Tuesday, May 31, 2011

rapunzel is a salad

Among the funny/interesting stats a blog service provides are the word choices that bring readers to your blog. "alice zorn" is obvious. "thousand erasers" more curious. I'm always puzzled by the searches for "rapunzel moral". Is there a moral to the Rapunzel story? Other than the obvious: don't grow long hair or people might want to climb it.
I decided to reread the story to see what I'd missed. My copy of Grimms fairytales is a 1957 German edition. As I've said before, when I was a child, the black pen illustrations scared me more than the stories. Here's the drawing for Rapunzel:

The story begins with a husband and wife who dearly longed to have a child. Finally God fulfilled their wish, aka she became pregnant.
The small window at the back of their house faced a garden filled with flowers and greenery, and surrounded by a high wall. The garden belonged to a sorceress. Of course.
One day the wife looked out the window and noticed a bed of luscious "rapunzel". This translates as lamb's lettuce or corn salad, which doesn't grow in Canada. I've never tasted it.
The wife longed so desperately to eat this rapunzel that she began to waste away. Her husband grew frightened and asked what was wrong. She told him she would die if she couldn't have any rapunzel from the garden behind their house. The good, if gullible husband decided to get some, whatever the cost. He could, for example, have gone to the market. He could have argued that she would not die because she didn't get rapunzel. But gullibility is a common--no doubt necessary--trait in fairy tales.
He waited until dusk to climb the wall and snatch a handful of rapunzel. His wife made a salad she immediately gobbled. It tasted so good that by the next day her yearning had tripled. Again, she threatened to die if she couldn't have rapunzel.
At dusk her husband climbed the wall again, but this time, when he dropped into the garden, the sorceress was waiting. "How dare you climb into my garden to steal my rapunzel?" Terrified, he explained that his wife would die if she couldn't have any rapunzel. He didn't say that she was pregnant, but the sorceress seemed to understand. She told him to take as much rapunzel as he wanted, but once the child was born, they must give it to her. She would care for it like a mother. In his fear, the husband agreed. Not that he seems to have had any choice.
And so it happened. When the wife took to her bed, the sorceress appeared, named the child Rapunzel, and took her away. From here on in, there's no further mention of the husband and wife. Nor rapunzel as a salad.
Rapunzel grew into a beautiful child. When she was twelve years old, the sorceress shut her in a tower deep in a forest. (Is this motherly behaviour? We could do an interesting analysis here.) The tower had no door and no stairs, only a small window at the top. When the sorceress wanted to come up, she called, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
Rapunzel had magnificent hair, fine as spun gold. When she heard the sorceress call, she opened her braids and let them drop twenty yards out the window. As we all know, the sorceress climbed up.
I'm trying to visualize how long twenty yards are. A five-story building? Note, too, that the measurements are in yards, not meters. Germany wasn't metric in the early 1800s when the brothers Grimm were writing. And actually, I should say Hessen, where they lived, since Germany wasn't a nation until 1871.
A few years passed with Rapunzel living isolated in her tower. In her loneliness she sang to herself. One day the king's son was riding through the forest and heard her. Her voice was so lovely that he wanted to climb the tower to get closer. He searched for a door but couldn't find one. When he rode home again, the memory of singing haunted him. He rode into the forest every day to hear it again.
Is he acting like Rapunzel's mother with her lust for rapunzel? Are we supposed to draw a parallel? What is he going to lose in recompense for his appetite for the forbidden?
One day he saw the sorceress arrive and hid behind a tree to watch. He heard how she called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. He decided to try his luck and the next day at dusk he stood at the foot of the tower and called, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
Rapunzel might have sung beautifully but how could she mistake a man's voice for the sorceress? Though I suppose the sorceress could have had a deep voice. In the illustration she's got a few hairs bristling from her chin.
Rapunzel was startled when a man climbed over the windowsill, but as the prince spoke to her in a friendly way and told her how her singing moved him--everyone loves praise, don't they?--she had sex with him.
Okay, that's not how it's written in the story, but on the next page Rapunzel has twins and it's never stated  exactly when God fulfilled that wish.
In the story the prince asked if she would accept him as a husband. Rapunzel saw that he was young and handsome, and decided he would care for her better than the sorceress did.
There's no romance in her rationale. No expression of love. In fact, she's surprisingly opportunistic for someone who's lived isolated from the world.
Rapunzel told the prince to bring a length of silk every time he came so she could braid a ladder.
Note she's the one who comes up with a plan to escape, not him.
The prince came every evening. The sorceress noticed nothing until one day Rapunzel asked why she took so much longer to climb up her hair than the prince did.
What a clumsy plot twist! I don't buy that Rapunzel was so stupid. The sorceress should have noticed some detail--maybe the silk ladder Rapunzel was making. Maybe the prince riding off through the trees.
The sorceress cried, "You godless child! I thought I'd hidden you from the world and now I have to hear how you betrayed me!"
There's room here for some snappy dialogue about towers and motherly behaviour and fidelity, but this is a fairytale. Keep it moving.
The sorceress grabbed Rapunzel by her beautiful hair, hit her a few times--this is pre-Walt Disney--took the  scissors, and "ritsch ratsch" snipped. Then she brought Rapunzel to a desert where she abandoned her to live in suffering and pain.
My problem with this last is that I cannot understand how the sorceress and Rapunzel got out of the tower. Also how the sorceress got back up again to wait for the prince who of course stood at the bottom and called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. The sorceress dropped Rapunzel's braids.
When the prince climbed over the windowsill, she cried, "The pretty bird no longer sits and sings in its nest. The cat snatched it away and now it will scratch out your eyes!" In horror the prince jumped out the window. His fall was broken by thorn trees, which saved his life, but stabbed his eyes.
For years, then, he wandered blind through the woods, eating nothing but roots and berries, lamenting and crying that he'd lost Rapunzel. One day he arrived in the desert where Rapunzel lived in misery with the twins she'd borne him. But she must still have been singing, because he heard her voice and tried to follow it. When she recognized him, she fell about his neck, weeping. Two of her tears dropped into his eyes and cured his blindness. He led her to his kingdom where they were met with great joy and lived for a long time happy and contented. The End.
Now what could be the moral of this story?
Watch out for small windows. There comes temptation.
Yearning satisfied only leads to bigger appetite.
Don't climb walls that don't belong to you.
Motherly love is like being shut away in a tower you have to escape.
Sing beautifully and you will get a husband--or at least babies.
You can become a famous author even if you write clumsy plot twists.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

