Monthly Archives: February 2016

Book Review: All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner

The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents is best described as women’s fiction, a genre I haven’t read as widely as I should. I’m working (well, it’s fun, really) to remedy that. “What is women’s fiction? you ask. “Don’t you mean romance novels?”

Women’s fiction may contain romantic elements, as can sci-fi, fantasy, horror–just about any genre you can name. But the central focus of women’s fiction is women’s personal growth, transformation, and relationships–often family relationships or friendships. There is not necessarily a “happy-ever-after” ending, but there will be a life-affirming message in there somewhere. Chick lit fits nicely into this category but, thank goodness, the protagonist need not be young, chic, and living in NYC for a novel to qualify as women’s literature.

Jennifer Weiner’s name comes up on several lists of recommended authors of women’s fiction. This is the first of her novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Weiner’s protagonist is a very sympathetic character–mother of a difficult child, wife of an indifferent husband, daughter of a helpless mother and a father with dementia, and author of a wildly popular blog. I squirmed and winced and even teared up a bit as I watched her life unravel due to her addiction to painkillers. Weiner gives us an insiders view of rehab–very gritty and frustrating. Though the subject matter is grim, Weiner writes with humor and touching insight. Read this!

The Leftover Project: Southwestern-ish Stuffed Peppers

My ongoing goal is to stop food waste by transforming leftover ingredients into new dishes. Of course, my dishes must be made of actual food—no food-like-eating-substances allowed. (I’m looking at you, canned biscuits!) Stuffed vegetables are a great way to use up bits of leftover grains or bread, vegetables, and protein. You can go in a Middle Eastern direction with your spices, or Italian, or even Asian. Yesterday I was feeling like some Mexican food, but I had a fridge full of leftovers that needed using up.

We don’t often eat beef steak, or any other kind of beef, for that matter, but last night, after a hard day of substitute teaching—middle school band—I needed a stiff drink and a sturdy dinner. Hubs bought three lovely filet mignon steaks; why do they always come in packages of three? In the end, we weren’t as hungry as we’d thought, so there was a leftover steak. Now, it just won’t do to waste such beautiful meat.

Here’s what I had that needed using up:

The ingredients

  • Two bell peppers, one red, one yellow
  • Half a cucumber
  • Half an avocado
  • Half a bunch of cilantro
  • The steak
  • A pot of rice
  • A zucchini going soft
  • A few sad-looking mushrooms
  • Half a big onion
  • Some strips of green bell pepper left over from Superbowl crudités
  • Half a lemon
  • One canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce—I’d divided them up into little containers and froze them, because when would you ever use a whole can, unless you’re making chili?
  • Half a head of romaine lettuce
  • Some mini carrots
  • A few green onions
  • A handful of cherry tomatoes

For the stuffed peppers (serves two):

I diced up the onion, green pepper strips, half the zucchini and mushrooms, and sautéed them in a pan with a bit of olive oil. Next, I threw in two cloves of minced garlic, and seasoned it all with ground cumin, dried oregano, salt and black pepper. Next I added a big handful of chopped cilantro and the steak, which I’d diced, plus about two cups of cooked rice. (Any grain would be good here: quinoa, barley, farro, brown rice—go wild!) I moistened that with a bit of my favorite sauce for stuffed veggies: V-8 juice. Really, it works very well to moisten the stuffing without drowning it in a thick tomato sauce.

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

While those ingredients were getting acquainted, I nuked the halved bell peppers in a covered dish for three minutes to soften them, then put them in an oiled (olive, of course) glass baking dish. I filled the peppers with the mixture—there’s always a bit of extra filling that slops into the pan, but so what?

I minced up the chipotle pepper, and stirred it and its adobo sauce into the rest of the V-8 juice, about a cup. I dumped this over the now-stuffed peppers and sprinkled them with some grated cheddar cheese. Of course, it would be cool to use a more authentic Mexican cheese if you have one—I didn’t. Oh, I found about two tablespoons of sliced green olives, the pimento-stuffed kind, so I sprinkled that on top of the filled peppers too. That provided a nice contrast to the mild filling; next time I’ll add more olives.

