Three news articles to make your week happier

How’s your week going? Has it been peachy-keen? Have there been kittens and rainbows involved? Or are you just gritting your teeth and counting down till the next installment of Last Week Tonight?

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Sometimes this really is the best option. I feel ya.

If the latter applies, here are three articles that might give you a bit of a bump. Britain has done an impressive job of rebranding itself since the days of Peter Rabbit and E. Nesbit, but once in a while, it will bely its new image with some startlingly sweet headlines. Worldwide economic power and major political force be darned — Britain, we know you spend your days putting out saucers of milk for hedgehogs and helping widows cross the street.

From the Metro:

Tesco customer orders walnut bread, receives an octopus.

Includes this gem of a line: “John Goodger failed to see the similarity between a loaf of nut bread and a sea-dwelling mollusc.” Strange.

From the Daily Mail:

Crumbs, we’ve been eating McVitie’s Digestives and Hobnobs all wrong! Firm says chocolate part is the BOTTOM.

Quick poll: How many people were eating them chocolate-side up? I always found that if I did that, the chocolate got stuck on the roof of my mouth.

And lastly, on a related note, a stinging rebuke from the scientific community, via the Independent:

Rich Teas are the best biscuits, Hobnobs are soggy imposters, scientists find.

Oh no they didn’t.

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Happy rest of the week!

S.

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Photo credit: Child from PublicDomainPictures; fire from PixelAnarchy on Pixabay.

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Counter Action: Berry bread with browned butter

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Weekends at the Cat Homestead tend to be pretty chill.

There’s church. There’s yoga pants and running in the rain. There’s quite a lot of reading, some writing, and a nice chunk of whatever TV show I’ve brought home from the library.

I also get to explore topics I don’t have time for during the week — like this excellent letter from Kurt Vonnegut to a school board chairman who shoveled 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five into the school furnace. And this list of ideas for how we evaluate media’s treatment of women. And this refreshing change to the trend of “user as product”. And this hilarious Twitter feed of things overheard in “Britain’s poshest supermarket”.

My favourite item from that Twitter feed: "Daddy, does 'Lego' have a silent T like 'Merlot'?"

Possibly my favourite item from that feed: “Daddy, does ‘Lego’ have a silent T like ‘Merlot’ does?”

And of course, weekends are also for cooking. Last week my roommate’s bounty from her workplace included three pints of local blueberries and two of blackberries. I heaped them onto my breakfast oatmeal and whirled them into smoothies right and left, but evidently I’d hit upon the Augean stable of horticulture, because there never seemed to be any fewer. Finally, in desperation, I took one cup of blueberries and one of blackberries and turned them into this bread. Evidently, exposing berries to browned butter stops them from multiplying. Perhaps it would have a similar effect on zucchini? It’s worth a shot.

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Berry bread with browned butter

(adapted from Joy the Baker’s browned butter blueberry muffins)

Ingredients:

  • 7 T. butter
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 c. flour
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. berries (your choice — blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, a mix …)

Directions:

  1. If you already know how to brown butter, do it and skip to step 2. If not, read on. Cut butter into chunks and place in thick-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir as it melts. When it begins to crackle, that’s a good sign — it’s the water cooking out of the butter. Continue to heat and stir until butter is light brown. Remove immediately from heat.
  2. Combine browned butter with milk and vanilla.
  3. In separate bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
  4. Mix wet and dry ingredients. Fold in berries.
  5. Pour into greased loaf pan. Bake at 375°F for 40–50 minutes, or until skewer inserted in center comes out clean.

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Photo credits: Wine from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Elsewhere

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Classes officially started yesterday.

It was a big wake-up call. Every June, I say to myself, “Sonya, this is it. This is the summer you learn to juggle.”

And then I blink twice and it’s September and I have to switch my attention to papers and group work. It’s like the anti-juggling corporate interests are conspiring against me, I just know it.

This year I defeated them. With the help of one YouTube video, three plums, and twenty minutes, I can now drop small objects in a more coordinated fashion.

Speaking as a juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than juggling.

Speaking as a new juggler, I think this is actually a more faithful representation of levitation than of juggling.

