Stephanie Madewell

Editor of Broccoli Magazine

Writer, editor, and sometimes The Nasher magazine contributor, Stephanie Madewell, sends word of quarantine life from Cleveland, Ohio. An avid reader and lover of nature, Madewell’s Shelf Life list roams through books about heroic swimmers to a look at an 18th century bon vivant, with detours into Google’s annals of images of insects, the growth of mushrooms, and Louise Bourgeois drinking Coca-Cola.


These days, I spend most of my waking moments in the company of my four-and-a-half-year-old. Though this no-strings time together is a crazy gift—we have giddily frittered away whole days building cereal box theaters and devising plays about mouse jamborees and malevolent owls—I do miss having time to myself. I’ve been trying to find respite in a few minutes alone with my phone (a crazy-making and sanity-saving device) or in finding mental escapes that work for both of us.

Reading

Between epic cardboard construction projects, we’ve been reading a lot of short chapter books. Our two favorites are both by William Steig: Abel’s Island, the story of a stranded mouse, trying to fend for himself alone in the wilderness, who discovers that art offers some consolation during an extended period of isolation, and Dominic, the story of an indomitable dog who believes, “Whatever life offered was, this way or that, a test of one’s skills, one’s faculties, and he enjoyed proving equal to these tests.” These two stories map eerily well to the moment; Steig’s plots are specific with the strangeness of real, unpredictable life, and the language is a delight—plainspoken, with the occasional baroque adjective. Reading them makes me want to (metaphorically) grab people and shake them into a much more exuberant appreciation of Steig. What a genius.

Between exhaustion and distraction, I’ve been struggling to find enthusiasm for my before-bed, to-be-read pile; I pick up a book and can almost hear the cosmos’ derisive laugh. But I spent a happy few hours beguiled by Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, immersed in the fantastical 17th century world of the dazzling Margaret Cavendish–philosopher, poet, playwright, and bon vivant. Her brain buzzed like a hive of bees, and words spilled out—uncanny and prescient, original and strange. She wrote some of the earliest science fiction, and wore gowns that looked like carpets of moss, blazing comets, and rainbows.

I’m also leisurely wading through Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as HeroIt’s about swimming, but more essentially an immersion in obsession as you follow Sprawson’s mental perambulations through lavish Roman thermae and waterworks; Victorians perched on ottomans, learning to swim by mimicking the motions of a frog trapped in a bowl of water; Ben Franklin swimming in the mucky Thames; soggy and besotted Romantic poets; stoic distance swimmers; Olympians and Esther Williams movies. It’s one of those books that I stop reading every few pages to wonder how one person could manage to accumulate the particular mass of singular knowledge (especially in the scattered and fragmentary pre-Internet days) necessary to write it. 

Other Distractions

Sculpting Lives: When I steal down into the basement for twenty cursed minutes on the exercise bike post-kiddo bedtime, I listen to this podcast exploring the careers of five British women sculptors. There's a companion Instagram account, too.

People dressing up as works of art is having a moment, but I’ve got an ongoing obsession with Harriet Parry's flower interpretations, where she abstracts paintings and photographs into floral arrangements. Each one is a masterpiece of color, texture, and nutty ingenuity.

Carson Ellis’ Quarantine Art Club (archived on Instagram) is inspiring and appealingly low-key, offering a series of accessible (and sometimes batty) prompts designed to get folks young and old drawing. Also on Instagram: Live Cartoons by Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris (posted every Saturday) are a zany, hand-drawn delight we look forward to all week long (we are faithful members of the Mac Barnett Book Club Show Book Club (editor's note: not a typo!)). 

Google image searches for beautiful things made by insects: the nests of O. avoseta mason bees, fashioned from flower petals; Hubert Duprat’s collaborations with caddis flies, using gold and semiprecious stones to build their cases; wasps making nests from construction paper. Also: videos of time-lapse flower blooms and mushroom grows and any video with Louise Bourgeois drinking Coca-Cola (those are really just for me).


Image Sources

Margaret the First: http://thecollagist.com/the-collagist/2016/6/5/margaret-the-first-by-danielle-dutton.html

Dominic: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/246043/pdf (I found this in a scholarly article on Dominic that I can't wait to read. The title is "The Spear and the Piccolo"!)

Leander: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-605f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Sculpting Lives: https://www.instagram.com/p/B97RR6fFxXn/

Harriet Parry flowers: https://www.instagram.com/p/B-FgLhMA4Mb/

Live cartoons: https://www.instagram.com/p/B-2nJ26H_ZJ/

Louise: https://www.instagram.com/p/BjNUTFcn3SV/

Flower nests: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126556246

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