Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Looking for something to read or watch?

Isabel came into the office for a few minutes to check in with us. I asked her what she was reading and she told me she is on disc six of an audiobook called A Gate at the Stairs, which was written by Lorrie Moore. She said it is about a teenager who babysits a mixed race child who has been adopted by a weird white family, and that she expects something bad is going to happen at any point since the baby is at the top of the stairs and there are all these gates and tricky steps. She figures it is just a matter of time before the name of the book plays into it. Click here for a link. 
Isabel also mentioned two foreign movies she recently saw and loved. One is called Zelary, a World War II-era Czech film that came out in 2003 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. It is about a highly educated urban woman who is a nurse and who saves the life of a mountain man with a transfusion of her blood. She is involved in the resistance against the Nazis and when she needs to find a safe place to hide, she goes to the man whose life she saved and he takes her in. Since he lives in the country—and, as Isabel puts it, “they are different there”—she must marry the man in order to stay hidden. The film is about the dynamics of their relationship, how it evolves, their two worlds, and the war. Isabel made it sound so moving I feel I must go out and rent it for the night. 
The other movie, a German film called Cherry Blossoms, sounds equally stunning. After an elderly wife finds out that her husband is dying (he doesn’t know), they decide to visit their children and grandchildren in Berlin. On a side trip to the Baltic Sea, however, SHE suddenly dies! The husband realizes that his wife had never really done anything for herself and that she died without getting to do what she really wanted, which was to travel to Japan and to see Mt. Fuji and dance a certain shadow dance. He decides to live her dream for her, traveling to Japan and doing the things he realizes she wanted. 
Isabel described this movie so beautifully—I was weeping a little by the end—that I feel like I would be disappointed by the actual film. Still, I’m also planning to check it out for the weekend. 
Isabel chatting with us this morning..Who looks this good on a Tuesday morning?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 8th

January 8th has come and gone, and here is a news flash: Isabel did NOT start a new book! She did not. Ever since January 8, 1981, when Isabel first started writing a spiritual farewell to her dying grandfather—a letter that later become her first novel, The House of the Spirits—she has begun all of her books on January 8th. Isabel was in exile in Venezuela when her grandfather was dying, and she was unable to visit him. This is what she told me about that letter:

I remembered everything he had ever told me—about his life, the family anecdotes, the history of our country. As soon as I began the letter I realized it was not a normal letter; it was part novel, part memoir, part family saga and political chronicle. My grandfather died without reading the letter and I continued to write at night and on the weekends in the kitchen of our apartment. I had a day job in a school and I worked 12 hours a day, so I didn't have much free time, but I was obsessed with the writing. By the end of the year I had 500 pages of a very dirty manuscript on the kitchen counter. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, had been born. It had coffee and food stains, and some of the pages had been corrected with Typex so much that they looked like cardboard. Remember that computers didn't exist at that time; I wrote in an old small typewriter. Correcting wasn't easy. If I needed to add something or change a paragraph, I had to write it on another page, cut it and insert it with scotch tape, so some pages were much longer than others; the manuscript was difficult to handle. When it was done and my mother read it, she objected to the villain's name because I had given him my father's family name (on his mother's side). I had to find a name with the same number of letters; once I did, my kids, Paula and Nico, went page by page looking for the word, erasing it with Typex, inserting the page back in the typewriter and typing the new name that would fit exactly in the space. We did it very carefully but we missed one instance and the first edition of The House of the Spirits has a weird character that appears only once and no one knows who the heck he is. A critic thought it was magic realism...
Eventually Isabel got a computer!
This story changes slightly every time I hear it—often at one of her readings or just when I ask about it—but I love it because, in the end, perhaps it is me remembering it differently every time. Either way, it’s a charming story and I am glad to have this version first-hand for the blog.

The House of the Spirits was a huge success in Europe and on the advice of her agent, Carmen Balcells, Isabel wrote a second book, again starting it on that 8th day of January. This time the start date was for luck, since Carmen had warned that a first book, though not easy, was often charmed; the second could prove her skill. That second book, Of Love and Shadows, also did well, and so the third book, Eva Luna, was also started on January 8th. It, too, was a success and that’s when Isabel says it became scary:

What if I started writing on another date and the book was a flop?? 
She continued:

After a few years and a few books, January 8th became a good habit; it gave me discipline. By then my life was complicated—I had to travel, lecture, do innumerable interviews, I was getting tons of mail—so if I didn't organize my calendar I would never have the time, solitude, and silence I needed for each book. That's why I have kept January 8th as my sacred day in the year, the day I lock myself away and start a new book. I have not started something new every year, because sometimes it takes me more than a year to write a book, but I have started every book on the same day.   

