Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wordly Wonderfulness & Graham Cracker Goodness

I am just back from Kindling Words, and already missing the crisp Vermont air, the copious food, the constant talk about writing, editing, narrative, the Business, and books we love (and loathe), and of course the excellent company. However, there is one thing I do not have to miss, and that is Andrea Tompa's Graham Cracker Goodness (as I am hereby naming it). For non-KW attendees, Andrea is an associate editor at Candlewick; for KW attendees, this was the stuff that was at the back of the baked goods table in the round Tupperware, which you may not have had a chance to eat because I personally ate about a quarter pound of it, with no regrets. It's that damn good.

Andrea Tompa's Graham Cracker Goodness

1 sleeve graham crackers
1 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 pkg chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 10" x 15" cookie sheet with tinfoil. Place crackers flat on the cookie sheet so that they're all touching each other and so that they extend right to the edges. (Use pieces of crackers if necessary to make it work out.)

Melt butter and sugar and boil 3 minutes. Pour over crackers. Put in the oven for 5 minutes, or until bubbles form all over.

Pull out the cookie sheet and sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Put in the oven for an additional minute, then take it out and spread the chocolate for the edges.

Let it cool. Put in the freezer for 3 hours (or more), then take out the frozen sheet and peel off the tinfoil. Break the bark into pieces. Can be frozen or stored in a tin.

The lone way I believe this ambrosia can be improved is through the addition of marshmallow, thus turning it into a s'more -- any ideas on how to try it? And some writing notes from the wonderful talks this weekend coming soon.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Brooklyn Arden Rave: The Attolia Books by Megan Whalen Turner

(Some material cross-posted from my reviews on Goodreads, and lots o' spoilers below.)

Not long after I read the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last year, I thought, Well, there's one more thing off my Death List. The Death List, or "Bucket List," as the recent film with Jack Nicholson calls it, is the list of things one must complete before one dies; and if I had died before knowing how Harry, Ron, Hermione, et al.'s fates resolved, I would have been one seriously hacked-off corpse. This Death List thought was followed by the depressing realization that I didn't really have any more series books on the Death List. . . . I mean, I'm curious about The Book of Dust, certainly, but if I am out ice-fishing, say, and an angry polar bear attacks, I will not think Dammit, I don't know what happens to Lyra as it chases me across the ice.

Well, I am happy to say a literary reason to live has been restored to me, and he is named Eugenides. Eugenides is the hero of a trilogy of books written by Megan Whalen Turner, beginning with The Thief and continuing on in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, and I adore him. In The Thief he first appears as a young idiot-braggart-criminal dragged through a vaguely Byzantine world on a mission to steal the national treasure of Eddis, with a fair number of excursions into the mythology and topography of that country. I admit I got halfway through this and asked Monica and Donna, "Eh, I'm feeling kind of bored, should I keep going?" The answers were resounding yesses, so I did. And I enjoyed the payoff to all the stories thoroughly, although the book also ends up doing that annoying Walk Two Moons trick where the reader doesn't get information the first-person narrator knows, solely because the author wants to keep it from you -- which makes me feel tricked by the narrator, which I dislike. However, I was impressed enough by the writing, the world-building, and the characterizations to go on and read the sequel, The Queen of Attolia . . .

And glory, I loved The Queen. It is written in third person, which removed my cause for annoyance in The Thief, as I don't mind third-person narrators (that is, the author) keeping information back from me until they deem appropriate, as long as they deploy said information intelligently. And the intelligence here! I felt like Ms. Turner was accomplishing the fictional equivalent of playing a perfect chess game or composing a Mozartian sonata, so carefully is each piece of information provided to the reader at precisely the right time and in precisely the right order. This incredible complexity is given emotional warmth and depth through the slowly developing love story between the Queen and Eugenides -- a romance at first impossible to believe* (she cuts off his hand in the opening pages), but one that pays off beautifully by the end. I especially recommend this to fans of Possession or Gaudy Night or Fire and Hemlock, as, while this isn't as self-conscious a literary romance as any of those, the Queen and Gen operate at a similar level of intelligence to the lovers in those novels. Fabulous, fabulous.

Then, finally, I loved The King of Attolia even more than The Queen. There's all the chess-game pleasure of the politics again, and the mystery of Eugenides's motives and behavior, which this time is seen entirely from the outside, and primarily through the perspective of a young Attolian guard named Costis, who finds it impossible to believe his Queen could love such an idiotic Eddisian. The emotional pleasure here derives from Costis's (and the entire court's) slowly growing respect and liking for him, the deep romantic satisfaction of seeing the Attolian royal marriage develop into all it promised, and Gen's own growth into the king he is meant to be. And as in the previous two books, Ms. Turner beautifully combines the ways of gods and man.

