Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reading. Chabon.

I grew up with a Taiwanese father who loved baseball (and still does). My earliest memories are of watching the St. Louis Cardinals on the small tv in our kitchen. I have always thought of baseball as the most American of sports, ever since I was a small child reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Betty Bao Lord, where a young girl comes to America from China and learns to be an American as she learns to play baseball. I have never learned how to play baseball (or any other sport), and I still know nothing about it, but baseball and America and childhood are inextricably linked in my mind.

Some years ago I read an essay by Michael Chabon (one of several about divorce) about his first marriage, how he had married a woman whose family roots ran deep in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region, how her family became his family and how difficult it was when they divorced and those bonds were unraveled and ripped apart. How their marriage was not only about the two of them, but about their extended families, her parents losing someone who had been a son, particularly her father who had never had a son. Having grown up in a divorced home, much of Chabon's work deals with single parents who are struggling with parenthood alone, whether by divorce or death.

In Summerland, Ethan and his father have moved to Clam Island, WA, from Colorado Springs, after his mother's death. Ethan is a terrible baseball player, the worst on his team, "the least gifted ballplayer that Clam Island has ever seen." I am reminded of my own childhood, when during gym class I was always the slowest runner, the worst hitter, the one who couldn't do a single pull-up, no matter how I struggled, the klutz who dropped a ball if even by some miracle I managed to catch it in the first place. (I do, however, throw an awesome frisbee).

Clam Island is an imaginary place, "a small, green, damp corner of the world," one of those islands somewhere near Orcas Island and San Juan Island, but even damper than either of those places. (I wonder if Chabon became familiar with these places when he was married to someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, who had lived in the house where she had grown up and her mother had grown up and many generations before had lived). One morning Ethan wakes up to find a strange creature sitting on his chest, a bit like a fox and a bit like a monkey (named Cutbelly), promising him a fantastic destiny.

Have you ever dreamed that one day you would be given a chance to do something extraordinary, something you have never been able to accomplish in your ordinary life? Ethan finds himself in the world of Summerland that is one of the four Worlds that branch out from the Tree that we call the universe, the Summerland which exists simultaneously in Ethan's world and the world of the Little People, the ferishers, who play baseball in the magical world of Summerland and who are threatened by an ancient enemy and need Ethan's help to vanquish him. (It sounds mad to explain this all, you'll have to read it yourself). But in saving the people of Summerland by playing baseball, perhaps Ethan will find something inside him, the possibility of being able to do something he never could before.

Maybe this year I will find something I never thought I could do, someone I never thought I could be. Anything is possible.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

The Charles Eliot Norton lectures are a series of six lectures given by a chosen writer each year at Harvard University. I discovered the series when I discovered Italo Calvino and his (uncompleted, since he died before he had finished the sixth) Six Memos for the Next Millenium, and continued on with Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. They had a great impact on me, emotionally and intellectually; they marked a turning point in the way I thought about literature, the way I read, opened the way to new discoveries. Eventually I would come to other writers, other turning points, and Czeslaw Milosz has been one of these later writers who stands out clearly in my mind. I thought differently about poetry after I discovered him. It was then with a sense of homecoming that I came across his own Charles Eliot Norton lectures, collected in The Witness of Poetry.

The title, so Milosz tells us, comes from the idea that we do not witness poetry, but rather it witnesses us. I am reminded a little of how as schoolchildren we talked about how the Mona Lisa's gaze followed you around the room; as an art history student much later we would talk about the interaction between the viewer and the painting - which is the viewer, and which is the viewed? There is a poem by John Ashbery, about the self-portrait by Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a painting that blurs the boundary between the viewer and the painting until there is no boundary left. It is an intriguing notion, that poetry is both a testament to history and also a part of it - and it seems that it is a question that preoccupies all poets. (Speaking of questions that preoccupy all poets, Milosz makes reference to the fact that he has 'in mind the coner of Europe that shaped [him] and to which [he has] remained faithful by writing in the language of [his] childhood,' echoing the words of Mark Pawlak which I referred to just yesterday).

In reading about poetry I thought I might understand it better, and in reading poetry I thought I would understand literature better, understand language better. In Orpheus and Eurydice Milosz wrote that Only her love warmed him, humanized him. When he was with her he felt differently about himself. When I read Milosz, I think differently about poetry, and consequently differently about myself, the patterns of thoughts in my mind shifting as though they were those colored bits of glass in a kaleidescope, a new mosaic of ideas constantly changing and evolving past what they once were.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading. Pawlak.

I came across the poetry of Mark Pawlak because he was a student of Denise Levertov, whose work I discovered some six or seven months ago. (In such a way the threads of my life unroll themselves in entirely new directions, kinking and twisting the pattern into something different, perhaps more beautiful and more exciting). Somehow I found The Buffalo Sequence and fell into the rediscovered language of Pawlak's working-class Polish roots, of his upbringing in the Buffalo projects, that language which he found had "been educated out of [him]."

I remember some years ago reading in a fashion magazine about the teenage progeny of rock stars, how the daughter of a Texan mother and a middle-class British father sounded like neither, but had the cultured upper-class British accent of her friends and classmates, because, as the writer noted, you don't sound like your parents, you sound like your peers. It reminded me of how my own background left me more or less bilingual, but without the accent that has clung to both my parents after more than thirty years of American citizenship. (You don't have an accent, L. told me, years ago, but you don't sound American, either).

It was not until Pawlak was a college student on scholarship at MIT that he understood that his background was strictly working-class (I am reminded of a Steinbeck short story where a father does not realize that he is poor and that he should be ashamed of being poor until his young son began going to school); you don't really see yourself clearly until you have moved out of the comfort zone of your upbringing. I was in college before I could see how privileged my own upbringing had been; at my private high school I thought I had been firmly at the midpoint between students who were incredibly wealthy and students who were on financial aid.

The voice that comes out clearly in The Buffalo Sequence is the voice that Pawlak had to find again, the one that had been taken away by education. In his afterward essay he writes about the American oral tradition, the language born of your ancestors filtered by your parents, language inflected by the other language of your family's home country, which American education considers it is obliged to root out and replace with book language...'to make it' means to have unlearned American speech and to have replaced it with educated speech...To be a 'successful' American is to be without one's American language heritage.

To that end the poet's role is to hold on to that speech [they] grew up with and to its oral heritage, if there is to be an American literature...[they] must write in the language people actually speak if [their] poetry is to have meaning to other people. It is then back to the language of his childhood Pawlak returns for his poetry, his "ballads" for the American people, his Buffalo childhood in the housing projects of that American city.

Pawlak, Mark. The Buffalo Sequence. Copper Canyon Press, 1977. pp 60-61.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Eating out. la Spiga.

One of my favorite neighborhood restaurants is a Japanese restaurant whose former incarnation was Osteria la Spiga, the sort of Italian restaurant that had rustic tables and wooden beams and chefs rolling out pasta behind glass in an open kitchen. It promised authentic regional Italian cuisine, the best kind, and I never managed to eat there, because I wasn't living in the neighborhood yet and when we went out for dinner after work, we only made it as far as Via Tribunali, the trendy pizza joint a few blocks closer to work. And then it closed, and became the Japanese restaurant with rustic tables and wooden beams and I went there for spicy tuna and unagi rolls, and miso soup in pottery mugs that seemed to be left over from when it was Osteria la Spiga.

I jumped for joy when I noticed Osteria la Spiga was preparing to open in a new location, two blocks from work and six blocks from home, next door to my favorite home furnishings store. I peered in through the storefront window, the kind that looks like a garage door; perhaps in summer they will open it onto the street and set out small tables. It looked clean and modern, the floor and booths and chairs and bar all made of dark wood against raw concrete walls; in the distance I could see a mezzanine level suspended over the end of the room. But there was more to it, which I wouldn't discover until we went there for dinner, tonight. I have been waiting and waiting for a chance to go, and D. is game, so we take a break from work and head out.

It is much bigger than I realized; the long narrow part of the room that is visible from the street opens up into an airy, lofty-ceilinged space, with windows that take up the entire back wall. In a glass-enclosed room, a white-coated chap makes gnocchi, shaves prosciutto and bresaola from haunches of cured meat, and feeds sheets of fresh pasta into a gleaming machine. The staff waft about wearing head-to-toe black and long (black) aprons. It must be five times bigger than the old restaurant, maybe more, and the cozy intimacy of the old place has been replaced by ample room between the tables, a different kind of intimacy, and even though it is noisy and open you can talk easily without having to shout, without having a stranger's elbow in your side. It doesn't look like an osteria, until we look at the menu.

