Monday, November 28, 2005

Insert clever title here

My sister visited for 24 hours this weekend, and I took no pictures. We had a marvelous time — Helena insists "Ciocia Iwonka est tres drole," though I fail to see it — and we remain basking in the glow of the birthday gifts she lavished upon us.

We went for a walk in the snow to buy bagels to send home with my sister. Even as we discussed the pointlessness of, for example, mothers sending their grown children home with pre-packaged goods. But these are Montreal bagels.

I later made awesome sandwiches, with bagels of my own and leftover roast beef, inspired by Jamie Oliver, even though just hours earlier I'd snickered at the thought that the book (a gift to me, which I'd requested) should include sandwich recipes. Who needs a recipe for sandwiches? But I admit the usefulness of such advice as "if your eyes don't water you need more mustard." (I'm convinced, perhaps wrongly, that I don't need a cookbook, I just need inspiration.)

Other gifts I'll be enjoying over the weeks to come:
Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (U.S edition, which cover art I prefer), inscribed to me personally, though I'm debating postponing its reading till after I've familiarized myself with the Homer's Odyssey. Ya, right.
Japer Fforde's The Big Over Easy, a Nursery Crime book (in which he signed himself just Jasper).
And Gormenghast on DVD.
Oh, I am so lucky.

Helena's trainset — from drole Ciocia Iwonka — is awesome!

Helena drives all the little trains into their "house" (repair shop). Then the tugboat knocks on their door and they all have tea. Helena turns them all on their side and kisses them goodnight. When they wake up they have turns at running Mr Topham Hatt off the bridge.

How do I explain that the picture on the box in no way necessitates the manner in which we configure the tracks? Helena insists on this and is wary of any deviation. Almost as much as I insist we look to the picture on the box for guidance in completing jigsaw puzzles.

A couple weeks ago Helena wanted me to open the 500-piece jigsaw puzzle stored on the top shelf of her closet, and very stupidly, I caved in to her demands. Of course it's too hard! Of course she mixed all the pieces up with the 100 of another puzzle she was helping me with! This weekend, she wanted to try that puzzle again, and stupidly, I thought it'd be a great opportunity to sort all 600 pieces to their respective boxes. I am so stupid. And very mad at myself for being impatient with her for moving around already sorted pieces, breaking apart and reconfiguring already built borders. I hate that feeling of wronging my daughter, almost as much as I hate being interrupted while puzzling. And when I heard Helena ask if the reason Papa was getting her ready for bed was "parce que Mama est busy," I cried.

On the up side, she's as drawn to jigsaw puzzles as I ever was (and I have not been pushy about it — cross my heart and kiss my elbow!). I can't wait for the day, 2 or 3 Christmases from now, I reckon, when Helena, my sister, and I huddle together for long hours, in our pyjamas, drinking port or tea, refusing to go to bed till the damn puzzle's done. Damn puzzles.


It's that time of year again for The Great Canadian Literary Quiz. Does anybody do well on these? Is it me, or are they hard? I can answer 7 of 40 (confidently, if not with certainty). One of the possible answers to #12, though I don't know if it's the "highbrow" one, is Joseph Mitchell, and I mention it only because Joe Gould's Secret, both the book and the movie, had a profound impact on me — cuz it's not about Joe Gould at all, it's about Joseph Mitchell's obsession — and you should read it, watch it, love it, be awed.

Last week I purchased, as a post-birthday treat, the latest Lemony Snicket book, and read it one evening and afternoon. A bit of a letdown, really, not nearly so strong in plot or parody as the preceding volumes. But yes, I look forward to the 13th and final instalment.

I'm taking a break from A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman. While the characters are multifaceted and emotionally complex, Byatt writes rather clinically about them. Whether this is her intention or her failure I have yet to determine. I loved the ideas in Babel Tower, felt intellectually (and consequently emotionally) involved. But with this follow-up novel I feel completely removed, and disappointed. However, it persists in having an organic dialogue with other recently read books: Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (both of which I still intend to write a little something about).

I'd received from J-F a book that surprised me — I'd made no mention of wanting to read it; in fact, it had barely registered on my radar. But 100 pages in, I'm finding Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys to be a lovely light diversion and, in this sense, a very fitting birthday gift after all.

I feel like I'm forgetting something.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


A Scribe's Lament
A scribe was asked, "What is pleasure?"
He answered, "Parchment, papers, shiny ink, and a cleft reed pen."

A card bearing this quotation sits in a glass case among precious manuscripts and instruments of writing.

Celebrating Scribes, Scholars, and Conservators
An exhibition of rare Islamic manuscripts is presently on display in the McLennan Library Lobby from September 1st to November 30th, 2005. The selection includes bound Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts, some of which reveal the finest examples of book illustration and illumination. In addition, the exhibition features early fragments of the Qur'an on parchment, wooden writing tablets, a miniature scroll, lacquer pen boxes, and beautiful calligraphic pieces.

The works are housed in 4 display cases — a disappointingly small exhibit, but a rich one.

