Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mele Kalīkimaka!

That’s “Merry Christmas” transliterated into Hawaiian, whose alphabet lacks the letters R (which is generally rendered as L) and S (usually given the letter K).

our tropical Nativity scene and baby Norfolk Pine tree

In addition to being a transliteration from the English “merry,” it’s fun to know that the word “mele” also has a real meaning in Hawaiian, which is “song” or “chant.” So I like to think of the traditional seasonal greeting here as having the additional sense of something like “Melodious Christmas!”

Celebrating the holidays in a different culture—and yes, the culture here is quite different from on the Mainland—is always a treat for me, especially when I get to experience different types of food. I’ve been getting a real kick out of the specials the local markets have been running during the past week, so I thought I’d share a few with you.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Thin Plot Can Be Thickened

I’m happy to announce that I am writing again. Okay, so it’s not “writing,” writing. But I am finally back to working on my current manuscript, which was derailed some months back when I realized I was running in place, going nowhere, and the book was getting downright boring.

The fiction-writing community likes to talk about two camps of writers: outliners and pantsers (i.e., seat-of-the-pants types). I definitely have the personality of an outliner. I’m someone who makes endless lists, plans trips months ahead, and knows what I’m going to make for dinner three days hence.

an example of my organizational tendencies

But when I sat down to write my current book, Such a Smell of Sulfur (the sequel to my first m.s., A Matter of Taste), I was so eager to get going that I started writing before I had a clear plot-line in my head. Sure, I knew “who dunnit,” and why, and even had a list of suspects and red herrings. But the story arc was still a jumble. In other words, I was pantsing it. Bad idea.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Back in Hilo and Time for Some Pork!

We had quite the summer. Robin and I returned to California from Hilo in June, expecting to spend five months catching up with our friends, taking leisurely walks with Ziggy along West Cliff Drive, working on our respective blogs, and generally enjoying the beauties of Santa Cruz.

It was not to be. By the end of October, we had instead accomplished the following: moving my parents and a bunch of their furniture from Santa Monica to an assisted care facility in Santa Cruz; dealing with 50 years of accumulated possessions in their old home; contracting and overseeing the refurbishing of the house so it could be rented (this fell mostly to Robin); and then, to cap it off, helping my mom recover from a fractured hip. (For those who know my folks, they seem quite happy in their new digs.)

example of stuff at my parents’ house
(don’t worry—I kept Paul and Ringo)

Everything has settled down again, thank goodness, and we are once again in Hilo. It took about a week to get this house back in order. We had had to move lots of things upstairs which had been stored in the basement while there were tenants in the house, and the garden required massive whacking back, as is always the case after a time away.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Guest Post about Wagner and Tolkien

Yes, I have been remiss in posting for the past few months. But I have a good excuse. My folks moved into an assisted care facility this summer, and what with moving them and their stuff, and then dealing with 50 years of accumulated stuff in the family home, well, let's just say I've been pretty busy and have not had time for such fun tasks as keeping up my blog.

But I have written another post for Robin's Wagner Tripping blog. Since I've been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien since the age of six, I offered to write about Wagner's influence on Tolkien. You can read it here.

Here's hoping I can get back to more custardy and clue-like posts in the near future. In the meantime, as goes the popular button from the 1960s, Frodo lives!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Wagner and Joyce, part 2

For part two of my guest blog about Wagner's influence on James Joyce, click here. In it, I discuss the Wagnerian themes and references in Joyce's work. There are some pretty pictures too.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Guest Blog on RIchard Wagner and James Joyce

My partner Robin, in honor of the bicentennial of the birth of her favorite composer, Richard Wagner, is doing a year-long blog, Wagner Tripping, about him.

Robin asked me to contribute two posts about Wagner’s influence on James Joyce, since I’m a great fan of the Irish writer, and am part of a Finnegans Wake reading group that meets twice-monthly at a local Irish pub to sip Guinness and ponder Joyce’s encyclopedic romp through the history of everything.

Reading the Wake, it becomes clear from the very first page (“Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea”) that Joyce draws heavily from Wagner in the work. But what I didn’t realize—until Robin started telling me about it, and then I subsequently did the research for this post—what just how much of an influence Wagner had on so much of Joyce’s writing.

You can read the first of my two posts here

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Bastille Day Quiche Lorraine

My French conversation group has an annual luncheon to celebrate la fête nationale—Bastille Day as we Yanks call it—and there’s always a bit of an unofficial competition over the food. This year I offered to make quiche Lorraine, which I think contains the perfect balance of a light, creamy custard set off by salty, savory bacon.

