the pleasures of Eastern European dumplings, in the New Yorker, in Edmonton, in Grand Forks

autumn borscht
At the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks

I’ve just read the most wonderful piece in the New Yorker online (we get the print magazine passed along to us in good time but sometimes I can’t wait) and it’s reminded me of childhood visits to my father’s family in Edmonton. (The article, “The Underrated Pleasures of Eastern European Dumplings“, by Olia Hercules, discusses those amazing creations and offers a recipe for Pork Manti, something I will have to try, probably when one or more of my children are here.)

These days, though, I no longer try to hide the fact that my death-row meal would, without question, consist of varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what in Poland are called pierogi. Even though the name comes from varyty, meaning “to boil,” these half-moon-shaped dumplings are sometimes steamed or boiled and then refried. My favorite filling is one of the simplest: homemade cheese curd, called syr, mixed with egg yolks and heavily seasoned with salt. The filling is gently wrapped in the thinnest of pasta doughs and boiled briskly. To serve, varenyky are dropped into a large bowl with about half a stick of melted butter and served with thick, full-fat crème fraîche called smetana. I can only eat about ten ravioli at a time, but I can easily pack away about forty varenyky in a single sitting. When I eat them, I feel like a euphoric child.

When I was a child watching my aunts, grandmother, and mother (her background was Scots Presbyterian but she adapted well to the communal experience of preparing a Eastern European feast), anyway (to wrangle this sentence back into line), watching them prepare mountains of tiny dumplings, I felt such anticipation and also comfort. Their voices murmuring, some gossip (spoken quietly because little pitchers have big ears), the soft sound of a long rolling pin pressing out the dough on a floured table, the smell of warm potato, snipped green onion, and ground pepper (a-choo!). And what about the name? Other people called what the aunts made “pierogy”, which I think is the Polish version. We said “pedaha”. I’ve looked online and find this, from Wikipedia (not my usual go-to reference source but there you have it):

Although called varenyky in standard Ukrainian, speakers of the Canadian Ukrainian or Rusyn dialect refer to them as pyrohy, which can be misheard pedaheh or pudaheh by Anglophones unaccustomed to the rolled-r sound, or alveolar flap. This is due to the history of Ukrainian or Rusyn (Ruthenian) immigration to Canada, which came predominantly from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ours were filled with cheese curd, and my father said in his own childhood, his mother made the simple cottage cheese she used for their pyrohy (there. I’ve used what was probably the word I heard) with milk from the family cow. He always claimed they were better with homemade cheese. Potatoes went into another version. I don’t remember meat in ours, though there was a little ground pork in the cabbage rolls, or holubchi. And sweet plums in a dessert version, heavenly with sour cream (though I love smetana, a little more like crème fraîche, and I wonder if I’m remembering correctly that in the Czech Republic, smetana was a sweet cream rather than tangy? ). At the evening meal, for which all this womanly work was directed, our plates were piled high with plump dumplings, yellow with butter, flecked with green onions, and glazed with sour cream. If we didn’t count the number we ate, our aunts did. Gluttony was encouraged. We were good children if we went back for another plateful, then another. We reclined under the trees in the backyard afterwards, holding our stomachs in awe.

Every year, often about now, John and I head for the road, taking the Crowsnest Highway to Osoyoos where we settle into the Sandy Beach Resort. One day is spent visiting our favourite wineries—Tinhorn Creek, Wild Goose, and Desert Hills—and eating lunch at Miradoro (at Tinhorn Creek); it probably has the most stunning view of any restaurant anywhere. You sit on the deck and look out to the hills on the other side of the valley and almost every time we’ve been there, a thunderstorm has passed by quickly, lightning stitching hill to hill, the air filled with the scent of rain on dry rock. Another day is spent driving to Grand Forks, with a stop in Greenwood for coffee at the Copper Eagle. (Best cinnamon buns ever.) A stop in Midway—McMynn’s Store— for flour from the Heritage Mills in Rock Creek (because we’ve never yet found the mill itself open but their flours are worth the drive). And lunch at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Their borscht is Doukhobor-inspired and it’s wonderful, though nothing like the borscht we had at home when I was growing up.  I’ve written about that here and I know I’m repeating myself but isn’t that what food is about? Trying to capture a moment which itself is a distillation of memory, of history, of necessity and comfort?

solid geometry

A favourite winter pleasure: reading old New Yorkers in the hot-tub. And the one I chose at random,  from March 4, 2013, was purchased (almost certainly) at an airport enroute to Tennessee to take part in some literary events, after which we went on to New York. I remember reading Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful review of the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick Collection, illustrated with this:

virgin-and-child-enthroned-with-four-angels

And we spent a morning at the Frick, looking at the paintings. This one, well, I agree completely with Schjeldahl when he says, “The work is only three and a half feet high, but it feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate, as if it were addressing you alone. It’s a kind of art that may change lives.”

