Ford Madox Ford’s Xmas Provençal chicken

This year, instead of a tree, we decorated Max’s beloved pole lamp. He calls the result a “3-way collision between Festivus austerity, Xmas kitsch, and midcentury modernism.”

I call it, “We can take all that down on the 1st, right?”

Christmas Day was an intimate and jolly affair. Joseph brought his cornbread-sausage-fennel stuffing and his chocolate bourbon pecan pie. Max made the salad, kept the wine flowing, and struggled against the rising tide of dishes. I tried Hannah Green’s (a/k/a Joanne Greenberg of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) “Ford Madox Ford’s Garlic Chicken” recipe from The Great American Writers Cookbook. It required some guesswork: oven temperature, size of bird, etc. After our feast, we could barely straggle out to meet a friend for a 7:15 showing of Milk.

I hope your holidays have been merry and bright, however you’ve celebrated them, and that 2009 brings you only good things. I’ll leave you till early January with Green’s recipe (and a few of my own [bracketed] notes).

Ford Maddox Ford’s Garlic Chicken

I call it my garlic chicken, but I sometimes also call it Ford Madox Ford’s garlic chicken because the idea comes from his Provence. His recipe calls for at least a kilo of garlic — but that may be the result of his grand hyperbole when it comes to anything Provençal. (“Is it any better in heaven, Ford, than you found it in Provence?”) At any rate I’ve modified that kilo down to 3 or 4 whole garlics [I used 4], all peeled, so the cloves are placed in the roasting pan in such way as to form a bed on which the chicken is placed to roast. In this way, as Ford points out, the garlic perfumes the chicken, the sauce, (even the whole house where it is being roasted,) but only those who want to, need eat the garlic. (Ford, however, mentioned this garlic in a tale set down to prove that if you eat enough garlic, a great deal of garlic, that is, you won’t have garlic breath.) (And whether that is really true or not, I may never know.)

Here are my directions mixed with my inventions:

The whole bottom of the roasting pan should be covered with a thin layer of olive oil, and into the olive oil set the peeled cloves of garlic in a shape more or less like an almond so that the chicken can rest on them and cover them. Rub the chicken with lemon, and salt it, and pepper it. Stuff it with a tomato which should in turn itself be stuffed with a clove or two of garlic and salted and peppered. It should also, if possible, be stuffed with a few sprigs of rosemary and of thyme. (When I first started making this chicken in the winter of 1975, we were staying in a house in Provençe, and part of the cooking of the chicken consisted of running out into the garden at the last moment before the chicken went into the cover with scissors, a flashlight, an umbrella sometimes, often in a long skirt and high heels, to pick a few sprigs of rosemary and of thyme and a leaf or two of sage. [I used three sprigs of rosemary, five of thyme, and one of sage.] The chicken has always been good, but the fragrance never so intoxicating as there in Provençe with the herbs fresh from the night garden.)

Continue reading…

Lump of coal holiday stories: Rosie Schaap’s Xmas ’89

Rosie Schaap’s Great Big Lump of Coal party for her good words @ Good World series was great fun. After the reading, she told Dana, Max, and me a story involving the best and maybe the most inappropriate holiday toast ever. I’m not allowed to post that one.

Instead here’s an Xmas excerpt from Schaap’s forthcoming Drinking with Men. If you like this, listen to the author telling two stories on This American Life.

A Santa Cruz Christmas, 1989

At sunset most evenings, we went to the state beach, with its natural bridges of enormous eroded rocks, fired up a joint, and watched the winter surfers, the students, the drifters who’d long preceded our own drifting to this place, who must have arrived here much as we did, only years before, with no better plan, traveling the same tine in the same forked road, Santa Cruz or San Francisco, Santa Cruz or Humboldt, Santa Cruz or _____, Santa Cruz or_____, Santa Cruz or _____. Santa Cruz instead of anywhere else, especially: instead of wherever they’d come from. Danny and Billy and I lived in the rusty brown Dodge van, parked on Mission Street, in front of the pizzeria where they worked, at least through Christmas, at which point Danny had managed to scrounge together enough money to return home to Jersey for the holidays.

Billy was a Christian, but not a religious one. Still, Christmas was Christmas. And I was one of those half-assed New York Jews who grew up celebrating Easter and Passover — whose family, truth be told, preferred Christmas to Chanukah, because ma really loved chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and overstuffed stockings, and a nice Bûche de Noël and all that, without particularly paying Jesus any mind, though she was firmly of the opinion that he seemed like a totally o.k. guy. So even for me, yes, Christmas was Christmas, and sleeping in a van would not do, nor would eating Domino’s discards.

