Category Archives: Writing

‘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.


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!




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! ~

No. 5 Deadline Meals

Deadline Meal and Turkey Wok Christmas Chili

It’s been a few days. Boss was out for jury duty on deadline day, so I worked late last night and tried to get finished at a decent hour today so I could start my holiday this evening. Have a little more than a week off, so I hope to get a few more frequent posts up with recipes and chat about the season (whatever that means to you), the digital conversion we’re facing here in the U.S. and some thoughts on reading, writing and books. I suspect I’ll have a few new ones under the tree…

Last night was one of those late nights where I could have succumbed to the supreme pizza waiting in the frozen mist at the back of the freezer, or gone for one of my top favorite comfort meals: bacon, eggs, cheese grits and toast.

But even when it’s 10 p.m., the cats are hungry, my brain is mush from staring at the glowing screen all day and all I want to do is get in bed with the heating pad, I still often manage to think for a minute about a better alternative and throw something together for dinner that’s got some redeeming value.

Be warned: This is not a light meal or bedtime snack.

One of the things that really helps in being able to make decent meals on the spur of the moment, is, of course, having stuff on hand. In being single and trying not to waste food one of the things I do is when opening a big jar or can of pasta sauce for dinner I only cook what I’m going to eat and  pour off the rest into one-cup margarine containers and stack them in the freezer.

So, last night I put a small pot on the stove, tossed in the frozen pasta sauce with a little water, tossed a handful of frozen peas on top and turned the heat on low. In a larger pot I heated  some water with a pinch of Celtic sea salt and when it came to a boil, tossed in two handfuls of Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles. Into the toaster oven went a dozen (generic) Tater Tots for about 13 minutes on 400 degrees. Maybe Tater Tots have no redeeming value, I don’t know. But I love them and I don’t overdo.

When the tots were done crisping I sprinkled them with salt and cracked black pepper. The pasta was also finished cooking, so I drained it, spooned on the sauce and peas and topped it with Parmesan . With a glass of milk, not a bad Deadline Dinner.

Tonight I stopped on the way home from work and last-minute shopping and had dinner with my brother and his wife. I hope she’ll share some of her recipes with us. She’s a fabulous throw-together cook. Tonight she made some awesome chicken-fried brown rice with peas, mushrooms and eggs cooked in. Yum! Great with Ravenswood Red Zinfandel, one of my favorite affordable red wines.

On to Xmas dinner. Over the last few years, our family Christmas gatherings have veered away from a replay of the Massive Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner and on to more fun, portable casual foods for hanging out all day and enjoying each other without the BIG DEAL CHRISTMAS DINNER and clean-up.

I think one year I made spaghetti with turkey meat sauce and one year I made the sauce with tempeh.  The last couple of years I’ve made a big pot of turkey chili and taken it to the designated Christmas House.

I loosely follow a recipe I made up when I was married (gag! was I ever married? sometimes I forget!). It’s called Turkey Wok Chili, because at the time I was having a love affair with a beautiful red enamel electric wok. Don’t ask. I think I gave it away, although I wish I still had it. Feel free to substitute your own kinds of beans. I often mix black, kidney, or baked depending on what I have on hand. This year I’m trying a 22 oz. can of Bush’s Grillin’ Beans, Bourbon and Brown Sugar flavor.

Turkey Wok Chili

  • olive oil
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1 clove chopped garlic, or more
  • 1 lb. ground turkey
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 16 oz. can baked beans
  • 1 16 oz. can whatever kind of beans
  • 1 16 oz. can of corn (optional)
  • 2 T  soy sauce
  • 1 T chili powder
  • 1/2 t cumin
  • 1/2 t poultry seasoning

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil. Add turkey and brown. Pour off fat if you want, although there usually isn’t much with turkey and the juice has some flavor worth retaining. Add remaining ingredients. Cook covered on medium for 25 minutes, then uncovered for 5 mins. more. Top with your favorite toppings such as shredded sharp cheese, chopped onion, low-fat sour cream, etc.  Serve with hot cornbread and maybe some cole slaw on the side.