One case features Koran excerpts; another samples some figurative illustrations for works of poetry and other books; the third showcases writing materials, a variety of parchment and paper, tablets, lacquered book boards, and a lacquered pen case.

The fourth case is devoted to documenting the process of preservation, showing reinforced scrolls and explaining the failures of previous preservation techniques (scotch tape glue that can't be removed). Conservation boxes are being custom built for the pieces in this collection.

I learn of the talismanic inscription ya kabikaj, contained on many manuscripts to protect the book from worms and insects.

While the majority of texts, outside the Qu'ran, purportedly are scientific and medical, none were in obvious evidence.

Descriptions of the material on display also inform as to the preparations undertaken by a scribe before copying the Qur'an; the vast number of script styles; the usual parts and formats of books; and the illuminations therein, over the last millennium; the differences in style and colour in Persia and India; and the rarity and quality of figurative illustrations, disapproved of in many Muslim circles.

This last point gives me a visual reference for Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (excerpt). The mystery that is the novel's reason for being was not nearly so engrossing as the exposition of the philosophy of the miniaturist's art and the difference in attitudes toward art in the East and West, particularly through the filter of religion.

A highlight is the illuminated manuscript of the Persian epic Book of Kings. The exhibition was a pleasant way to spend 40 minutes, leaving me in awe of my vast ignorance (McGill's Islamic library is at my disposal to rectify this).

Birthday redux

Monday, November 21, 2005


Yesterday, we celebrated Helena's 3rd birthday. The day was filled with balloons, strawberries, family, all things Dora, and petroleum by-products.

[Picture to follow, when the computer decides to settle down and cooperate. Stupid computer, I hate you! I just wanted to post a picture of my little girl blowing out her candles. She'd been practicing.]

Thirty-three years ago today, I also celebrated my 3rd birthday:

But today, I'm still in my pyjamas! And I'm surrounded by fresh gerber daisies (and day-old balloons)! And I had cold pizza and leftover cake for breakfast!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Book checkup

Canadian books
The Globe and Mail reports on the newly released list of the top 100 Canadian books (of which I've read a whopping 8) published in The Literary Review of Canada.
The point was to pick books that shaped the national psyche rather than judging literary merit, she explained, adding that the list, which does include 11 French-language titles, did not attempt a comprehensive overview of Quebec books.

Book lust
Cross Country Checkup this Sunday checks up on books, offering recommendations for Christmas gift giving, and blog-buddy Patricia of Booklust will be joining Rex Murphy to talk about some of her favourite books.

Book pride
Blog-buddy Rachel has a few things to say about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the book and the new film version. If you think you know anything about this book, and I don't think I do, read her review and be enlightened.

Boy book
It's A Boy, edited by Andrea Buchanan, a collection of essays on the experience of raising boys, has been released, and the blog tour is in full swing. I've been following it with great interest, even though I don't know anything about boys, let alone raising them. Excerpts of the essays are posted on Andi's blog (Mothershock) along with discussions with the book's contributors. There you'll also find links to those blogging about the book, including personal reflections on specific essays and interviews with Andi.

Whether you have a boy or girl, infant or teenager, there's much food for thought in this collection regarding gender stereotypes, societal expectations, and general motherhood-induced anxieties. I don't have a copy of the book myself, but I know someone who's getting it for Christmas. I'm also looking forward to being part of the blog tour to promote the companion volume, It's A Girl, in the spring.

Book don
In case you missed the news, I did finish reading Don Quixote. It's not too late to say something about it.

Book store
I dropped into a big-box bookstore the other day, just for a minute, and while these visits tend to feed various frustrations, I overheard an exchange that restored my faith in the employees.

A mother was asking how long before the most recent Lemony Snicket book is available in paperback. Her son is very impatient. Well, it seems none of them are in paperback. But rather than push the sale of the hardcover, the employee struck up a conversation with the boy in question (and I paraphrase):

"You know, sometimes I wait 2, 3 years for a paperback. There's so many other things to read in the meantime. Do you know what the price difference is? If I wanted the hardcover straight away, I'd have a to work a whole extra 2 hours here to pay for it."

Of course, the employee may not know anything about books, but he did seem to know something about customer relations.

I thought about piping in to reassure the kid, that maybe he could wait till Christmas — someone would surely find it in their heart to give him the gift of book the twelfth, even though it allegedly recounts ghastly unfortunate events. Heck, I'm still waiting, hoping it finds its way into a birthday package for me next week.

Friday, November 18, 2005


This morning, I got a cheap haircut. Since moving to Montreal 3 and a half years ago, I've tried a few different Aveda salons, but none of my experiences came close to rivalling that stemming from the relationship I'd had with my hairdresser in Ottawa.

I've never been overly concerned with my hair: I run a brush through it in morning, most days; I don't own a blow-dryer. If it takes more than 2 minutes to make it look acceptable, it's not my fault or the lack of product — it's the haircut.

