Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Garlic chicken and orzo

First, I finished reading book #3 for January. This one was

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sterlet slices interlaid with crayfish tails and fresh caviar

Look to the right, my little chipitos. I've read two books in January. Yes two! This may not seem that impressive for some people like Scott G. F. Bailey and Mary, but it is impressive for me, so I'm a-celebratin'.

My most recent book was, of course, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, sent to me by SGFB. I thought this book was about a giant cat sea captain on a boat called "The Margarita."

This is not what the book is about.

Why did I think that?

The book is more about a group of troublemakers who go to Moscow to make trouble, and it includes episodes back in time when Yeshua Ha-Nozri was executed by order of Pontius Pilate. And Margarita is not a boat at all, not at all, but a person, a person, I tell you. That was quite the revelation as I was riding my 720 Rapid LA Metro bus from Westwood to downtown LA or the opposite.

In the early pages, things I liked about the book were the cool chapter transitions that often repeated whole sentences and the jumps in point of view. The technical acrobatics were neat. I didn't particular engage with the goings on in Moscow. Though I found it entertaining, I didn't feel any emotion in the book except for the excellent chapters with Pontius Pilate.

But, as the book got going, I found all of the story threads engaging, and eventually the title characters even showed up, and they were cool, especially Margarita, who is not a boat, I tell you.

Although I didn't particularly follow why the Master and Margarita accepted things the way they did, that didn't bother me too much. And the end was really nice. There was a sort of cool down, where characters transformed into more graceful things and fates became locked and characters who had been called crazy found some relief.

This is not the type of book I would ever strive to write, I don't think, but it is a cool book.

What's Peanut eating? Bits of pork chop cooked in five spice, honey, and brown sugar

Monday, January 14, 2013

Italian Eggs

I'm a few days late in seeing this, but one of my most inspiring scientists died at the end of last month. Here are a couple of articles on Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Jewish scientist working in her own makeshift laboratory, constructed in her bedroom, in the 1930s and 1940s while hiding from a Fascist regime. She'd bike around the countryside collecting fertile eggs for her secret research, which she would be able to eat later. The work eventually led to a Nobel Prize. That's how it's done, folks.  

Go to the Guardian article.

Go to the NPR article.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tacos and Margaritas

One of the unofficial goals I have for this year is to learn how to cook good Mexican food.

My first foray into it has been the handmade tortilla, thanks in big part to the new tortilla press I got for Christmas. The corn tortillas were tasty and tender and delicious. The flour tortillas were stiff and weighty, but to my defense I tried a recipe with no lard or shortening. The corn tortillas were used in some delicious tacos (not pictured).

not the greatest picture

I'm also closing in on page 160 of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The title characters have appeared! As it's following Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys in my reading list, it's interesting to read two very different novels about writers and the difficulties they have with their manuscripts. I'm also wondering about the connection between The Master and Margarita and the animator Miyazaki. That deserves a google when I have some time.

What's Peanut eating? Raindrops

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cold pizza

I've revised the first 10,000 words of Cyberlama. Here are some changes.


Old draft:
During my time in Paris, I met a co-worker named Olivier de Crecy, whom I looked to as a mentor. Olivier was eleven years older than I was, and, though he had lived in the U.S. for several years, he was a native of Paris. He gained some popularity in the city because of how sympathetic he was to the people in his articles. They were sweet human interest pieces: stories of old couples who collected clarinets or young chefs striking out on their own for the first time—that sort of thing. He labored for weeks when he worked on a story, his desk covered with notes and files that he rearranged constantly as he tried to find a form for what he was trying to say. With all of this work, one might imagine that his pieces would be long. But, by the time he had his finished draft in hand, it would often be no more than four or five paragraphs, fragments of insight that some readers would scour our pages for, ignoring the more ambitious stories—mine included—that the editor selected for the front page. I wanted to learn anything I could from him.

Current draft:
At The Spectacle, I had a co-worker named Olivier Bailleul, a writer who had worked in New York for several years, though he was a native of Paris, which he would declare as good or bad, depending on the time of day. Olivier was eleven years older than I was—not quite a father figure, but more mature than my usual cohort. The residual muscle tone of years spent participating in triathlons, glossy hair that was just beginning to show some streaks of gray, and a well-positioned L-shaped scar on his chin gave him the aura of a reformed swashbuckler. He had gained some popularity in the city because of how sympathetic he was toward his typical subject matter: retired couples who collected antique clarinets or young chefs specializing in bone marrow or foam—those sorts of people. Without ever complaining, he labored for days on each piece, often spending all night at his computer, only rising from his desk red-eyed and sore before a deadline with a story that readers would scour our pages for, often ignoring the more ambitious pieces about police investigations and court trials—mine included—that our editor selected for the front page. Though he freely gave advice when solicited, none of the other staff members had yet managed to soak up any of his talent.

