Friday, June 30, 2006

On translation. x 3.

Some time after I had first read The Master and Margarita, I had an argument (if you could call it that) with a classmate who sneered at me for reading it in translation. (He was Russian). It's the best translation available, I said. How would you know?, was his reply. I had no answer to that, because I didn't speak Russian, and I didn't know then that less than two years later I would. (I vaguely remember mumbling something indistinct and staring down at the floor until his friend, who was standing nearby, dragged him away). It seemed ridiculous to say that somehow the flow of the words, the phrases chosen by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor for the Vintage International version of The Master and Margarita felt right to me. Felt as though they had captured something of Bulgakov's soul. In their forward the translators discussed how they sacrificed literal translations in order to retain to feeling of the original Russian, how they left certain names untranslated, unaltered. I felt that they had left the musicality of Bulgakov's words intact, the way words flow in Russian, burn bright in your mind. I was right, as it turns out. It was an incredibly liberating feeling when I finally learned Russian and started reading Bulgakov in the original, and I was in love all over again. I felt vindicated, somehow, that my instincts had been dead-on.

The Master and Margarita is probably the only book which I have read in different translations as well as the original. In comparing the various versions (I own three, and have briefly glanced at a fourth) I began to understand the importance of a translater's interpretation of a work, how their choices can obscure or illuminate the original writer's words, how different translations could completely change the feeling of a story. It is on the shoulders of the translator to make these choices, the heaviest of burdens. It is particularly tricky when the writer is long dead and you have to rely on your own sense of how he would have wanted his words to come alive in a different language other than his own.

Early on I had come across the Mirra Ginsburg translation, the oldest and most widely available one, and immediately it all felt wrong, even before I had turned the first page. It was strange, because Heart of a Dog had been funny and sharp and unexpectedly poignant, and it had also been translated by Ginsburg. But in The Master and Margarita, the Burgin/O'Connor version had left the poet Ivan's pen name as Bezdomny (in Russian, Бездомный), preferring to let the footnotes explain that bezdomny means homeless. (Speaking of literal Russian pen-names, Gorki, as in Maxim Gorki, means 'bitter,' but his books aren't published under the name 'Maxim Bitter,' for that matter). All of the other translations translate it literally, and Homeless wanders in and out of the pages, assaulting the eye and causing a little flicker of annoyance in the mind. In some versions, Levi Matvei (Левий Матвей, or simply, Левий) has become Matthew Levi, destroying the rhythm of Bulgakov's words.

Some years later another translation appeared, this one by Edward Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It is perhaps the most complete edition available, but something of the soul is lost. It's too precise. It felt strange to me, like meeting someone I loved once and finding that he has changed so completely I can't understand why I ever loved him at all. I have never finished it, preferring to return time and again to the version that I fell in love with all those years ago. I want to hold onto my illusions. And yet I wonder, if I had read any of these other versions first, would they have held me in their thrall, and the one I love now seem strange and terrible in comparison?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Eating. grilled cheese.

It seems madness to eat grilled cheese sandwiches in the dead heat of summer, but I was too lazy to go to the grocery store, and I had some cheddar left over from a previous culinary excursion, along with a loaf of bread rapidly going stale on the counter. So grilled cheese sandwiches it is.

The grilled cheese of my childhood came from the school cafeteria, orange Velveeta sandwiched between slices of white bread, cooked on the vast griddle behind the counter, served on partitioned plastic trays with a cup of cream of tomato soup on the side. Always cream of tomato. I've never understood how it became a classic, that combination of the golden, toasted sandwiches, melting cheese, and the creamy tomato soup, pale red, faintly sweet and creamy in contrast to the sandwiches. The classic winter lunch. Grilled cheese sandwich day at school was my favorite day of the week. I rarely made it at home. If I did, it was in the toaster oven, slices of American cheese on whole-wheat toast. It was never quite the same. It wasn't until I paid a visit to some friends of my parents that I understood what made grilled cheese grilled cheese.

I was ten or eleven, visiting old friends of my mother. I have known them for as long as I remember, and they have always been Gigi and Papa. For lunch one day, they made grilled cheese sandwiches. All married couples have points on which they disagree. With Gigi and Papa it was the correct method of making grilled cheese sandwiches. I sat at the counter and watched them slice cheddar from a block of cheese, arrange the pieces on the bread. One of them (I forget which) made the sandwiches the way I did - in the toaster oven. The other fried them in a pan on the stove. In a pan of foaming, browning, melting, butter. It was a complete revelation. The bread didn't merely toast, it turned crisp, taking on that elusive, buttery, nutty, brown flavor that you get from cooking with butter. It was incredible. I don't think anything will ever taste as good as the memory of that grilled cheese sandwich. There would be no turning back for me now.

When I am in a hurry or just don't feel like turning on the stove or washing the skillet, I still make toasted cheese sandwiches in my toaster oven. But that is not a true grilled cheese sandwich. Now I make mine on good bread, crusty country bread, sometimes miche from the French bakery in the Pike Place Market if I'm lucky. I slice it as thinly as possible and brush the outsides with melted butter or olive oil. Usually I use sharp or medium cheddar, white, orange, or whatever other cheese I have on hand. I grill the sandwiches in a ridged cast-iron grill pan until the bread turns golden, striped from the pan, crisp and buttery and filled with molten cheese that rushes across my tongue as my teeth bite through the bread...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Reading. Fante.

I had somehow discovered Ask the Dust not long ago, and I quickly fell in love with the writing of John Fante. It was like meeting someone accidentally and realizing that this is the one person you have waited your whole life to meet, that you never want to be apart from them, that you could stay up for days on end, just to be with them, talk to them about anything and everything. That was how Fante's writing made me feel. Sadly, the book disappeared somewhere in the depths of my house before I finished reading it, and I can't find it anywhere. So I had to find something else. During a late-night book binge, I had acquired Full of Life, and left it in the middle of another pile of books that has slowly been taking over my kitchen table. That was weeks ago.

It was early this morning while drinking my tea and eating a bowl of berries that some impulse led me to reach into that pile of books and grab Full of Life. Time seemed to slip away from me; I looked up as if in a daze and realized I would be late for work. When I read Fante I feel as thought I can never get enough, and I cannot stop, nor would I wish to. Either it is a novel written as a autobiography, or it is autobiography written as a novel. I can't tell. It doesn't really matter.

On the surface it is a simple story, a young couple, their crumbling old house. But the language is so alive and clear and free, the way Fante uses words, that it is beautiful to read. And I am in love all over again.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reading. Calvino.

I have a terrible habit (one of many) of buying books and not reading them for a while. Oftentimes I will forget that I even own them. In some cases, years can go by before I notice these books gleaming in a dark corner of the bookcase, still uncreased and new, the corners sharp and unworn, sometimes with the receipt tucked inside like a time capsule waiting to pounce on the hidden depths of my memory. When did that get there, I wonder? Then I pick it up, perhaps one rainy day when I have nothing else to do, or pack it in my suitcase for a trip. Dive in, fall deep into the story, wait for that moment when the words cause my heart to crack wide open and my mind go up in flames. Wonder aloud why I waited so long to read it.

Another terrible thing is that once I fall in love with a writer, I have to acquire all of their books, even if I don't actually get around to reading them for years. This becomes extremely tiresome, not to mention hazardous, both to my bank account and my physical safety as the books fall off the shelves and pile up all over the floor, rendering the bed and door inaccessible, especially with some of the more prolific authors. Which brings me to Calvino.

I have been reading Calvino for nearly ten years, and he has long been one of my favorite writers. I read his later works first (which is usually how I read, out of order, which can be disorienting), and it was those dizzying, dream-like tales, the words forming lazy arabesques in my mind, drawing me into the labryinths within, that I fell in love with. But his early work is entirely different, written in a different time, a different world, a different style, what they called neo-realism. (I am not quite sure what neo-realism is, but I get the sense that it was the style that developed during the post-war era, born out of the general feeling and intellectual atmosphere of that time). Which is why, perhaps, I had not read The Path to the Spider's Nest before. Until now.

In his preface, Calvino looks back on his very first novel, one of the first things he ever wrote, which he sees as "not so much one of [his] own works but rather as a book which arose anonymously out of the general climate of the time, from a moral tension that was in the air, and a literary tendency which epitomized [his] generation immediately after the Second World War." Actually, the preface alone reminds me so completely of why I love Calvino, his non-fiction writing, that is, with that profound clarity that might even outweigh the love I have for his fiction. But I slid gently into The Path to the Spider's Nest, and it showed me another side of Calvino that I had never seen before. Never loved before. But all this would change.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Favorite food. unagi. (Part 4).

I am not sure when or where I first ate unagi, but I remember clearly when it became one of my favorite foods. I was in my teens, visiting Taipei for the summer, and my cousin took me out to lunch. She took me to a Japanese restaurant in a little house in one of the older districts of Taipei, owned by a Japanese family (if I remember correctly) who had come to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation and had remained. It was a well-known restaurant, always busy, and there was a long line for a table. Inside, it was bustling and packed with diners seated at tables and benches simply made of plain dark wood. My cousin ordered just two things - incredibly fresh, delicious sashimi, generous, translucent slices of fish that seemed to have leapt straight from the sea onto my plate - and unaju-don.

