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Umami by Laia Jufrese

23 Aug

Snapseed 5I first came upon Laia Jufrese’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes) thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s personalized recommendation system, Your Next 5 Books. Of the five books recommended, Umami zoomed to the top, as I have a soft spot for precocious 12-year-old narrators and an inclination toward foodie things. (You can see the whole list they recommended to me here.)

Umami is not a food novel in the sense of Like Water For Chocolate (which is not a criticism of either book and is just an observation) and it doesn’t just follow the travails of Ana, the Agatha Christie-gobbling, traditional Mexican-gardening tween. There are five narrators in this achronological story, each grappling with grief. Ana is creating a milpa in her parents’ underutilized garden, part of the mews in which they live. Doctor Alfonso Semitiel, an anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic food systems and brought the term “umami” to the Western world, owns the mews and lives there too. He named each of the houses of the mews after each type of taste: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Umami.

Alfonso is a widower, Ana’s little sister Luz mysteriously drowned two years before the novel opens, and Ana’s friend Pina (named after the contemporary dancer Pina Bausch) and Pina’s father Beto have been abandoned by her mother Chela. Ana, Alfonso, and Luz all narrate their own chapters in the first person. Pina and Marina, another resident of the mews who babysits Ana and who suffers from depression, are narrated in the third person. There’s a lot going on here, and it took me a while to get into the flow of the book. Though I enjoyed Pina and Marina’s chapters, Ana, Alfonso, and Luz were more compelling to me. Their wordplay was snappier (though Marina invents names for colors, like “obligreenation…Green out of obligation”), their interests more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel close to every narrator, and the voices were not wildly different. Ultimately, what pulled me through was the mystery of Luz’s drowning, gradually revealed through her narration, using the fairy tale-ish perspective of a five-year-old. The other hook came somewhat late in the book, two creepy AF dolls, one of which can breathe.  The fabulist in me was charmed by this surprise, and they become quite a heartbreaking addition, in the end.

 

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Reviewed in The Seattle Times and Included in Seattle Review of Books’ “Seattle Novels That Made My Year”

4 Jan

The term “dumpster fire” has been used in reference to 2017 at least several million times. At one point in October, I considered taking some classes on how to cope with anxiety and insomnia that were organized specifically in response to our collective ongoing sense of doom. I didn’t though—because I was overwhelmed! Ha.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND, illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

From my New Year’s Day reading, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

Despite everything, I need to celebrate 2017 on a personal level. Daughters of the Air, which I’d toiled over for years, finally came out, and people are reading it and telling me they are enjoying it! Michael and I celebrated the holiday season with candles and latkes and lights and dim sum and snow (!) and The Shape of Water (a beautiful love story!) and chocolate peanut butter pie and New Year’s Eve back at the Hotel Sorrento’s Fireside Lounge for reading (me, Teffi’s Subtly Worded, him Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which I’m happily adding to my Women in Translation Month queue), writing, live jazz, people watching, and bubbles. What more could I ask for?

Dark chocolate with candied roses

Dark chocolate with candied roses, a holiday treat. Resolution: eat more flowers.

The day after Shelf Awareness called Daughters “a striking debut from a writer to watch,” The Seattle Review of Books included it among five Seattle novels that made Paul Constant’s year:

Anca Szilágyi’s Daughters of the Air is a fantastic debut — a magical realist fairy tale set in gritty New York City. It’s the kind of book that leaves you utterly confounded at the end, as you try to remember all the twists and turns that you took along the way. It feels like an impossible book, somehow — a product of alchemy, a creation of unearthly talents.

Wow! The book hasn’t been panned yet, but when it does, I’ll hang on to these two reviews for dear life. I was also super happy to see Tara Atkinson’s novella Boyfriends included in the end-of-year list; I gobbled it one sitting and highly recommend it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was thrilled to see The Seattle Times reviewed Daughters too—my first review in a major American newspaper!

Anca L. Szilágyi’s intense debut novel, “Daughters of the Air,” locates a deeply personal story against the surreal backdrop of [Argentina’s Dirty War].

 

 

I’ll be moseying up to a newsstand later today so I can rustle up the paper and feel the newsprint on my fingers.

In other news…

  • Every year, I strive to collect 100 rejections. (Why? See this wonderful Lit Hub article by Kim Liao.) In 2016, I made it to 106, plus eight acceptances. In 2017, I garnered 93 rejections and 16 acceptances. This is actually bad in terms of my other annual goal, which is to be rejected 90% of the time. I need to aim higher.
  • There are just four spots left in my online Fiction II class at Hugo House, which begins on January 14. You can sign up here.

Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this longer-than-usual blog post! As a gift, here is a Goodreads giveaway for you. Already read Daughters? Leaving a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or Powell’s would help spread the word! You can do this regardless of how you obtained the book (other bookstores, my publisher, the library, and all that fun stuff).

Onward!

Monkeybicyle’s If My Book

12 Dec

I’ve written an If My Book column for Monkeybicycle, wherein I compare Daughters of the Air to weird things. Here’s how it begins:

If Daughters of the Air were fruit it would be blood orange and pupunha.

If Daughters of the Air were cheese it would be Roquefort. Also: Kraft saved from a dumpster.

Continue reading

Springtime Readings

23 Feb

photo (18)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.

Upcoming Readings

26 Jan

Recently, a gardening-savvy friend got me excited about what will crop up in our yard as the weather warms – lilacs, cherries, and plums, oh my! I just have to get through these last cold, muddy weeks. Luckily, I’ve got three readings on the horizon that will sneak me right into spring, all at the loverly Richard Hugo House:

  • Tuesday, February 5, 8 pm – The Castalia Reading Series – This is the monthly reading series for the UW MFA program, and I get to read as an alum for the first time. I’m reading alongside fellow alum & poet Rachel Welty and students Derek Robbins, Jay Yencich, and Kristine Greive.
  • Friday, February 15, 7:30 pm – Made at Hugo House Midyear Reading – As a part of the Made at Hugo House Fellowship, the fellows (Bill Carty, Irene Keliher, Eric McMillan, Katharine Ogle, Elissa Washuta, and me) will be sharing new work produced in the first half of the program.
  • Thursday, March 21, 7:00 pm – Cheap Beer & Prose – I’m reading alongside Nicole Hardy, Corinne Manning, and Kristen Young as a part of the series’ annual ladies’ night. Wee!

Addendum: At the Pine Box, Monday, February 11, 7:30 pm – Pacifica Launch Party – The literary magazine I help edit is launching its first issue! Lisa Nicholas-Ristcher, Maggie MK Hess, Sarah Kathyrn Moore, Leena Joshi, Joannie Stangeland, and Jake Uitti will be reading, and the book, designed by Ryan Diaz, is beeeeautiful.

The Kobe Ropeway

21 Apr

My third and final post about our trip to Japan.

The Kobe Ropeway, I learned from Wikipedia just now, is nicknamed – quite appropriately-  the “Kobe Dreamy Balloon.” Surely, it is a place where happiness is made. I took a half dozen pictures of the adorable mural beside the entrance to this aerial tramway, possibly the most cheerful mural I’ve ever seen. And then, silently, we zoomed 400 meters up Mount Rokkō , inside the little sleek black and red car, precariously attached to the cable by a tiny metal hook and swaying ever so slightly in the wind. Below us: lush trees, then the white-brick, gray-brick, and blue-glass city, then the glittering harbor melting into the milky horizon. Above us: the Nunobiki Herb Garden, an Alpine-style rest house, a concert hall, and a museum of fragrance. In the aromatherapy room, we made soap scented with lavender and geranium and tinted with turmeric and rosemary. Outside, snow whirled over snapdragons, white roses, a whole riot of springtime flowers. We wandered down the hill through the herb garden to a greenhouse with an exhibit on spices, smelling jars of cloves, saffron, anise, cardamom – essential, enlivening olfactory research!

Out of the garden and hiking back down Mount Rokkō, we passed many tiny shrines nestled into the hillside, and a few waterfalls. J pointed out this habitat as a likely home for kappa, a mythical amphibious animal notorious for stealing cucumbers and, when provoked, ripping out livers via the anus. How incredibly specific!

Here are some more pictures from the mural (click to expand):

Minuet For Guitar

27 Mar

Greetings from Kyoto! Just a short note to share my review of Vitomil Zupan’s Minuet For Guitar, up on the Ploughshares blog. This time, I tried to do something a little different, composing the review in lists, and had a lot of fun changing things up this  — I just might do it again!

