2010 Wrap-Up

I have a very good friend who does this little “wrap-up” every year and thought it was a nice tradition and way to keep tabs on a life that goes by much, much too quickly.  The questions are borrowed (with permission) from All & Sundry – I deleted some of the original questions that didn’t seem to pertain to me, in particular, this year and added some that I’d like to keep track of in the future.

****

1. What did you do in 2010 that you’d never done before?

It Was Called Mail

JOE: You wrote her letters? SCHUYLER: Mail.  It was called mail. NELSON: (fondly nostalgic and kidding it slightly)  Stamps. Envelopes. JOE: Wait.  I’ve heard of it.  It was a means of communication before I was born.


****

Technology is taking over the world.  Not really news, I know, but I believe those of us who can still remember a time before cell phones and the internet have a certain responsibility to occasionally point out the fact that we are in the midst of the slickest coup ever known in history.  And I am it’s number one casualty.

It (Finally) Feels Like Christmas

I’m giving thanks that we don’t have to go through this for another year. Except we do, because those bastards went and put Christmas right in the middle, just to punish us.”     –Home for the Holidays

****
Let’s be honest.  The holidays, for the most part, suck.
It all starts with Thanksgiving – a day of gross overindulgence that requires days of planning, preparing, cooking and not a little money.  Families that don’t normally see each other on a day-to-day basis are suddenly thrown into someone’s inevitably too-small house where the children are grumpy and insistent, the adults are working on getting drunk or bickering, and the pets are consistently in the way and under foot.  The sink piles up with dishes.  The men are shouting at the television.  The women busy themselves with family gossip and eating cake.  If you’re lucky, everyone gets out alive with their relationships still intact.
But maybe that’s just my experience.  Maybe everyone else has a Leave It To Beaver holiday experience.  But even in that family, the Beav was forced to deal with Wally, and I have strong suspicions that Mrs. Cleaver was a closet alcoholic.
Unfortunately, it’s not only Thanksgiving that we have to survive.  If it were, well then, hell…that could be doable.  One day?  I can do that in my sleep.  But no, we are not so lucky.  Because, as Adele in Home for the Holidays so aptly puts it, “those bastards went and put Christmas right in the middle, just to punish us.”  Punish us, indeed.  Every year, I hear people complain about how commercial it’s all becoming, how the stores start playing that dreaded Christmas music too early, how stressed out they are.  People have been complaining about the same things for years.  Maybe even since the first Christmas.  I mean, it had to be stressful for those three wise men to find just the right gifts, travel to an inevitably too-small house, and spend time with people they barely knew.  And here we are, thousands of years later, suffering the same fate.  Only we get the added annoyance of being forced to listen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer five hundred times in three weeks.
Still…I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach.  It’s the 22nd of December, just three days till Christmas.  And even though the decorations have been up since Thanksgiving and the presents have been wrapped and under the tree for a week, it wasn’t until this morning that I began to feel a little excited about the holiday.  Oddly enough, today is the day that I have a zillion things to do.  Most of it cooking.  And for reasons I can’t explain, it is the cooking itself that makes the season joyful.  The decorating is fun and looks nice, the present buying and wrapping is fun too, but there’s something about cooking for my family that feels like true giving.  It’s true that I could save myself some time by going to the grocery store and buying cakes surrounded by molded plastic and loaves of bread in plastic sleeves.  But there is something grand about flour on the floor and the smell of things made from scratch in the oven.
In this age of made-up families, those consisting primarily of friends and partners who know us better than our actual families ever will, it is especially important to give something of ourselves.  Not just presents carefully selected or time spent in front of the television rooting on a common favorite team, but something that says, “Hey.  I have history with you. And even though I don’t really know you, really know you, you are important to me.”  Maybe spaghetti sauce and meatballs made from scratch or bread rolled by my hands is not enough.  The kids will still be grumpy and insistent, the adults will still be working on getting drunk and bickering, and the pets will still be underfoot.  But, for me, the food I place on the table for my family speaks volumes.  And I know that, for a few moments at least, their enjoyment of it will erase the stress and tension of the season.

Promises Are Hard To Keep

The much anticipated (for book geeks like me) publication of the first volume of Samuel Clemens’ autobiography has been given as a “powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers” according to Garrison Keillor’s scathing review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.  Keillor, much like Clemens’ himself, notes a score of missteps in this autobiography – forcing the reader of his review to suffer the tedium of his reading of the damned book.  The review is, in fact, so tedious with tedious quotes, that, rather than eliciting even a morbid curiosity about the “fraud” that is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, I now have absolutely no desire to read it.  In fact, I have a strange and sudden urge to instigate a book burning.

