Tag Archives: cities

Netherlandish Birds

15 May

bosch-pond

Thanks to the tremendous generosity of the Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, I spent the earlier part of this month in the Netherlands, researching my third novel. M came as my trusty research assistant, furnishing highlighters, snacks, and sweaters with alacrity. There’s a lot of information crammed in my skull right now, which I am organizing as best I can, hoping it seeps into the crevices of my subconscious fruitfully.

What struck me on our trip: the birds! (I know, I know, put a bird on it.) Egrets, loons, swans, geese, ducks, grouse, crows; white-breasted, brilliant blue, long-tailed, plump and shimmery; raucous, trilling, warbling, chortling. Fact: the first painting acquired by the Rijksmuseum features a bold, angry swan.

Jan_Asselijn_-_De_bedreigde_zwaan;_later_opgevat_als_allegorie_op_Johan_de_Witt_-_Google_Art_Project

In the moat by the citadel in ‘S-Hertogenbosch, an egret bullied ducks until a trio of geese chased the egret to the boardwalk where it loomed. This continued on a loop for a while. A seagull swooped down to chase the egret further and when the egret returned, the geese trailed it, sinister and slow. Sinister, at least, until we realized there were goslings near.

In a canal in Rotterdam, three loons had a lovers’ spat. Slapped wings, held heads beneath the water–murderous! Not far from there, we strolled past the “swan bridge,” soaring and modern.

On our last night in Amsterdam, we stayed at a fanciful b&b on the Western Canal Belt. Our hostess could not greet us when we arrived. She hid our keys in a flowerpot. Up two steep, narrow flights of stairs, we flung open the door. The lights were on, the doors and windows open, a gust of wind coming from the terrace, which led to another room with another open door, and the flutter and chirp of green and yellow parakeets, in a big cage looking down upon the Keizersgracht canal. Old books stacked everywhere, art on the walls and leaning upon the books, a laptop left on a long wooden table, half open, as if our hostess had left in a hurry. It had the feel of that computer game Myst, where mysterious rooms, empty of people, always suggest a presence, a place quickly abandoned. We did meet her late that night and in the morning at breakfast the birds flew freely about the room and she would call to them and air kiss them and talked to us about Argentina and Barcelona and photography and her love of Amy (Winehouse).

Apropos of birds, on the flight back, I finished Noy Holland’s debut novel Bird, a raw gorgeous thing. Here, I leave you with an excerpt:

She was hungry again and gorged herself on chicken fried steak and skittles, on vermilion faces of canyons, cliffs you could dig with a spoon.

 

Interview in Ordinary Madness #76

9 Mar

Yesterday I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Barker for the 76th edition of Ordinary Madness, his Arts & Entertainment podcast. We talked about novel writing, rejection, The Furnace, the effects of winning awards, and a bit about my time at McGill University in Montreal. I also read two short-short stories, one of which is quite new. Fun!

Women in Translation

25 Jun

August is Women in Translation Month (WITMonth), designed to encourage readers, reviewers, publishers, and translators to explore more books in translation by women. If you’ve been following the VIDA count, then the grim statistics around women in translation (gathered diligently by Meytal Radzinski) is, unfortunately, not a surprise: women writers comprise only about 30% of books translated into English. As I’m passionate about cultivating a diverse literary ecosystem, this is a project near and dear to my heart. And though I’m happy WITMonth is an annual event, I’m getting started right now. Because there are SO MANY good books and I’m sure there are SO MANY MORE out there waiting to be picked up by a publisher and gobbled by readers.

I immediately pulled all the books from my shelves that fit the bill. I made a read pile and a to-be-read pile. Of the read pile, I’d like to make some recommendations, for those of you who’d like to join me in WITMonth. Read these books! And I’ll be diving into the to-be-read pile and writing about the gems in that pile in August. Read those books too! Let’s talk about ’em!

Recommended Books

Tasty pile of books in translation

Tasty pile of books in translation.

