“Till We Have Faces” – A Review

June 3, 2010

Sorry about the absence folks…sometimes it feels like there are no words left. None to express the everyday horror of living – the mundane. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to hate the mundane, the little details of living – waking, eating, sleeping, and the cycle all over again. I want to wake to endless curiosity and wonder, I want to be surprised by life, and as I get older that isn’t always the case. Things become a little too routine. Even the things that once gave me endless pleasure seem hollow. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to finish a bona fide piece of fiction in ages. Until this weekend, that is.

A good friend of mine walked into my office last Monday with Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. He insisted that I read the book, the implication being that there were lessons I needed to learn. I started off the first couple of pages and was immediately reminded of Colleen McCullough’s Song of Troy – a manifestly awful tome. I know, I know, The Thorn Birds! Spare me. Troy is a pseudo re-writing of Homer’s Illiad. The story remains the same for the most part, except that the characters are all completely unappealing and unsympathetic. Even Hector and Andromache come across as twits, and that’s hard to do. (Anyone remember Tennyson’s amazing Hector’s Farewell to Andromache – now that ‘s what I call art.) Anyhoo, having read the opening pages of Till We Have Faces, I felt I had another Troy on my hands and promptly put the book away. Saturday rolled around and I realized that I needed to take on the challenge of finishing the book. Much to my delight, this novel is nothing like Troy and may even have served as an inspiration for McCullough.

For those of you not familiar with the book, Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Psyche and Eros tale. In this telling of the myth, none of the characters neatly fit the archetypes of hero or villain. The novel focuses on Psyche’s relationship with her eldest sister, Orual, and traces the making of the myth. Narrated in the first person by Orual, the novel switches between angry diatribes to lamentations, with Orual constantly grieving over Psyche and angry at being stuck in the act of living. As this is a C.S. Lewis novel there are plenty of religious themes in the novel, but you don’t have to be a Christian or even religious to respond to the characters’ struggles with accepting the will of the gods.

Upon the first few readings of the novel you’ll be most tempted to side with Orual. She is an undoubtedly sympathetic character, her faults seem so much like our own (or maybe there’s just something really wrong with me), and her virtues those we might wish to aspire to. But the last section of the novel shifts our perception of Orual and it’s possible to understand that Psyche’s tale is just as important as Orual’s, her choices just as difficult, her grief just as great.(Notice that I’m not letting on much? Good, read the book!) Alternative versions of classical myths are constantly being written, but few offer the insightful perspectives to human nature that Lewis does. He captures the depths we can sink to and the heights we will reach to – all for the sake of love. So…I hope you’ll give the book a try and let me know what you think. Are you Orual, Psyche, or both?

(And if you’re wondering about the lessons I was expected to learn from the novel, it has something to do with getting a face.)


Reading aloud a children’s book with an arch nemesis!

September 18, 2009

I recently bought a new book to read to my little one: Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie by Joel Stewart. The artful synopsis on the back is what sold me: a big, blue (my favorite color!!!) beast-like giant eyeing a little boy on a scooter, pointedly telling him “I’m bored. I think I’ll eat you.” Resistance was futile.

Reading to my son is an interesting exercise. I love to read aloud to him, especially at night when he’s curled up in our bed with his bottle, staring avidly at the My Kitty illustrations I read to him every night. It is one of the few times he’ll be still enough for me to be able to point out the words; every other time he’s too busy grabbing it from me and trying to turn the pages. I believe it’s because he thinks of books as little doors – a legitimate way to view a book as a doorway to a new world I guess. Daytime reading is usually me reading to him while he plays around so he can hear the story and see me enjoy the book.

Which is why I love Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie; reading this book aloud is pure enjoyment. I probably have as much fun, if not more, as my son, reading the hard “D’s” and booming “B’s” in their rolling alterations with a faux English accent (I’m compelled! It makes me sound cultured and evil). The Big Blue Beastie is in a perpetual state of boredom and constantly threatening to “eat” our intrepid young hero. Each time, Dexter counters with “Hold on, I have a much better idea” and comes up with various schemes that give him a few moments more (or many moons in storyland time). Thus we have the two frenemies scooting around on scooters, running a successful flower delivery business (complete with shares and the stock market), becoming famed private detectives called “Bexley & Beastie” (solving the case of the “The Rubber Glove Affair” and capturing arch nemesis Professor Horten Zoar, “although he later escaped”), creating the largest beast-iest yogurt sundae, and (finally) sharing lollipops.

When reading to a child, especially at night, I find there are certain rules that make it an enjoyable experience for both parties.