It just so happens that writers get caught in their own papers all the time.  It’s the problem with print.  It tends to stick around, and what might be interesting or of note or even good one day, may in fact be pure crap 100 years from now.  Many writers, those with foresight perhaps, do, in fact, burn their papers.  Willa Cather did it.  And then she went a step further by putting a provision in her will that forbids her letters from being published.  Ever.  This fine print has made researching her, if not difficult, at the very least inconvenient for scholars.  But after reading Keillor’s review of Twain’s papers, I have to give the lady props.

Of course, Mr. Clemens has only himself to blame.  Had he allowed the book to be published in his lifetime (or even shortly after his death), he might have been forgiven.  But to put so much pressure on a piece of writing – to require it not be published for 100 years and to subtitle the thing “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance”…well…

It would seem he was asking for it.

Even so, I can’t help but feel a little bad for the man. I mean, 100-year-old promises are hard to keep. Especially when one promises a blockbuster of a book that won’t be read for a century. Still, even with Keillor’s review, the book is doing well and no doubt stuffing the coffers of Mr. Clemens’ benefactors. And let’s face it – who among us doesn’t want something we’ve written to be on the New York Times’ Best Seller List for seven weeks straight (and counting) a century after we’re gone? Of course, if we aim for that, we’ll no doubt find ourselves in the same embarrassing predicament as Mr. Clemens.

Radio Silence

No.  It hasn’t escaped me that I missed yesterday’s blog posting.  I hope to post twice today to make up for it.  Here’s just a little tidbit, fyi…

****
The absolute (with the exception of Clarabell’s) silence on the Jack Pendarvis post tells me something.  Other than the fact that this is a new blog and has relatively few readers, the people who do read are in the same deplorable state that I am when it comes to finding tried and true methods for staying on top of the latest, greatest books on the market.  Fair enough.  I suspected as much.  But in my thinking about the common(?) problem, I stumbled upon a possible solution.

 

Now, many of you may already be familiar with The Millions. This online magazine, established in 2003, has apparently been featured on NPR and noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other publications of note (according to their “About” page).  I’ve never heard of it.  Sadly.  Because it appears to be a great place to locate not only lists of books but also thousands of reviews.  It also has a nifty little subscribe feature that will send daily updates to your email inbox – for those of you who, like me, can’t be bothered to search out a webpage.  (It’s just too many clicks).  And, like I read the New York Times (also sent directly to my inbox), I am now reading The Millions

Of course, I’m still open to hearing of other methods; and I promise to pass them along as I hear of them or discover them for myself.  I’ve also added a new list: Gabriel’s Year In Books in which I’ll list the books I’m reading for any given year.  I’m starting 2011 with a book I recently started (but will not finish until the New Year), Justin Cronin’s The Passage.  I’ll also review those books and link those reviews to the list.  Just a little holiday gift from me to you in our ever constant search for good books.

Happy reading, everyone!

Do You Know Jack Pendarvis?

For a bibliophile and writer, there are many advantages to living in a literary town.  Not the least of which is having a built in group of people with whom one can talk about books and writing.  I participate in these conversations all the time with friends and acquaintances and even, sometimes, complete strangers.  It would be a reasonable expectation that I, on occasion, have something to offer in these conversations.  And, occasionally, I do.  But most often, the conversation looks a lot like the one I just has this past Monday night.

Girl’s night in Oxford, Mississippi generally involves drinks and nonstop chatter about writers, writing, reading and publishing – at least, with my girlfriends it does.  Since we are all writers and former students at the University of Mississippi, and since we have a hard time finding people willing to indulge our obsession with words outside of Oxford, we try to get together once or twice a year to gorge ourselves on word talk.  Monday night, I walked into City Grocery, Oxford’s most literary bar only because it happens to be where Oxford’s writers tend to hang out.  The girls were in mid sentence about something when I arrived, the last to the gathering.  They each stood in their turn, giving me hugs and smiles, as we did the hello-how-are-you-how-have-you-been dance that we do once or twice every year.  Then we all sat back down and the conversation resumed.

“So, anyway, Jack is obviously vying for the Barry Hannah role,” said one girl who writes both fiction and poetry.

“Jack who?” I wanted to know.  The true poet in the group looked at me like I was from another planet.

“Pendarvis” she said, as if that should mean something to me.

“Who’s that?”

The reactions were a mixture of disbelief and excitement.  They all started talking at the same time.  “You know…he’s been the writer-in-residence here for years.” “He wrote that book, Awesome.” “He has that blog with the funny title, what’s that blog called?  Oh yeah.  The Place Where Jack Pendarvis Has a Blog.” “He’s kind of average height, brown hair, you have to know who we’re talking about.”

