Book Alert Although this summer was a tough one for the UC Davis Creative Writing community, as we lost both Walter Pavlich and Louis Owens, one happy result was that I found my old friend Margaret Young again. I ordered her first collection, Willow from the Willow months ago, but for some reason I’m still not able to pin down, I’ve been unable to read poetry for a couple of months. It happens sometimes. My brain just won’t work for poetry and it all just sits there on the page looking like words that have been arranged, words that fail to cohere. This never has to do with the quality of the work, just some strange thing in my brain. The other day, while waiting for a friend to come pick me up to go hiking with the dogs, I opened Margaret’s book and found myself transfixed. I spent half an hour standing in a doorway reading these poems. And then I came home and read them all again, slowly. They’re beautiful and tough, full of vintage dresses and inconsolable grief, food and landscapes. This is a collection deeply engaged with the beauty and heartbreak of the Ten Thousand Things. This book is a treasure and my heartfelt thanks go out to Margaret for not only writing it, but for opening up my poetry-head again. Check it out.
Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for pointing out this terrific essay by Jeanette Winterson on the problems of publishing a posthumous collection of Italo Calvino’s nonfiction prose. Considering that he was such a tough self-editor, and non-documentary artist, Winterson ponders the ethical ramifications of the collection, noting that: “The cult of celebrity that surrounds writers now is rather like those sonic frequency machines that force moles above ground. In this collection, Calvino talks enthusiastically about the ‘dream of being invisible’ and he goes as far as to say that ‘writers lose a lot when they are seen in the flesh’. For Calvino, to be ‘just a name on a book cover’ seems like ‘the ideal condition for a writer’.”
Book Alert When two writers become friends there’s always an interesting moment when you exchange books. It’s fraught, especially if the new friend is someone you really like, because there’s always that chance that the book will, well, not be quite what you had hoped (we all have writer friends who we like better than we like their books). I spent the weekend totally engrossed in my friend Maryanne Vollers book Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South (try Alibris since this fine book is shamefully out of print). This is a great book, a book that relentlessly documents the insitutional nature of Southern apartheid, and how this insidious and ubiquitous policy both inspired and impeded revolutionary figures like Evers. Maryanne then methodically and relentlessly traces the evidence against De La Beckwith, the two failed trials, and the dogged prosecutors who finally convicted him. More important though, she documents how the history of apartheid in the South still haunts that country, and the nation. Aside from being a shining example of fine investigative journalism, this book is a wonderful read — Maryanne captures the character of the place and these people with the kind of vivid characterization one expects from a great novel (and since I know her to be wild about her dogs, and mine, I was quite amused to note her narrative concern for Heidi, Evers German Shepherd). In the wake of the Trent Lott episode, and the current efforts by the Republican Party to portray themselves as a party who have moved beyond racism, this should be a must read for everyone. If you can’t buy a copy, go get one from your local library.
Amazon and LivingSmall — what’s with all the links to Amazon on the site? Doesn’t the behemoth Amazon represent everything that is Big in just the way that this site is seeking to question? Well, yes. I have a vexed relationship with Amazon — as a book-addict it is almost impossible to resist the lure of their speedy delivery of almost any book one might want. So, more often than I’d like, I find myself ordering from Amazon. However, Amazon’s size isn’t the only problematic aspect of their business — their practice of putting links to used book sales for new books is enormously injurious to first novelists like myself, for whom sales figures are crucial. I had a vigorous, if futile email exchange with Amazon over this when my book came out in hardcover, and was told, essentially, to suck it up. So I put the links to Amazon on this site as a convenience to any readers out there, and because as a former bookseller, I love to sell good books. As mitigation, however, this morning I’m putting up links to several great independent bookstores who will ship books to you, and who have good websites for orders. I urge everyone to buy books from their local independent bookstore (if you still have one), but for those times when you just can’t wait for a bookstore to order a title, well, there’s always Amazon.
It’s over, thank goodness. Some years I’m all Christmas cheer, but this year I just couldn’t get into it for some reason. Because I’m new in town and don’t know when they pick up Christmas trees (and since we’ve had 50-75 mph winds the past three days) I compromised by taking all the ornaments off the tree and putting them away, but I left the tree, with its white lights, in the living room. It was sort of a Charlie Brown tree to begin with (but once you’ve walked into the Round Barn at the fairground, you’re pretty much committed to buying a tree from our local Boy Scouts who went out into the woods and cut them down) and I think it actually looks better bare …
I’ve been feeling sort of kludgy after all this holiday cheer, and thus, when I was in the store yesterday, the kale suddenly looked like just the thing. I’m not normally a big fan of kale, but there it was, all dark green and crinkly and it seemed nearly to wink with the promise of health and well being. So I made a batch of kale and white bean soup. It’s one of those slow all-day kinds of soups that fill your house with the rich scent of cooking, a scent that seems like it alone can repel the howling winds that swirl out of the Absarokas. Here’s the recipe (which I adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant) :
Step One: The Beans
(If you use canned beans, you can skip this step altogether, but I don’t like the tinny taste or mushy texture of canned beans, and it’s not hard to cook your own).
