Friday, July 25, 2014

In Deep: competition and other unhealthy impulses

Book + beer + boat = my kind of summer day

A couple weeks ago, my wonderfully talented friend Terra Elan McVoy invited me to join some other author friends of hers in celebrating the launch of her new book, In Deep, by sharing our own stories of when we got ourselves into something way in over our heads. As I mulled over the book, which is about a high school girl getting way too ensnared by her need to compete in every aspect of her life, it reminded me of the highlight of my own crappy teenage behavior, so I wrote about that for Terra here (it's the second entry on the page).

In Deep is an interesting, challenging book, and I felt it was important to talk about the ways in which I related to it. Other people might respond negatively to the book because the main character, Brynn, is "unlikable," but this book to me is an example of an unlikable main character who really works. Let's be clear here: Brynn is a little jerk. She cheats on her boyfriend without a moment's hesitation, and she does it with the guy her best friend is dating. She spends a lot of the book blowing off her schoolwork and blaming other people for her problems. A sweet, appealing character she is not. But what she is, is real, and honest, and complicated. She is also pathologically competitive, which is a trait that I personally happen to find fascinating (I put a pathologically competitive character in my own book who also happens to be a swimmer--as I said to Terra, I think that of all the elite athletes in the world, people who compete for wins where the margin is literally hundredths of a second have got to be the most intense of all). And I can relate to that competitiveness. Especially when I think back to how I behaved when I was sixteen: I was a hell of a lot more selfish then. I wanted to win at everything, including boys. And then I started to grow up and become a better human being--just like Brynn does in this book, in a really believable and heartbreaking way.

All in all, I think the character that Terra built in In Deep is fascinating. Brynn is a young girl obsessed with proving her strength, both physical and mental, and maintaining that strength at all costs. Through her, we see a glimpse of the extraordinary discipline and mental toughness that elite athletes have to possess, and the ways in which that same toughness can turn corrosive if it's not channeled the right way. Brynn is not somebody I'd particularly want to be buddies with, no, but I cared what happened to her, and got drawn into her story just the same. This book is a terrific study in exploring some of the more unsavory parts of human nature, and showing how they can ruin us if we let them.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer of Summer: The From-Aways, and some tips for steaming clams!

The opening line of my friend and agent sister-wife CJ Hauser's incredible debut novel, THE FROM-AWAYS, is so good that I can recite it from memory. "I have two lobsters in my bathtub and I'm not sure I can kill them." That right there is one of those powerful first sentences that both intrigues you and lets you know you're going to be in good hands as the story unfolds. Leah, one of the book's two narrators, has moved with her new husband from Manhattan to the small Maine fishing village where he grew up, in an attempt to dig down and create roots she's never had. Cooking lobsters, Leah feels sure, will be a shortcut to those roots, via a sacred local culinary tradition. "This is my plan: I will get blind drunk and then I will kill these lobsters," she decides. Except, she looks at their wiry antennae and spotted backs and can't bring herself to kill them.

The more I read, the more I've come to realize how easily I'm hooked by the power and uniqueness of an author's voice, and this book has one of the strongest voices I've encountered in a long time. Even though Leah and the book's other narrator, Quinn, have their own distinct character voices, they are unmistakably (and brilliantly) created by the same person. And the rest of the book is as good as the opening, as the two women dig deeper into their relationships and enmesh themselves in the town's problems. Nothing is pat in this book, nothing is tidy; the protagonists make bad decisions, and decent people do bad things with good intentions. It's vibrant and wise and wonderfully real, and brings its salty setting vividly to life.

The weekend after CJ's book was released, some other sister-wives and I ended up throwing a slightly spastic virtual dinner party on Twitter in celebration, and I decided to make it into an actual meal. Except, when I actually thought about it, I couldn't kill lobsters, either. I readily admit to being an absolute hypocrite here, because it's not that I have an issue with the eating of lobsters--I will eat the crap out of a lobster that somebody else has already killed. Can't do it myself, though. Nope. They have eyes.

Clams, though, are another matter. Steamed clams, plus drawn butter and cold beer, happen to be one of my top five favorite summer meals, and while I know they're just as alive as lobsters when they get put in that pot, they're a hell of a lot less sentient. Allen and I first attempted a clam steam over Memorial Day, with fairly poor results--the clams took forever to cook, and since we didn't want to overcook them, we were pulling them out of the pot as they opened, three or four at a time. I decided to try it again, and, with the help of my friendly neighborhood seafood shop, Fish Tales, I can declare my solo clamfest to have been a rousing success. Here are the critical things to keep in mind:

my Summer of Summer clamfest

1. If you can, buy the clams from a local fish purveyor rather than a chain grocery store--they will be fresher and better quality. On our first attempt, out of the six dozen we bought from the grocery store, about 20% of them turned out to be dead. When I bought them from Fish Tales, every single one of the four dozen clams was alive.

