Monday, April 23, 2012

Catching Up: Authors, Books and Eatin' Out

I spent the end of last week at a writing conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.  The Festival of Faith and Writing is held every other April and since moving to the Upper Midwest eight years ago, I’ve made all but one of these conferences.  This year I was excited to once again hear Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and The Death of Adam) and was looking forward to meeting Debra Dean and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I learned about Dean’s book The Madonnas of Leningrad, from an interview on NPR.  I was intrigued with how she wove a story of Alzheimer’s and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I had just finished my round-the-world trip when I heard the interview (she was amazed I recalled this as she said the interview was so long ago) and I have been dealing with Alzheimer’s with my mom for the past seven years.  This morning I started reading a signed copy of The Madonnas.  Adichie’s book, Half a Yellow Sun, has been on my list to read for a couple of years.    I was also looking to see a few old acquaintances.  Paul Willis is a writer and poet from California whose work is steeped in nature.  I took him on a hike in a local preserve the morning before the conference began and was amazed at his knowledge of botany, and how he linked plants to Shakespeare (his dissertation was on Shakespeare use of nature).  Another is Craig Barnes, now a professor at a school I once attended and someone I’ve heard lecture several times before.  I pulled off the shelf one of my favorite books of his, Searching for Home, only to be shocked when trying to get him to sign it to learn that he had signed it at a conference out in Utah! That was a little embarrassing! 

I also was introduced to some new authors (or new to me).   Jonathan Safaan Foer, is a Jewish author, whose novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is set in New York City during the aftermath of 911.  It’s been added to my to-be-read pile.  Jana Reiss, a Mormon whose book Flunking Sainthood sounds like it is a hoot.  Adam Schuitema’s first book, Freshwater Boys is a collection of short stories by a Michigan author that also has promise.  Paul Willis also introduced me to Lohn Leax, a poet from Western New York and another lover of nature and I picked up a couple of his books.  Finally, if Susan Isaacs’ book, Angry Conversations with God A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir is half as funny as her presentation, it’ll be great.  Of course, having worked as a professional comedian gave her an edge over the other presenters.

One of the highlights of being in the “big city” for a few days is eating out.  Every night I ate at a difference restaurant.  Thursday night it was Indian, which was good.  I had saag-e-lamb (spinach and lamb).  Friday, I was by myself and decided to see what the Mongolian Grill was like.  I had been to such a restaurant in Ulan Bator, which was kind of a joke because it was suggested it was mostly a western knock off of Mongolian food.  In these restaurants, you pick out your meat and vegetables, sauces and spices and give them to a chef to cook on an over sized grill.  There were some notable differences.  In Mongolia, the chefs put on a real show, with knives flying through the air as flames rose from the grill.  The other difference was in the selection of meat.  In Mongolia, there was lamb, mutton, horse, goat and yak along with beef, pork and chicken.  Here, there was only beef, pork and chicken along with lots of seafood and duck.  I had duck.  I was disappointed I couldn’t wash my meal down with a bottle of Mongolian beer.  On Saturday, a friend and I ended up at Chez Olga, a Haitian restaurant recommended by his daughter.  It was wonderful!   I had goat ragu (The Mongolians didn’t have goat, but the Haitians did).  It was very tasty and just in case you’re wondering, “No, they didn’t use bottled Ragu.”   We’re both like it hot and our waitress asked how hot we wanted it on a scale of one to ten.  We picked eight.   Next time, I might back it off to a six, especially since we learned the cook (who’s Haitian) only eats his meals at seven and our waitress (also Haitian) doesn’t go over a five!  It would have been nice to have washed down the food with a beer, but they didn’t serve alcohol.  

Over all, it was a good three days.  I was so busy I didn't do any blogging!


  1. I hate ordering food on scales of hotness. One person's seven is another man's three! Never eaten Haitian but it would be on my list if I were near one. I've eaten at a Mongolian Grill though and I would review it about the same as you.

  2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a good book - I read it for one book club and lead the discussion at another. (I truly need to 86 the second book club because I am not getting enough time to read for pleasure anymore. Although I truly enjoyed reading Life of Pi.)

    Sounds like an excellent conference. I've enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's books, too. And I've read Susan Issac's novels, so I'll look for her book.

  3. What an awesome sounding trip! I have a cousin who lives in Grand Rapids, MI and it's amazing how so many exciting restaurants have opened up since my days in Michigan. I haven't read the book but saw the incredible movie (usually the book is always better) but this movie rocked! I just know you'll enjoy this book, and possibly see yourself, (in his creative sense) throughout this book. He's one truly gifted child! His relationship with his dad, who helped him conquer much (I don't want to spoil too much) get it read it and it's great to see you posting here! Take care!

  4. I enjoy conferences where you get to meet writers. I always end up buying their books and standing at the autograph table, then find them on Facebook and follow them like they were old friends. Writers in general are just a great group of people to hang out with.

    We could use some restaurants here where I live. There's plenty of Mexican and it's authentic, and a Thai restaurant I consider good. After that, it's drive 15 miles to the next town, where restaurants are plentiful, but finding a good one is still a challenge.

    Always enjoy your posts. Thanks.

  5. Sounds like an exciting and educational trip. I would've enjoyed sampling some of the funky foods you tried and although I like it spicy, I would've stopped at 5, like the waitress.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and taking us with you for the ride. I need to check in here regularly (I lost that feature on Blogger where I'd be informed when someone on my blogroll posts something new).

    Cheers, my friend!

  6. We have those literary festivals over here also. The one I know best if Cuirt. They make a bit of a fuss about it in Galway.
    Frankly, I'm of a few minds about the good of them. The number of authors that I'd liked that turned out to be utter gobshites on meeting, never to be lifted from a shelf again, far outweighed the ones I'd liked bought and read following the meeting.
    And can you imagine the work that went into making the life of the poet García Lorca boring. That takes serious talents.

  7. I have never been to one...or Mongolian grill either(something just seems wrong about a chain of restaurants trying to make the same food nationwide if it isn't American food.) If the Haitian food is that spicy I probably would have asked for milk instead of bear. Goat milk would've been fine.

  8. I do like exploring new cuisines. Lana and I have mostly checked out the various kinds offered in our area. I need to travel more.

  9. extremely a great book...and movie actually...what a cool experience too...would love to do that at times and get to meet other authors...

  10. I hate that "scale of hotness" thing. It brings out the worst of machismo and foody-ismo. Thanks to your post, I now know that the proper response is to ask the waitress what she eats and order one lower. You have done a service for all traveling diners.

  11. Glad you found my blog so I could come here and meet you too-

    Aloha from Waikiki
    Comfort Spiral

    > < } } (°>


  12. This brought back memories of a buddy in Dallas who is from England and a trained Botanist and Horticulturist. An interesting combination with literature, and food travel, Sage! All Best for your weekend!!!

  13. The "heat index" ratings definitely seem to vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant. So frequently "hot" really means "rather mild." But, oh, when it doesn't!