Cool as a Cucumber

jajikMany years ago, in another life, I used to subscribe to a monthly magazine called House and Garden. Every issue had a themed cookbook section in the back. The most fun were the exotic ethnic cookbooks, and the best of those was in the February, 1963 issue: The Middle East Cookbook. I tried many of the recipes in that, and several of them made their way into my permanent repertoire. The best of these is a tart cucumber and yoghurt salad, just right for a hot summer’s day.

Here is a recipe for Jajik.

4 cucumbers
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups yoghurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

Peel the cucumbers, cut in quarters lengthwise, then slice thin. Sprinkle with the salt and let stand 15 minutes. Drain well. Mix together the garlic, lemon juice, yoghurt and dill. Mix with cucumbers. Pour oil over the top and sprinkle with mint. Serve unchilled. Serves 8.



Once more unto the breach, dear friends

oncemore2Thrillerfest Pitchfest is over. I have sent off the manuscript for FIREBOMB, as nearly perfect as I can make it, to the agents who wanted to see it. Now the thing to do is keep my mind off it for as long as it takes to hear back from them, months, most likely, and get busy writing the next one.

A woman came into the Marshall House, the museum where I’m a docent on Saturdays and Sundays, and in the course of chatting revealed that she had a master’s degree in history. “Credentials!” I said, fainting with envy. “If I had credentials I could write history.” As it is I am happiest and, I guess, most successful writing historical fiction, where one can interlard the facts of history with all kinds of interesting lies and get away with it.

Although if I had a whole lot of readers I would probably get mail. “The Black Tom explosion took place in 1916, not 1915, you pathetic ignoramus.” Stuff like that. Yes, I know when Black Tom happened, but I moved it up a year for the purposes of drama. Really. If you needed a special effect, and you had the most monstrous explosion on the East Coast of the United States to work with—seriously, it dinged holes in the Statue of Liberty—would you pass it up simply because it didn’t take place until a year after the action you were writing about? I think not.

Anyway it’s time to write another one. This time I think I’ll go for multiple points of view, rather than restricting myself to two. And of course it will be World War I again, and Freddie, my plucky movie stunt girl, will be battling the forces of evil. Beyond that I don’t have a plot yet. But I’m working on it.

Here goes.

Thrilled in Manhattan

mosleyLast week was Thrillerfest, a conference for thriller writers and fans that featured Craftfest, a series of talks on the craft of writing thrillers, and Pitchfest, a speed-dating event for writers in search of an agent, as well as a number of thrilling panels. I did Craftfest and Pitchfest. Craftfest was instructive, and Pitchfest hooked me up with three or four prospective agents. I came home and polished up the manuscript of FIREBOMB, plugging what I hope were the last few plot holes, writing a Hollywood ending as requested by the most enthusiastic of the agents. Why not, after all? Does true love always have to end in despair? Surely lovers can be happy, even in wartime, if only for a little while.

Now to wait and see what these agents think of the work. In the meantime I thought you might like to hear about Thrillerfest.

A number of the craft talks dealt with structuring your novel to keep the reader worried about the protagonist until the very end. (Sounds simple, right?)  Walter Mosley, wearing his trademark hat, gave a bracing talk on how to tap the interesting things in your unconscious. He had us all write a sentence. Then he had us write a paragraph.  “Now go home,” he said, “and write on this every day for two or three hours. Never miss a day.” While we slept we would think of new things about it, and be farther along with the project than when we left it the day before. But we must never skip a day. That’s how he works.

Lawrence Block gave a talk, too, looking back over his long and distinguished career,  and harking back to the Mid-Atlantic conference in Philadelphia that I attended when I was first starting out. Walter Mosley was at that very conference when he was just beginning to be published. It was a project of Deen Kogan and her husband, and a bang-up event it was. I still have a souvenir coffee mug somewhere.

Thursday afternoon was the Pitchfest. Before that, a number of Careerfest sessions. One was a discussion of self-publishing, the fall-back position if we didn’t get an agent. Then we were lined up and marched downstairs to several rooms full of agents sitting at tables, there to stand in line for a three-minute opportunity to sit down and pitch our thrillers. It was not an unpleasant experience. The agents were cordial, and the other writers were not anywhere near as cut-throat competitive as what I was expecting.

