The End of the Affair . . .

theheistnew-149x237For the last year, I have been hopelessly in love with Gabriel Allon.

Who is Gabriel Allon? Plainly put, he is an assassin. He is also an art restorer and Israeli spy. He can be found walking the streets of Venice in his jeans and leather jacket, with piercing green eyes and dark hair slightly graying at the temples, on his way to work on a badly damaged Caravaggio. Or stalking criminals in Marseilles, or Jihadists in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, or Hamas fighters in the back alleys of Jerusalem. He is the creation of Daniel Silva, who has written sixteen novels about the exploits of Allon.

I am always talking about Allon as if he really exists. In fact, I think The Philosopher is tired of hearing about him. I suppose The Philosopher would like to take me one date in which he doesn’t have to hear about Allon’s latest exploit.

book-confessor-lg-149x237 I normally don’t read thrillers, and I hadn’t read a thriller from beginning to end before reading the works of Daniel Silva. I tried to read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but found myself skimming most of it, and then skipping to the final chapter. It just didn’t capture my imagination. My genre is women’s fiction, interrupted by the occasional traditional romance novel. But I heard Silva interviewed on the radio, was looking for something interesting to read, and decided to give The English Girl a try. Silva’s writing is just so good, and he draws you into his world of spies and assassins so that you begin to believe that The Office, the headquarters of the Israel Intelligence Service on the fictional King Saul Boulevard, really exists. After The English Girl, I returned to the earlier Gabriel Allon novels, following his story from the early days of Black September, when he is recruited by Israeli intelligence to assassinate the terrorists responsible for murdering the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. My favorites so far are The Confessor and The Rembrandt Affair.book-rembrandt-affair-lg-149x237

Silva’s latest, The Heist, came out on July 14th. I was one of the loyal readers who downloaded it on my Kindle at the stroke of midnight. The next day, I noticed several readers had beat me to it. There were already four Amazon reviews. Those folks must have read into the wee hours of the morning.

The Heist is about Syria’s ruling family, and Allon’s attempt to take down Assad (whose actual name is never mentioned) and the billions he has stolen from his own people and stashed in Swiss banks and off-shore accounts. Oddly enough, in the middle of my reading of The Heist, real-word conflicts began to heat up. Hamas began pummeling Israel with rockets, and my Facebook friends began arguing bitterly against one side or the other. Then ISIS began its march north through Iraq, destroying Christian villages and beheading children. The headlines flashing across my computer screen each morning bore an eerie resemblance to Silva’s plot. It takes a good year after a book is written for it to go to print, leaving me wondering what crystal ball Silva had sitting on his desk as he wrote the novel. While the occasional violence depicted in Silva’s novels is not overly graphic, the brutality of the Assad regime, coupled with the daily barrage of news stories, left me feeling depressed and hopeless, and questioning the future of the world we are leaving our children.

Like all affairs, this one must come to an end. I am taking a break from Gabriel Allon. After all, he really isn’t available. His beautiful Italian wife, Chiara, is pregnant with twins, and the four of them probably need to be left alone—at least until the next installment in their history is published in about a year.

JenniferJakes_RafesRedemption_200pxAs an antidote to fiction that is too real, I have downloaded Jennifer Jake’s Rafe’s Redemption. I’ve read it before, and it is always great fun. As part of the Hot Damn Designs team, Jennifer did the interior formatting for both the paperback and Kindle versions of my novel The Year After. Her partner Kim Killion created the wonderful cover. In addition to their design work, both Jennifer Jakes and Kim Killion are best-selling romance authors, and I can always count on them for a good yarn.

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Adrianne Noel

 

The Year After: Summer Promotions!

AdrianneNoel_TheYearAfter200The Year After launched on Amazon, in both paperback and Kindle edition, on April 18th.  In the last month, a lot of folks have asked: “So how is it going?” “How are sales?” “What feedback are you getting?”

I’ve had a lot of readers say they enjoyed the book, and I’m excited that two book clubs will be reading the novel as their July/August selection. The trick is getting the word out beyond family, friends, and friends of friends. The market is saturated with fiction, especially with more and more authors choosing to self-publish. Many readers are hesitant to try their luck with a new author. But I am slowly getting the word out, and I am doing several promotions this summer:

Goodreads: I have a Goodreads giveaway going on through the end of July. Enter your name to win one of three signed paperback copies. (And remember, if you read the book and love it, consider writing a short review. Reviews help point new readers to books they may like).

goodreads-badge-add-plus-7d89c09d2df9777b38fbd808bb3ffb1a

 

 

Kindle Sale: From July 22-29, the novel will be available for $1.99 on Kindle only (the regular price is $4.99). Also, the novel is always available in the Kindle lending library, for those who use that service.

Indie Author Land: Indie Author Land is a site dedicated to promoting self-published authors. I have submitted my author interview to the site and will let everyone know when it is up.

Indie Author Land

Book Party! Colorado Springs and Denver: I plan to hold two book parties/signings later this summer—one in Colorado Springs, and another in Denver area. I will announce these in plenty of time. So stay tuned .. .

Have a wonderful summer, and Happy Reading!

Adrianne Noel

The Year After: Now Available in Paperback and Kindle Edition!