Besides not juggling, another delightful feature of my summer was reading. I do plenty of that during the school year, but it’s mainly things with titles like Mad Libs where the audience is given the phrase “Implementing [Noun] in the Practice of [Noun] and [Noun] with [Adjective] [Plural noun]”, and they always pick words like “underprivileged” and “initiative”, instead of letting their hair down with choices like “lagniappe” or “depilated” or “cotton candy”. It’s meaty stuff to read — I know I’m getting my money’s worth. But on occasion, it does make me wish for literature with a bit less nomenclature and a few more gnomes.

Even if the gnome mostly complains about his joints and grumbles about the newfangled young gnomes with their weatherproof caps. That's fine.

I’d even read a story where the gnomes spent most of their time grumbling about newfangled young gnomes who always had to have the latest clogs.

So this summer, I read only what I wanted to. I revisited some old favourites and found some new favourites. Some books I started but couldn’t continue, and I think that’s OK. Giving a book a fair shot is important, but so is knowing when to put one book aside and give attention to another. Because what we’re all looking for in a book, I think, is the kind of story that will stick with you and pop into your brain at strange moments to give you a little more insight into your situation.

Like if a defrauded stranger offers you a really, really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider it.

Like if a defrauded, bitter stranger offers you a really good deal, maybe you should take a day to consider his motives.

Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere is just such a book. At first glance, it might seem like just another YA exploration of mortality, as it follows Liz, a 15-year-old bike accident fatality, to the world beyond death: the amiable land of Elsewhere, where white-pajama’d people arrive via cruise ship and gradually age backwards until they are shipped back to Earth as infants. Between their arrival and departure, the people of Elsewhere can do whatever they like. Some, like Picasso, continue their Earth careers. Others, like Marilyn Monroe, take up a completely different vocation (in her case, psychiatry). And some, like Liz, are completely unready for life after death and will do anything to stay connected to their old lives on Earth.

When I searched for "communicate", this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

When I searched for “communicate”, this came up. Sometimes I have serious questions for Pixabay.

Zevin’s storytelling in Elsewhere is richly nuanced, a narrative that turns readers’ assumptions on their heads. We’re used to stories of protagonists battling the inevitable, but usually that inevitability is death; in Elsewhere, it’s life. Many stories are populated by people’s struggles to stay young, but one of Liz’s most poignant struggles lies in accepting that she will never get older. Stories about death almost always focus on the grief and recovery of those left alive; in Elsewhere, it’s the victims’ grief that matters most. In short, Elsewhere is the kind of jarringly inverted story that throws everything into question, tearing down readers’ assumptions of normality and then carefully and beautifully rebuilding them.

You wouldn’t think that a world without the usual risks of injury and death would still house legitimate tensions, but Zevin never lets us doubt for a second that Elsewhere’s special risks are just as serious as Earth’s. Within this surreal world, Zevin is free to freshly explore the themes of purpose, commitment, lives lived well, and what we would do if we had nothing to lose — and she does so with great aplomb.

What’s your favourite book or story about a fictional afterlife? 

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; girl from Hans, gnome from PublicDomainPictures, Pied Piper from WikiImages, swimmers from Hermann, on Pixabay.

Microaggression and the church

Tomorrow night marks the start of Rosh Hashanah. Next Friday night marks the beginning of Yom Kippur. And in the ten days between those two holidays, HuffPo tells me, the time is ripe for repenting.

In a similar vein (it’s relevant; stay with me!), last week at church, an outside church official was called in to commend a retired pastor and his wife for their 50 years of service. As best as I can recall, this was his opening statement:

“In the beginning God created man … and man needed someone to take care of him, so God created woman. That’s the way God intended it: one woman, taking care of one man.”

He went on to describe the couple. About the wife, he said, “She’s very intelligent — she actually knows quite a lot about church history and theology.”

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This official is probably a very nice man. He might be a great husband, loving and working with his wife in a dance they’ve had many years to choreograph. He might have beloved children and grandchildren, and perhaps a faithful elderly dog of whom he takes excellent care.

But there are a number of points in his words that show that he’s operating within a status quo that could use a little finessing. First, he’s relying on the old trope that men need to be taken care of, that they’re helpless without women. Second, purposefully or not, he’s making a statement on what a “real marriage” looks like. And finally, he’s insinuating that an intelligent woman is a rare thing.

Here we see the elusive female of the species Intelligentsia sciensis. Good heavens,

“Here we see the elusive female of the species Intelligensia scientia. If she can navigate alarmingly common levels of sexual harassment in her habitat, she’s got a long life ahead of her.”

