Happy Thanksgiving!

First, HEAPS of thanks to those of you who contributed to the auction and the Go Fund Me page for Summer Heacock and her family! Together, the two events have raised right around $18,000 and made all the difference for darling Summer and her family. She wrote a blog post about the experience, and I’m warning you–you’re going to need tissues. But I am so, so happy for her and the fact that they are in a better place is something I’ll certainly be thinking about this Thanksgiving.

I hope everyone celebrating Thanksgiving today is having a lovely holiday with lots of delicious things to eat and not too many annoying relatives. (The horror stories on Twitter have been chilling this week–truly.) As part of our holiday weekend, we’re finally getting to see SPECTRE over pancakes and mimosas, and it’s just the start of the movies I’ve got listed to see in the next few weeks. None of them are feel-good films, but they all look like good storytelling.

*Victor Frankenstein. I suspect James McAvoy is going to chew the scenery HARD, but I am a sucker for a historical piece, and this one looks intriguing. I will admit to being slightly afraid of Daniel Radcliffe’s wig. It’s gotten some terrible reviews, but I’m willing to give it a go.

*Macbeth. I have friends who are wild about Michael Fassbender, but for me this one is ALL about Marion Cotillard as Lady M. I anticipate she’s going to be delectable.

*In the Heart of the Sea. I loved Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the voyage of the whaleship Essex and the film looks phenomenal. The cast alone would sell this one for me: Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Chris Hemsworth and loads of others.

In housekeeping notes: beginning November 30 we have guest writers posting here for the entire holiday season! I love turning over the online journal to visitors, and we will have new content every Tuesday and Thursday–and the occasional Wednesday–until the new year. I’m hugely grateful to them and hope you enjoy. I will be hard at work on revisions to the second Veronica Speedwell adventure during the month of December, so I’m doubly grateful to the guest writers for filling in. Want to know the title of the new book? All will be revealed in the December newsletter, along with a gift guide for those of you who still have some shopping left–like me! Wishing you all a tremendously happy holiday season. See you in 2016!

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It’s nearly Thanksgiving…do I smell turkey?

Here in the States it’s almost Thanksgiving which means the grocery stores are overrun and we’re all doing frantic things to pumpkins and turkeys. (I will point out again that our Canadian friends are so smart for doing this in October. I’d be willing to entertain the notion of turkey at Christmas if I hadn’t just made one four weeks before…)

So for a few years now I’ve been brining my turkey, but after reading this article on BuzzFeed, I’m going for the dry brine–which isn’t a brine at all, but let’s not quibble on the holidays. The dry brine is easier by far, and we all know I’m a big fan of things that are low effort, high reward.

And now for something completely different…

When I’m doing appearances, one of the things I love to talk about–to shock people out of thinking they know Victorians–is the fact that some Victorians pierced their nipples and that Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a snake tattoo. It’s always a fun moment because piercings and tattoos are a far cry from the people who allegedly swathed their piano legs in fabric because they were too suggestive. (They didn’t, by the way.) In any event, here is a fantastic three-part piece on tracing the origins of the piercing story–complete with details as to the procedure. WELL worth reading! (Posted on FB by Jennifer Spiller and tweeted at me by Heather Wheat.)

And while we’re reading about Victorians getting their freak on, bless them, here is a fantastic piece on…well, let’s just say it’s an object that whaling wives used to console themselves when their husbands were at sea for years at a time. It makes for quite diverting reading. (Posted to Twitter by Celeste Ng.)

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Lazy cooking!

We’ve talked here before about how cooking is just Not My Thing. It’s fine when I’m in the mood, but I almost never am, and the idea of producing edibles on a daily basis makes me want to pull the duvet over my head and never come out again. But I did manage to create a rather delicious lazy entree this week I thought I’d share. I’m calling it lazy chicken and  polenta.