AdrianneNoel_TheYearAfter200I am pleased to announce that The Year After is now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle edition. The novel is a small-town family drama with heavy doses of romance and comedy. Although the book is categorized as women’s fiction, it will also appeal to lovers of romance and chick-lit. I will be blogging about the inspiration behind the story, the book’s launch, and my next project. But for now, here is a synopsis:

After her overbearing mother’s sudden death, young English professor Maddie finds her world turned upside down when she leaves New York City for her family’s home in the Colorado mountains. She plans to stay only a few weeks, but, then again, she never expects to find her father posting his profile on singles websites or her sister planning a wedding worthy of a bridal magazine.

When a childhood friend shows up to her boozy thirtieth birthday party and looks at her in a way he never did in high school, Maddie jumps at the chance for a love of her own. But when her new boyfriend turns into a rogue worthy of a Victorian novel, Maddie finds consolation in her friendship with the maverick sculptor Jackson. She determines not to fall for him, even though her eccentric aunts remind her that she’s the only one not getting married.

As Maddie adopts the unlikely role of maid-of-honor to both her sister and soon-to-be stepmother, she discovers that she still lives under her mother’s shadow. Only by confronting the past and her mother’s memory can she embrace love and the family she’s always wanted.

The novel is now listed on Goodreads and Shelfari. If you read the book and enjoy it, please consider posting a short review on either Amazon or Goodreads. This will help other potential readers decide if the story will interest them.

And stay tuned for more information about the book, and my current work-in-progress . . .

Ode to Summer: Blueberries

photo (5)Summer has arrived—finally!

I know summer is here when boxes overflowing with soft apricots, smooth nectarines, plump plums, fuzzy peaches, and bright red strawberries line the grocery store shelves.

Last week, The Philosopher brought home several pints of fresh blueberries. I can remember buying five-pound boxes of blueberries from Michigan during our stint in Indiana. Those were spectacular. After filling the freezer with quart-sized bags, we would enjoy them year-round. Blueberry pie, blueberry pancakes, and blueberries on the morning oatmeal. The blueberries we get in Colorado come from California, but this latest batch was just as colorful and sweet.

So I had a sudden hankering for blueberry muffins.

I’ve been reading about arsenic levels in rice, especially brown rice, which is bad news for those of us with a gluten sensitivity. Most gluten-free baked goods and flour mixes are made from primarily rice flours. I wanted to make my muffins with something other than rice flour, so I settled on Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Flour, which you can find in many run-of-the-mill grocery stores (not just Whole Foods or specialty markets). I don’t normally like baked goods made from bean flours, and this particular flour mix combines garbanzo bean, fava bean, and sorghum flours. But by mixing in a little millet four, I mitigated the bean taste. The muffins turned out light and fluffy.

Gluten-Free Blueberry Muffins

1 ¼ cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Flour           photo (6)
½ cup millet flour
2 tsp baking power
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
¾ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup melted butter
¼ cup chopped walnuts
1 cup fresh blueberries

1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees.

2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a second, medium-sized bowl, combine the egg, milk, and vanilla and mix well.

3. Fold the wet ingredients and melted butter into the dry mixture, alternating between the milk mixture and the butter. Do not over-mix. Add the walnuts and blueberries and stir gently.

4. Divide the batter between 12 prepared muffins cups (I recommend using those colorful paper liners so the berries don’t stick).

5. Bake for 20 minutes at 400-degrees.

6. Cool in muffin cups on wire rack for 5 minutes before removing. Serve warm with butter.

You’ll want to eat these within a day or two and store left-overs in the fridge.

The Cure-All: Cream Cheese Brownies — About writing and rejection

A big rejection came via e-mail this morning.                                     047

Last April, I pitched my first manuscript, The Year After (re-named from Shadows at Moose Run), to several agents and editors at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It was the second year I was pitching the novel, and I felt better prepared for the scene. I had spent the previous year revising the manuscript, composing two synopses (a long and short version), writing query letters, and refining my logline and pitch. All of that work, in addition to my obsession with detail, seemed to pay off. I had two requests for a “partial” (this means that the editor/agent wants to see fifty pages of the manuscript and a synopsis), and one request for a “full” (the editor/agent wants to see the complete manuscript).

I was particularly excited about the editor who requested a “full.” I had originally dismissed her house because it publishes primarily in e-book format and limits the number of print copies produced. But I gradually came around to the idea after reviewing the market and observing the success of another local author who publishes exclusively in an e-format. I also liked the editor as a person. We shared a table at the conference banquet and she took a genuine interest in my work. After spending the summer revising the full manuscript (yet again!), I compiled the requested materials and clicked “send.”

Her rejection was short but kind: she receives many promising projects, but not all of them are the “right fit” for her company. A rejection may simply mean that her house recently signed a similar project, or that she has decided to move her product line in a different direction.

In the past year, I have worried that my stories are not edgy enough for the current market. I don’t write about dystopias, post-apocalyptic America, vampires, futuristic societies, or paranormal romance. I also don’t write genre romance. The Year After is an old-fashioned family drama about a woman coming-of-age at thirty—with a good dose of sex and comedy mixed in (think The Family Stone). I write within a genre loosely defined as “women’s fiction,” “commercial women’s fiction,” “upmarket women’s fiction,” and “book club fiction.” Based on the success of authors like Kristin Hannah (Firefly Lane), Karen White (Sea Change), Tatiana de Rosnay (Sarah’s Key), Sue Monk Kidd (The Mermaid Chair), and Kathryn Stockett (The Help), I’d like to think that the genre of general women’s fiction is not set to die out any time soon.

