Expanding the Vocabulary of My Taste Buds

To follow up Tuesday’s post on the fickleness of the words I let roll off my tongue, I’ve been thinking about the other vocabulary my tongue’s acquired: the distinctions of new tastes.

Whether or not you believe in the tongue map, or that sugar is toxic, or that healthy food should taste good (I believe in butter!!), I wonder if we can agree that too many of us are far more acquainted with the sensations of sweet and salty than we are with bitter and sour (and others, if you believe there are more than four tastes).

For me, I was eating a fairly “normal” American diet, not high in junk food but definitely dependent on condensed soups and canned broth and white flour and refined sugar and so on. Salty and sugar sweet.

I’d have a salad now and then, but I couldn’t handle the bitterness of the lettuce at all without sweet dressing on it. My veggies had to have salt. And plain yogurt? Gross! Bitter and sour were not on my radar unless I could cover them up.

In much the same way I used to force myself to acquire vocab words for the GRE, I started forcing myself to acquire new tastes over the past few months. My main goal was to cut out refined sugar, but what I didn’t realize is what a new world would open up once I got the craving for sugar out of my body.

Last night, I threw a bunch of stuff in a skillet for a Spanish omelet: butter, sliced potatoes, garlic, diced onion, peas, chopped spinach, eggs, and cheese. It was one of those hectic weeknights, trying to get out the door for tee ball, and I forgot to add any seasonings, even salt. Peas are new around here, and I’d never tried this combo, so I was just crossing my fingers that it would be edible and filling.

Um, who knew that peas were so sweet? I ended up eating three servings and could have gone on for more.

And the six-year-old, by far the pickiest eater in my house, kept talking about it long after he finished eating it: “Mom, I think I liked that. I think I might have it again for lunch tomorrow. I don’t know why I keep thinking about it. I think that was good.”

Then later, at bedtime, Hubby complained of a slightly sore throat (unrelated to the omelet, which he hadn’t eaten because of said soreness) and asked for yogurt (we learned back when he got thrush after an antibiotic that yogurt is the best cure for mouth and throat stuff like that). I offered plain yogurt, which I’m now quite fond of, but he’s not quite at that point yet, so I went to the store and grabbed vanilla yogurt for him. In opening it at home, I got a drop of it on my finger and licked it off instinctively.

Whoa. Taste shock. It was way too sweet for me.

Whereas before I would have wanted more after having one taste (I used to love vanilla yogurt), this time I rejected the taste of sugar altogether. I didn’t even want it after trying it. I happily dove my spoon into my plain yogurt and homemade granola, savoring the tang of it.

What else?

  • Raisins are my candy now, where I never liked them before.
  • I adore unsweetened applesauce.
  • I’ve acquired a taste for sourdough bread and for cultured butter, both of which have a strong tang to them.
  • When our raw milk ages a little (it’s good for 10–14 days, but the flavor starts to change after about 7 days), the sourness of it tastes pleasant to me while it used to be repugnant.
  • Last week I made a red potato and asparagus salad, flavored with lemon juice and Dijon mustard, and I kept snacking on it until it was gone the next day, along with brown rice that tasted amazing to me.
  • On pancakes and waffles, my favorite topping right now is sliced bananas, plain yogurt, and just the slightest drizzle of maple syrup or honey on top.
  • I just discovered that cauliflower adds amazing flavor to homemade mac and cheese.

And best of all, there’s still so much more to explore! I’m excited for new vegetable experiences, for experiments with gourmet cheese making (for example, cranberry cheddar in that mac and cheese recipe sounds awesome!), for the exhibition of more salads around our house (exalted with excellent homemade dressings), for all kinds of flavors except sugar.

So yeah, this blog is about words, and a vocabulary of taste is a stretch, but I just wanted to share. It’s a whole new world once you ex out the sugary sweet.

Anyone else have vocabulary acquisition to share, whether with words or foods or something else? What do you think makes the difference in learning to like new things?

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Earaches, Onions, Books and Blogs: Electronic vs Print

Ah, the information age — and the information overload!

At 4am this morning I was already feeding a baby when another child began to cry, so I sent Hubby in to handle things. Hubby came back with bad news: “He says his ear hurts. What do I give him?”

Other mothers would probably have an immediate answer ready, but I was lacking in ear-infection experience. Tied down with a baby, I turned to my iPhone and Googled natural remedies for earaches — only to be overwhelmed by the options and frightened by the possibility that I could do something wrong and damage my child’s hearing.

