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One thing I did while I was hibernating was read three novels:

Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier

Of the three, it was The Goldfinch that kept me up past my bedtime on a regular basis until I finished it. Just brilliant. Theo broke my heart. The other characters are beautifully-drawn; the plot had its hooks in me from the very beginning and didn’t let go. Even though I raced through it, when I got to the end, I had the feeling that you do at the end of a really long, really good ski run. Exhilarated and wanting more. Read it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about what it’s going to do to your beauty sleep.

I thought Life After Life was everything the reviews promised. As Ursula hiccups through her life, starting and ending and starting again, I found myself wondering just how the next time around was going to shape up, and was nearly always delighted. The  flashes of subtle humor throughout were, for me, a huge part of its charm. Highly recommended.

The Last Runaway was a gift, and while I’m not sure I’d have bought it myself, I enjoyed it. There were a few places where I wished the editor had been a bit more firm — enough already with the “It’s so different from England” comments — but the story was compelling. And if you’re a quilter (or related to one), you’ll find yourself imagining Honor’s works of art. Worth a read.

If you’ve read any of these, and/or have recommendations for gems that I missed, please pipe up in the comments. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

I rarely buy a whole Christmas album any more. Most times, I’d rather listen to my Giant Xmas Mix (135 songs and counting). But there are a few that deserve the spend. Some of these are brand new, and others are old chestnuts (if you’ll pardon the semi-pun). Listen up!

Nick Lowe, Quality Street   Just as delicious as the goodies in the purple box.

Tracey Thorn, Tinsel and Lights   I only bought one cut when I came out last year. I’ll be remedying that mistake — this is a gem.

David Ian, Vintage Christmas and Vintage Christmas Wonderland   Just right for a grown-up, intimate Christmas Eve dinner. Buy both!

The Roches, We Three Kings   Wonderful from start to finish. I even like their version of “Little Drummer Boy”!

Annie Lennox, A Christmas Cornucopia   All classics, delivered with heart and soul. (Stop the clip just before the silly interview at the end…)

The Chieftans, The Bells of Dublin  Features my very favorite righteously angry Christmas song, “The Rebel Jesus.” (The video is a little light on images, but that way there’s nothing to get in the way of the lyrics.)

Do you have any recommendations you’d add to my list?

 

[I have had the good fortune to receive a number of advanced review copies of Little, Brown titles from NetGalley and will be sharing my reviews with you over the next few weeks. I hope that a few of these books find their way onto your summer reading lists.]

The First Rule of Swimming, by Courtney Angela Brkic (Little, Brown and Co, 2013) is a novel about family, forgiveness, and memory. Set on a small island far off the Croatian coast, Brkic’s story of two sisters begins slowly, almost languidly, much as one could imagine swimming through the pellucid waters around Rosmarina on a hot summer afternoon. Soon, however, the pace picks up and the reader finds herself turning the pages more and more quickly, following the unfolding of one family secret after another.

Magda, the older of the sisters, is such a constant person that she seems rooted to the soil of the island she grew up on. Rather than following love and starting a family of her own, she has chosen to look after her elderly grandparents and works as a teacher in the local school.

The younger sister, Jadranka, is as restless as Magda is rooted. An artist given to rash decisions, she takes the opportunity offered by a cousin to move to New York City. She quickly finds herself moving in more and more dangerous circles. Then she disappears.

When Magda learns of her sister’s disappearance, she uproots herself and flies to New York to find her sister again. In the process, she re-encounters people from her past and learns a number of bitter truths about herself and her family.

As Grandfather Luka tells his grand-daughters when he teaches them to swim, “The first rule of swimming is to float.” And yet simply floating, being carried along on the current, is not enough to save Jadranka. Magda must dive deep, past the debris of their painful childhood and her own unwillingness to engage fully with life to bring her sister safely to shore again.

Brkic’s writing is simple and powerful; as she crafts her story about three generations of the Babic family she never loses sight of their ties to each other, and to the rocky island that is their home. Her characters are well-drawn and grounded in the author’s understanding that while the places and events that shape us can be very different, the essential stuff we are made of is very much the same.

Nature itself, in the form of the sea, is as powerful a presence in this novel as are the family members. One can see and smell the blue-green waters that separate Rosmarina from the mainland as they lap or pound against the shore. The sea gives the islanders life and takes it away; it protects them from the greater turmoil of a country that has suffered over and over again from strife and oppression, though never fully.

The First Rule of Swimming is an engaging and thoughtful novel that I highly recommend.

I was fortunate to receive some birthday moolah and while I’ve put some of it away for my summer adventures, I also wanted to treat myself to a new kitchen toy. Since my kitchen is teensy-tiny, I need to choose my toys wisely. But I had a very short short-list, and this was right at the top.