Yet there are a few things I must remember—and they are points I wish I could explain to everyone who asks, “So, are you published yet?”

  1. Writing/publishing is a hard business. Agents and editors receive hundreds of manuscripts a week from aspiring writers. Competition is fierce and publishing houses are subject to the demands of the market.
  2. The process of writing and publishing a book takes time—a long time. I spent five years writing The Year After. It took one publishing house three months to review my submission. Even after a manuscript is accepted, it can take over a year for a book to go to print.
  3. Writing is a life-long vocation. Some writers write for ten years and produce several manuscripts before one is accepted for publication. I tell myself: Just keep writing. There is only one thing to do when you fall off the horse: get back on again.
  4. Self-publishing is always an option—although I’m not there yet.

In the meantime, chocolate is the perfect cure-all for rejections, disappointments, or even just the bad day blahs. The following is the Philosopher’s recipe. Several times a year, he will announce that he is heading “up north.” This means he is taking the interstate a few exits to the natural food market and will arrive home with the tell-tale ingredients: brownie mix, cream cheese, chocolate chips, and butter—lots of butter. Usually the brownies are his way of atoning for the end-of-semester grumpies. When we were dating, he would make brownies when I came to his place for dinner on Wednesday nights. After I adopted a gluten-free diet, he changed the recipe to suit my needs.

You will notice that this recipe uses a box mix.  The Arrowhead Mills products are of high quality and can be found in most grocery stores (try the organic section) and in specialty markets such as Sprouts or Whole Foods. I like to take advantage of commercially available gluten-free flour mixes (other brands include Bob’s Red Mill, Pamela’s, and Glutino), as it takes some skill to find the right combination of gluten-free grains and xantham gum. For those wishing to make brownies from scratch using a gluten-free flour or combination of flours, I would recommend consulting the blog of Shauna Ahern, The Gluten-Free Girl.

Gluten-Free Cream Cheese Brownies

1 box Arrowhead Mills Gluten-Free Brownie Mix     044

1 stick butter

4 oz. cream cheese

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk (try almond milk!)

12 oz. chocolate chips (semi-sweet or bittersweet)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8×8 inch pan. Cream butter and cream cheese together in bowl.  Blend in eggs. Stir in brownie mix and milk.  Stir until well blended.  Fold in chocolate chips.  Pour into prepared pan.  Bake 30-40 minutes.

Recommendation: these are very rich, so cut into small squares, eat some, freeze some, and give the rest away as post-Christmas thank-you gifts.

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Hunger Games Fever

Everyone’s talking about The Hunger Games

I admit, I read Suzanne Collin’s bestselling novel with some reluctance.  First of all, I rarely read young adult fiction.  I prefer stories that deal with adult problems and feature decidedly adult protagonists.  Second, contemporary YA fiction trends towards edgy themes and a strong narrative voice—neither of which I like.  For today’s teens, those “edgy” themes include everything from eating disorders and destructive, addictive behaviors like cutting or choking games, to problematic sexual encounters, teen pregnancy, abortion, abuse, and parental divorce.  By strong voice, I mean the kind of sarcastic, bad-talking, too-wise-for-their-years teen personalities that started appearing in TV shows like Dawson’s Creek in the 90s and continued in the past decade in popular movies like Juno.  In addition, The Hunger Games is written entirely in the present tense.  When I open a book, read the first page, and realize the author has written in the present tense, I usually put it right back on the shelf.  Present-tense narration is a nice trick that draws a reader into the action, but as a reader, I often feel manipulated and bored.  The limits of tense can prevent a narrator from developing aspects of the story in a more subtle way.

 So why did I decide to read The Hunger Games?  The movie trailer.  Yes, there was something about the heroine Katniss Everdeen (played by a gorgeous, athletic Jennifer Lawrence) darting through the woods, bow and arrow in hand, that caught my interest.  Here was no pale, pining Bella of Twilight fame.  Here was a different kind of heroine.

I found the book under the tree on Christmas morning (thanks to the ESM—Evil Step-Mother), and I began reading it on the eve before good friends were set to arrive from the corn fields of Indiana for the New Year.  I had one night to take down the Christmas tree, clean the house, make up the guest bed, and cook a few casseroles in advance—but there I was, standing in the middle of the kitchen, devouring The Hunger Games while the chili boiled over on the stove and the house remained in an inhabitable state of clutter.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the Philosopher might want to read the book.  Certainly most of his students would have read it, or seen the movie, and he is always looking for examples from popular culture to lighten up the dry topics of critical thinking and logic.  Moreover, I argued, articles about the book continue to pop up in print and electronic media, as devotees of different political, social, and religious agendas have adopted it as a morality tale illustrating their particular ideologies.  In an article in Forbes Magazine, John Tammy argues from the libertarian/conservative position:  the ruthless Capitol overseeing the brutal hunger games represents the evils of big government.  Bob Burnett’s blog on the left-leaning Huffington Post asserts that Katniss and her fellow sufferers of District 12 represent the beleaguered 99%.  Even the Christian Evangelicals have weighed in, with Amy Simpson’s article in Christianity Today, titled “Jesus in The Hunger Games,” which sees a sacrificial Christ figure in the character of Peeta.  My favorite analysis of the book, and by far the most practical for someone involved in education, is posted by Robert Crosby on the religion blog Patheos and examines why the book appeals so much to the millennial generation.