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from Catalan by Martha Tennent (Open Letter, 2009). A gorgeously written and harrowing novel about cruelty among humans and violence in nature.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2005). A dark, slender novel about a woman abandoned by her husband spiraling into terrifying psychological territory, with a helpful dash of absurd humor and redemption. After devouring this book, anything else was VERY difficult to get into. So good. This brief review in The New Yorker is spot on. I have not cracked open her more recent Neapolitan series, but it is definitely on the docket.

The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Biblioasis, 2012). Another dark novel. I’m sensing a trend? This metafictional work explores Argentina’s Dirty War. I reviewed it for Ploughshares.

Death as a Side Effect by Ana Maria Shua, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). As I note briefly in my review of Heker’s novel, Shua‘s is “dark and wry and screwed up in the best possible dystopian way.” Is it weird to quote myself? Oh well.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books, 2004). I adore Archipelago for focusing on translation and producing truly beautiful books. Dreams and Stones is probably the least dark book on my list, a kind of treatise on cities and imagination.

Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated from French by Gail Scott (Talon Books, 2002). I read this novel a few times, starting in a class in college on literary Montreal. It’s set in the neighborhood I lived in while at McGill, which may be part of my attachment to it. And, yes, yes, this is another dark story, about an obese pianist at a ballet school teetering toward psychosis.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller, translated from German by Michael Hoffman (Metropolitan Books, 1996). Muller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature, paints a grim picture of life in Romania under Ceausescu. The language is highly poetic, and I’ve been working on an essay about it (among other things) for quite some time. In fact, the assignment I’ve given myself for the next few weeks is to cut that essay up paragraph by paragraph to figure out how to keep going with it.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012). Told from the point of view of an unnamed young woman, this is the story of Romanian refugees who travel through Europe as circus performers. Yes, yes, dark. But also with absurd humor. (Some criticize Muller for being humorless. I say, bah. Read her still. Not everything is funny ha ha.)

Phew. That’s a lot of recommendations. There are more in my pile. I may write more about them. More likely I will tweet my favorite bits from them in August. But not just August. Probably all year. WITForever!

My To-Be-Read Pile. Stay tuned for reviews & more !

Another tasty pile of translated books.

Another tasty pile of translated books.

Eight Million New Yorks, Thirteen Million Tokyos

22 Jun

716I like big cities and I cannot lie. They’ve fascinated me for a long time. Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Lena Dunham, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sapphire, and Betty Smith all have wildly different visions of New York City. Sometimes I feel apologetic for writing about New York, because of some perception that most writing about New York is stereotypical and/or because New York stories dominate the landscape and are therefore overdone.

But, having grown up in Brooklyn, it is impossible for me not to write about it. And, as with any piece of writing, of course, the deeper you dig into something, the more you unpack a city or character’s complexities, the farther away you get from tired old narratives. Write the story only you can write, advice I picked up at the Tin House Writers Conference, has been enormously valuable to me in moving forward with stories and novels and embracing my own peculiar vision. New York is the city I know best and the one I can endlessly burrow into.

New York is not, however, the only city that fascinates me, whose identity offers multitudes. I fell head over heels in love with Tokyo and can’t wait to get back there one day to walk its ancient alleys and zoom by its blinking towers. Reading 1Q84 after experiencing Tokyo made palpable the dreamy and unsettling alternate universes cities offer.

Working on my first novel, I swam in a pile of books set in Buenos Aires. Fiction, memoir, reportage, poems. Anything I could get my hands on, starting with Borges. Then I was fortunate enough to take the leap and visit. That city’s mix of architectural traditions (Spanish, English, French) creates the strange sensation of being in South America and Europe simultaneously. And the simultaneity feels more real because of my different encounters with the city through literature.

Chicago is a place close to my heart, but whose literature I’m less steeped in. I love how the El downtown feels like a mash up of the outer boroughs of New York with stately old Chicago buildings. I know Saul Bellow writes Chicago, and he’s been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I’m wondering about all the literary versions of Chicago. Other than say, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, also in my to-read pile.

