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“Twenty-Six Notes on Cannibalism” in Los Angeles Review of Books

5 Sep
Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823
Francisco Goya
Museo Nacional del Prado

I’m excited to have another essay in Los Angeles Review of Books today, “Twenty-Six Notes on Cannibalism,” on Francisco Goya’s painting Saturn Devours His Son. This painting makes a cameo appearance in my forthcoming novel Daughters of the Air. You can read the piece here.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

“The Ball” by Irène Némirovsky

10 Aug

Golder

I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French to prepare for my language exam at UW. Among the three works I inched through, it was the only one I managed to finish that summer. (The others were Swann’s Way, which I hope to tackle again one day, though it will probably have to be in English with some kind of Proust support group, and a vintage collection of short stories in a volume designed for college students, which was kind of stodgy.)  What I remember best from Suite Française, other than the scenes of Parisians evacuating before the German Occupation, is Némirovsky’s use of light. A woman hiding in a house shrouded in trees seems trapped in something aquatic. It was then that I learned and cherished the word glaucous.

Other than the fact that the French were fleeing the Nazis, there was no whiff of anti-Semitism in that book that I, with my limited language skills, could detect. So I was surprised, when reading Claire Messud’s introduction to the collection David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair that Némirovsky was virulently anti-Semitic, a token Jew at a right-wing newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism. Not that any of this saved her in the end. (For an in-depth discussion of Némirovsky see Susan Rubin Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question.)

Michael read “David Golder,” the novel that made Némirovsky famous at 26. Though the story is well-written, the stereotypical depictions of Jewish businessmen did not sit well with him. (It should be pointed out, if you don’t know, that the stereotype of the banker Jew is a result of centuries of discrimination, as Jews were not allowed to practice most other professions or own land.) I wondered whether the popularity of “David Golder” had any connection to pandering to stereotypes. I decided to save my time and skip to “The Ball.”

Here, the Kampfs are a nouveau-riche couple who want to throw their first big party. M. Kampf “made a killing” in the Stock Market and in just four years they moved from a modest apartment to one that could accommodate (if a bit uncomfortably) 200 guests. The story was published in 1929 and you can feel the imminent doom.

M. Kampf is Jewish (alas, the Jewish stockbroker) and his wife is Catholic. They’re raising their fourteen-year-old daughter Antoinette to be Catholic. Mme. Kampf, whose past is questioned and who married M. Kampf for money, is desperate to host a glamorous party that will establish her reputation with the aristocracy. She hires a band to play the blues and the Charleston, and orders a bevy of roses, buckets of champagne, aspic, oysters, foie gras, caviar sandwiches, game, fish, petit fours, and, a modern luxury to be delivered fresh at 11 pm: ice cream.

Poor Antoinette keeps getting in the way of party planning. It is her violent emotions that attract me most to this story. Her thoughts feel the most real, compared to the somewhat flat, Mme. Bovary-esque aspirations of Mme. Kampf. Indignant, in bed, Antoinette thinks:

To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid–to be pushed around like a dog…I want to die! God, please make me die…Dear God, sweet Holy Virgin, why did you make me their child? Punish them, I’m begging you. Punish them just once, and after that, I’ll gladly die.

Antoinette’s desire for vengeance suggests something darker here than your run-of-the-mill teen anger, but it also pushes this story deliciously to its conclusion. The characters probably aren’t any more likable than in “David Golder,” not that that is a requirement for my reading pleasure. But Antoinette’s course of action moves the story toward a complex, yet surprisingly tender, picture of mother-daughter conflicts.  If you like the glamor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Stories, or coming-of-age stories in general, you’ll want to check this one out.

“Home Is Where the Pickled Cabbage Is: Searching Seattle for Authentic Romanian Food” in The Stranger

26 Jul
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The sarmale–stuffed cabbage–at Sunset Bistro, graced with a burn-off-your-tongue chili pepper and a polenta-and-sour-cream antidote.

My third piece for The Stranger takes me to Belltown’s Sarajevo Lounge, Bitter Lake’s European Foods, and Renton’s Sunset Bistro in search of Romanian food. It’s just a four-hour walk to Renton along Lake Washington, so one of these Saturdays I’m going to lace up my sneakers and return to Sunset Bistro ready to feast. You can read the article here.