The food reminds me of the kind of dishes I ate and loved in Italy, rustic and simple, yet refined, and I have trouble deciding. I order tagliatelle to start, a thick tangle of noodles with sausage and chickpeas, the chickpeas melting into the sauce, adding texture and sweetness to the sausage. There are wedges of some kind of flatbread, hot from the griddle, dense and chewy and delicious. My braised wild boar ribs arrived, tender in the merest suggestion of a tomato-and-onion sauce, with crisply roasted potatoes. D. passes me a bite of her beef cheeks, rich and melting over fried slices of polenta. I cannot resist the thought of dessert, and I order the chocolate grappa cake, a warm square of something that seems more chocolate than cake, more air than chocolate, light and rich and fragrant with grappa, which sends a tiny burn down my throat with each bite, a burn quickly cooled by the snowy drift of whipped cream that is slathered across the cake.

I'm counting the hours until I can return.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Eating. choux.

I have often watched chefs on the Food Network making pâte à choux, or choux pastry. (I believe it is called pâte à choux because they were formed into little rounds shaped like cabbages, or choux). As far as I can tell, it involves heating milk and butter, then beating flour and eggs into the hot liquid until it comes together into a soft dough, which is then piped onto sheets of parchment paper and baked. In the heat of the oven the carefully piped dough rises, like magic, into air-filled pastries, waiting to be filled with whatever your heart desires. I have never been able to make pâte à choux myself, because I am completely incompetent when it comes to using a piping bag, and so must console myself with rare treats from bakeries and restaurants.

Some French restaurants bring you an amuse-bouche of gougères, perfect little rounds of cheese puffs, like eating hot cheese-flavored air. There is nothing like the taste of toasted cheese, when the cheese has melted and continued to bake until it has become crisp and dark golden, almost burnt, like a savory caramel, the flavor deepened and intensified and yet lighter than air. I have a recipe for gougères, but have never made them for fear of failure, and can only dream about those crisp-tender puffs like small suns on a white plate.

And then there is the èclair. For most of the twenty years that I have lived in Seattle, I have gone to the French bakery in the Pike Place Market for èclairs, slender batons of pastry filled with a chocolate pastry cream and glazed with dark chocolate. They have other things - perfect croissants, baguettes with a crisp crust and a bubbly, elastic interior, a dense, earthy pain au levain that makes the best grilled-cheese sandwiches, buttery shortbread fragrant with hazelnuts and rich with chocolate. But I come for the èclairs. When I was eleven or twelve - certainly too old for histrionics - my cousin ate the half-dozen chocolate èclairs which had been intended for dessert that night. I was inconsolable, and sobbed all the way home. (The tears dried only after my grandfather went out and bought more). It is hard to find the perfect èclair - the pastry not soggy from the filling, the filling not too sweet, with just enough frosting on top - and if you are going to eat èclairs you may as well find the best ones out there.

I went to my favorite bakery this morning and came away with a profiterole, a round, golden puff filled with an espresso cream and glazed with dark chocolate. Sometimes they make them in the oblong shape of an èclair, but today they are smaller, round profiteroles, and I managed to resist eating it until after dinner. It is absolutely lovely, a tender, eggy pastry cradling a cream filling that tastes deeply of espresso, perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter, rounded out with the taste of chocolate frosting. I wish I had bought two.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Reading. Maugham.

In the eighties we often would go to Hong Kong for a few days whenever we were spending the holidays in Taipei; it is a short flight and in those days my grandfather kept an apartment there, of which I remember only a small bedroom and the giant bottle of drinking water in the kitchen. We would take the tram up to the Peak, go to the park, eat seafood in crowded noisy restaurants, walk along the waterfront. Much later, in college, I would live with a bunch of girls who were from Hong Kong; as the conversation rattled around me my brain would pick up a word, here and there, of the Cantonese which even now still often sounds like an incomprehensible babble.

The Hong Kong of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil is another world from the one I know, one of expatriates in a British colony, with their clubs and servants and their bungalows and tiffins, of the society that is even more constrained by class and status and position than it might be back in England. And the China to which Kitty Fane finds herself in the heart of a cholera epidemic is several lifetimes away from the one in my memory. When he writes of the sights and smells of the city, they remind me of city streets I remember from my own trips. I can see in my mind the boats moored closely together, "like peas in a pod."

I have nothing in common with Kitty – she is beautiful and charming and shallow, and I am none of those – but I feel pity for her, and a kind of understanding. Her husband Walter, as punishment for her infidelity, has blackmailed her into coming with him to Mei-tan-fu, where a cholera epidemic is decimating its population, and it is here, alienated from everything and everyone that mattered to her shallow life that Kitty is able to come to terms with who she is and what she wants from life. For their entire married life she has despised Walter because he loved her and she did not love him, but it is not until they are in this distant circle of hell, of disease and death, that she comes to understand that what she mistook for blandness disguised an innate decency, a morality, that she needed. But the realization comes too late for anything except the fact that it will not give her a second chance with Walter, although it will set her free to continue her life on a new path.

Sometimes it is only after you have hurt someone who loved you so badly that they will never see you the same way again, after you find yourself confronted with how meaningless your life has been, and how insignificant you are, that you can rebuild who you are and become the person you were meant to be, that you wanted to be. After the shame has burned away until nothing of what you were once remains, after you have been forgiven (and even if you aren't), after you forgive yourself.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Eating. Christmas dinner.

What I remember from my childhood - dimly - is that we would get up, spend an hour or so unwrapping presents together (leaving an explosion of wrapping paper, ribbons, and cardboard boxes all over the living room floor, the dog wandering around and sniffing at all the presents), have breakfast, go watch a movie, and then have dinner in a Chinese restaurant or at home, the usual Chinese-inflected home cooking that I have known all my life. That was our tradition. Now we are flung apart across the globe, and I spend my Christmases with friends who have their own traditions. Traditions involving vast quantities of beef, mountains of food.

For me holidays are about bread pudding, made with croissants and rum-soaked raisins. I made one just last week for a birthday party at work, and when Y. comes by I grab his hand and drag him into the kitchen for a leftover piece. This is my signature dessert, I say. I thought that was brownies, he says. (I am notorious for my brownies). No. Bread pudding. I have made it so many times that the recipe is easier to remember than my own telephone number and I usually make it in the morning before I am fully awake, eyes half-closed, hands reaching absent-mindedly for tea and milk before gathering together eggs and half-and-half, vanilla and sugar.

The day slips by, another Christmas, another day. Out for a walk, a movie, and then home to grab the cooled pudding (which I will reheat later) and head off to dinner. The house is be-wreathed and the hall is bright with poinsettias; a glittering tree seems to float above a pile of presents. On the table is the Christmas china that D. uses every year; potatoes boil away on the stove as the prime rib rests in the oven, fragrant with garlic. There is a towering pile of shrimp cocktails, as there always is at every family gathering. Finally it is time to eat, and as always, the adults eat at the long kitchen table while the children are in the formal dining room, because the food is in the kitchen and the grownups get first crack at everything. There are rosemary-crusted lamb chops and baked yams and sweet potatoes and salad and gravy and rich au jus for the prime rib and fluffy mashed potatoes made with a horrifying amount of butter, if you are the type of person to be horrified by butter, which I am not.

And then there is bread pudding, hot and moist and creamy and crusty on top and filled with raisins plumped with rum. Bright clementines are scattered around the table, juicy and sweet; I eat one, and then one more. Another year has gone by. What will the next year bring?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Eating. fruitcake.

My parents arrived in the United States some time in the early 70's. I don't know what Taiwanese food was like in those days but it must have been shockingly different from what they found here. I believe their attitude towards American food - particularly those that are holiday traditions - is firmly based on the American food that so horrified them some thirty years ago - roast beef like leather, pork chops like sawdust smothered in applesauce. (We used to make a casserole from a recipe given to my mother by a friend, which involved chicken thighs layered with rice and seasoned with golden mushroom soup from a can, orange juice, and Lipton onion dip. I think it was from the 60's). They have an aversion to meat that is overcooked, or desserts that are too sweet. Which is why I was in my teens when I first tasted eggnog at a friend's house (from a carton, slightly diluted with milk), and even older when I discovered fruitcake.

Sometime when I was in college - or perhaps shortly afterwards - a friend's mother presented me with a fruitcake, dense, sticky, and fragrant with dried pineapple and mango. Fruitcake, so I am told, is a joke, a horror, like a molded jello salad made with fruit cocktail and miniature marshmallows and Cool Whip. You're not supposed to eat it, unless you have severe masochistic tendencies. But this one made by L.'s mother (the same woman who cooks everything in butter and once made me three minature pies for Thanksgiving) was different. It was incredibly sweet and sticky (there may have been pecans involved, I can't remember) and rich - I ate it for breakfast, one thin slice at a time, with a mug of strong tea at my side - a mosaic of orange-and-yellow fruit against the dense molasses-dark cake. It lasted a long time, at least a week, because my parents could not be persuaded that it bore no resemblance to the horrific fruitcakes that were proudly presented at holiday parties in the 70's, and I had the entire cake to myself.

