Love for the Plague

16 04 2013

Yes, I’ve been offline for some time — blame a hectic job, a move, getting my stuff out of storage, volunteering at animal control, getting back to the gym on a regular basis, adopting a cat and not having the interwebz at home. But I’m dashing off this post because I’ve just heard that Plaguewalker, my gritty little novel about fun things like death, executioners, death, plague and, oh, some death, has been named a finalist for this year’s Midwest Book Awards. Huzzah! The winners won’t be announced until May, but it’s exciting to know that the judges felt the book worthy of making the cut. Thanks to everyone who has supported Plaguewalker. And stay tuned for more news about The War’s End, coming soon!





A Day In The Big D

28 11 2012

Driving back to Wisconsin after several days out East visiting my mom, I realized hey, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Detroit. It’s probably the only major American city I haven’t seen.

Well. Let’s change that.

Armed with suggestions from my Icepeep (and Detroit native) Brian as well as a few other friends, I tried to cram as much sight-seeing as I could into a single full day.

Unfortunately, my first stop was the zoo.

Let the three-hour delay begin.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about spending a good chunk of the day at the Detroit Zoo. It was great. It was in the 30s and had snowed a little overnight, and I think I was one of about ten visitors in the whole place.

You’ve heard of gorillas in the mist? I give you flamingos in the snow.

A lot of the warmer climate animals were off-display, but that was okay. In animal appreciation, much as in other areas of my life, I’m an upper latitude kind of girl.

The big draw for me was what’s billed as the largest polar bear zoo habitat in the world. It’s right next to the seal exhibit, and the two share an underwater “Arctic Tube” through which visitors can walk and observe the animals in the water. (To clarify, though both habitats are viewable from the same tunnel, they are separated from each other to avoid what would be rather bloody interspecies interaction.)

I was a little worried about this harp seal, who was just hanging out by an air vent, until the docent explained that he was blind, as were the other seals in the exhibit, all of them rescues (it did seem the Detroit zoo had more rescued animals than most), and he just seemed to really enjoy the sensation of the air vent, spending most of his time there every day. “It must feel like he’s swimming really fast,” noted the docent, which struck me as bittersweet.

I am pleased to report that, unlike my adventure in an underwater Antarctic tube, the Arctic tube did not involve major embarrassment and an unintentionally lengthy stay.

There seemed to be two docents per visitor at the zoo the morning I visited, and every one of them was extremely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. It was kind of cool, but also a bit more social than I had foreseen. They would just materialize out of nowhere and start telling me Nuka the polar bear was celebrating his eighth birthday and had received eight loaves of bread but the other male polar bear, Akila, who was 19 and sterile due to a congenital defect, had only been given one loaf of bread because he was gluten-intolerant and…

Oh-kay, let’s switch to decaf, buddy.

Da Bears. The one on the left is sterile and gluten-intolerant. The one on the right just turned eight. In case you were wondering.

The volunteer docents were all so earnest and nice that I couldn’t be surly about it. Little did I know it was a hint of what was to come.

I spent a good chunk of time watching Nuka the birthday boy playing in his private pool, the one that cannot, alas, be viewed from the tube. He had a large floating disk the size of a manhole cover that he liked to throw into the water and then jump in after it and try to submerge it.

Nuka in action.

When not trying to drown his manhole cover, Nuka appeared to be working on his synchronized swimming routine. It was ridiculously adorable.

Nuka with his favorite toy.

Have I mentioned how much I love polar bears? (Or also that the polar bear is my triathlon totem animal because, like me, they excel at and enjoy swimming in cold water, on land they have good endurance and are capable of very short bursts of speed but it ain’t pretty and, well, the word that comes to mind when cycling is “ungainly.”)

On a tip from one of the docents, even though “The Giraffe Experience” was closed due to the cold weather, there was an unmarked but perfectly legit back door into their house, so I got to see two young giraffes courting. The girl giraffe is just over a year, I believe, but the male turned five this week and was simply enormous, the largest giraffe I’ve ever seen.

Young Giraffe Love

After leaving the zoo, I drove down Woodward Ave., one of the main drags of Detroit. Of course, when all you’ve heard about Detroit is what a blighted wasteland it is, you kind of, well, expect to see blighted wasteland. And there were certainly stretches of abandoned buildings or ramshackle nail salon/liquor store/cash advance/thrift shop strip malls, but I didn’t see squalor and never felt in danger.

The birds and the (gluten-intolerant) bear.

By the time I arrived at DIA, the city’s big art museum, I was feeling like reports of Detroit’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a nice city. Great zoo, fantastic museum…I set off on foot from DIA to check out a couple places Brian had recommended, Avalon Bakery (tasty organic fare) and the Traffic Jam and Snug, a bit of a pub with its own on-site brewery, dairy and bakery. I opted for a slice of mushroom duxelle focaccia at the former and a pint of Oatmeal Stout at the latter. Neither were particularly to my taste but both were well-made and well-priced.

And the people…at DIA, the two folks staffing the desk (I had accidentally entered the “group admissions only” door but they didn’t mind) recommended a few other things to see and do and, like a few of the zoo docents, thanked me for visiting their city. At Avalon, despite a crowd, the woman at the counter had all the time in the world for me to place my order. At Traffic Jam, the bartender got out his laptop and looked up opening hours and directions for me without me even asking.

Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled that someone was visiting their city. It was charming and…a little creepy. Having grown up in and around New York and lived or visited some of the earth’s snobbiest, snottiest cities, I’m used to more confrontation, less patience, more disinterest, less engagement.

Hey, this place is great! I don’t see why everyone always dumps on Detroit. The people are nice, there’s lots to do…and…and…

Then I went in search of the Heidelberg Project.

The project was another of Brian’s recommendations, and it’s an interesting idea, encouraging people in one of the city’s tougher areas to use found materials to create art. Sadly, I didn’t take photos because by the time I found it, the light was fading and my camera’s memory card was full of polar bears, but you can get a sense of the place from their website.

