Thursday, September 20, 2018

Summer Book Report 2018

Y'all. It's been seven months since I blogged, so #failcatefail. But that's not even the worst part: I barely have a post to write here at all.

This wasn't the greatest summer for my reading life. I've been a slacker all year, in fact. Since January, I've only read 20 new-to-me books, although to be fair to myself, I also reread the entire Harry Potter series in January, which is an accomplishment in itself. And I did buy a few (read: 20 or more) volumes to read in the future! These are the stores I've been to recently to accomplish such a feat.

- In September, I returned to McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, MI. This is one of my favorite bookstores, which is saying something, as I love most bookstores I visit.

- Also in September, I went to Between the Covers in Harbor Springs, MI. This was my first time at that store. It's small but has a good selection and reminded me a lot of Lorelei Books in Vicksburg, MS.

Sadly, I have yet to go to any other stores, except for my local Barnes & Noble (I know, okay?). However, I should have the opportunity in October to go to both Brilliant Books in Traverse City, MI, which I already know, and Horizon Books, also in TC, which I've never shopped at before. If I have the time, I'll also stop at Landmark Books in TC.

In other bookstore news: for those of you who don't know, the Lansing branch of Schuler Books has closed; however, their Okemos and Grand Rapids locations are still open for business!

In other bookish news, I've suspended my Book of the Month Club subscription, although I do highly recommend the service. Their curation and price point are spot-on; I just found myself more interested in other books I found elsewhere, but don't be surprised if I tell you in the future that I've reactivated my account.

I'm sorry my first post back isn't more exciting than this one, but I hope you find it informative and discover your new favorite bookstore this way!

-Cate-

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Food Food Food: The Pumpkin Queen?

If you were suffering under the delusion that my October soufflail would deter me from revisiting that pumpkin cookbook of my mother's, you were wrong. So it happens that the second Food Food Food post starts much like the first: with a can of pumpkin guts.

Look, it's not that I didn't want to move on to different things. I did. But that stupid orange book was taunting me, okay? I couldn't let it defeat me. So I drove to the grocery store in my yoga pants and marched myself around until I found the ingredients for something called a Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie with Sour Cream Topping.

Let me be clear: this was not a cheesecake. It was closer to the texture of a chocolate silk pie, or maybe a cheesecake if cheesecake came in a semi-wet chiffon variety. I should also tell you now that the recipe called for no pumpkin pie-type spices, only grated lemon peel and vanilla. That felt wrong to me, so I ditched the lemon and substituted ginger and nutmeg (which items we already had at home). 


I felt that I had the advantage this time. There were few ingredients, and everything was simple (i.e., no stiffly beaten anything this time). The sour cream topping was so easy to make that I wasn't sure what to do with the extra time I had, other than taste-test it; it's pretty much my new favorite thing.

That required only sugar, sour cream (I used lite), and a touch of vanilla. I mixed it in a cereal bowl with a fork. It would have taken someone with far fewer skills than I have to mess it up, I think. But I also had a secret weapon: real Mexican vanilla.


I'm not sure we've ever had a brand of vanilla other than Danncy in our house. Mom picks it up in Tijuana when she gets the chance, and a single bottle lasts approximately one million years. The rich brown liquid smells and tastes incredible and smooth, and I highly recommend it.

The pie itself was a cinch, in part because I used a store-bought graham cracker crust. Aside from that, it came together quickly and baked up in about 45 minutes. Before I added the topping, it was a light beige-orange, and it smelled like fall.


Because the crust was threatening to burn, I had to take the pie out of the oven before the topping fully set up, so it was less meringue-like than I suspect it should have been, but it still tasted good. The sour cream added just the right acidic notes to the dessert, and the texture of the pie still felt like a classic pumpkin pie, but overall it was lighter than that more traditional option. 

Although I did feel that the pie itself was a bit on the bland side, I'm happy to report that neither of my parents rejected the endeavor this time (I still can't blame my mom for not wanting to consume the first experiment).


My hope is that I'll continue to focus on seasonal fare, although perhaps in the future my efforts will line up better with my blogging schedule so I'm not consistently behind the times with my posts. If anyone has suggestions or requests, let me know, as I have yet to decide what I'll make next!

