June 15

Beet-Pickled Turnips! [Recipe]

Yeah, I know, you’re asking yourself “why did he do this?” It was an experiment. I was making a batch of roasted root vegetables and ended up with a few extra beets and turnips. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I didn’t want to stick them back in the veggie drawer in the fridge because I knew I’d end up forgetting about them. So I decided to experiment.

Of course, I didn’t think to document every step. Regardless, I can give you a quick rundown of the recipe and the process.Beet-picked turnips in mason jar.

  • 1 pound of turnips, peeled and sliced into roughly ½ inch batons
  • 1 small beet (I used red), cut into ½ inch thick baton
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ cups of water
  • 3 TB of Kosher salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup of vinegar (I used white, but apple cider would be good, too)
  • 1 TSP of whole coriander seed
  • 1 TSP black peppercorn

After you’ve cut up the veggies, stuff them into a Mason or Ball jar. In a non-reactive pot, heat the water, vinegar, salt, bay leaf, and the other spices to boil, then remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes. Once it’s not incredibly scalding, carefully pour the liquid into the jar (you can discard the bay leaf at this point).

Pop the top on and let it cool a bit more on the countertop. You can stick it in the refrigerator for five days or so, then it ready to eat.Close-up of beet pickled turnip slice.

And yes, these turned out amazing. They’re as tasty as they are beautiful. Hope you try it.

RB

June 11

Russian Literature [Books]

I’m not sure when my affinity for Russian literature initially took hold. The first Russian author I read was Nikolai Gogol. I picked up a short story collection of his, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories in a book store in the mall. It wasn’t an official volume, but rather a collection of his short stories put together by some publisher. And to be completely honest, I knew nothing about Gogol or his work at the time. I bought the book based solely on the title. Cover of The Nose by Babel.

Needless to say, I loved his stories. “The Nose” is one of my favorites, a surreal tale of a mid-level administrator’s nose detaching itself from his face and beginning a life of its own. The Nose then begins to rise in the civil service and eventually outranks its previous owner. On the surface the story is absurd and surreal, but beneath the surface it was a scathing commentary on social rank and bureaucracy.

Gogol’s great – albeit unfinished – novel, Dead Souls, is also wonderful. He had imagined it as a Russian retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but instead focusing on satirizing Russia’s social system at the time, and again pointing out the ridiculous bureaucracy of the government. Sadly, Gogol was declining mentally at the time and in a manic fit he burned most of the manuscript in his fireplace. What we’re left with is the first third of the story, which will forever end mid-sentence.

I later discovered Leo Tolstoy and spent an entire summer reading War and Peace. An amazing volume, but a reader needs the stamina of an Olympic athlete to make it all the way through. Having a character sheet to keep track of everyone is also helpful.

Photo of DostoevskyBesides Gogol, I also developed an affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my humble opinion, Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s one of those stories that I find myself returning to every few years for a re-read. The theme of dealing with the repercussions of our actions struck a chord with me. It felt like an accompaniment to my interest in Buddhist philosophy and the western definition of karma (we get what’s coming to us).

Of course, I can’t omit one of the greatest short story writers of any nationality – Anton Chekhov. The man was a master of short form writing and reading his work is like a master class in fiction. No, I don’t have a favorite short story of his. They are all incredible. If you want to learn how to tell an amazing story, read Chekhov.

Besides these heavy-hitters, I’ve also enjoyed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel was written during Stalin’s regime and, sadly, the author never saw it published. Nearly thirty years after his death, a censored version was published in 1967. In 1973, an uncensored version was published, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the canonical edition was published, based on all available manuscripts that still existed.

The story is, well, definitely different from most mainstream Russian literature of the time and is reminiscent of Gogol’s work. The story takes place in two settings – Moscow in the 1930s as Satan and several of his entourage arrive for a bit of fun, and Jerusalem during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a dark satire that weaves together a mix of commentary on society, religion, corruption, and government bureaucracy. Are you sensing a theme with these Russian writers?

Red Cavalry book coverOne final Russian author I want to mention is Isaac Babel. His short story collection, Red Calvary, is a brilliant collection of stories that all take place during the Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921) and are based on a diary Babel maintained while working as a journalist during the conflict. I’d almost liken these stories to creative non-fiction since many come from actual events and situations he witnessed. It’s a powerful read, much like All Quiet on the Western Front. Stark, brutal, but also well-written and thought-provoking.

I realize that Russian literature isn’t for everyone. It’s often bleak, dreary, and bitter. Their country has gone through a lot of changes over the past couple of centuries, both politically and socially, but those dark times have influenced and inspired a stable of amazing writers and a library of stories that could only be told by people who have lived through them.

