Technology is a Wonderful Thing, Part 2

July 31, 2009

People occasionally roll their eyes when they learn that I get up every day at five o’clock to write, but it’s really very easy.  All you need is a good coffee machine, like this one:


I love my coffee machine.  It is a truly wonderful thing.  It’s made by Nespresso.  I am sure that without it (and its predecessors) I would never have become a writer.  I can also honestly say that I have only very rarely tasted better coffee anywhere.  The reason for this is that the coffee comes in little, air-sealed pods which are only punctured when you pop them in the machine.  As a result, every cup is completely fresh.  There’s always a perfect crema on the top.  mmmNespresso offers a choice of several varieties of coffee of varying strengths and flavors, but we don’t muck about.  We like Ristretto, which is the strongest one they do.  I have one each morning at 5, which kicks starts the old bean (as Bertie Wooster would say), and then another one at about 6.10, just to maintain adequate levels of caffeination, and on I plod.

A while ago my doctor was concerned about my blood pressure and suggested that I cut down on my coffee intake.  I tried kicking it cold turkey (yeah, me and Miles Davis both) but got such blinding headaches that I could hardly see.  So I began taking my morning dose again, and only cut back later in the day.  I admit that I continue to be a little spooked by what appears to be my clinical addiction to the stuff, but I suppose there are worse things.  You do what you gotta do, right?


Lobster Pad Thai (a second helping)

July 31, 2009

[Apologies for rehashing an old post, but this was such a popular one when I first stuck it up last October that it seemed worth doing again.  It drew more readers to the old blog than any other post – to the point where if you googled “lobster pad thai”, it was the first thing that popped up.  And it’s extraordinary how many people google exactly that.  As an added bonus, this time it comes with pictures.  Yippedy-dip.]

This lunatic quest began some time ago as I was reading an amusing piece by a fine writer named Steve Almond about eating lobster pad thai in Maine.  As I read, I licked my lips and pictured myself serving up a similarly ravishing masterpiece to a rapturous reception.  The fact that I had cooked neither (a) pad thai nor (b) lobster before did not strike me as much of a problem.

I could not get the thought of that lobster pad thai out of my head.  It just sounded ridiculously delicious – perhaps that stands as testament to Almond’s mouth-watering prose more than anything.  The only time I could remember actually eating lobster was my first ever visit to Missouri, just after we were married, when we went to a restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks and Christina ordered deep-fried battered lobster.  (I know, I know.  So many jokes, so little time.)  I wasn’t even quite sure if I liked lobster or not.  That didn’t matter.  I knew I had to try this dish.  I looked everywhere on the internet for a recipe, but no dice.  I knew which book the recipe came from, because Almond had been good enough to name the book, but obviously there was no way I was ever going to fork out twenty bucks for a book for just one damn recipe.  Such wanton profligacy was needless, and immoral, and just plain wrong.

Once the book arrived from amazon, I spent a couple of months contemplating the amounts of lobster required to feed even a modest number of people, lobsterdebating all the while whether to re-mortgage the house.  Christina asked whether I couldn’t just use frozen lobster tail, or perhaps shrimp.  These were good, sensible suggestions, and obviously entirely missing the point.

I dithered endlessly, until, as the global financial markets went into meltdown all around me, I decided to act.  Heroically undertaking to rescue mid-Missouri’s retail economy single-handedly, I went into Schnucks and bought three live lobsters.   I hopefully asked Walt, who was working behind the seafood counter that afternoon, whether two might not be enough, but he shook his head and told me I’d need at least three of the little fuckers.  (Not his precise words, I should add.  They’re very polite in Schnucks.)  I drove home fast, trying to outrun my guilt at the ridiculous amount I had paid for my salty, snapping booty in the back seat.

