Thursday, April 29, 2010
I'm trying to read more contemporary fiction; since I want to write fiction, I suppose I should read it, right? The only trouble is, I don't know how to choose books. For some reason, I have no problem picking up a work of nonfiction and knowing instantly whether I want to read it or not, but with fiction I'll browse the new book section of the book store or library, turning volumes over, reading the back, putting them down, just not knowing whether I'm going to like something.
Lately, whenever I read a review of a book that sounds good, I go instantly to interlibrary loan and order a copy (if one is to be had in Maine, which is not always the case), this has worked out pretty well for me, but I want to know more. What works of fiction have you read lately that I should read?
Here's a sampling of the novels I've read (or tried to read) in the last few months:
Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett. When I was at AWP, I rode the 16th Street Mall shuttle with a woman from the conference, named Laura, who mentioned she had a panel the next morning. She also said she freelances for magazines for a living, and writes fiction "in the mornings," which I figured meant like the way I write fiction--quietly scribbling bad stories and character sketches that will never see the light of day. When I got back to my sister's apartment, in stalker-like fashion, I looked up in the conference catalog panels for the next morning and saw that one had a panelist named Laura Pritchett, who had been spoken of very highly at a panel I had been to that day. When I flipped to the bio page, I saw that she had two published books. In further stalker behavior, I checked out her webpage when I got home, and saw that she has a PhD, 100s of articles, essays and stories to her credit and has edited a number of anthologies as well. And, the final blow, when I ordered her book through ILL, the library credit page listed her year of birth, which is only two years before mine. Wow. I better get to work. Anyway, I just got the book Tuesday, and I love it so far. It's the story of a young woman living on a ranch in eastern Colorado whose sister gives birth, then takes off, leaving her with the baby.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. After hearing Chabon speak, I was determined to love this book, but I can't get past chapter 2. I guess I'm just not that interested in the coming of age story of a Jewish son of a gangster in the early 1980s (am guessing at this date). This is Chabon's first novel (I only chose it because it was the shortest one of his on the library shelf); maybe I should read something more recent.
In the Year of Long Division by Dawn Raffel. This is such a strange book. It's a book of short stories that are more like poems, and, like poems, I have no freakin' clue what's going on, but the language is lovely. I ran out of time to finish this before it was due back at the library, but I'd be interested in reading more of Raffel's work.
The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. I was really excited about this book--there are writing exercises at the ends of some of the chapters. But the characters are not that well-developed and it mentions god, angels and church a bit much for my taste (this is the same reason I can't get past page 10 of an Anne Lamott novel). I think I'll let my checkout time run out before I finish it.
Borderline by Nevada Barr. I used to gobble up Barr's Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger mysteries, but the last couple I read had really excessively disturbing bad guys, so I quit reading her books. But for my flight home from Denver, I wanted to read something light (not the pile of Sun magazines I had crammed into my carry-on in hopes of catching up), so I bought this in the airport. Quick and fun read about a raft trip in Big Bend that goes seriously wrong, and much less psycho murderer than previous books (plus, Pigeon's latent maternal instincts get stirred up a bit).
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I keep this book in my car for emergency waiting room episodes. I like how this character and life in this small town in Maine is portrayed from different points of view. Well-developed characters and for the most part avoids sentimentalizing the quaint Maine seacoast town, which I appreciate. I'm afraid I'm getting to the sad(der) part, though.
Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Hurrah! These were both re-reads (possibly for the second time) in a fit of needing something light. I forgot how funny both books are! I found myself on the couch, wrapped in a blanket at midnight laughing my a** off. I needed that in March in Maine. It may need to be an annual tradition.
East Hope by Katharine Davis. The parallel stories of two characters who find themselves in a small town on the coast of Maine. One is a woman whose husband dies, has a son in college who's growing distant, is pregnant from a one-night-stand with a neighbor and goes to Maine to claim a cottage inherited from her husband's aunt; the other is a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment whose marriage is falling apart and who takes a summer job running a used bookstore. I liked the surprising twists this storyline takes, though the book does fall into the sentimentalized "quaint Maine village" trap.
A Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline. A woman is involved in a car accident in which a child dies; while it's not exactly her fault, it infuses her with guilt and adds bumps to an already rocky marriage. If you're interested in writing, read Kline's blog, A Writing Life.
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. Wow. This book was amazing. I couldn't read it fast enough. It's the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband. It shows all the complexities of such a life in ways I had never considered before--that you can go from one moment fearing for your life to the next minute discussing what's for dinner. You can't help but wonder how much of the story comes from Erdrich's relationship with Michael Dorris. It's written from three points of view--the blue diary (which the woman keeps in her home office), the red diary (which she keeps in a safe deposit box at the bank) and a third-person narrator whose identity you only learn in the last couple of pages.
Moonspender by Jonathan Gash. C and I had been watching a lot of the early TV series of Lovejoy, so I had to check out one of the books. Lovejoy is a lovable chauvinist; an antique dealer, sometimes-forger and "divvy" (one who can tell on sight if an antique is real or fake). The book's written in East Anglian slang, so I only understood about every fourth word and I started saying things like "kip," "knackered," and "ta."
What have you been reading, or trying to read, or not reading lately?
It's a box of all of the books, literary journals and magazines I collected (some at great discount, some practically thrust at me as the booth attendants were preparing to break down and go home) at the AWP. There was no way these were going to fit into my suitcase, so I had my mom mail them to me. I'm super excited to
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
I tried doing a better job on these than I had with my own--actually ironing under the hem before sewing. I also used a very narrow zig-zag for the seam, which gives it a nice finished look and also disguises the fact that I can't sew in a straight line to save my life (even with the newly-discovered fabric guide in place)!
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Lately I have been loving cooking (and eating) gnocchi (which I believe is pronounced "no-key"). It's a rather time-consuming, somewhat elaborate (but not difficult) meal to prepare, not something you whip up after work on a Tuesday night. However, I don't mind cooking something a little elaborate every once in a while. Actually, in an ideal world, I would cook one big, fancy meal each week and not go near the kitchen again all week--not even to pour cereal or fix lunches. This is not an ideal world, however, so while I try to make one nice meal on the weekends, I still have to make a few quickish (but still mostly from scratch) things during the week, and fix lunches. C usually makes pizza the other weekend night and does most of our weeknight cooking, since he often works from home and can get started earlier. He's also the one who usually pours the cereal.
Anyhoo, back to the gnocchi. First I tried the Beet Gnocchi from Apples for Jam. This is basically a potato gnocchi with a little pureed beet root added for color. And what a color it is. Mixed with the last little bit of last summer's pesto, it looked like nothing so much as raw stew meat marinating in something green, which needless to say, freaked me out a bit (though I still managed to gobble down a heaping plateful). And the texture was a bit on the glutinous side (with the emphasis on "glue"). I'm not sure if that was the recipe's fault or mine.
(Photo by M)
Next I made Gnocchi di Patate alla Veronese (potato dumplings from Verona) out of my hand-me-down-from-my-mother The Romagnolis' Meatless Cookbook (c. 1976). This is a potato gnocchi, made in the traditional shell shape by rolling small pieces on a cheese grater. I had to start cooking at two in the afternoon, however, because the gnocchi required two hours to dry, which may have helped in the much improved texture of these (serving them with an entire stick of melted butter didn't hurt either!)
When I was in Denver, I went to a restaurant near my sister's apartment called Root Down. It's located in an old service station, with the works "breaks," "shocks," and "mufflers" still over the garage bays that are now big windows into the kitchen. I had just been to a conference about brownfields (i.e. redeveloping old industrial sites for new uses), so I was excited to be eating in one (and hoping they had done a good job with the cleanup). They also cook with a lot of local foods and use as many recycled materials as they can. I ordered a "little dish" of carrot gnocchi. I was already not feeling well the night we went there, so I'm afraid I didn't enjoy the gnocchi as much as I might otherwise have, but they kept haunting me--I wanted to go back and eat them again and give them my full appreciation.
