Monday, December 29, 2008

Stars like holographic projections

That same day I saw him again. I spent all afternoon talking to Maria and then we went downtown to buy a scarf, I think, and we kept talking (first about Cesar & Laura, then about everything in existence) and we ended up having cappuccinos at Café Quito, where Maria was supposed to meet Anibal. And Arturo showed up around nine. This time he was with a seventeen-year-old Chilean called Felipe Muller, his best friend, a tall blond kid who almost never spoke and followed Arturo everywhere. And they sat down with us, of course. And then other poets turned up, poets a little older than Arturo, none of them visceral realists, among other reasons because visceral realism didn't exist yet, poets like Anibal who had been friends with Arturo before he left for Chile and so had known him since he was seventeen. They were actually journalists and government officials, the kind of sad people who never leave downtown, or certain downtown neighborhoods, sovereigns of sadness in the area bounded by Avenida Chapultepec, to the south, and Reforma, to the north, staffers at El Nacional, proofreaders at the Excelsior, pencil pushers at the Secretaria de Gobernacion who headed to Bucareli when they left work and sent out their tentacles or their little green slips. And even though, as I say, they were sad, that night we laughed a lot. In fact we never stopped laughing. And then we went walking to the bus stop, Maria, Anibal, Felipe Muller, Gonzalo Muller (Felipe's brother who was leaving Mexico soon), Arturo, and I. And somehow all of us felt incredibly happy, I had forgotten all about Cesar, Maria was looking up at the stars that had miraculously appeared in the sky of Mexico City like holographic projections, and even the way we were walking was graceful, our progress incredibly slow, as if we were advancing and retreating to put off the moment at which we would inevitably have to reach the bus stop, all of us walking and looking up at the sky (Maria was naming the stars). Much later Arturo told me that he hadn't been looking at the stars but at the lights in some apartments on Calle Versalles or Lucerna or Calle Londres, and that was the moment he realized nothing would make him happier than being with me in on of those apartments, eating a few sandwiches with sour cream from a certain street stall on Bucareli. But he didn't tell me that at the time (I would've thought he was crazy). He told me that he'd like to read some of my poems, he told me that he loved the stars of both hemispheres, north and south, and he asked me for my number.

— from The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Watch your toes!

Behold the unholy Santy Claws and the TOE-nenbaum!

All profits from the sale of this book will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation® in Canada and a major national children's charity in the United States.

It's not too late to help.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The idea of pilgrimage

All the witches were asleep on the grass, and so were Will and Lyra. But surrounding the two children were a dozen or more angels, gazing down at them.

And then Serafina understood something for which the witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence. That was how these creatures looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarefied light, standing around the girl with the dirty face and the tartan skirt and the boy with the wounded hand who was frowning in his sleep.

There was a stir at Lyra's neck. Pantalaimon, a snow-white ermine, opened his black eyes sleepily and gazed around unafraid. Later, Lyra would remember it as a dream. Pantalaimon seemed to accept the attention as Lyra's due, and presently he curled up again and closed his eyes.

Finally one of the creatures spread his wings wide. The others, as close as they were, did so too, and their wings interpenetrated with no resistance, sweeping through one another like light through light, until there was a circle of radiance around the sleepers on the grass.

Then the watchers took to the air, one after another, rising like flames into the sky and increasing in size as they did so, until they were immense; but already they were far away, moving like shooting stars toward the north.

Serafina and Ruta Skadi sprang to their pine branches and followed them upward, but they were left far behind.

"Were they like the creatures you saw, Ruta Skadi?" said Serafina as they slowed down in the middle airs, watching the bright flames diminish toward the horizon.

"Bigger, I think, but the same kind. They have no flesh, did you see that? All they are is light. Their senses must be so different from ours. . . . Serafina Pekkala, I'm leaving you now, to call all the witches of our north together. When we meet again, it will be wartime. Go well, my dear. . ."

They embraced in midair, and Ruta Skadi turned and sped southward.

Serafina watched her go, and then turned to see the last of the gleaming angels disappear far away. She felt nothing but compassion for those great watchers. How much they must miss, never to feel the earth beneath their feet, or the wind in their hair, or the tingle of starlight on their bare skin! And she snapped a little twig off the pine branch she flew with, and sniffed the sharp resin smell with greedy pleasure, before flying slowly down to join the sleepers on the grass.

