Monday, July 30, 2007

British Fetish

Lately we’ve been watching a lot of British TV. It’s a bit of an addiction. In addition to some excellent crime dramas (Cracker and Prime Suspect w/ Helen Mirren), we’ve sampled some sitcoms (Chef!), a multi-part documentary about a family trying to go green (aptly titled “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, though an even better title would be “Don’t try this at home unless your husband is an engineer, your children are in college, neither of you has to work, and you can afford to buy a farmhouse in Cornwall with three acres of land. P.S. Make sure you know lots of people you can rope into working for you.”), some nasty reality TV (“How Clean is Your House?”), and even a game show (like Jeopardy, but for college students and much more intense).

But the biggest discovery for me has been Oliver’s Twist – a cooking show with Jamie Oliver.

To truly understand the significance of this, you need to know that a) I don’t really cook; b) I never watch cooking shows; and c) until recently the only cookbook I used was Help, My Apartment Has a Kitchen.

So why Jamie Oliver?

The answer is, it’s simple! He makes everything look easy, he does a lot of basic dishes like a roast chicken, mashed potatoes, or grilled vegetables, and he’s very casual about the whole thing -- more picnic than a formal dinner party. And of course it doesn't hurt that he's cute, charismatic, funny, and very much down to earth. Also he cooks foods I never knew how to approach. I mean, what do you do with squash, for example? Or parsnips?

Having watched a handful of episodes of Season 2, I’ve become a convert – drizzling my salads with olive oil, adding “a good pinch of salt,” and pronouncing “herbs” the British way – to the dismay of the sales clerks at the Willimantic Co-op.

I also went ahead and ordered a couple of Oliver’s cookbook. And that’s when I made my biggest discovery. There are people (see: Movie Dictator) who can’t read instruction manuals. Well, I’m that way with cookbooks. My mind goes blank at the sight of a recipe. All the steps get confused almost immediately, and I can never remember the ingredients. Nor can I picture any of it. Like when a book says “Preheat your oven and an appropriately sized roasting pan to 450 degrees,” what do they mean by “appropriately sized”? Do I even have a roasting pan?

I gave up on the books. My new approach now is to watch a show, pick a dish, take notes, and then try to do it. Everything is done right in front of me, I can see what "roughly chopped" means and what a roasting pan should look like. So far, I’ve discovered that I don’t like the taste of watercress and that I like mashed potatoes better without spring onions. I now own a small pestle and mortar. The other day I bought some summer squash and a small rosemary plant. I still get confused, of course. I still don’t know how to keep the smock alarm from screaming whenever I fry a pork chop. Also, dealing with the hot olive oil jumping off a frying pan is still a challenge. And speaking of the frying pan, can it go into the oven or not? Movie Dictator seems to think I’ll end up with a pile of melted plastic. I tell him, Jamie Oliver did it and his frying pan didn’t melt. Anyway, you get the idea. Not throwing a dinner party yet, but give me a year and who knows, I might even master something like Baked Cod with French beans.

Friday, July 27, 2007

On MFA Programs…

Yesterday I bought a fiction issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Not for fiction – though of course I intend to read it too – but for an article on MFA Programs by Edward J. Delaney (I swear I know this name from somewhere!). The article itself is available online, but only to subscribers. However, Jessica Murphy’s interview with Delaney can be accessed without a subscription.

The article sort of outraged me. Much of what Delaney says is common sense and I don’t have any issues with that. What I have issues with are his lists. He ranks Top 10 programs overall, as well as Top 5 with notable alumni, top five with distinguished faculty, top five highly selective programs, top five well-funded, etc etc…

Part of my outrage has to do with his omission of Syracuse from any of these lists. When it comes to Syracuse, he's positive, but brief. When listing distinguished faculty, he acknowledges George Saunders and Mary Karr, but doesn’t mention Mary Gaitskill. Is it because he doesn’t consider her distinguished enough? Or because his “research” is outdated.

Personal gripes aside, I’d love to know how he figured out his top 10 list. Some of the programs, such as Irvine, Michigan, FSU, UVA, clearly deserve to be there. They are well funded, selective, and from what I’ve heard, fairly nurturing. Others, like BU, of which he talks endlessly, seem like a questionable choice. He quotes several former students who are critical of BU/Lesley Epstein's methods – and I can think of a few more – but that doesn’t stop him from including it in the top 10 list. Is that because BU is his own alma-mater? The last time I checked – and please correct me if I’m wrong – BU was still a one-year program with less than spectacular funding.

