A writer confesses

Why the girl with the blocked out eyes?

20190817_130811Dear Neighbors Northers,

We’re on holiday in Buenos Aires this month.  Expect short, touristy posts.  Last Sunday Argentines voted in their primary.  No one expected Pres. Macri to fare as poorly as he did.  I don’t know if that explains red-eyed girl either.

Why the girl with the blocked out eyes? Why the redness? Who sprayed her onto the wall? Does she know Jesus? His coffee shop? We just passed it a block ago.  And that man in the distance, wearing the black puff coat, jauntily strolling along, pretending to be jonesing for his next cafe doble.  What’s his story?

A writer confesses, Book reviews

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman cover 2

Dear Neighbors Northers,

I read Anna Burns’ Milkman months ago.  It was one of my first reads of 2019.   I was blown away.  I became a disciple, recommending Milkman right and left, but when I attempted to blog about it…, uh, I felt like I was never doing the book justice.  My piddly attempts to describe Milkman and my response to it always fell well short of the mark. 

Happily, my verbal praise paid off.  Months after my gushing, a barista at my go-to coffee shop in Seattle informed me that she was reading Milk.  Just this past week, a package arrived from my cousin in Kiel.  Inside, a copy of Milkman.  My cousin in far-off Germany also a fan? Now I knew I had to shove all the other writing aside and finally, all these many months later, post my take on Anna Burns’ wonderful novel.  I may still not be doing justice to it, but here goes.

I commit the unpardonable sin of reading while walking weekly, sometime other daily.  Drivers pull off the road for the pleasure of scolding me.  “You shouldn’t be doing that! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?”  Imagine my readerjoy when I discovered that the female narrator of Anna Burns’ Milkman is also such a transgressor.

Picture 1970s Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is a country at war with itself, with one group living under the other’s thumb.  It is peopled with renouncers and informers.  Paramilitary and security forces are always lurking.  It is a crazy-making world of denial and stolen dreams.

The girl who reads while walking has scrubbed war, enemy, Ireland, England, and Great Britain from her vocabulary.  Instead, one lives and belongs to “this side of the road” or “that side of the road” or “the country over the water.”  Everyone is referred to by lower-case descriptors, never by Christian name.  We have tablets girl, nuclear boy, second brother-in-law, third sister, maybe boyfriend, shining girl.  The exception is the Milkman.  He is not a real milkman, but an imposter milkman.  He is also a leader of the renouncers.  Meanwhile the real, and therefore lower-case, milkman is usually not even referred to as the milkman, but as the man nobody loves. 

The girl who reads while walking is in danger of becoming a “beyond the pale.”  Not just or even primarily because she refuses to leave off reading while walking, but because this affliction makes her a non-participant, back turner, and thumb-noser.  All around her are broken families—crippled brothers, expatriated sisters, dead or incarcerated fathers, benumbed mothers—but she steps deftly over or around the casualties and keeps reading.  She isn’t even reading current literature.  She stubbornly rejects anything more recent than the Nineteenth Century! All this makes her ripe for suspecting. 

Meanwhile, the Milkman, who is not real, only masquerading, has taken to shadowing her in his van.  He would like nothing better than to deflower her, thereby shaming and entrapping her into a life of lowly despicatude as his mistress.

Full disclosure: Anna Burns’s sentences are often dense and thickety, so this is probably not a beach read, but please, if you think you have the fortitude, open its pages.  In the snarls and snags and twisting bramble of Milkman’s prose dwell humorous insights and painful truths. 

Milkman is an amazing, eye-opening read.

A writer confesses

The Low Rumble of the Tree Chewer

The Low Rumble of the Tree Chewer

Cuts through any chance I have at sticking two words together.

The rumble mixes with the Mexican workers’ exhortations.  Place the chewer aqui.  No.  Place it alla.

More than an hour to go.  The library doesn’t open until ten. 

Can I make it?

What to do? Think quick, Writer!

Stay or go.  Now is the time of productive thinking, but the tree chewer is worming through my bones.

What I wanted to say, thought I would say, when I lay abed, tossing, turning, wrestling with the bed covers, determined not to hear the ductless Daikon switching on, off.  On.  Off.  Determined to turn a blind eye to the Daikon’s unblinking Intelligent Eye.

Ah. Respite from the droning.  I squander the quiet starring names on my contact list.  The starred names will ring.  The unstarred names will not ring.  I organize the recycle paper.  Great chunks now fill the vertical stacking trays.  I’ve culled the dog-eared pages.  They will stick in the printer’s teeth.  I’ve culled the stapled-together pages.  They will clog the printer’s throat.

Again, droning.  My cortisol levels resume their rising. 



Choose.  Choose something.

No sanctuary.

I wanted to think on the gay penguins in Australia.  Some complain that the descriptor is wrong.  They should be called outliers or abnormals.  Something along those lines.