At the store pick up a pack of boneless chicken breasts–let’s say two although the rest of the ingredients could stretch to another one or two. This would probably also work fine with chicken thighs, although I think they are instruments of the devil. Grab some Italian cheeses–provolone, mozzarella, pecorino, parm, whatever you like, but get more than one. You’ll also want a tube of polenta and a jar of pasta sauce. (Get the good stuff. Something simple but with a ton of flavor. If you’re the superior sort of person who has your own homemade sauce stashed in the freezer, then you’re even further ahead of the game.)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pat the chicken dry and season it with salt, pepper, and some Italian seasonings–the stuff in the tiny jar if you’re REALLY lazy like me, or a bit of oregano and basil. (Crush it in the palm of your hand to bring out the flavor.) Toss it in a pan with some nicely heated olive oil. Turn when the chicken starts to brown, repeat on the other side. When the chicken has some color but isn’t cooked through, throw it in a casserole dish, slather it with sauce, and top with the cheeses. Cover with foil and bake until chicken is cooked–20 minutes most likely.

In the meantime, slice the polenta into neat circles–maybe 1/2″ thick. Saute them in the chicken oil until they’re crisping up on each side. When they’re ready, pop them on a plate, top with chicken and sauce and extra parm with a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Some wine and a nice green salad are all you need. I’d finish with a bit of Roman raspberry sorbetto…


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The mind is a curious place

I’ve often thought–no doubt goaded by Sherlock Holmes–that life would be vastly easier if we could choose what we remember. With a theoretically limited brain capacity, we would be exercising the highest common sense to designate space for the things we truly want to accommodate while letting go of the flotsam and jetsam floating around in there. I’ve attempted to do this with extremely limited success. (I suspect I owe my forgetting to age and distance from school rather than any real effort on my part.)

Things I have forgotten: the periodic table, state capitals, planets in order, location of Great Lakes (I would have loved to have forgotten the names of the lakes, but a mnemonic I learned in high school has proven stubborn.) Most of the times tables. (I can multiply up to 5s; then I’m fine with 10s and 11s, but we won’t speak of 6s-9s or 12s.) All but five significant phone numbers. All addresses except my own. These are all things I can access in about four seconds via the internet, reference books, calculators, contact entries in my phone.

Things I wish I would forget: preamble to the Constitution. This one is sticking because of “Schoolhouse Rock”.

Things I have traded off: presidents–which I no longer remember at all–now replaced with kings and queens of England from the Norman Conquest to the present, which I finally have comfortably at my fingertips.

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The auction is live!

The auction to benefit Summer Heacock and her family is live–I just accidentally typed “love”, and it is very much that too. Here is the link to my lot, a signed book club set of trade paperbacks of CITY OF JASMINE. I’m delighted the bidding has already begun, and please poke around the site and check out all the amazing donations. Thanks!

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I want to say something about Paris

and Beirut and Baghdad and all the other places where violence has been perpetrated on the innocent lately. But I’m still processing, as I think many of us are. (The fact that I can take my time thinking things over is a privilege I am deeply aware of. And I am truly sorry for those who have to confront these things on a daily basis.)

In the meantime, here is something that might offer some solace. One of my favorite corners of the internet is the blog written by Tania Kindersley, the author of BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS, among other lovely things. Tania is the sort of writer who elevates the blog format from just a random collection of shiny bits to thoughtful, elegant prose. Where I bounce and burble, Tania sweeps along in a statelier fashion. There is nothing remotely stuffy about her; she seems like the sort of person with whom you’d love to share a glass of vintage champagne. Instead, there is that rare commodity these days–dignity. She writes about intensely personal things without a whiff of self-indulgence or fanfare.

In recent days, Tania has been writing about the death of her mother which ought to be maudlin and awful, but instead is wonderful. Grief is not consistent; it is tidal. It ebbs and flows. Some days it recedes, leaving you flopped on the beach, gilded for just a bit by the warmth of the sun and believing something like normal life will be possible again. Some days it floods back, pulling you under so sharply it takes your breath away. Tania writes about these days with candor and grace. I hope someday these entries are collected into a book about grief.

The Victorians were familiar with death; it touched them on a regular basis, punctuating their lives with loss, and in return they acknowledged it to the point of fetish, codifying the rules of mourning. They covered mirrors and spread straw on the streets to muffle the sound of carriage wheels. We no longer drape ourselves in black for a year, and I’m glad of it–we need to be able to embrace the sunny days of bereavement without feeling unnatural. But since we have lost the culture of mourning, we have also lost the ability to sit with grief and recognize its power. We push through as if loss were a physical trial to endure, hanging on grimly until it’s loosened its hold over us.