Yes, it could change a life. You could look those calm faces and know that the world would change. They knew it. The infant reaching for the rose with its thorns, his palm already prepared, as we are prepared. The mother all-knowing. I’m not a Christian — I’ve said that before — but this painting contains so much of the iconography and the sorrow that is the groundwork of Western civilization. It’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Piero is a painter I’ve long admired. There is such solidity in his work. In reading about him over the past few days, I was somehow not surprised to find out that he wrote several treatises on mathematics: Abacus Treatise (Trattato d’Abaco), Short Book on the Five Regular Solids (Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regularibus) and On Perspective for Painting (De Prospectiva Pingendi). You can tell he’s paid attention to structure and perspective in this work. I was curious enough to try to find (translated) texts of his treatises but haven’t been successful so far. I did find a book about them, by Margaret Daly Davis, and it’s interesting reading. Much of Piero’s original writing, particularly his work on solid geometry, was absorbed into the writing of others, notably Luca Pacioli. And that might make a good winter’s project, to read and puzzle through this material. When you see this

piero-drawing

you realize why the architectural elements in the paintings are so compelling.

Years ago, we built a house. John did the drawings — and this was before computers, before software to help a draftsperson to see the solid geometry of a structure in virtual space. He drew on big sheets of paper and had them blue-printed. We still have them somewhere (part of a poet’s archive?). I couldn’t “see” the rooms he promised I’d love. I couldn’t look at the one-dimensional drawings and imagine a windowsill for plants, a corner for a bed, the space our bodies would occupy in time, over time. But he could. Somehow we got from this:

long ago.jpg

to this:

looking.jpg

to this:

home.jpg

Peter Schjeldahl describes a road trip in his youth, hanging onto a friend who drove a Vespa through Tuscany, so the two of them could see Piero’s paintings in the places they were created for — frescoes in Arezzo, the “Madonna del Parto” in a cemetery chapel in Monterchi. He said, “In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.” I understand that. Looking at the paintings in the Frick, and today looking at as many online as I can find (not the same thing at all, I know, but on a winter day on the Sechelt peninsula, this is what’s available to me), I want to do something larger than myself, something outside myself. I’m not putting it very well but I’m hoping there’s an equation in Piero’s treatise on solid geometry that might help me find a direction.

keeping time

Yesterday I was returning to my car after a meeting in Madeira Park and I stood at the school fence for a few moments, watching children race around the field in a kind of wild disarray. Sports Day! I remember the same field, the same June sunlight, more than 25 years ago, as my own children completed the obstacle race, the relay, then lined up for hot dogs and dixie cups. As I turned from the field, I heard someone — a mother almost certainly — call to another, Who’s keeping time?

Good question. Who keeps it, tries to keep it, where does it go? I’m reading The Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, by Jessa Gamble. It’s a clearly-written examination of the biological clock and circadian rhythms and I’m hoping it can help me to figure out the notion of metaphysical time — its accumulation, its disappearance, reappearance, its questions and riddles. I think about it and then I don’t. But last night, after putting the book aside, I was awake for ages, trying to puzzle my way through an essay I’m currently working on. Family history again, ancient history, with its clutter of names and dates and missing elements. A passage from a recent New Yorker article has found its way into my consciousness and at times it feels like a guide:

“Scientists have sought for centuries to explain how animals, particularly migratory species, find their way with awesome precision across the globe…Dragonflies and monarch butterflies follow routes so long that they die along the way; their great-grandchildren complete the journey.” (from “How Do Animals Keep from Getting Lost?” M. R. O’Connor, May 28, 2016 New Yorker)

