The students and faculty of the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts are thrilled to welcome a new member to our non-fiction faculty. Ana Maria Spagna lives in Stehekin, Washington, and traveled from her tiny remote town to Whidbey Island in August 2009 as visiting faculty for the NILA residency. We were charmed. She was impressed. When a faculty position became available, Ana Maria was the natural choice.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey (River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize) (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), which is a winner of the 2009 River Teeth Literary Non-Fiction Contest, and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw (Oregon State University, 2004), named a Best Book of 2004 by the Seattle Times. Her work has appeared in publications such as Orion, Utne Reader, and North American Review.
Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey
Ana Maria Spagna
University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books. April 2010.
Review by Janet Buttenwieser, NILA MFA student
If you are fortunate enough that your parents live well into your own adulthood, you can ask them questions about their history as they occur to you. If, for example, you are thirty-eight years old and you come across your father’s name in a history book about the Civil Rights Movement, you can just give him a call. Tell me about the day you participated in a “test ride” to integrate Florida busses, Dad, you might say. And, Why am I only learning about this now?
But Ana Maria Spagna, author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, cannot simply pick up the phone. Spagna’s father died of a heart attack when she was eleven years old. He never told his three children the story of the day in 1957 when he boarded a bus in Tallahassee with two other white men and three black men as part of a plan to get arrested and take their case to the Supreme Court. Spagna must piece together the events for herself years after the fact. In so doing, she discovers that the truth of what happened lives not in memory, but in memories.
Two of the men who, with Spagna’s father, participated in the “test ride” tell two very different stories, with scant information in textbooks and newspapers to corroborate either’s version. Meanwhile, during the time of Spagna’s research for her book, her mother is admitted to a hospital in California for cancer treatments. Spagna becomes involved in her mother’s care, and finds herself reading civil rights history books and court transcripts as she sits by her mother’s bedside.
A less skillful writer might not have known what to do with this tangle of events and information. But Spagna is a master at the braided story. Artfully, she weaves a skillful tale that follows three main threads: the test ride itself, Spagna’s experience researching the story, and her mother’s battle with cancer. In a narrative voice both warm and engaging, Spagna tells her tale with unflinching honesty.
Test Ride is an example of the best of memoir, where we as readers learn about history, the world around us, the writer’s personal story, and something of ourselves. In Test Ride, alongside Ana Maria Spagna, we witness acts of heroism, and the bravery it takes to make a stand. Ultimately, the book is a story about courage and what it means to be a hero.
INTERVIEW WITH ANA MARIA SPAGNA, May, 2010
Whidbey MFA student Janet Buttenwieser caught up with Ana Maria Spagna on the Seattle stop of her book tour for Test Ride.
JB: At what point in the process of learning about your father’s story did you decide that Test Ride was a book you’d like to write?
AMS: I received a grant from the Washington State Artist Trust Grants for Artists Program (GAP Award), so from the very beginning it was always something I was planning to write about in some form. At first I thought I would just write an article. It wasn’t until I’d gone to the 50th anniversary [of the bus boycott] and my mom got better that I decided it would be a book.
JB: When did you decide that the book would include the elements beyond your father’s story? How did you make decisions about what to weave in?
AMS: I was very resistant to writing another memoir. I kept telling myself, “this is just going to be about my dad.” The first thing was when I got in touch with Johnny Herndon and Jon Folsom, two of the men involved in the test ride. They told such radically different accounts from one another! Memoir gave me the chance to dramatize their stories, and honor them, without trying to decide who was right.
Then I went to the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott. I already had a deep understanding of the civil rights movement, but that experience was so life-changing. I wanted to tell the story for readers not alive during the civil rights movement, so that they could have access to the story and so that I could capture the sense of wonder I experienced going to the anniversary.
I faced a big moral quandary about making a hero out of my dad for what he did on that one day and on the other hand, I didn’t feel like I could leave my Mom’s story out, since she raised us on her own for thirty years. Overall, it’s a story about heroism.