In 2002 I decided it was time for me to take a sabbatical and fill up my reservoir; I had been working too hard for too long. I wrote down my sabbatical resolution, put it in a sealed envelope, and placed it on my altar. Then I forgot about it. 
Eight years later I found the envelope and decided that I really, really needed that sabbatical. I cleared my calendar for 2011.

This is my year of resting, reading novels, playing with Olivia (my dog), learning crafts, dancing, walking in the woods, and charging my batteries.

So what was Isabel doing if she wasn't locked away on January 8th beginning her next novel?

On January 8th I spent the day in a spa...


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Premio

On December 29 Isabel attended the ceremony of the National Prizes (Premios Nacionales) in Santiago, Chile. the Chilean government grants the Premio to distinguished persons who have excelled in their professions and in service of the country.  This year the awardees were two scientists, a historian, a musician and Isabel. (Interesting side note: Only three other women have ever won the Premio award. Isabel joins Gabriela Mistral, Marta Brunet and Marcela Paz.)

Upon receiving her award, Isabel got all emotional, although it wasn’t because it was a surprise—she’s known about the prize since September (see posting Willie is NAKED).  The ceremony took place in a beautiful old building that originally was a convent.  A small orchestra played songs from l810, the year Chile declared independence from Spain, while President Piñera and the Minister of Education handed diplomas and rather large checks to the five awardees.  Isabel gave her check to her parents but has yet to let go of the diploma. She carries it around like an umbrella and keeps showing it to everybody. Because I love her I don’t have the heart to tell her it is weird to keep showing this thing around now that she’s back, given that so many of us cannot read Spanish. After the ceremony everyone was treated to hot dogs and chips. Wait, that was Jerry Brown's party… never mind.

Isabel standing between Joaquin Lavin, the Minister of Education, left, and President Sebastian Piñera. Also pictured, far left to right, are the other Premio Nacional award winners.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Panchita!

As you may remember from last week’s blog, Isabel was out of the country for the holidays. I saw her when she returned on New Year’s Day and I have to tell you that she looked fantastic. How someone who has just flown for 22 hours can look that good I will never know. Really, she was radiant!

Here is something else I have to tell you: Isabel was wearing a beautiful Eskandar poncho. Only it wasn’t really an Eskander poncho. It was an Isabel Eskandar knock-off! I will have to fill you in on Isabel’s sewing abilities sometime, but that is for another entry. For now, I want tell you about her mother’s birthday party.

Isabel’s mom, Panchita, turned 90 in December. (That means she was born in 1920. Think about that for a minute!) But Isabel says she is 90 going on 60. In true Panchita fashion, she celebrated her birthday in great style. She bought herself a bride’s trousseau—enough clothes to last several decades. (Apparently she is planning to live to be 130.) Isabel threw a fantastic party for her. It was held under a large white tent decorated with loads of fresh flowers. She invited all of Panchita’s relatives and friends—the ones who still have their marbles if not necessarily their teeth. The average age of the partygoers was 80; in total there were approximately 5,200 years under that tent.  An organ grinder and a flower girl greeted the guests, each of whom was immediately served a Pisco Sour, a traditional Chilean cocktail strong enough to fell a Cossack. Click here for a recipe. (Scroll down halfway to learn the proper [i.e., Chilean] way to mix the drink.) 

If anyone can tell me how to get one of these I will be eternally grateful! I am talking about the organ, not the grinder....hmmm, that could theoretically be taken out of context....

Soon enough pretty much everyone was tipsy and happy. A magician went around doing tricks with cards, and a charming female singer with an impressive bosom sang popular love songs from the 1930s and 40s. All the old folks sang along, especially Ramon, Panchita’s husband, who is 94 and has a nice tenor voice—a good thing, since he’s not exactly shy. There were so many candles on the cake that the icing was mostly melted wax, but it still tasted good. Isabel cried nonstop, mainly because Pisco Sours have the opposite effect on her: whereas most people who drink them tend to become quite jolly, she becomes very melancholic.

Ramon is so handsome. I love a man with crazy eyebrows!