I’m not sure which camp I fall into over the project. Is it art or is it an eyesore? A bit of both, I think, but, given its surroundings, it is, if nothing else, a sign of life.

Because, you see, I got lost on the way.

Look, a Detroit Tiger sleeping on the job…why am I not surprised? Something for my San Francisco readers.

Now, I have been in “bad” neighborhoods and I’ve been in “dangerous” neighborhoods all over the world. I’ve been in places where I felt all my senses go on high alert. I’ve been followed. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been afraid. I’ve had to resort to physically defending myself, once, in eastern Turkey, when a guy came out of a building and grabbed me (application of one’s elbow to the attacker’s diaphragm with extreme prejudice is an excellent way to convey “leave me alone” if you don’t happen to speak his language). So I figured whatever I’d see in Detroit I’d seen before and it wouldn’t rattle me.

I was wrong. Once you get away from the main drags, from the attractions, from the areas where businesses still thrive, there are huge swathes of the city that I wouldn’t call “bad” or “dangerous” as much as spooky. Sad. Tragic.

Which would you rather see, gutted ruins of a once-lovely neighborhood or adorable napping Arctic foxes? Yeah. I thought so.

Beautiful old homes now burnt-out shells, sitting alone in an otherwise empty block of tall grass. Or, somehow even sadder, a single home cared for and decorated, a Christmas tree in its window, sitting between two derelict ruins. I passed a block of houses that were still homes, but surrounded by acre after acre of overgrown bushes and trash.

I passed a few other cars on the roads, but mostly the streets and sidewalks were as deserted as the neighborhood.

It made me sad, and angry, and, well, incredulous. I felt like I was on the set for some zombie apocaylpse movie, only this disaster was real, and clearly didn’t happen overnight. As Theoden put it: “how did it come to this?”

If you want to see images of Detroit’s urban blight, go Google it. Here instead is an image of a rhino in snow.

I know I’m an outsider looking in, and maybe if I didn’t see so much potential in the city, if the people I met hadn’t been so genuine, I would think “well, whatever, it’s their business, not mine.” But because my experience up until then had been so positive it just vexed me more than I expected.

Look elsewhere for images of Sad Detroit. Here instead are some lemurs.

I drove around the Heidelberg Project and then headed out, on the recommendation of one of the DIA people, to the Ford House on the lake. It was closed already, but she’d suggested driving back along the lake and ogling at the houses.

Well.

I guess I was expecting Milwaukee’s stunning Lake Shore Drive, where one early 20th century house after another delights the eye with perfect proportions and not a line amiss, with only the occasional later and often ill-conceived monstrosity in the mix. But the lakefront communities of Grosse Pointe, well…no offense to any native Motor City types reading this, but damn, that’s a whole lot of ugly. Plenty of mid-to-late 20th century “statements” that would have been best left on the drafting table, mixed in with glorified McMansions or sandwiched between older houses apparently revamped with gaudy, misproportioned windows. Ick.

This Japanese snow monkey best expresses my mood after experiencing the juxtaposition of the Heidelberg Project with Grosse Pointe excess.

By the time I got back into downtown, it was dark. I got dinner at a small Greek restaurant–with the most delish vegetarian stuffed grape leaves–and stopped in at Ikea to pick up a catalog for when I have my own place again, one day. It will not be covered in weather-beaten stuffed animals like one of the Heidelberg houses. Nor will it be a Grosse Pointe monstrosity. And I am thankful for that.

I’d like to return to Detroit to see more of the sights. It has a lot to offer and it’s rare to be able to say every single person I met seemed to be decent. I’m rooting for you, Big D. I have no idea how to turn you around, but I hope it happens. You deserve it.

Indeed. Taken on the Interstate in Racine County, WI. I would just hope The Almighty has a better grasp of punctuation.





Eating The Big Apple

21 11 2012

Herein, dear reader, is a tale of obsession, fervor and a French man. But not obsession and fervor for a French man. Sorry, Jacques.

It’s also a post particularly for my many foodie friends.

Most of my audience (both of you) know that, in addition to ending up in places like Antarctica and New Zealand and writing fiction (and occasionally truth), I’m a trained pastry chef. I also am what I’d call a fuss-free foodie. I am interested in the process of making food, in flavors and experiences, in understanding what makes an item popular or a place successful. But I have a very low threshold for pretentious nonsense, gimmicks and, worst of all, crappy food marketed as the Second Coming.

Also, I really like macarons.

No, not macaroooons, the dreadful haystack of shredded coconut and sugar and egg white that is sometimes, adding insult to injury, dipped in chocolate.

Blech.

No, I mean macarons, also called French macarons to distinguish them from the aforementioned coconut-based abomination (which, as it happens, I like to call macaruins). A proper macaron—a little sandwich of two meringue-and-almond-flour cookies with ganache, preserves or buttercream in between—is a delight to look at, and feels like angels French-kissing you when eaten.

Macarons aren’t difficult to make, but do require a bit of attention to detail, several different processes and careful timing at various points, all of which, as your average borderline-OCD pastry chef, I love. They’re also a great canvas for both flavor and color. Though the chefs I worked with in New Zealand insisted on dumping gobs of food coloring into the meringue to make near-neon macarons (that tasted like food coloring—ugh), it’s possible to create a rainbow of hues with a more subtle hand.

And the flavors! Vanilla, pistachio, raspberry and chocolate are probably the most classic, but I’ve had peanut butter and jelly, creamsicle, green tea, lavender, rose, blood orange, black sesame and pandan, a slightly herbaceous flavor popular in East Asia, though I had it last year in Melbourne, a city that has gone mad for macarons (I approve).

As it happens, I’m currently in New Jersey for Thanksgiving with my mom, and today I decided to take the train into Manhattan to check on some pastry trends and sample the macaronmania that has gripped the City.

