Tag Archives: Libby Sternberg

Did I turn it off? Did I?

I have stick-straight hair, so, naturally, I curl it, using a curling iron. If the electricity ever went out for extended periods of time, I would become a stranger to friends and family.

Since I use the curling iron every day (sometimes more than once in a day), I regularly confront the existential question: Did I turn it off?

Before heading out to the store, hand on the garage doorknob: Did I turn off my curling iron or will it eventually burn down the house while I’m gone, leaving me to confront a smoking heap of ash when I return?

Or, two blocks from home: Did I turn it off and unplug it?

Or, staring at my husband over a candlelit restaurant table: Did I really turn it off? Really? Am I absolutely certain?

I’m sure anyone who’s used an iron, a stove, an oven, a coffeemaker or any other heat-producing appliance can relate. I’ve stopped backing out of the garage to go check on the curling iron’s status. I’ve turned around before leaving our development to come back and check on the curling iron. The curling iron must feel very loved with all the attention it gets.

And although 99.9 percent of the time, I did, in fact, turn off and unplug the thing, there is the occasional, very, very rare moment when I didn’t, which just affirms my obsessive need to double-check its status.

Over the years, I’ve tried to develop strategies to remember if I unplugged the thing.

I’ve looked at it and waved the plug in front of my face, thinking that visual image would surely stick in my mind.

Result: When the memory of that action comes back to me, I wonder, but was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud: “I unplugged the curling iron.”

Result: But was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud, using different accents: “Ja, ja, I unplugged ze curling iron, bien sure, n’est ce pas?”

Result: See above.

I’ve sung, in operatic tones: “I’ve unplugged the CURLING iron! It is in my hand, you see! Rodolfo! Alfredo! Siegfried! Ah! AH!”

Result: See above.

The curling iron unplugging. It is driving me crazy.

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My hair. And a tiara.

So here’s my latest tactic: I tell my husband I unplugged it. Then, you see, the responsibility is shared. I can ask him later, “Did I unplug the curling iron, dearest one?” And he can answer, “Yes, you told me you did, my sweet, and I carefully listen to every dulcet word that you utter.”

Or, more likely, “I dunno.”

But if my husband isn’t around, I still have to deal with this anxiety, which I have labeled Anxiety About Appliances’ Remaining Good and Hot. Or AAARGH, for short.

I am now going to start using a tip from my oldest son, who suffers from a similar affliction–remembering if he turned the heat back in his apartment before leaving.

He snaps a photo of his thermostat.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. Snap a photo with my phone of the unplugged curling iron.

If I can remember…

 

 

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New…endings

As I’ve noted before, I’m a fan of retellings of familiar tales. I also occasionally let my imagination roam after the words The End appear on the screen or on the page. I wrote a fan fiction piece, in fact, on what I envision happening after the series Mad Men finished spinning tales on air. It’s set on a sad day in September in New York City.

For many years, I’ve enjoyed imagining what a sequel to the movie The Best Years of Our Lives would look like. First, if you’ve not seen this Oscar-winning tale of three servicemen returning to their small town at the end of World War II and readjusting to civilian life, give it a try. It’s moving, bittersweet, and, ultimately, uplifting. The scene where Al Stephenson (Frederic March) surprises his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), in their postwar reunion is an understated yet breathtaking moment that leaves you suppressing tears.

bookbannerAt the end of the movie, though, I wonder what would have happened to those characters? Would Al conquer his drinking problem and find the contentment he’d lost going away to war? Would former airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) find happiness after getting together following his divorce from gold digger Marie (Virginia Mayo)? And would former sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and new wife Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) flourish on his disability payments after he’d lost his hands in the war?

I could think of all sorts of answers to those questions. I even thought of actually writing a story based on those answers.

But I’ll content myself for now by offering a narrative of what I think would happen in the future to the characters of this tale. I hope those familiar with the movie enjoy it.

Join in the fun and tell me what you imagine for characters from some of your favorite stories!