Bill knew my hair. We treated it well and shared a philosophy — you must be true to the hair, embrace what it wants to be. (And he knew me too: perhaps most precious of all to me in a hair salon, we were comfortable in each other's alternating silliness and silences.)

Within 3 blocks of home are 3 haircutting establishments: one very prestigious; another brand new and boasting a hip, urban feel (but it turns out just barely beyond the price limit I'd established for myself, which I thought about fudging, but rules are rules...); and one that has a local feel and looks more like a barbershop. It's probably been there for 70 years, as has most of its clientele.

(Within 5 blocks are at least another 4. I'm getting the feeling we moved into the hair district of this town.)

I opted for the "barbershop." Half the price of the joint across the street, and half the time I'm used to spending, too. And it looks okay! And the clincher, I feel great! To the benefit of myself, my hair, and local small business, I may do this more often.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Un bon chocolat chaud

Yesterday was picture day at daycare. I'd been talking it up to Helena for a few days, particularly the point that I'd set aside a specific outfit for the event, mostly so she wouldn't freak out over not having her usual choice between two outfits in the morning. On this point I needn't've worried. She loves her skirt, and no matter that the pantyhose look distressingly uncomfortable, she delights in pulling them on by herself. (Perhaps it's the novelty of them. Or maybe they have the technology, they really are more comfortable than in my day.) She flits about, twirling, shouting "look at my skirt!" repeatedly, to me, Papa, the cat. And freshly coiffed too. Picture perfect.

Eight hours later, J-F carries Helena kicking and screaming into the house. She's been like this all day, he tells me. Cranky. When picture time came, she wouldn't sit still. She cried and ran and hid. I have mixed feelings about not having a photo to commemorate the experience.

We put the turmoils of our respective days behind us with a cup of hot chocolate. Helena's skirt and hose sagging, toddler belly protruding from under a now-splattered shirt. This is the only photo captured.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Things grammatical

A serious question
What's the difference between a syllepsis and a zeugma? Yes, I'd really like to know. Please.

A silly question
Which Punctuation Mark Are You?

I'm an ellipsis. . .
Your life can be difficult because of your insecurities, but you should know that it isn't your fault. YOU didn't ask to be thrown in around thirty times per page in every bodice-ripper on the shelf! Those who overuse you can kiss your . . . you know. You need to learn to hold your head high and glory in your solitude. You really do have excellent, scholarly tastes. You must never forget that your friend, the period, will be there to support you at the end of every sentence where you truly belong, and, if what is left out is as important as what is said, why, then you are as vital as the alphabet!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Arbitrary book marks

José Saramago in interview (via comments left at Bookpuddle) on his new novel, Las intermitencias de la muerte (no publication date available for an English translation), the premise of which is "what would happen if we were eternal beings."
The truth is that I didn't intend to be humorous, it just came out like that. I have to confess that I enjoyed writing about a subject as serious as death, although we all know that we can't laugh much about death because it is death that ends up by laughing at us. We shouldn't think of death as an entity, a 'grim reaper' waiting outside for us, but something that is inside ourselves, that each one of us carries within, and that when our body comes to an agreement with it, then our lives end.

So not dying is a failure to recognize something essential within ourselves? My grandmother died at age 99, I think only because she'd finally decided to.

The Guardian on Paul Auster.
One view, especially common on this side of the Atlantic, is that he is an American writer of European descent ... "The book that convinced me I wanted to be a writer was Crime and Punishment. I put the thing down after reading it in a fever over two or three days ... I said if this is what a book can be, then that is what I want to do." He laments the declining interest in foreign fiction in America. "Are young people still reading Gide?" He calls this neglect "the great tragedy of American publishing. It's the way American culture has evolved. We've become very hermetic. We're not interested in others any more. It's hurt us politically and it's hurt us culturally. We've lost our taste for what I would call 'the exotic'."

That first sentence puzzles me — is that view wrong? What makes an "American writer"? I don't think Paul Auster will ever write "the great American novel." They mean, perhaps, he's descended from the European literary tradition, he's a European writer, but happens to be American.

From A Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt:
But always remember that one map of another man's thought always runs the risk of becoming a string of shortcuts between arbitrary landmarks.

A propos of nothing, authors I wish would write something else for me to read:
Mark Z Danielewski, who wrote House of Leaves (audio excerpts)
Glen David Gold, who wrote Carter Beats the Devil (excerpt)

It's snowing!

And it takes my breath away! I can't stop smiling!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Showing how easy it is to drop a habit

even when it's a good one. And how easy it is to pick it up again. I hope.

I've been thinking about writing — generally, here, something, I know not what — for days, but the inclination has not been strong enough to find the opportunity to do so.