“Spam: The Mystery Meat That Continues to Inspire Feelings of Agony and Ecstasy” in The Stranger

14 Jun
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Foreground: The Blahlah Special at Kauai Family Restaurant, including saimin, Portuguese sausage, Vienna sausage, and, of course, Spam.

My second piece for The Stranger is an essay on how I came around on Spam–the edible variety, not the annoying junk mail. I discuss, among other things, dishes from Cheeky Cafe, Super Six, and Kauai Family Restaurant. I understand Kauai Family Restaurant’s cakes cause people to weep: I will most certainly return at some point, hopefully soon, after I’ve eaten a decent amount of kale. You can read the article here.

This is my third essay drawing on a single two-week family trip to Romania in 1995. The first was “Used to be Schwartz” in The Rumpus, which (not incidentally?) also touches on a troubled relationship with ham. (But hey–to quote my great-grandmother, “If it tastes good, it’s kosher.”) The second was “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in The Los Angeles Review of Books. I’d love to go back to Romania sometime, not just to see how the country has changed (and of course to see family and family friends), but to see how my perceptions of the place have changed and to explore stories I couldn’t have possible looked for as a 12-year-old. Ah, someday!

“Seattle’s Delicious Ice-Cream Mile” in The Stranger

10 May
SaltedCaramelAsh

Salted Caramel Ash ice cream at Frankie & Jo’s. Photo by Michael Podlasek Kent.

I’m feeling pretty smart about pitching The Stranger an article about ice cream. The research process was rigorous. Read it here.

“Green Tea in a Pink Room” in The Sunlight Press

11 Apr
GreenhousePinkFlowers

Green house & cherry blossoms.

I’m delighted to have my prose poem “Green Tea in a Pink Room” published in The Sunlight Press today! This is my second poem to be published, after last year’s “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth” in Pacifica Literary Review. Maybe if I publish an average of one poem a year I’ll have enough for a collection by my 100th birthday? It’s good to have goals.

Upcoming Events: Elissa Washuta’s Centerless Universe & More

7 Feb
IDL TIFF file

Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxy – by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Please join me at the Central Library for Elissa Washuta’s reading “Seattle’s Fremont and the Centerless Universe” on Saturday, February 18 at 2 pm. Elissa spent the summer researching and writing in the Northwest tower of the Fremont Bridge. She’ll read an excerpt of the work spun out of that residency, exploring Seattle’s waterways, bridges, and spirits. And the neon Rapunzel! It’s an honor to discuss this project with Elissa, a dear friend, fellow UW MFA alum, and ridiculously talented author.

Apropos of landscape, there are still spots available in my Hugo House class Writing About Place. Class meets Wednesdays 2/22-3/29, 5-7 pm. Want to dream up a utopia? Destroy a dystopia? Burrow into memories of home or explore a foreign city?  We’ll write lots, read great stories, and maybe share some snacks from George’s, my favorite Polish deli, around the corner from Hugo House.

Looking ahead to spring, I’m teaching an online webinar on Contemporary Fairy Tales via Inked Voices on Saturday, April 29, 9 am-10:15 am PST (12 pm-1:15 pm EST). You can also opt in for a critique of a four-page fairy tale here.

Aside

Last Six Copies of “I Loved You in New York”

13 Jan

There are just six copies left of my chapbook “I Loved You in New York” (alice blue books, 2015). Since alice blue shut its doors in 2016, I’ve been selling them at readings and on Etsy. (UPDATE: Only one left! Snatch it up!) An excerpt:

On Valentine’s Day, she’s feeling a little sick, so they stay in and watch part of Cronenberg’s Crash and eat Stouffer’s chocolates while on the screen a bloodied couple screws each other in a car wreck.

Get it in time for Valentine’s Day!

Did you already read and enjoy? Please leave a review on Goodreads. My ego thanks you.

i-loved-you-in-new-york-cover

“Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in Los Angeles Review of Books

6 Oct
plums2

Italian prune plum galaxy

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!

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Jacopo Ligozzi (Italian, 1547 – 1627 ), A Marmot with a Branch of Plums, 1605, brush with brown and black wash, point of the brush with black and brown ink and white gouache, and watercolor, over traces of graphite on burnished paper, Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke 2007.111.121

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