MALEFICIUM by Martine Desjardins

31 Aug

Last week I was nervously waiting at the eye doctor (nervous mainly because of the pandemic, and a woman sitting just a smidge too close, though everyone was masked if not double-masked) and reading Maleficium*, a slender novel-in-stories by Martine Desjardins (trans. Fred A. Reed and David Homel), when I came upon the chapter “Oculus Malignus,” a 19th century confession from a maker of tortoiseshell eyeglasses who has recently gone blind. (*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)

The speaker had traveled to Muscat in search of tortoiseshell. There, in addition to slaughtering turtles, he meets a missionary with a scar on her upper lip and “irises […] of an acidic ocher hue.” The missionary shows him her pince-nez, much finer than any tortoiseshell he’d ever seen. Greedily, he asks where she found such material, and she is happy to oblige. By staring directly into the sun, “her lachrymal glands [would secrete] a substance that solidified when exposed to sunlight, and formed scaly tears.”

All of the stories are sensory-rich confessions, nearly all from greedy men who had traveled from Montreal east in search of some prized exotic material. They all come upon this mysteriously seductive woman with the scarred upper lip and some other monstrous quality. They all suffer horribly for their transgressions. As other reviewers have noted, this could be a bit repetitive, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the particular twist Desjardins puts on each tale. The gem-like prose, even when discussing all manner of effluvia, is a joy to read.

Here is one more example that captures the beautiful but bizarre storytelling, this time about the woman’s ear:

“The circumvolutions formed a perfect helix at the tip of each lobe, and the vortex with its spirals drew me into the mysterious orifice of her ear canal. I would have liked to place my eye against it, as a keyhole; through a kind of subtle intuition, suddenly I was sure I would find the key to new architectures there.”

The saffron-rich first story inspired me to make a saffron-infused gin cocktail for the virtual version of Publishing Cocktails’ annual summer book swap. Last summer, when an actual book swap was possible, I gave one of my absolute favorite books, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and received Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s What Diantha Did. I hope next summer it will once again be possible to actually foist a favorite on a fellow book lover.

Magda Szabó’s THE DOOR

28 Jun

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I’m so glad I finally read Magda Szabó’s The Door (trans. Len Rix), which Michael has been urging me to read for years. Set in Hungary after World War II, The Door is a rich exploration of the complicated friendship between Magda, a writer, and her formidable housekeeper Emerence. The mysteries that surround Emerence and her past give her a witchy quality. She almost never allows anyone inside her home where there are nine cats and, Magda guesses at one point, furniture and china looted from a Jewish family during the war. Here is Emerence bottling cherries for winter as she and Magda discuss the recent suicide of Emerence’s friend Polett:

The stream of cherries tumbled into the cauldron. By now, we were in the world of myth—the pitted cherries separating out, the juice beginning to flow like blood from a wound, and Emerence, calmness personified, standing over the cauldron in her black apron, her eyes in the shadow under the hooded headscarf.

The slow revelation of Emerence’s life before and during the war is balanced with a clash of personalities as Emerence foists her ways upon Magda’s life, such as throwing a bit of hot mulled wine at Magda to get her to drink it when she is distraught over her husband’s surgery. She is an infuriating, fascinating character, one of the most complex I’ve encountered in recent memory.

There is something about Emerence’s strong personality and guarded history that reminds me of my great-grandmother from Budapest, who I didn’t know very well and who I wrote about in my piece “Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle. There is something about the metaphor of the door that has me scrabbling at it, anxious to understand so much that I never will. It’s the sort of anxiety that fills novels; one day when it is safe to travel to Budapest I will do so, if only to be physically in that city, to be closer to that which I can never fully understand.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

21 May

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful triptych of a novel, exploring the lives and perspectives of three polar bears in captivity: a Soviet circus performer, her daughter Tosca in an East German circus, and Tosca’s son Knut in the Berlin Zoo.