If you haven’t yet, please check out some of these writers and their stories. Many of the older authors – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – can be found on Project Gutenberg since they are in public domain. Project Gutenberg logo

I think there’s a lot to be learned from reading stories from other cultures, especially ones we aren’t familiar with. Not only does it expose us to new ideas and storytelling styles, but it also gives us a glimpse into those cultures. Art can help us to understand each other, why we are the way we are, and maybe help us to be more empathetic to what others have gone through.

RB

June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB

 

June 8

Saying Goodbye to Dick Robinson [Books]

Just a quick post to say thank you and goodbye to one of the people who helped me develop a love of books and reading. Although you may not know who he is just from his name, Mr. Robinson had a huge impact on getting young people to read here in the U.S. Dick Robinson

For nearly five decades, Mr. Robinson was the CEO of Scholastic Books, Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Scholastic Books, they have been arranging and hosting book fairs in public schools since the 1970s.

Interesting note: The article at Publishers Weekly states that Scholastic starting hosting book fairs in schools in 1981. However, I remember attending the fairs when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. Weird…

To understand how big of an impact Scholastic has had on the book business, consider they are responsible for approximately 120,000 yearly book sale events. That is getting a lot of books into the hands of a lot of kids. And I think that’s amazing.

One of the cool things about Mr. Robinson is that he considered reading a civil right. He was adamantly anti-censorship and incredibly pro-literacy. He also acknowledged that Scholastic played a big part in broadening children’s understanding of the world around them. Scholastic books logo

He once said: “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them.” I can attest to that. Over the years, they have received a great deal of my book money, and I’ve finished every single book I’ve purchased from them. I spent many wonderful hours roaming the shelves at the book fairs they held in the schools I attended, carefully choosing which ones I wanted to read, which adventures I wanted to go on.

Mr. Robinson’s passing is like losing a piece of my childhood. For what it’s worth, thank you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for educating me, entertaining me, and for showing me the wonders that lie on a bookshelf.

RB

June 7

A Poetry Moment VI – Surf [Poetry]

Hollywood Beach
A photo I took on Hollywood Beach, FL, 2013.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the ocean. I grew up on and around the water, spending long hours swimming, snorkeling, boating, fishing, and laying on the sand with a good book to read.

I tried to capture the essence of a day at the beach in a poem. Something that expressed how I feel inside when I hear the ceaseless roar of the waves, the smell of salt in the air, the warmth of the sun. I think I ended up with something very close.

Surf

Porcelain white gulls,

shadows crossing me like a dream

as I lay in the gilded rays.

My thoughts adrift

on the audible surf,

gently bobbing

here and there.

The contours of the sand

like a maternal blanket,

holding me fast and secure.

Shadows flit over me,

gentle caresses,

a lover’s touch

and I sigh.

RB

June 7

Writing About Reading is Complicated [Books]

I feel like it’s becoming more complicated to write about reading. It used to be that if I wanted to read a story, I’d pick up a paperback or hardback book and dig in. Afterwards, I could tell people I read an amazing book (or sometimes not so amazing). It was cut and dried.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.Recently, I enjoyed my first audiobook. It was a wonderful story by Kelly Miller entitled, Accusing Mr. Darcy, and set in the world of Jane Austin. It was a great experience. I was already a fan of podcasts (even hosting one myself), but I’d never delved into the realm of having a book read to me. It felt like I was a kid again listening to an adult read me a bedtime story. No complaints here.

But when I sat down to write a review of the story I ran into an obstacle. That is, how do I explain how I experienced the story? I mean, it’s not like I read the book. I listened to it. But then, is it still considered a book if it’s audio? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say I listened to a story?

My head was spinning more than usual.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against audiobooks. In fact, I plan on recording my short story collections in order to give readers (listeners?) another option for enjoying my fiction. Plus, if it gets more people to buy more fiction, I’m going to support it. It’s important for authors to reach the broadest audience possible.

In my head, however, I’m still adapting to the medium. I’m old-school in that I like physical books. I like to hold them in my hand, feel the paper under my fingers, smell the ink, hear that spine crack when I first open it, and see them lined up on my shelves like badges of honor. Story collections.

With audiobooks, and ebooks, there’s no paper, no ink, no way to display them. Yes, I own a Kindle and I use it fairly often (generally for books that are unavailable in print or for public-domain titles I download from Project Gutenberg). It actually took me a while to take the ebook dive. It’s convenient, a bit lighter in weight than a physical book, and I can slip it into a pocket on my backpack with ease. But still…it’s not REAL.