2. But still, buy maybe a half-dozen more than you think you'll actually want to eat, just in case of casualties. Casualties include any clams with cracked shells, or any that simply never open after being cooked--those aren't safe to eat.

3. Do the cornmeal thing. When you're ready to eat your clams, one of the prep steps is to bathe them in cool water for 30-60 minutes, to prompt them to spit out any grit they have inside. I tried the suggestion I'd seen, of shaking a little cornmeal into the water to encourage the clams to spit, and it definitely seemed to work. Once they've sat for their assigned time, scrub the shells to make sure any last grit is gone, and then you're ready.

4. I prepared mine straight up--no wine or herbs in the broth, though there are plenty of recipes like that. The only flavor I added was to sautee a minced clove of garlic in the pan for a couple minutes before I put the liquid and clams in.

5. Put them all into a big steamer pot (I used my cast iron Dutch oven) with just a little bit of liquid at the bottom. I used about 3/4 of water for four dozen clams. They can all go in at once.

6. Cook them for longer than you think you need to. When we looked online, recipes were saying to cook them for 3-5 minutes... this is FALSE. The guys at Fish Tales told me ten minutes for my four dozen clams, and they were right on the money. We were used to steaming mussels, which literally only need about 2-3 minutes of cooking before they're ready, and which will quickly lose texture if they get overcooked. But clams have much thicker shells than mussels, so it takes longer for the heat to penetrate, and also their hold on their shells is stronger, so it takes more time for them to cook enough to release. Cause what happens, we learned on our first attempt, is if you start checking your clams after five minutes, you'll see a few ready, but the rest will need more time; and meanwhile you've just let a bunch of your hot steamy air out when you checked. Resist the urge to check. Let 'em steam.

7. Use salted butter to make the drawn butter. Recipes I saw said to use unsalted, but I far prefer the salty flavor, and it makes no difference in the mechanics of preparing the butter. (Boil it for a minute, let it cool undisturbed, and then skim off the solids without mixing them back into the clear melted butter beneath.)

8. Prepare copious lemon. I am a whore for lemon juice in all of its forms, and squeezing it over seafood is one of the most important forms. I don't like a delicate little spritz, I go to town. I got through 3/4 of a lemon all on my own with my clams.

So there you have it--possibly the world's first and only book review/clam steaming how-to. But in the Summer of Summer, these things go together.

And your tune for this post makes even less sense, unless you're my husband, his brother, or my sister-in-law. Paul Davis, " '65 Love Affair." Just substitute the word "clam" for "love" every time he says "65 love affair," and don't worry about it too much. It's summer. Enjoy your clams, everybody.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Summer of Summer: wait, summer comes with bugs?

One of my favorite sights - Overlook Mountain from the Saugerties exit off 87

In a stroke of dumb luck, our favorite cottage in Saugerties was unclaimed for the Memorial Day weekend, so that is where we headed. Saturday we had mostly crummy weather, and I drowned two spiders in the shower stall and picked up a tick just by sitting on a bench in the back yard. It's been so long since my grassy childhood that I had forgotten what total assholes ticks are. They serve absolutely no purpose other than to feast on blood and be disgusting. Seriously, screw the little bastards.

On Sunday, we broke out the hiking boots we got for Argentina, and headed for Catskill Park, and the North Mountain hike. Allen had printed out a highly detailed trail guide, which explained to us that the beginning of the trail would have some rocks and water, but that it would improve after that. "After that" turned out to be at approximately the 46% point, because this trail followed a creek bed, which was sometimes more dry and sometimes very much less dry, the entire way. We squelched through mud and clambered over rocks like loudly complaining mountain goats. But still, this was our reward:

That teeny blue ribbon on the left is the Hudson.

The top of Ashley Falls

On Monday, we rested. Or, we meant to. And then poor Allen stepped barefoot on a wasp while setting out our breakfast dishes inside the cottage, which again brought back long-buried childhood memories of needle-like pain and itchy swelling and baking soda plasters. And what I realized is, I romanticize the country, but that's because I've mostly forgotten how god damn BUGGY it is. Shower spiders, lawn ticks, floor-dwelling indoor wasps... and that's not even mentioning the mosquitoes. After breakfast, we parked ourselves on the shady deck with book (me), laptop (him), and beer, and remained blissfully unmolested the rest of the day.

