How to Grill Artichokes without Boiling Them First

Today’s post will be about artichokes. This has nothing to do with writing at all, except for the fact that I am writing the recipe out. To be honest, if you want to make your artichokes truly delicious, you’re going to have to roast them. (475-degree oven, covered, 35 minutes.) Cranking the oven up to 475 when it’s already 90 degrees inside the house is taking the quest for a perfect vegetable too far, and therefore, grilling makes an acceptable second choice. Most recipes require boiling or steaming the artichokes first and finishing them off on the grill. Forget it. I am too lazy to double cook anything, and I believe I already mentioned the ninety degree indoor temperature.

So here’s what you do. 1. First, you make a little bath for the artichokes in a bowl: a bit of lemon juice and water. Then you cut the tops off the artichokes, slice them in half, and cut out the chokes with a paring knife. Toss those in the bath. I did not take a picture of this step, so you’ll have to try to imagine it.

2. When you’re done doing that, drain them. Toss them with olive oil (a few tablespoons, at least), some onions and garlic and lemon halves if you want, and salt and pepper. Throw in any spices you think might go well. I chose red pepper flakes. Also add water to this mix–at least 1/4 cup.


3. Put the artichoke halves in a foil packet. (Note: I do feel bad about all this foil.) Make sure there is water in there! That will help them steam a bit, allowing them to cook without burning. If you have a really hot grill, you should probably add more water. Remember, I am not a professional griller, and this is not an exact science.

4. Then grill the packets on low heat (if you have a gas grill) for 15-20 minutes on each side. I didn’t take a picture of this, either, because it would just be a picture of a foil packet on a barbecue. I cooked them for 15 on each side and the outer leaves were still a bit tough. The heart was perfect, though.



Scent and Subversion

Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative PerfumeScent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated by scents for years now—not perfumes, but everyday scents: cedar closets, wet earth, cement, tea leaves, tree leaves, fir and pine needles, pencils, basements, matches, old books. When I started learning about perfume, my interest was really more solipsistic than academic: I dreamed of finding the perfect concoction that somehow perfectly expressed my thoughts and moods. Herman says we can “see perfume as instructive, a bridge between the world and our oft-neglected sense of smell. Like reading poetry to understand the lyricism in demotic, everyday speech, perfume connects us to the olfactory wonderland that is around us.” Scent and Subversion moves beyond—way beyond—the personal connection we have to scents and digs into the history, art, and science of perfumery.

Most of the book is like an encyclopedia of landmark vintage perfumes, organized chronologically. For each scent, author Barbara Herman provides cultural, historical, and social commentary; describes, analyses, and interprets the fragrance; and lists the top, heart, and base notes. We have different taste in fragrances: she favors animalic chypres and I suppose I’m more into minimalist woody scents. But Herman had a knack for imbuing each fragrance with mystery and allure, almost tempting me to bid on decants of Bandit so I could smell “a bouquet of flowers wrapped with a black whip” and Tabu, “the prostitute’s perfume.”

I was so taken with Herman’s descriptions of perfumes that I started a long list of scents I want to sniff or re-sniff. I’m especially curious to smell the perfumes I remember from my childhood and early adulthood now that I know more about them. It turns out that I have memories and associations with many, many perfumes. As a preteen, I had a small sample of Dior’s Fahrenheit for men (1988), which Herman describes as “classically masculine.” I was surprised that she didn’t mention what I’ve always found so striking and appealing about Fahrenheit—that unmistakable petrol note that rises up out of the fresh, citrusy opening.

Another one on the re-sniff list is Bulgari Black (1998). I’ve never quite understood they hype surrounding this one, which Herman declares a “masterpiece of twenty-first century perfumery.” For me, after the initial blast of rubber, which is so intriguing, the scent charges straight to the dry down. On my skin, the rubber turns into a bland, powdery vanilla and stays there. I want to try it again and see if I can get the complexity. I want to pick out the lapsang souchang in the top notes. The base sounds more dynamic than I remembered, with a blend of cedar, sandalwood, and leather in addition to the vanilla/musk/amber I could detect the last time I tried it.

Throughout the book, Herman rants against the banality of the insipid fruity and shampoo-y clean scents that have dominated the perfume scene for the last two decades. She makes a great case for embracing older, more complex formulas that blend pleasant smells with darker, animalic notes. Though I’m not sure I’d ever grow to love the musky and civety concoctions of ages past the way Herman has, I feel like I get them now—or I could learn to get them. Maybe it’s time to give Shalimar and Chanel No. 5 another sniff!

