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You’ve heard from Christa Forster on this blog before: during National Poetry Month she contributes to the Poem-A-Day series (in 2014 and 2015), and she’s done a WWW review before too.

Today she gives us a review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a book people seem to either love or hate (but mostly love) from an author who makes a walloping impression. I read Tartt’s The Secret History when I was in college and was profoundly affected. I read it many years later when I was teaching and was impressed it held up. It remains to this day one of my favorite novels. (Plus I can empathize with someone who takes a decade to write a book…)

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Donna Tartt has written one of the first great American novels of the 21st century: The Goldfinch. Her aptly-named main character — Theo Decker — alludes to the Nietzschean idea that not only is God dead, not only have we killed him, but we’ve wasted him, blown him away, stuffed any remaining shreds of sacredness into a padded bubble mailer and not even noticed when someone switched out our only miracle while we were zonked on drugs or booze or gambling or relationships or Facebook or whatever has enthralled us. With The Goldfinch, Tartt holds up a mirror to nature that is so cracked it is hard to keep looking: it’s especially alarming, because we don’t want to believe that we’ve doomed ourselves to the extent that we have.

 

THE GOLDFINCH cover

 

It is not a novel about climate change. It’s a novel about a boy who loses everything. Near the story’s end, Theo admits that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean that we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.” The paradoxical tone of the novel — this bleak open-heartedness — divides people into two distinct groups: those who love it and those who cannot tolerate it. Lukewarm reports from people who “sorta liked” The Goldfinch are hard to find, maybe because the novel, at 771 pages, requires a hearty investment of time. Readers either finish the book and love it, or they don’t immediately love it and therefore don’t finish it.

 

The basic plot is this: Theo Decker’s life is devastated early on by a bomb attack on an art museum, wherein he and his mother seek shelter from a rainstorm and kill time before a scheduled conference with Theo’s school principal. The explosion suggests the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and although Theo walks away from the catastrophe physically unscathed, his soul forever after suffers from what the explosion steals from him (his mother, his sense that the world is an okay place). In addition to leaving with all his limbs, he also escapes the wreck with “The Goldfinch,” a small painting by the obscure Dutch master, Carel Fabritius. Unsure of why he’s taken the painting (described alluringly by Tartt), he frets about how to return it, taking so much time that he fears what will happen if he does return it. So he avoids returning it, but he cannot unknow that he has not returned it; thereby, he unwittingly commits one of the great art heists of the century, a fact which haunts him epically, but not enough to motivate him to return the painting. Tartt uses Fabritius’ painting as a MacGuffin to move the plot along and to complicate the conflict in the plot. However, as with all great stories, the characters keep the reader turning the pages. Along with Theo, an ensemble of major characters dominate the scene: Boris (Theo’s hardcore best friend, son of a Russian mobster); Theo’s duplicitous, rattled father and his skeezy girlfriend, Xandra; the blueblood, seemingly inbred Upper East Side Barbour family; the evil villain Lucius Reeve; the uber-mensch Hobie and his niece, the ethereal Pippa.

 

Certainly, The Goldfinch can be categorized as a dark novel, but also one that is certainly steeped in light. Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction — her own or someone’s close to hers —  will be amazed at Tartt’s knowledge of the subject matter. The main characters in this book abuse a LOT of illegal substances. One might even wonder if the twelve-year radio silence between the publications of The LIttle Friend and The Goldfinch wasn’t caused by Tartt’s own journey through a dark night of the soul. Regardless, Tartt has turned whatever baggage she’s carrying into a true treasure with The Goldfinch. This is literary fiction of the highest order (remember, it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade a work of fiction can receive in America), which means that the characters are complex, conflicted, and psychologically profound; the settings (New York and Las Vegas) are saturated with symbolism; the atmosphere and mood are dense and tense, rendered with exquisitely-tuned concrete, sensory detail. As all classics are, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a must-read for any writer — aspiring or seasoned — to learn or remember how and why the objective correlative matters, why and when the first-person/past tense point of view works best, what a MacGuffin is and how it advances a story’s plot.

 

Even a potential design-flaw, like the overabundance of times that Tartt’s characters wipe their foreheads with the backs of their hands, is absorbed by the gratifying experience of finishing the novel and the memory one has of the story and of reading the story. And perhaps, for those readers who persevere long and read closely enough to notice it, this ubiquitous brow-wiping is another example of the objective correlative at work in this novel:  Whew! Made it through the wreck this time. Hopefully, the next generation, and the next, will make it through, too.