My guess is that the fourth book (and please please please let there be a fourth book) will focus on what happened to Sophos; why Eddis is the last Eddis as per the short story included with the King paperback (because surely that country must be combined with Attolia under Gen's rule, right?), and the coming war with the Medes. And then, perhaps, the birth of an heir to Attolia? Given the intricacy of Ms. Turner's plot construction, I understand why she has taken so long between books, but lord, I hope I don't have to wait four years for this next one. I could get chased by an angry polar bear before then, after all -- and then, dammit, I wouldn't know what happens to Eugenides! And Megan Whalen Turner does not want my icebound zombie stalking her house.

In other words, Ms. Turner: Write faster.

*A friend remarked that she experienced a bit of what I was feeling about The Thief's first-person narration in Eugenides's mid-book declaration of love -- that Turner had cheated with her use of POV and hadn't set up these feelings in his character -- but I think the book stays far enough out of his mind much of the time, allowing him his privacy, almost, that it's believable, especially considering the extreme intelligence and reserve of these two lovers/combatants. And I've reread all three books twice now, I think -- the first time in a long time I've finished a series and immediately gone right back to the beginning -- and the second time through, I picked up on a lot more of the extremely subtle clues to his feelings I missed on a first read. (And in fact, having written all this, I really want to read them all again.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Omnifarious Amphibian Photos

Some thoughtful content on writing or editing or something coming eventually, I swear. In the meantime, now on my Flickr page: the Frog's visits to the Scholastic office; a bizarre Texas ranch; and the December all-new-first-time-ever-indoor Killer Klein Croquet game.

View the complete set here.

Plaices & Names

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the American Museum of Natural History in hopes of seeing their "Mythical Creatures" exhibit. It was sold out, alas, but I then wandered the halls enjoying the many animal exhibits, including the wonderful names and physiognomies of some of the creatures. I offer these now in hopes they will bring a little natural, nomenclatural, polysyllabic delight to your day:

  • Bloodbelly Comb Jelly
  • Cookie-Cutter Shark (a truly creepy but cool fish -- read the link to find out why)
  • Stoplight Loosejaw (also awesome)
  • Black-Blotched Porcupinefish
  • False Cleanerfish
  • Juvenile Snook
  • Sheepshead Seabream
  • Tripodfish (check out the picture -- it's one of those creatures that proves that if God is the Creator, he has a sense of humor)
  • Powderblue Surgeonfish
  • Jericho Worms (fascinating and weird)
  • Stonechat
  • Eurasian Wryneck
  • Alpine Accentor
  • Common Siskin
  • Yellow-Hooded Wagtail
  • Ruddy Shelduck
  • Whooper Swan
  • Great Bustard
  • Black-Faced Cuckoo Shrike
  • Superb Lyrebird
  • Crimson Rosella
  • Glossy Drongo
  • Nkulenga Wood Rail
  • White-Bearded Bulbul
  • Lemon-Rumped Tinkerbird
  • Cameroon Sombre Greenbul
  • Variable Sunbird
  • Fiscal Shrike (always appears at tax season)
  • Rattling Cisticola
  • Spectacled Antipitta
  • Broad-Billed Motmot
  • Cinnamon-Bellied Ground Tyrant
  • Scale-Throated Earthcreeper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Pomarine Jaeger
  • Common Stilt
  • Bufflehead

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Awesomest Christmas Present

Muhammad Ali could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Me? I'd just hit you with my right hook . . .

my left hook . . .

and then, for the knockout,

All credit for this hilarious dorkery goes to my dear friend KTBB, who created the concept of and the embroidery on these wonderful -- and very warm -- gloves. Thanks again, KT.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Why I Support Barack Obama

An anonymous commenter below wrote:

With a seventeen year old son about to sign up for the draft, I would love to see the fighting disappear before the draft appears, but I wonder if Obama has enough power in Congress to follow through with his promises. This is a war about profit not morals.

As a teacher, I wonder about No Child Left Behind and how that will impact us once Bush leaves office. Will Obama know enough to understand the unrealistic expectations of No Child Left Behind has on our educational system?

Does Obama have a solid Health Care Plan?

Will he pull us out of a recession or dig us deeper by trying to do all his promises too quickly?

And while I swear this will not become the all-politics-all-the-time-blog, I wanted to answer the commenter in a real post and explain why I support Obama. (Note that all this is greatly influenced by the Andrew Sullivan article I cite below -- really, go read it.)

The answers to the questions about Obama's education and health care plans are both yes; take a look at his website (under Issues) and you can find thoughtful answers on both subjects, with specific reference to the failure of No Child Left Behind. As for issues of Iraq and the economy, any new president is going to have a tough time dealing with the morass of the Middle East and the fine balance of inflation and recession -- not to mention the nine million other issues that will be on his desk on January 21, 2009 -- but he is an intelligent and judicious guy, and I trust him more than I trust any other candidate to do what's genuinely right and not what's politically expedient.