“We should at least get a room somewhere,” I suggested. Billy quickly agreed, even though we were both close to broke. We checked into the cheapest motel we could find. At a convenience store across the road, for a small fee, we got a loitering grownup to procure a couple six-packs of Anchor Steam for us — the birth of the baby Jesus rated at least a classy regional beer. Continue reading…

Lump of coal holiday stories: Brent Cox’s Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago, I put out a call for your worst holiday experiences. My friend Brent of Titivil disqualified himself because his entry (below) was longer than I’d specified. He wins anyway. It’s a moving, atmospheric story, and also, he’s the only one who entered.

Terrible holiday story? It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago. I was a year and a half into my marriage, and eight or nine of those months my wife had spent an hour and a half away from me, with her mom and her only sibling, a sister. The sister had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, which is a kind of brain cancer you don’t beat. My wife was staying there to take care of the sister in between surgeries. I’d been called down to lend a hand. So the mood was, well you’d think it was grim, and it was, in a way, but there’s a lot more to it when you’re going down that particular tunnel.

We were staying in a Holiday Inn in Towson, Maryland. I’m pretty sure that people live in Towson, but the town seemed to define itself mostly by strip mall/actual mall density — national chains metastasizing everywhere, six-lane non-Interstates, and crowded developments behind every rise. I did find a respectable diner, a fishmonger with good crabcakes and a couple pit beef shacks, but otherwise, life consisted of a generic motel room, with a limp cable package and slow DSL, and the parking lot and the wooded gully next to it, for walking the little dog, a year-old Boston Terrier. The sister was stationed in the rehab wing of a second-tier hospital after what ended up being her last brain surgery. Johns Hopkins rented out space there, but it was no Johns Hopkins. I watched the little dog while everyone else trucked off to the hospital, and I tried to be good company for my wife. Continue reading…

On visiting Dickens’ only surviving London house

A conversation about literary pilgrimages with my favorite Poe fan last week reminded me that I never told you about my visit to the Charles Dickens Museum in London. The delay is fortuitous, I guess, because really, what better time than now to talk about the house of The Man Who Invented Christmas?

Dickens lived at 48 Doughty Street for just two-and-a-half years, from April 1837 to December 1839, while completing The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.

Although the memorabilia housed there is extensive — it could be, as the museum site contends, “the world’s most important collection of material relating to the great Victorian novelist and social commentator” — the place itself feels incidental. (Image of recreated period drawing-room, with curtains that resemble those that hung in the room in Dickens’ day, above.)

Various items have been assembled, but so far as I could tell none are endemic, and it’s difficult to see how if at all the house affected his work.

There is no equivalent to the cellar fireplace in Poe’s Philly house that crept into “The Black Cat” — or, if there is, it’s not highlighted in the pre-walk-through film or the brochure. Nor, obviously, does the construction reflect Dickens’ own creative vision, as Twain’s Hartford home does his.

Yet the Doughty Street residence is the only surviving Dickens home in London. So, apart from the all-kitsch-all-the-time Dickens World, it is now the flagship tourist destination for fans of A Christmas Carol, or even Great Expectations or Bleak House.

As I say, all sorts of papers and drawings and knick-knacks are on display there. The image above (please forgive the glare; I swear I wasn’t using a flash) is of the original Oliver Twist manuscript.

There are other drafts, of course, and letters, and posters from Dickens’ theater days. There are also illustrations of scenes from his novels, papers relating to child labor and abuse, portraits of the women Dickens is known to have loved, busts of the man himself (see, e.g., above), a giant golden arm (first image below) with a hammer in its hand that is mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities, and much more. The second image image below is of some of Dickens’ writing talismans, and a quill pen he used in writing the unfinished Edwin Drood.


Despite the ease of stopping by the Dickens Museum as a London tourist, another house, Gad’s Hill Place (now in Rochester), loomed much larger in the author’s imagination. As a boy he dreamed of living there. He later purchased the house, made it his own, and even burned his correspondence behind it.

But of course at Gad’s Hill Place you won’t see things like this grill from the Marshalsea Goal (below), where Dickens’s father, a spendthrift, was imprisoned for three months after he couldn’t pay his debts.

The giant images of Dickens’ parents behind bars are presumably intended to help you imagine how Dickens felt seeing them incarcerated. For some reason, they made me laugh.

The jail-bars display epitomizes the presentation and offerings of Dickens Museum.

