27 September 2006

Mirror, Mirror. Gregory Maguire.

Gazing back through the haze of years upon my far-off college days, I dimly perceive myself on one of those hard, hard pews in Finney Chapel, trying to hold back the storm of chortles that threatened to burst forth upon some pianist's performance of the Eroica Variations. Not that there was anything particularly funny about his interpretation; the piece is just ridiculous in itself. Most themes and variations are--a single mind straining after variety soon twists itself into unproductive knots. (Unless, I suppose, the mind in question is Bach's--but it seems possible that what he had was not in fact a human mind, but some other thing altogether.)

Get lots of people working at variations, though, and the outcome grows more interesting. Mônica Salmaso took Tom Zé's "Menina, Amanhã de Manhã" and gave to its melody an entirely different substance. The effect of Paula Morelenbaum's "Berimbau" is nothing like that of Vinicius de Moraes's original, though the pith of it is the same. Some people might prefer the rough, simple music of real berimbau, percussion, rusty cane-cutter's voice to Morelenbaum's layer upon layer of allusion (or is there here a progression from dull, repetitive folk tradition through sophistication to etiolated over-refinement, the way Chinese poetry is supposed to have peaked in the Tang?), but I, at least, like to see how one thing can be changed into something else that is then changed into something else again.

Then there are translators, who cannot but transform a text they work on, and each of whom makes it into something different. I got lost for a week, a couple of years ago, in comparative Gilgameshes, and last Christmas when L1 mentioned his fondness for Laozi's bit about jingling like jade rather than rumbling like rock, not only did a fully-formed suspicion of Wing-tsit Chan's sanity spring, shield in hand, from my forehead, I was sent into a thoroughly enjoyable phrase-filching frenzy, running about with my notebook from bookstore to bookstore copying out that particular bit from all manner of Daodejings (Red Pine, Steven Murray, Ursula LeGuin . . . ).

This kind of fun is what makes me like writers who embroider fairy tales until they puff up into novels. There are opportunities for lots of small jokes along the way (the Snow White character in Mirror, Mirror is called Bianca de Nevada, hee, and there are eight dwarves in her forest, not seven), and Maguire even slyly slips in things to think about: "Ranuccio nevertheless found himself sympathetic to the sweet sound of discourse, to reason's steady footfall from thought to thought, from proposition to proof, from thesis to antithesis, from the raw clever act of characterizing the world to the more serene bliss of categorizing it." (Is ascribing qualities to the world really a less sophisticated process than lumping together the things in it? Perhaps. At any rate, the cadence of the sentence is nice; it makes me want the meaning to be true, and I stop to consider whether it may be.)

But there is something feeble about this book. It is, perhaps, too geological in its outlook: it makes the dwarves into things of stone, having trouble adjusting to the progress of human time; befuddled, stony, buried in earth, what comprehension can they have of poison, whose horror lies largely in its potential suddenly to cut off a human existence? In giving his readers subterranean sympathies, Maguire leaves them impervious to the sense of menace that usually makes this story run.

17 September 2006

Eat Le Brie: It's the American Thing to Do

I have just noticed that the brie in my fridge, while marked "Le Brie" on a tricolor label, with brand name Ile de France and a little round seal-like thing assuring you it's "IMPORTED FROM FRANCE" and presenting a little flag in the middle just for good measure, needs also to tell you that it's "AMERICA'S FAVORITE SINCE 1936."

I guess you need assurance of two things in order to accept this cheese: that's it's real honest-to-goodness Frenchy, with the colors in vertical stripes and all, and that it has been IMPORTED to AMERICA because Americans like it.

So now I have become anxious. Are my other foodstuffs up to snuff?

I have some Trader Joe's FETA CHEESE, with some Ionic columns (bearing up the great weight of the legend "Perishable, Keep Refrigerated," their bases lapped by--no, never mind, those waves are running away from the columns, not toward them) and a round-sealed assurance that "OUR COWS JUST SAY NOOOO" ( to rBST). But do Americans like it? It doesn't say! However, yet another round seal proclaims it "REAL CALIFORNIA CHEESE," so perhaps it's okay.

The fridge holds some other stuff, though, of real dubious provenance. TIANJIN PRESERVED VEGETABLE, for instance. It has only one round seal, and that one bears only obscure writings, with "GREENBAMBOO" in very small letters underneath. Is GREENBAMBOO safe for Americans? Doesn't seem like much of a guarantee.

Yesterday I saw a big sign leaning against the window of a ground-floor apartment. It had a great big flag and the legend PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN.

Maybe what I need is a sign like that. I can put it in my window, and then when I want to eat something that might cast doubt upon my geopolitical affiliation, I can bring it under the shelter of the sign (I guess I should get me a flag, too, for good measure) and eat it there, in comfort and security.

Scotch Jook; or, The Ever-Multiplying Sludge

I returned, last Saturday, from an expedition, much in need of rest. I put some laundry in, got my backpack, and set off for Larry's, where I bought lamb, scallions, other things.

I came home and put on rice, and that is when Voldemort called. He had had a busy day and was amazed at the stupidity of the human race, and would I like some Korean soup? He meant pho, it turned out, but it sure was some evidence of stupidity he related over it, while he tried out a pair of green plastic chopsticks, abandoned them, and worked away with just his spoon.

To free myself for pho-eating, I'd had to retrieve my laundry and let it sit in a damp lump in my basket, and unplug the rice cooker.

I cooked my lamb and scallions the next day, and then there was a lamb shank bone to contend with, and the big pot of moist, abandoned rice. I put them together in my biggest pot, added water, and saw what I would see.

