Moon Palace Books and the New Uncle Hugo’s

On Sunday, I attended an author panel on middle grade fantasy at Moon Palace Books. Although I’ve known about Moon Palace for a while, it was my first time visiting the bookstore. It’s located in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood and is known for its engagement with the local community and its activist and social justice-oriented stances. In 2020, during the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, the plywood boarding up Moon Palace’s storefront bore the slogan Abolish the Police painted in huge letters. The bookstore was spared from damage. Moon Palace also continues to require masks in the store, so the audience at the panel was entirely masked.

The storefront of Moon Palace Books

The panel was held in a back room reminiscent of a blackbox theater. The signs reading Abolish the Police were stored against the back wall. The moderator (also an author) was J.M. Lee, and the panelists were Anne Ursu, Kelly Barnhill, Payal Doshi, and H.M. Bouwman. All the authors are Twin Cities residents. I’m most familiar with Anne Ursu and Kelly Barnhill’s work, but I had heard of all the writers.

Lee asked the panel a series of questions about what fantasy meant to them, their thoughts on worldbuilding, the characters in the novels they were each promoting that day, Ursula K. LeGuin’s quote about how fantasy isn’t factual, but it’s true, and children know that. Anne Ursu said that for her first secondary world fantasy novel, The Real Boy (which is good–I recommend it!), she created a map of the island with a river bisecting it, and her editor told her that rivers didn’t work that way. This was in the context of her expressing that she wasn’t good at the more scientifically-minded side of worldbuilding. She said she then decided she needed a real-world cognate so that she could look up all the answers to her own worldbuilding questions; she opted for an island in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 17th century. For her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy (also great!), the setting was inspired by very early 19th century Romania (her heritage being Romanian on her father’s side).

Kelly Barnhill said–or at least this was my interpretation–that authors or perhaps readers sometimes get too hung up on worldbuilding details that we aren’t even familiar with in our own world. That is, you (or your characters) don’t need to know everything about your fantasy world because there’s so much ordinary people don’t know about the world we live in. She cited as an example the fact that she’d driven to Moon Palace Books in a car, but she had no idea, say, where the tires of her car came from. For her part, she was more interested in the side of worldbuilding that covers what stories everyone knows. For example, if we read an article in the sports section of the paper that uses the phrase Cinderella story, we all know what that means (at least, most people). She likes to know what such cultural touchstones are in her world. Or, what stories do children tell when they really want to scare each other/themselves? These are the things she’s interested in, even if they never make it onto the page. Separately, she also mentioned that the history of sewer systems, and how the technology kept being lost, was fascinating.

Payal Doshi shared an anecdote from when she was getting her MFA in New York and her workshop classmates thought Darjeeling was the fantasy world (I think this was about her debut, Rea and the Blood Nectar, which is a portal fantasy that starts out in India). She also talked about how people assume that fantasy by Indian authors will involve India-inspired worlds or incorporate Indian mythology. The fantasy world in her book, Astranthia, is more “East meets West,” combining different inspirations in a way that is more reflective of her childhood growing up in Mumbai.

Earlier in the conversation, Anne Ursu revealed that she and Kelly Barnhill had grown up going to the same library (the Walker library), though they didn’t know each other at the time. This was in the context of Barnhill talking about how she’d been obsessed with the Oz books as a kid because they were deeply weird and she was a deeply weird child. Her zeal for borrowing all the Oz books was how she discovered interlibrary loan. This led to a whole tangent about how strange the Oz books are and all the startling gender stuff in them and also the fact that L. Frank Baum apparently had all his royalties go to his wife. He also kept trying to stop writing Oz books in order to write other things, but then he’d run out of money and have to write another Oz book.

