Archive for November, 2011

More Spice

November 30, 2011

I’m pleased to announce that the anthology Courts of the Fey, in which my

Courts of the Fey

story “Hunting the Unicorn” appears, is now out.  (For more about this story, see WW 2-16-11, “Breaking Off, Coming Back.”)  The cover isn’t exactly to my taste – a bit too soft and Tinkerbell.  Now that I think about it, that actually ties into what I want to wander on about today.

Although I didn’t indulge in Black Friday shopping, as an anthropological exercise, I did go through the advertisements.  It’s always interesting to see what marketers are trying to tell us is essential.

Even more interesting to me is what advertisements tell us about how our culture views itself.  Today I want to wander on about something that has been a peeve of mine since I myself was a little girl: What the toys sold to little girls tell little girls about their expectations for themselves.

First of all, there is the prevalence of pink. I’ve known very few little girls who select pink as their favorite color.  Purple usually comes first, followed by the brighter shades of blue and green.  Yes.  There are girls who like pink, but they are usually fair-haired and look good in it.  They should like pink.  Moreover, they should be free to like pink.

However, the fact that little blond girls look good in pink is no reason for so many of the toys marketed to young girls to be colored pink.  Is this any reason that even the backdrops for advertisements for girl’s toys are often pink – even if the toy itself is not?

Leading the trend for promoting pink is Barbie.  Mattel has been suffering reduced sales figures for these dolls.  They’ve also been horrified to find that girls outgrow their Barbies at younger and younger ages.  Could this have anything to do with the pink?  One ad shows an entire three-story townhouse, all in pink: walls, furnishings, floors, and all.  There’s a little white and purple, true, but only as accents.

Okay.  Barbie’s a blonde, but I don’t know a single blonde of my acquaintance who would decorate all in pink.  Maybe if Barbie didn’t look like a baby toy, little girls would be more interested in staying with her.

Even where toys for girls show some interest in activity, the message is different for boys and girls.  In the Target ad, the boy’s bike is red and black with a carry basket.  The girl’s bike is pinky-lavender and white (with white tires).  It has streamers on the handle bars and is provided with a baby seat.  Let me tell you, this is one former little girl who would have begged for the boy’s bike.  It says action and adventure.  The girl’s bike says “plug up the leg holes in the basket if you want to use it to carry anything other than baby dolls.”

Glancing through other advertisements, I see two different ride-on vehicles presented in pink for girls.  One is even called the “Pinkalicious” and is pink right down to the tires.  Gee, those tires are going to look good once they’ve been ridden on outside a time or two.  Maybe that’s part of the message.  Little girls should only ride their toys inside on carpet to keep the pink or white tires clean.

In contrast, all the vehicles for little boys are done in what you might call “real” vehicle shades.  Oh, and not a single pink (or even baby blue) tire in the lot.  These are road ripping vehicles, steeds of adventure and excitement.

This brings to mind the old rhyme about what are little girls made of: “sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Seems to me, the message little girls are getting through their toys is all sugar, no spice, unless maybe the spice is weak vanilla.  This continues until they reach the age when they are supposed to dress provocatively and play with dolls that look like hookers, but I’ll save that topic for another time.

I think most of you have gathered by now that I don’t have any kids, so you might be thinking “What does she know about little girls?”  Well, frankly, quite a bit.  For one, I’m an aunt.  I have two nieces, both of whom are wonderful, both of whom are definitely more spice than sugar.

This year for Christmas, I’m making one niece her “grown-up” stocking.  (This

Stocking: Top Panel

is a family tradition started by my mom.)  When I asked what Rebecca wanted on top of her stocking (these parts are chosen by the recipient), her response was prompt: “Wolves and horses.”

Now Rebecca is far from the hopeless tomboy her aunt was.  She likes dressing up and has had a distinct fashion sense since she was small.  At age ten, she’s already showing an interest in jewelry.  But she’s nonetheless full of spark and sparkle.  So – as you can see from the attached picture – I figured out how to do wolves and horses for her.

And not in pink.

I’m hoping there are toys out there that say “spice” and not just sugar.  Maybe you can recommend a few that are fun and not transparently educational.  And I’m wondering, how do the boys feel about “frogs and snails and puppy dog tails”?


TT: Not Just “Turkey Day”

November 24, 2011

For discussions of sex and nudity, go back one page to my Wednesday Wandering, then join me and Alan for the warmth and joy of Thanksgiving Day.

ALAN: Since you are celebrating Thanksgiving  today, can you tell me just what

Our Kettle Grill

it is that you are giving thanks for?

JANE: The short version is that the Pilgrims, some of the original settlers in the New England region, decided to throw a harvest festival and invite a bunch of the local Indians who had helped them to survive those first hard years.