***

Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

 

Instead of a review this week, I want to take a minute to talk more about this series and the reason it was started.

There’s been a lot of press in the last year or so about gender bias in the publishing industry. Many people have observed that it’s hard to get traditionally published if you’re a woman, especially if you’re also writing about women. With the exception of the romance genre, literature is still, somehow, “a man’s world.” And all this despite the oft-repeated statistic that most book buyers (and book clubbers) are women. I’d heard and read all these things over and over again, but for some reason, it wasn’t entirely resonating with me.

Why? I go to conferences, and more than half the agents at every conference I go to are women. In the writing industry seminars and classes I take––whether in town or at a conference––at least half (sometimes far more) of the writers around me are women. I read books by women (though not exclusively). I read books about women (though not exclusively). There’s no shortage of women on my bookshelf and in my recommended reads on Amazon.

But wrapped up in my own experiences, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.

The more I investigated this topic, in talking to other authors I know, in reading articles about it online, in seeking out multiple perspectives on this issue on social media, the more I began to see that there really is a problem. It’s not just about the writing industry, of course: it’s about our society more broadly. I’ll try not to be too much of a SJW here, but things like gender bias, discrimination, rape culture, and hating on women are some of the most insidious cancers in our culture. They’re particularly damaging not just because they are bad in and of themselves, but because in our culture, we have a belief that everything we do is infused with inalienable rights, with freedoms to be and say and do whatever we want. Sometimes, though, this crosses a line, as anyone who has ever paid attention to free speech debates surely knows.

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Paul Downs Colaizzo said of his play Really Really that its genesis was in part the current youth’s hook-up culture and in part the 2006 Duke lacrosse team rape scandal. He cited some interesting points about American culture in a talkback after a Black Lab Theatre performance of it, directed by Jordan Jaffe, here in Houston last spring. When asked the question, “What do you want most for your children?” the WWII generation wanted their children to grow up to be good citizens. Those children, when grown, when asked the same, wanted their children to be happy. Those happy children? They grew up to tell their own kids they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s a charming progression. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with it. But then when a generation of people are raised thinking they can be or do whatever they want…

We get––among other things, some of which are good––our current state of rape culture and Internet trolldom.

***

What is my point here? It may seem like things are hunky-dory on the surface because we have a lot of personal freedoms (especially if we’re white men). But that’s not the whole picture. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last couple of months you know that a bunch of the evil -isms of the Human Condition are alive and unfortunately well in our great nation. “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” doesn’t even begin to cover the mess we’re in. I’ll digress too much if I try to list it all here.

Gender bias is just one part of this.

We have to pay attention to it.

The Women Writers Wednesday series on this blog was begun in an attempt to help rectify just one part of this tangled problem.

In this series, female authors share their views on books by other female authors. The idea was to highlight women’s contributions, now and before, to literature. The books are chosen by the reviewers/responders; I don’t curate the titles in general. Want to know something interesting? Out of nearly two dozen reviews/responses we’ve had in this series since November, all but four have been about books written about women––and those four were about both women and men.

So the books are out there. And they’re good. They’re inspiring people. So what’s the problem?

These books aren’t being recognized. And I don’t mean just the books in the WWW series. I mean books by women about women, in general. Check out these chilling pie charts by author Nicola Griffith:

 

This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.

This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.

 

and

 

This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.

This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.

 

(You can see Ms. Griffith’s full blog post with several more pie charts and a discussion on this subject by clicking here.)

I don’t know where the problem begins, but I don’t think it’s a lack of women writing, or even of women writing well. I also don’t know what the solution is, but I am very sure nothing will get solved if people aren’t talking about it. And preferably in constructive ways. (You know, the kind that don’t involve simply dismissing the issue or attacking women verbally in the public sphere.)

Ms. Griffith has also posted a call to action: to help acquire more data. More information, after all, will help everyone to see the problem and its potential solutions more clearly.

Take a look. Get involved if you can. Start with literature, branch out to interpersonal relations. Make the world better.

 

 

I know it’s been a while since I posted an electric car diary about my Red Ninja. At first, I didn’t write any new ones because there wasn’t really anything to report. My car was operating beautifully, just like any other car. No news is good news, I guess.

A lot of things have happened since then, though, and now I’ve had the car a year, and I figured it was time to update again. For one thing, I moved to a different house in a (technically) different city, and this process of fixing up my old house, buying a new one, packing, moving, unpacking, selling the old place, settling in)––and in the middle of the school year, no less––took about six months, so it kept me pretty busy and unable to post much of my own content here on the blog. (You might have noticed that, too, and I’ll just apologize for it now. There. Glad to get that out of the way.)

