Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Five Favorite Books of 2010

As always, I wish I read more, but I read well this year. Along with the books I reread for my literature class (that list is here), I found some gems. In random order, here are the five new-to-me books that I am certain will stick with me in the years to come:

Just Kids by Patti Smith
Room by Emma Donoghue
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Happy new year!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Work in Progress: Words of Wisdom for the Holiday Food Season

I’m not sure who wrote this, so sorry for this blatant stealing. It’s one of those emails that has been forwarded a zillion times, and given the topic, it certainly caught my attention when it was sent to me by Cynthia, one of my dear Michigan relatives. (Cynthia is my father’s cousin, so I’m not sure what the official word would be to describe our familial relationship…suffice it to say that she’s fun, funny, a foodie, and a fabulously avid reader and opera fan, and I’m so incredibly LUCKY to be related to her!)

Anyway, read it and live it, especially the last paragraph. I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next two weeks so I can focus on following these guidelines with gusto. Happy holidays, and as they said back in second grade, See you next year!


1. Avoid carrot sticks. Anyone who puts carrots on a holiday buffet table knows nothing of the Christmas spirit. In fact, if you see carrots, leave immediately. Go next door, where they're serving rum balls.

2. Drink as much eggnog as you can. And quickly. It's rare.. You cannot find it any other time of year but now. So drink up! Who cares that it has 10,000 calories in every sip? It's not as if you're going to turn into an eggnog-alcoholic or something. It's a treat. Enjoy it. Have one for me. Have two. It's later than you think. It's Christmas!

3. If something comes with gravy, use it. That's the whole point of gravy. Gravy does not stand alone. Pour it on. Make a volcano out of your mashed potatoes. Fill it with gravy. Eat the volcano. Repeat.

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

5. Do not have a snack before going to a party in an effort to control your eating. The whole point of going to a Christmas party is to eat other people's food for free. Lots of it. Hello?

6. Under no circumstances should you exercise between now and New Year's. You can do that in January when you have nothing else to do. This is the time for long naps, which you'll need after circling the buffet table while carrying a 10-pound plate of food and that vat of eggnog.

7. If you come across something really good at a buffet table, like frosted Christmas cookies in the shape and size of Santa, position yourself near them and don't budge. Have as many as you can before becoming the center of attention. They're like a beautiful pair of shoes. If you leave them behind, you're never going to see them again.

8. Same for pies. Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat. Have a slice of each. Or if you don't like mincemeat, have two apples and one pumpkin. Always have three. When else do you get to have more than one dessert? Labor Day?

9. Did someone mention fruitcake? Granted, it's loaded with the mandatory celebratory calories, but avoid it at all cost. I mean, have some standards.

10. One final tip: If you don't feel terrible when you leave the party or get up from the table, you haven't been paying attention. Re-read tips; start over, but hurry, January is just around the corner. Remember this motto to live by:

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO HOO what a ride!"

Have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Visitors to Gatsby's Mansion

Writer C.M. Mayo sent me the link to this great art print that shows all the business cards and personal stationery of Gatsby’s party guests during that summer. Look, there’s Jordan Baker down in the lower right corner!

Restaurants & Bars Theme Contest

Money for the contest winner and hearing your story read at Symphony Space: priceless! Plus, what a GREAT theme…. Here are the details:

The 2011 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize
with guest judge Jennifer Egan

The winning submission, selected by Jennifer Egan, will be read as part of the Selected Shorts performance at Symphony Space on June 8, 2011. The story will be recorded for possible later broadcast as part of the public radio series. The winner will receive $1000.

Story requirements
-Submit a single short story that addresses the theme, Restaurants and Bars.
-Your story must have a title.
-Make sure your name and contact information appear on the first page of your story. If you are submitting online, this information needs to appear on the first page of the attached Word document.
-Include page numbers.
-Your story must be no more than 750 words double-spaced (Times New Roman, 12pt font).
-Your story must be unpublished.

All submissions must be received by March 1, 2011. To be specific, online submissions must be submitted by 5pm Eastern Standard Time. Mailed submissions must arrive with the day's mail. (Entries postmarked on March 2 will NOT be accepted.)

Where to submit your story
Submit your submission online at

Mail to
CONTEST, Selected Shorts Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025.

Mailed submissions must also include a check for $25, written to Symphony Space. Online submissions must give credit card information to submit. Stories will not be accepted without payment of the $25 fee.Please do not send duplicate copies (online or snail-mail is sufficient). We cannot allow revisions to your story once we have received it. Due to the high volume of submissions and the small size of our office, we will not be able to notify you when we receive your story. The winner will be selected by Jennifer Egan and notified by early May. As soon as the winner is selected, his or her name will be posted to this page.

Contestants who submit online or provide their email address will be added to the Selected Shorts email list - please let us know if you do not wish to receive email about upcoming programs.

The Prize
$1000 and two tickets to the June 8th Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, when the prizewinning story will be read.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Link Corral: Dave Eggers, Cute Gatsby Purse, Moby-Dick Annotated Online

The Washington Post ran an excellent piece on “the writing life” by Dave Eggers. (Based on the article, I think he’d expect those quotation marks around “the writing life.”)

“When I watch that movie [All the President’s Men], I also think about how mundane my own "writing life" can be. For example, I'm putting together this essay, not in a bustling metropolitan newsroom, but in a shed in my backyard. I have a sheet draped over the shed's window because without it the morning sun would blast through and blind me. So I'm looking at a gray sheet, which is nailed to the wall in two places and sags in the middle like a big, gray smile. And the sheet is filthy. And the shed is filthy. If I left this place unoccupied for a week, it would become home to woodland animals. They probably would clean it up first.”

Read the rest here.


I wish I had known about this site when I was reading Moby-Dick this summer: it’s an online annotation of the entire novel. There’s a labor of love. I bow to you, Meg Guroff.

Here’s the link to Power Moby-Dick.

Here’s more about Meg Guroff: “Though many people wondered why she would undertake such a project, Guroff says she found support from teachers and colleagues from her days in the Writing Seminars. "Hopkins was where I learned to honor people's creative, or, in this case, quasi-creative efforts," she says. She also realized the surprise many readers experience when they get past the book's density and see how emotionally powerful, thought-provoking, yet impressively funny Moby-Dick can be. "I mean, it's full of bawdy humor and fart jokes," Guroff says.”

And I’ve been meaning to link to the Kate Spade Great Gatsby clutch purse, but they’ve all been sold! I guess that’s good: fashionistas everywhere know a good thing. Here’s a picture—and the other selections in the Book of the Month Clutch group. (Thanks for the link, Rachel!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

KHN Center Seeks Applications for Residencies

I had a residency here several years ago and loved it—highly recommended!

The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, NE offers 2- to 8-week residencies year-round for writers, visual artists, and music composers. Housing, studio space, $100/week stipend are provided.

Approximately 50 residencies are awarded per year. Two deadlines each year: postmarked March 1 for the following July through December 15; postmarked September 1 for the following January through June 15.

$25 application fee.

See website for complete information, guidelines and application:

The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts
801 3rd Corso
Nebraska City, Nebraska 68410

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Work in Progress: How Hard Is It to Say Thank You?

We’re artistes. We have a certain temperamental aura that may include dark moodiness and intense brooding. We’re under-appreciated and under-paid, and yet we see ourselves as necessary to any society. Yes, yes, yes—but can’t we be polite, especially since we live in a very, very, VERY small community?

By small community, I mean that I no longer am failed to be surprised when someone remembers meeting me a dozen years at AWP. By small community, I mean that I would pick up a book written by my Bread Loaf roommate who I met a zillion years ago, who I haven’t spoken to or seen in those zillion years…yet I’m still generally aware of what she’s writing. By small community, I mean that at a certain point in a writer’s career, you could meet any other writer and within five minutes of conversation, find a common writer-friend—more than one, in fact, one you both adore, and one you both think is a pompous so-and-so. We are all packed together in this difficult (but oh-so emotionally rewarding!) profession, so can’t we try to extend some courtesy?