The day’s haul of Big Apple baked goods. By the way, I didn’t take photos at any of the places because: a) I think it’s kinda dorky; b) my camera, tiny though it is, did not fit in my tiny purse.

I was a little concerned about heading into New York. I get anxious in crowds, especially since living in Antarctica. I don’t freak out or anything, but I don’t enjoy it.

I had nothing to fear.

New York is home for me in a way no other place is. I feel at home in Antarctica, in most of England and New Zealand, and in southeastern Wisconsin. But in New York, a place I grew up around and lived in for four years, a sixth sense kicks in and I know where I am, where I’m going, how things work and, perhaps most importantly, where to find the nearest clean bathroom.

For example, the first place on my list, Sweet Revenge, was on Carmine Street, on the edge of SoHo. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to Carmine Street (it’s a sliver of a thing tucked between Seventh, Houston and Bleeker), but getting off at the Houston subway station I found myself choosing the least convenient exit because my brain told me “it made sense,” going up the stairs, crossing an intersection again feeling a strange pull and, ta-dah, finding myself at Carmine Street.

Sidenote: my sixth sense also kicks in London, a place I’ve never lived but adore, yearn for and love to visit, but no other city. Huh. I think I may need to conduct further research. In London.

Sweet Revenge

How could I not visit a place with such a delicious name? Sweet Revenge came up on a Google search for best New York desserts and is famous for pairing cupcakes with wine and beer. The friendly server told me “we’re famous for pairing our cupcakes with wine and beer” and I said “I’m famous for hating cupcakes.” ‘Nuff said about trying their signature. I will hold off on my cupcake rant (for the moment) to say it is also a charming mini-bistro with the cutest faucet in its (clean) bathroom sink. I’m just sayin’. If you ever need a clean bathroom on Carmine Street…

Service: Friendly and personable.

Size: about 20 seats crammed into a place not much larger than a living room with a shabby chic (in a good way) bistro feel.

Purchased: Tuscan savory “cake” (very muffin-esque) with house side salad and a latte, total with tip $18.

Crowd: Exclusively women during the weekday noon hour I visited, late 20s-40s, savvy but not hipsters drowning in their own irony.

The Package: I’m always thinking about how a place markets itself, what the website looks like, how they package product. I didn’t buy anything as takeaway here, but other than mixed font abuse on their website*, I think they do a great job of marketing. (*Yes, I fuss over fonts. Deal with it.)

Verdict: I thought it was just a bit pricey and can imagine it’s a nightmare when crowded, but the latte was top notch and I’d return to try a sandwich if I was in the neighborhood again.

Molly’s Cupcakes

Yes, I know, I know, I just admitted my deep hatred for cupcakes. I guess it would be more accurate to say I hate what cupcakes have become, this inexplicable (and apparently inexhaustible) trendy paragon of all that is allegedly awesome. I don’t mind a fresh cupcake made of plump, moist cake with a proper Italian or Swiss buttercream, natural colors and an obvious flavor. But I don’t understand why people go insane for flavorless, dry cake or confectioners-sugar-and-Crisco frosting, for garish colors that taste of grain alcohol and artifice, for just plain stupid flavor gimmicks and anything pronounced as “in” by self-appointed cupcake kings.

In fact, I put cupcakes in the same category as the Kardashians and that honey-boo-boo brat. That would be my “WTF?” category.

I went in to Molly’s Cupcakes out of curiosity because I passed it on the way to the next place on my list and wondered how the verdammte cupcake* business is going these days, especially in a primo spot in the Village.

(Good friend Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird, also mystified by the enduring allure of the cupcake, has suggested I open a bakery to give the people what they want…Verdammte Cupcakes, which basically translates as “Goddamned Cupcakes!” I may well do that one day.)

Service: Disinterested. The two 20-something girls stood there talking to each other about hair while I waited to see how long they’d go before noticing me right in front of them. Answer: about 30 seconds which, given the scant number of people wanting to buy their cupcakes, was an eternity.

Size: Large storefront that was almost empty at 12:30 on a weekday.

Purchased: nothing.

Crowd: A tourist family with little kids were the only other customers. They seemed happy.

The Package: The overall decor was sunny and fun, perhaps ironically so given the soul-crushing pain the cupcake trend has brought to many a pastry chef who wants to make creme brulee and japonaise and chiboust but is repeatedly asked “Hey, can you make them cupcakes I seen on that Food Network cupcake show where they gotta make a bunch of cupcakes? That show sure is funny!”

Verdict: I can’t comment on the taste since I didn’t try anything, but then nothing looked appetizing enough to try. A lot of the product looked old (the fruit garnishes looked limp and dry in particular) and I’ve been burned by too many verdammte cupcakes in the past to part with another four bucks for stale cake and crappy seven-minute frosting. Maybe they were fabulous. Maybe there’s a pair of skinny jeans out there that would flatter my keister.

Dessert Club, Chikalicious

Black sesame shortbread and macarons from the Chikalicious Dessert Club

Service: Hipster-y but fairly helpful.

Size: Shoebox-sized. I think I could have stretched my arms out and touched both side walls.

Purchased: Black sesame shortbread (allegedly chosen as “the best cookie in the US” by USA Today, that paragon of gastronomy) and macarons (strawberry, green tea and salted caramel), total $14.

Crowd: the only other customers, leaving as I entered, were very East Village hip and rather pleased about it.

The Package: Respectable but anonymous and slightly old-fashioned packaging for what I bought. Sadly the actual Chikalicious dessert bar was closed today (and maybe for good? I couldn’t find it and it’s supposed to be across the street from the dessert club) so I had to make due with the more casual shop, which was decidedly unglamorous.