Donburi is the general term for 'bowl' in Japanese, but it is also the term for any dish that basically consists of a bowl of rice with something, pretty much anything, on top of it. Katsudon - also among my favorites - has a fried pork cutlet with egg over rice (Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, has a description of it, among other foods, that will make you drool and have a sudden, overwhelming craving for some katsudon, which is particularly inconvenient in the middle of the night when you have no access to katsudon whatsoever). Unajudon is broiled eel - unagi - over rice, usually served with pickled vegetables (which seem to come with everything in Japanese cuisine). It is like having a plate full of unagi nigiri (sushi) all to yourself (which never happens, sadly), only better. Incompetent hands render the dish bland and uninteresting, mushy, the sauce too sweet, the eel too soggy. I have had, sadly, many of these in my search for the best one. In expert hands, however, it is one of the most delicious things I can imagine.

This unajudon was perfect. The eel was lightly glazed with a sauce, just sweet enough to caramelize the flesh around the edges, but not so overpowering as to obscure the true, sweet flavor of the eel itself. The skin had rendered out the fat as the fish was grilled (or broiled), becoming crisp, a contrast to the tender flesh and the perfectly steamed white rice. The rice had been lightly sprinkled with black sesame seeds, nutty and fragrant. Everything was hot and fresh from the kitchen, and it was absolutely one of the best meals I have ever had. The unajudon I ate that day is the unajudon all others since have been held up to, and none has ever equalled it. I wonder, even now, if I were to go back to that same restaurant, if it could stand up to the memory I have held close to me for all this time?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Reading. Christie.

My freshman year of college, I came home for the holidays to find that my parents had completely organized my room. Serious literature was neatly shelved in the bookcase, and my vast collection of mystery novels was boxed up in a large carton in my closet, with a strip of masking tape bearing the words AGATHA CHRISTIE AND OTHER NONSENSE across the lid, written by my father. I was incensed. Agatha Christie was most definitely NOT nonsense. She was the Queen of Crime, one of my favorite writers of all time, and she did not deserve to be hidden in the dark corner of my closet.

I started reading Agatha Christie when I was in middle school, and I was immediately addicted. I could not stop once I began, and on one memorable occasion during math class, the teacher caught me reading a mystery. She demanded that either I leave the class or the rest of the class would leave. Completely terrified and unable to utter a word, I could only stare at her mutely, frozen in horror, until she and the rest of the class got up and left the room. There was only about five minutes left before lunchtime, so it was more of an empty gesture, but they were the longest five minutes of my life. (It occurs to me now that if I had paid more attention to math and less to Agatha Christie, my life would have been completely different. But it is useless to look back for too long).

In the over fifteen years since I have read nearly all of the Christie mystery novels, and I own many. They live in the bookcase outside my bedroom, under the bed, on tables, in the bathroom, and I am not sure which ones I have. I spent a fruitless twenty minutes trying to find By The Pricking of My Thumbs last night, but now I cannot remember if I even own it.

It is hard to say which detective I prefer, Miss Marple, Poirot, Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, or Parker Pyne. They are all so different in their methods, although all with an unnerving eye for details and knowledge of human behavior. The themes that weave in and out of the stories remain - passion, love, hatred, jealousy, revenge, justice, greed, possession, redemption. Human nature, human emotion. They are all timeless. I have read them again and again, and once I begin I can't stop now any more than I could when I was ten years old and my math teacher caught me reading in class.

I was reading The Labors of Hercules at lunch today, and there was something dreamlike about it. Each chapter was a short story, a different mystery solved by Hercule Poirot invoking one of the labors executed by Hercules. The chapter titled The Apples of the Hesperides is the one that haunted me. Poirot has finally tracked down an antique chalice, stolen from a collector who has spent ten years trying to get it back. He finds the chalice, on the altar of a church and in lieu of a fee, suggests that this collecter send it back to the church, to be purified from the evil that has followed it through centuries of history. As an investment for his soul, Poirot suggests...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Eating. figs.

I remember clearly the first time I ate fresh figs. We were in Italy, and having spent the day on the island of Capri we took the hydrofoil back to Naples. As we were sitting on the deck, A., my father's former student (and our hostess) handed me a small paper bag of figs, ripe, purple-black, warm from the sun. There is nothing I love more than ripe fruit still warm from the sun. It was a hot day but the breeze on the water was cool and laced with sea-spray as we raced over the waves towards the city. The figs were so ripe they split open in my hands; the flesh was sweet and sticky and my hands were covered in juice by the time I finished eating. I had never had anything like it before, and I will always remember that moment, the sun on my skin, the taste of figs in my mouth.

Now it's summer again, and I found some fresh figs at the market the other night. After dinner, I bit into one, juicy and soft and sweet, the nearly black skin giving way to the soft pink interior, that beautiful, delicate scent of figs overwhelming my senses. You could drizzle the fruit with honey, serve them over ice cream, or wrap them in translucent slices of prosciutto, but there is nothing better than just the ripe, sweet fig alone. When I eat one, I am transported back to that first taste, under the summer sun, eating the meltingly ripe figs as the juice oozed all over my fingers...

Last year I had an appetizer at a fancy dinner that included a fig, filled with some kind of mascarpone cream and rolled up with jamon serrano, and it was divine. There was some (in my mind) wholly unecessary vinaigrette or something drizzled on top, and I won't even go into whatever else was happening on the plate (actually, I can't remember the rest of the dish, possibly some frisee salad), but it gave me an idea. For as long as figs were in season I would buy a carton of them, a tub of mascarpone, and some tissue-thin prosciutto that emerged from its brown wrapping paper like sheets of rumpled, darkly rosy silk. The figs were split - smaller ones were left whole, larger ones were cut in half - and the cut sides were given a smear of mascarpone. A strip of prosciutto was wrapped around the fruit, keeping the fig more or less intact and preventing the mascarpone from oozing all over everything. They were salty-sweet-creamy-rich-fruity and oh, so, incredibly addictive. More addictive, even, than the plain fresh figs themselves.

Perhaps it's time for more.
On writing.

One semester while I was in college I took an art history course. Every week or two my professor would hand me back my paper, with an A and a "Kairu, I think you will be a writer." And a smile. I was twenty, and those words lit a flicker of something in my mind that is with me still. Later I would walk away from it all but those words of encouragement stayed with me.

Some years passed. I was a long way away from Art History and Russian literature, working at a job which I loved (which I still love) but had nothing to do with the things I had studied before. Vague thoughts of writing a novel would occasionally flit across my mind, but I always lost focus after a few shaky first sentences. When driving in the car I would think about stories and plots, characters, scenes in my head but once confronted with a blank computer screen the words disappeared. And then I came across Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. At its heart the book is a memoir of friendship, of the relationship between the novelist Patchett and the poet/writer Lucy Grealy, who died a few years ago at the age of 39, and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. They had met as graduate students at the University of Iowa, after having both graduated from Sarah Lawrence. It is a searing portrait of love and friendship, but the story of Ann and Lucy is not the part that twisted my heart, burrowed deep beneath my skin.

The University of Iowa, to give the story some background, is reknowned for the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a M.F.A. program that both Patchett and Grealy attended. It was while Grealy was there and having an on-off affair with B--- that this conversation, which has haunted me since I first read it, took place, between Patchett and the aforementioned B---.

...Lucy had told him I was dating someone [wrote Patchett]. "Don't let it get in the way of your writing," he said. "That's the most important thing. That's the reason why you're here." B---- had been a student at the Writer's Workshop years before...He wanted to know how much I had written. Did I work every day? "It's got to be every day," he said. "If you don't turn out pages every day, you're not really a writer. You're just playing at it. You're wasting your time....If you're interested in being a writer, if you're for real. But you won't be for real if you don't write the pages. Then you're just like everybody else. A lot of talk and nothing ever gets done...You have some little story in your head that you're going to get around to. This town is full of those people. I see them come in wanting to be writers and winding up as waitresses. The Workshop practically manufactures waitresses. What makes you think that you are going to be different from anybody else?'re not ever going to be the thing you say you're going to be, because you don't do anything, you aren't anything. You aren't the girl with all the promise, the girl who's going to be a real writer."*

That conversation has echoed in my mind for a long time. It sent a chill up my spine. I wasn't going to be a writer. I wasn't going to be anything. My work in a lab was interesting and fun and I loved it, loved the people I worked with, but I had to face the fact that I was treading water, afraid to go anywhere. And I wasn't writing. I would lurk on internet messageboards, mocking celebrities' short-term marriages and ridiculous fashion choices, but when it came to writing I was paralyzed. Reading that harrowing conversation between Patchett and B--- set off something in me, the desire, the sense that in order to be a writer I had to start writing. But I didn't know where, or how, or about what, and I remained frozen, motionless, unable to begin.