Here’s one objection I hear in the back left corner of my brain, from a worried little gnome I call Hermann: “But Sonya, don’t you want women to be praised for their intelligence? If he’d praised her as a great cook or a wonderful hostess, you would have skewered him for being too traditional.”

And here’s another: “But Sonya, you have no idea how the couple felt about that introduction. Maybe they were A-OK with it.”

And one more (Hermann’s in fine form tonight): “But Sonya, maybe you’re just projecting, after growing up as a pastor’s daughter and seeing case after case of pastors’ wives — not your mother, but others— who were pigeonholed into teaching the children’s classes, playing the piano, being unofficial social workers for the community, and generally putting their own careers on the back burner in order to support their husbands’ work.”

Some very good points — thank you, Hermann. Let’s pretend he’s right on all three counts: the pastor’s wife was actually tickled pink by the official’s words, and I am not just a screeching harpy, but a projecting screeching harpy.

Ye gods, save us all.

Little did they realize that the harpies just wanted a quiet evening of full-screen Gilmore Girls reruns.

But these objections aside, the fact remains that the church is, by and large, still run by privileged people — people who are white, straight, male, educated, and/or able-bodied, and are thus free to ignore the fact that people different from them are governed by different rules. I’m not saying that they all do this; I’m saying that they have that freedom. If you don’t believe me, take white privilege as an example and check out the statistics in this excellent cartoon.

If you’re not familiar with the term (as I wasn’t until a school workshop six months ago), microaggression occurs whenever someone doles out a statement or action that misjudges a person or audience based on their real or perceived race, sex, gender expression, sexuality, ability, health, class, or financial status. In practice, microaggression might look like this:

  • “You’re Mexican-American? That’s cool. Will you teach me how to make salsa some time?”
  • “You’re Muslim? Uh-oh, I’d better watch myself around you. I don’t want to get blown up!” [laughs]
  • “Why are you on medication? You look fine to me.”
  • “Bi isn’t really a thing — it’s just a phase everyone goes through.”
  • “Are you sure you can fit into that sample? Let me pull a 12 and a 16 from the back just in case.”
"Looks like someone's husband got a raise!"

“Looks like someone’s husband got a raise!”

I believe microaggression stems largely from privilege. When we think everyone has the same chances at succeeding in life, we might feel comfortable joking about poverty. When we think racism is a thing of the past, we might think it doesn’t make any sense to have scholarships targeted at minority students. When we feel unequivocally at home in our gender identity, we might have a hard time understanding why some people feel stymied by a form that requires them to check either “male” or “female”.

Or, if we’re in charge of some aspect of church proceedings, we might do one of these things:

  • If we feel that smartphones are ubiquitous, we might push to move the church’s announcements and info to a completely online or app-based platform.
  • We might not think twice about the illustrations and stained glass windows showing Jesus as a white man.
  • If we’re proud of our mission work abroad, we might not see any problem in using illustrations or felts of strong white missionaries administering to grateful darker-skinned people.
  • We might have no qualms about using the following story (condensed here) in a globally distributed lesson quarterly: “In 1945, a group of American POWs was being held in Kokura, Japan. Kokura was the United States’ first-choice site for its second atomic bomb, but clouds and smoke over the city made the mission impossible and forced the pilots on to Nagasaki. What a wonderful miracle that the Americans’ lives were spared.”
  • … and yes, if we believe that a pastor’s wife’s first duty is to her husband’s work, then we might assume that this is all pastors’ wives want out of life.
She might be happy to do this potluck after potluck. Or she might rather join the theological discussions. All I'm saying is that it should be her choice.

She might rather join the theological discussions out on the floor. Or she might love doing this job, potluck after potluck. Either choice is valid … but shouldn’t she feel free to make that choice?

I am by no means guiltless in the land of microaggressions. I’ve referred to groups of people as “mentally ill” and “normal”; I’ve smiled at a friend’s line about a Korean-American acquaintance’s parents “owning a dry cleaning shop … of course”; I once wrote an article poking fun at men who use Pinterest; I’ve expressed the opinion that Islam harms women; I’ve assumed that someone was male when she actually identified as female.

I didn’t mean to hurt people by doing these things. Church leaders who commit microaggressions probably don’t mean to cause harm.  But intent isn’t important here. Impact is.

