The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

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Collected Stories of Garbriel Garcia Marquez

Collected StoriesCollected Stories by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“‘What I like about you,’ she said, ‘is the serious way you make up nonsense.'” –Innocent Eréndira from, “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”

Eréndira’s quote is for her lover, Ulises, but it is what every reader who has ever fallen in love with Garbriel Garcia Márquez’ writing wished he or she had stated about him. For me, this quote sums up my feelings about Márquez. Whenever I pick up his texts, I prepare myself for the most serious nonsense in Literature, and I have not been disappointed.

I came across Márquez’ short stories only after reading 100 Years of Solitude some months ago, and only after reading 100 Years did I notice Márquez’ name in my Literature Anthology, Literature: A Pocket Anthology, and promptly added his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” to the syllabus of my English 220: 20th Century Literature course. Unfortunately, my students were not as thrilled with Márquez as I, but my passion and interest must have been quite visible; and this is all I ask of myself in the classroom.

Since that first reading, I have re-read that story three times. The second time was out loud to a friend—the very person who ignited my interest in Márquez (she had not read any of Márquez’ short stories). And the last time was during my reading of these collected stories (I couldn’t resist reading it again). I won’t analyze each story—I’ll leave that for someone else—but I will say this: you can feel Márquez’ arc of writing as you progress through this collection. I was lost in the first 5-6 stories, comprising the first section “Eyes of A Blue Dog”. They felt like an assault on my comprehension of what a short story should be; they seemed more like very long poems or digressions. But once Márquez stories became ensconced in the locale of Macondo (the infamous city of 100 Years) with “Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo,” then the stories took off.

Nearly half the stories in the second section, “Big Mama’s Funeral,” touched on a minor character or unexplored theme of 100 Years, and in this section is where you can see Márquez magic realism come to life. I imagined these tales as either addendum’s or the tempered beginnings to 100 Years; and although these stories exist well upon their own, they are far richer when you are aware of the history of the town’s inhabitants.

Each story in the third section, the title story of the intro quote, is a dream. It is like a moving Picasso painting. It begins with “A Very Old Man,” which sets the reader up for intense “serious nonsense”. The next story, “The Sea of Lost Time” is absolutely magical. There is no other word for it but Magical. The cast of characters that weave in and out of these tales are simply wonderful, and like the reader, they simply must accept all fantastical things that come there way. These stories must be far less enjoyable for those who do not accept the authority of the author. If he writes that an angel appeared in this normal couple’s back yard, then it must be. It is only when the reader accepts these notions that he/she is allowed to function in Márquez’ world. Without accepting just one crazy phenomenon, then none of the others are possible; so, one must accept them all with eyes wide open and inhabit a wonderfully magical and folkloric world.

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Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“It had never occurred to him until then to think that literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people…” (388).

This was the first book I have read by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, by way of a recommendation from a friend who wished to spark my interest in the literary genre of Magical Realism. Honestly, this is one of the most fantastical novels I have ever read. I can only compare it to what a narrative reading of Genesis must be like in its attempt to explain age, time and familial relation in fantastical ways. What I mean by that is, Márquez has a way of solidifying the fantastical (I’m going to be using that word a lot, so brace yourself), while daring you to not believe his story.

I think at this point in the review a quote is necessary. Well, wait a minute. Let’s start here: This story involves the erection and eventual annihilation of a town (Macondo) in the middle of nowhere, the rise to infamy and the falling from fame of a single family (the Buendia’s), and, as my interpretation warrants, the affliction that modernity has on the magical elements of life. I think that is a basic plot summary.

I want to focus on one element, and that is Márquez as an author and the way in which the genre of Magical Realism positions itself. In other words, authorial fallibility or intent. The trick is simple, but often misguided: Márquez is the author; therefore, you have to believe him IF you want to enjoy the story. Now, here is where it gets tricky. Márquez, and any other author for that matter, never has to tell a truth; or, in other words, a story that most likely resembles what we have accepted as reality.