How glad I was to have a book to turn to! My copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal is about to reach its renewal limit at the library, but I’m glad I had it this morning. It helped me and some neighbors through sore throats a month or two ago, it gave me an amazing lotion recipe that cured my dry skin patches, and I felt confident turning to it for advice on earaches, especially since it has a section focused on children.

One of the first tips that it listed (which, yes, I had also found online, but amongst dozens of other competing strategies) was to heat an onion and let the vapors of it — those same potent ones that make our eyes water — soothe the pain in the ear. Within a minute our three-year-old was calmly nestled on my lap and no longer crying. His ear didn’t hurt any more, but I kept the onion next to it for a while just to be sure. It’s now twelve hours later and the pain hasn’t come back.


Earlier this week the homework assignment for my intermediate students was to find two books they could use as resources on their chosen topics, and several asked me, “Why books?” Couldn’t magazines or something else could count?

It’s sort of a blurry question, isn’t it? In some cases you can find the same information online that you could in a book. The onion strategy wasn’t unique to the family herbal guide; I found it through Googling as well. So what’s the difference then?

Here’s where you might expect me to get all teacherly and tell you, but the funny thing is that I don’t have a concrete answer. The textbook that we’re not using (my students voted to read a variety of supplemental material instead) has a whole chapter on balancing your sources with print and electronic sources and primary research, but even their reasons feel blurry. After all, most print sources are also available electronically these days. While there are sometimes slight differences in content, like that newspapers include fuller versions of articles online than in newsprint and magazines use fewer images online than in the glossies, for the most part an electronic version of a certain title has the same info as the print one.

In my case, the difference often seems to be a tad emotional. When my child is crying because his ear hurts, I like the solidness of a trusted book over the flimsy feel of a forum of visitor-defined “facts” (the other place I found the onion suggestion). 

Maybe it’s sort of like the post I wrote a while back about writing by hand versus typing: while both accomplish the same feat (creating words on a blank surface), they utilize different areas of our brains and connect us to the words in different ways. I’m willing to bet that reading different mediums creates a similar difference in how we connect to the text.

For example, when I grade student papers that have been printed out, it’s a different experience than grading the ones submitted by email. It doesn’t affect the grade they receive (I’m careful to check myself against a rubric to stay consistent), but it does affect how I interact with their paper, such as how fast I read and the way I think about it and make comments.

On the other hand, maybe all of that is just me blowing smoke and the real underlying difference isn’t the medium at all but the level of trust and rapport you have with the author. The remedy book had a good track record with me, and I’d connected well with the author’s tone and philosophies; the forum, on the other hand, was completely unfamiliar to me. But when a post showed up in my email today from a blog to which I subscribe and the title of it suggested an answer to a question I’d had about salt intake (yep, I should have bought some Real Salt for myself as well as for my parents a few weeks ago), I read it and accepted the information gladly because I’ve become fond of the blog and have appreciated the worldview and level of research of the author. In that case I didn’t need a physical book to convince me because I already trusted the source.

Finally, I wonder if the medium only matters in so far as established habits are concerned. When I grade papers, I’m used to having a pen in my hand to circle and underline with, drawing checkmarks and scribbling questions. Having to switch over to typing comments on a screen throws me off and makes me feel slightly more agitated.

Similarly, I’m having trouble adjusting to e-books not because they’re not wonderfully convenient but because I can’t get over wanting to thumb through pages to find what I want. When I brought an e-book to class earlier this week and suddenly wanted to find an excerpt from it to read to the students, I gave up because I couldn’t just open it to the approximate page and scan quickly. I’m sure some of you are hollering, “E-books are way faster at finding excerpts! Why didn’t you just type in a search word?” So maybe it’s just a matter of changing my habits.

Funny enough, it’s even true with blogs. The medium is always electronic, yes, but I’m used to reading them on my laptop, and now that I use my iPhone more often, I’m reluctant to switch to the smaller format, so I don’t keep up with my favorite blogs as often.

What can I say? We’re creatures of habit. 

What are your opinions? When do you turn to Google? To physical books? To certain blogs or sites? To e-books? Do you have clear distinctions about what questions best suit each medium, or do you use whatever’s most handy? How do you go about finding and trusting tips for earaches and tricks with onions? Do you think there are definite advantages to books over other sources?

