Friday, February 29, 2008

Irish Cardamom Cake

Here is my new favorite cake recipe, a version of the Syrian Nutmeg Cake I found here. I have no idea why it’s called Syrian, so I figured I could call my version Irish simply because I first made it for a dinner party here in Galway (and for some reason it’s come out better here than at home). It’s very easy and it’s MMM-MMM GOOD! It got loads of compliments over the holidays.
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups flour
½ cup butter
1 egg
1 tsp. each of ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom (or any combo of cake spices you fancy; the more the merrier)
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. baking soda (a.k.a. “bread soda”)
½ cup finely chopped walnuts (food-processed is even better than the pre-chopped bags in the bakery aisle)
½ cup chocolate chips (optional)
crème fraîche for topping
Mix the sugar and flour, melt the butter and cut into the dry ingredients until finely crumbed. Lightly sprinkle half the mixture into a greased loaf pan, 9” square pan, or pie plate--DO NOT PAT! (This is very important if you don’t want your guests struggling to chew a rock of baked sugar. Even when sprinkled as lightly as possible, this graham cracker crust comes out a little bit harder than I would like.) Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top of the graham cracker mixture, and there will be a lovely layer of gooey chocolate between hard crust and moist cake.

Mix the baking soda and sour cream into the remaining mixture, then add beaten egg and spices. Pour over graham cracker crust and sprinkle walnuts on top. Bake at 350º F/175º C for 45 minutes to an hour.

Now here is the easy-on-the-teeth version (perfect for the grandparents), with no graham cracker crust or walnuts:
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups flour
½ cup butter
2 eggs
2 tsp. each of ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom
2 cups sour cream
2 tsp. baking soda
And follow above directions; cake will be much softer so the additional ingredients won’t necessitate a second baking pan.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tom's Midnight Garden

Philippa Pearce published this delightful award-winning English fantasy novel in 1958, and it is a must for any child’s bookshelf. It seems like the novel isn't nearly as well known in America.

Tom’s brother is stricken with the measles, so Tom must spend his summer holidays in a “poky old flat” with his childless aunt and uncle. The flat is a small part of what was once a grand house, but all that remains of its former stateliness is the grandfather clock in the front hall; out the back door are nothing but trash bins and concrete driveways. When the clock strikes thirteen on Tom’s first night there, he comes downstairs to investigate, and when he opens the back door he finds a glorious garden with plenty of opportunities for play (Tom is under quarantine, so his indoor daytime existence is stultifying). He forms a lasting bond of friendship with a girl he meets in the garden—the only one of the house and garden’s inhabitants who can see him. In rereading this novel I thought more than once of The Time Traveler’s Wife:
This was Hatty, exactly the Hatty he knew already, and yet quite a different Hatty, because she was—yes, that was it—a younger Hatty: a very young, forlorn little Hatty whose father and mother had only just died and whose home was, therefore, gone…

He never saw the little Hatty again. He saw the other, older Hatty, as usual, on his next visit to the garden. Neither then nor ever after did he tease her with questions about her parents. When, sometimes, Hatty remembered to stand upon her dignity and act again the old romance of her being a royal exile and prisoner, he did not contradict her.
Months and even years go by between Hatty’s seeing Tom in the garden, though he goes there and plays with her every night. And when he gets back to his room in his aunt and uncle’s flat after hours of playing in the garden with Hatty, the clock reads just a few minutes past midnight.

I first read Tom’s Midnight Garden when I was nine or ten years old, and because it was a school copy I couldn’t just pull it off the shelf years later when I was wondering about the title and author of that great children’s novel I’d read back in Challenge Literature (which was this special once-a-week class for kids with high scores on the standardized tests, or however else they measured our potential. There were four Challenge classes: Math, Literature, Art, and Music. It sounds nerdy, but the Challenge classes were my favorite part of elementary school.) Ailbhe recently mentioned Tom’s Midnight Garden over dinner, and I got really excited because I knew it was the same book I’d been searching for on the internet. I got an old library copy via Amazon Marketplace and I’ve enjoyed it as much as I did when I was nine. Even got a bit teary at the end.