With the long commute, however, I did the next best thing and Googled "carrot gnocchi" and came up with this recipe, which I think is a good approximation, flavor-wise. I doubled the recipe, because the first 1/2 pound of carrots didn't look anywhere near enough, and I ended up doubling the flour a second time because the dough was so sticky. These were made by blopping spoonfuls of dough into the water (you're supposed to somehow form a 3-sided pyramid with the spoons, but that was not working for me, even with all the extra flour), so they came out pretty ragged and unattractive. But delicious, and not at all gluey, and, with the doubled version, just enough for our family of five.
My kids have actually eaten every type of gnocchi I've made so far, with varying degrees of coercion and spoon-feeding (dinner is not a popular meal among the short people in our home). Now that I know you can substitute carrot for the potato, I think I'll try experimenting with other mushable vegetables, like sweet potato and winter squash. Parsnip perhaps? I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, here's the Romagnoli's recipe:
GNOCCHI DI PATATE ALLA VERONESE/
Potato Dumplings from Verona
2 lb baking potatoes
3-3 1/2 c. unbleached all purpose flour (approx.)
1/4 t. salt
6-8 T melted unsalted butter
4-6 T grated Parmesan cheese (I always use Peccarino Romano rather than Parmesan)
Boil the potatoes with their jackets on, drain them the minute they are tender and peel them as soon as they can be touched. Put them in a big bowl, add the salt and beat until smooth with an electric beater or mash well with a potato masher.
Add the flour gradually, working it in with a fork. Keep adding flour until you have a workable, rather solid dough.
Generously flour the pastry board or counter and your hands, take a handful of dough and roll it into a long cylinder no more than 3/4 inch in diameter. Cut it into 1-inch slices. Press each slice with your thumb against the side of a cheese grater. Roll your thumb gently downward and away, allowing the dough to curl up a bit and be dimpled by the grater, making a shell-like shape--a gnoccho. Keep on rolling cylinders, cutting slices, and shaping until all the dough is used. As you finish each gnoccho, line it up on a floured cookie sheet. Gnocchi should dry at least 2 hours.
When it's time to cook, bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil in a big pot and add 1 teaspoon of salt for each quart of water. Drop in just enough gnocchi to cover the bottom of the pot. As they are done, the gnocchi rise to the top. Let them cook gently as they float for a minute or two more. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain well over the boiling pot and put in a warm serving dish. Repeat this process until all the gnocchi are cooked. Dress with the melted butter, sprinkle with the cheese, and serve. For 6 to 8.
Friday, April 23, 2010
My "writing table." This is just a tiny table crammed in my bedroom between my sewing corner and the Big Ugly Chair (you can see it in the last picture here), at which I rarely sit to write.
And, finally, not a drawer, but my "writing shelf." This is a shelf in my closed where I cram my writing notebooks, back issues of zines, sketchbooks and, apparently, all the other crap I own and don't know what to do with. It's the one shelf I did not deal with when I did my major closet clean-out.
Where to begin? On Saturday afternoon, I emptied the contents of all five drawers and the shelf onto the living room floor and began sorting things into piles and categories (the biggest pile being "recycle"). I dusted out each drawer and only put back what I actually wanted in each one. Here's how they look "after":
Better, no? However I still had a gigantic mountain of homeless crap in the middle of the floor (my children were not pleased with me a. taking up all the play space and b. not cleaning up my stuff--except that they wanted me to play with them so that I couldn't clean up my stuff. You can't win, I tell you!).
Sunday morning, I emptied out my drawer in the filing cabinet (we have a four-drawer filing cabinet, with two of the drawers for C's work, one for our family financial stuff, like taxes--which I'm sure should be next on my list of cleaning, sorting, organizing and dumping--and one just for me). I went through each and every file folder, with the recycling box by my side. My goal was to free up most of the cabinet for writing, with files dedicated to works in progress, submission guidelines, my zine, etc.
