Thursday, December 29, 2005

Helena, the red-nosed reindeer

Helena's been pushing bedtime this week like there's no tomorrow.

Well after she's been put down, she calls from the bottom of the stairs that she needs to go the bathrooom. I go turn on the light on for her.

She crawls back into my bed, having relinquished her own room to her grandmother and this evening forsaking the little mattress on the floor. She wants me to stay with her. I tell her I'll join her shortly. She's having none of it. I try to negotiate. I end up crawling into bed (my bed) with her.

I don't know why I offer to sing. She wants the song of the p'tit reine. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. I sing it softly, slowly. Four times. Helena's almost asleep. The fifth time I sing "Helena, the red-nosed reindeer." I don't know why. "Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, 'Helena, with your nose so bright...'"

Her eyes pop open. "Helena? HELENA?" she demands confirmation of what she's heard. I nod. She cannot accept this. "Le chanson est fini," she informs me. "Va, allez." I leave without a word to rejoin the others.



So all was well with the world, my world, if a little chaotic. Mostly. The house was warm. My mother rested after travelling, my sister arrived. J-F was gracious as he can muster, and Helena charming beyond belief.

Christmas Eve day was hectic for all except me, remarkably. I would've liked to do a little last minute shopping, but there was no one on whom to foist the responsibility of toddler watch; alas, they all are left without the intended stocking stuffers: socks, fine chocolate, bookmarks — can Christmas be complete without these elements? — for the acquisition of which there'd simply been no time. Just as well. Other people went for groceries and wine and their last-minute presents. And I made myself a cup of tea, gave Helena a cookie, and thought to myself, Aw, fuckit. Whatever. Sip. Smile. There is peace in this. Que sera, sera.

J-F bought a new set of dishes. Something I'd thought about doing weeks previously, but had ultimately decided against. There wasn't the time or money to do it right, with thoughtful consideration of price-for-value and practicality, let alone taste and preference. So we would eat off unmatched dishes. So what? But J-F at the last minute felt the pressure of the judgment his family would surely pass. And while I didn't care, he obviously did, very much, and I exercised as much support as I could on his behalf in the face of my family trying to convince us it didn't matter. We have new, matching dishes; they're not half-bad.

Being of Polish extraction, I've always celebrated Christmas in "a Polish manner," meaning primarily that we observe the occasion on Christmas Eve, we enjoy a meatless feast, and we open presents afterwards. The evening also bears a strikingly somber mood, though in my adulthood I've learned that has less to do with the Polishness of the celebration than it does with the deep-seated melancholy my mother unveils for special occasions.

(Somehow, throughout the day I break two wineglasses and a (old) plate.)

We were ready. Fridge fully stocked. Presents wrapped, tree loaded. All the clan showered clean and nicely dressed. Food simmering. Yvonne will make us cocktails before we sit down to dinner. She takes a knife to the seemingly unopenable plastic bottle of Clamato and stabs her hand such that she fears she's severed the tendon of the thumb. Blood everywhere.

J-F sobers up fast to drive her to the hospital. My mother, for some reason I don't know — by my instinct this is absolutely the wrong and counterproductive thing to do — decides to go with them. I'm left on toddler-watch, and kitchen-duty clean-up.

Blood. Everywhere. I throw out a dozen pierogi, a plate of bread, and the tomato and onion that were prepped for cooking fish, all of which were uncovered at the time of the incident. Red icecubes on the counter. I repackage herbs and various breads in clean — unspattered — cellophane. I scrub and bleach. I regret not taking pictures. I notice the differences between spatter and transfer. I trace my sister's path through the kitchen, the trajectory of her hand as she jerked it, shook it, raised it above her head.

The toddler wants to watch her movie, the DVD a gift from the daycare, documenting music classes, special visitors, and various outings (to the library, strolling the neighbourhood). I'm a little sad we can't watch it together, but there will be time for that, and it keeps her singing and away from the kitchen.

I've barely finished cleaning, I thought, and had time to pour a glass of wine as they return from the hospital. In the morning I find one remaining cupboard face I'd neglected to wipe down.

Dinner very late. Toddler very cranky. Sister has 5 stitches and is preferring alcohol to painkillers. Mother more anxious, agitated, than melancholy. J-F is more concerned for the following day's proceedings, not quite fully realizing that it's the day at hand that holds the weight of import in my family. But dinner is great.

Helena knows we're about to open presents. We all take a breather, a cigarette, brush our teeth, clear the table. I hear the rip of giftwrap from the next room and assume someone is taking advantage of a private moment. Helena soon pitter-patters into the kitchen exclaiming excitedly over her cadeau, un livre, how heavy it is. I see that it's Doris Lessing's Time Bites she wields, and think to myself, Hmmm. She's reluctant to relinquish it me, it's rightful new owner. But she does so when she realizes she can seize this opportunity to run for the tree and open more cadeaux. They're not quite all for her, and it doesn't matter.

Then there was Christmas Day, and J-F's family descended upon us, and it was fine. The turkey was cooked to near perfection (upside down). J-F made stuffing, cuz he really wanted to make stuffing. I "invented" some carrots with cranberries, which I'd resolved if reception were poor to blame on Jamie Oliver, even tho' he has nothing to do with it, but nevermind — they were delicious.