Old draft:
 It was during this time that I was contacted about the Pagani experiment. The correspondence began with a written letter from Dr. Arturo Pagani himself. It was personally delivered to me at home one evening by an American courier just as I was leaving my apartment. My family was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and I was surprised to see that the letter came from Washington D.C.

 I took the letter with me as I went in search of dinner. I lived beside an open-air market—Le Marché des Enfants Rouges—where I frequently ate, but that night, because it had rained all afternoon and the air was still quite chilly, I wanted to be indoors. I went down several smaller streets that I had never explored before and found myself entering a restaurant with an obscure sign that I assumed would be far too expensive for me to eat in ever again during my stay. The place was dim, and I asked to be seated at a table by the window. The hostess brought me to a cozy corner and helped me into a comfortable velvet chair. With a glass of wine beside me and the glistening street outside, I opened the letter and read.

The message was vague, as I realize now it had to be. In it, Dr. Pagani described a “longevity program” that the Department of Defense was funding in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. I wasn’t very well-versed in science at the time, but these were all organizations I had at least heard of. The letter didn’t go into many more details than that. Toward the end, there were a few sentences about how I had been one of the few people invited to participate.

Current draft:
It was during this time that I was contacted about the Southway experiment. The correspondence began with a written letter from Dr. Edward Southway himself, delivered to me in the cobblestone courtyard of my building one evening by a uniformed courier with a buzz cut and shined black shoes just as I was returning from a long day at work. The message was vague, as I realize now it had to be. In it, Dr. Southway described a longevity program founded by organizations with acronyms like Dod and NIH and NSF. In the last paragraph, I skimmed over a few sentences describing how I had been one of the few people invited to participate. I tossed it without second thought.

Another letter arrived a week later, again delivered by the same ironed and lintless courier who, this time, bowed about ten degrees after snapping the letter into my palm and said, “We certainly hope you’ll have the opportunity to respond, ma’am.”

 The details were more specific. Dr. Southway mentioned my graduate thesis and my early writing. He described having read several of my articles in The Spectacle and admiring them. I responded, and a few days later I received my first long distance phone call from him.

“Diana, my dear!” His voice across the ocean was bright and tinted by a trace of a British accent, though I couldn’t be sure it was authentic. “I’m delighted that we have a chance to catch up!” He spoke as if we were good friends. It made me uneasy.

 “I admit I’m quite confused by the whole thing,” I offered.

“Not at all, not at all, my dear. There is absolutely nothing to be confused about. Perhaps, let me just start at the beginning. You just sit back…find a comfortable lounge chair…and I’ll tell you a little story.”

He spoke for well over two hours that first evening, beginning with an introduction about vital organ systems that sounded well rehearsed, but transitioning into more of a free form later on as he spoke about his own dreams and hopes for the future. “And this, of course, is where you come along, my dear,” he said, before pausing, perhaps for effect. “I—well, we—we see something in your work.” At the time I had no idea who the “we” might represent and assumed they were members of the organizations with the acronyms. “Sure, sure, you are young…underdeveloped…immature, perhaps, sure. But there is something in you, Diana, a talent ready to bloom. We can all feel it.”

What I felt was a pang of disappointment. Though I had no reason to trust this man, who could have been a pathological liar with an obsession for recent college graduates for all I knew, he was repeating what my professors had always told me. I wasn’t good, but I might be good someday. Though I refused to admit it to myself, his words immediately enslaved me. I wanted to prove him right and I was willing to do anything I could to do so.


I'm using more specifics--thanks in part to the almighty Chabon--and this is forcing me to see everything more clearly, which is good, even if I end up cutting back on the details later. I'm also changing the voice of the narrator on a trial-basis. She's a little more energetic and slightly more funny, at least I think she is.