The historical reality is, of course, a whole lot more complicated and constantly being revised.  In fact, some more radical Native American groups have tried to stop Thanksgiving as an official holiday because they feel celebrating the beginning of invasion and, in some cases, genocide is sick.

My feeling, however, is that Thanksgiving is a celebration of whatever you feel thankful for in your life in general and in the year that has gone by in particular.  I actually get offended when people refer to it as “Turkey Day,” as if eating huge meals is the only point.

ALAN: Does it happen on the same day every year or is it a moveable feast like Easter?

JANE: Thanksgiving moves around.  It is always the fourth Thursday in November.   Many schools and businesses are closed for a four-day weekend Because of this, Thanksgiving is actually the busiest travel date of the year (since not everyone celebrates holidays with religious roots).  Perversely, it is the one holiday when Jim and I do our best not to travel.

ALAN: I hate traveling when everybody else does – the roads are so full and the traffic moves so slowly. Robin and I always stay hermit-like at home at the start of long weekends. What do you do if you are not visiting family?

JANE: My own childhood provided me with a good example that you can have a festive and active Thanksgiving even when family is far away.

When I was a kid, despite my maternal grandfather being the only relative who lived at all close, we still managed to have a huge party.  My mom had a gift for finding people who would otherwise be alone for the holiday.  She would then invite all of them to a sit-down dinner.  To enable us to do this, we constructed a table that stretched –  no exaggeration –  from one end of the house to the other, enabling everyone to sit together.

These days, sometimes Jim and I are the “orphans” and go to someone else’s house, but because we like to cook, we also often entertain people here.  Last year, my mom came to visit and we had some friends in as well.  We ate a large dinner, then settled down to play Trivial Pursuit.  The game went on so long that we were all able to have second helpings of the excellent pies one of our guests had brought – very satisfactory for all.

ALAN: How do you cope with cooking the turkey that, according to the books I’ve read, seems to be such an integral part of the Thanksgiving celebration? We generally have turkey at Christmas and I’ve always found the birds to be far too large to fit into the average oven.  Or maybe everybody I know has a smaller than average oven…

JANE: Jim and I have a kettle grill and cook the turkey outside.  My parents did the same thing.  Not only does this make for an absolutely wonderful turkey, but it frees the oven up for other things.

ALAN: Sorry – but what’s a kettle grill? I’ve never heard the phrase before.

JANE: I’ll supply a picture…  I believe this type of grill was popularized by a company called Weber.  My folks had one long before they were common and people often asked what the weird thing in our yard was.

With the lid off, they work pretty much like any other grill, but the high, domed lid makes it possible to cook in it almost as you would in an oven.  For the turkey, we divide the coals into two separate sections.  The drip pan goes in between so, not only do we have drippings for gravy, flare-ups from fat hitting the coals are minimized.

ALAN: It sounds like a cunning device. Impressive!

JANE: I do find it amusing that turkey – a bird so American that Benjamin Franklin actually suggested it as our national emblem – has become a centerpiece of British Christmas.  We’ve adopted so much from you that it’s nice to know it has gone both ways.  I think goose was more common before, wasn’t it?

ALAN: Oh, the British aren’t proud. We’ll steal good ideas from anyone. Yes – there was a time when goose was on the menu, but that time is long gone.  I’ve never seen it served.

American movies and books always seem to have football games as the centrepiece of  the celebration. Is this really the case or is it just a movie cliche?  It seems weirdly inappropriate to me, given what lies behind the idea of Thanksgiving.

JANE: Sadly, yes.  Football games have become inseparable for some people from celebrating Thanksgiving.  My mom tried to resist this, but finally had to give in and permit a small television in a side room so that the addicts could get their fix.

Fortunately, for me, Jim can do without Thanksgiving football, so unless we’re at someone else’s house, we have a more traditional celebration centered around food, games, food, conversation, food, and…  Well, food.  I don’t do nearly as elaborate a meal as my mother did, although last year we came close.  You see, for my mother, ravioli are part of a tradition Thanksgiving meal.

ALAN: Ah, ravioli! That famous Native American dish. I’ve read so many exciting novels that describe the central American plains teeming with herds of the wild ravioli. I gather that they are dangerous beasts and few hunters escape unscathed from their encounters with the fearsome ravioli, particularly in the mating season. You must be very proud of your mother’s hunting skills. Tell me more!

JANE: Alan, you are a very silly person, true to the heritage of the island nation that gave us Monty Python.   I am proud of you.  Heritage is so important to holidays.

Genetically, my mom is half-Italian.  However, since she was reared near her Italian relatives, when it comes to holiday foods, the Italian influence dominates.  So our Thanksgiving meal would start with homemade ravioli in red sauce.  Then, because my mom wanted Thanksgiving to celebrate our multi-cultural heritage, we’d move on to a course of homemade kielbasa and kapusta (a cabbage dish) from my father’s Russian side.  The kielbasa, by the way, was a homemade fresh sausage, nothing like the salty, smoked version.