Yes, his T-shirt says "The Lannisters" on it.

My read was Emily Giffin's newest, THE ONE AND ONLY. Texas, football, and divided loyalty under one gorgeous cover... what's not to love?

Your tune: vintage 80's Journey, thematic to the book and intended by God to be blasted at ruthless volume on sun-soaked pool decks: "Girl Can't Help It." Follow your heart, gang. Steve Perry would never lead you astray.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Opposite of Love: a case study in "no two persons ever read the same book."

The Opposite of Love

As a writer, I thought I was pretty comfortable with the notion that every reader brings their own personality, and their own baggage, along with them to every reading experience. It makes sense--we're all different, so we will all absorb a creative experience like reading a book in different ways. We run every book we read through our own personal filter.

When an early draft of my book, The One That Got Away, was in its initial-feedback stage, mixed in among the helpful critiques I received was one that was such, in my view, a strong over-reaction to a very small element of the story that it seemed obvious the book had touched on one of that reader's personal sore spots. I mined the critique for what I found helpful, and shrugged off the hyperbole. It was a lesson in how sometimes reviews are much more about the reader than the book.

I had this experience again recently, from the other side of the coin. I had just finished Julie Buxbaum's The Opposite of Love, and as I often do with books I really respond to, I dipped into Amazon and Goodreads to see what other readers had to say. The type of comments I saw there:

"This is a refreshingly smart chick-lit novel."
"This is a novel about a young woman finding out who she is."
"This story is about a Manhattan attorney who breaks up with her boyfriend and then has to figure out what she wants from her life."

Which, yes. Absolutely. All of those things are true.

But what I didn't see as I skimmed the reviews, and I grew more and more surprised at its absence as I skimmed, was:

"This is a story about a young woman coping with the loss of her mother."

And then it hit me: that was my baggage. My sore spot. The reason that what stood out to me about the book was not the Manhattan-attorney part or the smart-chick-lit part or the self-discovery part was that all those parts got caught in my filter. What made it through the filter, what felt to me like the purest essence of the book, was the theme of loss. How it damages us, how it haunts us, how it hurts us, long after we think it should still be able to. How we try to protect ourselves from it.

What's fascinating to me is that both my take on the book, and the take of readers who focused on the storyline more than the theme, are accurate. All that stuff is there. But because, like the book's narrator Emily, I lost my mother young, I was quite literally sobbing with recognition at the specificity of the heartbreak that's there on the page. Like Emily's bitterness and frustration that, fifteen years after her mother's death, she feels as though her mother has been reduced to little more than a series of photographs and anecdotes that have gotten worn from re-use, because there are no new photos and no new memories, and countless tiny memories not strong enough to make an impression have simply faded away. I live with that exact pain, so to stumble across it in someone else's book was extraordinary. And to me, Buxbaum's exquisitely rendered portrayal of Emily's loss, and her obsessive need to imprint her living loved ones deeply onto her memory to prevent them from disappearing when they eventually leave her behind, was the heart and soul of this book.

Yet, many other people didn't feel that aspect as deeply. They've never experienced it, so they have no way to know how true it is. Maybe they skimmed over those passages, to find out what happened with Emily's job or her boyfriend. And that's valid, too. But if we accept the idea that fiction is at its best when it reveals the truth of life, then that is where this book shines so beautifully.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Summer of Summer

My first and perhaps last experiment with footie clams.

I don't know about you guys, but summer has always been a bit of a bait-and-switch for me. Magazines do a bang-up job of selling us all on the dream of the season: long, sunny days by the lake; elaborate al fresco meals; beach parties with bonfires and clambakes and sand between our toes. But not since I was a teenager has summer meant that much relaxation and time outside... as a Brooklyn girl with neither beach house nor lawn nor even a balcony the size of a bath mat, I spend most of my summer inside. Cause here's the thing: New York City in the summer is hot as all hell, with no refreshing breezes to be found anywhere except the waterfront. And it smells like garbage. Literally. The heat warms up all the effluvia that leaks out of every trash bag left on the sidewalk outside every restaurant and apartment building, so not only are we all sweating through our T-shirts as we walk along, but we get treated to a vague odor of overheated compost while we do it. 

