On Forgetting

I’ve been having trouble blogging. It’s no mystery that my blog posts have been infrequent (that may be a generous way of putting it) over the past several months. My food life has been decidedly less exciting – not quite sexy enough to put on a food blog, or at least a food blog as I have always understood it. My reading life keeps me absorbed, and I’m deep in the world of my novel, pounding out pages.

And yet, I miss this blog. I feel similar to George Bailey on It’s a Wonderful Life, wishing merry Christmas to all the places that had grown so fuzzy and beige to him – the movie house. The emporium. “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Whisks & Words.

And yet. Every time I’ve sat down to blog, I’ve felt stalled out and incapable of writing. It’s one thing to draft my novel, where I’m the only one who sees it. But to add my voice to the world right now feels canned and odd and naive. The news is so bad. Every day, in some new way, the news is bad. How can I talk about books and cookies when death and destruction abound? When it’s right there, waiting for me. What can I possibly say?

I talked about this with a friend at coffee this morning when she expressed the same sadness, the same frustration. A sense of helplessness coupled with a sense of loss and grief, and add to all of that, the need to go on. For her, to be merry and bright for her children, who are innocents. For me, to do the work, my work. There must be ways to move on.

Writing content for the Internet is weird in this way; in so many respects, a blog is like an online journal, where we can keep things simple. But then, there’s this pressure to be somebody, to brand yourself and to say something – something worthwhile, to say something that Matters, and I’m not sure I can. Maybe cookies is all I have. Maybe this simple blog is where I can take my shelter and comfort. Maybe it’s where I can share cookies with everyone else who may be feeling as stilted and saddened as I am.

I’ve posted before about Forgotten Cookies, and I made them again the other night, at Amanda’s request. They’ve become one of her favorite holiday treats, and what can I say? Happy wife, happy life.

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The “magic” of Forgotten Cookies is that, after dinner, you do the work. You take a chilled bowl and chilled beaters, and you whip two egg whites with sugar and a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form and the batter becomes glossy. Fold in almond extract, vanilla extract, chopped pecans, and semisweet chocolate chips. Spoon them onto a foil-lined sheet and put that sheet in a 350° oven, and then turn the oven OFF, and “forget” about them for the night.

I did this on Monday night, after I spent the morning writing my butt off, after I spent the afternoon prepping vegetables for the week ahead. I stood over the sink, licking the batter off the whisk, selfishly taking every marshmallowy bit. And in the morning, while I manned the toaster oven for toast, and Amanda manned the coffee maker for coffee, she asked, “Are you going to check the cookies?”

This is code for “take the cookies out of the oven so I can eat them.”

They were delicious – it’s an old recipe that I can rely on, one handed down to me from my mother, written in her handwriting in my family recipe book.

I was thinking, though, of that idea of “forgetting” the cookies. Because, of course, they’re all but forgotten. They’re in the oven, working on becoming finished cookies, even though I’m not watching them, and the oven is off, and the dishes are cleaned, and in fact, I’ll slumber through much of the process. And it occurred to me how very much this process is like writing.

I’m in what we’ll call the third draft of my book. I’ve been working a little over two years on this beast, and I marvel at how many times I’ve had to take breaks – to get married, to move cross-country, to travel, to deal with holidays. To welcome my honey home from mini-deployments. And every time, I panic. I’ll forget how to write, I’ll lose my steam, I’ll get fuzzy on my goals, I’ll fail fail fail.

But the thing is, I don’t. I remember how to write. I get the steam again. Somehow, while I’m away from my work, out in the world, talking and living and traveling and generally being human, the work continues. The book is in my brain, working on becoming a finished novel, even though I’m not watching it, and my computer is stashed away, and my mind is on other things.

It’s the same with this blog. I “forget” how much I need it, how much it can be a sanctuary from the storm, rather than a big screen on which to relive it. And in that way, maybe the cookies and the books and the cats and the writing have a place after all.

