Category Archives: Journalism

‘Dark’ thoughts in Jewish author’s angsty new novel

Jewish News, Phoenix, Ariz.
October 11, 2017

I began reading Nicole Krauss’ new novel, “Forest Dark,” with interest, especially because the hardback copy I picked up from the library had a blurb on the front cover from the author of one of my favorite books.

“A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration,” wrote Philip Roth.

Really? Who gets blurbed on the front cover by the author of “American Pastoral”?

It’s easy to see why once one gets inside this winding tale of dual protagonists, or should I say dueling protagonists, as their narratives hopscotch from one to the other without — what seems at first — any connection at all.

But a connection there is, an existential angst, a feeling of separation, disconnection from friends, families, history, the world.

The book opens with Jules Epstein consciously emptying out his world, selling off all of his truly prized possessions after a lifetime of acquiring them and reconfiguring his will as his collection of fine art and artifacts becomes smaller and smaller.

Then one day, after a high-level political event, someone takes his cashmere coat (by mistake?) from the coat room and leaves him in an ill-fitting cloth coat. Also gone is his phone, with its thousands of family photos, and a cherished book by an Israeli poet about a man alone facing God — a gift from his daughter.

He has been reduced to the specter of a homeless person, wandering without roots, without possessions, unmoored.

Is it just coincidence that his coat was switched by a Palestinian? One of

Mahmoud Abbas’ so-called “henchmen,” who he sees getting into a limo that “floated down Fifty-Eighth Street”?

The second chapter, “Out in the Blue,” opens with the second protagonist, Nicole, a troubled writer. Are we to believe it is Krauss, the author? Perhaps, but that is left ambiguous. This is a novel, after all.

Nicole is a writer in search of a novel, who, like Epstein, is experiencing an existential crisis, and flees New York and her family for Israel. Both escape to the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Within their narratives lie what seem like rambling blocks of flashbacks and interlacing anecdotes that touch on this angst — the questioning of life, existence, faith, reality and even the possibility of the multiverse introduced early on in one of Nicole’s chapters. In that chapter, she ponders string theory branes, cosmology, the Big Bang and “the theological ramifications of multiverse theories.”

In both narratives, the history and legacy of the characters’ Jewishness, their roots and religion, is pondered. As the book progresses, they both dodge and duck that identity the more it comes into play.

By about page 50, stark black-and-white photos are introduced that relate to the narrative, but they have no identifying text to place them solidly in it. They illustrate the text but also feel intrusive and foreboding.

In that sense, and also because there is buried in the narrative a sense of darkness and dread — a fear of the unknown or the unknowable built against a deep-set backdrop of the Holocaust — the book began to remind me in many ways of W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz.” That novel also has an unidentified narrator (Sebald himself?) who relates the story of an enigmatic man who the narrator runs into again and again over a period of decades and relates the story of his life.

Austerlitz was, as a boy, rescued from the Holocaust via the Kindertransport. Part of the mystery of the story is his finally unraveling this past.

Krauss’ use of images gives the book a similar feel, although the images in “Forest Dark” are of only two buildings key to the story: the Tel Aviv Hilton and an apartment that holds the disputed papers of Franz Kafka, himself a writer of existential angst who figures prominently in Nicole’s odyssey.

During his journey, Epstein meets Menachem Klausner, a rabbi who

influences his path, while Nicole’s path takes a turn when she encounters Eliezer Friedman. Both instances spin the narrative out into somewhat mystical storylines where, inevitably, the two seek guidance. In the absence of concrete answers, only open-ended mystery remains, in which they both find a sort of understanding or inner peace.

Tolstoy once said there are only two plots in fiction: A stranger comes to town and someone goes on a journey.

Krauss seems to have combined the two universal plotlines, as both Epstein and Nicole go on a journey to and within Israel. And in both of their narratives a stranger comes to town, intersects with their lives and influences their respective paths forward.

I was also reminded of the tagline of the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” wherein Dorothy goes on a journey and meets four strangers who influence her path of self-discovery: “There’s no place like home.” But where is home — a word that Nicole breaks down lexicographically early on in the book?

While Epstein and Nicole seek answers to their respective crises, their stories touch on and echo each other’s, with recurring themes about literature, language, the sea, the desert, birds, loss and recovery, Israel,

Zionism and, of course, forests, as well as what it means to be Jewish.

The novel is a wonder of interwoven themes, thoughts, anecdotes, people and places, all of which combine into a richly colored fabric that, like a hammock, supports the story of two people trying to navigate the dark forest of the self.