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A Hypocritical Nonfiction Binge

I have a little confession to make. Okay, maybe several related confessions. Or apologies. Depending on how you look at it.

See, several years ago, when I was an English major in college, totally immersed in literature courses and feeling like literature is the highest form of writing imaginable, my dad told me that he was reading only nonfiction at the time.

I felt betrayed! He was the man who owned so many novels that there was never enough shelf space (despite bookcases along an entire wall of the living room). He was the one who pulled Jane Eyre and Bridge of San Luis Rey and Les Miserables down for me when I finally swallowed my pride and asked him which classics I should start with. He was the one who had minored in English in college and taken creative writing classes. How could he possibly ABANDON the entire genre of fiction?

“I just feel like there’s so much I want to learn right now,” he told me, “that I don’t have time for novels.”

And as dumb and immature as it was, I sulked about it. No time for novels? What? I could understand certain qualifications, like no time for trashy novels or frivolous novels or so on, but what about literary novels — the kind that confront you with hard questions, complex scenarios, moral imperatives, renewed empathy for human frailty? How could he be like that?

And why did it bug me so much?

I think I was afraid. I’d looked to him as a role model so for long, aspiring to own and have read as many books as he did, that I worried what his sudden dismissal of them meant for my future. Would I eventually turn my back on literature, too?

Lately, it looks like the answer is yes.

Right now I’m reading (among many other books) Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and the chapter I’m in talks about what makes us suddenly crave learning:

“Curiosity . . . happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. . . . Gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.”

Until about five months ago, I wasn’t aware that I had such huge gaps in my understanding of the world. But once they were brought to my attention, it’s felt exactly like that pain described. I grab nonfiction books by the handful, and each one presents me with more information that I realize I don’t know, so I turn to more and more of them until the stack on my nightstand looks like a precariously tilting tower.

Here’s a sampling of books I’ve put on hold at the library, bought at used stores, indie stores, on Amazon, and poured through in the last five months. Um, what can I say? You might sense patterns in the topics, because this is where I realized I had huge gaps in my knowledge!

And now that I’ve realized how much I don’t know, I find myself quoting my dad: “I just feel like there’s so much I want to learn right now that I don’t have time for novels.”

Funny enough, Dad’s back into them. He’s even written a fiction manuscript of his own that I keep meaning to read, but this darn itch for nonfiction hasn’t been satisfied yet. There’s still so much I want to figure out . . .

Anybody else been through certain genre binges? Like you suddenly couldn’t get enough comics or romances or young adult vampire books or whatever? What did it feel like?

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Stretching My Genre Limits

See this cover? This is so not my kind of book. Even hubby said so when he saw me reading it.

I mean, you can say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” all you want, but I much prefer the argument that judging the book is sort of the point of the cover. A cover with detailed art of dragons and sword-wielding heroes is meant to appeal to those who like high fantasy; a cover with a sexy, cleavage-bearing woman swooning in the arms of a muscular hunk is meant to be recognized as Harlequin romance. (They still make them that way, right? I haven’t seen one in a long time, not since I discovered my grandmother’s stash.) Covers are meant to indicate what kind of book it is. 

And a cover with bright-pink-or-purple cutesy fonts is meant to say, “Read me if you love all the drama of scoping out and scheming ways to catch hot boys in high school.”

I rolled my eyes at that stuff even while I was in high school. I mean, I liked boys. I had my share of crushes. But I had little patience for the sagas that so many girls seemed to crave. In fact, I hung out with mostly guys because of the simple fact that they didn’t show up at dances with their mascara running because some other girl had stolen their heart-throb and they didn’t rush over and huddle around the mascara runner anxious to be involved in and know every detail of the drama.

But here’s the surprise of the week: I loved this book.

The premise hooked me before I ever saw the cover. It’s about a high school senior who drops her phone in a fountain and suddenly the only person she can call is her freshman self. And since her senior self (code name: Ivy) just got dumped by the guy she’d wasted three and a half years on, ditched friends for, neglected school for, etc, it feels like the perfect opportunity to convince her freshman self (code name: Frosh) not to make the same mistakes.

Even though I could see pretty early on what the resolution would have to be, it was so much fun to read through all the twists along the way. I loved all the characters and loved watching them experiment with new identities throughout the book (high school was definitely that way). I loved the immediacy of the consequences, how Ivy would tell Frosh to change something and instantly Ivy’s present became completely different, sometimes for the better but often for the worse.

