July 17, 2011

The End (of the Fish) of the Story

As I work my way through The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis — a collection that makes clear just how literal the "short" in "short story" can be — I'm still wrestling with the idea that a paragraph, let alone an incomplete sentence, can constitute a short story.

In interviews, people have approached Davis with similar concerns. She invariably responds that she wouldn't know what else these works of fiction might be: they're stories. It's like those paintings that people who don't "get" modern art (myself included) think a kindergartner could create by accident. Like those paintings, Lydia Davis's stories seem deceptively simple; some of them read like fleeting thoughts that Davis might have jotted down on the bus. Still, they're the thoughts of a deeply intelligent woman, which makes them harder to replicate than one might think.

I suspect most writers have at least one food that serves as their muse. It seems like Davis has a thing for fish. The following is not an excerpt — it's the whole story:
She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her — there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.
--"The Fish", Lydia Davis
After reading this, I really wanted to eat some fish. I don't know why; the fish in the story doesn't sound very appetizing. But perhaps this woman's first "irrevocable mistake" was choosing to cook a whole fish. This can be somewhat daunting and I personally prefer fillets because there is nothing staring back at you from the plate — just delicious, eyeless flesh. Mmmm.

Speaking of irrevocable mistakes, do not botch a perfectly nice salmon fillet by overcooking it. You might as well spend your money on canned tuna. Guard against this sad fate by selecting a fattier fillet from the belly area. If you see lots of white marbling, that's a good indication that it's less likely to dry out.

Asian Oven-Poached Salmon
3-5 large leaves of Napa cabbage, chopped into large chunks
1 lb. salmon fillet
1 tbsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 375 °F. Spray an 8x8 square baking pan with cooking spray. Lay the leaves of cabbage along the bottom of the pan. Set the salmon fillet on top. Whisk the other ingredients together and pour over the salmon. Cover the pan loosely with foil and bake for 20 min. Check if the fish is done - it may need a few more minutes, but make sure you don't overbake it.

July 10, 2011

sisterly epistles

"Almost nobody it seems ever thinks — thinks deeply and intensely and in complete forgetfulness of himself — of any other person. We are all, or nearly all, of us, so centered in ourselves; we see nothing except as it touches ourselves, what its effect upon us might be. I know almost nobody who is really capable of complete forgetfulness of himself, even for a minute, in the troubles of another. — Which is why your letter, so full of thinking yourself into two other people's lives so empty of yourself, is such a lovely thing."
--Edna St. Vincent Millay's letter to her sister, Norma
Letters is a funny word. So is 'news'. News is new; a letter is letters...actually, letters, arranged into words, arranged into sentences — all of which are arranged in such a way that they are capable of bringing comfort, despair, joy. Sometimes boredom, too.

The other night when I had trouble sleeping, I dug up some old e-mails from my sister, who wrote wonderful letters to me in college. Now that we live together, we don't write to each other anymore, but sometimes I miss it. E-mails have become a bore in my life. There's nothing quite like receiving a nice, fat, juicy letter (or e-mail) from someone you care about.

A.S. Byatt wrote in Possession, "I love to see the hop and skip and sudden starts of your ink...." Maybe she and her sister (Margaret Drabble) wrote letters to each other, too. Edit: Looks like they're estranged.