I did keep some items strictly out of sentimentality--does anyone else have a hard time tossing the papers you wrote in college? And I have a file of poetry dating back to when I was in third grade, which consists mainly of a vast body of melodramatic work from the tween years, including one poem that begins, "Have you ever had a broken heart?/Have you ever cried like I have?" Yikes. Maybe I'm relieved I don't have any daughters (not that men don't write their share of broken-heart poetry--which is a good thing for the pop music industry--and not that my boys don't engage in their share of melodrama). I also saved my seventh-grade diary and an entire file on the Southern Methodist University Swim Team circa 1991-1992 (hey, I covered the team for the college paper!).
By Sunday night, still ankle-deep in papers and piles, I was starting to whimper a bit, and C asked me why I hadn't just tackled one drawer at a time (clearly he does not know me very well--hello! I gave birth to twins, remember? I don't do things by halves.). But I got the floor cleared and the filing cabinet refilled (with not as much free space as I'd been hoping for, and with a system probably not up to the standards of Regina Leeds, but much improved no less)
Thursday, April 22, 2010
What do you do to celebrate? I hope to get out for a walk at the Arboretum at lunchtime, if it's not raining.
The Motherhood Muse Subscription Drawing Winners
That's right. It turns out I have two subscriptions to give away after all. And the winners are:
Jaimie from Two Chicks and a Hen
Lone Star Ma
Congratulations and please send me your email so you can get your subscription.
In the meantime, be sure to check out the rest of The Motherhood Muse blog tour for more chances to win a subscription. There's an interview with me posted at Blogging Mama on April 6 (I thought it was going to be on the 19th so I didn't check! Oops!).
One Small Change Wrap-Up
My April Change--realizing that Hoarding is Not the Same as Recycling--has been slow to take off. So far I have:
--taken a huge bag of plastic cutlery to work where it will actually get used (then thrown away). Ok, I admit it was still March when I did this, but it was the inspiration for April.
--finally convinced C to take our ancient late-1980s Macintosh computer (a.k.a. The Big Mac) to the E-waste recycling dropoff at our transfer station--after I got it out for M to try out and the screen just showed a little frownie-face icon and it coughed out a pile of rust.
--put three pairs of old glasses in the Lions Club collection box at the optometrist's office.
I still have several more things (or categories of things) I want/need to find ways of recycling in the next couple of weeks. It may not happen before April is done.
I really liked the One Small Change challenge. It's given me an opportunity to focus on things I've been "meaning to do" one thing and one month at a time. Here's the low-down on my changes this year:
January--Buy Nothing and Wrap-Up
February--Getting the Plastic Out, Stage One and Wrap-Up
March--Getting the Plastic Out, Kitchen Edition, Week One and a Half and Wrap-up
April--Hoarding is Not Recycling
There are always so many little things we can do to reduce our personal impact. I plan on keeping it going right through the rest of the year. For May, however, instead of a new change, I'm going to keep going with Hoarding is Not Recycling in the hopes of getting rid of most of the stuff I have piled up in the basement, waiting for new life. I also plan on doing a major clean-out and re-org in the kids' room (in time for their birthdays), and I would love it if I could find new homes for about half of their clothes, toys, etc (not sure if that would actually be good for THE environment, but it will help our personal--and my mental--environment); along these same lines I plan on cleaning up (and moving out) some of the white-trashiness in our yard. And speaking of birthdays, I'm going to try to keep it simple--follow that "something to wear, something to read, something to play with" rule, perhaps. I'll keep you posted, and remember, it's never too late to make One Small Change!
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
Before I became a mother I used to arrive at airports well in advance of my flight departure time to give myself plenty of time to watch people. I was fascinated by their actions, appearances, and dialogue. It gave me plenty of material to feed my imagination when I picked up my pen to write. But then I became a mom. We still arrive early to an airport, but somehow we always manage to get to our gate a few minutes before boarding!
My observant eyes, however, have found a new interest to take in: the books lining the shelves of moms who we visit for play dates. While my toddler and baby play with friends, I feast my eyes on all the books, inquiring about a title or two, trying to memorize intriguing reads. I usually find one or two books on healthy living, nutritious meals, organic lifestyles, or post-pregnancy pilates. Occasionally I find the title Last Child in the Woods or Sharing Nature with Children. Like our own bookcases at home, I find more children’s books on nature, both fiction and non-fiction, that are diverse, colorful, and creative.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Thanks everyone for the kind words about my essay, my jacket, etc. while I was gone.