A desire for connection—with humans, other animals, and ancestors—weaves in and out of the story. Of course, food always captures my attention, so here is the matriarch connecting with her soup:

In the mirror I saw my red-smeared lips, a masterpiece of the beets. I’d never eaten root vegetables voluntarily, but when a beet came swimming in my bowl of borscht, I immediately wanted to kiss it. Bobbing amid the lovely dots of fat floating on top—which at once awoke my appetite for meat–the beet was irresistible.

The unnamed matriarch pens her memoirs, struggles with an unscrupulous publisher, travels to East Germany and then Canada, where she gives birth to Tosca. The second section of the novel, which appeared at first to be from the perspective of a human performer in an East German circus, seemed a bit slow to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was because the stress of the pandemic had shortened my attention span or because Tawada’s fun imagining of a polar bear’s mind was so refreshing that I was eager to return to it. But her use of perspective is slippery; it’s thrilling to learn the human was trying to write Tosca’s story, but, as befits a human, was making the story about herself. For this problem, Tosca offers writing advice that is at once practical and surreal:

“First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.”

“Are you planning to come inside me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m scared.”

We laughed with one voice.

Tosca’s son Knut rounds out the story. We meet him as an adorable tiny cub nurtured by the zookeeper Mattias:

Knut would feel the trembling of these delicate human fingers, hear the oceanic sounds emanating from Mattias’s entrails–and Knut’s abdomen would take up the tune, trembling in harmony.

The zoo, the media, and politicians hold up Knut as earth’s savior from climate catastrophe. That is, until he is no longer cute. While Knut’s section feels a bit didactic at times, hammering in the point that society doesn’t care about things that aren’t cute, it is unfortunately warranted given how much work there is left to do to prevent catastrophe.

In any case, there is much more to Knut’s story than the issue of cuteness, which I won’t spoil. The novel’s gorgeous ending brings together Tawada’s playfulness with perspective throughout the book in a manner both uplifting and astounding. Read this book, and do something for our planet, please. Compost, start your own vegetable garden, green your roof, plant a tree or five million.

Aside

5 Female Authors Crafting Compelling Novels

21 May

We all need good news these days. I’m pleased to be included in this list “5 Female Authors Crafting Compelling Novels.”

“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Chicago” in Another Chicago Magazine

24 Apr
Self-Portrait inside of “My soul and I love you” by Belkis Ayón

So, my first Chicago-based publication is about life here as an immunocompromised person during the COVID-19 pandemic…I wrote the piece a month ago, and it’s a snapshot of my last day in the “normal” time of moving freely about the city, taking public transit, going to a medical appointment, going to a museum. A silver lining is I get to mention the work of Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, which I encountered at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can explore more of Ayón’s work here.

Here’s how my piece in Another Chicago Magazine begins:

I was sitting inside an airtight booth with my nose clipped shut, inhaling and exhaling into a tube with all my might.

continue reading

Bookshop.org

3 Apr

Occasionally I fantasize about opening bookshop. It would be on a corner, with big windows, and the curated tables and shelves would feature literature from as many corners of the world as I could muster, and there would be lots of calming blue colors and it would be real cute. Who knows if I’ll ever dive into such an endeavor? In the meantime, it was remarkably easy and fun to curate a Bookshop.org affiliate page. If you’ve not heard about Bookshop, it’s a new way of buying books online while supporting local, independent bookstores. Most profits are split among the 400 or so participating brick-and-mortar stores. I expect my curated lists will grow and change over time. (And, why, yes, Daughters of the Air is on there too.) Take a look! Hope you find something good to read.

