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Magda Szabó’s THE DOOR

28 Jun

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

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.

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

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?

Going to AWP Without Really Going to AWP: A Post-AWP Report

2 Apr

This past weekend was my sixth time attending the AWP conference. My first was in New York in 2008, an overwhelming affair of 8,000 writers crammed into a couple Midtown hotels. That year, I sat on the floor beside a woman from Texas Tech who thought my plan to wait five years before getting an MFA was absurd. The next thing I knew, I was working as a paralegal to save money for graduate school, and by August 2009, I had a full ride to the University of Washington and Michael and I moved cross-country to Seattle. You could say that AWP changed our life pretty radically.

Over the years, we went to a smattering of conferences, but each year I went to fewer and fewer panels, as they tend to repeat and I learned you can only soak up so much information. In 2015 in Minneapolis, I mostly had lunch and dinner with friends, a most pleasant experience, but I’d realized the conference fee had been a waste. Next time, I resolved, I would go to AWP without going to AWP.

Last year in Tampa, with my novel just out, I didn’t get to do that. But *this* year, in Portland, it finally happened, and I highly recommend it to folks who’ve been around the AWP block. I was more relaxed. More hydrated! I had time to stay on top of my online teaching, so less stressed.

Now for some highlights:

Wednesday night, we started at The Old Portland, a wine bar owned by Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. They only serve old French wine; I misheard the description of the Corsican rosé as “foggy” and enjoyed it very much; Michael enjoyed a ten-year-old red Bordeaux. Then, the very Portland-y (more stoner than twee Portlandia) bartender said, “Yeah, we don’t like advertise or anything,” and showed us the Odditorium, the band’s 10,000-foot “clubhouse,” where they rehearse, record, film music videos, and the like. It was cavernous and quiet. Michael, a big Dandy Warhols fan, was in heaven.

“Ice Cream,” the mono-print I made at VSC when I was sad that the ice cream shop had closed and there was no ice cream to be had.

Thursday afternoon, we went to the Vermont Studio Center alumni happy hour. I’d finished a first draft of Daughters of the Air there back in 2007. Three former literary staff read poetry from their recent releases. A line from Nandi Comer’s American Family: A Syndrome: “If there is blood, the artist has chosen to omit it.” Ryan Walsh spoke of the connection between visual art and writing at VSC (I still cherish learning how to make a mono-print there) and vegetable poems. Zayne Turner read from “Her Radioactive Materials.”

Most of the other readings I attended featured numerous readers, so, forthwith, more of a collage:

Reading “Cauliflower Tells You

At Strange Theater: A Fabulist Reading, there were spiders and trousseaus and swans roasted in revenge and Japanese monsters and red rooms and porcine men and tyrants and cauliflower-fueled murder. A doll’s head was raffled off, among other trinkets; I offered a rare talisman of Cyndi Lauper’s trip to Yemen.

Friday, we went to the PageBoy Magazine Happy Hour, featuring 17-word poems and prose. It was a fun afternoon of zingy one-liners and dreamy experimental works and Gertrude Stein jokes. Then we were off to Literary Bingo with Lilla Lit, a new Portland-based reading series; it was fast and furious with four-minute readings (a loud buzzer ushered off writers going over). Chocolate was pelted at every shout of “bingo!”; I caught a peanut-butter ball overhead with my left hand and won a copy of Jennifer Perrine’s In the Human Zoo. I also read a poem and someone won a copy of Daughters of the Air. All readings should have strict word and time limits and buzzers and prizes!

Saturday, we paid $5 to get into the convention center book fair. I had a lovely time chatting with Chicago-based folks in advance of our move (yes! big news tucked away over here; more on that in a future post), signing books at the Lanternfish Press table, and seeing fellow LFP authors Charles J. Eskew (Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark) and Andrew Katz (The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Orphaned Girls). It was also super cool meeting Carmen Maria Machado, who signed Her Body and Other Parties and Carmilla, an LFP reprint of a lesbian vampire romance that predates Dracula, with a Borgesian introduction and footnotes by Machado.

Fun!

We also picked up a whole slew of poetry in translation (from Romanian and Hebrew), essays on art, novels, short story collections. I can’t wait to read it all! Our last stop was the Northwest Micropress Fair at the Ace Hotel, where I signed copies of Sugar, my chapbook from Chin Music Press, and hung out with regional small presses, which felt like a special little send off before we leave the Pacific Northwest.

I heard that the conference had ballooned to 12,000 (15,000?) attendees. Amazing! Perhaps, perhaps, we’ll be in San Antonio next year, and if not San Antonio, Kansas City, and if not Kansas City, Philadelphia…?

Word Play Transformations: Original Music Inspired by Seattle7Writers

5 Mar

On Saturday night, members of the Bushwick Book Club Seattle performed music inspired by Seattle7Writers Laurie Frankel, Michael Schmeltzer, and me! It was quite an experience to see the cover of Daughters of the Air projected onto the big screen as three tremendously talented singer/songwriters performed music written in response to it. Some drew directly from the text, weaving my words into their lyrics, and others told the story in a new way, drawing from the emotional complexities of the difficult mother-daughter relationship and painful history. Fifteen years of work and 260 pages of fraught novel distilled into three beautiful songs! I got a little verklempt. You can listen to some of the songs from that night right over here.

Music Inspired by Literature

22 Feb

Yesterday, I got a sneak peek at a song Sean Morse is writing in response to Daughters of the Air for Word Play: Original Music inspired by Seattle7Writers. The theme of the concert (happening on March 2 at Hugo House) is “Transformations,” which is certainly fitting for the metamorphoses in my novel. But it’s also super cool to experience a transformation of one art form to another. And what a honor to have one’s own work transformed!

Continue reading

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR celebrates first birthday

5 Dec Published by Lanternfish Press

Daughters of the Air is a year old today! I’m celebrating with something bubbly tonight (cider? champagne? seltzer with a spritz of lime?) and feeling grateful for all the love my strange novel has received, from the crowd of smiling faces at my launch party at the Sorrento, to hitting the bestsellers shelf at Elliott Bay Book Company, to seeing my name on the Powell’s marquee, to eating my own face in cake form.

After entertaining a debut author’s wildest nightmares of being universally panned, or being skewered on Twitter, or just dissipating into the void unnoticed, discerning reviewers gave me such joy with their kind praise. I got a thrill learning that a library all the way in Australia owns a copy of my book. I got to travel to PortlandSpokane, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Tampa, Walla Walla, and San Francisco in support of the novel. I shared meals with book clubs and video chatted with human rights students at Pace University. Readers have told me, among other things, that the book gutted them, or made them feel seen. Hearing from readers has been the best, the best, the best. What a dream of a year.

 

 

 

Would you like a copy of Daughters of the Air? You can buy it from: Your local independent booksellerLanternfish Press  * Barnes & Noble* Amazon * Powell’s.

Did you read Daughters of the Air? Let others know what you think on Goodreads or Amazon or on Twitter or Instagram or…or…you know, word of mouth is a wonderful thing. Thank you so much!

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