And that's what my support of Obama is pretty much based on: I trust his brains, his sincerity, and his passion to make him into the president that we need now. The president we need is someone who will be able to bring the country together, to genuinely inspire people, to win the respect of Republicans as well as Democrats, and to restore our country's spirit and reputation both here and abroad after the devastation inflicted by the Bush administration. I think this spiritual restoration is at least as important as whether the president can actually enact his/her policy (and indeed would make it much more likely that s/he would be able to enact that policy), because this country is bruised and bleeding, not just from the war and our teetering economy, but from our loss of faith in public service, public servants, and public ideals.

And Hillary Clinton is simply not the candidate to make that restoration happen. I was watching the debate on Saturday night, with all the talk about change, and I felt sorry for her because she really does have all the years of experience making change in Washington, whether in the White House or the Capitol or the Child; and I do think she has learned from the 1994 health-care debacle and become a better, wiser public servant. I'm proud she's my senator from New York. But she is also the most divisive figure in American politics today, because her history (political and personal), her last name, and yes, her gender just polarize far people than than she brings together. That's not the person we Democrats need at the top of the ticket this November, and more importantly it's not the person the entire country needs as president next January.

(As for Edwards, he's basically running a campaign based on division -- a class war of us vs. them, regular people vs. the special interests, have-nots vs. haves -- and that is not only of limited appeal in an election but of limited use when it comes to governing the whole country. I like the guy, just as I greatly admire Clinton, but I don't think he's the one we need now.)

Which brings me to Barack, who is not just my candidate-by-elimination but my candidate of choice. He is not perfect on the campaign trail -- not always inspiring, warm, gracious, with the common touch, the mixture of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy that people want him to be. And he will not be a perfect president; I imagine there will be a pretty steep learning curve his first months in office as he tries to enact all his promises and runs into Washington gridlock. And will he be able to enact all those promises and get everything right? No.

But one of the things I like most about him is that he's not a political animal -- he's a public servant and an intellectual, two things we are in critical need of in the highest office in our land. He was a community organizer before he went to law school, and a law professor before he went into the Illinois State Senate. He writes many of his own speeches, and writes them well, which counts for a heck of a lot with me because good writing signifies so much else -- clear thinking, an orderly mind, passion. (Who wants to read a book of speeches -- or anything really -- written by George W. Bush?) He is becoming more of a political animal, sure, because you have to be to be a viable senator and Presidential candidate. But I have faith in those community and intellectual roots.

And I like his positions on the issues. People who say he's vague and inspecific must be referring to his statements during public appearances and not his actual policies, because everything is laid out in nuanced detail on his website. (And really, what good politician gets specific about policy during a public appearance? It puts everyone to sleep.) He has called Iraq "a dumb war" from the start and supports talking to everyone in the region, not giving Syria and Iran the silent treatment because they won't play nice. (I think 16 months may be too quick a withdrawal, actually, but getting out eventually is the important point.) He is strong on Social Security, health care, the environment, education. He doubtless resembles the other Democrats much more than he differs from them, but again, I have faith in his principles and ideas, and trust the details to be worked out later. And he is young, but I trust him to get good advice.

Finally, the man inspires. Go to an event. Listen to his speeches. Look at the record turnout in the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses -- a turnout caused partly by the spiritual desperation of the country and everyone's hope for change, but also by record numbers of youth voters, many of whom are voting for him. Republicans like him and he works well with them. At his best he is an orator in the tradition of King and Kennedy, and I believe he could have a similarly galvanizing effect on this country, in a way no other candidate, Democratic or Republican, will be able to achieve.

So that is why I will support Barack Obama in the New York primary on February 5, 2008, and then hopefully in the general election in November. End of lecture.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Cinematic New York City Sightings

Before I forget, two fun location notes: The climactic faceoff in Michael Clayton occurs in the cavernous second-floor lobby of the Hilton at 53rd and 6th Ave. -- aka the location for the SCBWI Midwinter conference. You can stand where George Clooney stood!

(Mmm, George Clooney. . .

What? Oh. Sorry.)

And in I Am Legend, one scene takes place on Mercer Street between Prince and Spring Streets, directly behind the Scholastic building -- you can actually see the Scholastic Store sign off to the right. It's good to know Clifford the Big Red Dog survives the viral apocalypse.

Both films are highly recommended, by the way, the first for standout performances and crackerjack writing and plot construction, the second for incredible special effects, cinematography, and suspense. (James and I spent the half-hour after I Am Legend discussing our emergency plan in case of a terrorist attack, however, so don't go see it for a light good time.)

Press Call

First, if you missed it, the link in "Raymond Carver" in my post below connects with a fascinating New Yorker article from a couple issues ago, all about the editorial relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, his editor throughout the 1970s. Lish helped Carver create the distinctive, elliptical style that first won him fame -- in fact, Lish may have actually created that style -- but by the 1980s, Carver was ready to try a different direction, and the article charts the tug and pull of that change.

Second, via Five Bucks, an absolute must-read Atlantic article by Andrew Sullivan about why Barack Obama is the candidate we need now:

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

Obama's Jefferson-Jackson speech was also amazing.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Wish for 2008


by Raymond Carver

So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.