I’m thrilled to have my essay “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books today. It collages personal stories with discussions of Tolstoy, Herta Müller, Gregor von Rezzori, ancient Chinese poetry, visual art, horticulture, superstitions, and more. I’m grateful it found a home in such a fine venue!
Women in Translation Month is around the corner! Last year, I compiled a list of translated books by women that I enjoyed and created a Women in Translation Bingo game. I also wrote about novellas by Marguerite Duras and Eileen Chang and poetry collections from Rocío Cerón and Angélica Freitas.
This summer has been a bit more hectic as I’ve been teaching more, taking my second novel through an eighth draft, and researching my third novel. However! I’m excited for Women In Translation Month and wanted to share with you four books on my to-read pile.
What have you been reading?
Thanks to the tremendous generosity of the Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, I spent the earlier part of this month in the Netherlands, researching my third novel. M came as my trusty research assistant, furnishing highlighters, snacks, and sweaters with alacrity. There’s a lot of information crammed in my skull right now, which I am organizing as best I can, hoping it seeps into the crevices of my subconscious fruitfully.
What struck me on our trip: the birds! (I know, I know, put a bird on it.) Egrets, loons, swans, geese, ducks, grouse, crows; white-breasted, brilliant blue, long-tailed, plump and shimmery; raucous, trilling, warbling, chortling. Fact: the first painting acquired by the Rijksmuseum features a bold, angry swan.
In the moat by the citadel in ‘S-Hertogenbosch, an egret bullied ducks until a trio of geese chased the egret to the boardwalk where it loomed. This continued on a loop for a while. A seagull swooped down to chase the egret further and when the egret returned, the geese trailed it, sinister and slow. Sinister, at least, until we realized there were goslings near.
In a canal in Rotterdam, three loons had a lovers’ spat. Slapped wings, held heads beneath the water–murderous! Not far from there, we strolled past the “swan bridge,” soaring and modern.
On our last night in Amsterdam, we stayed at a fanciful b&b on the Western Canal Belt. Our hostess could not greet us when we arrived. She hid our keys in a flowerpot. Up two steep, narrow flights of stairs, we flung open the door. The lights were on, the doors and windows open, a gust of wind coming from the terrace, which led to another room with another open door, and the flutter and chirp of green and yellow parakeets, in a big cage looking down upon the Keizersgracht canal. Old books stacked everywhere, art on the walls and leaning upon the books, a laptop left on a long wooden table, half open, as if our hostess had left in a hurry. It had the feel of that computer game Myst, where mysterious rooms, empty of people, always suggest a presence, a place quickly abandoned. We did meet her late that night and in the morning at breakfast the birds flew freely about the room and she would call to them and air kiss them and talked to us about Argentina and Barcelona and photography and her love of Amy (Winehouse).
Apropos of birds, on the flight back, I finished Noy Holland’s debut novel Bird, a raw gorgeous thing. Here, I leave you with an excerpt:
She was hungry again and gorged herself on chicken fried steak and skittles, on vermilion faces of canyons, cliffs you could dig with a spoon.
Behold, Seattle’s gloriously long spring, stretching from February to late June. In my youth, the colors of my birthday month featured gray slush and the unnatural blue icing on Carvel ice cream cakes. Now, there is a profusion of pink in all the azaleas, rhododendrons, early cherry blossoms, meaty camellias.
Speaking of meat, I’m reading at a”Moveable Feast” themed reading on Saturday, March 5 at 7 pm, alongside my fellow Jack Straw‘ster Bernard Grant and Emily Holt. They’re promising a themed cocktail and open mic to follow, so come have a drink and bring food-themed work to share. This will be at a private home in Madrona on 34th and Columbia, as a part of the roving Makeshift Reading Series. Incidentally, this is also the second time I’m reading at a private home, which is just a lovely experience. A few weeks ago, I read at a party Artist Trust threw for me (!), hosted by Gar LaSalle. It was surreal and delightful and an honor. Pictures here!
Then on Wednesday, April 6 at 7 pm, I’m reading at the third anniversary edition of Lit Fix at Chop Suey, alongside Anastacia Tolbert, Michelle Peñaloza, Sean Beaudoin, Gint Aras, and acoustic solo project The Wild. I’ll be reading nonfiction, a genre I’ve been diving deeper into in the last year or so, and which I’ve never performed before.
Lastly, on Wednesday, April 13, I’m returning to Castalia, the University of Washington MFA program’s monthly series at Hugo House. Details on the line up to come!
I’ll have copies of my chapbook I Loved You in New York on hand at each of these readings, for $5. You can also get them from alice blue books at the APRIL book expo on March 20, at AWP in Los Angeles March 31-April 2, or via Etsy.
