Tuesday, September 12, 2017

On Finishing FINNEGANS WAKE


I’ve only ever belonged to one reading group, and for eight and a half years we’ve been reading the same book, Finnegans Wake. Yes, you read that right: it’s been eight and a half years. We started the book in April of 2009 and I am thrilled to announce that last week we finally finished James Joyce’s encyclopedic romp through the history of everything.


Finnegans Wake (that’s not a typo—there’s no apostrophe; think of it as a subject and verb) may well be the most difficult English language book there is to read, as it’s full of made-up portmanteau words and foreign language puns, and is written in a dense, stream-of-consciousness style. But if you can wade through the prose, it’s wonderfully rewarding: insightful, beautiful, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. (For a peek at the text, click here.)


 
visual representation of Finnegans Wake by László Moholy-Nagy

It’s helpful to read what others have said about the work, and we bring along satchels full of literary criticism, concordances, and annotations, which we continually consult. We also drink Guinness, which aids in the process (our meetings are held at an Irish pub here in Santa Cruz, the Poet and Patriot).


So, what—you may be wondering—will we turn to now that we’ve finished the Wake? Well, as some of you are no doubt aware, Finnegans Wake begins mid-sentence, the beginning of which occurs at the very end of the book:

       riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs....

[625 pages of text]

... A way a lone a last a loved a long the

As a result, we have no choice but to begin the whole thing all over again. Which we will do (after several months’ break). And this time it will be ever so much easier! (Not.)

A well-loved copy of the Wake

Sláinte!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What I Learned at the California Crime Writers Conference


It’s Monday morning in Culver City on a gorgeous Southern California day. From my hotel room window, I can see reflected in the mirrored building across the parking lot the low peaks of Baldwin Hills, the purple of a jacaranda tree just coming into bloom, and the traffic on Hwy. 405—now at a virtual standstill heading north, the direction we need to drive to get home to Santa Cruz.

A good time to set down some of my thoughts about the weekend. I came down here for the California Crime Writers Conference (CCWC), a terrific event presented every two years by the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, that features panels and workshops on the craft of writing, marketing, publicity, and crime scene and investigative forensics.

But as all of us writers know, the most important part of conferences like these is hanging out with the other attendees, because mystery writers are the most warm, generous, and fun people on the planet. I never fail to come away from CCWC feeling inspired, recharged, and ready to write with renewed vigor.

dinner with a gang of writers at CCWC

Two of the highlights of this year’s conference were the special guests, Hallie Ephron and William Kent Krueger. Hallie gave the keynote talk at Saturday’s lunch, during which she provided a list of her top ten pieces of advice for writers. Since number one was “take notes,” I did as directed, and am therefore able to pass the advice along to you. (I may have gotten some of this wrong, however, as she spoke quickly and I do not know shorthand. Sorry, Hallie, if I did!)

Hallie gives a workshop about characters driving plot

1) Take notes. Hallie recounted the story of how, when her famous screenwriter mother was dying at age 57 of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism, the mother’s equally famous daughter, Nora (Hallie’s older sister), was by her beside. “You’re a writer,” the mom said to Nora. “Take notes.”

2) Make your own space for writing. This is both physical—a place where you can be alone to write—but also in your head. Don’t be distracted by Facebook, email, etc. If you use a timer and write solidly, without interruption, for only 40 minutes a day, you’ll have a book in six months.

3) Pay attention to things that interest you. Hallie used the example of the scene in the Hitchcock film, Suspicion, where Cary Grant carries the glass of milk upstairs to Jane Fontaine, and how the shadows grow sinister and the milk seems to glow in the glass. (Hitchcock put a light in the glass, Hallie informed us, to obtain this effect.) Take note of the little things—like Hitchcock did with a simple glass of milk—and how they can be used to great effect in your writing.

4) Be your own cheerleader. Hallie has posted over her desk a fortune cookie she once got, saying “You will succeed in a far our convention.”

5) Read. Only by reading others’ works will you know what good writing sounds like.

6) Hold your nose and write. Even when you don’t want to, force yourself to keep going. “Gallop in the direction of more; inch towards better,” she said. (This may be someone else’s quote, but I couldn’t find it anywhere online.) As noted by Hallie’s sister, Nora, “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

7) Slash and burn. Delete anything that’s boring. Beware of too much backstory and coincidences (never have more than one in a story). But when you do cut, save it in a separate file, as it may be perfect for a later work!

