Monday, October 24, 2011

Let Me Call You Cupcake

I've been putting in a lot of hours at the computer lately, and talking about things I've learned as I work on the draft of my novel in this blog. Tonight, I want to talk about something sweet and fluffy: cupcakes.

Last year, my younger son was obsessed with baking shows on TV. Cake Boss was probably our favorite, but we also watched Ace of Cakes, Ultimate Cake-off, and, finally, Cupcake Wars. We learned decorating terms like fondant, isomalt,and modeling chocolate, and that you can create just about anything out of crisped rice treats. One of my favorite blogs is Cake Wrecks.

I like cupcakes. I grew up at a time when you only got cupcakes when someone had a birthday and their mom was extra nice and made something for the class. Not all moms did this when I was growing up, as opposed to now when every birthday comes complete with cupcakes for the class. So cupcakes are still something special to me.

Living in a large metropolitan area means I've gotten to benefit from the cupcake shop trend, and there are a few in San Francisco I like to visit.

My favorite is Teacake in Burlingame. Of all the shops I've been to, Teacake has the best combination of cake and frosting in terms of mouth feel and taste. Their flavors are a little limited - vanilla and chocolate with vanilla and chocolate buttercream and one or two special flavors each day. October has been great because they've featured a pumpkin cupcake and an apple crumb cupcake, both with cream cheese buttercream frosting. My spouse all likes Teacake because they do frosting shots of any flavor frosting you'd like. It's $1.00 and you get a generous amount of frosting served in the holder for a mini-cupcake. Kind of a sweet deal for someone who likes frosting a lot more than cake. And their frosting is really good. Not too sweet, not too heavy on the butter side of buttercream.

My next favorite is Cups and Cakes Bakery in San Francisco. These photos don't do justice to their amazing cupcakes, but pictured here are Pineapple Upside Down Cake and Pancake Breakfast. Their flavors are outrageous. Fauxstess, Boston Cream Pie, Rainbow Bright, Peanut Butter Cup, Rootbeer Float, need I go on? One thing I really love about Cups and Cakes is that almost all their featured flavors are available each day in regular and mini (not all flavors are available every day, but you can do special and custom orders. A friend of mine spied an order of Blue Velvet going out the door one time when she was there, and that's not a flavor they have on their menu). If there's one fault with these cupcakes, it's that the frosting is a bit on the sweet side. Still...I love the hot pink storefront and the fact that there's always parking on the street where they live.

Last up is Cako Bakery in Japantown. Cako's has some pretty awesome flavors. That's my younger son's favorite pictured - S'mores with toasted marshmallow frosting and graham cracker base. They also have a Blueberry Cheesecake, Cookies and Cream, Pink Lemonade, and 24 Karat, along with the more traditional flavors. My one complaint with Cako's is that their frosting is often too heavy on the butter side of buttercream leaving me with a mouthful of lightly flavored grease. This is especially true if you order one of the more traditional flavors where the cake isn't as sweet. With Cookies and Cream or some of their more exotic flavors, the cake is sweeter and makes up for the lack of sugar in the frosting. Still...the cake itself is probably the best of the three, and the extras like crushed cookies or graham crackers layered under the cake is phenomenal.

I've yet to hit a couple of the other Bay Area staples for cupcakes: Kara's Cupcakes and Susie Cakes, but I'm sure I'll get to them eventually.

And now, back to the novel...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shakespeare in Love or In Love with Shakespeare

Home-schooled Teen and I have begun our new school year together, and this year is all about Shakespeare. I'm excited since the last time I really looked at Shakespeare I was all of 21. Granted, it was during my study-abroad semester in London and we went to at least one Shakespeare play a week, many of them by the RSC, but I was 21 and not that widely nor deeply read as I am now.

Last year, HST and I read some of the foundational books of the Western canon - Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Inferno. This year, we are reading, more or less in order: Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar (with the addition of reading Plutarch's chapter on Caesar), Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Over the summer, we saw a production of Macbeth and read The Tempest (we were supposed to see a production of Tempest, but that's a whole different kettle of fish). My idea is to circle back to Shakespeare's final play so we can look at how he developed certain themes through his career.