I added not-traditional chives to mine, for added flavor and color

Although now known as a classic French dish, quiche originated in Germany (the word comes from the German word “Kuchen,” or cake). Of course, much of the Lorraine region has been passed back and forth between what are now France and Germany over the ages—only settling down permanently as part of France in 1919. So, not surprisingly, the cuisine of the Lorraine seems more German than French, with potatoes, sausages, and cabbage being among the popular dishes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Crime May Not Pay, But You Meet The Nicest People!

One of my favorite aspects of writing mysteries is that I can be in complete control of the process, from beginning to end. Such independence was not possible when I was a songwriter back in the 1980s and ’90s. Although I could pen the lyrics and compose a melody line and chords to go along with them, the song was never “complete” until I got the band together and we worked out a full-fleshed arrangement. And unlike with fiction writing, a song doesn’t really exist until performed or recorded, which also (at least for me) requires the assistance of others.

But as with many things in life, there’s a downside to the independence inherent in fiction-writing: It can be a lonely calling. And discouraging, too, when those rejection letters start pouring in.

Luckily, there’s an antidote for us—it’s called a writers conference. I attended my first one last weekend, the California Crime Writers Conference, in my mom’s hometown, Pasadena.

Tournament of Roses poster in the hotel hallway

The main reason I signed up for the conference was to attend the classes. And, for the most part, they were terrific: lectures on how to bring your characters to life, crime scene investigation, and page-turning techniques; panel discussions on outlining vs. seat-of-the-pantsing, marketing, and the role of agents and editors.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Love Your Microbes, Kiss Your Dog

One of the suspects in my mystery novel, A Matter of Taste, is a sort of “microbe crusader,” who lectures my sleuth regarding the human gut’s need for a wide spectrum of bacteria to be healthy. The character is not surprisingly a product of my own beliefs, which—though falling short of the over-the-top proselytizing engaged in by the murder suspect in the book—do include advocating for a reduction of the use of antibiotics in our culture, as well as an increase in the consumption of bacterial-rich foods such as kimchee and yogurt.

So I was therefore quite pleased to see Michael Pollan’s newest contribution to the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs” (5/18/13).

I always love Pollan’s articles, which tend to look at issues from a first-person perspective, thereby making what could be rather dry subjects more personal and immediate. (In the article “Power Steer,” which first brought him to my attention, for instance—a piece later expanded to become The Omnivore’s Dilemma—he purchased a calf and then followed its progress from field to packing-house.)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pulled Pork Tacos

Pigs were first brought to Hawai’i by the original Polynesian settlers some 1600 years ago, and folks here still do love their pork. Among the popular dishes one is apt to see on local menus are kalua pork, laulau, Spam musubi, fried pork chops, char siu pork, Portuguese sausage... Well, you get the idea. As my friend Nancy likes to say, “Oink, oink!”

the “best pork chops” we had last week at the Manago Hotel in Kona, 
with their sides of rice, tofu, onions and macaroni salad

Figuring it would be well-received by my guests, I therefore decided to serve pulled-pork tacos at our recent lanai-warming party. (Being a good Santa Cruz gal, though, I also provided a pot of vegetarian beans).

This is an great party menu, because the pork and beans can be made the day before (and are, in fact, better if they are made in advance), and then on the day of the event, all you have to do is cut and chop the toppings and set up the buffet.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Five Hundred Year Smear Campaign

The big news in Britain a few months back was the unearthing in a Leicester car park of the remains of Richard the Third, who was killed at the nearby Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

If you were to ask the proverbial man on the street what he knew about this English king, he’d likely say, “Nothing” (at least here in the States). But if he did have anything to say about Richard, it would likely be that he was a hunchback, that he killed his nephews (the famous “princes in the Tower”), or that he was an all-around bad guy.

Well, it turns out that at least one of these things can now be laid to rest as being true: Richard III was indeed a hunchback, since the skeleton unearthed in Leicester shows clear signs of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.

As for the other things? Well, though never proved to be true, they are still what people believe about the king, over 500 years after his death. This is primarily the fault of Shakespeare, whose play is what most folks think of when they think of Richard III. The problem, however, is that Shakespeare got his version of Richard’s life from Sir Thomas More, who was writing during the reign of Richard’s rival and successor, Henry VII.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Swedish Potatoes

My dad made these once when I was a kid, and though I now know they’re called Hasselback potatoes—after the Hasselbacken restaurant in Stockholm—our family always just referred to them as “Swedish potatoes.” I think their popularity must have been a part of that whole 1960s rage for all things Scandinavian. (My folks still have the teak furniture they bought back then, and who my age doesn’t have memories of going to those gorge-fest smorgasbord restaurants?)