I especially enjoyed when the panelists got to talking about the characters in their latest books because it turned into a discussion of their siblings. Heather Bouwman’s book features four sisters, and she herself has three sisters. When they found out she was writing this book, they were anxious to check that it wasn’t memoir. Bouwman said the story began as Little Women fan fiction, and indeed the characters’ names still echo Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Payal Doshi has a sister, whereas her main character has a twin brother, but she talked about the love-hate relationships siblings often have (you might hate your sibling sometimes, but if they get kidnapped, you’ll do anything to rescue them!). Anne Ursu said that, like her protagonist Marya, she has an older brother who, it sounds like, got a lot of attention related to his hockey playing when they were growing up. However, she said that he was much nicer than the older brother in her book. Her parents were actually in the audience–she gestured at them–and she said she’d assured them that the family dynamics in her novel were not about the hockey.

Finally, Kelly Barnhill said she was inwardly freaking out because she realized she had this thing about writing oldest daughters. She talked about growing up as an oldest daughter whose job it was to take her four younger siblings (and sometimes extra cousins or friends) to the library each Saturday to give their mother a break. She also has thirtysome cousins on one side of the family and twentysome on the other, and there was something particular about all the oldest daughters. My interpretation was that they were expected to take on a lot of responsibility and internalized that such that they were then always shouldering all responsibilities for the rest of their lives. (I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter…of an oldest daughter! But I only have one younger sibling, so I’m not sure how much I really exhibit oldest daughter traits.) At this point, Anne Ursu jumped in to say that she thought Kelly Barnhill also liked to write very kind characters, and Barnhill agreed.

Inside Moon Palace Books

After several audience questions, the panel ended, and the authors were available to sign books out on the main floor of the store. There was no formal setup for this; they were just hanging out, and people were going up to talk to them. I explored the bookstore, since it was my first time visiting, and I ultimately bought Kelly Barnhill’s most recent book, a novella for adults called The Crane Husband (I did hesitate over When Women Were Dragons). By this time, the small crowd had started to disperse, so I asked Barnhill to sign my book, which she did. Then I went to say hello to Anne Ursu, who I’ve met a couple of times before.

Next, since I was in the neighborhood, I crossed the street to check out the new location of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. This is another well-known local bookshop that I finally got around to visiting in early 2020. It was then destroyed by fire in the unrest, but happily it has reopened a stone’s throw from Moon Palace. I knew this since I’d been following updates on the store’s fundraising page. The new store feels a bit warehouse-y in its bareness (I think there was a recent flooding issue too, which may have contributed to that), but it’s chock full of books, which is the important thing. There’s also still a bookstore dog. I found what I was looking for: Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to A Memory Called Empire) in paperback.

The new Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s

Books purchased, I walked further down Minnehaha Ave. to the Minnehaha Scoop, a little ice cream shop I hadn’t known about before this month. It’s a small store on a corner lot, with doors open on two sides. The seating is all outdoors: a few brightly painted benches under colored umbrellas, with planters of coleus and petunias. They serve Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, which comes from Madison, WI (a sandwich board outside had some amusing “nutrition facts” that included the phrases “don’t even ask” and “if you want nutrition, eat carrots”). At first, I was disappointed that they were out of chocolate ice cream and I wasn’t sure what to get, but there was a flavor called Zanzimint that combined their Zanzibar chocolate (a richer, more chocolate-y chocolate ice cream, I believe) and mint, so I chose that, and it was delicious, especially on a hot, sunny day.

My Zanzimint ice cream cone (this was “one” scoop)

On my way back up the street, I passed the art studio and store of Ricardo Levins Morales, whose artwork I recognized. I don’t think I’d realized he was local! He creates art for community organizing, social justice, and activist movements. Printed on the windows of his studio were the 10- and 13-point programs of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, respectively.