JB: In the book you talk about learning of your father’s heroic act, and how it changed your feelings about your own heroism and spurred you to be brave. How would you fit writing into this? Have your feelings about writing and being a writer changed as a result of researching and writing this book?
AMS: I realized that writing itself is an act of courage. Every time I tell a story it’s an act of courage. I’ve embraced that more. I’m not as careful about being open about my sexuality, being open about my ambivalence about some of the politics of civil rights. I learned to have the courage to own my own story. My sister has her own version, the people in Tallahassee have their own version, my mom has her own version. It takes a certain amount of guts to own your own story. My version isn’t the only version, but it is a valid version. My advice to writers is: own that story! Be brave!
JB: What was a lowpoint during this whole research/writing process? A highpoint?
AMS: The low point was the first trip to Tallahassee. I really thought I would find the old papers and the story would be there in all its factual glory and I could interview people. When I actually saw what was there I thought, “there’s just no story here.” Later I found out that I was looking in the white paper when I should’ve been looking in the black paper, but I did not know that for a while.
The highpoint was when I received a letter in response from Johnny Herndon, one of the people who participated in the test ride with my Dad.
JB: Talk about the process of publicizing the book, and the book tour.
AMS: It’s very, very time-consuming! Some presses say not to go on a book tour, but it is really important to me to meet real live readers and support independent bookstores. I had done a book tour for Now Go Home [Spagna’s first book, a collection of non-fiction essays] and I just went to bookstores. But bookstores don’t pay you, so for this tour I decided to contact universities because they will pay a writer to come and speak. I planned university gigs and then scheduled bookstore readings so that the university engagement would pay for the trip. State universities or community colleges are delighted to have people come, and they are by far the most welcoming and engaging audiences I’ve had. University of Nebraska Press was more than willing to back me up by arranging for books to be available at the readings, publicizing the readings, and contacting the press.
The tour itself has been great! I live in a teeny little place and I’m not that socially apt and you find out that readers everywhere are thoughtful and engaged and into whatever story you have to tell. I expected some resistance from African American civil rights activists, but I haven’t run into that yet.
JB: What’s the first thing you’re going to do once you get home?
AMS: Plant my garden, and then sleep!
JB: What’s your next big writing project?
AMS: I have another book of essays coming out in the spring from Oregon State University Press. This one is more northwest-centered, and it’s about living in a community. Also, I’ve been working on a really bad young adult novel! [Laughs.]
JB: What are your thoughts about joining the faculty at Whidbey Writer’s Workshop?
AMS: I’m super excited! I was so blown away by the supportive vibe I experienced when I was there as visiting faculty in August 2009. I’m not sure I would’ve joined any other MFA program, since it can take away from personal writing time. The relationships at Whidbey will only help my personal writing. I’m excited to be there.
For older reviews and interviews (including interviews with Susan Zwinger and Regina Brooks), please visit our Archive
Great news! Whidbey MFA student Carol Frischmann’s book “Pets and the Planet: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Pet Care” (which she wrote while attending her first semester at Whidbey) has been nominated for the 2010 PNBA Book Awards.
PLAYdate: A Parent’s and Teacher’s Guide to Putting on a Play
Meriwether Publishing, March 2009
Interview with Cindy Marcus by Kobbie Alamo
Cindy Marcus won an acting scholarship to the Teenage Drama Workshop in Los Angeles when she was but a teen. She’s made her living in show business ever since. With her husband and partner, Flip Kobler, she spent many years at Disney writing the sequels to The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Lady and the Tramp, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and many, many others. She is now the front man for Showdown Stage Company, sharing her unique experience in Hollywood and passion for theater with a new generation of teens. As an in-demand acting coach, she helps craft young actors, as a mentor, she supports young souls; her intensive acting class is always “sold out” and teens return year in and year out to work with her as a director. As a writer she continues to have plays published and screenplays sold.
Recently, Cindy sat down with me and answered some questions about her writing life, her publishing life, her creative life. As her lug of a Golden Retriever vied for attention, here is what she had to say.