I've just returned from a wonderful yet totally unproductive shopping excursion. I bought nothing, except a porkchop, which I don't think should count. I'm mildly disappointed that I did not find any fluffy animal slippers, which I'm hoping to buy for Helena on the occasion of her birthday this weekend. And that I couldn't decide which jigsaw puzzle she'd like best. No, that's not true — she'd like a Dora puzzle, but a bigger one than she's already mastered, and I did spot one, but I couldn't bring myself to actually buy it cuz, frankly, I'm kind of sick of Dora — we have a puzzle, a bag, a DVD, some figurines, as well as the somewhat more practical pillowcase, shirts, socks, and underwear. However, I expect as Helena's special day nears, I will succumb to that great marketing machine. But not today.

But it's a lovely fall day, and I've been crunching through leaves, and the air is crisp (almost too cold to go a-wandering without a beret, but that replacement purchase will have to wait for another day), and the moon is huge as I was heading home, and I feel almost like I'm in love.

Also, I'm very excited that my sister is coming for a visit next week, and she tells me she's bringing Helena a trainset. I can't wait! And she's bringing me a signed copy of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, because it's soon to be my birthday too, even though this makes me feel slightly pressured to actually read the Odyssey now.

The weekend was full of sleeping and reading and walking and taking the girl for a haircut and also watching Charlotte's Web, more than twice, which I haven't watched in its entirety for many years, though I have tried to introduce it to Helena a few times. I guess it's finally taking. And this in part is contributing to my overall cheeriness, because running through my head all day is that silly little song "Chin Up," and while getting tunes stuck in one's head is generally pretty annoying, it's hard to go wrong with a sentiment like that. The movie is also pretty jarring cuz there's all that reality of farmlife and death, which is a good thing, the reality, but I'm quite suprised at the strength of my instinct to protect the kid from all that.

Last week I drafted thoughts aplenty on the Peter Carey book I'd finished reading. I will likely post said thoughts here shortly, possibly without even reviewing them. I'm slightly weirded out by the dialogue the books I've been reading of late are having with me and amongst themselves — they seem all to be referring to each other, and I don't know if it's coincidence, or the magical cast of Don Quixote on my reading life, or if maybe I'm a little bit smarter and better able to see connections than I used to be.

And now I will go cook a porkchop.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

My ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark week

Helena has insisted on waking at 5 am every day this week. Though I find myself indulging in little post-lunch siestas, I'm feeling a little deprived on the sleep front, particularly as I'm struggling to keep on top of work deadlines.

This morning I woke with her little face staring at mine, mere centimetres away, again at 5 am. I was hopeful when she crawled into bed with us that I might enjoy another hour of slumber before she pulled me by the hand to come play with her. Only 10 minutes later she was squirming.

Her pillow, which she carries with her in the early morning, was neatly centred between the adult heads. Her teddy bear, in repose on said pillow, between our warm bodies. Helena tucks him in carefully with her own blanket and a kiss before pulling the duvet back up over our shoulders and wriggling out down the middle to the foot of the bed.

Minutes later she's at my side again. "Fix it," as she struggles to replace the dust jacket on her book. My sleepy fingers fumble a little but she's pleased to finally see the book intact. She looks at me, waiting. "J[e n]'ai pas capable read it toute seule."

So she leads me by the hand to the spot she cleared on the floor outside her room. A blanket to sit on, a pile of books to the side. And we read about Kitten, and Green Sheep, and Bootsie Barker, and others before she helps me make coffee an hour later.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A neoplastic lightbulb

A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman:

Mondrian, too, had been in Hampstead in 1938 and 1939, painting severe black and white grids with discrete peripheral rectangles of red, yellow and blue. Mondrian believed that everything — the sum of things — could be represented by these three colours, with black, white and grey, within the intersections of verticals and horizontals. The colours were signs, denoting all the colour in the world, symbolising everything, purple, gold, indigo, flame, blood, earth, ultramarine, even green, which Mondrian could not bear to look at. The straight lines represented the refinement of spiritual vision. They were the intersection of the infinite flat horizon, and the infinite vertical, travelling away from earth into the source of light. They avoided the tragic capriciousness of the dreadfully particular curves of flesh, or even of the changing moon. The vertical line was taut, and was the tension of all things. The horizontal line was weight and gravity. The figure of the Cross was the meeting of vertical and horizontal, and intrinsic form of the spirit. The movement of waves on the sea, the form of the starry sky, could be represented with patterns of little crossings. Diagonals, according to Mondrian, were not essentially abstract, and should be eschewed. Wijnnobel thought this system was mad in its man-made purity, and yet found it endlessly beautiful in its own implacable terms. There were many triads of "primary" colours, of which, for historical reasons, Mondrian had picked one. It was one vision of necessity, of the building blocks of the universe. A theory of everything.

Reading to my kid

From The Globe and Mail:
Parents take note: Reading to your preschoolers before bedtime doesn't mean they are likely to learn much about letters, or even how to read words.

A new study shows that while storybook time has developmental benefits, preschool children pay very little attention to the printed words on a page.

"There are all kinds of parents who are reading to their children believing that it's going to help their children to learn how to read," said Mary Ann Evans, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph and co-author of the study.