8) Prepare for rejection. When you send out queries, have the next five ready to go. Aim high—don’t take a bad deal just because you’re afraid of not getting another.

9) Embrace your flaws. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Always be flexible and listen. Don’t be thin-skinned. And, most importantly, realize that only a fool would write a novel.

10) Don’t wait to be published to celebrate. Celebrate after you write your first ten thousand words. And after you finish your novel. And after you do your revisions. And when someone in your writing group laughs during your reading. And when you get asked for a partial submission. And when you get a personalized rejection.

And finally, she said (yes, this one did go to 11): Get used to it. Make it the journey that counts.

After giving us her top ten (plus one) pieces of advice, Hallie told us about being asked, “What made you decide to write mysteries?”

“Because my sisters hadn’t written one,” was her immediate response.

But then she provided the real answer (though I’m guessing the facetious one had more than a grain of truth to it): Genre fiction is less scary than “literature,” because there are rules and reader expectations, such as the three-act structure, the big confrontation at the end, etc. But just as with highbrow literature, you can include all the personal, gut-wrenching issues in mysteries, as well.

William Kent Krueger was our keynote speaker the next day.

Kent (as he’s known) at his workshop

Because I didn’t take notes during his keynote speech, however, here’s a brief recap, instead, of his excellent workshop on how to build suspense:
1) Classic suspense depends on conflict, either between the characters or within the protagonist. Every scene in your novel should have some tension or conflict. Conflict equals visceral suspense.

2) You must have a good hook, right from the start, to pull the reader in.

3) Readers must care about, have an emotional investment in the characters

4) Delay gratification in readers by not meeting their expectations. Suspense is about what will happen next. Ask the question, but then delay the answer. The longer you draw out time, the tauter the suspense.

5) Create obstacles for your protagonist. Insert complications into the story. Isolating the hero is a great way of doing this.

6) Up the ante. Just when your readers think they know what’s going on, make it worse—far worse.

7) Set the clock ticking. Give your protagonist a limited time to save the day.

8) Stretch time. Slow the countdown to the danger (this is similar to no. 4.) Some of the best suspense writing takes several pages to tell what happened in just a few seconds. Kent gave the example of a bomb under a table of poker players. Having the bomb go off with no notice to the reader creates no suspense. But if you show the bomb with 10 seconds left, then go to the players, then go back to the bomb with 5 seconds left, etc., that’s suspenseful.

9) Save the worst for last. All hope is lost. The dramatic climax of the story. (But note that, in a series, it doesn’t work to put your protagonist in danger, because we all know he/she will return for the next book. It’s far better to put someone the hero cares about in danger.)

10) The calm at the storm’s end. Have a last scene where loose ends are tied up, we get to exhale in relief after all the tension that’s come before.

Here’s the whiteboard chart Kent wrote out for us:


If any of you crime writers out there are considering attending a craft conference in the future, the next CCWC will be held in June of 2019, and I heartily recommend that you attend!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Amadeus


My newest Sally Solari mystery, A Measure of Murder, has Sally joining a local chorus, even though she’s crazy busy working at both her restaurants, Solari’s and Gauguin, and doesn’t really have time for all the rehearsals and practicing on her own she’ll need to do. But the group is singing her favorite piece of music—the Mozart Requiem—which Sally’s been obsessed with since high school, when she fell in love with the movie, Amadeus. So she decides she’ll just have to make the time.


Sally isn’t alone in her love. That film (adapted from the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer) has special meaning for me, as well. When it was released in 1984, I was just becoming interested in opera. My friend Valerie (with whom I had played in the Cabrillo College orchestra—me on clarinet, she on violin) used to get together to drink wine and listen to operas together, and when Amadeus came out, we went together to see it. Both of us were much taken with the movie, and started listened to more Mozart afterwards, including Don Giovanni and his Requiem in D minor.

I met my now-wife, Robin, the following year, and the first evening we spent together I apparently raved to her about Amadeus. She went home and searched the whole Bay Area for a theater screening the film—no simple task in that pre-internet era—and finally found one in San Francisco. She then called to ask me on a date to go up to the City to see the movie, but alas, I was out of town for the weekend and didn’t get her message until after it had left the theater. But wasn’t that romantic of her?