Hooray for secondhand books! I like the idea of a book arriving with a history already. This paperback copy is stamped MERRICK LIBRARY, and it has that wonderful musty smell of old paper. On the back cover I see:
SEP 12 1981
JAN 27 1982
And at the bottom:
I wonder if the second person who took it out never returned it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I heart Angela Carter

I am rationing the oeuvre of the great Angela Carter. I always wind up closing her books, sometimes mid-paragraph, shaking my head and getting a little teary-eyed to think that there will be no more of her novels or short stories. Right now I'm reading another story collection of hers, Saints and Strangers (originally published as Black Venus in the UK), and this passage from "The Kitchen Child" is just too lovely not to share:
And, indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? Those vaults of soot-darkened stone far above me, where the hams and strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs dangle, looking somewhat like the regimental banners that unfurl above the aisles of old churches. The cool, echoing flags scrubbed spotless twice a day by votive persons on their knees. The scoured gleam of row upon row of metal vessels dangling from hooks or reposing on their shelves till needed with the air of so many chalices waiting for the celebration of the sacrament of food. And the range like an altar, yes, an altar, before which my mother bowed in perpetual homage, a fringe of sweat upon her upper lip and fire glowing in her cheeks.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A good time had by all

My dear friend Kelly B. performed with her improv troupe, No Laugh Track Required, at Caroline's Monday night. They were terrific. Caroline's is the biggest (and, ahem, the most prestigious) comedy club in New York.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why blog?

I've kept a very sporadic blog on MySpace over the last year and change, mostly just recording funny quotes from my friends and other random tidbits. I never really considered keeping a proper blog, mostly because it'd be so easy to slide into a routine of self-indulgent twaddle. It never occurred to me that keeping a blog would be a great way to spread the word about Mary Modern in cyberspace until one of the savvy marketing gals at Crown suggested it. So here we are.

I'm not going to talk all that much about the novel, though, except to discuss the practical aspects of writing and publishing. I'm figuring that once this blog officially launches there'll be more than a few aspiring novelists coming across it, so I'd like to post the most practical advice I can come up with. (For now, read this. Bookmark it. Print it out and put it over your desk. The first time I read it that poem totally lit a fire under my ass, which is just what you need when you're in that initial phase of talking about wanting to write, but you're not really doing any writing...yet.)

I like the idea of a miscellany. I'd love to be able to turn you on to cool but relatively obscure books; post photos (apart from what's already on my website) and reviews/essays of/on my favorite Irish accommodations, restaurants, and sights (and possibly even videos...we'll work on that); and for the more domestically inclined, we can share recipes and knitting patterns and suchlike.

I've only been knitting for a little over two years, but it seems I do as much knitting as writing these days. I really dig the idea of eschewing mass production as much as possible, and one's wardrobe seems like the most natural place to start. Yes, I might drop $60 on yarn for a single sweater. But I can make it to my exact taste, and more importantly I'll never have to wonder if it was made in a sweatshop (the yarn definitely isn't). And if it falls apart, I know who to blame! It's such a terrific hobby, relaxing and productive at the same time, and I'm lucky to have a family who appreciates handmade gifts. And I enjoy checking out other people's knitting blogs--it's the best way to find cool new patterns, technical tips, and general inspiration. So on occasion I'll try to provide a bit of the same.

I also want to keep posting humorous bits of dialogue. My friend Kelly B. used to keep a blog in which she sometimes posted such funny exchanges, and I've invited her to come back and blog here whenever she likes. Kelly is a naturally funny girl. Her improv group, No Laugh Track Required, is performing on Monday, February 11 at Caroline's--only the biggest comedy club in all of New York!

Basically, if we think anybody might find it in any way useful or amusing, we're going to post it here.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Boyfriend Sweater

I spent the first half of 2006 driving around Ireland doing research for my guidebook, and as you can imagine I met loads of characters almost every place I went. In Leenane I met Tom, an American artist in his sixties, who was at that time working as a handyman at Sleepzone Connemara. Tom had a serious case of wanderlust—and by “wanderlust,” I don’t just mean location-wise. He told me several stories about the women he’d loved and left, and I was struck by one story in particular. One of his girlfriends had knit him a sweater, and he continued to wear and treasure it long after he’d moved on. Eventually the sweater started to unravel, and he decided to send it back to her with a note asking her to fix it.

Needless to say, he didn’t get the sweater back.

I don’t know if I was more appalled or amused by the size of Tom’s cojones, but his story got me thinking about the etiquette involved when one knits a gift for a significant other. The rule of thumb seems to be that the recipient should return the item if the relationship ends, but I suppose it depends on how amicable the break-up is. And is the garment a general symbol of your affection, or does it symbolize your feelings at the time you were making it?

