Spring is coming. Allegedly. Right now, it feels like the worst winter I ever experienced in California: cold rain whipping against the windows, clouds so thick and so gray for so long you start to forget the sky was ever blue. In the interest of my own sanity, I thought I'd look for some proof of past springs here in the wild north.
Almost three years ago, Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to the historic old town of Fredrikstad, about an hour south of Oslo by train. As you can see, it was a bright, sunny day. (Proof!) A tourist's Scandinavian delight.
The Gamlebyen (Old Town) is the center of a fortress and has been impressively preserved. Rather than taking a small ferry across the river from the train station (couldn't find the docks!), we braved traffic and walked across the long, modern bridge. Soon enough, we were passing through the 16th century stone main gate and onto the cobbled streets of old Fredrikstad.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Weighing in at over 800 pages, The Luminaries confounded my expectations over and over again. This is a mystery involving more than a dozen central characters, offered up within the context of historical fiction (the gold rushes in New Zealand in the 1860s). That, and the 2013 Man Booker Prize sticker on its cover, summed up how much I knew about The Luminaries before I began the book last month. I waded in, putting aside my reservations about the volume's heft, because I wanted to know how it had beaten out Jhumpa Lahiri's nomination for the same award (The Lowland). Less than one hundred pages in, I had my answer.
The majority of the characters in this book are male. Every one of them is distinct in physical presentation, personal motivation, and voice. Allowing herself ample time and room to stretch her storylines, Catton made certain that any character she introduced would be essential and, more importantly, memorable. Because the plot is a knot. Because the stars aligned so that these men (and a pair of equally important women) collided, and it is up to the reader to sort things out.
Such sorting is no chore when guided by the steady, confident, divining rod of Eleanor Catton's authorial hand. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire 800 pages. Murder, theft, fraud, exploitation, and blackmail course through the veins of this story, and, impossibly, it never became tedious.
Occasionally I would lift my eyes from the pages and run through the "facts of the case" in my head, ticking off the characters from my interior list, to make sure I was on the right track. But I didn't unravel the knot early, nor did I furrow my brow with fatigue. I wanted to dive back in. There was enough beauty, enough historical information, and enough movement between times and vantage points to keep my interest fresh. There was also enough uniqueness to the individual characters to invite my personal inclination to their stories and subplots, too.
I think that's what impressed me most: the consistency of voice, intrepid and intriguing in the third-person point of view. It never wavers. The narrator is omniscient and discriminating and patient. Catton's descriptions of the gold camps and mining towns reminded me of something I might have read by Dickens or Tolstoy, due to the scope of her vision and her articulation of the details in each scene. She breathed life into the diggers and the opium eaters and the whoremongers and the landlords and the shipping magnates and the sea captains. She underscored the circumstances of indentured Chinese workers, the Maori people, the camp prostitutes, and the convicts. For 800 pages, I lived in a New Zealand mining town, and when I closed the book in the end, I hated to shake the mud from my boots and leave that place behind me.
Here is what The Luminaries wasn't: heavy-handed, cheap, titillating, slow, expected, or easy. Twenty-eight year old Eleanor Catton has my unabashed admiration for imagining and executing this book, one that, had it been written by a man, would have been lifted up as another example of "masculine" literature. Instead, it is evidence of all that literature can accomplish in excellence without any consideration of the author's gender. It is progress manifested. It is an achievement for author and reader alike. I'm proud to own it and, one day, will be eager to read it again.
I came this close to letting a full month go by without a post here. I came this close to allowing my blog to become stagnant, to appear abandoned. Whew! Here I am again, just in time.
All kinds of excuses over here. Good ones, too. We were on vacation in Spain (which I'll blog soon, I promise), and then my best friend took a break from her first-time-expat-life in Malmö to visit us here in Oslo for a week, too. This was a treat for me! Cindy has been here once before, but this trip was a lot less touristy. She got to see a typical few days of life in Norway. It went something like this:
Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. (The little stick-dudes are awfully cute though, right?)