Years later, while writing the manuscript that would become A Measure of Murder, I watched the film again, this time on DVD. And as I watched, I pondered—as I had many times before—the title of the movie. Although Amadeus was Mozart’s middle name,* no one refers to him that way; it’s always either “Mozart” or “Wolfgang.”

Tom Hulce as “Wolfie” in the film

But then again, neither of those two names has the ring of the name Amadeus—which rolls off the tongue in a lovely way—so I’ve always figured that was the reason for the film’s title.

But lying in bed after watching the movie again that night, I started thinking about the Salieri character—how he had dedicated his life to the love of God and wanted nothing more than the ability to compose beautiful music for His glorification. But Salieri becomes possessed with fury that his God has endowed the “obscene” boor Mozart with such musical genius, making Salieri—a devout Catholic—seem a mediocre composer in comparison. Salieri therefore rejects God, and decides to dedicate the rest of his life to destroying this “creature” whom God has chosen over him. (Yes, yes, this story line has nothing to do with the real life Salieri, but it’s good fun for a fictional retelling!)

And then I thought again about the title of the film, and it hit me—like one of those light bulbs in a cartoon.

light bulbs of Thomas Edison
at the Huntington Library, Pasadena

Amadeus. Ama Deus. That’s Latin for “love of God.” Duh! How could I have never thought of it before—it seemed so obvious now.

Because that is, of course, the irony in the film: It’s Salieri who has dedicated his life to the love of God. He is truly the “ama-deus” of the story. But it’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whom God has chosen as His vehicle for composing glorious music.

Very clever Mr. Shaffer.


*(Mozart’s given middle name was actually Theophilus, but he preferred the Latin translation of this Greek name and so used it, instead. My grandfather was named Theophilus Parvin Cook and didn’t go by that name either, so I guess my family has something in common with the brilliant composer.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Wizard of Oz, Alphabetized--Yes, Really


I just discovered something truly amazing. It’s a remix/scrambling of the classic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, so that every single word of dialogue and song is arranged alphabetically. Yes, it sounds weird, and it is. But it’s also incredibly wonderful (one of the re-occurring words in the film). And beautiful. And utterly fascinating.

The project (entitled of Oz The Wizard—the title, alphabetized) was the brainchild and creation of Matt Bucy, probably best known as co-producer and cinematographer of the fan fiction series, Star Trek Continues. (You can read about Matt and his Oz project, as well as watch the amazing film, here.)


The other night, Robin, my sister Laura (who told us about the project), and I sat down after dinner to view the movie, thinking we’d check it out for ten or fifteen minutes, be somewhat amused, and then switch to Mozart in the Jungle. But no. We were mesmerized and ended up watching until the very end. (Oddly, we all thought the movie seemed shorter in this rearranged version, even though they are, of course, the exact same length.)

The most obvious effect of the alphabetization is to highlight the specific words used in the screenplay and lyrics. And, not surprisingly, the first one to appear—“a”—appears a whole lot. As do “the,” “you,” “of,” and any number of pronouns, articles, and prepositions. But these also flash by quickly, as they are throwaway words in the dialogue. It’s the other words, which the actors draw out and give emphasis to, that are more interesting.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the way this project showcases language and syntax—for instance, the frequency of certain words is made obvious by their being grouped together. Take the word “just.” Now, we writers are continually told to limit our use of this word, but as I watched of Oz The Wizard, it became clear that “just” occurs many, many times in the film. Yet it’s never jumped out at me when watching the movie in its original format. This is because that’s the way folks speak; we use the word all the time. So maybe it is okay not to get too stressed about using “just” in my own books (especially in dialogue).


In addition, certain colorful words that appear only once—generally spoken by either the Wizard or the Cowardly Lion—stand out ever so much more in this version of the film, isolated as they are, and made the three of us howl with glee. (The last word of the film, uttered by the Lion, was especially fun. But I won’t give it away here, other than to tell you it begins with a Z.)

And then there are the repeated words from the songs: “somewhere,” “wizard,” “Oz,” “follow,” “yellow,” “road,” “dead,” you get the idea. When spliced so they appear all together in quick succession, they end up creating their own new little songs, which are wonderfully melodic. (The “dead” song was particularly chipper, which we found amusing.)