Verdict: I haven’t tried the shortbread yet, but the macarons ranged from average to good. All of them were a bit overly chewy and had too much filling (it oozed out when bitten into). The salted caramel had good flavor but was stale. The strawberry was fresh and had okay flavor but did not move me to write sonnets to it or anything. The green tea was the best of the three, with good flavor and a nice fresh shell. Not disappointing, but unless the shortbread is to die for, I don’t think I’d go back. I think one reason there’s so much filling is because they seem to use the same shell for all the macarons (they were sold out of chocolate when I visited so I don’t know if that’s entirely true) and expect the filling to do all the flavorfying. And yes, I just used the pseudo-word “flavorfying.”

Update: I tried the sesame shortbread. It was okay, but nothing to gush about. I’ve had better black sesame cookies in Vegas.

Kiehl’s

Not a macaron destination, or even an eatery, Kiehl’s sells expensive skin and hair care and I’ve always been a little curious about it. Having used up the free Lush and Aveda moisturizer samples I had, I went in and got a recommendation, then asked for a sample. “We don’t really give samples. We’re not supposed to,” said the shopgirl. I thought of saying “I don’t really buy $60 a half-ounce moisturizer. I’m not supposed to, until I’m independently wealthy.” Instead I gave her my Puss in Boots big sad eyes. She made me a sample with enough that will last for a couple weeks, certainly until I’m back in Wisconsin and can hit up another Aveda store for another sample.

Because that’s how I roll.

(Full disclosure: when I find a skin care product I love, or even like, I pay the big bucks for it…just ask the folks at Sephora. But too many of the goos and gels and creams out there are unremarkable to make that kind of investment without a test drive.)

Update: I like the Rosa Arctica Lightweight Regeneration cream enough to buy it when the sample runs out or Santa buys it for me, whichever comes first. Yes, shameless, I know. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day–and it wasn’t built because the Romans sat around waiting for their slave laborers to feel motivated.

Panya

Service: Apparently, I had accidentally activated my cloaking device because I stood at the counter, the only customer doing so (everyone else was already sitting and eating), for more than a minute and was roundly ignored by all three unoccupied shopgirls, who leaned against the display, arms akimbo, looking at everything except the six-foot-tall woman directly in front of them.

Size: Only about a dozen seats but good space around them.

Purchased: Nothing. I might have bought a baked red bean bun, even though I prefer them steamed, but the service was so craptastic I decided to spend my money elsewhere.

Crowd: Everyone—staff and customers—was Japanese, in their 20s and a bit glum. It’s apparently a Japanese bakery chain. And, by the way, I’m not saying “everyone was Japanese” in a negative way, just saying that was the case, like the all-chick crowd at Sweet Revenge.

The Package: the place looked attractive and, at first glance, the packed case was full of inviting, perfectly golden brown baked goods, until you leaned a little closer and realized oh my god, that’s supposed to be a croissant!

Verdict: This is one of those Asian-French patisseries that has a bit of both with uncertain results. I can’t comment on the flavor because I didn’t buy anything, but their croissants frightened me. Monstrous, bear claw shaped things that bore no resemblance to a proper croissant. They also had Green Tea-ramisu which I was ready to mock until I realized almost every other place I went to had Green Tea-ramisu, which I can’t imagine being good. To me, a tasty tiramisu requires that play of bitter coffee and rich mascarpone, but most of the Green Tea-ramisus I encountered today seemed to be green tea mousse with vanilla sponge and white chocolate. That does not appeal to me.

Spot Dessert Bar

The score from Spot

Service: Relatively pleasant but harried despite the place being only half full.

Size: Small but not tiny basement location

Purchased: Macarons (passion fruit, Oreo, taro, green tea, rose and caramel), total $15.

Crowd: Everyone, servers included, looked to be college age. Those not absorbed in texting were rather boisterous.

The Package: I liked the little box she put my macarons in: sturdy with a cute slip cover with logo. Simple, useful, unique.

Verdict: I’ve only tried the passion fruit so far, which was correctly made but didn’t zing me silly. I had an amazing passion fruit macaron in Melbourne, against which I measure all others. This fell short, as did the place overall. It had more of a college feel than the swanky website suggests, and the noisy table of students that kept interrupting me to ask the shopgirl for one more of this and another of that were obnoxious. (The fact that she kept walking away from me to help them also irked me, though she seemed too frazzled to pick on too much.) Also, on a personal note, I don’t like basement eating establishments, especially in slightly dodgy neighborhoods. Unless the other macarons are fantastic, I wouldn’t go back to Spot. It’s another Asian fusion place, by the way, and yes, there was Green Tea-ramisu. If anyone ever makes a Green Tea-ramisu cupcake I may have to shoot that person in the head (with a spritz cookie gun, of course).

Update: The passion fruit turned out to be the best of the bunch. A couple were really stale, a couple others were really bland and the rose was way overdone–unlike a lot of people, I love rose as a flavor so if I cringe at the soapy taste, you know they’ve gone too far.

Momofuku Milk Bar

How to demolish a diet single-handedly. Thanksgiving croissant and Compost Cookies.

Service: very chatty and personable.

Size: postage stamp. You might be able to fit a queen size bed in the space, but definitely not a king.

Purchased: two Compost Cookies and a Thanksgiving croissant, total $10.

Crowd: Hipsters.

The Package: basic but cute and consistent.

Verdict: I had my doubts about this fabled foodie hipster place, which got crazy amounts of hype for its cereal milk (milk soaked in cold cereal. Yes, essentially, sweet milk. They came for it in the thousands and the sidewalk is still marked with “line starts here” arrows) and “crack pie.” The Compost Cookies were probably the day’s bargain, the size of my palm for less than two dollars, and I liked the salty-sweet taste a lot (enough to steal the idea and make it myself). They also had good, chewy texture. The Thanksgiving croissant was the day’s biggest surprise. I bought it because it sounded kind of ghastly—an entire holiday meal baked in a croissant—in a way that made me curious. It was delicious. The dough was a little soggy and heavy but full of sage and thyme and other “stuffing” herbs, and inside was a fat piece of turkey breast, cranberry sauce and something gravy-like that would explain the dough’s sogginess. Each bite was like an idealized Thanksgiving memory. Nice job. Though I can’t get past someone selling “cereal milk” for $5 a pint and someone else, many someones else, lining up to buy it.

