Book Review: My Kitchen Wars

by Betty Fussell.

Betty Fussell will never be an M.F.K. Fisher. Nevertheless, I picked up her book today and didn't put it down until I'd finished it. (In case you don't know Mary Frances, let me just say My Kitchen Wars is a memoir about Betty's life, as seen through her experiences with food. She lived through the Depression, WWII, and so on...throughout her memoir, you get a sense of how Americans treated food through the years. Or at least some Americans.)

Her husband was Paul Fussell, a writer. A Writer. Betty Fussell's Wikipedia entry says, "She is the former wife of Paul Fussell, a literary critic and military historian." Her ex's says, "His first wife, Betty Fussell, a food writer and biographer, whom he met at Pomona College, has written a memoir, My Kitchen Wars (1999), that discusses their more than 30 years of marriage in highly negative terms, including allegations that Fussell had adulterous affairs with both men and women."

I don't know. Memoirs, autobiographies always puzzle me. Especially when everyone involved is still alive. Is it the truth? If it isn't the truth, why didn't you sue for libel? Is it better to just let a bad marriage go at some point? Or was it the truth, and you're content just to leave a question in people's minds that it might not be true? Anyway, the book depicts years upon years of two people never talking straight with each other, of two people settling into a set of assumptions because it was more comfortable that way, then acting surprised when their spirits or what have you can't take it any more, and push away. But it's told with such a charming voice that you forget how superficial everyone's been acting, how easily it's all been justified. He thinks of her as just the wife, someone intelligent enough to talk to and stupid enough to take advantage of. She thinks of him as the provider, the force between her and chaos. She gives in on every point because he throws temper tantrums if she doesn't. He thinks of her as too passive to be anything other than a wife. At the end, he says he wishes he hadn't left her, doesn't want to live without her, but can't be bothered to talk about her new cookbook for five minutes. She says she had to leave him because she needed room to write where he couldn't criticize her. But at the beginning of the book she says she still loves him.


Why was it so fascinating?

I've seen a lot of people whose marriages have come apart now. (And people like my parents, who got through the roughest parts and kept it together.) I don't want to be in the same town, let alone the same room with them. Why spend a whole book with people in this situation?

From time to time, you get things like the moment, in the sixties sometime I think, when Betty goes to France with Paul and they have homemade bread and butter. Her reaction was that for the first time, she'd had real bread and real butter. After which, she (and the rest of her set) go nuts over nouvelle cuisine, cooking their way through Julia Child cookbooks, peeling the skin off ducks, in order to make pate en croute inside their sewn skin. Her marriage was like that, too: Paul Fussell was the first non-jock, non-gay guy she'd met after the war. He was witty and intelligent. She loved him, and then she let him run all over her life, making her follow all kinds of odd little rules that upper-middle-class people had to follow, then the rules that professors' wives had to follow, then...

How does loving something get to be an overly complicated game? What do you do when you can't play anymore? --I think that's why I liked the book. The parallels between food and relationships was drawn well and nakedly, if not with an excessive amount of wisdom.



Jeanne Robinson is going to be a part of the first zero-G dance after all -- this Sunday.


Well, there's yer problem right there.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Looks about 6000 times as fun as the first one.

Black Sheep. Zombie werewolf sheep in New Zealand. Hopefully, this will be to horror movies what Kung Pow! was to kung-fu movies.



Today was the Great Octopus Expotition* of Rachael C. Kenyon. She's been asking what octopus tastes like, so I told her I'd take her to the sushi place we like and we'd try some. Seriously? If you're ever in a situation where your kid likes to try new foods, go to a sushi place and sit at the bar. The chefs had to discuss the order like three times, back and forth, back and forth, Ray ran over to the chef and watched the whole thing. They brought it over, and she waited to eat it for like five minutes, because she wanted to eat some miso soup and wait until my udon came. My lunch finally showed up, and I asked her if she was going to eat the octopus.

"It's too big," she said. Well, she was right. The rice was smaller than normal, and the octopus draped over the sides like a frilly dress (the way they cut the octopus means the purple edges look ruffled). So I ripped the excess off, and she dunked a piece in the soy sauce (no wasabi). The whole time, the chefs had been ignoring her. But they both glanced over as she chewed.

"How is it?"

One thumb up.

...but, honestly, I think they were won over when she started slurping udon noodles off a plate. The other chef made her a mocktopus, mock crab tied with seaweed on one end, shredded on the other, and deep fried. That got a "It has a good taste!"

By the time we left, we were both so full that we were ready to explode. When I told Ray that, she leaned over and whispered to me, "Miss Mary [her old preschool teacher] said she used to be skinny but then she ate so much candy that she exploded and that's how she got to be fat!"

We both had to laugh about that.

*A la Roo, if you've seen The Heffalump Movie.


Neil Gaiman's Coraline is coming out next year. Here's the sneak preview, from NG's website.

The character design reminds me of PJ Harvey, because her face gets lopsided. I seriously cannot think of any other way to come up with that face other than look at PJ Harvey and go, "Huh. Now that's how you do sardonic."

The Hobbit

...will come out in 2010/2011 (as two movies?) with Peter Jackson producing and Sam Raimi directing. So far, so good.

And Gandalf:

Ian McKellen stated that he'd love to be Gandalf again, and that Peter Jackson had let him know that he had to do it, even though Jackson might not be involved. "If I am still functioning and working well, it is very likely I would be asked to do it. I am glad to read that it is looking more and more likely. I would be disappointed if they didn't want to have the original Gandalf."


Andy Serkis is also keen to reprise his role as Gollum. "I would love to be involved with it because Gollum in the Hobbit - there's great scenes in that with the riddles in the dark passages, is one of my favourite - that I remember from being a child - one of my favourite books and that scene really - I remember it very strongly. So I'd love to be involved with it. I'm not sure whether it's going to happen or not but if it ever did, yeah, that would be great."

Ian Holm is 76.

Sad to say, all, but I'm much more excited about a Hobbit* movie than I was about LOTR.

*Pansy Deepdelver of Brockenborings.


Schrodinger's Cookies

There is the science of cooking...and then there are the cooking metaphors of science.

Half-Life: The time required to convert one half of a reactant to product. The term is commonly applied to radioactive decay, where the reactant is the parent isotope and the product is a daughter isotope. (About.com)

Half-Life of Baked Goods: The periodicity for about half the cookies to be missing. May also be applies to radioactive decay. This is especially short for snickerdoodles.

Schrodinger's Cat: We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. (WhatIs?com)

Schrodinger's Cookie: We place a living child into the kitchen, along with a parent capable of handing out punishments. There is, in the kitchen, a batch of cookies intended for a Christmas party. If even a single cookie is missing, the parent will send the child to its room. The first parent's back is turned. The other parent, in the living room, cannot know whether or not a cookie (see Half-Life of Baked Goods, above) has disappeared, and consequently, whether the child has been sent to its room. Since the parent cannot know, the child is both grounded and not grounded according to parental law, in a superposition of states. (Children grasp this thought experiment instinctively, i.e., "Eventually, Dad's going to come into the kitchen and steal a cookie, and I'm going to be blamed for it, so I might as well have one, too.")

D&D Character Quiz

I am a 2nd level Chaotic Neutral Elvish Wizard.

Hm...sounds about right.


Christmas A Capella

By Straight No Chaser.

--These guys are nuts. Just plain nuts.


Musical Interlude: Sankt Otten

Like Sigur Ros, only not. Dreamy and open ambient not-quite-techno.

Wunden gibt es immer wieder.


Book Review: Montmorency

Thief, Liar, Gentleman? By Eleanor Updale.

A YA book, first in a series. I liked it; I'll be reading at least the next book.

The premise was interesting--a petty thief leaves prison and begins a dual life, that of criminal and gentleman. But the character makes too many mistakes for me to consider him a criminal mastermind. He's just too consistently lucky. Underneath it all, he's little better than an animal, barely self-aware.* Knowing there are more books in the series helps; the character can develop. Maybe it was just the way the book was pitched on the cover. I was expecting a criminal mastermind, dammit.

The only major problem with the book was that the middle section dragged to the point I almost put it down. So I thought about it, and I woke up going, "You know what the middle section needs? A McGuffin. Wait, not a McGuffin. A nemesis."

The beginning is great--the process of the character getting out of prison, making the changes necessary to survive in this dual life he's planning--and the ending is better (but I won't talk about that). But the middle doesn't have anything to move it forward. The character just does stuff, without any real opposition. (Well, any real opposition in a fictional kind of way. There are problems, but nothing unifies them.)