Two years went by, and finally I began writing in my blog, this blog, a little every day. Sometimes a lot. One thought, idea, food, book, at a time. And then I realized I couldn't stop, that it was almost a compulsion. I think Bukowski said something about how a writer writes because he has to, not for anything except that driving desire to put words on paper. Can I finally call myself a writer now? Or am I still just playing at things?

*Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. HarperCollins, 2004. p 39-40.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Dinner for one. adventures in brining.

I frequently brine chickens before roasting them, mixing up complex concoctions of herbs, salt, spices, lemons, and water, leaving a sticky trail of honey across the countertop. Thanksgiving inevitably finds me wrestling turkeys in and out of unwieldy buckets of salt water, vegetable broth, twiggy bits of rosemary, peppercorns, and countless other things. Brining has never failed me, always delivering moist, flavorful meat even if I've left the birds in the oven just a bit too long. But pork chops were undiscovered territory. Until tonight.

This morning before work I made a brine composed of equal amounts of brown sugar and kosher salt, a few sloshes of Chinese cooking wine, and a handful of sliced ginger, microwaved in a pyrex meauring cup until the salt and sugar had dissolved. Poured it all into a mixing bowl, added water until the mixture was cool enough, and it took only a minute to slip the pork chops in and then shove everything into the fridge. I came home after a long day, rinsed off the brine, brushed the chops with soy sauce, and grilled them in a ridged cast-iron grill pan. They were incredibly juicy, aromatic with the fragrant ginger and wine. The heavy, evenly heated pan branded the chops with perfectly blackened stripes on each side, leaving them tender and white between those stripes of crust. All I needed to complete the meal was some crunchy sliced cucumbers and a plate of bread and butter. I have not yet reached perfection - I still feel that they were a little on the salty side, so I have to work on the proportions and brining time - but it was more than excellent.

Dessert was an experiment as well. Last night I had discovered the mysterious alchemy of fresh strawberries drizzled and tossed with balsamic vinegar, a spoonful of that expensive, elusive, elixir, barely enough to just kiss each slice of fruit. The dark, syrupy balsamic intensified the color, the flavor of the berries, turning their fragrant sweetness into something deeper and more mysterious; the bright flesh turned a deep ruby-red, seemed to glow at the bottom of the bowl. With a vast cloud of whipped cream, they were incredible. Tonight I wanted to take it to another level. I took my last brownie, left over from a few nights before, split it in half, covered it with the marinated strawberries so that the dripping juices mingled with the balsamic and soaked into the slightly dry (three days old) brownie, and topped the whole thing with an avalanche of whipped cream. It was a study of contrasts in texture and flavor, at the bottom, a chewy layer of chocolately, nutty brownie, heaped with lightly tangy, sweet strawberries, and finally the vanilla-scented cloud of whipped cream. Heavenly.
Memory. Didion.

I first read Joan Didion when I was in college. Reading Play it as it Lays was one of the most brutal, emotionally lacerating experiences in literature I have ever had. Her writing was so clear and sharp I felt I was bleeding invisibly onto the pages as I raced through the book. It seemed strange to connect that coolly distant photograph of the author, beautiful and unflinching, staring at the camera with those fathomless eyes, with the emotional wasteland of her novel. Somehow I remember little of the actual story, only the physical sensation it left me with. I have always felt that there is something of the desert in the words of California writers, that bareness, that stark clarity of words, which comes out most strongly in Didion.

Some years went by. Didion lay forgotten on the shelf. It would take tragedy and a new book before I would come back to her again.

I was, thanks to Vanity Fair magazine, aware of the writer Dominick Dunne, aware that his brother John Gregory Dunne was Didion's husband, that the two had been inseperable in life and work for some forty years. It was from Vanity Fair that I learned John Gregory Dunne had died, suddenly, at the end of 2003, and that when he died their daughter Quintana lay in a coma in a New York hospital. Another year and a half would pass before I began reading Didion again.

Some time in the late summer or early fall of 2005 a haunting portrait of Joan Didion appeared on the cover of The New York TImes Magazine. She is a tiny wisp of a woman, with beautiful eyes, and she was grieving for her husband, for her daughter who would recover from her coma, suffer various relapses, and spend over a year in and out of hospitals before dying at the end of August, 2005. Inside was an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking, which sounds like a happy work, but is not. Very quickly I was in tears, weeping silently for her grief, at the stark description of the moment of Dunne's death, the trip to the hospital, the details of returning to a house, a life that did not contain her husband of forty years.

A short while later the book was published, and I bought it immediately, devoured it, wept into the pages. As well as coping with the awful numbness of loss Didion was also having to help their daughter as she recovered from her illness. Her description of how she made it through the days, the memorial service, the sorting through his things, the friends and family surrounding her, was intertwined with memories of married life, heartbreakingly intimate glimpses into the inner workings of a married life. There was a beautiful clarity to her words, like cool water, or a mountain sculpted of sand. I was fortunate enough to attend a reading given by Didion at the Seattle Public Library; I was even more fortunate to be allowed to sit on the floor, practically at her feet. (In another stroke of luck, I managed to get my copy of the book autographed). The words took on a new shape, nuance, in her flat, faintly gravelly voice. I would recognize that voice anywhere. As she spoke, her face came alive and you could see how beautiful she was.

I was talking about The Year of Magical Thinking with a friend not too long ago, who felt that the book was too repetitive, that it went on for far too long. It's true, some things are repeated again and again, like in a song where the same melody comes back at different points of the piece. There is the sensation that this repetitiveness was a way of letting go of the grief, or at least a way of processing the unbearableness of loss, that the book was written in a flood, an avalanche of words, as a way of sorting through the memories and emotions of that first year. Life changes fast, she says. Life changes in an instant.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dinner for one. caprese salad.

Living alone means that I can eat whatever I want for dinner, cook an elaborate feast if I choose, or eat cereal if I can't bring myself to make any effort. I can stop at the local PCC after work and wander around, see if there is anything interesting, choose something new to experiment with, be home in five minutes and in no time at all find myself sitting at the table with dinner. It has been a long, hot day and tonight I feel lazy, so I bought some chicken salad, cubes of chicken tossed with some sort of creamy dressing and crunchy chunks of onions and celery, fragrant with herbs, and a loaf of crusty bread. Then some tomatoes, and balls of fresh mozzarella floating in a little tub. Caprese salad.

Like tiramisu and fresh figs my memory of caprese salad belongs to the first trip I took to Italy over a decade ago. One night we had dinner at a friend's apartment, of which I remember only two dishes. (Most likely there were also bowls of olives, loaves of bread, a good wine. Possibly some tiramisu. But I can't remember). First came marinated anchovies, tangy and sweet and moist, eaten in one bite, the bones spit out onto the side of the plate, light-years away from the salty, dried little fish that my parents were always disgustingly ordering on their pizza. And then there was caprese salad. Insalata caprese, to give it its proper name. The mozzarella had been made that morning at a local farm outside Naples, and it was creamy and soft and oozed meltingly on the tongue. It was the height of summer and the tomatoes were luscious and ripe and tasted like tomatoes should taste. For some reason the tomatoes I have eaten in Italy in the bright days of summer have been better than any tomotoes I've ever eaten anywhere else in the world. The salad was adorned with basil leaves and drizzled with olive oil. It was the most perfect kind of dinner, simple and easy and cool at the end of a hot summer day.

Here at home, years and thousands of miles away from that time, I sometimes like to add a bit of balsamic vinegar, the good kind, densely complex in flavor, mellow and syrupy, a contrast to the clear greeny-gold olive oil, or perhaps few drops of pumpkin-seed oil, heady and fragrant with that aroma of pumpkin seeds that always makes me thing of autumn days, of Halloween. But when I am alone, and I have the plate of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella all to myself, I need nothing more than a sprinkle of sea salt, the flaky Maldon crystals that crunch nicely as I eat the dripping tomatoes, bright red against the creamy white cheese.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reading. Nabokov.

It cannot be a coincidence that two of my favorite first sentences come from Nabokov, that above all others they have become permanently etched in my memory. One comes from Speak, Memory, which I have mentioned before, and the other...

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.*

Ten years have passed since I first read those words, ten years have passed since I last read those words, and I find they still burn as brightly in my memory as they did all those years before. I, who can never remember anything, find that I can close my eyes and feel those first sentences rush into my brain, feel my soul catch fire, my heart split apart, as I slide into the words and fall headlong into the depths of the story, tangled in the threads of Humbert Humbert's obsession with the young Lolita.

I realized recently that after reading Lolita as a teenager I had never read it again, that I had gradually acquired many of Nabokov's books, but not this one. I was circling the shelves at the bookstore, and it caught my gaze, held it, the curvy, seductive script of the title on the spine, black on white. Lolita. It was time to go back again. Bought it, drove home with the opening lines circling around and around in my mind. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, and it will not be the same story for me. How will I read it this time around? How will it hold me in its thrall, tear me apart, burn me up again?

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Vintage International, 1997. p 9.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Eating/cooking. brownies.