And I loved the message that balance is the life lesson of the day. That’s sort of my motto, too.

Plus, this book didn’t have the things I expected from the genre. It wasn’t about clandestine make-out sessions or back-stabbing girlfriends or any of that drama. It was just about navigating the hairy-scary teenage years when so much (college, friends, even graduation) is riding on your decisions.

In conclusion, I’m glad that I stretched outside my genre comfort zone. I should do it more often, perhaps. I’m sure there are gems in every genre, and maybe there are even whole genres I’ve misjudged.

What about you? Read anything outside your usual genres lately? How did it go? Do you believe in judging a book (or at least its genre) by its cover? What are some books you’ve loved whose covers totally didn’t look like something you’d be into?

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Killing off Characters

Here’s a confession. 

I’ve always wanted to write a novel that’s sort of like playing the game Clue

Possibly my favorite reading experience as a young adult was Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and ever since then I’ve wished I could be clever enough to come up with a puzzle mystery even close to as good. 

And how fun would it be to write? Choosing clues like murder weapons to disperse to your readers as the story moves along. Planting red herrings. 

I can definitely see the appeal of the murder mystery, and I think someday I might really make a go at a YA puzzle mystery, just because the world needs more of them. 

(Another fantastic YA puzzle mystery, if you’re interested, is Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger.) 

But of course, killing off characters isn’t limited to just mysteries. I’ve read plenty of books with murders and accidental deaths — some of which are manuscripts by friends of mine. 

In fact, sometimes when I make a comment on Twitter about not knowing what should happen next in a scene, I get responses like this: 

Brodi Ashton Brodiashton @nikkimantyla Someone could always die… 3:02 PM May 27th 


And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered why that’s not actually true with my manuscripts so far. In high fantasy, you sort of expect casualties along the way, where they’ll grieve for a page or two and then be forced to move on with their quest. In strict realistic fiction, you expect death to be catastrophic, like the main character is going to be coping with it throughout the whole book. With mine, which I guess is sort of an urban fantasy, though it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre (yet?), I think a death — whether intentional or accidental — would totally derail the plot. 

My friend Leisha agreed. We were joking about which character I could kill off, so I said, “How about the character everybody likes least anyway?” 

leisha maw leishamaw @nikkimantyla HA I could deal with Brianna dying. But you’d have to have some magical person kill her. And it would WAY sidetrack the story. 4:40 PM Jun 2nd 

With all my revisions right now aimed at focusing the story, sidetracking it is definitely not what I need. 

So I’ll just have to keep feeling envious of my friends who write paranormal romance or high fantasy or dystopia (dystopias probably win as far as killing off the most people). My current manuscript, at least, is not the place for killing off characters. 

But what I wonder about is how morbid it is to even joke about doing in a character. It makes me think of the movie Stranger than Fiction. 

"As much as I would like to, I cannot simply throw Harrold Crick off a building."

By the end of that movie, the author is horrified by all the characters she’s killed off throughout her career. 

When I took a grad course studying British murder mystery novels, I wondered about the psyche of readers who love books where someone gets knocked off. I remember a fellow classmate making the comment about the Brother Cadfael mystery we read, “I didn’t get hooked until the murder finally happened.” Yikes! 

Recently, my two boys (ages five and two) have become interested in death. Every stick-like toy becomes a sword for “killing” people, regardless of how much Hubby and I protest that we don’t want them to be pretending about killing. 

(The five-year-old, by the way, swears that he only “kills” bad people, not being old enough yet to realize “bad people” aren’t quite as obvious in real life as in movies.) 

But then, aren’t I doing the same thing if I secretly want to kill off characters like my friends do? 

I sort of wonder what Freud and others would say about it. Maybe we need to contemplate death through fiction (or playacting) because it helps us reconcile one of the most frightening parts of our existence. Fiction is a fantastic place to wrestle with questions about life, and so it’s probably also an appropriate place to wrestle with questions about death. 

For example, in Shannon Hale’s Actor and the Housewife, there’s a death that made me cry for a solid hour. I’m worried about saying too much and spoiling the book, but to make the point here, it’s a death that I’ve worried about in real life — in fact, it’s sort of an ever-present worry that most people with families have — and yet one that no one wants to think or talk about. Even though it was a wretched hour of heavy tears, I was grateful for the opportunity to go through it in fiction, to see the main character survive, and to think to myself that I could survive it, too, if I had to. 