Susan C. Ingram is a staff writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.


Fight or Flight? I can’t make up my mind

feminism_symbolI am a bleeding heart liberal. So sue me. I grew up with the Vietnam War and civil rights protests on the nightly news. I marched on Washington in the 1970s with my mother to support the ERA and attended a truly integrated high school where we got along for the most part and I went to the senior prom with a black friend. Which, according to another friend, “shocked the shit out of everybody.” Who knew? I didn’t notice. I was having a great time with a great guy.

Over the years, I have nurtured my left-wing righteous indignation by walking picket lines as a Hollywood camera assistant in the 1980s, and marching on Washington, again, in the 1990s in a NOW pro-choice rally. As a community reporter in the 2000s I worked at a newspaper that kept issues such as poverty and homelessness, AIDS and healthcare disparities in front of suburban readers. Last year, I attended a unity rally in front of Baltimore’s City Hall following the Freddie Gray unrest. And over the years I supported homeless shelters and food banks and other charities with money and donations.

But lately, besides keeping up what little charity I can afford and sounding off on Facebook and Twitter and on this blog, I feel like my righteous indignation is in need of more righteous action to back up my big mouth.

gasmaskBut since the election of DJT,avengers2 I have vacillated between 1.) shopping for gas masks on amazon and trolling Twitter hashtags to find an angry protest to join and 2.) not giving a fuck about anything and binge watching “The Avengers.”

I try to live my values every day, but lately that righteous indignation and anger feels like a lot of hot air from my hot head that doesn’t make any difference at all. I suppose that’s called apathy, something that throughout my life I have disdained and tried hard not to succumb to.

This morning, as is usual on Saturday mornings in my Randallstown neighborhood, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking. I don’t mind answering the door and talking to them, and I always do – although they seem particularly adept at catching me in the middle of breakfast when I’m still in my nightclothes. This morning a very earnest, tall young man of about 13 or so was at the door, holding a pamphlet and asking, “Can the dead really live again?” I didn’t answer his question, and told him Miss Peggy always comes and drops the magazines off to me, but that I’d take his pamphlet. I’m writing a novel right now (or trying to in my apathetic state) that has dead people in it, so the question interests me. I bid them a good day, and closed the door.

Inside the pamphlet was the Bible quote, “There is going to be a resurrection” (Acts 24:15 New World Translation). And I thought of all the people out there, like me. Bleeding heart liberals (go ahead, laugh if you want to) who have spent their lives trying to stand up against injustice and inequality and unfairness and hate, who are feeling kind of dead inside right now. Who see a rise in hate crimes and the specter of the KKK emerging from the shadows – while billionaire businessmen, women who support privatizing public education and xenophobes fill DJT’s cabinet – and wonder what the fuck? Nothing I have done in my life made any difference. So, what’s the point of fighting anymore?

But, being the battered optimist that I am (as well as one who ascribes to no religion) I am taking that quote, “There is going to be a resurrection,” as a fortune-cookie, hopeful moment, and am going to try to believe that all of those things I believe in and that I thought this country was moving toward will rise up, will be resurrected in the hearts and minds of people and that living those values of justice, equality, fairness and humanism do make a difference. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for a protest to join. Even though I may need to grab my Avengers DVDs and retreat from time to time…

 woman_of_the_apocalypse_hortus_deliciarum“And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”  

(Revelation 12:14 – King James Version)

Let down, or left out? Try these post-election leftovers

Cheer up! Campaign promises already breaking

Feeling let down or left out after the election? While putting together some delicious Cauliflower Parmesan Spinach Crepes from this week’s leftovers, I found I am feeling better about things this morning.

Within 48 hours of the election, the president elect is already backing off on a number of his main campaign promises. Destroy Obamacare? Oh, let’s keep some of it. Appoint a special prosecutor to indict Hillary? Oh, I’m not thinking about that too much. Drain the D.C. swamp? Oh, I think I’ll fill my team with political insiders like Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and the head of the RNC. Kick out all undocumented immigrants? Oh, maybe just a few. How long will his supporters remain his supporters as he moves from far right to center? From rabid autocrat to a soft-centered negotiator? Maybe we’ll see them joining the anti-Trump protests as a few more promises evaporate.