"That's true to an extent in that reading to your children will help them develop an understanding of storyline. But it's not necessarily helping them to learn how to decode the words on the page."

(Read the study abstract.)

This doesn't surprise me.

I never thought the point of reading to kids was to teach them to read. The most one can hope to do is foster a life-long love of reading and books.

I do not read to Helena every day. When we do read together, it's usually not at bedtime. That's not something I ever anticipated saying in regards to a child of mine.

When she was crib-bound and a captive audience, I read her a short book every night, one of a handful of her obvious favourites. Now that she's a little older, more verbal, I've let her exercise choice. We have a bedtime story every night for about a week, then maybe two weeks off before she decides to again include a book in her nightly preparations. Still, every night as I tuck her in I ask her if she'd like a story. "Non, mama. Pas un histoire. Bonne nuit."

We do, however, read books together in the morning, or more usually after supper. She arranges cushions and blankets, on the floor in the hallway or on the sofa, and gathers her friends about her. (Elmo usually sits in my lap.) Then she ceremoniously hands me her book of choice. It's nursery rhymes and sing-along books as often as it is my old paperbacks of Winnie-the-Pooh (with black-and-white illustrations so faded and tiny as to be nonexistent).

"Read," she commands.

Of course, there's not much reading going on. She counts the ducks in the picture's wallpaper background. She names objects, hypothesizing about their relationships to one another. A picture of a squirrel in a park leads to some anecdote or other, and we talk about our days. But if there's ever a lull in our converstation, she taps her finger on the text and tells me, "Read."

I've relinquished the romantic image I've always held of mother and child reading together. I've also realized that my own reading experience has always been a solitary one. I ensure she has every opportunity to develop a relationship with books. If nothing else, I lead by example, with my nose in a book of my own any spare minute she grants me.

Lately, Helena has been noticing labels, from Halloween candy wrappers to the tags on her clothing. "C'est ecrit He-le-na," she suggests hopefully, and I rejoice. She knows! She knows that those regular scratchings encode some mystery for her to crack.

If you want to teach your kid to read, point at the letters, the study suggests.

Helena is very good at jigsaw puzzles, at spatial problems, pattern recognition. To my mind, written text falls into the same category of analysis. And the more data available, the clearer the pattern that emerges. Written words are part of our backdrop. Whether Helena grows up to love reading remains a question mark, but there's no doubt that she will learn to read, and, I suspect, soon.

The point of storytime, on the other hand, is not the words on the page — it's a huge exercise in communication and comprehension. It's forging a bond, if not between a girl and books, between mother and daughter.

Listening to scientific reason

The Vatican reaffirms John Paul II's 1996 statement that evolution is "more than just a hypothesis."

Cardinal Paul Poupard:
"The faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity."

Monday, November 07, 2005

When pretend eerily echoes reality

Yesterday, Helena, while working at a jigsaw puzzle, sighs a sigh of complete and utter exasperation at (no longer dancing because if Helena accidentally sets him off she knocks him over hard, clunk, to make him stop so now battery-less) Elmo, sitting quietly (I thought) in the corner, who wants her to pick him up again.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Things I haven't done today

but had planned on doing, and probably should've done.

Get dressed (which process includes showering).

Go to the library. Not that I'm a regular library-goer (the shame!), but having finally finished Don Quixote, I'm inspired to see this exhibit. Maybe tomorrow.

Buy a replacement black beret. Every year I buy one, and every year I lose it. Last year, I didn't lose it till the very tale end of the beret-wearing season, which was rather convenient, except for that now beret season is upon me and I'm unprepared.

Modify the kid's hat such that the ties are regulation length and not a potential tool of strangulation — they shall fasten by velcro instead, which I imagine is equally potentially lethal. No fastening at all and the hat would just fall off and be rendered useless.

Finish reading Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake, of which I'd managed to read only the opening pages a couple weeks ago on the métro, and the setting aside of which, in a concerted effort to finish DQ, genuinely disappointed me, and which has thoroughly engrossed me all day long. I'm loving it. What the heck am I doing sitting at the computer?

That's it. I've decided not to count making the bed, doing laundry, and all those other mundane household tasks. Also, I'm not counting rearranging even more furniture and sorting through boxes of crap, cuz that's an ongoing project.

Good thing I didn't set my ambitions too high this weekend. I have drunk 3 bottles of beer and the better half of a bottle of crappy red wine. And I'm eating salted peanuts.

It's NaDruWriNi!

And I'm so drunk already I almost forgot!

I haven't officially signed on to participate in National Drunken Writing Night (and I'm not sure I'm even eligible, being Canadian — what is the internet nation?), but consider this my show of solidarity.

Conveniently, we dropped the kid with her grandmother last night! And I slept in! And I'm still in my pyjamas! And I've been drinking since 3! And J-F will be watching the hockey game tonight! And I won't!

Last night, we dined at Momesso's. Best subs ever!