There's a detective in the middle with an interesting parallel scene--he and Montmorency are both reading the same article at the same time, and you get to see their different reactions. If the detective had been developed a little earlier, he would have been great way to pull together some conflict for the middle section. A good guy, hard worker, just wants to do his job and not play politics...not especially brilliant, but always just this far away from catching the main character (because Monstmorency isn't all that brilliant, either), until the end section escalates things to the point where Montmorency realizes he's had it relatively easy all along.

Is that a nemesis? A temporary nemesis, a reflection (an opposite) of what Montmorency is at that point of his life, anyway.

The Amazon review recommends the book for middle-schoolers who like Lemony Snickett and Phillip Pullman (and John Bellairs, but I haven't run across him yet), but I'd say it's more of a "If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society" book.

*Conscience and conscious come from root words for "knowledge."


Gingerbread House.

Ray and I put together a gingerbread-house kit tonight. It was a good idea -- whenever I make gingerbread, some kind of primal instinct says, "KILL KILL KILL."* In short, it doesn't last very long. But the gingerbread in the kit was already stale, hard, and didn't smell like gingerbread at all.

Perfect. For building gingerbread-houses anyway.

I learned a valuable lesson today: with enough icing and candy, anything looks good.

Anyway, that got me thinking. What if, instead of candy and sugary treats, the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" gave the kids stew instead? Well, obviously, she couldn't; the whole point of the story is that false friendship is no more satisfying in the long run than the starvation of being ignored. (The story isn't just about the evils of too much sugar.)

From there, my mind started to wander...what if the witch didn't have a sugar house? What kind of house would she have, now? Probably one made of crack. I was going to write that up as a story, but then I realized people have been telling that story over and over for the last couple of decades. "At home, there was nothing, I wandered into seductive lands, but they were hollow." For example, Valiant by Holly Black. I loved that book...

*Like that one part in "Alice's Restaurant."

Oh no.

Terry Pratchett has a rare form of early-onset Alzheimers.

--I'm not going to eulogize here. As he notes in his letter, he's not dead yet. But MAAAAAN, has the guy ever been a provider of hope and good times curled up on the couch with Lee, trying to resist the urge to read all the good lines out loud.


Geek Cake!

...An Optimus Prime Groom's Cake.

Tim Burton to make Alice in Wonderland

My favorite books ever are Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.* Actually, I don't remember whether I liked them when I was a kid--I think, vaguely, I thought they were just too weird. But maybe that's just apocryphal memory-making. In high school, a friend of mine reintroduced me to them, and to The Annotated Alice, which explains all the weird stuff in the books, from defining most of the words in "Jabberwocky" to giving the original poems that were being parodied.

...and now, to know that Tim Burton's going to direct a version? Ah, such sweet sorrow, to know that Gene Wilder is dead, and can no longer sing "Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup." I love Tim Burton's work, but man, I don't know if he can top the Gene Wilder version. (Well, I say Gene
Wilder, but the director is Nick Willing, who also did the awesome Photographing Fairies. Ooh, this is the same guy that's doing the new Tin Man series, which I have been wanting to check out. Internets good.)

*So why do I like them so much? What seems like order is actually nonsense; what seems like nonsense is actually order. I grew up in the same kind of era that Alice did--the same kinds of pressures for extreme conformity, prudery, and the idea that just because someone had been doing something for years that it made any kind of sense whatsoever! Once I understood the books were made to mock the ordinary way of things, Alice became my hero: "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" A fair iconoclast :)


Published: Fragile

The story of endless rejections (okay, 11) is getting published! "Fragile" is going to Parade of Phantoms. I will, of course, do the happy dance and announce when I know it's going to go public.


Cookbookery Gift List

So, in the spirit of the previous post, here are my recommendations for books for cookbook lovers:

The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher.

This book collects four of Fisher's essay collections. There are a few recipes, but the book is more about the author's love of everything and how it ties into food than it is about cooking per se. You won't learn how to cook from this book. It's a book for people who already like to cook (and read)--they get to spend time with someone entertaining, warm, and human nattering on about the things they love.

Outlaw Cook, by John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne.

How to pull the notion of following recipes apart and actually cook. Again, a collection of short essays. --This is the kind of cooking that Stephen Brust would like, I think. Not the recipes so much as the general approach, that of a kind of witchcraft ritual (in which food has the primary focus) in which one must abandon what one has been told in order to get the job done right.

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.

The way food works, down to a chemical level. Awesome. If you've ever seen sixteen different recipes for the same thing, all giving different advice, and wondered why nobody could agree on anything, this is the book for you (or your cookbook lover*).

Glorious French Food, by James Peterson.

If every cook has one cookbook they daydream about cooking all the way through, this is mine. All the stuffy French food you see in classical cookbooks? This is not that. He will try to lead you through everything from aioli ("for heaven's sake, don't think of the calories") to crepes suzette ("Crepes suzette...inhabited a celestial realm in which even teachers and parents were vague and inexperienced. Best of all, crepes suzette involved fire."), but he won't tell you you're blaspheming if you switch out salted cod for barbecued chicken, fer gosh sakes. He doesn't mess around more than he needs to, but he doesn't play down to you, either. Every recipe I've tried from here, I've come out from it going, "Ahhhhhh, now I get it." I also have his sauce, vegetable, and soup books, which are also awesome.

More Cookbooks

These all combine great recipes and entertaining writing...

The Commander's Kitchen, by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon. Recipes from a New Orleans tradition, with well-told stories.

Cook What You Love, by Robert Blanchard and Melinda Blanchard. The dream of all cooks...start a successful restaurant in the Carribean and make enough money to write cookbooks and spend half the year in the U.S. Great recipes.

The Olive & The Caper, by Susanna Hoffman. My favorite Greek cookbook, it captures the flavors of Greek food without getting staid. I don't know how, but a lot of Greek cookbooks manage to be BOOOOOORING. Not so here.

*Not that I'm implying you actually sleep with cookbooks.


Barbara Fisher talks about cookbooks and the cooks who love them over at Tigers & Strawberries:
No–I think it is more fun to give the bookish cook a real live book, and see their eyes light up with joy upon unwrapping it. You can just tell that he or she wants to just open the book and dive in nose-first, but they know it is impolite to do so. This means that they have to contain their enthusiasm for a time, and it is fun to watch them squirm.
She also says, "...For the bookish cook, cookbooks are meant to be read as much as they are meant to be cooked from."

Just so.

...One of the books she recommends is the Veganomicon. Heh.


Book Review: Ratking

by Michael Dibdin.

Okay, I admit it. The last Harry Potter book was my most-anticipated-book-of-2007.

The Mysterious Benedict Society was my favorite new book of 2007.

Kare Kano and Fruits Basket are tied for tops in my "Manga that made me laugh out loud, manga that made me cry" category for 2007.

Ratking is my favorite mystery and probably my favorite overall book that I've read this year:
At times Zen felt that he was choking, and then his thoughts would turn to the house in Venice, empty now, the rooms full of nothing but pearly light, intimations of water, the cries of children and gulls. One day he would retire there, and in the meantime he was often so intensely there in spirit that he wouldn't have been in the least surprised to learn that the place was believed to be haunted.
The main character is Aurelio Zen, a Police Commissioner who had his world yanked from under him when he investigated a kidnapping case a little too thoroughly. He's now been thrown into a kidnapping case (after years of being relegated to inspecting offices) as a political sop to a nosy friend of the victim.

The title refers to a legend of ratcatchers in Europe in the 1800s, a nest of rats whose tails have been tangled together to the point where the rats can't escape. The ratking is given various powers, including power to control rats and/or humans. In the book, it's an analogy for the way people in power are interconnected and will defend each other, rather than let the whole ratking be destroyed.

The writing is consistently excellent; the plot, surprising--the reveal is okay, but it's what happens afterwards that shows you the whole point of the book; the characters, as sadly human as anything out of a Dashiell Hammett novel*, but without all the violence. This book is too believable for that much violence--but what it shows about the human condition is more horrible than a bunch of gore splattered across the walls.


*Now that I think about it, I want to say Ratking is like Red Harvest from the POV of one of the people that lived in Poisonville.


Gifts from the Natives.

Aside from a small, immobile golem, the front of my monitor contains the following items:
  • Busted lei with shells
  • Artificial daisy, yellow
  • Seven apple seeds
  • Eight purple plastic gems
  • One turquoise plastic gem
  • One polished piece of quartz
  • One small clear plastic gem
  • Artificial rose, purple
All in all, it looks like an altar to some strange god.

Dog in Space!

...Or just weightless in the back of an airplane. Please click the link if you need to laugh so hard you cry :)

(via Neatorama.)