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: THE SEQUEL

Thirty years later, in the 1970s, poor Al has given up drink, but the smoking is doing him in. He’s retiring due to a lung cancer diagnosis his wife, Milly, hides from him. Or thinks she hides from him. Al knows he’s not long for this world, and he’s decided his last days, months,  will be spent on a mission to reconcile with son, Rob. He and Rob broke when the young man joined in anti-Vietnam War protests, even landing in jail at one point. A campus radical in the 1960s, Rob did many things he now regrets. He stayed in touch with his mother, though, who knows he has a daughter out of wedlock with a hippie he hooked up with in California years ago, and he’s been trying to track down the whereabouts of his child.

Before leaving on this journey, though, Al and Milly have a dinner with daughter Peggy and son-in-law Fred at their beautiful rancher in a nearby suburb. Fred has done very well for himself and now owns  his own construction company. They’ve lived the American Dream except for the tragedy of losing a son in the Vietnam War, a loss that led Peggy to join her father in shunning her brother, Rob. Their two daughters are both away in college, and one wants to be a lawyer. Both Fred and Peggy are enormously proud of them. Fred is a member of the VFW and American Legion, and Peggy is active in social and community affairs. While Fred chats with Al, Milly takes Peggy aside and tells her that her father isn’t well, although she doesn’t divulge the full gravity of his situation. When she explains they are going to California to see Rob, however, Peggy guesses the truth — her father’s health condition is terminal. She doesn’t let on that she knows, but she sobs out her distress to Fred later, who suggests she might reconcile with Rob, too, as a gift to her father. She agrees to give her brother a call. Fred also suggests they try to plan a reunion with Al and Homer when Peggy’s parents return from their trip. Fred and Peggy had lost touch with Homer over the years when Homer and Wilma moved out of state after the death of Homer’s parents.

Wilma, in fact, is returning to Boone City from Chicago at that moment, but without Homer. The former sailor died of a heart attack in the past week, and she’s come back to tell his friends and to make arrangements to move permanently to her hometown. Sad and even a little bitter, Wilma resented Homer’s determination to move from Boone City. They’d been lured to Chicago by a navy buddy of Homer’s fifteen years ago. The buddy had promised Homer a partnership in a restaurant, but it turned out to be a front for a mob-related money-laundering operation. Homer was lucky not to land in jail–in fact, Wilma hides the secret guilt that she is glad he passed away before being ensnared in a federal probe of the operation that began right before his death. She was unhappy the entire time they lived in Chicago, not comfortable with the sprawling city, fearful for her children, especially during the 1968 riots, afraid to drive on the new highways springing up. Their children left as soon as they were able. Three daughters moved back to Boone City and married, two became teachers, one a part-time librarian, raising families of their own. Their son is a test pilot in Texas, a career Homer encouraged but one that upsets Wilma.

Back in Boone City, she stays with her oldest daughter, sees friends, and prepares herself to visit Al and Milly and Fred and Peggy to give them the bad news about Homer. She begins to regain her equilibrium, feels she can breathe again. Before seeing friends, her first stop, though, is back to the old tavern her husband loved to frequent. There, she learns the place is up for sale, and she breaks down at the news. If they’d stayed in Boone City, this is the place Homer would have loved to have owned, a legitimate business that would have made him — and her — proud. After a good cry, she makes her way to see Peggy. Fred’s at work, but Peggy is glad to welcome Wilma, asks her in…and learns the sad news of Homer’s passing. Wilma learns, meanwhile, that Al and Milly are away. They’ll be back in a couple weeks, Peggy tells Wilma, and she also lets her know of Fred’s plan to have a reunion. They plot together to make this happen at the tavern.

Meanwhile, Al and Milly’s reunion with their son is strained at first as they adjust to staying in his small apartment, all he can afford as a part-time reporter for an alternative newspaper.As the stay wears on, though, he peppers his father with questions about his life, his war experiences, and, when Al opens up, Rob decides he’ll use the material for a book about his father and his friends, their life, in particular, after returning from the war. In the midst of the visit, Rob gets great news–the private investigator he’d hired has found his daughter, Grace, in a foster home, her mother having passed away from a drug overdose a year ago. Rob and Milly and Al have a tearful get-together with Grace, a shy and beautiful child. When Milly confides in Rob that his father is “not well,” Rob gets the meaning just as Peggy did. He pledges to come to Boone City with Grace soon for a visit, telling his father “this isn’t goodbye.” He looks forward to seeing them all, including Peggy, who wrote to him recently. Milly is happy her children are reconciling..