My Reading Month: November 2014

Lo and behold, I turned around, and it was December. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, those who celebrated, and just an all around wonderful weekend to everyone, in the States or not. This is such a fun time of year because the “best books of the year” posts are starting to crop up, and in December, it finally makes sense to see them. They’re like Christmas decorations:  there is such a thing as too early.

The “best of” lists are great for helping beef up that “to be read” list, and during this, the time of gifting and shopping, having a solid TBR list in your back pocket is a good idea. As of yesterday, The Millions started their Year in Reading (starting off with Anthony Doerr). My very own family of Rioters over at Book Riot has released its list of Best Books of 2014 (including my pick for my favorite book of 2014). And here at Whisks & Words, I can tell you what I read in November.

At Time of Publication

Currently reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I cannot WAIT to talk more about this book in January, after I’ve finished it. (I may not even be able to wait that long. There’s a lot of underlining happening here. A lot.)

Books

  • On Immunity:  An Inoculation by Eula Biss:  This book dives into the world of immunity, taking up the question of why we immunize, how it started, and why (and how) it has come under question. It was funny to be reading this at the time that I was getting my flu shot. But the great thing about Ms. Biss’s writing is that she presents information and anecdotal moments that could very well stir us up into total freak-out, but at the right moment, she pulls back and takes a cool-headed approach. Her style goes back and forth between hard data, carefully researched, and her own experiences as a new mother. Also, and this was probably my favorite aspect of this book, she ties in the novel Dracula in a way that is brilliant – the ways that our imagining of Dracula has informed our ideas of immunization is just amazing. I want to read the book again just for that logical maneuver.
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler. You guys! The Amy Poehler memoir! I’ve been waiting for this little treasure for months, and when it got here, I was like, okay, Eula Biss, enough with immunizations. AMY POEHLER IS HERE. And the book was a delight to read. She takes an honest and open approach to matters like love, work, writing, divorce, and motherhood. She treats her subjects with care and humor. The book itself is beautifully done, and I felt inspired the whole time I was reading it.
  • French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon. Amanda and I got married in a French restaurant. There’s a reason for that. We <3 French food. And I’m always intrigued by other cultures and their approaches to food. The French have a very regimented approach but they also wrap so much into food:  in timing meals, in eating as a family, etc., you are also crafting character. There were several aspects of this book that spoke to me, as an adult, and the ways that I approach food. I think this book leaves some major questions unanswered (she notes, for example, the difference between the way American mothers and French mothers approach nursing, but does not go further into that – but then, her daughters were both well past nursing, so perhaps it was a moot point in the space of her book), but alas, it cannot be an ultimate guide to everything.
  • Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross. I read this book for a post I recently did at Book Riot on etiquette books (and how they just might be the ticket to getting through awkward holiday gatherings), and this was a delightful little read. More novelty book than anything else, I was happy to find that it did illuminate some of the trickier social moments in some of Austen’s novels, which will come in handy the next time I re-watch Pride & Prejudice.  

Read anything good this month?

Foodish and Bookish Pilgrimages

It’s funny – some vacations start as something simple. Amanda and I hadn’t been on an honest to goodness vacation – one completely unrelated to either of our jobs – in years. In an effort to check some items off our California Bucket List, we planned a whirlwind trip to Yosemite, Napa Valley, and San Francisco. There’s lots to do in all those places. But for me, there were a couple things I needed to see:  I needed to go to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and I needed to go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley

There are times when, as a writer, I feel like I have missed a movement:  because of my age and the time I was born, a movement has passed me by. I’ve grown up in a time of processed foods and food industry scandals and shockumentaries and all these diet choices and it becomes SO much. The New Yorker ran a piece last month called “A Foodie Repents”. I had a lot of feelings about the post, but ultimately, for me, the post is about that feeling that, to borrow from Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us” when it comes to food. Reality shows and food blogs and Pinterest and apps and product placement and so, so, so many recipes:  it can become a bit daunting. It is part of the reason I’ve had blogger’s block. What can I possibly add to the conversation? What can I say that’s not already being said by hundreds of other people? What is the point in trying to chase after a movement that feels like it has passed me by?