more pix book launch thien and zorn

Here are a few more pictures Madeleine sent along:

The pix are courtesy of the man with the hat. Thank you!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

discovering tajine

This image looks like it comes from Grimm's fairy tales, but I took it in Morocco--in Essaouira in 2008. I was thinking of Morocco this morning after reading Kathleen Winter's latest post on her blog. She credits me with introducing her to tajine.
Kathleen has such a curious nature that she would have discovered tajine all on her own. If nothing else, she lives near the Marché Jean-Talon where the clay dishes with their conical tops are sold. She would eventually have broached the topic with some Algerian butcher. What do you do with this? Is it a cooking or a serving dish?
Or she would have asked Dear One who's quite good-natured about his role as researcher and occasional errand-hound. (I'm thinking of last winter when she couldn't find suet to make English Christmas pudding. One needs suet specifically because it has such a high melting point that it retains its shape much longer than another more palatable fat one might consider using as a substitute. Not everyone fancies the fat from around a cow's kidneys. Dear One went off into the city and returned with suet a butcher gave him gratis.)

I first saw tajine dishes in Morocco in 1998. Every morning the smaller restaurants would set up an outdoor table lined with individual clay braziers. Tajine dishes would be filled with squash, lamb, chick peas, fish, artichokes, chicken, or kefta and set atop the braziers. I wish I had a picture, but I didn't take many in 1998, and when I returned to Morocco in later years, nobody seemed to be making tajines like this anymore. Too bad. The aroma was so tempting! All morning you could smell the stews slowly baking. At noon the tops of the tajines were lifted. Everything was cooked perfectly. Something about the porous clay (which I always soak in water for a few hours before making a tajine) that retains the juices, the very slow heat--at home, in my oven, I bake a tajine at 250F--the high conical top.
It's a wonderful winter meal because you can layer a tajine with many possible ingredients, set it to bake for 3 or 4 hours, come home to the delicious aroma of a meal ready to serve. Traditionally, in Morocco a meat or fish tajine always includes a fruit. That can be a dried fruit such as prunes or apricots. Or fresh fruit. Or even green olives which are considered a fruit in Morocco. My favourite tajine is chicken with citron confit (pickled lemons) and green olives. I make it with saffron. Obviously you can make vegetarian tajine as well.
When Kathleen wrote about tajines, she said I'd learned about them on my trips to Morocco and Tunisia. In fact, when we ordered tajine in Tunisia, we got a potato omelette cut into squares. And of course, if you're so naive as to say, "This isn't how they make tajines in Morocco," the waiter will dryly inform you that you're not in Morocco. Indeed.
Tajine dishes come in different sizes. In the market in Marrakech I saw a man layering potato slices in a tajine as wide as a bicycle wheel. Below that he had fish and wedges of pumpkin. He had yet to build a teepee of green beans and stud the mound with chopped tomatoes.
I have a scene with a tajine dish in my novel, Arrhythmia. At one point, I thought a possible title for the novel might be Tajine. But the Moroccan character in the novel isn't as important finally as he was in the first version of the manuscript.
I think I still need to write about Morocco.

