Summer Reading

25 May

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Every summer, I am simultaneously excited for and stressed out by the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures Adult Book Bingo program and Women in Translation Month, which happens in August. These are supposed to be fun efforts to read a lot, and they are fun, and yet I develop anxieties about time. (Ah, time. I am forever losing to time.) In any case, the 2018 book bingo card was recently released, and I eagerly printed out a copy and penciled in my aspirations for the season.

So, what are some books on my docket? My ideal reading diet consists of reading fiction, poetry, and nonfiction simultaneously, and my current reading manages three bingo squares:

  • Takes Place in the Area You Were Born: 10:04 by Ben Lerner. Lerner will give a talk at Hugo House on August 9, on the novel as a curatorial form. Intriguing!
  • Poetry or Essays (why, why aren’t these separate boxes?): To Repel Ghosts by Kevin Young, a book of poetry inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which I picked up at the Brooklyn Museum while on book tour.
  • Finish a Book You Started and Put Down: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The second section of this book, on processed food, was dry and slow, and I almost gave up on it. But I am super interested in the section on the rise of organic farming and look forward to the final section on foraging food, the reason I picked up the book in the first place. As I slowly work on a series of lyric essays about food and culture, I am finding Pollan’s research and writing mostly delightful and always informative.

Of course, none of these books are by women, nor are they in translation. So, here’s what’s next for me:

  • Written by An Author From Another Country: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf
  • Award-Winning Author: The Appointment by Herta Müller
  • Fiction: The Hottest Dishes of Tatar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

I also participated in the Seattle Public Library’s Your Next Five Books program, asking for smart, zippy books by women, ideally in translation. I’ll let you know what they recommend!  (In the meantime, if you are looking for recommendations from me, here are my previous posts on women in translation.) What are you reading this summer?

UPDATE (5/30/18): Here are the five “smart, zippy books by women” that the Seattle Public Library recommended. I am particularly excited about Umami by Lala Jufresa! From the title, to the author’s name, to the promise of a precocious 12-year-old girl protagonist (a soft spot for me), this book will for sure go on my Recommended by a Librarian bingo square.

“And Time Was No More” by Teffi

3 May

SubtlyWorded

The physical object that is Teffi’s Subtly Worded elicits in me a desire for extravagance. The texture of the cover, the deckled edge pages, the small purse-sized shape, the delectable bird pulling upon the woman’s hat ribbon—it is all delicious. (I have confessed here to hugging bookcases before; I also hug books.) Content-wise, I was intrigued with what perspectives Teffi, a Russian who fled the Revolution for France and has been compared to Chekhov, might offer.

It took me a few years to get through this collection, however. The prose is gorgeous, and I don’t fully understand why I couldn’t connect with these stories more. They seemed to lack a certain undercurrent. Perhaps they demand rereading. I did not enjoy Chekhov’s “Gusev” initially; I only came around on that story when rereading.

I decided to finally finish Subtly Worded this past New Year’s Eve. Michael and I went to the Fireside Lounge at the Hotel Sorrento (which is one of my favorite places in Seattle; check out their monthly Silent Reading Party). Our waitress had a wholesome yet aristocratic look about her in a cream-colored silk blouse; it seemed somehow fitting to the world of Teffi. There was live jazz and a roaring fire. And a chanteuse with a melodica, which she defined as the love child of an accordion and harmonica. Michael read Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which he adored (another book to add to my WIT pile). My cocktail tasted like chocolate and pine-sap.

“And Time Was No More,” my favorite story in Subtly Worded, is set in a cabin in the woods and moves with a dreamy end-of-life nostalgia. I wanted to copy out nearly every luscious paragraph. Here’s one that sums up the theme and impressionistic atmosphere:

“Sunset, on the other hand, is always sad. It may be voluptuous and opulent, and as richly sated as an Assyrian king, but it is always sad, always solemn. It is the death of the day.”

In the hotel lounge, a young woman strutted her newfound charms (plunging neckline, stilettos) beside her parents. Meanwhile, in Teffi: “At least once in your life you should hear a fox singing.”