When Al and Milly return to Boone City after their heart-wrenching visit, they join Fred, Peggy, their two daughters, home on spring break, Wilma, her three girls, and their various spouses and children, at the tavern for a bittersweet reunion. The reunion is elevated to happier levels when Rob walks in with Grace holding his hand. He tells his mother he couldn’t stay put knowing his father was so ill, that his ties to California are scant, and he’s committed to living in Boone City…at least until “Dad’s health crisis is over.” A tearful Milly knows he’s telling her he’ll be there until the end of Fred’s life.

When Wilma tells her girls how much she’d wished their father had known the tavern was up for sale, they talk to her about the possibility of her buying the tavern, but she says she’s too old for that sort of thing. They say they’re willing to invest in her, in her business. She’s the one who ran the household for years as Homer drifted further into memory and drink. She’s a good manager, and she’s committed to Boone City’s future. Al, too, is willing to write a check. When she demurs, he insists, saying he’ll be her partner. Milly overhears him telling Wilma he’ll make sure she inherits his share should he predecease her. Now Milly knows he knows his diagnosis. They share a sweet kiss and telling glances as the party continues around them. Fade to black.

AND MORE…

Two other stories I like to think of sequels for are…Oklahoma and The Graduate. Yes, I know, you could hardly get more different. Oklahoma intrigues me, though, when thinking of its characters, because the young couples in it would all face the Dust Bowl, right, if they stayed in the Sooner State? How would they have fared?

And The Graduate…well, you tell me what you think happened to Ben and Elaine after they ran out of that church….

 

 

 

 

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In communion with Jane’s first readers

This month, I’ve featured many posts about Charlotte Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816). You can find a round-up of those posts here.

Not only was Charlotte Bronte an inspiration to me as a woman writer. Jane Eyre inspired me to write an homage to this well-known tale, a book titled Sloane Hall.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive the news that Sloane Hall was one of only 14 Bronte/Eyre-related books featured at “Off the Shelf,” a sight where Simon & Schuster employees highlight favorite backlist books, regardless of publisher (Sloane Hall was first released by Five Star/Cengage, a publisher that produces quality hardcovers for the library trade). You can find the “Off the Shelf” post here — I’m excited to be in the company of such well-known, esteemed authors!

I’ve written before about Sloane Hall and its inspiration, but I wanted to explore a little more the reason I enjoy retellings of familiar stories.

As I said in my previous post about Sloane Hall, imaginative, well-done retellings of well-known stories achieve two goals: they let you see afresh the story you know so well; and, they bring you into communion, for brief moments, with the first audiences for those stories.

Think of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an imperfect re-imagining of the Odyssey, yes, but it makes the story come alive as you root for Ulysses McGill to find his way home, as you see how the Sirens’ song seduced his fellow travelers to linger, as you watch him overcome mishaps and bad deeds to find the hero within himself. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of this storytelling, it hits you: I’m experiencing this story with the same sense of wonder and excitement that its original readers might have felt! Even though I know the major plot points, I don’t know how it will unfold here in this new version, and I’m eager to find out…just as those first readers and listeners were probably eager to see what happened to Odysseus next.

51LJWn26G5LThat was the effect I was after with Sloane Hall. The plot points of Jane Eyre are so familiar now, even to those who’ve not read the book, thanks to its many film adaptations. And although I knew fans of the original might enjoy anticipating the high and low points of the familiar story even as they made their way through my reconstruction, I wanted to give them more than that. I wanted to give them that “communion” with readers of the original tale, that sense of coming upon climactic moments with an inner gasp shared in the 1800s, as if they hadn’t known what would take place, despite their knowledge of the story.