So wrong it’s right. The Thanksgiving croissant.

Nordstrom Rack

A girl cannot live on macarons alone. She also needs shoes. After milling around Union Square’s holiday market for a while and finding nothing of interest, I stopped by Nordstrom Rack to try on Italian designer raincoats on clearance, reduced to a mere $300. I bought nothing. I just needed a break from thinking about food, and slithering into a sleek designer raincoat will give you that.

Laduree

Laduree booty…just look at that excessive use of filling in the rose petal macaron (fourth from right)! In the 1860s when the Laduree family started making macarons, that would be grounds for a flogging!

Laduree is to macaron fanatics what Mecca is to Muslims. Wait, let me offend a few other world religions. Laduree is an audience with the Pope for Catholics. It’s the Wailing Wall for Jews. It’s Nirvana for Buddhists, and I don’t mean the band.

Laduree claims to be the original French macaronier*, so revered and so protective of its reputation as the Platonic ideal of the macaron that they do not trust American hands or American egg whites or American almond flour to do justice to their recipes. I mean, mon dieux! Sacre bleu! Zut alors!

That exhausts my non-culinary French. Oh wait, here’s one more thing: merde.

Every day, macarons made in France by people Laduree trusts not to muck it up are flown to their New York store in, I imagine, a pale chartreuse Concorde kept in service solely for that purpose, or perhaps in baskets carried by flocks of faeries with fluttering, pale chartreuse wings.

(*By the way, yeah, I just made up that word. Just because it’s fake doesn’t mean it’s wrong.)

While all the other places I went to on this trip were in the Village, I had to go to the Upper East Side for Laduree’s tiny shop, done up in that classic French look of Versailles without quite so much gilt.

There was a line of Asian tourists and Upper East Side socialite-types and a couple women taller than I am, with zero body fat, fabulously shiny hair, perfect skin and smartphones apparently surgically attached to their heads, whom I suspect were models.

As the line shuffled along, I noticed one member of the staff was not a twenty-something wearing a tasteful sweater or black shirt and pencil skirt. He was tall and gray-haired and in a suit jacket, and looked like an older version of the French actor Vincent Cassel. I figured he was the guy in charge because he wasn’t doing anything, just looking around and fussing over the exact angle of a few display boxes.

He kept glancing at me and then turning his back. I worried that my Fuggs and bootcut jeans had branded me as someone not of the appropriate socio-economic class to be at Laduree, but, when I reached the front of the line and a young shopboy began to offer his help, the older guy turned around, smiled and said, in what I can only describe as a Pepe le Pew bedroom voice, “I ‘ave beeeen waiting for you.”

Uh, okay. Slightly creepy.

Sadly, despite my apparent animal magnetism being strong enough to lure him away from straightened boxes that needed re-straightening, I did not score any kind of discount and the final tally, including a couple very small but tastefully wrapped gifts, would have gotten me almost halfway to Paris.

As I was leaving, he came around the counter to hand me my coveted Laduree bag personally instead of passing it over the case like everyone else was doing. As he put it in my hands, he purred “I weeesh you a lovely night.”

I was tempted to tell him it would indeed be a lovely night, in my flannel pajamas (the red ones with a print of an elk drinking out of a beer keg), gorging on macarons and an entire Thanksgiving meal crammed into what passes for a croissant in America, but I remembered I’ve been trying to be more gracious so I just wished him the same.

He went back to straightening boxes.

Service: Surprisingly friendly for a (mostly) French staff, one member of which I suspect would have been willing to feed me the macarons as I reclined on a swooning couch had I asked.

Size: Just enough room for a large display case, tiny “gift” area and double line of macaronaphiles patiently salivating while waiting their turn.

Purchased: Macarons, of course (blood orange and ginger, pistachio, rose petal, cassis and violet, caramel with salted butter, lemon-lime, lime and basil, green apple, and orange blossom) as well as a couple holiday gifts that will remain unspoken until Santa delivers them, for a grand total perilously close to triple digits.

Crowd: Upper East Side elites and upper crust tourists. Let’s just say I was the only one wearing fake Uggs.

The Package: Are you kidding? They are the Tiffany’s of macaron packaging, from the hardshell cylindrical macaron cases with latches–latches!–to the color-coordinated slide shows on their website.

Verdict: Nothing can live up to that much hype, and Laduree did not, despite the charms of its senior staff. (Don’t get me wrong…I’ll still demolish them over the next couple days.) So far I’ve  had the orange blossom (classically sized and executed with a whiff of orange blossom. Probably the best made of all the ones I tried today but a little too subtle for my barbarian taste buds), the rose petal (overzealous application of filling but otherwise textbook classic rose macaron) and the blood orange and ginger (the right size and perfectly made, but tasted of orange, not blood orange, and no ginger). Now, blood orange, ginger and macarons are three of my favorite things in the universe (if they’d found a way to work “dinosaurs” in there, I might have wept) so I was crazy excited about this. But. Eh. Also, I noticed a number of the macarons in the case were cracked or a bit crushed, overfilled or with bubbles baked into the cookie tops. It’s not horrific, but, given Laduree’s mythic stature in the macaron world, I would have expected perfection.

Maybe the green-winged faeries bring the seconds and irregulars to America.

Update: I spoke (or typed) too soon. Those were some of the best macarons I’ve ever had, and I think the green apple was my favorite ever. Wonderful flavor with perfect tartness and no taste of chemical tomfoolery. The pistachio and the cassis and violet were also in my all-time top ten. Every single one was perfectly made, too, and fresh. Okay, as much as I hate hype, I’ve got to say Laduree comes closest to actually deserving it. Splendide!





Happy Halloween!