A typical day in Norwegian life actually includes things like parkas, snow on the rooftops, ice in the streets, brodder og pigger (and sometimes choosing not to wear this marvelous invention, which inevitably leads to falling on one's tush in the aforementioned icy streets). Also, stuffing your scarf into the sleeve of your parka when you stow it for the night, and mournfully rubbing your bruised flesh as you crawl into bed, pulling your individual down comforter up to your chin.
In case you hadn't guessed: I fell on the ice while my pal was in town. Embarrassing and painful. And I'll let it go when I have full range of motion in my right shoulder and thumb again. *whine*
But my typical days in Oslo also include work (writing and website/social media consulting), laundry, making dirty dishes clean again... temporarily, sweeping, grocery shopping, cooking. You know, domestic glamor.
That's right. In the middle of my third Norwegian winter, I'm ready to call myself a pro. (Which is a little ridiculous, but let's go with it anyway. It's my blog.) A couple of my closest friends recently moved from sunny, drought-addled California to Malmö, Sweden. In January. (What, are they nuts?) So, I thought I'd pass along some of my hard-earned California-expat-in-the-far-north wisdom and make their transition easier. Hopefully, it helps you, too!
Candles: Tapers, sticks, votives, pillars... you'll want them all. They fight the darkness and make life instantly more cozy. That said, cheap candles burn more quickly, so you'll want to begin paying attention to how much you're spending on candles in relation to how long they burn. I'm not exaggerating when I say that, for basically the whole month of December, I've got at least one candle glowing in my house. We've discovered that at least one Norwegian brand will burn three times longer than the rest, and though they are twice as expensive, we still save money in the end. (This took us two years to realize. Slow learners on the slow burners.)
Dry Skin: Holy Dead Flakes, Batman! Winter makes your skin dry out! Two things. Chapstick This is an easy sell for the ladies. Most of us have this on hand anyway. But our men aren't crazy about smearing waxy stuff on their lips, so the amount of chapping can be severe, particularly for lips uninitiated to the cold. This makes them a fraction less kissable. Unscented Burt's Bees chapstick works well for us. Carmex is also an option. Moisturizer I also recommend that you invest in some excellent moisturizer and add it to your routine every time you wash your face (and/or exfoliate). I use mine year-round, but that's addiction. Clinique Youth Surge with 15 SPF is my preference.
Paris is widely acknowledged as a city for lovers, but this September I visited with my mom. She flew in from San Francisco, and I flew down from Oslo for the rendezvous. Experiencing Paris with a gal pal is vastly different from visiting the same city on the arm of your husband/boyfriend/lover anyway, but we had an added bonus. Mom and I are very much alike. (Heredity, you see.) We love architecture and landscape paintings and striped shirts and ice cream and river walks and accordion music, so you might even say we are lovers of a good French time! And when we were at our leisure to choose activities or prioritize the sights, our list immediately took on a rose-colored hue. Here are a few of the delightful things we did in Paris between the usual list of tourist check boxes:
Taking a spin on le carousel de la Tour Eiffel...
When it's hotter than Hades in Paris, you've got to make your own breeze. It didn't take much coaxing to get Mom to ride Le Carousel de la Tour Eiffel with me. I'm sure we looked a little silly, posing for photos and hanging onto our pony-and-zebra combo for dear life, but it did the trick.
Cruising the Seine and sipping vin blanc...
Another ploy to escape the scorching weather in the City of Light, we purchased tickets on one of the many, many, many river cruises and spent an hour on the water. As part of the package, we sipped white wine and listened to the pre-recorded tourist history of each bridge we passed beneath.
Tasting gelato in the Jardin des Tuileries...
