Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving, Shades of Blue, Birthdays, Book Love and Masks

Wishing all those of you who celebrate it a Happy and Thoroughly Delicious Thanksgiving! Taking a day to recognize the blessings you might've otherwise taken for granted or overlooked, while sharing food and conversation with family and friends, always unspools those bright, golden threads of memories woven throughout the year that reel in warmth and laughter. Good thoughts beget good thoughts. Which is why Thanksgiving has always ranked high on my holiday meter. Besides, every so often it lands on my birthday.

It feels as if the universe itself is nudging me out of my misanthropic hibernation, hinting rather transparently that I can't help but be grateful for...well, for being here. On this planet. This side of the world. In my body. A little on the nose, universe. As if I need to smell the turkey and pumpkin-cranberry pie to bask in the glorious joy of existing. Or maybe I do. I certainly enjoy it. As I prep and cook and joke with Troy, the festive, bright feeling slowly sinks in, and by the time dinner is ready, our minds are brimming with the pleasure of each others company. Cooking always reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate, of those parts, where the heroine infuses the food she prepares with her emotions. Only in real life, this happens in reverse order; it is the sensory act of cooking that makes you shimmer and bubble, grow languorous and unhurried, light-hearted and bubbly, depending on your concoction.

For me, Thanksgiving has always been a chirpy, lively affair (and I always sneak in a glass of red wine as I cook); besides, after all these years of making stuff together, Troy and I have synchronized our culinary temperaments to perfection and the whole thing, set to the soundtrack pumped out by Pandora, is pretty effortless. Which reminds me of our very first joint Thanksgiving, when we were still unknown quantities to each other, when our mood was exploratory and our oven in a tiny hole of a house -- perpetually out of order. My hubby surprised me with a birthday trip to San Diego, where we made a proper, many-coursed dinner (turkey, stuffing, baked yams, pie) right in our room (serendipitously equipped with a full kitchen) and realized how well we got along with the spices, sharp knives and each other. I can still see the bewildered expressions of other hotel guests, as they paused in the drab, oatmeal-colored hallways to sniff suspiciously at the roasting-turkey-scented air. Good times! On a scale of effort to gratification, cooking falls just below sitting in a deep chair with a really good read in your lap. Dreaming comes close. Very close.

Love the symbolism of the cover!
And, yes, the crocodile is a part of the plot,
and so is the raven
And while I'm thinking about dreaming and books, I cannot help but rave about a fairy tale-esque, dreamy novel by Sally Gardner -- I, Coriander.  Set in a seventeen-century London during Cromwell's revolution, the story follows Coriander -- a girl who falls on hard times when her mother dies and her father is driven away by his evil new wife. The premise might sound simple, but the story is anything but! It is fascinating and funny and heart-rending and magical, with the added bonuses of featuring two of the most malicious, creepy villains I have seen in a fantasy and delicious pages of gorgeous, lyrical writing. This book is such a delight! The history and fantasy intertwine, showing us now dazzling magic, now harrowing darkness. Through it all, Coriander remains a strong, determined heroine, who fights hard to keep her dignity and set things right.

This book was a birthday gift from my hubby, and I stayed up and up and up, unable to part with its lush, chilling, captivating world. And after I finished reading, I stayed up a  little longer to get more books by the same wonderful author. So far, I've read three of her novels! Sally Gardner is my new hero! Her spirit is as bright and persevering as that of her heroines, and I can't help but admire anyone, who has overcome severe dyslexia to become an award-winning writer!!! I highly recommend I, Coriander to those of you who love fantasy, fairy-tales and romance and are not particularly averse to looking at the darker aspects of humanity. What a great book! And that cover!!! I want to always have it in sight.

And just a tiny birthday bit snuck into a holiday post. I want to share a gorgeous card Kim, my lovely and talented sister-in-law has made for me. Isn't it perfect? It can easily be an illustration to the Land of Joy and Sorrow. It even has a gorgeous lapis-blue feather. Love it so much!!! I think this coming Christmas the color scheme in my house would flow between different shades of blue: ultramarine, and turquoise, and sapphire, and Indian-ink-blue, and iridescent raven-plumage-blue, and deep-Prussian-blue. It will be a landscape of wintry shadows; the brilliance of color punctured only by the warm glow of many candles. Hmmm....Why not!

And now, something bizarre and creepy-delightful I found while researching...Loooove research; odd, little gems of knowledge always fall in my lap. Like this one. A forgotten Thanksgiving tradition. How wild is that!!!