  1. There needs to by a rhythm to the writing, otherwise what’s the point of reading aloud? Alliterations, assonance, consonance, rhymes and repetition are great stylistic devices, and are wonderful to the ears.
  2. The book should be a reasonable length. The My Kitty book is only 5 pages long (remember, my child is only 1!), which is perfect as the final book for the day. It is to wind him down and lull him to sleep. Dexter Bexley is 36 pages which is why I read it to him during the day.
  3. The illustrations should be vibrant. When you leave the books lying around, and when you pause during your recitation, you want your child to want to look at the pictures.
  4. Enjoy The Book. Enjoy Reading Aloud.

– manals


The Definitive Guide to Faking ‘Domestic Goddess’ Status

September 7, 2009

alatAl goes on…

feather dusterI love cleaning house. Well not so much cleaning as the feeling of satisfaction after I’m done. That’s the kick. I could go on for hours until somebody forcibly yanks me away from my duster and holds me down until the withdrawal symptoms pass. My nearest and dearest think I’m a tad OCPD inflicted. I tell them they’re just being silly as I wipe them down with my special home-made lint roller made from an empty kitchen towel roll and masking tape.

Not to say that my house is always clean: Aside from being a clean freak, I’m also an authentic expert procrastinator. Which means that I go through binges and purges of mess then order. Then mess again. More often, like most normal people (I hope), it’s mess…Until my (somewhat sometimes excessively) social husband’s impromptu ‘hey yeah, we’re home, come on over’ type phone calls, which results in the classic scenario where I either:

a) Do nothing and risk exposing myself as the slob that I really am, and I’m sure you can relate. (If you tell me you can’t, I’m pretty sure you’re lying)

b) Get into a mad frenzy of flash freakish housekeeping… and live up to my artificial ‘domestic goddess’ standing amongst my friends

I inevitably opt for b), and have devised a formula that I will share with you here. PS. No point in asking the husband for help, he’ll think “it’s all fine anyway!”

Scenario 1: They haven’t seen you in ages and want to catch up – they’ll be over in half an hour

Dilemma: Living room’s a mess
– This is the first impression and the memory of it will burn itself into your guests minds
– Get this right and the rest doesn’t matter much

Solution: Zap clutter and work on ambience
– De-clutter: Arm yourself with large garbage bag, and throw in some or all the following items strewn across your living room.
o Remote controls, keys, Magazines, CDs, and laptops
o Shoes, socks, miscellaneous items of clothing
o Throw bag into back of bedroom closet
o This way you’ll know where to look when you can’t find something
– Play music: Norah Jones’ ‘Come away with me’ can turn even a house with mental asylum ambience into ‘welcome to my lovely home’
brownies– Scent Sense: Betty Crocker does a lovely mix for homemade brownies where you just add water and oil. Plop into a baking pan, and turn off the exhaust so the smell of fresh baking wafts through your halls.

Answer door with flourish in freshly starched apron (that you wear after you fake bake), and revel in the complements about your warm, clean home as they relish your freshly baked brownies.

Vileda electrostatic cloth
Got a few extra seconds?
– Get yourself some awesome electrostatic duster cloths (try Vileda) that save you the trouble of sweeping and collecting all the dirt in a dust pan, they’re like magic!

Can’t make it.. it’s too late?
– Turn off lights and work on ambience with vanilla scented candles so dirt is not visible, and pray they’re not hungry

Scenario 2: They’re fifteen minutes away and want to pop in just to say hello!

Clorox wipes Dilemma: Bathroom hasn’t been cleaned in ages

– Wipe down all surfaces with awesome Clorox Wipes: they do the same work as a good scrub down with detergent and a sponge, but they’re quicker and neater and don’t leave everything wet
– Don’t neglect the taps and mirrors and wipe down all traces of water marks
– Wipe everything off with a dry kitchen towel to give it that hotel type shine
– Pour Harpic in toilet bowl and let it do its work while you do yours

You’ll have a loo that’s sparkly clean and smells pine fresh too!

If you have time:
– Add that extra fresh scent by sprinkling baby cologne on your towels. It’s clean, safe, and not overpowering

Aak! They’re already at the door and you haven’t even started?
– Don’t serve drinks so hopefully they won’t have to pee

Scenario 3: They’re in the elevator and on their way up… surprise!

Dilemma: Kitchen’s a pig sty

– Pile all dishes neatly, in order of size to minimize space usage
– Bung into the oven and seal shut
– Wipe everything down with above mentioned Clorox wipes (fresh ones, please!)

At least your sink will be empty…

Got a few extra seconds?
– Pour Carpet Fresh in your garbage can… preferably before you put a new bag in, but even if it’s full. If you don’t have time to take out the trash, the scented powder works really well!

