Ann Patchett on Writing.

My love of Ann Patchett has been well-documented on this blog, and I hate the thought of being one of those people who tell the same stories over and over so I’m not even going to get into it.  What I will get into, briefly, is how thrilled I was to find that Grub Street had recently posted a link to Ms. Patchett’s keynote speech from 2009’s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.  I left last year feeling incredible, and a big part of the reason why was this speech.  So give it a listen.

On Ditching Books.

Over the course of several months this past year, Keith and I got rid of something like five hundred books.  We still have several hundred left but these, we have decided, are keepers.  It took days to determine which titles got to stay, warm and cozy on their shelves, and which would get packed up into extra-strong cardboard boxes and toted to a book donation spot, but I’m surprised to say that I haven’t longed for a single banished book.

2009 was also the year I rediscovered the library — and, even better, the network of libraries that I can request books from — thereby giving me a means to reacquaint myself with any book I sent out the door, as well as the opportunity to test-drive new writers without spending who-knows-how-many dollars on who-knows-how-many books.  Some authors’ works I’ll always buy and never be able to part with (like Ann Patchett, Lois Lowry and Steve Almond) but others’ I’m more than happy to visit at the bookstore.  I’m all for supporting artists — which good writers are, without a doubt — but Keith and I’ve also got an apartment-hold to support, and we come first.  Right now, anyway.  Ask me again after I trip over a bag of no-strings-attached money.

At any rate, turns out the Times has been pondering the same thing — regarding tossing books, that is.  They even used their clout to ask a few writers and Fred Bass, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore, to share their thoughts on the matter.  I found myself most agreeing with what David Matthews (no, not Dave Matthews) had to say — “If I’m being honest, some of it is on my shelf because I like the idea of it being on my shelf” — which is exactly why I got rid of all my Roland Barthes and, like Matthews, our copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  And you know what?  I haven’t missed them for a second.  Neither have my bookcases, whose shelves are now sagging out of relief instead of with weight.

Five Things About Me: 51 52 53 54 55.

51. My conditioner-to-shampoo ratio is incredibly unbalanced.  I’d say it’s about four parts conditioner to each half part shampoo.  Let’s put it this way: I’m still on the same shampoo bottle that I brought to Europe in August, and on that trip I brought two bottles of conditioner.

52. I have all of my dogs’ names picked out for any foreseeable dog I might have.  The first three names are pretty much set in stone as my favorites, but the rest rotate based on my mood.

53. Jack McBrayer cracks me up.  He doesn’t even need to do anything to make he laugh.  His existing is enough.

54. Right now, I really want a nectarine.  If I could have any magic power, I would choose to be able to conjure my favorite foods at their seasonal peaks out of thin air.  No food miles, just shazam! and nectarine.

55. I read either Memoirs of a Geisha, The Secret History or Bel Canto at least once a year.  Last year I read Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto twice, and I haven’t read either Arthur Golden’s or Donna Tartt’s novels yet in 2009, so I better get to it.

Book Club Hits the Road… Again.

Bel CantoI don’t think I’m capable of putting into coherent English how pleased I was when my book club chose Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto as our latest read.  See, the novel has without a doubt been one of my favorites for years; in fact, I reread it every twelve months or so.  No lie.  Also, everyone I’ve ever suggested the book to has loved it — honestly.  Here’s the story:

Bel Canto is set in an unspecified South American country, where an elaborate party is taking place at the vice president’s mansion.  Government officials and entrepreneurs are present to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, as well as watch the performance of a celebrated opera singer.  The intimate concert is interrupted by a terrorist group, who then takes the entire house — servants, guests and opera singer — captive.  Eventually, some of the hostages are released, leaving only a handful to be guarded by the terrorists.

What unfolds in Patchett’s three hundred pages is wholly unpredictable, indescribably lovely and utterly devastating; the plot was inspired by a similar event which took place in Peru during the mid-nineties, though Patchett spins what could have been a perfectly good fact-based thriller into something leagues more heartbreaking, emboldened and new.  Even now, years after I first cracked its spine, Bel Canto still gracefully slides past my grumpy, gloomy demeanor, and gently leads me through its pages.  It also led to some fantastic conversation in New Hampshire, where we had carpooled in order to visit the Currier Museum of Art and a very special property that is part of the collection.  The book we had read previous to Bel Canto was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the fictionalized account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney; it seemed only fitting to travel to the only Wright home located in New England that is open to the general public.

Zimmerman House, 1The Currier’s Wright is called the Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, after the husband and wife who commissioned the architect to design them not only a home to fit their lifestyle, but also interiors, landscaping and a mailbox that also suited their needs.  In a sense, our docents informed us, the Zimmermans were Wright’s ideal clients, deferring to him in all matters related to their home.  Because of this relationship with these clients, Wright’s radical and nontraditional vision was truly able to flourish — it thrives even today, almost sixty years after the project was completed.