Photo via the Library of Congress

I never knew this, but it seems that a hundred years ago, Thanksgiving was a lot like...Halloween. Scores of kids and adults alike would dress up and go on 'city crawls,' especially in such sprawling areas as Chicago or New York. Makeshift Thanksgiving parades -- fantasticals -- marched down the streets. Many wore garish masks - 'false faces' or 'dough faces' and patched, tattered costumes in a perverse tribute to poverty, rode horses or bicycles. Mischief and cross-dressing ensued.

Boys posing in their sisters'
old, ragged finery.
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The goal was to look as disheveled and wretched as possible. A 1910 book called Little Talks For Little People spelled out the dress code: "Old shoes and clouted upon your feet, and old garments upon you." Children, 'maskers,' dressed as homeless people (a custom stemming from mumming, when men in costumes asked for food and money, often in exchange for music), doused people with confetti and flour, going door to door in ragamuffin packs or begging strangers "anything for Thanksgiving?" Passerby threw them change, spiced jelly gums, tinted hard candy or apples.

 Only by mid 20th century did the masking tradition shift to the more whimsical Halloween.Wild, isn't it?

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Telling of a Dream...

We all know the shimmery feel of a dream, still sleep-warm and solid, slipping from our awakening bodies. Like a silver-scaled fish falling back into the night-water. But what if we could continue to watch it? And not only watch it, but shape and spin and tell it in the process? This is what fantasy writing is to me -- the telling of a dream.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Couch the Coffin

So many writers swear by a special working spot where their creative juices flow effortlessly and abundantly, where their inspiration streams unabashed and the keys of their computers can never match the flying speed of their fingers. Some ensconce themselves in the noisy innards of coffee shops, while others prefer the serene quiet of a farthermost corner of a library (hellooo noise-cancelling headphones!), many require the rigid severity of a neatly organized desk, while many more do their best work lounging in their yet-unmade beds. The common thread marking these very different individuals as a kind of literary kin is their propensity to link their best creative moments to a place. A place which channels the drafts of new ideas, a place which commands the muses. A place too fantastical to truly exist.

I have always thought such stories tall tales in the vein of finding Shangri La, or the end of the rainbow, or the fountain of youth, in other words, all those amazingly blessed places rumored to exist at the crossing of the earth's ley lines, or on the bottom of a wishing well, or in an underground cavern of a crafty, green-bearded leprechaun. Always so conveniently out of reach.

So I resisted the temptation of a perfect writing spot, buckled down and wrote. Surprisingly, I found writing was a discipline that could be trained and honed, much like playing an instrument, riding a bike, or -- yes -- sleeping. I remembered my grandmother's stories of working night shifts as an emergency room surgeon on call. Over the years, she had developed an uncanny ability to sleep whenever and wherever she could and would fall into a deep slumber in a matter of seconds. Day or night. I tried to use her example as a model for my writing. Whenever and wherever. Writing became something that had to be done. A pleasure, but also a task. I wrote on the planes, in the trains, on a France-to-Ireland ferry abling across stomach-churningly choppy waters, while cooking, hiking, shopping and even during a friend's performance of La Traviata.

I still heard echoes of those tales. But, despite being a fantasy geek, I never gave them any thought. Never believed in them. (There's a limit to gullibility even for someone who writes about sentient feathers.) That is, until I discovered a magical spring of creative prowess right in the center of my own living room (now lovingly referred to by my family members as the writing couch). That writing couch, you guys, it's a thing of pure poetry. I kid you not.

It's uncanny, how such mundane a thing as a piece of furniture -- and not a new or imposing one at that -- can make you sink into your inner world, only to emerge with a wealth of ideas. As soon as I plop down on the now much-deflated cushions, the ideas surge. They stampede! Inelegantly, but eagerly. My shabby writing couch works the kind of miracles my good and proper desk could never manage on its (and mine) best days. I suspect that it may, in fact, be standing on the very crossing of the ley lines and rainbow tails or spilling over into a mystical land of whispering muses and wish-granting leprechauns. Whatever magic hides behind its cushions, it works. Of course, it does so in its own, capricious way; the ideas never follow my writerly will, preferring to flutter down the tangling, meandering routes of their own choosing. Which is okay. I am patient and can wait until our paths converge in a synergy of creativity and purpose. I can wait as long as it takes. Or, at least, as long as there's coffee in my cup and sugar in my system. (Or, definitely, as long as a toothy, weary leprechaun grudgingly keeps tossing patinaed wishing coins in the well of my inspiration.)

Sometimes when I find myself jotting ideas on the go, thinking of my lonesome writing couch, I wonder why does a place have such an impact on the writing process. Because the connection cannot be denied. The late poet Robert Creeley once said, "The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner." Creeley himself required a "very kind of secure quiet," or, as he put it, "I usually have some music playing, a kind of drone that I like, as relaxation." In a sense, a place becomes a key, able to unlock the writer's inner world. The irony of this is that the place ceases to matter, as soon as the writer walks across the threshold to his imagination.