And then there is panettone, the Italian answer to fruitcake, made with a naturally leavened dough, so it is rather more like a rich bread studded with raisins and dried orange and lemon zest than a cake. (There is a story about how Puccini and Toscanini were friends who sometimes quarreled and stopped speaking to each other. One Christmas they were not speaking, but Puccini forgot to take Toscanini's name off the list of people to whom he sent a panettone for the holidays. So a telegram was sent - Panettone sent by mistake. Puccini. The reply came - Panettone eaten by mistake. Toscanini. Eventually they made up).

At the bakery this morning I saw slices of panettone bread pudding, golden and bright with fruit. It is dense and rich and sweet, with bits of candied citrus peel and raisins; I have warmed it in the toaster oven and it is perfect. I have recipes for fruitcake, from Laurie Colwin (black cake, made with burnt sugar), and Jeffrey Steingarten (a white fruitcake, the tradition of his wife's Mormon relatives), but I have never been able to bring myself to make them. This will do. Perhaps it will become a tradition of my own.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Reading. Levertov.

I came to poetry late. I was twenty-five. Nearly twenty years ago we wrote haikus as second-graders; in high school we made our way through Blake, Dickinson, Whitman. In college I would read Pushkin, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, fervently, obsessively. But it would not be until I turned twenty-five that poetry became a real part of my existence, as necessary to my mind as all other forms of literature, as necessary as food and water and air. It was a chain reaction, that went thusly: Bukowski-Ferlighetti-Ginsberg and then absentmindedly, Milosz-Levertov-Brodsky-Mandelstam-Akhmatova. But I come back to Levertov because she in turn sent me back to my own beginning.

In the far reaches of my mind are engraved two words, the epigraph to E. M. Forster's Howards End. (I will come back to that another time). Only connect, he says. (I remember writing a paper for an English class my freshman year of college, laboriously unwinding and unkinking the various connections that intersect throughout Howards End, but I forget what my conclusion was. I only remember that the words only connect were the key to my understanding of the novel). So it is with a shock that I begin to read an essay by Denise Levertov and find those words that resonated within me all those years ago, that have stayed with me all my life, marked in indelible ink against the shifting sands of my memory.

The writers I have loved most I have loved because they have the ability to make me understand what it is I love most about literature itself, and put it in words far more clearly and beautifully than I ever could. Denise Levertov is one of these writers. Poetry is necessary to a whole man, she writes, and that poetry be not divided from the rest of life is necessary to it...Literature - the writing of it, the study of it, the teaching of it-is a part of your lives. It sustains you, in one way or another. The obligation of the writer, or poet, she tells us, is: to take personal and active responsibility for his words...When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination...The poet does not use poetry, but is at the service of poetry.

And then Levertov brings me back to the words which have blazed clearly in my mind for some fifteen years, when she quotes William Carlos Williams, saying, No ideas but in things...does not mean "no ideas." It means [to quote Wordsworth] that "language is not the dress but the incarnation of thoughts." "No ideas but in things, " means, essentially, "Only connect" is therefore not only a craft-statement, not only an aesthetic statement (though it is these things also, and importantly), but a moral statement. Only connect. No ideas but in things.The words reverberate through the poet's life, through my life...It brings us to the heart of poetry, of Levertov's belief that the meaning of literature, of poetry, is only so that we may connect.

Levertov, Denise. New & Selected Essays. New Directions Publishing Co., 1992. pp. 134-138.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Reading. Marquez.

It has been almost ten years since I read anything by Gabriel García Márquez. I was in high school. It was a brief period of time in between other literary passions; I would not know it then, but a year later I would be studying Russian and forget about the writers I had loved before, the languages I knew before. Reading Márquez was like slipping into a dream world, where myth and life intermingle, where love blooms like a dark tropical flower in the forest. Magic realism, they call it. In those times I swung like a pendulum between Márquez and Borges and Calvino, those writers whose words send you rocketing into worlds of fantasy before bringing you back to your own time with a crash.

I came back to Márquez because of one of those rambling conversations with a friend about random things, one of those conversations that starts with one topic and wanders in another direction. I always ask him what he's reading, and he often sends me back towards a writer I loved once (and sometimes, more extraordinarily, a writer I never loved before but would the second time around) but abandoned for another, different love. And I always return to fall into their words more deeply than I had before, travel more deeply into undiscovered territory, a foreigner, a wanderer in a strange land. Everything comes to back to me differently, more intensely, more sharply than they had before, as if seeing it through someone else's eyes cast a brighter light on the story, bringing out details I had never seen before.

So my friend tells me about reading The Autumn of the Patriach, and the title immediately sparks something in my brain, something that begins to burn. Hours, or perhaps days, later, I find myself at the bookstore. Alas, they do not have the book I am looking for, but between One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I read all those years ago) and several copies of Memories of My Melancholy Whores (which I will buy some other day), I find The General in the Labyrinth, and because I love the word labryinth almost as much as I love the word love (which is a lot), it is the book I bring home.

At the end of his life, General Simón Bolívar makes one last journey down the river Magdalena, sliding in and out of past and present. I am reminded a little of the poems of Czeslaw Milosz, written near the end of his life, when he remembers the people and places of his life, the moments which have passed. Memory weaves in and out of present day like the intertwining melodies of a Bach composition, clear and intricate, the way Márquez weaves history and story until you are not sure where one leaves off and the other begins, and I find myself floating alongside the General as his life flows past to its end.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eating. herbs.

The first thing I remember about our old home in a small suburb of St. Louis is the back yard. My world began at the front yard, neat rectangles of grass framing the walk up to the front door which I don't ever remember using, with the driveway at one side sweeping around to the garage and the kitchen and the enclosed porch at the back. A crab-apple tree hung over the driveway, smothered in white blossoms in springtime, dropping little fruits in autumn. I would jump up and down on the fallen crab-apples, experiencing a profound thrill with each splat. Behind the house was a long sweep of lawn that ran all the way to a row of evergreen shrubs that marked the edge of our property, and my life was contained in that space between that far edge of our grounds (about an acre) and the street out front. In the back yard there was an herb garden, a round space bordered by a low wire fence meant to keep out the rabbits.

What I remember most about that herb garden is the towering (to my three-year-old eyes) stalks of dill, sprouting like pale-green fairy umbrellas, a forest of feathery fronds, with their cool scent. Now I buy it packed in plastic boxes at the supermarket, broil salmon with a crust of finely chopped dill and parsley, gently seasoned with salt and pepper and lemon juice, or toss a handful of fresh dill into egg salad for sandwiches. The smell takes me back to that backyard, to the feel of sun-warmed stems in my hand. If I close my eyes I can imagine being very small and lying on my back on the grass, looking up at the frothing herbs waving above my head.

Another city, another back yard, and the rosemary bush is rapidly choking out all the other herbs around it. I touch the dark needles lightly with my hand as I walk past, and the scent lingers on my hand like a memory. (There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, says Ophelia, in Hamlet). If the dog brushes against the leaves the fragrance clings to her fur for hours. When the flowers bloom, tiny and pale blue against the deep green leaves, I cut sprigs of the blossoming herb and place them in glass jars on the windowsill. Every night I take my dog for a walk and in the darkness the smells of the garden rise from the earth like a cloud. (I miss that time). When I roast a chicken I slip some of the rosemary under the skin, into the cavity of the bird, so that the herb will infuse everything with its flavor.

And then there is rosemary with lamb, one of my favorite things, the resinous intensity of the herb against the gaminess of the meat. For dinner tonight I mixed the finely chopped rosemary with some lemon juice and mustard and salt and pepper, spread it over the rack of lamb, let it rest overnight. Roasted it quickly in a hot oven until the fat crisped around the edges. It is everything I wanted it to be, and more, which is what happens when you make something you know will work. As we eat the fragrant lamb with steamed broccoli and toast made from the remains of a loaf of bread I bought during the weekend, I am in the garden again, a caress of the prickly rosemary bush leaving me with the memory of its scent.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reading. Bukowski. (again).

I have loved some books for their title alone. It seems to me that this year has come rather suddenly to an end, so much so that I have to shake my head in wonder that it has happened at all. And yet so much has happened it seems as though time has become compressed, contracting and expanding in such a way that I feel as though I had been standing on the edge of something, looked away, and then opened my eyes to find myself on another, distant shore. So it seemed appropriate to turn to something called The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. Perhaps I have mentioned this before (once or twice or twenty times), but I love Bukowski as much for the titles of his works as I do for the way his words make me feel, and this is no exception.

I must confess that sometimes I feel as though Bukowski's poetry is merely his prose rearranged on the page. (Blasphemy!). (But then it is his prose that I fell in love with first). Some poems make me feel like I am reading a story that he has already written somewhere else, about talking to his editor or drinking in a bar or sleeping with a woman (or several) or going to the racetrack to place some bets (sometimes all of the above). About conversations over the telephone or over a beer. But then you find something that moves along with some rhythm of its own, some inner music that belongs to itself completely.

to be continued.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Food in literature. children's books.