By the time the turkey came out, people were looking cross-eyed and stuffed already.  I swear that the year the turkey platter flipped in my “Uncle” Bill’s hands and spread some turkey (there was more) on the floor some people actually looked relieved!

ALAN: Robin’s birthday is 17th November, very close to Thanksgiving. Perhaps next year, to show how thankful I am to have her in my life, I’ll cook her an American Thanksgiving dinner. With asparagus of course. It’s at its best right now and I dearly love it.

JANE: I’ll happily supply menus.  I’m curious. When I was doing research for Fire Season, my collaboration with David Weber, I was surprised how many different birthday customs there are.  Are there any particular British birthday customs?

ALAN: A few…

JANE: Then tell me all about them!  And to all of you who are sharing this holiday – or its aftermath – with us, may you have much to be thankful for!

Smoke and Mirrors

November 23, 2011

A few days ago, in the comments to my Wednesday Wandering “Two Types of

The Novel in Question

Teeth” (10-26-11), Erich Martell mentioned that he had given a copy of my novel Smoke and Mirrors to a friend of his I’d chatted with at a party a few weeks back.

My automatic response was to think that of all my novels, this one was pretty sure to give a new acquaintance a warped idea of what I’m like.  You see, Smoke and Mirrors is the story of a whore who is also a touch telepath.  As such things go, the sex scenes aren’t graphic, but they are much more “on stage” than is usual in my writing.

I’m not embarrassed by this book, but I will say it has certainly gotten some amusing reactions.  My favorite by far is that of my long-time agent, Kay McCauley.  After reading the manuscript, she called up and said lots of nice things, including that it was her personal favorite of my novels to that point.  Then she paused and added, “Now, dear heart, just how was it you put yourself through graduate school?”

I laughed my head off and dedicated the book to her.

Later on, though, I was slightly less amused to learn that the publisher was uncomfortable with how the book might be received in more conservative areas.

For that reason, Smokey’s profession – she calls herself a “whore” without the least waffling or prevarication – was softened in the cover blurb.

The final blurb reads: “Telepath, mother, industrial spy, prostitute, Smokey’s uncanny ability to sense and respond to each client’s unique desires has made her the most celebrated ‘working girl’ on the planet Arizona.”

Sheesh!  Working girl?  How 1920’s!  Prostitute?  How technical!  And note that these are carefully buried behind the – presumably more acceptable to those conservative types – “mother” and “industrial spy.”

This singular prudence – or perhaps it was prudery – extended to the cover art.  Many authors have had reason to complain about jacket illustrations in which their responsible ship’s captain or college professor or computer programmer or whatever is depicted with a torn clothing trousers or with her breasts hanging out of an unbuttoned shirt or something else provocative and wholly inappropriate.

I give them a book in which the character could, in all fairness, be depicted stark naked and what do they do?  Well, take a look at the accompanying illustration.  Not only is Smokey fully clothed, even her hands and feet are covered.  She doesn’t even have cleavage!  Instead she’s wearing some sort of heavy space suit or body armor, which could – were it not for some slight swelling at the breast and a bit more at the hips – be being worn by a man as easily as by a woman.  Even Smokey’s celebrated silvery grey hair is muted to brown, with just one lock near her right ear brushed grey.

The backdrop of a star field backed by various ghostly faces is artistic, but says nothing about the book or its vital, sexual, and dynamic protagonist.

Ah, well, a long time ago (1996) and far away.

But Erich’s selection of Smoke and Mirrors as the book to use to introduce his friend to my work has gotten me thinking.  What book would you give a reader you wanted to read Jane Lindskold’s works?  What criteria would you use to make the selection?  I’d really like to know because, whenever I get asked, I inevitably get flustered and don’t know what to say!

TT: Gunpowder Plot

November 17, 2011

If you’re looking for my Wednesday Wanderings, just page back to hear about a strange, formidable, and magical lady – one you might already think you know.  Meanwhile, Alan and I are going to talk about cultural confusion and holidays.

JANE: So, Alan, you e-mailed the other day that you’d just celebrated bonfire

Paddington Celebrates

night.  Is that the same as Guy Fawkes Day?

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. Guy Fawkes was attempting to blow up Parliament and assassinate the King (Guy Fawkes was “the only honest man ever to enter Parliament” as somebody once quipped). The plot failed and he was captured. He and his co-conspirators were horribly tortured and put to death. In 1605 an act of Parliament designated November 5th as a day of thanksgiving for deliverance from the plot. And from that day forward, Guy Fawkes was burned in effigy every year and fireworks were set off to commemorate the merciful day when God delivered the English protestant monarch from the machinations of the evil Catholics…

JANE: Let me make sure I’ve got this right.  You set off fireworks and light bonfires to celebrate explosives not going off.