In Drumheller in April, I thought I’d be able to find my way to the very place where my grandmother stood in the doorway, children around her feet, to look out at her new surroundings, buckets waiting to be filled. I thought I’d know the smell of the earth, the soil that my father ran through in bare feet, and whose dust rose in summer to settle on laundry hung out to dry, on the surfaces of tables by open windows. I thought I’d know it. Recognize the wind. But instead we drove each wide street as though in a foreign country. Following clear and detailed instructions, we missed the turn to the cemetery and had to ask an Asian woman in the uniform of a fast food outlet, walking home with her head down. She was helpful with her hands, though her English was poor. As my grandparents’ English was rudimentary, even after 40 years in Canada. How many generations of dragonflies and monarch butterflies? How many generations of children buried among their own babies in the Drumheller Cemetery (that whoosh of time again), which we eventually found, decoding the map and the narrow lanes among the dead. How many buried until the language of grief flowed smooth and clear in the vowels of the new country? Gone, the palatalizations, fricatives, and trills of Central and Eastern Europe, the stops, the lost aspirates. Did I ever speak to them, apart from the urgings of my parents to thank them for gifts or to tell my age yet again, a girl among her brothers, arranged by height, each of us self-conscious in the summer heat, the long drive behind us and the promise of our cousins ahead. The promise of the Exhibition, each with a dollar in our pockets.

Who’s keeping time? Who is this woman — a photo found in my grandfather’s travel documents (the passbook that said he was travelling alone and had no right of return) —  and where did the last chapter of her own migration complete itself? If it ever did?

single woman

life lists

My son Forrest keeps a life list of water bodies he’s been swimming in — written down? I’m not sure. But certainly remembered, and recited when asked… Rivers, lakes, various oceans and seas. Ponds. I know people keep life lists of birds, species ticked off, trips taken to far-flung backyards where something unexpected has shown up, attracting twitchers with their binoculars and field guides. Maybe we all do this — keep lists of beloved things. Lately, for me, it’s been novellas. I recently read Kent Haruf’s last book, Our Souls At Night, and even though it’s advertised as a novel, I’d argue that it’s a fine example of a novella. It’s brief, very self-contained, and even its physical presentation is ideally suited to the novella form. Calling it a novella doesn’t diminish it in my eyes. It elevates it. I love novels and read at least two a week. But novellas appeal to the poet in my heart and mind. I’m drawn to the good ones for similar reasons to those so intelligently articulated by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker a few years ago:

The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.

My novella, Patrin, is on its way to me now. Maybe it’ll arrive in today’s mail. I’m eager to see if it looks the way I hope it will look. I spent a lot of time working with the finished copy in a pdf and I love how the designer Setareh Ashfologhalai echoed some of the book’s themes in her page design. Dropped caps and little graphic elements. And I am so grateful to the publisher Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing for devoting time and attention to every detail of the book’s editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, and design.

Mother Tongue also published one of the titles I’d include on my life list of novellas. It’s Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore. I have it on my desk right now. I reviewed it last year for the Malahat Review and here’s what I said about it.

Gillian Wigmore, Grayling (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2014). Paperbound, 114 pp., $16.95.

Consider the novella. For decades the form enjoyed respectability, a place of honourGrayling on the lists of many publishers. No one apologized for the brevity of, oh, Death in Venice or The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Few lamented that a novella wasn’t as lengthy and complicated as War and Peace, that the printed volume didn’t include a family tree spanning centuries. The contemporary European literary tradition includes the novella as a matter of common sense: I think of the Peirene Press and Sylph Editions with their devotion to the marriage between text and design. There’s been a fair amount of spirited debate about the parameters of the novella. It’s generally agreed that the optimum length is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words, but there are exceptions. I’d argue that James Joyce’s The Dead is a novella, though at roughly 15,000 words, it’s short. Still, it has the dramatic tension, the scope, the unity of place and subject, and its language is beautifully condensed and elliptical—all qualities I associate with the form. In 2012, Ian McEwan wrote (in The New Yorker), “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days).” Thirteen years ago I published a novella with a small Canadian publisher willing to include it on a list with several other novellas, printed as small books and priced accordingly. Recently I was told that, alas, a novella is no longer a viable form to market in today’s economic climate. So I was delighted to receive a copy of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, with its gorgeous cover (by Annerose Georgeson) and French flaps enclosing a book perfectly sized to suit its contents. The publisher makes no apologies (and honestly, why should she? Do presses make excuses for slim collections of poetry?), but instead celebrates the form.