There is a middle way, I think. A graceful, gracious way to accept the presence of grief for as long as it chooses to visit. That is what I’ve found in Tania’s writing.

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Things that have been cool this week

This week has been one of those strange autumn weeks where the weather won’t make up its mind–hello, 35 degree mornings and 80 degree afternoons!–and I keep getting minor annoyances prickling their way into fun things. Or fun things glossing over prickly annoyances, take your pick. So I’m focusing on the good and fun and leaving the rest out of it.

First, there’s a new lipstick in the mix! I was perusing the Urban Decay counter the other day for a present for a pal and happened upon their Revolution Lipstick in Catfight. I intended to get her a red, but Catfight kept drawing me back. It’s a luscious pink with a LOT of pigment and red undertones, a perfect choice for someone who wants to dabble with more saturated colors but isn’t looking for a darker red. It’s fun, it’s glam, and I suspect it would look fabulous on many skin tones.

I also grabbed the Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Pencil for myself in Bad Blood, a truly over-the-top dark blue red. It’s pretty matte, so I like it as a base for the Revolution in F-Bomb or with a bit of gloss, but the deep, dark color is truly swoony. It looks like venous blood, blood that’s been circulating awhile and has a story to tell…

In stationery news–and shouldn’t we all have stationery news?–I picked up my paper planners for 2016. I love the Sugar Paper planners at Target; they’re big, sleek, and spiral-bound, all things that I look for. I gave up using digital planners back when I had a BlackBerry, and that is a LONG time ago. I find I remember things much better if I’ve written them, and I just like working things out on paper. (That’s why I always brainstorm plot points with pen in hand instead of using a software program.)

I buy two planners–one for the living room desk; it gets marked up with family things and personal appointments. The other is my work planner and gets toted from study to kitchen table, my second workspace. I clip ongoing project pages into the planner with action plans, contact info, conference reminders, etc. and I have worlds of space to sketch out my year. The month-at-a-glance pages are all I use in the family planner, but for work, I take full advantage of the week-at-a-glance for jotting down online journal ideas, newsletter topics, and email reminders. 2015 was my first year with two planners and it worked perfectly, keeping me on track through travel, book launch, writing the new book, and a dozen other projects.

And the best thing that has happened this week is the outpouring of love and support I’ve seen for my writing pal and Twitter friend, Summer Heacock. Summer is a joy and a delight with a huge heart and an amazing generosity of spirit. She and her husband, Drew, have been dealing with some difficulties in recent days, but the writing community has rallied around to take care of its own. There is a Go Fund Me page for the Heacocks with all of the details of their current challenges, and if you can contribute, please do! In a single day, more than half the goal amount was pledged. That’s an amazing start, but we can’t let it stop there.

In addition to the Go Fund Me page, there is an auction that will go live Sunday night at midnight (Pacific time) with all kinds of amazing things–books, critiques, goodie baskets. I’m providing a signed trade paperback book club set of CITY OF JASMINE; that’s eight copies for your favorite book club. Bidding will start at a significant discount off the cover price, and you’ll be doing a seriously good thing. So please consider bidding or kicking in for the Go Fund Me–every dollar helps!


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The weather is turning colder…

And while that means most people are reaching for the winter woolens, I’m changing up my perfumes. I wear fragrance seasonally with citrus and lighter florals in spring and summer, but in chillier weather I like things that are heavy and lush. I never feel properly dressed until I’ve put on fragrance–and by that I don’t mean that I am then ready to leave the house; I mean if I forget perfume it’s like forgetting a garment. It just feels incomplete.

Part of the joy of bringing out my cold-weather scents is that they are my favorites. Because my skin runs quite hot, I can’t manage a heavy floral or vetiver in warm weather without getting dizzy from the strength of it. I need a burst of something juicy and citrussy that I can burn through cleanly. A touch of neroli or bergamot to round things off, and I’m good. I will dabble with Chanel No. 5 in hot weather, but only with caution. (No. 5 is my best fallback fragrance for spring/autumn, when the weather is deeply changeable.)