This was a challenge, and, as I’ve pointed out, I decided one of the best ways to help readers experience the story, as if they’d never read Jane Eyre, was to reverse the genders. The poor and obscure role in Sloane Hall is given to a young man, John, with a tortured past. The larger-than-life part of thundering Mr. Rochester is now played by a woman, not too much older than John, who towers over John in celebrity — she’s a silent film star about to make her first “talkie.” (As an aside, what fun it was to delve into this part of film history–I hope readers come away from the novel with a deeper understanding of that industry’s turmoil during a technological turning point.)

And the lunatic spouse in the attic of Jane Eyre? Not what you might expect, in Sloane Hall, but a secret that still should evoke the feelings of horror, shock, and even sympathy for both characters that the unveiling of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, might have ignited in the original readers of Jane Eyre.

As I thought about that scene and secret, in fact, I first pondered those reader reactions. What must the first readers of Jane have felt upon the revelation that Rochester was married? Probably overwhelming sympathy for Jane and disgust at Rochester. But then when it was revealed he was shackled to a madwoman? Perhaps some of their sympathy might have turned to him, as well. I tried to use those emotions–of the readers–to construct my own revelation.

When Sloane Hall was released, I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. But I was thrilled when two Bronte-devoted outlets praised it, recognizing the new story it tells and completely comprehending the effects I was after as I told my own tale. Both the Bronte Blog and the Bronte Studies journal gave Sloane Hall glowing reviews. Here are some snippets, along with one from the site Fresh Fiction:

“Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” —The Bronte Blog (A link to the review is here.)

“An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011

“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction

Sloane Hall is now available in trade paperback and digitally. I hope fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy experiencing the communion with its original readers I wanted to accomplish, and new readers will become engrossed in this fresh story.

You can find the book at Amazon here.

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Happy Birthday, Charlotte

Two hundred years ago, a novelist was born. She was, by many descriptions, as “plain, poor, and little” as her most famous fictional character, Jane Eyre. But unlike her, she would never be “obscure.” Her imagination and writing skill propelled her into literary stardom.

CBRichmondHer most famous novel, Jane Eyre, keeps her name alive for countless people who’ve never even read the book. Film and TV adaptations appear like clockwork, it seems, introducing new audiences to the honest-to-a-fault contrarian Jane, her rags to riches story, her sweeping Gothic romance with Mr. Rochester.

So, happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte! And thank you, for inspiring many “authoresses” to try to humbly follow in your footsteps.

For those who want to know more about her life, I highly recommend Claire Harman’s recent biography of Charlotte Bronte.

In honor of Bronte’s birthday, I’m including below a round-up of the articles I’ve posted about her and Jane Eyre over the past month:

Two Hundred Years of Charlotte

Podcast – Jane Eyre, Romance Novel Template

Podcast – Jane Eyre, the Rebel

Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Podcast – Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

Tomorrow…a postscript, how Jane Eyre inspired me to write my own retelling of that tale.

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Podcast – JANE EYRE, the rebel

It’s time for more Jane! Jane Eyre, that is. As I’ve noted before, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816. So I’m celebrating by doing a lot of blogging about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre (which happens to be my favorite novel).

In my most recent post, I talked about Jane Eyre as a template for romance novels. Today, I feature a short podcast on how the character of Jane is a rebel, a contrarian, a woman who, from an early age, didn’t accept the status quo, pat answers, or conventional wisdom…even rebelling, at a climactic moment, against her own deepest inner desires!

Take a listen…and let me know your thoughts!

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Where to go…From Here

Years ago, when the publisher of my first book — a YA mystery — asked me what name I wanted to write under, I immediately thought that my nickname — Libby — would be the best way to communicate the fun spirit of the book, and, since most folks knew me as Libby Sternberg…it was a natural pick. FromHere

Then, when my first humorous women’s fiction book was bought by Harlequin, my editor asked the same question: What name to write under? I nixed Libby Sternberg because I didn’t want my YA fans (both of them – ahem) coming to my adult material thinking it would be the same type of read. So I settled on Libby Malin. But then later, I did write some serious adult fiction under Libby Sternberg, wanting to distinguish it from my lighter adult fare. Clear…as mud? 🙂

But the name I’d always really wanted to write under was Elizabeth Malin, not the nickname Libby. You see, I started in the artistic world as a classical singer. Trained at Peabody Conservatory, I sang under the name Elizabeth Malin, and I have a box full of old programs and mementos of my singing days with that name printed on them. Elizabeth Malin has always felt like my artistic persona.