As conservative NYT columnist David Brooks opined this week:

“Trump’s main problem in governing is not going to be some fascistic ideology; his main problem is going to be his own attention span, ignorance and incompetence. If he’s left to bloviate while others are left to run the country and push through infrastructure plans, maybe things won’t be disastrous…Trump’s bigotry, dishonesty and promise-breaking will have to be denounced. We can’t go morally numb. But he needs to be replaced with a program that addresses the problems that fueled his ascent.

After all, the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think.”

Oh, YIPPIE! So, in the spirit of turning around those feelings of being let down or left out – try these delicious crepes made from leftovers.

win_20161107_18_14_55_proI used leftover Cauliflower Parmesan that I made this week from a NYT recipe.  But you can use any kind of leftovers to fill your crepes.

This morning I made the crepes from a simple Better Homes and Gadens New Cook Book recipe in my recent blog post, First-time Crepes and Halloween Treats.

As the first crepe was about finished browning in the pan, I sprinkled a little shredded Mozzarella cheese over it and let that melt. At the same time, I was reheating my Cauliflower Parmesan and a handful or two of fresh spinach on a plate in the microwave. After sliding the crepe onto a warmed plate, I scooped a couple tablespoons of the hot Cauliflower Parmesan and the wilted spinach into the center of the crepe and rolled it up. Quickly I made another crepe and repeated with the hot fillings. For dessert, make another set of crepes and fill with your favorite flavors such as Nutella, berries, or as I did in my Halloween blog – melted Reese’s chocolate-peanut butter cups. And the crepes are also great plain, just sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

win_20161112_09_11_42_proMmmm. Comfort food for uncomfortable times.

Chow for Now!

Thinking, Cooking, Writing and Fear


Learning from my creative cooking process to benefit my creative writing process

If you’ve ever wondered why my blog and Twitter handle is Newzcook, it’s because I started this blog when I was an underpaid/overworked community newspaper reporter who loved journalism and cooking on the cheap. The original full blog title was Newzcook: sharp talk/cheap meals.

I think a lot when I cook, and often find metaphors and life lessons in the cooking process. I wrote a paper when I was a grad student about making chocolate Easter eggs and working out the meanings of pieces I was studying. My writing teacher called the paper original because I worked things out while talking about my process.

This morning, while trying to figure out what to make for breakfast with no eggs, bread, tortillas, cheese, or milk in the house, I realized how long I considered what I had on hand (including fresh tomatoes, leftover prosciutto, canned vegetables, scone mix, dried cranberries, and oats) and what to make from it. I look forward to Saturday and Sunday mornings, when I can have a leisurely breakfast of a loaded omelet and a freshly baked something, instead of the usual cereal or scrambled eggs on the run. So, the no-eggs put a monkey wrench in the works.

While I was leaning against the kitchen sink, deliberating over what to make with what was on hand, it occurred to me that the amount of time, energy, dedication and careful, creative thinking I was doing around my spare cupboard was leaps and bounds above and beyond the kind of time and attention I have been giving lately to my writing – to which I often proclaim I am dedicated.

Not only was I struck by the seriousness of my creative cooking process – I also realized that I had no doubt that after engaging in this serious creative process that the results would be interesting, fulfilling, satisfying and successful. In other words – I had no fear of that creative process, no doubt about my creative ability, and absolute faith that my finished product would be good, if not great. I did not second-guess my process, second-guess my ability. I had complete confidence. I was interested and excited about what I was going to come up with, as there is always the element of surprise in this sort of on-the-fly cooking.

Of course, you could argue that cooking and writing are two different processes that produce different results for different reasons and audiences. And elicit different responses.

But here’s what I came to:

I cook to satisfy and please myself. It is an enjoyable creative process that fulfills me, sensually and intellectually and makes me happy. When I finish cooking and eating a successful meal – I am not only satiated, I am proud of myself. I love the surprise of a well-conceived and well-executed meal. I take pictures of the food. I blog about the food. I am a great admirer and marketer of my cooking.

Now – read the above paragraph with the cooking words replaced with writing words:

I write to satisfy and please myself. It is an enjoyable creative process that fulfills me, sensually and intellectually and makes me happy. When I finish writing and editing a successful story – I am not only satiated, I am proud of myself. I love the surprise of a well-conceived and well-executed story. I share the story. I submit the story. I am a great admirer and marketer of my writing.

That is where I want to be. I want to approach my creative writing process with the same zeal, abandon and confidence with which I approach my food preparation process – with no fear. The next time I sit down to write, I’ll really be cooking.

For those who are curious (Kris – I know you are!), what did I come up with this morning for breakfast?