In the summer, I decided to email writers after reading books that I liked, curious to see what happened. (Personally, I love emails from readers!) One person never responded, and trust me when I say that her book was not even remotely so important that she had that luxury of ignoring a reader. Another writer was a best-selling author with a new book she was promoting, so I’ll cut her a little break—but then why didn’t her very professional, bells-and-whistles website have an automatic response set up? On the other hand, I sent a message to Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM, a book that has been getting a ton of attention and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, for God’s sake, and she—surely a very busy person at the moment!—found the time to respond within 24 hours, with a personal email response.

People remember this kind of stuff.

I remember when students send a quick thank you email at the end of the semester (after the grades are in, please), and that may (who am I kidding—WILL) affect my deliberations later if someone needs a letter of recommendation when I’m feeling pressed for time. Or someone wonders if I have any suggestions for where to send their long story that they finally finished. I will go out of my way to help someone who seems to feel—shock!—grateful for my assistance, as opposed to someone who seems to feel entitled to it. Yes, in the classroom, it’s a job. But afterwards…remember what I said above, about that small world: I will remember you. So how hard is it to write up a quick thank you to your teachers at the end of the semester? The teachers I know work very hard at their jobs—often draining time from their own work to ensure a successful class—and students are short-sighted—and rude (there, I’ve said it!)—not to acknowledge that.

I’m also surprised to see how few thank yous I get after I speak somewhere. Of course, there’s one thing if you’re getting paid big bucks to appear—nevertheless, if you’re getting that much money, you’re probably in high demand and you probably could have chosen not to appear. And anyway, how hard is it to write a quick message so someone feels appreciated? I write those thank yous to people who invite me to speak, and I promise that it doesn’t take very long.

I also write a thank you note to editors who publish my work. Talk about under-paid and under-appreciated…. I especially appreciate when they’ve worked with me on the manuscript to made it better or when they’ve caught my errors. Frankly, I also think the editors should be grateful to us, too—it surprises me when every now and then I would get an acceptance letter, then maybe a letter about buying more copies, then copies in the mail…no personal note. No, “we’re so proud to publish your story in our journal.” Again, not that hard to write a note.

Recently I read on Facebook about a writer/teacher who noted that she was doing a presentation to her class about how to submit/find an agent, etc—and that she was also including a section about how to give BACK to the literary community. That’s the best thank you of all: Start a reading series. Donate money to a small press. Buy books and more books. Volunteer to screen manuscripts at a journal. Man a booth at a book fair. Don’t always take-take-take—give-give-give.

I know that there are plenty of writers who do thank people, who do appreciate those who go out of their way to be generous with time, energy, and assistance, who do give back to the community. And no one likes an insincere suck-up, so there’s a bit of a balancing act.

But the bottom line is that there’s no bottom line when it comes to thank you. Expressing gratitude is free! Who doesn’t like being thanked and feeling appreciated? Maybe all these thank yous and notes don’t lead anywhere specific (i.e. Important Editor at the New Yorker: “I remember that Leslie Pietrzyk sent us a nice note when we wrote her that thoughtful rejection letter five years ago, so let’s get one of her stories for our 2011 summer fiction issue”). But you never know. And anyway, the real reason to send out a few thank yous is to make our small, emotionally-rewarding-but-also-emotionally-brutal world, just a tiny bit more pleasant.

So, thank YOU for reading this blog! I appreciate that there are plenty of ways to spend your time, and I'm grateful that you spend some of it here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jenny McKean Moore Applications Due 1/10/11

NOTE: Go here for information on the fall 2011 Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop:

Please go to my previous post about the Jenny McKean Moore FREE Community Workshop for the details about this year’s class and teacher: creative nonfiction, led by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

No, there’s no website with more information. Yes, that’s incredibly dumb not to throw one together. Yes, I complain about this every time the applications are due. Yes, people email me to tell me that this blog is the ONLY place online they found the information.

The deadline to apply for the spring session—Tuesdays, 6-8 PM, January 18-April 19, 2011—is Monday, January 10, 2011.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a detailed personal narrative in which you describe your writing projects, your goals for the seminar, and how you hope to benefit from the workshop. Include your name, address, home/work telephone numbers, and email address. All applicants will be contacted by email by January 14.

Send your applications (by Monday, January 10, 2011) to
JMM Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Patti Smith to Speak in DC on 12/11

Patti Smith will be discussing her award-winning memoir, Just Kids, on Saturday, December 11, at 2 pm at the National Portrait Gallery in DC. For more information, go here. There’s no charge, so I might think there'll be a crowd, so plan accordingly.

San Fran's Fabulous Lit Scene

On Sunday, The New York Times ran a great article about San Francisco's vibrant literary scene. (The city ranks in the top three for per capita expenditure on books AND booze, the only city to get such high ranking for both.)

Enticing excerpt: “Books, we are told, are a half-millennium-old technology on the cusp of being swept away forever. So a journey to San Francisco to immerse oneself in them might seem the cultural equivalent of going to visit the glaciers before they melt. But in San Francisco, the home of many of the very technologies that have drawn a bead on the book, visitors will find a living, historically rooted literary scene that, though it has surely heard the news of its own demise, isn’t buying it.”

Read the rest here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Shorter Side of Melville

Last week’s pitiful lament that no one writes "short" about Melville brought some suggestions:

Poet John Guzlowski recommends a science fiction book called The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip Jose Farmer. There’s no description of the book on Amazon, but here’s one of the reader reviews that gives a sense of the book:

“Phil Farmer has cleverly used historical and fictional characters in many of his stories. This novel propels Ishmael of Moby Dick fame from the mast of the ship Rachel, sailing the South Seas in 1842, into the far, far future of Earth. Farmer attributes this "time travel" experience as a consequence of looking at the cryptic carvings engraved upon Queequeg's coffin. Additional references to Moby Dick show up throughout the story. Ishmael is saved from drowning by a providential appearance of the harpooners coffin and on several occasions he ponders about Ahab and his obsession with The Whale. “

Ishmael find himself in a future with a swollen red Sun, oceans evaporated to the point where islands appear to be mountains and the primary means of travel are lighter than air ships that rely on sails and air bladders. Ishmael quickly established himself as a warrior leader and after disposing several kinds of vicious predators gets a kingdom and the girl.”

160 pages.

On Facebook, several people drew my attention to The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch. Here’s an excerpt of the Publisher’s Weekly review on Amazon:

“Sweeping pathos, historical knowledge, philosophical density and gruesome violence make Busch's 19th work of fiction both profound and a page-turner. Busch's articulate narrator, William Bartholomew, served as a Union sniper in the Civil War until an explosion maimed his face; now it's 1867, and Bartholomew works as an investor in New York City, hiding his scars behind a pasteboard mask. The Civil War may be over, but slavery isn't: slave children are stuck at a Florida school, and Jessie, a Creole prostitute romantically involved with Bartholomew, entangles him in a plot to bring them North to freedom. Bartholomew seeks help from Herman Melville, once a bestselling novelist, now a customs inspector (the "night inspector") in Manhattan's shipyards. Rapacious journalist Samuel Mordecai tags along, hoping for scoops on the demimonde of the docks. After struggles with corrupt bureaucrats and money-hungry merchants, Bartholomew's mission collapses in a grisly climax.”

304 pages.

And there were several votes for Andrew Delbanco’s biography, Melville: His World and Work (446 pages, which, personally, I would only call "short" in comparison to the 2000-page, 2-volume biography).

Finally, this one was recommended and sounds intriguing: Edward F. Edinger, Melville's Moby Dick – An American Nekyia (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts)

From the information on Amazon: “The great American novel Moby-Dick describes symbolically Herman Melville's stormy spiritual voyage. It is also a profound expression of Western civilization in transition. Edward Edinger approaches Moby-Dick as a psychological document, a symbolic record of an intense inner experience which, like a dream, needs interpretation and elaboration of its images for their meaning to emerge fully. Central to Edinger's penetrating commentary is the concept of nekyia, signifying a descent to the underworld -- that is, an encounter with the unconscious. Thus, the subtitle of this work underscores the correspondence between the deep internal struggle from which Melville's masterpiece emerged and the hidden complexities within us all.” -- Midwest Book Review

The winner, at 156 pages.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Work in Progress: Should Literary Writers Think about Audience?

