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.


Urban Farming

Mock Bavarian Beer Beef Stew

Dear Neighbors Northers,

Before one can write or do the other things that need to be done, one must eat.  If one is fortunate to have one’s own kitchen, nothing beats making food to one’s own liking and specifications.


Lunch at Spiro's

Eating Out: another alternative to the home-cooked meal, especially during a heat wave.

Mock Bavarian Beer Beef Stew

The Urban Farmer is trying not to panic about the high temps this weekend, but… she kinda sorta is.  Yesterday she geared up.  She spent the entire day cooking.  She wanted to have lots of meals ready so she wouldn’t need to cook during the heat wave.  She cooked up chili, ratatouille, sourdough bread (which lately she is having extreme luck with—does she finally have the process down? Fingers crossed praising the loaf won’t lead to loaf failure), rhubarb crisp, soup stock, a double batch of marinara which she then used to make a double batch of lasagna.  Lastly she prepped beef stew meat for a batch of Bavarian Beer Beef stew, which morphed into Bavarian beef stew or maybe Belgian beef stew or maybe just stew?

The veering started in the beer aisle of the grocery store.  She didn’t want to pay 5 bucks for a bottle of Bav beer, which as it turns out the recipe didn’t call for anyway. The recipe called for Belgian Ale.  The Urban Farmer’s sis, who alerted the UF of Bavarian Beer Beef stew’s epic taste, told her the name of the beer she should get on the sisters’ urban walk the day before, Thurs.  Actually the Urban Farmer’s sis had two stellar Belg beers to recommend.  Way back in the Bush 1 era, she had been quite fond of them.

The next a.m., Friday, the Urban Farmer was standing in the beer aisle, on system overload, swamped by all the beer offerings.  Darn if she couldn’t remember what beer her sis had recommended.

For the Urban Farmer, the answer in such brain-tazing situations, is to square one things.  She skipped the beer entirely.  She would use what’s at hand.  (It’s her favorite kitchen technique.)

The Urban Farmer pedaled home with her onions, parsnips, and 2 and ¼ pounds beef.  She had plenty of things she could use for a marinade.

She splashed a good dose of sherry into the pot, then thought wait a minute gosh darn.  Why wasn’t she using the liquid leftover from making sauerbraten? One slap to the forehead later, she was digging the leftover sauerbraten liq. out of the freezer.  While that was nuking, she threw in a couple tablespoons kim chi liquid.  Lastly she poured in the leftover half cup of ginger-turmeric elixir.  The elixir had been sitting in the large Adams Peanut Butter glass jar for over a week.  The liquid level in the jar hadn’t budged.  It was getting on the Urban Farmer’s efficiency and fridge organizational nerves.

So, that was the marinade for the beef:

roughly 2 c leftover sauerbraten liq. thawed out in microwaver, plus about 1/4 c each of the following liquids: kim chi, sherry, ginger-turmeric elixir.

The Urban Farmer dutifully added parsnips and carrots—which her sister had raved made the beef stew so good.  She also sneaked in red cabbage because you can’t really make mock sauerbraten or mock Bav/Belgian stew or even unmock those things without throwing in some cab.

This morning the plan was to pressure cook the whole shebang in the InstaPot but the Urban Farmer got cold feet.  InstaPot works excellently for ratatouille, soups, and the cooking of legumes, but she’s had poor luck InstaPotting meat chunks.  Back in March there was the Corned Beef and Cabbage disaster.  All day she looked forward to C B and C with Co-hab and the sister.  But when the time came to pop the lid on the InstaPot, the meat, let alone the cab, wasn’t even close to done.  Who knows what went wrong.  Operator error? No matter, she threw the whole shebang into the old school slowcooker crock pot and voila, the next day she had succulent, yumalicious C B and C.  But, it was a day late.  On the 18th, not the customary 17th of March.

Anyway, now the Bav Beer Beef Stew that really isn’t, but more like some kind of hybrid, foods-of-the-world stew, is slowcooking.  And not in the house, but outside, just off the back door where a convenient extra outlet is located.  Fingers crossed the liquid is quietly burbling away, slowing morphing something ‘licious.