KA: What can you tell us about the place where you create.
CM: I actually create on my walks. My office is where I put it together, but I find my walks to be the place where it all begins. There’s a corner that I crest, it’s a wide lane and there are trees that line either side. I call those trees, “My Old Gals,” because, as they change with each season, they teach me things. Each season I learn something from them. Whether they’re autumnal and colorful with all their leaves – or they’re winter-ish old crones. They relax me and I’m able to process.
KA: When did you realize you were a writer?
CM: I haven’t quite, yet.
Honestly? It was last year when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I needed a place to run; I needed a place to go. I’ve been writing for years as my husband’s partner. I’ve written a young-adult novel. I tried to sell it; but didn’t get anywhere with it.
But last year, needing the release, and needing to calm my mind, writing was the place I turned to. It’s like I’d see Flip recovering from something, dealing with something, and, in my helplessness I’d think, “I can go write. I can go write. I can go run and write.” That process ignited my passion for it, which had gone dormant for many years.
KA: Can you tell us what your typical writing day is like?
CM: I don’t have a typical writing day. I wish I did!
Well, there’s the perfect day and my real life days. The perfect day is: I get my son to school, walk for 2-3 miles and visit My Old Gals, my trees. I get clean and clear in my mind. Then I come back and am writing by 9:30. My concentration is about 45 minutes-1hour. And then I take a break, just do something. Then back to writing, until another break. That goes on until 3:00 p.m., when I pick up my son, Finn. I walk to school, come back, spend time with him, and then I write until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. Finagling a dinner in there somewhere. That’s my perfect day.
I haven’t had a perfect day in a very long time.
KA: Please tell us a little bit about PLAYdate.
CM: Aah. The book is step-by-step guide for teachers and parents to put on a play in their child’s classroom. And it’s called PLAYdate because it’s the ultimate Playdate. It’s an experience you get to do with your child.
What sets this book apart, aside from the fact that it’s a very unique “play date”, because it goes on week after week, is that it’s also a creative primer for parents. And teachers. So, as Little Johnny is learning his lines, and the parent or teacher is helping him to learn his lines for the play, Mom is learning trivia. As Little Sally is getting fitted for her costume, Mom is being encouraged to go shopping and get her nails done. So, it’s this process where child and educator or child and parent learn together. They all grow creatively.
And, it’s, hopefully, “play”-fully written.
KA: What was the inspiration behind the book?
CM: I run theater camps for kids every summer. Our son, Finn, has been traveling with my husband and I as we do these camps since he was three – so the last seven years. Last year we were walking to school and he said, “I want my own camp, Mom.” And so we started talking about how that could work, and what I could do, and well, everything that goes with it. Later, it came up in his classroom that I was a director and I ran these camps. The teacher asked if I could come in and talk about directing. My response was, “I won’t come in and talk about directing, but I will come in and direct!”
I had a Lucy Ricardo moment. I thought, “YES! I will run a program. I will make this a camp. It will be fabulous! And I will write a book about it!” And that’s how PLAYdate came to be. I went into my son’s classroom as a volunteer and it ended up being a test program.
We went from play to stage – I wrote a play with the kids. And then we designed our costumes together. We created this production that we actually put up. And I thought, “You know, this really would be a great book.” There are many parents and teachers out there who don’t want to see the arts die in the schools.
KA: Can you tell us a little bit about who is publishing your book and how you acquired them?
CM: Meriwether Publishing, which is a somewhat small house, but very respected in terms of theater books, is the publisher. When I realized that I wanted to write this book, I went to the library and got a book on how to write a non-fiction proposal. I wrote the proposal and sent it off.
KA: So that was the only publisher you sent to?
CM: Yes. I acquired them via querying, the “standard” way.
KA: Can tell us what you’re doing to promote your book, and have you been successful?
I’ve just begun the promotional aspect of this. I’m sort of coming at this backwards. I just wanted to write a book, never realizing how much the market had changed. I’m learning the market now. I have not done a lot of promoting, as yet.