I remember Dad’s attempt at these potatoes as being underdone, and having made them myself for the first time the other night I can see why. The suckers take a LONG time to cook: These were in a 425º F oven for almost three hours. But, boy, was it worth the wait! (I think that if I use a waxy variety, rather than Russets, next time, they’ll cook faster.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

LAX, Laulau and a New Lanai

A few weeks ago, Robin and I took a trip back to the Mainland. Among other things, we spent a few days in Santa Cruz, and attended her brother’s wedding up in Seattle. After the wedding, Robin returned to Hilo and I headed south to my folks’ house in Santa Monica, so I could come back—with them—to Hilo.

My mom and dad are co-owners of our Hilo home, and try to spend at least a month here each year. Traveling is no longer easy for them, however, so I’ve started accompanying them on their outward bound trips to Hawai‘i (unlike the trip home through the tiny Hilo airport, navigating security at LAX can be a nightmare).

Since they now fly first class, and since the remaining coach seats on this particular flight were almost the same price as first class, I got to sit with them and take my first first-class airplane trip. 

Huzzah! Good time fun!

getting our hot towels before dinner

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Murder Isn’t Fiction

I’ve probably read hundreds of mystery novels over the years. My preference is for the lighter or cozy variety, where the details of the murder are downplayed and the focus of the book is more on characterization and the solving of the case.

Now that I’m writing them myself, one of my jobs is to try to get into the heads of my characters who have a murder come into their lives, in order to accurately portray their reaction to the killing and their emotions. But it’s difficult, because you’re always at a distance from the murder in a mystery. After all, it’s just fiction: no one has really died; no one is truly feeling the void left in their life when a loved one is no longer there.

Though I have had people close to me die, their deaths have all been of so-called “natural” causes, and most were in their old age. I’d never know anyone who was the victim of a murder. Until my friend Beth was shot and killed a week ago Tuesday.

When Elizabeth (Beth) Butler decided to enroll in the police academy, I think most folks were probably a bit surprised. Robin and I certainly were. We’d met Beth when she was a UCSC student, living at Kresge College where Robin worked. Kresge is known for its high percentage of hippies, artsy-fartsy types, and vegans—not your typical spawning ground for a cop. Beth fit this mold in many ways, being a potter, a dancer, a gardener, and a fun-loving gal with a free spirit and wicked sense of humor.

Beth the mom

Nevertheless, she was happy as a Santa Cruz police officer. A community studies major at UCSC, she’d long had the drive to be more involved with the residents of our community. She enjoyed getting to use her Spanish and investigation skills on the job, and loved working in a field where you truly get to help people on a day-to-day basis. During ten years with the force, Beth worked as a patrol officer—both on foot and bicycle—as a hostage negotiator, as an agent with the county drug task force, and eventually as the detective in charge of sex crimes investigations.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Matter of Taste

No, this isn’t about my mystery novel. Well, okay, maybe it is, a little. I’m currently working on the second in a planned series of mysteries involving the five senses. Taste is the sense in the first book (A Matter of Taste), and smell in the second (Such a Smell of Sulfur).

I’ve often thought about the importance of the five senses to us human beings, and occasionally play the “which sense would I give up if I had to?” game with myself. My decision is always the same: it would be taste that I’d forgo.

What?! I know many of you are thinking. But food and cooking are central to your life, Leslie! True.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Ten-Hundred Most Used Words

There is a new way of writing, using only the ten hundred most used words. I can’t tell you the full name of this new way of writing because its name uses words that aren’t allowed (which I don’t think is right, to tell you the truth). But if you go here you can read all about it.

This new way of writing—which I learned about from my wife’s brother (go here)—comes from a drawing you can see here.

I’m writing this piece using only the ten hundred allowed words. And I can tell you it takes some thinking, because so many of the words I want to use I can’t. Which makes me think about our mother tongue.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Perils of Being a Pantser

When I wrote my first mystery, A Matter of Taste, I had pretty much everything outlined. Even if I didn’t have certain plot points actually written down on paper, I at least had most of the story in my head before putting fingers to keyboard. Being new to the genre, I figured it would be best to have all my clues, suspects and red herrings organized and mapped out in advance.

 red, but not a herring

In writing circles, this is called being a “plotter.” The other alternative is a “pantser”—as in seat-of-the-pants—where you just sit down and write without much of an outline.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Year, A New Town

Robin and I have been back in our second home, Hilo, Hawai‘i, for three weeks now. We’d been gone since last January, so—given how things grow in this tropical clime—you can imagine the amount of whacking back and weeding we’ve been up to since our arrival.

 the bougainvillea when got back

If you know one thing about Hilo, it’s probably that it rains a lot here. And I mean a lot—some 278 days a year. Since the weather is generally warm and pleasant even when it’s raining, however, it’s best to have a lanai—a covered porch—to hang out in.