Posts from the “Books” Category

Coffee Talk

Posted on August 31, 2015

writer

 

A friend of mine forwarded me this picture over the weekend.

I thought it was funny.

But then I realized I had a deep, dark secret.

Would you like to hear it?

Here goes: I can’t drink coffee like I did when I was younger.

You are full of shock and awe, aren’t you? Because what self-respecting writer can’t guzzle cup after cup of Joe?

(Raises hand sheepishly. Waits for your disapproval and jeers.)

I had a good run, folks. Really, I did. And it was a run fueled by 4-5 cups of coffee a day.

But these days all I can manage is a cup of dark roast (black) in the morning. Anything more than that and you’ll have to peel me off the ceiling. Lionel Richie may be able to dance there, but as a writing space, ceilings just don’t work for me.

Go ahead. Call me Ole One Cup. I won’t mind, especially since i just got “Dancing in the Ceiling” stuck in your head.

You’re welcome, by the way.

The good news is that despite this inability to get my coffee on in the mornings (or even the afternoons), I’ve churned out 20,950 words so far. That’s almost one-quarter of the manuscript that’s due on June 1, 2016. Not all of those words are perfect. But they are down and that’s the most important thing. You cannot revise, refine and rearrange anything unless it is down on paper.

Although I may not know as many baristas as I used to, I’ll take little victories like these when and where I can.

Your turn: Do you have a deep dark secret you’d like to share? If so, what is it? Otherwise, tell me about a little victory you’ve had recently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, what’s the deal?

Posted on August 23, 2015

My author packet from Chicago Review Press.

My author packet from Chicago Review Press.

When I shared the news about my forthcoming – and very first – book a couple of weeks ago, many people expressed their congratulations and wished me well.

I continue to be grateful for the goodwill and support I’ve received.

In the midst of all this excitement, I’ve also gotten a lot of questions online and in person about everything from manuscript deadlines to work-life balance. I’ll try to address some of those in this space every week, so please don’t hesitate to ask me anything you’d like to know, from how to craft book proposals, to finding an agent, to book recommendations and anything else that may be on your mind.

Here’s how you can send me your questions:

You can reach me at this site.

You can also give me a shout-out on Twitter.

And you can find me on my new author page on Facebook.

If you think that any of this might be something a friend or family member might be interested in, please don’t hesitate to share it with them. At the end of the day, I like telling stories and I like helping people when and where I can.

So I’ve gotten this question a number of times and I’d like to address it here:

“Weren’t you pitching a book about a guy who built an opera house in Paris?”

I was.

However, this time last year I learned one of my first and most humbling lessons about publishing: Your first book proposal doesn’t always result in your first book.

I would be telling you a big fat lie if I said learning this lesson was easy.

It wasn’t.

As a matter of fact, it sucked.

But my agent has this very useful mantra. That mantra is: Onward. “Onward” got me through my initial disappointment. “Onward” fueled my brainstorming for a new proposal idea. “Onward” sparked my research and drove me through the writing of this new proposal. “Onward” took me out of the nineteenth century and plopped me squarely in the twentieth century, where I found a beautiful, bookish and incredibly brave teenager who was determined to fight for a certain idea of France.

How many times did my agent and I exchange emails over this past year, where she signed off with “Onward…”?

Too many times to count.

Before I knew it, I was signing off with “onward” too.

I am insanely grateful to Jane Dystel and for the role of this word in my life over the past year. Everyone faces setbacks. Everyone. You just have to make a cold hard decision about who you are and whether you’ll let these momentary defeats define you.

No matter what you face, know that there is a way through.

In the meantime, repeat after me: Onward…

Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar

Posted on June 24, 2015

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

I grow a lot of eggplant this time of year.

It’s overwhelming really.

Because eggplant isn’t for everyone.

Or at least it isn’t for everyone in my household. [Ed. note: Unless I trick them into eating it.]

I happen to love it.

But I’ve been looking for new things to do with it. One reason: I have a lot. The other: Our household has had to eliminate dairy and eggs from our diet at least for the near term. So one of my many summer projects involves figuring out how to do this. It’s a little more complicated than I had imagined, but we’re muddling through it.

For now, that means no cheese with my evening glass of wine. [Ed note: I also happen to love cheese.]