The story turns quite philosophical. A mysterious hunter tells the narrator, “Just think of me as a composite character from your previous life.” The philosophical conversation between hunter and narrator got to be a bit too much, but the conceit, this sort of last-day-on-earth mélange of memory, did stick with me. Plus who doesn’t want to hear a fox singing?

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

26 Apr

KusamaLast summer, I had the good fortune of catching Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d had a taste of her work at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen  in Rotterdam, which owns a Mirror Room in its permanent collection, so I was ready to soak up more polka dots and tubers. One thing I learned at the SAM was Kusama’s obsession with pumpkins. (See Infinity Mirrored Room–All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016.) Pumpkins are a fairy tale-ish interest of mine (an essay for another time), and when I saw her autobiography Infinity Net (trans. Ralph McCarthy) in the museum shop, I needed to have it.

Well, I was disappointed that Kusama has little to say about that purported obsession, beyond this: “I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.” Painting that gourd, and onions, was a form of practice. I’ll just have to think on what she means by “solid spiritual balance.”

Pumpkin-disappointment aside, Infinity Net is a fascinating portrait of an artist’s ambition and drive. Escaping her hometown of Matsumoto City, where it was respectable to be a patron of the arts but not be an artist, she landed in New York City after a brief sojourn in Seattle. She received early encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, who worried she’d starve in New York City and invited her to New Mexico. But Kusama declined; NYC was where stars were made. So she would suffer, working despite conditions such as this: “New York is almost as far north as Sakhalin island, and I froze to the bone and developed a pain in my abdomen.”

Between her singular focus on repetition (to counter hallucinations, to obliterate herself, to lose herself in infinity), an incredible work ethic, and caring friends like O’Keefe and Donald Judd, she soon gained notice. She also developed a relationship with the reclusive Joseph Cornell; he was the only woman he’d had a relationship with, and would keep her on the phone for hours. His neediness eventually led to some shocking meanness. While recovering from prostrate surgery, he asked if she’d come visit. She said, “When Dali wants to see me…he sends his Rolls Royce for me. Shouldn’t you show more respect for the love of your life?” Yowzah. So he sent a woman in a Mercedes, and she describes their last encounter in graphic, unflattering terms. Still, she calls him her greatest artist friend, and I’m not sure if it is to make up for her admitted cruelty or because she genuinely feels that way, and/or whether she feels that way because he wrote her many poems and worshiped her, and she seems pretty set on lasting fame and stardom.

Kusama returned to Japan in the 1970s and has been voluntarily living in a mental institution there since 1977. The final chapter, on her drive to make lasting art as she comes nearer to death is particularly moving: “And no matter how I may suffer for my art, I will have no regrets. This is the way I have lived my life, and it is the way I shall go on living.”

Notes from #AWP18, Part C: “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got,” plus book fair porn (e.g. the requisite book haul on a hotel bed shot)

17 Mar

bookhaulIn my last post I promised blood. Well, I’ll just say I slid my boot off Friday night and it was like I was one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. I’m still limping. On to day 3!

What is a better breakfast than a leftover Cuban sandwich? Leftover fried oysters. Just kidding! The Cuban sandwich was much better. Day 3 was the best because Michael got a one-day pass and we got to roam the book fair together.

“The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got” is an irresistible title, so of course we wrenched ourselves away from the book fair for it. Here, without narrative, a fun grab-bag of quotes:

  • “Creative writing aphorisms are as useful as Dr. Phil.” –Chris Abani
  • “Your book won’t save you. It’s just something you’re going to do because you’re nuts.” –Min Jin Lee
  • “How do I handle writer’s block? I don’t write.” –Ada Limón

I appreciated Limón’s story of navigating two groups of people: those who roll their eyes at “abuelita poems” and those who say, “where’s your abuelita poem?” And Melissa Stein‘s remark that dread may be a sign that advice you’ve been given may not be for you, anxiety might mean it’s worth exploring the challenge, and excitement is obviously a good sign. Abani noted that “Craft advice is only important if you’re asking questions. What are you trying to do?”