Oh, and the way the editor, Bucy, groups the sounds (arf!, ahhh, sigh, ai!) is good fun, as well. (I love, love, the Toto scenes all strung together.)

In addition, watching the film cut up in this strange, new way, I found myself drawn to artistic and technical aspects of the film I’d never really noticed before: the beautifully rendered woods in the background during the snow scene; the shape and color of the walls and towers surrounding the City of Oz.

Finally, because you are seeing each different word chronologically each time it appears in the film, you are, in effect, watching mini versions of the entire story over and over again, especially with words that occur many times. Yet each mini version gives a slightly different narrative—kind of like a G-rated Rashomon in Technicolor.


I don’t believe this concept would have worked with any other movie. The Wizard of Oz is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that most Americans (of a certain age, at least) have the script virtually memorized. So, for example, when the frame of the Tin Man saying “heart” flashes by, we know immediately where it belongs in the whole and why it’s important.

It’s funny, but watching of Oz The Wizard in a way gave deeper meaning to the original film. By providing an entirely new way of seeing it, the project made me think about the movie in an entirely new way. But I guess that’s what good art is all about.

So thank you Matt Bucy, for this truly original and mind-opening project!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Turkey Tikka Masala


I have to admit to a bit of an addiction to Chicken Tikka Masala. Its creamy, savory, spicy (did I mention the cream?) flavor truly wows my tastebuds, and I order the dish pretty much every time I go out for Indian food. But according to most accounts, this dish isn’t authentic Indian cuisine at all—it was invented in Great Britain, perhaps even Scotland. (See here for a fascinating history of the dish.) A few years ago, the British Foreign Secretary even declared Chicken Tikka Masala to be the national dish of Great Britain.

“Tikka” refers to the bite-size morsels the chicken is cut into (as opposed to the bone-in leg and thigh pieces traditionally roasted in Tandoor ovens). And “masala” simply means “spice” in Hindi, and is the word commonly used to refer to blends of spices used in cooking. The masala in this case is the spice-flavored sauce.

Because of my love of this Anglo-Indian dish, I was excited to see a recipe for it using leftover Thanksgiving turkey in the New York Times a couple weeks back. (The recipe is here.) So I made it.

my end result, served with rice, cucumber raita, and chutney

Now, not many of you probably still have turkey left over from the holiday, but perhaps you froze some. If not, leftover roast chicken (or one of those grocery store rotisserie birds) will work just as well.

The Marinade

The first thing to do is cut up your cooked turkey or chicken into 1” cubes (4 cups of meat), and get it marinating. Here is my turkey, along with the mortar and pestle I use to crush spices I’ve roasted in a small cast iron skillet.

cubed turkey and coriander seeds

Mix together your spices in a medium sized bowl: 2 t each, garam masala, ground coriander, ground cumin; 1 T paprika or chili powder; 4 t turmeric or curry powder; 1 t salt; 6 med. garlic cloves, crushed; and 4 t finely-chopped ginger:


Then blend the spices with 1 cup yogurt, toss it with the cubed meat, cover and let chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight:



The Sauce

Next, prepare the sauce. Sauté a thinly-sliced large onion in 3 T vegetable oil along with more spices: 6 crushed cardamom pods, 1 bay leaf, ½ t red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt.

Cook the onion mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn, until brown and soft, about 10 minutes. Then, make a space in the middle of the pan, add another T of oil and let it get hot, then toss in 4 cloves crushed garlic, 2 T finely-chopped ginger, and 2 finely-chopped serrano chili peppers (I omitted the peppers, because Robin doesn’t do spicy food):


Let the garlic and ginger sizzle (like Paris, in the summer) for a few seconds and then mix it into the onions. Now add 2 T tomato paste and a large can (28 oz.) of tomatoes along with its juice (crush them with your hands, first):


Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the liquid is mostly gone. Now it’s time for the cream! Hurrah! Pour in 2 cups heavy cream (yum!),


and then add ¾ cup coarsely-chopped cilantro. (Be sure to save some sprigs for the garnish.)


Season to taste with more salt, if needed (the recipe calls for 1½ t salt here, but if your bird was brined or salted, be careful how much you add), and then simmer the sauce over low heat, stirring occasionally, till it thickens—about 40 minutes.