Some might feel defeatist about this, but I am not one of those folks. And fortunately, eggplant has stepped in to fill this so-called cocktail hour snack void. One of my favorite French food writers, Clotilde Dusoulier, has a wonderful recipe for Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar in her The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from my Parisian KitchenIt’s a great, savory spread for crackers or flatbread, and Dusoulier says you can even use it in sandwiches or scooped over a bowl of rice.

I am thinking about cheese a little bit less these days, thanks in part to this tangy treat.

Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar

from Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from my Parisian Kitchen

Ingredients:

2 lbs small eggplants

2 garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers (I used a couple more than this)

12 brine-cured black olives, pitted

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

fine sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

hot sauce

Method:

1. Roast the eggplants a few hours in advance or the day before. Use a knife to pierce three or four slits in each eggplant and slip the garlic slivers into the slits. I had trouble doing this, so I roasted the eggplant without the garlic slivers and it still turned out fine.

2. Place the whole eggplants on a lightly oiled baking sheet and insert in a cold oven. Turn oven to 400 degrees and roast the eggplants, flipping them halfway through, until completely soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Set aside to cool completely. If roasting the day before, put the eggplants in an airtight container and refrigerate.

3. Halve the eggplants lengthwise and scoop out the flesh and garlic cloves with a spoon to get as much flesh as possible. It’s okay if a little of the skin comes with it. Put the eggplant and garlic in a food processor or blender.

4. Add the olives, lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, a pinch of salt, a good grind of black pepper and a dash (or two) of hot sauce. Process until very smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Your end result should look something like this (crackers and rose not included):

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

 

Click here for other eggplant recipes from NYT Cooking.

Match Race

Posted on June 22, 2015

Seabiscuit was an undersized, crooked-legged horse who was a champion napper. After years of floundering in the lowest ranks of horse racing, he was snapped up by a trainer and owner who understood him and who handled him so well, that he became an inspiration to a country that needed to see that the little guy could win.

Seabiscuit was a little horse with a big heart.

I’ve always loved this story and I have a bad habit of forcing Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful Seabiscuit: An American Legend on anyone who says they haven’t read it.

But I also turn to Hillenbrand’s book (and the above video of Biscuit’s historic match race with the Triple Crown winner War Admiral) at times when I need to remind myself that I have everything I need to cross the finish line, perhaps even by a couple of lengths. It is not easy, but as I’ve learned this past spring, it also helps to have a fantastic jockey…or at least some savvy people in your corner who can help you find the right, well-packed path.

I have no way of knowing how certain things will or won’t unfold. But I’ve dog-eared this account of what Seabiscuit’s jockey George Woolf did the night before his mount was to blaze around the track at Pimlico, leaving War Admiral far behind. Seabiscuit didn’t do well in the mud, but Woolf was determined to find a way to overcome that.

Hillenbrand writes:

A lone figure walked out onto the Pimlico dirt, clutching a flashlight. It was Woolf. The rainwater had not fully drained from the track, and he was concerned that Seabiscuit might struggle over the dampness. “Biscuit likes to hear his feet rattle” was how he put it. Turning down the lane, the jockey weaved back and forth, sweeping his flashlight beam from side to side, hunting for the driest, hardest path.

At the top of the homestretch Woolf stopped, testing the footing. In the soil beneath his feet, he could feel a firmer strip, the print of a tractor wheel that had lately rolled over the surface. The path was obscured by harrow marks. Walking the full length of the track, Woolf found that it circled the entire oval, a few feet from the rail.

He knew what he would have to do when the bell rang the following afternoon. “I figures to myself,” he said later,” “’Woolf, get on that lane and follow it.’” In the darkness of the last night of October 1938, George Woolf walked the course until he had memorized the path of the tractor print. Then he quickly stepped off the track.

“I knew it,” he said later, “like an airplane pilot knows a radio beam.”

— from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

Has there ever been a time in your life when someone has stepped in to show you the right, and well-worn path, for whatever reason? If so, when was that time, who was that person, and what was the ultimate result? Or, is there a story you turn to in order to get you through certain times in your life or projects that may bedevil you? What is that story and why does it appeal to you? Let me know in comments.

