Monday, August 30, 2010

On Throwing a Dinner Party

"What will happen at this party? Anything may happen. A man has just come in who stands charmingly on his head at parties. Perhaps he will stand on his head tonight. I hope that he will stand on his head. That is what people should do at parties of pleasure; it gives parties of pleasure the right note." - Rose Macaulay

Sadly, no one stood on their head at this dinner party. (I watched Patrick very hopefully.) And yet -

I think my desire to throw a dinner party must be linked to my predictable childhood preoccupation with tea parties. But once I saw Babette's Feast (and also Chocolat) I found the urge to feed dear friends at a table with good food, prepared with patience and intention. And Thursday was the perfect day to do it.

I stayed indoors all day, chopping and mixing, slicing, arranging, and setting everything in place. The menu was supposed to be light and vibrant summer food, to mirror the weather. But the day was morbid and grey. We had to create the atmosphere ourselves, with flowers and with wine.

The menu was as follows:

Act I:

Rosemary & sage bread with balsamic vinegar and olive oil
Olive tapenade
Artichoke & spinach dip
Truffle cheese with raspberries & blueberries (finally, a chance to indulge my truffle mania)

Act II:

Lemon Mint Israeli Couscous
Shittake mushrooms & asparagus with honey

Act III:

Strawberry ice-cream with Balsamic vinegar (entirely inspired by Molly Moon's)
Various fruits with melted dark chocolate

Various wines, coffee, etc.

And all went as planned. There was the best cheese story I've ever heard, a long discussion on belly-buttons (which is, you know, one of my specialty subjects), and warm conversation which smeared into a general celebration of high-spirits.

As I'm writing this as a faux foodie, let me quote the regnant M.F.K. Fisher: "Too few of us, perhaps, feel that the breaking of the bread, the sharing of salt, the common dipping into one bowl, means more than satisfaction of a need."

(P performing brain surgery on a cantaloupe)

(Those dear newlyweds: kind enough to let us into their new apartment and let me break a bowl, spill a wine glass and drop balsamic vinegar all over the tablecloth I bought them as a wedding present.)

(A future lawyer and future Icelander in the party spirit)

(Birthday friends, now 24 and 25 respectively. L and I met the day after our birthday in our freshman year of college, and we're still celebrating it.)

A divine night, wholly scented with lavender. And so (Fisher again):

"Then, with good friends...and good food on the board, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask, When shall we live if not now?"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Poetry in the Early Morning

What is Born With Me - Pablo Neruda

I sing to the grass that is born with me
in this free moment, to the fermentations
of cheese, of vinegar, to the secret
spurt of the first semen, i sing
to the song of milk which now comes
in rising whiteness to the nipples,
I sing to the fertility of the stable,
to the fresh dung of great cows
from whose aroma fly multitudes
of blue wings, I speak
without any shift of what is happening now
to the bumblebee with its honey, to the lichen
in its soundless germination.
Like an everlasting drum
sounds the flow of succession, the course
from being to being, and I'm born, I'm born, I'm born,
with all that is being born, I'm one
with growing, with the spread silence
of everything that surrounds me, teeming,
propagating itself in the dense damp,
in threads, in tigers, in jelly.

I belong to fruitfulness
and I'll grow while lives grow.
I'm young with the youthfulness of water,
I'm slow with the slowness of time,
I'm pure with the purity of air,
dark with the wine of night,
and I'll only be still when I've become
so mineral that I neither see nor hear,
nor take part in what is born and grows.

When I picked out the jungle
to learn how to be,
leaf by leaf,
I went on with my lessons
and learned to be root, deep clay,
voiceless earth, transparent night,
and beyond that, bit by bit, the whole jungle.

(Trans. Alastair Reed)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Question of Taste?

During a heated discussion over drinks with friends last week at Ballard's wonderful Noble Fir, we stumbled into inevitable discussions about the reading tastes of men and women (and how true the relevant stereotypes are), and the overwhelming popularity of lighter fiction (at best "book club books"; at worst racy genre reads from material that will quickly date and be pulped) and the difficulty of sharing the impressive lesser-known books we're passionate about with our customers.

It's less about personal pleasures, delightful periods of escape with perennial favorites, than it is about the difficulty of weaning anybody from the place where their heels are planted. Seeing a pile of books with turquoise and light pink covers featuring Manolo Blahniks or embossed Prada bags make me feel queasy. As does the steady stream of paranormal romances with Dead/Death/Dying in the title and scantily clad young women in the arms of some Eternal Fabio. There is no doubt about the power of the female consumer. The problem is the vast and stead quantity of what they consistently consume. Everyone may enjoy a Bridget Jones read now and again (I know I did; reading it out loud with Kristin made me nearly wet my pants). The problem is making this the sole substance of one's reading life.

