Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Two of my students mentioned Washington Black by Esi Edugyan in class. One asked the other, "Do you like it?" The other nodded and said, "I love it."  I loved it too. It's one of the most beautifully written and intense novels I've ever read. The book is not for the faint of heart---there are disturbing scenes about life as a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the early 19th century. (If you liked Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad, you'll love this.) But this is also a love story, told from the point of view of a young enslaved boy who loves the man who saves him, and his relationship later in life with a woman who is his intellectual and artistic equal. The main character, Wash, is an artist and a scientist, as well as a branded, scarred runaway slave. There are several harrowing and intimate scenes that are so vividly described, you'll feel as if you are watching a movie. Cruel, funny, and believable dialogue is spoken all over the book, and there are lush and poetic descriptions of weather and landscapes in Barbados, the Arctic, London and Morocco, as well as gorgeous writing about the glories of being gifted at drawing and floating away in a hot air balloon. Wash's first person narration is so heartfelt and persuasive, you'll feel he is speaking  directly to you. It's hard to believe the book was written by a Canadian middle-aged woman. Interview with author Esi Edugyan here. Review of  the book here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Straight to Video: Join our LIVE Workshop, Monday, January 28, 6-8 p.m.

Please join psychologist Dr. Judith Ruskay Rabinor and me on Monday, January 28, from 6-8 p.m., as we host Writing About Our Families and Ourselves, our first writing and meditation workshop of 2019, on the Upper West Side.

We all have family stories to tell. In this thought-provoking workshop, we incorporate writing exercises, relevant text and guided meditations to prompt you to shape your family stories into essays, memoirs, and short fiction. You will leave with the shape of a story you want to tell and a list of scenes you want to dramatize.

Whether you are a seasoned writer or a beginner, join us to explore the power of mining your history in your personal and professional writing journey. Plan to come with a computer or notebook/pen. Questions? Please email me @ zinnfromm@gmail.com. We'd love to see you! 

Cost: $100.
Date: Monday, January 28
Time: 6-8 p.m.
Place: Upper West Side.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tessa Hadley's new novel is out and she's coming to NYC

If you are a Tessa Hadley fan, her new novel, Late in the Day, is out. It received a great review from the New York Times, and she is coming to NYC to be interviewed by Colm Toibin next Wednesday, January 30 at Symphony Space. I love Tessa Hadley. She is one of our greatest living writers, in my humble opinion, a delicious combination of Alice Munro and Laurie Colwin (the Times is now comparing her to Virginia Woolf though Hadley is funnier and way more accessible). Every time I see one of her stories published in The New Yorker, I think, "Oh, goody!" Hadley specializes in love, marriage, break-ups, bad decisions, step-children, child-rearing, sewing, and other pressing matters of the heart. Strong, foolish women, and strong, tactical women dominate her stories. Her writing is so convincing that after you finish one of her stories, you think, "That had to have happened, right?" 

Here is a link to the stories The New Yorker has run and below is a list of stories I've taught. If you have never read Tessa Hadley, you are in for a treat. 

Dido's Lament
Funny Little Snake
Silk Brocade

Monday, January 21, 2019

Hot lunch for one: Sliced eggplant and poached eggs

I had big plans to write about Cal Peternell's beautifully written new cookbook, Almonds, Anchovies and Pancetta: A Vegetarian Cookbook, Sort Of, which (full disclosure) his publisher sent to me gratis, but that would have required a trip to the supermarket to try out a couple more of his recipes. I love this book, and love him as a writer and recipe developer but it's 12 degrees in NYC today, and it feels like minus five. I already went to the gym and ran a couple of errands with our dog. The heat wasn't working in our bedroom last night, so I had no plans to go outside again anytime soon. But by noon, I was ravenous. What did we have that could warm me up instantly? There were several spears of asparagus, an old eggplant, an even older bag of string beans and two dozen eggs in the fridge. Sliced, roasted eggplant, doused in olive oil, salt and pepper, would cook quickly and melt nicely up against the eggs.  

Peternell, who used to cook at Chez Panisse but also revels in cooking simple meals for his family, uses a lot of eggs and vegetables in his new book so I'd like to think he would bless this makeshift lunch. I will post on Peternell on a warmer day.