Graylings narrative is closely located within a specific landscape—northern British Columbia, near the Yukon border. The protagonist, Jay, has driven to a remote area along the Cassiar Highway in order to put his canoe into the Dease River; he is planning to paddle for several days to Lower Post where his truck will be waiting. With some hastily assembled gear and a single lesson on a parking lot, he hopes to fly-fish for grayling, a species of freshwater fish belonging to the salmon family, and native to the Arctic and Pacific drainages. Tiny graphic images of these fish swim along the lower pages of the novella, to remind us where we are and what we should be alert to.

The Dease is liminal space for Jay. Having recently undergone surgery for a testicular tumour, he is also recovering from a broken relationship. He has given up his job and his home. His journey down the river is intended to bring him not only to Lower Post but also to a new way of living. The river is a threshold, a crossing. He experiences it in his body as a pulse, a rhythm. “His mind went ahead, trying to imagine the current and the obstacles and the rapids he would encounter. His heart felt raw, beating harder than it should for the effort he exerted pulling the water and pushing the paddle forward through the air.”

When Julie pulls Jay from the canoe at a primitive campsite and warms his hypothermic body, the reader is as surprised as Jay. Who is she and how did she arrive in such a far-flung place? When she joins him on the river, she unsettles his balance. As she pulls one prize after another from her pack—wine, cheese, basil, fresh noodles, and even a bottle of single-malt—and engages Jay in discussions of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” it becomes increasingly clear that she is as mythic as the woman in that song. No tea and oranges, but coffee and croissants, and a perfectly ripe cantaloupe are brought from the bottom of her packsack. (“She lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover….”) And of course there are the grayling, which Julie, who has never fished before, keeps pulling from the river and which Jay ties to the painter for a future dinner. “They’re beautiful—silver and blue and iridescent—and they have a tall dorsal fin that stretches out like a sail.”

Grayling begs for a map, perhaps printed on the endpapers, so that the reader wouldn’t have to balance a road atlas on a lap while reading. You want to follow the journey, tracing your finger across the blue scribble of river, pausing at certain turns. Here’s the Dease River Resort; this must be French Creek. This novella is riparian: “the hum of cicadas in the heat…red-winged blackbirds in the marsh,” and that small scribble of grayling swimming along the bottom of each page. And Grayling is a poet’s novella, written with the care and attention a fine writer brings to language, to timing, and to the unfolding of story across a wild terrain. Even its cryptic conclusion—those wolf-tracks mingling with human footprints; Julie’s packsack emptied of its surprises—is satisfying, in the way a poem can continue to play in the mind long after one puts it aside: a grayling on a hook, spinning the river’s length.

small dishes of heavenly food

Dinner last night at Pintxo, small dishes of heavenly food in the Spanish or Basque style. Octopus stuffed with crab-meat, tiny Atlantic oysters with a surf of pureed celeriac, beef carpaccio with Manchego cheese, a lovely sardine marinated in something bright, and so on. A candlelit room, perfect service.

pintxo
ours was the little table on the right, by the window…

 

We walked back in the cold night to our warm bed at the Gingerbread Manor. And I missed having a book to read at bedtime. I packed the New Yorker food issue and it’s great but I’m thinking longingly of Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country waiting on the bedside table at Forrest and Manon’s house in Ottawa. Somehow I never read this during my long infatuation with Stegner (I count Wolf Willow among my all-time favourite books) and I began it the other day with such pleasure. Years ago our family lived in Utah for a winter when John was a visiting poet at Brigham Young University. It was our first encounter with Mormon culture and I was fascinated by both the sense of community we found there but also the differences between us and them. We drank wine, we drank coffee (still do!), we didn’t believe in God (still don’t!), and the notion of top-down authority (usually male) didn’t sit well with me (still doesn’t). But the kindness and generosity of the people we lived amongst was wonderful and I loved their sense of the importance of family stories to help anchor an individual within the community.