Ricardo Levins Morales’s art studio and store

Merry May

Nothing terribly exciting has been going on, but I have some cheery highlights from this month as May draws to a close. I mentioned in my 2022 in Review that I’d joined the Collegium Musicum, Grinnell’s early music ensemble, this academic year. I have been playing the bass viol (viola da gamba). At the beginning of May, the St. Paul-based Baroque ensemble Flying Forms came to campus to give a concert, as well as a series of lessons, master classes, and workshops for Collegium members. We in the viol ensemble enjoyed a workshop with Flying Forms’ cellist and gambist (that’s the same person), though I did not personally feel very coachable (pretty sure my musical abilities–at least the cello-related ones–peaked around my senior year of high school/first year of college).

The concert on Saturday evening was fun; Flying Forms was joined by a local mezzo-soprano who has been teaching voice at the college but who is moving out of state this summer. The program was a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces. The concert opener was Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While,” which I first encountered thanks to The New York Times’ 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Baroque Music feature (I already loved Baroque music). My initial parse of the title was parallel to music for a party or music for a birthday. You know, music for a while. But grammatically it’s actually Music, for a while, shall all your cares beguile, which really makes more sense. Anyway, it’s kind of a weird piece, though appropriate to begin a concert, and I don’t think I was the only audience member seized by the urge to laugh by the fifth or sixth repetition of drop (in case you’re wondering, it’s snakes that are dropping).

My favorite part of the concert was the very end, and to explain why, I have to go back. When I was leaving for the performing arts center, I wondered vaguely whether the evening’s program might include Handel’s “Flammende Rose,” a song I like very much. After all, it was a Baroque ensemble performing with a mezzo-soprano. I arrived at the auditorium, found a seat, and opened the program to find that it listed a different one of Handel’s nine German arias. Ah, well. At the end of the concert, I had a feeling there would be an encore; it just felt like the right context for one (fairly intimate concert, the singer’s last local appearance…). The musicians filed back on stage, and the mezzo-soprano announced that the encore would be…”Flammende Rose”! I was delighted. And it was splendid. I came to know this aria through music listening in high school, and it was wonderful to hear it performed live. (A week later I got to tell the mezzo-soprano all of this at a party, but I digress.) Shortly after the concert, there was a reception at the local wine bar, which ended up being more of a small gathering in which I was the only amateur musician. It was a fun time, though.

The following weekend was our concert. The viol ensemble, along with a four-member choir and a countertenor, performed Orlando Gibbons’ “This is the Record of John.” This was my favorite piece we played all year. My parents came to the concert since it’s one of my mother’s favorite musical works too. The countertenor was my student in introductory linguistics a year ago, and he has an amazing voice. At the concert, I also played (in ensembles) a Byrd pavan and galliard and a paven by William Lawes (whom I hadn’t heard of before we got the music). The Lawes was the first piece in which I had to shift on viola da gamba.

About another week later was Commencement. I did not march this year or last (someday!), but I still enjoyed seeing some of my students graduate. The Class of 2023 were first-years when I arrived at Grinnell, so I’d taught some of them in their and my very first semester. Also, three first-year students in that first Intro to Linguistics class I taught eventually declared concentrations in Linguistics, and I taught all three of them this semester–their last–in a sort of capstone class!

This past weekend was the Midwest Morris Ale (an event I have previously mentioned in passing). My friend David and I went to Minnehaha Falls to catch the mass Morris dancing. I recognized a number of people from contra dancing and shape note singing and such, and I got to say hello to a college classmate who dances with one of the sides attending the ale.

Morris dancers at Minnehaha Falls Park

Finally, my brother’s housemate adopted a kitten recently, and I got to meet him! He’s so tiny.

Sleepy kitten on a couch

Trip to Zürich

The title of this post is a slight misnomer because this is actually the account of my spring break travels to Paris and Zürich. But in my case, Zürich is the less frequent destination, and I wanted to keep the post title format consistent. (Also, is it true I’ve never written a “Trip to Paris” post?! The English country dance Trip to Paris is the source of title format!)