Poached Eggs with Roasted Eggplant 

1 small eggplant
Two eggs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste


Turn oven to 425 degrees.

Cover a cookie sheet with tinfoil. 

Add some white or cider vinegar to a pot of water and bring to boil. Break two eggs carefully into a bowl and set aside.

While egg water is boiling, slice eggplant up into thin pieces. Place eggplant slices on cookie tray salt and pepper the eggplant, and douse with one to tablespoons olive oil (or more or less, to taste.) Once oven has come to temperature, put eggplant in for 20 minutes.

Once water is boiling, drop eggs in and set timer for four minutes. Once eggs are done, pour eggs and water through a strainer, and put eggs back in the pot to stay warm. Cover with lid.

After 20 minutes, take eggplant out of oven. They should be brown and crispy on one side. Flip the piece and cook for 5 more minutes.

Pull eggplant out of the oven, and frame eggs with slices of eggplant. Oh, joy! You may have leftover eggplant slices, which you can save for later. Or you can eat them one by one, with your fingers, pleased with the hot, buttery meal you have made for yourself.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Syllabus: NYC Winter 2019 Writing Workshop Starts January 22

One of my favorite activities is developing a new syllabus.  I teach in six and ten week sessions and spend a few days every two or three months looking for stories, essays and portions of memoirs and novels that I love and want to teach, and which I hope my writing students will love and want to read. Great reading leads to great writing.

I admit I teach some authors over and over---Raymond Carver, Nathan Englander, Lauren Groff, Tessa Hadley, Etgar Keret, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Yiyun Li Alice Munro, David Sedaris, Curtis Sittenfeld, Zadie Smith---but I also try to push myself to find writers who I haven't read much of (Rachel Kushner, ZZ Packer, Min Jin Lee) or  have just discovered (Scholastique Mukasonga.) I gravitate towards women writers, so have to nudge myself to find men, There are some good ones. I love discovering an established writer who I've never read before and then rushing to read as much of him or her as I can---lately I've been on a Donald Hall tear.

Below is what I'm teaching this winter. There is one spot left in the workshop I'm teaching on Tuesday nights at the JCC Manhattan. We start Tuesday, January 22 and the workshop runs ten sessions through April. We meet from 5:30-7:30 p.m. so you can nibble on something during class or go out for dinner afterwards. Here is the link to the class if you're interested. The cost is $480 for non-JCC members, $420 for members.

We will be reading some great fiction and creative non-fiction. The setting is small and intimate. We sit around a conference table and I run the workshops the way I was taught at Columbia: We discuss great authors' published work first, do some writing exercises, and then discuss submissions from writers in the workshop. The writer whose work is being discussed stays "in the box" (remains silent) while his/her work is being discussed, and then can ask questions afterwards.

I believe that writers need community, and that we all need feedback and deadlines. In this workshop, you get all three.

If you would like to read student testimonials, click here. If you would like to see where my students have been published, click here. If you decide you would like to write with me and read these pieces this winter, let me know asap. If not, you can read them on your own. They're all free and fabulous on line. 

Writing Our Stories
Winter 2019

Nora Ephron, Nora Ephron’s Apartment: A Love Story (non-fiction)

Donald Hall, Between Solitude and Loneliness (non-fiction),

Tessa Hadley,  Silk Brocade (fiction)

Etgar Keret, Creative Writing (fiction)

Phil Klay, After Action Report (fiction)

Bobby Ann Mason, The Burden of the Feast  (non-fiction)

Alice Munro, Home (blend of fiction and non-fiction; Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction, Q&A with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson from Paris Review

David Sedaris, Father Time (non-fiction)

Callan Wink, A Refugee Crisis (fiction)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Stuff to read over the holidays...

Tis the season to travel, celebrate and read. I love the slow time between Christmas and New Year's. This year, we're going skiing in Utah and it's going to be brutally cold. My family has a greater appetite for skiing than I do, so I'm going to spend at least half the time, reading and writing by the fire. Here's what I've read the past couple of months, and intend to finish before the New Year.