When Márquez writes a happening that I, and you, know to be incapable of occurring in our reality, and yet it does in the novel, we must suspend our understanding of reality. This is often a HUGE leap on the part of the reader. For his or her part, the reader must accept a fictional reality inhabited by humans to include mystical explanations. Because of our reliance on science and the burden of empirical truth, these stories often become farcical, read as fables, or morality tales, which are then relegated to the domain of children. But what happens when a story of a world inhabited by adults contains fantastical elements?

Well, what happens is: we often attempt to explain it to fit our reality.

Now a block quote is necessary.

“A trickle of blood came out the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendia house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor… (goes on for another 7 lines) and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread” (131-32).

This isn’t Franz Kafka. No one has woken up as a bug. Rather, it is reality (a person being shot) mixed with fantastical element (that person’s blood finding its way to a relative miles away who would know immediately how to respond); Kafka is often the other way around, fantastical elements challenging reality. What I realized while reading this is something unique about this genre: I have to believe Márquez in order for this story to be enjoyable. If I am unable to suspend my interpretation of reality, then this blood meandering through town can occur. And if that small example is possible, then Márquez can do just about anything with this story, so long as I trust him as an author.

This leads me to the second portion of this already lengthy review that is tied to the first with this notion: the characters must also believe Márquez as an author, and trust him. The characters must NOT question this indefatigable blood. It just must be accepted as a truth that allows the character to, obviously, follow the trail back to the original source. If the character must walk for miles; if they must find a long lost relative, it does not matter. What separates Márquez’ writing from others is his character’s willingness to accept that blood as an occurrence of their reality, not of a supernatural force or omen to be deciphered. It just is.

But what one notices while reading is that the character’s natural assumptions dissipate as the novel proceeds; both as we read and as the time of the novel is imagined. Time slows down as one reads further. In the beginning, a whole paragraph would be an enormous birth, life and tragic death; but later, a chapter becomes a life, or two chapters. This is the main reason I bare it in comparison to Genesis, or a book of biblical proportions.

Interestingly enough, this loss of natural assumptions occurs precisely with the haphazard arrival of modernity. As modernity creeps in to the narrative with its trains, photographs & machine guns, the fantastical elements of the story dwindle in intensity. They do not disappear, but slither away slowly; cowering in an abandoned room. For instance,

“‘We have to bring in the railroad,’ he said.
That was the first time that the word had ever been heard in Macondo… But unlike his forebear, Aureliano Triste did not lose any sleep or appetite nor did he torment anyone with cries of ill humor, but he considered the most harebrained of projects as immediate possibilities, made rational calculations about costs and dates, and brought them off without any intermediate exasperation” (221).

What once took years, now takes months. And with that promise of immediacy comes the loss of something. Whatever it is, is up to you, dear reader, to interpret for yourself. All you have to do is believe.

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Book Review: The Short Stories, by Ernest Hemingway

The Short StoriesThe Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this collection of Ernest Hemingway‘s The Short Stories (2003) up again because I cannot write dialogue. A young Hunter S. Thompson would type Hemingway’s stories out on a typewriter to get the feel of his cadence, his rhythm, and his way of articulation. There is something unique about Hemingway’s writing, and I think that his short stories are one of the best showcases of his particular talent for dialogue and the dramatic, yet stripped-down, crescendo.

As I mentioned, I cannot write dialogue. Many writers cannot. There’s a balance between remaining true to colloquial speech, i.e. what people actually sound like, and filling talk with unfamiliar, or unnatural, dialect, i.e. what you think people should sound like. Hemingway has that ability to remain true to colloquial speech. You see, dialogue doesn’t give away the narrative. Often fictional characters will provide a plot or scene summary through dialogue, but that’s not how we speak, is it? Think back to your last conversation. You probably knew the person, so you didn’t have to mention specifics, like time, place, other people involved, or the issue at hand. You just spoke. Hemingway captures this intimacy well.