OK, enough on food.  Now, back to T to Pal.


Book reviews

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan


Dear Neighbors Northers,

I simply couldn’t not blog about this exquisite read, The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan.  Probably I’m not doing it justice.  See for yourself.  Read Ploughmen and see what you think.  How will it speak to you?

Ex nihilo nihil est.”  The killer John Gload says he came across those words decades earlier, embroidered on a hotel pillow.  Sheriff’s deputy Valentine Millimaki thinks it must be Latin.  He is too wrung out from sleeplessness to think anything more.

The Ploughmen heaves up from the earth in cataclysms and cataracts.  In between are periods of exquisite quiet.  Zupan reveals a bleak, flat Montana of blowing sand and hot, rainless summers; cricket clouds, elusive bats, and circling, hungry gulls.  He uses language in a precise, unexaggerated way, without irony or hyperbole.

Ploughmen centers upon two orphaned farm boys, Valentine Millimaki and John Gload.  A note written in his mother’s elegant script instructed eight-year-old Millimaki to come to the shed.  There, he found his mother swaying cold from the rafters.  Gload waited out a snowstorm in a truck cab for his drunken father’s return.

Millimaki marries and has a cabin in the woods.  He becomes a sheriff’s deputy.  Gload earns his bread killing.  He bows before no god and follows no commandment other than his own.

The law catches up to Gload at age seventy-seven.  Millimaki is assigned the jail’s graveyard shift.  He is instructed to pay special attention to Gload.

Gload isn’t interested in escaping.  He’s neared the end of his row and fine with living out his days behind bars.  Still, in his own inimitable fashion, he would like to put some things right.

Neither guard nor prisoner is sleeping.  Millimaki is haunted by the dead—beginning with his mother and extending out to the hikers, loners, and drifters he tries to rescue but reaches too late.  His wife can no longer bear the sorrows dripping from him and walks out.

Gload’s sleeplessness isn’t due to regret for those whose lives he has snuffed out, but for his never-fulfilled boyhood wish of being a ploughman, a dream buried in a long ago snowstorm’s drifts.  He has another wish, too, but keeps Millimaki in the dark as to what it is.

The wind, ice, snow, and sun bleach, scar, bend, and disfigure.  The punishment men mete out seems almost trivial compared to what nature doles out in the harsh and beautiful land.

Ultimately, Millimaki puts things right for Gload, just as the old man wished.

Ex nihilo nihil est.  Nothing is created from nothing.  Was this the ultimate take away from Kim Zupan’s Ploughmen?

A writer confesses

Writing with Bravery


Don’t listen to the clown.  Write with bravery!


Hello Neighbors Northers,

Story generation continues on Emma Mulberry Whole Story.  No additional comments on that today.  Instead, I bring you another colleague’s conundrum.

The Literary Thriller writer alerted us that he wouldn’t be at group Monday.  The Thrillist was hammering out how to change chapter 1 so that all would like.

No.  Wrong! the Confessing Writer said. You can’t write that way! Wrong objective.  Writing with the objective to please all is death to your story.  Writing to please all is story killer numero Eins.  Trust yourself.  Stop listening to us.  Our cacophony of opinions will lead you in circles.

Don’t listen to us pelt you with our 2 cents, nickels, quarters, and Susan B. Anthony’s.  Step away from the Pub table.

We are all just frustrated novelists, poets, short story and screen play writers aching to be heard, raising our voices and opinions ever louder, “shoulding” your story to death.  We descend into nit picks as to whether your inciting incident is catchy and hooky enough.  Like we’re qualified! Half of us missed the whole inciting incident, whole cloth kit and caboodle.

Now we’re backtracking, muddying the ground, stepping all over ourselves, saying everything except what we should be saying, which is Oops! Our bad.  We were careless.  We read right over your exquisitely embedded line about the communication tower melting.  Instead of disqualifying ourselves from the pool of commentators, we blathered on.