So, here I am, some ten or so books later, and I’ve decided to start afresh as the author Elizabeth Malin, at least for my more serious adult fiction. To that end, I’m releasing a collection of three short stories, to be followed by a full-length novel.

The short story collection is appropriately titled From Here– also the name of the first story in the group — to indicate the theme of the stories. They each deal with characters deciding what to do “from here.” Where do they go? How do they deal with large and small challenges? How do they start over — if they do?

Here’s a sample of each story:

“From Here” — the tale of a semi-retired opera singer reminiscing about his life and his now-deceased mentor. Here he recalls the final concert, a benefit program, by his mentor, Frank:

And then, when they’re still clapping, when they’re wanting it so bad they’ll do anything to hear it, he marches on stage and thanks everybody and tells them to get out their wallets and write checks. And he waited! He waited until they started doing it. And then when they’re as still as school kids waiting for the teacher, he sings it, Nessun Dorma, his voice oozing out into that hall like honey, coating everybody’s heart and making you warm and peaceful, like you’ve just gotten a toe in heaven and if you’re real quiet, they’ll let you stay.

I was moved, standing in the wings. Couldn’t stop the tears even though I’d heard it a thousand times, sung by the best, too. Frank’s singing had something that ripped you open.

“The Diva and the Drug Addict” – the story of two very different characters (hence the title!) thrown together in a halfway house retreat after various therapies. Here each of them settles into a week of quiet rest in the country, reflecting on their past…

Debbi had told them of a nearby walking path, and she’d availed herself of it each morning, cheered almost to the point of weeping by the site of shy dogwoods bursting into bloom under the canopy of lime-green leaves, trees about to burst into full leafy bud, now sheer lace above her head letting in the unyielding sunshine that pinked her face….

…He remembered feeling like this once before. In eighth grade, just as spring had warmed the countryside, he and some friends had foolishly gone swimming early in a muddy creek. He’d jumped in, knees to his chest, first leaping high into the air—and landed in shallow water on a buried log, breaking his shin bone. Lordy, that had hurt…

There’d been only a couple months of classes left, and that had been an easy year for him…He’d felt…redeemed, and he remembered thinking all these Great Thoughts about what he was going to do, how he’d be a better person after this, how lucky he was, how life was good. The honeysuckle moments of life, his mother had called them. Holy Saturday, the good kind of waiting.

“Russian Tropics” — a refugee from Bolshevik Russia lands in Florida, and fifteen years later works as a maid in the estate of a kind, debonair gentleman who’s taken an interest in her. Before finding that safe haven, though, she encounters another refugee to whom she tells her story:

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

So, where do I go …from here? I hope I find new readers who will embrace Elizabeth Malin. I hope my old readers follow me to this new place. I hope, like all the characters in these stories to one degree or another, I find tenderness, acceptance and understanding.

Come like me on Facebook. And you can still visit my website at www.LibbyMalin.com to see what I’m up to! And, of course, you can buy From Here for your Kindle at Amazon!

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I admit it: I love country music

by Libby Sternberg

hero-acoustic-guitars-category-baritone-taylor-guitarsI drive an old Buick, a car my late father owned. AM stations don’t work on its radio anymore, so listening to talk radio babble is out of the question when I run errands throughout the day. (Note to talk radio critics: It’s entertaining.) What to do? Well, for years now, I’ve had the radio tuned to a local FM country station, and I’ve become a fan of this genre. Oh, I used to catch the occasional country hit back in the day, but now I know who Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, the Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and Sugarland are. Favorites include the aforementioned Lambert, Church and Bentley, as well as Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. Mute-button triggers are Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

I’m not unsophisticated musically, so what is it that attracts me to this genre? First, let’s stipulate that all western popular music, from hip-hop to techno to country, is based on some pretty simple chord progressions. Therefore, no popular genre is traveling to new frontiers of harmonic complexity. Within the I, IV, V chord outlines, melodies can be mind-numbingly repetitive to clever to sappy to sentimental to so monotone that a classically trained musician might suggest they resemble recitative.

