Monday, August 3, 2020

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek—a book review and recommendation







This book by Karel  Čapek (pronounced Chap-ick) came highly recommended by a Czech friend. In fact she sent me a copy with the best English translation she could find. Imagine my surprise to see a blurb on the back cover from none other than Kurt Vonnegut
"God bless Catbird Press for calling the attention of Americans to a great writer of the past who speaks to the present in a voice brilliant, clear, honorable, blackly funny, and prophetic." ~ Kurt Vonnegut
War with the Newts is about a Sea Captain who finds salamander-like beings who help him harvest pearls. I love the way it's written. It's fast-paced with the help of newspaper clippings that one of the characters collects about the newts. 

It stunned me to realize how absolutely relevant this book is in today's world. I didn't get very far in before the Sea Captain was deep into racial slurs for pretty much the entire planet. He hits up a lawyer he remembers from the old neighborhood as a "pimply Jewish kid". Captain J. Van Toch had bullied Bondy in school and now he asks for his help with his newt enterprise. They're old men at this point and both remember the old days fondly, which both made me roll my eyes and chuckle a little. 

Blacky funny it is, but also horribly prophetic in turn. Mankind enslaves the newts. They're used in medical experiments, treated with no regard other than economic needs and help in underwater engineering endeavors (something they're profoundly brilliant at). This book made me see on yet another level how absolutely inhumane and disgusting slavery was.

My first impression of the book was knee-jerk judgement for the racist language and the stereotyping comments about Czechs, English, Americans, and pretty much every nationality. That quickly gave way to the realization that this author knew exactly how to get his point across. What blew my mind was that this book was published in 1936, after World War I, but before World War II, yet it foreshadowed the Second World War at every turn. Another thing that shocked me was that the stereotyping in this book is precisely the same kind still espoused about countries and peoples now.

It even had people in the southern half of the United States trying to give the newts religion and occasionally lynching them. What I think you get from this book is how little the world has changed in nearly a hundred years, how selfishly cruel humanity can be, and how exceedingly short-sighted and stupid we can be when we look at everything first from an economic standpoint. 

If I could have one wish after reading this, it would be that everyone in the country would read this book. Karel  Čapek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times. He introduced the word Robot into our language. He and his brother, Josef, were famous for their work. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) Karel was considered Public Enemy Number Two. They weren't aware he'd already died of pneumonia, but his brother, Josef, died in a concentration camp. They weren't Jewish, but were well-known to be anti-fascist. 

War of the Newts is a short book and a brilliant read. I'm already hunting up more of his work. It's absolutely that good. I cannot possibly recommend a book more. No amount of stars can do it justice. Read it. You will be blown away. 



Friday, July 24, 2020

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates——a book review and recommendation






Between the World and Me is written by a black man, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for his adolescent son. It's a National Book Award Winner and a #1 New York Times Bestseller. The book is Coates' experience and advice to his adolescent son on what it's like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live with it. This book is visceral and deep, painfully beautiful, and will climb inside you. 

To say it's five stars doesn't go far enough. It's brilliant. It's a short book of a mere 152 pages yet you need to pause and catch your breath throughout it. There are no chapters. It begins with:

    Son,

From there the pages are blocks of words with few paragraphs and no white space. White space is a writer term for what's considered "breathing space" within a book. This book is only broken up by a rare photograph or a quote. It struck me as I dove into Between the World and Me that there was no escape from Coates' words. There was no space to rest and no room to breathe. The entire time I read, George Floyd and "I can't breathe" weighed on my soul. 

Coates is a brilliant writer and there are quotes that I found particularly profound, painful, and perfect. In discussing his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by police, this has been burned into me:

"Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of the striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters...Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone..."


It's the first thing I've ever read that seemed to come close to what I think of as the fathomless loss of losing a child. 

Another story that struck me with particular severity was this one:

"One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a preschool. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children. The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum. You have never been afraid of people, of rejection, and I have always admired you for this and always been afraid for you because of this. I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, "We don't know these folks! Be cool!" I did not do this. I was growing, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew that there was nothing noble in it, that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."