First––let’s just get this out of the way as well––The Red Ninja is still certifiably awesome. I still love it, love it, as does everyone else who rides in it. But our move resulted in some unexpected changes. Since I transferred from the suburbs to the middle of town back in February, my commute is no longer nearly an hour but now just about six minutes, eight in traffic. The nearest grocery store is no longer ten minutes away, it’s forty seconds. Ninety seconds if I want to go to the fancy place.

This has been, as you might imagine, life-changing in a variety of excellent and beneficial ways. I’ve gained an hour and a half of not-drive time every work day! Also, I no longer have to charge up my car every night; sometimes, if I’m not driving all over the place for errands or social outings, I charge it up every three days. At our new house we have exclusively wind power for our electricity, and so it feels like my car is powered by air.

The unexpected consequence, though, is that because I’m not driving long, steady distances on the highways every day, my battery range actually registers as less on a regular basis. In the suburbs, I would charge up my car fully every night and have a posted range of 95-106 miles on the battery in the morning. On a typical day when the weather was mild, I would get home from work with under 50 miles left on the range. (My commute on a day with no errands or carpool was about eighteen miles.) And now that I’m not in the car much at all? My typical fully-charged range registers at 85-90 miles. I’m still using far less energy overall, but I thought it was worth noting that the longer I drive at moderate speeds, the more muscular the range ends up being. Even now, living in town, if I spend a day driving all over the city and then charge up overnight, the next day I can still get a morning range of over 100 miles. The efficiency with which I drive, how well I maintain a steady speed near the speed limit and such, does still impact battery performance.

Another thing which affects the battery’s posted range is the climate control system. If I’m blasting the air conditioner, because Houston is hot in the summer most of the time, then that eats up battery more quickly. (We saw this last summer, too.) And predictably, in the winter, when we made liberal use of the seat warmers and heater, well, that depleted my battery more quickly as well. Although people who haven’t lived here don’t always know this, Houston has several months in the year which are quite mild, most of the time. Most years: March can be cold or temperate; April and sometimes May are quite pleasant; late September through Hallowe’en are downright delightful, weather-wise. And in years when we have a mild winter (like this past one) or a mild summer (like we’re in for now), it’s even nice during the extremes.

When the time came, several months ago, for my car’s regular maintenance, I took it to a Nissan dealership (not the one I bought it from, but one closer to me), because electric vehicles need to be serviced by people who know them well, and my lease specifies I use a certified expert technician. Not a problem for me. So with a gas-powered car, my regular maintenance might include an oil change, transmission flush, brake service, tire rotation, etc. etc. etc. and cost me between $75 and $200. (At least with the cars I’d owned before.) I was concerned at first that my routine maintenance might be on the expensive side because it’s an electric car, specialty specialty blah blah blah.

Not so. As we already know, oil changes, transmission flushes, belts, etc. don’t exist on this car, and so I didn’t have to do any of that. Instead, my car’s check-up was $19.95 and took less than an hour.

It’s time to get another maintenance call this summer, which will include tire rotation and battery service. It will be interesting to see what that entails and how much it costs, when the time comes. You can be sure that if it’s notable, I’ll write about it here.

You can see previous Electric Car Diaries here:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

This week’s response is to one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables. I could tell you stories of how that book mattered to me when I was in junior high (now called middle school), but they would seem utterly banal next to this lovely response from J.G. Lucas.

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Anne of Green Gables and Me

I have no place reviewing Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. It is wonderful. If you haven’t read it, you should. The book has been around for 106 years and has sold millions of copies. There is nothing I could write about its contents that hasn’t been written before.

That said, the beauty of writing or art of any kind, is the way it transforms when experienced by each person. Anne changed and continues to change me, and I change her by the way I experience her.

My first exposure to the Anne series was at my friend Diane’s house. I was eleven, and I saw the whole set on her shelf in a room that I remember being very yellow. The covers were girly and scripty, and they did not appeal to me at all. Anne in those covers always stood (or sat) looking wistfully into the distance. She was nothing like my fictional heroines, Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, Lucy and Jill from Narnia, or Jo from Little Women. Diane offered to loan the books to me, and I declined (possibly disdainfully).

Thirteen years later, I was working in a large university library, and I found Anne of Green Gables alone, apart from the rest of the series. This time, the cover was leather, the pages were thick parchment, and the book smelled and felt amazing.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Is there any more comforting smell than old book? I checked it out to myself. The next day I packed it in my bag of things I needed to take to the hospital, where I would sit in the waiting room while my husband had a simple biopsy.