We drank.

There were a million incidents, words, glances. But really, none of it matters.

My mom spent Boxing Day in bed, still battling the effects of a day's travel, or a new cold. She tires easily. Awful daughter that I am and ever suspicious of people's motivations, I wonder how much of this behaviour is psychosomatic. (Sshhh, I didn't say that out loud.)

Our little nuclear unit pays a visit to the grand patriarch (J-F's grandfather).

The women spend an afternoon shopping.

All without incident. None of it's exactly easy, or normal, but it could be so much worse. I know that.

It's Christmas; what's the worst that could happen?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Week in review

Monday: bad parenting but with Christmas spirit
Everything off schedule. Still baking cookies when J-F and Helena arrive home. Helena decides to help, cuz it's just like pressing shapes out of PlayDoh after all, and this is wonderfully enjoyable and not nearly as messy as I'd anticipated. She loses interest only when the last sheet goes into the oven.

Helena's supper consists of cookies, chocolate, and some cookies for dessert. It takes her a little while to settle down for the night.

Tuesday: J-F's birthday
Passed almost unnoticed. He charges me with the task of dropping off the kid at daycare. Leaves message for me to pick up Helena, which I receive with just minutes to spare, rushing from one place to the next, checking the sofa for spare change for metro fare, and dropping dinner preparation. But he manages to pick up Helena after all, without telling me, leaving the premises barely minutes before I arrive. Minorly freaked out, majorly pissed off.

J-F enjoyed his office Christmas luncheon that day. Too satiated to further indulge in a properly celabratory birthday dinner. Too tired to enjoy each other's company.

Wednesday: parenting fuck-up number gazillion
Helena arrives at daycare fully clothed. But it's pyjama day. Fortunately, there are some extra communal pyjamas on site, which Helena happily changes into. When J-F called to tell me, I burst into tears. (I'd misunderstood the memo — damn my French — thinking pyjamas were reserved for "after-hours," during the cinq-a-sept wine and cheese for parents, which we'd decided not to attend.) I still tear up thinking about it.

Wednesday eve
J-F's mom arrives with our Christmas present — a central vacuuming system, which I simply cannot feel excited about, and I fear all my thanks sound insincere (cuz really they are). We don't even have any carpets. And really, it could've waited a week or two, but what's a couple extra gazillion boxes in the house when there's already an unassembled bedroom suite scattered about and houseguests due to arrive the following day.

The power is flickering off and on.

We wake up to cold. Cold! Because the power's off and our heating is electric. Only, weirdly, some lights are working, and even weirder, the computer is fine. But the phone is dead.

Hours later, Hydro Quebec trucks arrive. All the power goes off, which we take as a good sign, even though there are stacks of laundry and more baking to do. Phone service is back, whch compensates a little for lack of internet. Finally, power is restored, for about 20 minutes, long enough to get the next queued load fully wet. The electric cable that hangs across the street explodes, its two halves swinging back to their respective sides in full flame. I call 911.

J-F's cold, by the way, has knocked him flat on his ass, keeping him home from work and underfoot in our cold house. It's too dark to clean the bathrooms properly.

My mother comes to town, more or less according to schedule, even though she failed to meet her sister at the transfer point, causing all of us to wonder: how long before we file a missing person's report? She arrives more or less in one piece, though earlier in the week it was determined that the pain in her side she's been complaining about is in fact a fractured rib.

She arrives to our dark and now very cold house. Welcome to Montreal, Mom. So how do you like the condo?

Power is restored by about 10. Thank gawd.

The week's highlights
Stomping my feet, when I enter any building, even when not warranted.
Another shawarma at another food court.
The winter coat I bought for myself while I should've been shopping for presents for other people.
Helena's continued thrall with the Christmas tree.
J-F took Helena to the office this morning!
My mother seems more or less OK, with everything!
My sister arrives tonight!

And the best part:

Monday, December 19, 2005

What we have

We have a tree! Retrieved Saturday morning, pulled home on sled. By evening, Helena very excited about decorating it. Does not grok my protestations that she allow me to string lights before she hangs ornaments. Drags stepstool from bathroom to living room so she can reach higher branches. Proceeds to hang as many decorations as possible on the same, but high, branch.

(After she went to bed I redistributed these for balance, though I'm now a little sorry I did. I realize it's not my tree anymore. I had mine, with my favoured colours, styles, etc, for a couple years, but realistically, the tree won't be mine again till Helena moves out, assuming my preferences will still be strong enough to trump J-F's. Till then Helena hangs every ornament every well-meaning person bestows upon her — the tacky bears, and the Santas, and the outrageously huge stuffed bird — and I smile with her, admitting that a couple of the Santas are in fact rather artsy and unique.)

Last year Helena poked and pulled and sproing-ed and moved and dropped and broke a million ornaments. This year she's pretty happy to let the creation stand, except for one garland she keeps fussing with. I'm tempted to remove it altogether but I'm rather succumbing to the charm of her mutterings: "This way, this way... that way, around, around, around, comme ca!"

I fell in love with a beautiful and unusual starlike tree topper the other day, but decided it was a little too extravagant a purchase to be considering this year. Our tree remains topped by the traditional white Christmas, um, butterfly. And this fact makes me smile. Butterfly!