I grew up, as I have said before, in a Chinese household, and my introduction to American (or I suppose, British as well) food came from two places - the school cafeteria (with its pale, chemical-laden imitation of real food), and children's books. I would pore over the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, imagine those smoked meats hung over a fire of green wood chips inside a hollow tree trunk, of the groaning tables filled with platters of ham and apples'n'onions and mashed potatoes and pie, and little boys who ate and ate and never seemed to feel full. I would eat my bowls of white rice and tofu and steamed fish with ginger and scallions and dream about potatoes roasting amongst glowing coals or hot biscuits or griddle cakes dripping with butter and syrup or home-fried chicken. In my house pancakes were made from Bisquick and were only for occasional weekend mornings.

Then there were the Betsy-Tacy books. I can't find my copy, but I remember how each girl's father would fill a plate with whatever they were having for dinner, and they would run up the hill to a bench overlooking the town and eat their supper, trading bits of whatever the other one liked best. There would be hot chocolate on cold days, and picnics on grassy hills on warm days. I remember how one of them was shy and scared and didn't want to go back to school, and the woman who ran the sweet shop gave them chocolate buttons to eat. Ice cream was a rare treat, a luxury. Food was the fantasy, not frilled dresses with bows or horse-drawn carriages, but hot biscuits and butter and sweet little iced cakes.

In books by English writers, children had porridge for breakfast (well, I did too - oatmeal with brown sugar and milk, which I learned how to eat properly from one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, a sprinkling of sugar for sweetness, just enough milk to cool the surface, getting a little bit of each layer in every bite - warm oatmeal, sweet sugar, cool milk). It was afternoon tea that I dreamt about, with crumpets dripping butter and hot scones and homemade preserves. I would make do with English muffins, buttered and then toasted, with glasses of milk or juice or mugs of hot chocolate.

Later Gourmet Magazine would replace the children's books. The fantasies became real places, restaurants and shops and recipes that made those glossily photographed dishes seem possible, attainable. I began to read cookbooks as though they were stories; much later I would read something by Laurie Colwin where she said that cookbooks were even better than novels, because they cut out all the bits about human relationships and real life and just went straight to the food. (Which I am not entirely sure that I agree with). But I see now that my obsession with food began with those stories I read as a child, with pig slaughters deep in the woods and endless holiday feasts with cousins you only saw once a year, with picnics on rolling green hillsides and tea on the banks of twinkling canals.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Food in literature. murder mysteries.

I was reading some mystery novels recently, when it occurred to me that the food in these mysteries is always lovely, sandwiches and beer or perfectly prepared Dover sole or hot scones with honey and endless cups of tea, in between chasing down murderers and blackmailers and other nefarious creatures. In Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, a man is murdered, poisoned by a sweet omelette laced with cyanide (which, in the form of powdered grains, had neatly been introduced into the egg through a crack in the shell) . His murderer has carefully planned the night's menu with dishes that are shared by them both (the leftovers later consumed by the cook and housemaid in the kitchen), thereby providing him with an alibi - he has cleverly been dosing himself with cyanide so that he is now immune to the poison - a dinner that includes a clear consommé, a chicken stew, and the aforementioned jam-filled sweet omelette, prepared tableside by the murderer himself. I have always wanted to try all of these items, minus the cyanide, of course.

The food seen in murder mysteries is always so enticingly, lavishly described, even as they are the means to murder. I remember a chicken pot pie in Something in the Water, by Charlotte Macleod, where the canny murderer sent a cyanide pill (painted green, so as to resemble a pea) flinging across the room (with the help of a slingshot) into the pie so that the intended victim would eat it and expire, suddenly, collapsing ungracefully upon his still-laden plate. (Since then I have never been able to eat chicken pot pie without poking cautiously at my peas, even though I doubt anyone would try to kill me that way). And while solving these mysteries the erstwhile detectives feast on all manner of delicious things cooked by wives and cooks and suspects.

Then there are poisons slipped into drinks, icy cold sweetlime or comforting hot milk, or cocoa, or tea and coffee. Usually, near the end of the story, the heroine is offered something hot before bedtime, to help her sleep (rather ominously, since if she drank it, she would certainly never wake up again). This is accompanied by a rather long-winded confession from the murderer, who cannot help but boast of his or her cunning, since the heroine will not be alive to tell anyone. (Often, when the heroine manages to escape death by not drinking the poisoned hot milk, the murderer drinks it while no one is paying attention and is spared the indignity of a trial). Why anyone would accept a drink from someone they suspected of murder is beyond me.

If I remember correctly, in ancient times, feudal lords had employed tasters to make sure that their feasts were not poisoned. Rings held secret caches for poisons to be slipped into a drink or a dish. A quiet murder, without any need for physical violence, not like stabbing or strangling or shooting. A delicious sort of death. Until, of course, the agony of dying a slow death from poison takes over. But I suppose one can't have everything.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Eating. spinach.

Spinach is one of my favorite vegetables, and I think part of that is due to reading Popeye comics when I was a child. (Although I don't think I ever ate the canned spinach, which is what Popeye ate). Whenever his lady-love, Olive Oyl, was in peril, or he was facing some other danger, Popeye would open a can of spinach, toss the contents down his throat, and immediately his muscles would pop out alarmingly and he would perform daring feats of strength. I am not sure if my parents told me that I would grow up to be big and strong if I ate spinach like a good little girl, but I think I have always believed it, and I always think of Popeye when I eat spinach. I love the flavor of it, the faintly bitter tang of it, the deep green of cooked spinach.

Sometimes I make creamed spinach with frozen chopped spinach. Heat some butter and olive oil in a deep sauté pan, cook a handful of finely chopped onion until translucent and just turning golden, scattering flour over the foaming butter, stirring the flour-coated onions until the flour is beginning to brown, pouring in milk (or cream) and cooking everything until it begins to thicken into a béchamel. Add the spinach and stir, seasoning with salt and pepper and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. It becomes a flecked green-beige mass, thick and creamy, to which I add some grated parmeggiano-Reggiano, or perhaps Gruyére. The cheese melts and melds with the creamy sauce, the finely chopped spinach and onion, a savory pudding, eaten with steak or lamb chops or roast chicken, or just alone, in a bowl.

It was in Greece in the mid-nineties that I discovered spanakopita (or perhaps I had discovered it long before), chopped spinach mixed with feta cheese and wrapped in phyllo dough. It is my firm belief that anything mixed with cheese and wrapped in a flaky crust is automatically delicious, and spanakopita is no exception. At some point - probably the 80's - triangle-shaped turnovers of spinach and feta cheese became popular hors'd'oeurves. I have always longed to make my own spanakopita, laying sheets of phyllo dough (bought frozen) out on a floured countertop, brushing each layer with melted butter, spreading out the filling in a neat rectangle. It is some culinary fantasy, like making boeuf bourgignon or a Charlotte Russe, which has never quite materialized.

But tonight, there is simply sautéed spinach, one of the first things I learned how to cook, washing the mud-encrusting leaves in a sinkful of water, changing the water again and again until no more grit could be washed away. (I could buy the bagged stuff, but it doesn't taste as good, somehow). I've poured some oil into a pan, waited for it to shimmer, tossed in the bright green leaves. Before my eyes, they begin to wilt and shrivel away, like magic, until all that is left is a sad huddle of shriveled leaves, an intense, deep green. There is roast chicken and good bread from my favorite bakery, and it is time for dinner.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Eating out. Tutta Bella.

I found myself in my old neighborhood today, scanning the shelves of the used bookstore I discovered last week, finding little presents and other treasures in another store we had recently found after a dinner in one of the restaurants that have sprung up in this newly bustling neighborhood. Everything is contained within a few short blocks; go farther and the neighborhood becomes forbidding again; go the other way and you are among mini-malls and giant grocery stores and video rental places. But here you have a bright, crowded diner with clean, modern furniture and updated American cuisine, a great little pub squeezed between funky little shops and art galleries, various barbecue joints, a restaurant that serves Caribbean-Creole food, and one of the best bakeries in town. And then there is Tutta Bella.

It used to be an Italian café owned by a lesbian couple who also owned a slightly more upscale Sicilian restaurant down the street. When one of them had an affair (so the gossip went), the relationship - both personal and professional - ended, and each partner took one restaurant. The café closed, which left us nowhere to eat Sunday brunch. It was with considerable relief that we welcomed the opening of Tutta Bella, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria with a gigantic wood-fired oven and some of the best tiramisu I have ever had. Nowadays it is crowded and impossible to get a table, but anyway, I don't live here anymore.

