March 31, 2011

Mystery Solved

Earlier in the week I read Time magazine's spread on Elizabeth Taylor. On page 62 of the article, there's a photo of Taylor and an unidentified, damn fine-looking man leaning up against what looks to be a sound stage at some or other studio. Earlier today I tweeted: "Who is unidentified male on page 62 of new @TIME with Elizabeth Taylor? Inquiring minds want to know!" Within an hour (ain't Twitter grand?), @Allie_Townsend, who works for Time (and asked the photo department), provided the answer. The unidentified smoldering yet nonetheless nonchalant hunk is Montgomery Clift, whom we now know was deeply tortured by his bisexuality during a time when nobody came out of the closet. (According to Patricia Bosworth's biography of Clift, he once said, "I love men in bed, but I really love women!")

Regardless of that bit of gossip, here's the photo (I cropped it for maximum hunk-gazing), taken by Peter Stackpole, Time & Life Pictures back in the day. Enjoy!


Top Chef Finale

To be honest, Richard Blais sometimes came off like a dick during this season of Top Chef, not giving any of the credit to Stephanie Izard for his loss to her during season four. But more often, Mike Isabella wore the mantle of asshole chef. During the last couple of episodes, though, he appeared to be more likable, while Blais' neurotic lack of confidence sometimes seemed to be a front to gain sympathy from the judges and other "cheftestants." (How ridiculous is that name, and is it worse than "celebreality?")

Last night, though, I think we saw the real thing from both chefs. Blais willingly delegated to his sous chefs (I worried that Spike wasn't at the same level as Antonia or Angelo, but wasn't he the one who suggested changing the foie gras ice cream?), while Isabella, no doubt immensely talented, wasn't interested in taking any suggestions from Carla, Tiffani, or Jamie. Was that some of the same sexism he exhibited throughout much of the competition (and poor Antonia suffered the most for it when three got cut down to two)? Actually, I don't think so. I think Isabella followed his vision, and for the most part, he succeeded admirably.

Still, I think Blais as winner was the correct call, and I hope this will give him the confidence he needs to give his nasty little "you're not good enough" inner voice a rest. I'm familiar with that voice. So is my daughter. She called Monday to say she'd gotten an A on her philosophy midterm, which surprised her because she thought she'd earned a C+. Poor thing. She's experiencing precisely what I went through after each round of tests in college. I finally stopped fucking with myself in grad school. Hopefully it won't take her four years to figure it out.

I think this was one of the best seasons of Top Chef, even though I wish Angelo had made it into the finals. He against that would have been something to see.


March 29, 2011

Writing for H&H Is Fun!

I adore writing for Heroes and Heartbreakers! My Rhynannon Byrd "Fresh Meat" piece, which went online yesterday, was incredibly fun to write; the site, thanks to Megan Frampton, has a sensibility I find refreshing. It's modern and pop-culturey. I needed to entirely rewrite each of the first four pieces published so far, but that's because it's tough to go from PW "staff-writing" mode to "let's have fun with it" mode.

I actually don't mind the rewrites because the first draft is "just the facts, ma'am," and totally necessary. The second draft is when I get to morph the piece from impersonal to personal, from old media to new media. If I wanna write "fuck," I write "fuck." If I wanna write "wanna" instead of "want to," I write "wanna." I still limit dashes because I'll never get the "too many dashes are lazy" refrain out of my head, but I might even...gasp...allow myself to use more than one type of special punctuation in a sentence (like a colon and ellipses), something that I decreed verboten at AAR.

Writing for difference sources that require different sorts of writing challenges me. To be honest, I still don't think I've come up with a single "style" for this blog, but I'm going to try to do that in the future. I'm going to aim more for the H&H sensibility, but because some of my posts are more serious, that may be a tall order. We'll see.


March 28, 2011

New "Fresh Meat" at H&H, and the Art of the Review

Fresh Meat: Rhyannon Byrd's Rush of Darkness

My newest blogging at Heroes and Heartbreakers just went online (5:00 p.m. eastern time). My sub-title for the piece is Dysfunction junction...come on, gimme a little smile. Drop by and give it a read, then post a comment over there.