The Philosopher asked for my copy of the book a few nights before Spring Break—probably not because he really wanted to read it, but because he was suffering from mid-semester burn-out, needed a break, and nothing looked appealing on Netflix.  While I went to bed early, he headed up to his study to read for a while.  When I woke at 2:30 a.m., he had not yet come to bed, and the light was still on upstairs.  The following morning, he went into the bathroom and stayed for a very long time (what is it about men and serious reading in the bathroom?).  At different points over the next three days, I found him sneaking a read when he would normally be grading papers, or doing research.  Once, he looked up misty eyed, cleared his throat, and headed upstairs before I could see he was upset.  I glanced at the page where he had left the bookmark.  Rue had just met her demise.  The Philosopher finished the book moments before we left on a date to see the movie.      

It turns out that the book was useful in helping him relate difficult concepts to his students.  Evidently the following exchange took place as he attempted to explain something called “conditional compound statements”:

Philosopher:  We can illustrate conditional compound statements in this way:  Suppose that for any two statements, ‘p’ and ‘q’, in which ‘p’ is the antecedent and ‘q’ is the consequent in a conditional compound statement. The truth conditions for the conditional statement, “If p then q” does not depend upon the truth of the antecedent p for compound statement to be true. The statement:  “If p then q” can be true even if p is false. So if p is “it rained last night” and q is “the streets are wet,” and the compound conditional statement, is “if it rained last night then the streets are wet,” is true, even if it didn’t rain last night, but there was instead a broken main that flooded the streets.

 Student:  Huh?  [Student looks confused and distressed]. 

Philosopher:  Let’s take another example:  Suppose ‘p’ is “Katniss’s number is called,” and ‘q’ is “Katniss is going to the Hunger Games.” Then the statement:  if “p then q” has the value of true, even though Katniss’s number was not called. After all, her sister’s name was called, but Katniss volunteered.

Student:  Oh! I get it now!

 If you didn’t understand that exchange, don’t worry.  I’m not sure I did either.

We have ordered the next two books in Collins’s trilogy:  Catching Fire and Mockingjay

If only Amazon delivered faster.  No Kindles around here.  We like the feel of real paper, the sturdy and colorfully drawn hardcovers, and the sound and smell of cracking that binding open for the first time. 

So what makes a book hard to put down?  What magic ingredients come together to make a bestseller that captures the imaginations of millions of readers, young and old alike?  Is it twists and turns of plot?  A specific type of character?  A setting, mood, or tone?  Shock value? 

I’d love to know.

Cold Weather Fare: White Bean Chicken Chili

The snow has arrived! 

We haven’t had much of a winter in southern Colorado.  But on the same day the groundhog tells us to expect another six weeks of winter, the weatherman forecasts six inches of snow in town and blizzard conditions over Monument Pass and on the Eastern Plains.  (BTW:  Doesn’t the groundhog always predict an extra six weeks of winter?). 

Since noon, thick clouds have hovered over Pikes Peak and the temperature has plummeted.  Looking out the window is like gazing into a giant snowglobe, as fluffy, white flakes swirl in slow motion on the other side of the glass.

It’s time for a pot of soup—something fast and simple, yet hearty and with a bit of spice.  This is one of The Philosopher’s favorites.  Fresh chilies add body and kick to a basic recipe. 

 White Bean Chicken Chili

  •  ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 large Anaheim chilies, seeded and minced (or 2 4-oz cans diced green chilies)*
  • 2 T ground cumin
  • 1 T chili powder
  • ¼ t cayenne pepper
  • 4 15-oz cans white beans (Great Northern Beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, poached and diced (approx. two half-breasts)**
  • Optional toppings:  shredded cheddar cheese, chopped green onions, sour cream, diced tomatoes, tortilla strips

Directions:

  1. In a Dutch oven or soup pot, sauté onions and fresh chilies until soft.  Add garlic and sauté for an additional 2-3 minutes.  (If using canned chilies, add after the garlic).
  2. Stir in the cumin, chili powder, and cayenne until onion mixture is coated and fragrant.
  3. Add beans, broth, and chicken.
  4. Bring to a light boil, then reduce heat immediately.  Simmer on low for 30-45 minutes until flavors are blended.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve with a selection of toppings, a green salad, and gluten-free bread or crackers.

*Be sure to wear gloves when handling fresh chilies and be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.  If you forget the gloves and end up with burning hands, try soaking them in a bowl of apple cider vinegar.

**To save time, buy a rotisserie chicken and shred the meat as you pick it right off the bone.  Check ingredients carefully, though, as some rotisserie chickens are marinated in a broth that may not be gluten-free.

Holiday Salad with Greens, Cranberries, Feta, and Walnuts

Last week I unpacked my grandmother’s nativity set and assembled the scene of Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, and sundry animals on a shelf in the living room.  As I scattered straw through the stable and watched the cats chase each other around the trunk of the Christmas tree, I enjoyed a glass of Chianti—the Carlo Rossi kind out of the large, screw-top jug.  My grandmother loved her Chianti, and when it turns five o’clock in Heaven, I know she is sitting up there, glass in hand, enjoying the slightly dry vintage along with a plate of kielbasa or sauerkraut pierogi.