Ahem, anyway. Late last year, my family learned that Katlyn, one of my Swiss second cousins, was getting married right in the middle of my spring break. It seemed like too perfect an opportunity to pass up. Katlyn is the same age as my brother, and over a decade ago she lived with my family for a year so she could experience American high school (I was already in college by then). She even came with us to the shelter to pick out Bismarck, the surly ginger cat who’s been with us every since. Our families have also visited one another quite a few times over the years, in the U.S. and in Switzerland. So my parents, brother, and I all decided to attend the wedding.

Our itineraries were different, though. I made plans to visit Isabelle in Paris and go to Zürich for the wedding weekend while the rest of my family went on a short vacation in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, before the wedding. We all left from Minnesota on the same day. For the first time ever, I flew Air Canada, with a layover in Montreal. The flight to Montreal was on a little regional jet (the aircraft seemed to be a Mitsubishi?). The Montreal airport’s code is YUL, which to my amusement is actually pronounced Yule in announcements over the public address system. I had a great experience with Air Canada, the return trip snag notwithstanding.

I arrived in France and spent a few days in Meudon. Then, on Friday, Isabelle and I took the bus and the metro to Gare de Lyon so I could catch my TGV to Switzerland. The TGV Lyria is a direct train line between Paris and Zürich (it’s a joint French-Swiss venture, and I hoped that Switzerland’s 25% share would shield me from any effects of the mouvement social on the French side). The train stopped in Dijon, Mulhouse, and Basel. It was a perfectly pleasant journey, though not extraordinarily scenic (mostly just fields, streams, villages…). We reached Zürich Hauptbahnhof, where I purchased a local transit ticket and hopped on a tram to the rental my immediate family was sharing with three more of my second cousins. (These second cousins are siblings and the bride’s first cousins; they had all flown in from the U.S. too.) I was reunited with my mother, brother, and second cousins in the local Migros (a grocery store), which was attached to the Zürich Tram Museum. Back at the apartment, the seven of us spent the evening catching up and shared a big pot of lentils and quinoa for dinner.

The next day was the wedding. After a leisurely morning at the breakfast table, we took the tram north and then walked to the top of the hill where the church stood. It was at least partly sunny but a bit chilly. In the square in front of the church, near the front steps, Katlyn’s brothers and their girlfriends were greeting guests and handing out programs. We went inside and found seats on the right side of the sanctuary, pretty close to the front. Katlyn’s now-husband is from Singapore, though he’s lived in Switzerland for a while, and Germany before that. Most of the wedding ceremony was in English, but the announcements at the beginning and end were made in English and German.

After the ceremony, I had a chance to greet Katlyn’s parents, and then we all went out to join in the human tunnel through which the newlyweds were going to run (well, walk briskly). The tunnel stretched from the open doors of the church, down the steps, through the square, down some more steps, and along the sidewalk around the corner. We all raised our arms to form an arch (like in the Virginia reel), and the newlyweds ducked their way through. Then there were group photos, covering many different constituencies, on the steps of the church. We were in one of the extended family photos.

As the photos wound down, the guests crossed the street to the lower-level fellowship hall of a different church (Katlyn’s family’s congregation uses space in both buildings) for the apéro. It was early afternoon, and we’d been told there would be wedding cake at 3:00pm. My brother and second cousins and I mostly hung around a single cocktail table. The apéro was substantial (bruschetta, empanadas, croquettes…), which was nice, since we hadn’t really had lunch. The cake cutting was a little behind schedule (in Switzerland!), but then there was cake. Under the frosting, there were two layers of chocolate cake with a whipped cream and strawberry filling in between.

The wedding cake (actually, there were two cakes, but I think this was the main one)

By the time we left the apéro and returned to the apartment, we only had about twenty minutes before it was time to leave for the evening dinner. We set out for the reception venue on foot, bearing our wedding gifts. We met a couple of friendly cats on the way. The dinner was at a restaurant on the grounds of a medical campus focused on epilepsy. The serving space inside the restaurant made it seem like it was a hospital cafeteria, but the whole space was also clearly an event venue. There were walls of windows facing a view of Lake Zurich.

