intelligent”

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook–“Indulgence”

Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow“Necessary”

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food by Gina Rae La Cerva“Enlightening”

The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, Compassion—Surprising Observations of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben“Evocative”

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir by Julia Zarankin“Uplifting”

Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass by Natalie MacLean— “Bottomless”

My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman– “MARVELOUS!”

Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive Compulsive by Emily Colas“Peculiar”

County Heirlooms: Recipes and Reflections from Prince Edward County by Natalie Wollenberg and Leigh Nash“Galvanizing”

Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey into Wild Land by Jill Frayne“Meditative”

The Shark and the Albatross: A Wildlife Filmmaker Reveals Why Nature Matters to Us All by John Aitchison“Wondrous”

Blaze Island by Catherine Bush“Ominous”

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald—“FIERCE!”

Wine Girl: The Trials and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James — “Disappointing”

The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston – “Impelling”

If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging by Jann Arden— “Gospel”

Educated by Tara Westover–“STARTLING!”

The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature by John Burns–“OM”

I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann“TRANSCENDENT!”

The Earth Almanac: A Year of Witnessing the Wild from the Call of the Loon to the Journey of the Gray Whale by Ted Williams“Purity”

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King“Uninhibited”

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen“Mesmerizing”

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The Bathtub Book Club: Indians on Vacation

It was 1993 and I was livin’ the bohemian dream in Vancouver. I’d landed a lucrative (hahahahaha) job as a writer for Cockroach magazine making $400 a month (*that’s not a typo). This dream life afforded me ramen noodles, bruised fruit and expired yogurts from dumpsters (really) and a well-exercised library card. When not researching the bear bile industry and protesting clearcut logging with the freedom-fighting tree huggers at Clayoquot Sound, I worked industriously on my “cultural literacy.”

My grade 13 teacher had instilled this great notion in me and as a responsible Canadian (but not so responsible student), I embarked on a mission to be more aware of, well, everything beyond snoozy Brantford, Ontario. I learned about garam masala and Chrystos. I listened to the Cocteau Twins. I went to Georgia O’Keeffe exhibits and read everything about Emily Carr. Inspired, I made whimsical mobiles out of feathers and sand dollars (surely, this was my calling!). I went to arty films like Leon the Pig Farmer and watched black and white Peter Sellers movies with my enlightened roommates. I ate greasy oolichan and sat in a sweat lodge. I lived with two-spirited Cree and Blackfoot roommates and felt my cultural literacy soar like the bald eagles that cruised thermals over Grouse Mountain.

Let’s be honest. I was cool. After I made my way through an entire shelf of Tom Robbins (Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All), I discovered Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water. I had arrived.

And here I am, arriving again, in 2020. Thomas King has outlasted many of my damp Vancouver memories (did I really live out there?) and his latest novel was pure balm for my travel-starved self.

The book: Indians on Vacation by Thomas King (Harper Collins, 2020)

The beer: Brewer’s Blackbird Bitter couldn’t be a better match as a namesake tribute to the novel’s narrator, Blackbird Mavrias. (American Pale Ale, Lager, IPA) from Ancaster, Ontario’s Brewer’s Blackbird Kitchen and Brewery. Neat fact: the guy that bought my childhood home is the owner of this brewery—but that’s another story.

The who: For the culturally literate, naturally. The travel-hungry. For everyone who signed up for the University of Alberta’s free Indigenous Canada course after actor Dan Levy’s leverage on social media. And, for all of Guelph. Cameos to The Bookstore, Artisinale, the Speed, the Hanlon, The Boathouse and the VV on Silvercreek!

The part you’ve been waiting for: As soon as you crack the spine on this one, you’ll feel like you’ve entered your beloved local. The place that doubles as a living room with faded photos, worn furniture, spotted glassware. It’s relaxed and the conversations are the kind that you want to lean in on to learn how it all ends. But the greater hope is that it doesn’t end.

Meet Mimi and Bird of Guelph, Ontario (also Thomas King’s residence). They are a couple of creative polar opposites from weather preferences to walking (or not) to talking (or not). A lunch menu is an easy battleground and despite being in historic Prague, Bird could care less about the churches, statues or museums. He is a writer at a standstill, while Mimi, quick to draw a conclusion, is an artist finding stride.

