Anticipating Otherness

By a stroke of good fortune (otherwise known as my 80 year-old grandmother flying business class and getting us in), I am currently tapping away surrounded by the atmosphere of hushed luxury that attends to the King David Lounge in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv.

I am about to board a flight for Mumbai, India, and from there to catch a domestic flight going north to Jaipur in Rajasthan. Once there, I will begin an intensive 4 or 5 days of literary activities taking place from dawn till dusk at the ‘democratic’ and colossal Jaipur Literature Festival. Along with up to 11,000 other people per day (the festival estimates it will have about 60,000 attendees in total), I will be privileged enough to hear international writers like Lionel Shriver, Ariel Dorfman, Michael Ondaatje and Tom Stoppard, have the opportunity to ogle Oprah, as well as meeting some of the best of local Indian talent, among them the distinguished and charismatic writer Navtej Sarna, who isn’t strictly local as he’s also currently the Indian Ambassador to Israel.

Right now though, all that remains in glorious, anticipatory obscurity. I’m expecting it all to be great, but I have no experience to compare it to, and truthfully, I could be listening to these writers anywhere. Instead, what’s really occupying my mind at this wonderfully relaxed moment of lounge transit where no one can touch me because I’m already, officially, traveling – is India.

It’s one of those places that everybody who goes to immediately falls in love with. Everyone seems to discover their inner, laid-back selves and instantly becomes convinced they could happily live on dahl and inner peace for the rest of their lives. “The colours!” they almost moan, “you’ve never seen anything like it”.

I have a secret confession. I’ve been to India before, and I didn’t love it. I liked it, sure, but most of the time I was too busy worrying about what all the rice and poppadums were going to do to my figure to have time to be taking it all in. I suspect I did India entirely the wrong way, with my father, sister and grand parents, with the whole trip planned from start to finish, from luxury hotel to hotel. I shouldn’t complain of course, but between my younger frame of mind and all the shining marble lobbies I doubt I quite connected correctly.

Still, I sometimes worry that I lack that gene, the travel one, that everyone my age seems to have as dominant instead of recessive allele. I just don’t feel that itch, that restlessness that sits in the skin and flares up sometimes to result in tickets booked and stunning Facebook pictures uploaded.

Yet, here I am, waiting to board a flight to one of the most exotic, exciting and enticingly multifaceted countries in the world. So I am anticipating otherness, and quite thrilled to be doing so. I fell into this visit, with no vaunted expectations of doing a ‘big trip’ beyond attending what looks like one of the coolest literary events of the calendar. But I have a feeling I might be going to fall in love with India after all, and perhaps you can expect upcoming blog posts about dahl and spiritual enlightenment from me too.

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Whipped Into Submission

And now, to make a move a little far beyond my usual purview – I turn to cooking.

Last year I decided cooking would become my thing. In a sort of Julie/Julia kind of way, I took on the challenge of, well, actually cooking anything at all. Despite it being the cause for many another kind of problem, being unmarried, I thought to myself, should not prevent me from learning how to cook for other people. I will say here and now that cooking for myself interests me not in the slightest. The idea of preparing for ages only to scoff my creation down in a few minutes is entirely unappealing and really quite frustrating to think of. This may explain my slightly esoteric personal diet….

Still, as someone has said to me – it turns out – I make a really great event cook.

I am perfectly happy to get utterly flustered, blustering about the kitchen rushing to prepare stuffed onions (a four hour vigil by the side of the hob), frantically stabbing at ground mince meat so that it doesn’t stick together while it’s browning – I’ve even learned to take a sort of perverse pleasure in my hardcore cleaning of raw poultry. All for the incomparable pleasure of watching other people eat my food and enjoy it.

Mistake me not – this is not some kind of alimentary selflessness that has suddenly reared its head after years of fighting tooth and nail for my own food at the table of my, considerably less culinary, mother – no, this is the supremely self-satisfying action of a prideful amateur cook who secretly believes she is the next Nigella Lawson. The only thing standing between me and her 40+ gourmet loveliness is half a lifetime, some bigger boobs and a good blow dry.