We stuck around for a reading and conversation between Min Jin Lee and Sigrid Nunez. Nunez on writing about sex: “The vocabulary is not there. It’s either coy, clinical, or filthy, none of which do justice to human sexuality.” At the book signing, Lee called Michael and me adorable. So that happened.

My attention span went out the door by mid-afternoon, so it was off to the hotel bar for wine and fried calamari! Naturally, someone in panda suit wandered in. panda

Next year in Portland! Maybe Seattleites can get some party buses organized…

Notes From #AWP18, Part 2: “Sound Makes Sense: Reading the Lyric Sentence” and Various & Sundries (Gonzo Links Edition)

16 Mar
Sunrise view from my hotel room

Sunrise from our hotel room

The Friday of AWP is always the best day. The nervous energy of Thursday has dissipated, and the inevitable Saturday flu epidemic has not yet emerged. I woke early to respond to student stories and breakfasted on a leftover Cuban sandwich, wondering if it would make me barf later. Reader, it did not! A fortifying start.

Alan Sincic, the fantastic Orlando-based writer who was The Furnace’s Writer-in-Residence, was on a 9 am panel on the lyric sentence. I’m a fan of Sincic’s prose *and* mad presentation skills, so the early start was well worth it. The moderator, Pearl Abraham, kicked off the discussion with this advice: “If the voice doesn’t work, write better sentences.” 

Then Sincic woke up the crowd with a call-and-response activity, that gradually built up to us chanting together: “I am an individual and will not surrender my voice to the crowd.” He said, “A sentence is less like the beam of a house and more like the branch of a tree,” that a sentence has ghost limbs lost in the editing process. He proceeded to take apart this Mark Twain sentence, examining each word choice and its placement as a way of generating suspense and delight: “Is a tail absolutely necessary to the comfort and convenience of a dog?”

Baylea Jones analyzed a sentence from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, graphing sounds and letters, including patterns of consonant use, and internal rhymes: “Black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs on Aunt Ruth’s matted lawn, past where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like the elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars.” Wow! I had fun retyping that.

AuthorSigningI ducked out early to get to my book signing at the Lanternfish Press table, where I got to hang out with my editor Christine Neulieb and publisher Amanda Thomas,  and connect with new readers and old friends, including Julia Mascoli, who was in my Tin House workshop in 2013 and who is Deputy Director of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop doing great work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Washington, D.C. (Seattle-area folks, you can donate books to prisons and other under-served communities via Seattle7Writers Pocket Libraries program.)

Later, I chilled at the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop table, celebrating the release of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing, which includes my “Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts.” Co-editor Rita Banerjee was there with her mythic poetry collection Echo in Four Beats, as was Maya Sonenberg, whose new chapbook After the Death of Shostakovich Père is out from PANK Books.

That night, the celebration continued at the Helen Gordon Davis Center for Women, a beautiful old mansion a mile away from the convention center. There were many, many readings. One was from Women in the Literary Landscape; crowds whooped in appreciation for Anne Bradstreet, Virginia Kirkus, and the biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt. (I am a rube for not remember which biographer was mentioned, so here are five of them!)  Nell Painter, author of A History of White People, read from her forthcoming memoir Old in Art School, Diana Norma Szokolayi read her poem “Sarajevo,” Sonenberg read an anti-plot manifesto, and I read an excerpt from Daughters of the Air in which Pluta has committed arson in Brooklyn and found refuge in an abandoned Times Square theater. Fun! There is so much more to write…! I’ll wrap things up in one more post. Sneak preview: there will be blood.

5StarDiveBar

Reading at Strange Theater: A Menagerie of Fabulists. Photo courtesy of Daniel A. Hoyt. I swear, there were more people here. We agreed the line up was so good we’ll do it again in Portland, but weirder!

Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar
Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

“Poems That Helped Me Write Novels” on the Submittable Blog & Upcoming Events

27 Feb
Gowanus canal at night.

Tonight at WORD Brooklyn, I’ll read a section of Daughters of the Air set in Gowanus.