Bird drains Mimi’s spirit as a miserable travelling companion saddled with an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis. His health is in limbo and “Eugene and the Other Demons” are always at the ready to help sour matters further. Eugene and the Others are the invention of Mimi who has called Bird out on all his subconscious doubts. Eugene is self-loathing, Chip is touchy (*chip on his shoulder too), Kitty likes to catastrophize situations and then there are the twins, Didi and Desi—Depression and Despair.

Mimi and Bird find themselves in Prague with a mission, following a spotty trail of century-old postcards across Europe in hopes of finding clues to Mimi’s Uncle Leroy Bull Shield and the family medicine bundle of lost stories.

Facing a prison sentence, Uncle Leroy opted to negotiate and agreed to a role in a Wild West Emporium Show in Europe as the token Indian. Mimi is motivated to find the long lost Crow bundle at long last and bring history full circle, back to Canada but the vulnerability and hardships of travel aggravate their relationship, their faith in themselves, each other and Uncle Leroy’s story. Was the postcard trail a Wild West goose chase? Defeated, Mimi and Bird remain united in the effort though the loss of routine, creature comforts in the “tourist petting zoo” of Prague tests their mettle. Old wounds flare in a foreign place, especially after Bird’s accidental encounter with a woman. The hypothetical postcard from Prague is obvious: Wish we weren’t here!

As a couple, they are flawed but wholly loveable. They are comical and familiar—you’ve met them in your travels, maybe you are them!

Thomas King’s grace with words propels the book along like a purring motor that you fail to take notice of. He describes a woman as a “tall, flexi-straw.” Or, “the waitress was an older woman with hair that reminded me of a mouthful of hay and a limp that threw her from side to side.”

I laughed aloud at Mimi’s sleeping habits: “Mimi is on the bed in the aftermath of a crocodile death roll, the covers wrapped around her so tightly, it would take a chainsaw to cut her free.” Or her shopping habits: “Mimi came home from her weekly jaunt to the thrift stores. She has a circuit that she works, much like a trapper on a trapline. Salvation Army. Goodwill. Value Village.”

Learning sneaks into this novel too. The residue of residential schools. Where second-hand clothing donations really go (landfills in Kenya and Tunisia? Burned in fields in Chile to protect the developing textile industries in those countries?). King’s affection for vintage typewriters and globes find their place too. Also, until this book, I didn’t realize that Balzac’s Coffee Roasters is a tribute to French author and playwright Honore De Balzac who drank 50 cups of coffee a day. Allegedly, he died of caffeine poisoning.

Sidebar: Not so allegedly (I know firsthand), Balzac’s pours a punchy stout roast—A Dark Affair.

If you’re seeking a guaranteed, satisfying read, King delivers. It’s impossible to not sit attentively at the end of a rollaway cot in Mimi and Bird’s hotel room in Prague.

You’ll champion both Mimi and Bird and certainly re-think your travelling self with a magnified introspection. And while we collectively hold our breath for future travel, Indians on Vacation is the perfect inoculation.

If you love Indians on Vacation, put these on your NEXT list:

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (Penguin Random House). It’s iconic. The signpost at the end of our driveway reads “The Accidental Tourists” because that’s exactly what we were on the Bruce Peninsula. We’ve earned our badge now.

Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker and Our Grand Tour of Italy by Jane Christmas (Greystone Books). You’ll laugh and sob in equal amounts.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Earth Almanac

Once upon a time, I only fixated on one book at a time. Start to finish, one focused gulp. However, the pandemic has put a squeeze on the pile of newspapers, real estate catalogs and free mags I’d usually pick up in our travels. My regularly-scheduled coffee reading material has been pinched by a reduced travel radius. So, now I read two books in one go.

Morning coffee reading is reserved for educational stuff, awkward books (in weight, not content) and/or precious books that aren’t bathtub-friendly. Borrowed books fall into this category too. Kim and I down coffee at the same time just a bar stool apart, which means I often act as an audio book app with no “mute” function, reading passages aloud while she Googles South African destinations, slow cooker pulled pork recipes and DIY videos on how to build an outdoor wood-fired cowboy tub. Luckily, she can multi-task and multi-listen.

The book: Earth Almanac: A Year of Witnessing the Wild, from the Call of the Loon to the Journey of the Gray Whale by Ted Williams (Storey Publishing)

The beer: Seaforth, Ontario’s Half Hours on Earth is the shoo-in sipper for this book. They were Canada’s first certified carbon neutral brewery and the feel-good, taste-good company plants a tree for every mail order delivery. “On Some Faraway Beach” is an oak-aged peach strawberry rhubarb sour and an appropriate tonic for these wonky times on earth. If you lean towards comfort food as the mercury dips, “Lifetime Piling Up” is a cherry cheesecake sour, meaning you can have your cake and drink it too.