I have a website, I have a blog. Because I run programs in the schools, I’ll be using that as a means to sell the book. Because I run theater camps, I’ll also use that as a means to sell the book. I’m hoping to attend PTAs and PTA Conventions. And I will hire a publicist, but I haven’t done that quite yet.
KA: Who are your favorite authors, and why do they inspire you?
CM: Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, because I love the character of Meg. I love the journey she goes on. I don’t know if there are authors who inspire me. But there are books that inspire me. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is an amazing journey. I think I respond to books that are a combination of character growth and spiritual development – ones where there’s an aspect of spirituality and spiritual awakening within the characters. A Wrinkle in Time is a great example of that, but it’s young adult. I’m not reading a lot of fiction right now; I’m reading mostly non-fiction. Right now I’m reading Eckhart Tolle. My husband is an author that inspires me.
KA: Do you have a mentor?
CM: I wish I did. I have guides. Friends who inspire me and push and guide and give me ideas and help me learn all about this. Flip, my husband, does. But, no, I don’t have a mentor – as yet.
KA: What future projects do you have in the works.
CM: My next project is written for teen girls and is called April for a Day. It’s designed to build self esteem. I have an agent for that book.
The next book I want to do after April for a Day is called Hand in Hand. It’s about recovering from the diagnosis of cancer. It’s written from both the caregiver and the care receiver’s point of view. Flip and I will write that one together.
KA: Since you secured an agent for April for a Day, can you tell us a bit about that process?
CM: What I did was read Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Agents and made a list of every agent that looked as if they’ be interested in a how-to for young women. I wrote a query letter and sent it out. And got rejected across the board.
After the first 10 rejections, I thought about the query letter on one of my walks and asked myself, “What’s not working?” I realized my query didn’t open with a problem. It was soft. I needed to go back and open with a problem that the book would solve.
I rewrote the query. It opened with the very serious problem of what many teen girls are experiencing – and how many try to cope by cutting or committing suicide. That’s how the letter opened, and it offered my book as a solution.
Then I queried a new batch of agents, and this new version grabbed a couple of them. Still, I received, “This is interesting, but…” Nobody said, “I want to see the proposal.”
I realized I was too modest in the section where I talked about my writing credits.
I rewrote again, this time emphasizing my credits, and sent to another batch. That letter caught the interest of four agents. I sent off the proposal. During that process, I realized my marketing platform was not dynamic enough. So, I redid that section before the proposal went out. The proposal caught the attention of two of the four agents. These two wanted sample chapters. I sent off the samples.
One of the agents I still haven’t heard from – the other is Barbara Poelle, with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She is wonderful! She’s amazing.
KA: When can we hope to see PLAYdate and April for a Day in the bookstores?
CM: PLAYdate should be April, 2009. April for a Day? After Barbara read the proposal and the book, she had notes. The
notes are wonderful. Many are about how to market. But she did have notes about the
actual writing, too. She felt my voice was “too caffeinated.” I rewrote it from a more
maternal place, and she loved it. She’s now going to start sending it out.
KA: Can you give aspiring authors words of advice for publication?
CM: Yes. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Take the advice that you hear, process it. If it rings true, you hear that “aha” voice and you see options opening, then incorporate it. If the advice that you hear makes you feel discouraged, don’t listen.
I’m learning the importance of a support group, a supportive writers’ circle. I think that makes a huge difference, and I didn’t know. I love talking to other writers, hearing their ideas. I’m thinking I’d like to get involved with a writers’ group.
Don’t give up. Just don’t give up.
KA: Where can we purchase PLAYdate?
CM: It’s available on Amazon.com and it’s also available through Meriwether Publishing (https://www.meriwetherpublishing.com/). You should be able to order it in your local bookstore.
I’m still approaching this as pie-in-the-sky . I’m thrilled it’s happened, but I’m learning as I go.
PLAYdate was an act of love. It was something I could give my son. And I wanted it for the kids. And so, for me, it was just get the book published. See if this can be done. And I never saw past that. And now I’m learning to see past that and look at myself differently.