Back home, I explained to Hallam what was going to happen next, and with a morbid streak that I suspect not all seven year-olds possess, he watched silently as the water in the saucepan slowly reached boiling point.  When I picked up the first lobster, it began to flail about, eyes bulging, arching its tail upwards in a furious cortortion.  I felt like Jason (of Argonaut fame) fighting that fake scorpion.  I squealed and dropped the lobster back into its box.  Hallam did not look impressed.  Neither did the lobster.  Suitably abashed, a minute later I grabbed the thing again and dropped it into the water with a triumphant harrumph.  We watched as it turned red.  I turned and looked proudly at my son.  He stared at the creature as it continued to twitch, and soberly murmured, “I’m glad I’m not in there.”

Once I had murdered all three of the little critters, I spent the next hour redecorating the walls of the kitchen with shrapnel from splintering lobsterlobster cartoon carcass and the rather unpleasant brown stuff that spewed out of the lobsters when I cracked them in two.  This hideous effluent is called the tammale, but giving it a posh-sounding name doesn’t make it look any less like shit.  By the time I had finished with all three beasts I was left with enough lobster meat to fill, oh, a small matchbox.

The actual cooking of the pad thai was uneventful enough.  I’d discovered a new Asian supermarket the previous week and had been led through it by an inscrutable lady who gabbled away on the telephone in unintelligble dialect as I trailed her around the store, meekly holding up my basket as she threw items into it.  I’d chopped and diced and measured and poured everything in advance, and the stir-frying was all over rather quickly in the end.

But was it any good?  Well, it wasn’t bad.  It was quite pad thai-like, I suppose.  Everyone made suitably appreciative noises as they slurped on their noodles.  But all I could think of was how much I had spent on those tiny little bits of rubbery, over-cooked lobster meat that flecked the bowl.

Since this is a blog, I am contractually obliged to extrapolate some sort of neat moral aphorism from all this.  Nemesis follows hubris?  Don’t cook fresh seafood in Missouri?  Both valid points.  But I’m going with: listen to your wife.  Next time – if there is a next time – I’m going to use shrimp.

Where do Good Ideas for Books Come From?

July 30, 2009

ideaThe short answer to this question is: buggered if I know, but I’d like to suggest a few things that might help unearth a nugget or two.

  1. Open your eyes and your ears. Expose yourself to as much stuff as possible.  Whether it’s reading magazines, or novels, or listening to podcasts, or eavesdropping other people’s conversations on the way to work, the more you read and hear, the greater your chances of coming across something that captures your imagination.  I’m not suggesting you copy other people’s ideas, of course, but it’s amazing how our brains can process things and lead us off in unexpected directions.
  2. Take a notebook with you everywhere. Write stuff down, or you’ll forget it.  Yes, you will.  If not a notebook, have some other way to capture your thoughts.
  3. Be lucky. Sometimes serendipity plays a part.  One of the core ideas behind Paradise – really the one from which everything else sprung – occurred to me while I was sitting in church at the funeral of my wife’s great-aunt Ethel.  Half way through the service, four brothers stood up and sang “Abide With Me” in pitch-perfect four-part harmony.  And while I should have been thinking, “Poor old Ethel, she had a good life, I’ll miss her,” what I was actually thinking was: Oh my God!  Singing brothers!  That would be a perfect idea for a book!  So, sorry Ethel.  But thanks.
  4. Learn to spot the good ones. Maybe the hardest trick of all is to differentiate between the good ideas and the merely so-so (and the downright dreadful.)  Here’s where instinct is invaluable.  It goes without saying that if you can spot the clunkers early you’ll be saving yourself an awful lot of heartache later on.  Don’t be afraid to ask other people what they think.  Better to know now than 30,000 words in.  I speak from bitter experience.  I wrote half a novel about the Algerian War of Independence which was set in Paris in the 1960s before I realized that I was probably the only person on the planet who found the topic interesting.  It was Bruce, my agent, who eventually put me right.  He read the first three chapters and sent back the following email: “Dear Alex, I’m sorry, but this won’t do at all.”
  5. Be original. There are plenty of good ideas out there.  Some of them have your name on them.   Above all, resist the urge to copy (or worse, steal) someone else’s idea.  Quite apart from anything else, if it’s not yours you won’t believe in it, and that will show through in your writing.
  6. Be patient. In two ways.  (a) You’ll have to wait for the ideas to come.  Don’t fret if you are uninspired.  Just keep digging (see 1 above) and something will come.  (b)  Don’t assume that every idea has to be used at once.  It may be literally years before you work out how an idea could fit into your work.  Keep a careful note and (if you can) some kind of retrieval system so that you can review old notes and ideas.  Some of the bits of business that I have used in Paradise have been knocking around my head for ages… only with this book did I work out how to use them.  Don’t try and cram too much into whatever you happen to be doing at the time.  If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.  Allow ideas to develop before you commit them to paper.
  7. Be realistic. Let’s be honest about how this works: by and large, unless (apparently) you’re J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, the plots of novels will most likely not plop, fully formed, into your head or occur to you in dreams.  Crafting stories is a long process.  Be a magpie.  Hoard ideas, snatch scraps from wherever, and be ready to discard and reconstruct as necessary.  Compose, in the original sense of the word: put things together.