Still – back on topic.

After a successfully moist turkey or two (just bake in a roasting bag and drown in marinade for at least 20 hours before), a rich chilli, crusty breaded chicken, the aforementioned onions and my own invented dessert (read: add peanut butter in large quantities to any other recipe for baked goods), I was feeling pretty damn pleased with myself. I would putter about in the kitchen to the Chocolat score by Rachel Portman (what could be more appropriate) and gradually feel more and more invincible. Obviously a fall was nigh.

Chocolate mousse has long been one of my favorite foods. I am a sweet-tooth kind of girl, and clearly I cottoned on to the natural antioxidants in 70% chocolate pretty early on in life. In my hubris, I decided not only would I make chocolate mousse, but I would do it without an electric whisk.

For anyone who’s tried, and anyone who hasn’t, making chocolate mousse is like alchemy. The eggs must be separated perfectly. Then the chocolate must be melted and the egg yolks added but not too soon that the heat of the chocolate cooks them, nor too late that the chocolate has begun to harden. All this I just about managed to pull off, with only a couple of snags. No sweat. It was only as the chocolate was out of the precarious bain-marie I had constructed that I turned to the egg whites, and then realized my mistake. The chocolate needed to be folded in toot-sweet, and the egg whites were still disconcertingly liquid.

With gusto, and the added incentive of panic at the hardening chocolate, I began to whisk. And whisk. And continue to whisk. And still the egg whites were not nearly approaching meringue stiffness. I, in sympathy with them, was wilting with exhaustion. My arm hurt, and I was advised by a very kind roomate calling out instructions from her computer screen that I must UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES stop for even ONE MOMENT.

By the time the whites started responding to my tough love, I was closer to being whipped into submission than they were. But I soldiered on and was rewarded by a puffy cloud at least 4 times the size of the original liquid.

I won’t bore you with the details of the folding – another important part of the process that you have to get right if you want real fluffiness in your mousse, but suffice it to say that 3 hours of setting later the mousse tasted of perfection.

The point here is not to toot my own horn (although I’ve enjoyed that). It’s appreciating the quite simple fact that cooking rewards endeavour, in a very real, physical and often delicious way.

When I cook, I don’t labour trying to decide what to do – that part’s already been done for me. All my effort goes into making a formula a reality, and generally speaking, its not only a relief not to have to think for myself, but exceedingly reassuring to be almost certain that if I add flour to butter and then slosh in some milk, with a lot of hand whisking and a dash of faith – bechamel sauce will, indeed, appear.

Who Is King?

This week saw the fifth in a series of meetings at work with a marketing guru/consultant. It’s been quite an education. Mostly because I had to learn marketing jargon and all those endless catchphrase buzzwords in Hebrew instead of English. He has been attempting to help us become a more ‘effective’ book publishing ‘team’, giving us ‘tools’ to improve the ‘statistical outputs’ of our discussions on what to translate or what not to.

But the most interesting thing he said he left till the last few minutes of the last meeting. He rightly pointed out that what causes people to listen to a particular radio station is not necessarily a specific song or artist, rather the radio DJ. It is the promise of the DJ or the station’s taste and judgement that prompts people to listen to this or that station.

Similarly, he argues, when people walk into a bookshop they should be able to choose a book based on its publishing house, or the fact that it is the favorite book of one of their favorite authors, or because it belongs to a particular series based on a genre or literary style that they enjoy. He proposed making a brand out of a publishing house, so that people will buy a book based on its derivation from a particular publisher irrespective of its content. The bookbuyer trusts the judgement of the publishing house.

This was met with widespread skepticism. “Nobody pays attention to the publisher” they cried, or “we don’t have a particular genre interest, our lists are too varied to be effectively branded into one ‘identity'”. As I’m sure some of you are already working out, there are clear, if not easy solutions to follow in order to solve these problems.

