Cooking with Julia Child… sort of

It’s the end of the year. My sister and her family are staying with us, and some other friends are in Paris as well. Sounds like a good time for a big meal. We’ve done well with getting ready-to-eat things from our local grocer and butcher, like an amazing Beef Wellington (my favorite) for Christmas Eve that was as good as anything we’ve made at home. But this time I decided to go all out and cook something from scratch. And we’re in Paris, so why not Beef Bourguignon a la Julia Child? Why not, indeed!

Shopping is getting easier all the time as I figure out the French stores and so I managed to find all the things I needed that we didn’t have on hand, like a bouquet garni, pods of beef broth, tomato paste (it comes in a tube, like toothpaste—I love that!), and of course, two kilograms of beef. I had a hard time pronouncing “bourguignon” correctly, but the butcher was patient and figured out what I meant. He picked out a beautiful piece and got it all cut it up for me.

Back home, everything started off well, even though our place doesn’t have a dutch oven; our kitchen has a thousand skillets, a pile of pots (but just one lid for all of them), two, yes two pressure cookers, but nothing with a lid that can go in the oven. Well, we found three ceramic baking dish kind of things. With some aluminum foil to cover them, it seemed like we should be able to get by—or so we thought.

It was all going so well, the bacon and meat and veggies all nicely browned. We got it all divided among the ceramic dishes, the stock and wine added, and were bringing them all up to a simmer on the stove top…

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Then it happened: one of the ceramic dishes practically cracked in half and a whole section of the side broke off, releasing a flood of broth all over the stovetop. A second one cracked a few seconds later. Houston, we have a problem!

But all was not lost. That’s why you buy extra bottles of wine! We got everything turned off and quickly transferred the contents of the two dishes that hadn’t totally failed along with the meat and veggies from the broken dish into the largest pot we had, poured in some more wine and finished it on the stove, skipping the oven. It’s not how Julia would have done it, but it still turned out delicious.

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Green salad with goat cheese rounds rolled in herbs. You can buy pre-sliced rounds of goat cheese at the grocery store. Perfect!

Happy eaters. Twelve people for dinner, but only seven chairs. Some of the kids got to eat around the coffee table.

For dessert, Merideth picked up a Gateau Saint-Honoré from one of our favorite pastry shops, La pâtisserie des rêves. Worth every euro!

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Happy New Year! We’re looking forward to more adventures in the year to come. I hope you are, too.

“Writers… of a larger reality”

Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t want her books to be sold like deodorant. And neither do I (assuming I ever sell any).

Last night I finished polishing up the second draft of my opening set of scenes, about 7,500 words, or roughly 25 pages. (People always ask me how many pages I’ve written, but it’s much easier to think in terms of word count since words per page can vary so much. Some use 250 per page as their guide; I prefer 300. Not sure why–probably because I came across that number first.) It feels good, and it’s just in time for the girls’ Christmas break and a little sightseeing and a visit from family.

Of course, as soon as I move on to the next big chunk of the book, I come across a passage that might make more of a dramatic impact if it came earlier–back in the middle of those 25 pages I just finished revising. But I’m resisting the urge to fiddle with it. After all, second draft won’t be the final draft. Moving on!

Now, the real reason for this post is a chance to reprint this wonderful speech–with that line about deodorant–by Ursula K LeGuin, author of fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and more (check out The Lathe of Heavenit ain’t Katniss Everdeen’s dystopian fiction…).

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Photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch

It’s one of those acceptance speeches that is actually worth reading. Not just “I want to thank the academy… my agent… my family…” She does that. And then she succinctly and persuasively defends the nature of her art, the art of writing, holding up its value in an age under the sway of profit and market forces.

There’s another fantasy author you may have heard of, who’s sold a few books in his time: J.R.R.  Tolkien. He didn’t write the Lord of the Rings because he consulted the findings of a focus group. It was a sequel his publisher wasn’t expecting, probably didn’t want, but which so many are so grateful he wrote.

Isn’t that how the best art is? Not the result of the marketing machine, it’s something we didn’t even know we were looking for, but something that speaks to the depth of the soul.

Now, without further ado (you have to say that kind of thing when introducing someone about to give a speech), Ursula K. LeGuin:

 

Speech in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long — my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book 6 or 7 times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

Ursula K. Le Guin

November 19, 2014

This text may be quoted without obtaining permission from the author, or copied in full so long as the copyright information is included:

Copyright © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin

This is the end…

the-endWriting the ending is hard. Really hard. Sticking the landing is no mean feat. And it’s what I’m trying to do with my current work in progress.

I recently received an email from a writer I follow; the subject: avoiding anticlimactic endings. How timely! The same day another email came in, this one titled, “Why Writing Fiction Is Hard.” Okay, I get it. This is going to take some work. I’ve already restructured the opening four times (and need to do it again), I shouldn’t expect anything less of the ending.

