The Important Thing Is…

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a rambling blog post here. You know, the ones that go on and on about something fairly irrelevant to anything important? I know you’ve missed those posts. Admit it. You’ve missed them. Alright then, here you go.

I got nearly 10 inches cut off my hair the other day. And then I colored it a color I haven’t worn since the 90s. After that? Well, after that I painted my nails electric blue and bought a new shade of lipstick: red.

Yeah. Something’s up.

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Cleaning House

My closets are a disaster area.

Literally. I’m surprised there’s no police tape surrounding the doors (which haven’t been able to be fully closed for weeks for the piles of clothes on the floor). And this makes me stop and look around. It’s tax season, and the W-2s are piled up on the printer just begging for someone to do something with them. The weather is finally starting to break which reminds me that the grass is going to grow again which reminds me that the tractor needs servicing. Buford has walked into another wall which tells me I’ve put off his doggie eye appointment too long. And the oil light is flashing in the car.

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Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews

Emily St. John Mandel has an interesting take on bad reviews in yesterday’s The Millions.

“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”

Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.

But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.

Her post deals primarily with whether one should respond to a bad review. And though she is careful to point out that reviewers have the right to not like your book, I can’t help but return to the question that weighs on the minds of writers who also review: If we didn’t like the book, should we say so or just sit down and shut up?

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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.

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.