Right, that’s quite enough bossiness for one day.  Here endeth the lesson.

Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye

July 30, 2009

Unabashedly wonderful stuff.  I’ve posted this on FB before, but I love it so much, it’s worth a revisit.  Enjoy.

Last minute tweaks

July 29, 2009

Final, tiny polish before submission tomorrow: exorcising last remaining anglicisms.  I found one “pavement” and seven “autumns”.  Damn.  Thank God for search and replace.  Scratching my head trying to think of other tell-tale signs…

Technology is a Wonderful Thing

July 29, 2009

No, really.

I was listening to my new favorite podcast, the Checkout, a jazz show from WBGO in New Jersey, and they had an interview with Spike Wilner, who is manager of Small’s Jazz Club in Greenwich Village (as well as being a great pianist – check out this.)

I’ve been itching to go to Small’s for the longest time – the club was the proverbial hotbed of new talent back in the 90s and some of my favorite musicians came through the ranks there.  Every time we’ve been in NYC we have never managed to make it, for some reason or another.  But no matter, because now I have learned that I can enjoy the music from my little desk here in Missouri.  They do this amazing thing – every show at the club (just about) is streamed live on the internet.  For free.  Tune in from 7.30 p.m. Eastern and check it out.

Download Day

July 29, 2009

It’s the end of the month, which means it’s time for my regular downloading extravaganza, courtesy of emusic.  This month I have acquired the following gems:

Seamus Blake – Live in Italy

I’m not that familiar with tenor player Seamus Blake, but will be soon.  seamusThis got a great review in this month’s Down Beat, and that’s usually good enough for me.  What I’ve heard so far sounds excellent – urgent, engaging, fresh.  Chance my wife is going to hate it: 65% 85%.

Kind of Brown – Christian McBride

Not sure about the title, but this promises to be a treat.  I love Christian McBride.  I first saw him play in Columbia as part of the Pat Metheny Trio a few years ago and was blown away by him.  Since then he’s been back with Benny Green in one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to, a Ray Brown tribute with Greg Hutchinson on drums.  kindofbrown

Quite apart from his astonishing bass playing, he also seems to be a genuinely nice man, and very much his own guy.  There’s a great profile on him in the current issueof Down Beat.  This new album, his first “straight ahead” jazz album for ages, also features Steve Wilson, who played an incredible house concert in Columbia about a month ago with Bruce Barth, and who also appeared here recently with the Blue Note 7 – I wrote a preview of that gig here.  Vibist Warren Wolf joins Steve in the front line, causing welcome echoes of the recent bands of another bass hero of mine, Dave Holland.  Chance my wife will hate it: 55%.

Standards – Alan Pasqua, Peter Erskine, Dave Carpenter

standardsI have had my eye on this for quite a while.  Simple, elegant, frill-free playing of the highest quality.  There’s an awful lot of piano trios in my music collection, but I suspect this one will get more listens than most.  Tasteful and refined stuff.  Erskine is a master.  Chance my wife will hate it: 10%