We have a bedroom suite! It arrived ahead of schedule, and delivery arrangements were efficient. It has yet to be assembled, but that can wait. I'm sleeping better already. We don't have a sofabed for my sister, but I don't care.

We have Christmas cookies! Two kinds! And they're delicious! I think I can manage another batch, something chocolatey, tomorrow.

We have an angel of a daughter! This morning I heard J-F checking in on her on his way to shower. She murmured drowsily that she just wanted to stay where she was for a few minutes. Soon after, she's peeking in on me. "Je vais faire un bisou et calin pour toi." She clambers through the bedding to hug me tight and plant a big, wet smooch on my cheek. We have waffles for breakfast.

Outrageous credulity in a skeptical age

Umberto Eco and the meaning of Chistmas:
I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together — as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions — which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

(Via Out of the Woods Now.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

More snow than you can shake a stick at

How the snow stormed down on us this morning! But our little family braved the elements (well, our vehicle did) and made it safely and on time for Helena's music-course end-of-term extravaganza — and what a spectacle!

As has been her practice for the last couple weeks when I drop her off, as soon as we cross the threshold of her classroom, Helena ducks under my coat. This schtick has been a real hit with her classmates. Before you can say "Helena, get out of there," my caboose has attached to it a 5-toddler train.

Music class itself is chaos. This year at least it's billed as something of a parent-participation special workshop event, not a "recital." We sing a couple songs, bang out some rhythms with various percussive instruments, and dance. That is, the grown-ups do. The kids hide in the bathroom, show off their shoes to each other, bark like dogs, meow like kittens, and butt heads like mountain goats. Toward the end of the dance segment, Helena inspires the lot of them to treat me as a maypole.

J-F and I are surprised to find that we're the only parents there (though there were a few absentees due to snow). This puts my mind at ease, finally, regarding the theatre fiasco of last spring. The irony of our being in attendance is that Helena spends most of the half-hour attached to my leg and not participating at all.

At the end of "class," they each receive a sticker on their record of participation, for which there is more enthusiasm than any thus far mustered, and spirited discussion regarding who has which different stickers follows.

And then I go Christmas shopping! And I buy a few things! I feel in control again — see, I just needed to write it down to help it sort itself out — this Christmas thing, certainly the shopping part, isn't so hard! I'm inspired! I know what to get for people! And the best part is I stop at a food court for lunch and have a shawarma — I've been craving one for weeks, and it's so much better after having had to wait for it — delicious!

The snow has stopped. Some people in the neighbourhood may have trouble finding their cars.

My angel enjoys hot chocolate after a busy day.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Take a deep breath

One step forward, two steps back.

There was a day at the end of November I panicked. Not directly regarding Christmas — I didn't see the point in worrying over gift shopping or food preparations — but it had everything to do with matters indirectly related to the holidays and the happy coincidence that people would be descending on our household. I fretted that my mother would not like the condo we now call home. That we are in many ways not yet entirely settled in our new home, that it's disorganized and not exactly fully furnished. These are things I can live with, have been living with, but can my mother live with them, even if only for a few days?

I'd been wondering why, at the end of November, would people start worrying? What's there to worry about? Christmas is coming — what joy! And others kindly reassured me that I was right — this, that, and the other would get done. I'd forgotten about this, that, and the other.

For one day at the end of November, I truly panicked. Where would my mother sleep? Where will my sister sleep? My mother will take Helena's room — really, she's of an age she'd like a room, with a closet and drawers, she's too old to live out of a suitcase being shuffled from one corner of the house to another, waiting for the bathroom to be free and for the household to settle down so she can sleep someplace without a door amid its traffic — now where will Helena sleep? Will we really find the time and money to buy a sofabed before my sister is again relegated to the current only couch, overstuffed and just a little too short? Is it true that my brother is actually considering joining us? Where will he sleep? Since when does he even like Christmas anyway? Is it possible that this would be the year he chooses to show up on time and sober for dinner? He hates Christmas. If he doesn't come, will my mother spend days wringing her hands over "poor Mark, alone for Christmas"?

For one day I panicked. Better to get the panicking over and done with, out of the way. Pretty lucky, I thought, if that's all the worrying I have to do and it inspired me to take charge, organize, do things.

One day's panic was fed by sickness. Helena's cold had her feverish for a weekend and home from daycare for 2 days. The same cold put me to bed for 2 more days. And then J-F, 4 days and counting. Me trying to DO things with people underfoot and not yet feeling 100% is less than 100% effective. Downright silly, even. Cleaning bathrooms and doing laundry, every day trying to clear an extra corner, but barely maintaining status quo. I should water the plants before they die.