The bonus: Add a few sensual drops of Forest Alchemy №1 Winter’s Tale essential oil from Dragonfly Dreaming to your bathwater. I can attest to this: “it’s a crisp winter forest for your olfactory senses!” The blend of English peppermint, camphor, eucalyptus, spearmint and white birch is a guaranteed Rocky Mountain high—thanks wholly to Beth Lischeron, the dreamer and founder of the forest-to-jar company based in Cobble Hill, BC. For a simulated walk through a verdant Vancouver Island valley of skyscraper cedars, cypress, pine and fir, try Forest Alchemy №2 Winter’s Green. Either way, you need to check out Dragonfly Dreaming’s Solstice Sale before the earth tilts again!

The who: For distracted and concentrated readers alike. This book can be read in one immersive sitting or in bite-sized chunks throughout the year as the almanac is divided into seasons. Spring ahead or stay seasonal. The Earth Almanac is designed for anyone who believes reality TV is found in the woods, not on the screen. For nature maniacs, manic birders, poets, wanderers and everyone who fell under the twinkly spell of Walden Pond.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Ted Williams wrote a seasonal natural history column (“Earth Calendar”) for Audubon magazine. His sensitive observations morphed into the Earth Almanac, an unhurried and restorative tribute to the harbingers of each season. It’s chill-out homework for the rattled and pure escapism for those land-locked in urban settings. Really, it’s literary smelling salts that will revive your senses in just a few sentences. Bonus: the illustrations by John Burgoyne provide a enchanting gallery walk en plein air.

As Williams suggests, “few prescriptions are more curative than loon music.” The Earth Almanac soothes like a kitten’s purr and enlightens like Peter Jennings. The companionship of coyotes and badgers in the wild will stun and amuse as much as the comical courting rituals of fiddler crabs. It’s flora and fauna and a lot of Jeopardy! intel in one tidy package. Did you know that horny toads can squirt streams of blood from the corners of their eyes? Or, that male wrens will build seven potential nests for females to consider? The weary architect will guide his potential mate on a flying house tour of his creations allowing her to choose the ideal home for their brood.

Yes, I’m the type that says “wow” about 100 times during any David Attenborough (or David Suzuki) episode, and this same knee-jerk reaction came into play while reading the Earth Almanac. I feel like I need an external hard drive to download all that I’ve taken in. In no particular order:

Scorpions glow under UV light.

Crawdads are also called “ditch bugs.”

Kingbirds will ride upwards of 100 yards on the backs of crows and eagles to defend their territory.

Mountain beavers (yes, there is such a thing) can have as many as 30 exits and entrance holes to their tunnels. And, they will eat their own scat, but just once, to make their high-fibre diet more digestible.

Hepatica (liverwort) was used by Native Americans to treat the bites of mad dogs, sunburn, bleeding lungs, recurring snake dreams and also, surprise! To help straighten crossed eyes.

The tail bands of cedar waxwings are now discernably orange. A change in diet has caused their typical yellow bands to turn an atypical orange from increased honeysuckle pigment intake. (*Personal observation: I have also changed in colour since September due to my increased intake of Kettle Brand New York Cheddar chips.)

Here’s the clincher: Williams rolls his pen like Atwood–the imagery is nearly edible. His description of a long-tailed weasel? A “kielbasa-sized package of energy.” Of puffins he notes: they “emerge from the sea with fish draped neatly from their beaks like socks from a clothesline.”

The author’s street cred as an investigative environmental reporter is evident. One wonders how many years he has spent prone observing “doodlebugs” (antlions) and “bunny buttons” (rabbit scat). Certainly, he inspires the “art of looking” and transforming blind walks into genuine expeditions.

From “sound dogs” (I can’t give everything away) to candlefish to witch’s butter and the not-so-secret language of chickadees, this book is a beautiful romp through the meadows, woods, streambeds, deserts and mountains of North America. Please, go for a walk with Ted Williams.

If you love the Earth Almanac, check out these symbiotic books:

How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature by Marc Hamer (Greystone Books)

It was my favourite book of 2019. If you don’t adore it, I’ll send you a bag of New York Cheddars.  And then some hate mail.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (Oxford University Press)

My grade 12 English teacher gave me a copy of this book in an attempt to guide my writing from a white-water rafting expedition to a smooth paddle on a calm lake. Thank you, Joan! First published in 1949, it’s a timeless and sacred legend.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (Top That! Publishing)

Holden’s nature notes were originally scribbled (probably by quill) in 1906. Her posthumous publication didn’t happen until 1977, but we’re all grateful for her watercolour whimsy and yesteryear charm. Thanks to my neighbour, Anne, for the lend!