The other problem is, New York is still New York. Every summer sees a busy and vibrant calendar of cool, fun summer activities in the city: festivals, concerts, and other performances. When I first moved here after college, I eagerly dove into these--free opera on the great lawn of Central Park? Wonderful! Free Derek Trucks concert at the Prospect Park bandshell? Fantastic! But guess what? Everybody else thinks it's wonderful and fantastic, too. It turns out the Central Park opera performances get so crowded that your picnic blanket overlaps that of everyone around you, and you can overhear their conversations as clearly as you did while squashed between two aggressively bragging lawyers on the 4 train that morning. No matter what you do, you can't get away from the crowds.

So every spring, I get all kinds of notions about what I might do with my long, sunlit weekends; and every summer, I just hide in the air conditioning.


This year I am grabbing every conceivable opportunity to get my ass out of town, and, while in town, to make the most of the season. I will gaze at the sea. (Or a lake, or a river.) I will get sand between my toes, or at least grass. I will read books outside in the sun, with an adult beverage in my hand (beer, wine, fruity cocktail; I'm equal opportunity). I got off to a great start last weekend, visiting my sister-in-law's family in lovely Madison, Connecticut.

The beach club in Madison, CT

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Beth Kendrick's newest release, CURE FOR THE COMMON BREAKUP; if you're looking for a funny, light-hearted summer read, you cannot do better than this.

For a summer tune, this sparkly remix of Seals & Croft's "Summer Breeze" is the ultimate. Listen, and wait for the fruity cocktail to materialize in your hand. Works for me every time.

So, tell you what. I'm inviting everybody along. This is the Summer of Summer, and it's going to be good. I'll see you there.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

True love and vomit.

This past Friday was a big day for me, you guys. I finally achieved a milestone of adulthood that most people my age passed a good 15 years ago: I got my wisdom teeth out.

I know - weird, right? Usually that's a tucked-between-college-semesters type of thing. The only reason I'd had them for so long is because I believed I was a specimen of superior evolutionary advancement. Unlike everybody else I knew, whose third molars came in impacted or crooked, crowding their other teeth, all four of mine came in nice and straight and easy. Fine, upstanding citizens with plenty of room, not screwing with any of their neighbors or causing me any grief at all. But of course, every dentist I saw still wanted to yank them. 

"What do you have against them?" I'd say. "Aren't they straight?"
"No impaction, right?"
"No. But... are they causing you any pain?" the dentist would say, voice uplifted in an unmistakable tone of hope.
"No, not a bit."

Whereupon the dentist would subside, disappointed, and reluctantly agree that I could keep them for the time being. But the one thing I couldn't argue with is that the damn things were impossible to keep clean enough, since I don't have an extending jaw like a snake, so after a recent cleaning wherein it was pointed out to me--yet again--that it really would be better in the long term if the teeth weren't left sitting there waiting to accrue decay in years to come, I agreed to yank them.

After an informal survey of my Facebook friends convinced me to get the loopy twilight drugs for the procedure (the frequency with which the words "sawing" and "screaming" and "horror movie" appeared in the responses of my friends who had NOT had the loopy drugs was a pretty convincing argument), I set it up, got in the chair, and had the deed done. In the taxi on the way home, I had to text responses to my husband's questions, because the entire lower half of my face felt like it had been replaced with a cabbage--except for the bottom right extraction site, where the cabbagey feeling was quickly being replaced by a drilling ache. One horse-sized ibuprofen later, I was holding ice packs to both cheeks and crying from pain, so that sweet man of mine called the doctor and got permission for me to advance to Vicodin, and all was well.

Until yesterday morning, when I bounded out of bed at 8:30, swallowed more meds, and quickly discovered that horse ibuprofen on an empty stomach is far, far more nausea-inducing than the Vicodin I'd taken the day before.

"I think you need to eat something," said Allen, and made me a dish of the perfectly moist, tender scrambled eggs he's been practicing at. I worried a few mouthfuls of them down.

Then I got up to refill my water glass and the scrambled eggs reappeared, quite without warning, all over the kitchen counter and floor.

And it struck me, as I knelt on the kitchen floor with my face over the trash can, whimpering "sorry sorry sorry, gross gross gross" in between waves of retching, that this was really one of those true love moments. Because my husband, instead of flinching with horror like a normal human being and fleeing the room, was kneeling beside me, helping me clean up. Telling me it was okay. That he would not only help me, but presumably even still find me physically attractive at some point in the future once this whole episode is behind us, is a thing of no small wonder to me. Not only that, but that this is ultimately where you want it to bring you--all those thrilling first dates and sexy kisses and endless rounds of discussion with whoever's on the roster of your own personal NFL pre-game show. The end game isn't the ring or the wedding, it's those moments when you see each other at your worst and all you want to do is reach out to help. That is true love, right there. Offering you a handful of damp paper towels.