It's funny that I went into this trip with the idea of escape. Turns out there is no escape.
The trip started with a bit of self-inflicted stress and drama (about which all I'm going to say is: a) if you lose your ID while traveling, the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles is immensely helpful--don't even bother trying the airports, airline or TSA--and b) it may or may not help if you burst into tears while on the phone with them) and ended with an illness that felt like dysentery or salmonella from the yucky cilantro soup I ate at a Mexican restaurant (when I had ordered chile rellenos), but was probably a variant of the stomach flu M had the whole time I was gone. The middle part, though, was invigorating, exciting and exhausting.
I loved being right there in the city (my sister's apartment is a short walk from downtown) and having everything--restaurants, shops, markets--right at my fingertips. And public transportation? I know the bus doesn't appeal to some, but I would kiss my car goodbye in a heartbeat if I could trade it in for the freedom of walking and taking the bus.
The conference--amazing. Wow. I went to almost as many panels and speakers as I could (I missed one to meet a friend for lunch and by the third day between exhaustion and illness I missed a few more). All of the speakers were really interesting. I went to a bit of poetry, a bit of fiction a bit of nonfiction...all part of my whole "I'm interested in everything; I can't focus on anything" shtick. But I came away from everything inspired, with a list of things to read and ideas of things to write about (I even squeezed some writing in between sessions and in the evenings and mornings). Michael Chabon, though I have read none of his books so far, was such a great speaker I will definitely read them now. And I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to hear Ann Waldman, Gary Snider, Rick Bass and especially Terry Tempest Williams (the fact that she was speaking was about 50% of my reason for signing up) speak.
I did not, however, come away with an answer to the question I most wanted to have answered, that is, can (and how can) someone in my situation (full-time job, three kids) pull off an MFA? The students and recent grads who staffed the table at the Stonecoast program were, er, not exactly at the same life stage that I am. Of course everyone has their challenges, and I know from experience that at 23 you think you're already doing everything you can handle doing, but these were not the type of students I was hoping to get inspiration from (duh, the ones with jobs and three kids were clearly not gallivanting around the country going to conferences). Anyway, I think it will come down to my friend JM's (with whom I was thrilled to spend two days with--though I was sick most of the time) philosophy, which is: "you make it work." And then there's the guiding principle of my parenting career, especially since having had twins: "lower your standards."
Other than the conference and visiting with two good friends, I spent some time with family. It was kind of surreal, seeing some of them for only part of a day, almost as if I lived there and would see them again the next day or next week. And of course there were the usual reminders of why one might have chosen to live a couple thousand miles away in the first place.
Between illness and knowing how much the boys were missing me (which was a lot more than I had anticipated for some reason, which makes two ten-day residencies per year for an MFA, not to mention a week at a spa in Mexico, seem kinda unrealistic) I was ready to get home. I kept a firm watch over my ID, especially in Logan Airport, where I had to travel a few miles between terminals, exiting and reentering security, and got home just after their bedtime. In our front yard I saw the stars for the first time in a week, and instead of the steady hum of a nearby interstate, heard only the spring peepers and our river, gurgling by somewhere back in the woods.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
I'm heading to Denver for this conference, and to spend some time with family and friends, no boys allowed (well, I suppose, in a city of a few million, there might be a few boys, but I did not give birth to or marry a single one of them, so they are not my responsibility). I keep whip-sawing between being two states of being. On the one end of the saw I am wicked excited to escape--escape from the constant drone of gratuitous noise that emanates from all four males in this household; escape from the steady hum of the word "Mo-o-om!" (the only time I will hear that word for a whole entire week will be in reference to my mom!); escape from our daily routines, which I have begun to think of as "rounds" (as in a boxing match); escape from in-laws who think hazardous waste makes an excellent child's toy; escape from the tyranny of the computer and the havoc it is wreaking on my wrists, shoulders and eyes; escape, even, from myself (sometimes I hover over my own head, listening to myself talk, and I just want to smack me). Maybe I should have scheduled a week at a spa, or a monastery, or in a sensory deprivation chamber.