I thought I'd share with you why I don't seem to be blogging much these days. It's simple. I'm spending all my time reading and writing, either reviews for PW, or pieces for H&H. I've got another spec piece in draft status, with another just written yet not submitted, and in the last week, in addition to reading and writing about Byrd's book, I read and reviewed two books for the magazine (not including the review I turned in this morning). Never has it felt so good to be under such a time crunch, although having to write ten drafts (yes, you heard right, ten drafts) between last evening and my eleven o'clock deadline this morning for my most recent PW review was not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.

Why were ten drafts necessary for this particular review? Well, the book was nearly 500 pages long and had four sub-plots, three of which melded together. It's part of a long-running series that I've not read in its entirety, with a tremendous number of fans who are as unhappy with review errors as I am. If the facts in a review aren't right, the entire thing—analysis and all—lacks credibility. Because these are short reviews, there's no margin whatsoever for error, and with a book readers are ready to devour, the pressure is more keen than usual.

I write for two PW editors; my mass market editor requires reviews to be no more than 170 words, including page cites. My fiction editor allots up to 300 words (with page cites). This was a review for my mass market editor and the first draft was too long by half. By the time I'd cut it down enough, I'd not only gone through nine more drafts, I'd very nearly rewritten the entire review several times.

For me, the hardest part of self-editing to meet a word count is giving up ownership of my writing. In this review, for instance, I'd written a particularly brilliant sentence fragment. It lasted from draft five through draft nine. Ultimately I cut it because the sentence directly following it subsumed my point. I should have been able to let it go a couple of drafts sooner, but it took further editing to determine how I could cut the fragment and replace it with an entire sentence. Other writers, who are more skilled than I am, no doubt find this easier to do, but even after sixteen years of reviewing, I struggle.

I've got six books to review for PW between now and early May, and I've committed to writing at least two more Fresh Meat pieces for H&H. In addition to the spec pieces I've submitted or finished writing, I plan to write more. And, I'd like to fit in a little reading simply for the pleasure of reading. Not that I'm complaining; I'm glad to be busy and hope everything I write that's published pleases readers and my editors. While you can't update me on my success at PW (I can tell you that I had one review among the 86 published today, but can't be more specific than that), I hope you'll give me feedback on my H&H articles.


March 20, 2011

My Hour of Crazy

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary and after my daughter finished doing my makeup (she's home for spring break from college and asked if she could), I took out the jewelry I planned to wear out to dinner at Stephan Pyles (yum!) last night. I could not find my earrings and went into an hour-long bout of crazy looking for them.

The ring and bracelet I'd planned to wear were right where they should a small yellow jewelry bag that sits on the crystal plate in my bathroom which houses all my nice non-safe deposit box jewelry. The earrings should have been in the same small yellow bag, but were not. My daughter and I frantically started looking in drawers, in my closet, my bedside table—anywhere they might be. Eventually I got so upset I told her to stop. Continuing to look would spoil my evening. And so I decided that my next "project" would be to reorganize my bathroom drawers and closet space, all in the service of finding the damn earrings.

I got dressed, put on a different set of earrings, then went into the den to relax until it was time to leave. About five minutes before we left, I asked, "Do either of you actually remember my wearing them after I bought the other jewelry on our cruise this past summer?" Neither had any recollection. Suddenly I remembered blogging about the jewelry I'd bought, and posting pictures of each piece, last August, and ran into my study to take a look.

Guess what? There were no earrings. I'd actually invented them in my mind, but of course, after thinking about it, realized I'd never be so matchy-matchy. This hour of insanity will undoubtedly and undeniably go down on my "most crazy" list that I mentally keep. See, I never lose things. In the past five years there have only been two instances in which I could not find something, and in both cases, they were actually where I thought they were. Problem is, the inside of my backpack is black, and the neoprene cover for my iPod is also black, as is the zipper bag in which I store my laptop plug and chargers for my phone and Kindle. Both times I went more than a little nuts trying to find one or the other, but in both instances, they were actually there...I just need to root around to find them.