The first time I went to Momesso's was April 2002, days after moving to Montreal and having spent almost all of those first few days sick and exhausted in bed. (I didn't yet know that I was pregnant, but I was, though I'd attributed the sickness and fatigue — and, yes, missed periods — to the stress of packing and moving, leaving a job I'd loved and a city I'd known for some 15 years. And also to the paint fumes).

Painters painted around boxes and unassembled furniture. I languished on a futon in a corner of the corner room. Appliances had not yet been purchased, so we were living off dry goods (read: crackers) and take-out.

And there was J-F taking a day off work to meet up with old buddies at Momesso's before the Expos home-opener, and I'd already finished reading the only book I'd kept out of the boxes (Rose Tremain's Music and Silence — I wept), and as much as I don't get baseball, I wanted to go to. And I had the best sub ever!

Momesso's is something of a local legend, owned by a washed-up NHLer and boasting photos and other memorabilia of moments in Canadiens history. But really, it's all about the subs.

Many years ago, before I met J-F, I attended a costume party (I'm betting it was Halloween, although perhaps I'm conflating my memory of it with another party at the same venue — maybe it was just a regular party, and we weren't costumed) with a friend (hi, Bethann!). This guy threw awesome parties.

We ensconced ourselves in the kitchen ("you will always find me in the kitchen at parties"), seated ourselves on the countertop. No need to mingle. The party would come to us. Everyone goes through the kitchen.

And it seems one other fellow had a similar idea. I don't think he knew anybody, don't know why he was there, but he had a story. He stood by the fridge, waiting for an unsuspecting audience to whom he could tell his story.

He told his story easily a dozen times that night, to a dozen different audiences. Oddly, he never the felt the need to tell it to us directly, but after a few retellings, we knew his story verbatim, and Bethann and I for weeks afterwards delighted in retelling it ourselves, in his words, at the pub (damn, I miss the Manx).

Sadly, but for one particularly evocative phrase, I no longer remember his words. I do remember that he was freshly arrived from Vancouver. Somehow, he would steer conversation with his victims to the topic of food, providing the opportunity to tell them about the best burger he'd ever had, in Vancouver.

An unassuming storefront, a hippie-ish, vaguely vegan feel. Hungry, and not expecting to be sated in a place like this. But the burger! Garnished with sprouts. He had doubts. But so thick and meaty, the juices dripping over his hands, down his arms, (here, he tugged at his elbow) "into the nipple of my sweater."

And that's what the subs at Momesso's are like.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The impossible dream

I finished it. All 940 pages. The 52 chapters of part 1, the 74 chapters of part 2. A little behind schedule, but here we are. Don Quixote rocks!

I read Don Quixote for fun, to see what the big deal was. And it was fun.

I love the chapter descriptions (these are a sampling from Part Two):
Chapter IX Which recounts what will soon be seen
Chapter XXIV In which a thousand trifles are recounted, as irrelevant as they are necessary to a true understanding of this great history
Chapter XXXI Which deals with many great things
Chapter LIV Which deals with matters related to this history and to no other
Chapter LXVI Which recounts what will be seen by whoever reads it, or heard by whoever listens to it being read


I have no intention of writing a thesis, but I do have some thoughts. Ahem.

The 2 parts, published 10 years apart, have very different feels. I much prefer the second. While the first boasts many more adventures (or so it seems — the pace is frenetic) with characters of all walks, each with colourful histories of their own, the second is a little more static in its setting and players, slower, richer in its characterizations, with a more philosophical outlook on the events that unfold. (Or maybe this opinion simply reflects the time it took me to properly settle into the book.)

If you've read only the first portion, you're missing out.

As metanovel
Not only is Don Quixote commonly cited as the first novel, it is sometimes called the first postmodern novel, or metanovel. How can that be?

(I've noted before that Don Quixote is Paul Auster's favourite book. "The Auster connection" is dicussed elsewhere. I can see already that my firsthand experience with Don Quixote will enhance my overall appreciation of all sorts of literature.)

Is Don Quixote postmodern? It is self-referential. There is a kind of metanarrative. What the fuck is "postmodern" anyway? Don Quixote reads as if it's of the great oral story-telling tradition. Stories within stories. A la 1001 Arabian (K)Nights. How we still tell stories today — "you'll never believe what happened to a friend of mine..." How we assimilate other people's stories as our own.

While authorship is called into question by postmodernists and the line between reality and fiction is blurred, all the time sporting an attitude of irony and self-consciousness, the real mystery is how our minds evolved to embrace the "modern" novel, where the only interface was a book's physical cover, beyond which we are completely immersed in a virtual reality. So the postmodern novel is a return to the premodern, stripping the illusion, pulling back the wizard's curtain, to show us the program architecture we always knew was there.

But what do I know?

The sidekick
Dare I say it? Sancho Panza is a much more interesting and complex character than Don Quixote.

And I still don't get him. Why does he stick with the mad man? Why doesn't he just turn around and go home? He knows Quixote is insane, he acknowledges that he himself is crazy to stand by him, he realizes they're being played for fools.