Donald Hall, Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety: Oh, this book. What a great, feisty memoir by the late great poet, who loved his second wife (the late, great poet Jane Kenyon), a beautiful young woman who died of leukemia and was once his student at the University of Michigan. Hall had worried that because of their age difference, he would leave Kenyon a widow, but she died at 47 and he lived decades without her. Her remembers her presence and her poetry with longing, detail and lust. Hall was nearing 90 when he wrote this book and it is amazing how sharp and funny and tough he can be, on other poets and himself. His love for Jane Kenyon and his family in New Hampshire will make you want to write down everything you love and will miss about the people you love. I love how upfront he is about how many drafts it takes him to get something right. "The next day I started 'Out the Window'," he writes in In Praise of Paragraphs. "It took me fifty drafts over six months..." 

Sometimes it feels as if LaMott has texted portions of her recent books to her editor and/or has cut and pasted ideas she's shared on Facebook and merged them into a short book. But she also writes  hilarious, incisive anecdotes about someone she loves who is imploding and/or surviving against all odds. These little stories are the reason I download her books as soon as they come out. There's also nobody more astute about writing about surviving a dysfunctional family. In "Famblies," she writes: "My younger brother and I were raised to be perfectionists, which meant that if you somehow, against all odds, managed to finally do something perfectly,  you beat yourself up for not having been able to do it years before. We didn't know that mistakes, imperfections, and pain were going to turn into strengths and riches, turn us into Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, our true selves. Our parents forgot to mention this." Amen.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches.
Mukasonga has a new memoir out, The Barefoot Woman, which I haven't read. But this one, which was translated into English from the French and came out in the US in 2016, is exquisite. Mukasonga, who grew up a Tutsi in Rwanda, escaped the genocide because her family sent her and her brother away to study---and by doing so, saved them. The rest of the family was killed. Mukasonga now lives in France with her husband and children. This is one of most beautifully written memoirs I've ever read--and despite the horrendous subject matter, often funny and wry. If you don't want to read the whole memoir, read Mukasonga's gorgeous short story, Cattle Praise Song, and Deborah Treisman's interview with her. I learned so much about life in Rwanda and the specifics of milking and taking care of cows from Mukasonga's work---not subjects I normally gravitate towards. I was enthralled by all of it. A movie version of her novel, Our Lady of the Nile, is coming out in 2019. I love what she says to Treisman about why she writes fiction: "Fiction makes it possible to take on subjects that would be too difficult or painful to address in the first person. It allows me also to maintain a certain distance from what I write...Writing eases my pain and my anger. So that was how, somewhat in spite of myself, I became a writer."

Michelle Obama, Becoming: Wonderful. Listen to her read it on Audible.

Jill Soloway, She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. Soloway, the creator of "Transparent" and "I Love Dick," is funny, candid and a genius at writing dialogue. She deftly recreates the scene where her father shares that he is trans (he tells her over the phone one morning while she is watching her younger son eat cereal.) Her efforts to process this news triggered the creation of "Transparent" and her own transitioning journey. (Soloway, the mother of two, eventually left her husband, began dating women, and now prefers to be called "they.") You can read an excerpt from the book here

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.  It's shocking how the author managed to overcome so many obstacles to her education by a family that did its best to thwart her. Westover is a genius at recreating scenes of  physical abuse by her brother and emotional neglect and manipulation by her parents, as well as beautiful scenes that detail her love of learning and the professors who mentored her. Westover says she taught herself how to write memoir by listening to New Yorker podcasts. 

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine:  A Novel. A strangely uplifting story about a traumatized office worker.  Similar to and (possibly) derivative of Alice Munro’s brilliant and disturbing short story, Dimension. (If you read "Dimension," tell me, so we can discuss.)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room: Fabulous, dark and sometimes funny novel about a single mother incarcerated in Northern California. Much of it is written in the first person and in those chapters, it feels like memoir. You can read an excerpt from the novel here, and/or listen to Kushner read it here.

ZZ Packer, Dayward: This story is an excerpt from Packer's novel in progress, The Thousands. This is a harrowing story about a brother and his deaf younger sister, who run away from a murderous dog set on them by their former slaveowner. This story packs a punch. You can read more about what Packer is doing here.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Two of my students mentioned  Washington Black  by Esi Edugyan  in class. One asked the other, "Do you like it?" The other nod...