Now that the rush of Thanksgiving has ceased, I’m back to writing, but—alas!—the only writing that I’ve been doing has been working on our annual Christmas letter (yes, I’m one of those people) and my craft lecture for the winter residency at the MFA program at Converse College.

You wouldn’t think those two forms would have much in common…but you might be wrong. (Or, my mashing them together might be a sign of desperation as I hurriedly try to come up with something to write this morning before heading out to an appointment.)

My craft lecture is about the importance of the writer’s voice, how it’s through voice that work will truly soar and be unique. My Christmas letter is about—well, me and Steve.

What I’ve been thinking about as I work on these two forms is the idea of audience, which is something I don’t think about enough as I write my fiction. But isn’t the thought of “audience” one of the basic premises of any Comp 101 class: who’s the audience for your essay; who will be reading it? In a craft lecture, I must be mindful of the tired students huddled in their seats, about to doze off from the exhaustion and over-stimulation of the residency. In a Christmas letter, I need to be mindful of friends/family who have received a zillion overly-bragging letters and are rolling their eyes as they unfold mine.

So, I add some jokes and personal stories to my discussion of voice; I vary my pacing by reading examples from novels and stories that prove my points simply by their excellent existence; I have a list with numbers to help listeners keep their focus. In my Christmas letter, I go for humor and self-deprecation. I follow a form I’ve imposed upon myself: each year has its own theme. I limit the length and stick to the highlights, and always poke gentle fun at myself.

But when I write fiction, I simply write it. I write what I want, as I want. I edit, of course, and revise, but I confess that I rarely—if ever—catch myself thinking about audience. I mean, I might wonder if my audience will need more explanation on a certain factual matter, for example, but I don’t wonder if there’s an audience will like what I’m writing. I don’t think I write to please others; I write to please myself.

The kind of writing that is written to please others—genre romances, say, or thrillers—gets a bad rap because it’s perceived to be simplistic. Maybe so: those writers are giving the readers what they want, a nice little story with a happy ending. And art is designed NOT to give people what they want. (Read here and here to see Blake Gopnik’s elegant response to the current controversy about the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery withdrawing a video that has angered some Christians; the bit in question shows ants crawling on a crucifix.)

But, really, what about this question of audience in literary work? Should we—can we?—ignore the question of audience altogether? If I’m truly writing to please myself, why do I care if something ends up published or not? How might my writing change if I thought more about audience? Or do I think a great deal about audience and just don’t want to admit it to myself? (Because what does it mean if you think about audience and your work still isn’t published?)

In the end, it’s always back to this: What is the purpose of art?

No answers here, but I can report that my Christmas letter is almost done!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big New Novel About Melville...Still Waiting for the Melville Villanelle

There’s a new novel just out now about the life of Herman Melville: The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini. The reviews have not been raves, but sometimes you just know that a book is right for you.

My big beef, though, is the length (450 pages). Why must everything about Melville be so dang looooong (Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund , 704 pages; the classic Melville biography, 2000 pages in two volumes)? How about some flash fiction on Melville for a change of pace? A haiku?

The Washington Post review of the Parini book is here: “The finer elements of this novel are sometimes submerged beneath its more ordinary sections, but "The Passages of H.M." remains a sensitive introduction to Melville's stormy life and imagination. Anyone setting off into the great writer's novels, or returning to them after years away, might enjoy this thoughtful re-imagining of the man who remains America's Milton.”

Here’s the New York Times Book Review on the book: “For those who haven’t braved a reading of “Moby-Dick,” yet retain some curiosity about this great American novel and its author, “The Passages of H. M.” may satisfy — but at the expense of the “truth” of Herman Melville’s life. The man is, from this distance, unknowable. Any biographical treatment can only hope to be, as Ishmael describes his unfinished record of all the world’s knowledge of whales, “but the draught of a draught.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Interview with Laura Hillenbrand

Reading this poignant interview with Laura Hillenbrand (author of the best-seller Seabiscuit and the newly published Unbroken) will make you stop whining about whatever sad writing woe you’re currently whining about. She suffers from such severe chronic fatigue syndrome that she wasn’t able to leave the house for two years…and even so, she kept researching and working on her book.

“In the carefully calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. On one day, she might agree to an interview but skip a shower. Energy is finite, and she typically has enough for one activity a day. She is constantly measuring herself, monitoring herself. She might write a bestseller - she might write two - but the ensuing fame will touch her only tangentially. She will not see her books in Barnes & Noble. She will not move into a bigger house; too much more space would be overwhelming.”

Read the rest of the Washington Post interview here.

A Contest for Query Letters

No big money—or glory—here but it might be interesting to send in your query letter to this contest to see where it stacks up:

Jane's Stories Press "Bite Size" Contest
Your query letter—whether to agent or editor—must be concise yet compelling. It may be the most challenging writing you do. Send us your best effort, in 200 words or less. Veteran and highly respected agent Jane Gelfman of Gelfman, Schneider Literary Agents, Inc. will make the final determination.

Submission deadline is January 31, 2011.
Winner will receive $25.00.
Judge's decision final.
No fee!

Entries accepted only through submishmash:

Monday, November 29, 2010


Instead of shopping like a “normal” American, I spent the days after Thanksgiving reading, and I felt fortunate to find two excellent books, that I highly recommend:

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is a memoir about the friendship between two women, one of whom dies quite suddenly and definitely too soon. The book is also about dogs, and the nature of story-telling, and alcoholism, and rowing…and I’m not particularly interested in dogs or rowing, yet I loved this book. The writing is clear, and the writer is honest and insightful. What I found most remarkable is Caldwell’s ability to avoid seeming overly sentimental as she describes the deep friendship shared by these women, even as she captures how remarkable (and enviable) this friendship was. The literature on grieving a lost friend is rather thin (IMHO), and so this book fills a certain need, and well beyond that, it’s a book I wish I had written, about women I wish I knew.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.

Read more from the book’s opening chapter here.
Washington Post review.

Room by Emma Donoghue
has turned into the “must read” book of the season (at least according to my Facebook feed!) and there’s good reason. It’s taut and gripping, horrifying and beautiful, tragic and redemptive—and, always, very, very smart. The premise is sraightforward—a young woman was kidnapped when she was 19 and has been held captive as a sex slave for 8 years; during this time she gives birth to a son, also held captive. But the execution is remarkable, since the point of view character is Jack, the five year old boy, who knows only this world: the 11 x 11 room and his Ma. The rest of the world is fake, glimpsed only on a ratty TV set. I can’t say much more because it’s the kind of book I read entirely in one sitting, my hand occasionally on the facing page so I wouldn’t accidentally see what happened too soon, and not only was I in tears, but I also laughed out loud. An extraordinary book.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven? Was I minus one, minus two, minus three--?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

“You said it.” Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

You can read sections of the book here (but the site is irritating to navigate).
Washington Post review.
(I’m a little jealous that the author reports here that she drafted the novel in only 6 months!)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Menu #3

Thanksgiving Aftermath
Friday, Saturday & Sunday

Sleep late
Read books and magazines
Eat leftovers with fingers
Stare at TV or firepit, depending on weather
Drink muchos martinis

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Menu #2

Thanksgiving Day
November 25, 2010

Spiced Nuts
Selection of Cheeses
Philly Sling

Roast Turkey
Cornbread Stuffing
Classic Cranberry Sauce
Whipped Potatoes & Gravy
Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions
Maple-Pecan Sweet Potatoes
Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne
Pinot Noir, Migration, Anderson Valley, 2005
Pinot Noir, Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley, 2007

Pumpkin Pie
Walnut Tart
Coffee & Tea

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Menu #1

Relaxed Cooking Night
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“Snack Mix” a la The Zebra Lounge, Chicago
Cocktails & Beer

Steve’s Birthday Meat Loaf
The Famous Green Bean Casserole
Tater Tots!!
Plenty o’ Red Wine

Surprises from The Dairy Godmother

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chicago: My Kind of Town

This will be a light blogging week as King Turkey (and his friends, Queen Stuffing and Lord Mashed Potatoes) take over my attention. But I did want to mention a few highlights of our long weekend in Chicago, where we attended the Northwestern vs. Illinois football game held at Wrigley Field:

First, the game itself: though my team lost (grr), it was exciting to attend such a notable game. The atmosphere was terrific, like a college bowl game, and so cool to see the usually-red Wrigley sign painted purple in honor of the Wildcats! Thanks, Valspar Paint, for sponsoring the paint job and especially thanks, Valspar Paint, for handing out those free seat cushions which greatly helped keep our fannies warm as the temperatures dropped during the second half of the game.