Whether you’re currently welcoming the year 5775 or still living in A.D. 2014, 1436, 1731, 2558, 171, or something else, let’s all jump on the repentance bandwagon for the next ten days, thinking seriously about our privileges and how we can better relate to those who don’t have them. We can’t undo the microaggressions we’ve already committed, but we can prevent the ones we might have committed in the future as less aware people.

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Photo credits: Ron gif from Tumblr; scientist from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay; harpies from Wikimedia Commons, projector from geralt on Pixabay, and photo editing made possible by LunaPic; shopping woman from Andi_Graf on Pixabay; woman in kitchen is actually a ship’s cook in the Persian Gulf, courtesy of tpsdave on Pixabay.

Counter Action: Chocolate-chip zucchini bread

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I have only two photos of this zucchini bread. Like Sasquatch, it disappeared before better documentation could occur. Unlike Sasquatch, its appearance at a party will incur oohs, aahs, and offers of friendship.

I guess Sasquatch might do that too, at a very specific kind of party.

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Or any day in Seattle.

When it comes to baked goods, I have to keep a firm eye on myself. I have a sweet tooth the size of Manhattan, and if I’m not careful, my production of sweet baked things will quickly outpace my creation of … you know … anything based on vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Earlier this month, I was a steady stream of praises for Joy the Baker’s amazingly moist vegan pumpkin–walnut bread. The week after that, I was reveling in this healthy(ish) chocolate cake (zucchini, applesauce, and whole-wheat flour, folks!) from Yammie’s Noshery. Last week I made a gingersnap apple crisp for a potluck, and while I didn’t get any in the end, it sure smelled good in the oven. Now the only thing holding me back from these zucchini bread bars with browned butter frosting is the lack of powdered sugar in the house. That’s probably best for everyone, I think.

If Mrs. Weasley can have a clock to keep track of her family, I see no reason why I can't have a clock that tells me when to eat biscuits.

This is my version of the Weasley family clock. “What time is it? Twelve minutes late for biscuits.”

I’ve halved the sugar in this zucchini bread, as I often do in my baked goods. Sugar and butter are too often used to cover up deficiencies in flavour and texture, and while this bread is pretty simple, it does have some great features that deserve to be shown off. The zucchini makes it moist and a little colourful, the crumb is firm yet tender, and the chocolate chips make it a little more festive. This would be a great bread for a shower or a special brunch — or as dessert at a low-pressure, no-frills dinner.

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Chocolate chip–zucchini bread

(based on Paula Deen’s recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 3 c. flour
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. vegetable oil
  • 2 c. grated zucchini (about 1½ small zucchini)
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2/3 c. dark chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda.
  2. Beat together eggs, sugar, and oil. Add vanilla and zucchini.
  3. Combine dry and wet ingredients.
  4. Fold in chocolate chips.
  5. Pour into two greased loaf pans. Bake at 350°F for about 50 minutes. Keep in sealed container at room temperature for 3–4 days.

Ideas for variations:

  • Substitute 1 c. pumpkin puree for the zucchini.
  • Swap out 1 c. flour for 1 c. whole-wheat flour.
  • Add ½ c. toasted chopped almonds at step 4.
  • Substitute browned butter for the vegetable oil.
  • Add the zest of 1 orange at step 2.
  • To add a little extra greenness, replace the oil with 1 c. mashed avocado.
  • Replace half the sugar with maple syrup, replace the zucchini with applesauce, and use maple chips instead of chocolate chips. (For bonus points, drizzle with a simple maple glaze like this one from Taste of Home — or go all-out and use the Pioneer Woman’s maple frosting.)

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Photo credits: Sasquatch from Wikimedia Commons; clock from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Chilling reads for chilly days

With the autumnal equinox coming up fast, you might have noticed some changes happening around you. Leaves are turning orange. Days are getting shorter and colder. Pumpkin spice lattes are taking over social media.

"Forward, men! Avenge our pureed brethren!"

“Forward, men! Our brethren must be avenged!”

With these changes, of course, come renewed reasons to curl up on the couch for a few hours with a good book. And what better book to read during an autumn storm than something spine-tingling?

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First on my recommendation list is Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, which spins the tale of a beautiful, vivacious woman who suddenly goes missing from her small midwestern town. A quarter of the way through, I thought I had an idea of what had happened. Halfway through, I was feeling pretty smug about my hunch.

And then in the space of a couple of pages, Flynn completely pulled the rug out from under me. I didn’t see that plot twist coming at all, and I couldn’t have been more delighted by my shock. Flynn is a maestro in Gone Girl, twitching strings and pulling curtains even more masterfully than even the antagonist. You’ll be thoroughly chilled and winded by the end, I promise.