Let it cool down, discard the bay leaf, and then blend the sauce. A hand-held mixer (the kind you stick into the pot) is best, but it can also be done in batches in a regular blender.

all blended and smooth


Broil the Turkey/Chicken

Now for the finish: Line a large roasting pan with foil and lay the turkey pieces in a single layer upon it. (Add any remaining marinade in the bowl to the sauce. Since you’re using pre-cooked poultry, no worries about salmonella!)


Broil on high until the turkey starts to blacken in spots. (Keep an eye on it, as it can go from perfect to burnt-to-a-crisp in a flash!) No need to turn the meat over, though you may need to rotate the roasting pan once.


Dump the broiled meat into the sauce and reheat it till warmed through. Add the juice of one lemon and stir into sauce. Serve over steamed rice with cilantro garnish. (See photo at top of post for my results.)

This may all seem like a lot of work—and Indian food, though not complicated to make, can be labor intensive—but this recipe made enough for three meals for Robin and me. Gonna make it again, for sure!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Roasted Red Pepper Soup


My last blog post showed how to preserve all those red peppers you may have harvested this year from your late-summer garden, by roasting them and jarring them in olive oil.

Today I’ll show you just how simple it is to make a robust soup from those peppers (which would make an excellent first course for Thanksgiving!).


Take the jarred peppers from the fridge and let them come up to room temperature, so the olive oil becomes liquid. Then remove the roasted peppers from the jar, leaving the oil behind. (The red-hued olive oil is tasty, and can be used as a dipping sauce for bread, or to flavor potatoes, salads, or any number of things.)

Place the peppers in a large pot and pour in chicken stock (vegetable or turkey stock would work well, too). For two small jars of peppers, I used about two quarts of stock:

a trippy photo of my stock and roasted peppers in the pot
(the glistening is from the olive oil that was on the peppers)

Bring the stock and peppers to a simmer, and then let cool down enough that you can blend them. I used a hand-held blender—the kind you stick into the pot and turn on. (Just make sure to keep it submerged, or you’ll have red splatter all over your kitchen and folks will think it’s a murder scene.) But you could also pour it into a regular blender, in batches.

Next, if (like me) you didn’t peel your peppers after roasting, you’ll need to strain the skins out:


Then pour the blended and strained soup back into your pot, reheat, and add whipping cream. I used about a pint:

looks like an alien planet

Here it is with the cream mixed in:


That’s it. Easy-peasy, no? Just season with salt and pepper to taste, serve with a dollop of yogurt and chopped chives, and voilà! (See top photo.)

Friday, November 4, 2016

What To Do With a Peck of Peppers


If you were lucky enough to have planted a vegetable garden last summer, you may—like me—have an overabundance of red bell peppers sitting in your fridge right about now. Now, I love red peppers. That’s why I planted them. But there’s no way I’ll be able to eat them all before they go bad, no matter how many stir fries, fajitas, or Thai curries I prepare over the next few weeks. I therefore needed a way to preserve them.

halved and seeded and ready to bake

Red peppers are at their best when they’ve been roasted, so that was what I decided to do with this year’s harvest. I halved and seeded them, tossed them with olive oil, and laid them out on a roasting pan. (Place them on foil or parchment paper, because the burnt pepper pyuck is a pain to clean off the pan.)

I then roasted them in a hot oven (450° F) for about 20-25 minutes—rotating the pan as needed so they roasted evenly—until the skins were starting to blacken.



Here's a close-up: 

Make sure to keep an eye on them as they roast,
as they can go from light brown to black in no time!

As you can see, the peppers shrink some as they cook. Dump the peppers into a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, to let the them steam. Once they had cooled, the skins should slide off easily. If not, you can scrape the meat off the skins with a butter knife. (Or, if you’re lazy like me, leave the skins on. They add more smoky flavor to the peppers, and will add fiber to your diet!)

I then placed them in glass jars and poured olive oil on top, enough to cover the peppers. They’ll keep for weeks in the refrigerator (though the olive oil will congeal and turn cloudy as it hardens).


I’m going to use the peppers for a roasted pepper soup this weekend. In my next post I’ll show you what I did, and give you the results.