Recipe: Rethinking Pizza

At my parents' house, we used to make homemade pizza every Saturday night. (This was before Uncle Howard died of a heart attack in his forties and Dad's cholesterol was afterwards discovered to be terrifyingly high.) My mom does most of the cooking, but (like grilling in most households), pizza is Dad's domain.

If I'm remembering it right, he made the dough himself. (I know he did sometimes and he has been lately, I just don't know when he started.) The thing I remember best about the dough was the sound of the tiny bubbles fizzing as they were punched down. We'd spread the dough out on the pans (South Dakotans, in general, aren't pizza tossers), load them up with tomato sauce stirred with a bare minimum of oregano and an excess of salt, cover them with meat (pepperoni), and slather them with a mixture of cheddar and mozzarella.

Good stuff, but...I grew out of it.

When I started cooking for myself, I didn't make homemade pizza. There were other, more exiting things to try. I went through the SPICES phase, where everything has to have at least six spices, and I went through the don't-follow-the-important-parts-of-the-recipe because-that's-more-daring phase, in which I ended up with clumps of pasta (not enough water), collapsed bread (old yeast), and lots of other embarrassing dishes that I've wiped from my memory the way some people erase childhood abuse. Lately, I've been trying the "simple" phase. Honestly, it's kind of a relief.

I think I can track it back to reading The Outlaw Cook, by Matt Lewis Thorne and John Thorne. One of the essays was about something called a plowman's lunch--onion, bread, cheese, beer. He talked about how these things could transformed into more sophisticated dishes (for example, onion soup) but still shared the same simple essence, which could be reached most clearly through the basic ingredients. I'm putting this in a much wordier, intellectual way that I should be, but that's the college education for you.

Anyway, I tried it. Onion, bread, cheese, beer. Good stuff. I didn't have to screw around with it too much, but I could if I wanted to.

One day, I saw refrigerated cans of pizza dough at the grocery store, and I picked up a couple. It was the second week in November, and I was in "Must Write Novel" phase, which equates to "But of Course I Don't Have Time to Cook." Also, I have a six-year-old who likes to help in the kitchen, and you gotta take advantage of that.

So she squished out the pizza and I cut up some peppers and mushrooms. Ray spread out the pre-made spaghetti sauce and put the veggies on. We grated some mozzarella over top (not too much) and threw it in the oven. I broiled it for the last minute or so.

Delicious. It took us half an hour, and I'm talking with-six-year-old time here. Nothing happens in half an hour with a six-year-old, dammit.

So I thought about it.

Pizza doesn't have to be a big production. At its simplest, it's bread and cheese that have been cooked together, warm bread, melted cheese. It's essentially a roasted dish, dry heat. It doesn't have to be Italian-themed.

So what's good roasted? is my thought.

We did the next experiment today, and it was fun. Ray was in complete denial of there being any possibility of the pizza being edible. Lee walked around making faces and raising eyebrows.

Ray's on her second piece, and Lee said, "That's not bad," but in that tone of voice that South Dakotans use to say, "You could make that again and I wouldn't make fun of you next time." High praise.

Here's the recipe.

Brussell Sprout Pizza

1 tube refrigerated pizza dough

Spread the dough out on a greased, heavy-bottomed cookie sheet.

Garlic Sauce

Heat about 2T butter in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add two cloves of chopped garlic and saute for a minute. Sprinkle the mixture with about 2T of flour and stir until the floury smell disappears. Add 1t salt. Pour in 1/2c. heavy cream and stir over heat until thickened. Pull the mixture off the heat and spread it on the dough after it's stopped bubbling.

4 oz. (1/2 box) mushrooms (I used baby bellas), sliced thickly
About the same volume of Brussels sprouts, stem ends trimmed and sliced the same way you did the mushrooms

Sprinkle the vegetables evenly across the sauce and dough. Grate cheese over the pizza--I used Oaxaca, because they had it at the Mexican market I like--but not so much that it covers the veggies totally.

Put the pizza in a 400F oven for about 15 minutes, or until the dough is starting to turn brown around the edges. Finish the pizza by broiling it until the cheese turns brown and the veggies start to turn dark and dry around the edges.


The Winner and Still Champeen!

50K words + has been achieved.

Many, many words still left to go.

It occurred to my yesterday that I've now written 4.5 novels:

Gods of Grey Hill
Alien Blue
The Magic Thread
WFH Novel (which shall not be named)
...And 1/2 of Iron Road.

I'm not counting the one chapter of The Black Notebook. I liked the characters, but the plot went sour.

Now, all I need to do is...keep going.


Iron Road: Rah Rah Rah!

I'm less than 200 words from 50K and about halfway done. This is tempered by the rejection e-mail I got yesterday. Stupid, ill-timed rejection letters.

"All right, folks," Gil said. "Let's start unloading this stuff!"

Cochran went back into the ship. When Nancy came out with an armload of big hinges, she saw him sitting in a folding chair outside the ship. She tossed the hinges on the ground, went back inside, and pulled out a load of blankets and pillows instead.

"Getting laid?" Cochran asked.

"You make it sound like I'm an egg," Nancy said.

"Mmm. Eggs," Cochran said. She didn't know what he was talking about and wasn't going to ask; it was probably some old German sex joke she didn't know about.

She plopped down and waited for Gil to come out. He was carrying a mesh bag full of crap.

"What are the two of you doing?" Gil asked. "This is going to take days."

Nancy lay flat on her back and looked up at him. "You know, I could use a beer," she said.

Cochran pulled a flask from behind the chair, took a swig, pointedly failed to offer her any, and belched.

Barlen came out of the zeppelin door behind Gil, took one look at the two of them, and stopped. Nancy patted the blankets beside her. It was a nice day. Blue. Full of clouds. Probably sliding on towards autumn. She should find out what day it was. What month. What year. Did they even use a calendar?

Barlen put down the heavy frame he was trying to carry and sat next to Nancy, who put her head on his knee and pretended to fall asleep. She'd expected to be completely restless from being cooped up in the zeppelin for days, but now that she had the run of the castle, she was content to doze in the sun and remember her fantasies about Barlen. She picked up one of his hands and studied it. Yes, it was just as strong and stubby as she remembered.

"What, you're all just going to...?" Gil trailed off. "Damn it. I want a beer now, too."


Iron Road: Define Crap

The zeppelin was stuffed with parts.

"What is all this crap?" she asked Gil.

"Parts," he said.

Passing Cochran in the hallway: "What is all this crap?"

"Crap," he said. "F---ing dead weight. I thought you were bad."

"Better watch it," she said. "That was almost nice."

"F--- you," he hissed and disappeared behind the door to the engine room.

She giggled.

Writerly Ponder.

Yes, Virginia. Pound your head on the wall hard enough, for long enough, and you will have character development. But not too much at one time; that's not believable.

Update: Damn it, the terracotta warriors weren't found until 1974, so I can't use them. AAAAUUUUGGGHH! Semi-historical fiction pinches in strange places.

The World's Biggest Market...

...isn't the U.S. anymore.

The U.S. has approximately 302 million people.

The E.U. has 495 million.

The E.U. has stricter policies regarding the environment and various toxins that can be used to make stuff, like toys and computers.

The U.S. gets the stuff the E.U. rejects.

I listened to a Fresh Air interview with Mark Shapiro today on the way home. He theorized that one of the reasons the E.U. is so willing to pass environmental/safety laws vs. the U.S. is that the government pays for health care...and they'd rather regulate now and save later. Says a lot about the U.S. problems with socializing medicine, doesn't it?

(And why the E.U. coming down on Micro$oft was such a big deal, come to think of it.)

Update: Oh, yeah, I forgot. He also mentioned that the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated; they lobbied for an exception to the FDA in the thirties and got it. The E.U. told several companies they had to remove all: 1) cancer causing, 2) causing genetic mutation, and 3) reproductive illness-causing chemicals. Guess where the companies don't have to do this? Supposedly, just as an example, 1/3 of ALL LIPSTICKS SOLD IN THE U.S. contain lead. And they don't have to list it as an ingredient -- basically, they can list whatever ingredients they want here. Because it's not regulated.


Is that a taser in your pocket...

...or are you just happy to see me?

Pink seal mini taser.

(via Retrospectacle.)

Steven Brust is Screwed...

He may have to go into bankruptcy in order to pay the IRS and his medical bills. Here's his donation page, set up under protest it looks like, if you're interested. He says he's doing better now, though.


Iron Road: Depression

I'm at the point where I have to say, "What was I thinking? THIS IS NEVER GOING TO WORK!"