If you go, and you’re thirsty afterward, by all means stop in at The Lamb (above), once Dickens’ local, for a pint.

The fish and chips are fine — pretty standard — at this pub. But whatever you do, don’t order the potato leek soup. Even if you’re sick, even though it is the only soupy thing on the menu. You might not think someone could screw that up, but you would be wrong.

Elsewhere: The museum’s virtual tour is worth taking, and I have some photos, with a little commentary, at Flickr.

2008 novels for the iPhone just the tip of the Iceberg

The minute you meet ScrollMotion co-founder Josh Koppel, you know you’re in the company of a visionary. Intense, smart, and unpretentious — quick-thinking and quick-talking — Koppel is a writer whose unconventional memoir appeared just after September 11, 2001, and in short order wound up in a landfill.

The experience would have left many authors furious and devastated, but it got Koppel thinking.

He was convinced that the odd size and and strange format of the volume, which seemed out of place on traditional bookshelves and booksellers’ tables, were part of what sunk it. In fact, he realized, it felt like he’d written a book for a medium that didn’t exist yet.

On coming to this conclusion, most aspiring writers would have slunk off to a desk job, pulled out a razor, or at least resolved to write more traditionally. But Koppel’s been experimenting with ways of telling stories by hacking existing media ever since. And when one door has slammed shut, he’s shrugged his shoulders, moved down the hall, and pushed his way through a different one.

On the wall of his office hangs an ancient Newton; on his desk a Google Phone shares space with a Kindle. He is familiar with and conversant in the capabilities of e-paper. But Koppell’s devices of choice, since he hacked the first video-capable iPod, are the iPhone and iPod Touch.

It is for these that ScrollMotion, under the guidance of novelist and partner Calvin Baker, has developed Iceberg. The new reader technology makes each book easy to search and annotate, and allows each title to be sold separately, wrapped in the iTunes DRM. As Wired’s Chris Snyder observes, Iceberg in effect puts Apple directly into the e-book business by allowing the company to pick up a percentage of each sale. “’This is a business model that works on their business model,’” Koppel has said.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette are all working with Iceberg to make newer titles available. Scott Westerfeld’s Extras, a favorite of my stepdaughter’s, is scheduled to appear at the Apps store tonight.

All of the Iceberg books maintain the pagination of the print originals, which means they require both scrolling and page-turning, a combination that makes them — at least so far — a little more complicated to use than the ones available for the Classics app.*

But they’re attractive, uncluttered, and surprisingly versatile. The type has grow-and-shrink capability, just like web pages on the iPhone’s Safari browser, and you can read vertically or horizontally. And unlike any other iPhone applications available, each title has full search functionality, a note-taking feature, and a “Book Skim” option that enables you to locate notes visually as well as by page number.

To get some sense of how Book Skim and note-taking work, take a look at the image at the top of this post (larger, cleaner version here). Imagine running your finger along the pages that are pictured at the bottom as if they’re jutting out from a bound book. Right now 12 is selected, but you could as easily select 157 or 285. If you’d made notes on one of those pages, it would appear brown, rather than white or maroon, and you could select it by touch. And when you want to read rather than search, just dismiss the pages-and-binding image, and you’re left with clean text on a page.

Right now I’m testing a novel I’ve already read and loved. After sitting with it on the train and at home tonight, and picking it up again in the morning, I’ll say a little more about Iceberg.

Meanwhile, three things. First, the only potential negative I see so far is pricing. Obviously books are expensive to acquire, edit, and publish, but when a title goes electronic, you’d think… well, more on this soon.

Second, if you’re an author who hopes this electronic thing is a fly-by-night trend, or whose publisher isn’t on board with ebooks — isn’t, in fact, selling your book for download in as many formats as possible — consider that Stanza has had more than 600,000 unique users this year alone. Obviously, given these numbers and sales for the Kindle, it’s ridiculous to keep saying that no one reads books anymore. Yet for years we’ve been stuck in a market where 10,000 sales for a literary novel is better than average. Ask yourself if you want this half-million-plus-and-growing pool of readers to have access to your work in what may be their preferred format. And after that, maybe ask your publisher.

Finally, looking for a job? Unlike just about every other company on these shores, except maybe bankruptcy firms, ScrollMotion is hiring.

Previously: Book apps for the iPhone keep getting better.

* I’ve nearly finished reading Robinson Crusoe — Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel about a sailor who flees a comfortable existence in England and winds up shipwrecked and stripped of all comforts — on the iPhone Classics app. My friend GMB wondered if the irony was intentional. It wasn’t.