Whenever I am bored, or craving chocolate, or both, I bake brownies. Tonight was one of those nights. A double batch, because a single batch, one puny pan eight or nine inches square, just looks so damn sad. I nearly always have all the ingredients on hand - powdered chocolate, flour, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, baking powder, salt, walnuts or pecans. Sift the dry ingredients into one bowl, beat the eggs and melted butter and vanilla in another bowl, stir them all together, mix in the chopped nuts, scrape everything into the pan, slide it into the oven. If I'm feeling particularly Martha-Stewart-y (some might say obsessive-compulsive, or anal-retentive), I mark lines in the batter with a toothpick and center perfect walnut (or pecan) halves in each square. (Needless to say, this doesn't happen often). Gradually, the house fills with the smell of chocolate; the timer beeps. I manage to wait all of five minutes before I dive in, a glass of milk in one hand and a couple of brownies in the other. To ease the guilt, I slice the brownies into little squares - I cut mine so they are about an inch and a half square, perhaps smaller, therefore enabling you to eat more of them. A nine-by-thirteen-inch pyrex baking dish yields about forty wee brownies. Which are rapidly consumed within a day or two by ravenous colleagues.

Brownies were one of the first things I learned how to bake, from a mix. Later I would try different recipes from scratch, with varying results. A few years ago I hit upon the recipe from the side of the Ghirardelli powdered chocolate tin, and it has been my standard brownie recipe since, quick and easy and unfailingly delicious. They are wonderful just on their own with a cold glass of milk, or a mug of hot tea; with ice cream they are absolute heaven. And once my friend flavored a bowl of whipped cream with a considerable amount of rum; dolloped generously on the brownies, they were transcendental. I have fed these to everyone I know, and I have shared the recipe with everyone who has asked (it's not that hard, just look on the side of the tin), and I could probably make these in my sleep. Sometimes I use walnuts, sometimes I use pecans, depending on what I have on hand. The bland fattiness of the nuts cuts the sweetness of the chocolate, and I always use more nuts (chopped in the food processor) than the recipe calls for. It takes all of ten minutes or so to measure ingredients, throw everything together, another half hour or so of baking time, five or ten minutes of waiting for the freshly baked brownies to cool, and then....bliss.
Reading. Eco. (away and back again).

I have been reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana very slowly, a little at a time, in between reading other things, diving in, circling around, walking away and then back again. I usually only read Eco when I'm traveling, but I was so eager to read this I could not wait to begin. With each chapter, each page, each word, I feel like I am falling deeper and deeper into the story, into the web of Yambo's memories as he discovers more and more about the past he cannot remember.

I feel rather like Yambo himself when I read this book; he finds lost memories, remembers things as quotations from every book he has ever read. I in turn find in my own mind lost memories of the books Eco mentions; themes, works, that have come up in his collections of essays. In the novel I came across a discussion about fog; the wisp of a memory, of having read a similar meditation on fog somewhere else before, flits across my memory. Parts of books I have read before, lines from and references to Kafka, Manzoni, Joyce, Dumas, other old classics of literature, resurface and echo in my brain; Yambo's other memories, quotations, come from books I've never read and those allusions slip beyond my grasp.

The farther I get in the novel, the more I feel that this story, these threads of consciousness woven together, is the inevitable culmination of the ideas and thoughts and feelings on literature that Eco put forth in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods and On Literature, among other works. As if Yambo and Eco are one and the same. As if Eco's earlier words come back to reveal themselves as the separate paths that lead to the spider's nest* that is Yambo's mind and memory, his life. And it completely blows me away.

*I allude, of course, to The Path to the Spider's Nest, by Italo Calvino, whose writing is inextricably intertwined in my mind with the writing of Umberto Eco.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Cooking. fried rice.

Overheard at the grocery store last weekend: (the cashier was on the phone while checking me through). (paraphrased because I can't remember anything these days).
- I can't tell you that,'s an Asian secret. (at which point I started laughing).
- It's really, I just put some turmeric in it.
- I left some on the table...try it, it's good. You'll like it.

He hangs up, looks at me and laughs, because I haven't bothered to hide the fact that I'm totally cracking up.
Everyone wants to know how to make fried rice, he says, rolling his eyes at me. (at which point I laugh again).

Fried rice is one of the first things I learned how to cook, and homemade fried rice is light years away from the oily, over-salted or soy-sauced fried rice you get at Chinese restaurants. When I was in college, we made it practically every week, if not oftener. At its simplest, it needs nothing more than cold, leftover rice, scallions, and eggs. I like to add peas, and cubes of ham or bacon; for me it makes a one-dish meal for lazy nights. Everything is a matter of preference - my father likes to fry the scallions first, so they brown lightly and add more depth of flavor to the rice. My mother likes to stir in the scallions at the end, so they are fresh and light and crisp. I like it both ways. There are also two schools of thought regarding the eggs - I scramble them first, gently, until the egg is just cooked. My grandfather prefers his fried rice with the beaten egg stirred into the fried rice and then cooked, everything tossed together until the egg coats the rice with a golden crust. The former yields a moister, lighter fried rice with tender bits of scrambled egg; the latter tends to be drier, with crusty bits where the egg melded with the rice as it cooked. When I make it with bacon, I leave just a little of the bacon fat in the pan so that when I cook the rice the flavor really infuses the whole dish; if I use ham I fry the ham a little first, so it browns a bit before I add the peas and rice.

The trick is to use leftover rice that's at least a couple of days old, or even a week old. Sometimes I'll leave it in the fridge uncovered, overnight. It's easier to break up the clumps of rice when it's a little on the dry side, so you don't get lumps of rice. (I sometimes used to get told off for not sufficiently de-clumping the rice, not breaking the scrambled eggs evenly into tiny shreds, or not chopping the scallions finely enough). Takeout rice tends to be long-grain white rice, which is looser, drier, and fluffier than the slightly sticky medium-or-short-grain rice we eat at home, and the end result will have a slightly different texture. You can put anything you like in it; some people like to put frozen corn (defrost any frozen vegetables before you cook with them), chopped carrots or any other vegetable you can think of, chunks of barbeque pork or lop cheung sausage. Anything you like, anything you've got in the fridge. We've even used smoked salmon, finely minced garlic when we forgot to buy scallions, or cabbage. Tonight's version will have scallions, eggs, peas, and cubes of Black Forest ham. Dinner awaits.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The great love. Forster.

I have gone on at great length about my greatest literary obsession, that longtime love, The Master and Margarita. But there is another novel that I have loved even longer, that I have carried with me everywhere, whole passages committed to memory, permanently etched on my heart. It came into my life when I was very young, not like an explosion that rips you apart (and builds you up again), but like falling in love with someone gently, someone who changes you completely, and whom you will love for the rest of your life. It is a tender kind of love.

I first read A Room With a View when I was in middle school. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and romantic and I fell in love with George Emerson and the city of Florence and the bucolic English countryside. I had never been to Italy; Forster's description of Florence and the countryside surrounding it evinced a profound desire to visit. Some time later, I went to Italy with my parents, and on our first morning there, in a small university town nestled in the countryside, I woke up very early, just after sunrise, and sat on the balcony overlooking a valley sprinkled with red-tiled roofs and vast fields, reading A Room With a View as the sun came up and the mists dispersed, and thinking about how beautiful everything was, how alive I felt in the cool air and changing light of early morning. Now when I read it again, as I slide into the words my mind slips back in time and I am on that balcony once more, in the cool dawn light reading, looking out at the view, feeling alive in that way you do every once in a while when you encounter something new and incredible.

In all the years since I have brought A Room With a View along on every trip I've taken (along with a mix of other old favorites and new, unread books). I have read it on airplanes and in hotel rooms and on green hillsides or in the shadow of ancient monuments all over the world. Beyond the beauty of the two very different landscapes (Italy and England), Forster's delicately nuanced words, at its heart it is about falling in love with the one person who sees you clearly, who shows you the truths about yourself that you have never seen before, whose love sets you free. Who is your room with a view.
On translation. titles. (Nabokov/Bukharin).

In the introduction to Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes about how the original title had been Conclusive Evidence, "conclusive evidence that [he] had existed." Having decided that it sounded too much like a mystery novel, he wanted to call it Speak, Mnesomyne for the later edition, but was informed that "little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce." Finally, Speak, Memory became the title, and was thus translated into Parla, Ricordo (Italian) and ¡Habla, memoria! (Spanish). It is interesting to note that the Russian and French titles are different from the English and other versions: Другие Берега (Russian), or Autres Rivages (French), which if my translation is correct, both actually mean Other Shores.

Thus begins the question of titles and translations. (This is the sort of thing I think about at midnight when I should be asleep). The two different titles of the book I know as Speak, Memory give different meanings to my perception of the story. The title I know gives the feeling of a free-flowing narrative, the writer telling the story of his life, his memories. The other title conjures up the feeling of looking across time, to the distant shores of a past life, memories viewed across an expanse of time as if across a river, an ocean. Would I have read the book any differently with a different title, would it have meant something different to me? Perhaps.