Of course, not every author found inspiration while sitting at a desk, on a couch or in a chair. Many renowned story-tellers chose the most unconventional places as perches for their literary pursuits. Here are some of the more unexpected ones (from an article by Celia Blue Johnson):

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on notecards while traveling on butterfly-collecting trips in the U.S.

D.H. Lawrence preferred to write outdoors, beneath the shade of a tree. He found a trunk to lean against wherever he went, from pine trees in New Mexico to great firs in Germany’s Black Forest. Discussing his predilection, Lawrence noted, “The trees are like living company.”

Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. Shopping expeditions around Paris were particularly productive for the writer. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and work.

Agatha Christie had two important demands for the renovation of her mansion. She informed her architect, “I want a big bath, and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.” Christie constructed her plots in a large Victorian tub, one bite at a time.

Sir Walter Scott crafted “Marmion,” his bestselling epic poem, on horseback, in the undulating hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. Though one might assume a leisurely pace is necessary for creative concentration atop a horse, Scott preferred to contemplate the lines of the poem at a faster clip. “I had many a grand gallop among these braes when I was thinking of ‘Marmion’,” he recalled.

Dame Edith Sitwell had a ritual of lying down before she set pen to paper. Rather than reclining on a bed or a couch, though, she chose to climb into an open coffin. In those morbidly tight quarters, the eccentric poet found inspiration for her work.

Marcel Proust spent his nights writing in bed. However, the busy Parisian street outside his apartment window began to take its toll on his nocturnal routine: Noise drifted up to his room while he was trying to sleep during the day. Proust’s solution was to line the walls with cork, and it worked. 

Now, what is your magical writing place?  

Not a part of the list, just a fun fact: Margaret and H.A. Rey built bicycles from spare parts to escape from a Nazi invasion in Paris while carrying the manuscript for Curious George.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mad-Dash to the Pumpkin Pie Patch

Every year we resolve to prepare for the holidays, and every year we fail; the days creep up on us stealthy-like, sending us in a mad-scramble to find the pumpkins, decorate the tree, speed-wrap the gifts, make a gingerbread house, all in the eleventh hour. Perhaps we use our perpetual holiday tardiness as an opportunity to test the limits of our resourcefulness, perhaps we are procrastinators by nature, or perhaps every year, we fall a little more out of step with time. Whatever the reason, I have to admit -- there is a certain masochistic pleasure in rushing around, a mad, cackling triumph to getting things done in the last moment, a wild, adrenaline-fueled excitement to spiking stress.

Light Halloween reading
(and drinking).
This year should've been no different. We got ready to dash and scramble, but when we got to our local grocery store, we noticed a great lack of orange. It turned out the Halloween's staple vegetable had ran out. There wasn't a pumpkin in sight. I hopefully raced toward every speck of familiar color, only to be bitterly disappointed. My attempts to roll away the store's ginormous winter squash display were met with skeptically-raised eyebrows and unconcealed sniggers. Beaten, we searched every grocery store in the area, only to hear more of the same: all the pumpkins were sold out. Who needed that many pumpkins? Were people baking an endless supply of pies? Building orange forts in their back yards? Using them as a misguided sort of currency?

In our perplexed and disheartened state, we forgot to dash, and instead shuffled aimlessly, until we stumbled upon a closing pumpkin patch. Success. Soon, our cart filled up and our resourcefulness bar crept higher with each added pumpkin. Though, to be completely honest, I don't know why we try. Our neighborhood is a Halloween dead-zone, diligently decorated, but for some mysterious reason, stubbornly avoided by costumed folk of all ages. This year, we managed to lure two trick-or-treaters, doubling our last year's record. We were making bets whether or not this record could be surpassed,  when down came the first heavy rain of the season, washing away all potential candy-hunters, dashing our hopes and briefly plunging us into darkness.

The power eventually came back on, but the rain poured harder. What were we to do? Watch an appropriately spooky movie, gobbling up brain cupcakes, of course. 

Brain Cupcakes!
(pumpkin cakes with vanilla frosting)


 and after

After much heated debate, we settled on Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. It was just right and made me wish (in equal parts) to transport to Victorian New York, to write a chilling Victorian haint-story and to find Troy a nineteenth century frock coat and a cravat.

This pearlescent, atmospheric palette sets the mood for the creepy,
haunting tale perfectly + Johnny Depp!!!

Troy and I are ready for trick-or-treaters!!!

Awesome ghoulish gourds carved by Jon Neill at the
RISE of the Jack O'Lanterns

(aren't these fantastic!)