31 10 2012

It’s that most wonderful day of the year (second only to tomorrow, when Target has its post-Halloween clearance sale!). To celebrate, and to thank everyone who supported Plaguewalker, especially through the media blitz and area readings of the last week, here’s a ghost story I penned. Enjoy.

 

Everyone Knows

This really happened.

Ghost tale tellers are like fishermen and lawyers, always swearing their whopper is for real. But I can guarantee this story is true because I was the one running down a night-black gravel road in my pajamas, too scared to look over my shoulder.

I had a summer job in college as a public health intern in northern Canada. Part of my job was to take the coastal ferry from one tiny fishing village to the next, delivering stacks of pamphlets and posters reminding the locals not to drink and snowmobile, or to get their children vaccinated.

One evening, I arrived in a town large enough to have its own hospital. The staff was surprised to see me—there’d been a mix-up and no one was expecting me until the following week.

A gruff caretaker threw my bag in the back of his pick-up and said he’d take me to temporary housing for the night.

We bumped over dirt and gravel roads cut into moorland and through dark pine forests for several minutes, leaving the sparse lights of the town some distance behind us.

I was about to ask where he was taking me when we passed a radio tower looming over a low building. The sign on its brick façade—Royal Canadian Mounted Police—was reassuring.

A thinner gravel track, little more than two wheel ruts through overgrown grass, led from the back of the station toward the forest. We turned onto it.

Perhaps a half mile down the road, I saw a lonely mailbox with the number “5.” Beyond sat a white house. The curtains were pulled. The lights were off.

“We put the visiting doctors and dentists out here,” volunteered my reluctant chauffeur. “You’ll stay in the basement apartment. Nobody lives in the house no more.”

He watched as I struggled to get my backpack out of his truck bed, then waited just long enough for me to open a door at the side of the house and switch on the lights. I heard the wheels of his truck grumble over stones and uncut grass as I stared at narrow wooden steps leading down.

The apartment was sterile as a hospital ward. Everything was painted white. The walls were bare. There was, however, a box mix of macaroni and cheese in the pantry, a pot and a spoon. Soon I had a warm meal that reminded me of home, or at least of places that were more welcoming.

I read a bit and then settled into a twin bed in the corner room. I turned off the light.

It started.

Footsteps.

Heavy and shuffling, they walked from the bedroom door to a point above my head.

And then…

BAM! BAM! BAM!

The sound of something hard and blunt, wielded with force.

I turned on the light and sat up.

Silence.

Pipes banging in an old house. The wind. A curious raccoon. Could be anything.

I held my breath, listening. Satisfied it was nothing more than my imagination, I turned off the light.

Creak-creak-creak-creak.

The footsteps crossed the space above again.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

I switched on the light.

The noises stopped.

Surely I’d read too many scary books, seen too many slasher flicks. Alone in a remote location where I felt less than wanted, it was natural I would hear noises and assume the worst.

I would turn off the light, and I would hear nothing more than an old house settling for the night as wind smacked tree branches against its walls.

I turned off the light.

Silence shattered into footsteps, faster and angrier now it seemed. Then that dreadful banging.

Well, I had read a lot of scary books and seen a lot of slasher flicks and I realized at that moment I was the fool in the first act, the one who dismisses every portent of evil upstairs and ends up skewered, beheaded, boiled or shredded.

I turned on the light just to find my wallet and my boots.

The noise stopped, but terror already had consumed me. I bolted up the stairs, threw open the door, and ran.

I should tell you I am not much of a runner. I was the kid who dependably brought up the rear in gym class.

But that night, I ran.

I navigated the dark gravel road by the sound of my feet crunching on the crushed stone, imagining a thousand horrors advancing behind me.

I ran all the way to the Mounties and burst into the tiny reception area breathless and shaking.

A pair of them, seated at a shared desk, looked up with less surprise than one might expect when a wild-eyed woman in pajamas turns up after midnight.

I spilled the whole story. The footsteps. The banging.

The Mounties glanced at each other.

I expected them to cluck their tongues and dismiss me as a city girl scared by a raccoon.

“They shouldn’ta put you in Number Five,” one of them sighed. His calm sent a fresh chill through me, top to toes. “Everyone knows not to put a single woman there.”

“Come on, we’ll take you to the hospital so they can find another place for you.”

I asked why Number Five was no place for a single girl. They exchanged looks again.

“It’s just real remote,” one offered.

“Maybe it’s a raccoon. Maybe it’s trapped,” I suggested.

“Mmmm, we can check,” said the second Mountie.

I sat in the back of their patrol car as it crawled along the overgrown road. In its headlights, the house was bright white and dark-windowed. Dead as a skull.

“Come on, we’ll look for that raccoon,” said the first Mountie.

The door was closed but—as with most front doors for most houses in this part of the world—it was unlocked. The Mounties’ flashlights danced over one empty room after the next, the floor plan identical to the apartment below. The room above mine had been a bedroom too, once. Now it was nothing but peach walls and rust-colored shag carpeting.

“Nope, no raccoon,” said the second Mountie.

They escorted me to the basement, where I packed in seconds, and then drove me to the hospital.

“’Mornin’,” the first Mountie greeted the woman staffing emergency room reception. “Someone decided to put this young lady in Number Five for the night.”

She shook her head. “Well, it’s too late to move her. I’ll just find her a bed here.”

A few minutes later, I was alone again, in an empty room of the IC ward. When dawn came, I was up and dressed and ready to leave, but not before asking the receptionist why Number Five was off-limits for a woman traveling alone.

She replied that she’d arrange for someone to drive me to the coastal ferry, leaving in an hour.

I was embarrassing myself, I decided. It was my imagination after all, amplifying the dull thud of old plumbing and the rustle of wind. Running to the Mounties had been a moment of foolishness best forgotten.

So Number Five slid into the shadows of my memory. For a few weeks.

It was August. My internship was ending. The staff gathered for an extended coffee break to bid me farewell. Good-natured gossip blossomed into stories, and soon everyone was sharing a tale or two.