What's Peanut eating? Rotisserie chicken 

Friday, January 4, 2013


This post should probably wait until after I finish Wonder Boys, but I've been thinking about what gives stories momentum. I'm learning that with this novel. By page 275 or so, where I currently am, only about 35 hours have taken place in the story...granted the protagonist slept for less than four hours the first night, which bought him some time. What's interesting to me about the book so far is that it doesn't feel memorable beyond the immediate experience. I don't seem to be stamping characters forever in my brain or exploring any important themes or learning valuable lessons. It is just a compelling read so far. How does Chabon accomplish that?

For one, his language is beautiful. I find myself liking all of his characters as well. But, beyond that, there's something about how he has loaded so much conflict up front that I find myself anxiously reading to find out how everything will turn out. It's like watching dominoes fall, which I imagine required a lot of intelligent set up on Chabon's part

In terms of driving forces, I'd say this story is working by having a collection of things happen simultaneously that clash with one another. The "main event" that puts the story into motion, a writer's conference, really has nothing to do with what makes it exciting other than serving to bring the right people together at an explosive time. Everything becomes spring loaded. A reader just lets go and watches to see what happens.

I'd argue that this strategy is different from what I experience with books like Plainsong or Mrs. Bridge or The Buddha In The Attic. I barely recall the openings of these books at all. With these I feel more of a sense of following the natural progression rather than chasing a speeding train. The energetics are more subtle, more naturally flowing, less calculated, perhaps.

Then there's my own strategy which, I realize these days, usually tries to diffuse the linear momentum in an attempt to create these books that can be opened up at any point and read in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of a river I get preoccupied with the idea of a lake with little areas to explore.

I have a lot of explanations for this.

One is that I tend to hate how most stories end. (Or, if I love the story, I don't want them to end.) I often hit a point where I feel like the author is trying to get rid of me, like a person who wants to break up but doesn't actually come out and say so. But I think it's also because I start more books than I finish, and when I love a book I tend to open it up randomly just to get back into the world of the story. This has become a bad habit, perhaps, and I'm trying to create the same experience in my work, for better or for worse. I think part of my motivation is also greed. In most of my novel attempts, I try to get multiple stories in, creating compilations instead of single stories. The overall plot ends up functioning simply like a spine that just barely holds everything else together. This also allows me to think less deeply about any one particular story, perhaps.

At the moment I'm questioning the effectiveness of this. Is it actually a preference or is it my own lacking? When I started Cyberlama, I remember telling myself that I wanted it to jump around in time, I wanted it to twist over itself, so that there was a constant level of discovery rather than a payoff at the end. Is this just a way to create boring writing? I wonder.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Black eyed peas

Happy 2013, everyone!

Scott always keeps a list of the fiction he's read, and I admire it and never do it myself. In 2012, the books I remember reading, in no particular order are:

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Dear Life by Alice Munro
White Horse by Alex Adams
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Plainsong by Kent Haruf

There might be others, or there might not be. I'm not sure. There are many books I started and didn't finish, shamefully, and not necessarily because I wasn't enjoying the book.

Among these I remember, my favorite was Mrs. Bridge. This is a really lovely book. It's clever, emotional on a personal level, powerful on a historical level, funny, and so concisely written my lips get pruny just thinking about it. I also think some of my faithful readers would enjoy Plainsong. That's a lovely and delicate book...not as dark as I usually prefer.

This year, although I told everyone I wasn't making any resolutions, I realize that I made a couple of resolutions. 1. I intend to finish at least one book a month. In January, it's shaping up to be Wonder Boys, my third attempt at finishing a Michael Chabon book--I'm enjoying it so far. And in February I'm planning to read The Master and Margarita, which Scott G. to the F. Bailey kindly got me as a gift. Thank you, Scott!

2. I also have in mind the idea of writing one new short story every month, or at least the strong foundation for one that I can revise later. I want to force myself to rush a bit, because I think it has been a while since I've accessed that more panicky part of my emotions...novels offer a lot more time for reflection, at least the way I'm writing them. I have a catalog of stories that I started years ago that address important things in my life. For whatever reason, I don't think I was prepared to conclude many of them at the time, but I think I can now. I'm excited about that, as I'm excited to finish Cyberlama and maybe, maybe write a book for my sister-in-law and her sister because I think they would get such a kick out of it. In truth, this is probably more than I can handle well, but there you have it.

What's Peanut Eating? A stray dog's ear (granted, "eating" is an exaggeration, but it was troubling all the same).