On the other end, I'm consumed with guilt and anxiety, and a little bit of an urge to just stay home and give the kids haircuts, clean out the filing cabinet and pull out the hand-me-down bins to find the boys' spring and summer clothes. I have a little bit of a sensation that all hell is going to break loose after the plane takes off. There is some basis for this sensation; every imaginable (and unimaginable) scheduling conflict that could possibly arise has presented itself for the upcoming week: C has a class in Portland two mornings that starts at 8 a.m.--M's bus comes at 7:30; E and Z's school opens at 7:45; Portland is an hour away. M's school scheduled the spring concert for Thursday night. The boys are invited to a birthday party Saturday afternoon. M has baseball practice Saturday morning. C has agreed to give a workshop at a home and garden show Saturday afternoon, at the same time as the birthday party. E and Z are on snack duty at school this week--two snacks per kid per day for 24 kids all week. M has a project due at school the day after I get back. And a film crew is coming to our house to film C for a "Hardest Working Man in America" movie. Don't even ask me about that one. I have the sinking sensation that the occasional barking cough E has is going to blow up into some major illness (I'm in the middle of reading Hope Edelman's The Possibility of Everything, so I may be somewhat influenced by that book; at least our resident imaginary friend, Tom Lighthouse, hasn't made an appearance in a while, so we should be all set on the "child possessed by demons" front). Oh yeah, and my boss's, boss's boss--the head honcho--scheduled a meeting with me for 9:30 the morning after I fly in. Talk about hitting the ground running.
I keep trying to remind myself about the time last year when C went to his grandfather's funeral in Florida, and it was really, really cold, and snowing, and Z, my febrile seizure baby, had a fever and we were all out of children's ibuprofen, and all we had was an old bottle of infant Tylenol that had come out of emulsion into a grainy soup, and I had to help M make a model of an avalanche out of cardboard and cotton balls for a school project. And there was another time, when Cwas away, and I had to drive around with Z, who had stomach flu, in the back of the car, taking all of our returnables to the bottle drive at the soccer field, and into town to get ginger ale and crackers. And I survived. And they'll survive. And I'll resume where I left off, perhaps a few paces back in the Red Queen's Race. I'll have to pick up the pace a bit to get back where I am now, which is barely in sight of where I want to be.
Monday, April 5, 2010
We keep our Easter festivities simple, and though I have cooked Easter dinner in the past (no, not a ham--spanikopita!), every time I thought about the effort involved, my body went into spasms of anxiety, plus the weather was predicted to be very nice, so we decided to continue last year's tradition, of going for a hike and eating out.
Like with our Christmas Traditions, M just wasn't into egg dyeing. He dropped a couple of eggs in, then headed off to do his own thing. It makes me kind of sad that he's growing up so fast! I can picture myself alone in the kitchen dying eggs like some lonely old spinster in a couple of years when all of my kids are off doing more interesting things.
I was going to make brioche for breakfast, but decided at the last minute to make challah instead (yes I do see the irony there), because I'd made it a few weeks ago, and knew it turned out well. Unfortunately I'd forgotten that it had taken all day to rise, so that when I put the dough in the fridge Saturday night, I fully expected it to have doubled by morning, but when I took it out at 5:45 a.m. nothing had happened. So I put it in a warm oven for an hour, still noting. I kneaded it and put it in a warm oven and an hour later it had risen a bit. Finally, after another hour and a half, dough nowhere close to double, I gave up, rolled and braided and let it rise on top of a warm oven. In the meantime we at hard-boiled eggs, fruit salad and candy for breakfast. The bread came out of the oven just at almost 11, and we took it on our hike, eating torn-off hunks with pieces of cheese and apple for a snack. It was delicious and very Heidi-esque. I think a loaf of fresh bread will be a hiking staple from here on out.
This big root mass was the highlight. I think if we weren't all already tired out by the time we got to this point, the boys could have played in this for hours.