Why does he not come clean on the trick he played on Quixote, in which he presents a homely peasant girl as the beauteous Dulcinea under enchantment. Certainly he has his own best interests in mind at first, but later? Surely the Don's wrath would be easier to bear than the task Sancho is called upon to perform to break the enchantment. Can it be he simply does not want to break the illusion? He wants to believe. His unyielding loyalty to Don Quixote, or at least to the best interests of Don Quixote, is more steadfast, and more reasonable, than the proclamations of devotion of any knight. Or is he really all about the money?


Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches moves us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion . . . Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.

Umberto Eco said this in regards to Casablanca, but it applies equally well to Sancho Panza, the spouter of proverbs who won't shut up.

Sancho is governor of an "insula" for a few days; he rules well and wisely.

I like to think that it is Sancho who is the author of these tales; although he's illiterate, I imagine him recounting them to the Arab scribe, who takes some liberties in detailing Sancho's simple character.

Other stuff
What's with the duke and duchess? How cruel. "Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools." Don't they have anything better to do?

I was somewhat surprised not so much by the characterization of the Moors, either as individuals or as a people, given the time and place of writing, but by a few specific references to the Islamic faith as being inferior and destructive. Will read more on this.

"Tilting at windmills." While the windmill scene, very early among the adventures, presents a strong visual image, I'm not convinced it's the greatest, or most representative, in the book. I'm really surprised that the phrase took hold in so many languages. Possibly used be people who never got past the first 100 pages.

Loudest laugh-out-loud moment:
And turning to Sancho, he asked for his sallet helmet; Sancho did not have time to take out the curds and was obliged to hand him the helmet just as it was. Don Quixote took it, and without even glancing at what might be inside, he quickly placed it on his head; since the curds were pressed and squeezed together, the whey began to run down Don Quixote's face and beard, which startled him so much that he said to Sancho:

"What can this be, Sancho? It seems as if my head is softening, or my brains are melting..."

Short answers
The very best novel ever? Maybe. It's a better candidate than most.

My favourite novel? No. Not yet.

I will probably read it again before I die — parts of it, anyway.

Food for thought
I read an interview with Umberto Eco the other week, in which he dismisses the impossibility of translation. He later elaborates:

I believe that mine is the right philosophical attitude. The kind of reflections in analytical philosophy, in order to be supposedly scientific, don't analyse the real common language but only laboratory situations. For instance, the philosopher [Saul] Kripke illustrates an entire discussion on translation of proper names with the case of a certain Pierre who, being French, knew London as Londra. He was convinced that Londra was a beautiful city. He visited London without realising that it was Londra and wrote that London is an ugly city. Pierre is an idiot or a laboratory fiction. Human beings are not like that. You cannot create a philosophical discourse on the behaviour of a mad person.

With this quotation, as with most everything else I come across these days, I can't help but think of Don Quixote. Of course we do have philosophical discourse on the behaviour of Don Quixote. His imagination — and his library — was more vivid than his waking life as a gentleman in a nameless town. He's a laboratory fiction, but he's more real than real.

All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you have read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever.
— Ernest Hemingway

Summary of my DQ reading experience.
Also, some background.

Finding Copernicus

For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. I am aware that a philosopher's ideas are not subject to the judgement of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God. Yet I hold that completely erroneous views should be shunned.
— Copernicus

It's known that Copernicus was buried in the cathedral at Frombork, Poland, but his remains were never located.

The gothic cathedral, completed in 1388, has survived, with some additions and reconstructions, the devastation of the Thirteen Years' War, the Swedish Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars, as well as that of World War II.

Copernicus himself organized defences in the war against the Teutonic Order (1519—1524).

This week:
Jerzy Gassowski, head of an archaeology and anthropology institute in Pultusk, central Poland, said his four-member team found what appears to be the skull of the Polish astronomer and clergyman in August, after a one-year search of tombs under the church floor.

"We can be almost 100 percent sure this is Copernicus," Gassowski told The Associated Press by phone after making the announcement during a meeting of scientists.

Gassowski said police forensic experts used the skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled the features—including a broken nose and scar above the left eye—on a Copernicus self-portrait. The experts also determined the skull belonged to a man who died at about age 70.

The grave was in bad condition and not all remains were found, Gassowski said, adding that his team will try to find relatives of Copernicus to do more accurate DNA identification.

See the forensic facial recontruction.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The scary week behind us

The preface
Am I too late? All in all, it's been a rough week, but there's pictures to share and stories to tell. The stories have lost their luster — some bits were drafted before our cat difficulties, other bits are abbreviated. Forgive the incoherence. I'm tired.

The carving
Carving a pumpkin sounds like a lot of fun. The reality of it is a lot of work and a big mess. Helena chooses the design from a few I'd sketched — happy and starry-eyed over fierce and scary. Her enthusiasm wanes after one handful of goopy innards. Mommy is left to clean and carve the husk on her own.

Still, Helena beams at the finished product, and delights in placing her painted baby pumpkin inside the hollowed gourd.