We were sitting in the end zone, which seemed like not very great seats until it was announced that because the football field had been shoehorned just barely onto the baseball field, all offense would be coming into the more spacious end zone, which was ours! So we saw a lot of touchdowns…too bad so many of them were for the Illini. An odd and interesting way to watch a football game.

We managed to find some amazing food in Chicago (duh):

--Small plates at The Purple Pig included a pork blade steak cooked in honey and pork shoulder braised in milk (sigh…), and a sauce for bread called “tomato gravy with pork neck bone.” Not everything was pork: great fried olives and excellent cheeses and wine. (Here’s the recipe for the pork in milk!)

--Steve couldn’t get enough of the pancakes at the Original Pancake House (located, oddly, in the Rush Street/Gold Coast area in a small, 1950’s era building). He had chocolate chip, and I had the pumpkin waffle (with whipped cream, of course!).

--We went out for a fancy dinner at a newish place, Henri, which was small but with an elegant décor. So new that the owner was still roaming around asking how people liked the food…very much (duck, Dover sole, sweetbread salad, smoked steak tartar, potato-raclette flatbread). And the drinks were inspired and well-crafted. The host spent several moments explaining how they made the sweet potato syrup in-house for my old-fashioned, and after I bemoaned that I would never have a sous vide machine at home, the waiter ran over to tell me that actually the price has come down and that I probably could get one for $100. So, a place where people CARE about food and drink!

--Which Chicago pizza to eat is always a pleasant dilemma to have, and this time we went to Lou Malnati’s for deep dish. Oh, yum. I’ll say two things: we waited an hour and didn’t even mind, and here’s something I overheard a man telling his son: “Yeah, it’s a giant sausage patty on top of the pizza, not those little dabs.” We took leftovers back to the hotel, and there’s nothing like Chicago pizza for breakfast before heading to the airport.

--We had fun at the Zebra Lounge, a divey piano bar with an infamous “snack mix” consisting of a delectable combination of Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, and pretzels. Online reviewers either love it or complain that it’s stale and tastes like “old man hands.” We loved it, and I’m serving it over the Thanksgiving weekend!

--Of course we stopped at Fannie May Candies for a box of Pixies and some caramels to take home…and the boxes even made it home, intact.

--There was more than eating and football. We rode the El up to Evanston so I could show Steve the Northwestern campus, which was beautiful under a sunny, bright blue sky. The students all looked stressed, but I was more relaxed than I’d ever been as a student, enjoying being an “adult” who could buy a bunch of purple attire at the bookstore and plop down a credit card and not fear that now I wasn’t going to be able to eat for a month.

--While I was a student, I worked in a family-run pizza take-out, and it was great to see that my old boss’s son is carrying on the family tradition in Evanston with his own sandwich/pizza shop, Rollin’ To Go, which he hopes to franchise soon. We had a nice chat about his dad—and I’m ready and waiting for Rollin' To Go to hit the East Coast.

--And the Art Institute: My God, that new Modern Wing is stunningly beautiful, and thoughtfully arranged, so that the art and views from the windows seem perfectly integrated. This may be sacrilegious, but I found the experience much more fulfilling than my recent visit to MoMA. Just…absolutely…perfect. We also loved the Chagall windows, now returned to the museum after an absence, and the serenity of the early American art room.

And now back home, and into the fray of family Thanksgiving…with so much to be grateful for.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Work in Progress: World's Best Stuffing...Still!

It’s getting to be that time…so here’s the recipe for my favorite stuffing. I’d like to say it’s as famous as Susan Stamberg’s famous cranberry relish (which I’ve never had—I’m kind of afraid of those onions), but I’ll say that my stuffing is almost as famous. Sort of. Anyway, it’s the best stuffing I’ve ever had, and I could eat it for dinner quite happily.

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from the still sorely-missed Gourmet magazine November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage. See the note below if you’d like to add the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.

Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Note: Here are the instructions if you want to add the sausage (and why not, come to think of it? Let’s live it up!): The recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. Add the sausage at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gatsby to Meet the Silver Screen...Again

Here’s a great article about why it’s impossible to capture The Great Gatsby on film:

“Fitzgerald uses bright shocks of colour and vivid juxtapositions to create impressions, not facts. Gatsby's greatness is measured by the intensity of his dreams, which provide him a "satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality". Try filming that.”

Read more. (Thanks to Susan S. for the link.)

Even though it’s impossible, director Baz Luhrmann is going to give it the old college try. Leonardo DiCaprio will play Gatsby and Toby Maguire has been cast as Nick (isn't he maybe a little old for that part?). And this just in, after a long search, Carey Mulligan will be playing Daisy, though to me she seems to be cast to play Mia Farrow, not Daisy. Oh, well…I’ll probably still go—but mostly for the popcorn and to admire the 1920s clothing and cars.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Help Struggling School Kids Learn to Write Online

My cousin in Illinois—who is, by the way, a fabulously avid reader!—told me about Write2Win, a new program that she’s recently become involved with. Such a great concept—helping kids with their school writing online, so as a volunteer you can live anywhere and work on your own schedule…while still making a difference in someone’s life. Here's some more information about the program, including contact info:

Writers and Editors: Will You Help Us?

Write2Win is a new nonprofit organization that brings the writing community into 6th-12th grade U.S. classrooms via email to provide personal mentoring to struggling students. Our goal is to make a difference by helping teachers and administrators who are working hard to turn around failing schools and galvanize effective educational innovation.

Low-achieving students in our Chicago and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pilot programs have been raising their writing grades an average of over 19% working with our editors’ one-on-one guidance. For many of them, this has been the difference between a D and a B! Teachers report that students look forward to their personal notes and encouragement each time they receive our edited files.

Too many of our young people are falling through the cracks of the public school system, and too many are dropping out or graduating with very low academic confidence. We want to help them succeed, and having strong writing skills leads to success, not only in college but in just about any career they might pursue.

To that end, we are asking everyone who has taught writing or made their living as a writer or editor to consider volunteering an hour or two a week (or even an hour or two a month). Joining our team of volunteer writers is easy, flexible, and absorbing. You will notify us when you are available to take on a few papers, with no pressure from us. We usually have four to five days' turnaround time, so our editors find it easy to fit this into their schedules.

Many of us enjoy reading the students' papers and finding creative ways to encourage and mentor them. I hope you will consider joining us. Please go to this page on our website to see our small but mighty (and growing) wall of heroes:

You can view and open sample edited papers from this link to see the color-coded system we use to provide guidance to the students:

Please write Linda Wolf at for more information on becoming part of our team. More info:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Author of ROOM to Speak at Politcs & Prose

Mark your calendars for this event from the Politics & Prose newsletter:

Thursday, December 9, 7 p.m.
ROOM: A Novel (Little, Brown, $24.99)
Emma Donoghue is a 2010 Man Booker Prize Finalist for her new novel ROOM. She beckons us down dark alleys to a place we would never intentionally go, as she tells this unthinkable story through the irrepressible and naive voice of five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in a single 11 x 11 room. His innocent depiction belies the horrid reality that exists for him and "Ma", his only friend, his teacher, and his protector from "Old Nick", who keeps them both captive in "Room".