I came across the same question again when I read Nikolai Bukharin's How It All Began several years ago. It differs from Speak, Memory in that Nabokov was responsible for the naming and translating of his own work; How It All Began was published several decades after the writer's death (execution, I should say) and it is on the translator's shoulders that the title rests. The novel was written by Bukharin in the 1930's while he was imprisioned in the Lubyanka, and the manuscript (among all his other papers) was lost in the NKVD/KGB archives until the 1990's. The title, as given by Bukharin, is Времена, or The Times (or perhaps, Those Times), and it is not so much an autobiographical novel as a thinly veiled memoir, covering pre-Revolutionary Russia from the turn of the century to the eve of the 1917 revolution. In his introduction, Stephen F. Cohen writes that literally translated, the original Russian title would lose its "resonance and simple elegance," and that he chose How It All Began because it captured at least the essence of meaning, the feeling of the original Времена. It seems that those times, those years between the failed revolution of 1905 and the October revolution of 1917 are pivotal to the boy who would become part of that second revolution, that those times were where it all began, that this novel, this memoir shows how, indeed, it all began.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Favorite food. pâté. (Part 3).

There are many childhood food memories I associate with New York City. During the 80's my grandfather spent most of his time in New York and we consequently spent many of our holidays visiting him there. My early memories of that time are of an apartment in mid-town Manhattan with big windows overlooking nearby office buildings; at nighttime you felt that you were suspended in darkness, in space, amidst all those lights. It was a million miles away from our house in suburban St. Louis. The living room had a wall of mirrors that reflected my five-year-old self dancing across the room; I remember a huge marble coffee-table (later it would be cracked in transit across the country) and a long, low, black leather sofa. There was a narrow galley kitchen, bright, tiny, and rarely used. Perched on the counter of that kitchen was where I had my first taste of pâté.

A friend of my grandfather's (I can't remember who) had a tin of goose (or perhaps it was duck; I can never tell) liver pâté and a box of melba toasts. (Years later I would learn that those toasts were named for the opera singer Nellie Melba, but I was never sure exactly why). She would spread dabs of this grayish-pink mousse on the little squares of toast and hand them to me. They crunched in my mouth, those bits of toast, and then the flavor of the pâté, that faintly metallic sweetness of liver, that creamy texture of it, would come through. I am not sure I liked it then (I was five, after all), but pâté has long been one of my favorite foods. (Actually, I'm eating some now as I write this).

Later, as I was growing up, pâté was something special that we had at parties, spread on slices of baguette or crackers. We would buy it at the Italian deli in the market, a cool, pale slab of duck liver mousse speckled with bits of black truffle, spiked with cognac, and topped with an amber slice of aspic. If I was lucky, there would be enough pâté left over for breakfast the next day, or an after-school snack. Sometimes we tried other kinds, a plain goose-liver pâté wrapped in a thin white layer of fat that melted on the tongue, and a heartier chicken liver one that was just as delicious, if not nearly as light and smooth as the truffle mousse. Much later, having a car and buying my own groceries meant that I could have pâté whenever I wanted. Like right now. But it is, like all other good-tasting (but bad-for-you) things, best as a rare treat, giving you just enough to sate your desire without falling into gluttony. (Not to mention high cholesterol).

Friday, June 16, 2006

Reading. Nabokov. (on memory and forgetting).

I find myself forgetting things all the time. I will open my mouth to speak, and realize that I've forgotten what it was I had been meaning to say. I will set some papers down on a shelf, and trail around the office for several minutes trying to remember where I'd put them. I write down phone numbers and then forget who they belong to. I can't remember which story I told to which friend, or if I have already told one long-suffering friend (usually J., who points out that I've told the story already, on the phone, via IM, email, or in person, or all of the above) the same story several times. But other things I remember. Conversations I had with people I loved. Fragments, incidents from my childhood. And above all, certain beloved passages from my favorite books, my favorite opening sentences, one of which comes from Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).*

These words have never failed to send a shiver up my spine, a reminder of my own mortality, of the reality that the world around me existed quite well without me before my appearance and will continue on after my "brief crack of light" has passed. Everything that follows these opening sentences is an exploration of all that passes in that time, in that moment of existence between birth and - if not death - the time when the book was finished. It is sometimes strange for me, as someone who forgets everything, to read other people's memories, as if by reading them I could recover my own, if not lost, then only vaguely remembered memories.

*Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. Vintage International, 1989. p 19.
Thinking. fruit. (cherries).

June means cherry season, and I love cherry season. There's something about eating fruit in season, where you wait all year for your favorites to arrive, eat them until you get sick, and then can't eat anymore until another year goes by and it's the season again.

When I was very young, I would get nosebleeds when I ate too many Bing cherries, waking up in the middle of the night with my pillowcase stained the same deep red of the fruit. (Sorry to be so gruesome). Fortunately, I outgrew this, but even now the Bing cherries are so dark and luscious with that deep, rich taste, like red wine or bitter chocolate, you cannot eat too many without feeling overwhelmed. But I love them, eating handfuls of those sweet, red-black cherries, leaving a trail of stems and stones behind me until I cannot eat any more.

And then there are the Rainier cherries. A beautiful pale yellow, flushed pink like blushing faces, they taste like pure sunlight. They are as sweet, but lighter than the Bing cherries, and I can never get enough. We once drove out to an orchard that let you climb into the trees to pick your own cherries; I ate as many as I could pick, warm from the sun, golden and sweet. I always buy as many as I can, and I never share them if I can get away with it.

Which kind of cherry is better? They are as different as red or white wine, dark or milk chocolate, moonlight or sunlight...If you really pinned me to the wall I would say that I love them both, but Rainier cherries are the ones I dream about all year long until the first ones arrive in the market, bringing the glow of the summer sun indoors, brightening my kitchen, exploding with pure sweetness in my mouth. In the winter months the memory of eating cherries is like a promise for the return of a golden summer and as many cherries as I can eat...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Reading. de Botton.

I used to always see Alain de Botton mentioned in various British magazines, and I would misread his name as Bottom. Oh, I thought, there's that British writer with the funny name again. I'd never read his books. Until the day when I happened to be crouching on the floor at the bookstore, peering at the titles on the bottom shelf, looking for something by Borges (as it so often happens) and finding instead a tiny little book by that Bottom guy (as I still persist in thinking of him) called On Love. Its black, red, and white cover attracted my eye; the title made me smile. I flipped through, scanned the first few pages, and began to laugh.

I have a terrible weakness for books with Love in the title. I had to have this one. (The week I found it, I was simultaneously reading three books with the word love in the title).

The original (British) title is Essays in Love, instead of On Love, but I am not sure which version I prefer. I love the brevity, the simplicity of the latter. But the former makes more sense when you see the novel itself unfolding like a series of essays, explaining every moment from the beginning of a love affair, through its course, the eventual, inevitable disintegration, the end, and the aftermath. The layout, the writing, the episodic essay-like chapters leave it feeling less line a novel and more like a dissertation on love. Through it all de Botton's narrator details all the minutiae of his relationship with Chloe, every feeling from attraction to irritation to absolute and complete love, every little thing he notices about her. Every stage, every moment is relived, from their first meeting on an airplane (complete with diagram of the airplane and statistics on the probablility of their meeting), to his imagined scenarios of his death after their breakup. The writing is so clear and funny and beautiful and light that it leaves me feeling weightless love.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Reading. Rand.

I lied yesterday. I was wrong. There are women writers who have completely torn me apart, set fire to my mind and heart. How could I forget?

It has been ten years since I read The Fountainhead. I was fifteen. If memory serves, I was in the middle of a massive crush on someone I was convinced didn't like me at all, and I both loved him and hated him. I felt that way about this novel. It was completely different from anything else I was reading at the time, each word like a blade through my skin, and I could not stop reading, could not stop thinking about it. I was fifteen years old, and I wished for that ability to know myself absolutely, to be convinced absolutely that whatever I believed was right. I am not sure I know all that now, but I am closer to my goal than I was ten years ago. Such a long time, and yet the time has slipped by so quickly it seems that the years between have not even existed.

Lately I have been revisiting writers I read a decade ago and have not read since. It was time to come back to Rand. So. Here we go.

The words, the ideas, the thoughts that form in Roark's mind, come out of his mouth, are as electric as I remember, and I am in love all over again.
Eating/thinking. plums. (this is just to say...).

While waiting for my dinner to cook tonight, I began cleaning out the fridge (tomorrow is garbage day), found a few plums lurking in the dark shadows behind a pot of stew. Took a bite of one, cold against my teeth, that sharp sourness just beneath the skin giving way to sweetness at the heart of the fruit. The poem by William Carlos Williams came to mind - one of my favorite poems of all time.

"This Is Just To Say."

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And I remember that while I've loved this poem since I first read it, years ago, the simplicity of the words, this kind of conversation between two people who share everything (I think the poet wrote it to his wife), I've never agreed with one aspect of it. I don't like my plums cold. I want them warm (well, room temperature, at least), as if warmed by the sun, as if they had just been picked, lush and juicy and sweet, the flavor richer, more intense somehow, straight from the tree to my waiting hand, my eager mouth. The juices syrupy, dripping down my chin. Not chilled ice-cold in the fridge, numbing the tongue.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Break me apart, build me up again. (the poetry of Denise Levertov).