I’m wondering, too, about the literary versions of Seattle. Truth Like the Sun, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and Blueprints from the Afterlife have been in my to-read pile for some time. Now that I’ve lived in Seattle for over five years, I may find myself writing about it too. That is, after I get through novels two and three. One day.

What are your favorite writers who have particular visions for the cities they write?

Video

Made at Hugo House Reading – The Zoo

2 Apr

In February, the Made at Hugo House fellows read from our works-in-progress. I read “The Zoo,” which I had written in October while nervously waiting to hear whether I’d gotten into the program, and which was published in Washington City Paper’s D.C.-themed fiction issue in January. It was a lovely evening!

Vegas, Maybe

20 May

Hoover Dam. Photo by M.

M and I went to Las Vegas last week. We spent Mother’s Day there with our fathers. (Obviously, we’ll do something motherly on Father’s Day. ) My dad goes there quite often, on business; the last time I’d been was about twenty years ago, when we combined one of his business trips with a family vacation. Then, we rode the Canyon Blaster at Circus Circus and shuffled from 112 degree heat to the cool of Caesars Palace; I thought the ladies dressed as Cleopatra were pretty neat. We hiked Red Rock Canyon at sunset and drove through Death Valley, where I thought that if we opened the car door, we’d immediately crumple or explode.

On this visit, I felt unsettled by all that excess in the middle of the desert. M and I wondered why the city had to be built so far from Lake Mead.  I found myself wondering how much longer Lake Mead has and why the casinos and hotels aren’t totally clad in solar panels. (Happily, Las Vegas City Hall is.) I spent some time hiding from hotter-than-usual-even-for-Vegas heat on a comfy chair at the Bellagio, reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise, a novel which, among other things, explores urban development in Miami in the face of climate change and worsening hurricanes. Of course, it *is* an exciting city that is “going for it,” so to speak, which is what makes it so attractive for so many people. I just wish it was “going for it” in a way that is more obviously sustainable.

Speaking of birds, my short story “Raven in a Jar” received a Special Mention in the Salem College International Literary Awards’ Reynolds Price Fiction Prize, judged by Kate Bernheimer. Yay!

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):

Tiny Fish, Kyoto

14 Apr

Last week, I swooned over Tokyo’s never-endingness. This week I want to tell you about tiny things.

On a rainy night in Kyoto, we got lost looking for a restaurant recommended by my guidebook. (Silly me and my seven-year-old book!) We came to a lovely street, less bustling and generic than the downtown boulevard we’d been following and bisected by a canal, the yellow light of intimate restaurants illuminating the water. We poked around a few restaurants there, though the ground-floor ones seemed to cater to executives on expense accounts, and one that required taking an elevator gave off an unsettling-is-this-a-restaurant-or-not vibe, so we turned off this very-pretty-but-inaccessible street, onto an alley.We were tired, hungry, and wet.

This is the first place we found:

Image

The restaurant was down a set of stairs and a sign above the stairway said “We have Yuba Food here!” J explained the yuba is tofu skin. A bearded man in a corduroy blazer rounded the corner, saw us deliberating outside, and smiled wide, encouraging us to go on in, so we took him up on it, descending the staircase and following a narrow cellar hallway to the front door. J peaked in the window. “It looks cozy,” he said.

It was, indeed, a tiny place, with one counter and one wooden table, which could seat about eight and at which sat two men just finishing their meal. The man in the picture (above), wearing a lab coat and a pink bowtie, greeted us and seated us at the table, telling the men already there to recommend dishes to us. We learned they were from Osaka, but regulars here. They asked if we like oysters (we do), but then went on to recommend a seasonal specialty, baby bamboo tempura.