Then I came home, exhausted, spiffed up the FIREBOMB manuscript, wrote a synopsis and three queries, and sent the interested agents the things they had requested. Tuesday I had a tooth pulled. This week I am forced to subsist on room-temperature gruel. A fairly tasty room-temperature gruel can be made by throwing a can of black beans into the blender with the juice of one lime and blending it silly. With a dab of sour cream on the top it’s quite good. But that’s a blog post for another day.

The Coffin Parade

I found this story while I was looking through some old notes from a workshop I took. I like  the words and the cadence. It strikes me that we don’t really know whether Mr. Ashong is alive or dead.


Mama Lou was the last person to turn out for the parade of Mr. Ashong’s burial train. She heard its approach—the grinding of gears, the rumbling of wheels, the shrieks of children, the cheering—but it did not become the oldest woman in the village to rush out into the street for every noisy occurrence. When the Land Rover that pulled the train drew abreast of her kitchen door it was time enough for Mama Lou to dry her hands on her apron and go outside. The crowd parted for her with proper respect, revealing the train, one astonishing coffin after the other.

The first of the coffins, beautifully carved and lacquered a gleaming brown, was a representation of Ilowë, the tribal fertility goddess. Many strings of cowrie shells were draped about her neck. She was hugely pregnant; her breasts hung down like funnels; bright red hair flowed from her armpits. Her body was hinged to accept the remains of Mr. Ashong.

“See, grandmother,” one of the children said. “Dede Nunu used real monkey fur to make it, they say.”

“Ah,” said Mama Lou. Perhaps if Mr. Ashong were buried in the belly of Ilowë, the goddess would birth him again into new life. White people believed such things, or something like them. The train rumbled on; the goddess of fertility was followed by Took Took, the pale blue bird of Life, curled on her nest with her sharp yellow beak tucked under her black-barred wing and her single eye shrewdly regarding Mama Lou.

“They say every coffin has seven coats of lacquer,” Mwalla the baker remarked. “The finest lacquer.”

“Ah,” said Mama Lou.

“They say every coffin is carved from a single piece of the wood of the sacred Boonarat tree.”

“Truly these are coffins of power,” said Mama Lou. The gaping jaws of Nkeme the crocodile came after the gentle Took Took bird. Nkeme, antic spirit of trickery, patron of witch doctors and medicine generally, the rough texture of whose hide was represented by raised round bosses, painted shiny green all over except for his yellow teeth and eyes and the long purple claws of his dainty forefeet. Here was a coffin for Mama Lou’s taste, big enough to stretch out in. If only her grandsons had the money, she could sleep her long sleep with the trickster god. But no, these coffins were all for Mr. Ashong. Rich as he was, perhaps he would want them all, to bury his head with Nkeme, his heart with Took Took, his loins with Ilowë. Rich people got everything. Mama Lou would be lucky to get a plain wooden box.

Tortoise came next, patron god of contentment, bug-eyed and smiling. The wheels under his platform rolled unevenly, as though their axles were eccentric, making a rhythmic sound, badoopi-badoo, badoopi-badoo. Some of the young people were stepping in time to the beat, clapping their hands, chanting. In spite of the stiffness in her bones Mama Lou wanted to join them. She caught a sudden glimpse of Reverend Holloway on the steps of the Christian chapel, frowning and sweating in his stiff white collar.

The last coffin passed in front of him. Mokomoko the death god squatted obscenely on the las wheeled platform, gleaming black, his gorilla face leering, his shoulders a forest of square rusty nails, his back hinged to admit the body of Mr. Ashong, who would have to be buried sitting up.

As the broad hairy bum of the death gorilla disappeared up the path to Mr. Ashong’s house, followed by the dancing, singing villagers and their laughing children, Reverend Holloway crossed the road and spoke to Mama Lou.

“Terrible, terrible,” he said.

“Ah,” said Mama Lou.

Reverend Holloway shuddered. “First the miniskirts on the schoolgirls, and now this.”

“Now this,” said Mama Lou. “It’s good.” She did a little dance.