Nope! It’s not happening, there’s no hope, you can hear their footsteps outside?
– Feign Flu, turn out lights and don’t answer when the door bell rings
– Find new friends


Banana Bread

September 4, 2009

With the slew of foodie/recipe-yee themed movies/blogs/articles/books that are inundating the planet, I thought it would be fun to join the bandwagon.

I have decided to share with you all my very special banana bread recipe – a recipe that is so fool-proof, so quick, so edible that can con a wolf into abject humility (I don’t know why I wrote that. It had sounded so cool when I thought of it), and so yummy that your in-laws will hand of the diamond heirlooms. Trust me, its that good. This recipe is  my pot-luck standard: continually requested and easily delivered.

So, ’nuff said. Onto my incomparable recipe! You will need eggs, unsalted butter, flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, sugar and bananas. You can add in the walnuts if you want – I don’t.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 81/2 x 41/2 inch loaf pan.

Now for the fun stuff:

Mix together in your main, big mixing bowl
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder

In another bowl, beat for about 2 minutes
5 1/3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
Keep beating until the color is lightened and thoroughly mixed. Note: I’m sure there are a lot of you that might be tempted to skimp on the sugar. While I don’t know the repercussions on the baking procedure (remember in baking measurements matter), I will say that it isn’t as sugary as you’d think; the bananas also add a large amount of sweetness. Use this amount first before deciding on your sugar quantity.

Add the sugar mixture to the flour until well blended, and then
Add in 2 large eggs, already beaten. Blend.
Fold in 1 cup mashed ripe bananas, approximately 2.
(Optional: ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans).

Combine everything.

Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and make it is spread evenly; I gently bang the pan against the kitchen counter to help level it a little. Bake it for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Once done, let it cool for 5 to 10 minutes then dig in!

Bon appétit!



What’s Summer Without Cotton Candy?

September 1, 2009

Reading about the bun kebabs reminded me that no summer trip to Karachi was ever complete without indulging in bags and bags of soft airy cotton candy. Each bite into the sugary clouds felt like a small burst of joy. I remember ripping open the little plastic packets, and wondering how long it would be before the cotton candy started to harden. I still remember the pleasure of licking the sticky sweet remains off my fingers. Pain is an afterthought. Because I now recall the small boy who stood there selling the cotton candy for a pittance, bags of florescent yellow and pink clipped to his stall. He was smaller than me, thin and dirty – a small shell of a human being. A day of standing in the hot humid streets of Karachi could render anyone listless, but I didn’t notice then. I could only think of how good the cotton candy would taste.

I cannot help that boy, but there is something else I can do. I can help my local community by donating to food banks. Over the last few years, community food banks have been reporting continuing shortages in supplies. With the recession still in full gear (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), food banks are facing greater struggles to provide food to those in need as donations have decreased. Rising food prices have not helped the situation either.

Poverty in North America does not have the same face as in third world countries (and that’s probably because we haven’t been to any of the seedier parts of town lately), but that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist.  Worse yet, child poverty is the highest in any age group. According to the 2008 National Report Card on Child and Family Poverty by Campaign 2000, 1 out of every 9 child in Canada lives in poverty and that’s not including First Nations figures. According to Save the Children and the Children’s Defense Organization, 1 out of every 4 child in America lives in poverty. Isn’t that one child too many?

These reports factor in low wages and rising costs of living, single parent households, poor education, and a myriad of related problems. I may not be able to solve all these problems, but it is possible to help reduce the impact of these problems on children. By donating to food banks, we are helping children in poverty to stay healthy. Studies prove that healthy children are more likely to do well in school and in society, thus more likely to escape poverty as adults. Sounds like a long term solution to me.

How to donate, you ask? It’s really easy, most supermarkets have a drop box for donating food items to your local food bank. I know it can be tough to remember to add on those few extra items in your cart, and there are those times when that extra expenditure seems like a burden. Don’t let that stop you. Start by buying just one item.  Pick shelf-stable items like those listed below:

  • Pasta
  • Pasta sauce
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Juice packs
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned tuna
  • Soup packets

Please remember, these items are not handouts, they are vital necessities. More importantly, this is about supporting your community, wherever you are. By helping out, you’re making food a pleasure for everyone.


Spa? Getaway!

August 31, 2009

One more mindless, meandering musing by alatAl

My husband ‘Tags’ and I are planning a short getaway next week: he’s instructed the tour operator that we’ll be wanting lots of beach, relaxation, and luxury spa treatments for me as part of our vacation retreat. He proudly shows me the tailor-made itinerary he’s lovingly put together for us, and it all sounds absolutely fabulous until I get to the spa part.

