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MALEFICIUM by Martine Desjardins

31 Aug

Last week I was nervously waiting at the eye doctor (nervous mainly because of the pandemic, and a woman sitting just a smidge too close, though everyone was masked if not double-masked) and reading Maleficium*, a slender novel-in-stories by Martine Desjardins (trans. Fred A. Reed and David Homel), when I came upon the chapter “Oculus Malignus,” a 19th century confession from a maker of tortoiseshell eyeglasses who has recently gone blind. (*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)

The speaker had traveled to Muscat in search of tortoiseshell. There, in addition to slaughtering turtles, he meets a missionary with a scar on her upper lip and “irises […] of an acidic ocher hue.” The missionary shows him her pince-nez, much finer than any tortoiseshell he’d ever seen. Greedily, he asks where she found such material, and she is happy to oblige. By staring directly into the sun, “her lachrymal glands [would secrete] a substance that solidified when exposed to sunlight, and formed scaly tears.”

All of the stories are sensory-rich confessions, nearly all from greedy men who had traveled from Montreal east in search of some prized exotic material. They all come upon this mysteriously seductive woman with the scarred upper lip and some other monstrous quality. They all suffer horribly for their transgressions. As other reviewers have noted, this could be a bit repetitive, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the particular twist Desjardins puts on each tale. The gem-like prose, even when discussing all manner of effluvia, is a joy to read.

Here is one more example that captures the beautiful but bizarre storytelling, this time about the woman’s ear:

“The circumvolutions formed a perfect helix at the tip of each lobe, and the vortex with its spirals drew me into the mysterious orifice of her ear canal. I would have liked to place my eye against it, as a keyhole; through a kind of subtle intuition, suddenly I was sure I would find the key to new architectures there.”

The saffron-rich first story inspired me to make a saffron-infused gin cocktail for the virtual version of Publishing Cocktails’ annual summer book swap. Last summer, when an actual book swap was possible, I gave one of my absolute favorite books, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and received Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s What Diantha Did. I hope next summer it will once again be possible to actually foist a favorite on a fellow book lover.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

21 May

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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.

“Cosmic Fruit” in Orion Magazine

1 Jul

I’m thrilled to have my essay “Cosmic Fruit” in the gorgeous summer issue of Orion Magazine. It’s part of a collection of lyric essays on food and cultural memory that I’ve been slowly pecking away at for several years now, which includes “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in Los Angeles Review of Books and “Used to be Schwartz” in The Rumpus. You can subscribe to Orion Magazine or pick up a copy at your favorite bookstore or newsstand. Here’s a taste of “Cosmic Fruit”:

UPDATE (7/9): You can also read the essay online here.

Cross-Country Drive in Lists, 10 Years Later

5 May
In the Badlands in 2009

In 2009, Michael and I drove west from Brooklyn to start a new life in Seattle. I was beginning the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we were ready for a new adventure in a region neither of us ever thought we’d live in. I documented that first cross-country drive in a list of lists here.

Nearly ten years later, we felt the pull to come back east; in April, we packed up our things and now we’re in Chicago, starting the next chapter of our lives. But of course! We had to take another cross-country drive, partly retracing our steps but also seeing lots of new things. And herein is a list of lists for our second crossing:

  • Mileage: Approximately 2400
  • Days: 9
  • Start point: Seattle
  • End point: Chicago

Parting image of the Pacific Northwest: Wet roads, sopping dark evergreens.

Cities stopped in to eat and/or sleep: Ellensburg, WA; Spokane, WA; Missoula, MT; Bozeman, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Jackson Hole, WY; Rock Springs, WY; Laramie, WY; Cheyenne, WY; North Platte, NE; Lincoln, NE; Omaha, NE; Des Moines, IA; Iowa City, IA.

Detour: Petrified Ginko National Forest

Notable Spokane radio: Developing a trauma-informed perspective, on Native America Calling

Rivers crossed: Cle Elum, Columbia, Coer D’Alene, Clark Fork, Boulder, Jefferson, Missouri Headwaters, Madison, Gallatin, Snake, Buffalo, Hoback, Little Sandy, North Platte, Medicine Bow, Laramie, South Platte, Platte, Blue, Missouri, West Nishnabotna, East Nishnabotna, South Raccoon, North Raccoon, South Skunk, North Skunk, Guernsay, Iowa, Cedar, Mississippi, Fox.