Scent and Subversion is a well-researched, well-written, fascinating tour of modern perfumery (from the 1880s to now). Barbara Herman makes a compelling argument for considering perfume as an art form, “as an aesthetic of pop culture that is worth of analysis, shaped by and shaping the culture in which it is embedded.”

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Taipei by Tao Lin: The Way We Live Now

TaipeiTaipei by Tao Lin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tao Lin is like a robot who is trying his hardest to understand human emotion. Or maybe a wooden puppet who yearns, more than anything, to turn into a real boy. Paul, the point of view character in Taipei, tries to feel, but he has a hard time pulling it off. He and his friends buy groceries, go to movies, have conversations, do drugs, have sex, get married, go on trips, and film themselves with their Macbooks. No matter what they’re doing, it’s all flat and bloodless. Dramatic emotions, Paul feels, are something you might read about in a book or see in a movie, but not something to expect from real life.

Paul is constantly taking his emotional temperature, trying to gauge how he feels. He’s never simply feeling, completely lost in the drama of his life; his emotions are “vague” (a word that must have appeared more than fifty times in the book), but still, he struggles to identify them:

. . . he calmly turned his head a little and asked if Erin was bored.
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“I can’t tell,” said Paul. “Are you?”
“Maybe a little. Do you want to go?”
“Yeah,” said Paul, and slowly stood.

Some might argue that writing is about finding the story: a good writer needs to take his observations of ordinary life and craft them into a narrative that allows us to make sense of the world around us. Tao Lin doesn’t subscribe to this idea. If his literary influences (the 1980s minimalists like Lorrie Moore, Anne Beattie, and Raymond Carver) taught him anything, it’s that life does not have narrative structure. Life is a series of moments, most of them mundane. (It’s funny and almost impossible to imagine his characters engaging in high-stakes drama: a car chase, a murder, an emergency tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, a flash mob wedding proposal.)

Tabitha Blankenbiller, in her review of Taipei on Spectrum Culture, says, “In the end, I felt as though I had refreshed my Facebook wall for 260 pages, waiting for a real story to come along. But aside from some grainy selfies and viral videos, nothing ever quite shows up.” The pages of Taipei are bleak and empty, yes. But as repetitive and mind-numbing as it is to refresh that Facebook page all day long, you have to admit it’s addictive. It becomes a way to pass huge chunks of our time, a way to experience life. Unlike, say, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Super Sad True Love Story, or The Circle, Taipei doesn’t present us with a hazily dystopian future, where technology has replaced normal human emotions and interactions. Taipei is trying to show us how we live now. Tao Lin’s vision is depressing, sure. But not altogether inaccurate.

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The Broken Homes and Gardens Book Trailer is Here!

As this book trailer will soon make evident, my sister (director of photography and editor, Gina Kelley) and I are no strangers to film making. We got our start in our grandparents’ basement in Denver, Colorado. Along with our cousins, we wrote, acted, and directed a groundbreaking piece of cinema we called “The Forbidden Toilet.” It was a story of a detective–toilet plunger in hand–on the case of a pink toilet that took hold of all who sat upon it and flushed them into a sort of swampy netherworld. We followed up on the success of this first film with a sequel (The Forbidden Toilet’s Last Flush) the following summer.

Now, in our first film making collaboration since the 1980s, we’re at it again, this time with a little trailer for my novel manuscript (working title: Broken Homes and Gardens). For our early Forbidden Toilet fans, you’ll see a dramatic shift in our film making style:

This is the Nietzsche version of the trailer. We have three more versions with different taglines, which we may reveal sometime in the future. Unfortunately, Nietzsche was unavailable to blurb my novel, but I imagine him declaring it a “delightful romp.” In addition to our favorite 19th century German philosopher, we would like to thank Central City Music Company for allowing us to use their song, which perfectly punctuates The Broken Homes and Gardens’ characters’ emotional ups and downs.


“Broken Homes and Gardens is a delightful romp.” Thus spake the author of The Antichrist and The Death of Tragedy

Book review: Office Girl

Office GirlOffice Girl by Joe Meno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought I was reading about millennial hipsters, riding their bikes around snowy Chicago, defacing public property with paint pens. (I like this book’s alternate title: “Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things.” It suits the story much better, as only a fraction of the book is from the “office girl’s” point of view.) Soon I realized I wasn’t reading about millennial hipsters at all. The story takes place in 1999, making them . . . GEN-X hipsters!

The first section of the book (Odile) didn’t quite captivate me. Parts felt like creative writing exercises. Long passages of internal monologue, chapters in list-form, quirky line drawings, and a Tao Lin-esque writing style felt contrived rather than original.