(Photo of lit jack'o'lantern not taken. And now it's mouldy — no way I'm sticking my hand in there.)

A party
Saturday afternoon is the 3rd birthday party of one of Helena's classmates. Fun is had by all, including me. I entertain several catty thoughts about other parents, their parenting philosophies, and their children, but they have since all dissipated.

But I'm still in shock over how many toys and movies Rose has. No musical instruments though, which may explain why the keyboard we gave her was such a hit.

In the end, I was truly warmed by the birthday girl's delight in it all. And Helena's.

A nap

The sickness
J-F's mom and her de facto come for supper that evening. She insists on bringing the meal. I'm not quite sure what to make of this habit of hers, but I've come to accept it, so I'm slightly disappointed when she brings ingredients for me to assemble.

I awake Sunday to a screaming pain in my head, as if some clawed creature has hatched behind my eyes and is trying to scratch its way out. I throw up a few times and sleep. (In retrospect, I think I vomited from migraine-pain nausea, rather than anything gostrointestinally induced, though my body continues to complain of flu-like ache.) I drag myself out of bed to make Helena's hat a little more blue, and ensure her "robe" is cut and stitched to bear some semblance of sleeves.

The hat
Of which I am proud.

I give Helena the choice of donning her costume at home or putting it on at the daycare centre. She opts for the latter, but when the time comes, she is having none of it. She even tears off her turtleneck. I leave her whipping around in a spare t-shirt. I can only hope her mood improves in time for the kids' Halloween morning parade through the local shops and offices.

I have time for a coffee and a good long cry. I'd always thought the fun in dressing up came from the pride of conceptualizing something unique, being able to execute it oneself. But I may be wrong about this. I felt such embarassment trying to costume Helena that morning — her outfit looked so shabby beside the store-bought disguises of her classmates.

On top of which, it would seem that no one is familiar with Mickey Mouse's Sorceror's Apprentice. Lesson learned: never dress a child of limited communication skills in a costume that needs explaining. Even when it's of her own devising.


J-F and I rendezvous to see our daughter costumed — sans red cowl and white gloves, and hat backwards, but smiling and calm.

Worse tricks
When we get home, the cat, not well for a few days already, seems rather worse. A trip to the vet. We leave the cat there for x-rays. Pick up Helena. J-F will go to the follow-up appointment by himself.

Unless Helena absolutely insists, there will be no trick-or-treating. Fortunately, she had her fill that morning, and her pumpkin is already full.

On the phone with my mother, I start crying over the cat's likely fate. Helena notices. "Tue es sad?" She gives me a hug and makes faces.

J-F returns, without the cat, as we're preparing for bed. Helena asks where the cat is, and my instinct, before I know, but I already know, is to tell her the cat's staying with the doctor, because we can't take care of her properly at home. We save that conversation for the next day.

Additional treats
Although there is an elementary school at the end of our block, our stretch of street features mostly the backs of houses, so we had no ghoulish visitors. More candy for us.

Helena and I had spent our evening playing with face makeup crayons. That morning I had painted her a smile, a nose, some whiskers, to enhance the illusion (even though Mickey Mouse has no whiskers), but they were long gone.

Helena puts a spider on my left cheek. On the right, she paints a portrait of Blue's Clues' Joe (?!). For the record, in this photo, I am ghastly tired and not wearing my glasses, but I am sticking out my tongue (not shown).

For "dessert" this week, every day I let Helena choose two things from her basket. She tastes them and almost always sets them aside. We have learned that Helena does not like KitKat or Coffee Crisp (yay for me! except when she licks the chocolate off first). Nor does she like peanut butter. We knew this, but thought the candy bar factor might sway her. It has not (yay for J-F!). She likes only the outside of Tootsie Roll Pops. She does not like anything sour. She likes wine-gum-type candies, but, inexplicably, not red ones.

We all love Smarties, and we're learning to share.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Writing movies

The CBC recaps movie treatments of the writing life, noting in particular the dramatic depictions of creative inspiration and of writer's block. The list includes The Shining, Barton Fink, and Adaptation.

Missing from the list:
Henry and June
Naked Lunch
Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

all of which I love, and which feature as a source of inspiration — a cure but also occasional cause of block — to some degree or other, alcohol, sex, and drugs. Ah, the writer's life.

What movies would you add to the list?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rolly Cat

Yesterday we became a one-cat household, down from two.

Rolly wasn't particularly clever, but she was the sweetest, most good-natured, easy-going, eager-to-please cat we've ever known. Almost dog-like. In a good way.

She came to us as a foster pet about 7 years ago. She'd been dropped at the Humane Society pregnant too young and not expected to survive her condition, but survive she did. A scrawny thing, before she grew into her name.

We hadn't chosen her, but she made it clear she'd come to stay.

I hope we made a little difference in her little life.

She used to wrap herself around my head at night.

Nap buddy.

Partner in crime.

Bane of her shadow's existence.

Object of much affection.