Of all the penguins at the sanctuary, only this pair have managed to co-father their orphaned penguin egg into being.    

Book reviews

The Amendment by Anne Leigh Parrish


Lavinia Starkhurst Dugan’s second husband Chip is dead.  A lightning bolt struck him down on the golf course.  Her oldest daughter Angie thinks she should join a grief group.  Chip’s best friend Mel and golf buddy wants to put a ring on Lavinia’s finger.  Her housekeeper Alma thinks she’s hitting the wine too much.  Her ex-husband Potter is fretting about her, too.  But Lavinia doesn’t have time for grief groups or navel-gazing.  Her five kids are grown and no longer need her guiding hand.  Chip left her financially secure.

She’ll do grief her own way.  She’s not even fifty yet.  It’s time to see what see what life’s like on her own: without kids, husband, husband’s best friend, ex-husband or her housekeeper Alma.

With a suitcase full of silk jumpsuits, a box of thimbles, a stack of an unknown family’s photographs, a vase in which she daily sets new bouquets, and a pink stuffed bear riding shotgun, Lavinia heads out on a cross-country road trip.  Destination: Pacific.  She wants to feel those cold waters between her toes.  Lavinia is a feisty woman of action, diving into life head first.

Tuck The Amendment by Anne Leigh Parrish into your carry-on this summer or read it on your stay-cation.  Whatever you do, read it! You’ll be glad you did.

Urban Farming

Choco-Coffee Bread Pudding


breakfast anyoneGreetings Neighbor Northers,

How’s about some Choco-Coffee Bread Pudding? It’s a treat the Urban Farmer has been dreaming about recently.  It puts her in mind of the treat featured in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: white bread doused with milk, then fancified with a sprinkling of sugar.  Choco-coffee bread pudding is way worthier and fancier and tons of upgrades higher than the dessert featured in Tree, but it’s still rather old schoolsy and penny pinching.  It will keep your wallet fat.  The Urban Farmer reckons you can treat yourself to a whole casserole’s worth of it for the same amount of dough you’d spend on one brownie at a coffee shop.  If you chop the CCBP pieces small enough, you’ll be snacking on this stuff for days.  Also, you don’t need to tell anyone you serve it to how cheap it was to make.  That can be your secret.

What else the Urban Farmer likes about CCBP is how totally easy it is.  For not much effort, you get a whopping big reward.  Plus, because it’s “bread,” you can eat it at breakfast.  Yeah, sure, the Urban Farmer knows you can eat brownies for breakfast.  She’s done it.  But can you do it without guilt? Without a backward glance? With CCBP, you sit back, smug and relaxed, and cut yourself another delicious square.

If you’re like the Urban Farmer, you’ll have most of the ingredients on hand, right down to the packet of instant coffee and butter for greasing the pan.  The only ingredient the Urban Farmer trekked to the store for was the ½ pint of whipping cream.

Choco-Coffee Bread Pudding

Cube up 5-6 cups white bread.  (The Urban Farmer used a French bread like loaf.  The loaf was hefty and she used about ½.  The original recipe pushed Brioche, but the Urban Farmer was having none of that.  Too fancy.  Get out of here.  Who are they kidding? The Urban Farmer’s staying true to bread pudding’s basic necessity roots.  Plain, densely crumbed white, with thousands of tiny air pockets to soak up the sauce, is absolutely fine.)

humble white bread builds the foundationDump the bread cubes into a buttered casserole type dish (the Urban Farmer has made it with a glass oblong dish with steep sides, 10 inches x 8 x 3 inches high, but also with the 12 x 10 inch pumpkin-colored dish depicted here).  Set the dish aside while you make the sauce.

Sauce: Heat up ½ cup milk (the Urban Farmer uses soy, but you can use cow or whatever kind floats your boat).

Stir in 1 T instant coffee powder.  The Urban Farmer used 1 packet Via.  Be vigorous in your stirring.  You want the powder to completely dissolve into the milk.

Infusing Via in with the heated milkIn a good-sized mixing bowl, mix together the following:

1 cup milk

½ pint (1 cup) heavy whipping cream

4 eggs (whipped)

2/3 cup sugar

1 ½ t vanilla extract

¼ t salt

3 T cocoa powder (The Urban Farmer suggests you sift this to break up any pesky, hard-to-incorporate lumps.)

After you’ve mixed all this together, mix in the coffee-infused milk.

enriching the sauce with whipping creamthe velvety sauceNow for the fun part.  Pour the choco-mocha sauce over the bread cubes.  The idea is for the cubes to become submerged.  If necessary, gently press the bread cubes down below the milky liquid with the back of a spoon.

chocolate coffee bread puddingFrom here, you have two ways to proceed, rushed or leisurely.