The stakes are high

Endings matter. A lot. It’s why people reviewing books and movies have to announce SPOILER ALERT if they are going to discuss the ending or even major plot points. Want to get sucked into an endless internet debate (you know you do) that isn’t about guns or politics? Find a discussion on the ending of your favorite long-running TV show—Lost or Battlestar Galactica or The Sopranos or Seinfeld or even Little House on the Prairie, anything that had built up anticipation for its ending. Claims and counterclaims fly in every direction as people attack and defend and disparage and debate… work of fiction. Nail the ending and people focus on their favorite characters, the amazing plot twists, and the profound themes. Falter in those final moments, and the greatest virtues of the work get overshadowed by the final imperfections.

It’s why I will never watch Lost again, no matter how enjoyable and moving individual episodes were. Why? Because so much of it ultimately meant nothing. There were no real answers to far too many plot questions (like, pretty much all of them!). And while I was deeply moved by the new Battlestar Galactica, the ending left some things to be desired… or was an utter disaster, depending on your point of view. To say it was polarizing is an understatement. One extensive and persuasive analysis is straightforwardly titled, “Battlestar’s ‘Daybreak’: The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction.” Ouch! At least we know where the author stands. The reaction by some was so strong that it led another reviewer to write: “Sure, it was a letdown, but people act like that episode personally broke into their homes and stabbed their mothers.” Endings can affect us that much.

A tall order

The ending of a story of any significant length has a big job to do, a lot to take care of, including:

  • Complete the story, wrapping up the principal plot and answering the “dramatic question.” (Want to know more about what the dramatic question is all about? Check out the links at the end of this post.)
  • Resolve the story arcs of the principal characters.
  • Tie off loose ends—but not so tightly that it all seems contrived.

But an ending can have all this and still fail. How the ending is accomplished is crucial. Ideally, the ending will:

  • Have an element of surprise. This doesn’t have to be a big twist (although a well executed twist ending can be especially memorable), but the ending can’t be something that was utterly obvious from the first page (or opening shot). We may be confident the guy’s going to get the girl in the end, but at least surprise us in how it all comes about.
  • Be inevitable. That may seem to contradict the previous point, but the best endings will be both surprising and inevitable. We might not have seen it coming, but once everything came together, we’re struck that it couldn’t have happened any other way. It was inevitable. All the threads of the plot have come together to make sense and the mysteries are resolved.
  • Be the best part of the story. After all, it’s a drag if the best part of the story is the beginning (or even the middle, for that matter), and then everything is all downhill from there. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be the most exciting moment; it’s quite possible to have a satisfying ending that isn’t bombastic. But it needs to be gripping, have punch, and not just peter out.

Stick the landing

You know the phrase “stick the landing.” It may be a bit of a cliché, but it  really is a useful metaphor. Think about the gymnast doing a floor routine. It’s full of all sorts of wonderful athletic moves and jumps and acrobatics that make us mere mortals shake our heads in amazement and imagine how even attempting such feats would send us right to the ER with back trauma. But more than that, it’s a joy to watch. And it all culminates  when the gymnast performs a final sequence of flips and lands on her feet and sticks the landing, her arms shooting up in the air and her head held high in that final victory pose. Yes! She acknowledges the crowd; the applause fills the arena. But if she doesn’t stick the landing, if she takes an extra step, or wobbles, or falls down, it colors everything that went before. The applause is muted as disappointment at what could have been clouds the moment. Whether that’s fair or not is immaterial; that’s how it is.

So it is with writing. The opening can be gripping, the characters compelling, the action heart-pounding, the plot twists jaw-dropping, but if the ending isn’t satisfying, it tarnishes everything that went before.

“All’s well that ends well”

…so said a rather talented fellow—and even titled one of his plays. How ironic that the ending of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well has been criticized as forced, rushed, and unearned. Still, the point is a good one. Make the ending all it can be. A good ending covers a multitude of writing sins. And so now it’s time for me to get back to working toward just that…

Your turn

What are the endings (to books, movies, TV shows, whatever) you found most satisfying? Leave a comment and let me know what made it so great.

As promised, links to articles on the dramatic question:

Neighborhood beauty

Today: a collections of scenes from around our neighborhood.

First up, a view you don’t see in photos very often. That’s because most people crossing this bridge are too busy taking in the Eiffel Tower on the opposite side. So many couples get their wedding pictures taken here that we sometimes mark the days by how many we saw: “Yeah, that was a five bride day…”

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Aux Merveilleux de Fred on Rue de l’Annonciation, decked out for the holidays. Their website says, “Find us and succumb.” Bien sûr !

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Notre Dame de Grace de Passy. I walk by this often on the way to the grocery store, our favorite bakery, and the market street.

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An ordinary mailbox. Nothing special, I just think it looks cool.

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Okay, this next one isn’t exactly in our neighborhood; it’s about a twenty minute walk (although it’s still in the 16e arrondissement). You can learn a lot about American history in Paris if you just look around. And no, I don’t think the French thought Thomas Jefferson was square. Well, I don’t know… maybe they did.

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Another American sight, this one by the Pont de Grenelle on the  Île aux Cygnes (Island of the Swans). It’s a narrow, man-made island in the Seine with a lovely walkway running the length of it.

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And finally: a view of that most famous of sights in Paris. Since the attacks, it’s been lit up in the blue, white, and red of le tricolore; in green for the climate conference, and it’s even had these crazy lights going. This is a view from the métro station we use all the time.

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