ALAN: That’s right. Impeccable logic, isn’t it? When I was a child (and when my parents, and their parents and their parents before them were children) we would take great pleasure in making an effigy of Guy Fawkes. We’d take him round the village asking everyone we met for “A penny for the Guy.”  The money we collected would be carefully saved and spent on fireworks. We’d also spend weeks and weeks going round houses collecting rubbish with which to fuel our bonfires; we’d raid other people’s bonfire collections and steal the good bits for ours (and our collections would be raided in their turn). And when November 5th came around, we’d bind our Guy firmly into the bonfire and burn him. We’d set off all our fireworks and we’d eat parkin and we’d bake potatoes in the hot ashes of the fire.

JANE: Well, even if it makes me seem stupid, I’ll admit that this custom always confused me and gave me a desire to reverse events so that Parliament was indeed blown up.  I think I first encountered a reference to(Guy Fawkes?) in a Paddington Bear book.  Let me go check…  Yes.  It was in More About Paddington.  Paddington’s good friend Mr. Gruber explains the background but, since the book was written for a British audience, the explanation was brief.

Or it might have been in Mary Poppins Opens the Door.  Either way, it was a fictional work written for an audience that already knew the historical event.

ALAN: Indeed so – we all learned about the history of it at school so it really is common knowledge.

JANE: Moreover, as an American child, the idea of celebrating Parliament not getting blown up was confusing.  Parliament is the Bad Guy (yes, I meant the pun) in basic American history books – or at least they were when I was a kid.

ALAN: Well indeed –  it’s one of the many troublesome institutions that caused you upstart colonials to rebel. And who can blame you?

JANE: But you’re in New Zealand now, does the celebration have the same historic roots or is it just an excuse for a wild party?

ALAN: Actually, it’s all starting to fade away. New Zealand inherited the celebration as part of its British colonial history. But both here and in Britain, the tradition is dying out. There are very few bonfires (fires are dangerous and they cause pollution!) and children no longer make their Guys and no longer beg for money in the street (begging is bad!). And of course the religious aspects of the celebration long ago ceased to have any significance at all.  These days much more emphasis is given to Halloween.

When I was a child, Halloween barely rated a mention. Absolutely nothing happened on that day. We were all keenly anticipating Guy Fawkes night a week later. But now, probably because of the influence of American TV and movies, Halloween is really starting to come in to its own as interest in Guy Fawkes fades.

JANE: Actually, Halloween has become a bigger celebration over the years here, too, and lost a lot of its negative edge.  Nasty “tricks,” such as throwing eggs on people’s cars or windows, gave the day its alternate name of “Mischief Night .”

When I was a kid, very few adults dressed up and those who did usually stayed home to answer the door for trick or treaters.  Even kids’ costumes were often hand-made or put together out of things already around the house.  These days costumes and make-up are on sale everywhere.  Adult costumes are common, as are costume parties.  Jim and I went to one this year.  I was a tiger and he was a “movie cowboy sidekick,” because they have beards, whereas the lead rarely does.

I think the appeal is that it’s all fun, geared to immediate family and friends, and involves large amounts of candy.  One of my nieces scored a garbage bag full.  A friend told me her little girl was given over fifty full-sized candy bars in addition to other swag.

ALAN: I’m not sure we really understand Halloween properly yet and I’m certain that we’re getting bits of it wrong. When the children come round for trick or treat I sometimes say “I have no treats for you, so you’ll have to do a trick for me.” The end result is usually a very bewildered child.

JANE: I bet!

ALAN: Of course the basis of Guy Fawkes celebrations is a thanksgiving that a terrible event never happened. You have a thanksgiving in November as well, don’t you?

JANE: We do indeed.  In fact, next week our Tangent will be on Thanksgiving itself.  Come up with some good questions and I’ll tell you all about it.

Not a Spoonful of Sugar

November 16, 2011

The other day, I read a piece which referred to a “Mary Poppins-type”

Mary Poppins Novels

character.  I found myself wondering “Which Mary Poppins?  The one from the movie or the one from the original books?”

If you’ve only seen the movie with Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, you have only the slightest idea what the original character is like.  To give Julie Andrews credit, I think she knew perfectly well that her character was a sweetened-up version of the original.  The gusto with which she delivers the line “Rum punch!” or speaks Mary Poppins’ characteristic “spit-spot” hinted at familiarity with P.L. Travers formidable nursemaid.

I really enjoy the original movie, but it’s the original character I’d like to wander on about today: a Mary Poppins who is not in the least sweet, who is formidable, magical, secretive, and, despite her uncompromising rule, is loved both by the children she cares for and the readers who enter her world.