This is my kind of pizza, thin-crusted, barely slicked with tomato sauce and adorned with a few well-chosen ingredients. They use imported San Marzano tomatoes; the cheese is Grana Padano. There is fresh mozzarella and ricotta, and locally-made sausage. There are over a dozen kinds of pizza, and I am sure that I have tried them all, each one more delicious than the next. The one I choose today has thinly sliced ham and basil leaves, dabs of ricotta and fine web of the aforementioned Grana Padano. Mostly families come here; there has been an influx of young children in the neighborhood. I am the previous generation, the one that has grown up and moved out. But it is a Saturday afternoon, and I am relaxing with my pizza and a mystery novel (purchased at the used bookstore down the street). I have no room for dessert, and take a piece of tiramisu to go.

At the next table, a father has a leisurely lunch with his two sons, getting up at one point to lead one of the boys to the bathroom. Daddy, why do men and women have different bathrooms? says a boy. Well, at home they share a bathroom, responds the father, a man somewhere in his forties or fifties. He sounds English. But boys can be a bit messy in the bathroom. Unable to keep a straight face, I gather up my belongings and head out, barely suppressing my laughter until I am back out on the sidewalk. Later, I eat my tiramisu, creamy and fluffy and soaked with espresso, sitting crosslegged on my living-room floor, with high-rise buildings outside instead of trees and views of water and mountains, past and present colliding. I live here now.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Reading. Connell. (Part 2).

Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge have to be read together, in a gulp, or alternating stories, weighing the thoughts of the husband against those of the wife. I came back to Mr. Bridge first; now it is time to return to his companion. I have not read these books for many years, and now I feel a sadness that I was too young to see before. In Mr. Bridge there is a sense that he was standing still while the world was changing around him, changing in ways he refused to see or believe. Mrs. Bridge is different; I feel that she is lost, as if she were sleepwalking through her life. There is no office to escape to, no work to bury herself in, only the house (run by a maid) and the children (whose small daily battles are sometimes reported to their father, sometimes not) and visits with friends.

There are, of course, the children, who Mrs. Bridge finds slipping slowly away from her. They have grown into people with minds of their own, unlike her, have stopped loving her. She belongs to a generation that is now gone; their ways are foreign to me, their racism, their inability to accept change, their strict and orderly life. In Mr. Bridge Walter Bridge realizes that his wife has lived for nearly fifty years having never seen the Atlantic ocean, having never traveled abroad. In both novels both remember that when they were young Walter told India that one day, he would take his wife to Europe; it is not until after more than twenty years of marriage that this promise is fulfilled. And meanwhile Mrs. Bridge became the kind of woman who did not know that there was a slip of paper hidden inside a fortune cookie.

In these stories the days seem to slip by so quickly that they wake up to find themselves middle-aged, the children grown-up and moved away, the marriage slowed to brief conversations in passing about the car and the house and brief kisses on the cheek. It is possible to sleepwalk one's way through life, to wake up with a shock to realize that the world around you has changed into something beyond recognition, that your children have become strangers. I don't know why, but when I read Mrs. Bridge now I feel my heart breaking. It was not until I came to the last pages, when I came across the part which I forgot always made me cry. Mr. Bridge has died, and because Mrs. Bridge had always been guided by him, their son Douglas stepped into his place. After all the children have left again, Ruth to New York, where she fled as soon as she was old enough to, Carolyn to Southern Kansas with her husband and child, and Douglas to the army. His first letter to his mother after his father's death begins thusly, and it makes me weep:

My dear Mother,
My father loved you above all else, and if he was apt to be rude or tyrannical it was because he wanted to protect you. He wanted so much for us all. He did not ever realize that what we needed was himself instead of what he could give us...

Connell, Evan S. Mrs. Bridge. North Point Press. p. 240.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reading. Connell.

The two novels fit together, a matched pair, a married couple. The first, Mr. Bridge, the second, Mrs. Bridge. A family, somewhere in the years before the second world war. They are written from the point of view of each title character, moments in their shared life intersecting and diverging into the separate parts of their lives, Mr. Bridge in his career as an attorney, Mrs. Bridge with her friends and card games and making a home for her husband and three children. And how each of them deals with the rebellions of their children, the eldest, Ruth, the middle child and only son, Douglas, and the youngest, Carolyn. I came back to Mr. Bridge for the first time in many years; it has moved from shelf to shelf as my library has reorganized itself and across the city between the old home and my new one, but I have not opened it again until now.

Now I see more clearly how encapsulated the novel is in its moment of time, those pre-war years. There is racism, anti-Semitism; it stands out more clearly now that I am older (it has been nearly fifteen years since I first read these novels). Walter Bridge seems to be carved from some pure Anglo-Saxon-Protestant granite, firmly entrenched in his ideas of what is right, what is fair. There is something unyielding in the way he governs his children, their petty foibles, their desires, how rigidly he divides his life at his office from his life at home. (How many times does Mrs. Bridge bring a problem to him at the end of the day when he comes home just before dinner? How many times must she have said to the children, "Just you wait until your father gets home"?). And moments when he sees that he has passed that unyielding part of his character, some native stubbornness, onto his children, something that comes clearly from him and not their mother.

And there are moments of softness, gentleness, something that might pass as understanding, in how he lets his oldest daughter leave for New York, seeing in her the need to escape, how he relents and lets his younger daughter marry her sweetheart. You aren't as cold as you pretend to be, says a friend of his wife, Grace Barron, I think your doors open in different places, that's all. Most people just don't know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it's a blank wall. But you're there...I've seen you do some awfully cold things warmly, and some warm things coldly. He is not a cold man, a racist one, an anti-Semitist. Or perhaps he is all three, but he does not mean to be, which does not excuse his racism, his anti-Semitism, his absolute belief that his word should be law and everyone around him should behave as he wishes. He is one of those men of that time, who went to work every morning, briefcase in hand and tie neatly knotted, and came home at the end of the day, and the two separate universes of work and home revolved around him, like small planets rotating around the sun.

Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge. North Point Press. p. 260.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reading. Nin. (Part 2).

The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing, begins Anaïs Nin's novel A Spy in the House of Love, which I saw on the shelf at a used bookstore the other day and could not resist because of its title.

Reading Nin is rather like being in that dream-state you find yourself after being awoken from a deep sleep by the ringing telephone, a half-conscious fog, and yet you find that you see everything around you with perfect clarity, as soon as you are able to blink the sleep from your eyes. There is a softness to her words, which parts to expose a complexity like an intricate puzzle. The lie detector, woken by the phone, immediately falls into the habits of his profession. You have something to confess...he says, Guilt is the one burden human beings can't bear alone. As soon as a crime is committed, there is a telephone call, or a confession to strangers...There is only one relief: to confess, to be caught, tried, punished...half of the self surrenders, calling out "catch me," while the other half creates obstacles, difficulties; seeks to escape...If justice is nimble, it will follow the clue with the criminal's help. If not, the criminal will take care of his own atonement.

Sabina is the spy, who moves among the rooms of this house of Love, taking care to leave no trace behind, to leave no hairs on the borrowed comb, to gather up hair pins, to erase traces of lipstick...Her eyes like the eyes of a spy. Her habits like the habits of a spy...She knew all the trickeries in this war of love. She slips away from the safe haven, the home of her husband, Alan, to the rooms of other lovers. I think she is afraid, afraid of herself, afraid of love, afraid to bind herself truly to one person. She moves through these rooms, between these lovers, in a haze of guilt and doubt. I see her as a slender dark shadow flitting across the lighted windows of those hotel rooms and boardinghouse rooms and in the darkened movie theaters where she went with both husband and lover, afraid each time that one would see her with the other.

In the end she meets the lie detector, and fears that he has come to arrest her for crimes against love. He has been following her all this while, spying on her spy games, ever since the night she called him, dialling his number blindly and hearing on the other end this mysterious voice, whose profession it is, as he tells her, to ask questions. But in the end it is he who has the answers. The enemy of a love is never outside, it's not a man or a woman, it's what we lack in ourselves, says her friend Djuna. The lie detector is not there to arrest her, he is there to tell her how to set herself free of guilt and fear and distrust.

Nin is like a landscape of flickering shadows, a painting of soft, muted colors interrupted by brilliant splashes of fire. I think I will dream of her tonight.

Nin, Anaïs. A Spy in the House of Love. The Swallow Press, Inc, 1959. p 5-6, 51, 135.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Eating. the Christmas party.

At work we are all notorious for our love of food. Birthdays are celebrated with lavish feasts, each person (besides the birthday girl) bringing a different dish. Sometimes we have grand lunches for no reason at all but that we deserve it. And the holidays are no exception. Christmas is drawing near, and it's time for a party, family and friends and clients gathering together. There are twinkling lights and wreaths and flickering candles and pots of flaming scarlet poinsettias and carefully arranged pyramids of perfect clementines. And then there is food. Oh, but there is food.