But, given the fact that most popular music shares a simple common musical language, here’s why I prefer country:

Country music lyrics are easy to understand:  You can actually get 99 percent of what they’re singing about, with little guesswork.  In pop music, it’s often hard to pick out the words. They’re mumbled or covered by dense guitar strumming or drumming or…stuff. Back in the 1980s, I remember a coworker confessing to me that for weeks, she thought Huey Lewis and the News were singing about wanting a new “truck” instead of the “I Want a New Drug” hit saturating the airwaves. I don’t think her experience was atypical. But virtually every country music song has clearly articulated lyrics.

Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor: Speaking of those lyrics, they often contain a good measure of self-deprecating humor. Take, for example, Steve Holy’s “I Got a Brand-New Girlfriend,” which celebrates, tongue in cheek, a man’s quick turnaround after a breakup. Or how about Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” which similarly pokes gentle fun at a man’s caddish behavior in choosing fishing over his girl. These songs are funny.

Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor grounded in brutal frankness: In addition to the songs mentioned above, country music is full of hits filled with clever, honest humor. Dierks Bentley is a master of this with his “What Was I Thinkin’?” a song about a man’s lustful pursuit of a girl who gets him into trouble time and again (“I knew what I was feelin’, but what was I thinkin’?”). Bentley’s recent hit “I’m Getting Drunk on a Plane” gives voice to the wishes of many a broken-hearted gal or guy: a desire to drown one’s sorrow in booze, living it up while mourning an aborted relationship.

Even songs that don’t have a smile-inducing chorus can have slyly funny lines.  Rodney Atkins’s “If You’re Going Through Hell,” a song about toughing out bad times, contains this gem: “You…ask directions from a genie in a bottle of Jim Beam…and she LIED to you.” Speaking of Atkins, he has another, uh, funny song called “Cleaning My Gun” about a father waiting up for his daughter to come home from a date. He tells her fellow before the couple takes off: “You all run along and have some fun/I’ll see you when you get back/Probably I’ll be up all night… still cleanin’ this gun.”

Or what about the Band Perry’s “Chainsaw,” a tune about cutting down the tree upon which is carved the initials of a couple who is no more. (“It’s hard to bury the hatchet… holding a chainsaw.”)

Country music contains interesting rhymes: How about the last syllable of “listening” rhyming with “game?” Taylor Swift manages it in “Mean.” ‘Nuff said.

Country stars sing about family and church and…family: Yeah, they sing about getting drunk and trucks and hot girls, too, but country music stars aren’t afraid to sing about the joys of family and about faith–either implicitly or explicitly. For example, Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” celebrates going to church, cutting coupons, swinging on the front porch…ordinary, sweet blessings.  Or what about Eric Church’s “She Loves Me Likes Jesus Does”? It’s not a song about religion, but it’s drenched in southern/western religion references: “I’m a back row sitter at a tent revival/But she believes in me like she believes her Bible, loves me like Jesus does….she carries me when my sins make me heavy…”  Or there’s “Down the Road,” one of whose singers has been – gasp, Kenny Chesney. A song about the cycles of life, it has this line in it: “Her momma wants to know if I’m washed in the blood or just in the water…” You don’t need to be a believer to enjoy these songs. There’s an unselfconsciousness about them that makes them charming. They’re not proselytizing. They’re saying, “hey, this is who I am, who we are…ain’t it great?”

Anyway, them’s my reasons for enjoying country music. Think I’ll go listen to some right now…

 

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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TGIW: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

by Libby Sternberg

This must be how they get in.

This must be how they get in.

The tomato army has arrived. They’re stealthy. We find them hiding under foliage, glinting red in the shadows, just waiting. Waiting to march, to attack, to take over….at least the kitchen.