In first grade I acquired a book, pink-covered I believe, with a cake in it. A cake that would not stop rising, and carried its baker up with it, far, far into the sky. Rice is like that, it turns out, when you try to make soup with it. It puffs and puffs and puffs until you have a pot full of sludge with a gleam of lamb fat to the top of it. And then when you scoop some of it out into another pot and put lots of water and onions and carrots and celery and bay leaves, it puffs up some more.

So then if you apply yourself all week to eating your Scotch jook (not as good with rice as with barley, or not as good with lamb and root vegetables as with pork and preserved eggs, depending on how you look at it) you will manage to free your pot up, and you can scoop some more out of the inexhaustible sludge pot, and try what it's like with tomato paste in. And . . . well. That's how it goes. Forever, no doubt.

16 September 2006


"She's a librarian, too," her friend said, when I came round the corner holding the enormous bag of stuff.

There were two book-shaped cutting boards in there. There was a cube-shaped box containing A and Z bookends. (These were new stock, received just Thursday--the manager, One, ordered only three pairs, figuring they were too pricey to sell fast, but here it was 11:30 Friday morning and only one pair was left.) There were folded cards and postcards, and a notebook, and this, that, and the other small thing.

Librarians don't make very much money, do they?

Her total came to over two hundred dollars, and her credit card was declined.

"It shouldn't be," she told One.

"Well . . . ," One said.

"Can I write a check?" asked Librarian Too. One assented. Librarian Too got out her checkbook. "Good thing it's payday," she muttered.

This was only my second Friday volunteering in the gift shop at the library, and I wasn't too good at managing the cash register yet, but an hour or two later I had progressed to running credit cards. The first transaction went okay. I thought it was odd that you take the receipt and stuff it in a little slot below the cash drawer, but if that's what you're supposed to do, I can stuff receipts with the best of them.

Second credit card transaction wasn't so good, though.

"I'm afraid it's saying your card's been declined," I told the customer, who was trying to buy a book of photos of the library and a couple of postcards.

"Can you try it again?" she said, brightly.

I figured out how to cancel the transaction and start over. Meanwhile, we murmured of small things. I swiped the card again. It was declined again, and I waited for a gap in the conversation. "The result . . ."

"It took it this time?" she said hopefully.

"I seem to be getting the same result," I said, unreasonably apologetic.

She got out two dollar bills and bought just the two postcards. Her friend commenced muttering about how sometimes when you cross state lines They get overly cautious, and even though your card's fine They don't let it go through, and . . .

The same things Librarian Too's friend was saying earlier, none of which seemed to make any sort of sense. It's funny the things people can invent to try to smooth over a socially awkward situation. It reminded me of the time in Shanghai when I said the rolls we were putting our hamburgers on were sweet and Erne said they weren't, so her friend came up with the theory that the bag contained a mixture of sweet and not-sweet bread.

I had enough time when my shift at the library was done to rush home, eat a bit of yogurt, leave three cardigans and a blouse on the floor and arrive at the office only five minutes late.

Earlier in the week, I was so disgusted with my job I had to play hooky and stay home, but that had the unexpected result of renewing my enthusiasm. Friday afternoon I opened up my email box, noted with glee that Little Boss was telling Big Boss that Upstairs had Commended my perspicacity, and set happily to playing computer, trying to work out a problem one of the processors had run into.

A showed up at my desk, holding something in her hand.

"Ooo, money!" I said. "I forgot I was supposed to get more money today!"

She laughed. "Well, I sure was aware of it," she said.

Has her credit card been declined recently, I wonder?

10 September 2006

The Sea. John Banville.

I'm not sure what to say about this book, which is very short; very, very good; and took me a very, very, very long time to read. (My dad gave it to me for Christmas, I started it almost immediately, and I didn't finish it until today, Teachers' Day, the 10th of September.)

I think the fact that I finished it now, during a spell when I haven't really felt like reading, illuminates something I have long found curious, namely, that certain people I know who read overall very little seem, nevertheless, to have read books widely acknowledged as having great literary merit. I have tended to think that these people were just being snobbish and reading for show.

I had identified two motivations for reading, the joy of being caught up and carried away by something (and eventually, I guess, if I'm supposed to be talking about Banville, drowned--but never mind Banville for the moment), and the need or desire to acquire information. There is a third reason, which I've heard of but not always believed in, having to do with stimulation of the intellect.

I have not, over the past couple of weeks, been willing to get absorbed in anything, but I have from time to time wanted to set my mind to work on something, render myself a little more attentive to the texture and significance of existence. At such moments I have sometimes picked up The Sea and read for a little bit.

Banville's stories are not absorbing, his characters being somewhat repellent. I grow fascinated for a bit by how he uses language and how clearly he sees things, but I cannot stand to associate with his people for too long at a stretch. When I checked The Untouchable out from the library sometime last year, I made slow progress, and when I couldn't renew it because someone had it on hold, I had to return it half read.

That half that I read is still sitting there in my mind, having changed me in some way, made me perhaps more thoroughly human--or maybe, I have not analyzed it, just more thoroughly literate. (For those who are too literate, it is easy I think to confuse the two.)

Meanwhile, there are stories I read last month that have disappeared from my mind already.

As an opium fiend might be unable clearly to perceive the usefulness of the drug for the temporary alleviation of pain, just so am I usually too befuddled by need to comprehend how a person might only occasionally pick up a book, but take care when she did that it be a good one. But in this odd reprieve from book junkiedom, my faculties serve me differently than usual, and suddenly it is no longer opaque to me why some people, when they do read, read Garcia Marquez.