— from The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.

This is the sequel to The Golden Compass, which I read last spring. I am enjoying it more than I did the first book, but as the story evolves I am recognizing the subtle beauty contained in that first book. In some ways, my head was too full for it at the time of first reading — I'd chosen to read it as a light and entertaining escape, when it is much more.

So here I am, nearing the close of the second; my jaw drops, tears well up, a shiver down my spine, a nod of affirmation. So many little snippets I thought I should share, full of wisdom, poignancy, truth. And then the above excerpt stops my heart in its tracks.

These are not God's angels, though this is a story of God, kind of. These are Rilkean angels, as realized by Wim Wenders. They are guides, muses, empaths. They know everything, but nothing.

You've been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face...just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something! Here, that's cold! That feels good! Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it's fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that's good, that feels good! There's so many good things! But you're not here — I'm here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. 'Cause I'm a friend. Compañero!

This is what it is to be human, to be of the earth.

I wonder about Catherin, who used her ticket stub for a bookmark while reading this library book. Catherin took the bus from North Bay, with a change in Ottawa, to read about a subtle knife in Montreal. I hope she's well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cooking with Isabella

...and with Helena. And with pomegranate.

Recently someone asked me if I can cook, and spontaneously I answered, "Yes, of course!" implying that I did so very well.

The truth is: my reply was out of character. And it weighed on me.

Ordinarily, I would say, no, I'm not much of a cook. Pressed, and with a realistic and honest assessment, I would admit to being a fully competent cook.

But in that brief exchange, either I was, for some subconscious reason unknown to myself, fleetingly and wishfully adopting the persona of a "good cook," or perhaps I was letting an unprocessed inner truth escape.

For in truth, I cook a lot; I cook better than many people I know; and the more experienced I've become, the more cooking excites me.

I can't tell you how thrilled I was to have a copy of Nigella Christmas land on my doorstep. Thrilled!

I'm not really good with cookbooks. (I love them though. I don't have very many, but maybe I should.) That is, I'm not good at following a recipe. Maybe because so much of my working life is governed by rules, creating rules, making sure others abide by the rules, I feel I should be allowed liberty in my kitchen. Really, such freedom should be reserved for cooks who know what they're doing, but I'll take it anyway.

I'm always missing an ingredient. There's never thyme on hand, or whole mustard seed. Maybe my kitchen's not properly stocked. And most days of the week, I'm not organized enough to plan a meal and shop for it in advance.

Then there's the measuring. Maybe I don't have enough gadgets (where would I put them?). Sometimes the measuring cup is in the dishwasher, and I don't feel like washing it, so I eyeball quantities, using whatever receptacle is handy.

(This is normal, isn't it? This is what it is to cook, to have to cook daily, to not be gifted at it, to not have hours to devote to it, but to be competent. This is my culinary truth!)

Anyway. Nigella Christmas. Gorgeous book. Makes me hungry. Makes me want to cook. Makes me want to try to cook better.

The first thing I notice: this year's Christmas culinary trend appears to be pomegranate. If you want to make it festive, just add pomegranate! Holiday drinks? with pomegranate juice, of course! garnished with pomegranate seeds! Salads, for Christmas, should be red: cherry tomatoes, red peppers, red onion, pomegranate seeds! Stuffing, with pomegranate. Tired of turkey? — have some couscous, made festive with pomegranate.

I happen to love pomegranate. So this is all very exciting and inspiring. I am now fully deluded into thinking I can create exotic meals by adding a simple pomegranate flourish. (Sometimes my ambition exceeds my capability. My pomegranate lemon chicken was more than edible, but it looked pretty weird — splotchy.)

Still, I'm planning on following a number of recipes, as closely I can, this holiday season. There will be red salad. And there will be a sampling of Nigella's cocktails.

(One of the most important ingredients to have on hand while cooking is alcohol. Primarily for the cook. Also for the guests. I find this goes a long way to making a meal a success.)

While the book has inspired me to add pomegranate to just about everything lately, I've tried following only one recipe in earnest: Cookies! (Without pomegranate.)