Anne was the only one with me that day as the routine two-hour operation turned into an eight-hour ordeal. Using L.M. Montgomery’s words, Anne told me about her life, her beautiful island, her bright imagination, and the people who grew to love her. She and I watched the clock. At first, she distracted me with her story. As the hours stretched, she comforted me.

I wish I could have kept that book, but I didn’t need it. The binding and perfume of the paper caught my attention, but the words stole my heart. Given Anne’s age and how beloved she is, her words are everywhere. I discovered the Gutenberg Book Project a couple of years later when I was an angry, drifting young widow working as a secretary in a drafty office. There was more time than work to do. I looked like I was busy on the computer, but I was reading Anne. And again, she helped. She reminded me that spring would come, that there were beautiful things in the world, and that you could find happiness and friendship even during grief.

Later still, I moved away from my home and started over. And I read Anne. This time, she told me about being brave and learning to trust. I was so fortunate to find love again and to start a family again. And I read Anne. Over the years, I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Anne. I read her at least twice a year, but as often as once a month. When I want to be intrigued, frightened or entertained, I try a new book. When my soul needs a hand to hold, I read Anne. I smile, sigh, and cry every time. My heart swells every time Marilla realizes she loves Anne. I shiver every time Matthew gives her the brown gloria dress. At the end, I cry and am proud of Anne, every time.

There are accounts that Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, was incredibly unhappy, especially later in life, and that she wrote to escape her harsh existence. As a writer, I don’t really believe that. Instead, I believe her harsh existence happened in between the times when she was writing. Her characters whispered to her, and she wrote them. She wrote Anne almost until the end. I know there were people who loved Anne like me and who sent L.M. Montgomery letters thanking her for her books. I like to think those letters helped her. Because of Anne, she is immortal, and her immortality is sweet, touching, beautiful and loving. I hope she knows that and is happy.

***

J.G. Lucas is a writer living in Florida with her family and a variety of cats. Her debut novel, Bright Aster, is available through Amazon U.S.  and Amazon U.K. She blogs here and here.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

This week an essay I wrote about my experience finishing up the edits for Finis. appears over at Jennifer Brozek’s blog as part of her “Tell Me” series, in which authors write about their books without actually writing about their books. In my essay, I discuss what it was like to be editing the story while going through a personal tragedy. It’s a short read, but I hope you’ll give it a look.

While you’re there, check out the other “Tell Me” entries from other authors. I’ve been intrigued enough to download samples of other books from those guest posts, and you may find some interesting things to pique your interest as well.

Thanks to Jennifer for featuring me––and Finis.–– on her blog!

This week’s WWW review comes to us from Jennifer Waldo, who reviewed the Divergent series by Veronica Roth here back in January. This time she’s writing about another YA series, the Pure books by Julianna Baggott.

 

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Pure by Julianna Baggott follows several characters but the main heart of the story belongs to Pressia, a young girl turning sixteen in a world that’s been obliterated by an atomic bomb ten years prior.

 

PURE by Julianna Baggott

 

Everyone on the outside of a Dome which served as protection for the “pures” are considered “wretches” and have some kind of fusing. In Pressia’s case, one hand has been covered by the doll’s head that she was holding at the time of the blast. Another character is fused with birds that are still alive and implanted on his back. Other characters are fused with other people like Siamese twins. It’s grotesque, and part of Pressia’s arc is to figure out whether she can accept herself for who she is or if she is better off finding a “cure” for her deformity. When a pure escapes from the Dome on a mission to find his mother, Pressia saves his life and the two of them start a journey discovering the truth about the Dome, the outside world, what happened, their families. As in The Wizard of Oz, they collect newcomers along the way who become integral to the overall story.

Pure (followed by Book 2 Fuse and Book 3 Burn) is an excellent series that offers a true sci-fi world, variety of character, and some more complicated writing than the young heroine in a dystopian/apocalyptic society stories we have seen in other series such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, Matched… Baggott’s use of changing POV within a selection of main characters but not ALL the characters offers the reader an opportunity to at times be complicit in wrongdoing, something not seen in these other series. I found myself uncomfortable with at least one of the main characters who kept disappointing my expectation of becoming the hero and rising above external manipulation. It was enlightening to see/read/experience characters from a direct POV who ultimately failed in their character arc. It was expertly handled by Baggott.