I didn’t.  And this is nothing new in my life.  For someone who fancies herself a writer, I am oblivious to who’s hot.  I’m oblivious to even those that are luke-warm.  It’s not that I haven’t tried to remedy myself of this embarrassing deficiency.  I have.  I scan the web for lists of books that I “should” be reading.  I ask friends in-the-know for suggestions.  I hear about blogs devoted to the very subject all the time.  But somehow, I forget the name of the author I just heard about who wrote that really great book about something I can’t recall and, truthfully, I’m too busy with my own blog to spend too terribly much time reading other’s people’s blogs.  And this is a fault.  I’m aware of that.  And I’m working on it.

It’s not that I don’t read, mind you.  I’m reading all the time.  It’s just the relatively new, up and coming writers that I can’t seem to stay on top of.  And it’s no wonder.  According to the WorkProduct blog, there are something like 100,000 new English language novels published every year.  If you say, okay, I’m only going to read contemporary literature (from 1975 to today, for example) – that’s 3.5 million novels to read before the end of the decade (15 days to go and counting).  If you don’t quite make it, go ahead and add another 100,000 books to the list.

Score one for my ignorance.

Still, I need to be more proactive in attempting to read at least the books that are making some sort of splash in the literary world.  A splash that it would seem everyone knows about but me.  And really, I’m just talking about fiction here.  The same dynamic lives and breathes, like a daunting monster in the closet, in the poetry and creative nonfiction worlds.  What’s a girl to do?  I suppose I could buy a book a week from Square Books – but even that doesn’t guarantee that I’m getting the most bang for my buck.  Because, let’s face it.  I don’t want to read crap.  And there’s a lot of crap out there.  Make no mistake.  Even some of the splash-makers are crap.  In fact, it could be that most of them are.  I wouldn’t know because, as I’ve already admitted, I have no idea who the splash-makers are.

So here’s where I attempt to make the internet work for me.  If you have a tried and true method of staying on top of the latest, greatest books out there (fiction, nonfiction, poetry), pulease share!  Here’s your opportunity to stamp out ignorance and illiteracy, to save the future of print publications and thousands of starving puppies, to finally make the world a prettier, happier place.  Or, at the very least, give me something to talk about at the next Oxford Ladies Poetry Society.

Welcome Home, Whatever That Means

It has been years, close to twenty in fact, since I’ve been here – the only place I’ve ever really called home.  Since literally all of my family moved away to locations less interesting and in which I have absolutely no history, I’ve become a kind of girl-without-a-home.  For my parents, Baton Rouge was just a stopping point – a home away from their home.  They’ve since moved on to other stopping points completely oblivious to the fact that they have made their children, in effect, homeless.  And hell, I don’t blame them.  Be happy, that’s what I say.

Even so, it makes me a little sad that I’m forced to stay in a hotel in the same city in which I spent my formative years.  And I like to imagine that the city is a little sad too that it’s been so long since I’ve visited (What can I say?  I have an active imagination).  And so tonight, as I was driving in to the city, it felt more like a reckoning than a homecoming.  It’s you and me, Baton Rouge.  What are we going to make of our relationship?

Of course, places don’t talk.  At least, not in the way that we’d like them to.  It would have been great if, upon crossing the Mississippi/Louisiana state border a giant bubble had appeared in the sky with the words “Welcome Home!” written in comic sans script.  But that didn’t happen.  In fact, nothing of note happened at all – unless you count a ten mile traffic jam at the merging of I-12 and I-10 something of note.  Which I do.  I count it as something of note because that is exactly where Baton Rouge welcomed me home.  And it all started with a sign.

The sign read: Denham Springs (you weren’t expecting an actual miracle-from-heaven sign, were you?).  Denham Springs is a town that used to be on the outskirts of the city, where you could still find real country living, but has today been swallowed up by the urban sprawl.  I spent a few years of my life in what we all simply called “Denham,” living in a trailer on the land my brother and father cleared by themselves.  I can still remember that land when it was wild and tangled.  And how, slowly, on weekends and holidays and with the ever present sound of a chainsaw, those men carved out the lawn on which I would play tackle football with that same brother and his friends. And how they left that one tree standing that I would back into with the car at what would be the end of our driveway.  And it would be the very spot my brother worked all one summer to clear that the neighbor boy named Dennis would stand in the middle of the night to ask me to sneak out the window and kiss him in the shed behind his house.