Slick with sweat and giddy with delight, we walked through the gardens, trying to stay in the shade. When we saw the gelato cart, we almost broke into a run. The lemon gelato I enjoyed that day, served in the shape of a rose, was only one of the many delicious desserts sampled on our Paris trip. Others included crème brûlée and chocolate éclair.
I delegated the writing of our Christmas card to Crypto this year, and she was full of her customary snark, but hopefully it will give you a giggle, dear friends. That's what this season is all about. Warmth and fun and friendship and making sure we don't forget to cherish auld acquaintance.
Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I love it when life looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like fiction. When I stumble upon something (or someone) so perfectly proportioned, so quizzical and memorable, that it couldn't be coincidence. Or fate. Or chance. Or anything true. No. When the hair rises on the back of my neck due to the poetry of a place, a name, or even a set of meteorological elements, it's because, had I found the same stuff between the pages of a book, I would be in awe of the craft of it. The intention of a creator. At random, these perfections in an imperfect world make me look up and say thank you.
I'm not making any sense, huh? Here's an example:
Yesterday, I was doing some research. My serendipitous journey began with an essay titled The Lives of Girls and Women: The Writing of Alice Munro. This essay, originally published by The Center for Fiction had been reprinted by the VIDA blog. It caught my eye because Alice Munro won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, and while I have read and enjoyed one of her short story collections (Runaway), I'm curious to read more from and about this literary heavyweight.
The essay entertained and educated, as good essays are supposed to do. It also forced me to recalibrate my own thinking in a matter of just a few sentences:
"[Munro] is making a political point, one that's radical because it's so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that the lives of girls and women, even of those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as the lives of boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river or hunt whales."
This recalibration is what prompted me to look up the essay's author, Roxana Robinson. She's a successful novelist, and her most recent book, Sparta, is about a young American veteran returning from war in the Middle East. She is also the author of a Georgia O'Keefe biography. All this made me want to contact Ms. Robinson to request an interview with her for The Postmasters Podcast. Unfortunately, she didn't have any personal contact information listed on her website. What she did have was a small regiment of people set up between herself and me. A publicist, an agent, and someone who coordinates speaking events. I decided the publicist was most relevant to my goal, and that's when the magic happened.
Tonight, I couldn't remember all the words to the famous Christmas poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. I tried to recite the thing from memory and failed. When I looked for help from my husband, his answers cracked me up--so far were they from either the truth or, in some cases, common decency. I pulled up the full poem (thank you, Google) and read it aloud, stopping occasionally and allowing him to fill in the blank. The results were too amusing to keep to myself. And so, I present to you now, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas as approximated by Jonathan Camp:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were snuggled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Pamela Anderson danced in their heads.
And mamma in her lover, and I in my cap,
Had just settled in for a long winter's nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a bat outta hell,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
Do you wake up, gaze out your window into the cold pre-dawn, and think, Bummer. Not Christmas yet. Just another ho-hum December day? If so, I've got a remedy!
Observe the season of Advent with a calendar crafted to help you count down the mundane days of this long, dark month until you reach Christmas! What better way to celebrate Advent--to build up the anticipation of Christ's humble birth in a manger--than with twenty-four mornings of candy, gifts, and other commercialized paraphernalia?
No, really. It works great. I create an Advent Calendar for Jonathan each year. Always with a theme. In the past, I've opened his days with 24 Things I Love About You, 24 Disneyland Memories, 24 Photos of Us Around the World. That kind of thing. This year, I decided to do 24 Christmas Jokes! And the jokes I found were so funny, I just had to share them here for you, too. (And by "so funny", I mean that every one of these jokes must be followed by a nudge-nudge... do ya get it? Do ya?)
#1 What is red, white and blue at Christmas time?
A sad candy cane.
#2 What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire?
#3 Why did Santa call in a workplace psychologist?
Because his workers were suffering from low elf-esteem.
#4 What did the gingerbread man put on his bed?
#5 What does Santa say when he walks backward?
Oh, oh, oh...