But in the autumn! Ah, the season of bonfires and rolling fogs and walks in the woods, of reading by the fire and sipping whisky, of church bells and incense–and the fragrances I wear hit all of these notes. Here are my three favorites for this time of year and a bonus I can’t do without. (Note: the three favorites are technically unisex or men’s fragrances. THAT’S how heavy I like my scents.)

*Byredo’s Baudelaire. The list of notes reads like the tour of an elegant bachelor’s house. It begins in his kitchen with edibles, caraway and pepper and juniper, the berry that flavors gin. There’s a touch of cool brightness from hyacinths our bachelor is forcing on a tabletop, but then it turns darker, turning up leather and incense, amber and patchouli and papyrus in his library. The combination is decidedly masculine, but that’s not a bad thing for a woman. Spraying on Baudelaire is like wearing his shirt around the house on a Sunday morning–borrowing something of his makes you seem more feminine…

*Profumum’s Fumidus. I’ve written about this one before, and there’s no getting around it–this is NOT for the faint of heart. It’s a bold fragrance, as in clobbering you over the head with a club and dragging you back to the cave. Right out of the bottle, the overwhelming smell is smoke, clinging like the remnants of a house fire. There’s the scent of peat bog in there, earthy and OLD, and the just-out-of-reach grassy velvet of vetiver. But over it all is the lingering smell of whisky. Wearing this is like sipping from a flask of single malt while you watch a wildfire on the moor. There’s an unexpected decadence to it. It’s Highland ponies and men wrapped in plaid; it’s the swirl of a Dior New Look skirt as it brushes against a cigar-stained ashtray. Somehow it’s Outlander and Mad Men at the same time, an impressive trick. The other day I jokingly said to someone, “I am an alpha. Bare your neck to me, and we won’t have a problem.” This is the perfume for the kind of day when you want everyone to remember that you’re the alpha. Necks will be bared.

*Passage d’Enfer by L’Artisan. I’ve written about this one before too, but it bears a repeat. The title translates roughly to “gateway to hell” but it’s pure Gothic church–all cold stone and incense with a cool rush of lily, a royal funeral with a gold-embroidered red velvet pall. Yet underpinning it is musk, turning that sacredness to something quite profane. If Fumidus is an Outlander/Mad Men mashup, Passage d’Enfer is straight up Heloise and Abelard, trysting behind the altar. It’s capable of conjuring fairly obscene thoughts.

And a bonus. About a year ago I started wearing Black Jade by Lubin, and it’s been a mixed blessing. I’ve been wearing it so much that my other perfumes–and I have MANY–have been getting short shrift. I mean to pick up something else, but my hand keeps going for the curvy bottle with the pale green cap. Unlike the three above, Black Jade is intensely and unapologetically feminine. It opens with a cool green blast of galbanum and rose and jasmine, but then it turns, settling into something quite different. There’s edible spice there, cinnamon and vanilla, and the earthy punch of tonka bean and amber with deeply sensual sandalwood and amber and a whiff of incense to finish things off. I like to form little vignettes for my fragrances, images in my mind of what story I think the perfume tells. I struggled with this one. I could not reconcile the opening burst of sweet femininity with the deeper, more sensual aftershocks. I asked Alyssa Harad, author and perfume guru, for a description of galbanum and she immediately replied, “Broken shrubbery.” And then I realized exactly what the vignette was–languid sex in a formal garden. Picture Versailles in the last days before the Revolution, tumbled satin skirts edged with lace and a whiff of intrigue on the rose-scented air of the parterre, an eager pair pushing through the shrubbery to a private moment beyond the tapis vert…it’s enough to topple a throne.

And if you think I’m overstating it’s allure, I will admit it’s gotten mixed reviews. Some people do not like how much it changes–and the change is extreme on my skin–and some find no change at all, just a soft breath of feminine flowers. But my own experience with it has been fairly extraordinary. I’ve gotten more compliments on it than all my other perfumes combined, and more than once I’ve been followed by a stranger, nose tip-tilted in the air as if led by a leash…

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Pondering the motto…

A visit to the archives on the subject of the motto with a few additional thoughts…

I am intrigued by the notion of mottos–the words we would use to describe our intentions or our values. If this were the fourteenth century, we might carve them on the lintels of our stately manors or embroider them onto banners to carry into battle. Today we tattoo them on our bodies or use them as signatures in our web postings–a trifle less impressive, but more accessible to the general public. (Did serfs have mottoes, I wonder? BTW, I have pluralized it as “mottos” and “mottoes” while writing this. AskOxford claims both are correct, but both look impossibly stupid.)