And then there was the sign for Sherwood Forest Boulevard. This street bears the name of one of my elementary schools (we moved around a lot.  I think I went to a total of six different schools in the Baton Rouge vicinity between grades 1 and 7).  But this was the school I went to when we lived in Sherwood Forest subdivision where I was the youngest neighborhood hoodlum following the other kids down the street and behind so-and-so’s house to knock back a swig of something that tasted like I imagined gasoline must taste, and where some girl ran into her home to get toothpaste to cover the smell on one of the other girl’s breath because surely no one would notice that she couldn’t walk if we could only get rid of the smell!  This was the neighborhood where I stole the candy from the corner 7-11 and then went back, on my own and without anyone knowing, crying and asking forgiveness from what I know now must have been the seventeen-year-old kid behind the counter.  Sherwood Forest Elementary School was just off the Sherwood Forest Boulevard exit and around the corner from the Sherwood Forest subdivision where I played in the street, wore a purple and gold skirt to school and didn’t yet know that there were men who waited and watched for little girls standing by the road waiting for the bus to come.

There were other signs too, of course.  I passed the exit for Airline Highway and, though I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure my mother worked at an Albertson’s (or was it a Western Sizzlin Steakhouse?) on Airline Highway.  In either case, this is also the same street that an old woman pulled a gun on me when I honked at her for sitting too long at a red light.  It is the street on which I jumped a curb, in my just-learning-to-drive-but-already-have-my-license days, right in front of a police officer and then darted into the parking lot of what I know for a fact was an Albertson’s to hide amongst the Saturday afternoon shopper’s parked cars.

The signs were, in fact, everywhere!  (As is true on most major interstates).  And I realized that home is a tricky concept.  The truth is, I have lots of homes.  I have my home in Oxford, Mississippi where I have chosen to build my life.  My mother’s home in Texas is a home to me as well, if for no other reason than the fact that she and my brother live there.  There is also the home in which my parents grew up and in which I spent much of my youth visiting my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.  And there are many, many more.  The homes of good friends and of friends of the family, old homes that I used to live in but are currently occupied by strangers, and then there are the cities.  So many wonderful cities that I have called home.

I guess, in the end, Baton Rouge and I have solidified our relationship.  I promise to come back and visit more often if she promises to continue welcoming me home.  Whatever that means.

Cooking with Cather

I love cookbooks.

Four years ago, I was researching and writing my dissertation on Willa Cather.  At least, that’s what I was supposed to be doing.  After three intense years of coursework, nine months of study and preparation for the oral and written exams, and a whirlwind tour of archives to read Cather’s letters, by the time I was ready to start writing, all I wanted to do was bake.

And bake I did.  For three months I made bread.  Sourdough bread. Rye bread. Wheat bread. White bread. Cheese bread. You name it.  If I could find a recipe for it, I was making it.  After several months of this, my freezer was stuffed with frozen loaves of homemade bread.  There was simply no other place to put more bread.  And so the canning began.  I canned jellies and pickles, tomato sauce and roasted red peppers.  My kitchen was a laboratory.  The house smelled divine.

That summer, I had a paper to present at the International Cather Seminar in France.  There, I came face to face with my dissertation director who had no qualms in asking me, point blank, where my dissertation was.  I stammered.  I hemmed and hawed.  And finally, I admitted that I had discovered the perfect sourdough starter.

Looking back on it, it makes perfect sense that I would turn to cooking at that point in my study.  I had just finished reading numerous Cather biographies in addition to her letters to friends and family.  Food was everywhere.  Willa Cather was, shall we say, a bit of a gastronome.  She had a french cook specially prepare her meals.  She wrote, most often disparagingly, of the food she ate.  Every biographer who has written about Cather has been forced to, at the very least, mention her obsession with food.  Were she alive today, I have no doubt that Willa Cather would have one of the most discriminating and well-followed food blogs ever to be written.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Willa Cather Foundation has recently published a cookbook: At Willa Cather’s Tables.




This little gem has recipes from no less than sixteen of Cather’s literary works in addition to Cather family recipes and a host of recipes from places Cather loved.  It is also filled with excerpts from Cather’s novels and short stories and memories from friends and family members.  If you’re like me, and you love both literature and cooking, it’s the perfect kind of cookbook.  You can get it here: www.willacather.org

My dissertation director was not impressed with my experiments in gastronomy.  Back then, his exact words to me were, “Gabriel.  Just write the damned thing.”  And that is exactly what I did.  And yes, even my dissertation dealt, in part, with Cather’s obsession with food.  But that was years ago.  And though I’m still actively involved in all things Cather, I don’t currently have a deadline looming.  The only real pressing matter is deciding what I should attempt first:  Antonia’s Favorite Banana Cream Pie or Carrie Miner Sherwood’s Christmas Plum Pudding.