This weekend, Helena and I made cookies. Scores of cookies. Two kinds (Nigella's, and perhaps more importantly, the cookies I made with my mom when I was a little girl). I even planned, to the extent of buying new cookie cutters (I'm finally beyond using plastic play-doh shape cutters) and setting aside enough time. As I'd predicted, the project that would take a reasonably organized and motivated adult about an hour or two when you add a very interested and helpful 6-year-old to the mix becomes a very messy day-long event. But, oh, was it fun!

Nigella's cookies, festooning the inside cover of her book:

My cookies, of which I'm unreasonably proud:

And they're tasty, too!

I had some trouble with the recipe: All the quantities are in weights; I'm used to measuring by the cup, as, I'm fairly certain, most average, non-serious cooks are. The recipe in the book doesn't say anything about mixing the butter and sugar together first (as the recipe at the link does, and which I think is a sensible thing to do). I don't own a food processor; I have a hand mixer; and I don't know what the difference is in the results they produce. I have no idea how soft dark sugar is different from any other kind of brown sugar. I've never heard of royal icing, so I looked it up on the internet, and kind of had to wing it (a bit too runny in the end).

(Then there's the decorating. Do Nigella's cookies look as if they were iced with a teaspoon, as she directs? Mine were.)

So the cookies aren't perfect. But they're pretty good! They have pepper in them! And they're pretty to look at. And they'll be even better next year.

Eat your heart out, Nigella! This year I feel like a domestic goddess!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bolano's dogs

On the whole, I'm starting to get poetry. I had a breakthrough this year, I thought.

For a year and a half now, I've been smitten with Roberto Bolano's words, the poetry (the poeticism?) of his work. So I was very much looking forward to The Romantic Dogs.

But these poems had nothing of the transportative quality of his prose, the sweep-you-off-your-feet torrent of words, the passion for poetry, politics, life.

I recognize some of the characters in these poems from the stories and novellas I've read. I have the feeling that's where these poems started, built from the scraps that were edited out.

Now I'm left wondering if maybe it's Spanish-language poetry I don't quite get. (But I like Neruda.) I found too many similarities between these poems and those that constituted a chorus in Fuentes' Happy Families. Weirdly and unnecessarily cryptic. Like a private joke I have no hope of ever being in on.

Or maybe it's just not any good.

I did like, enjoy, appreciate some of it. "Godzilla in Mexico," for example.

And from "X-rays":
If we look, however, with X-rays inside of the man,
We'll see bones and shadows: ghosts of fiestas
and landscapes in motion as if viewed from an airplane
tailspin. We'll see the eyes he saw, the lips
his fingers brushed, a body emerged
from a snowstorm. And we'll see the naked body,
just as he saw it, and the eyes and the lips he brushed,
and we'll know that there's no cure.

Beautiful and provocative, no?

I'll be reading more Bolano soon, and counting on the prose to carry me further than did these poems.

Extra credit
Which of the following covers is the better design?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The stuff of my wintry days

Last week I woke up in a riding that holds the distinction of having elected to provincial parliament a member of Québec solidaire. I live among separatists, but communist separatists.

Helena starts using the cat voice, to put words in his mouth. The cat's words, though, are always few, mostly to do with the too-low level of his food bowl, or some invasion of his personal space.

The cat starts trying her bedroom first in the morning, finding her an easier target, more susceptible to his supersonic purring, the nibbling of extremities and the knocking-stuff-off-shelves ploy that over a dozen years I've become relatively immune to.

After I hennaed my hair, Helena conducts an examination and exclaims that I have two colours now: brun normale et brun "flash" (which, no, is not an established expression for describing hair effects, but I quite like it).

I read a few hundred pages of Dumas last weekend. I'm now at chapter 103? 104? Only about a hundred more pages to go!

I attended for the first time a parent-teacher meeting of which I was not the subject. I learn that my daughter is "super-intelligente" but very bossy, though remarkably, this has not cost her any friends.

Helena has finally — finally! — conquered the escalator. As a toddler she had no trouble stepping onto escalators, but then one day, she simply refused, gripped with fear. But like that, one day, we're suddenly past it.

Effective time management temporarily escapes my grasp. Not enough sleep. Little blogging. Cooking and baking, playing and reading. Wanting to do more, to do it all.