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Next up is Suzanne Rindell’s excellent first novel, The Other Typist. Rose Baker is a typist at a police station in 1923, measuring out her days in bland meals and lukewarm coffee. Then a new woman joins the typing pool: the unspeakably glamorous Odalie, who decides to take Rose under her wing and show her a whole new side of New York City. For the increasingly devoted Rose, it’s all champagne and silk dresses until a whispered story reaches her ears — a story that hints at Odalie’s involvement in something dark … something that could drag Odalie down, and take Rose right down with her.

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Finally, there’s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (formerly Ten Little Indians). If you’ve been meaning to put some Agatha Christie on your “completed” shelf but you weren’t sure where to start, And Then There Were None is an excellent entry point. It follows ten strangers who were summoned to a remote island for a weekend. As they begin to share their stories and the reasons they came to the island, it becomes increasingly clear that their mysterious host had only one reason for bringing them all there — and it involves a sinister poem and ten small figurines that are being broken one by one …

Pro tip: Check the weather forecast before doing a solo trip to a creepy island.

Pro tip: Check the weather forecast, take your phone charger, and tell someone when you plan to return from a solo weekend trip to a creepy island.

What spine-tingling reads do you have lined up for the next stormy day?

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Photo credits: Pumpkin horde from beeki and Andreas Achenbach painting via tpsdave on Pixabay; book covers via Better World Books.

Seven dystopian pet peeves

For several years of my youth, the YA section of my public library seemed to purchase new books in only three genres: manga, high school romances, and dystopias. Since I find manga drawings hard to focus on, and most high school romances make my eyes roll of their own volition, I read quite a lot of dystopias during that time.

"Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam's choice."

“Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam’s choice.”

Despite this lack of variety, I still respect the genre — it’s kind of neat to see ten people sit down, consider the question “Where is the world going?”, and come up with ten completely different answers, from zombies to superviruses to satellite-based mind control.

I still think we should seriously consider the possibility that the future global economy will be pastry-based.

Not all answers are created equal, though. Below are seven things I would dearly like to say to future dystopian novelists — actually, all future novelists, come to think of it. I’ll draw in non-dystopian examples to make it more broadly applicable.

1. Go easy on the names … Yes, baby names have trends just like everything else. Yes, by the time the Great Soy War rolls around, we won’t still be called Emma and Olivia and Jacob. But your audience lives in the here and now, so consider treating unusual usage of punctuation and capitalization the same way you treat accessories: Put on all you want, then remove fifty percent before going public. You might fall in love with the name Tar’Yni!Aquj, but every time your readers see it, they’re going to stop and think, How on earth is that pronounced? Don’t do that to your readers. They have hard enough lives as it is. (Alternatively, if you do use an unusual name, try making it the only unusual name in the story, and apply it to an unusual character for dramatic effect. Or make it so outlandish that it pokes fun at an otherwise serious character.)

       Where this was done well: Tanith Lee’s The Claidi Journals, where the characters’ names are exotic and memorable, but still pronounceable.

2. … but not too easy. If you’re a new author, chances are you’re not going to have enough influence with your readers that you can make them shiver just by capitalizing a noun. Are you sending your protagonists to an uber-creepy cave where their fates are going to be decided? Don’t call it the Cave. Sending your intrepid band on a perilous mountain trail? Don’t call it the Trail. Your imagination is better than that. Borrow from other languages if need be — try calling it “the Cave” or “the Trail” in Manx or Yoruba or Tocharian B.

       Where this was done well: Look to the classics: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Once you’ve read them, I dare you to read the words “Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning”, “Ministry of Love”, or “Unwoman” without shivering at least a little.

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

3. Don’t forget about the characters … Yes, the world might be irrevocably different in your story. People could be living alongside beings from other worlds, eating synthesized goo and taking pills instead of sleeping.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read a Garfield comic where Garfield dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read the installment of Garfield where he dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct. It’s just gone. Everyone takes pills instead of eating food. That was the moment I stopped trusting science to work unilaterally for the good of humanity.

But unless you’ve deliberately created a strain of unemotional humans (or put normal humans through some serious trauma), your human characters will most likely still have needs and reactions and emotional depths just like people do today. That’s what makes them relatable. You can’t kill off your main character’s family and have her just walk away saying, “Well, that’s war.” Humans don’t work like that.