Coates' feeling that his son would be rejected is familiar and possibly relatable for most parents. What drop-kicked me was the last line about measuring that fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy impart to their own children. What hit me was that I am one of those masters of the galaxy. I imparted boldness into my children, or tried. What hit me was what an immense privilege that is. What hit me was the realization that that could sometimes be a dangerous thing. What hit me was the brutal sadness of that. 

This entire book will hit you. Let it. I could not recommend a book more. 


Friday, July 10, 2020

P.S. Yes, I Quit Social Media and Forgot to Tell You




Why?


It's been about five months now so this is old news. I quit social media before COVID-19 first locked us down in the USA. Can you remember back then? 

Leaving Facebook/Twitter/Instagram had been on my mind for about two years. I'd delete the apps from my phone, and promptly put them back on. I liked seeing what everyone was doing and its an excellent diversion from things I should be doing—like really writing. It's extra tough to stay focused on work when you always work at home. You all probably know this since so many more people now have experience with working at home. 

There was an inciting incident. Someone stole photos of a preschooler in my family and used them online. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I thought who knows how many other seemingly innocent interactions happen online everyday that someone takes advantage of? Plenty, I'm sure. 

How?


As a writer I've been told countless times that I have to have an online presence. My online presence helped me promote my first published book back in 2013 up to the more recent  memoir on Alzheimer's. It helped me interact with other writers. Many good things have come into my life online. As far as an online presence helping to sell books, I kept track of my sales and my online social media posts about my books for nearly a year and found absolutely no correlation. So I deleted Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all my YouTube videos despite losing my blue checks. I've kept my monthly newsletter,  this blog, and my website

After I left social media behind, COVID hit and I worried about people. I did some online stalking. I wish I could say I spent less time on my phone. Total hours on my phone dropped some. It dropped even more when I deleted my YouTube app and stopped entertaining myself with those via my phone.

What? 


What I can say is that by being off social media I've gotten more productive. I've taken online classes, webinars, and attended countless ZOOM meetings. I've written an entire book since then. It's in its third draft and will head for story edits soon. Every day I walk for miles. Most days I talk to real people, social distancing but still. Not to mention: writing letters, planting herbs, yoga, language and diction lessons, and I make art. 

Recently a friend asked if I miss Facebook and when am I coming back? I miss people I'd gotten to know online but I definitely don't miss Facebook—not even a little. I've never been a good fit on Twitter. I'm entirely too happy and it reminded me of mobs with pitchforks long before we started talking about Cancel Culture. Instagram, dang, I do miss Instagram. What's not to love about Instagram? Do I feel more in control of my life? Hah, I don't think anyone can say that in these times. I'm content and productive. It feels good. 


Monday, June 29, 2020

Time Travel and Screenplays—Life in the Days of COVID-19





The Best Time Travel Movie


The Lake House is on Netflix. It's the one with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. I like to rewatch time travel movies. Trying to keep the story straight is like doing a Sudoku puzzle. It shouldn't be that hard, but neither should daylight savings time.

Usually we're only talking about two timelines. In The Lake House I have trouble following. Wait, she's from the future. Follow. Kate's from the future. *ten minutes later* Hold up! If Kate is from the future by two years and Alex is from two years ago and they share the same dog how does that work? And why are Kate's doctor co-worker friend with the Dutch accent, and her mother with the Israeli accent so easy for me to mix up? The first time I saw it I thought it was the same person and I was so confused.

The thing about time travel movies is some focus on the how and some like The Lake House go for a cause and effect situation. This happened. Is it the mailbox or the magic dog? Don't ask questions. Focus. The doctor friend has great hair, the mom has great lines. Pay attention. After The Lake House I had to watch About Time for the umpteenth time. The time travel isn't fancy. It's dark closet, close eyes, clench fists and voila. That movie is about what you DO with the ability, not HOW it works, or even whatever The Lake House is about. Plant more trees?

