I always like those end-of-year reviews you see in newspapers around now, so I’m doing my own.
Eating is important and I enjoy it. Most places I have visited or lived I identify with the food you can eat there. If I like something I return as often as possible to indulge myself and when I’m not there I often dream about how good that food is. One of life’s pleasures is finding a new food to love. This year’s discovery was a pastry from Brittany called a Kouign-amann (pronounced kween ah-MON) that’s billed as the “fattiest pastry in all of Europe,” which is saying something. It’s flaky like a croissant, but much denser and it’s covered with a thick coating of caramelized sugar that gives it heft and substance. You have to eat it like an apple, biting through the chewy crust to the dense, soft interior. It was so unbelievably good I immediately went back in the store for another. When I finished that one, I went back inside to just look at them on the tray but the staff laughed at me so I pretended to need the washroom.
I didn’t travel to France to try this treat. I found it in Salt Lake City on the advice of a good friend who rhapsodized about the pastry as though describing life’s elixir. I never would have tried it (I couldn’t even pronounce it) but I can truly say my life is richer for having made the effort.
I got through a lot of books in the last 12 months, perhaps as many as 120. It’s a lot, but maybe not for a writer. Most of my reading is research to support my work. Writers are supposed to read the work of successful (i.e. published) writers to learn what works and how they do it. I treat this task as an excuse to read what I like, so really I’m reading for pleasure, but it looks like work. I’m very fortunate that I love my work. Usually I finish a book with satisfaction and a sense of having benefitted in some way. It’s rare that I want to throw the book across the room when I’m done, knowing I will never get back the hours I invested in reading it, but it does happen.
The best books for me are ones that take me to places I want to go, that make me think and learn and make me care about their characters. I know I really like a book when I finish it and wish I wrote it to the point of hating the author for being better than me and getting there first.
The book that stands out in my mind for 2014 is So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger. Set in the West in 1915, it’s a story about finding redemption, love and purpose in a world where those things are often elusive. The characters are real and compelling. Because it’s the Wild West, there are bandits, charlatans, simpletons and a relentless bone-and-gristle Pinkerton detective. Enger’s world is in turns violent, beautiful, magical, confounding, rewarding and punishing. His descriptive abilities and the quality of his prose transport you directly into the landscape and the era as though you are part of the story.
The book also helped me to answer a question about the nature of grace, a question that bothered me most of this year. Toward the end of the book one of the main characters is said to appear less tortured and to “have reached some settlement.” I think the author means the character has achieved a settlement with himself, the world and the way things are. Another character identifies the settlement as grace. That resonates with me. Previously, I labored under the impression that grace was a feeling of safety and comfort, soft pillows and easy music, and you received it by some divine dispensation that ignored my open hands. Thanks in part to the novel I now know differently. When you stop kicking and screaming about the way things should be and you settle down and accept things the way they are, you are well on the way to receiving grace.
I think there as are many ways to reach that settlement as there are people in the world. The trick is finding your way.
Every year you should add one new joke to your repertoire to keep things fresh and your friends engaged. This is mine from 2014: A priest is checking into a hotel. When the clerk hands over the keys, the priest pauses and says, “I certainly hope the pornography channel is disabled.” The clerk looks at him, sneers and says, “No, you sicko, it’s regular porn.”
We got a new vehicle in 2014 and it came with three free months of Sirius satellite radio which we listened to nearly exclusively on our summer road trip to Canada. Our favorite channel (28, The Spectrum) played a consistent rotation of songs including “Lighthouse” by Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of reggae legend Bob Marley. The song is easy, cheerful and melodic (listen to it here). It wasn’t long before we knew the words and sang together as a family when it came on, regardless of though were all in a good mood or were in the middle of a family conflagration. Now, whenever I hear it I’m immediately back in the car with my happy family.
I don’t get to see a lot of movies because Catherine and I need a babysitter and by the time we’re done with dinner and the movie and paying the sitter it costs nearly $150. Not many movies are worth that. Also, Cath doesn’t like movies with shooting so that limits our choices. Together we saw “The Hundred-Foot Journey” about an Indian family that opens a restaurant in a French village across the road from a Michelin-starred establishment. It’s enjoyable, but not long lasting—like a chocolate bar.
I need a movie to affect me. I was going to include “12 Years a Slave” on this list because it was so good, but I realized I saw it in 2013.
I enjoyed “The Monuments Men” because I love pretty much the whole cast (including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman) and the story of a band of art experts putting the boots to Nazi scum seemed like a lot of fun. It was. It’s a buddy caper movie with culture and intelligence, but it doesn’t really contain or promote any deep thought.
The novel I’m working on is set in the aftermath of WWII, so I went to see “Fury” starring Brad Pitt as the weary commander of an American tank crew fighting against overwhelming odds in the last days of the war. There’s a lot of gore, unflinchingly depicted, but there are also several fantastic scenes that reveal the characters’ personal battle between what the war has made them and the soft human being inside their thick crust. We are not all you see or assume we are.
My two favorite new places we visited this year were Ottawa, Canada’s capital, and Utah’s Salt Lake City region.
I hadn’t been to Ottawa for about forty years (so it counts as new) and I fell in love with the canal that runs through its center. We rented bikes and rode along its banks, stopped for lunch and watched pleasure boats pass through the locks that connect the canal with the Ottawa River. Ottawa has a great outdoor market and the Parliament buildings make my heart swell like a big maple leaf inside my chest. I somehow lost nearly all the photos we took while we were there, except for the one included here of the kids by the river with Parliament behind.
Most people visit Utah in winter to ski. We went in October when the aspens were crimson and gold on the mountainsides. It was shoulder season and we had most places to ourselves. We hiked (see Catherine’s brilliant photo at the top), ate good food, heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and dodged men and women carrying rifles into the hills. It seems shoulder season is also deer season. While mountain biking, my friend Nate and I narrowly missed being shot by a teenage girl on a hunting date with her giddy boyfriend. But earlier that day I caught my first western trout on the fly, so it was a wash between danger and reward. Also, I’d brave nearly anything for another Kouign-amann.