I made scones from the scone mix, but in order to feel better about eating, basically, a ball of white dough, I added a handful of oats and some of those dried cranberries. But what I did to fill the role of the lack of an omelet was so weird – I was shocked at how good it tasted:

Chop one large, farm-fresh tomato (you can’t beat Maryland farm-stand tomatoes in summer). Gently cut up an equal amount of canned yams (rinse and drain them). Tear up one slice of prosciutto. Melt about a tablespoon or two of butter in a small sauté pan. Add the tomatoes, yams and prosciutto. Let them sit a few minutes without stirring or tossing. Let the tomatoes and yams brown and caramelize a few minutes as the prosciutto releases a little fat and frizzles a little. Season with a little salt and cracked black pepper (I use low-sodium salt and McCormick Peppercorn Medley Grinder, which contains black, pink, white and green peppercorns, coriander and allspice – it is wonderfully fragrant). Toss gently – the goal is to not break up or mash the yams. Serve with the hot scones and butter and strong Irish tea (this morning it was Barry’s Gold Blend).

Now go write. It’ll be delicious.

Chow for now!




A Change in the Eire?

More than 80 people, bidders and onlookers, showed up for the auction of J. Patrick's this morning, conducted by A.J. Billig & Co. Auctioneers.

More than 80 people, bidders and onlookers, showed up for the auction of J. Patrick’s this morning, conducted by A.J. Billig & Co. Auctioneers.

Under a brilliant winter morning sky, more than 80 people gathered on the corner of Andre and Clement streets in Locust Point this morning to witness, and for some to bid on, what many thought would be the final demise of  J. Patrick’s Pub, a big part of the heart of Baltimore’s Traditional Irish music scene.

But, lo, among the million-dollar developers, real estate tycoons, liquor-license coveters, neighbors and patrons, appeared a Celtic knight in shining armor, or was it jeans and a hoody, who outbid the guys with the hundred-dollar haircuts and Ray Bans, to take home the prize – J. Patrick’s Pub in its entirety. That included the pub, three apartments, and said sought-after liquor license for $430,000.

Auction2No one that I spoke to – including the well-heeled who went home empty-handed – seemed to know the mysterious buyer. But, one of the bidders seeking the liquor license who I had been chatting up before the bidding started said he spoke to the winner – and it was one Steve O’Donnell.

Later, just a few blocks away after the sale, at the newly opened Our House on Hull Street, the word from a long-time Locust Point resident was that the buyer was indeed Steve O’Donnell. Mrs. C. said she spoke to him and that he said he planned to not only keep the old J. Patrick’s as a bar, but that he also planned to keep all the beloved staff, and that he would open the bar tonight. (But word from the Baltimore Business Journal is that he said “he wished” he could open it this afternoon. He must transfer the liquor license before he can reopen, according to the BBJ). Mrs. C., who said she has lived in Locust Point for more than 60 years, added that Mr. O’Donnell said he was a contractor. (He is president of an Elkridge steel company, according to BBJ.) Leaving us to speculate that he might be able to do the needed extensive renovations himself. (Please take this all for what it’s worth, because I did not speak directly to Mr. O’Donnell.)

Inside JPs this morning, much of the walls - once crowded with Irish memorabilia - were bare.

Inside JPs this morning, much of the walls – once crowded with Irish memorabilia – were bare.

This news – for all of you familiar with the JPs saga – was almost, and still seems, too good to be true. Most of us, including me, may have hoped our favorite spot would in fact remain a bar, held out hope it would also remain and Irish bar, but if pressed for our true feelings, would have said we supposed it would probably be snatched up by any of the many high-rolling developers that have and still are transforming the face of Locust Point as we speak.

In fact, the bidder I spoke to who was after the liquor license speculated that the place was too small and could not withstand the local competition were it to remain a bar. But, I’m not sure he knew the depth and breadth of the JPs community, which reaches far beyond Locust Point – to Northern Va., D.C., New York, Boston and even Ireland.

The bar was a little sparse, but hopefully will be full of Jameson soon.

The bar was a little sparse, but hopefully will be full of Jameson soon.

So – as we all hope that we’ll be sitting down again soon at the bar at the new O’Donnell’s (?) –  I hope to follow-up with a post and photos from the resurrected spirit of Baltimore’s Irish music community soon… I will be adding more pix from this morning later.


Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann.
(It is a long road that has no turning.)