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The Bathtub Book Club: The Kinfolk Garden

Has it been 10 years already? Well, way back then, I was working at Body Blitz Spa on Adelaide and Portland in Toronto. Lunch breaks were spent dashing through slush and snow to get to La Merceria, an Argentinian espresso bar that did double duty as a bijou home design shop. I discovered two life-changing things here:

  1. Alfajores: Sandwich cookies heavenly glued together with dulce de leche and doused in powdered sugar. You’ll find them in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and at Le Merceria—that is, until the café permanently closed in my Toronto absence.
  2. Kinfolk magazine: On my first exploratory visit, I bought an Alfajor, an almond milk latte (because, why not? It was 2010 and cutting edge!) and Volume Four of Kinfolk: A guide for small gatherings for $21.00 without blinking or balking (*and that price didn’t include the cookie or the latte). I couldn’t wait to finish my spa shift to get home and swallow the mag in one beautiful, uninterrupted gulp.

What/who/where is Kinfolk? For the unacquainted, you’re behind—but catching up will be so pleasurable! Kinfolk just published Issue 37 and in tandem, The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature.

Founded in 2011, Kinfolk “inspires its readers to live with intention, energy and a sense of community.” The quarterly mag is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, so there’s guaranteed and automatic coolness in that alone. Once you’re hooked (also automatic), you’ll be seeking out copies of their coffee table projects: The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, The Kinfolk Home and The Kinfolk Table. You’ll see. The brand is like quicksand, there’s no exit!

The book: The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature by John Burns (Artisan Books)

The beer: Countdown Pale Ale by Beau’s Brewing Co. It’s a palate punch of west coast hops, bitter citrus and malty sweetness in one cool can. Why the Countdown? With the shift of the equinox and the dip back into single digit temps, I think we’re all counting down the days until spring’s hopeful renewal (Saturday, March 20, 2021). This Beau’s pale ale offers a perfect intoxicating bouquet until then.

The who: For purveyors of good things and those who love curating and creating. For anyone who has pressed a rose between the pages of a book or surreptitiously snapped off some roadside lilac bunches. This book is designed for those who nurse wilting ferns and rescue abandoned clivias. Come hither fantasy gardeners.

The part you’ve been waiting for: To be truthful, this 350+ page book isn’t bathtub-friendly. Post-soak, yes! It’s heavy on content and weight, so if you have a cat, you’ll have to choose who gets your coveted lap space.

Following suit with their magazines that showcase the precise life of leisure and indulgence that we long to be immersed in, The Kinfolk Garden is pure escapism. This book delivers as an antidote to the current state of the world. Gardens of every sort are explored: raw, refined, playful, rambling, experimental, intuitive…

Visit 30 groovy gardeners and their spaces around the world from Buenos Aires to Xilitia, Mexico to Parisian rooftops where flowers are simply planted by birds or the wind. For the travel-starved, take notes from a Turkish botanist who has designed gardens to reflect her travels. Fem Güçlütürk explains, “when I look at my garden, I see all the places I’ve visited softly merge.” Sigh. Güçlütürk even donated 1,000 novels to a second-hand bookstore to accommodate more plants!

The revolving theme of The Kinfolk Garden is “nature as nourishment.” It’s accessible, regardless of your living space. It’s a refuge that can evolve on a condo balcony, community garden plot or Sante Fe ranch. The profiles offer a diverse catalog of growing styles that lean on intuition, minimalist meditation and/or tangible goals like creating a “living kitchen” or personal plant-based medicine cabinet.

The pages and images are an undiluted olfactory experience. I think if you lean in close enough, you can catch a whiff of the indigo jacaranda and ice cream banana trees (yes, they are a thing!). The global gardens are as extreme the minds behind them. The whimsical concrete Las Pozas gardens in Xilitia are consumed by jungle and completely otherworldly. For Argentine architect Alejandro Sticotti and graphic designer Mercedes Hernáez, “greenery is the theatrical backdrop.” The couple keeps no plants inside their house.