It all pulled together once the point of view character switched to Jack. Finally, the contrivances fell away and the story and characters began to emerge. Odile and Jack ride through the snow on bicycles. They’ve semi-ironically started a new art movement. I was no longer annoyed with them at all. I liked them, I felt for them. I even enjoyed their fake art.

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Book review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the now-famous interview with Claire Messud before I ever picked up The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asks Messud about her character Nora: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud responds: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” (She goes on to list many other fictional bad boys of literature.)

Implicit in Messud’s response is the idea that we tend to embrace unlikable male characters—the Humbert Humberts, the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of our fictional worlds—more readily than female ones.

I agree: we readers shouldn’t need our books populated with likable characters. Still, I love so many books because I love the people who inhabit them. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls. I don’t know if I wanted to be their friend or if I wanted to be them, but I definitely liked them. I loved them.

But perhaps, as Messud suggests, this is an unsophisticated way of reading. We grow up, we learn to look for more than kinship and friendship in our characters: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud says. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In other words, we don’t have to love them; we have to believe in them.

So I went into The Woman Upstairs knowing that Nora wouldn’t necessarily become my friend. And sure enough, she wasn’t an especially pleasant person to be around for all those pages. Nora describes herself as “the woman upstairs.” She’s not quite the woman in the attic, the one who goes nuts and burns down the house. Nor is she downstairs with all the other characters. She’s the woman down the hall you say hi to but don’t know anything about. In Nora’s case, she’s thirty-seven and already resigned to spinsterhood. She figures life has passed her by.

But there is a bit of irony in Messud’s angry response to the interviewer’s question: The Woman Upstairs is a book about friendship. When Nora befriends the family of one of her pupils, life opens up to her. Friendship awakens her the way love awakens people, shakes them out of old routines and reveals opportunity. So then, the question of whether Nora would make a good friend becomes relevant to the story. Is the family as enthralled with Nora as she is with them?

The book reminds me (and many other reviewers) of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Barbara Covett was a “woman upstairs,” too. It’s difficult to take these self-professed nobodies, push them to the center stage, and expect everyone to watch with rapt attention. Heller pulls it off, giving schoolteacher Barbara enough wit and realness to make her misanthropic views bearable. More than bearable—fascinating and funny.

In The Woman Upstairs, Nora was too much inside her own head, and her voice began to grate on me. (Weirdly, I kept reading her interior monologues with the inflections of Hannibal Lector.) The ideas and themes in the novel captured my attention and imagination, but the details of Nora’s personality and life (she is a popular teacher who loves kids; she’s beautiful; she’s a runner; she’s the “woman upstairs;” she’s a thirty-seven-year-old childless spinster) didn’t add up. Messud doesn’t ask me to like Nora; she wants me to believe in her. I just couldn’t do it.

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Book review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best book I’ve read all summer! Okay, I know this isn’t saying much. I think I’ve read only twelve books so far. But still. I loved it. I cried at least five times, six if you include this morning when I retold the entire story to my seven-year-old. I choked up when I recounted the ending, and the waterworks started up all over again. She didn’t really get it. Partly because she’s seven and partly because I had to give her a sort of G-rated version of story.

I bought the connection between Eleanor and Park, and I wanted them to be together. It’s a deceptively simple thing for a book to make me do. How many rom-coms have I watched or books have I read that tried to do that and failed? I’m left throwing popcorn at the screen or tossing the book aside, yelling, “You’re all wrong for each other!” or “He’s a jerk! What do you even see in him?” or (most damning) “Who cares?”

I was dreading the ending. [Spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the ending!] I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy.[I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy. (hide spoiler)]

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.

Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.

It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:

I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.

When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d’être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.

Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.

Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off a cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?

I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.

But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time.

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Before Before Midnight

kelley_before_midnightSpring break, 1995. I caught Before Sunrise in the movie theater. An American guy and French girl meet on a train. When the train stops in Vienna, he convinces her to spend the day with him. They walk around the city all day and night, knowing they’ll have to say goodbye in the morning.

I wanted that. All of it.

Continue reading on Propeller.

Book Review: Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as “date night.” Dee’s writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.

The subsequent pages don’t pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen’s husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce–and Helen doesn’t have any sort of emotional reaction. She’s not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter’s response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn’t blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?

I did enjoy Helen’s career trajectory, even if it wasn’t entirely believable that she could go from housewife to “crisis management” genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread–which serves as the conclusion of the entire book–doesn’t ring true.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee’s prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work.

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