Anyway, we all had a good laugh about it, and I kept thinking about the earrings that weren't lost because they didn't exist during our delicious dinner. So much that I actually designed a pair from looking at my bracelet. This is what they'd look like. If only they weren't so matchy-matchy

Btw, dinner last night was one of the best meals I ever ate. I mention it specifically to write about the sous vide stuffed chicken. Until last night I'd never actually eaten any food prepared in this manner. If you ever have the chance—and since more and more chefs are incorporating this style of cooking into their menus, you well may—try it. It was the most moist and tender chicken I've ever eaten. Now, I like chicken well enough, and adore my husband's pan-roasted chicken, but I'd never imagined it could taste this good. Of course, my appetizer was phenomenal (really, how could seared foie gras be anything but amazing?), as was the amuse-bouche (a small bite of lobster and asparagus in a delicate sauce), but the dessert also blew me away: Mexican chocolate fondant with fleur de sel caramel and Kahlúa crema. For a few years now I've loved salted caramel and salted chocolate, so this was a real treat. My husband's dinner was equally wonderful, and after 28 years of marriage, I'm still wildly in love.

If you're ever in Dallas, have dinner at Stephan Pyles. He's among those few chefs who invented Southwestern cuisine, and I can remember in our younger days waiting six weeks for a reservation at his first restaurant, Routh Street Cafe. Not only was it the place to see and be seen, the food was brilliant. What can I say? It was the late 1980s and we were yuppies with a disposable income.


March 13, 2011

Now online at Heroes and Heartbreakers...

Fresh Meat: Wendy Soliman’s Of Dukes and Deceptions

My newest blogging at Heroes and Heartbreakers just went online this morning. It's all about the trope that wasn't...and the one that was. Drop by and give it a read, then post a comment over there.

Growing an actual readership after all this time is not easy; I'm trying very hard not to get as neurotic as I once was when a new piece is published online. It helps that I'm merely a freelancer over there, but old habits die hard. Meanwhile, have a great Sunday. Hope your loss of an hour doesn't make you sleepy.


March 9, 2011

Education, Short-Sightedness, and Child Labor

It's hard to imagine, but less than a year ago I posted A Rant of Major Proportions, in which I theorized just how far back the lunatic right-wing fringe would like us to move. Thanks to a Facebook friend, it's as I suspected: FDR's New Deal and the umbrella of laws and regulations it encompassed.

My friend linked to an article today from her Facebook feed that required further investigation. The explosive headline of the linked article reads: Missouri GOP Wants to Repeal Child Labor Laws. Because the article is posted on a non-neutral website, I decided to look into it further, and went back to the beginning to remind myself that laws put into place at a federal level which govern the minimum age of employment date back to the 1930s. Does anyone outside of the lunatic right-wing fringe think the supposed "nanny state" began in the 1930s...really? I won't even go into the fact that this same group of patriots believe woman are too imbecilic to be responsible for our own health decisions and that the government must step in to "help" us.

Okay, back to child labor laws. A Republican state senator from Missouri wants to amend the state's child labor laws...effective at the start of the next school that children under fourteen can work more than three hours a day during the school week and more than eight hours a day on non-school days. Further, if this bill passes, inspectors could not monitor workplace compliance over remaining child labor laws.

Child labor laws weren't enacted by an out-of-control government under the "liberal" administrations of the last twenty years. Hell, they weren't enacted by an out-of-control government under the "liberal" administrations of the last forty years. Laws governing minimum ages were enacted more than seventy years ago.

Given the existing drop-out rates and how badly Americans compare to other developed nations in terms of education, do we really want middle-school students working more than three hours a day during the school week? Do we want them working before seven in the morning or nine at night?