I highly recommend it. I’m not sure it came to a full resolution at the end of Burn, but endings are always hard, and in such a rich and complex story, I am not sure what I would have done differently.

In all, I’m not sure I understand why it hasn’t done as well as the previously mentioned series like The Hunger Games.  When I wanted to purchase Pure, I had to order it online; no store carried it.  I wonder if it’s because the love story is not as central as it is in the other series, though it’s certainly there.  It’s a more difficult read and I didn’t get caught up in the same passion and urgency to continue reading the way I did with the other series.  However, I think it’s a testament to its writing and characters that it couldn’t be treated as pulp.  I can see how it may have benefited from more action and a different style of description for the dramatic conflict scenes.  As a writer, it’s an interesting question.  Thoughts always welcome!

 

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Jennifer Waldo has been writing and directing for film and video for the last ten years, including the short video SISTERS now in post production. A lifelong writer and photographer, Jennifer began her career working in the documentary/educational film industry of her hometown, Washington, DC.  She graduated from the Quaker school Sidwell Friends and went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts with honors in English at Oberlin College. Wanting to hone her skills as a filmmaker, Jennifer spent three years earning her MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she won the Edward Small Directing Scholarship for her existentialist film ROOM 119 (2001) and wrote and directed her 35mm USC graduate thesis SEARCHING FOR ANGELS (2006).  After graduating USC in the spring of 2004, Jennifer’s thesis film screened at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles as part of the April 2006 First Look Festival. Working in Houston, Texas, over the last few years, Jennifer completed a set of twelve educational videos for a local Montessori School and EVERYTHING BEGINS AT B.I.R.T.H. (2007) about non-profit organization BIRTH founded by midwives. Jennifer’s romantic comedy screenplay HONEYMOON ADVENTURERS was selected as a “Screwball Comedy” Finalist in the Broad Humor Screenplay Contest in July 2006 and her feature-length script adaptation of SEARCHING FOR ANGELS was a quarter-finalist in the 2008American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest.  In November 2008, Jennifer won the “NaNoWriMo” writing challenge with an 85,000-word novel written over a 30 day period. In addition to writing and directing, Jennifer is also a producer, most recently working on the independent feature film THE PREACHER’S DAUGHTER (2012), showing on Lifetime.  Jennifer produced several USC graduate thesis films including the festival favorites UNSYNCABLES AT ANY AGE (2003), FIST OF IRON CHEF (2004), and PEBBLES (2005), as well as the A.C.E.-sponsored HD documentary  THE CUTTING EDGE: THE MAGIC OF MOVIE EDITING (2004). Jennifer currently teaches filmmaking at Houston Community College’s Audio Recording and Filmmaking Department, Spring Branch Campus. She is also a longtime member of Women in Film in Los Angeles, California.

 

***

 

To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

I love bacon and Ranch dressing, but I’m sort of tired of those being the driving factors in my pasta salad, so here’s something a little different with a little bit of a Mediterranean flair. It’s quite light, especially if you go easy on the homemade dressing (and if you want to swap it out for a different dressing you like better, you can). This recipe makes enough for a party, so if you aren’t throwing one, cut the recipe in half or plan to have leftovers.

pasta salad

ingredients for pasta salad:

  • 1 package tri-color pasta of your choice––I like the corkscrew kind.
  • 1 package edamame, shelled––Follow the cooking instructions on the bag.
  • 1 can baby corn
  • 1 can dark red kidney beans (low sodium preferred), drained
  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained––You can substitute garbanzo beans (chick peas) if you like.
  • 1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 small jar kalamata olives, drained
  • 1 small package crumbled feta cheese
  • 3 or 4 stalks of heart of palm, sliced into discs

ingredients for homemade dressing:

  • garlic salt
  • lemon pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil––Make sure you go with a brand that tastes good!
  • lemon juice

Boil the water for the pasta for a dollop of olive oil instead of salt. Follow the instructions on the pasta.

Follow the instructions on the edamame to steam them.

Drain and rinse the canned/jarred ingredients.

Mix all the yummies together in a large bowl.

Now for the dressing, which is a Lebanese dressing my grandmother and mom taught me, and which I use for many kinds of salad. Add the garlic salt and lemon pepper to taste. I usually cover the entire bowl with each spice because it will be mixed in with a lot of pasta salad. (You can be more generous with the lemon pepper; if you add too much salt the flavor won’t feel light or refreshing.) Add enough olive oil to coat everything slightly but not enough for the oil to collect at the bottom of the bowl. Add a generous dollop of lemon juice. Mix everything together.

Serve cold. Enjoy!

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