One nurse recalled a patient, a fisherman who mistook her exam room questions as amorous interest.

Most of us chuckled. My boss frowned.

“You never know where that sort of thing can go,” she said. “Remember that poor doctor up north.”

Staff who’d been around a few years nodded. Silence settled on our shoulders.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A very disturbed young man became obsessed with his psychiatrist,” my boss explained. “One night he broke into her house. Beat her to death in her own bed with a baseball bat.”

I was back in a hard twin bed, in the darkness, listening to angry footsteps above me and a terrible banging.

“They tried to put a couple nurses up in that house last year but they said ‘goodness, no!’” added our receptionist. She clucked her tongue.

I was running through darkness, my only guide the crunch of my own boots on gravel, running in my pajamas with my wallet in my hand and my heart in my throat.

“They should tear that place down,” added another nurse.

“What place?” I asked, though I already knew, the same way I’d known that night it was no raccoon, no pipes settling, no wind slapping branches against a house wall.

“House Number Five, of course,” said the receptionist. “Everyone knows.”

 

(Hey, this story, like everything else on this website, is my original work. To get specific, “Everyone Knows” is copyright 2012 Gemma Tarlach. So don’t be like the doofus who nicked my Antarctica photos and blog posts and tried to pass them off as his own. Write your own stories. Have your own adventures. Live your own life.)

 





The Next Big Thing, Week 17

30 10 2012

Usually, when someone invites me to get “tagged” and forwards something akin to a chain letter, I get disturbing images of being covered in graffiti and told something Very Bad Indeed will happen unless I send money.

So it was a nice surprise when fellow author Paul McComas invited me to take part in a global game of Author Tag, no cans of spray paint needed.

The idea behind The Next Big Thing game of Author Tag is not only for authors to share their upcoming projects, but for readers to find new fiction they might enjoy.

So here’s my moment of being “it.” Thanks to Paul for tagging me (check out his contribution here) and be sure to keep reading till the end to learn about other authors you might enjoy.

The Next Big Thing

Interviews with authors about their future projects

What is the working title of your book?

The War’s End

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Some years ago, when I was barely 20 and working in Germany, I took a bus to Prague for a weekend visit. The man seated next to me was an elderly, rather distinguished German, with military-straight posture. He was tall and slender and white-haired, with soul-withering blue eyes. His demeanor was aloof, to put it politely, and we spent the hours to Prague in strained silence.

When we arrived in the city, I glanced over and saw tears streaming down his face. I asked if he was okay. “I have not been here since the war,” he replied. I felt I was intruding on his grief, or maybe some other, equally intense emotion, so I said nothing more. He disappeared into the crowd shortly afterward. The next day, however, when it was time to board the bus again, there he was, this time smiling and animated and encouraging my terrible German, which seemed to repulse him the day before.

He deftly deflected questions about himself on the trip back to Munich, preferring instead to ask me about my visit and explain beer-making to me (hey, this is Germany, after all). But spending those hours with him, given his age–he must have been in his 30s during World War II–as well as his appearance and behavior, made me wonder what role he’d had in wartime Germany. Thanks to my overactive imagination, that led to me wondering, after the war is over and the main villain conquered, what happens to the rest of the bad guys? Where do they go? The War’s End is their story.

The War’s End is not, by the way, set in Germany or in the aftermath of World War II. I didn’t want to limit myself, or for readers to have preconceived ideas of heroes and villains, so I set it in a fantasy world that might best be described as medieval-ish. Or medievally. Whichever you prefer.

What genre/s does your book fall under?

Technically, it’s low fantasy, but I think that’s an insider term that’s meaningless to most people. It’s not a statement of quality but rather the amount of magic and other magicky elements in it. JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin write high fantasy. I, on the other hand, perhaps because I only have one middle initial and it is not “R,” write low fantasy. Superstition and perception rather than actual dragons, spells and other fantastical shenanigans are at the core of my story’s “magic,” because that’s what interests me as a writer. That and bad guys.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Sventevit, a career mercenary who has seen better days, will always be Sean Bean circa 2002-2005 to me. The other main character, a mysterious woman who is as troubled–and as vicious–as Sventevit, would best be cast as Angelina Jolie. Angie, baby, call me. And Sean…well. Don’t make me stalk you. Again. (Though I have to say, on the two occasions my friend and I stalked Mr. Bean, he was rather gracious about it.)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When the battles are over, the fight to survive begins.

Will your book be self-published, self-shopped to publishers, or represented by an agency?

The War’s End will be published by Grunaskhan Books, which published my first novel, Plaguewalker, earlier this year.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started in the early Cretaceous, so…no, really. I had the basic notion for the story back in 1990 but didn’t start writing until the characters began speaking to me in early 2002. I wrote it on and off, probably completing the first draft later that year, then pecking away at it here and there at revisions over the years, sometimes setting it aside for two or more years at a time. For me, writing the first draft of anything is dictated completely by when I hear the characters talking to me, and Sventevit took a few extended vacations over the years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s always a tough one, because sometimes I’ll see something in my writing that reminds me of something else, and a reader will say “what?!” or vice versa. I do think that The War’s End revisits a basic question I raised in Plaguewalker: how is character formed–particularly character one might consider villainous–and how, if at all, can it be changed? Also, as in Plaguewalker, there is a lot of walking in the cold. (I suspect because it’s where I, as a writer, hear my characters most clearly.)

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Although the man on the bus, to whom The War’s End is dedicated, inspired the original idea for the story, I think two very different catalysts actually got me writing it. The September 11 attacks and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq provided sharp and terrible reminders that one person’s hero is another’s villain, and that we as humans have an amazing capacity to put on blinders when it comes to committing atrocities against other humans. Watching the events unfold stirred that memory of sitting beside a man that I suspect had witnessed–and committed–horrible acts in wartime.

