Cooking through the USA: North Carolina

Last night (New Year’s Eve) we started our 2015 family cooking challenge: cooking through the USA. I plan to make and rate one key recipe from each state. We started with my home state of North Carolina. I made pulled chicken barbecue sandwiches with slaw and they got rave reviews (recipes all found online and slightly adapted). The sauce was really easy and tasted very authentic to me.

I used chicken but you can also use pulled pork for a more authentic sandwich. I poached the chicken first, but you could probably also grill it. I’ve gotten the best results from poaching the chicken in the slow cooker. I add all the pieces of a whole chicken, bone in and skin on, to the slow cooker along with a cup of water. Cook on low about 6-8 hours. The meat falls off the bone and does not dry out at all. Shred the meat, discarding the bones and skin. The liquid can be strained and frozen as a base for soups and such. Extra meat can also be frozen for tacos.

Here is the sauce recipe I adapted, which I found at a great site called AmazingRibs.com through a quick online search. It is very easy to throw together. I subbed apple cider vinegar for the apple juice for a more authentic taste. You can up the amount of hot sauce or red pepper flakes if you want, but my family doesn’t like it too spicy. I whisked all the ingredients together and boiled it briefly to thicken a little, then mixed some with the shredded chicken and put the rest in a squeeze bottle so everyone could add more sauce if they wanted. Serve on white sandwich or hamburger rolls with slaw and/or pickles.

For the slaw, I adapted this recipe from Mark Bittman. As you can see, it’s a super-simple recipe. I omitted the BBQ sauce and lightened the dressing with half sour cream in place of the mayonnaise. The cabbage, onions and pickles need to be finely because the slaw is going on top of the sandwich.

If you got the slow cooker going in the morning, you could easily make this recipe on a weeknight. Hope you enjoy it! Sorry there are no pictures–maybe next time.

Favorite Reads of 2014

I was going to do a whole “year in reading” post, but I got sucked into other things and now I find the year has already turned over. Happy new year!

Here are my favorite reads of last year. Many are relatively new, some are classics, all are worth your time.

The Sundial Cover

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson: After receiving a vision from their deceased father, the Halloran family and their various hangers-on prepare for the end of the world (gothic horror classic). I got this wonderful Penguin edition with introduction by Victor Lavalle.

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns begins with a maternity nurse discovering that one of the newborns in her care has disappeared and has been replaced by a six-foot corn snake, and it just gets wilder from there (mystery).

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: Mystery writer Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford and is drawn into an investigation of a spate of poison pen letters, vandalism, and other pranks; she must call on Lord Peter Wimsey to help her solve the mystery (mystery classic).

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by a millionaire to track down a blackmailer and gets entangled with his spoiled daughters and a bunch of seedy characters (mystery classic).

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life (science fiction).

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire (science fiction).

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Mitchell’s latest novel is a genre-bending epic spanning 60 years about the people whose fates are altered by an ongoing war between immortals (literary fiction).

In the Woods by Tana French: Investigating a child murder, Detective Ryan returns for the first time to his childhood home, where his two best friends disappeared in a still-unsolved crime (mystery).

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith: In the near future, climate change and perpetual storms have forced the US government to abandon the Gulf Coast, and those who remain live without laws or services (apocalyptic fiction).

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tells the truth on every page. And there are dogs. They aren’t cute dogs but you can’t have everything (humor).

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Flora Poste moves in with distant relatives on Cold Comfort Farm and decides to fix everybody (humor classics).

Revival by Stephen King: Throughout his life, Jamie Morton has repeatedly encountered the Reverend Charles Jacobs and been drawn into his mysterious experiments with electricity, but toward the end of Jacobs’ life he coerces Jamie into participating into the ultimate–and most dangerous–of experiments (horror).

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: After learning that her colleague has died of a “fever” in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Marina Singh follows in his footsteps to learn more about the cause of his death and locate the reclusive Doctor Annick Swenson, who is developing a miracle fertility drug (literary fiction).

Top kids’ books: James and the Giant Peach, The 13 Clocks and Charlotte’s Web — all rereads.

Recommended Reading: Revival by Stephen King

Recommended reading for this week is RevivalStephen King’s latest novel (and the second he’s published this year).

Revival Cover

Now, I’m a King fan from way back. I think this is the best book he’s turned out in a long time, maybe even since the early days. If you are looking for gore and scares, you won’t find it here. If you are looking for great characters, mature storytelling and an existential mindfuck of an ending, Revival has it. And it just over 400 pages, it’s even a reasonable length.

A note to writers: Maybe you aren’t ready…

One benefit of traditional publishing, which is lost when writers choose to self-publish, is that publishers can tell writers that their books just aren’t ready for publication.

Publishers don’t usually say this in so many words. Often the message comes in the form of a standard rejection letter or, even worse, silence. But the message is there, all the same: “Your book isn’t ready yet.”

Certainly, this can be a tough message to hear. No one wants to put so much effort into making something only to be told that they have to work still more. Still, that is the difficult truth that all writers have to accept. Perhaps writing talent is a gene that you are born with; I’m willing to buy that. But writing is also a craft, one that gets better only with diligent effort and regular practice.