Fauna spotted: bald eagles, hawks, bison, elk, alpaca, orioles, cardinals, starlings, geese, hundreds of horses, thousands of cows.

Best smelling city: Still Bozeman, ten years later. This time, instead of pine trees, it smelled of apple and smoked pork.

Most public service announcements about meth: Still Montana, ten years later. “Ask Me How My Gun Went Off.”

Most fun billboard: “Rock Creek Testicle Festival,” also in Montana.

Most awe: Western Wyoming.

Aw!

Best business name: Pickle’s Discount Mattress in Rock Springs, WY.

Promising overheard dialogue in Rock Springs: “I used to listen to Morning Joe, but I can’t anymore. I just wanna know what’s going on. Don’t rant at me!” This jived with our similar feeling of watching Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC for half a minute. Maybe we can turn it all off? Then again…

Notable Nebraska radio: Christian homeschool radio on social media and the “Pakistinian-Israelite Conflict”

Scariest downtown on a Sunday: North Platte, NE, mostly boarded up and closed, save for Hometown Cash Advance, Cash n’ Go, and a dollar store.

Scariest Victorian home to visit at dusk when no one’s around and the horses across the street are all staring at you: Buffalo Bill’s home, also in North Platte.

Notable Iowa radio: Agritalk. Regarding leaving the TPP: “Was the juice worth the squeeze?”

Happiest lunch spot: cheeky Gazali’s in Des Moines, IA, where we ate garlicky chicken shawarma after several days of burgers burgers burgers.

Unicorn in our Iowa City hotel room, with an excerpt from The Glass Menagerie

Best town name: What Cheer, IA.

Most adorable stop: Iowa City.

Most roadkill: Illinois 😦 Intestines coiled in the street like giant fusilli. My next novel will be a horror novel.

Notable Chicago radio that filled me with glee: Cardi B. on Polish-American Radio. Brr!

“a delightful little amuse-bouche of a book”

12 Dec

Paul Constant of The Seattle Review of Books had some lovely things to say about my new chapbook Sugar: “It’s a delightful little amuse-bouche of a book, with an ending that will charm Seattleites and tourists alike.” You can read more here.

This Saturday at 3 pm at the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market, I will be reading from Sugar, as well as some foodie excerpts from Daughters of the Air. The fabulous poets Montreux Rotholz and Alex Gallo-Brown will join me, and there will be treats. Constant says it’s the literary event of the week! Here is the event on Facebook. Hope to see you there.

Sugar at the Chin Music Press shop and online

19 Nov

On Friday, I stopped by the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market to sign copies of Sugar, my new chapbook, and Daughters of the Air. You can pop in to pick up copies while they last! (Also, get yourself a treat. I enjoyed a sesame red bean ball: crispy, glutinous, gooey, delightful.) Not in Seattle? You can order Sugar from Chin Music Press online right over here.

Set scene by poet & nonfiction author Michael Schmeltzer. Thank you, Michael!

Sugar, a chapbook from Chin Music Press

2 Nov

IMG_1169.JPGOh, my! It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog. Fun news: Chin Music Press is launching my short story Sugar as a lovely little chapbook tomorrow at the Short Run festival. The story first appeared in Gastronomica in 2013; it’s a modern, fabulist fairy tale set in Pike Place Market—and Chin Music’s sun-drenched showroom is located there too.  At least, it always seems sun-drenched when I am there. They make beautiful books! Check out Leanne Dunic’s dreamy prose poem novel To Love the Coming End and Zack Davisson’s Kaiybō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan and Kate Lebo’s A Commonplace Book of Pieall books I have thoroughly enjoyed.

If you’re in Seattle you can be among the first to get a copy at Short Run. Then, Chin Music will be at the Portland Book Festival next Saturday, November 10. You can also get a copy from me at one of my upcoming events or at the Chin Music showroom in the market.

Link for online purchases to come! In the meantime, here it is on Goodreads. And, while you’re on Goodreads, if you’re so inclined, would you vote for Daughters of the Air as your favorite debut of the past year? That is, if that is how you feel! Log into your account (or create one!), scroll down to the bottom of this page and type in the title. Write-in voting ends November 4. Thanks, always, for the love.