More on my trip to Japan in mid-April, when I return. In the meantime, here’s a picture of the rabbit that delivers cherry trees to the moon.Image

The Winter Garden

23 Dec

Photo by George Szilagyi

I’m teaching myself about plants. Last week, my dad and I traipsed through the Washington Arboretum, in search of its Winter Garden. It is not a garden to rush through – anything faster than a stroll and you’ll miss it. The colors are not flashy –  no effusive bursts of pink, no huge swaths of dizzying color. But if you stand still a minute, and take a look around, you notice a few things. Paperbark Maples, losing swaths of bark, are silky brown on the outside and a luminous golden-yam on the inside. I resisted the urge to tear off a sheet. Shrubby dogwoods have slender, fiery tips, a lovely crimson in the blue hours. And, odd snowberries, Symphoricarpos albus, are white puffs afloat gray bushes. I want to say they look like yogurt-covered raisins, but that description, though accurate, seems lacking in intrigue. They’re also called ghostberries, as the waxy, spongy puffs last throughout the winter, munched on by quail and grouse and other fauna of that ilk. Some sources claim the berries (also called drupes – neat word!) are toxic to humans causing that standard nausea-dizziness-vomiting thing, while others claim that poultices of snowberries might have certain curative properties, perhaps for sore eyes. I think I’m going to stick to just admiring their small, bulbous presence, among the other odd berries of a Northwest winter, with their deep reds and juicy blue-blacks, along with the bright, rosy-orange pomes of crabapples.

Incidentally, if anyone talented at dress-making wants to make me a sheath dress inspired by the bark in the photo above, I’d be a happy little elf.

The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy

26 Nov

As we plunge into holiday season, nervously tracking Black Friday sales, touting Small Business Saturday, or feeling remorse for not following through on Buy Nothing Day (and, here, by “we” I mean “me”), I’m finding comfort in a little book a good friend gave to me as an ironic wedding gift: The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are not Ashamed of Economy (1833) by a certain Mrs. Child. As one might imagine, it’s brimming with advice, some wonderfully outdated and some timeless. I probably won’t be soaking tripe in my cellar or applying cranberry poultices every fifteen minutes to any tumors. But who can argue with this first line: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.” Mrs. Child on education: “If young men and women are brought up to consider frugality contemptible and industry degrading, it is vain to expect they will at once become prudent and useful, when the cares of life press heavily upon them.” And, on Reasons for Hard Times: “‘Everything is so cheap,’ say the ladies [in bright array while stagnation is universally felt].’ But do they reflect why things are so cheap? Do they know how much wealth has been sacrificed, how many families ruined to produce this boasted result? Do they not know enough of the machinery of society, to suppose that the stunning effect of crash after crash, may eventually be felt by those on whom they depend for support?”

Then, of course, there are recipes for calf’s foot jelly, whortleberry pudding, and Election Cake, as well as bits and bobs about the best way to clean iron kitchen ware and the best vegetal sources for cheap dyes. A few more morsels:

“The common dark-blue violet makes a slimy tea, which is excellent for the canker.”

“Pig’s head is a profitable thing to buy. It is despised because it is cheap, but when well cooked it is delicious.”

“Beer is a good family drink.”

Happy holidays!

Medieval Botany

18 Sep

M took a picture of rose hips at the Cloisters

Medieval medicine and quackery has been slowly piquing my curiosity. Perhaps it started in Freiburg in 2003, where I took in an exhibit on the history of trephination, a peculiar if somehow logical cure for all manner of headaches and madness. Hieronymous Bosch, incidentally, warned against such quackery in his painting “Extraction of the Stone Folly”.  But there is a less gory and more charming side to this era in medicine. Yesterday, while visiting the Cloisters, I learned a great deal about the medicinal herbs kept in a monastery as well as general medieval beliefs about health and beauty. Should you find yourself plagued with freckles, for instance, you can rub them right out with honeysuckle. The poisonous, paralyzing belladonna plant could be used in small doses as a general anesthetic  – this  might have been what Friar Laurence gave Juliet to fake her death. Women ate figs, strawberries, pomengranates, and other many-seeded fruit to increase their chances of conception. And rose hips and other parts of the rose were believed to shrink tumors (and/or pimples); but there may have been something to this, because apparently some aspect of this plant is still used in chemotherapeutics today.

In other botanic news, I finally saw the second installment of the High Line. It certainly has a wilder look about it, with metal walkways overlooking dwarfish trees with large leaves; they seem somehow prehistoric. And there is a large abundance of some very fragrant herb. The scent actually made me a little sick, so I had to hurry away before looking into what it was, but I’m looking forward to returning in another season, when other wild plants take precedence. The closed off, still uncultivated third section of the High Line seemed more intriguing to me than the newly opened portion. That spur along 30th Street won’t be open for another five or six years.




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