The snow! Isn't it beautiful?!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lem's magnitude

Stanislaw Lem, it turns out, is very funny.

Imaginary Magnitude is a collection of introductions to nonexistent books.

One of my favourite segements is a promotional pamphlet for an encyclopedia that works on finely tuned prognostication, the wanted volume opening to the desired page as the reader stands in front of the shelf. The "extelopedia" predates Douglas Adams' infinite improbability drive by several years and books of J.K. Rowling's devising by a few decades, but it sounds to me like a hybrid of their magic technology.

This program subsequently underwent a thousandfold intensification and Extrapolational adaptation, thanks to which not only can it FORESEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN, if ANYTHING does happen, but also forsee [sic] precisely what will happen if It doesn't happen even a little, i.e., if It doesn't occur at all.

It's over the top, screaming with all its might in that most mysterious of all allegedly successful marketing ploys: Random CAPS!

Naturally, knowing MERELY THE LANGUAGE in which people will be communicating with one another and with machines ten, twenty, or thirty years hence does not mean knowing WHAT THEY WILL THEN most readily and most often be saying. And it is precisely THAT which we shall know, because as a rule people speak FIRST, and think and act LATER. The fundamental defect in all previous attempts at constructing a LINGUISTIC FUTUROLOGY, or PROGNOLINGUA, resulted from a FALSE RATIONALITY of procedure. Scholars have tacitly assumed that people will say ONLY REASONABLE THINGS in the Future and thus will have progressed.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that people LARGELY say SILLY THINGS.

Among the instantaneous updates are those to the price, "which — as you will appreciate, considering the state of the world economy — cannot be prognosticated more than twenty-four minutes beforehand."

The latter half of the book, "Golem XIV," an account of a supercomputer, is a little over my head (particularly in my lately stressed and flu-addled state), but the bonafide introductions, in their wit and interconnectedness, were highly entertaining.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Beyond pawns

Helena is frantic as we're gathering her things for school. Today's Thursday! It's chess club! She needs her folder! Where's her folder? Did I remember to put it in her backpack?!

I reassure her, and she finally sheds a little light on her panic. Today is the last day of this chess club session. Medals are to be awarded. She is convinced she has no chance of receiving one if she fails to bring her folder. I think she has little chance, period, being the youngest of the lot, but her enthusiasm tramples my negativity. We will cross the bridge of her disappointment when we come to it.

The workday finished, I run into Helena with her father just outside the school, so we can all walk home together. Helena reaches down into her jacket to pull out her medal.

I lavish her with obligatory congratulations and adulation, how I proud I am of her. But eventually I have to ask, cautiously. How many people received medals? Three, she tells me. The look in J-F's eyes tells me he knows and understands exactly what my line of questioning is, and that it's OK to proceed. How many kids are in your group? Eleven, she tells me, and only three of us got medals!

R-- got a medal because she's really the best, and the oldest, and she's really good. Helena got a medal because she had the most stickers on her folder, for homework problems completed. And M-- got one too, I'm not really sure why.

Flattery gushes more sincerely now. I'm ashamed of that moment in which I saw my own mother in me, doubting my daughter's accomplishments. I tell myself that it is a natural hesitation, measuring my response against a world where everyone gets a star for attendance, reserving it for justly deserved gains.

A week later, she's still proud and wants as much as ever to learn chess. We keep working through the problems she never finished. We set up the board to match the diagrams, so we can more easily see solutions.

J-F drops Helena at school one morning. He tells me they caught the attention of one of the other mothers. She seeks confirmation: So that's Helena. She got a medal? My son didn't get a medal. Do you coach her?

J-F tells her we play chess with Helena every day until she cries.

Pamuk's library

In The New York Review of Books:

During the thirty-five years I have spent writing my own novels, I have learned not to laugh at the books written by others, and not to cast them aside, no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be. The secret of loving these books was not, perhaps, to read them in the way their authors had intended.... The point was to read these books—strange, and indifferent, and interspersed with moments of astonishing beauty—so as to put myself in their authors' shoes. You did not escape provinciality by running away from the provinces, but by making it your own. This was how I learned to immerse myself in my slowly expanding library, and also how I learned to put myself at a distance. It was after I turned forty that I learned that the most powerful reason for loving my library was that neither Turks nor Westerners knew about it.