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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.

 

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.

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

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille GanselOn WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:

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In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

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.

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.

“And Time Was No More” by Teffi

3 May

SubtlyWorded

The physical object that is Teffi’s Subtly Worded elicits in me a desire for extravagance. The texture of the cover, the deckled edge pages, the small purse-sized shape, the delectable bird pulling upon the woman’s hat ribbon—it is all delicious. (I have confessed here to hugging bookcases before; I also hug books.) Content-wise, I was intrigued with what perspectives Teffi, a Russian who fled the Revolution for France and has been compared to Chekhov, might offer.

It took me a few years to get through this collection, however. The prose is gorgeous, and I don’t fully understand why I couldn’t connect with these stories more. They seemed to lack a certain undercurrent. Perhaps they demand rereading. I did not enjoy Chekhov’s “Gusev” initially; I only came around on that story when rereading.

I decided to finally finish Subtly Worded this past New Year’s Eve. Michael and I went to the Fireside Lounge at the Hotel Sorrento (which is one of my favorite places in Seattle; check out their monthly Silent Reading Party). Our waitress had a wholesome yet aristocratic look about her in a cream-colored silk blouse; it seemed somehow fitting to the world of Teffi. There was live jazz and a roaring fire. And a chanteuse with a melodica, which she defined as the love child of an accordion and harmonica. Michael read Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which he adored (another book to add to my WIT pile). My cocktail tasted like chocolate and pine-sap.

“And Time Was No More,” my favorite story in Subtly Worded, is set in a cabin in the woods and moves with a dreamy end-of-life nostalgia. I wanted to copy out nearly every luscious paragraph. Here’s one that sums up the theme and impressionistic atmosphere:

“Sunset, on the other hand, is always sad. It may be voluptuous and opulent, and as richly sated as an Assyrian king, but it is always sad, always solemn. It is the death of the day.”

In the hotel lounge, a young woman strutted her newfound charms (plunging neckline, stilettos) beside her parents. Meanwhile, in Teffi: “At least once in your life you should hear a fox singing.”

The story turns quite philosophical. A mysterious hunter tells the narrator, “Just think of me as a composite character from your previous life.” The philosophical conversation between hunter and narrator got to be a bit too much, but the conceit, this sort of last-day-on-earth mélange of memory, did stick with me. Plus who doesn’t want to hear a fox singing?

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.

5StarDiveBar

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!

“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!

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