My favorite time travel movie is the Terminator. All that action totally wins time travel movies. T2 and Arnold's whole, "Come with me if you want to live," in the psychiatric hospital with Sarah Connor and young John Connor, is stellar. I never have trouble following those time changes and updates but throw in the dog paw prints in The Lake House and I'm all, okay so her dog from the future goes to the past and walks through the paint. No, her dog from the past goes to the future and his paw prints match the old paint ones? 

Is the mailbox a wormhole?


It must be. They never get any mail other than from each other and people still sent mail in 2004 and 2006. I know. I was there. I pay more attention to movie screenplays now that I've been writing them. Screenplays are mostly action and dialogue. They're fun to write but you have to plan them carefully. By nature I'm a pantser. A story idea hits me and I open a new document and start writing. It unfolds in some ways for me as if I'm reading it. I love first drafting a novel.

A few drafts in I want to set fire to it but I'm stubborn enough to keep at it and change things that aren't working. Many writers write a plot outline first. I've done that. The problem is I don't follow them. I like to be surprised and there's a school of thought that if the writer knows what's going to happen as she writes that the reader will know too.

Let's not get into that argument. I figure write the way it works for you. It's your baby.

Screenplays are different 


Screenplays are much shorter than a book. Pretty much every action and word is forwarding the story in some way. Books are supposed to be like that mostly. The difference being they're fluffier. There's juxtaposition. Thoughts. Philosophies. Description. You can have some of those things in a screenplay but they must be lean and purposeful right out of the gate and there isn't enough ROOM to show everything the book says.

I don't get the same meeting of the minds in a movie like I do in a book. There's a voice in a book that's absent in a movie. An author cozies up with you. When it's done right you don't even notice the voice in your ear. That meeting of minds is absent in a movie. It's possible I am missing it. I do get stuck contemplating the dog, the mailbox, and occasionally mixing up actors. I still like The Lake House. I'll bet that screenplay was written by a pantser. I see vast creativity weaving through it that an outline would abhor.

We're talking films here not books


If we were to talk favorite time travel books, I'd lean toward Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. NOT the movie. The book. There's a huge difference. The only thing they didn't change was the title. The book is gritty and punk rock. The movie is practically Hallmark. I say that but I've watched it and enjoyed it several times. It's simply not in the same league or category as the book.

I get why books change when they're made into movies now that I'm writing screenplays. They're being translated and things are lost in translation. Readers go to movies and whine about what is different and missing in the book to screen adaptation. I see why that's inevitable. You're showing showing showing in a movie. In a book you are transmitting feelings with far more words and abstract thoughts than you can use in a movie. Inner monologue is completely gone.

In a movie or television show someone is putting out vast amounts of money that has to be recouped on. Financiers expect a return on their investment. There are more cooks in the kitchen tasked with making that happen. As I see it movies are made for market. Books are secrets, whispers, and revelations. There's older, deeper magic there.



Monday, June 15, 2020

Diversity in Reading—and Black Lives Matter



Keep Going by Austin Kleon: I've read this several times and now keep it on my read pile.

We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union: Because it caught my eye in a bookstore months ago.

when they call you a terrorist a black lives matter memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele: This too caught my eye in a bookstore a few months ago. Also, diversity in reading helps make sense of the world.

A Journal of the Welsh Experience by Bailey Karfelt: This is a privately published little gem and not available for purchase. It's about wild outdoor adventures during a study abroad in Wales. 

I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi: This year I promised myself I'd read books on finances and economics. I don't want to be rich, just not financially stupid.

Dark Energy Poems by Feirstein: A few months ago I went to a bookstore in Cambridge, MA and this little gem insisted on going home with me. 

War with the Newts by Karel Capek: Twice now I've read this book halfway through. It was given to me by a Czech friend (she said it's a good translation). Karel Capek is the writer who coined the word robot. It's absolutely my thing which is why I have to start over every time I put it down and don't pick it up again. A sea captain finds a group of underwater humanoid creatures to help him in an economic endeavor. Circa 1936.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: A fictional story about an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. He's given to his master's brother who is a naturalist and abolitionist. 