It’s my birthday, and I’m home in Brooklyn. Today is full of treats. Mimosas and chocolate croissants with my family (and bagels, but I’ve been gorging on bagels since Saturday and have nearly reached my bagel limit), a stroll by Prospect Park, and a reading from Daughters of the Air at WORD Brooklyn at 7 pm. If you’re in town and free, I hope you’ll come! There will be wine and treats.

Over on the Submittable blog, I have a craft essay on poetry’s effect on my prose. Here’s how it begins:

Poems are tuning forks. When I am lost in the darkness of a novel-in-progress, fumbling through and then and then and then, they key me back into the precise and intimate. They pull me closer to the unknowable.  continue reading

After tonight I have two more stops on my east-of-the-Mississippi tour, in Chicago on Saturday, March 3 at The Book Cellar, with Gint Aras, and then three events at AWP in Tampa: Strange Theater: A Menagerie of Fabulists (Thursday, 3/8, 7 pm); a book signing at Lanternfish Press’s table at the book fair Friday (3/9) from 10-11:30 am; and Spontaneous Reading Party by C & R Press Friday (3/9, 7 pm), celebrating the release of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos & Source Book For Creative Writing. Then I’m back on the West Coast for the next little while, with a full docket of events you can see here. Huzzah!

Guest Post at Lisa Romeo Writes: “Whatever Works: Looking at Visual Art to Write Inspired Prose”

7 Feb
Self_Portrait_with_Seven_Fingers (1)

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers

Paintings helped me grope through the dark of my first draft of Daughters of the Air. I wrote a guest blog post about that process on Lisa Romeo’s blog. Here’s how the piece begins:

When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers.  I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes.  My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz.

continue reading

Years later, still enraptured with the process, I ended up teaching several classes on writing from art for Hugo House at the Henry Art Gallery (you can see my students’ work alongside the art that inspired them in these e-booklets the Henry made here and here) as well as several blog posts for Ploughshares, including this one on writing from abstract art. And, my next novel features an artist. And, many of my essays engage with art in one way or another, like this one on Goya, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. All this writing about writing—it’s time for me to get back to a gallery and refill the well!

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Playlist on Largehearted Boy

5 Feb

Published by Lanternfish PressIt was super fun creating a playlist of music related to Daughters of the Air for David Gutowski’s literature and music blog, Largehearted Boy. I’ve included music from the time of the book, the late ’70s and early ’80s, as well as music that fits the atmosphere (dark, weird). Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi and Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons and more! Have a listen right here.

“Scrolling Through the Feed” in Cascadia Magazine

30 Jan
Eric Carle's illustration of "Big Klaus, Little Klaus"

Eric Carle’s illustration of “Big Klaus, Little Klaus” in Seven Stories by Hans Christian Andersen has haunted me since childhood. When I imagined the bandits in “Scrolling Through the Feed” doing something nefarious in Interlaken Park, I pictured them in smudgy colors like this.

Over the summer, while immersing myself in Jess Walter’s fiction in preparation for interviewing him in December (you can now watch his Word Works talk on time, and the Q & A,  here on YouTube), I reread his story “Don’t Eat Cat” and felt compelled to write my own zombie story. And, because it’s me, it’s a bit a fairy tale-ish. “Scrolling Through the Feed” went online this morning in Cascadia Magazine, a new publication focusing on the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to Oregon. I’m happy there’s a new venue gathering long-form journalism, fiction, and poetry from the region, and one that that thinks beyond our borders.

It feels somehow appropriate for the story to go up on the same day of the State of the Union, which I will not watch. Thankfully, I’m reading tonight at the Literary Happy Hour at Capitol Cider, alongside Bill Carty, Jarret Middleton, and Jekeva Philips, hosted by Josh Potter. It runs from 5-7 pm. In line with their “drafts and drafts” theme, I’ll give a micro-craft talk on one of the earliest inspirations for Daughters of the Air.  Speaking of which, this is your last chance (ever?) to enter to win a free copy of the novel on Goodreads.  Go get it!

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