For Christmas parties there is always roast pig. And by roast pig I mean an entire roast pig, snout to tail and everything in-between, four legs splayed wide on the foil-covered tray, dominating the long table where the food is arranged. The flesh is moist and rich and the skin crackling and crisp; there is a pile of steamed buns on the side. The imposing roast pig is flanked by trays of Vietnamese spring rolls, a translucent rice-paper wrapper encasing shrimp and fresh basil leaves and bundles of rice noodles. Platters of crudités surrounding bowls of dip look like bright gardens; there are crackers and chips and salsas. Slices of avocado have been neatly wrapped with paper-thin rosy-pink sheets of prosciutto. Smoked salmon is rolled around balls of sushi rice; a mound of shrimp is ringed with lemon wedges.

It is impossible to know where to begin. The cheese board alone is overwhelming, huge wedges of sheep's milk and goat's milk and cow's milk cheeses, some spiked with peppers or herbs; buckets of olives and cornichons stand guard behind. Skewers of chicken satay beckon forth; later there will be miniature quiches hot from the oven and a smooth pâté, but I've no room left. Except for dessert, which is another matter entirely.

Ah, dessert. Another table, against a different wall. There is a chocolate fountain, which pours forth molten chocolate into which you can dip skewered marshmallows, biscotti, or pretzels (which are perfection, sweet and salty and crunchy all at once). In a marathon of baking late last night (involving many minor explosions that left a cloud of flour and powdered chocolate over my entire kitchen) I made many, many batches of brownies (which some people risked dipping into the chocolate fountain, with varying results). There is white chocolate cheesecake and chocolate mousse pie and freshly baked cookies piled high.

The impression is of overwhelming bounty, generosity and variety. Almost everything is homemade (with the exception of the pig, which came from Chinatown, and the quiches, which were bought frozen, and some of the cookies, which were made from store-bought dough). You could have the party catered or at some restaurant, but why would you, when you could have freshly made spring rolls and the best chocolate mousse pie you've ever tasted?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Eating. balsamic vinegar.

I found in the pantry a slender, tall bottle of dark glass, labelled 'Tears of Cleopatra,' stoppered with a small, carefully carved cork, sealed with red wax. Inside was a dark liquid that poured slowly out, as if reluctant to leave the darkness of its bottle, thick and sweet and just faintly acidic, a dark, complex taste that felt like the memory of a balmy summer night. Balsamic vinegar. But not the kind that you drizzle over your salad or dip bread into. Oh no, this was something dark and mysterious and rare, aged and mellowed until you could drink it from tiny glasses, like a precious, sacred wine, all the softness of the night sky distilled into a single drop.

At some point in time olive oil and balsamic vinegar replaced butter in restaurants (other than Italian restaurants, which has always served bread this way, for as long as I can remember), served in shallow dishes alongside baskets of bread, two concentric circles, dark balsamic, green-gold oil. Sometimes there would be herbs sprinkled in the oil, infusing it with their dusty fragrance, bringing with them memories of summer days on Mediterranean hillsides covered in shrubs that released their scents under the blazing sun.

There are other things you can do with a good balsamic vinegar, not the cheap stuff that bites sharply on the tongue and stings the teeth, but the good stuff, aged in wooden barrels, like wine (and priced accordingly). K. makes salad dressing with it, poured into a jar with olive oil and a little mustard and shaken into a thick emulsion, a little sweet, a little tangy. I love the taste of balsamic vinegar on tomatoes in the height of summer. It is about the contrast. Or over strawberries, the vinegar turning the berries a deeper, richer red with the translucent glow of stained glass. (Once I layered the balsamic-intensified strawberries with slices of brownies and whipped cream, and it was heavenly). But what I like most is that simple thing, a hunk of crusty bread, dusty with flour and airy with bubbles, with that faintly complicated taste of naturally leavened bread, dipped in a shallow bowl of olive oil swirled with balsamic vinegar.

That mysterious bottle labelled "Tears of Cleopatra" looks like something that its namesake queen would have used to store precious oils and ointments and perfumes some two thousand years ago. Perhaps she drank something like it, in her time. It would not surprise me. She knew a good thing when she saw it.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reading. Nin.

I was in high school when I discovered Anaïs Nin, while wandering the shelves of my favorite bookstore in Taipei. It is a huge space with floors and shelves of blond wood and bright fluorescent lights; young students sit on the steps or lean against the walls and flip through books for hours. The English-language selection is arranged by genre like any other bookstore, but the literature section is divided by country; I found Nin among the French writers, a slender volume almost lost between its neighbors. Little Birds. If I had looked closer I would have noticed that it was erotica, but one doesn't expect erotica to be shelved amongst the classics and Existentialists and I was some pages in before I realized what I was reading. I think I read the entire book sitting cross-legged on that polished blond wood floor, but could not bring myself to buy it.

Later, I would go on to read Henry Miller. I would forget those words that slipped through my fingers like the beating wings of little birds. A decade has passed. I have found my way back to Henry Miller (through Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose title for A Coney Island of the Mind comes from a phrase in Miller's Into the Night Life), but I had not come back to Nin yet, until this afternoon when I walked by a used bookstore in my old neighborhood. It was closing time, and the woman in the store locked the door after me when I walked in. Chain bookstores smell of new paper and expensive coffee drinks and freshly-baked cookies and the air outside that blows in whenever the doors open and close. Used bookstores smell of old paper and dust and wood. It is impossible for me to say which I prefer, if I love new books with their tight bindings and smooth covers and white pages, or old ones with vintage covers and creased bindings and notes from friends to other friends, or grandmothers to grandchildren, or vice versa. I think I love them both.

So I was wandering through the aisles, and at the books crammed in together, old and new, different sizes nestling together to created a jagged landscape of colored spines. Nin caught my eye. You know how I cannot resist a book that has the word LOVE in the title, and A Spy in the House of Love finds itself in my hands. I pay at the desk up front, this one and several other books, make small talk about Anita Brookner and the neighborhood where I used to live. On the drive home my gaze keeps straying over to the pile of books on the passenger seat next to me. At home, slip the new books among all the others in the bookcases that line the walls of my room. Open this one. It begins, The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing. I cannot imagine where this will all lead.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reading. Sayers.

I have been fascinated by England and all things English from a very early age, much to the chagrin and disgust of my parents. It is their own fault, for giving me books like The Secret Garden (with beautiful color-plate illustrations by Tasha Tudor, of rose-covered walled gardens and young wild animals and the three children of the story) and a starter three-pack of Agatha Christie novels (a Christmas present one year). A love for E. M. Forster followed. (One winter in London - I was sixteen - I met a very charming Englishman, all breeding and education and no money, who told me, "You're very well-read. For an American." What else could I do but laugh as he kissed me on both cheeks in farewell?).

Nothing is more English than the English mystery novel, full of tea parties and titles in between murder in London streets or stately country homes. The Peter Wimsey series, by Dorothy Sayers, stars the second son of the duke of Denver as the Oxford-educated, John Donne-quoting, Bach-playing, cricket-champion detective, all "nerves and nose," arrogance and breeding. To ground him Sayers introduced another character, the mystery writer Harriet Vane, whom he promptly falls in love with and spends five years (and three novels) pursuing until they finally marry. I read the stories out of order, and it is disconcerting to follow the course of a love story out of order, like being lost in a labyrinth somewhere between the entrance and the heart of the maze, unsure of whether to follow the thread of the story backwards to the beginning or forwards to its conclusion. They met while she was being prosecuted for murder (which she didn't commit) (Strong Poison), he wooed her over a dead body (Have His Carcase) and a sinister poison-pen mystery (Gaudy Night), and on their honeymoon (Busman's Honeymoon) the dead body of their home's former owner is discovered in the basement.

I have married England, thinks Harriet Vane (now Wimsey), as she sees herself and her husband and a motley assortment of country characters in the living room of their honeymoon house, doctor's daughter, duke's son, country vicar, chimney sweep, like pieces on a chess-board. The mysteries are sometimes, it seems, merely background for the complexity of their relationship, her stubbornness and insistence of being independent, his ardent pursuit of her. It is in Gaudy Night when they find their way back to a common ground - Oxford, where both were educated - and thereupon into a life together, and it is in Busman's Honeymoon where Harriet comes to realize that all that she had resisted in him - his title, his life of privilege - is integral to why he is a detective (or as others would put it, an interfering nosey-parker who can't keep out of other people's business). I can't find the page, but it is something about how he sees it as a duty to see that justice is done, and that his title and money and privilege put him in a position to do so.