 This week last year I drove to Denver to spend the day with my Grandmother Lillian.  I hadn’t seen her in over a month, and I was looking forward to our usual outing:  meatballs and salad at a nearby Italian restaurant (washed down with glasses of Chianti, of course), followed by a shopping trip to Kohls.  My uncle had phoned a day earlier to tell me he received a message from a security guard at her retirement community.  On the way to Mass, she had rammed her car over a curb and into street sign.  She seemed confused and in poor health.  I promised to check up on her.

When she answered my knock, I caught my breath and braced myself against a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I had always described my grandmother as an older, more sophisticated version of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.  She often paired a black turtleneck with black wool pants and ballet-style loafers, which accentuated a blond bob and carefully applied lipstick.  But on that day, a large bruise covered her face where her head had hit the steering wheel.  She hadn’t changed her clothes or done her hair in several days.  From the state of her apartment, I could tell she hadn’t been eating or drinking either.  That day began a stressful, two-month journey to the end, a journey that included various hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. 

When it became clear that Grandma Lil would never leave the nursing facility, my uncle spent Christmas Day going through her things, packing most of them up for donation.  My sister and I stopped by to take those items special to us—a box photographs from the 30s and 40s, a rosary made of glass beads, a fur coat, paintings of flower and birds, and a candy dish remembered from childhood holidays.  The frustration of sorting through packed closets and cupboards competed with a deep sadness over a beautiful life coming to a close—a life represented by so many material possessions that evoked treasured memories.  I struggled with the guilty knowledge that my grandmother didn’t know what we were doing with her beloved apartment.  Until the end, she remained convinced that she would eventually return home.

As we emptied the apartment, I searched every closet and cupboard for the one thing I really wanted—my grandmother’s nativity set.  After the last piece of furniture had been hauled away, my uncle phoned to say he had found it—one of the last boxes in a storage room in the basement. 

My grandmother passed away on March 6th of this year.  We will miss her as we sit around the table on Christmas afternoon, aware of her absence.  The daughter of Polish immigrants, she possessed an elegance, generosity, and innate sense of hospitality that led her to share whatever she had with those around her.  To her, that was the American dream:  she acquired beautiful things in order to share them with others, and she expressed love through an abundance of food.  I will always remember her breaking into a giggle, her eyes lighting up with delight, as her grandchildren arrived at the old farmhouse for a holiday.  Sometimes I can still hear the faint echo of that laugh.

Unlike my grandmother, I don’t like Christmas.  There, I said it. 

I want to like Christmas.  I want to bask in the glittering decorations and lights, in the sound of bells and carols.  I want to enjoy the delicious treats made only at Christmastime and the decadence of shop-till-you-drop.  I want to relax with family and friends in front of the fireplace, mug of hot cocoa in hand, while large snowflakes fall outside. 

Instead, around the middle of December, I descend into a frenzy of decorating, cleaning, baking, shopping, and wrapping.  As I run around trying to get everything done on time, I find roads jammed with people heading for the shops, no parking spaces at the mall, and the pre-set holiday budget going out the window.  There are Christmas parties and concerts that must fit somewhere between writing Christmas cards and vacuuming up the pine needles that fall to the floor whenever the cats scale the tree.  Since both my parents and in-laws live only an hour away, the Philosopher and I find ourselves negotiating the demands and expectations of both families.  Mid-December also marks the end of the fall semester for both of us, which means grading stacks of exams and papers and submitting volumes of paperwork to the university.  Add to this our anniversary, the annual visit of close friends over New Year’s and The Philosopher’s birthday, all of which take place before January 7th, and you have a recipe for high-stress and possible financial disaster.

 The ancient Celts believed in “thin places.”  These are sites where the divide between this world and the next is “thin,” where a person feels more strongly the presence of God, or a mystical connection to those saints who have gone before.  One example is the town of Kildare, Ireland, the site where Saint Brigid, a contemporary of St. Patrick, built a religious community and where the thirteenth-century Kildare Cathedral now stands.  Legends of Saint Brigid have blended with those of an earlier Brigid, a holy woman of pre-Christian times, and today pilgrims visit St. Brigid’s Holy Well for contemplation and healing. 

But I have always thought that there are also “thin times,” those times of year when we feel a closer connection to those we have lost, when something inside of us longs for reflection, for things beyond the present, for mysterious things we cannot see.  I believe Christmas is one such “thin time,” which our ancestors intuited as they chose to establish the celebration of Christ’s birth at the time of the Winter Solstice. 

Sometimes I think that the endless shopping, spending, decorating, eating, and rushing around is our way of dealing with a “thin time,” of blocking it out, of refusing to let it touch us on a deep, even dark level.  Each year I find myself bristling at the frenzy, longing to sink into the thin time by distancing myself from the people and noise surrounding the season.  The Philosopher tells me this is unduly pessimistic.  He prefers to see the communal celebration of Christ’s birth as our way of bringing joy to the darkest time of the year.  It is letting the light of Christ into the dark spaces of our lives. 

Each year I attempt to simplify Christmas.  Since going gluten-free and discovering my low tolerance for sugar, I have stopped baking for the holidays.  Although I am learning to work with gluten-free flours, I don’t always succeed in my efforts, and I find I can do without tins of Christmas cookies and fudge.  These days, I opt to bring a salad to potlucks and holiday parties.  As many buffet tables are piled high gluten-filled sweets and casseroles, hostesses and guests appreciate a fresh, elegant salad. 