I’m all for scented candles and music that sounds like delicate wind chimes that clink clink clink together to make wonderful restful melodies. Dim lights, the sound of waves gently lapping across soft sandy shores as the scent of vanilla and lavender wafts through the air… it’s all good.

Until it comes to the part where you have to erm… disrobe for the masseuse. I’m a prude if there ever was one. Yes I KNOW it’s their job and they’re professional and one bare body is just like the hundreds of others they work on every day. But I have issues: Or maybe I’ve had just one bad experience that’s seared itself into my mind like an overdone steak on a sizzler pan.

Our Spa: Tucked away next to our hotel on a little hill in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Our Spa: Tucked away next to our hotel on a little hill in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Take me to a spa and my mind whisks me away to that one fateful afternoon in Sri Lanka many years ago. It’ll be fun, my friend ‘Pal’ chirped, as our husbands sat sipping Bloody Marys on the beach. I reluctantly agreed, not wanting to leave the country without living the ‘complete’ experience. We walked in, Pal grinning from ear to ear, as we inspected our surroundings. It can’t be that bad, I thought, she’s done this a million times. We get taken to our tiny little holes in the wall and the experience is about to begin.
The kind Sri Lankan masseuse doesn’t even bat an eyelid as she mechanically instructs me with the inevitable: yep, down to the VERY basics please. NOOOOOOOO! “I was told I wouldn’t have to!” I retort and she smiles and says that there’s no way I can get a massage if I’m fully clothed in corduroy jeans, socks, and a full sleeved polo neck jumper.

FINE. Let’s just get this over with. “Do I at least get a towel?” I ask, and she rolls her eyes, smiles, and hands me a withered towel about the size of a paper napkin. F*ck. You MUST be kidding.

LIVE THE EXPERIENCE I tell myself as I hoist myself up on the table. NO. It was not relaxing. I was tense and uncomfortable the whole time wishing that DAMN chiming would stop. The smells of oils and candles had mingled into a cloying stench that made me ill and I just wanted out. With my eyes glued shut, I survived the trauma and was ready for phase two. Relaxing my ass.

Follow me, she says sweetly as she starts to unlock the door…”WHAAAAA???? LIKE THIS?” I ask, dripping in oil with barely a towel maintain my modesty. She rolls her eyes (again, I might add), and hands me 2 more towels. Same size. “Now Come”.

It’s too late, I need to get out, but can’t put my clothes back on cuz I’m a living oil slick, so might as well. I do the best I can (pretty well, too!) with the little I have, slip into my flip flops and flip flop my way to the door. Peep out to ensure there’s no one around, then make a mad dash to the other side of the hall. BAAAAAD MOVE. My feet are so slippery, there’s no traction on the rubber slippers…. And screeeeech, greased frightening! I teeter and swerve, holding on to my cotton serviettes for dear life, as my feet slip out of the flips and I’m flopped on the floor. Sprawled on the stone tiles, a sorry bundle of terry toweling and grease.

THANKFULLY there was no one around, and I manage to heave myself back up before the Sweet Sri Lankan walks in and instructs me to get into a wooden torture device. Or that’s what it looks like… like one of those magic boxes where your head sticks out: on the inside, they turn up the heat and your skin is supposed to infuse with herbs and other ‘goodness’ as the steam opens up your pores… Not too painful, I’m fully covered up and can enjoy this… as long as I don’t think about the hundreds of other people who have sweat in the same wooden box: bacteria must be having a field day in all that humidity. *Shudder*

Twenty minutes in and I’m informed it’s time for my herbal bath: I traipse my way into another room (adjoining this time), blissfully, on my own. It’s a tiny tub filled to the brim with thousands of leafy floating bits, and I’m supposed to FIT INTO THAT!? Yes. Apparently all the clientele are contortionists in their free time. Whatever. I just want out and the only way is to get in.

It’s finally over and dab myself dry with the Kleenex that is my towel. I emerge, hot and bothered but very, very grateful it was over.

Pal emerges fresh, glowing and man, she looks so rested! “How was it?” She beams. “Great, great!” I feign enthusiastically, and repeat the same sentiment to Tags when he asks how much fun I had. “Fantastic! Don’t know why I don’t do it more often!”

It was that very remark that has gotten me into the predicament that I’m currently in now. A spa getaway. Yes I know honesty is often the best way to go, but I don’t have the heart to break his. Who knows, maybe this time it’ll even be fun. But one thing’s for sure. I’m taking my own towels.