The first surprise for those who only know the movie version would be that Mary Poppins is not in the least pretty.  As first described, she has “shining black hair – ‘Rather like a wooden Dutch doll’… she was thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.”  Despite this singular lack of good looks, Mary Poppins is quite vain.  As various events throughout the books make clear, she considers herself both attractive and fashionable.  Few things make her more pleased with herself than a new pair of gloves or fancy hat.

That Mary Poppins is both magical and unconventional is made apparent within moments of her arrival in the Banks household.  First she slides up the banister.  Soon after, she unpacks a remarkable number of items from an apparently empty carpet bag.  Her medicine bottle (as in the movie) produces different flavors for different tastes.

But this Mary Poppins does not set out to charm her new charges with treats, fun, and games.  Balking against her authority, “Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her.  There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

What made me fall for Mary Poppins was neither her unconventionality nor her compelling authority.  It was the way in which Mary Poppins shapes the world around her into something new and exciting.  Best of all, she offers no explanations for what she does, nor do the stories ever leave the reader in doubt that whatever has happened – no matter how extraordinary – really happened.  Mary Poppins might deny that she was flying through the air on the string of a balloon, but Jane and Michael always find evidence that their experiences were real.

Does that make Mary Poppins a liar?  Perhaps, but more often she simply does the outrageous (appearing out of the sparks of a firework, reeled in on the string of a kite, floating away beneath her omnipresent umbrella) and then refuses to either admit or deny her actions.  As is stated at the end of the first chapter of the inaugural book, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything….”

But is even that completely true?  Mary Poppins tells the most amazing stories, often claiming quite close knowledge of those involved.  When telling the story of the Dancing Cow (as in the Cow Who Flew Over the Moon), she begins by saying: “I know that cow.  She was a great friend of my Mother’s and I’ll thank you to speak politely of her.”

Mary Poppins knows the most amazing people and, best of all, her young charges get to meet quite a few of them.  The most unlikely people (or creatures) claim relationship with Mary Poppins.  The Hamadryad (or king cobra), the true king of beasts, calls her “cousin.”  The Constellations make her an honored guest at their circus.  The Sun even bestows upon her his fiery kiss.  Mary Poppins has been nursemaid to the Pleiades and to the three Princes of the fairy tales.  She helps hang new stars in the sky and bring Spring to life.

If you are tempted to read the original stories, I do suggest you do read the novels in order, since characters recur and change.  If you are an adult, with an adult’s limited patience for the sort of repetitious structure in which children take comfort and delight, I also suggest reading the novels with gaps in between.

Beware the “politically correct” versions that were issued a few years ago.  Apparently afraid that modern children (or more likely modern adults) would not be comfortable with the sensibilities of the original, changes were made.  For example, a friend of mine reported that in the chapter “Bad Tuesday” the Eskimos, Africans, Chinese, and Red Indians were changed into talking animals.

My guess is that those who made the changes were uncomfortable with the depictions of these cultures.  The African family wears very little clothing and quite “a great many beads.”  However, what this change loses is the fact that Mary Poppins (who by this point in the book, the reader will know has no patience with those she views as beneath her) treats these people with complete courtesy and as her social equals.

She rubs noses with the Eskimos, responds to the African’s friendliness is kind, bows to the Chinese mandarin (and insists the children do so as well), and touches foreheads with Chief Sun-at-Noonday.  Certainly the message is clear – no matter how different people, it is not color nor attire nor manner of living that makes them worthy of respect.  People are worthy or respect (or not) for other reasons entirely.

I can’t say that as a child I was “getting” these lectures.  I was enthralled by the idea of someone who filled the world with wonder and adventure simply by being part of it, someone who might take me to lunch at the home of an uncle who floated courtesy of Laughing Gas, someone who knew what the dog who lived down the street wanted because she could talk to him.

These stories don’t have a “spoonful of sugar” – they have something far better.  The impossible made possible.  A twist on stories we all thought we knew.  An introduction to stories we never knew how much we wanted.  For me, Mary Poppins embodies sense of wonder as few other original characters manage to do.

TT: Green Chile and Kumera

November 10, 2011

Hi…  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to hear what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing…  Then wander back here and join Alan and me as we prove once again that knowing the word doesn’t mean knowing the thing…

JANE: Well, Alan, to tell you properly about green chile, I need to go back in

Various Chiles

time to when I first visited New Mexico.  I was surprised by two things.  First, the people who wrote menus couldn’t spell.  Secondly, they’d include “chile” as part of many dishes and then forget to put it on the plate.

Let me explain the source of my confusion.  For someone living in the Eastern United States in the late eighties, “chile/ chili” meant one thing – chili con carne, a dish made with meat, beans, onions, tomatoes, and some (often very little) chili powder.  Much of this was so mild as to be able to masquerade as pencil shavings.