I think the thing I have to get over is the fact that, with audiobooks, I can’t say I’ve read them. And it sounds weird to me to say, “I listened to a great book this weekend.”

Yeah, I know, I sound like one of those old men who complain about how much better things were when they were young. Look, I’m all for progress. Like I mention above, if another format gets people buying more fiction, then I’m going to support it. Audiobooks, ebooks, hell, maybe even animated books that have the characters pop up on the page and act out the story for you.

Just like language, the way stories are told is going to evolve over time. If storytelling can be experimental, then so can the way we enjoy them.

I’ll be listening to more audiobooks in the future and looking forward to the next great advance in storytelling.

RB

June 2

The Shape of Things [Creativity]

“I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things.” Leonard Cohen.

I read this quote recently by the amazing poet Leonard Cohen. After I read it, it took a moment for it to sink in. Then it hit me: This is one of the keys to creativity – finding the shape of things. Leonard Cohen

The way I interpret the quote, Cohen isn’t speaking literally. It’s not about physical shape, it’s about finding the essence of things, the true nature.

For writers, this means finding the essence of a story and the characters. Why should this story be told? What does the protagonist want? Is there something the reader should get out of it?

Sometimes the questions can be easily answered. Other times, well, we have to dig deeper.

I find that it’s important to know what my characters want, what they need, what they long for. No matter how long or short the story, it all comes down to what the characters want. Do they want to find love? Revenge? Achieve a dream? Find a lost item they hold dear?

Want is what drives us as people, so the same goes for the people living in our heads and in our stories. I want to be able to pay my bills, so I go to work. I want to make my partner happy so I do things for her. I like to see people smile so I practice random acts of kindness.

But it goes much deeper than that. When you understand what a character wants, then you begin to understand their true essence, their shape. Is the character caught up in thoughts of revenge for some wrong? What is driving them to this? Why is it important to them? What do they hope to achieve by this act? Closure? Satisfaction?

It’s like peeling away layers of wrapping paper or uncovering nesting dolls. There’s more beneath the surface and we never quite know what we’ll find. You may think a character is a square, but as the story progresses you find out she’s a rectangle. Close to what you imagined, but not quite who you thought they were. Russian Nesting Dolls

The same applies to stories. Many stories are straightforward when we write them. Start at one point and end at another. We can see the path. Others, however, can take sudden, unexpected turns. We think we’re writing one type of story and later realize it’s something altogether different.

I think that’s a good thing. A good story should surprise the writer as much as the reader. Knowing the true shape of a story ahead of time takes the fun out of the creative process. I start a story – either writing or reading – with expectations in mind. It’s unavoidable. I’ve read the blurb on the back of the cover or I have some notes written down in a rough outline. Illustration of a face.

If things go the way I expect I end up disappointed. I mean, I want to discover something new, be caught off guard, be surprised. I want to be like an archeologist and slowly uncover something different buried in the sand. I can see some of it and speculate on what lies beneath, but I won’t know for sure until I dig it out.

Think about this when you start your next creative project. Peel away the layers and discover the true shape.

RB

May 31

Music Moment – After the Gold Rush [Music]

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Neil Young. He first came to prominence in the late 1960s as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Later, in between releasing solo albums, he also was an on again/off again member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

While his efforts with other musicians has always been fantastic, he really shines in his solo work. Particularly, his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. It’s not a rock album, but more of a country and folk record. Mellow, low-key, and perfect for lazy Sunday mornings.

My favorite cut on the album is the title track. It’s soft, dreamy, and wistful, yet at the same time it’s heartbreaking. Neil sings at the higher-end of his vocal range, which adds an almost childlike quality to the song.

The funny thing is, while the lyrics are incredibly moving, they really don’t make a lot of sense. In fact, when the song way covered by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt for their album, Trio, Dolly called Neil to ask what the song was about.

Neil’s response? According to Emmylou, he said: ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.’

Regardless, I think the lyrics paint a melancholy and beautiful picture.

Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming
Sayin’ something about a queen
There were peasants singing and drummers drumming
And the archer split the tree

There was a fanfare blowing to the sun
There was floating on the breeze

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the twentieth century
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the twentieth century

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky

There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high

I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie
Thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones

All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun

Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed
To a new home

Lyrics by Neil Young

And to give you a taste of just how lovely the song is, here are two versions. The first is by Neil, the second is the cover version by Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda. Honestly, I can’t say which is better. Both are haunting, beautiful, and stick with me long after the last note fades away.