I took most of today off to do Christmas shopping and mess around with plot: one subplot removed, another added, two chapters changed to one, figured out why the main character wasn't ringing true in the current chapter--she didn't just get dumped, she just realized she'd been dumped a long time ago, without her knowing about it, but it's supposed to be okay, because it was for her sake. She isn't the kind of person who could take this well and needs to fall apart, but slowly, because she doesn't want to know these things.
Soon enough, it was dark and cold. She pulled a K-ration off the shelf and went back to her cabin to wrap herself in blankets and sleep, which came like a low, gray cloudbank that smothered the tops of buildings and made it known it planned to hang around for days. She woke up hungry but went back to sleep until it passed.

The House of Teller.

Teller has a house in Vegas, of which he says, "Like much of my life, this house is a reflection of everything I wanted back when I was 12."

Don't miss the pictures.


Gamer Face.

There's a pirate in the book who just showed up. I asked Lee what the pirate's beard should look like.

"A pencil-thin goatee."

I held up a finger vertically on my chin. "Like this?"

"No." He drew the line around his chin.

"Ohh. Like a hexagon. Hey! Our pirate's going to have gamer face!"

One Man's* Castle

*Or woman's

The fifteen top castles built largely by one person. Bishop's Castle is #2. I am totally wanting to check out #14, the Magical Museum of Robert Tatin. But it's in France. The House on the Rock is #15, which makes two on the list I've seen. I could totally think of worse things in life than to mark off all 15.

(via Neatorama.)


Writerly Ramble.

My POV character in the current book, Nancy, is much more observant than I am. I'm having a hard time describing the things she sees: of course she sees things that I wouldn't, but she also sees things in a different order than I would -- she can only see so many things at a time, like, one. But she sees things, consciously, rather than seeing them without noticing and having an intuitive grasp of them all at once.

Example. I was typing the description of a woman Nancy just met. I wanted to say that she was "slender and elegant." Whoooooah, says Nancy. How do I know she's elegant? Is it just that she's well-dressed and has upper-class manners? How do I know she's well-dressed? How do I know what upper-class manners are, especially when I have no idea how the upper class behaves there? There's a whole realm of information hiding behind that "slender and elegant," and I'm not buying that I would make the same assumptions you would.

Stupid writer, she says.

Okay, okay. Something go look for when I go back through. Now shut up before I cut your leg off...

Update: Here's how it worked out: "She was taller than Nancy, slender, and smoothly poised as she kissed Gil on both cheeks." Which later led to the following observation: "The room, as she stepped into it and accepted Marda's kisses just past the surface of her cheeks, smelled like food, but unfamiliarly. Nancy had no intention of kissing her back; the woman's face was covered with powder and smelled like a flower garden before the flowers put out."

She still has problems with poised.


Word of the Day.

pinchbeck (PINCH-bek) noun

An alloy of zinc and copper, used as imitation gold in jewelry.


Counterfeit or spurious.

[After watchmaker Christopher Pinchbeck (1670-1732), who invented it.
It's ironic that today his name is a synonym for something counterfeit
but in his time his fame was worldwide, not only as the inventor of
this curious alloy but also as a maker of musical clocks and orreries*.
The composition of this gold-like alloy was a closely-guarded secret
but it didn't prevent others from passing off articles as if made from
this alloy... faking fake gold!]

*Orrery: http://wordsmith.org/words/orrery.html

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus: http://visualthesaurus.com/?w1=pinchbeck

-Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)


Iron Road: Not human.

"That's right. I never told Frank about the Graemlings. Did you ever hear the stories about gremlins the pilots tell? Little goblins that got onto planes and wrecked them?"


"Well, it turns out the legend had some basis in fact. The Graemlings did exist, but they're gone now. A completely different race. Not human at all. The real native Nieberlanders, in fact. They haven't been seen for about a hundred, a hundred and fifty years. It would have been the year 1800 or so, about the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Which is the time the immigrants to Nieberland from Germany stopped coming in the other way. Incidentally. The legend has hung around for a while, and it went the rounds as a rumor among the pilots, but nobody living has actually seen one."


Ray tied her shoes last night!

She kept saying things like, "It's too hard for my fingers." But she laughed her way through the tricky process--success! I made her untie them and do it again--and she did it again!

She will probably have to learn it again today. Her fingers do not know how to see the shoelaces of themselves, and tying a shoelace isn't logical in a way a brain can directly grasp, much the way the fourth dimension isn't something the brain can directly grasp.

(Go ahead. Next time you tie your shoes, try to grasp the reason a shoelace knot works the same way you can grasp the way a donut works. You can work it out, but you can't directly grab onto the idea and say, "Aha!")

NaNoWriMo: Neil Gaiman Pep Talk

Cooool. The pep talk for NaNo this week is from Neil Gaiman. I was so thinking about doing this last night, but then, I don't have an agent:
The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm---or even arguing with me---she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, "Oh, you're at that part of the book, are you?"

I was shocked. "You mean I've done this before?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not really."

"Oh yes," she said. "You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients."
So I just cussed out my blinkin' laptop, went shopping, came home, taught Ray how to tie her new shoes (!!!), drank a beer, crashed on the couch for an hour, got up, did some yoga...It's amazing how productive not writing can be.
So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.
Okay, this is going to be my measure of success. When I can call up my agent, whine about my book, then go back all day to the coffee shop where I'm writing my novel, I've made it.


Another joke, but not so bad.

A man is dining in a fancy restaurant and there is a gorgeous redhead sitting at the next table. He has been checking her out since he sat down, but lacks the nerve to talk with her.

Suddenly she sneezes, and her glass eye comes flying out of its socket toward the man.

He reflexively reaches out, grabs it out of the air, and hands it back.

"Oh my, I am so sorry," the woman says as she pops her eye back in place.

"I'm sure that must have embarrassed you so let me pay for your dinner to make it up to you," she says.

They enjoy a wonderful dinner together, and afterwards they go to the theatre followed by drinks. They talk, they laugh, she shares her deepest dreams and he listens, he shares his and she listens.

After paying for everything, she asks him if he would like to come to her place for a nightcap and stay for breakfast.

They have a wonderful, wonderful time.

The next morning, she cooks a gourmet breakfast with all the trimmings. The guy is amazed and totally impressed. Everything had been SO incredible!

"You know," he said, "you are the perfect woman. Are you this nice to every guy you meet?"

"No," she replies. . . . . . "You just happened to catch my eye."

Worst Joke in the World

...with two bad jokes preceeding, just to let you down easy.


Iron Road: Her Brother Frank, His Fiancee Ellen

I have now passed the 25K mark, one day early!

"Frank," Nancy joked, "I'm unpredictable. Ellen just does things for reasons you don't understand. I think it's because she likes people and she wants them to be happy. Me? I could care less."

"You?" Frank asked. "I know you too well. You're the predictable one."

"Am I?" Nancy asked. They were almost to the old railroad bed. "What will I do next, Frank?"

Frank stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, leaned over, and kissed her on the head. "Let it be a surprise."

Musical Interlude: Daft Charleston

I had no idea that 1) Daft Punk has been around that long or 2) the tropes in the Charleston were so similar to modern dancing (including breakdancing).


Musical Interlude: Kid Beyond

Back in college, I had some friends that were always joking about making "organic techno," or electronica-sounding music just using their mouths. (They weren't very good. They only had one song, which went on interminably. But it was funny.) This is actually called beatboxing these days. Mix Bobby McFerrin with techno, there you go.

Kid Beyond is an incredible beatboxer.

But he's even better when he starts looping on himself, adding tracks and making songs. (I like "Wandering Star," a Portishead cover.) They're real songs. But you'll find yourself wondering whether he can really make all that noise by himself. I did. But here's a live clip that shows him building the layers. Cooool.

Factoid of the Day: Chateau

What's a chateau?

A château (plural châteaux) is a manor house or residence of the lord of the manor or a country house of nobility or gentry, with or without fortifications, originally - and still most frequently - in French-speaking regions. Where clarification is needed, a fortified château (that is, a castle) is called a château fort , such as Château fort de Roquetaillade. Care should be taken when translating the word château into English: it is not used in the same way as "castle" is in English, and most châteaux are more appropriately described as "palaces" or "country houses" in English than as "castles". For example, the Château de Versailles is so called because it was located in the country when it was built, but it does not bear any resemblance to a castle, so it is usually known in English as the Palace of Versailles."

(via Wikipedia.)



As I sat down to supper, I noticed that Ray had left long, purple marker streaks on the table when she was making elephant pictures last night. This led, naturally enough, to experiments: what takes purple marker off a Southwestern-style table?

Water doesn't.
Murhy's oil soap doesn't.
But magic erasers do.

After seeing exactly what the magic eraser did take off the table top (ewww), it was necessary to wash the whole thing with Murphy's oil soap. The water turned yellow, then orange, then brown, and finally black, after which I tried the magic eraser again...ewww. I eventually had to stop; the eraser was shredded.