Zimmerman KitchenEven if you’re not like me and neither design nor architecture interests you, I’m certain that the Zimmerman house would mesmerize you conclusively.  Let’s not even talk about the clever, well-thought-out details like the wall of windows that fully capture Lucille Zimmerman’s beloved garden from each and every room or the in-floor heating that runs beneath the length of the home.  I’ll skip all that specifically to discuss this: the Zimmermans were the only people to ever live in this home.  They bequeathed the structure to the Currier, the board of which left the house exactly as Isadore and Lucille did.  Those are Lucille’s dresses hanging in the bedroom closet, Isadore’s books on the shelves, their collection of pottery catching your eye.  The slim kitchen (scanned from a postcard I purchased in the gift store; interior photography is not permitted) is stocked with their pots and pans, their coffee tins, their dishtowels.  It is also the Zimmermans’ ashes interred together in a corner of the yard underneath a memorial plaque, overlooking the home they loved.  How much more fascinating does it get than that?

Note: Visitors may tour the Zimmerman House by reservation only.  The Currier offers several different tours throughout the year.  Click on the photo of the house for a four-picture slideshow of the exterior.

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org

A Weekend Writing Conference, or Ann Patchett is my Spirit Guide.

This past weekend in Boston was utterly gorgeous, and I spent about 94% of it indoors.  You know what, though — I loved every minute of it.  The sun is bad for you, after all, and writing is not.  So instead of lying in the park with my T-shirt rolled up, I was at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.

The Muse is two packed days of workshops, readings, signings and lectures.  The whole event is pretty rigorously paced, with three workshops or lectures each day.  As a participant, I could have also signed up for lunch with published authors, meetings with agents and query letter evaluations (last year I met with an editor to discuss my work) but this year I specifically chose lectures that addressed topics I needed to tackle with my own writing.

Here’s what went down:

Saturday
Got to registration a little later than planned and therefore missed the free breakfast.  This didn’t bother me but I was sweating profusely from walking to the Park Plaza and desperately needed something to drink.  Bumped into Farrah from my writing group before heading to my first lecture, “Time Travel In Fiction: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  I chose it because I’m working on something with a lot of flashbacks, and besides, who doesn’t like a Joyce Carol Oates reference?  The class — which was both incredibly fascinating and terribly helpful — was led by Alix Ohlin, who was clever and a great speaker and very smart, and as I took notes I realized my pen’s ink matched my shoes exactly, teal.  My only other pen was, um, light teal.  Grabbed a coffee before “Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Crafting Characters from the Inside Out” with Lynne Griffin.  Took more notes with teal pen.  Caught up with my friend Terry over lunch; we took a great Grub class last summer with Kate Flora, and now Terry has a fantastic and funny idea for a book I can’t wait to read.  Poked at a dry piece of chicken and stole extra rolls while Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore read excerpts from their work, and Mr. Moore described the conference as “the grubbiest” he has ever attended, which got lots of laughs.  Met up with Farrah again at Rakesh Satyal‘s “Culture Clubbing: How to Write About Ethnicity Without Beating Your Readers Over the Head.”  Farrah and I are both of Lebanese descent, and apparently equally interested in including this is our respective work.  Afterward went to an hour-long lecture on “The Art of Column Writing” with Suzette Martinez Standring.  Braced myself for the heat, began perspiring as soon as I left the hotel.

Sunday
Got to the hotel with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a marble bagel, which I promptly wrapped in napkins and stuffed in my bag, before bumping into Steve Almond; tried to have a chat before getting separated in the elevator, but learned his four-month-old is named Judah Elijah, which I think is a nice name, particularly with the reverse alliteration.  Attempted to balance my notebook on my knees during Merrill Feitell “Mechanical Physics for Fiction Writers,” which was so straight-up good that I filled pages with notes when I wasn’t too busy laughing at her jokes and stuffed bunny prop.  Immediately afterward, ran downstairs to the Porter Square Books table to buy a copy of her anthology, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, along with The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston.  Ran back upstairs for Steve’s lecture on “How to Achieve Sudden Impact,” and am pleased to report his sense of humor in front of an audience is the same as his humor in front of one person.  Farrah and I ate lunch together (soggy chicken) and listened to Ann Patchett‘s keynote speech.  In the middle of it, I sent a text to Marcella and Keith: “Ann Patchett should be my spirit guide.”  She spoke for something like forty minutes without notes, and bluntly about writing.  This is the best job you’ll ever have, this is hard work, there’s not such thing as doctor’s block so why writer’s block?*  Clapped until my hands felt sore then made my way back upstairs for “Diving Into the Novel” with Vyvyane Loh, who was so full of information that I could practically see the story I am working on come together right in front of me.