I always have a big pile of books at hand and this morning I’m feeling a little bereft. I’ve read Adam Gopnik’s account of the battle between the cronut and the pretzel croissant (only in New York!) and Dana Goodyear’s article about elite meat and I want something more substantial — a novel or more Stegner. At home I recently read Richard Flanagan’s brilliant The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Fred Stenson’s Who by Fire which changes forever the way I’ll think about oil and farming. And Olivia Laing’s harrowing analysis of writers and their relationship to alcohol, The Trip to Echo Spring. (I loved John Berryman’s Dream Songs as a young writer and the account of his final years was so sad.)

In a little while we’ll pull our suitcases through Montreal’s snowy streets to the train station. We’re heading to Quebec City for a few days before returning to Ottawa on Friday where Brendan, Cristen, and baby Kelly will join us all for the weekend. And I can finish Mormon Country, a rich and evocative read…

wild and pruned

I’ve written three books that are autobiographical in nature. Two of them are collections of personal essays which explore family stories, the natural world, history, and landscape. And one of them — Mnemonic: A Book of Trees — does those things too but through a particular lens, using a structure which provides a (loose) through-line. The book is a memory grove and the narrative takes place among trees past and present, wild and pruned.

I’m not a user of social media, apart from this irregular blog. Mostly it’s because I don’t understand the parameters. And I don’t much like the language.  Twitter, “friend” used as a verb… About a month ago I asked my daughter to help me set up a Facebook page, thinking that I was somehow not participating the cultural conversation. Within an hour I had many friends. I had messages. I looked at photographs. Every time I walked by my desk, I’d think, “Oh, I wonder what’s new with my Facebook friends?” I’d check. I still hadn’t learned the code about status updates or likes or any of that so I was a bit confused but I realized that one could waste spend a lot of time in the Facebook world.  That night I was awake for hours wondering what on earth I’d done. So I got up in the wee hours and did whatever one does to unsubscribe or unjoin Facebook. I felt such relief! We all have a line in the sand, I guess, and who knew this would be mine? I think it’s my metabolism. I want long relationships, in person, or conversations on the phone. I want to walk with my friends or give them dinner, not *heart* something they’ve said on Facebook. But I also realize that I’m very much among the minority in this respect.

I really enjoyed a recent piece in the New Yorker: “A Memoir is not a Status Update”, by Dani Shapiro. She writes of the difference between living out loud on Facebook, “sharing” every breath we take,  and the methodical work at the heart of writing a memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/memoir-status-update

For the past two years I’ve been working on an extended work of non-fiction, a memoir of sorts, and it’s a very slow process indeed. One frayed thread takes me to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic, one tangled thread to Bukovina and the dense information in the metrical records of my grandfather’s village, one sad thread to Cape Breton Island, and one to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics. And then there’s the actual thread, the spools of cotton I use to stitch together the quilt that accompanies this work.

“We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

I get a little notice on the sidebar of the screen I use to compose these posts, asking me to refresh my connection to Facebook. But I’m not going to, not yet. I think it’s more important to keep my attentions focused on that slow deliberation, on the basket of thread I sort through regularly to see what colours I have to work with and what I might need in the future.

log cabin

 

 

 

 

An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:

http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2013/12/09/what-is-this-thing-called-novella/

Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:

inish2

 

And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”

the novella

I’ve always loved the novella, even before I knew what it was, how it differed from a full-length novel, a short story. So it was marvellous to find this piece by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/some-notes-on-the-novella.html#entry-more

This is so right, so true: “Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.”

As a reader, I appreciate the entry into that world, so complete and contained somehow. And as a writer, I treasure the making of that world. It seems to me that the writing of a novella is a bit like musical composition, developing a theme and modulating it over time, space, keeping the language concise and taut, then introducing lyrical variations on the main theme.

The first long piece of fiction I wrote was a novella called Inishbream. I wrote it when I was 23, trying to find a form to contain the music, the landscape, the weather, and the human interactions of the period I lived on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The Barbarian Press published it in three states — all of them gorgeous —  in 1999, illustrated by the great American wood-engraver John DePol. Here’s one image from the book:

And then in 2001, Goose Lane Editions published it as a lovely small trade edition, with John DePol’s images on the cover and the titlepage.

Last week I began a new novella and have been immersed, again, in the pleasures of the form. I see it as a companion piece to Winter Wren, a novella I finished last year. I don’t have any illusions about their “marketability”.  But I wouldn’t trade the daily exhilaration of sitting at my desk and finding my way into a cosmos contained in less than 100 pages for anything.