A Beginner’s Guide to Heavy Metal – Part I

August 28, 2009

Music is one of the strongest ways to convey or heighten one’s emotions. It is more than mere organized sounds; it is also an expression of artistry, creating and enhancing certain atmospheres and feelings for the listener. Various forms of music specialize in establishing certain moods: where dance music can create a fun partying vibe, accordion music usually causes many folks to think of chimps.

There is one musical genre that, to the uninitiated, seems to encompass one particular emotion. That genre is heavy metal. To them, heavy metal and anger are synonymous … from a ‘furrowed brow & muttered cussword’ sort of anger … to a ‘disembowelment of your boyfriend and flushing his shredded remains down a toilet’ kind of ire … depending upon the intensity of the music. But that just isn’t true! OK, it’s not entirely false either, but heavy metal isn’t just about pumping your fist and banging your head against things. It’s about wild partying, terrible hangovers, strange shaped guitars, guys with long hair, the “sign of the horns” hand gesture, and hopefully some kind of redemption buried within all the noise.

Heavy metal itself really doesn’t exist anymore; it’s more of a blanket term for oodles of subgenres that vary in soundscapes and aggression. Plenty of bands in these sub genres don’t even like to think of themselves as heavy metal nowadays. Yes, terms like ‘pretension’ and ‘elitism’ are now as common as words like ‘leather’ and “SATIN RULES!” in the metal spectrum, so the best way to find out if there’s a heavy band for you is to look at the different genres and possibly discover something appealing.

Let’s take a look:

1. Glam Metal: Glossy, catchy and polished with lyrics about fast women and…err…other fast women, glam metal took the world by storm in the mid 80s only to burn itself out by the early 90s when Seattle’s flannel brigade forced people to reconsider that lion mane coifed men with zucchinis inserted within their leopard print spandex pants were not so cool after all. Fronted by men who could tell you the pros and cons of L’Oreal versus Christian Dior, this genre still exists today, yet in a humble state. Occasionally it tries to crawl out of obscurity and into retro-relevance and mainstream awareness, but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Unlike most other forms of modern metal, you can actually boogie to the syncopated 4/4 beats or slowdance to the ‘power ballads’. It’s also much more fun than most other metal subgenres since the vibe is generally upbeat, yet it’s good to have a nice bottle of wine nearby in the presence of this aural experience, since you’ll be dealing with some serious cheese.
Some Band Examples: Tesla, Poison

2. Power Metal: Defined by its thunderous drums, melodic guitar solos and odes to dragons, fire, steel, and occasionally the removal of brass bras, the power metal genre is the musical equivalent of the recent film 300. Macho to the point where it doesn’t even realize how homoerotic it is, this genre typically boasts of vocalists who can actually sing, be it either the type of man who somehow misplaced his testicles somewhere in his pre-teens, or those who incorporate a gruffer but still operatic delivery, sort of like Placido Domingo with a bad case of bronchitis. This is some majestic stuff, with full orchestras sometimes adding to that ‘standing on top of a mountain and shouting to the sky with raised fists’ sense of glory. Fans of these groups are an unusually odd mixture of imposing bikers who can woof down a Burger King Double Whopper in two bites without bothering to remove the wrapper, and awkward nerds who daydream about frolicking through grassy fields with naked female elves.
Some Band Examples: Dragonforce, Manowar

3. Death Metal: The music itself is often played with brutally chunky sounding instruments with a heavy bass sound and complex rhythms played extremely fast, but of course the defining aspect of the genre is the infamous “Cookie Monster” vocals…low guttural grunting that’s often completely incoherent even with the lyric sheet right in front of you. To be honest though, if the voice of the Cookie Monster was indeed suddenly replaced by an actual death metal “singer” such as the vocalist of Immolation, this would result in a sudden global collective soiling of diapers and training pants followed by wide eyed toddlers racing towards the nearest adult leg. Subject matter often revolves around radio friendly fare such as cannibalism, mutilation and occasionally Lucifer’s minions, but the musicians themselves typically look like your neighborhood auto mechanics or tattoo artists. A fun thing to do is try and figure out the name of the death metal band on some dude’s shirt…the logos are almost indecipherable. The backs of these T-shirts usually have city names and dates beneath the words “WORLD DOMINATION TOUR”. It’s amazing how many death metal bands have apparently dominated the world each year, yet the world still somehow exists.
Some Band Examples: Immolation, Cannibal Corpse

If the above three heavy metal styles don’t seem all that appealing (which I’m going to guess is most of you readers), maybe the next batch of subgenres in the next installment might capture your fancy! The journey has just begun folks…

Stay tuned for Part II!