Stop us.  Stop us now.  Say “enough.”  Banish us from your writing sanctuary.  Make us atone and prove ourselves worthy before you listen to one iota more of our advising.

Urban Farming

Mushroom, Nut, and Prune Pie with Sweet Potato Crust

mushroom, nut, prune sweet potato pie

Co-hab and the Urban Farmer just finished dinner.  Neither one of them could stop at one slice of this incredibly delicious pie.  Both Co-hab and the Urban Farmer had two slices.  This dinner was stratospheres better than last night’s fare:  Progresso lentil soup topped with chopped up veggie dog and a side of the night before’s beet, apple, and carrot slaw.  Tonight’s dinner was ambrosiacal.  Even better, the pie is gluten-free!

Here’s the Urban Farmer’s method on how to prepare.

Filling: Sauté 2 large leeks (chopped and minus the green tops) , 3 c chopped crimini mushrooms, and 2 cloves garlic (minced).  Add to this ¾ c fine chopped walnuts, ¾ c fine chopped prunes, and 1 c cooked pinto beans.

Sweet Potato Crust: Microwave 3 large sweet potatoes, cut into largish chunks.  Remove skins.  Mash potatoes together with one stick butter.  Whip in one egg and ½ t salt ( less if using salted butter).

Assembling: Press about two-thirds of the sweet potato mixture on bottom and sides of a greased, 9 in. pie pan.   Add ½ the filling.  Sprinkle on ½ cup fine chopped or shredded mozzarella or equivalent cheese.  Add rest of filling.  Top with another ½ cup shredded or chopped mozz.  Spoon on rest of sweet potato crust.  Use spatula to press sweet potato crust out to edge of pie and to flatten the spooned out dabs.

Bake for 30 min in a 425 degree F. oven.

The Cinderblocks

Vitamin H Deficiencies Among the Wahnknechts


flamingo jeep

If Armin Wahnknecht were alive today, would he be building art cars? Might the building of an art car lead to an increase in Vitamin H?

The writer is young.  She names places and characters after the ones she loves.  In some cases, she mashes their names together.

Armin Wahnknecht did that with his boat.  The boat was a home-made affair.  He christened it with the mashed-together names of his children: the Su-Ma-Ba-Ma, shorthand for Susanne-Marie-Barbara-Matt.

The bread truck work was slowly killing him.  Armin packaged and delivered bread for his father-in-law, the baker.  Breathing in all that flour brought on the asthma.

An Everett paper mill saved Armin.  There he found his niche, working in the great hall of clanking machinery and moving parts.

The happiness allotted to Armin and Anna, his wife, and the happiness they scrounged up in addition to that allotment are unknown.  Evidence suggests they suffered a deficit of Vitamin H.  Witness their children’s largely unhappy lives.  The children, whose names were immemorialized? im-moralized? Oh, yes,—memorialized—on the prow of Armin’s boat.

Armin could be counted on to summon laughter when recalling his youthful exploits.  But was this done merely to entertain the grandchildren? Was the laughter a cover for the Vitamin H deficiency?

Circumstances and events of Armin’s youth that might account for a diminished ability to manufacture Vitamin H:

  1. The alcoholic, largely absentee, father.  (Both these descriptors may be true, but one or both could be subjected to further, more rigorous, verification.  This is difficult.  Armin’s father and all those who knew him have been dead for several decades.  Written records are scant, perhaps non-existent.  All who remain at present are Armin’s children and his nieces and nephews.  The bulk of the nieces and nephews reside in far away Germany.  To ask what the real story was pertaining to Armin’s father is not a question well-suited for the Internet.  Skype would be more ideal, but with the exception of Susanne Fabian, who wholeheartedly embraces her role as family matriarch, Armin and Anna’s descendents haven’t kept in very good contact with the family’s German branch.)
  2. Food scarcity during Armin’s youth.
  3. Inadequate clothing. Certainly he lacked mittens in winter.  His coat may have had roomy pockets into which, at least occasionally, hot potatoes found their way.  This wouldn’t have happened often (the food scarcity thing) but perhaps, say, on Christmas.  A side note: family lore has it that Armin and his several siblings were often given an oven-heated brick at bed-time.
  4. A burdensome childhood. He went to work at a young age (second grade, third grade?) caring for a neighboring farmer’s children. Thenceforward, hands-on, muscle-exhausting, get-your-back-into-it, work-your-fingers-to-the-bone work was a given.  Is it sacrilegious to conjecture that for Armin, the virtue of work surpassed the virtue of honoring and loving God above all else, and that Armin’s conception of an anvil-hammering, metal-shaping, worker god reigned supreme?
  5. Other scars.