I hate to admit this, but when I think of all the writers whose works (fiction, poetry, non-fiction) totally blow my world apart, I realize that they are nearly all male. That is not to say I don't love women writers, I do, but I am not sure they have affected me as profoundly as their male counterparts. Profoundly is the wrong word, but I can't think of another one this early in the morning. It seems wrong to say that their effect on me is...quieter, less...explosive, somehow.

All of this changed when I encountered Denise Levertov.

It started with Breathing the Water, which felt a bit like diving into the sea, falling into a river, being carried away by the slow current of words. A sudden movement followed by a stillness that seem to echo down into the bottom of my soul . Not so much a shattering explosion as a...disintegration. I had to read more.

Now I've managed to amass a whole pile of poems, essays, collected memories. I've only just begun, but already I feel myself cracking apart, my heart on fire. I open the cover, flip through the pages, slide into her words. It feels like that one autumn evening on the Washington coast, camping on the beach, when, as night plunged us into darkness, we all fell into the shallow dark water with our clothes on after dinner (sort of accidentally-on-purpose, I would say, my classmates and I stumbling closer and closer as the tide came in), waves foaming around us. That cold sting of seawater, the warmth of the campfire as we dried off. When I read Levertov I feel the same way as I did that long-ago fall day.

I can't find my copy of Milosz's ABC's at the moment, but Milosz said something about how Levertov's style evolved, changing almost from volume to volume, and scanning her poems from different times you can see transitions in content, themes, ideas, patterns but her voice, something in her words, the rythms of her words, the feeling of them, remain undisputably hers. And I when I stretch out my arm to reach for one of her books I feel my mind prepare itself for that moment when everything blows wide open and I have to build myself from the ground up all over again...

Monday, June 12, 2006

On love. Seattle International Film Festival, 2006.

I saw two films about love at SIFF on Saturday. I didn't plan on it being the theme of the day; it just turned out that way. They were very different, but besides love they had one thing, language, in common.

The first film was Three Times, by the director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The Chinese title is 最 好 的 時 光, which actually translates into something like "The Best Moment." I think each story describes that moment, that passing moment of happiness, that fleeting moment of love that you encounter, that you have for a brief time, and then it is gone. (Or maybe the story continues beyond the edge of the film, the love continues). There are three different stories, centering around two actors, Chang Chen (who has changed so much since I first saw him in Happy Together nearly a decade ago), and Qi Shu, set in Taiwan in 1966 (Kaohsiung), 1911 (I'm not sure where this segment takes place), and 2005 (Taipei). The segments are titled "A Time for Love," "A Time for Freedom," and "A Time for Youth." It is beautifully filmed and leaves you with the feeling of having let something slip through your fingers, a faint sensation of loss. The repeated shots of billiard balls knocking against each other in the first segment seem to set up the underlying theme, that love happens in the brief moments of contact the characters have with each other, before they propel away from each other and that moment is gone. I'm not sure I understood it, but I hope to see it again one day.

The second film was as over-the-top as the first film was subtle. Perhaps Love is a lavish musical extravaganza, that moves between the film-within-a-film, real life, and the past. I must confess that at first I had trouble following what was going on. The three characters - both in "real life" and in the film-within-a-film - are locked a love triangle; in the movie the girl has lost her memory, one man (played by the director) convinces her that she loves him, and the other man is her old lover who she has forgotten, and who is trying to make her remember their love. It parallels the characters off the movie set: the leading lady who is the longtime love of the director, and the former love of her leading man, who has never gotten over her. The actress has tried to forget her past, the director is worried that he is losing her, and the actor is obsessed with making her understand how she broke his heart when she left, with making her acknowledge the past which she is trying to deny, deny that she loved him, deny where she came from. It is about holding on, and letting go, and realizing what you had once walked away from, walked towards, perhaps was love, after all.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

On fate. reading.

There is a passage in one of my favorite novels of all time, A Room With a View (I have loved it for so long that I cannot remember a time when I did not), where Mr. Beebe and George Emerson discuss fate. George believes that everything is Fate; the vicar, Mr. Beebe, believes otherwise. The former believes Fate brought him back together with Lucy, the latter believes they were all brought together by a shared interest in Italy, where they all met, which merely "narrows the field immeasurably."*

I have always believed in fate. I went to Russia for the first time in 1993; my parents believed I should broaden my horizons and encouraged me to go on a school trip, one month in Moscow. It was August. I did not speak Russian then, and it would be another year, perhaps two, before I would be reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, before I stumbled into Solzhenitsyn's archipelago of words. Three years after that first trip, I came across a recommendation for The Master and Margarita in our school's yearly student/teacher book recommendation pamphlet. I went to the bookstore, found a lyrical new translation (by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor) that had recently been published, with copious footnotes (by the brilliant Ellendea Proffer) that helped me understand, fall in love with the story. Later that summer a mysterious stranger, a Russian man, in a darkened movie theater, turned around as I was telling my best friend about it, and suggested that I learn Russian in order to read it in the original. Two years passed; I discovered other writers, the Italians Eco and Calvino, the Czech Kundera. My mind was shooting off in different directions. By the time I was at university I spoke a fair amount of Italian and I intended to study French. Alas, all the first-year French classes were full; I signed up for Russian instead. Everything just exploded from there. Within a year I spoke Russian (more or less) and found myself in Russia again, this time in St. Petersburg. I honestly think that if I had not happened across the particular translation of The Master and Margarita I have, none of this would have happened. Or perhaps it would have. Fate, you know. Perhaps something else would have led me there.

Years passed. I had given little thought to Russian literature in recent times. A chance conversation struck up on a lazy Friday afternoon led to getting up painfully early the next day, driving like a maniac to Whidbey Island, and hearing the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky, which referenced Mandelstam and led me back to Mandelstam, which led me back to the other writers and poets of his time. Reading and re-reading Bukowski and Bulgakov, respectively, (next to each other on their shelf at the bookstore) led my eye down to Burgess and Burroughs. The cycle continued.

It was, of all things, a Modest Mouse song that led me to remember the name Bukowski, which led to his novels, which led to his poetry, which led to other poets, namely Ferlinghetti, who I loved absolutely in a way I hadn't the first time I read him, years ago. I then re-read Ginsberg, who this time around blew my world apart. The weekly prowls at the bookstore led to more discoveries, all connected in various ways. I can't believe how many posts have begun with the words "I don't know how it happened, but somehow I came across...." or some variation thereof. I began to read again. And then a co-worker mentioned a blog she had discovered which mentioned my father. I found that it made me want to write, too, but I didn't want to write about my life, at least not the everyday details of work and what I did when I woke up in the morning or a new handbag I wanted, so what else could there be? So. Food and books, what else could be more important to me? And then I found I couldn't stop writing, and in order to write I had to read. Had to stop and think, go backwards in time in search of memories, go forwards and look for new things to read, to think about, to cook. I don't know where all this will lead. I suppose Fate will decide.

*Forster, E. M. A Room With a View. Vintage International, 1989. p 147.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Reading. Brodsky. (much of this was written while waiting in line at the Seattle International Film Festival).

Brodsky was another poet who I encountered in Milosz's ABC's. He is mentioned as having resigned from the Academy of Arts and Letters in protest when Evgeny Evtushenko was elected. Doubtless there is a story behind this episode, which I have yet to discover. Somehow I had never read anything by Brodsky; he had always slipped by my field of vision. Somehow someday became right now.

"Do you know Venice?" "No." "It's a lagoon!" (I don't know where I read this, but it has always made me laugh, as do all cities built on swamps, suspended over water, slowly sinking into the water which is always waiting to reclaim what never was meant to exist on its surface. The only thing that makes less sense than to build a city on water is to build a city in the middle of a desert).

I came across Watermark last night. For some reason, I always discover the non-poetry works of a poet before moving onto the poetry. I haven't yet figured out why. Brodsky writes about Venice, which I have never visited, the city whose name conjures in my mind images of darkly Gothic palazzos, elaborate cathedrals, piazzas of ancient stone, an intricate labryinth of canals. I brought up the notion of labryinths last night, and immediately I once again run into the story of Ariadne and the Minotaur, as he thinks of his only friend in Venice, a glamorous Veneziana, as his Ariadne, who leads him into the depths of the maze of the city and deposits him in a penzione, leaving him with only the faint memory of her perfume. The image of a labryinth in Watermark seems two-fold - that of the physical manifestation of the city itself and the maze of memories Brodsky recounts in his book. For the mind is like maze of memories, each turn you take leading you away from one thing and towards another, memory itself Ariadne's thread unwinding, leading you down the endless paths, turning every which way...

There is some delicious irony, evidence of the myriad machinations of fate, in that I come across the story of the Minotaur twice in two days - in Pelevin's post-millenial reinterpration The Helmet of Horror, which I discussed last night, and in Brodsky's refrain throughout his book, when I have not thought of this myth in years. It had lay dormant in my mind for so long, and then suddenly, this mythical creature was everywhere I looked.