Although we only have a few tomato plants, they produce baskets full of fruit. Which reminds me of that old adage…Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to use it in a fruit salad. (Or maybe wisdom is knowing how to use fruit and tomatoes together.) But I digress….

So, I’ve been looking for things to cook/make with tomatoes. I love tomato, mozzarella salad, and am fond of a version using grape tomatoes and mozzarella balls in a basil-heavy vinaigrette with thinly sliced red onions. Speaking of thinly sliced, we are fond of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, but MLTs not so much. (Actually, I’ve never tried one.):

Having so many tomatoes finally inspired me to do something I’ve never ever ever ever done before. In my entire life. That is….peel a tomato! To make tomato sauce from scratch. Peeling a tomato, it turns out, is pretty easy. You need to shock them, and they lose their skins faster than Joe Nichols’s girlfriend sheds her clothes after throwing back some  Patron.

I asked my daughter-in-law, who is of Sicilian heritage, for a good recipe, and she was kind enough to pass along her father’s. But I wimped out on following his directions for my first time, because it sounded as if you needed to have the right touch and taste to get it right. I’ll try his for my next batch:

For 6 people, use 6 ripe tomatoes, 1 can peeled tomato, half bunch of basil, half bunch of parsley, 5 garlic cloves,  3 oz of parmigiano cheese, 3 oz olive oil, salt and pepper. Dip the tomatoes in hot water for few minute, then peel and chop in very small pieces, chop the can tomatoes and use the juice, too; chop the rest of the ingredients and mix everything; taste if you need more salt and olive oil. Add oregano.

I ended up at Smitten Kitchen. They have pictures! So I was able to see what the tomatoes are supposed to look like, etc. Here’s the link to their recipe.

The sauce before it was blended.

The sauce before it was blended.

At the end, I blended all my sauce ingredients in a food processor after cooking. And I have to say, we really enjoyed the result. The sauce actually tasted like….tomatoes! Not like salt, not like sugar, not like something with a metallic overtone. Next time, I’ll follow my daughter-in-law’s father’s instructions because I think mine could have used more garlic and basil. And there will be a next time. The basket is already full with another army of tomatoes.

In case you’re wondering where the title of this post comes from, it’s the title of an epic film that, oddly enough, never won any Oscars. I’m particularly fond of its catchy theme song.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Please buy her books so she can buy more tomato plants next year.

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Dirt blindness, its symptoms and cures

by Libby Sternberg

When I was a child, my mother would put my sister and me to work scrubbing down the kitchen walls during spring cleaning. We used buckets of soapy water which I imagine contained some grease-cutting detergent. I remember it smelled….clean.  But heck if I recall the actual dirt and grease on the walls. For all I could see, we were just wiping spotless surfaces.

I'm told this is a dust bunny. I see nothing.

I’m told this is a dust bunny. I see nothing.

This, I now realize, was the first symptom of a syndrome I have borne all my life: Dirt Blindness. (Immundus Caecitate is the medical term.) After years of therapy, I have come to accept my affliction. Symptoms of Dirt Blindness include some or all of the following:

  • the inability to see dust in corners, tabletops and especially on lamp shades
  • the inability to see grease buildup on any kitchen surface except when the angle of light is just right
  • microwave amnesia: immediately forgetting the way the inside of the microwave looks once you’ve shut its door
  • regularly mistaking cobwebs on walls for sun-dappled shadowscapes
  • viewing stacks of papers, magazines, junk mail, and old store receipts as a charming still life about which you occasionally fantasize spray-painting neon pink and submitting to an art contest
  • thinking there’s something wrong with your computer keyboard when crumbs make one or more letters hard to click
  • shaking your computer mouse and screaming “Oh, the humanity” rather than opening it to empty debris (what debris?)