Yosemite

Yosemite

But, to return to this nice little vacation with my wife, there’s something grounding about traveling. About escape. But mostly about putting your feet on the ground in places rooted in the movement(s) you’re passionate about. Which brings me to Chez Panisse. Alice Waters is, for those who don’t know, the chief reason we have a local food movement. She’s written widely about the importance of local, whole foods that taste exactly like what they are. I obeyed the instructions to leave our phones off the tables and just enjoy the meal. It was simple food, well-prepared. Nothing fussy or fancy. On the bar was a pear tart that was being doled out, slice by slice, to order. There was rustic artisan bread. I thought for a moment that I saw Alice Waters and freaked out a little (it wasn’t her, I decided). My fried chicken came with a sweet puree of root vegetables and perfect collard greens and this meal was so lovely, so nourishing, I had no choice but to go back to my hotel and nap.

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When I woke up, Amanda suggested we drive into San Francisco and walk around a bit. I was in a food hangover, wrapped in fatigue like a warm, heavy blanket, but I walked with her, making our way to Ghirardelli Square, and I was glad I hadn’t fought her on it:  seeing it all lit up at night is very different from during the day. We stopped for a simple salad and all the sourdough we could eat.

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And the next day, on our real trip into San Francisco, the pilgrimages (what I call these trips that not only offer escapism but also restoration) continued. We started at the Ferry Building, where we had waffles and coffee. The best waffles, with chew and density (secret ingredient:  cornmeal) and just a sprinkling of sugar, ones you held in your hand and dipped in your coffee. The farmers market was going on, and we walked among the stalls, and listened to musicians, and watched people eat. I was homesick for my kitchen, for my markets. But before the day was over, we had to walk pretty much the entirety of San Francisco (slight exaggeration, but my feet felt like it was the whole city) and make our way to City Lights Bookstore.

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This blog splits its focus between food and writing, and so I must mention City Lights because it is part of that feeling of trying to hang on to a movement. The Beats are pretty much from a bygone era, but independent bookstores, small affairs with funky floors and close wooden shelves and an entire second floor for poetry just show that this is one movement that (contrary to what “publishing is dead” folks will tell you) is very much alive. I wore my Little Women shirt for the occasion and happily waited for my picture to be taken in front of those windows.

I took no pictures of my food, and I focused on time with my wife, and I soaked up the experience of vast Mother Nature and delicious wine and all that San Francisco had to offer. And it restored me a bit to myself. I still feel, perhaps, that the world is too much with us, that I’ve missed things and I can’t catch up. But at the end of the day, I want what these pilgrimages celebrate:  to write well; to celebrate and cook and eat simple, whole foods, well-prepared, and lovingly served; to shut out the noise and enjoy my work and my books and my food and this community, which I have missed.

On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary

A few months ago, I began writing for a really fantastic site called Book Riot. Periodically, I’ll be re-posting articles from that site here on the blog. But hey, don’t just read my stuff here – go to Book Riot and check out all the great bookish stuff our writers have to offer.

On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary

I received my copy of Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary from a friend as a present for my 23rd birthday. It took me six years to finish reading it;  I did a great deal of growing up in that time, transforming my reading experience as I grew.

My friend inscribed the book to me, calling me a strong and bold woman and writer. But I didn’t feel strong or bold. I felt weak and scared. Nothing I did seemed right. My writing was a mess. I regularly concocted theories that my professors had been drunk when they decided to admit me to my MFA program.