Which brings me to the realization that literature is my labryinth, this blog is my labryinth, within which I turn into different paths that lead me in all directions. (Am I Ariadne, Theseus, or the Minotaur? Maiden, hero, monster?). There is no beginning and no end, only eternal possibilities of discovery. Past-present-future intertwined in an endless maze. You can allow yourself to become hopelessly lost, confused, ensnared in the tentacles of memory and forgetting, or you can let go and allow yourself to rediscover past memories or find new ones. Everything is connected, without logic, without order; the journey simply happens. It was chance (or was it?) that led me to Milosz, who lead me to Levertov and Brodsky, who in turn will lead me onto further paths; it was fate that I chose Brodsky and Pelevin on the same night, that they would both invoke the memory of the Minotaur. This is one of the things I love most about literature, these twists, this happenstance.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reading. Pelevin.

It was many years ago that I studied the Greek myths in school. Legends of ancient gods and goddesses, their half-mortal children who performed great feats, their loves and jealousies. I am afraid that they have mostly faded into a distant memory, faint wisps of half-remembered stories clinging to my brain. It is only just now that I remember that it was Perseus who faced (well, not literally) the gorgon Medusa, and Theseus who defeated the dreaded Minotaur, and not the other way around. And I am only able to figure it out (by process of elimination) because I have Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror on the table next to me.

I first read Pelevin in college. I had survived a semester of Tolstoy (an entire semester devoted to War and Peace), another of 19th century Russian literature (which involved more Pushkin than I care to remember), and now had moved on to Soviet and post-Soviet literature. I cannot remember The Life of Insects very well; I remember only that I found it confusing and difficult. It was during tonight's weekly bookstore binge (two books, hardly a binge; I only just stopped myself from adding Rilke to the pile, if only because I didn't know which one to buy and I couldn't buy them all) when I came across The Helmet of Horror, which I noticed, I must admit, only because the cover was so cool. It was on the bottom shelf, and I was huddled on the floor, flipping through a volume of Rilke and wondering why I never studied German when I looked up and saw that amusingly designed jacket cover, the drawing of a bull-headed man, the cartoonish red letters of the title. I never buy hardcover books, but Pelevin beckoned; it was time to come back to him.

This book is one of a series of books by different writers, each rewriting a myth. This one happens to be Pelevin's reinterpretation of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the details of which I cannot remember. I remember only that it involved a labryinth, a ball of magic thread, and a girl called Ariadne. And I am not sure about Ariadne. Pelevin's version is constructed as what appears to be a conversation in an internet chatroom, between people with screenames such as Nutscracker and my favorite, Romeo-y-Cohiba (which, I believe, is a brand of cigars, is it not?). They are joined by Ariadne, Organizm(-:, IsoldA, and the fabulously named Monstradamus. The myth of thousands of years has made a leap across time into the present...who knows where it will lead me next?

I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with anyone who tries to find me - who said this and about what?*

I like the image of a labryinth, because it calls to mind the garden of forking paths that I have referred to in the past, the garden of literature, which comes from something (only vaguely remembered, so perhaps I am making this up) Borges wrote about a garden of forking paths. Of course, he wrote of labyrinths as well - labryinths, gardens of forking paths - either way you look at it they are the same, a bounded area with endless possibilities and directions within. Pelevin begins by referencing Borges (which is what brought him back to my mind). Which means, when I finish this book, I must go back to Borges as the key to Pelevin's story.

*Pelevin, Victor. The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Perseus and the Minotaur. Canongate, 2006. p 1.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Eating. macaroni and cheese.

Last night I was so tired when I came home from work that I just had to make something comforting, something so easy I could do it practically with my eyes closed. What else could I make, then, but macaroni and cheese? Soft little curls of macaroni, covered in a creamy sauce, the crunch of chopped onion, a layer of cheddar, the whole thing molten and lush and comforting. The cheese was pre-grated (because I am lazy), there was already a bowl of diced onion in the fridge (left over from a previous cooking experiment), and it took hardly any effort at all to boil some noodles and whisk together a bechamel sauce, stir in the cheese, toss everything together, pour it all into a dish, and bake it until the sauce bubbled and the cheese on top formed a golden crust. The whole process (including baking time) took less than forty-five minutes.

Growing up my only experience with macaroni and cheese came from the school cafeteria. It conjures up memories of fake cheese, tasteless bread crumbs, soggy noodles. It was never something I cooked at home, until college when occasionally we would make the boxed kind, packets of vile orange powder, to which you added milk, and scrawny little tubes of pasta which you boiled and tossed with the ersatz cheese sauce. Butter and whole milk (instead of margarine and low-fat milk) helped a little, but could not disguise the fact that it all tasted like chemicals masquerading as cheese.

Real homemade macaroni and cheese is something else entirely. I've tried different recipes, some using evaporated milk, which I felt tasted slightly metallic from the canned milk, some made with cheddar and monterey jack, which I thought was bland, and finally, milk and a combination of medium and sharp cheddar. Sometimes I buy expensive aged cheddar and grate it myself (a bore), but usually I get lazy and buy pre-grated (but still good-quality) cheddar in a bag. The recipe I use calls for chopped onion, which adds flavor and crunch, and if I'm in the mood I add cubes of good ham, smoky, salty, chewy and slightly sweet, the perfect contrast to the macaroni. This is what I eat when I am home alone, when I want something soothing and simple, the creamy sauce melding with the noodles, a sprinkling of cheese, topped with the crunch of homemade bread crumbs made from good bread blitzed in the food processor.

Having had the forethought to make enough macaroni and cheese for two dinners last night, tonight I only had to put the leftovers in a little oven-proof dish and bake it until everything was hot and bubbling and the cheese had crisped around the edges. Fifteen minutes or so and dinner was ready. Delicious. Happiness on a plate. Heaven at the end of a very long day.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Reading. Bulgakov. (a return).

I had a heartbreaking conversation with a friend this morning, who revealed that he was fifty pages from the end of The Master and Margarita, and he just wasn't loving it. I think I let out a shriek, that noise you make when you watch your child's soccer ball get away from him, that slow-motion feeling as you fail to stop him from running out into the street and into the path of an oncoming car. I have loved this book so deeply, for so long, it was a shock to hear that someone did not agree with how it made me feel. Could I have been wrong all this time? It was time to go back, back to the beginning...

I assume a comfortable reading position, at the kitchen table. One leg tucked beneath me, the other stretched out on the chair next to mine. Is the light bright enough? There is a tall glass of mineral water next to me, a bowl of cherries. I'm good. The book lays at my elbow. We have come a long way together. At some point the cover was reinforced with transparent tape; now it is falling apart. I open the pages, slide into the first chapter. It is as I remember it, and within a few words I have fallen back into the past. It will take me a while to finish the whole thing, but I feel it is time to read it all over again. I have often gone back to the parts I loved the most, the chapters I almost know by heart (well, not quite), but I have not read the entire novel from beginning to end for a long time.

I wonder if part of what I love about The Master and Margarita is that it represents a certain period of time in my life. The people I loved then, the person I was was part of the transition between who I was before and who I have become. Falling in love with the story marked a change in the books I read, the way I read, the way I thought about literature. It broke me apart, turned me inside out; it changed everything. (I have said all this before). I did not find it an easy novel to love, but then, as you know, there are few things I fell in love with easily. Bulgakov writes long meandering sentences that seem to twist your mind, turn you around and around in circles, the interweaving themes and stories and characters like the complex, seperate, intertwining melodies of a Bach sinfonia. I used to read it aloud to my friends; I would be out of breath before a paragraph ended. If I had read it for the first time now, would I feel the same way? Would I love it as much? It is impossible to say. Now I feel like I was lucky to come across The Master and Margarita when I did, that I was lucky to start with the translation I have, which is more beautiful and lyrical than the others I've glanced through. It came into my life at exactly the right moment. Timing is everything.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Favorite foods. foie gras. (Part 2).

I first tasted foie gras when I was fourteen years old. We were in a dim little restaurant in Seattle, the Hunt Club at the Hotel Sorrento. I have not been there in years, but it is the site of one of my most favorite culinary discoveries. The foie gras was pan-seared, drizzled with some kind of sauce, placed on a bed of some sort of vegetable - or perhaps fruit, I can't really remember. What I remember is that sensation of biting into that luscious forkful of melting (to put it indelicately) liver. Because that is exactly what it is, liver. Duck (or goose) liver. I had eaten liver before. And I had been a huge fan of duck (or goose, or pork) pâté since I was five years old (another story). But this...this was a totally new sensation. It was the beginning of a profound obsession that continues to this day.

Foie gras (it sounds so much nicer in French, but then, pretty much everything does) is the fattened liver of a duck (or goose) that has been forcibly fed so much food that their livers become hugely engorged, full of delicious...fat. I don't eat it very often because it is a) expensive, b) bad for you, and c) part of the pleasure is when it only comes rarely. If I ate it all the time I would die of boredom before I would die of a heart attack. The chef at one of my favorite restaurants once suggested that he might be persuaded to do an all-foie gras menu; it would probably kill me.