No. 12 Made Glorious Summer

The new Prez during his Whistle Stop Tour in Baltimore. Screen shot of WMAR TV2 coverage.

The new Prez during his Whistle Stop Tour in Baltimore. Screen shot of WMAR TV2 coverage.

A bright day in the winter of our discontent

It seems like weeks since I sat in our tiny newsroom, three small black-and-white televisions beaming static-filled pictures and fuzzy sound of the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Yet it’s only been five days.

January 20 was a bright shining day amid a winter that seems darker and certainly, in my house, colder than any in recent memory.

I felt buoyed – as millions did that day – by a feeling that a present that looks bleak economically, socially and politically, might, we hoped, yes, we hoped, begin to slowly but surely morph into a future filled more with conciliation, hope and understanding than callousness, fear and discontent. 

The image that will stick with me is that high, wide shot of the mall from the steps of the Capitol of those two million people. Two million people. That number is still hard to absorb. Two million people. A micro- or was it a macrocosm of our nation. Even our world. And proof to me that this nation of individuals, which I often doubt will ever grow enough intellectually to grow together socially, is actually capable of feeling each other’s hope, each other’s joy, each other’s desire to come together, to break down those achingly discomfiting, awkwardly-worn barriers that this country has built, harbored and nurtured since it invited slavery, indentured servitude, and race, class and gender discrimination to flourish and survive – century after century after century.

And some (I’m realist enough to know not all) of those barriers between peoples fell that day. And fall they did. But not with a bang. No. They fell amid an almost reverential silence. Silence. How does silence happen in a sprawling crowd of two million people? A people known, not for a contemplative, peaceful nature, but for a loud, boisterous and impulsive, even violent nature.

Silence is what many people in the crowd remarked on that day. The hush as people watched and listened and hoped for our history to turn a corner.

We were late getting there. But turn that corner we did. Under a bright, cold winter sun. Beautifully and peacefully.

My favorite quote from the day’s wall-to-wall media coverage was a simple one from, if I remember correctly, a young black man from San Diego named Jackson. When asked by a National Public Radio reporter for his thoughts on the day, he replied with a smile in his voice, “I’m here with two million of my closest friends.” 

Amen, Mr. Jackson. Amen.

No. 10 Pot Pie Comfort

Cold, lean and on-edge. Time for Comfort Food.

Mmmm. Comfort food.

Mmmm. Comfort food.

I suppose it’s time to get back to some foodchat. I’ve been spouting off about the newspaper business (hiring, anyone?) and the DTV revolution, which, by the way, saw a bump in the road last week when the feds ran out of money for those government-sponsored discount coupons that make the $60 boxes more affordable.

 Our president-elect has suggested the transition, due Feb. 17, might be postponed until Congress can come up with more dough for the discount program. How likely is that to happen, I wonder, with a $750-billion economic recovery bill waiting in the wings?

 In any case, I don’t know about your world, you three people out there (besides my family and friends) that may have happened upon the Writers’ New Depression Cookbook, but my world is decidedly cold, lean and a bit on-edge considering the state of the economy, newspaper industry, job market and, well, my age. Not being a 30-  or even a 40-something any more, the idea of hitting the job market again is scary and depressing.

SO, comfort food in any shape or form seems to be the food of the day, or probably the whole winter, for me. Usually, during my 30-minute drive home from work I try to remember what’s in the cupboard and what warm, comforting dish I can throw together quickly when I get home, hang up my coat and get into the kitchen.

One recent chilly night, I tried to figure out what to do with some cream of celery soup, and some frozen and canned veggies. I came up with what I call Pot Pie Soup, because it resembles the filling, minus the pie crust, of one of my favorite comfort foods.

Pot Pie Soup

  • 1 can cream of celery soup prepared as directed
  • 1 cup of your favorite frozen mixed veggies (I used a Fiesta Mix with kidney, green and garbonza beans, carrots, red bell pepper and broccoli. It was nicely colorful)
  • ½ c. frozen peas
  • 1 16 oz. can sliced white potatoes
  • 1 small can of sliced button mushrooms, or pieces
  • 1 slice American cheese (it melts well)
  • Season with a little freshly-ground pepper

Prepare the soup. Add the frozen and canned veggies. (Of course you can use fresh for anything – this is just my version of fast food). Let simmer for 10-15 minutes. Before you serve it, tear up the cheese and stir until it melts. Serve with hot corn bread or muffins and lots of butter.

Ahhh…comfort food…

 ~ Chow for Now! ~