I bought a carpet for the entranceway. It will define the space better than a dirty puddle. I cleared a spot for a tree, retrieved the Christmas-tree stand from J-F's mother's basement. We must get a tree. I bought hooks to fasten to doors for hanging bathrobes. I ordered a bedroom suite. Stupid. I should've ordered it weeks ago, but finances were confused, and I waited for that credit card to be cleared up, and then it was out of stock, and I panicked, but it's done now, and what the hell was I thinking, having bedroom furniture delivered just before Christmas, we won't have time to assemble it, there won't be room for extra boxes, and certainly my mother won't benefit from this, but dammit I want a grown-up bedroom, we deserve one, how nice it'll be to have a bedroom one wants to spend time in, though I doubt we'll want to during the holidays if it's full of extra furniture and boxes, and then we have to get rid of the futon, at least its base, unless we buy another futon mattress, then houseguests can sleep on it, if we can make it fit in the family room — I doubt it.

And the poor kitty-cat who stands meowing at our back door, every day for a week now, he comes in the evening and meows frantically. The second night we put food and water out for him, but he looks healthy, has a collar, young but not a kitten anymore, we think he's a fixed male, he must have a home, but the nights are cold and there he is meowing plaintively, so we put down some blankets and left the door open to our outdoor storage area. Another day passed — we don't see him during the day — and there was hope he belonged to someone in our building who accidentally locked him out when she went away for the weekend, but she returned and her cats are in fact accounted for. We've let him inside a couple times, but he's frantic and wants out, so we let him out thinking he'll go home, but he paces a little and runs off through the snow and then he's back and meowing and cold. Poor kitty. We may have to take him in, but we'd have to ensure he's healthy; I worry for Helena — we don't know his temperament — and for our cat, but he seems to worry for the stranger too, watching him through the window. He's looking thinner, and cold.

Daycare was closed yesterday, workers are striking, bless them, they have difficult jobs, so Helena and I bundled up and went to the park. The playground is surrounded by a moat of ice, soon to be a skating rink, treacherous to cross; someday soon Helena will learn it's not worth it to go on the slides at the playground when it's easier to slide down the snowy hills that surround it whether in her sled or on her bottom. But we did not go Christmas shopping because my planned excursions were either too long and I feared she would melt down not being able to run off every 10 minutes or too short and I dreaded bundling and unbundling the both of us more than the once — I might melt down and have nowhere to run. And we did not bake. But I'd bought her a snow shovel at the dollar store, for a dollar, and such joy it brings, Christmas could be so simple, but it rarely is.

What was I thinking planning to bake Christmas cookies with Helena? She's got ants in her pants, won't stick with anything for more than 10 minutes at a time. I've started a million times and finally ingredients and supplies are assembled and ready to go, but there is no window of time long enough to actually do anything with it. Maybe this afternoon, and I'll wait another year before including her in this tradition.

Now there's but one week left before family arrives, and there are no presents, no groceries, no baked goods, no sofabed, and I've cooked turkey only twice in my life but never for 10 people, what the hell else do we serve for dinner? and oh my god we don't even have 10 chairs, and our kitchen-dining table barely seats 6 and it's on the verge of collapsing, we should've purchased a new table instead of a stupid bedroom set, really we should've bought both, and months ago, using the money my mother gave me for a housewarming present instead of using it to pay municipal taxes, and damn that stupid job I can't invoice for yet, it was done weeks ago except for that one bit I'm still waiting for, an hour's work maybe, but even if those loose ends are tied up this week I doubt I'll be paid before Christmas.

Tomorrow morning is Helena's music "recital" which will be good for a few laughs, maybe I can go shopping directly afterwards, and I should mail some Christmas cards today, but boy is this place ever a mess, and I can't delegate chores to J-F when he's home sick, well, I can, but they won't get done unless I do them myself, I'll make some soup, he'll make a big mess in the kitchen, and there are no quiet corners to retreat to, if only we had a peaceful grown-up bedroom, and I could stay in bed for a morning and rest, not a recuperative sleep of the sick, but a self-indulgent, luxurious lie-in with a good book, just for an hour or two.

One day's panic has grown into a prolonged and surreptitious-in-its-effects mindfuck, conspiring even to keep me from writing it down, sorting it out.

Three steps forward, two steps back.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gaiman's tricks

A couple weeks ago I read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

However, the book also has a lot of problems that I'm unable to let go of. So.

First, the title. I hate the title. If it weren't for that I'd received it as a gift, I may not have gotten 'round to reading it. I knew Gaiman had a new book out in the vein of American Gods, which I'd liked well enough, but the title was enough to turn me away from reading any reviews of it fully.

Sounds like "nancy boys." Even once I understood the title, whenever I picked up the book to continue reading I'd find myself thinking, "He's not really a nancy boy. Well, maybe kinda. At least the other one isn't, is he?" This is distracting — really, there should be no nancy-boy thoughts crossing my mind whatsoever.

The other immediate association I made (and here I admit that my thought processes are by no means representative of the neural networks of the population at large) concerning the title was that it is a cross between Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and though the novel's allegedly for adults, I suspected that at its heart might be a juvenile mystery better suited for 7-year-olds, which I'd have little interest in reading, particularly if it insisted on mocking or demeaning its protagonists as nancy boys.

I know better now, but I think Gaiman and his marketing people might've anticipated such blocks in the reading public and come up with something a little more something and a little less something else, like, I dunno, Sons of American Gods.

Second, it's pretty funny. Yes, that's mostly a good thing. But sometimes it sounds forced, like Gaimam's trying too hard to sound like Douglas Adams. I'd mentally earmarked a couple examples. Of course, I'm unable to retrieve them now, and my point is pretty much lost in paraphrasing. One of these examples had something hanging in the air in exactly the way that bricks, or something similarly heavy and brick-like, don't. Which sounded awfully familiar.