“Body-horror for every body” in The Seattle Review of Books

31 Mar

everyone on the moon cover image

I reviewed Julian K. Jarboe’s debut story collection Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel for The Seattle Review of Books (Lethe Press, March 2020). Here’s how the review begins:

Scissors dropping out of a uterus, a head attached to its neck with just a green ribbon, cement poured down throats to keep the soul from escaping — these are but a few examples of what I think about when I think about body-horror, a genre in which the graphic metamorphosis or destruction of a body creates a viscerally disturbing experience for the reader. Myth and fairy tale, in their rawest iterations, are natural precedents for body-horror. And isn’t the body itself, so much a source for horror? On its own the body can mutate; or outside forces, like, oh, say, a deadly pandemic exacerbated by capitalism and climate change, can impose new, terrifying ways of trying to stay alive.

continue reading in The Seattle Review of Books

A bit of comfort: all issues of Fairy Tale Review free for the foreseeable future

26 Mar

Here is a source of comfort in difficult times: all issues of Fairy Tale Review are free for the foreseeable future. Kate Berheimer wrote on Twitter:

This doesn’t put a dent in the painful news today, but maybe it will help some people through the difficult hours. I’ve always found that being in the company of a good fairy tale helps me do a little bit better, be a little bit kinder. It’s why I founded this journal in 2005. xo

@katebernheimer

I wrote “More Like Home Than Home,” the title story of my story collection, as an antidote to the darkness of Daughters of the Air. It was meant to comfort me, and I hope you find comfort in it too. It appeared in the Wizard of Oz-themed Emerald Issue. Now free and online, thanks to Fairy Tale Review , JSTOR, and Wayne State University Press.

The opening of “More Like Home Than Home” — read the rest here.

Going to AWP Without Going to AWP: Virtual Edition

6 Mar
Neither of these are the physical book fair, but they are *both* at the #AWPVirtualbookfair!

Last year around this time, Michael and I traipsed about Portland for AWP, skirting the conference itself, simply enjoying off-site readings and the book fair on Saturday. It was a lovely way to round out our time in the Pacific Northwest.

This year, because of our move, I never had any intentions of going to the conference in San Antonio, but because of the coronavirus, lots of folks, including my publisher Lanternfish Press have cancelled their trips. Because small presses depend on AWP each year for sales, a virtual book fair has been set up as a Google Doc by Trevor Ketner, publisher of Skull + Wind Press, inspired by poets G. Calvocoressi, Dana Levin, and Greg Pardlo. Now folks can browse from afar, and check out the many beautiful books and journals on sale here at #AWPVirtualBookfair. In random scrolling through the virtual book fair, I came across this intriguing book of poetry, Goodbye Wolf, by Nik De Dominic. Most discount codes are good through Sunday. Lanternfish Press is offering 30% off all of their books (including Daughters of the Air); use the code AWP2020.

Another press I love that has cancelled its trip to San Antonio is Fairy Tale Review. Their newest issue, back issues, subscriptions, and the complete set of issues are 20% off. Use code AWP20. The title story of my in-progress story collection, “More Like Home Than Home,” is in their Wizard of Oz-themed Emerald Issue. It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1980s and is a potpourri of the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Twelve Dancing Princesses.

But what is a book fair without getting to pick up a book and open it at random? Below is random page from Daughters of the Air (you can read the opening over at Tin House). Beneath that, a taste of what all is in FTR’s Emerald Issue.

Stay healthy out there! Enjoy yer book browsing & book reading!

“Crowd-sourcing the canon” in The Seattle Review of Books

30 Aug

The sixth Women in Translation Month is coming to an end soon. It was an atypical WITMonth for me, with the cross-country move and so many of my to-read books still in storage. Still, I’m excited to read Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate (trans. Katy Darbyshire), which Michael reviewed for The Seattle Review of Books. And, for the same publication, I interviewed Meytal Radzinski, the founder of WITMonth, about her project to crowd-source a new canon, 100 Best Books by Women in Translation.

I was excited to see some of my nominations on the final list, such as Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (trans. Martha Tennent) and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz). And a good number of books in my to-read pile are there too, if I can just get them out of their boxes! I hope to start with Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear (trans. Susan Bernofsky). Did any of your favorites make it to the list or pique your interest?

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