After our wonderful discussion, I said goodbye to Cindy and her loveable pooch. I sign off here, with Cindy’s own words. “I’m a writer. But that seems like such a limited view of me. I am also a wife, a mom, a writing partner, a teacher and a searcher. I don’t mean to be someone who looks for meaning in most things, but in the end, I am. Makes life’s pain more bearable.”
Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives by John Calderazzo
The Lyons Press. Hardback: $22.95
Review by Nancy Boutin
A book review is like an autopsy and the reviewer a dispassionate pathologist. Any man on the street can look at a body and state the obvious: emaciated frame, blotchy skin, no teeth, but it takes someone knowledgeable to evaluate the bones and organs and tissues and explain why this specimen died prematurely—or lived so long. If a reviewer raves about a book, loses her dispassionate stance as she dissects it, some might think she is that man-on-the-street who lacks sophistication, discernment, maybe even knowledge.
But the in case of John Calderazzo’s ode to volcanoes, I have to chance it because Rising Fire has good skin, big muscles, and a strong heart. In only 288 pages, Calderazzo takes us from Iceland to Atlantis, from the death of volcano watchers to the birth of islands, and from the end of the Minoan culture to the dawn of the New Age. He reminds us the mountains where we take our children to ski or picnic are alive and for the uninitiated, unpredictable. And–he does it with prose that is always interesting and often frankly poetic.
Each chapter includes a pilgrimage to a volcano that has captured Calderazzo’s imagination, an introduction to the colorful characters who live in its shadow or on its flanks, and a gratifying of blend of science, history, and psychology—or religion, as the case may be.
But beyond all that, Calderazzo takes risks. For example, the eruption of Mt. Pele in 1902 destroyed Saint-Pierre, “the Paris of the Antilles,” on the island of Martinique. A newspaper account a few weeks after the eruption includes a brief interview with one of the few survivors, a young girl named Harviva da Ifrile. Caldarazzo tells us he could find no further information about her before the catastrophe or after. Then he spends 25 pages imagining her life, her family, and her experiences as Mt. Pele rumbled awake. By giving the reader a personal story to follow, all the while reminding us this is how he imagines it might have happened, the author is able to weave the facts he uncovered in his research; invasion of the town by thousands of noxious millipedes and poisonous snakes in the final days, the empty assurances of the governor, the local myths about the diable of the mountain, while maintaining an immediacy that would have been impossible had he stuck to straight journalism.
For those of us who grew up within sight of Mt. Rainier or dug Mount St. Helen’s ash out of our gutters, this book is a must read. For readers who love natural history and narrative nonfiction, this book is a must read. And for writers who want to understand how to create tension and suspense while describing an event whose outcome is already known, this book is a must read.
Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. Kim Addonizio and Cherly Dumesnil, editors
Warner Books, New York. Paperback: $14.00
Review by Kelly Davio
I should have taken a clue from the editors’ photo: two tribal bands and one slinky salamander between two poets’ left arms. They edited an anthology on tattoo-related writing, and this was all the ink these ladies had to offer? Yet Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, named for the black star permanently emblazoned on—no surprises here—Dorothy Parker’s arm, promised to combine two of my favorite topics in the covers of a single anthology. No trendy tribal or faded salamander could deter me.
The concept of the book is a big one: to merge the high-brow with the low—to legitimize one of humanity’s most ancient visual arts via contemporary literary arts. As Addonizio and Dumesnil put it, the book attempts to “span the range of human experience, from the awesome to the absurd.” And the table of contents commands an impressive range of tattoo-related poetry, fiction and nonfiction from greats Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka, contemporary writers Rick Moody and Mark Doty alongside obscure prison inmates, tattoo apprentices and one private detective who knows a nice gang tat when he sees one. The anthology edited by poets accomplished Kim Addonizio (owner of the salamander) and Cheryl Dumesnil (rounding out the tribal division), promised good organization and strong selections.