Maybe he's not trying to sound like anyone at all, maybe these mechanisms of language to convey humour are more common among the British than I know. It just didn't always sound . . . natural, or easy.

Third, things wind up a little too conveniently. Gaiman circumvents the implausibility argument by incorporating a philosophy of coincidence into the narration's worldview, about three-quarters of the way through the novel:
It is a small world. You do not have to live in it particularly long to learn that for yourself. There is a theory that, in the whole world, there are only five hundred real people (the cast, as it were; all the rest of the people in the world, the theory suggests, are extras) and what is more, they all know each other. And it's true, or true as far as it goes. In reality the world is made of thousands upon thousands of groups of about five hundred people, all of whom will spend their lives bumping into each other, trying to avoid each other, and discovering each other in the same unlikely teashop in Vancouver. There is an unavoidability to this process. It's not even coincidence. It's just the way the world works, with no regard for individuals or for propriety.

Well, that makes all the coincidence to follow OK then? Too obvious. Not the seamless work of a craftsman. Trying to mitigate the shortcomings by fessing up to them, or to score extra points by showing your work.

Fourth. Gaiman talks a little about Anansi Boys in a recent interview:
I could do stuff that isn't mythic, but I love mythic stuff. I love playing with gods, I love playing with myths. A lot of it has to do with that they're the basic places stories come from. They're the clay that you make the bricks out of. I just like digging around in the clay. I think the thing I was happiest about with Anansi Boys was, I got to do a story that was about stories, about storytelling, about the power of myths, and about how we create our own stories. I felt like I'd managed to do it in such a way where someone could read the entire book and never notice what it had been about — just enjoyed spending time with Fat Charlie and all these characters.

Insofar as I never noticed what it'd been about and just enjoyed spending time with the characters, Gaiman has succeeded. Gaiman did not manage to do it through literary craftsmanship, however. One barely notices these protomythic metastory moments only because they are spectacularly weak, and I rather skimmed over them to hurry past.

Simply, Gaiman doesn't have the voice, the tone, at least in this medium, to tell myths. He tells a good story, but of the kind that's a long, rambling joke, or a really neat anecdote regarding the events of last weekend, but he doesn't muster the sense of import or wisdom or gravity most myths, or gods, merit. This may be his appeal to many people, a breath of fresh air in the retelling, the popularizing of myths. But it doesn't entirely wash with me. He gets away with it here because his subject is a trickster god (previously, cuz the gods were "American," modern, laidback), one big cosmic joke.

I was a little surprised to see this book on one of the year-end best fiction lists. I'm surprised also that I actually liked the book, given how much of the experience of reading it was given over to noting its problems. (Diana recently similarly discussed how distracting it is to "notice" the writing. The worth of the book then must be in something other than the writing.)

Despite my greviances, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a light diversion. I imagine it will someday be a paperback very successful in airports. It has cross-genre appeal (fantasy, mystery, a little romance and travel adventure), a unique premise, and most of the stabs at humour strike their mark.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The mythic

The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe
I've been to Narnia, and it was magical.

On returning home I immediately reached for my ratty old paperback. The film is remarkably faithful. The opening sequences are not original to the novel but add substantial dimension to the young characters.

We'd left the theater with a few questions, myself not having read the Chronicles for quite a few years and J-F not knowing them at all.

One change for the worse: On finding Aslan dead, Lucy is tempted to try her healing potion on him but Susan stops her, saying, "it's too late." Who wouldn't try it anyway? Better in the book, that Lucy has completely forgotten she is in possession of such an elixir until she is reminded to make herself useful with it.

The prevalent question in my mind: is the witch human? I found the answer in the text:
"She'd like us to believe it," said Mr Beaver, "and it's on that that she bases her claim to be Queen. But she's no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam's" — (here Mr Beaver bowed) — "your father Adam's first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That's what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes from the giants. No, no, there isn't a drop of human blood in the Witch."

(I first came across mention of Lilith in Michael Moorcock's The Warhound and the World's Pain, and for some time was intent on researching her origins, her myths, but was frustrated by dead ends at every turn. Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but Lilith ate of the tree of life, gaining immortality, preserved by feasting on children. How do I know this? I read it somewhere, but am unable to confirm it now. I've filled in some blanks, assumed some things to be "true," and have created my own mythology of her.)

J-F had questions about the prophecies, assuming shortcuts had been taken with this backstory. In fact the prophecies are not much fleshed out in the novel. As in the film, there are only the merest hints as to the Deep Magic of the place.

This indicates to me the deep magic of the chronicles themselves, of the child's imagination, and the reader's leap of faith — that as child reader I filled in the blanks, buying into the aura of the mythology without having to know its details.

As for the Christian allegory, I had trouble seeing it then, and I still don't think it's obvious.

The New Yorker on Narnia:
For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

Penelope, Odysseus, and the hanged maidens
Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is disappointing. It's barely a sketch of a story. Penelope is certainly never developed sufficiently to be sympathetic. It's a stringing together of what-ifs and don't-you-thinks and maybe-it-transpired-this ways, but it never fulfills its marketed promise to tell the hardship of the faithful wife holding the fort while her adventurer husband goes off to war and fails to return for 20 years. It's not a window on domestic drudgery.