I washed off the table with clean water and took some lemon oil to it. It didn't look like I was doing much, but when I stepped back, I could tell where I'd oiled and where I hadn't. I discovered a purple spot that I'd missed, but the magic eraser was too filthy to rinse out anymore. Next time. Lee came in and asked me whether I wanted help: he could work on it this weekend...

I told him no, it was a pretty comforting thing, being able to clean the top of the table. I've liked the smell of Murphy's oil soap ever since we had to use it on the pews and woodwork in the Stephan church, and the lemon oil was much subtler than I thought it would be. Doing something simple, repetetive, with more or less immediate results? I'm selfish that way.

I considered buying a plastic tablecloth, but I don't think I will. What's a table? What's a table for? An investment? An heirloom, to be passed to future generations, without blemish or particular character? When you have a table with wood that beautiful, you're supposed to be able to see it. You can't see if it you only take the cover off when company comes. If then.

I think I'll find a few largish placemats for projects, though. The one we have is being used to put the plants of questionable life span closer to the window, and has a crack down the center that looks like it was cut with an X-acto knife. I'm not sure whose fault that was.


PPW Workshop: Scaring Your Readers, Part IV

Carrie's presentation.

She showed a scene from Medium in which a mother and daughter are waiting in a doctor's office. The daughter is called in and tells her mother she doesn't need to come with her, she'll be fine. Too much time passes, the mother asks what's taking so long, the nurse discovers the door is locked. Upon finding someone with a key, they open the door and discover the room covered with blood. The girl is dead, covered with a sheet. A large dish filled with intestines is sitting where her right leg should be. The doctor is sitting in the far corner of the room, reciting his Hippocratic Oath. The door pulls further into the room, and a man in a dark suit tells the nurses and mother to wait outside, he'll be right with them--in a cockneyish accent. The main character (the medium) wakes up in a start.

We discussed different moments in the scene that increased suspense. Different people first picked up on the tension at different points--"I'll be fine, Mom"--the time was after five o'clock at a doctor's office--when the mother and nurse passed a vase of red orchids--when they discovered the door was locked. I noticed that the scene really wasn't out of the cliche until the moment the man in the dark suit jerked the door open. We talked about the power in reversing/undermining cliches.

CV: Withholding information can sometimes backfire. Also, remember the POV of a victim isn't usually that interesting. A piece of meat. I like to use implication to form a kind of creeping dread. Then there's the Wash Effect (having a beloved character die to show the reader/viewer that anything might happen). I like to introduce a second problem before I resolve the first. Escalate problems.

Something to be wary of is the idiot plot. Like The Blair Witch Project. I was telling a friend of mine about the movie. He said, "They're in the woods?" "Yeah." "There's a stream?" "Yeah." "Why didn't they follow the stream out of the woods?" Punishing your characters for just being stupid is a letdown. Aliens was much scarier. A movie about these marines, they were all ready, at the top of their game, and it still wasn't enough.

Pacing is what you are telling the reader, when you are telling the reader, so they can figure out what's going on.

PPW: How much is too much? (Increasing plot problems.)

CV: The point where you say, "Can they still get out of it" and it's not believable anymore, that's too far. If it's in service of the plot, I say go for it. Like Lois McMaster Bujold. All these terrible things happen to one of her characters...but there's always room to grow at the end of each novel.

PPW Workshop: Scaring Your Readers, Part III

Carrie Vaughn read a suspenseful scene from her third book, Kitty Takes a Holiday. She explains the techniques she used:

CV: I use pacing. I like little cliff-hanger chapter breaks. I like to end with a "gunshot moment," a shocking image or event. Let the reader absorb it. Smell, memory is tied to smell. I try to ask myself "How long can I draw this out?" Very slow. When your worries are actually confirmed, the suspense is over.

Steve Rasnic Tem read from their forthcoming book, The Man on the Ceiling, a metafiction novel about writing. Melanie Tem provided comments regarding the chapter, "Down the Dark Stairs."

MT: Suspense is in the language. The use of time, as non-linear, non-chronological, even just the verb tense can add suspense. It invites the reader to fill in the gaps. A series of images [starting with crashing planes] moves from things that are scary in real life toward fantasy characters with spoolky elements. Juxtapose a beautiful image with "I want him alive." The use of detail--observe something closely, then take it into a fantastic or mystery realm.

Writing exercise: Write down something that doesn't scare you. Find a partner. Now turn that image or situation into something scary.

[I wrote, "Picking out good chocolate at the grocery store." My partner Carol turned it into a mystery starter--chocolate with which to conceal the taste of poison.

Carol wrote "I look in the mirror, examine my aging face, once again, with dismay."

I said, "That's too easy."

She said, "I'm not happy about it, but it doesn't frighten me."

I wrote this:

I look in the mirror, examine my aging face, once again, with dismay.
It doesn't frighten me anymore, knowing that I will die, watching the
changes in my face, and the accompanying changes in the image behind me:
the old cottonwoods I used to play in as a child are gone, replaced with
an apartment building, hundreds of miles from the ocean, decorated with
an anchor, plastic, painted black. The sky has a quality, a
dis-quality, dull brownness, dust. Bright colors--I've grown used to
losing them, replacing htem with a rainbow of browns, tans, beiges.

It's the mirror. It's become hazed. Did I always look this way? Do I
really look this way now?]

One of the writers said that the writer needs to make your characters uncomfortable [beforehand] if something terrible is going to happen.

PPW Workshop: Scaring Your Readers, Part II

A caveat: I tried to catch everything I could, but I missed a lot and paraphrased even more.

PPW: How can scaring your readers be combined with other genres?

CV: Horros can be found in anything; it's a trope rather than a genre. Like suspense. There's scaring someone versus grossing them out. Making readers think something bad is going to happen.

SRT: The word horror suggests an explosive reaction, but it's really part of being a normal human being. That anxiety exists in all fiction, and finding ways to deal with it.

PPW: What do you think about this quote from Tim Powers. [To wit, someone asked him about different themes that might be found in Dracula. He replied that Dracula was about a guy that bit people and lived forever.]

CV: I should tell you I have a Masters in English Literature. With any great literature, you'll find that it's like a mirror.

MT: Readers will find things you didn't know were there.

SRT: It's like "The Old Man and the Sea." People say, "The sea is death." But the objects in the story have lots of different kinds of significance. Objects attract different meanings.

MT: The mysteries of Tony Hillerman. There's the tension of who killed this person and why, but there are different meanings. Partly the mystery, partly cultureal differences.

PPW: What do you think about thematic purpose. It used to be people talked about "Theme First!" but it's not talked about a lot anymore.

MT: It depends on how the story comes to me. If theme comes first, I'm in danger of writing an essay. My story "Revenant" is about getting stuck in grief and not moving on. But you have to figure out how to make it dramatic. But more often my stories come to me as a character.

SRT: Theme is important ot me. But it's kind of a backwards process that comes at the end. I have to start with something more concrete. I discover the theme.

CV: I wish people would talk about theme. I hate it when authors refuse to take a stand. I don't think about it before I start. I revise a lot.

MT: I wrote two short stories and a play script about the reaction of people to a public execution.

PPW Workshop: Scaring Your Readers, Part I

November 3 was the PPW workshop, "Scaring Your Readers." Steve Rasnic Tem, Melanie Tem, and Carrie Vaughn attended; Ed Bryant was ill and missed.

Turns out writers, both amateurs and professional, like to talk about random stuff that just happens to be interesting. I could get used to this...

A caveat: I tried to catch everything I could, but I missed a lot and paraphrased even more.

PPW: What drives you to delve into the darker side of things?

Melanie Tem: These things are of foremost interest to me, in theme and character.

Steve Rasnic Tem: I've always been interested in the dark and strange, things that nobody else wanted to talk about.

Carrie Vaughn: I always get the reaction, 'Oh, but you seem like such a nice person." I like to peel back layers. Stories get darker than you intend. I like to get a reaction out of the reader.

PPW: What were your early influences?

CV: Ray Bradbury is very atmospheric and has lots of twists. Charlotte's Web.

SRT: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Jules Verne, fairy tales. British ghost stories.

MT: My father wanted to be a writer but passed it on to me. My book Yellow Hound will be about that. It's coming out in 2009. My father thought genre fiction was not important literature. But we did read some page turners. Eugene Fields's poem, "Little Boy Blue." The Diary of Anne Frank.

PPW: Who do you read now?

SRT: Cormack McCarthy. Robert Parker.

CV: Moby Dick. Steven Ericson. Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Ian Banks.

MT: Francine Prose, "A Changed Man." Maria Doria Russell, "The Sparrow." Toni Morrison.

PPW: Where do you see your genres going?