Donoghue challenges the reader to relate to this situation in pragmatic and occasionally mundane terms. The magic lies in crafting an intimate story of a mother, a son, and how they cope, support each other, and survive in this confined space. Jack's narrative reveals how much "Room" forces the characters to change, and details the challenging process of individuation and recovery from trauma and deprivation. Donoghue's skillful storytelling reveals her characters' confusion and resilience, and will have you caring and rooting for them as they deal with this life they never chose. - Bill Leggett

Politics & Prose is located at:
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Directions to the store
202-364-1919 • 800-722-0790

Night of 100 Poes in Baltimore

The only thing better that 100 Poes would be 101 Poes…so I wish I could attend this event: Night of 100 Poes (as in Edgar Allan) in Baltimore. Attendees are encouraged (though not required) to dress as Poe and along with the costume contest, the program includes:

The Tell-Tale Heart
The Black Cat (starring Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff)
The Masque of the Red Death (starring Vincent Price)
Panel Discussion

When: Saturday, November 20, at the University of Maryland’s School of Law—reservations and details here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Michelle Brafman on Literary Matchmaking

Michelle Brafman and I met several years ago, and our paths keep crossing at various literary events. Most recently, it was at a book party this summer when she told me about her interest in literary matchmaking, as aptly described below. When I followed up to ask if she’d like to write a guest post, she matched me up with Homestead by Rosina Lippi…so she really means business! (I was less deft, ham-fistedly insisting she read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver simply because that's the book I tell everyone they need to read.)

Literary Matchmaking
By Michelle Brafman

I met my husband through my friend Amy, a skilled matchmaker who was much better at identifying the man who would complete me than I was. I've since tried to repay my karmic debt by playing cupid, without success, so instead I've strived to become an accomplished literary matchmaker.

First, let me define a literary match. It's the book that will crack your heart open and follow you around for days. You'll find a way to mention your literary match while discussing the mundane, a killer sale at Macy's, Metro delays, or today's NASDAQ. David Grossman describes this phenomenon in his essay "Books That Have Read Me" in recounting his discovery of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, "I read the book over the course of one day and night in a total frenzy of the senses, and my feeling -- which now slightly embarrasses me-- will be familiar to anyone who has been in love: it was the knowledge that this other person or thing was meant only for me."

There's more than one way to find a literary match. I've stumbled upon matches at the library, bookstore, and through blog posts like Work In Progress's guest piece by Rebecca Thomas. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is also a wonderful resource. My best writing instructors have implored me to read outside of my comfort zone. The right book at the right time can forge a new pathway in my brain by modeling a technique or an effect just out of my grasp. Under duress, I read Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno, and I'll be darned if two weeks later I finally fixed a short story I'd been endlessly revising by trying one of Hemon's inventive narrative structures.

My favorite way to find a literary match is through a literary matchmaker. They come in all forms, but they share an ability to listen articulately to the stories you tell, on and off the page. After my walking buddy and writer Melinda listened to me describe the precipitating event in the novel I was writing, she told me about the fatal snowball thrown in Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy. I immediately inhaled the book and came away with a sense of the resonance I was seeking with my own snowball. My friend Margaret, a former professor and matchmaker extraordinaire, would scribble suggestions of stories at the bottom of my critiques. She introduced me to many works, including filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan's Night In Tunisia which she intuited would help me bridge the gap between my filmmaking and emerging writing skills.

Now I teach creative writing, and I find myself scrawling similar "you might want to read . . . " notes on my students critiques. Of course I have my stand-bys -- Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for the coming of age novel, Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Jamaica Kincaid's' "Girl" for the interior monologue-- and if they're brave enough to try the omniscient point of view, I direct them to The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (compliments of Margaret). My heart starts pumping wildly, however, when I've gotten inside one of their stories and found their Bruno Schulz or Robertson Davies.

At the end of the semester, I distribute a list of my matches to the class. I don't expect to hear from my students about my selections, but I hope they'll stumble upon my match at some point and discover the message I've placed in a bottle. If a student asks for a letter of recommendation, I'll peek back at the book I suggested, and he or she will materialize right in front of me.

Recently a friend pointed out that I often respond in a conversation with the question, "Do you know what book you might like?" Guilty as charged. I often find myself scanning my internal library for a narrative that responds to an experience they've shared or a writer who I think will make them laugh or perhaps entertain them during a long plane ride.

Amy, whom I met because she was coincidentally reading a favorite book of mine at the time, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, is modest about her string of successful matches. But I tell my children that they wouldn't exist had it not been for Amy. I don't pretend that my literary matchmaking can rival her feat. The right book, however, can midwife a living, breathing story or novel that if you're lucky will become someone's literary match.

Resources: (David Grossman) (Francine Prose) (Jamaica Kincaid) (The Beautiful Mrs. S.),,9780143105145,00.html (Bruno Shulz)

About: Michelle Brafman is a writer and teacher. Her short fiction has received numerous honors including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and she's hard at work on her first novel, Washing the Dead. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland, with her husband and two children. For more information:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Top Lit Journal Markets for Fiction

Cliff Garstang, at the blog Perpetual Folly has posted his annual fiction “ranking” of literary journals, based on the new edition of the Pushcart Prizes. While he notes the subjectivity inherent in “ranking” journals, it’s hard to argue too heatedly about this sensible and consistent methodology:

“This ranking, on the other hand, is extremely simple. I look at the annual volume of Pushcart Prize winners and the list of Special Mentions included in the back of the volume. I award a certain number of points for a winner and fewer points for a special mention. I add up the points and make a list.”

The points are kept cumulatively, for ten years.

Top five:
Tin House
Southern Review

Check out the entire list here, and consider where you’d like your work to appear.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sonya Chung on Writing & Teaching Writing

Writer Sonya Chung:

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer” – I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing – “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”


The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all.


When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea or craft strategy, and that student eagerly seeks out / ravenously consumes those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down my suggestions – doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is – then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.

Read the rest of this excellent essay about writing and teaching writing in The Millions.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Richmond: My Grand Tour

We had one of those weekend trips where you’re sure that you’ve been away for much, much longer and that you’ve been much, much farther away than 90 miles south on I-95. So, Steve had a business trip in Richmond, Virginia, and I got to tag along, and here are the highlights:

--We stayed in the magnificent Jefferson Hotel, opened in 1895 and costing between $5 and $10 million to build and furnish…quite a pretty penny back then. The usual assortment of presidents have stayed there, but I was more intrigued to learn that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were guests (hope they didn’t dance in the fountain while the alligators lived there; yes, the hotel kept alligators for a while) as were Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley “who enjoyed a breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy, milk, no coffee, and home fries, capped off with a scoop of ice cream in cantaloupe.” Also, according to the website, Sergei Rachmaninoff played in The Grand Ballroom and one of the world's most famous dancers, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, was "discovered" as he waited tables in the dining room. (More on the hotel’s history is here.)

The hotel lobby was magnificent, and the ballroom and meeting rooms instantly put “perfect for a wedding” in your mind. Even the gift shop was delightful, already decorated for Christmas. The group had one dinner in the hotel, and instead of being the dreaded “hotel buffet,” the food was truly excellent—it’s always exciting to see macaroni and cheese show up as a side dish; the salad area featured duck confit…yes, as much as you dared to load on your lettuce!; and the peanut cake was a perfect dessert, seeming both light and rich simultaneously. I also liked the cauliflower and artichoke casserole, a surprisingly nice combination.

--I went on the “spouse tour” which was a 2-hour tour of the city followed by a whirlwind visit to the newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Obviously, Richmond has a long, tangled history—not only as the capital of the Confederacy, but as a money town thanks to tobacco, and even a hotbed of revolution during the Revolutionary War years (we saw the church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech). I would also recommend a visit to the large Holly-Wood Cemetery, where lots of famous people are buried as well as the less famous—unknown confederate soldiers, and a touching memorial to them. I hadn’t realized the James River is well-known to kayakers, boasting the only Level 4 and 5 rapids in a city. I learned about a zillion more things about this fascinating city.

We had a highlights tour of the art museum, which worked for the group, though it was tempting to linger and explore more. I was in heaven in a room filled with Tiffany glass, including an outrageous punch bowl that I imagined seeing on my Thanksgiving spread. And I’d never seen Faberge eggs before—not a surprise, since only 50 were made and no one knows where 10 of them are now. But the museum is rightly famous for its collection. I especially loved the clear egg made of polished quartz; push the 7- carat emerald on top and tiny paintings of castles spin around. And they say the czars weren’t in touch with the peasants?