I turned to Virginia Woolf for help and guidance. When I began to read her diary, I looked to her as an oracle of writing. She intimidated me even as she taught me, but to my surprise, she was terribly critical of herself. Over and over again, she lost hope in her own writing. It seemed that she was always waiting to find that she had lost her gift, her will to go on with writing. When she found the ability, the nerve, the energy for it again, she always seemed surprised.

She struggled not only with her own high standards, but also with her illness, with headaches and bouts of depression. She ran a press, she had a husband. Then there was the war.

But even with those obstacles, Virginia Woolf was a writer’s writer. For as many moments of artistic despair as there are, one also finds glimmers of hope, of faith in the process. In 1933, she wrote, “I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler: […] No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before.” In 1934, she spoke directly to those of us who would come after her:  “A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing:  up down up down – and Lord knows the truth.”

I have always found difficulty in reading books about Virginia Woolf. The professor who introduced me to her in college suggested that it was because we weren’t – and still aren’t – ready to have lost Virginia Woolf. As I neared the end of her diary, I braced myself for it. Virginia Woolf always wrote sporadically in her journals; her final entry is dated three weeks before her death. She and her husband had fled to the countryside, and their home in London, their neighborhood, and the homes of their friends, had been blown to bits. She had begun to see the people around her die. Despair had settled in.

When I taught literature classes, I warned students against reading an author’s biography too deeply into their creative works. I knew this rule, and yet, as I neared the end of Virginia Woolf’s diary, I found myself looking for clues. I wanted some warning, some self-awareness, some moment that might explain what was to come.

Her final entry is unremarkable. But it’s her final sentences that broke my heart, that has haunted me for months to follow:  “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

Sausage and haddock? She’s Virginia Woolf, she terrifies me and astounds me, and I love her, and her final written words to the world of her diary, before she took her own life three weeks later, is about sausage and haddock. The cook in me smirked, the way we smile over a bittersweet memory of loved ones who have passed. After all that, it’s sausage and haddock. It’s life. But the writer in me – the part of me that doesn’t always have food on the brain – stalled out.

We build up authors so that they become epic and mythic, each huddled away on their corners of a literary Mount Olympus, scribbling or typing. The place smells of coffee and books and anxiety. But in the end, they’re people, not gods. They’re people who must eat dinner and fear bombs and attempt to get a handle on cooking sausage and haddock. This is a challenge as big as writing The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was epic to me. But she was also just a person. She could no more fix my insecurity than fix her own. But her diary showed me that I’m not alone. “A note, by way of advising other Virginias…”

That’s me. That’s us, her literary daughters. Whether writing our stories or gobbling up books or cooking dinner or fighting our demons – it’s all the same, and we must write it all with equal devotion, follow the trains of thought that make up our lives. “Up down up down – and Lord knows the truth.”

**

This post originally appeared on Book Riot. 

My Reading Month: October 2014

The end of October already? I’ve watched leaves change colors and children get dressed up in adorable costumes (all via Facebook). I’ve watched my Pinterest get covered in all manner of apple, butternut, and pumpkin things. And of course, I’ve read some books. I also took a fabulous pilgrimage (that’s what I’m calling my vacation) to some food and literary places that I can’t wait to tell you about. But unfortunately, that’s a post for November.

While we’re on the cusp of that, though, here’s a look at My Reading Month.

Currently Reading at Time of Publication

On Immunity:  An Inoculation by Eula Biss.

Books

IMG_6208October was a fun month. That’s the word I’m choosing to describe it:  definitively fun. I did some traveling back to Virginia, where I was a presenter at the ODU Literary Festival, and I don’t know what it is about a Kindle book and a cross-country plane ride, but I just tear through books. And when they’re this fun, it’s even more tempting to do so.

  • Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson. This was a digital review copy (it’ll be out in March 2015), and it was a tie for my favorite book that I read this month. This book features a cast of characters for whom things have gone astray. A woman wakes to find the front wall of her house missing. A pianist goes to his studio, only to discover the keys to his piano have disappeared. A directionless woman literally loses her sense of direction. Loves, jobs, and memories are all lost, and it’s a race to either find them before the damage is complete, or acclimate to this new, lost life. This book was quirky and full of strong characters – make sure you check it out in March.
  • My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. And here we are, the CA –> VA leg of my reading binge. I read this in one airplane ride. I was dazed at the end, but it was lovely. Rakoff’s first job after college was as a secretary at a venerable literary agency, the one that represented J.D. Salinger. As she sorts out her own life, she gets to know the book business, Salinger’s work, and her own path towards the future. A great, bookish coming-of-age memoir.
  • Rooms by Lauren Oliver. And this book took me from VA –> CA. I didn’t do this in one sitting, alas, but I feel like I could have. This book tells the story of a dysfunctional family who has come to the estranged father’s house after his death to sort through his belongings. Twist? The house is haunted by the ghosts of previous inhabitants. The drama of the afterlife meets the drama of the here and now, and I couldn’t put it down.
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. You guys. This book is raw, and rough, and yet so tender. As Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Mississippi coast, this family – three boys, one pregnant girl, and their alcoholic father – try to survive and prepare, all the while negotiating love and loss and hope. This book made me uncomfortable in ways that I thought were valuable and important.
  • 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Helene-Marie Bertino. This book was the other tie for favorite read of the month. Musical, kinetic, quirky, and so scrappy, this book was funny and wild and also takes place over a span of about 16 hours, which is downright impressive. I’m recommending it to everyone. So, you know, read it.

I usually include a few articles, but truthfully, there’s only one I want to talk about, and I think it’s for another post, all on its own, about food and excess and identity. (I mean, aren’t I always yammering on about food and identity?) So for now, there’s My Reading Month. You read anything good that you want to recommend?

My Reading Month: September 2014

After a busy summer, it’s been good to settle into the security of fall.

But then, I remember:  I live in Southern California. Fall is really just summer, but in months that end in R.

For me, though, fall is more than just weather. (I mean, it’s the weather. That part still depresses me.) But fall means back to school, which for me always meant back to reading more – reading for homework, reading to learn, to enjoy, to grow. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to challenge myself in my reading life, reading things that stretch me out of my comfort zone (like Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist and Annia Ceizadlo’s memoir, Day of Honey) and also things that further immerse me in the areas I want to learn more (like the biiiiiig book I’m currently reading, The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher).

So while I might have to be satisfied with only the tips of the fronds of the palm trees turning a bit yellow, and the warm days and cool nights, I still have fall reading, and that’s no small thing.

Books

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay:  This book has gotten tons of buzz, and it’s just as good as everyone says it is. Gay takes a kind approach toward feminism, embracing empathy, human fallibility, and common sense. This book made me uncomfortable at times, but it also made me think, made me ask questions, which is what I had hoped it would do.
  • The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant:  My first Diamant! This book reminded me a lot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and told the story of a young girl growing up at the beginning of the 20th century in Boston.
  • Day of Honey:  A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo:  Holy crap, this book. As Iraq descended into civil war, Annia Ciezadlo and her new husband spent their honeymoon in Baghdad, where her husband would be working as a war correspondent. Herself a freelance journalist, she spent the next six years living in Baghdad and Beirut, eating, learning, and writing about the people as wars and skirmishes flared up around her. A thoughtful historical look at food and war and what both mean in the lives of civilians.
  • Delicious by Ruth Reichl:  This may be unfair, but I didn’t expect this book to be as good as it was. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel set at a food magazine, written by the women who would know that world best. A definite recommendation for those who love food and fiction.

Over at Book Riot

This month at Book Riot, I held forth about the necessity for writers to read; my editor crush on Judith Jones; how much I loved the novel The End of the Point; my weird habit of evangelizing to people about booksmy outright giddiness over three memoirs by funny ladies coming out this fall; and four methods for choosing your next book to read.

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