(I’m going to experiment Christmas Eve with how to take slice-and-bake cookies up a couple notches. I’ll report here if my idea works out…)

~ Chow for Now! ~

No. 3 Why Write

Interesting thoughts on writing and journalism from Ted Pease and Today’s Word on Journalism at

20160523_173720Writing Books:  “Well, I’ve worried some about, you know, why write books … why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it’s been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with … humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it’s presumably to encourage them to make a better world.”
—  Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), writer, 1973

Lighting Fires: “A 19th century Irish immigrant named O’Reilly called the newspaper ‘a biography of something greater than a man. It is the biography of a DAY. It is a photograph, of twenty four hours’ length, of the mysterious river of time that is sweeping past us forever. And yet we take our year’s newspapers — which contain more tales of sorrow and suffering, and joy and success, and ambition and defeat, and villainy and virtue, than the greatest book ever written — and we use them to light the fire.'”
—  Adair Lara, columnist, San Francisco Chronicle, 1999

Well said, Ted, and Happy Holidays to you!

No. 2 No, I’m Not Depressed

What this is not. And the first recipe.

This is not going to be a nostalgic look back at Depression-era foods and recipes. That’s why it’s called New Depression Cookbook, meaning now. I guess I could have called it the New Recession Cookbook, but I didn’t start this because I was worried about a recession.

I started it thinking we’re sliding into a real economic Depression and that I should start recalibrating my life, my expectations and my spending. I’ve always been frugal. Ask my friends. They’d probably say Cheap.  But even I, should I lose my job in this shaky, circling-the-drain newspaper business, can tighten my belt.

That belt-tightening started a few months ago when I decided to check out the Aldi grocery store a few blocks from my house. Aldi is a chain of relatively small (compared to the average mega-super-grocery behemoth) limited-selection grocery stores. The type where foods are displayed in the opened cartons they were shipped to the store in. The type of store – to be honest – I felt was below me. Not any more. Aldi is my new favorite place and I tell everybody to try it.

Owned by the same German foods company that owns Trader Joe’s, Aldi ( is an eclectic mix of bargain-basement-priced foods stacked side-by-side with fine imported German chocolates, breads, Christmas Stollen, gourmet coffee and other low-priced unexpected treats that change weekly.

You may have to readjust your thinking when you start shopping at a limited-selection store. But, really, think about it – do you really need 200 different cereals to choose from. How weird is that, anyway? This isn’t a plug for Aldi, I just wanted to say that if you have this kind of store in your neighborhood – don’t overlook it – you could save tons of money and find some pretty interesting stuff on the shelves each week.

For instance my recipe for Corned Beef Has with a Twist began as I stood in line at Aldi and noticed the potted-meat selection next to me. I had indulged in a can of Spam the week before to see if it would conjure the summer road trips my family took back in the 60s. We always had Spam on Wonder Bread with mustard and Utz potato chips on the road. After eating it for a week in my lunch at work and frying it with my eggs for breakfast and again at night for dinner, I’m through with Spam for the time being. But there’s no denying it’s a cheap week’s worth of meals.

Next I picked up a can of Corned Beef, which I was pretty sure I would open, gag over and throw away. Not so. I researched a couple basic corned beef hash recipes and adapted them. It’s great reheated. And check out the Leftover Tip at the end of the recipe. 

Corned Beef Hash with a Twist

  • 1 can Corned Beef (the same size as a can of Spam)
  • 1 16 oz can diced white potatoes – drained
  • 1 small can sliced mushrooms – drained
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • sharp cheese

Because I was a little skeptical of the canned beef, I put it in a strainer and poured a quart of boiling water through it. I figure that reduced the fat and salt content.

Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and toss in some diced garlic (the amount of garlic is up to you, or don’t use any). After the garlic has browned a little fill the pan with the potatoes and press them down with a spatula. Let them get a little crispy before you add the corned beef, mushrooms and peas. Stir and heat everything together and let it simmer covered for a few minutes, but don’t let it dry out. 

Spoon into bowls, grate some sharp cheese on top and finish it in the toaster oven to melt the cheese. Serve with a toasted hardy bread like rye or pumpernickel, or a good multi-grain baguette.

Leftover Tip: This is even better scrambled into your eggs the next morning.

~ Chow for Now! ~

No. 1 Yo

Welcome to the Writers’ New Depression Cookbook

I’m a weekly journalist and struggling fiction writer always looking for good, cheap, easy-to-prepare meals and decided to share my ideas for New Depression Recipes with the underpaid, overworked and unemployed around the world…

I’ll be posting ideas on cheap, creative, quick recipes, as well as musings on life, writing, politics and the newspaper industry.

A sneak peek: Corned Beef Hash with a Twist, Pot Pie Soup, Salsa Stew, Deadline Meals…

Stick with me, I’m just getting up to speed. Thanks.