And many of the pieces, it is true, were poignant. A moving piece by Susan Terris describes the process of tattooing as part of reconstructive surgery. A meditation on symbolism of good and evil by 22-year-old Robert Allen, who has had the majority of his arms and torso tattooed during his incarceration, had a matter-of-fact profundity the likes of which many an MFA student would like to cultivate. But in other areas, factual inaccuracies are egregious enough to incite cringes, the admonitions to apply tattoo stencils with scented deodorant and to rub down fresh ink with petroleum jelly primary among them. As many reputable tattoo artists will caution, the preceding are both excellent ways to ruin one’s tattoo and even cause infection in the skin. Such suspect material made me wonder whether the book had more writers on tattoos than tattoos on writers.
Outside of the various factual concerns, many of the selections seemed to have been chosen simply because a tattoo arose somewhere in narrative, and not because anything particularly profound was said about them. Some items, such as novelist Darcey Steinke’s, are merely a few lines that appear to be lifted from a longer work, describing in none-to-enthralling detail some kanji or another. Finally, the pieces were grouped not to create resonances between the pieces, but to follow topical sequences (tattoos on social delinquents, tattoo artists, tattoos after surgery, etc.). Such a principle of order was disappointing, especially from Addonizio, whose own collections of poetry have been organized with a masterful sense of story.
While the anchoring pieces from the big-name authors make the collection ultimately worthwhile, the collection failed to deliver on its exciting premise. The rest of us tattooed writers will have to hope for—or possibly produce—some better ink about ink.
THE ZEN OF FISH: The story of sushi from samurai to supermarket
By Trevor Corson
Harper Collins, New York, 2007
Review by Christine Myers
Last week I was a sushi ignoramus. Untutored in the charms of vinegared rice and raw fish, I happily hid from anything cold wrapped in seaweed. In Japanese restaurants, the case full of fish at the sushi bar appealed about as much as did green eggs and ham. Then, in an act of bibliosadism, my teacher assigned Trevor Corson’s sushi book, The Zen of Fish: the story of sushi from samurai to supermarket.
Nominally, The Zen of Fish tells the story of Kate Murray’s quest to become a sushi chef. At the book’s outset, the odds of the 20-year-old completing her course at the California Sushi Academy seem slimmer than a sheet of nori. Kate finds the Academy about as intimidating as I did the sushi bar. Though she loves nigiri and make, Kate is, to put it bluntly, a screw-up when it comes to actually making sushi. She can’t slice fish, her vegetables are irregular and, even with wet hands, her nigiri clap fails to pop. Worse, she doesn’t follow directions well. Her Australian teacher shouts, barks, insults and wields his knives like he comes from Kyoto, not the outback. He instructs students to sharpen their high-carbon steel knives every day. Feeling picked on and humiliated, Kate skulks away after class. Her knives rust overnight.
Kate, as both underdog and outsider, had my sympathy. Her profession is so male-dominated that a Japanese comic book, Sushi Chef Kirara’s Job, documents one woman’s trials. If Kirara has a tough go of it, consider the guffaws of traditional chefs at a Caucasian American girl’s competence to join their ranks.
During Kate’s eight-week arc from civilian to chef the reader learns nearly as much as she does, without the fish heads or pressure of a timed nigiri test. Corson seamlessly braids three strands – Kate’s story, the natural history of fish, and sushi itself – to present his research as neatly and artistically as a neta case. The author’s fluent Japanese makes him a useful guide on both sides of the Pacific, whether touring the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo or as guest of a tiny wasabi farm in Oregon. He presents sushi’s history from ancient preservation technique through Tokyo street food to high-priced delicacy. For those who already love sushi, The Zen of Fish teaches a deeper appreciation of the delicacy. Corson explains the fifth fundamental taste receptor, umami – tastiness – along with sea urchin roe, Sushi robots and Shinto folk tradition. He dishes up the science of sushi – canned mold, infected rice, fermented sake, diabolical enzymes and voracious yeasts – in tiny batches, umami as the glutamates the human taste buds adore.