The rushed method: Let pudding sit for 10-15 minutes, then bake at 350 until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean (maybe 35-40 minutes).

The leisurely method: Cover baking dish with saran wrap and set in the fridge overnight.  The next morning, fire up your oven to 350, pop in the pudding, and bake as explained above.

Let cool for 10-15 minutes, then enjoy!

choco coffee squares


A writer confesses

Maybe it’s all the cold meds?

Dear Neighbors Northers,

I seem to be getting further and further afield on the novel, or hopefully, more on track.  2 epiphanies in less than a week. Maybe it’s all the cold meds? All the snot production pressing on my sinuses?

The original, sane plan with “Traveling to Palestine: The Re-Write” was Writer Katz would make all the little corrections noted by her beta readers, then she would tackle the big things, one by one, in tidy, front-to-back fashion. Each would be marked off the list with a tidy check mark as she addressed it. Then last week, probably as a result of feedback received on a short story she is working on (one of her endless distracting “side projects,” I mean, is she working on that novel or isn’t she? Just how serious is Writer K about finishing anything?) “Tethered,” originally known as “She Saw a Sweater Floating Downstream,” well, actually originally known as “He Saw a Sweater Floating Downstream,” but we won’t go into that, she realized the real problematical thing with T to Pal.  McMullen had assigned negative character attributes to the characters who behave badly. It was as if she had taken a black marker to them and colored them in with it.  the way a four-year-old might.  Sorry all you four-year-olds out there who are reading this.  Where was the nuance? She had made them so easy to dismiss. Any reader would be bored by them one paragraph in and simply wish them swept off the page. Writer Katz had taken the easy way out. “Oh. They’re the ones who cheat on their spouses. Go ahead and make them mean, petty, and venal,” Writer Katz reasoned. Wrong. So wrong.

Finally, last Wednesday?, Writer Katz realized what a lazy writer she was being. Here she had an opportunity to deepen T to Pal that she had totally missed. Make Tariq and Tamara and Sarah (the affair people) likeable characters. It’s uninteresting if unlikable characters have an affair, but if likeable characters have an affair, that has potential.

This led to Writer Katz approaching Project Re-Write fundamentally differently. Rather than approaching the re-write as a to-do list, she would approach it in a much more organic, holistic way. Every place she saw for intro’ing depth to her characters, she would go for it. She would work to 3-dimensionalize and complicate them. In the re-write, she would loosen the reins and let her characters serve themselves and their needs and desires, not always Writer Katz’s agenda. She would let things get way messier, not tidy.

So what was epiphany 2? Well, hmm. Err. Not quite sure Writer Katz can reveal that. Kind of a plot point. A surprise-kind of thing. You know, one of those skeletons in the closet. Writer Katz is shoving a skeleton into the closet. The door is a bit jammed. Oh, there we go. All better now. She’s got her back to the door. If she presses her weight against it, yes, she’s sure, the door will stay closed.

A writer confesses, Book reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid–sort of Graham Greene-ish

I took a break from Runaway, a manuscript I am reading for a writing friend, last night and devoted my reading hour(s) to finishing The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  I had to.  Fundamentalist was a library book and it was soon coming due.  Not that I haven’t ever been guilty of 1. returning a book before finishing it or 2. returning a book after its due date.  But when a book is so excellently written, it would be a sin not to finish it.  How else can excellent writing be cultivated if it is not read?

Funda was sort of Graham Greene-ish.  It features a young, principled man trying to make his Horatio Algiered way in the world.  Changez possesses a sharp, steel-trap mind, a soccer player’s agile body, and oceans of politeness.  He hails from Pakistan, yes, but he is the right kind of foreigner.  Not the kind to embarrass.  You can bring him home to mom and dad.  He can represent your company’s “face of diversity.”

But what happens to such a hero after hijackers of roughly his skin color, subscribing to his religion and from, approximately, his part of the world, suicide crash planes into the World Trade Center? How does he change? How does the cosmos of faces around him  change? Is he still the guy you want to represent your company’s “face of diversity”? Really? What about if he starts sporting a beard? Are you sure you’re still on board with that? And are you quite sure you want to partake of that drink he just poured for you? Oh, that’s better.  He took a sip.  It must be fine.

My big confession about Hamid’s book? It’s “spin” ending.  It caught me by my U.S. of A. centric, white-biased views and sent me skidding.  Conclusion: it’s awfully difficult not to have my so-called open-minded view of the world biased by standard issue, U.S. of A. assumptions and presumptions.  Maybe it’s impossible?

Fortunately books like Hamid’s are out there.  I can at least check where I’m at and challenge myself to keep growing.

Hamid’s book was also of interest to me in another regard: Fundamentalist worked as a sort of measuring stick against which to compare my own delve into post-911 politics with Traveling to Palestine.