I see why you’d ask for it back (and I seem to recall Tom saying his ex-girlfriend had wanted him to return the sweater, but he liked it too much to give it up), but it feels a little like giving with strings attached--so I think I'd rather not make the sweater at all than give it with any sort of stipulation. Feel free to disagree with me here.

Post #3 weeeeeeeeeeeeee!

I do sometimes worry about offending people though. The character I am channeling right now is bawdy and outspoken, and behaves in ways I would absolutely never. I make a brief foray into the so-called decadence of 1920s Berlin, and so my character refers to “sipping pink champagne with kohl-eyed nancies.” Politically incorrect epithet aside, my stepsister’s name is Nancy. Will she be offended?, I wondered as I wrote that line. I have a line about a town called Harveysville and how it sounds like “a hamletful of inbreds.” There may be dozens of Harveysvilles across the country. If any of their inhabitants pick up this novel, will they be offended? I think about things like this as I write—along with the inescapable squirminess of making sexual references knowing my grandparents are someday going to read it—but in the end I know I have to ignore these worries or the story’s integrity will suffer. That might sound a little pretentious, but what’s the point in writing this character’s story if I’m going to censor it? The new novel is written in the first person, and when a story is written in the first person you’ll inevitably have some readers who think your beliefs are synonymous with your character’s. Heck, they’ll think so even if you write in the third person.

While we’re on the subject of offending people, I might as well note that it seems I have offended a few Republicans who didn’t like the fact that one of the main characters in Mary Modern is a scientist who is vehemently anti-Bush. (She’s from a clan of Massachusetts Catholics, so it’s no real shocker, is it?) My editor and I did discuss toning down the liberal rhetoric in the novel, but ultimately I decided to follow my own character’s advice: “Life is too short for subtlety.” I noticed a review on Amazon that said this lack of subtlety “took the shine off a bit” from an otherwise fine novel, and that criticism is perfectly valid. But when people say my novel is “bad” just because they don’t agree with my characters’ political beliefs, well…that seems rather ignorant.

So I’m not going to worry about offending people—or at least I’ll try not to!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The “Amy Tan Vow of Silence”

When my friend Kate T. and I were in college and just beginning to write, we told ourselves we would subscribe to the “Amy Tan Vow of Silence”—Kate had come across an interview in which Ms. Tan stated she never discussed anything she was working on until it was finished.

When one is just starting to write seriously, I think this attitude is crucial. It is not the time to be getting advice from your friends or family whether you’ve asked for it or not, and it’s not the time to be hearing people say “I don’t know, that sounds kind of silly. Why don’t you write about X instead?” The only opinions you should be paying any attention to are those of your characters.

At some point you will meet a kindred spirit, hopefully more than one, whom you can trust to be both encouraging and tactfully and constructively critical. I found that I could unzip my lips once I’d met a few people who fell into that category in my M.A. program. My friend Ailbhe’s comments and questions about the plot of Mary Modern proved really useful, and her enthusiasm got me even more excited about what I was working on. And of course, if I hadn’t initially run the premise by Kelly I might never have written it in the first place (I was afraid it might be too weird or ridiculous to develop any further, but she told me to go for it). It was the same deal this time around: I had an idea I was excited about, but I also had a few reservations, but when I told Ailbhe about it she encouraged me to put aside my hang-ups and get on with writing it.

But in the very beginning I think it’s better to button your lip. Until the thing has taken a definite shape in your head and you’ve gotten a good chunk of pages down, and until you’ve found a true-blue writing partner, I think a vow of silence is the way to go. Tactfully decline to respond to any questions you just don’t feel like answering, and don’t worry about offending people.

At this point, I have no qualms about telling my close friends what I’m working on, but it’s when people I meet in passing ask me about the plot of my new novel, what it’s called, and how I’m categorizing it, that I tend to freeze up. All I tell them is that it’s literary fiction-slash-fantasy, like Mary Modern without the faux-science. I don’t even tell people what it’s called. For some reason I’d rather wait until I know when it’s going to be published to circulate the title. Another consideration is that if I haven’t yet told my mother, my agent, or my editor what it’s called, I’m sure as heck not going to tell someone I barely know. Having said this, I’m certainly happy when people care enough to ask.