My husband and I recently talked about Governor Rick Perry's odd views on public education. Given that Texas currently ranks 47th in education, that Perry took federal money earmarked for education but then cut state education funds in the same amount to effectively pocket the money, and that he plans to cut even more money from education (and libraries), I've concluded that Perry's braggadocio about not raising taxes and how terrific that is in luring businesses to come to Texas is a big load of smelly horse shit. Do companies want to relocate in order to create high-paying jobs that require educated people to fill them in a state that doesn't produce educated people? The logic doesn't track. On the other hand, if Texas is spitting out people fit only for low-wage jobs that don't require much learnin', we are in great shape.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle reported that "Texas' unhappy mix of dismal eduation achievement and high poverty" may have disastrous results, such as almost a third of the work force not having high school diplomas by 2040. This downward trend in education...and the poverty that goes along with not only of concern to statisticians; Texas business executives also worry about their future work force. And for those who question the bias of that statistician, he worked in the Bush administration as head of the Census Bureau.

Among those quoted in the article is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, who warns about the long-term results of short-sighted policies like those currently in vogue in Texas. According to Bill Hammond, "The only way we will turn around public education in Texas is for the business community to realize that their future is at stake." He fears for the future of Texas in terms of economic competitiveness, and adds, "Much of the state's leadership looks like me [Anglo] and do not understand that in 20 years time, their children are going to face a bleak future in spite of the fact that they have a college education because there are not going to be enough educated workers to move the economy ahead."

By all means, let's ensure a strong work ethic in our young by allowing middle-schoolers to spend their free time working rather than learning. It'll be like the good old days.


March 8, 2011

Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter

Gabrielle Hamilton


Grade: C+

Ever since I saw the first "wow, this is great!" review of Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter, I knew I had to read it. When Amazon offered it through their Vine program, I requested a copy. As advertised, the author's voice is clear, strong, and very descriptive; it's not surprising to learn she earned a master's degree in writing. When she describes the "pig-urine stench of panchetta," I sat back, thought about it, and realized she was absolutely...incredibly...right on the nose. The book's structure, though, didn't work as well as the prose itself. I would have preferred seeing her in my mind's eye as an adult first, and a chef, before reading about her very unusual upbringing. Context is necessary on both ends, and without the later context, her background seemed all the more foreign.

Read this Amazon Vine review in its entirety at Amazon.


March 7, 2011

This May Help Explain Things

Over the weekend I read an article in @newsweek on the science of decision-making. Sharon Begley's article begins with this lead off: "The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions."

Begley explains the science behind what Alvin Toffler coined as "information overload." I don't know about you, but I'm someone who always tries to research things. When it came time to buy a Blu-Ray player a few months ago, I made myself crazy in the process while trying to decide on precisely which one. At the time I wished for only three or four know, the number I would have by going to a non-superstore that sold electronics.

I just came back from a trip to @ulta_beauty in an effort to buy some new skin care products. It took me an hour and a half to choose between the fifteen to twenty high-end lines. Honestly, had I done a similar shopping spree a decade ago, I know I would have been able to choose within a half hour.

What's going on in my brain that makes me dither? It's not just stress or being depressed...both well-known causes of dithering/mind-fucking. Begley explains that as we begin the process of selection on something, our brain activity increases. That's fine, but there's a mental circuit-breaker that shuts off when the line is crossed between enough information to make a well-informed decision and information overload. Before that point the part of the brain governing decision-making and controlling emotions is in charge, so to speak, but after we cross the line, activity in that part of the brain essentially shuts off, and our emotions "run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high." The result of too much information, therefore is that "people's decisions make less and less sense."

Which reminded me of Malcom Gladwell and the theory he posited in Blink: Successful decisions lie in between instinctive thinking and deliberate thinking. If, like me, you spend too much time researching prior to making a decision, you're not allowing your instincts enough input into the process. Over the years I've tried to "listen to my gut" when it speaks to me. At this point unless something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong, I believe my gut isn't as "loud" as it used to be. Has it been muted by too much deliberate thought?

I discovered, for instance, way back when, when I worked in municipal management, that when a problem remained unsolvable for any period of time, that I needed to step away from it. I can't tell you how many nights I'd get into my car and drive home after too much thinking, when violà, the answer "came" to me. Even now, I often do my best thinking after going to bed, when I've given my brain a chance to relax. It's one of the main reasons I suffer from insomnia.