RB

May 27

Are We Our Characters? [Writing]

When it comes to acting, I’ve read and watched interviews with actors explaining how they inhabit the characters they play. In some cases, a few of them have had a hard time separating themselves from the characters, even going so far as to seek professional help in order to get back into their own psyche.

This got me thinking about writers and the characters we create in our fiction. It’s said that all writers put a little bit of themselves into their stories. I agree with that. I know that once I’ve finished a story I can look back over it and see little pieces of myself in there, like my experiences and my personality.

But with that, can writers experience the same situation as some of those actors, where we end up having trouble separating ourselves from the characters we create? Gears inside of a head

I don’t see it happening with short fiction, although I assume it’s possible. With short fiction, we aren’t interacting with the characters for a long stretch of time. It’s sort of like participating in a one-act play. I don’t think there’s enough time to really immerse oneself into the character for it to become a problem.

With longer fiction, however, I could see that happening. And not just novels, but also longer plays and movie scripts. In these cases, the writer is spending long periods of time with the characters, especially the protagonist. For long-form work, we have to get inside the character’s head, figure out what motivates them, what they want, their background, their personalities, their hopes and fears. In a way, it isn’t too far removed from acting.

What I’m curious about is if any authors have been so wrapped up in a story they were writing that they had a hard time separating themselves from the characters. Think about some of the more intense characters you’ve encountered in fiction, movies, plays. Consider Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. All very intense, conniving personalities. How could an author not get tangled up in their creations?

For actors, in most cases, they are inhabiting a character that was created by someone else. They look at a script as a blueprint, and from there they piece it together. In the situations where the script was based on a novel, they may even read the book to get more depth. But for a writer, the characters begin and end in their heads. There isn’t any separation, no division between the two. blurred image of woman

Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever read of an author having the same issues as an actor when it comes to keeping a distance between themselves and the characters. I wonder why that is? Perhaps writers have more control. I mean, we are the ones creating the characters out of thin air. It’s easy enough to kill them off if we want to, or put them through traumatic experiences to teach them a lesson. Hell, we can simply highlight their existence and hit the ‘delete’ key. A snap of the fingers and they never existed.

I’d be interested to see some research into this, especially if it explains how writers can seemingly get away with having characters live in their heads. And no, I don’t think it’s because we’re all a little crazy.

At least, I hope not.

RB

May 25

Banana Bread Two Ways

If you’ve watched my cooking show, you’ll know that my partner loves her some banana bread. She buys a bunch of bananas every month and refuses to eat them in the hopes that they’ll turn brown and I’ll make a loaf. Or two. It’s become a bit of a game with us, with me reminder her about the bananas she bought and that she should eat them before they go bad, and her acknowledging my comment, but leaving them to hang, dejected, on the little hook in the kitchen.

overripe bananasAnd I’ll get ‘the look’ if I eat them. I can usually sneak a couple off the hook when she isn’t looking, but it’s a risky enterprise.

We played it again recently, and I (lucky me) ended up with enough over-ripe bananas to make two loaves. Unfortunately, I didn’t have quite enough all-purpose flour to make two full loaves, so I had to improvise.

And a quick side note here: I am not a fan of baking. There are a few things I’ll make, like bread, but for the most part I shy away from the baking/pastry/sweets aspect of the kitchen. Partly because I really don’t eat sweet stuff, and partly because it doesn’t allow for as much improvisation and creativity as regular cooking. But I digress…

I didn’t realize this at first and mixed up the first batch, poured it into the pan, popped it in the oven. When there was about fifteen minutes left on the timer, I started on the next loaf. And that’s when I realized I was short about a half of a cup of flour.

I cursed the heavens.

Well, not really, but I had to figure out what to do about the situation. I dug around in the pantry for a few minutes and discovered a small bag of coconut flour I had bought a few months ago for some other failed cooking experiment. Would it work? Could it be a fair substitute? I could have look online to see for sure, but at that point I figured I could risk it. At least I had one good loaf almost ready. That would keep her placated until she decided it was time for another round of Ignore the Bananas Until They Are Gross.

Two loaves of banana bread
Loaf with all-purpose and coconut flour (left), and all-purpose flour only (right)

I’ve added shredded, unsweetened coconut flakes in the past in my banana bread, but never flour. I had no idea what to expect. A flat loaf? A brick that could chip teeth? A biohazard?

Luckily, I hit it out of the park. The coconut flour did change the texture of the crust, made it a little crispier, gave it a bit more personality. The interior – the crumb – seemed a little bit denser. Overall, however, it turned out well.

So well, in fact, that I’ve been ordered…I mean, instructed, to use the coconut flour in the next batch.

Hooray for lucky guesses!

RB