On another level in a completely different direction, I wonder about an author’s motivations for murder in a book. 

For example, if you’ve read The Lovely Bones or seen the movie (if not, I’m about to spoil the ending, so skip the rest of this paragraph), think of how Alice Sebold deals with the murderer in the end. Instead of justice through the courts, justice is served by a falling icicle. 

And I think we like that about fiction. We like that “justice” can be served in poetic ways. If good characters are murdered or harmed along the way, we like to trust that eventually the bad guy will pay somehow. It doesn’t always work that way in real life, so I think it’s reassuring to us in fiction. 

It even happens in the Disney movies my kids watch, like in The Lion King how Scar kills Mufasa and so then we’re glad that Scar dies a similar death in the end. 

Think of the movie Becoming Jane about the possible beginnings of Jane Austen’s career. At first Jane’s character in the movie argues that novels should be true to life, but then once she’s experienced how downright crummy and unfair life can be, she decides that instead she will have her good characters come to good ends and the bad ones to bad ends as her own way of creating justice. 

Finally, on a superficial level, I think it’s also just fun to see annoying characters get “taken out.” Leisha said she could handle me getting rid of my annoying character Brianna. I think that’s because we would love to be able to fashion the world to our liking. We’d love to be surrounded by only awesome people. Honestly, I think killing off characters is even justifiable in that sense — the sense that it’s simply fun to create a fictional world and shape it to your liking. 

And then, going back to puzzle mysteries, I think as readers we like the challenge of putting the world back together by “solving” the mystery along with the characters. My fellow classmate in the murder mystery class probably wasn’t hooked until the murder because until then there wasn’t anything to solve. 

(Which, incidentally, is also why I can’t have any deaths or murders in mine: my characters are already plenty busy solving lots of other issues.) 

What do you think of murder in fiction, of kids playing with swords and guns to “kill” bad guys, of reading books or watching movies that deal with difficult subjects like death, etc? I’m super curious to know what everybody thinks. 

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TV Shows and Alternating POVs

Jack has fallen in love with two women and has to choose between them. Liz has revisited every past boyfriend and decided she might as well settle for the guy she can’t stand because fate keeps throwing him in front of her. And Kenneth has been told he can’t turn down a promotion that will send him to L.A.

Those were the plotlines for the season finale of 30 Rock last week, which was hilarious — and which got me thinking about plotlines.

Admittedly, I don’t watch enough TV to really know how typical this is, but the few shows I have gotten into the past few years (The West Wing, The Office, 30 Rock) all do this the same way: they divide the episode into roughly three plotlines following three different sets of characters, and they alternate scenes between those plotlines until they’re all resolved.

And it seems so normal for TV shows to do it that way that I hadn’t even thought much about it until now.

So what I wonder is . . . why is it so normal for TV shows but much less the norm in novels, which (at least in YA fiction) seem to tend toward single viewpoint?

I wonder about this question especially because I’m writing a novel with alternating viewpoints and I’ve heard comments from readers who say they can’t stand the format. They want to be firmly set in one character’s head.

Why is that? Do they feel the same way about TV shows? Would they have complained about Liz’s and Kenneth’s plotlines last week and demanded to see the episode only from Jack’s point of view? Think how much we would have missed out on, like the Somali pirate groomsman or Matt Damon as Liz’s pilot/destiny.

Does it all just come down to conventions? We’re used to TV being that way, and some readers are more used to strict single-POV books? Is it a difference in audio/visual material versus text-only, where because we don’t have the faces and voices of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to tell us immediately whose plotline we’re glimpsing now, we might end up feeling confused by the words on the page?

Just something I’ve wondered about.

For me, I feel like the viewpoint(s) a story is told from should fit the story. Multi-POV fits well with large-cast sitcoms like 30 Rock but also dramas like West Wing with multiple main characters. It’s also fit some of my favorite books like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series, David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, etc.

But then I can think of plenty of novels I’ve loved that made more sense from a single viewpoint, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jacqueline Kelly’s Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Octavian Nothing

So as much as I love multiple POV, I try to go with the flow and see how the format matches the story.

Any insights? Do you have a preference for single or multiple viewpoints? What favorites do you have of either type?

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