--A writer friend then gave me a very personalized tour of the funky neighborhood of Carytown, filled with restaurants, boutiques, shops, and a grand old movie theatre. We stopped at the wonderful (and happily busy) bookstore Chop Suey Books, which has new and used books and a cute-but-aloof cat named WonTon who ignored me from his tucked-up pose inside a too-small cardboard box next to the cash register (not even a Faberge egg would have turned his head). I was excited to find a signed edition of Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies. Also notable and not to be missed was the world’s most amazing candy store, For the Love of Chocolate….I know I throw around superlatives, but this store was overwhelming, with literally every form and brand of chocolate you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m pretty sure that you could eat one thing a day and not have to repeat for several years. (If anyone wants to run that experiment, sign me up.) Inhaling the intoxicating spices at Penzey’s Spices was another rush.

--On the way back to Alexandria, Steve and I stopped for Sunday brunch at the The Black Sheep (recommended by my writer friend), which is in an old storefront in the middle of a transitional neighborhood near VCU. What a meal! We were unable to decide what to order, so we over-ordered, getting biscuits and gravy, pot roast hash, and a fried bologna sandwich (which was somewhat like a muffuletta). Then we bought some biscuits to take home. I’ll just say this: when you drive up and see people standing outside in the cold, waiting for a table, you know the food has to be good. Worth the wait—coffee on the patio helped keep us warm—and already I’m dreaming of going back for dinner, or for those other items I had to pass by on the brunch menu. And what about those 2 feet long sub sandwiches...? All I could do was watch them pass by, destined for other tables and other bellies, alas.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guest in Progress: Marty Rhodes Figley on Finding the Story in History

Marty Rhodes Figley is funny, smart, generous, kind, and can make perfect pie crust without following a recipe or cursing even once (not that she would ever curse…I’m the one who does that at stubborn piecrust). I love this piece about finding the person behind the man, so to speak—and this reminder that there are stories everywhere, usually in the details.

Writing about History ­– Why do I keep falling for these really old guys?
By Marty Rhodes Figley

It started in college when I was assigned to write a report on Charlemagne. I ended up liking the guy, a lot.

Our Medieval Studies professor asked us to analyze courtier Einhard’s biography of his friend, the King of the Franks. Who was the real Charlemagne?

I already knew that in 782 this man was responsible for the beheading of 4,500 rebellious Saxons. He was a bloodthirsty despot. What more did I need to know? Yes, Charlemagne unified Western Europe and initiated all kinds of reforms. For a while he took the “dark” out of the Dark Ages. But, still . . .

Einhard wrote that Charlemagne was tall, with lively eyes, and good hair. He wore a blue cloak, and of course, a sword with a gold or silver hilt. He loved to swim and eat lots roast beef, even though his doctors advised him not to. He adored women– many, many women. He had at least eighteen children with his assorted wives and lovers. He educated his daughters, but kept them close to home. They were never allowed to marry, although Charlemagne was accommodating to their “common-law husbands.” When gossips told him tales of his daughters’ wild behavior, he refused to believe them. He was a doting grandfather to his many grandchildren.

Well! Even after analyzing Einhard’s writing it was hard to ignore that the despot was actually human, and a rather charming one at that! Perhaps because of clouded judgment over my new found affection for the man, the dubious title of my paper was “Charlemagne: His Only Vice Was Roast Beef.”

Over the years I’ve written numerous historical fiction and nonfiction books for children. During my research I spend a lot of time with my subjects. It’s hard not to become attached.

My new book on Lincoln and the telegraph was published this summer. I have always admired Abraham Lincoln, the skilled, sophisticated, compassionate leader who led our country during the Civil War. (Love the television ad for Geico where Lincoln hesitates, then finally agrees with his wife, Mary, when she asks if her backside looks a little wide in her dress. Good old honest Abe.)

During the Civil War, Lincoln spent many hours at the telegraph office. He developed a friendly relationship with the telegraphers who worked there. Many of the operators were barely out of their teens. Fifteen-year-old Willie Kettles, the youngest telegrapher working at the War Department Telegraph Office, took the important message that Richmond fell.

As I perused the massive amount of materials available on Lincoln, I was on the lookout for an appropriate joke he actually told. I wanted to use it to lighten the tone of my telegraphy book, and to show that humorous side of Lincoln to my young readers. Lincoln employed humor as a political tool, as a smokescreen, and also in kindness, to smooth feathers and to defuse tense situations. I love a man with a sense of humor.

My admiration of Lincoln, the humor-wielding warrior/politician grew during my research, but it didn’t change that dramatically from how I had originally viewed him. That’s not the case with the main subject of the book I just finished writing.

When an editor asked if I would like to write a book on William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania, I had preconceived ideas about the man. He was the chubby, paternal looking Quaker on the oatmeal box. So boring – like a bowl of bland carbohydrates.

I found out that William was a dashing cavalier in his youth. He wore a sword and knew how to use it. (Hmm, another guy with a sword.) When he was twenty-two William fought bravely and helped put down an uprising at a military post in Ireland. The Duke of Ormond was so impressed that he wrote to William’s father recommending young William pursue a military career.

As a newly convinced, but not totally peace-loving Quaker, one night William attended one of their meetings in Cork, Ireland. These religious meetings were illegal at the time. A soldier burst through the door, intent on causing mischief. William grabbed the man by the collar, and was ready to throw him out. His pacifist Quaker friends subdued the young convert.

William was a fiery rebel who wrote defiant, contentious religious tracts that resulted in his being thrown in prison over and over again.

The founder of Pennsylvania was athletic and fleet of foot. When he visited the Native Americans’ homes he joined their games and ran footraces with the braves.

Later in life William fought the middle age spread like anyone else, though it’s doubtful that he was a corpulent as he was portrayed in his later years.

My historical investigations have given me lots of pleasure and surprises. These were fascinating, impressive, romantic men. My husband complains that it’s hard to compete with powerful, successful, safely dead patriarchs. Maybe I should get him a sword. . . .

About: Marty Rhodes Figley loves to write humor and history. Her latest children's books are John Greenwood's Journey to Bunker Hill and President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine. Her book on William Penn will be published in 2012.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lan Samantha Chang and Her "Secret Project"

I saw my friend Lan Samantha Chang read on Monday night. Her new book, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, is about two poets who meet in an MFA workshop taught by a charismatic professor. I haven’t read the whole book, but the opening chapter Sam read was compelling enough to make me continue on my metro ride home, and I’m quite eager to see what happens to the young men and to see how questions about the role of art in contemporary society play out.

One thing that Sam said about the process of writing the book--her third--resonated with me. During the Q&A, I asked if it was hard writing about writers, considering that she knows so many (she’s the director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and she told the audience that for a long time this book about the poets was “a secret project.” No one knew this is what she was writing; she had another third novel that she felt she was going to write. Yet she kept returning to this one. Finally, she showed her manuscript to a trusted reader who said, “Actually, this is your new novel.”

The secret genesis seemed very important here. When I commented, later, that in many ways the “secret project” might seem more like the process of writing a first novel, the book that you’re not sure anyone will read, she agreed, which made me think about the things I’ve been working on lately, sort of in secret, and how pleasurable they are to me, partly because I have no plans or intentions for them, and there are certainly no expectations: not even my own. I’m just…writing. For fun. And it is definitely fun to have a secret.

And, this is a giant step away from where I am or from Sam’s comments, but this conversation also reminded me of that old question: What would you write about if you knew that no one would read it? (And by “no one,” the question really means the people you’re worried about getting hurt by and/or angry about your story/poem/memoir.) Identify that story—and once you do, it’s hard not to suddenly see the ways it’s crept into your work anyway…and it’s hard to keep holding it back. And maybe you shouldn’t? Maybe that story could be YOUR secret project. After all, who will know but you?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Local Notes: DC-Area Events

--The Writer’s Center is offering a chance to win a free registration to the big confab of writers, the AWP Conference, which descends upon DC in early February 2011. Here’s the info from their newsletter:

To enter the AWP registration contest, you must be a current member of The Writer’s Center. If you are interested in attending the conference for free, register for a Winter/Spring workshop before November 15. Then write a 50 word précis explaining why you deserve to go for free. In it, please explain how the conference will help you enhance your writing career. If you are not a member but still wish to enter the contest, please click here to join:

Please e-mail ( your précis by November 15. Winners will be notified via e-mail on Friday, November 19.