CV: My genre is "urban fantasy." I've also heard, unfortunately, "Bit-Lit" (Chick Lit with vampires), but thankfully the term hasn't caught on yet.

SRT: I don't like genre classifications. Horror, other than vampire fiction, is death in the marketplace. My agent says they [publishers] want "Stealth Horror." It's a good thing creatively. Horror tends to be a very conservative genre.

MT: To me, you write what you ant to write. I know, it's an ivory tower approach, but it's an honest creative approach to write first and then look for a market. If you write for a market first, you can skew your style.

PPW: Are there any taboo subjects?

CV: I'm going to channel Ed here. Different people have different tolerances.

MT: We wrote a book about repressed memories of sexual abuse.

SRT: It depends so much on the editors.

PPW: What do readers take away from a good scare?

CV: Why do people ride roller coasters? They're in danger, but they're perfectly safe. It's a primal hindbrain thing.

SRT: It's a safe release. Readers can try out different lifestyles, situations they don't experience in real life.

MT; My day job is as a social worker. For me, I ten to go for disturbing people. Fearing the demons. There's a Buddhist [technique?] called "calling death out of shadows." You put it on your shoulder, where it will be less scary, more understandable at a primal level.


Untranslatable: Words from other languages.

A list of foreign words (and phrases) for which there is no good English translation, part of a book named Toujours Tingo, by Adam Jacot de Boinod (a forthcoming sequel to The Meaning of Tingo).

"Snyavshi Shtany, PO VOLOSAM NE GLADYAT - Russian: once you've taken off your pants it's too late to look at your hair."

My favorite such phrase is, "l'espirit d'escalier" - French: the moment after a conversation when you think of the perfect comeback. Literally, "the spirit of the stairs" (on the way out).

Iron Road: A Raymond Chandler Moment.

"Mrs. Keunecke," Nancy said. She wasn't shouting. Anybody walking on the sidewalk might have overheard her, but there wasn't anybody on the sidewalk, not in February before school let out. "Surely you've heard about me. I've lived in this town most of my life. People know me. I'm no lady, Mrs. Keunecke. I'm rough and rowdy and I like boys too much. I've busted more windows, on purpose, than you have fingers. I've been sneaking cigarettes since I was thirteen. I broke a boy's arm when I was fifteen. I'm nosy, and I'm stubborn, and I'm mean. I don't care what happens to you, and I will make sure you lose your job if you don't open this door."

"Are you threatening me?"

Some people are just slower than others, Nancy thought. "Yes, m'am."


West Branch Art

Grant Wood, of "American Gothic" fame, painted a picture of the Hoover cottage being shown off by a tour guide: The Brithplace of Herbert Hoover. It wouldn't have been accurate, but I wish he'd painted Isis in the shadow of the trees off to the right.

Rob Wood (no relation?) painted a bird's-eye view of West Branch. The big building toward the top is the library/museum; there's a curving walkway to a smaller white building (I forget what that was). On the curved walkway is a black lump on top of a white lump: that's the statue. Hoover's house is small and white with a reddish roof. It has a white fence and is across the bridge with grass on it from the library. I think the Opera Block (home of the former West Branch Opera House) is in the lower right corner, from the backside. There was a truly excellent steakhouse right around there, but I forget what it was called. The pizza place is still there--Herb 'n' Lou's.

Iron Road: Gypsies

Another Iron Road bit:

Another fantasy. Whatever had taken out the rails had been quick, rough, and almost certainly loud. The railroad ties, which were old but good enough to reuse (there were fewer of them lying around, from what she could tell), had shattered and splintered, in some places even turning to sawdust. The amount of dirt that had been pulled out of the ground and the distance it appeared to have scattered also pointed toward the rails having been jerked out of the ground. It would have taken a tractor or a tank to do the work. Gypsies. Gypsies are well-known for their tanks.


More Iowa History.

After WWI, President Hoover received a bronze statue of the Egyptian Goddess Isis from a group of Belgian schoolchildren, soldiers, and refugees. Whatever possessed them to pick Isis, I'm not sure.

At the time, Isis was considered the Goddess of Life. The inscription at the base of the statue (not at the base of the pedestal), if I remember right, reads: "I am all that has been, that is, that shall be, and none among mortals has yet dared to raise my veil."

It's surrounded by old pine trees and was usually fairly shaded. On one side is the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum and on the other a recreation of Hoover's birthplace (including a blacksmith shop full of inveresting tools and scraps). And then this occult statue (it isn't Egyptian in style at all) jumps out at you and claims to be the source of all mysteries. I would have thought someone would have lodged a protest by now...

The Little Old Lady Rules.

Bunch of e-mails circulating at work about "The Woman's Rules" "The Man's Rules"--even "The Chocolate Rules," so I came up with my own version:

The Little Old Lady Rules

(The logic here is that I have a little box in my brain marked "inappropriate." There's a little old lady in that box. She says things like this...and I think she'll get a little louder, the older I get.)

  1. All the chocolate is mine.
  2. All the good chocolate is really mine. I will share the rest, because I am the soul of magnaniminimininty.
  3. People are dumb, which is good, because otherwise I would run out of things to laugh at.
  4. I am always beautiful, witty, kind, and wonderful. I don't need you to tell me whether the dress looks good, I look fat, etc. I look good inthis dress, and I'm not fat.
  5. Any joke that shocks someone half my age is a good joke.
  6. Some babies are ugly. But you have to love them anyway.
  7. Some kids are brats. Smack 'em when their parents aren't looking.
  8. Never answer the phone. Or the door. If you do, anything you say to a telemarketer, politician, salesbobo, or religious zealot doesn'tcount in the afterlife.*
  9. It's time for your children to grow up.
  10. I don't care what you think. Unless you think you want to give me chocolate.

  11. *Don't mess with the Girl Scouts.


Iowa History.

Lee and I used to live in West Branch, Iowa, birthplace of President Herbert Hoover. The town is also the home of Scattergood Friends School, a college-prep school run by the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative) (that is, by Quakers).

From 1938-1943 it was also run as a hostel for Jewish people and political refugees from Europe:
By July of 1939 Scattergood Hostel seemed settled enough for the first family to arrive. By August the targeted population of 30 "guest" (the term used in preference to the more loaded "refugees") and 10 or so staff was mostly in place. At that point, daily life at Scattergood Hostel began to reflect more closely the AFSC's goal of providing a place where refugees "could go for a few weeks or months to recover from their effects of their recent experiences, regain their confidence , improve their English, learn to drive a car, and, if needed be, start retaining themselves for some new line of work before seeking a permanent place in American society." True to Quaker aversion to organized hierarchies, from the beginning attempts were made to run the project as consensually as possible, with continual input from those being helped.


Writing Exercises

From ***Dave and Kate, a writing exercise.

The weird thing about this one is--I hate it. What [sensory experience/concept] is [typically unrelated item]? Fill in the blanks for a cheap poem...this was the kind of thing they made us do in college instead of teaching us about, um, anything useful, and they bug me now. These things are fun to do, but what do you learn?

What color is fear? White.

What sound does affection make? A pleasant one, although it may annoy with repetition.

What texture does Autumn have? It isn't crisp. It's dessicated.

What shape does a conversation make? Depends on the conversation.

What fabric is a kitten made of? Calico. (Couldn't resist.)

What noise is made by curiosity? None, unless it's more about the "being curious" than the curiosity itself. Curiosity is 1) sneaky 2) self-involved.

What is the smell of knowledge? Depends on the knowledge.

How do you punctuate life? With a knife, etc.

What does death taste like? It doesn't. Your experience of another's death may. Your feelings about your own probably do.

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, what kind of tree is it? Just a tree.


Here are a couple that we did at the seminar this past Saturday ("Scaring Your Reader").

1) Two or more: Write down something you don't fear. Exchange with a partner. Try to find a way to make that thing or situation scary.

2) Solo or group: Write down 8-10 elements of a charcter--name, age, race, gender, three most important relationships, occupation, etc. Use those elements to build a suspenseful situation.

I'll try to put down our examples.


Update: I think I'm PMSing.

But having thought about it for a couple of hours, backbrain processing, I think this kind of thing annoys me because it introduces a concept--how to create a simile--without providing any help whatsoever.

What color is fear? One answer might be, "Fear is blue, because fear makes you sad, and sadness is blue." Given the nature of the exercise, how are you supposed to tell whether you're making an effective simile or not? What's the point of making a simile at all? What should you, in general, avoid in making similes? When people say, "Show, don't tell," does that mean you should or should not use similes? When should you avoid making a simile?

Now, a writing exercise that taught you how to do that would be worth good money.

Kate--Dave--my apologies if I gave any offense.