       Where this was done well: Throughout the Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins didn’t shy away from describing the emotional damage that the Games inflicts on its victors. She made it very clear that winning the Games wasn’t the fairy-tale ending the Capital marketed it as. The ending of Mockingjay hammered this truth home: Being involved in a high level of violence leaves indelible marks on one’s psyche.

4. … but don’t forget about your audience’s emotional attention span. While emotional and psychological reality are important, they should drive the plot, not be the plot. I once read a series in which the main plot was a love triangle between the female protagonist; a wealthy, kind, gorgeous guy; and a poor, selfish, rude guy. This “tension” played out for well over two books. It was the literary equivalent of an eye exam: you think everything’s obvious, and the guy in charge keeps changing one tiny detail of the situation and saying, “What do you think now? Come on, react.” Meanwhile, you want to beat him over the head and say, “Arrghh! Nothing is happening! Your tiny excuses for action are not changing my mind in any way!” In short: Love triangles are fine. Romantic tension is fine. Just consider making it a secondary or tertiary plot. You know, like love in the face of interplanetary war.

       Where this was done well: In Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well, Sally’s love for her daughter drives the action and raises the stakes sky-high, but Pullman is always careful not to get melodramatic about describing it. He doesn’t need to — he counts on readers to know about that kind of love in their own lives, and he weaves that motivation seamlessly and consistently into Sally’s every move. Similarly, Pullman describes Sally and Daniel’s connection sparingly, but it’s all the more beautiful for that sparsity. We know the feelings are there, and we can see how they inform the action, but they never put the brakes on the main story.

“I know you’re trying to solve this mystery, but I really think we should pause for some superfluous canoodling,” said no good sidekick ever.

5. Overused trope #1: “The protagonist eventually realizes that the rebel alliance isn’t so great after all. The protagonist then starts thinking about a way to counter or undermine this.” We get it. It happens a lot. Please don’t make it the Big Reveal of your story.

       Where this was done well: Margaret Peterson Haddix provides a fresh, memorable spin on this trope in Running Out of Time.

6. Overused trope #2: “The protagonist becomes the best hope of the rebel alliance — much to his/her surprise, as he/she had previously considered him- or herself a simple shepherd/apprentice/dishwasher.” The Unwilling Hero(ine) is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so you might consider putting a new spin on it rather than using it as a convenient crutch. Also, please don’t use this as the Big Reveal either. The enemy is hunting for a prophesied leader of the rebel alliance? Who on earth could it be? Surely not the lowly servant boy who cleans the pool! The advisors are in a dither! Nobody knows for sure! … except the audience, who is rolling their eyes in unison, having guessed it three books ago.

       Where this was done well: Star Wars.

That awkward moment when you meet the hope of the alliance ... and he's still figuring out what toes are.

On a side note, I’d like to read a dystopian novel where the rebel alliance finds the prophesied leader … and he’s still figuring out what toes are.

7. Don’t forget about the details. We get it: your dystopian world is sparse and bleak, inhabited only by intrepid humans, cockroaches, and sentient Twinkies. (Incidentally, who’s up for forming a band called the Sentient Twinkies?) But there’s still room for some details in there, and that’s going to make your story vivid and unforgettable.

       Where this was done well: Did Foaly’s tin-foil hat dramatically affect the plot of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series? How about the tech specs of the Hummingbird Z7s? No. But it’s those quirky little items that suck in an audience and make them want to come back. Also, anywhere the author used a rich tapestry of details to hide one or two incredible important things. (For example, did you remember Ravenclaw’s diadem from book 6? I sure didn’t.)

In conclusion: I love the questions that dystopian fiction raises, as well as the scope for imagination and creativity that it affords. In a market filled with dystopian fiction, it can be hard to write something fresh and engaging … but it’s still possible, and when done right, it’s absolutely worth the effort.

What tropes did I leave out? Is there a dystopian plot or detail you’d love to see in a bookstore near you?

[UPDATE, 12/11/14: The dystopian discussion continues here!]

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Photo credits: Salads from PublicDomainPictures, cream puffs from la-fontaine, squirrel from shondarandolph060, lasagna from johanndoringer, road from Antranias, and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Counter Action: Focaccia with plum and rosemary

Here’s a word snapshot of my new apartment:

There are three cats and a turtle. I moved in while my roommate was away, so I didn’t know the cats’ names for a few days and I made up my own. Sometimes I still call them Crookshanks, Salem, and Bandersnatch Cutiebutt.

