I know last week was a sh*tshow, and this week, all bets are off. I’ve rewritten the paragraph below again and again. Whatever’s going on in Congress when this lands in your inbox, well… what I say below is still the truth. I hope what I offer is a tiny respite. 20 January, I see you.
Welcome to Part 2! This is my salutation in lieu of Happy New Year. Of course I wish you all happiness in the new year, but I’m also managing expectations. We’re still in it. Part 2 promises to be better than Part 1, no doubt. We’re on the cusp of a new and healthy government 🤞🏼, we have multiple vaccines coming at us, but there’s going to be some continued suffering. Please, mask up, wash your hands, stay safe. The more we do all of that, the sooner we get to Part 3, which is going to be so much damn fun. Can you imagine? Invite friends to dinner! Hug your mother! Send your kids to actual school! See live music, order a cocktail at a bar, dine out! Hang on, it’s coming!
Somehow I’ve re-upped my reading mojo. It happened suddenly and thoroughly and I’m so glad. I worried my attention span had been forever atrophied. Along with my renewed hunger for reading, I’ve built a read.write.eat bookshop. You can find many of the books I suggest all in one place. In the coming weeks I’ll be loading the shelves with books from two years of newsletters.
First, I read Monogamy, by Sue Miller. I’ve been a Miller fan since young motherhood. I loved her novels about contemporary families that were all taking place about a decade ahead of my own family. I read about school-aged kids when mine were babies, I read about teenagers and empty nesters when I was a few years behind. I read with an eye toward the nuances of family life, all her BIG plot dramas (molestation, car accidents, arsonists) were propulsive, but I was interested, as an only child of a single mom, in the shades of family life. Monogamy is also decades (please dear god) ahead of my life. The novel is about Annie, who loses her husband early on in the novel, the story then weaves slowly and beautifully through time, grief, and a posthumous discovery of betrayal. The POV shifts often, as if to say, all of us in this soupy human experience are worthy of our own novels.
I also read (well, listened to the audiobook), Long Bright River, by Liz Moore. I snagged the book off President Obama’s fav list, and man-0-man, am I glad I did. What a gorgeous novel. I rooted for almost all the characters. A crime drama about serial murders, bad cops, marginalized women, drug addiction, a single mom, and family—those we are born into and those we build on our own. It was a beautiful and important book. As a side note, the last novel I read by Liz Moore was Heft. Another book I loved, about an oversized man and second chances.
Finally, I’ve just read How To Write One Song, by Jeff Tweedy. WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I have never listened to Wilco, so his music didn’t draw me to the book. If you are a creative, whether you want to write a song, a poem, a story, Tweedy is so smart. I suggest you listen, as he narrates and is unassuming, charming. Plus, if you do like his music, he strums and sings. At the end, any reader will be on team Tweedy.
I’m in the midst of revising my story collection… yes, again. I’ve amassed some interesting notes, some helpful notes, as well as some glib toss-offs: kill a character, create more plot drama (see Sue Miller above), make me care…(ouch!). I’ve been thinking about the sting of that last one. I’m reading a book right now, actually I’ve been reading it for about a month. I just cannot get through it. This is a book by an author I usually love.
The novel is modern day Jane Austin, rife with family troubles, bad marriages, single women trying to fit into narrow confines of acceptability, aging, grief. The writer then layers on a transgender teen, a grandma who comes out to her family, a bullied child… I know! What’s not to love? But I cannot get through it. I reach for my phone and scroll, scroll, scroll rather than read. Which led me to wonder, is the real world so fraught that the woes in the novel are just too pedestrian right now? How can a gay grandma compete with a pandemic and sedition and economic collapse and rampant racism? Plus, everything is so easy for these characters, all white, all economically comfy, and everything is resolved so swiftly.
What I ultimately realized is that I just don’t care enough about them. I need them to have more to struggle against, more ways in which they don’t feel seen, known, safe, more things to overcome, even if the obstacle is internal. Tensions and obstacles don’t have to be Sue Miller-esque (molestation, arson, car accidents), but there must be some greater tests, some deeper losses, through which the characters reveal their mettle. We’re all alive. We all know loss, struggle, pain… I want characters to know it too. Then I don’t feel so sorry for myself, so alone! Right?
I don’t know who needs to hear this: make your characters suffer so your readers can be invested and care. There. Oh, I guess the audience was ME. Thank you, for letting me beat myself up a little bit, give myself a pep talk! Hope it helped you as well.
In 2021 I will be offering a monthly zoom workshop series, Let’s Talk: Craft Talks for Writers. One Saturday each month we’ll meet and discuss craft: scene writing, characterization, setting, plot, dialog, etc… There will be readings, handouts, exercises and opportunities to share some work. If you’re interested in learning more about these monthly 2.5 hour conversations, dm me and I’ll send you information.
Each year I set myself up with a goal, not a resolution. They’ve been things like, bake a cake a month, write a fan letter once a month, banish random and unsightly chin hair (my poor grandma was forever with a tweezer in her hand).
This year, I’ve decided to take a deep dive into one cookbook each month, preparing as many recipes as possible. For January, I’m staining the pages of Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman, given to me by my cousin. The title warms my heart because my grandma used to say that all the time. When asked about what she was cooking, wearing, reading, watching on tv, she’d reply, “Nothing fancy!” (A sort of lie, since she was the queen of matching shoes, belts and handbags and I was in awe as a child.)
So, I’m in love with this book! I’ve made:
- Escarole w/Mustard & Spicy Guanciale Bread Crumbs
- Perfect Herby Salad
- Little Gems with Garlicky Lemon & Pistachio
- Celery & Fennel w/Walnuts & Blue Cheese***
- Sticky Roasted Carrots w/Citrus & Tahini (I actually made this twice, once as a salad, and I also deconstructed the recipe, using all the ingredients to make a soup, which I liked better than the salad. I added chicken stock and made it creamy with an immersion blender. I was pretty proud of myself.)
- Spicy Meatballs in Brothy Tomatoes w/Toasted Fennel**
- One Pot Chicken w/Dates & Caramelized
- Grilled Trout w/Green Goddess Butter**
- Lemony Turmeric Tea Cake***
I also would like to direct you to Alison Roman’s newsletter, which is terrific. I know, I’m tempting fate to get you to read another newsletter, but it is GREAT! Loads of fun and, as I said at the top of this newsletter, I want you to be happy. Here’s another food and life newsletter you may enjoy: A Wonderland of Words, which is smart and quick, insightful and delicious!
Finally, an Alison Roman recipe that I cannot wait to make:
Linguine w/Clams, Almonds & Herbs
½ cup unsalted, roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
2 T finely chopped fresh chives
2 T finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 T plus ¼ cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ t crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup dry white wine
2 lbs littleneck clams, scrubbed
12 oz. linguine
Mix almonds, chives, parsley, and 1 Tbsp. oil in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat remaining ¼ cup oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened, about 2 minutes. Add wine, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
Add clams and increase heat to medium-high; cover pot. Cook, shaking pot occasionally, until clams have opened, 5–8 minutes (discard any that do not open).
Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.
Add pasta and ½ cup pasta cooking liquid to clams and toss to coat. Cook, tossing and adding more cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
Serve linguine and clams topped with reserved almond-herb mixture.