My short story “I Loved You in New York” is being released as a chapbook in alice blue books’ fantastic series SHOTGUN WEDDING. It’s a story about cities (New York, Montreal, D.C.), bodies, relationships, history. It glances fleetingly at Coney Island, George Grosz, James Brown, and, uh, Marquis de Sade. This is the fourth volume of the SHOTGUN series, a special double issue which includes my dear friend and excellent poet Janie Elizabeth Miller, as well as Dennis James Sweeney, Lillian Ruth Nickerson, Amy Ratto Parks, Brian Cooney, Stephen Danos, Sarah Gallien, Will Gallien, Evelyn Hampton, Graham Isaac, and Ashley Benson.
I’ll be reading an excerpt from the story at Vermilion on October 22 at 6 pm as part of the Seattle Lit Crawl–our event is called Quick & Dirty. The chapbooks will be available at Fred’s Wildlife Refuge during the after party’s mini-book fair. You can also pick up a copy at the Seattle Center during Short Run, a small press and comix expo, on October 31 11-6. I expect the Seattle Center on Halloween to be super fun! Finally, you can also snag a copy via Etsy.
Many thanks to Amber Nelson for giving this story from my in-progress collection MORE LIKE HOME THAN HOME a home.
I’m grateful to have caught “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?”, Geoffrey Farmer‘s exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend. I had never heard of Farmer, and I was entranced. “The Last Two Million Years” is a collage sculpture that takes up an entire room, comprised of hundreds of figures meticulously cut from a found Reader’s Digest encyclopedia of the same title. I was awed not just at the amount of work that went into the installation, but the impulse to pin down layers of ephemera–not only tiny details in a vast history that feels impossible to contain but also the fleetingness of the found book itself, which stands eviscerated as you exit the room.
“The Surgeon and the Photographer” gathers images in a similar though more surreal manner, creating Dadaist characters from used books salvaged from a closed down used bookshop as well as fabrics. The sculptures are called puppets, suggesting one might inhabit them, give them voice and stories, and they’d be rich and complex stories indeed. Somehow this piece recalled for me a bizarre puppet movie I once saw as a tiny person, sitting alone in the attic in front of our old knobbed television tuned to a UHF channel. Faceless wooden mannequins sat chained in tubs of water and turned their heads, vaguely squeaking but unable to talk. I was utterly mesmerized and alarmed and had no idea what I was looking at.
The most thrilling installation for me was “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” — an eerie room filled with moving sculptures made of old movie props (lion heads, snakes with blue light bulb teeth), a haunting soundscape (bells, chimes, wind), and lights that shift from green to red to blue so that when it finally becomes white, the colors of the objects are almost a shock. The room is programmed to last the duration of an entire day, and I was very tempted to try and experience it for that long.
Alas, we did not spend the entire day there. After leaving the museum, we encountered a zombie-themed wedding and wondered if the square outside Vancouver Art Gallery has a similar function to New York’s Union Square. On the beach by English Bay, at sunset, we saw someone make enormous soap bubbles that shrieking children and adults alike chased to pop. We found a wonderfully curated independent bookstore called Pulp Fiction (I picked up The Dud Avocado and M picked up Wanderlust), and we watched a man train an enormous pit bull puppy on Kitsilano Beach with the help of beautiful red husky, and we gorged ourselves on Ukrainian, Malaysian, and Italian food. We also found time to just sit still and read. And, thanks to Geoffrey Farmer and all kinds of other stimuli, I wrote a poem, possibly the first I’ve written that I actually kind of like. Maybe I’ll even send it out. Art wins!
Diorama, by Rocío Cerón, is super rich and multilayered. Her long poem “13 Ways To Inhabit a Corner,” under the subtitle “Pinhole” speaks particularly to peering into something very closely. The looking is so careful, the sensual details so packed in, the poem demands and rewards multiple rereadings. Each of the 13 sections builds a particular atmosphere. In section I: “In the midst of a stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep.” And, in section VII: “Hills, clouds, boreal forest. Woman undressing on a frozen bed. Beneath the folds of her clothing a constellation of sleet.” As her translator Anna Rosenwong points out, the work is associative and hallucinatory. Other poems are more political. “DIY Instructions or the National Telluric” includes the line “civil disobedience breaks out but still the dead pile up” — a line that made me sit up out of the intense dream state of “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner.” Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, and it’s no wonder. It’s the sort of beautiful, meaty book you need to settle into, chew on, and revisit.