Inspiration comes from all angles. Santa Barbara’s “Lotusland” estate was intended to serve as a 37-acre retreat for Tibetan monks. It is now one of the world’s largest and most diverse gardens with over 3,300 species from every continent. The late owner, Ganna Walska, a six-time divorcée and flopped opera singer, unintentionally saved a plant species. Her precious “Three Bachelors” are now extinct in nature. Her MO was mass planting. If one plant was good, Walska believed 100 would be better.

The Kinfolk Garden assembles a dinner party of the most eccentric individuals. You’ll meet a Marrakech garden designer whose resume also includes perfumer and museum owner. His mother suggested long ago that “people didn’t care for plants, but plants cared for people.”

While you might find yourself curling your toes on the diving board of going all-in, fear not! This book feeds all curiosities but doesn’t require estates, ranches, retirement or a Parisian rooftop. There is a primer on caring for houseplants, a guide to creating with flowers (everything from elderberry cordial to infusing vinegars to pressing flowers) to urban guerilla gardening. Fall in love with South Africa’s Babylonstoren, in the Franschhoek wine valley. Here, guests attend workshops on all things green and organic. Or, lie down in a “summer chamomile field designed for horizontal luxuriation.” Yes, please.

It’s about rewilding, land stewardship, the talent of florists and more importantly, taking pause to see and feel the forest floor microcosms under our Vibram soles.

If you are anything like me (caution Virgo list makers!) you’ll have a mile-long list of fantasy plants to grow. I picked out the quirkiest: fishbone cactus, corkscrew rush, rabbit’s foot fern, candelabra trees, hanging lobster claw, Canary Island dragon trees and kangaroo paw. It’s a start.

Confession: Kim and I have just one plant—a vigorous philodendron that has survived four moves from Oakville to West Galt to a temp stay with my folks in Walkerton (thanks, Mom!) to our home here on the Northern Bruce Peninsula. I’d be lying if I said we were devout in the Japanese shakkei tradition of incorporating background landscape, but that’s exactly what has unfolded here. We live in a treehouse with floor-to-ceiling windows of green. Cedars, pine, tamarack. But I loved and marveled every verdant inch of The Kinfolk Garden and the dirty knees that made it happen.

If you love The Kinfolk Garden these books are eye candy shoo-in’s:

Bakeland: Nordic Treats Inspired by Nature by Marit Hovland (Greystone Books). I have baked maybe four dozen cookies in my life but this book has no prerequisite and you don’t have to bake a thing in the end. Hovland takes readers on an edible fairy-tale romp through a confectionary forest of birch bark cookies, meringue mushrooms, candied forget-me-nots and icing spruce needles.

Cabin Porn and Cabin Porn Inside. By editor Zach Klein and authors Steven Leckart (Cabin Porn) and Freda Moon (Cabin Porn Inside).  It’s a phenomenon. If you harbour cabin-in-the-woods fantasies, get ready for a cold shower and cigarette.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Jann Arden’s Shiny New “If I Knew Then”

Two years ago, Jann Arden agreed to write the foreword for my memoir and I almost fell off my bar stool without having had a thing to drink. I still get a full-body tingle thinking about it, as though I have slept for too long on one side and have to shake myself back awake and into my skin. Did that really happen?

Her generosity and mentorship have guided me through soggy BC winters and a few stints in Africa when I was drifting without anchor but somehow weighed down by a life of my own design. She offered insightful thoughts, like fortune cookie messages and I ate them whole.

Her friendship does not mean that this review is biased—however, I would put all my chips on her, even a coveted bag of Miss Vickie’s Signature Black Truffle & Parmesan–whatever the venture. If she decided to market her head as a Chia Pet, we all know it would be successful.

Jann continues to inspire me with all that she does in a day. Meanwhile, yesterday, I was so pleased with myself because I completely finished off a Blistex lip balm without loss, melting or accidental laundering in the pocket of my jeans. Do you know how hard that is to achieve? I also toasted pumpkin seeds without scorching the damned things into charcoal shards for probably the first time in my life.

And I wrote this review, which was as easy as making toast.

Jann’s resume includes everything from cleaning golf clubs at age 13 to putting re-bar in cement foundations to writing the soundtrack of my life—your life—all our lives. She’s as resilient as a honey badger and as persistent as a pickled beet stain. Thank god there will be a whole lot more to come from her.

