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The third stop in our family Around the USA cooking challenge was Texas, which I timed for Super Bowl Sunday so I could make some party food.
I chose to make Fajitas Nachos as a Tex-Mex dish. I ended up basically making up the recipe by assembling parts of other recipes. I marinated flank steak and chicken (for the non-beef eaters) in a fajita marinade supplied by my cooking bible, The Joy of Cooking. My husband grilled up the meat. I made the nachos based on a Cooks Illustrated technique, in which you layer chips, cheese and pickled jalapenos in a baking dish, then add another layer of chips, cheese and jalapenos on top. For the nachos “bar,” I set out homemade salsa, homemade guacamole, sour cream, scallions, and the grilled meat, and let everyone fix their own. The nachos were really good. In fact, I think I enjoyed them better than restaurant nachos, because the chips stayed crispy and it was easy to use them to scoop up all the different toppings.
For dessert, I made “Texas longhorns.” Actually, they are pecan crescents turned on their sides to look like horns. The recipe came from Bon Appetit and was a very easy brown sugar-butter-pecan cookie dough. Everyone liked them a lot.
This month, I’m highly recommending the post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Station Eleven does something that I hadn’t thought was possible: it offers something new and exciting in the post-apocalyptic genre. I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic books, and I was getting burned out on them. It seemed like there was nothing new to say about the fall of humanity. But this novel comes forward and defies my expectations. It is a quiet, moving story, elegiac for what is lost, such as technology and modern conveniences, but still hopeful for humanity. It skips a lot of brutality that is the hallmark of post-apocalyptic fiction by jumping around in time from before the pandemic to twenty years after, eliding those first few difficult years and leaving them up to the reader’s imagination. It also omits the tedious details of survival after our global industrial web has failed us, although some details, such as the survivors setting up small communities in truck stops and airports rather than in the houses of the dead, struck me as absolutely believable. As the world has fallen back into a dark age, some of the survivors have created a traveling symphony and acting troupe, which only performs Shakespeare. They travel from settlement to settlement to bring art and music to the post-apocalyptic world, because “survival is insufficient.”
This novel is not about survival; it’s about people, particularly those invisible connections that link our lives like webs. By moving back and forth in time, following the strands of the web wherever they might go, Station Eleven gradually builds our knowing of and empathy for these people, both those who survived and those who didn’t, even the rare ones who go bad. All of the characters are linked to movie star Arthur Leander, whose death while playing King Lear opens the book, but there are even more connections, gradually revealed, that show how we all are fundamentally linked to one another. While so many post-apocalyptic books are about losing our humanity, Station Eleven is about reinforcing what makes us human, the fundamental connections that we share.
My favorite of all the characters was Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, who was someone I felt I could know or even could have been, in an alternate life. Miranda is an artist who spends much of her time working on an ambitious project called Station Eleven, a comic book within a book that proves to be immune to the flu pandemic. This motif also reinforces the human connections between us, and how those connections are strengthened by the art we make. Even though this book is about much of humanity dying out, it didn’t depress me; it lifted me and inspired me.
Station Eleven is the book I’m rooting for in the 2015 Tournament of Books.
I recommend that all writers, whether you intend to self-publish or publish traditionally, read the excellent and short reviews of self-published books that Jefferson Smith (and occasional guest reviewers) posts at Immerse or Die. Smith maintains that the most important quality of fiction is whether it enables the reader to become immersed in the story, an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree. This is the elusive quality of suspension of disbelief, that ability to forget you’re reading about made-up places and characters, and to instead actually believe that what you’re reading could have really happened to these real people. This is why we readers want to read.
In his reviews Smith explains exactly why his immersion was broken (or less often, not broken) by the book he is reviewing. His clear and precise explanations have helped me pinpoint exactly what I disliked about the self-published books I have been reviewing. They should be very instructive to writers as what not to do.
Nothing will kill your story faster than grammatical errors and superfluous typos. Believe it!
The second state our family visited on our 2015 cooking challenge was New York. We certainly had a lot of choices for signature dishes to make, but of course we settled on New York-style thin-crust pizza.
The recipe came from Cooks’ Illustrated, so you can probably find it if you have access to their website or one of their comprehensive cookbooks. It was the first time I had made this recipe, but I have noticed the same issues whenever I make homemade pizza. The first is that the recipe always specifies that the dough can be divided in two parts and used to make two 12-inch pizzas. But I can never stretch the dough out that far–it always ends up tearing. This time, I used about three-quarters of the dough to make one pizza, and while there were no holes, my husband said it wasn’t crispy enough. Admittedly, my husband is something of a pizza snob.
The second issue is that it is very hard to get the oven hot enough to get a really crispy crust. That is why pizza cooked in a restaurant pizza oven will always taste better than pizza cooked at home. Regardless of heat and dough-stretching issues, though, homemade pizza is still very good, worth making over buying frozen or chain-restaurant pizza. But if you have a really good pizza restaurant nearby or you happen to live in New York City, there doesn’t seem to be much point in making pizza at home.