Iron Road: Winter in Iowa City

I hit my first happy metaphor today. The main character has just come back from the Army Nurse Corp after WWII. She's looking for a job:

The next stop was the University's General Hospital, spreading like a castle or an old English manor house across the frozen landscape. Steam rose from a pair of barely-visible chimneys; a slick of frost covered the trees downwind. The wind was steady, cold, and clean-smelling. A professional type of winter, on assignment to freeze fingers and toes, but going about its business without any rancor.

One that would probably stretch its way into April, for lack of a signature on a spring-release form.


Halloween Costumes of the In-Laws...

Or just one. My sister-in-law, Erica, won a hundred bucks for her last-minute costume.

Oh, God.

It's worse than the guy with red-colored Fruit Loop boxes all over his shirt: the Cereal Killer.


I was bugging people at work asking them, "What does falute mean?" After about, oh, five hours, this was the result:

Pronunciation: hai-fê-lut-ên * Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: (Regional slang) 1. Highly pompous, bombastic (speech). 2. Showing off, ostentatious, pretending to be above one's station in life, putting on airs.

Notes: The amazing thing about high-falutin' is that is not a high-faluting word itself for it is always pronounced with a regional twang-high-falutin'. However, it has survived long enough to be treated as a legitimate word that may be pronounced standardly, high-faluting, if it makes you feel better. It may be used as an adverb with or without any doctoring: "Benny can talk as high-falutin' as any of them.

In Play: This word is not only slang but slang used predominately in the southern US states: "Nan Tucket thinks that using high-falutin' words will convince people that she is a high-class lady." Although most commonly associated with speech, today's Good Word is a home in many other contexts: "Cindy Mae Lovett hasn't talked to any of her old friends since she started waitressing in that high-falutin' restaurant on Nob Hill."

Word History: Today's Good Word is ostensibly made up of the adjective high + the participle of the verb falute. The problem with this explanation is that there is no verb falute "put on airs"! (We see this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle: "Ally Katz falutes like a millionaire philosophy professor when she goes out with men.") It probably started out as a blend of "fly" and "salute" but that is pure speculation at this point. (Now let's thank Kyle McDonald of RPI for suggesting today's low-falutin' Good Word.)

--I don't know where it came from, and I'm not finding it online. Let me know if you know the site.



"Ninja Parade Slips through Town Unnoticed Once Again"

(via The Onion)

Update: I fixed the link. Let's see how long it takes before the ninjas change it again...


The Boy Who Sees without Eyes

...a documentary about Ben Underwood, a boy who had his eyes removed (cancer) at age two. He is the only person in the world ever really to have used echolocation to replace eyesight. That we know of. Because Daredevil, you know, wasn't a real guy.

The Cycle

...of Steven Brust's Taltos series.

(via Steven Brust)


HIV Neutralized?

It sounds like researchers have found a way to negate the effects of HIV in human beings. Not a vaccine, not a cure -- but a way of eradicating the symptoms.


(via Neatorama)


Musical Interlude: The Shins

Phantom Limb.

This is one of those songs you listen to and go, "I should find out who sings that." Sometimes this feeling comes about when the song is really good or you can't get it out of your head. Sometimes it's because it has interesting lyrics but you can't really catch all of them. Aha! This song is both together, sweet-tuned pop with this fascinating melody you can barely keep up with. And then the lyrics...

So I looked them up:
So, when they tap our mundane heads,
To zombie-walk in our stead,
This town seems hardly worth our time,
And we'll no longer memorize or rhyme,
Too far along in our climb,
Stepping over what now towers to the sky,
With no connection.
After reading them three or four times through and watching the video (a school play? three school plays? If so, what do Joan of Arc, the Donner Party, and Cortez have to do with each other?) I can say with confidence the song might be about the tingling feeling you get from living in a stifling place (small town? suburb?), as if your whole life were a phantom limb that had been removed. Maybe. Probably the most poetic song lyrics I've seen in a long time. I say seen--I have a hard time doing anything but wiggling and humming when I hear the song.

And, because I can't find my Imogen Head CD and will take whatever comes up next on YouTube: Let go.

Ooh, and here's a chick that sounds like a cross between Enya and Imogen Heap: Emmy Rossum. A duet with Dolly Parton, "When Love is New." She can keep up, which is saying something. Apparently, she's done a lot of acting. I've never heard of her before...

Word of the Day.

nosism (NO-siz-em) noun

The use of 'we' in referring to oneself.

[From Latin nos (we).]

As it's often used by editors, it's also known as the "editorial we".
It's also called "the royal we" owing to its frequent use by royalty.
Mark Twain once said, "Only kings, presidents, editors, and people
with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial 'we'."

-Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)


Joke of the Day.

Pure D. Wrong:

I rear-ended a car this morning. So there we are alongside the road and slowly the driver gets out of the car...and you know how you just-get-sooo-stressed and life-stuff seems to get funny?

Yeah,well, I could NOT believe it...he was a DWARF! He storms over to my car, looks up at me and says, "I AM NOT HAPPY!"

So, I look down at him and say, "Well, which one are you then?"

...and that's when the fight started.

Word of the Day.

lexiphanes (lex-SIF-uh-neez) noun

One who uses words pretentiously.

[From Greek lexiphanes (phrase monger), from lexis (word or phrase) + -phaneia
(to show).]

-Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)


Chocolate Reviews: Dagoba New Moon & 3400 Phinney, Coconut Curry

Dagoba Organic Chocolate, New Moon (74%)

Decent. Nicely balanced between fruity (not a specific fruit, just fruity) and loamy/earthy tastes. After the lavender and xocolatl, though, I was expecting to be seriously impressed. Nope. It was good, but I'd rather have the lavender and eat Green & Black's dark chocolate instead. Better than Godiva by a good bit, though.

3400 Phinney Chocolate Factory, Coconut Curry Milk Chocolate

Um, huh?

My mouth was confused. Confundicated. Wha? Mild milk chocolate -- it could have been the stuff they make cheap Easter rabbits out of, for all I could tell, with the curry that was mixed with it. Unlike the Dagoba Xocolatl (chile powder and nibs) bar, the curry totally overwhelmed the chocolate. I ate it, but my palate felt dizzy. What can I say? I was playing WoW, and you just nibble on anything in reach, if you're not careful. I guess if you were feeling edgy, you might be all right with this, but I was disappointed. They have a Chai flavor...maybe I'll try that instead.


Recipe: Roasted Chicken Chili

Ah, chicken chili. Usually my reaction to it is, "this would be better with pork." I saw yet another lowfat recipe for chicken chili today...bleah, move on...


What if I made a non-lowfat chicken chili recipe? And worked on making it not bland, without covering up on the lack of flavor by upping the spiciness? An interesting challenge. Here's the result, which is currently in the process of making my stomach growl while I wait for the flavors to meld a bit.

4 chicken thighs (skin on)
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and rough ends trimmed
chipotle powder (you could use a very small amount of any powdered chili pepper; use cayenne rather than chili powder, which is full of stuff that doesn't need to be roasted)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Put the thighs and garlic on a sided, heavy-bottomed pan. Sprinkle the thighs with salt and (lightly) chili powder. Pour just a bit of olive oil over the garlic, to keep it from burning while the chicken releases its juices. Roast until the juices in the center run clear, about 20 minutes. If you roast the chicken significantly ahead of time, pour the juices out of the pan and reserve.

1/2 white onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 anaheim pepper, seeded and chopped
1 T olive oil
2 cans high-quality chopped tomatoes
Thyme (5-6 sprigs or a teaspoon or so of dried)
1 can pinto beans or the bean of your choice

Saute the onion, garlic, and pepper lightly in the olive oil over medium heat. As soon as the onions turn translucent (you'll be underdoing this a bit), add the tomatoes in their juice and the thyme. As soon as the chili comes to a simmer, reduce the heat to low.

As soon as the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the chicken into small chunks. Chop the garlic into same. Add the chicken, garlic, the pan juices, and as much of the brown gunk as you can scrape out of the pan to the chili.

Add the beans (if you like thinner chili, make sure you rinse them before add them). Make sure the heat is low and let the chili simmer. You could adjust the seasoning with salt or extra chili pepper, but it seems pretty good so far.

Serve the chili with any vegetables you want to add that shouldn't be mushy -- I'm doing cilantro and red pepper. I really wanted an avocado, but I just went shopping today, and the consistently underripe 'cados at Super Target are always hard as rocks, and I didn't feel like driving to the Mexican greengrocer today, because it was snowing and I wanted a nap. Oh, and cornchitos, which is apparently De-speak for non-tortilla Frito-style corn chips. And non-lowfat sour cream.


Pissed off.