My family–the Mackintoshes–have a motto, “Touch not the cat bot a glove”, which is a variation on the ever-popular “Nemo me impune lacessit” when you think about it. (If you’ve forgotten your Poe, that motto is the one he trots out in “The Cask of Amontillado”. It translates to “no one touches me with impunity” and, if memory serves, is also the motto of the city of Edinburgh.) But while I do like the quirkiness of the Mackintosh motto, and it is understandable that the Scottish clans would need to take a firm stand with one another, it does seem a trifle unfriendly in this day and age, don’t you think? I am told the Cameron motto is, “Sons of the hound, come here and get meat!” which I adore unreservedly. Imagine that cry echoing over a misty moor while warriors are banging swords on their shields. CHILLING.

In my books, I give two mottoes to the March family–the formal “Quod Habeo Habeo”, loosely translated as “What I have, I hold,” and the informal and considerably more apt, “Audeo” or “I dare.” I like the idea of a family having a sort of universal philosophy, a thread of continuity through the ages, but what do you do if your motto is lacking? I was recently reading the memoir of a woman who bought a Welsh castle and found the Latin for “No Fear, No Vanity” chiseled on a lintel–a bit disappointing, I think. And Anne Boleyn’s “The Most Happi” seems particularly ill-chosen.

I have a few mottoes of my own and they vary depending upon my mood and situation, but there is one that rather neatly packages up the bits and bobs of my life and ties the whole thing in a pretty bit of Latin–“Specto subitus”, which is a welcome reminder to “expect the unexpected”. I have toyed with the notion of having it discreetly tattooed someplace, but I could just as easily paint it above the door of my study or have it engraved on notecards…

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Have we talked about my fish?

Most of you who are regulars around my social media playgrounds know about Deacon the Goldendoodle. (He gets his picture tweeted from time to time and has made appearances on Instagram.) But I haven’t talked much about my accidental fish, Pearl. And here’s the most interesting thing about Pearl–he was a rescue.

Of course, it also occurs to me that the fact that he’s a dude fish named Pearl might merit some explanation. He’s a beautiful betta with lavish, fluttery fins in extravagant shades of pink and blue–a glorious drag queen of a fish, so it seemed appropriate to name him after an actual drag queen. (Those of you who watched the last season of RuPaul’s Drag Race are familiar.)

I acquired Pearl quite by accident. I’d just been reading about feng shui and how putting a water feature in your workspace is supposed to be an awesome idea for improving the flow of your chi. But I’m lazy and wasn’t about to go out and organize a fish, so I jokingly said, “If one lands in my lap, I’ll take it.”

The universe has a great sense of humor. A week later we were moving our daughter out of her dorm and noticed a tiny bowl sitting outside the RA’s door. It looked like it was filled with swamp water; it was VILE, filthy and malodorous, and something in the water was moving. I bent over to take a look and saw a fish–looking as terrified as a fish can look. He darted back into the broken tiki god that someone had thrown into his bowl, too scared to come out.

When the RA came to inspect the offspring’s room, we mentioned the fish that someone had dumped on him. “Fish? DUDE, I CAN’T HAVE A FISH.” We told him we’d take it, and by the time the inspection was done, he’d handed me the bowl and wished me well. It was worse up close. The smell was full on STENCH, and there were things in the water that you do not want to know about.

But we took Pearl home, gave him a name, and headed to the pet store to find him a tank of his own with proper filtration. He got blue gravel to offset his fins, a pink plastic plant for a cozy place to hide, and a mermaid for a companion. It took a few days of peace and quiet in his new tank to settle him down, but eventually he started creeping out at mealtimes to gape at me and now he does a full-0n dance for his dinner, a sort of Disco Inferno routine that suits him beautifully. He’s got a lot of personality for a fish–a common thing with bettas, I’m told–and I think he believes I’m his servant, but that’s okay. He’s come a long way since his days as a throwaway fish, and my chi has never been better.

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