On a more personal note, I was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, and by September 2001 I’d had two surgeries, months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation. Throughout my cancer treatment, I felt I was at war with my own personal invader. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now I can see that, as treatment ended and I entered this new and uncertain world of being a “survivor,” I felt suddenly unfocused. I had mustered everything I had to fight an enemy, and the enemy was gone. It’s only been recently, while editing The War’s End, that I see my own feelings reflected in the characters’ sense of “well, now what do I do?”

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got more sex than Plaguewalker! (A few readers have mentioned their disappointment that Marcus, Plaguewalker‘s protagonist, wasn’t luckier with the ladies.) But seriously, I write the stories I want to read. And, while I enjoy character studies, I lose patience if nothing happens page after page after page. I’d like to think The War’s End combines the best elements of getting inside a character’s head with action, intrigue and humor.

Has your interest indeed been piqued? Watch this site, as well as The War’s End official home, for updates and sample chapters. And be sure to check out these authors, who’ve all agreed to take up The Next Big Thing baton:

Catherine Fitzpatrick, author of deliciously detailed American historical fiction

Rachel Waxman, new YA author whose debut is a page-turner

Ryanne Skalberg, tutu-wearing Iowa girl and Antarctic explorer with tons of stories to share

Thanks as always for reading!





The Most Important Thing I Did Today…

25 10 2012

Proudly wearing my “I voted early” sticker next to the wicked cool cameo my friend Z got me.

…was vote.

Yes, today marked my television debut on TMJ4′s The Morning Blend (live tv, no less…live morning tv, in fact), as well as the arrival of not one but two glowing reviews of Plaguewalker that made me turn Sin (the color of the blush they talked me into buying at Sephora. I now realize I don’t need to wear blush; I just need people to tell me constantly how wonderful the book is). If you haven’t seen the stories, check them out online at OnMilwaukee and the Shepherd Express.

(Big thanks to Kim, Molly, Tiffany and the rest of The Morning Blend crew, Bobby and Colleen at OnMilwaukee and Dave at the Shepherd Express, as well as Paul, for negating my need to apply powder blush.  I’ve been overwhelmed by how positive and encouraging the media has been about Plaguewalker. Returning to Milwaukee is coming home.)

Today may have been the height of the Plaguewalker media blitz, but the best moment of the day came when I completed my early voting ballot downtown (the second best moment of the day, I will admit, happened shortly before that, when I scored a sweet parking space right in front of the municipal building). It’s a privilege, people, and, maybe because I’ve lived and worked in places without any kind of democratic process, it means something to me.

Those of you who know me well are probably still stuck on that mention up top about being on tv, voluntarily, something I managed to avoid for more than a decade as a journalist. Yes, it’s true. As much as I would prefer to conduct publicity for Plaguewalker entirely from a remote (preferably subterranean) lair, I believe in the story enough to put on eyeliner and yak about it, and myself, in public.

I felt nauseous the entire time, but two things saved me from turning into a YouTube clip called “WOMAN VOMITS ON LIVE TV.”

Shaking and sure this would end in tears as I sat in the green room, I was lamely watching the show they had on the tv there. Maroon 5 came on–I am not a fan–and I was immediately taken back to the road trip my buddy Jeff and I took in New Zealand to go sea kayaking, when Jeff sang “Moves Like Jagger” in a perpetual loop for the sole purpose of annoying me (success!). Remembering that godawful song, how we nearly capsized the kayak miles from shore because we were trying to slop as much water as possible on each other while New Zealand fur seals swam all around us and looked at each other as if to say “what’s up with those two?” made me forget completely about my impending television debut.

When I was called to “get mic’ed” (okay, I admit, it is kind of cool to be told “we’re going to mic you now”), I discovered the segment before mine was a Well-Dressed Man fashion show, complete with rather fetching models. Well, hello.

By the time I sat down and chatted with Molly and Tiffany, I was totally oblivious to the cameras. Until about halfway through, when one of the presenters made a gesture and I followed it like a dog catching sight of a squirrel. I caught a glimpse of myself on the monitors.

EEK! I’m on tv! How the hell did that happen? Why?? Bring back those men! Bring back Maroon 5, fer crissakes, anything, anything other than my face on the screen! In the video you can see my eyes go wide and I lose my train of thought, but fortunately I asked myself WWMD? (What Would Marcus Do?) and recovered quickly.

By the way, I do not recommend adopting WWMD as a decision process. If you’ve read Plaguewalker, you’ll understand. And if you haven’t, well…here’s your chance. I’ll be reading from, talking about and signing copies of the novel 7 pm tomorrow (Friday the 26th) at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., and again 2 pm Saturday the 27th at Wauwatosa Public Library on 76th and North, where I’ll share billing with author Paul McComas.

After Saturday, the media blitz is blissfully over (for now…there are some other things in the pipeline) and I’ll be able to get back to editing The War’s End and a collection of short stories…and posting more about my trip to Norway, which quite frankly I enjoy writing about way more than myself!





The Plague Continues To Spread…

23 10 2012

…I love saying that, for all sorts of reasons. As I mentioned (promised? threatened?) yesterday, this is National International Intergalactic Plaguewalker week. Yesterday I had the honor of rambling about Marcus on Milwaukee Public Radio and today, online culturezine Third Coast Digest posted a Q&A with me.

Thanks to Tom, Dan and Jennifer over at Third Coast, and to Stephanie at Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect, for supporting Plaguewalker, and thanks to all of you who’ve read it. It’s a weird but wonderful thrill to be suddenly on the other side of shows and sites I’ve followed as a fan.

I’ve got some other exciting news in the works that I’ll be posting soon, as well as a Halloween treat, but I really hope I see a lot of you 7 pm Friday at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., or 2 pm Saturday at Wauwatosa Public Library (76th and North). In addition to doing a few dramatic readings, I’ll be talking about my travels (including my beloved Antarctica), Plaguewalker, and my next novel, The War’s End. I also plan to be wearing really cute shoes.








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