An atheist lists the reasons she's angry at Christians, because a lot of Christians, as Christians are jerks or worse.

Okay, Christians: even Christ got angry on occaision. Wouldn't Christ get angry at some of this stuff?

I'm angry -- enraged -- at the priests who molest children and tell them it's God's will. I'm enraged at the Catholic Church that consciously, deliberately, repeatedly, for years, acted to protect priests who molested children, and consciously and deliberately acted to keep it a secret, placing the Church's reputation as a higher priority than, for fuck's sake, children not being molested. And I'm enraged that the Church is now trying to argue, in court, that protecting child-molesting priests from prosecution, and shuffling those priests from diocese to diocese so they can molest kids in a whole new community that doesn't yet suspect them, is a Constitutionally protected form of free religious expression.


And I'm angry that Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and the People For the American Way. I'm angry that the theology of a wrathful God exacting revenge against pagans and abortionists by sending radical Muslims to blow up a building full of secretaries and investment bankers... this was a theology held by a powerful, widely-respected religious leader with millions of followers.


I'm angry that huge swaths of public policy in this country -- not just on same-sex marriage, but on abortion and stem-cell research and sex education in schools -- are being based, not on evidence of which policies do and don't work and what is and isn't true about the world, but on religious texts written hundreds or thousands of years ago, and on their own personal feelings about how those texts should be interpreted, with no supporting evidence whatsoever -- and no apparent concept of why any evidence should be needed.

I maintain that Christianity would be a great religion if it weren't for two things:
  1. The insistence that somehow the Old Testament trumps the New
  2. Hypocrites
Too bad the inevitable direction of organized religion is to crawl in bed with hypocrites. And too bad I read so much :)

(via ***Dave)

Recipe: Hour Soup.

I was trying to figure out a name for this recipe...it's kind of a fusion between Thai & Chinese versions of hot & sour soup, but what a terrible name for a recipe, right? "Fusion Hot & Sour Thai & Chinese Soup." So I fused the words "hot" and "sour" together...also reflects approximate prep time, so why not?

I wasn't brave enough to add eggs; it just sounded wrong when I made it. Maybe it's because the Thai version doesn't have eggs and is so much less RICH than the Chinese version. I didn't have any lemongrass on hand, so I threw in a bag of Thai Chai and a bag of Ginger Lemongrass tea. For more authenticity, you could crush a stalk of lemongrass and throw in three or four kaffir lime leaves instead. But I was winging it.

1 1/2 c. uncooked shrimp (I used tail-on).

Thaw shrimp if necessary; remove tails and reserve.

1 box chicken broth (1 qt; use homemade if you have it*)
1 pt. water
8-10 tiny thai chilis (I have a bag of frozen ones; they keep forever if you can find them) or crushed red pepper to taste (say, 3-4 of the chilis you put in kung pao chicken)
1" ginger, sliced into chunks
3 green onions (I have problems with them going bad, so I've started throwing them in the freezer for soup when they start getting brown)
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
2 Thai chai tea bag (or regular chai, or any tea containing lemongrass, or a combination, or 1 lemongrass stalk and 3-4 kaffir lime leaves, which is what you would add to real Thai soup)
Shrimp tails

Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes. Strain and discard solids.

1 box mushrooms, sliced into strips
2 carrots, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
2 T. turbindo/natural sugar (I would say use white sugar over regular brown, or maybe mirin instead)
1 T. sesame oil
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. powdered, dried ginger
1 lime, peel grated into soup and juice squeezed into soup through
filter (to catch seeds)

Return to a boil, then simmer until the carrots are nearly done.

1 box silken tofu, diced
1/4 c. chopped cilantro

Add the tofu, cilantro, and shrimp and cook until the shrimp have turned pink all the way through. Remove from heat. Serve with thai hot sauce (or similar) on the side.

*I need to start marking chicken carcasses "Soup Corpse" or something similar, don't I?


November is the Month of Busy.

So I signed up for the fall PPWC Writers Workshop today...it's on November 3rd.


Here's my brain, totally fried and running in circles. "Big step! Big step! Are you ready for this? Are you able to handle this? Do you deserve this?"

Well, you know, if writers were totally secure people, we wouldn't need to get published, wouldn't need attention, wouldn't need to show off in front of other people, wouldn't need to be writers...which means a continuous state of seppuku* for not being a good enough writer, for not having more blog hits, for stacking up rejections, etc.

The truth of November and NaNoWriMo has sunk in; I am now totally slacking off, which has the added benefit of being able to toss aside the Alien Blue revisions, which I didn't mind as much as the YA revisions, but still, they're revisions. Ha! I begin your revisions so I may gleefully avoid them!

Hm...I say slacking off, but what I mean is coping with Ray's birthday and Halloween and parent-teacher conferences and eleventy bajillion documents and and and...

*Only to be avoided on days in which one receives checks. Or PayPal notices. Either is good.


Book Review: Territory

by Emma Bull.

Here are the reasons I can't be objective about this book:

1. Freedom and Necessity (co-written by Stephen Brust) is one of my favorite books ever; the two writers are irrevocably tied in my brain now, so everything Emma Bull writes gets subconsciously compared to Stephen Brust. And I really like Stephen Brust, but he's written, oh, twenty books or so, and Emma Bull has written maybe four.

2. The issues Ms. Bull seems to be dealing with in her writing (as a writer, not themes, I mean) are the ones I've been dealing with lately. (I'm not even going to try to figure out whether that's coincidence or transference.) So while I pick her stuff apart, I'm really trying to figure out how to make it work in my writing.

That being said, somebody should make sure she keeps writing and publishing. With more experience and confidence, she could do some brilliant, fun stuff.

Territory is the story of Tombstone, with magic. -- It isn't just the story of Tombstone; it's the story of Wyatt Earp and co. under the influence of the movie Tombstone (1993), with magic. And if you didn't like that movie, what is wrong with you?

The additional characters are handled believably and seamlessly. The magic is balanced well -- it doesn't throw the story off, but adds a new perspective. The writing is clear and vivid.


Why are the main characters even involved in the story? They "get swept up" into the story using writerly tricks and further pulled in just because. They don't have any real stakes (not until later, anyway). Why (I'm not giving anything away here, trust me) do they fall in love? Because of chemistry? Why is their story so important? Why is it included at all? What's at stake, in the end? What's important? What does it all meeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaan?

It's almost as if the author came up with this brilliant pitch, and then panicked in trying to come up with a way to pull it off. And nobody told her to cut closer to the bone, to find out what would make the characters weep and bleed. For example: the main character is pulled into the story when an old friend of his casts a spell to draw him into town. Why is the old friend there? He just happens to be there, having been kicked out of San Francisco. The main character is pulled into town when someone tries to steal his horse, and he shoots him -- but nothing really bad happens to the main character because of it, he never has to pay for it, even emotionally, really, even though he says he feels bad. These things, they happen because the author needs them to happen, because otherwise, there wouldn't have been a story. Maybe it's just a way of saying that everything in Tombstone happened because chance made it happen, but that's a boring moral to put on such an interesting idea. You see?

It's a good story...but it could have been a masterpiece had the author dug a little deeper, made the characters go through their darkest moments, make their most painful choices, and pay the costs -- sometimes all out of proportion.

And then, the ending cuts off early. Too early; everything she's been leading you to believe you will be able to see carried out -- pfft. Some writers can carry this off. I try to do this on occaision. But it doesn't work without some very complex setting up of a second plot within the supposedly-main plot, with the second plot being the real plot, so it doesn't matter if the first plot ends or not. But because the known characters -- the Earps and Doc Holliday -- have so much more at stake than the main characters, I felt cheated. The main characters' storyline doesn't even pay off! Auuuugggghhhh!

But like I said, here's me, not being objective. The book was well worth reading, and it's not the author's fault I can't see it more clearly :)

Book Review: Briar Rose

by Jane Yolen.

(Another one of Terry Windling's Fairy Tale Series.)

Instead of giving any details about her past (even her real name), a girl's grandmother always tells the slightly-altered story of Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty) whenever anyone asks about her past. The girl is a grown woman when the grandmother dies, first extracting a promise that she find the castle where the grandmother had slept a hundred years...

I don't want to give away too much; the plot unwinds like a really good detective novel, with the central mystery being how history affects the people you love and, by extention, you. The plotting is great, stringing you along, doling out information at exactly the right moments. I initially wondered why the granddaughter got so much attention, why the story wasn't about the grandmother, who has a much more interesting story, but that's not what the story was about...

So let me just say the grandmother arrived in the U.S. after WWII and leave it at that. I recommend it, although I doubt I'll read it as often as I have other books in the series -- but then, Schindler's List was a great movie that I'll never see again, either.