The book: If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging by Jann Arden (Penguin Random House Canada)

The beer: A Partake Brewing IPA. Ted Fleming, the founder of Partake, was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, but “wasn’t ready to give up craft beer.” He has created a line-up of non-alcoholic craft beers that seriously rival the real deal. Our local Foodland had free samples (remember those? Pre-pandemic?) and the IPA, Blonde and Pale deliver all the flavour in just 10 calories a can. How is that possible? In the words of Jann Arden, “Take your coat and shoes off…” And in the words of me, pour a Partake of any persuasion, raise your glass and give Jann Arden a 干杯 / gān bēi, Na zdravi, ΥΓΕΙΑ, cin cin and į sveikatą (“cheers!”) to her sobriety.

The who: For everyone who swears by Brené Brown TED Talks, Oprah a-ha moments, those at a loss/crossroads/mid-life- Subaru-kind-of-crisis, women experiencing more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, rabid Jann fans, This is Us devotees.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Everyone who pre-ordered this book did so for the exact same reason. We all knew it was going to be solid gold and quintessential Jann. She has admittedly made of living out of being herself. She has also made a career our of messing around inside our amygdala (*the hard drive in the human brain where emotions linked to memories are stored). Jann knows how to mix up our insides like a Ninja blender on HIGH.

Whether it’s the lyrics that we know like freckles on our own skin, a goofy tweet, an olive oil-splattered recipe in Feeding My Mother (*see page 86: Shrimp or Fish Tacos with Asian Slaw) or a rally cry to save Alberta’s wild horses, she tapped into our psyche and weaknesses long ago. Four books, fourteen + albums, eight Junos, a sitcom, a podcast and 18 fish tacos ago…

Everything resonates because Jann pulls the Band-aid off being human without deleting the tears and snot that accompany it. If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging isn’t “preachy preacherson”—it’s a never-too-late push towards rewiring your life by making “good use of those troubled times.” There are home perms, wigs on fire, dill pickles on a stick, rejection letters and reflections on how a basement record player was self-preservation in disguise. God, guilt, aging parents and conflicted love simmer to a rolling boil too.

Can a 58-year-old write a coming-of-age novel? Hell yeah. Jann’s still coming of age in a beautiful way, skipping the self-annihilation and dated concept of expiry dates for successful women. If you’re prone to deep + useless sessions of self-loathing and falling prey to false prophets and past glories, here’s your life ring. Don’t let it hit you in the head. This book lands on shelves in a time when we’re hungry for hope, and here it is.

While the rest of the world has been doing puzzles of hedgehogs and eating Cheezies, blaming a pandemic for pure sloth, Jann Arden has been operating at warp speed minimizing her emotional baggage into something that will actually fit into that *&(^$# overhead bin. (Remember the days of overhead bins and bitching about passengers with oversized bags?)

Be forewarned: She deals with some heavy-hitters within. Like, dying. “No one gets away without doing it.” The first three chapters go down like a sideways Melba toast with no glass of water in sight. It’s uncomfortable, you’ll bite your nails if you do such a thing. Or, you’ll pick tiny balls of your wool sweater until you have a wool snowball or pet your cat for reassurance until it’s furless.

This is what you’ll do after those first few chapters: You will make an appointment to do your will once and for all, or again. That was an unexpected take-away…but Jann has accomplished what no funeral home or financial advisor or life insurance commercial has been able to. Jann Arden is our voice of reason and her voice mail begs, “Do your will. Now.”

Rest assured, there’s a lot of funny in her book too–like her $200 Corvair and a bar mitzvah with a bouncy ball house and grilled cheese sandwich (yes, all those three things in one go). There are quotes that I’m still thinking about like her mom’s suggestion that “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

If you need a kick in the pants without the sticky note stuck on your back (remember those? Pre-social distancing?), this book is precisely that. There is no age limit to get out of your “own damn tornado.”

As always, Jann’s words are like a mug of Ovaltine with a handful of digestive biscuits. The chapters are TUMS tablets after vindaloo curry. She’s aloe vera on sunburned shoulders.  If I Knew Then will change you without a “trip to the ashram.” Maybe you’ll simply crave a dill pickle on a stick or start saying “For the love of Gord” like her mom. Something will happen though, whether you’re ready or not, and that’s the whole point of life.

Thank you, Jann Arden. x

If you loved If I Knew Then, check out this book:

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson. It’s one thing to sort through your own personal emotional attic but after the death of her 93-year-old mother, Plum Johnson was left grappling with 23 rooms choked with the antiques and heirlooms of one well-preserved life. The museum of her mother is one with endless visiting hours–and a remarkable one for readers to peer in the windows of.

Categories: Bathtub Book Club | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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