a.  War and the older brother who died in the war.

b.  Being mistaken for a corpse. During the influenza pandemic of 1918 he was tossed  in with the dead.

Let’s consider Anna, Armin’s wife.  On the surface, the circumstances of her youth were happier.  Her immigrant parents had established firm footholds in America prior to their nuptials and Anna’s entry into the world.  Indeed, the bride and groom were gifted with a set of silver by Anna’s mother’s employer.  These utensils are now in the caretakership of the family’s Twenty-first Century matriarch, Susanne.

To the best of our knowledge, Anna never went without food.  She didn’t know what it was to live in a country defeated in war.  She lacked Armin’s Lazarus experience.

But, we mustn’t overlook Anna’s sister, a nerve-addled woman with tumbleweed-dry hair; puckered, nicotine-stained mouth out of which complaints and deprecations flew; and a soft spot for cigarettes, cats, and chocolate-covered cherries.  She assaulted Armin and Anna’s many grandchildren with declarations such as: “I sleep on a mattress on the floor!” These declarations had a particularly deleterious effect on Armin and Anna’s impressionable grandchild Emma.  Young Emma felt responsible for the great aunt’s predicament.  She was glad her parents spared her visits to the great aunt’s home.  It was purported to be crowded with stacks of yellowing newspapers and Winston Cigarette boxes.  Several cats daintily and undaintily stepped through the detritus on their comings and goings to their dishes of Whiskas and the cat litter box.

The dent in the great aunt’s forehead was never fully explained.  It was said to be the result of an operation she’d had while in State care.  That, too, spoke of a Vitamin H deficiency.  Yet, the question remained, had the great aunt’s unhappiness been a germ within her from the start or had life experiences led her there?

A writer confesses

The Beta Read Hash-out Confab

Sheldon's home base

Sheldon the Owl, wise beta reader

To think that I was going to forego the beta read.  I almost chose not to submit Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story to my writing group’s pool of beta readers.  That would have been an incalculable loss.  The beta read hash-out confab two weeks ago ranks among the best experiences I’ve had as a writer.

Yes, it was great hearing my beta readers’ takes on EMWS, what they thought the strong points were as well as where they thought the weak points were.  My beta readers were an opinionated bunch.  But also, it was just plain gratifying that they had read EMWS and were willing to devote an evening to its discussion.

Below is the low-down on what my betas thought about Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story.

They liked that I got in Emma’s head, but sometimes felt this came at the expense of getting to know the other characters.  They got that Dad was passive, but wanted more of him so they could “get him” better.  They saw a parallel between the mom’s hunger for love and attention from her father and her kids’ longing for love and attention from their dad.

They saw the character reversal—Emma becoming hard and Mom becoming soft—but thought it was too abrupt.

They thought Mom was mean and were glad when she died.

Some wondered if Jim was a pimp.  Others thought he didn’t fight for Petra enough in the Del Monico’s scene.  All seemed to think the Del Monico’s scene was key to Petra’s trajectory, but thought the scene was rushed and could be slowed down.

The betas liked the passion Emma displayed with regard to agate collecting, but wanted to know what else she was passionate about.

Some loved the Holiday Island section.  Others found it too long.

The betas wanted more on Liza.  Maybe one more scene.  They wanted more on the pregnancy thing.  They were getting Emma’s response to it but wanted more on the other family members’ response.

Several thought opening EMWS with the funeral scene gave away too much.