In New Mexico, “chile” is the proper spelling.   Formally, it refers to  members of the capsicum family, often called –  because of a confusion created by Christopher Columbus  –  “peppers,” even though they are unrelated to the plant that provides the stuff in your pepper shaker.  Informally, “chile” usually refers to long (sometimes eight inches or more) tapering peppers that have a nice flavor and a wide variety of “bite” – although, I must note that to someone unaccustomed, even the mild has quite a bite.  There are lots of sub-varieties, but I believe what is usually called “chile” is  grouped in the Anaheim chile family.

Green chile is the less ripened version of this particular chile.  It is such a part of New Mexico food and tradition that, in the autumn,  almost every grocery store has a big roaster outside.  People buy their chiles by the twenty pound sack.  Chile is  almost a religion.  “Red or Green?” is the official state question.    (Yes.  We have a state question.  We also have official state neckwear.)

I remember one year asking one of the postal clerks if he’d gotten his green chile yet.  He said, “Ah, we’re not getting much this year.  Just forty pounds or so.”

ALAN: The mind boggles! I find it hard to imagine using that amount of chile in a lifetime, let alone in just a season. And what’s the roaster for? Do you actually roast the chiles?

JANE: Definitely.  The fresh chiles are roasted, then peeled.  This is not an easy task and should be done wearing gloves.  Even the mild chiles will cause the fingers to burn and the hot ones can cause blisters.  The end result is used to make sauces, salsas, stews, and as an ingredient in other dishes.  I never really liked meatloaf until I started putting in a few tablespoons of green chile.

ALAN: Inspired by this information, I actually went out and bought some fresh chilis and cooked up a large dish of this and that. Unfortunately the chilis turned out to be so mild and bland that I had to stir in a tablespoon of sambal oeleck to give it some bite. There’s a nice fusion of cuisines –  Mexican and Indonesian!

JANE: Well, all I can say is that you must have gotten a wimp variety.  New Mexico green chile doesn’t need help from anyone and will kindly lend a grace note to any dish.  Here you find chile added to everything from corn muffins to meatloaf to peanut brittle.  No bland and inoffensive food is safe.  Many people feel the New Mexico climate makes a difference, that the same type of chile grown elsewhere – say, California – will not have the same range of flavor.

ALAN:  That feeling that the local conditions add something special to the flavour that simply cannot be reproduced in other areas is not uncommon. Sweet potatoes, for example, are grown in many countries but we feel that our own variety, the kumera, is something quite special. It can do everything that ordinary spuds can do and it’s really rather yummy. Kumeras come in various varieties and flavours, much as potatoes themselves do. You also sometimes see taro, imported from the Pacific Islands, but I really don’t like that. It’s very bland and starchy.

JANE: We’re beginning to see a great variety of sweet potatoes here and, happily, people now realize that they taste good without being smothered in brown sugar and marshmallow fluff.  For years I thought I hated sweet potatoes, but, as with so many things, it was the preparation I didn’t like.

You mentioned mixing Mexican and Indonesian cuisine.  One thing I remember fondly about my visit to New Zealand was the interesting variety of foods, but I also gathered this was a relatively new phenomenon.

ALAN: When I first came to live in Wellington there was exactly one Chinese restaurant in the city and no other ethnic restaurants at all. And the one and only Chinese restaurant served very bland, flavourless food. The waiter always made sure to put a large plate of bread and butter on the table. People who didn’t like the nasty foreign muck filled up on the bread and butter while their friends ate chicken chow mein and felt sophisticated. Nowadays it’s completely changed –  ethnic restaurants of every description are everywhere.

JANE: When I was in New Zealand in 1995, an article I read in the hotel magazine said that yours was a country which was finally discovering how exciting food could be, partly because of the influx of Chinese and other immigrants with the impending transfer of Hong Kong.

ALAN: Yes, we’ve had a large number of immigrants from all over the world and we’ve gone from being a bi-cultural society (European and Maori) to being very multicultural. And that’s certainly been reflected in the food. The science fiction writer David Brin once said that if the aliens from the stars ever landed in California they’d be overwhelmed by people rushing up to them and crying, “Have you got a new cuisine?”

Well – I don’t think the aliens landed here but nevertheless I’ve observed exactly the same phenomenon over the last few years. You name it and I’m sure we have a restaurant that serves it. And that’s really quite amazing in a country as small as this one. I wonder what will happen if the aliens ever do land here…

JANE: Aliens and food.  My first published short story  – “Cheesecake” – dealt with that, oddly enough.

Anyhow,  I bet the folks reading this could bring up other regional favorite foods, both here in the U.S. and there at the bottom of the world.  How about it?  Anyone want to step up to the table?

Changing Weather Changes Life

November 9, 2011

Well, since we’ve been pretty “writerly” here these last several weeks, I thought

Harvest Bounty

I’d lean back, stretch, and natter about a few of those “nothing too much” things that all together make up Life.