Look at it this way. If you were just learning to cook, you wouldn’t expect to turn out a gourmet three-course meal worthy of serving in a fine restaurant right away. If you take up playing the piano, you don’t imagine you’re going to be performing in Carnegie Hall after only a few lessons. Good writers work at it, and their first efforts generally aren’t worthy of publication. This isn’t to say that they won’t be publishable someday, just that they need to work more.

Time to get personal now. When I was younger, I wrote a novel. It’s now languishing on floppy disks in my safety deposit box, not so much because I ever want to go back to working on it, but more as an artifact that I can look at and say, “Yes, I did that.” However, when I was finished, I knew in my heart it wasn’t ready for publication. I had what I thought was a unique premise, characters, a plot, a beginning, middle and end. My manuscript had no grammar or spelling errors. But I was honest with myself and knew it wasn’t good enough.

I could have continued working on it, and I am reasonably sure that if I did, eventually that novel or some other one would have been ready. It might have taken years, though, and to be honest, I just didn’t want to put in that kind of work. I didn’t have the drive to tell stories that would keep me going. Instead, I worked on my writing in many other ways, and every time I practiced, I got better at it.

Are you willing to be that honest with yourself? Or even better, are you willing to hear that truth from someone else: a member of a critique group, a mentor or a reviewer like me? Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it can hurt, but this is what you chose for yourself when you chose to be a writer.

Because I don’t think you want to put your writing out there for the public to judge, even though you can, if it isn’t absolutely ready. A critique group, a mentor, a professional reviewer will likely give you another chance. The public probably won’t.

You’re not alone in this. Every writer, even the best ones, goes through a period of not being ready for publication. Here’s how they get to ready: they are honest with themselves about the quality of their work, they listen to feedback and use that criticism to make their work better and, most importantly, they persist. They keep writing until they get good enough.

So, before you self-publish that novel, ask yourself: Is it ready?

Read: Ira Glass’s advice for beginners (Zen Pencils version)

For writers who want to self-publish…

I’ve been reading a lot of self-published books lately for a freelance gig reviewing independently published books. I am not opposed to self-publishing. I think it’s terrific that technology is allowing more writers to get their work out there and have the opportunity to be read.

BUT… (you knew that was coming, right?)

A lot of readers are turned off of self-published books and refuse to even consider reading them, and I think that’s only going to get worse. There are many reasons for this that I could get into, but the major one that’s been bugging me, that I see time and again in the books I review, is sloppiness.

Sloppy grammar, sloppy spelling, sloppy storytelling, sloppy characterization. It’s as if the writer is in such a rush to publish that s/he forgets to slow down and take care with this thing s/he is making.

Traditional publishing does provide one important thing that self-publishing does not: time. It takes time to get through all those gates the publishers are keeping. It takes time to prepare a book for publication. During that time, the writing can be polished, edited, corrected, cleaned up. It results in a better product.

Readers can be notoriously picky about little things like grammar and punctuation. Sometimes I think we readers are more particular about these things than many writers. You have to remember that we read primarily for enjoyment. A book riddled with errors does not make for an enjoyable read. A sloppily written book will not be worth the time readers have to put in, much less their money.

If you are a writer who intends to self-publish, and you want to make it big a la Hugh Howey or Andy Weir, you have to be more perfect than everyone else. I can direct some criticisms at Howey’s and Weir’s books, but at least they were free of egregious grammatical and spelling errors, which meant I enjoyed the experience of reading them.

The best advice I can give to writers who want to self publish is to reread your work many times and mercilessly eradicate all the errors you find. Better yet, invest in a thorough copy edit by a professional who really knows their stuff.

Above all, don’t be sloppy. If this is something you really feel you want to do, as a profession or even as a calling, then take your time and make your writing the best it can be.

In future posts, I’m going to be offering specific advice about the most common errors I’m seeing in the self-published manuscripts I’m reading. There are many ways to follow me (see the sidebar) if you’d like to improve your writing.

Review of The Martian by Andy Weir…

I added a new review to my virtual libraryThe Martian by Andy Weir. Mixed reactions.

Reading women in 2015…

Did you know that #readingwomen2014 was a thing on Twitter? I did not know it until a short time ago, but with the end of the year coming up, I don’t think we should stop reading women.

Why should we make an effort to read more women writers? If you were not aware, there is a lot of unconscious bias embedded in our culture that favors white, male writers (white males of all kind, in fact), often despite our best intentions. White men are more frequently published, reviewed and given awards. To overcome this unconscious but inherent bias, we have to consciously and purposely seek out books by women and people of color to read.

I hold myself up as an example. I actively read women writers often and count women among my favorite authors. Yet, when I pull up the stats on my LibraryThing record of books read, it is a depressing 63% male and 36% female (the remaining 1% is other or unknown). Certainly, I was an English lit major in college, which has skewed my reading toward white men from the start. But I have been trying to make up for that — apparently, not trying hard enough.

In 2014, I tried an annual theme read for the first time, but without a whole lot of commitment. I revisited the mystery genre, which I used to love as a child but have neglected as an adult reader. I read several classic and new mysteries, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post. Still, this was just for fun and probably didn’t even comprise the bulk of my reading.

In 2015, I’m committing to reading mostly books by women. I intend to read new fiction and classics, heavily skewed toward speculative fiction, which is my favorite genre. I also want to throw in some nonfiction and find out what women have to say about feminism, climate change and other topics close to my heart.

So, yes, I will be #readingwomen2015. I invite you to join me. Check here for recommendations.