I do not have the benefit of having read the Odyssey, but Atwood's acknowledgements led me to Robert Graves' Greek Myths, which conveniently does sit on my shelf. References to Penelope are scant, so while it's a wonder that Atwood could fashion any story at all, I wonder that she didn't take freer reign.

(Myths become myths only after we've filled in the blanks, fleshed out the outlines.)

I have to agree:
This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that comes dangerously close to being a spoof. Most fatally, the maids, whose tragic end in the "Odyssey" is what in part inspired Atwood to choose this story, also remain mere outlines of characters.

The minotaur
Of all the book in the Myths project, I most look forward to Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror:
His text is structured as an Internet chat room, where several people discuss the strange experiment in which they have landed. Each of them has been presented with a labyrinth, but the details of these mazes vary widely, from a Gothic cathedral to a table with a loaded gun on it. It gradually becomes clear that the whole thing may be happening in the Minotaur's mind. The ending turns everything upside down in trademark Pelevin style.

I read Pelevin's Homo Zapiens a few years ago. All I can muster to say about that book is that it's, well, pretty fucked up.
For two reasons, it is disturbing to think that Western readers may regard Pelevin as Russia's most representative writer. First, Pelevin does not readily distinguish between things as they are and his arcane elaborations. A naive reader may confuse his phantasmagoric ravings for true descriptions of Russian reality; this reader will never talk to any Russian again without a burning desire to run for his life. Second, Pelevin might actually be Russia's most representative writer.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What I believe but cannot prove

"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

The question and the responses it generated were reported on in January, and I referred to it a couple times then.

Today Maud Newton raises the question again and points out Ian McEwan's answer. It would seem that more responses have trickled in over the course of the year, and so I perused them over morning coffee.

Timothy Taylor:
"All your life you live so close to the truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque" wrote Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Something I believe is true even though I cannot prove it, is that both cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory.

Jesse Bering:
The epistemological problem of knowing what it is "like" to be dead can never be resolved.

It seems that the default cognitive stance is reasoning that human minds are immortal; the steady accretion of scientific facts may throw off this stance a bit, but, as Unamuno found out, even science cannot answer the "big" question. Don't get me wrong. Like Unamuno, I don't believe in the afterlife. Recent findings have led me to believe that it's all a cognitive illusion churned up by a psychological system specially designed to think about unobservable minds. The soul is distinctly human all right. Without our evolved capacity to reason about minds, the soul would never have been. But in this case, the proof isn't in the empirical pudding. It can't be. It's death we're talking about, after all.

Tom Stoppard:
Rosencrantz: Do you ever think of youself actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
Guildenstern: No.
Ros: Nor do I, really . . . It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead . . . which should make a difference . . . shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air — you'd wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That's the bit I don't like, frankly That's why I don't think of it . . .
(Guil stirs restlessly, pulling his cloak round him.)
Because you'd be helpless, wouldn't you? Stuffed in a box like that, I mean you'd be in there for ever. Even taking into account the fact that you're dead, really . . . ask yourself, if I asked you straight off — I'm going to stuff you in this box now, would rather be alive or dead?
Naturally, you'd prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You'd have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking — well, at least I'm not dead!

Leonard Susskind:
If I were to flip a coin a million times I'd be damn sure I wasn't going to get all heads. I'm not a betting man but I'd be so sure that I'd bet my life or my soul. I'd even go the whole way and bet a year's salary. I'm absolutely certain the laws of large numbers—probability theory—will work and protect me. All of science is based on it. But, I can't prove it and I don't really know why it works. That may be the reason why Einstein said, "God doesn't play dice." It probably is.

Tom Stoppard:
Guildenstern: It must be indicative of something, besides the redistribution of wealth. (He muses.) List of possible explanations.
. . .
Four. A spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually (He spins one) is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does. (It does.)

What I believe to be true but cannot prove is that each of the respondents' beliefs (as generated by World Question 2005) was anticipated by and explored within Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

A few more beliefs:
Rudy Rucker: "Reality is a novel."
Carlo Rovelli: "Time does not exist."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tis the season

The cold
I sent Helena to daycare this morning even though she's still coughing, but just a bit, because I knew I wouldn't be any good to her today. Surprise! — now I have a really bad cold and I feel shitty. I should be climbing back into bed, but I suspect I'll just sit here alternately rambling and staring into the void for a couple hours.

I really enjoy Play-Doh. If I could get a job playing with Play-Doh all day, I'd be in heaven. Sometimes I don't wash my hands after playing with it so that the smell can linger with me a while longer.

A movie
We don't watch many video cassettes any more. We've finally replaced our copy of The Big Lebowski with a DVD, so that leaves the VCR for the almost exclusive viewing of a couple children's videos, namely Charlotte's Web and Fantasia. Every time I insert a video it's a leap of faith that the machine will eject it (in fact, it only does so if the tape plays to the end and auto-rewinds; button pushing is fruitless).

Helena was rummaging through the "media" drawer and found a copy of The Nutcracker Prince.