It’s definitely autumn here in New Mexico.  We had a minor frost about two weeks ago and a solid killing frost right on a week ago.  Fortunately, we’d been watching the weather, so we got just about everything ripe enough to harvest in before the cold ruined it.

The incredibly hot summer, coming on the heels of a cooler than usual spring, didn’t make for our best garden ever.  We lost most of our squash earlier than usual and the basil (I grow green, cinnamon, and lemon) struggled all season.  I’ll have enough to make pesto, but I think I’ll be augmenting with arugula which handles moderate cold temperatures well and so is still fat and sassy.

However, after an early season of producing fruit that could have auditioned for a role in some 1950’s horror flick, we ended up getting a good tomato harvest.  We didn’t get enough to freeze a lot, but plenty for good tomato salads.  We then used some of the unripened tomatoes to make a couple batches of my grandmother’s green tomato relish recipe.

Well, make that “almost” her recipe.  Grandma’s recipe called for bell peppers, but since we always grow jalapeños and we always have surplus, a few years ago we started substituting.  The end result is a hot/sweet relish that makes ham sandwiches and tuna salad absolutely dance.

What else?  Well, Jim’s folks came for a visit last weekend.  Of course, Life had to step in.  Just a few hours before going to the airport to pick them up, Jim discovered that the power was out in both bathrooms.  Just what you want right before guests arrive, right?  Well, we got electricians in and they fixed it, departing something like ten minutes before Jim had to go to the airport.

Our weekend plans included a visit to Weems Art Fest, our favorite arts and crafts festival and where we take care of a lot of our holiday shopping.  As someone who tries to make a living from being creative, I like to support those who are also following that dream, even if the medium is different.

I also really respect Mary Ann Weems, who runs the festival because every year she donates a large amount of space to various animal rescue charities – and raises funds for several other charities as well.  I’m certain she could find more than enough artists to fill the area, but instead she gives room to various groups, including Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.  Now that I think about it, the first time I met a wolf up close and personal, it was at one of these art fests.  The picture of me and Raven that adorns several of the Firekeeper novels was taken at an art fest, too.

So autumn is definitely here and, in typical New Mexico fashion, reminding us that winter is coming on strong.  After a year that has included both record highs and lows in temperatures, chokingly strong smoke from forest fires, and a lot of disruptions of our home routine, I’m ready for a quiet and creative time with normal weather.

Wonder if I’ll get it.  Anybody want to place a bet?

TT: When Goose Isn’t

November 3, 2011

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to join the discussion on how you, as a reader, react to narrative hooks.  Then join me and Alan to learn the secret behind Colonial Goose and other exotic delicacies.

JANE: So, Alan, a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about how

Colonial Goose

conglomerates can take over a local specialty – your example was Shipstones beer – and then make it generic and boring.

The same thing happened with a ginger ale that Jim and I both drank as children and loved – Vernors.  We’re still hunting for one with the same rich, spicy taste.  We’ve found a couple of good ones, but none are Vernors.  The ginger ale that comes out under the name Vernors is nothing like the original.

ALAN: Dandelion and Burdock.

JANE: Pardon me?

ALAN: When I was a little boy I used to drink a fizzy, soft drink called Dandelion and Burdock. There are recipes for it dating back to at least the thirteenth century, so it is quite an old and traditional drink. By the time I came across it, of course, I doubt if they were still making it from dandelions and burdock leaves. If they were, farmers would be growing them as cash crops instead of exterminating them as weeds. So I was probably drinking the usual mish-mash of artificially flavoured sugar water. But nevertheless it had a very distinctive taste, utterly different from anything else I’ve ever had before or since.

There’s a shop in Wellington that sells only British produce. It has a large clientele of nostalgic emigrants. Robin went there and, at enormous expense, bought me a can of Dandelion and Burdock for my birthday. It tasted just as I always remember it tasting. So everything is not all doom and gloom…

JANE: I’m glad to hear that.  I wonder, if I went to New Zealand or even Australia (your Robin’s stomping grounds) – what are some local tastes I shouldn’t miss?

ALAN: Ah! The archetypal Antipodean food is vegemite and/or marmite. The vegemite/marmite battle is one of the great religious debates down here. Both are things you spread on toast and both are made by doing horrible things to brewers yeast that has become exhausted after brewing too much beer. See – beer is central to absolutely everything that is important in life.

Both substances look like they might be useful for lubricating axles and both, as far as I am concerned, taste revolting. Robin, being a true Australian, swears that vegemite is the one true spread and insists that marmite is only for wimps and expat brits. And who am I to tell her she is wrong? The One True Vegemite is manufactured in Australia by Kraft Foods at their Port Melbourne factory. Accept no substitutes. Marmite is a substitute…

JANE: “Revolting”?   That’s an opinion, not a flavor.   How would Robin describe it?  Sweet?  Spicy?  Salty?