My roommate and I aren’t really into decorating. The kitchen features a string of red pepper lights and quite a lot of rooster-patterned things; my room is decorated with fairy lights, a donated red curtain, two mismatching lamps, enormous amounts of books, and some old black-and-white prints of Paris, courtesy of Ikea. In short, we’re not as concerned with things matching perfectly as we are with being warm, comfortable, and surrounded by things we love.

It’s like living in the middle of a Kodak moment, but with a smaller budget and more cat hair.

All three cats love to snuggle. You know that urban legend that says you’re never more than ten feet from a spider? In my apartment, you’re never more than five feet from a cat. Doesn’t matter if you’re trying to eat, study, clean, sleep, take a shower, whatever. You’ll always have a buddy.

My roommate works at some local farmers’ markets. At the end of the day, sometimes the produce vendors go around with bags of tired produce, giving them away to their fellow stallholders. When I moved in, the fridge was filled with kale and chard. It now holds bags of tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, and green beans, as well as a fancy sack of moldy dirt that I suspect is mushrooms or truffles.

Anytime someone wants to leave this kind of truffles on my kitchen counter is fine with me.

If anyone would like to leave a sack of these truffles on my kitchen counter, that would be A-OK with me.

We haven’t wound up with much fruit, but yesterday I did sink my teeth into the juiciest plum I’ve ever met. It made me remember this recipe I threw together a few summers back: a pillowy focaccia topped with rosemary for depth, sea salt for savour, juicy red plum for an unexpected seasonal note, and brown sugar to keep it celebratory. This would be an excellent side for a thin soup — cream of asparagus, perhaps. Or let it be the star of its own show, accompanied by a variety of hard cheeses, apples, pears, and nuts. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

plum focaccia ii

Focaccia with plum and rosemary

(Inspired by this Smitten Kitchen recipe)

  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 package (2-1/2 tsp.) yeast
  • 1 c. warm water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 plum, pitted and diced
  • 4 tsp. fresh rosemary (or 2 tsp. dried)
  • 3/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 T. brown or demerara sugar

Directions:

  1. In medium-sized bowl, combine white sugar, yeast, and warm water. Let stand 5 minutes.
  2. Add salt and 2 c. flour. Combine and knead until smooth, adding extra flour if needed.
  3. Place dough in greased bowl. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes.
  4. Punch down dough and divide into two balls. Shape into flat loaves. Use fingers to dimple loaves. Cover and let rise 25 minutes.
  5. Drizzle olive oil over loaves. Top with plum, rosemary, sea salt, and brown sugar.
  6. Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, or until browned. Keep in sealed container at room temperature for 2–3 days.

Ideas for variations:

  • Skip the brown sugar, and caramelize the plums before adding them on top.
  • Mix the rosemary into the dough at step 2.
  • Add slivered almonds or pine nuts to the topping. (For bonus points, try toasting them first.)
  • Swap the olive oil for the same amount of browned butter.
  • Swap the plums, rosemary, and brown sugar for pitted Bing cherries and finely grated Gruyère.
  • Replace the listed toppings with chopped pear, blue cheese, and hazelnuts (either raw or caramelized).

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Photo credit: Christmas scene from PublicDomainPictures and truffles from juttazeisset on Pixabay.

The Golden Toga Flap: Public servants

[About the Golden Toga Flap: Ancient Romans used to flap their togas in appreciation of a public event, in the same way that we would applaud. The Golden Toga Flap is designed to be a shout-out to people and groups making a positive difference in the world. Nominations are always welcome.]

It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years already.

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It seems like just a little while ago that I was standing around the flagpole with the rest of the school for the two-year anniversary, then standing in a silent Newark airport lounge for the seventh anniversary, then teaching in a largely unaware Polish town for the ninth anniversary.

Thirteen years. There are kids in high school right now who have no memory of 9/11.

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For me, the most moving part of the day is the many people who went into the buildings. Getting out, away from the fires and faltering support beams, was the order of the day — and yet the firefighters, EMTs, and police offers who heard about the attacks knew that not everyone would be able to get out under their own steam, so they stepped up to do their jobs in the most nightmarish of circumstances.