* This, of course, is paraphrased.  Ann Patchett is much more clever than that.  And she spoke about much, much more with an almost intimidating amount of intelligence and a lot of humor.  Ann Patchett is funny!

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

alone-in-the-kitchen-with-an-eggplant I had picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone several times last year, but for one reason or another, I never purchased the book.  It was getting to the point that I thought perhaps I was jinxed, and that the reading experience wasn’t meant to be.  This is what I went through: no room in my suitcase when flying home from Oregon after going a little overboard at Powell’s; only a copy with a torn cover at the bookseller’s at home; out of stock.  Finally, though, a happy ending: I recently got my hot little hands on a pristine edition, which I promptly toted around town.

Here’s the concept behind the book: editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler was living alone for the first time in 2004 while at grad school in Michigan.  As she adjusted to the Ann Arbor rhythms, Ferrari-Adler realized a few things.  Firstly, that she had to “remember how to make friends,” something I know I personally forgot how to do after leaving college.  Secondly, that she was loaded — with time.  She writes:

There were hours… everywhere I looked. In addition to time, I had a galley kitchen, a shelf of cookbooks, two heavy pots, and a chef’s knife. I lived near the farmers’ market, a cooperative grocery, and a butcher shop. My bicycle had a basket. Which is all to say it was an excellent domestic setup.

In the midst of a rough winter, Ferrari-Adler makes for herself a meal following an Amanda Hesser recipe.  As she eats, she reads “Single Cuisine,” Hesser’s piece on cooking for one, and comes to a realization:

This was all I really wanted — to be let in on other people’s secrets. What better place to start than in their kitchens?  Remembering Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” …I giggled [reading] the description of Colwin’s absurdly small Greenwich Village apartment, “the coziest place on earth,” where she did dishes in the bathtub. She’d brought her kitchen into my living room… The connectedness I felt was the opposite of the drifting into space I’d experienced whenever I spent more than three consecutive nights alone. We read to feel close to people we don’t know, to get into other people’s heads. I get the same sensation of intimacy from following a recipe. I began to scheme: Hesser, Colwin, and me … maybe I could break the silence and help men and women everywhere be less alone together.

And so, Ferrari-Adler shoots off correspondences to writers like my beloved Ann Patchett, my old teacher Steve Almond and grand dame Marcella Hazan.  It’s incredible, to read of Jeremy Jackson‘s romance with beans and editor Holly Hughes’s frustrations with cooking for a family.  It’s also, of course, impossible to thumb through an anthology such as this without thinking about what you yourself had cooked or currently cooks when putting together a meal for one.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make a full-blown dinner for just me.  Lunches I make all the time, lately something like a mâche and mixed herb salad with yellow tomatoes, crumbles of French feta, half a segmented orange and the barest sprinkle of lemon juice swirled with olive oil, sea salt and freshly grated pepper, eaten with some chicken or maybe fruit.  Dinner, on the other hand…

But when I did cook for just one, there were a lot of empty pasta boxes in the trash.  I remember one dish involving a tomato deseeded, diced and sealed in a container with its sundried sisters, sliced olives and olive oil; this mixture would sit in the fridge overnight, and the next evening I’d empty the jar over penne and toss a few basil leaves on top.  Another meal was spaghetti mixed with plain yogurt, then doused with garlic powder.  Yet another: rotini, cubes of mozzarella, olives, more sundried tomatoes, chopped red peppers and an entire bottle of Kraft Light Done Right! Italian dressing, eaten cold.

If not pasta, then eggs.  I would place the largest skillet on the stove, and glide a nugget of butter directly in its center.  While it melted, I mixed three eggs together with diced yellow peppers and milk.  Then I would pour it all into the skillet and reduce the heat to medium; once the edges crisped, I’d use a spatula to push the cooked bits to the side and tilt pan to and fro until the liquid eggs set.  Just before sliding it onto my plate, I’d fold slices of Kraft American cheese into raggedy squares and scatter them across the eggs’ surface.  Later, on my futon, I’d use my finger to swipe the dish clean.

Not so glamorous stuff, this, but if I may — that marinated sundried tomato pasta dish was so good.  My cheesy scramble too.

Am I Psychic?

No, seriously.

First I channel M.F.K. Fisher from the Great Beyond.  Now, the same day I mention my ardor for Ann Patchett, I learn that she will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace (the annual writers’ conference hosted by Grub Street, the Boston-based writing organization that has been so helpful to me).  Honestly, I’m so excited.  I did a happy dance earlier.

Just in case I do in fact have some sort of otherworldly capabilities, I just want to let you all know that I foresee puppies in my future, and maybe some chocolate pudding.  Or a nice Riesling.