Speaking of funding, apparently these days it’s not enough to fund everyone. The funding has to be competitive, as in 20,000 a year (see Michigan).

The discussion of faculty is important, but I feel Delaney puts way too much emphasis on fame and not enough on quality of teaching, accessibility, and supportiveness. Take NYU, for example, another one of Delaney’s questionable picks – do they offer any funding? NYU might have E.L. Doctorow – but how closely can one expect to work with him? Or with Derek Walcott at BU? Ethan Canin of Iowa is quoted as saying, “he aims to be blunt when he must, without getting nasty.” Oh really? That’s not what I’ve heard. (To his credit, though, he admits that about one-third of his students hates him.)

To be fair, Delaney does mention a lot of interesting programs and teachers – Robert Olen Butler at FSU, Michael Cunningham at Brooklyn College, Barry Hannah at Mississippi, Brian Evenson at Brown. And yes, I understand how it must be impossible to write on this subject without mentioning Iowa. But still, enough of BU. Enough of Iowa. Enough of lists. Why not go to places where students are happy and treated with support and respect? Why not ask them?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reading Recommendations

I know, I know, it’s shameful. For a fiction writer I post way too much about movies and nearly not enough about books. But that’s all about to change. Starting now.

I just did a guest blog for the Grub Street Blog, Penny Dreadful, in which I talk about Syracuse and the books I’ve been reading lately.

Check it out.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chicken News

Let’s see. I’ve got my first review, from Publishers Weekly. It’s one of the few places that review books pre-publication. The regular reviews happen once the book is actually released, which in my case means after September 17th.

Also, more book-touring. I got invited to the following Jewish Book Festivals:

November 7th – Houston, TX
November 9th – St. Paul, MN
November 27th – San Francisco, CA

And I’ve just scheduled a reading at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, CA on November 16th!

November is going to be a busy month.

I’m still waiting to hear about Pittsburgh and Seattle – the two places, incidentally, where I’ve got family. Hopefully something will come through.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Last Chicken In…Canada

Remember what I said about the beauty and calm of Willimantic? How I didn’t miss tall buildings and hectic city-pace? Well, we decided we needed a holiday from all that peacefulness and nature, and went to Toronto.

We chose Toronto for many reasons, but mainly because neither of us had seen it and because we knew it was a big busy city.

Reader, we loved it.

We left on Tuesday, stayed in Toronto for three nights, and returned late last night, after a brief detour to check out Niagara Falls.

I must explain right away that our approach wasn’t particularly touristy. We didn’t go up the CN tower, we completely ignored the Hockey Hall of Fame, and we avoided all the museums. Our approach consisted of two parts: 1) explore various neighborhoods 2) find as many South African food shops as possible. (Unlike Boston or even New York, Toronto has tons of South Africans!)

Here’s what we’ve noticed about Toronto:

1) It’s huge. It’s got a downtown with its share of landmarks and interesting neighborhoods: Kensington Market, University Area, Chinatown, garment district, etc. But the fun doesn’t end there. Other parts of the city – somewhat removed from the downtown – are equally lively. The Greektown – immortalized by My Big Fat Greek Wedding – was endless. The Beaches area, where we stayed, was full of funky stores and coffee shops. Then there were suburbs -- also well developed (even if less distinct), often walkable, and full of their own attractions.

2) The architecture is hard to define. Overall, it’s very modern, with a lot of high-rise apartment buildings. It reminded me of Moscow. Movie Dictator loves the idea of living in a tall apartment building. (Or so he says.) Me? Not so much. There might be some things I miss about Moscow, but smelly/broken elevators are not one of them.

3) Toronto seems truly diverse and cosmopolitan. Not in a perfunctory “one-Black-one-Asian-person-on-a-college-brochure-cover” kind of way, but for real. It’s got a huge Chinatown, Koreatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Portuguese area, Indian Bazaar… There’s probably more that we’ve missed. And the residents aren't trying to please anyone. This is clearly their home. And not just in those central neighborhoods either. The kinds of “ethnic” shops we’d have to hunt for in Boston or Hartford areas are everywhere in Toronto, even in the suburbs. Apparently, there are actually five or six Chinatowns, in addition to the one we saw in the downtown area.

4) People seem more relaxed.