Reading Begley's article was like a kick in the pants for me to try and engage my instincts more and limit my deliberate thinking less.


March 3, 2011

Treachery in Death by J.D. Robb

Treachery in Death

J.D. Robb

Futuristic Romantic Suspense

Grade: B

Detective Eve Dallas and her partner, Peabody, are following up on a senseless crime-an elderly grocery owner killed by three stoned punks for nothing more than kicks and snacks. This is Peabody's first case as primary detective-good thing she learned from the master.

But Peabody soon stumbles upon a trickier situation. After a hard workout, she's all alone in the locker room when the gym door clatters open; and-while hiding inside a shower stall trying not to make a sound-she overhears two fellow officers, Garnet and Oberman, arguing. It doesn't take long to realize they're both crooked-guilty not just of corruption but of murder. Now Peabody, Eve, and Eve's husband, Roarke, are trying to get the hard evidence they need to bring the dirty cops down-knowing all the while that the two are willing to kill to keep their secret.

I've been tepid in my response to the most recent In Death releases, so I approached Treachery in Death with some trepidation. If I didn't like it a great deal, I planned to go on a semi-permanent J.D. Robb hiatus. Thank god I won't have to do that. If not for two flaws—I found it overly long and wished for another love scene—this one would have earned an even higher grade.

Although Treachery in Death is primarily a procedurally oriented book, Robb still serves up plenty of great personal interplay between Eve Dallas and her NYPSD cohorts. Peabody's relationship with Eve moves to a new level. The unmotherly Eve is like a mama bird in this book; she's pushing Peabody out of the nest knowing she's ready to fly. And Peabody, around whom this corruption plot circles, flies high and strong.

Robb didn't write enough physical intimacy between Eve and Roarke this time around, but their love and care for each other remains palpable. I particularly enjoyed their banter about Eve owing Roarke sexual favors as a result of his "consultant" work for her in this instance. He ups the ante each time she wants him to do more and do it faster; by the end of the story costumes are involved. Whenever she second-guesses him on the case, he becomes more and more "insulted" by her lack of confidence. It's all in great fun, and helps lighten the tone.

Even better than their banter, though, is how Roarke, a former criminal, totally "gets" Eve. She tells him that "at the end of the day, you're what fixes me up." It's a beautiful moment, particularly in context as Eve reflects upon her relationship to her squad and compares it to the corrupt relationship she uncovers between another lieutenant and her men. My all-time favorite moment of the book actually comes when one of her men, and not Baxter or Truehart or anyone who's gotten much (if any) screen time, takes down one of the corrupt cops:

"Drop the fucking weapon, you fucking motherfucker, or I'll fucking scramble your fucking brains. Hands up! Hands where I can fucking see them, you fucking cocksucker. You fucking breathe wrong, you fucking blink wrong, and I will fuck you up."

"On your fucking face, you fucking shit coward. Stream my lieutenant in the fucking back? Fuck you..."

"I seem to have misjudged my step, Lieutenant, and stepped on one of this motherfucker's fingers. I believe it's broken."

That's not a spoiler, btw, as in every book in this series there's a moment when Eve puts herself in the line of fire. And it all comes together at the very end, during that moment of reflection for Eve, and brings it back to Peabody too; Eve allows her squad to fly high, gives them the respect they deserve, expects the best, and they're glad to give it to her. Eve may not have family in the traditional sense—outside of Roarke—but her squad is her family, unconventional though it may be, and Eve, whether she likes it or not, is their mama bird. By the end of Treachery in Death, I believe she actually begins to like that fact.


March 2, 2011

That Was Quick!

By the time I finished writing tomorrow's blog entry for Toe in the Water, I received notification of a Twitter "@ mention" indicating my second piece for Heroes and Heartbreakers was live. And so, I can now reveal what primarily I will be writing for H&H: Short essays on new releases.