Whereas Diorama is experimental and gorgeous and challenging, Rilke Shake,by Angélica Freitas is more fun for everyone. Playful, energetic, and irreverent, Freitas takes references to poetry greats (Rilke, Keats, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and popular culture, and simply shakes. The work is sonically chewy: “I think about stravinski / and the beard of klaus kinski / and the nose of karabtchevsky / and a poem by joseph brodsky” she writes in the poem titled “what passed through the head of the violinist as he hurled toward his death against his black hair clutching his stradivarius in yesterday’s great air disaster”. She imagines bathing with Gertrude Stein, who “lets one loose under the water” and asks in “i can’t read the cantos”: “shall we free ourselves from ezra pound?” The poems do have poignant moments, such as in “sioban 4” where the speaker wonders: “does she think of me / does she also ask what happened // to the good girls of sodom, the ones who / always // kissed on the stairs / vanished in libraries / preferred to turn to salt?” I will be pushing Rilke Shake on many people. It’s too good to be missed.
10:30 on a Summer Night operates at a slow boil. The noir-ish 80-page novella follows a French couple, Pierre and Maria, on vacation in Spain with their four-year-old daughter Judith and their friend Claire. The story opens with talk of a murder in the small town where they’ve landed, their plans to get to Madrid thwarted by a storm. Rodrigo Paestra, having killed his wife and her lover, is on the run. With that crime of passion in the background, tension between Pierre, Maria, and Claire builds, complemented by the landscape’s moody weather:
“The afternoon’s dark blue, oceanlike mass moved slowly over the town. It was coming from the east [….] The water that ran between their feet was filled with clay. The water was dark red, like stones of the town and the earth around it.”
Maria drinks manzanilla after manzanilla. Customers in a local cafe talk about the horror of Paestra’s crime while “eating, more or less heartily.” Like many tourists stuck in the town for the night, the family and Claire must sleep in a hotel hallway. In Maria’s wooziness, her thoughts drift between Paestra’s whereabouts (they say he’s on the rooftops), and the possible budding infidelity between Pierre and Claire. Her restlessness tears her from the claustrophobic hotel hallway, out into the wet night, looking for Paestra:
“He had gone around the chimney. Maria kept singing. Her voice clutched her throat. You can always sing. She couldn’t stop singing once she had started. He was there.”
The novella twists and turns into scarier and scarier landscapes.The extreme weather of the lightening storm is followed by extreme mid-day heat of the open country. Maria wonders, “What would you save, if you took Rodrigo Paestra to France?” The double love triangle leads to a bizarre chain of events I have no intention of spoiling. But the last image of the three adult travelers at a night club, finally in Madrid, watching a man with a “chalky laugh” singing with “loving, langurous, nauseous drunkenness,” evokes the complexity, the utter tangled thorniness, of this story.
I picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.
The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)
Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.
The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.
This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.
Autumn, that busy literary season, starts a bit early for me, with three readings coming up this month, and more to follow September through December. As I promised on King 5’s New Day Northwest (!!!), I will channel a young Jack Nicholson in at least one reading this year.
- Wednesday August 19, 7:30 pm: Family Affair is a family-themed cabaret at the Rendezvous in Belltown. Jack Straw fellows Clare Johnson, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, Ross McMeekin, Jeanine Walker, and I will regale you with all things family.
- Thursday, August 27, 7 pm: Dock Street Salon at Phinney Books in Phinney Ridge/Greenwood. I’m reading alongside Angela Fountas. Prepare for a dark fairy tale.
- Friday, August 28, 7 pm: Jack Straw at the University Bookstore. Ross, Matthew, and I take on the U-District. After party on frat house row not included.
- Thursday, September 10, 6 pm: An extra special Jack Straw event at the It’s About Time Reading Series in Ballard, themed around Jack Straw, a leader of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. These insurgent peasants traveled throughout southern England, gathering followers, opening prisons, killing lawyers and telling stories. As I’ll be reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress Paralegal, I’ve been tasked with covering the “killing lawyers” portion of the evening. Martha Kreiner will give a craft talk on opening prisons. L.J. Morin and Clare Johnson will gather all the followers and tell all the stories.
- Thursday, October 22: Lit Crawl Seattle. Bazillions of writers take over the city. I’m excited to read at Alice Blue Books’ Shotgun Wedding event. Details TBA.
- Saturday, November 2, 2 pm: Jack Straw at the Central Library downtown. All 12 Jack Straw Super Stars read poetry and fiction nuggets of gold.
- Thursday, December 3, 7 pm: Pay Dirt at the Rendezvous in Belltown. To celebrate my 4Culture grant, I’ll be reading from my novel Paralegal alongside fellow Jack Straws Emily Bedard, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, and Martha Kreiner. We’ll dig up the dirt on art, money, desire, and making a living.
(No, I didn’t shamelessly tag a zillion things in this post…Okay, yes I did.)