But why is what he said so clever? Because as our dear guru explained, banking on a book or an author to sell itself (even with all the help of marketing), is essentially a passive action. You didn’t write the book, and you’re not the author, therefore you are trapped in the role of being a mediator of content instead of a creator of it.

The minute you accept that you have something more to give as a major publishing house, that the combined intellectual property of the minds at your disposal constitutes a creative force in and of itself (instead of just an editorial one), is the moment you take back control of the market.

Simply put – we were being called upon to add value.

Now, value can manifest as various different things, and this brings me to my title. In a world increasingly flooded not just with writers who are getting publishing deals, but with authors who are self-publishing, and where anyone with a computer and the internet can become a content-creator all by themselves, what kind of value will be truly appreciated?

In the flood, the man in the ark is king. The person who can help other people navigate a tumultuous and chaotic sea is the one who holds a power of real value.

A lot of people say that these days, content is king. I would hazard that, going forward, infrastructure will be king. The ability to generate lists of recommendation, to associate books to larger narratives (the 10 books that inspired bestselling writer ‘X’, for example), to make a publishing house into a brand with a specific identity that people recognize and trust (as with Virago), in short, to draw lines of delineation and definition in the endless sand of digital content – the person or the company with that skill, will be king.

Best Of The Best

I’ll admit, I’m one day late (or maybe even a couple of days late) to be presenting anyone with the best of the ‘best of 2011’ lists, but I’ll do it anyway for those of you, like me, still catching up to the fact that we’ve entered another year.

So, in no particular order and without revealing my collating strategies, here are some of the notable books of 2011, drawn from lists as diverse (but not limited to) Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Goodreads, BookPage and The Guardian.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht
1Q84 – Haruki Murakami
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick Dewitt
The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Stephen King 11/22/63
Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

Pitting myself against these list picks produces interesting results. I read The Marriage Plot and really didn’t like it; though I’ll concede Eugenides can write a pretty sentence and often touch upon authentic sentiment, I found the book unwieldy, rambling and frankly, a little pointless. The reason I should find this so damning is that Eugenides could have written the book of my generation, those graduating from college into a tough economic climate where it’s much more common to stay ‘lost’ and ‘unsure’ and to take multiple gap years than it is to settle down to marriage or buckle down to work (or buckle down to marriage and settle down to work – whichever sounds most true to you…). Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Eugenides to give me an answer to the existential questions permeating post-grad life, but to be honest, it would have been nice.

The Night Circus
is absolutely on my list. I am relishing the prospect of reading something that sounds like a perfect melding of Romeo and Juliet and Harry Potter, and I find myself recommending the book to friends without having read it myself. Best of all, it’s been characterized as a ‘literary/fantasy’ text, and the combination of those two would be enough to have me hopping to an overpriced bookstore if I didn’t already own an e-copy.

The Language of Flowers will always remain a favorite of mine. It’s not that the book necessarily stays with you in some dramatic, life-altering kind of way. Rather, I was impressed with this book because it could have been kitschy and sentimental and it never, for a moment, was. Plus, the language of flowers gimmick was absolute genius, and I commend Diffenbaugh for having managed to marry it to such emotionally deep and complex subject matter.

State of Wonder was another book I didn’t like and the lists did. I just couldn’t connect to the protagonist, and the whole thing felt rather removed from our world in the way fantasy usually works – but in this case to the detriment of the novel instead of it’s benefit. I’ll admit though, Patchett’s exploration of the future of female fertility was fascinating.

I’m tempted to sign off and stop rambling, but I can’t without saying a word about Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers. An absolute find of a book. Cowboy noir is not my thing, but Dewitt has crafted a text that (so I hear), plays with generic convention at every turn, and finishes by offering something anyone can enjoy. His narrator, Eli, is funny and strangely adorable, in the way that poisonous snakes can be.

If I were to squeeze another book rec. in there, it would probably be Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which really is as special as they say it is, but I have the sense that book will do the work of continuing to be a sensation all on it’s own…

Happy New Year everyone! and happy reading…