Specifically, as a woman, identifying with a group of people who have enjoyed educational, personal, and civic liberties for only a very short period of time on the historical scale, I'm sensitive to the issue of "women's fiction". I have no misconceptions about men reading light books with little substance. I'm aware that there are plenty of men who do, and that cheap thrillers and other works of genre fiction is as popular as they've ever been. But I worry when people start to talk about lighter fiction as a "woman's book", with more serious works of fiction as being beyond that consumer base. (As in "I'm not sure you'd like this. It's not really something women would like.") Because largely – it seems that they're right. It's statistically proven that women buy more fiction than men. What does it tell us about the reading public when the books on the bestseller list are Charlaine Harris' paranormal romances and the biography of Angelina Jolie?

Let me attempt to move beyond generalizations: men and women read literary fiction. Men and women also read genre fiction; it's a spectrum. But, we asked at the Noble Fir, how could we take people from what they're comfortable reading, and expose them to a variety of good writers? How can we lead them into the depths? Is it possible, in effect, to change the reading habits of others? It’s a presumptive question because it is not my job to change the reading habits of others. Or is it?

I wondered if it would be possible to draw a physical map, a kind of Way-From-Here-To-There which would connect writers from the low brow to the very high. Could there be seven degrees of separation between Jodi Picoult and Sylvia Plath? Or between John Grisham and John Steinbeck?

This raises other questions: Why do people read what they do? Is reading for pleasure inferior to reading for other purposes? Is reading for pleasure different from reading to escape? Is doing anything to "escape" a good thing? Is escaping different than transcending? Is there some sort of reading hierarchy? And most of all - are some books intrinsically "better" than others? This is a very unpopular idea nowadays when getting anyone to sit down and read (print) seems nothing less than a prize-winning miracle. Evaluating art in terms of better and worse, presuming a value judgment, has been even less popular.

So sat around the table at the Noble Fir with our umpteenth beer and my deliciously musky wine and asked ourselves - is there such a thing as a bad book? (Is there such a thing as bad art?) And we said yes. There is such a thing as a cheaply done book, and very often bad books (like bad movies or bad music) seeks to gratify the consumer without too much effort on the consumer's part. The good book seeks to engage the reader, yes, but might not let it go without a promise of effort, or at the very least, patient attention.

Does this make me a conservative snob? I'm afraid snobbery is too easily the default setting for someone exasperated with the idea that people want to read because they don't want to "think." Because someone I overheard a few days ago said: "My thought is that if it's a good enough book, it'll be turned into a movie."

But snobbery is not the answer any more than habitually mindless reading.

So what does this mean for us as readers and what does this mean for us as people who try to recommend and sell books to other people? Do we bemoan the dwindling readership of serious fiction? Do we give up and resign ourselves to publicly promoting this week's it-books and privately drawing back to our cave with our own precious stash of obscurities?

Matthew Arnold, the Victorian essayist, poet ("Dover Beach"), and educational reformer wrote that culture is the “fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon his notions and habits.” I like this definition. The inclusion of the word “play” gives it lightness and spirit. It’s a dynamic idea that culture causes one to evaluate one’s habits, and if necessary, to change them. If reading only newspapers (in Arnold’s day) or blogs (in ours) or a steady diet of guilty pleasure books enables the fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon our notions and habits, then a hierarchy of books, a magic list, is unnecessary.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Spotting

Seen on the #15:

Short, middle-aged man in faded jeans, old shoes, and baseball cap worn low over his face. A construction worker? Worker at the Ballard locks? Deckhand? In his rough fist an old Vintage Scribner library copy of Gibbons' History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Tip on Pronouncing the Names of Foreign Writers

Perhaps you know this already. If you didn't - allow me to educate.

Czeslaw Milosz is not pronounced "Coleslaw Milosovich" as I previously thought but "Chess-wov Mee-woash." Who knew? I am putting this into everyday use along with Simone Weil (which I now know is pronounced "Vey" not "While.")

(This is a picture of the poet himself.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

As I feared, my faith in a future at Oxford dwindles everyday. The irony is that I have a place waiting for me but just can't afford it. I didn't contemplate the possibility of not being approved a loan. So much work. For this.

"That which is lasting we share with the future, we defer the consideration of till tomorrow: that which belongs to the moment we drink up in all its bitterness." - William Hazlitt, On Great and Little Things.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who acts as the family’s Socrates, with his wife and daughters as the youths around his feet, is a benign presence, a distant observer. Her wild and carefree mother, a writer whose legacy hangs over Cassandra, is dead. (Cassandra is writing a thesis on the contemporary novel in France, which belongs largely to people her own age, though she’d prefer them to write theses on her.)