I am excited about this year for a number of reasons. One, I really do love Shakespeare and often forget how much I love him until I pick up or see one of his plays. And then remember all over again how amazing a writer he is. Two, I am going to be teaching a class at Buena Vista University in Iowa this January about appropriation, and the Bard is a master appropriator. Having read the books we read last year, I find myself picking up on his references to the Aeneid in many of his plays. But he also used folktales, popular plays by other writers, gossip, Plutarch, Virgil and almost any other writer with whom the public might be familiar to recontextualize themes and characters who were well-known. Three, I find some of the themes he returns to fascinating. The public versus the private self. The roles people assume and what makes a king a king (I'm not a Shakespearean scholar, but I would almost guarantee that some of the very first seeds of the American Revolution were sown from Henry V and Shakespeare's musing on the idea that a king is just a man with good props). And, four, this time period in European history is incredible. The more I learn, the more fascinated I am with it. We may think our country is in turmoil right now, but it is nothing, NOTHING compared to 16th century Europe with the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestants, the rise of the moneyed merchant class, colonization of North America, a woman (WOMAN!) on the throne of England, and the rise of England as the dominant world power. The intrigue, the politics, the social upheaval. How could it not be the stuff of great stories?

So, HST and I have embarked. Our first stop on this voyage is Taming of the Shrew, probably one of the most controversial plays for contemporary audiences. One critic I read as I was preparing my study guide of HST talked about how, though the play is a farce, it can't be forgotten that Shakespeare was a man and how constrained women's roles were during this age. True. But I think it forgets that this is also the man who presents more nuanced roles for women in his other plays. Why would he have other female characters who have great strength and ask us, in this farce, to take Katherine at face value when she talks about the rightful domination of women by men? It's a difficult play for contemporary women to stomach, I agree. I saw a production that went the full nine yards of making Kate a victim of domestic violence. HST and I have just started, so I'll post again about some of the conclusions we come to, and I've paired Shrew up with Romeo and Juliet, so we have two looks at marriage in radically different plays that both, at their heart, turn on the idea of arranged marriage versus marriage for love.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Getting Near the End

I went away to a lovely little house on the Russian River last week so I could get some writing done, and ended up with forty-eight pages and 13,000 words, which means I'm about seventy pages from the end.

For the most part, the next seventy pages will be some of the easiest writing of the entire draft. I've got very few notes from my draft two read-through, which means I'm just typing, adding in some layering, some deeper understandings of the characters and the imagery of the novel that have developed during the writing of the third draft. With the exception of one sequence of scenes (which I've mapped out so thoroughly at this point), I won't be writing large chunks of new text. Although, I've said that before and found myself writing LOTS of new text in this draft. In a strange way, draft three is the same as the previous draft, and in some ways, it's radically different.

On Facebook, I'm inundating my friends with updates about how many pages I've written, and my frustrations with interruptions (I returned to a remodel in one of our neighbor's houses) and just fitting my life in when my mind is perpetually elsewhere. At this point, Altar is officially the longest thing I've ever written and the longest I've ever spent writing something. One of my friends asked me what I'm going to do after it's done, and I jokingly said, "Go to Disneyland." To which she replied, "That's not a bad idea." I know. I feel it starting already. Though there will be editing to do when (fingers crossed) the novel gets taken by an agent and bought by an editor, it will not occupy me in the same way the writing does. I will not live with my characters in the way I do now. For one thing, I will have moved on to the next project by the time that comes about, for another, I won't have to be living so deeply in the story.

So what does it feel like right now? Fluid. Very fluid. I feel a lightness, an ease not only in my mind, but in my body. I am smiling a lot these days. For the most part, small annoyances (like rude drivers) don't stick with me. I get cranky when I can't get to the words (like earlier this week - re-entry was rough with a long list of things that had piled up while I was away. I still haven't worked my way through all of it), I get cranky with my family when they ask to borrow my time for things that were completely avoidable (aka: when the kids call because they've forgotten something at home that they need for school ASAP), and I get cranky when the hammering starts up in the remodel and interrupts my flow of words.

I am posting word totals to Facebook because that is truly what is going on in my life right now. Words. On the page. The story flowing forward in such a beautiful and profound way it's almost like it's not even me writing it at times. It seems to come through me rather than from me. And that is when writing is at its best. There is a tension building as I write ever closer to the final words, as I write towards some of my favorite scenes in the entire book, as I envision myself staring at the computer screen and hearing the printer churn out page after page of the completed manuscript.

I think what surprises me most is how easy it has been to follow this story to this conclusive moment. Over the years, I've heard of writers who spend decades on a single novel and wondered how they could do that, how they could maintain the focus, how they could not drive themselves mad with all the other ideas they weren't getting to. The answer turns out to be that it's surprisingly simple when the idea, the characters, the way the story develops continues to surprise you, to delight you, to reward your attention by getting better and deeper. It hasn't been easy. I have put this story down many times. It started as a 25-page short story in 1999. It grew into a novella a couple of years later. Three years ago, it turned into a full-fledged novel, and here I am, at last, reaching out for the end.