Written in History letters that changed the world by Simon Sebag Montefiore: This book though! I picked it up at the Harvard bookstore in Cambridge, MA. It contains letters of people throughout history. Alexander Hamilton to Augustus. Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera. Hitler to Mussolini. Roosevelt to Churchhill. GANDHI to HITLER. And on and on. It is brilliant. I read it a couple letters at a time. 

Boundaries by Cloud/Townsend: I've reread this book at least twenty times. It's time for another go. It's all marked up and full of bookmarks. Highly recommend. 

The Miracle Game by Josef Skvorecky: It's heralded as an energetic and hilarious novel made more important by the final thawing of the long Communist winter in the country once known as Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic). It came highly recommended, a gift from a friend.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Let's use Toni Morrison's description, "The language of BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, like Coate's journey, is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading."

Becoming by Michelle Obama: I read most of this book when it was STOLEN by a friend and I recently had the opportunity to steal it back. As you can see from this list and photo, I like to read physical books. 

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson: I love this book about Da Vinci. We all know of him but the details really grab me. He finished almost nothing and had such enthusiasm for everything. I find him fascinating and I read half of this months ago. It fell behind the shelf and I just found it again.

White Fragility by Robin Diangelo: "Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism." This book was recommended in a screenwriting class I was taking. I couldn't get a hard copy so I put it on my kindle app. 

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith: A Novel from Hell's Library. A friend wanted me to read this so we could talk about it. The tagline is "Join the Library. Raise Hell." It's on my kindle app. My friend wanted me to read it so much she sent it to me. I love having friends who book. 

As you can see, I love to read. My TBR list is much larger than this, but these are on my immediate read pile. I don't know how long until I finish them because I'm also second drafting a novel I'm writing and I put my writing first. Soon. I'll review some here. 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Keening Under the Strawberry Moon—Life in the Time of COVID-19


COVID 19, travel, travel cancellation,
Nina's Pansion Alonissos, Greece


Today I won't be leaving The Shire here in New York to fly to Detroit to then fly to a different airport in New York and on to Athens, Greece

Tomorrow I won't be sleeping at the Sofitel Hotel that's only a quick walk from baggage claim. I won't be grabbing a taxi into downtown Athens to walk up to the Acropolis. I won't be darting into the Acropolis Museum to see the Caryatids or to pick up a notebook from the gift shop.

Tomorrow night I won't have a Greek Salad for dinner in my favorite taverna in Plaka. I won't have a glass of retsina and see the Strawberry Moon—the full moon in June—rising over the Acropolis. I won't meander back to the Sofitel across from the Athens Airport and sleep the deep untroubled, pre-COVID 19, sleep of a woman heading for her favorite writing retreat.

The day after tomorrow I won't wake up early and hurry back to the Athens Airport. I won't greet the barista behind the counter of Starbucks with Kalimera and enjoy a chai latte and banana before boarding my flight on Olympic Air to the island of Skiathos. 

The day after tomorrow I won't crowd into a taxi with four strangers and race to the port to catch my ferry to Alonissos. I won't sit outside on the deck in the sun and wind and watch the ice blue ferry wake, hoping to see dolphins in it.

The day after tomorrow I won't arrive in Patitiri, the Port of Alonissos, that quiet magical island that I dream of all year long. I won't drag my suitcase down the ramp dodging trucks and cars and hurrying to hug some of my favorite people in the world. I won't be greeted by Chrisoula. I won't see Julie's white hat. I won't haul my suitcase up four or five flights of stairs to my favorite room in the pansion overlooking the port. 

I won't walk up the steep hill to the shops for vegetables, olive oil, olives, and feta. I won't buy a pot of fresh lavender to put on my balcony where I won't write every night. I won't sit with the women writers I call my kula every day and write, or listen to them read their writing out loud. 