Through digital arcs made available under netgalley—unless the book is published under a Macmillan imprint—I will be writing about new books. These brief pieces are not traditional reviews; indeed, there is no synopsis given. Instead I will accompany back cover blurbs with a point of focus about the book from my perspective, something I liked...or did not like...about it, if that something is worthy of mention.

Because these are not traditional reviews and no grades accompany them, I've decided to omit grades on future reviews here on Toe in the Water as well so that I don't drive myself crazy. Also, I plan on using back cover blurbs in lieu of synopses as well, something I often did on my old blog. The difference between what I'll be writing here and what I'll be writing at H&H is that here, except for the synopsis difference, you'll be reading an actual review on the book in its entirety. Tomorrow's review, btw, is of the new J.D. Robb.

I'll be keeping up with all this new reading...all my reading regardless of the venue (if there's a venue at all) as well, on Goodreads, but if I write about a book at H&H, I won't assign a rating at Goodreads, although I will link to my essay.

P.S. Because I am required to rate books I review for Amazon Vine, I decided to keep grades here on the blog. The only grades that will not appear, then, are for those books I write about at Heroes and Heartbreakers.


Grumbly in my Tumbly?

I heard from my new editor at Heroes & Heartbreakers this morning about the second piece I sent her. She would like for pieces of this type to be my focus for now. Again, I can't reveal what type of piece it is because it will be the first of its kind, but that's not what I want to talk about here. No, I want to talk about something else, something that didn't even occur to me until bedtime last night. Once the thought struck, my stomach went to a very bad place for a few hours...hence my reference to grumbly in the tumbly. It's not related to a hungry stomach, just an angsty one.

This is the reason for my angst: Have I, or will people think that I've sold out by writing for and being paid to write for a blog sponsored by a publisher? Does this go against everything I stood for during my time at TRR and AAR?

At this point in my career, I consider myself a free-lance writer, one who focuses on mass market and other fiction. I occasionally pen pieces for the National Association of Book Critics, get paid to review books for Publishers Weekly, and when offered the opportunity to add another freelance job to my resume, I took it. Although the site is funded by a publisher, I take them at their word that they are "publisher-neutral in our selection of books, authors and materials for coverage and discussion." Indeed, my focus will likely include books published by the various Macmillan imprints only every so often; most of my energy will be spent writing about books released by other publishers.

I took this job because of the people involved in it. Megan Frampton, who heads up the blog team, once reviewed for me at AAR. She's now my editor and boss. Myretta Robens and Cheryl Sneed are both long-time online friends whom I've often turned to for advice. If the three of us sat in a room together rather than on a telephone, it would be a good, old-fashioned hen party, with lots of gossip, laughter, and most likely, liberal amounts of alcohol. Myretta and Cheryl help run The Republic of Pemberley. Myretta and Megan both published trad Regencies before the sub-genre went into that good night and Cheryl, who reviewed at AAR for quite awhile and also headed up the massive data entry project corresponding to the site's review database way back when, also writes at Rakehell.

I have a personal relationship with these women, none of whom have any difficulty differentiating between good fiction and bad. As my brief for joining H&H was all-inclusive where thumbs up or thumbs down are concerned, this looked like a win-win for me. I would be able to write again online where an actual audience could find me, I'd be paid for it, and could laud a book or criticize it at my discretion.

As I said, that was my thought process until last night, when the "Have I sold out?" thoughts began to niggle, then shout within my head. I don't think I have. What I'll be doing is no different from what I've always done, whether at TRR, AAR, Publishers Weekly, Amazon, my old blog, or this "new" one. I will continue to share my unbiased opinions, but won't act, as I did at AAR, as a reporter (although I may here on my personal blog). The only difference as far as I'm concerned is who's paying for the real estate.

I hope that doesn't make me a sell-out. I don't think it does. Do you?


March 1, 2011

"Werewolves FTW" at Heroes and Heartbreakers

It's first blog entry at Heroes & Heartbreakers went online today. Click here to link directly to Sexy Beast: Werewolves FTW! and post a comment if you'd like.