 This year, my favorite salad includes baby field greens, dried cranberries, crumbled feta, and walnuts.  The salad looks pretty and festive, and it gets me out of the rut of thinking of salad as merely romaine and tomatoes.  With the dried cranberries and a dressing made of honey and balsamic vinegar, this salad is just sweet enough that you might not find yourself tempted by those trays of Christmas cookies.  Better yet, the salad takes a grand total of five minutes to assemble, including the dressing.  If you are still devising your menu for Christmas day, this salad makes a lovely first course.

As I admire my grandmother’s nativity set on the shelf, I am trying to adopt The Philosopher’s view of the “thin time.”  It helps to have a glass of Chianti nearby. 

Holiday Salad with Greens, Cranberries, Feta, and Walnuts

 

  • Assorted organic baby field greens (12 oz, or 2/3 of a 16-oz tub)
  • 1 5-oz package dried cranberries
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 5-oz container feta cheese crumbles

 Dressing:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3T balsamic vinegar
  • 1T honey
  • Dash of garlic salt
  • Black pepper to taste.

Assemble salad ingredients in a large bowl.  Blend together dressing ingredients.  Pour dressing slowly onto salad, mixing frequently, just until salad greens are lightly coated. 

If you are bringing the salad to a party, take the dressing in a separate container and apply it when you arrive to avoid soggy greens.

Variation:  Add strips of grilled chicken breast to turn this salad into a light lunch or supper.

Heroines Who Eat

            

          . . . With the cake’s long-awaited appearance, I endured another unfortunate rendition of “Happy Birthday”—not sung, but howled by a party that had consumed too much Chianti and moved on to cheap cognac.  My reward was four layers of fluffy chocolate cake, held together by tangy raspberry jam and covered with smooth buttercream.     (Shadows at Moose’s Run, Chapter Four)

*  *  * 

          Half-way through my container of General Tso’s chicken, I looked up to find him watching me.

          I put down my chopsticks.  “What?”

          “Nothing.  I’m just enjoying watching you eat.”  He held my gaze as the corners of his mouth turned up in a languid grin.  “And thinking what I’d like to do to you.”             (Shadows at Moose’s Run, Chapter Twenty-Five) 

*  *  *   

As I complete the final revisions to my novel Shadows at Moose’s Run, I am realizing how much my heroine eats. 

Before returning to her childhood home in the Colorado mountains, Maddie spends her final night in New York gorging on platters of lasagna with her best friends.  On her thirtieth birthday, her father presents her with a luscious chocolate cake.  She attempts (unsuccessfully) to win the heart of a childhood friend with her chicken cacciatore, and she devours an entire package of Oreos after breaking up with a new love.  All of this on top of plates of pierogi made by her Polish grandmother—a cure-all for the brokenhearted.  Oh—and Maddie also drinks wine.  Lots of wine.  And because I write fiction, Maddie never counts a calorie, or steps on a scale, or refuses that last slice of pizza.          

Lately I have stumbled across several novels within the genres of women’s fiction and chick-lit that depict heroines obsessing about their weight and their relationship with food.  Will Anna lose enough weight to fit into that little black dress, the one with which she hopes to seduce a positively devilish hero?  Will Lucy realize that the town heartthrob really does love her, despite her full figure?  And then there is the iconic Bridget Jones, who records her daily consumption of vices such as wine and “ciggies” in her diary.  I understand an author’s wish to tap into the real-life issues that concern female readers, but a heroine’s waistline just doesn’t interest me.  While I enjoy fiction that tackles difficult issues, there are some things I want a novel to transcend, and a heroine’s calorie count is one of them.

 I like novels in which food becomes central to the plot, not as a point of conflict for the protagonist or something she must overcome, but as a metaphor for other things:  the creation of self, burgeoning sexuality, falling in love, breaking from societal expectations, and emotional or professional development.  There are so many novels that do this successfully, but two come to mind: 

Laura Esquivel sets her quirky novel Like Water for Chocolate (1989) in rural Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century.  As the youngest daughter, Tita is expected to remain single and spend her life caring for her aging mother.  When Tita falls in love with Pedro and her mother insists that the unlucky suitor marry Tita’s sister, Tita takes her revenge—in the kitchen.  Each chapter of this lovely novel begins with a recipe, as cooking becomes Tita’s link to tradition, as well as her salvation.

In Sarah Strohmeyer’s Sweet Love (2009), forty-something, single mom Julie signs up for a course in desserts, offered by a renowned French chef at a local cooking school.  She never expects to meet fellow student Michael, who happens to be the first love she rejected years earlier, now freshly divorced.  Over sugar, chocolate, and mishaps in the kitchen, Julie and Michael deal with the misunderstanding that tore them apart years earlier.

And now . . . thinking of food, and heroines who eat . . . a recipe.

This week, I gave in to the craving for TexMex and made a crock pot full of shredded beef, which I used for tostadas.  The dish is healthy and relatively inexpensive to make, yet caloric enough even for my heroine Maddie. 

I must give credit to my friend and artist extraordinaire Elizabeth Diaz, who thought up a basic recipe for pulled pork.  After experimenting with a variety of ingredients, I settled on the final recipe below.  Since The Philosopher doesn’t eat pork, I normally use beef instead, which seems to work just as well. 