Cassandra and Judith circle around each other, Cassandra acting with a lover’s wounded barbs and tentative posturing, Judith watchful. When they discover they have both bought the same white dress for the wedding – convincing their grandmother that they should have dressed alike all their lives as she had wanted and they resisted – Cassandra is shattered. What does this signify for their individuality and their integrity?

Judith, who narrates the second section, is the sane and balanced twin, the responsible sister. But it is Cassandra’s verbal gymnastics and violent thoughts and liquid speech which propel the novel. Cassandra is sharp-tongued, she says things she doesn’t mean; she is spiny and barnacled and “impossible.” She’s had affairs with women (they scare her less than men), but we become aware that since “up to a point they fascinate me” – until she feels imposed upon, until she feels chased – Cassandra’s love ultimately comes from and goes towards Judith, her other self. The novel’s tension comes from this war with the concept and being of twinship. Should she and Judith be one person or two?

Cassandra struggles to emphasize that “More and more earnestly telling me there was nothing here to indicate that we’re too closely tied up, or that we’re really the same person with two heads or any of the things we used to wonder about, and worry about, and secretly feel exultant about.”

But after the affair with the dress, she realizes and tries to convince Judith that “…an integer can’t exist without integrity. That’s what we are, together – a whole being, a fabric, a complex – we’re completed.” Judith’s decision to marry fractures this completion and dislodges Cassandra. She has nowhere to go but “fly apart,” though she knows that this will separate her even farther from Jude.

Baker’s style is infused with electricity, tension, and a West-Coast world-weariness (“…[I] scraped the plate and rinsed the cups and the glass and put them back in the dishwasher. It wasn’t easy, but nothing is.”) It’s a novel filled with light and despair, anguish and pathos and extreme feeling. It made me think of the film Rachel’s Getting Married, another story of a conniving, distraught sister and the issues of family history, responsibilities, and relationships that spark and collide at significant events.

Read Dorothy Baker. I wholly agree with the reviewer calling Cassandra at the Wedding a modern American classic.

(And, if there are doubts, I can happily say that at no point did I derail the Tuttle-Tomaschke wedding.)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Harping On

There is something so ironically aggressive about the harp. The playing - plucking and hammering and coaxing - looks incredibly violent, but its icy sounds are sweet and precise.

I saw Joanna Newsom at the Moore Wednesday night. It was my first trip to the Moore, a much narrower theatre than the Paramount, close to Pike Place Market and the docks. From where we sat on the steep balcony, the inside, blue-lit, looked like an underwater opera house. I have never seen so many hipsters in one place. They were all there: any Seattleite with skinny jeans, large-rimmed glasses, overgrown muttonchops or pencil mustaches (Eric called the style Goddard-esque after the 60’s French director), mussed and braided hair, and floral dresses, standing with the awkward, graceful stork posture so beloved by earnest Wes Anderson-watching, Jack Kerouac-reading, cigarette-smoking hipsters everywhere.

And they flocked for good reason. It was exquisite. Robin Pecknold from the Fleet Foxes opened for Newsom, and if his continuous exchange of guitars and constant mumbling apologies were deterring, they were compensated by his emotional generosity, ringing upper register and surprising melodic turns.

Newsom came onstage to thunderous applause and whistles, a tiny thing in a cotton baby doll dress, with a wave of blond hair she tosses when she moves, making her look like the personification of spring in the Firebird section of Fantastia 2000.

The harp charmed; it’s easy to see why ancient Greeks warned musicians to avoid certain scales which provoked certain temperaments and emotional states. We were all happily put under its spell.

She was accompanied by five musicians, all of whom sang: a percussionist wearing a suit but no socks or shoes, a trombonist, two violinists, and a recorder/guitar/oud player. Thinking she would only play from her new album, Have One on Me (she opened with the luxurious and light Easy), we were rewarded with Cosmia and Emily from Ys, skillfully re-arranged for the mini-chamber group, with the trombone replacing most of the lower instruments and sounding convincingly at one point like an oboe.

It was during Emily that the side door on the balcony was opened, and the breeze wafted in with the strings. And very faintly, underneath her marvelous wide voice, the sound of seagulls.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Vocation

I read this on the way to the wedding. It comes closest to a personal manifesto for what I want to do When I Grow Up. (Substitute literature for music.)