I found out later that I could knead the dough longer than the recipe specified to help with the tearing issue. I also did not use a baking stone, as the recipe specified, because I don’t have one, which helps crisps up the crust. I don’t like to clutter up my kitchen with specialty items that I’ll only use infrequently, so I doubt I’ll buy a baking stone, but it may be a worthwhile investment if you plan to make a lot of pizza at home.
The Cooks’ Illustrated dough is very easy to make, as it uses the food processor. It rises overnight in the refrigerator, but otherwise takes virtually no time to make. I used the leftover dough to make little bread knots, which were yummy. So I will keep this dough recipe in rotation for making knots, breadsticks, focaccia, and the like.
I’m finding myself getting very picky about what books make it on the To Be Read (TBR) pile. By the TBR, I mean that pile of books that I’m really, truly, gosh-darn-it gonna read in the very near future. Ideally, I want the number of books on the TBR to be fewer than the number of books I read in a typical year, so I have a fighting chance of working my way through it.
Right now, I have several lists going: a list of books I own and want to read soon, a list of books I own and want to read but maybe not right away, a list of books I want to get from the library, a list of books I want to buy from Amazon if the Kindle price ever drops to a reasonable amount, a list of books I’ve heard about and kinda want to read, a list of books related to other books I’ve liked that sound interesting but I don’t know too much about them. There are probably more lists, but I’ve forgotten them.
Too many lists! I spend more time managing the lists than I do reading. So I’ve decided to cull mercilessly, with one simple test. Am I excited to read this book? If I’m not excited to read it, it goes off the list.
For instance, All the Light We Cannot See is available at the library in electronic format, everyone’s reading it, it’s getting great reviews. So I thought about putting it on hold. But the truth is that I’m just not that excited about it. It may be truly terrific, but I feel burned out on the WWII time period, and I’m also more interested in women writers right now. So I x’ed it off the list.
I reserve the right to change my mind, of course.
I was going to read something else next, but everyone is reading Station Eleven and saying good things about it, I already own it on Kindle, and it is very much exciting me. I love its cover and its premise! So despite my lists and reading plans, that’s what I started reading last night.
Using this excitement test, I earmarked many, many books from my TBR pile for gradual donation to the Little Free Library or immediate donation to the Big Free Library. Now my physical TBR fits in my bedside table and there are several books on it that I am excited about reading.
I don’t like having a big TBR. It makes me feel like reading is a chore and not a joy. Also, there will always be books available, and they will always be making more books (unless, maybe, the apocalypse). So if I get rid of a book and it turns out I really did want to read it after all, I’m sure I can get another copy when I’m wanting it.
A book does it have its moment, and sometimes that moment passes us by. Books that linger too long on the TBR seem to acquire a patina of sadness. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what it feels like to me. Better that those books move on to someone who will read them and love them and fulfill their purpose.
I will likely keep making lists, though. I do love lists.
Here’s a video from Book Riot advocating the opposite point of view–i.e., just keep adding on to the TBR all you want as long as you have money, time and space for them. (And stop anthropomorphizing books, ha ha!) I don’t tend to agree, because the TBR has weight for me, but I do think I should be able to buy and keep any books I want because I am an adult. I even buy books I’ve already and gotten rid of if I find a particularly beautiful edition. We all love books in our own ways.
I saw the third installment of The Hobbit over the holiday, and I have to say that this has not been my favorite book-to-film adaptation. More is not always more, a tough lesson to learn. Anyone else tired of unending superhero movies and uninspired sequels as well? The movies just don’t seem fun anymore.
I did see Birdman over the break too, which I really liked. It pokes a lot of jabs at superhero movies and Hollywood sacred cows. Other than The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman is the only Oscar-nominated movie I’ve seen. I liked them both, so take note: They never give Oscars to movies I like.
Speaking of overblown movie award shows, I loved this joke by Tina Fey at the Golden Globes: “Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and make-up. Just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”
I didn’t watch the awards, but I did watch Amy and Tina’s monologue and thought it was great.
I just purchased and started reading a beautiful little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I was struck by this sentence in the section on books: “The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it.”
Hmm. This strikes me as true, as I just cleaned out my books and earmarked for the Little Free Library or book sale donation all of those books I’ve owned for over a year that have gone unread. I figured the moment when I felt the energy to read them has passed me by, and if I ever do feel moved to read them, well, books are very easy for me to get.
But it’s making me re-evaluate the whole idea of reading by categories over a year. While I love being organized and planning my reading ahead, it removes the spontaneity. I think there is a balance to be achieved–still musing on what the right balance is, though.
This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.
As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.
So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.
A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.
As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.
Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.
To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.
I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.