Dirt blindness has no lasting cure. But it is possible to trigger remissions. Here are some techniques I’ve found useful:

  • Go on vacation. Coming home after several days away allows the Dirt Blindness to lift for fleeting moments as you see your house afresh.  Be warned: The moments of remission might leave you shocked and in need of emotional support. Or a martini. Yes, a martini is better than emotional support. Sometimes two.  (Note: To be truly effective, long and luxurious vacations are the best. )
  • Have company. Dirt blindness seems to recede in the fifteen minutes before any company arrives on your doorstep. This strategy has the added benefit of giving you a high-power workout as you scurry to get rid of the dirt you can finally, finally see in that short window of time.
  • Change your light bulbs: Amazingly, a higher watt bulb can sometimes illuminate dirt for brief periods (up to five minutes if you’re lucky). Please note, however, that this is temporary and curiously only works in the area immediately near the light.
  • Hire a maid. Technically, this doesn’t get rid of your Dirt Blindness, but it does make life easier for the rest of your family, so they don’t have to suffer with you. And, strangely enough, while Dirt Blindness makes it impossible for you to see unclean surfaces, you are able to appreciate, in all its splendor, a sparkling clean house.

I’ve learned to cope with my Dirt Blindness over the years, mostly through acceptance of this sad affliction. I hope my ideas help others who’ve been cursed with this syndrome. Please, feel free to share your own strategies for dealing with this problem, if you are a fellow sufferer.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. In lieu of contributions to the Dirt Blindness Association, please buy her books. That temporarily lifts her Dirt Blindness Ennui, a secondary syndrome caused by the primary disorder.  Check back this Wednesday for the TGIW post on television ads to love and loathe.

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TGIW: My sort-of-Indian-chicken-recipe

by Libby Sternberg

First, a quick explanation: TGIW stands for Thank God it’s Wednesday. But you probably figured that out already. TGIW posts are meant to brighten your midweek….

The curry powder stands alone.

The curry powder stands alone.

My husband and I love to go to a little local Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal. It’s a one-room establishment in a strip shopping center, next to a mattress store and near a furniture shop. But once you’re inside, the atmosphere is…fun. A big plastic peacock statue, lit inside, guards the bar. Other pictures and tchotchkes evoking India fill the room. The staff is attentive and cheerful; I always feel as if they’re happy to see us and are eager to show off their cuisine. On holidays, they make dining special. New Year’s Eve brought out hats and beads for each customer, Valentine’s Day a chocolate dessert, other times live music provided by a fellow at an electronic keyboard. On Mondays, they offer a fixed price buffet–a great way to sample their food.

Anyway, I sometimes try to recreate a dish I had there, and I came close with the following. I didn’t write down the precise measurements as I cooked, so beware; use your own judgment.

LIBBY’S SORTA INDIAN CHICKEN

For two people (with enough for leftovers)

  • about a cup or more of cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • about a cup of broccoli florets
  • Olive oil
  • One chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1/4 cup onion diced or sliced
  • 1/4 cup red pepper diced or sliced
  • 2 small cloves garlic, crushed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • about a cup of chicken broth or stock
  • about a cup of tomato or spaghetti sauce (I used Prego)
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the following spices: ginger, cumin, ground coriander, cardamom, turmeric, paprika
  • (and, if you feel the need to smooth out the flavors, yes, you can use a little curry powder)
  • 1/2 cup cream

Heat the oven to 375. Spread cauliflower and broccoli on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast the vegetables until the edges are slightly brown, but be careful not to burn. They should be a little crunchy. (Roasting the vegetables is important because it imparts a different flavor than just tossing them in the saute pan.)

Meanwhile, in a saute pan, brown the chicken, onions, peppers, garlic in a little olive oil.

Deglaze the pan with the chicken stock/broth.

Add the spices.

Add tomato sauce and let simmer until chicken is done and tender.

Add the roasted vegetables.

Turn the heat down and when it’s no longer piping hot, add the cream, stirring until silky smooth.

Goes well over rice, Israeli couscous, quinoia (is that how you spell that?)

Next time I make it, I’ll try to note the precise measurements.

tajmahalpeacockBack to our Taj Mahal experience…I noted how they provide live music on special occasions. I love that they want to elevate the dining experience in this way, but sometimes I feel like telling the owners they should get a better musician. Oh, it’s not that the fellow they use can’t play. It’s just that what he plays is hardly better than piped-in music. And he seems to take a lot of breaks!

If you’re ever in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, craving Indian food, stop by this establishment.

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