 

Pulled Pork Tostadas

  • 3 lb pork tenderloin (2 pieces, 1 average grocery store package) (or beef chuck roast)
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1T jalapeno pepper, finely minced
  • 1 14-oz can petite diced tomatoes
  • 2 4-oz cans diced green chilies (mild)
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 1T chili powder
  • 1T cumin
  • ¼ t cayenne pepper
  • ½ t salt
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Corn tortillas
  • 1 14-oz can refried beans
  • 1-2 cups cheddar cheese
  • Optional toppings:  sliced avocado, diced tomatoes, sour cream, red or green salsa
  1. Combine the first twelve ingredients in a crock pot.  Cook on low for eight hours.
  2. At the end of the cooking time, shred the meat with two forks and mix thoroughly with the sauce.

 To Serve:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Place corn tortillas directly on rack of oven for 2-3 minutes to warm.
  3. Line baking sheet with aluminum foil (this cuts down on cleaning time).  Place corn tortillas on baking sheet and top each with a layer of refried beans and cheese.
  4. Bake the tortillas until cheese is melted and beans are warm (10 minutes).
  5. Top each tortilla with pulled pork mixture.
  6. Finish off the plate with desired toppings.

 (Serves 4-6)

Notes:

  1. My friend Elizabeth browns her meat in olive oil before putting it in the crockpot.  I’m too lazy to do this—and I think it defeats the purpose of a crock pot.  However, browning does bring out the flavors of the meat.
  2. If using pork, be sure to buy a tenderloin.  The Mother-in-Law tried this recipe using pork roast.  The meat would not shred.
  3. I tend not to measure my spices.  The quantities listed above are approximate values and merely a starting point.  You can increase amounts if you prefer more spice. 
  4. If you are concerned about gluten, be sure to check labels to make sure you are buying gluten-free.  You’d be surprised what some manufacturers will add to broth, sour cream, and canned veggies.
  5. If you are not concerned about gluten, try the following:  roll up the pork mixture in several large flour tortillas and place them in a baking dish.  Top with a jar of good quality salsa verde and the cheese of your choice.  Bake at 400 degrees until cheese is melted and bubbly.

 Let me know how this recipe works for you, or if you have suggestions for variations.  Also, I’d be interested in your recommendations for novels in which food or cooking becomes a central plot point and a metaphor for a heroine’s personal growth.

Happy Halloween! Of Ghosts and . . . Cats!

Tonight I will celebrate Halloween by revisiting that most classic of ghost stories, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  Since The Philosopher teaches an evening class and I have the remote to myself, I will settle for a cinematic version of the gothic novel.  While there have been many film adaptations since the novel was first published in 1938, I like the one released by Mobil Masterpiece Theatre in 1997, starring Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, Emilia Fox, and Faye Dunaway.  Rebecca’s murderer literally “gets away with murder” in this version, which is an accurate acting out of the original story.  (In earlier performances, such as the one starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Hollywood directors altered the plot so that no crime goes unpunished.  Evidently a keen sense of morality ruled on screen in the 1930s and 40s.)

 In Rebecca, the fabulously wealthy and handsome Maxim DeWinter brings his new bride home to the family estate of Manderley (situated on the romantic, wind-swept English coast, of course).  We never learn the new Mrs. DeWinter’s name, as her character is overshadowed by the lingering spirit of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife.  Rebecca is not a “ghost,” but rather an unseen presence, a memory that haunts Manderley and overlays the house with a foreboding sense of evil.  The new Mrs. DeWinter learns that Rebecca wasn’t who she seemed, and that her death was not an accident.  Only by discovering the truth of Rebecca’s life and death can Maxim and Mrs. DeWinter find happiness together.     

I find intriguing the idea of a person or event whose memory leaves such a strong imprint on those left behind that they must wrestle with a lingering darkness.  In my first novel, Shadows at Moose’s Run, thirty-year-old Maddie returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother, a Rebecca-like character whose shadow still lingers in the house, asking for a redemption that Maddie cannot give. 

But while Maddie’s mother remains an ominous presence, I do have a more humorous, ghostly cat in the novel!  In the following excerpt (which may or may not remain in the final draft), Maddie has moved back to Moose’s Run to take care of her widowed father.  She thinks she has seen the ghost of the family cat, although she wants to assume the specter is merely a trick of light and shadows.  Her new friend Jackson has set up his ghost-hunting equipment in hopes of finding something. 

My friends and family will recognize the four-legged friends that appear in this scene.  We really did have cat named Jackie (after Jackie Onassis Kennedy—you’ll have to ask The Toothfairy about that), and we did give the local wildlife the most peculiar names.  The Unabomber also makes an appearance—at least his cabin does.          

From Shadows at Moose’s Run, Chapter 17

             . . . Since Jackson installed the camera, I had checked it every morning, except for the previous two days.  Any appearance by the Ghost of Jackie, or other wayward spirits who happened to pass through, must have occurred sometime since Wednesday.

             I shuddered at the thought.  I had assumed that I would know if any ghostly visitors lingered at Moose’s Run, that I would feel something—a presence, a gentle breeze, or a movement of some kind.  Instead, I hadn’t sensed anything.  

            Jackson suggested we take the camera downstairs and hook it up to the large television.  “We might as well view it on the big screen,” he said. 

            I brought two mugs of tea and a plate of cookies, and we settled into the couch as if gearing up for the latest blockbuster. 

            Jackson groaned in disappointment at the beginning of the recording.  After several seconds of static, we watched a panorama of the living room, as seen from the corner where he had installed the camera.  A few uneventful minutes later, the image dissolved into more static.  