--The Baltimore Writers’ Conference is set for November 19 & 20 at Towson University. The keynote speaker will be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck, Purple Hibiscus, and Half of a Yellow Sun. She will give a reading on Friday, November 19, at 8:00 PM in Lecture Hall 238. For more details, including an excellent line-up of presenters, please go here.

-- And here’s an interesting event about a hot topic, sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA):

In Between the Panels: DC's Emergence on the Graphic Novel Scene
A Panel Discussion

When: Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: Busboys & Poets, 5th & K Streets location
Cost: FREE and open to the public

About the panel:
Carolyn Belefski is the mastermind behind the web comic Curls. She is also one of the creators of several other comic books: Kid Roxy, Black Magic Tales, and The Legettes, and an indefatigable (nightly) poster to her blog, Sketch Before Sleep. Her work has appeared in USA WEEKEND Magazine, The Commonwealth Times, Virginia Living Magazine, Magic Bullet, CROQ Zine, and The Pulse on Ms. Belefski is a nominee for the Kim Yale Award for Most Talented Newcomer for 2010.

Matt Dembicki is a DC-based cartoonist whose work includes the award-winning nature parable Mr. Big, The Great White Shark Story, Xoc, and The Brewmaster's Castle, about legendary DC brewer Christian Heurich. His latest anthology, Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection, has received rave reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal and has been nominated as one of the Young Adult Library Services Association's 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. In addition to his own work, Dembicki also hosts kids' workshops in the DC area and beyond on making comic books.

Molly Lawless, a Boston native, moved to the DC area in 2005. She has self-published mini comics as well as a compilation, Infandum! Ad Infinitum. She is currently working on a full-length graphic novel for McFarland Publishing titled Hit by Pitch. She is an avid blogger and includes stories about her family in her daily posts.

Mike Rhode, panel moderator, is co-author of the comics research bibliography, editor of Exhibition and Media Reviews for the International Journal of Comic Art, and a contributing writer for Hogan's Alley. In 2008, he was named Best (Comics) Art Blogger by the Washington City Paper for his Comics DC blog. Rhodes edited Harvey Pekar: Conversations, a book of interviews with the late underground comic book writer and author of American Splendor published by the University Press of Mississippi. He has written for the Comics Journal and was selected as an RFK Journalism Awards judge for the editorial cartoon division of Comics Journal in 2009 and 2010.Rhodes currently writes about comics for the City Paper.

For more information on the panel, please see our events page:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Novel Contest for VA Writers

I’m stealing this article about a novel contest for Virginia writers from the James River Writers’ newsletter:

Got manuscript?
The 2011 Best Unpublished Novel Contest from James River Writers and Richmond magazine.

by Ellen Brown

In 2007, James River Writers joined forces with Richmond magazine to unearth the best unpublished novel in the Commonwealth. We suspected there were a few dusty old manuscripts sitting around waiting for the chance to be discovered. We were right. And then some.

The first Best Unpublished Novel, or "BUN" contest, and the second and third ones that followed in 2008 and 2009 were rousing successes. Aspiring authors across the state bombarded us with manuscripts. Not only were writers given a chance to bring attention to their work, the money raised by submission fees went to good use supporting JRW's student writing contests. Perhaps most exciting, one 2008 finalist, Kit Wilkinson, found a publisher for her entry and is now looking forward to publication of her second novel.

Now is the time to polish that manuscript you've toiled away on and enter the fourth BUN contest. Here are the details you need to know to enter.

Prizes for Top Three Finalists: First prize: $500, publication of an excerpt in Richmond magazine, a ticket to the 2011 James River Writers conference, and feedback on the manuscript. The two other finalists will each receive $200. Winners will be announced in spring 2011.

Entry fee: $25. Checks should be made out to James River Writers.

How to Submit: Send your entry fee and the first 50 pages of your previously unsubmitted manuscript (full manuscript requested if entry passes first round of judging) by Dec. 15, 2010 (postmark deadline) to:

Richmond Magazine, Best Unpublished Novel Contest 2011, 2201 W. Broad St., Suite 105, Richmond, VA 23220

Rules of the road: Each submission must have a cover sheet with the author's name, contact information and the novel's title. Include email, snail mail address, and phone. The author's name can appear only on this cover sheet, not on any other pages. Manuscripts will be disqualified if submitted with authors' names or other identifying information on any page other than the cover sheet.

Each page of the manuscript must have the title in the upper left corner, page numbers in the upper right, double-spaced, one-inch margins, Times New Roman or Arial font, size 12. This is a fiction contest. Richmond magazine and JRW employees and board members cannot enter.

To submit an entry, the author must be a resident of Virginia, a student at a Virginia college or university, or a member of JRW. An excerpt from the winning manuscript will be published in the July 2011 issue of Richmond magazine. Submissions will be returned only if accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope (optional).

The Meaning of Life

I liked this piece from Buzz, Balls & Hype about focusing your life on the activities that are important to you:

“Imaginative writing, acting, and singing fell into an uncomfortable nether region. They weren’t real work from my parents’ perspective, because they were unlikely to be lucrative. Yet they weren’t exactly recreational, because they demanded time and effort. In the final analysis they were classified as “that nonsense” and dismissed.

“But I’m finding that, for me, “that nonsense” is exactly what gives meaning to my life: work that is so engaging that the goal itself becomes less important than the process of trying.”

Read on here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guest in Progress: Carollyne Hutter on the Art of the Impossible

I love that my post inspired this excellent piece by writer Carollyne Hutter. Truly words to take forward with you today and onwards:

Doing the Impossible
By Carollyne Hutter

I want to follow up on Leslie’s excellent piece on Not Failing Better*, but Simply Failing by discussing doing the impossible. As writers, we are often told through articles, friends, writers, and others, that many things we want to do are impossible, whether it’s a style issue or being successful in a field.

We need to face these walls of so-called impossible and then tear them down. This happened recently in another area of my life.

When I was in college, I visited my brother in Germany and signed up for German classes there. Before I began the classes, my brother said: “It’s impossible for a nonnative German speaker to write well in German. You and I will never be able to do it.” Being that this came from my older, wiser brother, I took the words to heart.

When I returned to US, I was able to place in advanced German classes, where I excelled at speaking and reading German. But not at writing German. How could I? I knew it was an impossible task.

I continued my academic German studies through graduate studies in international relations at Johns Hopkins. Again I excelled at speaking and reading German. But not at writing German. How could I? I knew it was an impossible task.

This summer, I met an old friend for coffee in Munich. I hadn’t seen him in years and he told me he’s now working for the city of Munich.

I nodded encouragingly at him, thinking how I would enjoy speaking German regularly. But then panic seized me. My friend is British; his mother tongue is English. If he works for the city of Munich, at the very least he has to write memos or e-mails in German. The impossible task!

When I asked him whether he has to write in German, he nonchalantly responded, “Yes.”

Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s no big deal.” He paused for a moment and said. “I took classes.”

I stared at him and thought: I took classes, too. From the best universities in the nation. But the reason why I never conquered written German was because in my mind it was always impossible.

And with my friend’s words, an obstacle, a huge wall, which had stood in the path before I even started on the journey, was removed.

As writers, we all encounter these impossible walls. Close your eyes. I bet you can think of at least three things that someone told you or you read were impossible for a writer to do. Write them down.

Now think of three people who overcame these obstacles. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Impossible: You can’t be a good fiction writer without great descriptions.
Who overcame this: The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has minimal writing with almost no descriptions, and yet he creates vivid scenes.

2. Impossible: You can’t be a good writer and be good at technology.
Who overcame this: My friend Rebecca Flowers is an enormously talented writer and loves technology; she’s totally comfortable with it. She even produces her own radio pieces.