After a weekend of sushi immersion, technique and terminology, I was curious about truly fresh sushi. If Kate succeeded in becoming a sushi chef, I thought, the least I could do was give it a try. Kate persists, learning to combine instinct and training with the right ingredients and presentation and her passion overcomes native lack of confidence. When she finally overcomes her repugnance to reach into a bucket of live, foot-and-a-half-long eels, I cheered. It was my turn to show comparable courage at the sushi bar. On my way to the most authentic Japanese restaurant in town, I reviewed Corson’s appendix on the etiquette of sushi. Do not mix wasabi and soy sauce together into sushi gravy. Chopsticks are for sashimi, not sushi. In order to appreciate the complexity of flavors, don’t add any sauce and, by the way, American wasabi isn’t real. (It’s horseradish and mustard, with no trace of the rare Japanese plant.)
I ordered omakase, chef’s choice, as Corson suggests. The chef’s job, he reminds us, is to delight the palates of his customers. My reward was hand rolls only five seconds old, correctly served at body temperature, rice and fish dissolving together in a bath of superb tastes. The observant chef approved that I ate ginger between fish courses to cleanse the palate; dipped only the fish side in the soy sauce so the sushi didn’t disintegrate until it reached my mouth; and ate each nigiri as a single mouthful with lots of thoughtful chewing. He served up a string of handmade lusciousness – cones topped with salmon, mackerel hand rolls, delicate crunchy roe and cucumber – tastes I would not have discovered without his, and Corson’s, guidance.
The Zen of Fish could have been published as a series of fascinating entertaining magazine articles, just as sushi could be reduced to the sum of its ingredients or a conveyor belt of pre-made California rolls. But the whole experience requires more depth. Such a well-crafted and presented book is better read in a single bite: umami.
The Children’s Blizzard
By David Laskin
Review by Nancy Cluts
It is an unseasonably warm day on the prairie in January. Townsfolk throughout the Great Plains take advantage of the break in the unrelenting cold and snow, venturing out of their homes to tend to chores they could not complete during the mercilessly cold and snowy weather. Cattle and horses emerge from their long captivity into the fresh air, farmers travel to town to replenish much-needed supplies and children return to the schoolhouse, all unaware of a massive storm gathering energy, ready to unleash it full force, leaving death and misery in its wake.
The Children’s Blizzard is a harrowing account of the blizzard of January 12, 1881. It was known as the “school children’s blizzard” for the unusually high percentage of children who died while attempting to find shelter after being dismissed from school or from complications while recovering from severe exposure. Those who managed to live lost fingers, arms, toes, feet, legs—anything that froze in the bitter cold. Author David Laskin recounts the event using published newspaper articles and detailed documentation from the U. S. Signal Corps, the predecessor to our current National Weather Service. The reader is given a glimpse into the lives of several families, from their decision to immigrate into the United States from small Norwegian and Ukrainian towns, through their difficult journeys overseas and finally to homesteads in the Dakota Territory, Minnesota and Nebraska where life was unimaginably difficult due to the harsh weather and swarms of crop-annihilating grasshoppers.
The author has painstakingly researched his subject, resulting in a story detailing of the intricacies of the science of weather, but skimpy on character development. The cast of real-life characters is so large—and their names so similar—it is difficult to keep them straight. The most memorable character, the one who is given the lion’s share of pages, is Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff: the man charged with tracking storms in the Dakota Territory, alerting the people of coming severe shifts in weather, and sending out severe cold warnings as merited (an action he failed to do until far too late). The storm sped through the Great Plains at such a rapid rate that, by the time the cold warning flags had been hoisted, they would have been in whiteout conditions and unable to see the white flags. Much of the book contains tedious explanations of the workings of cold fronts, barometric pressure and the political infighting of the people in the U. S. Signal Corps, slowing down the narrative and losing the reader’s connection with those who suffered and died.
The book is a short, easy-to-read introduction to the science of weather. As a general history buff and someone who admits to watching any documentary on the Discovery or History Channel, I found the book enlightening and timely, given the current attention to climate change.