In a big pot, bring to a boil, and then simmer until tender:
2 cups small white beans
2 bay leaves
2 or 3 big cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
pinch of salt
water to cover the beans by at least 2 inches
Step Two: the sofrito
1 onion, chopped
1 big carrot, chopped
1 heart of celery, with leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves (or 1tsp. dried)
3-4 tbsp olive oil
When the beans are tender, saute the chopped vegetables and spices until the onions just begin to turn brown around the edges. You want to concentrate the flavors of the vegetables, so err on the side of overcooking, rather than undercooking. When the vegetables are colored, add to soup pot with beans. Check the water level, you’ll want it to be pretty soupy still. If needed, add more water. Cook on very low heat until about 45 minutes before you are ready to eat.
Step three: finishing the soup
1 bunch kale, rinsed well, stripped of tough central veins, and chopped
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
juice of 1/2 lemon
4-5 cloves garlic
When it’s getting close to dinner time, add the kale to the soup and stir it in. (If the soup has cooked down to just beans, you’ll want to add more water and bring to a simmer before adding the kale.) Bring the heat up a little to a vigorous simmer, and cook the kale for at least 1/2 hour until tender. When the kale has cooked, mix the lemon juice and cornmeal together, and stir into the soup. Cook for about fifteen minutes, stirring often. This will thicken the soup a little and give it a really nice yellow color. While the cornmeal is cooking, add the garlic to the soup — I used a garlic press because it’s easy, but if you want to chop it very fine, that would work as well. What you want is a nice spike of garlicky flavor at the end of the cooking process.
Ladle the soup into wide plates and top with freshly ground parmesan cheese. Eat with some nice bread (I had some of the sourdough I’ve been working on, but more about that later) and a green salad and you’ll feel virtuous and clean again after all that holiday excess. This serves a lot of people, six to eight, although you can freeze the leftovers. Be careful when reheating this soup as re-boiling the kale will render it unpleasanlty cabbagy — I reccommend heating up one bowl at a time for a nice midweek lunch in the microwave.
Christmas was perfect — I got almost no stuff. My brother bought me an adult ed class with a Master Gardener from MSU and a cookbook (well, a gift certificate for The Pleasures of Slow Food by Corby Kummer which is out of stock at the moment). Mom sent socks and PJs. And we all avoided the pile of interesting stuff that no one really needed anyhow. Not that I’m against presents … I love presents. I just hate the forced nature of Christmas presents … my perfect Christmas involves a bunch of people sitting around a long table having just eaten a lovely meal, wearing the silly paper hats from the Christmas crackers, playing with the walnuts and chocolates and oranges down the centerpiece, and just sitting back and talking to one another.
I didn’t cook this year, since my friends were all out of town, so I’m considering a Twelfth Night party … I feel the need to cook a goose, which I haven’t done in a couple of years. Jeffery Steingarten has a recipe that looks interesting. My other cooking adventure this holiday has been making sourdough bread with a starter I ordered from Sourdoughs International. I ordered the San Francisco Sourdough, and spent much of Christmas activating the starter. My only quibble thus far with the directions that came with the starter is that if I had followed the directions exactly, I’d probably have six or eight quart jars of sourdough starter instead of the mere four that are lurking in my fridge. The first batch of bread is in the oven right now. The sourdough pancakes we had for breakfast were great though … tangy and chewy and felt like real food.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to live more locally, how to resist the siren call of consumerism, how to build a sustainable life. I bought a house this year, and moved to Montana. It was important to me when I was looking for a place that I didn’t buy a “ranchette”, that I didn’t contribute to the development creeping across the open spaces of the West. So I found a 100 year old house in a funky town, a house with an old established vegetable plot in back. Planning the garden has me thinking about eating seasonally, about seeing how self-sufficient I can be, about how I can avoid buying food at the cost of fossil fuels. We’re a long way from everywhere here, and although I got spoiled living in the Bay Area, with its abundant local produce, I want to take the lessons of California cuisine — eat local, eat fresh, eat in season, and see what I can do with that up here in the frozen north. Because Montana is still largely an agricultural economy, as well as a remarkably beautiful place with viable wild animal populations, the choices about what and how we eat are a little closer to the surface than they are in more urban centers.
I’m a novelist (there’s a link to my website in the pane on the right), working on my second novel — the autobiographical book I’d hoped not to write, so along with musings about food, and gardening, and the environment, you’ll also find the occasional report on what I’m reading or attempt to define the aesthetic issues that I’m wrestling with as I work through this new project.
Please feel free to email me, I haven’t figured out how to put up a comments link yet, but then again, this blog is all of two days old …