3. Impossible: You can’t be a good nonfiction and fiction writer.
Who overcame this: Ernest Hemingway was both a successful journalist and a trailblazing novelist.

So next time someone tells you that it’s impossible for a writer to do this or that, just shrug your shoulders like my friend did and say, “That’s no big deal.”

And remember what the Queen told Alice in Alice in Wonderland:

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." (From Through the Looking Glass).

About: When she’s not thinking of impossible things to do, Carollyne Hutter is a freelance writer/editor/communications manager in the Washington, DC area, specializing in environmental, health, and international development topics. She also enjoys writing fiction for adults and children (early readers, picture books, and young-adult novels). Please visit her website— — to learn more. You can contact Carollyne at

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New York City, No Holds Barred: Part 2

More about our recent vacation….

First, just a quick note about yesterday’s post: going to the Metropolitan Opera does not have to bust your budget. If you’re willing to wait in line, there are same-day rush tickets available in the orchestra that cost only $20. And there’s a standing area. And obstructed view areas. However you get there, do get there.

Also to note: Did you notice that we skipped dinner on the night of the opera? That’s another reason we don’t each weigh 1000 pounds right now.

And, on with the self-indulgent rest of it:

I wanted to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibit at MoMA—Steve didn’t think he wanted to see it, but we decided that he did. It was nice—some amazing pictures (duh)—but, to be honest, I was slightly disappointed. This is one of my favorite periods of art, so I was expected to be wowed. Part of the problem is inherent in these sorts of exhibits: TOO MANY PEOPLE! It was very crowded, and I’m happy for people to be enjoying and learning about masterworks…but I’m less enthused about people pushing their way through, pointing and quickfire snapping their cellphones at each painting, one after the other. Really? Is that the best way to experience art? Ugh. Then Steve wanted to see some photographs, and I was very pleased to stumble into a wonderful exhibit about female photographers. Some really amazing stuff—and shameful that I was unfamiliar with many of the photographers. I would recommend that show for sure.

Lunch (finally!)—well, okay, there had been a babka muffin from Barney Greengrass to tide us over (and the bowl of hotel chocolates). We went down to the Village to the original John’s Pizza (established 1929), which was as excellent as we’d remembered. Medium or large? You can guess—and we ate the whole thing!

Time to walk off our lunch. We strolled over to the new High Line Park, built on old, elevated train tracks. What a masterful concept, and a beautiful park. I’m no gardening expert, but the grasses and flowers seemed exceptionally well-chosen. No dogs and no bikes made for a pleasant strolling experience. The park is only partially completed at this point, and I’m looking forward to a return visit.

More walking—all the way back to midtown. (A fashion note: black boots everywhere.) Then a stop at Zibetto Espresso Bar (truly, just a tiny shop and a bar—no tables) for great espresso drinks. I’m not normally a big coffee drinker, but even I could tell this was several cuts above the rest. I liked that there was only one size—as in, “this is the proper size for a cappuccino, not that giant behemoth sold in the chains.” No soy milk, no half this, and literally I was afraid to order decaf—which didn’t matter, because such a pleasing size, and such good coffee, did not turn me jittery.

I went to one of my secret fantasy stores, Bergdorf Goodman (founded in 1899), where I was eyed by the security guards, but I still had a lovely time, especially when I discovered the Christmas shop and had a fun time selecting a black and white cookie ornament, which the very kind sales clerk put in a beautiful silver box, in a lavender shopping bag. Take that, security people! I’m not a shoplifter, but a SHOPPER! And it was fun to spy on the woman shopping for a Judith Leiber bag…I like the tiger, myself. (Note: Very nice bathrooms, and a cute little restaurant/bar on the seventh floor with windows overlooking the park. I’ll be back!) And what store still has a stationery department (bookmarks = $15)?

Back to the room, and a little champagne before dolling up for our big dinner at La Grenouille (opened in 1962), a French restaurant in midtown famous for its flowers and high society vibe. I will say that walking into the packed townhouse dining room—noisy, powerful feeling—even though we looked great (if I do say so)—was a bit intimidating. But the restaurant people were gracious, and the minute I got my first dish—Les Quenelles de Brochet "Lyonnaise" (like a lush, fish mousse, made of pike and about a quart of cream), served on an eye-catching black plate—I relaxed, because the food was AMAZING! So rich and creamy…ummmm, I lapped it all up—and the following lamb chops and Grand Marnier soufflé were also incredible. Steve had foie gras and then the best Dover sole on earth (really; so moist and flawless). His calvados soufflé was less successful, but fortunately there was a “free” plate of cookies to ease the pain. Such a delectable dinner and experience.

Back to the King Cole Bar, where we almost witnessed a bar fight!

The next morning…and I’m not sure I dare reveal this, but Steve is a secret fan of "The Today Show" (though he’s the kind of fan who more times than not complains about how vapid the show is…even as he keeps watching; he can also do an excellent Ann Curry imitation). So, we didn’t kill ourselves getting up early, but we got up early for us and went over to Rockefeller Plaza (where I did my “30 Rock” opening credit imitation too many times to count). We hung out with the crowds screaming “We want Matt!” and were almost on TV; the camera swerved away just before it got to us, though we didn’t take it personally. And we saw Matt and Natalie come outside for one segment.

Then we took the super-fast elevator 70 stories up to the Top of the Rock, a great place to view the skyscrapers, as there are several outside observation levels and way shorter entrance lines than at the Empire State Building. The day was clear, and the friendly guard pointed out the Tappan Zee Bridge way off in the distance—something he said wasn’t often visible.

I have a secret fascination with Kathie Lee and Hoda, so we watched their show getting filmed for a short time; Kathie Lee got her hair sprayed about every two seconds. Then we couldn’t remember where our favorite Japanese pastry shop was located, but happily we were steered to a branch of Magnolia Bakery, where we bought some cupcakes for later. Another stop for cappuccino at “our” place, and then back to the hotel to get ready for our late lunch.

Steve had been to Keen’s Steakhouse (since 1885) for business lunches several times and wanted me to see it. It’s a manly place, with thousands and thousands (yes, really) of clay pipes hanging from the ceiling. Dark and woody, it’s just the place for a hunk of meat and a stiff drink. I had the “legendary” mutton chop, which looked like something Wilma Flintstone would cook up for Fred—and it was delicious, though a bit tricky to manage. Steve got a giant filet. We were too stuffed for dessert, but also too curious to pass up Red Berry Bibble—which was a light, lovely compote of strawberries, raspberries, and cherries and a teeny layer of cream. We really didn’t want to say goodbye, so we stepped into the adjoining bar, enticed by the menu of MORE THAN 250 single malt scotches!! The very helpful bartender steered us to some good selections, and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so, drowsing, sipping, and digesting.

Walking, poking in stores, and finally back to the room to relax before heading out to the late show at The Algonquin Hotel (now owned by the Marriott, but the lobby cat is still there!). Playing at the Oak Room was Karen Akers, someone I’d longed to see back in the days when she was a regular in DC. And here she was, singing a tribute to Rodgers and Hart! There is definitely something to that whole spontaneity thing…. Lucky for us (but not for her, probably) there were only about 15 people in the room, so it was like having a private concert. Especially memorable were her versions of “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” She was fantastic! (Note that there was no dinner, only sharing a very embarrassing cheese plate with cheese that would be better off in a mousetrap.)

Oh, no…the dreaded day of departure. Packing, finishing up the bowl of chocolates, stealing all the very cool St. Regis swizzle sticks, and then one last New York meal: Shun Lee Palace (established 1971), an elegant Chinese restaurant with excellent, caring service. Steve is not always a fan of Chinese food, but he loves this place. We shared some steamed dumplings, a one-person size portion of Beijing duck and something called Crispy Prawns with XO Sauce—all of it fantastic and beautifully presented.

But wait: One last stop before hopping on the train. Carnegie Deli (opened in 1937) for four black and white cookies and some rye bread to take home. Outside on the sidewalk, quick discussion and a return trip inside: cookies, bread AND also now please add a pound of corned beef. Finally, our trip was complete.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.