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Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

Summer Reading

25 May

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Every summer, I am simultaneously excited for and stressed out by the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures Adult Book Bingo program and Women in Translation Month, which happens in August. These are supposed to be fun efforts to read a lot, and they are fun, and yet I develop anxieties about time. (Ah, time. I am forever losing to time.) In any case, the 2018 book bingo card was recently released, and I eagerly printed out a copy and penciled in my aspirations for the season.

So, what are some books on my docket? My ideal reading diet consists of reading fiction, poetry, and nonfiction simultaneously, and my current reading manages three bingo squares:

  • Takes Place in the Area You Were Born: 10:04 by Ben Lerner. Lerner will give a talk at Hugo House on August 9, on the novel as a curatorial form. Intriguing!
  • Poetry or Essays (why, why aren’t these separate boxes?): To Repel Ghosts by Kevin Young, a book of poetry inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which I picked up at the Brooklyn Museum while on book tour.
  • Finish a Book You Started and Put Down: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The second section of this book, on processed food, was dry and slow, and I almost gave up on it. But I am super interested in the section on the rise of organic farming and look forward to the final section on foraging food, the reason I picked up the book in the first place. As I slowly work on a series of lyric essays about food and culture, I am finding Pollan’s research and writing mostly delightful and always informative.

Of course, none of these books are by women, nor are they in translation. So, here’s what’s next for me:

  • Written by An Author From Another Country: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf
  • Award-Winning Author: The Appointment by Herta Müller
  • Fiction: The Hottest Dishes of Tatar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

I also participated in the Seattle Public Library’s Your Next Five Books program, asking for smart, zippy books by women, ideally in translation. I’ll let you know what they recommend!  (In the meantime, if you are looking for recommendations from me, here are my previous posts on women in translation.) What are you reading this summer?

UPDATE (5/30/18): Here are the five “smart, zippy books by women” that the Seattle Public Library recommended. I am particularly excited about Umami by Lala Jufresa! From the title, to the author’s name, to the promise of a precocious 12-year-old girl protagonist (a soft spot for me), this book will for sure go on my Recommended by a Librarian bingo square.

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

26 Apr

KusamaLast summer, I had the good fortune of catching Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d had a taste of her work at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen  in Rotterdam, which owns a Mirror Room in its permanent collection, so I was ready to soak up more polka dots and tubers. One thing I learned at the SAM was Kusama’s obsession with pumpkins. (See Infinity Mirrored Room–All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016.) Pumpkins are a fairy tale-ish interest of mine (an essay for another time), and when I saw her autobiography Infinity Net (trans. Ralph McCarthy) in the museum shop, I needed to have it.

Well, I was disappointed that Kusama has little to say about that purported obsession, beyond this: “I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.” Painting that gourd, and onions, was a form of practice. I’ll just have to think on what she means by “solid spiritual balance.”

Pumpkin-disappointment aside, Infinity Net is a fascinating portrait of an artist’s ambition and drive. Escaping her hometown of Matsumoto City, where it was respectable to be a patron of the arts but not be an artist, she landed in New York City after a brief sojourn in Seattle. She received early encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, who worried she’d starve in New York City and invited her to New Mexico. But Kusama declined; NYC was where stars were made. So she would suffer, working despite conditions such as this: “New York is almost as far north as Sakhalin island, and I froze to the bone and developed a pain in my abdomen.”

Between her singular focus on repetition (to counter hallucinations, to obliterate herself, to lose herself in infinity), an incredible work ethic, and caring friends like O’Keefe and Donald Judd, she soon gained notice. She also developed a relationship with the reclusive Joseph Cornell; he was the only woman he’d had a relationship with, and would keep her on the phone for hours. His neediness eventually led to some shocking meanness. While recovering from prostrate surgery, he asked if she’d come visit. She said, “When Dali wants to see me…he sends his Rolls Royce for me. Shouldn’t you show more respect for the love of your life?” Yowzah. So he sent a woman in a Mercedes, and she describes their last encounter in graphic, unflattering terms. Still, she calls him her greatest artist friend, and I’m not sure if it is to make up for her admitted cruelty or because she genuinely feels that way, and/or whether she feels that way because he wrote her many poems and worshiped her, and she seems pretty set on lasting fame and stardom.

Kusama returned to Japan in the 1970s and has been voluntarily living in a mental institution there since 1977. The final chapter, on her drive to make lasting art as she comes nearer to death is particularly moving: “And no matter how I may suffer for my art, I will have no regrets. This is the way I have lived my life, and it is the way I shall go on living.”

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