Update: David Rothman of Teleread argues that the largest potential problem with Iceberg is that it uses iTunes’ proprietary format, thus forcing prices to remain unnaturally high, and making novels a rarified and expensive product not available to all. “[C]onnect the dots,” he urges me.

So, allow me clarify, in case this was not obvious from what I have said previously and in this very post about reading on and making books available electronically. I would like to see titles offered in a variety of formats — for the iPhone (Iceberg, Classics, Stanza, eReader), for the Kindle (although I personally do not want one), for the Wii, and for any other device using any platform that appeals to readers and secures copyrighted materials sufficiently to prevent mass copyright violation. What I like about reader tools for iPhone, Wii, and other handhelds is that they are not expensive book-centric devices, but work on existing multi-purpose machines.

I’m also, for what it’s worth, very much in favor of the Google Books database, which is searchable online, but shows only every few pages of a new text, allowing potential readers to get a taste before deciding to buy. And with its new magazines project, I suspect that Google eventually will be competing with Lexis-Nexis and other paid information aggregators. Whether the company will get directly into eBooks, I don’t know, but with Stanza possibly targeting its Android phone, I wouldn’t be surprised.

It is not a boner to use effete this way — DFW

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2nd Ed.) incorporates usage notes from an astonishing group of contributing authors, including Erin McKean, Stephin Merritt, Zadie Smith, Simon Winchester, Francine Prose, and David Foster Wallace. (Eternal disclosure.)

Looking for something else last night, I discovered this entertaining note, signed “DFW & EM,” on “effete”:

Here’s a word on which some dictionaries and useage authorities haven’t caught up with the realities of literate usage. Yes, the traditional meaning of effete is “depleted of vitality, washed out, exhausted” — and in a college paper for an older prof you’d probably want to use it only that way. But a great many educated people accept effete now also as a pejorative synonym for elite or elitist, one with an added suggestion of effeminancy, over-refinement, pretension, and/or decadence; and in these writers’ opinion it is not a boner to use effete this way, since no other word has quite its connotative flavor. Traditionalists who see this evolved definition as an error often blame Spiro Agnew’s characterization of some liberal group or other as “effete corps of independent snobs,” but there are deeper reasons for this evolution, such as that effete derives from the Latin effetus, which meant “worn out from bearing children” and thus had an obvious feminine connotation. Or that, historically, effete was often used to describe artistic movements that had exhausted their vitality, and one of the main characteristics of a kind of art’s exhaustion was its descent into excessive refinement/foppery/decadence.

Last month the OUP blog looked at a few other DFW notes.

The New Yorker, Mark Twain, and Christians live forever

The New Yorker recently made everything — from its very first issue to the latest — available to subscribers online. This means you can read Mark Twain’s “The Privilege of the Grave” right now.

Although previously unpublished, the essay will be immediately recognizable as Twain’s to anyone who’s had even casual exposure to his nonfiction. Here’s a brief excerpt from the beginning:

Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege — strictly speaking — but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by civilized peoples.

Toward the end, he says:

Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are waste, because I can’t print the result…. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for my family.

He resolves to leave the inflammatory work behind, and “utter it from the grave,” since nobody bothers to hold a grudge against a dead person.

When he wrote this essay, Twain was almost certainly thinking of his Letters from the Earth, an indictment of Christianity so scathing that his wife refused to discuss it with him, and his daughter held up its publication for decades after his death.

Although the book is uneven, the best pieces in it are some of Twain’s strongest work. (And I say this as a Twain fanatic.) They engage with Christianity on its own terms and highlight its illogic without resorting to the supercilious, you-idiots! tone of a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Unlike those men, whose real aim, or at least only real hope, is to galvanize atheists and convert agnostics, Twain is a true satirist whose intended audience is people who are, as he was, raised in the church.

And his rhetoric is a powerful tonic for believers. A good friend’s father, who was a missionary, lost his faith for many years after reading Letters from the Earth. (I’ve said most of this before; I’m so obsessed with the Letters from the Earth, I once started posting it line-by-line at Twitter.)

“The Privilege of the Grave” is not Twain’s only work that depicts death and the grave as the reward of the longsuffering. One of the best passages of Satan’s tenth letter, which is collected in Letters from the Earth, begins:

In time, the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave. This was not satisfactory. A way must be contrived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb.

The Deity pondered this matter during four thousand years unsuccessfully, but as soon as he came down to earth and became a Christian his mind cleared and he knew what to do. He invented hell, and proclaimed it.