Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Perfect Sentence

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My weekend writing class is a welcome break from my week of molecular biology. In my 10-week Gotham Writing Workshop entitled Fiction Writing I, we read short stories, by professionals and each other. We discuss sentences and their merits and flaws, debate what works in a short and what just doesn’t quite move the reader. I am currently reading around 5 or 6 stories a week as homework. It is challenging but I have discovered that when I find a sentence that “sings” as our teacher Mike puts it, my heart flows over. But how do you write the “perfect sentence”?

Yesterday on my way out of class a fellow student gave me an article published in the NYTimes by the acclaimed writer Jhumpa Lahiri. My life’s Sentences discusses her relationship with words and the structures you can make with them.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

I want to be able to measure, unguard and radiate with meaning. Now I am inspired. I want to find sentences that make my hair stand on end. I want to read how a wordsmith can conjure up vivid images on the page and make me smile at their genius. And I want you to help me. Have a little ponder on the best sentences or sections of prose that you have come across recently or in your distant past. Please share them so we can all marvel at the beauty of language (and by that I mean they don’t need to be in English).

Here are a couple of passages that I found after a quick browse on the Internet.

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning; ladies bathed before noon, after their 3 o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy… and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself… That summer, I was six years old.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (is this the greatest opening to a book? I think it might be. Unless you can prove me wrong?) ‘The day was twenty-four hours long, but seemed longer” is just magnificent. Childhood recollections are often bathed in a soft hue of hotter, longer and safer. For me, Harper Lee achieves perfection in this simple phrase.

Other sentences that have stood out in my recent short story addiction include several examples in Roberto Bolano’s Labyrinth.

His face is round. it would be an exaggeration to say that this is the face of a fat man, but it probably will be in a few years’ time: it’s the face of a man who enjoys a good meal. An ironic, intelligent smile is hovering about his lips.

At first glance she could be Vietnamese. Except that her breasts, it seems, are larger than those of a Vietnamese woman. Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth.

Bolano plays with the reader, mocking us throughout the whole piece. His oddly straightforward descriptions of his characters are sometimes bizarre and therefore jolly good fun.

In Los Gigantes, T. Coraghessan Boyle shows us his skill.

I couldn’t see anything but her face in the mosaic shadow of the wire, but I could feel her shrug animate the mattress.

I came up off the bed, chains rattling loose around me, telling tales, and if the guard who must have been watching through a hidden peephole came hurtling into the room I barely noticed.

I could go on. But I am tired and I will be climbing into my bed now. More sentences please. Isn’t this just a great game?

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Bookcrossing 101

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This is my first attempt at Book crossing. Releasing books into the wild, to travel great distances and being enjoyed along the way. “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave and “The Clothes on their Backs” by Linda Grant were first registered on the website www.bookcrossing.com and allocated individual BCID numbers. Bookclub stickers and internal leaflets with slogans such as “I’M FREE! I’m not lost” and “You’ve caught a travelling book” were adhered to the inside and outside covers and then ‘the release’ date was chosen and a plan was set in motion.

As a BookCrossing ‘Giver’ you can choose to set your books free as a ‘controlled release’ to a friend or stranger or as a ‘wild release’ on a park bench, in a train station, in a coffee shop… The list is endless. A ‘wild release’ is perhaps a more risky approach…but definitely the more entertaining one.

First off I was able to secure a successful ‘controlled release’ to a writing class buddy. She hails from New Jersey and was eager to whip “Little Bee” out of my clutches early in the day. However, settled in the fact that I had managed to get my first book out of the State with such minimal effort I was keen for the excitement of a “wild release” for the second novel.

Installed on a bench in Washington Square Park, our novel of choice lay in wait. On the opposite side of the walkway, Giles and I took up position as booky spies, ready to snap up photographs of any prospective book receivers. We waited. Hipsters came and went as the bright sunshine illuminating Manhattan began to fade. We watched as student types approached the lonely literature and inspected our sticky additions. “I’m not lost. I’m free” the book exclaimed. And yet each time they placed it back on its perch. Deflated after a stream of excited potentials let us down we began to feel the chilly evening drawing in. And I wanted to go shopping in SoHo. So finally getting my own way we wandered off, taking one last glance at our gift to the literary-minded.

On returning to Washington Square Park a few hours later we found the bench empty. No evidence of a struggle and no sign of any impromptu fires or floods. Success. We hope.

by  Roey Ahram

by Roey Ahram

If you want to get involved in Bookcrossing I highly recommend it. It is a very satisfying endeavour so check out the website.

You can also follow our recent releases on our bookclub website into the ring with tolstoy. Just scroll down and see them travel.

101 Cookbooks: preparing me for jaw surgery

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On the 1st May 2012 I will be embarking on what can certainly be described as an American Perfect Teeth Endeavour (so probably should spell that Endeavor). I will be taking myself to the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center for a jaw breaking operation. Yes, after several months of fixed braces, and a lot of painful, food limiting tooth movement, my chosen medical professionals have decided that the jaw breaking should be imminent.

Will my face change? Almost certainly. Will my teeth be perfect and fit for the likes of American Idol auditions? They better be.

Before I fully document the build up and operation I must begin preparations for my fate. At least 8 weeks of liquid food.

Recipe 1 is detailed below.

Bring on the soup!

PS Readers, I am compiling a collection of tasty, interesting and strictly-no-solids recipes. Please post any you have lying around below so that I can remain visible at least as the bones heal.

Photograph by Heidi Swanson

A Simple Tomato Soup by Heidi Swanson

HS: A number of you are concerned about the BPA liners in a canned tomatoes.
Seek out tomatoes packed in glass jars, alternately I’m aware that Muir Glen has
transitioned to BPA-free liners, although it’s tricky, because those cans aren’t
labeled BPA-free. Look for cans with expiration dates as far out as possible (2014?
2015?), those are more likely to have the new liners.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, olive oil, or coconut oil
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
3 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes (pref. fire-roasted)
1 14-ounce can coconut milk

to serve: any of the following that sound good to you – cooked brown
rice, lemon wedges, toasted almond slices, pan-fried paneer, fresh
thyme or oregano, oregano drizzle, a poached egg

In a large pot over medium heat melt the butter. Add the onions and salt, and cook,
stirring occasionally, until the onions really soften up – 10 minutes or so. Not so
much that they brown, just until they’re completely tender and unstructured.
Stir in the curry powder, coriander, cumin, and chile flakes, and cook just until the
spices are fragrant and toasty – stirring constantly at this point. Just 30 seconds or
so. Stir in the tomatoes, the juices from the cans, and 6 cups / 1.5 L of water. Simmer
for fifteen minutes or so, then puree with a hand blender until smooth. This is the
version you see up above (minus the toppings). That said, at this point you can
decide if you’d like your soup even a bit thinner – if so, you can thin it with more
water, or if you like a creamy version, with some coconut milk. Taste and adjust with
more salt to taste.
This soup is great served simply with a dollop of cream from the top of a can of
coconut milk (a little goes a long way) and a toasted wedge of good bread. That said,
I love it most with the coconut cream, served over a scoop of brown rice with a
squeeze of lemon, some toasted almonds, and a jolt of herbs.

Photograph by Heidi Swanson