There is a part somewhere - I can't remember where - where Harriet thinks that one of the things she loves most about Peter is how he caught and returned literary allusions, like tossing a ball back and forth. And this is one of the things I love most about Sayers, how she in turn throws these literary allusions between her characters, references to Donne and Shakespeare and obscure sonnets and quotations. But because I love music, and I love Bach most of all, and I began reading Sayers around the time I was working my way through his Inventions, this is my favorite passage of her works (from Gaudy Night):

...two famous violinists twisted together the fine, strong strands of the Concerto in D Minor...He was wrapped in the motionless austerity with which all genuine musicians listen to genuine music...She knew enough, herself, to read the sounds a little with her brains, laboriously unwinding the twined chains of melody link by link. Peter, she felt sure, could hear the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and through, ravishing heart and mind together.

Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night. Harper Paperbacks, 1995. p. 499.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Eating. bacon and eggs.

Ah! I have never regretted Paradise Lost since I discovered that it contained no eggs-and-bacon,
said Lord Peter Wimsey on the first morning of his honeymoon, as he and his new wife awake to bright sunshine and the smell of frying bacon after their first night as a married couple, in their country house whose former owner is about to be discovered, dead, in the basement. I understand how he feels, because there is nothing better to wake up to than the smell of bacon frying, the sizzle of eggs in hot pans and the fragrance of toasting bread.

What is that joke, about chickens and pigs in relation to a bacon-and-egg (or maybe ham-and-egg) breakfast? The chicken is involved (having given up the eggs), but the pig is COMMITTED (having given up his life for the bacon and ham). They just belong together. In a quiche Lorraine, or in fried rice with peas and finely sliced scallions, or a bright-yellow frittata carefully turned out of the pan onto a plate. Or as themselves at breakfast, the eggs fried or scrambled or omelette-ed, slices of bacon on the side, a pile of buttered toast to dip in the bright yolks. Rebel and have it for dinner, as I did once in the basement tapas bar of a grand hotel in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. (A vast white platter appeared before me, fried eggs lacy around the edges, with yolks like liquid gold, crusty dark slices of blood sausage, and thickly sliced bacon so crisp that it shattered beneath my fork).

And then there is spaghetti alla carbonara, bacon-and-eggs in a little black dress and heels. I have eaten it in restaurants but it is something that belongs in the home kitchen, dinner for two, or for one (eaten hot out, straight out of the pan). For all its simplicity I rarely make it, something I regret. Tonight I cannot resist; I have some pepper bacon, sliced into lardons, fried gently until the fat had rendered out. The spaghetti was boiled and drained, and then turned back into the pan and tossed with a little butter and an egg, beaten until frothy. The bacon bits were thrown in, and the pasta was showered with freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano and tossed again. The egg melds with the melted butter and just barely coats the slick strands of spaghetti, almost a sauce, the shavings of cheese sticking and providing traction for your fork, shot through with the crunchy, peppery bits of bacon. I think this may have to go into my permanent repertoire.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reading. Steinbeck.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I have loved Steinbeck for as long as I have been able to read, but not much of one. I will confess that when I first read his books (at the age of nine or thereabouts) I did not understand the underlying themes beneath the words, but it must have been then that I began to understand that I loved words, needed words, could see that words could make people and places come alive for me. From Steinbeck's words I could see the golden expanse of the Salinas Valley, imagine endless fields against endless sky beneath the sun. I grew up suspended like a bead on a wire between Seattle and Taipei, sliding back between school and home and holidays; Steinbeck's California was a distant land, a foreign country, a place of dreams unfulfilled or magically made true.

Thursday is my favorite day of the week, and it always makes me think of Sweet Thursday, which is the sequel to Cannery Row (which I read long ago and can no longer remember). It is a return to Monterey and the people and places of Cannery Row, where the canneries lie rusting and empty, after the war that brought loss and change in every corner of the world. Doc has been gone for the duration of the war, and comes back to new people and old friends, who try to help him find love, in the form of Suzy, one of the girls at the Bear Flag. (I was really young when I first read it, had no idea what a brothel was, and when Fauna, the owner of the Bear Flag, asks Suzy what happened to her baby, I didn't understand what it meant to lose a baby). Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck tells us, is the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that is just plain bad.

Some days are born ugly. From the very first light they are no damn good whatever the weather, and everybody knows it. No one knows what causes it, but on such a day people resist getting out of bed and set their heels against the day. When they are finally forced out by hunger or a job they find that the day is just as lousy as they knew it would be.
On such a day it is impossible to make a good cup of coffee, shoestrings break, cups leap from the shelf by themselves and shatter on the floor, children ordinarily honest tell lies, and children ordinarily good unscrew the tap handles of the gas range and lose the screws and have to be spanked. This is the day the cat chooses to have kittens and housebroken dogs wet on the parlor rug.
Oh, it's awful on such a day! The postman brings overdue bills. If it's a sunny day it is too damn sunny, and if is dark who can stand it?

When it is one of these kinds of days, one of those lousy Wednesdays, I think of Steinbeck's words and look forward to the next day. Sweet Thursday.

Steinbeck, John. Sweet Thursday. Penguin, 1986. p. 86.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Reading. Burnett.

I have read The Secret Garden at least once a year for as long as I can remember. (Continuing with the theme of India and England that has been unfolding over the past days, but I cannot find my copy of The Little Princess, and I love this story more, anyway). The young Mary is taken from her home in India after her parents die in a cholera epidemic and travels to England to live with her guardian, the haunted, hunchbacked Archibald Craven. Away from the heat and dust and burning sun and the abandoned bungalow (the word bungalow comes from Bangalore, so one character tells another in The English Patient) into the gloomy bleakness of the moor that surrounds her uncle's manor of a hundred empty rooms, where there is no ayah to attend to her every wish, only a strict, rarely-seen housekeeper and a housemaid. And then there is the secret garden. I have always loved this story.

This lonely child, plain and sickly and sour-faced, wandering around the hundred rooms where her ancestors once lived, or running in the gardens with no companion except for a chirping robin, wonders about the mystery of the locked garden, the garden with no door or no key. And then one day, she finds the key to the garden, finds the door hidden behind a falling sweep of ivy, finds herself standing inside this lost garden. And something blooms within her, the desire to make the garden come alive again, to make friends with Dickon and her cousin Colin, who has lived hidden away in one of the rooms of the great manor and who she meets one stormy night when she steals out of her own room to follow the sound of his sobbing.

Reading this story always gives me a sense of warmth and comfort, a sense of joy, as though I were curled up by the window with a pile of pillows and blankets and cups of hot tea and plates of bread and butter and jam and clotted cream. I must say I have never eaten hot fresh buns with currants or drunk milk from a tin pail. But I have watched spring creeping slowly into a garden, first the white-pink plum blossoms, stark against the dark branches, then the new leaves on every tree and bush like a pale green haze and crocuses peeping from the frost-glazed earth in a blaze of purple and gold; I have waited for early summer to come so I may see the climbing-rose vines burst forth in a fountain of pale-pink flowers. Even as winter falls I can see the promise of spring ahead.

An only child, I grew up daydreaming in the backseat of the car or at the dinner table as my parents talked of other things, or curled in a corner of my room with a book. (Or several). Now I find that nothing has changed. I think books are my garden, my secret garden, a place for my imagination to run as wild as roses who have grown abandoned along the walls of a locked garden, for words to bloom as quietly as crocuses, bright against the still-frozen ground...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reading. Kaye.

I think M. M. Kaye is best known for her epic novel The Far Pavilions (I thought of her as I read Indian Ink last night, as that story is set against the 19th century revolutionary struggle of India against England), which I have never read; it was her mysteries (all with titles that begin Death in...) that I first discovered some ten or twelve years ago, and now I think I have read them all. Kaye had been born and mostly raised in India; her husband was a British officer in India and after the Partition he joined the British army and was posted all around the world in the various far-flung locales that are the backdrop to the mysteries. There is a music to these places, Kashmir, Zanzibar, Kenya, Cyprus, Berlin, the Andaman Islands. (I believe Kashmir is where she met and married her husband).

They are all the same (like all mystery novels, and this is part of their appeal) - a young, virginal heroine (usually just 18 or 20 years old, perhaps a few years older - it is strange; when I first read these stories I was younger than the heroines, and now I am older), orphaned at a young age and raised by strict elderly relatives or sent to boarding schools, until now, of age and embarking on adventure, she stumbles across murder in a distant British colony or foreign place where Englishmen go and run to seed. An older man (at least thirty) comes into the story; at first she suspects him of being involved with the crime, or he suspects her, and by the end, they are in love. The murderer is nearly always someone whose bland façade conceals a murderously insane mind, or someone who the heroine has always known and is pushed into murder out of greed. One murder always leads to another, perhaps another, out of fear of discovery, or blackmail.

