August 2022


Still Life with Mary Cassatt prints and Lego orchid and bonsai

I’m about halfway through Sarah Winman’s Still Life: A Novel, and I’m completely enthralled after taking a good long time to get into the story.

I have a theory about books and readers. All books have a setting, plot, and characters, but not with equal emphasis. Some books, like mysteries, are primarily fueled by plot: you keep reading to see What Happens Next. Other books focus primarily on characters: not much might happen, or the story might meander, but you keep reading because you become emotionally invested in the inner lives of imaginary folk. And some books are centered in place: you might not connect with the characters or you might not follow the narrative thread, but you keep reading because you’ve been transported to a place–actual or imagined–that intrigues and fascinates.

This is my theory of books, and here’s my corresponding theory of readers: some readers are drawn to plot-driving books, and others are primarily interested in character and/or place. If you’re a plot-focused reader, gaps in the story, tricky timelines, or narrative details that don’t make sense will bother you to no end. But if you’re like me, plot is almost irrelevant as long as a book’s portrait of character and place are strong.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe the meandering plot of Still Life, which spans decades to unfold the aftermath of a chance meeting between a soldier and art historian in wartime Italy. Such a synopsis tells you nothing: what enchants me about Still Life is its ragtag cast of characters, those characters’ loves and losses, and the novel’s evocation of both Italy and England.

Since I’m only halfway through Still Life, I don’t know how the story will end, but what keeps me reading are the characters I’ve come to care for.


Lego Starry Night

While everyone else on my Facebook feed has been playing Wordle, I’ve been playing with Legos.

Although I had a generic set of interlocking plastic bricks when I was a kid, I blame J for my adult onset Lego-mania. Several years ago, J surprised me with the Women of NASA Lego set for Christmas, and I enjoyed building that to display on my desk. The next Christmas I bought the dinosaur fossils set for myself, and next the Lego White House…then by the time Lego debuted a botanical collection featuring a flower bouquet, bonsai tree, and bird of paradise plant, it was clear that building Lego sets had become a thing I do.

In many ways I am the perfect market for Lego sets targeted to adults. I enjoy the process of building. It’s relaxing to follow step-by-step instructions while watching a structure arise brick by brick. In this sense, Lego building is akin to the rug hooking and cross-stitch kits I enjoyed when I was younger. You don’t have to be a great chef to follow a recipe, and you don’t have to be an architect to build a Lego set.

I also enjoy the display quality of completed Lego kits. I’m not building Lego kits to play with them; I’m building them to sit on my shelves. As silly as it sounds, I like looking at the Lego sets I’ve completed. When I was a child, I collected model horses, and instead of actively playing with them like dolls, I enjoyed simply looking at them and creating stories about them in my mind. Like those model horses, Lego sets are fun and interesting to look at, and seeing them reminds me of the process of building them. There is the simple but profound satisfaction of saying “I built that.”

This past Christmas, I bought myself the Lego typewriter as J’s gift to me. (Like many long-married couples, J and I surprise one another with a few small gifts but largely choose our own presents.) The Lego typewriter is the most complicated set I’ve built yet. Although I bought it as a pure display piece, the typewriter has moving parts so that when you press the keys, a typebar rises and the carriage moves to the left.

It takes a lot of fiddly bits to achieve this functionality, and after making a mistake early on that made the entire structure shift askew, I dismantled the entire thing halfway through to start the build from scratch. When I finished the entire thing and felt how solid it felt in my hand, I felt an embarrassing level of satisfaction. In my writing and teaching alike, I trade in intangible words and ideas. Rarely do I get to hold in my hand something I built, or even see the fruit of my labor.

Although it feels a bit silly to admit to playing with toys, I missed out on the jigsaw puzzle craze during the early days of pandemic lockdown. While others were stuck at home playing board games, baking bread, and learning how to play the ukulele, I was teaching remote classes, prepping hybrid classes, then returning to in-person teaching. Having missed out on the “downtime” of the pandemic, now I’m finding simple ways to debrief from another hectic school year. Between you and me, I’ll take “silly” over “stressed” any day.

So earlier this year, I built the Lego Statue of Liberty, followed by the Lego globe J bought me for Valentine’s Day…and earlier this summer, I built the botanical orchids and succulents sets to display in my bathroom. Today, I finished building a replica of Starry Night, which wonderfully captures the three-dimensional nature of Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes, and next I’ll build the Lego jazz quartet and Space Shuttle.

In other words, it looks like the building boom will continue.