             We had almost given up hope of seeing anything more, when the panorama popped up again, and with it, a brief movement—a mere blip—in the lower left corner of the screen.  The picture dissolved into blurry black and white lines once again before the camera focused on another movement of something small and dark in front of the large glass door that slid open to the deck. 

             “There’s something there!”  Jackson leaned forward to peer at the screen. 

              Despite my reluctant participation in our ghost-hunting experiment, I now felt compelled to stick around, as if watching a bad movie, if only to find out what would happen next. 

             After another few seconds of static, the living room came into focus, and this time the image remained fixed on the screen.  The strange movement began again as the small, dark object grew larger and more regular in its movements.  It resembled a branch of one of the small ponderosas, waved up and down in front of the glass by an invisible hand. 

            As we continued to watch, the branch transformed into a network of branches, and then, the profile of a pointed face came into view—black button nose with deep-set nostrils, a white furry chin, large dark eyes, and finally, pointed ears surrounded by tufts of fur.

            “It’s Boy!”  I exclaimed. 

             The deer walked into full view of the camera, his antlers bobbing as he ambled towards the branches of one of the pines hanging over the deck and nuzzled them with his nose and mouth. 

             “It’s a buck!”  Jackson’s eyes widened as he scratched his head in bewilderment. 

              “His name is Boy,” I explained.  “At least that’s what we call him.  He hangs out in the forest around the house—he has for years.  I didn’t realize he ever managed to get onto the top deck.” 

             “He’s probably looking for something to eat.” 

              “You could be right.  One of the vents from the kitchen lets out at the edge of the deck.”

            “It’s a buck,” he repeated in disbelief—and disappointment.  He hadn’t expected the camera to capture a living animal, instead of a dead one.

            We watched Boy as he sauntered across the deck and disappeared from view.  With his exist from the scene, the image on screen disintegrated into static. 

            I grabbed my cup of tea from the coffee table and sat back smugly into the cushions of the sofa.  “I guess the camera does work.  It just picked up the wrong visitor.”

            “Wait!”  Jackson had scooted to the edge of his seat and was staring at the television.  “What the hell?”

            I followed his eyes back to the screen, which showed the figure of a man, jumping up and down in front of the large glass doors.  With his striped pajamas and the hair sticking straight up from his head, he resembled an escapee from the padded room of a mental institution.  It was Dad. 

            I covered my mouth in embarrassment and glanced at Jackson out of the corner of one eye.  He was looking at me, eyebrows raised.

            “That’s Dad,” I said dryly. 

            Jackson’s mouth curved into a cheeky grin.

            Another figure came into view, a fat, cocky raccoon that trotted back and forth in front of the glass.  Dad was attempting to capture the black and white, whiskered face on his digital camera, and, in return, the animal seemed to be taunting Dad.

            “And that is O’Henry,” I sighed.  “O’Henrietta is probably somewhere in the background, watching from the woods—or else she’s nesting in Kaczynski’s cabin at the bottom of the hill.” 

             Jackson had leaned back into the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest as he studied me, a bemused smirk still lingering on his lips.  I had some explaining to do—about my eccentric family, both human and animal, that skulked around Moose’s Run in the middle of the night.

            “O’Henry?  O’Henrietta?” 

            “Those are the names my sister Cherise chose.  I think she named the male raccoon Henry because she thought it sounded funny, and then one day she was out in the forest and started calling, ‘O—Henry!’, and it just kind of stuck.  And what else would you call the wife of O’Henry, but O’Henrietta?” 

             Jackson was nodding his head slowly, taking in both the action on the screen and my strange explanations.  “And Kaczynski—the Unabomber?  Where does he figure into all of this?”

            “There’s an old abandoned shed at the bottom of the driveway.  A neighbor up the canyon uses it to store gardening equipment.  We think it might have been an outhouse a long time ago.  When Cherise would misbehave, my mother would threaten to send her down there to live.  My mother always called it Kaczynski’s cabin.  I don’t know why.  I think she and Cherise saw an article about the Unabomber in the newspaper and thought the cabin would be the kind of place where he would hide out.” 

            Jackson was still shaking his head when the final image of Dad, on hands and knees with his nose pressed to the glass as he baited the raccoon, disappeared from the screen and the recording stopped.  Both Dad and raccoon had moved outside of the camera’s range of detection.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard any commotion during the night.  Either I had slept soundly, or Dad had been unusually quiet.

            “I suppose you can’t make the camera more selective in the images it records,” I asked.

            “Fortunately, no.”

            “Fortunately?”

            “You have to admit, this stuff is much more entertaining that a recording of a mere ghost.”  Jackson looked far more elated than if we had seen the Ghost of Jackie as clear as day on the recording. 

            “Okay, so you probably think my entire family is certifiable.” 

            He chuckled.  “Just about.” 

            I sighed in exasperation.  “But have you at least had enough ghost hunting now?” 

             “Absolutely not.  I think we should keep trying.  We know that the camera works, and that there’s a significant amount of activity around here in the middle of the night.” 

            “Then I should at least warn Dad.  Tell him that any midnight antics will be recorded for all to see.” 

            “Not on your life.”  Jackson’s eyes flickered with amusement.  He was enjoying this way too much. 

              “I suppose things like this offer good opportunities for blackmail,” I said, “—if I ever needed to resort to such a thing in the future.”

               “Now you’re talking.”                                                         

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