Friday, May 13, 2011

book launch with madeleine thien and alice zorn

On May 6th Madeleine Thien and I had a book launch at Drawn & Quarterly bookstore here in Montreal.
Her novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, deals with the genocide in Cambodia during the 1970s, and the ongoing effects on two survivors and their families. The writing is sensitive--both precise and impressionistic. Read it!
My novel, Arrhythmia, is a study of betrayal. Everyone who's read it so far claims they can't put it down. So what are you waiting for?
In terms of content our novels are obviously different. Yet there are similarities in how we handle our characters, narrative intimacy, focus on setting, use of language. Interestingly, we both incorporate medical or hospital material.
On May 6th we got up on stage to read from and discuss our novels with our moderator, Ben Klein. We had fun!
Here are a few pictures from the evening:

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly

The opening act: Kathleen Winter on concertina, Randi Helmers with her ukulele.

Monday, May 9, 2011

mexico february-march 2011

Here are some pictures from our trip in late February, early March. We stayed mostly in Mexico City with two trips--to the pyramids at Teotihuacan and a couple of days in Taxco, about 2 hrs away in the mountains. I wrote a few posts about this trip at that time. (Scroll down to Feb and March.)
The dominant visual impression I'm left with now that a couple of months have passed is that Mexico City is vibrant with colour. Dancing. Adobe and Art Deco. It's where old Volkswagens go when they're not ready to die yet.

At a street market.

Detail from a church.

A park on Tues afternoon. They were in a corner with a small ghetto blaster, dancing for themselves. Kids cycling by.

The Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan.

A fresco more than 2000 yrs old.

R in Teotihuacan.

Myself and papier mâché head at Frida Kahlo's Blue House.

One of dozens of pix of Volkswagens.
Sentimental note: my first and only car was a VW Beetle, pale blue, 1971.

Our room in Hotel Los Arcos in Taxco.

Courtyard in Hotel Los Arcos.

Jacaranda blossoms on the rooftop terrace. I love that they weren't swept away.

Taxco at dusk (to the sound of gunfire).

Back in Mexico City. More dancing--with a band this time. Fancy two-tone shoes, slinky dress and shirt.

Second visit to Blue House.

One of many museum exhibits of funerary offerings featuring skeletons.


Hotel Imperial Reforma where we stayed in Mexico City.

Random street scenes:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

narrative in two sentences: alex epstein

I was happy to be invited to read at the Blue Metropolis Festival here in Montreal. The crowd laughed appreciatively at all the right moments (I love you!), nodded, and smiled. Balm to those of us who prefer to stay closeted in a room with a mug of tea and a laptop to having to speak coherently in front of a room full of people.
I read with Judy Fong Bates and Nigel H. Thomas, whose work I was already familiar with, and Alex Epstein from Israel. Alex read about a dozen very short pieces. One was only a sentence long.
The art of micro-fiction wows me. Myself, I can write two or three lines of good description or characterization, but I know very well they don't carry a narrative. And these pieces do. For example... Let me quote from the back of the business card Alex gave me and you'll see. Only two sentences but they contain a whole world of story.
"From time to time, even though all the batteries were supposed to have been sent to another warehouse, a short tune bursts from one of the phones in the used cell phone warehouse. The sleepy guard locates the defiant device and erases another love message that will go unclaimed."
I've read this many times and am still trying to decipher the magic. One element is obviously the humour. Or should I call it irony. The compulsive waste of human emotion. The sleepy, unsentimental guard who arbitrates love messages.
The difference between what Alex has written and what I wouldn't be able to stop myself from writing lies in the restraint. Alex tells a story by intimation. His two sentences allow the reader to imagine... how Ahmed wonders why Maha won't answer, though he's apologized and once upon a time she swore eternal fidelity. How Elizabetta checks her cell phone again and again in the classroom, where cell phones are strictly forbidden. And why is the guard sleepy? Did his lover keep him awake all night arguing? Or maybe fucking. What kind of man works as a guard in a used cell phone warehouse?
Alex's stories suggest infinite possibilities. Whereas I suppose my readers have to be willing to follow the path I set on the page.
Both styles of writing have their attraction. But I'm curious to see now if I can rein my appetite for back-story and write a couple of these very short, provocative pieces.