Postscript, August 12, 2015: Many thanks to Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich for helping me find that tractor print. Now I’m off to the races and I couldn’t have done it without their guidance and support.

Gnocchis a la Parisienne

Posted on January 27, 2015

One of my favorite scenes from the 2007 animated film “Ratatouille” is when snooty food critic Anton Ego experiences the above Proustian moment. He’s in a Parisian restaurant that has become a huge deal again, thanks in no small part to a street rat with a flair for flavor. Ego doesn’t know the business about the rat yet, which is one of the many reasons why this particular scene is so great.

But that’s not really why I’m writing this post.

I’m writing this post because of a David Lebovitz recipe that inspires the same sort of nostalgic overwhelm that Ego experienced. Lebovitz adapted a friend’s signature “Gnocchis a la Parisienne” dish, which is rich with cheese, Mornay sauce and these little dumplings made from pate a choux.

This is for my mother, who fell in love with the meal when I first made it and has been wanting the recipe ever since.

It is also for my dear friend Michelle, who recently purchased the perfect Le Creuset baking dish in which to make it.

But it’s also for anyone in search of a great go-to dinner full of basic ingredients you probably already have in your pantry or refrigerator.

Are you ready?

Here we go.

Gnocchis a la Parisienne
from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories
Serves 6

Ingredients

For the pate a choux
1 1/4 cups of water
7 tablespoons of unsalted butter; room temperature, cubed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons dry mustard or mustard powder

For the Mornay sauce
5 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole or low-fat milk, warmed
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
1 3/4 cups Gruyere (or you can substitute Emmenthal or Comte)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. To make the pate a choux, heat the water, butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a saucepan over medium heat until the butter is melted. Dump in all the flour at once and stir the mixture briskly for about 2 minutes, until the dough forms a smooth ball. Remove from the heat and scrape the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Lebovitz says if you don’t have a stand mixer, you can leave the dough in the saucepan.) Let the dough sit for 3 minutes, stirring it every so often to release some of the heat. Here’s what it should look like:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

2. With the mixer on medium-high speed, or by hand, add the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Add the dry mustard and beat until the dough is completely smooth. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside. Prior to covering the dough, you should have something looking like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

3. To make the Mornay sauce, melt the butter in the saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, letting the mixture bubble. Stir constantly for 2 minutes, until the paste is thickened. Do not let it brown. Gradually whisk in the milk, beginning slowly and stirring constantly to avoid lumps.

4. Decrease the heat to low and cook the Mornay for 6 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the sauce is about as thick as a milkshake. Remove from heat and add the salt, cayenne, and 1/2 cup of the Gruyere or whatever other Swiss-style cheese you decide to use. Stir until the cheese is melted.

5. Butter a shallow 2 1/2-to 3-quart baking dish. Sprinkle half of the Parmesan over the bottom and sides. Spread 1 cup of Mornay sauce over the bottom of the baking dish like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

6. Line a large dinner plate with a few layers of paper towels. Bring a pot of salted water to a low boil. Either using two soup spoons — one to scoop up some of the dough and the other to scrape it into the boiling water — or a spring-loaded ice cream scoop, scoop up about 1 generous tablespoon of dough and drop it into the water. Working in batches, poach 8 to 10 gnocchi at a time. Let them poach for 2 minutes, then retrieve them from the water and drain them on paper towels. They will not be fully cooked inside. Repeat until all the gnocchi dough is poached.

7. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the oven rack in the top third of the oven.

8. Once the gnocchi are parcooked, place them in a single layer on top of the Mornay in the baking dish, like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

9. Then spoon the remaining Mornay over the gnocchi in an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining cheese (both Parmesan and Swiss-style) on top of that.

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

10. Put the dish on a foil-covered baking sheet and then bake for 15 minutes. Then increase the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until the top is well browned. This could probably be browner, but you get the spirit of the thing (and the spirit is pretty delicious):

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

Let cool a few minutes and then serve with a green salad. This is good comfort food, good dinner party food and good family fare that kids will enjoy. It’s become the sort of meal my husband and child ask about if I haven’t made it in a few weeks and I hope you come to enjoy it as much as we do!

Great Writing Advice from Author John Green

Posted on December 5, 2014

“Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.”

Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read

Posted on November 13, 2014

Photo courtesy of MediaBistro and InformationIsBeautiful.Net

Photo courtesy of MediaBistro and InformationIsBeautiful.Net

Mediabistro‘s GalleyCat blog just posted this interesting graphic about nonfiction books everyone should read. It’s from designer David McCandless, who created it for his new book Knowledge is BeautifulI’m a bit of a nonfiction dork, so I was interested to see some of the titles he included. What do you think about the books on this list? Which ones have you read? What did you think about them? And, is there anything that you think he left out? Let me know in comments!

Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes

Posted on July 23, 2014

saraandgeralddancing

 Photo:  © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I’ve been preparing a new class for LSU Continuing Education that I’ll teach this fall about the Lost Generation. Although it will discuss how World War I impacted the mindset of people in this time and influenced creative disciplines from writing to painting and dance to theater, it will also look at some of the personalities that became so famous — and infamous — during this era.

Obviously, my class will hear about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But it will also learn about Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, the Ballets Russes and many others that were pushing the creative envelope in one of the world’s greatest cities — Paris, France. And it will also learn about some lesser-known, but no less influential folks, like the dancing couple up above. They’re Gerald and Sara Murphy, they were American and well-to-do and they mingled with pretty much everyone who was anyone creatively during this period. Ever heard the saying “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”? Well, Gerald Murphy coined it, and anyone in the Murphys’ orbit knew that few lived better and more interesting lives than that particular duo. Random facts about them: They were perhaps the first people in France to own a waffle iron, they had one of the best private collections of African-American spiritual music (which they sang in perfect two-part harmony at their cocktail parties), and they used to enlist Man Ray to shoot their family portraits.

Here is a 1962 profile written about the couple in The New Yorker.

The bottom line is that these were people you really needed to know. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my class in September.

One of the reasons why I can’t wait to talk about the Murphys is because you don’t really hear about the them a lot, unless you read very deeply about the Roaring Twenties. But you might have come across them (sort of) and not realized it, if you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is The Night.

Many scholars agree that Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver after the Murphys for about the first half of the book, recreating their very charmed life in Paris and on the French Riviera for his readership. In the second half of the book, the Divers seem to become an entirely different couple and I’ll be talking about who that couple was and why scholars seem to think Scott seemed to have no qualms about such a mashup in his manuscript. He dedicated his book to the Murphys, but when they first read it, they felt betrayed.

One year after Tender’s publication, the Murphys were undergoing a terrible family tragedy. At that time, Gerald wrote Scott, saying “I know now that what you said in Tender in the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot…”

The Murphys have a wonderful and ultimately tragic story that I look forward to telling in about a month and a half from now, one that provides an interesting framework for a time and a people who may have felt likewise blundered, scarred and destroyed. If you’re in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you’ll consider taking the class to find out more about them. If not, please stay tuned here as I share anecdotes, pictures, videos and music that I’ll be featuring in the class.

And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask away in comments.

The Power of Habit

Posted on July 15, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with New York Times-bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, who is finishing a new book about habit formation called Better Than Before. Here is a recent post she wrote that distills the ideas she’ll cover in her book, which comes out in March, 2015.

I interviewed Gretchen because I was working on a forthcoming story about exercise for USA Today‘s Best Years Magazine. The story will give pointers on how to get back into the habit once your kids become more independent or leave home altogether. Although I interviewed several excellent health and wellness experts who could speak to reps and research about how 10 minutes of walking a day will benefit your blood pressure, I thought Gretchen would be a good source about starting a new habit and sticking to it.

Some notes from our conversation that didn’t make it into the final piece:

* She got the idea for Better Than Before while she was working on her blockbuster The Happiness ProjectShe found during her research for that book that people who tried to become happier and succeeded could often point to some sort of habit they developed as the reason for their success. It didn’t take long for her to become “obsessed” with how to change habits.

* If you’re having a hard time starting a positive new habit like exercise, she said it’s important to look at the reasons why. Maybe the gym is located in an inconvenient place with bad parking. Maybe you hate the music they play in the gym. Maybe exercise machines aren’t your thing. “Rather than saying ‘I hate exercise,’ you need to face what it is that’s actually the problem so you can see the solution,” she said. “If you hate loud music, find a place that plays music you like or go for a walk in nature. If you don’t have time to shower after your workout, do some sort of exercise where you don’t sweat.”