Mine is a small one (there are bigger sizes, too), and it came in a gift set with a specially-designed spatula that helps get the cooked food out of the unusually-shaped case, and a recipe book that focuses on ten-minute recipes. Besides the cool Catalan design factor, it’s a very practical solution to one of my main dietary challenges. In Spain, we eat dinner on the late side — for most of us in Madrid, it’s around 9:30 if we’re eating at home — and I often find myself uninspired by the idea of making a mess in the kitchen and then needing to clean it up before I go to bed. I also like to keep things on the light side so that I sleep better.

So how does this little beauty work? It steams ingredients in the microwave (or in a conventional oven, if you’re so inclined) — and because you use it on the high setting for a short time, the nutrients are better preserved. It also requires very little oil, so that’s another plus.

I’ve tried two recipes since I got it, and they’ve both been delicious. Tonight I had asparagus bundles with serrano ham and soft-cooked eggs, and a few days ago I had salmon filet with zucchini. I have a bunch of other recipes flagged in the cookbook and I’ll be working my way through them over the next few weeks.

If you’re interested in cooking lighter and faster, you should definitely give the Lékué steam case a try. It’s perfect for getting you out of the kitchen in a hurry in the hot weather. You’ll find lots of inspiring recipes (in English) on the main Spanish site. This one looks pretty tasty!

 

 

There’s only one really good life, and it’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.

-Diana Vreeland

I hope that the new documentary about Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has to Travel, makes it to Madrid. It  looks wonderful!

Watching the trailer, I was struck by the quote I cite above. It sums up beautifully what I’m trying to do with my own life, as hard as it is at times. When I feel discouraged, I’ll remind myself that this is the life I want, the life I’m making for myself. No complaining allowed. Mrs. Vreeland would never stand for it.

At least three times in recent weeks, I’ve read posts or articles (or comments thereon) stating that wearing sunscreen is either not necessary (if you’re Spanish — tell that to the milky-skinned blondes and redheads who are just as Spanish as their olive-skinned sisters!) or dangerous (carcinogens! Vitamin D deficiency!), and I’ve got my dander up.

For me, not wearing sunscreen is not an option. Plenty of us Rubi Family members — and yours truly — have gone under the knife to deal with skin cancers. Never, thank deities, melanoma, but plenty of other “fun.”

The very best sun protection is staying out of it, but that’s rarely an option. Next best is a hat, long sleeves, and leg-covering trousers or skirts. Oh, hats! I recently received as a gift a beautiful “Panama” hat (really made in Ecuador), but I tend not to wear hats in the city, even though I love hats and look pretty snazzy in them. I should probably rethink my position!

I take a two-level approach in the summer, which is when I’m out in the sun the most. On my face, neck, and décolletage, I use SPF 50, because that’s the part of me that gets regular exposure. On the rest of me, I use SPF 30. The EU has recently revised its sunscreen guidelines, so I know that the products I buy here will protect me from both UVA and UVB damage. If you live in the States, I urge you to spend a little more and look for LaRoche Posay’s sunscreens with Mexoryl SX. They protect much better than the ingredients commonly available, and nearly all dermatologists recommend them. (The FDA has only approved this highly-effective ingredient for this brand!) And don’t bother with anything over SPF 50. It doesn’t work any better, and it tends to lead people to take risks with the amount of sun they get.

I’m also concerned about Vitamin D deficiency, so I take supplements — 2000 IU a day — and if I know that I’m going to be outdoors for just 10 or 15 minutes, I skip the sunscreen on my arms and increase the daily dose that way. That’s all it takes. Ten minutes exposure of the “long bones” (i.e., arms and legs) will do it. Then cover up (see above).

If you are concerned about the ingredients in your sunscreen, and I think this is a legitimate concern, you can visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep page for a list of safe sunscreens, organized by category (makeup, moisturizer, beach/sport, and lip balm). They are also a source for lots of practical tips about sun protection in general.

ETA: Do not forget a pair of quality sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB, even if your eyes are brown. Sun exposure causes cataracts.

Rubi sez: Please do take sun protection seriously and make the best decision you can for your pocketbook, based on the most current science. And enjoy the sunny weather, of course!

One of my favorite treats on a hot summer day is to come home, kick off my shoes, and spritz myself with chilled cologne. Here in Spain, there are a couple of classic colognes that you’ll still smell when you’re out and about.

There’s the baby version, super-nostalgic, and so popular that cleaning products also come in “colonia” scent — to give you an idea of the cognitive dissonance, my floor wash smells of baby cologne. What can I say? They were out of pine…

What Spanish babies’ heads smell like.