-Cate-

PS For copyright purposes, I won't be sharing the exact recipe here, but if you're interested, e-mail me at CateIsMilesAway@gmail.com for more information.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Adventures in Rejection: Self-Rejection

Hey, it's Valentine's Day, so why not talk about rejection for a minute? But this time, it's different, because it's all about you and something you should know.

It's okay to reject your own work.

Literally everyone who has ever taken a creative writing class has heard that phrase, "Kill your darlings." Usually it's in reference to a line or two that you really love but which don't quite work in the poem or story you're writing, or sometimes it's about characters who don't belong. But sometimes we have to take that saying to the next level.

Kill entire manuscripts if you have to. Don't think of it as abandonment or murder. There are pieces we've created that are either too amateur or too personal to share with the world, and no one is going to stop you from burning those pages. Or don't burn them. Stomp on them. Shred them. Vent your frustration and scribble all over them. Whatever it takes.

Although we as writers don't necessarily always know when something is working without someone else's input, there are times when we know in our writerly guts that something is wrong. Maybe you had an idea that turned out to be a dead end. Maybe a particular topic is off-limits after all. These are the times when it's okay to listen to that instinct and pull the plug.

And try not to worry too much when you do so. because there will always, always, always be another idea for you. I promise.

-Cate-

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

To Be Read

You have one. I have one. Everyone has one.

The dreaded pile of books "to be read."

No, dreaded is the wrong word. It's a pleasure to have that stack available. Because you never know what you might want to read next, right? It could be that historical biography, or perhaps a novella. Maybe it's a celebrity memoir or the hottest YA novel. In other words, the "to be read" pile represents a world of possibilities.

But what do we do when it gets unmanageable? Because it will, eventually, become so large as to seem insurmountable. Perhaps you found a ton of books on sale at a library or flea market. Or maybe you've rediscovered some cache of volumes you put aside years ago. Suddenly, there is nowhere to store all of them. 

Personally, I am a fan of culling: sitting down and being honest with myself about whether or not I will ever get around to a particular title. I've impulse-bought more books than I can count, and it's important to me to reevaluate from time to time, in case I realize that a certain topic isn't really the best thing for me to explore. 

In an ideal world, there would be enough time for us to read everything that interests us. But we live in an imperfect place where time isn't as abundant as we would like--or need--it to be. We do the best we can, including tackling that pile to the best of our ability. 

-Cate-

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Diversification

Something I think we don't discuss often enough as writers is diversification. 

In this case, I don't mean diversity of subject matter or characters, although those things are important, as well. Rather, what I mean is that we ourselves must be diverse.

Think about it: in nature, stagnation can--and often does--mean death. If an ecosystem isn't varied enough, it can fail, withering away as its few plants and animals falter under the weight of sustaining something they aren't equipped to handle. Likewise, going hard on one project, all the time, can mean creative death.

It's important to branch out into other areas. Of course, writers should always be reading, and that's one way to diversify: by seeking out genres and topics outside of your own scope. And in order to keep the creative juices flowing, it's helpful to have another artistic endeavor. For me, it's photography (I'm a big fan of Instagram). When I don't feel able to write, or when I need a break from it, I might snap a few pictures and express myself that way. Other options are music, painting, or even crafting (my crafts of choice are usually crochet and scrapbooking). 

Or maybe you have a more scientific hobby. Vladimir Nabokov was into collecting butterflies. Flannery O'Connor raised peacocks. Sylvia Plath kept bees for a time. Hell, even the more run-of-the-mill things out there, like cooking or bowling, make great side pursuits.

The point is, having something to do outside your writing time makes you a more well-rounded person, which in turn makes you a better artist. Sitting at your desk all the time can be crazy-making and lead to myopia. And no one likes a writer who never introduces a new subject or element to his or her writing, right?

-Cate-

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Turning the Lazy Susan

All right, let's talk about something for a second: this horrendous phenomenon of retelling stories from another character's perspective.

When I say this, I don't mean the Wickeds and Grendels of the world, those being mainly original works that expand upon their source material. What I'm referring to, rather, is something along the lines of E.L. James' Grey or its forerunner, Stephenie Meyer's never-finished Midnight Sun.

Not familiar with either of those titles? Consider yourself lucky. I will admit, right here and now, that I read all four of the main Twilight books as well as Midnight Sun, which is available via Meyer's website. I kept waiting for them to get better, or for something truly intriguing to happen; neither of those things came to pass. By the time I got to Midnight Sun, I was no longer hopeful, but like a knight who has undertaken an impossible mission in the name of his king, I felt I was duty-bound to take one last stab at giving Meyer a chance. That, I don't mind telling you, was a mistake.