* Some people say they want to start a new, healthy habit because people say they should, or because there is some other sort of external expectation. But deep down, they don’t really want to make that sort of change, which makes them feel worse. “You really need to look within and see whether this is something you actually want to do,” she said. “It’s better to say [that this habit is] not a priority than to pretend it is and feel like a failure.”

I hope you’ll look for the piece when it hits newsstands this fall, because Gretchen was a lively and fascinating interviewee. In the meantime, have you ever had trouble starting a new habit? If so, what was the habit and why did you have trouble starting it? What steps did you take to make this habit part of your everyday life? Please let me know in comments.

In the meantime, check out Gretchen’s web site  and visit this link to start a Happiness Project of your own.

 

 

Falling Upwards

Posted on May 7, 2014

hotairballoon

For years, my mother was fixated on taking this luxury hot air balloon trip with a group that promised private luncheons with real-life countesses and afternoons of drifting over Burgundy’s vineyards and medieval castles. When she spoke of it, all dreamy-eyed, it inspired that sort of feeling in me that many eager-to-please oldest children get, the one that screams “Someday, when I’m able to afford it, I will make this dream come true for my mother. Someday I will give her this bird’s eye view of France.”

Years after the fact, I realize that it might behoove me to make a slightly different dream come true for her, because neither of us is so great with heights, let’s just say. But I think we are both understandably swoony about the idea of the idea of a hot air balloon voyage. There’s a certain romance to seeing the world from a different perspective and, well,  drifting aimlessly over verdant pastures with a glass of champagne in hand. There’s also a certain adventurous spirit to getting into a balloon and not knowing just exactly where you’ll land.

fallingupwardsHistorian Richard Holmes captures these sentiments in Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Aira deliciously quirky account of flight before the age of airplanes. He writes:

Throughout history, dreamlike stories and romantic adventures have always attached themselves to balloons. Some are factual, some are pure fantasy, many (the most interesting) are a provoking mixture of the two. But some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly suspended beneath them.

Here’s the narrative basket in Holmes’ book: Balloons have not only been important to our understanding of the world, but crucial to shaping our ideas about what the future could — and should — be.  Some of the more obvious ways balloons have been instrumental to this understanding is by offering us new views of our planet, allowing us to study and forecast the weather, and enabling us to spy on enemies during wartime. But balloons have also been useful propaganda tools and muses for the new (at the time) genre of science fiction. And yet, there was still some early sense that balloons could only take us so far, that we would need to develop some sort of mechanized bird of sorts if we truly wanted to soar. Even the writer Victor Hugo declared that “the future lay with the bird, not the cloud.”

The Wright Brothers get all the press for developing the bird in question, but it is only after reading Holmes’ book that we recognize how much the Wrights owe to these early — and largely unknown — pioneers of flight. Holmes’ narrative teems with all sorts of strange characters who took to the air in the spirit of education and entertainment alike. One of my favorite stories is about Sophie Blanchard, a woman who overcame blancharddebilitating anxiety to become Napoleon’s Aeronaute des Fetes Officielles. She was renowned for standing in a silver gondola and drifting high above Paris in a white, low-cut dress and a hat full of colored feathers. Over time, Blanchard’s aerial shows became more daring, involving fireworks, colored smoke and rockets that flew from her delicate rig. Her daring cost her her life on July 6, 1819, when her silk balloon caught fire and sent her falling to her death. The stunned crowd originally cheered because they thought that the flames were all part of the show.

One eyewitness wrote:

In a few seconds, the poor creature, enveloped and entangled in the netting of her machine, fell with a frightful crash upon the slanting roof of a house, and thence onto the street, and Madame Blanchard was taken up a shattered corpse!

Although Blanchard was one of ballooning’s first casualties, she was a trailblazer, and filmmaker Jen Sachs is currently turning her life story into a beautiful animated film that is scheduled for release next year. But there were some near-absent trailblazers in this otherwise delightful book: The Montgolfier Brothers, who invented the hot air balloons that started all the fuss. I would have liked to have read more about them here, but Holmes is such a good raconteur…that it’s okay. Really. Drifting through these tales of a really rich and overlooked period in history was a fun ride.