It's a sweet little animated film based on E.T.A. Hoffman's story of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and featuring the voice talents of Megan Follows and Kiefer Sutherland. Also, you'll see my name in the credits.

The summer I should've been more ambitious I opted instead to work long, grave-shift hours at the animation studio to paint cels. Paint by number, essentially. Weird job, really, but a lot of fun. My little window onto animation art and industry.

I've always had a fondness for this film, but watching it with Helena I'm coming to really like it.

Random weird things

About me. Because Martha wants to know. Personally, I don't think her random facts are weird at all, except for being able to write backwards with her non-dominant hand.

1. I hate talking on the phone. Hate it. To anybody, but especially for business with strangers.

2. I hate Disney, on principle, but I'm a bit of a hypocrite about it. When I learned I was pregnant it seemed like a good excuse to purchase a copy of The Aristocats. And Mary Poppins is a quality production. And I'm not too upset by the fact that we own Bambi. And I wouldn't mind getting my hands on Robin Hood ,or Alice in Wonderland. And I can't wait to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But I will never, ever go to Disneyland or Disneyworld or EuroDisney or any other Disney theme park (unless the primary theme of that park is cryogenics).

3. As a small child (maybe 4) I used to bite my toenails. Because I could. Not to the point of ugly, but just to trim them. My mother even took me to the family doctor about this behaviour. I don't remember when or why I stopped.

4. I'm able to pour liquid measures of exactly a cup or a half cup without paying attention. If I'm off, I must be coming down with something.

5. I liked to collect odd travel mementoes — something of personal meaning to me, or something representative of the place that couldn't be reproduced for a gift shop. So I have a vial, a film cannister, of earth from Birkenau. It weirds me out just to think about it, but I'm afraid to get rid of it.

6. I don't know how to drive. But I don't have a phobia about getting behind the wheel. For years I never had the opportunity to learn, then for several years more I didn't feel the need. Now I'm just having trouble getting around to it.

7. I hate Joseph Conrad. And this is probably weird only to me, and only because it'd been suggested to me that I ought to like him by a high school teacher I respected.

8. I love fresh bedsheets. If it weren't me doing the laundering and changing, I'd insist on having fresh bedsheets every day.

9. Most people think I love coffee. I fix espresso-based beverages for myself every morning, and would probably die without them, but it's very rare that I find a cup of regular coffee tasty. Tea I drink only if there's lemon available, and I prefer it in a clear glass.

10. I love studying languages but hate speaking them (including the language I was raised in, and even English) for fear of making mistakes.

Weird enough for ya?

If you want to share your weirdnesses, consider yourself tagged.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Revisiting a terrorist

Jane Rogers' impressions on reading and rereading Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist are very similar to my own (though I read it just the once).

I too was struck by the banality of Alice, her need to make a home for her comrades, take care of their daily requirements for housing and food, without any obvious sense of, or even interest in, the big picture and greater purpose for which they were striving; seemingly her only motivation is crumbs of love from Jasper, "permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his."

[Lessing's] terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.

I happened to be reading this book in September of 2001.


Helena's been sick all weekend and is home with me today. Fever and a cold. Her voice is raspy. She's been napping less than usual but is in remarkably good spirits.

One of Helena's favourite games is "naptime," where we take turns tucking each other in, preparing bottles or changing diapers or otherwise fussing over each other.

Here's one of the stories she "read" to me this weekend (which book doesn't have many illustrations):

Il etait une fois Winnie-the-Pooh. Ici, c'est Winnie-the-Pooh. Tout a coup . . . [dramatic pause while turning the page] . . .
c'est Eeyore.
Tourne the page . . . et patapouf!
C'est fini.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Metaphysics and the toddler mind

Yesterday, Helena and I went for a walk after supper.

At the end of our street is an elementary school. We stopped to look at all the lovely animal pictures taped up in the windows, drawn by, I'm guessing, 6-year-olds.

Helena is obviously more tapped into the mind of the child artist than I am. She did a much better job of identifying the creatures depicted than I did, according to the teacher's labels.

What is essential to the zebra, from the toddler's perspective, is black and white striping. Not equine features or discernible number of legs. Not its proportion relative to its surroundings. Its zebra-ness is black and white.

Similarly, the tiger was not recognizably feline. No ears, no semblance of whiskers or fur. A bunny-like tail. A pleasantly suburban environment, over which it towered. But orange-and-black stripes is tiger.

What is essential to the giraffe is "tall." Lion has haloed face.

They all looked like blobby elephants to me.

A collective of nouns

"a quantum of cats"
— Jasper Fforde, in The Big Over Easy

(I think it's beautiful, and I intend to use it.)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Colouring our world

Helena's elephant
Of which she is most proud. And so am I (poor-quality scan not-withstanding).

Of her recent work, I'd have to say this is the one that most looks like what she says it is.

She draws a lot of portraits of me. (Bear in mind, the picture at right is not of me. It's an elephant. No, I'm not an elephant. What follows is an anecdote regarding pictures of me, not elephants.) They (portraits of me) generally include a roundish head, with 2 eyes, 2 ears, etc, but her execution has a rather cubist perspective. Amazingly, she always knows (or remembers) which way is up. Weirdly, she realized that in one of yesterday's pictures she'd omitted one of my arms (the right one), and so proceeded to draw it in in the bottom right corner (under my left foot).