5) Very few of them are overweight. Whether it’s because everyone walks/takes public transportation, or because they eat better food than us, we don’t know. But the fact remains: they are slim.

If sightseeing is the primary touristy activity, shopping must be the secondary one. And shop we did – though perhaps not in a way you’d expect. We bought PG Tips tea in a tin can. We bought six rolls of flypaper. But mostly, we bought sauces and spices and headache pills from South African shops – we visited 3 or 4 of them. It was incredibly sad to realize how huge the South African community must be to warrant all these shops, and how far it was from where we live.

On the last day, as we were leaving for Niagara Falls, we decided to look for Nando’s. It’s a Portuguese restaurant chain that makes very spicy chicken. I've seen them in London, and apparently, they are all over South Africa. There were several in the Toronto area, mostly in the suburbs. We showed up at one of them, bright and early, only to discover that it didn't open until 11:30 am. To be honest, we'd kind of suspected that. It was around 9:00 o’clock, and we figured the most sensible thing was to give up on the chicken and start driving to Niagara. But then, at the last minute, we thought we might try one more location. It was kind of on the way. Okay, it was 10 miles out of the way, but what’s 10 miles when you have over 500 miles to go?

It took us a while to find it. By the time we did, it was 10 am and the place was at 11. But what’s 1 hour when you have more than 8 to go? Movie Dictator said we should just go to Niagara. I asked how important Nando’s was to him. On the scale of 1 to 10? He said, 10-ish. He took a picture of Nando’s closed doors.

Naturally, I insisted we should wait. We had tea and coffee at a place called Second Cup, which is a chain like Starbucks. Then we went back to Nando's. Movie Dictator got some extra-extra-hot chicken and a load of freebee sauces. He got me a Lemon Herb Chicken sandwich, which wasn’t supposed to be spicy at all. But it was. It burned so bad, I gave up after one bite. But it still was worth it.

And then we drove to Niagara Falls. From a distance, they looked underwhelming, but once we got close (on a boat) the power of all that falling water took my breath away. I mean it literally. I had a hard time breathing.

And then we rested on a bench, soaked and overwhelmed, while a kind British couple took this picture:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Happy Fourth!

Yes, yes, I know. I’m hopelessly late. But this whole past week -- with the holiday in the middle – was so hopelessly out of balance that I’m seeing it as a “holiday week.”

Before I forget, Howard Zinn offers some suggestions on celebrating July 4th – Put Away the Flags. (Thank you, Andy, for the link!)

Here in Willimantic, we celebrated the 4th by attending the annual “boombox” parade (me), watching a hotdog-eating competition on TV (Movie Dictator), taking a quick trip to West Hartford (both of us), and then settling to watch some quality British tv drama – only to be interrupted by a… power outage. That’s right, for several hours, Willimantic was in the dark. Also, it was raining.

The following afternoon I drove to Boston (for a writers’ group meeting and a party the next day). Being in Boston felt strange – as if I weren’t really supposed to be there. I half-expected to run into an acquaintance who’d say “What are you doing here? Haven’t you just moved away?” What’s more, Boston felt crowded and hectic, which is something I normally like. But this time, I thought it had an edge of desperation to it.

I’m sure it’s all in my head. During the visit, I was asked many times whether I liked Connecticut. And I said yes and I meant it. Movie Dictator asks me this too: Am I not longing to see some tall buildings? Wouldn’t it be great to have a million of little shops on every street? Normally, yes. Normally, I’m a city girl, pining for bigger and better cities. But for now, I’m kind of loving Connecticut with its rural roads and farms everywhere. I love how green and peaceful it is. I love the lakes. I love the tiny town centers. Somehow that’s what I’m craving now. The quietness. The space. Maybe that’s what I need to quell my never-ending anxiety. And to write.

After my last post, a couple of friends asked whether it was a good idea to admit that I hadn’t written much later. What if I my editor and/or agent read this? Would this get me in trouble? Would they think less of me?

After some thinking, I decided it was probably okay. First of all, I’m sure both my editor and agent have better things to do than read this blog. Second of all, I haven’t missed any deadlines. Even better: having made the admission, I promptly started writing! First thing in the morning, while still in bed. (By the way, there’s an article in the latest Poets and Writers about writing in bed.) I try not to worry about quality and just move forward with the novel. I have this crazy and possibly unrealistic plan to finish the first draft by September 1st. I'm not anywhere near the end at this point. Can I do it? I don’t know. But I’m going to try.