I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

When I was about seven or eight, I watched The Parent Trap II with my brother and our cousins.  The storyline isn’t that important (best friends want their single parents to marry, and — coincidence? — one of those parents is a twin played by Hayley Mills) but what stuck with me for some reason was a scene early on in the movie where the two young girls bake cookies.  They had a huge mixing bowl on a kitchen countertop, and the two kept on throwing in what seemed to me to be the craziest ingredients into their dough: marshmallows! Cap’n Crunch! M&Ms! pretzels!  Then the girls formed their cookies and put them in the oven, and all I could think was, Gross.

I really think that that movie is what turned me off of baking.  Interestingly enough, it didn’t turn me off of cookies.

In the time that’s passed since The Parent Trap II, I’ve made my peace with baking, and with what my seven-year-old self would have thought to be gross cookie ingredients.  As a seven-year-old, for example, I never would’ve even considered eating anything with coconut in it; like my former teacher Steve Almond wrote in his excellent book Candyfreak, “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture… I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.”

True dat, Steve.Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies -- 10thirty.

I like coconut, I really do, but its cuticleness just drives me bananas.  I think that’s why I’m so surprised that I adore these cookies as much as I do.  The trick, with these not-overwhelmingly-sweet cookies, is toasting the cuticle out of the coconut and amping up the richness of its natural flavor.  As a result, you get these little soft bites of truly intense coconuttiness — which just so happens to pair quite nicely with a luxe dark chocolate, I might add.

Have these cookies changed my mind about coconut?  Perhaps not.  But they’ve definitely got me thinking about coconut a bit more, and with something like a smile on my face.

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies, from Cooking Light
Makes about twenty-five cookies

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.
  3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.
  4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.
I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” was originally recorded by Merv Griffith, but I’ve had a huge fondness for Danny Kaye since childhood, and since he was a huge lover of food, I went with his version.

“Writing is Not an Indulgence.”

Some truths about me:

  1. I write.
  2. I don’t write often enough.
  3. I like food, dogs and zombies.

That last one was a gimme.  It’s still true.

Every person on this earth carries baggage and has issues about something; I’ve got two huge trunks that I drag behind me, one for my weight and the other for writing.  I’ve recently started to lessen my “I’m fat” load, so it’s only fitting that I’ve got a new outlook on writing.  It may sound harsh, but, as Renée Michel says Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, “I am rarely friendly — though always polite.”  So here it harshly is:

If you’re waiting for inspiration, stop.  This is an avoidance tactic, and even if it is successful all you are doing is crippling yourself.  It’s amateurish and, frankly, a boring reason to not be writing*.  Writers, serious ones anyway, don’t have the luxury of inspiration.  They just get the work done.  And yes, it is work.  You may find writing fun and rewarding and many other cheering words, but when you get down to it, writing is work.  It takes effort.

This is, of course, not to say that you can’t be inspired.  I spent most of yesterday at Grub Street‘s annual Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference; I’ve been to the past two Muses, but this was the first year where I was a volunteer and only stayed for one day.  Still, I left feeling truly excited to go home and write.  It was pretty much a given that I would, since as a volunteer I was able to pop in and out of as many workshops as possible.  That’s how I got to

  • listen to Sinead O’Connor with Steve Almond (“I want to reach a place where defenses are converted into real feelings… the feelings that make us genuinely alive.”)
  • participate in a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque exercise on circumstance-driven fiction with Jessica Shattuck
  • laugh and learn at Lynne Barrett‘s discussion on plot (“You can’t have twenty-seven strippers.”)
  • frantically scribble notes while the immensely quotable Anita Shreve spoke about problem-solving in novel writing (“Sometimes when you think you’re stuck you’ve gone down the wrong tributary,”  for example. And the best: “We don’t strive for beautiful sentences.  We strive for arresting sentences.”)
  • disassemble the high-concept novel with Allison Scotch
  • find out exactly what makes agents and editors stop reading a manuscript
  • get Alisa Libby‘s perspective on writer’s block (“The writing process is happening in your head, even if you’re not sitting down and writing.”)
  • watch a panel discussion on MFA programs featuring Liza Ketchum, Maud Casey, Ron MacLean, Benjamin Percy and Bret Anthony Johnston (whose passionate words on writing seemed like a natural title to this post: “Writing is not an indulgence. The writer gives up indulgences to write.”)
  • meet an interesting group of young writers
  • come home with a stack of new books and a long list of more to read

Not a bad way at all to spend a sunny Saturday.

But to get back to my original point… if you need inspiration to feel motivated, I won’t try and take it away from you.  I’m just asking you to stop waiting for it.  It may not come, or it may not come as often as you like, and all that’s going to happen is that you’ll find another excuse to not write, which is never going to be as interesting as anything you do write.

Please don’t be boring.

* The boring part I’ve borrowed from my friend Monique, a writer herself.

Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

Let’s start with the obvious:  I’m a blogger and a writer and a lover of food and dogs and Julia Child, and sometimes I can be deplorably unpleasant.  This is what is called a character flaw, but I think that — when combined with my devotion to my friends and my knack for color-coordination, let’s say — it adds depth to, well, my character.  As readers, we don’t need to like the characters we encounter; what we do need is for those characters to have some sort of humanizing trait that make us care about them.  For example, a huge part of what makes Neil Gaiman‘s iconic Sandman comic book series so incredibly readable is the fact that the major players are terribly flawed.  Their losses wouldn’t cut as deeply if we the readers weren’t invested in them; the same could be said about their gains.

In other words, likable characters are boring.

That said, I hate the Julie Powell portrayed in Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, a memoir written by the blogger herself.  I don’t say I hate this portrayal because I wanted the perkier, Amy Adams version; I’m putting it like this, in a vaguely diplomatic way, because I kind of feel as though I need to give Ms. Powell the benefit of the doubt.  I’m fully aware that the way we describe ourselves via our own writing is ineffably skewed… but maybe that’s my problem.  Maybe I read this memoir while banking too much on the dumb hope that Ms. Powell would eventually reveal herself to be — well, more fully realized.  I don’t care that she comes across as utterly unlikable, but she needs to throw me a bone or two in regards to the rest of her character.  And yes, that was an intended pun.

I’m getting completely ahead of myself.

Cleaving picks up a few years after Ms. Powell finished writing Julie and Julia 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (why the chronic need to subtitle everything?), as she’s tangled up in an affair with an old boyfriend that she refers to coyly as D.  Her husband learns of this and has a revenge affair of his own, but ultimately he doesn’t want to leave Ms. Powell, who herself feels no inclination to either end her affair or her marriage.  Instead, for reasons which are never adequately explained, she heads out of Queens to become an apprentice butcher in Kingston, New York.  When her apprenticeship comes to its end, Ms. Powell, still floundering, hits the road again, this time stopping in Argentina, the Ukraine, Japan and Tanzania; supposedly she’s traveling in order to learn more about meat, and how different cultures kill, cook and eat it, but really, she’s running from her husband, a fact Ms. Powell acknowledges.

Ms. Powell acknowledges a lot more than just this, though.  She depicts in great detail her escapades with D: bondage, biting and banging, oh my.  It doesn’t bother me that Ms. Powell loves being tied up, it just bores me; each so-called sexy scenelet seems to have been written strictly to provoke and show off.  It’s as though Ms. Powell is gleefully nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Did you get to the part where he throws me down so hard he bruises me?  What did you think about the part where we strip each other?  What about when we dry humped while my husband slept in the adjacent room?  Isn’t my sex life so hot?”

This self-satisfied aura pervades the entire book, and the frequency with which Ms. Powell congratulates herself in one fashion or another was utterly fascinating to me.  She describes herself as sexy, as alluring, as inviting.  At one point, when explaining why she so loves the text message, Ms. Powell writes, “With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce.  My words are what make me desirable.”

Not so, I say.

Ms. Powell’s words are interesting only when she’s writing about butchery and Fleischer’s, the butcher’s shop in which she apprentices.  Here the writing is almost lovely and at times quite fine, but once Ms. Powell leaves the shop behind…  the word self-absorbed comes to mind first, with masturbatory stepping on its heels.  Do we need two hundred odd pages of utterly dull, completely abrading twaddle about Ms. Powell stalking D after he’s dumped her, about Ms. Powell complaining that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to break up with someone she doesn’t want to break up with, about Ms. Powell forever checking her BlackBerry to see if D has sent her yet another racy SMS?  Not only that, do we need Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation after quotation?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Buffy fan — I’m rewatching season two on Hulu right now, and I still laugh at the bitca scene — but do I use the show as a touchstone for my life?  And if I did, would I really write about it at length, knowing that the possibility existed that a good portion of my readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about?*

Ugh.

Basically, what I’m trying to say rather poorly is this: a well-constructed story — whether it’s told on the page or on the screen, and regardless of if it’s fictional or factual — entices the audience.  Its characters must somehow impress themselves onto that audience, and the narrative must purposely propel itself forward.  Ms. Powell’s characters, though they are effectively real people, fail to enrapture, and her wandering wallowing is absolutely aimless.  Inertia is something that I can understand, as is engaging in contentious behavior, but I want to stress that I don’t think Cleaving‘s fault lies in Ms. Powell’s having had an affair, or for being torn between her husband and her lover.  Affairs make for great drama — would The Great Gatsby even have a story if it were not for the infidelities of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle?  The difference is that Cleaving is made up of melodrama, none of which is at all great.

* This is one of the first things that Steve Almond told me, as my college writing instructor, when I wrote a terrible, god-awful and humiliating scene referencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coincidentally also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze.

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.

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.

Books for Obama.

Last night I took a great one-time-only writing seminar with Steve Almond, one of my old college instructors and all-around fantastic guy.  The theme of the evening was defining the line separating fact from fiction, a topic that I think all writers consider at some point or another.  Anyway, that’s not what I want to discuss at the moment.  This is:

I’ve made a decision as to what I want to write about on this blog, and, amongst other things, politics is not one of them.  That said, this is a post about politics.  If you care about the future of this nation and if you like books, please visit Steve’s website at stevenalmond.com.  Through the month of October, he is donating all of his book sales from his site on the following three books to the Barack Obama campaign:

Please show your support.