I suspect that in this realm of development, Helena may be a little behind average. (Am I allowed to say that, as a mother?)

Isabella's dragon
This has nothing to do with anything, but I thought you'd like to know: Jamie Oliver puts horseradish in his mashed potatoes, and this is an excellent idea. Boring potatoes? Meet adventurous horseradish. Delicious.

My own crayoning skills have come a long way, no?

Faking it

The very long preamble
I wrote most of this preamble days ago, and most of what's below weeks ago, on the tail of having closed the book (My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey), satisfied. I've grown increasingly dissatisfied since, however; not with the novel itself but with my ability to write about it, or any novel, along with the increasing awareness of my inability to read critically and in an informed way.

I previously noted that I do not review books, let alone critically analyze them; rather I allow myself to respond to them. (Nor do I see the point in writing a simple book report — basic plots are readily divined from book jacket blurbs, and the general public responses to books are widely known.)

Although I've been reading forever, and was exposed to some wonderful literature in high school and university, I can't say I've studied literature in any meaningful way. In university I took the required first-year English course — I remember Kafka's Metamorphosis; also Conrad's Heart of Darkness was on the reading list, but I have yet to finish it. I took a course on Utopian/Dystopian Fiction, because I love the genre. Also, a poetry workshop, conducted by Seymour Mayne, in which we wore black turtlenecks and berets — I don't recall on what basis I was accepted (a poem of heartbreak, no doubt), and my only inspiration for being there was the idea of being a poet. And Modern British Poetry, which was almost exclusively about The Waste Land, and for which I'm very, very grateful. Later, a course in 19th century Russian lit, in vague hopes of satisfying some yearning to connect to my Eastern European roots. That is all.

I didn't see the point in studying literature. This is something I do anyway, I thought, reading all the time. Of course, I was wrong.

It takes a long time to learn some lessons. I've learned that, really, I know nothing about literature, except maybe a little about The Waste Land. There are things I learned in studying The Waste Land that only now have any real resonance with me, particularly in regards to engaging with a text.

Slogging my way through A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman, I was slapped in the face:

The children looked blank. Bill said "No one knows the Bible any more."
"I shouldn't have thought that should bother you," said Daniel.
"How can they read Milton, and Lawrence, and Dickens, and Eliot without knowing their Bibles?"

There's a time (the time I spent at university) I might've argued with this. That a work should stand on its own, certainly apart from its creator's biography, but it should be able to stand outside of history as well. And I still believe this to be true, to a degree. One doesn't need to know the details of the foundation, the influence, the references in order to appreciate a book, but it makes the experience a hell of a lot richer. The books! — they're all talking to each other.

I don't know my Bible. Nor do I know Milton, Lawrence, Dickens, or Eliot particularly well, though I'm trying to rectify this.

Maybe I should've majored in English. Maybe I'm trying to make up for it now.

So. If you think I'm full of shit, you're mostly right.

The rest of it
I hungrily devoured Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake over the course of one (toddler-free) day. I've not read anything else by this author, although I've been meaning to for years on the recommendation of a former coworker whose taste in books I actually trusted.

The story at the heart of the story, and within which there's another story, is about a man who pulls a prank on a literary snob of an editor, submitting for publication the newly discovered "genius" poetry of a wholly fictitious mechanic. The hoax came to light, its author snubbed by the literary community and the editor publically disgraced. To add injury to insult, the editor was later prosecuted for publishing those very poems because of their obscene references.

(This much is actually based in literary history, the Ern Malley hoax, perpetrated in Australia. Carey uses snippets of Ern Malley's poetry in his novel, as well as borrowing from the trial transcript.)

Bits of Malay vocabulary, and some "unnatural" sentence structure, are sprinkled throughout, though personally I find this to be more distracting than flavour-enhancing.

We learn the story through the ears and eyes of Sarah Wode-Douglas, the editor of a London literary review. Her character is an excellent frame for the story of the hoax — her hunger to discover the next great thing. However, along with her professional demons come weaker, personal ones. While resolving the mysteries of her past, in particular concerning the events surrounding her mother's death, it's demonstrated how one person's perception or memory can wildly differ from objective reality, but these sections of the novel do nothing to enhance the themes already sufficiently present in the main plot.

It's a bit of a Frankenstein story, but we're never really certain to what extent anyone "created" anyone else. (And what happens if you are your own creation, turning on yourself?) When a mechanic presents himself as the fake poet, we don't know whether he's simply stark-raving mad, a real poet who's life story was stolen from him, or whether he even exists at all.

The most interesting review of this novel I've read is that by John Updike in The New Yorker, in which much is made of the fragility of our tangible world versus the organic and lasting quality of poetry.

I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Though the poems were composed as a spoof of modern trends, with less than subtle hints of obscure classical references, the question remains: does the poetry stand on its own? (Is it merely intent that differentiates between parody and "the real thing"? How much of the author's intent is relevant to the reader's experience?)

Not a perfect novel, but it's a really good and unusual story, and I couldn't put it down.


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.