The perfect way to serve foie gras, for me, is pan-seared just long enough so that a delicate crust forms, which crunches lightly between the teeth as you bite into it, and the fat inside begins to melt, but not so long that all the fat melts away. It should practically erupt in your mouth, melt away on the tongue. Usually the foie gras is served with a fruit sauce, or a wine reduction, or a gastrique, something acidic to cut the rich fattiness of the liver, underscore the unctuous texture of it. Once, at Lampreia, I had it served on a bed of sautéed spinach, the tenderest baby leaves imaginable, which mingled with the flavors of the seared liver. It was incredible.

Another way to serve foie gras is in a terrine, cold, or rather, at room temperature (to bring out the flavor). Whole lobes of foie gras are packed into a mold and baked in a bain-marie, usually flavored with sauternes or madeira or some other wine. The foie gras is sliced and served with little pieces of toast, perhaps some sort of fruit, fresh or poached, or little bits of wine-flavored aspic. As an accompaniment, a glass of sauternes perfectly offsets the cool, smooth, silky texture of the foie gras. I love the mix of sensations in my mouth, the crunch of toast, the golden sweetness of wine, the pure taste of foie gras.

In all my years of eating foie gras, I have come across the occasional slightly mediocre one, a foie gras that has perhaps not formed enough of a crust, or has languished on the plate too long and cooled, becoming every so slightly congealed (a frequent hazard in restaurants with overly forceful air conditioning). The best was at Montrachet, in New York City, some years ago. My mother could not conceal her horror when the plate was set before me; it was the biggest piece of foie gras I had ever eaten, a fat, perfect slice the size of a baby's hand. I think it was on a bed of apples and other fall root vegetables, but I am ashamed to say that all I remember is the feel of foie gras on my tongue, that melting sensation...

Monday, June 05, 2006

Reading. Havel.

Late last night I began reading the collected letters of Václav Havel, written to his wife Olga between 1979-1983, when he was jailed as a member of VONS, the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted (what is it with Communists and their love of acronyms?), which had grown out of Charter 77, the Czechoslovak human rights movement, which strove to "monitor the cases of people who have been indicted or imprisoned for expressing their beliefs, or who are victims of abuses by the police and the courts."* I have not read this vast collection of letters for eight years. In fact, the last time I read this book I was in Prague. It was almost exactly eight years ago. I had just graduated from high school; I was not quite eighteen. We found ourselves, quite suddenly, in Prague (it was a fairly spur-of-the-moment trip; my mother had found some bargain airfare on the internet or something), and I had never fallen in love with a city like this before, never would again. I was completely in love with the old stones, the winding streets, the bridges, this beautiful city. The year before I had discovered Kundera; I had a copy of Immortality with me. (That part is a story for another time).

I found Letters to Olga in a bookstore somewhere along the twisting, cobbled streets of Prague, a shop that sold English-language books to tourists and expats. I think I had run out of things to read (my greatest fear while on holiday). On the surface, he talks about reading English books, improving his German, what items his wife should send in her parcels - fruits, vitamins, toiletries, how she should take care of their country house, keep her spirits up, attend to his business. Go to the theater, visit friends, write to him more often. He is concerned about his hemorrhoids (which cause him much pain and which he mentions often), his weight, and doing yoga. (I tried to envision President Havel doing yoga, and could not). The vacation ended; it was our last trip as a family before I would leave for college and a different life (there have been other family holidays since, but it has not been the same). In a year's time I would speak Russian, I would find myself wandering through the White Nights of June in St. Petersburg. It was not until last night that I began reading these letters again. The book belonged to that other, previous life, and I felt a shiver as I opened the pages, found a Czech museum ticket thrust inside as a bookmark.

These collected letters are a record of those times, of one man's experience as a prisoner, of the minutae of everyday life, all of the little things you think nothing about when you have freedom but become so important when they are taken away. But ultimately, they reflect on a marriage, on this relationship, this absolute bond between two people, of love, of something so intensely private that it feels like almost like a violation to read them. But I wonder, if Havel wrote them with the idea that they would someday be read by the whole world? At the same time, they became something more than just letters, they were the only form of writing Havel was allowed, one letter a week. He writes that these letters "gave [him] a chance to develop a new way of looking at [himself] and examining [his] attitudes to the fundamental things in life...[he] depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered."* To be a writer, and to be denied the right to write, must be an impossible burden. How lucky that in his wife, and in his letters to her, Havel was able to find this...release.

Compared to so many other letters between imprisoned husbands and devoted wives, those whose stories ended tragically - the Mandelstams, Bukharin and Larina, etc. - there is something less...bleak about Havel's letters. He is hopeful, focused on the time when he can write again, more than just letters, those four pages he is allowed each week. There is not that black despair I found in those other letters, written in another time, another country. There is a lightness, despite the seriousness of his situation, almost a buoyancy. Perhaps it was all that yoga.

*Havel, Vaclav. Letters to Olga. Faber and Faber, London, 1990. pp 3, 8.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Intermission. Bukowski.

I should have just gone ahead and called this blog Kairu Reads Bukowski. I will probably take a break from Bukowski for a while, take a breath and read something else, fall in love with someone else, drown in someone else's burning words. Already I am moving in directions I hadn't thought possible a year ago. But I come back to Bukowski because of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Overheard while waiting in line for the screening of Factotum (paraphrased because I've got a shitty memory):
- "I've never read anything by Bukowski. I'm here just 'cause Matt Dillon's in the movie." (girl to slightly drunken man who only wishes he was Bukowski).
- "Matt Dillon's in the movie? I thought you said Bob Dylan! That's why I came!" (middle-aged man to his friend. I think he was joking).
- "You should totally become a member! I'm a member! You get all kinds of cool benefits! I got to be within four feet of David Duchovny! I could have touched him! Only I didn't want to seem creepy." (extremely perky SIFF member/volunteer passing out free candy and membership pamphlets to people waiting in line).
- "That's not really a selling point for me." (guy she was giving the SIFF member spiel to).
- "He's married to Téa Leoni." (friend of the guy).
- "Well, maybe if it had been Téa then I would have been interested." (the first guy, in response to his friend).
- "Twenty bucks for that!? (a folding stool emblazoned with "SIFF") You've got to be fucking kidding me! (slightly drunken Bukowski fan kicks the stool over to demonstrate its flimsiness and emphasize his contempt for blatant commerce).

The film Factotum is loosely based on the Bukowski novel of the same name, which I read some months ago. I didn't like it as much as Post Office, which was a lot funnier, or love it as much I did Women, which was more romantic. It seemed to go in circles, as Chinaski moved in and out of jobs and between women, interspersed with bouts of drinking and betting, going nowhere. I wasn't sure how it would translate to film. And I was surprised. Sure, there were some things played for cheap laughs, certainly Matt Dillon would occasionally relapse into the furrowed-browed school of acting that has long been his trademark. But I was surprised at how well he did otherwise, how he changed in the way he spoke, which reminded me of recordings I've heard of Bukowski's own voice, a voice that sounded of whiskey and cigarettes, the way he moved; when he stood still he reminded me of photographs of Bukowski, that easy slouch. As with most actors who were heartthrobs in their early careers, the prettiness of Dillon's youth has matured into something altogether more interesting. The film is based on the novel, and on Bukowski's own life (but of course all his writing is loosely based on himself to begin with), and with his poems read aloud in voice-over. There was something beautiful about the film. It isn't set in Bukowski's time, it takes place now, but it could be any time, any city. (Actually, I believe it was filmed in Minneapolis, but I'm not familiar with the city). And I loved it.
Reading. Levertov.

I had not been aware of the poetry of Denise Levertov until I read Milosz's ABC's recently (and I had to discover Milosz before I discovered Levertov. Everything is connected), which mentions her life and work. She seemed like she might be extraordinary and unusual, worth seeking out. I filed her name away in my mind, turned away to read something else waiting for me on the floor of my room. And then I went on one of my periodic used-bookstore prowls yesterday. There is a tiny bookstore in my neighborhood I that I cannot pass without going in, a hole-in-the wall crammed with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a skinny spiral staircase leading to an even tinier mezzanine, more like a balcony, filled with more books. Books are piled on the floor, on the desk where the bearded proprietor sits with his laptop, looking up and greeting me as I come in. I always find something that I didn't know I wanted, and occasionally I find something I was looking for.

The bookstore had a few sagging shelves packed with poetry. I had been looking for Mandelstam; not finding him my gaze slid slowly to the left, where I found Levertov's Breathing the Water. The title caught my eye, a slim volume nearly hidden by the other books surrounding it. Took it out, flipped through the pages. Fell into her words. Felt as though I was sliding into water, pulled beneath the surface by the undertow of poetry. The title, I think, comes from the last poem, Variation and Reflection on a Theme by Rilke (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 7). How did I not discover her before? Now I find I must read more. A return trip to the bookstore is called for.

We must breathe time as fishes breathe water.*

*Levertov, Denise. Breathing the Water. New Directions Books, 1987. p 83.