I’m not saying your opinion isn’t valid – one reason Jim and I eat out is there are things I like (mushrooms, for example) that he finds revolting and things he likes (sweet and sour sauce, which to me is just sweet), that I don’t like.

ALAN: I asked Robin what vegemite tastes like to her and she said, “Just like marmite, only more.”

So I asked Robin’s mum and she said, “It tastes like very strong gravy.”

We’ve got a jar in the cupboard so I tried some to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was worse! I found it overpoweringly salty and sour.

JANE: Well, I guess I’d try it, but I can’t say I anticipate the experience.

What about lamb or mutton?   I was amazed by how many sheep I saw when I was in New Zealand.  Neither lamb nor mutton are highly popular in the U.S.   I am in the minority in liking them.   I probably do because both my mother and grandmother knew how to bring out the best in both lamb and mutton.

ALAN: Perversely it’s almost impossible to get decent lamb or mutton in the shops here. We export all the good stuff and all that’s left for local consumption is rather poor quality; full of fat and gristle. The occasional good batch does turn up, of course, but it’s the exception rather than the rule and it tends to be snatched up by the restaurant trade.

However the one good bit of  lamb or mutton that you can always rely on is Colonial Goose, which is unique to New Zealand.

JANE: Okay…  This sounds fascinating.  Tell more!

ALAN; Colonial Goose is a leg of mutton which has been deboned and stuffed with breadcrumbs, onion, parsley, thyme, honey and dried apricots. It is marinated in red wine and slowly roasted. It is just as delicious as it sounds. Apparently the early colonists, bereft at the scarcity of geese in their adopted country, tried very hard to emulate it with local ingredients. I’ve never had goose myself, but I’m told that our version is a reasonable facsimile.

JANE: That sounds good, except, maybe, for the honey.  I’m not really fond of sweet sauces.  One of my on-going complaints here is that so many restaurants think they must serve lamb covered in a mint jelly glaze.  Yuck!

ALAN: I suppose every region must have its own characteristic food. I’ve heard about green chile as something popular in your part of the world.  It’s not common here, except in Asian and Indian restaurants of course. So, tell me, what makes it so special?

JANE: That’s going to take more than a few words.  Let me get back to you later!

Coloring The Reaction

November 2, 2011

A few weeks ago, when we were discussing just how many pages you give a book before giving up on it (WW 10-12-11), Peter made a couple of comments that I

Reader Coloring Reaction

felt merited further discussion.

He said he felt he was getting better at distinguishing between books he wouldn’t ever want to read and “books I may want to read, but not right now.”  Later, he gave a good example of this, mentioning Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon as a book he enjoyed when he returned to it “in a more patient mood.”

That response really rang some chimes with me as a reader – and made me think as a writer.  You see, writers and writers’ workshops often present narrative hooks as if a good hook is going to work with every reader at all times.

Peter’s comments – and reading between the lines on some of the other comments – show how much the reader brings to the process.

I have a good friend, a very intelligent woman with three small children, a family business, and a lot of outside interests.  She is also an avid reader.  She admits that, at this point in her life, she wants to read books where at least one character is in control of the situation.  She doesn’t care how wild the ride gets as the story unfolds, as long as she knows that this “control character” will, in the end, set things right.

I admit, I can see her point.  If your life is full of chaos, why add more in your down time?  I know that in such times, rather than seeking “control characters” I tend to re-read, but the impulse is similar.  I know where I’m going.  Uncertainty is diminished and so is artificial stress.

Recently, I came across a great example of a narrative hook that would work when I was in one sort of mood, but not in another.  It was in the prologue to Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: “The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.”

I read this, then sat and stared at the page.  On the one hand, that sentence caught my curiosity.  How could someone be “ready to be shot”?  Odd phrase, odd circumstances.  On the other hand, the promise of violence, of someone in distress and maybe beyond rescue, made me a little edgy – and I was already in an edgy mood.

Initially, I put the book aside, but a few days later I came back to it and finished the prologue.  This ended with what might be considered its own narrative hook.

“An outcropping of the thing shifted toward her.  Compared to the whole, it seemed no larger than a toe, a little finger.  It was Captain Darren’s head.

“‘Help me,’ it said.”

Well, with that I decided to keep reading.  I’ll admit, neither of these hooks were what kept me reading to the end of a long novel.  My growing interest in the main characters kept me going.  Without that, not even the very interesting puzzles presented would have been enough.

So where do you stand?  Are there hooks that will work at one time, but not another?  How about chapter endings, like the one I found at the end of the prologue?  Can one of those tease you into reading just a little more?  Is there at time you’re more likely to read something with a tense and edgy opening?

Coffee mug is full and I’m eager to hear what you think…