“It had more to do with belonging to a tradition in music and staying in it and working at it in any capacity you can fit into – playing what’s been written, and what’s been written, composing too if you want to and can, but mostly trying to keep it alive and separate the chaff from the grain and keep them separate. Know which is which, and care, and that’s a life work.” – Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker

Monday, August 2, 2010

Flying South for the Wedding

Just over two years from the day we graduated, yearning for more than a one-horse town, we returned. Kristin and Patrick, the nuptial couple, met at Greenville and it was only appropriate that they would choose Greenville for their wedding.

I’d had forgotten how southern this town in Southern Illinois is until I return from Seattle to see the confederate flags, the Gretchen Wilson music, the biscuits and gravy, the thick accent. Driving east from St. Louis to Greenville is a dream in Americana: the corn high and ripe, hawks circling, grasses glistening from thunderstorms and downpours, a large wide sky above the plains and the sprawling roads.

We pass power lines, traversing and perpendicular, large billboards for country cooking and homestyle restaurants large and gaudy and offering oversized lardy portions at a minimal charge, and all the fields lush with the harvest.

Greenville, that dear town of seven thousand (including the federal prison outside of the city limits) is still itself: with more Victorian funeral homes than residents to fill them, seven antique stores but no store selling shoes, no businesses open by five in the evening, restaurants that change names and keep the menu. I am struck by the desire to read everything Wendell Berry had ever written.

K, the bride, and I sit on Scott field the way we did our freshman year and discuss, categorically and liturgically (it is tradition), our romantic histories. As we talk and are attacked by mosquitoes, a small-skulled ginger cat with a tail as flamboyant as Pepe le Peu’s feather-duster aims for us out of the darkness like a missile.

In the morning I oversleep and run to morning prayer – my favorite rite - only to find the church empty and sepulchral. On the way back I see the Henslow’s sparrows: nervous chickadee things with peeping pipes and a hop that leans forward, a flight that is unbelievably light and effortless, rising with the sudden ebullience of new thought.

(How have I lived here for four years and not found out every secret thing? I want to know what the grasses are called in Greenville, and what crops the fields put forth. The birds: the warblers, red-tailed hawks, and grosbeaks.)

This wedding is no cake to plan from Seattle. Things with which we must contend: nonagerians, newborn babies, vegans, people who had never heard of vegans, kids with Aspbergers, bridesmaids on crutches, thunderstorms, humidity, shade, swamp infestations, mosquitoes, old and new friends, old and new lovers, Byzantine music rehearsals, problems with remembering which hand had the ring finger, the limited number of vehicles, wheelchairs. The wedding has all the assurance of a roadside carnival.

The reception is planned for a barn owned by a professor of religion, Dr. McPeak. It is our job to take a beautiful pioneer space enclosing every obsolete tool and empty fuel canister and broken bicycle part known to humankind and transform it into an open air meeting space. Like treasure hunters we pillage the barn and choose our objets d’art: empty glass jars, wagon wheels, old mirror frames, windows and wooden tables. Every thing is laid in its proper place and evaluated with the aesthetic eyes of five critics who check every vignette until all are satisfied.

I couldn’t have been prepared for the rigorous requirements of a wedding. As wedding manager, me & my clipboard go everywhere taking notes on the portopotties, the caterer, the chairs and tables. The bachelorette party is in a one-room bar called Oasis in the middle of the cornfields on highway 127. We are the only ones in the room and – if this gives you any indication of the kind of establishment – the drinks are $1.25. A drunk man with a ponytail in his briefcase and dirty fingers in Erin’s hair buys up pepto-bismal tequila rose shots. He is difficult to shake off. The barwoman is so glad to see people that she gives us drinks for free. We laugh all the way home.

And somehow eventually, it all winds down and are standing at the altar with smarting toes and sweat behind the neck. And the dresses that were on hangars are now clothing bodies, people that were names on a list are smiling witnesses. Dr. Hartley’s wedding homily was the best I’d ever heard – it was specific and inclusive, it was generous and uncompromising. Take the time to read it here.

All the worries are swept away as we sit down at our tables at the barn to delicious vegan food, our plates and faces stippled by sunlight, a light breeze lifting the corners of the tablecloths. The bouquets haven’t wilted, the rings weren’t lost, and no one fainted or tripped down the aisle. The sun sets slowly and there is dancing on the wet grass, games played on the lawn, a baby being fed, the inevitable leave-takings in twos and threes.

The moon rises orange and the night is still young.

I wanted to read this poem by Rumi at the reception, but I didn’t. So I’ll put it here:

May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,
this marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
like the date palm.
May this marriage be full of laughter,
our every day a day in paradise.
May this marriage be a sign of compassion,
a seal of happiness here and hereafter.
May this marriage have a fair face and a good name,
an omen as welcome
as the moon in a clear blue sky.
I am out of words to describe
how spirit mingles in this marriage.

Best of wishes, K & P. This week was beautiful.