It turns out that retelling Twilight from Edward's perspective was a terrible move because it made him seem even more irredeemably creepy, even more like an unrehabilitated stalker. And, frankly, it was a waste of time.

Because Meyer had already told this story. Revisiting it with another character as the narrator wasn't groundbreaking, and it certainly wasn't an improvement upon the original. Rather, it was an exercise in laziness. This is the kind of project you undertake when you're working on your first or second draft, playing around with voice and point of view. It's not the sort of thing you do once a project has been completed. To me, that says you're out of other ideas and can't pull yourself away from the thing that made your name.

Since Midnight Sun didn't make it to book form, though, it doesn't seem as brazen as Grey, which looks from where I'm standing like a pure money-grab. Because Grey is nothing more than a retelling of Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian's perspective. (No. I have not read any of the Fifty Shades books.) EL James, rather than moving on to new writing projects, has simply retooled her "original" trilogy; I say "original" because it started out as Twilight fanfiction. And now she's selling it, milking yet more profits from her cash cow, which is a disservice to fans of her writing as well as the craft of writing itself.

Of course, you can make the argument that nothing is ever really new and all that. But in these cases, there is literally nothing new. We owe it to ourselves as writers and readers not to support such endeavors, which lead to stagnation among consumers and our output. Instead, we should be exploring entirely new territory and expanding our horizons by seeking out more original works.

Don't let this become a full-blown trend in the publishing industry. We all deserve better.

-Cate-



Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Rereading

If you're familiar with this blog, you've seen my reading list section, which names every book I've read since 2011. I've kept this record more for my own edification than anything, but I feel it can also serve as a jumping-off point for anyone searching for a tome to consume or interested in what a writer actually takes in (short answer: everything).

But my list took a nosedive in 2017. The number of books I read last year was considerably lower than it had been in the past--fewer than my usual goal of one book per week. On the one hand, it is true that I slacked off, partly due to changing circumstances but also thanks to a newfound inability to concentrate on anything for very long (thank you, depression, for making it difficult for me to focus). On the other hand, I also decided to take time in the final quarter of the year to re-read five books that mean something to me.

It started with Steve Almond, whose (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions brightened my grad school days and which I wanted to revisit for its instructive wit and keen observation. His meditation on Kurt Vonnegut triggered in me a need to spend time with favorite novels of my own. So I went on to Robert Coover's Briar Rose, still a thrilling novella to behold some ten years after I first encountered it. The suffering lovers at the center of Coover's tale, of course, made me think of Thomas Hardy's exquisitely painful plots, so The Return of the Native called out to me. 

It was also October, though, and with Halloween upon the doorstep, I put Hardy on hold to tackle House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski's intricate tale of fractured humans and the things that haunt them. After that, it was back to Hardy, and then of course I had to round out the season with Fahrenheit 451, my long-standing favorite.

I could have gone on, poring over other novels that have influenced me along the way. In fact, I have no doubt I could make an entire career of living inside fictional worlds I've already encountered. More than likely, I will halt my new-to-me progress again this year to re-read more old loves.

Because it only feels right. In spite of the march of progress and the never-ending supply of new material (as well as my bad habit of going on book-buying binges), I feel I owe it to myself--and the novels, in a way--to look back. After all, what is the point of saying something like, "Oh, yes: The Bell Jar had a profound effect on my writing" if the details of that book are getting hazy and I can no longer cite specific moments that set me on fire? And anyway, re-reading gives you that same feeling you get when you go home for the holidays: relief, comfort, and anticipation of the good things ahead. (Side note: if this isn't how you feel about going home for the holidays, you have my sympathies, and also my permission to insert your own analogy here.)

As for what I re-read this time around, I can say the following:

- I relate to the characters in The Return of the Native better now than I did when I was 17, which made this a richer reading experience for me.
- Although House of Leaves didn't scare me this time (it terrified me as a 16-year-old), it still caught my attention and left me wanting the next page.
- Steve Almond is bae just as much today as he was when I first saw him in Cambridge, MA in 2011.
- Coover's work is every bit as magical as I remember.
- Fahrenheit still feels like my forever book, and I hope that never changes.

And I'm curious to know: what books do you like to re-read? Tell me in the comments. 

-Cate-