The restaurant (on the ground floor) from outside and behind

The dinner was a buffet, served in the cafeteria area, that included a salad bar and a wide variety of hot entrées. The salad bar had, among other things, mâche, little shrimp, slices of smoked duck breast, berries, and potato salad. The main dishes included salmon, couscous, some kind of beef stew, rice, glass noodles with vegetables, dumplings, and more. Later on, after a long break, there was a dessert buffet featuring mousse au chocolat, fruit tarts, tiny cheesecakes, chocolate cake, and lots more.

Before dessert, however, there was a program that included speeches by the best man and the maid of honor, a choreographed dance number by the German contingent that reenacted Katlyn’s husband’s journey from Singapore to Germany to Switzerland and their meeting at a bowling alley, and a long slideshow narrated by Katlyn’s father, punctuated by pop quiz questions (mostly to Katlyn, about where photos had been taken, for instance). It was quite entertaining, and among the pictures I spotted one of Katlyn carving a pumpkin on my family’s kitchen table. Toward the end, Katlyn’s father produced the actual chenille letter that Katlyn earned while at American high school in Minnesota. He’d turned it into a necklace, which he put around his new son-in-law’s neck.

Program aside, there was also more unstructured time during which Katlyn came to our table to talk for a while. It was my only chance to really chat with her since I’d missed my family’s rösti lunch with her and her then-fiancé on Friday. Later, her husband took pictures of her with my brother and me, and my brother and I also tried out the photo booth. Still later, the dancing began. Katlyn and her husband had chosen “You Can’t Stop the Beat” for their first dance (apparently they’re both big musical fans). I recognized the song and even thought it might be from Hairspray (the other option I was considering was High School Musical–don’t judge me). I knew (at least by ear) a surprising number of subsequent songs too. I did not dance, but everyone on the dance floor was having a great time, and the energy was infectious.

Photo of my brother’s and my photo booth photos

There were plans to meet up with Katlyn’s family again on Sunday. My train was set to leave quite early in the afternoon, so it didn’t look like I would get to see them again. But after the wedding reception, I decided to see whether I could change my ticket to a later time, since there are multiple TGV Lyrias between Paris and Zürich each day. When I went to check, I noticed my ticket was designated non-exchangeable, but also, the SNCF website let me switch to a train whose departure was a couple of hours later. All seemed in order, even though it shouldn’t have been possible. After I got back to Paris, Isabelle supplied an explanation: due to all the travel chaos being caused by the periodic strikes, the SNCF was allowing anyone to switch their train tickets. Lucky me!

I still didn’t have a ton of time on Sunday, though, so I had my suitcase with me when we went to meet Katlyn’s family (sans Katlyn) at the botanical garden. The weather was changeable, and when we found one another in the garden, it was windy and rainy. So we headed to the domes of the tropical garden. Indoors, Katlyn’s elder younger brother, who I think is a part-time quartermaster or some such, handed out red paper-wrapped bars of military chocolate.

Swiss military chocolate, unavailable in stores and labeled in the four official languages of Switzerland

I really only had a few moments in the steamy greenhouse before I had to say goodbye to everybody. Then I caught a bus back to the train station and boarded my TGV.

My return train, in Zürich Hauptbahnhof

Back in Paris, I took the metro to rendez-vous with Isabelle and Olivier, who had finished packing up Isabelle’s stand at the market where she’d been selling her artwork that weekend. The three of us ate dinner at a Korean restaurant, sharing hotpot and bibimbap (I didn’t know Korean hotpot was a thing! But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised).

I had a few more days in Meudon with Isabelle. We were both very busy with our respective work. We did make it out into the forest for a short walk. And on my last day, we went into Paris so Isabelle could pick up some stock she’d left with a team of art market organizers at a hotel in the 9th arrondissement. I got to briefly meet her contacts at that organization. Then we brought home desserts from a Chinese salon de thé in the same neighborhood. There was a coconut “panna cotta” and two mille crêpe slices, one mango and one lychee.