My finest example is “Hills Like White Elephants” (my very favorite story in this collection). We assume the topic that the young couple is discussing by the very nature and gravity of the conversation, but the point is that we never know. It’s between them. We are listening. That is the absolute epitome of Hemingway’s aesthetics: No character in the narrative is there to tell us, the reader, what is happening. We have to figure that out ourselves. It is always speculative. (Another perfect example is in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” when Mrs. Macomber returns late one evening after, presumably, having an affair with the tour guide. The dialogue that follows between her and Francis is absolutely perfect as it is stripped of a water-downed, cliché, overly dramatic, explanatory history of this couple that we come to expect from a narrative).

There is a second literary achievement within the nature of this colloquial, intimate dialogue. What Hemingway gives the reader is the absence of a climax. Consider “Hills” for a moment. If there were to be a climax there would be a decision reached about the “simple operation” they are discussing. Someone would yield, or acquiesce, and we may even see the event or its aftermath; but, again, that is the point: we are seeing a moment; a fresh moment in all its beautiful commonness, its banality exposed amongst drama. After all, drama doesn’t have a soundtrack, or a minor chord, or a handsome actor’s hair blowing in the wind while they knit their brow; it is in the very small conversations of the everyday. And that’s what Hemingway captures.

I don’t believe most people can stand Hemingway any longer. Our culture is saturated with climactic events and one thousand crescendos that end in triumph. We have no need for the small moments, or the dreaded mistaken speech, or the indistinguishable conversation that lovers have that leaves us out. And that’s fine. There is no nostalgia here; only a wanna-be-writer with a grave appreciation for the fastidious beauty of intimate dialogue. Maybe I should buy a typewriter and start re-typing “Hills”? We shall see…

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Book Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenBrief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Two things:
1) I did not finish this book, and
2) I did enjoy his style, but this book is not for me.

So, if you feel comfortable with those two things, then read on.

I can see why people like, love, and praise David Foster Wallace. Really, I can. But this had to be one of the most trying, boring and tedious collection of stories I have ever read. Ok, check that: that’s hyperbole. The only other book I never finished was this awfully boring and obnoxious piece of writing: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Again, probably interesting to someone, e.g. my ‘Rise of the Novel’ professor, just not me. So, there you have it: David Foster Wallace is in the same unfinished pile as this fella: Tobias Smollett.

Many years ago when I bought this book, I thought it would be a quick introduction to Wallace (have you seen the size of Infinite Jest [1996]?). Well, it was. And I am glad I never purchased Infinite Jest. I’m not going to criticize much, because that will be boring for me and you. And, plus, if you are a Wallace fan, then you probably have heard all the criticism. Too post modern. Too little punctuation. Too many footnotes. WAY too cynical. Yeap. Yeap. Yeap. And, yeap. I think Wallace is an innovator in his use of style, but it’s just not for me. As he puts it in “Octet”: “the cycle is just a cute formal exercise in interrogative structure and S.O.P. metatext” (Brief Interviews 147). Yeap. That’s what this reader got from it.

I think my criticism is fair: I didn’t care about any one of the characters in these stories. At all. And that’s what fiction should be for me: a darn good story. Style should not take precedence, thus sacrificing the narrative. Style should be there, of course, but it should not be intrusive. And Wallace’s style is overtly intrusive.

From what I read, for Wallace, fiction is a vehicle to practice how many ways you can creatively refer to the narrator, or to the person to whom they are speaking. For example, if there are two people talking and you constantly remind the reader who is being referred to, then you are either a) trying to be obnoxiously fatuous, or b) think the reader is incapable of keeping track (see, “The Depressed Person” and “Octet”). I tend toward the former. All this “fourth wall” business and “metatext” stuff is nice, but if I want theory talk, then I’ll go to Fredric Jameson, Jasbir Puar, Theodor Adorno, or Roland Barthes.

I don’t read fiction to have the author didactically explain theory. I read fiction to see the aesthetic practice of theory.

Oh, I gave it one star because that rating is defined as “didn’t like it”. And, well, I didn’t like it.

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