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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.

 

Review of Alicia Kopf’s BROTHER IN ICE in The Seattle Review of Books

8 Aug

Brother-in-ice-WEBI’m happy to have my review of Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) over on The Seattle Review of Books today. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re a fiend for story, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) will not necessarily scratch your itch. But if you crave novels that put the “novel” back in novel — here mashing up research in arctic exploration with travelogues, diary entries, diagrams, photographs, text messages, and the economy of Facebook likes — come a little closer, friend.

Continue reading

Miscellaneous updates: a q & a at The Seattle Review of Books, a review of DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR, an author-editor panel

7 Jul

 

My, My, My, My, My by Tara Hardy

Some heartbreaking poems I’ve been reading.

The Seattle Review of Books invited me to participate in their fun & breezy column, “Whatcha Reading?” I touched on dark psychological fiction, heartbreaking poetry, an essay on the cleverness of crows, and more. Something for everyone! Plus: a preview of some Women in Translation Month picks.

Over on the Magic Realism blog, Zoe Brooks had this to say about Daughters of the Air: “In every way this is a mature intelligent book which may not suit all readers, but it is an example of how magic realism is so suited to ambiguity and  to difficult subjects.” You can read the whole review here.

 

Also, I wrote a very personal essay about life choices here on Healthline.

Finally, this Monday at 6:30 pm at the Phinney Neighborhood Association, I will be participating in a panel discussion on the author-editor relationship at the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild. The panel will include Dave Boling, author of The Lost History of Stars and Jamie Swenson of the University of Washington marketing and communications department. Matthew Bennett of the guild will moderate. Not in town but curious about the topic? You can tune in live on YouTube.

“Sneaking into Dr. Zhivago” in Confrontation

22 Jun

I’m excited to have a new short story, “Sneaking Into Dr. Zhivago,” in the spring issue of Confrontation. It’s an honor to be in a journal that’s published the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Joseph Brodsky! Here’s how the story begins:

If not Paris, Vienna. That’s where I should have landed. My father sent my brother to medical school in Vienna, and I, I was being groomed for the Sorbonne. I would have studied history. And literature. Between the wars, many of my cousins moved to Vienna, London, New York. Children of my seven uncles.

Below you’ll find a photo of the first page of the story so you can get more a taste of it. If you’re intrigued, you can order a copy for just $12!

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.

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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.

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