I return to Death in Kashmir because Stoppard's words are still in my mind; Sarah has come back to Kashmir, "to see our Vanishing Empire before it vanished for keeps," and there she finds murder and intrigue in the Kashmiri mountains and on the shores of the lake near Srinagar. It is the year before the British are to leave India, the "end of an epoch - of an era - and something of this feeling...of farewell to familiar things" runs throughout the story. And beneath the circumstances which have led to murder is the unease of what will happen once the transfer of power from Britain to India takes place, what did happen once India gained its independence with all the struggle that was to come.

What I love in Kaye is that there is a sense of nostalgia to her stories; they are about a moment in time, a way of life that has passed. They were written (if I remember correctly) after she had left behind those faraway places where you could rent a houseboat on a lake in the shadow of high mountains in Kashmir or walk amongst sunburnt grasses and wind-twisted olive groves on Cyprus. It is like looking at faded photographs of lost gardens and monuments that have fallen into dust; there is a sense of an era that is long gone. There is nothing left of that time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Reading. Stoppard.

I came across Indian Ink shortly after I had discovered Tom Stoppard. Arcadia is without question one of my favorite plays of all time but Indian Ink is very close behind, which is all the more surprising because I have never seen it on the stage. At that time (almost ten years ago) I was reading a lot about India, the literature about the time before and after it gained independence from Great Britain; I was drawn to the stories about the end of an empire which had flung its arms to the far reaches of the earth and was now shrinking into itself like a pond drying up until there is nothing left except for a memory of water.

In this play (as in Arcadia) we flash between past and present as the poet Flora Crewe arrives in India in 1930 and as the historian Eldon Pike researches her life some sixty years later back in England, going over old diaries and letters with her sister, Eleanor (Nell, or Mrs. Swan). Time is suspended as Flora's life is narrated by her sister's remininces of Flora's life among the luminaries of the art and literary worlds of that time. And then Anish Das comes to tea with Mrs. Swan, the son of the man who was friends with Flora in the year 1930, those last months of her life, in India. (All this action takes place on the same stage, characters from past and present talking almost simultaneously, which is quite confusing on both the stage and on the page; it is a conceit of Stoppard's).

As the stories unwind themselves before you the arguments flare up between the people whose lives are intersecting. Empire versus colonialization. English against Indian. We were your Romans, says Mrs. Swan to Anish. We were the Romans! (retorts Anish). We were up to date when you were a backward nation. The foreigners who invaded you found a third world country! Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we had already had our Shakespeares. And our science - architecture - our literature and art, we had a culture older and more splendid, we were rich! After all, that's why you came.

When I think of India I think of the English, who carried their arrogance and fine china to the ends of the earth and expected the natives to fall at their feet in gratitude for colonization. I think of mustachioed men in white suits and pince-nez and inappropriate footwear, and women clad in white dresses drinking tea in the shade. And then there are the weather-beaten English who have fallen in love with the heat and the dust and cannot bear to go back to the heart of this fading Empire, to the grayness and cold of London on the other side of the world.

I see now that the dying Flora is rather like the dying Empire.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Reading. Milosz.

I came across Road-side Dog during one of my late-night internet book-buying binges. (On the cover is a dog criss-crossed with the roads and villages of Milosz's life, or so it seems). I have been reading Milosz for some months now, and I cannot get enough. So. Here I am again. Flashing through brief thoughts put to paper by this poet, memories, ideas, feelings about everything and anything that crosses his mind. Each written so beautifully and clearly that his prose is poetry rearranged on the page. (In P. D. James novels, people are always telling Dalgliesh that at least his poetry is not merely prose rearranged on the page; Milosz is the reverse).

I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province...and always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in his duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its night - I don't know where it came from - in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.

In the later years there is a sense of this man, this poet, whose words I fell completely and swiftly and quietly in love with, looking back across a great expanse of time. (It is felt even more strongly in an even more recent work, Second Space, which I have spoken of not too long ago). He returns again and again, in this collection of brief thoughts, to his thoughts on the poetry that occupied him for some seventy years, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, the year of my birth. (I don't know why that last part seemed important to me). Poetry and age, old age, twin themes that wind themselves like intersecting and intertwining rivers of his life. Like the roads he drove along while a dog barked from behind the gate...

to be continued...

Milosz, Czeslaw. Road-side Dog. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999. p 3.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Reading. Hemingway.

The last time I read Hemingway I was in high school, in an English class called 'Desire and the Marketplace.' (Or maybe at that point it was called 'Love and the Marketplace"). I cannot remember what else we read in that class, aside from Pride and Prejudice, maybe The Great Gatsby, but the common theme of our course was love and human relationships, and how they fit into society as a whole, or something like that. I can't find the paper I wrote about The Sun Also Rises, but I know I never loved Hemingway the way I did, say, Steinbeck. It would take me nearly ten years to make my way back to him, and I find everything has changed.

By now it must be clear that I have an inordinate fondness for long, meandering sentences that go in circles and lead nowhere. Hemingway is different. I remember describing the brushwork of the fourteenth-century Chinese painter Ni Tsan (in an art history class many years ago) as being characterized by spare, vertical strokes or swift, sideways flicks of the brush; Hemingway's blunt quickness with words reminds me of those brushstrokes, stark black dabs against white emptiness. It takes time to come to terms with that swiftness, as if everything around you is moving faster than your mind can comprehend. Someone once described the music of a band I loved as being "like a sunset in fast-forward;" this is what Hemingway is like.

You are all a lost generation, goes the first epigraph, from a conversation with Gertrude Stein (the second epigraph is the part of Ecclesiastes from which this novel takes its title). That lost generation which had fought in World War I and had consequently moved aimlessly, ghostlike, forever afterwards. But then every generation which goes through a war is lost in some way. Scarred. (It is strange now to flip through these pages and see notes that I have written in the margins, lines beneath sentences that must have once meant something to me). I must confess the first time I read this novel I didn't understand it at all. I thought it was about loving someone you couldn't have, about lost chances, and trying to avoid the truth by drinking all the time (and I can't believe that I forgot how much drinking there is), or running away to another city with another lover. I am not sure I understand it any better now.

But there is beauty in the swiftness of Hemingway's words, the rapid-fire conversation that flashes past like the blurred landscape outside a train window. Everything is heat and bright sun or black night and the burn of brandy and the coolness of chilled wine and the flick-flick-flick of ash from the end of your cigarette. The words burn a little more brightly now for me now, after all this time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reading. Dahl.

When I was in elementary school, I was in a program where three or four grades were taught in one big area. Three open classrooms led by different teachers branched off of a huge open space where we would all meet for assemblies or movies or special projects; there was a science room off to one side, and then we were connected to the rest of the school by a pair of double doors. An outside staircase led to the playground; during fire drills we ran down those concrete stairs to wait in the rain, lined up by grade. Once a week (or perhaps more often, I can't remember), our teachers would read aloud to us as we sat cross-legged on the carpet, spellbound. This is how I discovered Roald Dahl.

I will return to his children's stories another time; I have read them again and again until I know them all by heart. But it is his memoirs that give shape to his stories, the real moments of his childhood that make fiction pale by comparison. I think everything I know about about the British prep-school system came from Boy: Tales of Childhood, although perhaps you don't get caned by your schoolmasters anymore; certainly there is no need to have your toilet-seat warmed by a younger student in these times of indoor plumbing. I think of Dahl whenever I peel back the wrapper of a chocolate bar and take my first bite; I think of the incident with the goat's tobacco whenever I see someone smoking a pipe (which is not often in this day and age). Boy segues into Going Solo, where as a young man Dahl heads off to East Africa and then, as the world explodes around him, off to war.

In our present time it is a shock to read Dahl's description of his experiences during wartime, the futility of his time in Greece where a handful of pilots and planes launched themselves into the air against the German bombers with no expectation that they would return alive. But the part that stops me dead is the part where he lands on a strip of earth some thirty miles from Haifa and finds a settlement of refugees, Jewish orphans, led by a man "who looked like the Prophet Isaiah and spoke like a parody of Hitler." At that time Dahl had been in Africa for a few years and had no idea of what had been taking place in Germany, of the genocide that was ravaging the country. These refugees were on a piece of land owned by a Palestinian farmer who allowed them to live and farm there, among the cornfields and fig trees.

I resented the fact that this man sitting in his fig grove said that I had no problems, writes Dahl. 'I've got problems myself, in just trying to stay alive.' (What with constantly getting shot at every day and having already survived a serious plane crash). That is a very small problem, the man said. Ours is much bigger...It is essential that Hitler be defeated. But that is only a matter of months and years. Historically, it will be a very short battle. Also it happens to be England's battle. It is not mine. My battle is one that has been going on since the time of Christ...We need a homeland...we need a country of our own. Even the Zulus have Zululand. But we have nothing...If you want something badly enough, and if you need something badly enough, you can always get it...You are fighting for freedom. So am I.

That settlement called Ramat David later became an airforce base; a country formed itself out of a desire and a need for itself. I wonder what happened to the original inhabitants of Ramat David.

Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. Puffin, 1986. pp 195-199.