Before the food came out, the woman of the picture above, in a red headscarf and looking eerily like a Japanese version of my paternal grandmother, brought out three little ceramic dishes – an amuse-bouche of tiny raw fish in a ponzu sauce, topped with grated radish and hot sauce. The fish were not so tiny that you could not see their tiny eyes. Their silvery skin was translucent, beneath which ran a dark line from head to tail. Reader, I’m sorry that we were squeamish. The only thing to do was eat the tiny fish. J had a lot of practice with this, having lived in Japan as long as he did. We all took a big gulp of cold beer and downed the tiny raw fish with their tiny eyes and tiny intestinal lines. It couldn’t be done in one bite, of course. There were lots of tiny fish in our tiny ceramic bowls. Actually, the dish was quite delicious (texture aside — an acquired taste, I’m sure!). I got through about half. J got through about half. But M? M was resolved to eat all his many tiny fish. And eat he did! Which led to a discussion on the origin of the phrase “mad props”. 

We ate crab wrapped in yuba and a tomato-cheese-in-a-skillet-thing, but by the far the most delectable dish was the spring vegetable tempura, which included asparagus, a “spring flower”, a “tree root” (which I think was actually an exceptionally refined piece of broccoli), and the tender baby bamboo, crown jewel of the spring vegetables. Which just goes to show, always ask a local for a recommendation.

Food aside, this was a neat little place. The stucco walls and the basement location made it feel like a cave whose walls had been whitewashed. A mask made of a coconut shell sat on a side table by the door and one wall was adorned with a motherboard. The music jumped from African to traditional Japanese (the koto, I think), to jazz. I felt like we were just hanging out at someone’s house.

I wish I could tell you exactly where this place was, but maybe the best way to experience it is to stumble upon it?Image

Tokyo, City of My Dreams

7 Apr

M. and I went to Japan last month to visit his brother J., who’d been living there for six years. We met J. in Tokyo, and traveled with him to Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe before hopping over to NYC for a wedding. I’m back in Seattle and not-too-jet-lagged and will write about the trip over the next few posts.

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo, having grown up in Brooklyn but having lived in Seattle for the last few years, is how large – and dense – it is. For me, this is joy. I love to be on an elevated subway, careening past a cityscape (hence the glee I experience in Chicago), glimpsing life from an angle you can’t get from any other vantage. I love, also, wandering the sidewalks, turning off from the bustle of boulevards to find a narrow alleyway filled with mom & pop restaurants, tiny art galleries, adorable (if, in Tokyo, overpriced) cafes.  (M.’s urban planning is really rubbing off on me!) The thing about Tokyo is that wandering its enormity is like wandering the best of my anxiety dreams. Do you have those dreams where you’re lost in a city (for me, always a version of New York or Montreal or some fusion of the two) and the streets and trains never seem to end? I do. But in Tokyo, it felt right. Exhausting, as a tourist, but right. And despite that, one is never far away from a quiet garden or temple or shrine  – some place where the noise just falls away and you’re in contact with the natural world. 

There is so much to say about Tokyo, I can’t fit it all into a blog post. But, one of my favorite things we did was take a “Haunted Tokyo” walking tour, meandering the back alleys of Kabukicho, an older neighborhood that is now the red light district. Our tour guide, Lilly, has been living in Tokyo nearly 27 years and collecting its ghost stories all along. Our first stop was a Shinto shrine to the “mother of all angry ghosts,” O-iwa. The gruesome story of her death (her husband poisons her slowly, and half her face becomes disfigured, her eyeball drooping off of it) reminded me of how the worst of my migraines feels. To soothe O-iwa’s spirit, and to stay on her good side, local merchants leave her offerings of sake.

We stopped by a Buddha of the Phlegm (which is not haunted, but a good place to cure congestion problems) and learned that workers in the Edo period believed earthquakes (which happened every 50 years or so) were caused by the cat fish god, which, Lilly said, they liked because the cyclical upheaval caused a radical redistribution of wealth and rebuilding the city meant more opportunities for work.

Lilly told many more ghost stories, but perhaps my favorite morsel of her spiel was not ghostly at all. Walking down “Golden Alley,” a nightlife area purported to be favorite haunts of Wim Wenders, Johnny Depp, and Tim Burton, she told us that *her*favorite bar, Cremaster, is hosted by a psychiatrist, who for 1500 yen will give you a drink and a 30 minute chat. Maybe next time I’m in Tokyo I’ll go there and tell him about my endless-city-anxiety-dreams over a shikuwasa sour.

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