And the grown-up version — it’s a little harder for me to explain what this one smells like. Clean, fresh, just-out-of-the-shower…in a sort of old-fashioned way. (If any locals are out there reading, please feel free to chime in.)

What freshly-mown meadows smell like, theoretically. (“Heno” means “hay.”)

The way to wear both of these colognes (and there are plenty of adults who wear Nenuco on the sly) is to splash them on liberally — like we did in the States with Jean Naté, or “4711,” the original eau de cologne. (Remember Jean Naté? I loved it as a kid! I’m having an olfactory flashback.)

What summer smells like at Casa Rubi…

As I said, I’m more of a spritzer than a splasher. And there’s nothing I like more in the summer than a green tea scent. Since the key here is “guilt-free,” I’ve forgone the Roget & Gallet and L’Occitane versions, and grabbed a bottle of Yves Rocher “Thé Vert” (10 euros for 100 ml). I haven’t had a chance to chill it yet, but tomorrow morning, whoo! I can’t wait.

What’s your summer scent? Do you stay luxe, or go el cheapo? To chill, or not to chill? Let me know…

P.S. If you want to try Nenuco or Heno de Pravia for yourself, you can buy them online at La Tienda.com. They also sell world-wide superstar Jabón Magno (the divinely-scented black soap) and MamaRubi’s old favorite, Maja. (No Jean Naté, though.)

My family and friends know that I have a great fondness for kids, dogs, and other unruly beings. I believe that the connection stems from a shared perspective — a tendency to be aware of things that the “grown-ups” around us don’t always see. Plus, I’m a goofball.

But I also am a badge-wearing member of the Manners Police. Which means, if you’re my nine year-old nephew, that I expect you to eat your broccoli with a fork, not your fingers. And if you’re a dog I’m walking, I expect you to heel. (Though I’ll carry a bag of cheese bits in my pocket to help you see it my way.)

I’ve been walking a 65-pound puppy for the last week. And today we had a meeting of the minds — I only lost his attention once, when some little kids went by on bikes. This perhaps makes me happier than it should, but there you have it. Patience, consistency, and chunks of Cracker Barrel do pay off!

(*I was once told, by a person who was seven at the time and cross with me because I had told her we had to leave the beach, that the reason I was still single in my 30s that I was “too mean to marry.” I think it would make a nice bumper sticker, don’t you?)

I had a bunch of movies in my iTunes rental queue that needed watching, so this weekend, I sat down with my knitting and the documentary, “Buck.” What a wonderful film about the power of love, patience, and acceptance!

Buck Brannaman inspired the novel “The Horse Whisperer,” and consulted on the movie that Robert Redford made based on the book. He is a well-respected teacher of “natural horsemanship,” and give clinics all over the U.S. and overseas, working, as he says, not with people who have horse problems, but with “horses who have people problems.”

Brannaman is also a survivor of years of brutal physical abuse at the hands of his father, a stage parent of the ugliest kind, whose sons learned early that the options were to practice their rope tricks or be beaten to a pulp. They got really good at the rope tricks, performing at rodeos and appearing on television and in commercials. The beatings never really ended, though.

Fortunately for Buck and his brother, their finally lives changed for the better when they were placed in foster care with a rancher and his wife, Betsy and Forest Shirley. The Brannaman boys were saved by love and hard work. Despite being just two boys in a herd of more than 20 foster kids at the Shirley’s ranch, they were valued and accepted for who they were.

As an adult, Buck has “devoted [his] life to trying to do something good.” And his lessons go so far beyond horses. He teaches the importance of both love and firmness, of being fair and consistent. After working with a dangerously troubled horse, Brannaman makes it very clear that it wasn’t the horse who created his problems, but the owner.   He says, “Whether you’re going to have a horse or a dog or children, with that comes a great responsibility, not just to feed them and have a roof over their heads but to teach them right and wrong and do all the things to help them be able to fit into the world.”

I hope that you’ll find and watch this film. You will be moved by Buck Brannaman’s story and his philosophy will resonate long after the final credits. You don’t need to be a horse-person, or an animal-person. You just need to be a person-person.

This past weekend, I went to the movies — and ended up totally delighted by a film that I hadn’t even heard about before the movie-going plan was made.

It’s called Le Havre, and it’s by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. You can find a synopsis here, but I don’t think any synopsis could really do it justice. It’s a film that’s unclassifiable. I loved the story, the characters, and especially the visuals  — many of the interior shots have the feel of Edward Hopper paintings. While the setting is on the down-and-out side of the title city, the film is suffused with love and humanity, both within the story and from the director to his characters.

I don’t want to break the spell it still has on me by over-analyzing here, but take my word for it — find it and see it. You’ll be enchanted.

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