The cooked peppers.

The cooked peppers.

While the peppers were baking at 375 degrees F for about half an hour, I made a salad with a romaine, carrots, sliced green onions, some diced zucchini (from the non-soggy end), and the cherry tomatoes.

I used this salad dressing recipe, more or less, adding a pinch of cayenne pepper. This used up the cucumber and avocado. It’s really good—light and refreshing. You should try this!

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/164771/cucumber-avocado-salad-dressing/

And here you go! A veggie-rich dinner that salvaged lots of leftovers and transformed them into something new and tasty.

peppers on the plates

Writers’ Critique Group and Ageism

writers-group-570x230

“What I know now” is the theme for a writing contest I’ll be entering later this year. Interesting. I can write a short story, personal essay or poem. I’ll probably write one of each and bring them to my writers’ critique group to help me decide which to submit. I’ve learned a great deal from my critique group–about writing, and also about the human condition.

“Diversity” is a word that’s often slung around these days. Usually, it refers to ethnicity, and sometimes to sexual orientation or religion.  A community certainly benefits from diversity, be it a school, a business, or a neighborhood. We’re enriched by exposure to smart, kind, creative people who are different from us in some significant way—such exposure humanizes the “other” and chips away at prejudice. Besides, the world is in such a mess that we need everyone’s talents to patch it up–everyone’s, not just the members of our own tribe.

My writers’ critique group is diverse in the usual ways, but also in a way that’s particularly important to me: diversity of age. I’m young for a retiree, fifty-three, but am living that lifestyle thanks to some good fortune—and a lot of hard work, thank you very much. And I’m already encountering ageism in surprising places, as well as from the usual suspects: the beauty industry, the fashion industry, smug thirty-somethings who’ll never, ever be old.

But back to my critique group.  Lately, we’re about evenly split between young writers and older writers, which is really heartening in a culture that tends to self-segregate by age. We range from early twenties to early eighties. The group is open to new members, who come and go, with a handful of core members like me who usually show up. Sci-fi is probably the most popular genre in our group, evenly split between the young writers and the over-fifties. We also see historical fiction, folk tales, romance, contemporary fiction, military fiction, short stories, blog entries, poems… Sharing our works in progress teaches us about the common struggles of writers—and the feedback we give and receive increases all our knowledge about writing.

At the risk of generalizing, I’ve learned that most younger readers prefer stories with lots of tension up front, whereas older readers are willing to let the tension build more slowly as long as the concept and characters are interesting. I’ve learned that kind, perceptive insight can come from surprising sources. I’ve relearned the importance of making criticism more palatable by sliding in some praise, even if I have to look very hard to find something praiseworthy. (I knew this from my many years of teaching high school English, but one sometimes forgets.) Don’t get me wrong—most of the material I’ve seen in critique group is good, and much of it is excellent.

I’ve learned a lot about story structure by reading genres that I would not ordinarily choose to read. I’ve learned about tightening a narrative to make it more impactful. I’ve learned about publishing opportunities. And I’m heartened to meet smart, creative young people with a genuine interest in the world around them and the world of ideas. I know a lot about writing and language, but I don’t know it all, and these young writers are helping me to learn more. It would be ageist of me to dismiss their input simply because they’re less experienced: good story is good story, and smart is smart.

I won’t say that connecting with younger writers “keeps me young.” First of all, that’s a ridiculously ageist cliché based on the idea that young is good and old is bad, which is false. Young is good; old is good; middle-aged is good—any age a human being happens to be is good. Working closely with writers of different ages reminds me that, at heart, we’re all (writers and fictional characters) motivated by the search for excitement, challenge, achievement, and love. I hope, I believe, that the younger writers are also learning from us older ones—that we’re just as human as they, and just as interesting.