There will be no carrying bottles of water up all those flights of stairs every day. There will be no greeting familiar faces with Yassos. There will be no hiring a taxi to take me to Leftos Gialos, my favorite beach on the island, no welcome dinner at Elenas with tables scattered inside an olive grove while the Aegean touches the shore. I won't greet Yaya who makes the spinach pies and sits beneath a giant olive tree in her scarf and wishes a friendly kalisperra to every guest.

There will be no donkeys, no hikes up the donkey trail to Kali Thea, no massages or yoga with Bibi and Lee. There will be no sunsets in Old Town. No writing tucked in chairs beneath cascades of bougainvillea. No losing track of time and staying so late I have to call my favorite taxi driver and ask please, parakalo, don't make me walk the donkey trail in the dark.

Billy the Seal may very well slide up onto the port beach and steal someone's lounge chair but it won't be mine. There will be no thundering music at The Drunk Seal, no gathering with friends at Carolis for olives and sparkling water, no midnight gelatto. 

Yet, I've had that, because despite COVID-19, I am the luckiest writer you never heard of. Next year maybe I'll go back and I will once more wallow in my perfect paradise. Only not this year and for today, tomorrow, and maybe the day after tomorrow, I'm going to allow myself to miss that. 


Monday, May 4, 2020

A Gluten-Free Crustless Quiche Recipe—Life in the Time of Coronavirus

writer, cooking, fast, hack, karfelt
My gluten-free crustless quiche


Cooking doesn't interest me like writing—though eating good food admittedly does—so if there is a hack or a shortcut to be had in the cooking world, I've probably found it. I've been making a quiche nearly every week since lockdown began. It lasts several days making a quick breakfast, lunch, or even dinner with a side salad.

This is a crustless gluten-free quiche recipe I've had for years. Long ago I had a handwritten recipe for it from someone somewhere, but it's been lost for ages . For some time I've been winging it using only my memory. You can put whatever you like inside for fillings. For this recipe I'm making Quiche Lorraine using Gruyere Cheese, bacon, chives (freeze dried), and a pinch of nutmeg. 

The amount of eggs you'll need depends on the size of your pie pan (does it have higher sides making it deeper?) and the size of your eggs (small, large, extra large). Guesstimate lower so you don't overfill your pie pan. You don't want it to cook over.


My Quiche Recipe
Ingredients

8/9 large eggs
1 Cup 4% Cottage Cheese
2 Tbsp. melted butter

Preferred Fillings & Spices

~8 oz of other cheese (grated)
Five slices cooked chopped bacon
Nutmeg
Chives (I use freeze dried)
Spray pie pan with cooking oil.
Preheat oven to 350° F

Mix the first three ingredients in a blender.

Eggs. Cottage Cheese. Melted butter.

Blend on liquefy.



After you've blended the eggs, cottage cheese, and melted butter in the blender, gently and briefly blend in your spices. For Quiche Lorraine I add three heaping tablespoons of freeze-dried chives and just a pinch of nutmeg. Nutmeg can be a wonderful secret ingredient or a hideous what were you thinking one. Less is more with nutmeg. 


Pour just enough of the mixture from the blender to cover the bottom of your sprayed pie pan. Add your cooked, chopped bacon.



Add shredded cheese. 



Sometimes I'm a cheese snob and grate my own. Sometimes not. For Quiche Lorraine I use Gruyere or Swiss.




Slowly add the rest of your egg mixture over your fillings. You want to cover all of the cheese rather than leave it on top. This prevents extreme browning. Since you're not using a crust you have to use caution to prevent over-browning. 



(I used 8 eggs here.)




Check your quiche several times during cooking. Normally I set a ten minute timer, a twenty minute timer, and a thirty minute timer. Cooking it at 350° F, if it's browning in ten minutes reduce temperature to 325° for the duration (though you might have to add another ten minutes if you do lower the temperature). It does tend to poof up a bit like a souffle while cooking. It'll flatten during cooling. Using the same oven at the same temperature I've had to alter the timing/temperature, go figure. It tends to overcook rather than undercook and sets up nicely.




If anyone finds out I'm making this I usually wind up making two, one to share even in the time of a pandemic. 



It's yum. I promise.