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Public servants of the world, whether you’ve faced horrible situations in your work or served your entire career in the quietest town in America, we salute you now. You didn’t have to choose those jobs. You could have been botanists or typewriter mechanics or luthiers, or had some other relatively calm career. Instead, you chose to protect and serve your communities, often at the risk of your own wellbeing. For that selflessness and bravery, you deserve a hearty round of toga flapping. May your careers be long, your efforts be productive, and your devotion to your communities be as strong as it first was.

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Photo credit: Fireman from tpsdave, 9/11 Firemen’s Memorial from tpsdave, and policemen’s tiles from Ronile on Pixabay.

Lies I have told strangers on the Internet

As I have mentioned several times, I recently moved. But before moving, there was the small matter of finding a new place to live — which, on my budget, meant finding new people with whom to live.

They look delightful. This could work.

They look delightful. This could work.

My primary resource was Craigslist, where the ads ranged from the unhelpfully vague (“Room available, call xxx-xxxx”) to the weirdly specific (“Looking for paleo Aries to help raise pygmy goats, troubleshoot Ruby on Rails, and occasionally cuddle”). Once in a while, though, I would come across a post that seemed promising, and fire off an email introducing myself.

(Fun fact: I got more responses when I didn’t mention my field of study.)

In these interactions, there’s bound to be a little harmless truth-omitting. The person advertising the apartment will play up the patio and private bathroom, but they probably won’t highlight the partying neighbours. They’ll warn you about their four dogs, but they might not mention their 4 a.m. shift at work. And really, why should they? That’s the kind of information that is best revealed once you’ve moved past the “casual Internet stranger asking if the room is still available” stage and into the “we might actually be living together; let’s make sure we both know what we’re getting into” stage.

"Oh, that's what you meant by 'unfinished'."

“So that’s what you meant by ‘unfurnished’.”

And of course, in my email introductions, I coloured a few truths myself. Below are some of my oft-repeated lines, along with what might have been closer to the truth.

  • “I’m pretty chill.”
    • Translation: “I have a ton of pet peeves, but I feel it’s polite to inform you of only two. The others will become clear through a series of passive-aggressive sticky notes utilizing my yearly quota of smiley faces.”
  • “I love cats. Yours look really cute!”
    • Translation: “I’m a fan of cats in theory, but I feel that actually living with some might cure me of that. To be fair, though, they probably feel the same way about humans.”
  • “I like dogs — yours looks super friendly.”
    • Translation: “I am willing to interview canine applicants for the position of running buddy. I draw the line at food-stealing, shoe-gnawing, muddy paw prints, messy front yards, hair-shedding, the smell of wet fur, and generally everything that makes a dog a dog.”
*shudder*

*shudder*

  • “I’m a pretty clean person …”
    • Translation: “I once proposed a strict three-sponge system in the kitchen, in which sponges were designated for use on dishes, counters and appliances, and the floor by a Roman numeral inscribed in Sharpie, starting with ‘I’ for the dishes, which could then be easily changed to ‘II’ and then ‘III’ as the sponge got rattier and was better suited to less hygienic tasks.”
  • “… but I do sometimes have a tendency to leave my books and things around the house.”
    • Translation: “I have turned the corner of the living room into my personal office, complete with a post-modernist collage of bobby pins, old receipts, Latin homework, Nyquil, and Ikea mailers.”
"CLEAN? I do not CLEAN."

“Throw away WHAT?”

  • “As you requested in your ad, I am a Christian, but you should probably know that I’m pretty liberal politically.”
    • Translation: “STRAIGHT WHITE CHRISTIAN MALE CISGENDER ABLE-BODIED PRIVILEGE [pause to wipe foam from mouth] SHOULD BE CHECKED AT ALL OPPORTUNITIES”
  • “I’m a bit of an introvert.”
    • Translation: “During the weekends of one summer in college, I sometimes scheduled time to step onto the porch for a few seconds. That way, when my sister asked me, ‘Did you leave the house today?’, I could truthfully reply that I had.”

Fortunately, all truth-omitting aside, I wound up finding what seems to be a great situation for all parties. My new roommate brings home a lot of organic produce to share; I’m happy to share my baked goods in return; and the resident cats and I get along famously.

Of course, I haven’t started singing in the shower yet, so that balance of happiness could change. I’ll keep you posted.

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Photo credits: VW bus from PublicDomainPictures, tunnel from hattex, dog from Mehihe, and possum from royguisinger on Pixabay.