On Friday, my travels from Meudon to Paris to Montreal went very smoothly. Then, just as I went to gate-check my carry-on bag for my regional jet flight to the Twin Cities, our flight was canceled! For weather: there was a bit of a blizzard underway in Minnesota (a similar flight to Chicago was also canceled). From our gate, there was an exodus to the Air Canada customer service counter. The line moved extremely slowly. While we were still waiting, my fellow passengers and I received automatic rebookings from the airline. Mine was for Sunday (keeping in mind that it was still Friday, and I had a class to teach on Monday morning), with a transfer in Boston. Luckily, when I finally made it to the front of the line, an agent was able to put me on Saturday’s direct flight to Minneapolis. Much better than the automatic rebooking! Then, with help from my pilot uncle who was in Singapore at the time (!), I found a hotel room and got on the hotel’s airport shuttle. The hotel was very nice (by the time I went to bed, it was like 4:00am in Paris), its free breakfast was extensive and very nice, and its shower was also very nice.

Sadly, I did not do anything fun with my extra day in Montreal. Before heading back to the airport, I walked to a nearby shopping mall because there was a grocery store there that I thought might have some appealing prepared foods for lunch. The grocery store was called Adonis, and Google said it had all the grocery store staples, plus Mediterranean specialties. Even before I found the supermarket, I was struck by how many Middle Eastern- and/or Arab-looking people there were at the mall. Turns out Montreal is about 8% Arab and 12% Muslim! And indeed, when I walked into Adonis, there was a special Ramadan products area under a canopy near the entrance. Behind that was a pastry counter filled with a dizzying array of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sweets. One odd thing about Adonis was that the employees (at least the cashiers) were all dressed like scouts, with striped neckerchiefs. While the prepared foods did look good (mujaddara!), I actually ended up ordering (in French!) a kebab sandwich at the food court. Soon after, I checked out of the hotel and rode the shuttle back to the airport.

Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the exhibit “Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It was somewhat reminiscent of the last exhibit of Chinese art I saw at MIA, “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” which placed Qing dynasty artwork amid various roomscapes, some dark, some brightly lit, and many with music or a soundtrack. “Eternal Offerings” featured painted scenes on the walls of some galleries, music or sounds of activity in the background, artifacts resting on mirrored sufaces, and dramatic contrasts of darkness and light. As the subtitle suggests, the exhibit was of bronze vessels and other items from Ancient China, all of which came from the museum’s own collection. There were no labels to read alongside the objects on display, so the focus was entirely on the bronzes themselves. The show was conceived and designed by Liu Yang, the curator of Chinese art at MIA, and Tim Yip, the art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In the first room, pale models of fragments of bronze artifacts were suspended from the ceiling over a horizontal mirror. Next was a sort of anteroom featuring a single, Shang dynasty wine vessel in the shape of an owl, standing atop a pedestal on a round mirror. The vessel dates from the 13th or 12th century BCE, which means it’s over 3,000 years old. It’s an amazing piece, and it’s incredible to think that someone crafted this finely worked object over three millenia ago and it’s still here for us to look at.

Shang dynasty owl-shaped wine vessel

Another view of the owl

Beyond the wide strips of mottled gray cloth that hung behind the owl stood several display cases of small bronze animals, including tigers, water buffalos, a bird chariot finial, winged dragons, and what looked like a pair of doorknockers (but were probably just handles?), the rings held in the beaks of bird- or dragon-like masks. Many of the items further on in the exhibit also incorporated decorative elements depicting animals.

A mythological beast with a tiger’s head, hooves, a curly tail, and turquoise accents (5th c. BCE)

The next gallery contained a variety of wine vessels (and the occasional food vessel) in different shapes and styles. Some were like vases, others like three-legged pots, and still others like decorative boxes with over-the-top handles. On the side walls were bronze spearheads and dagger-axes, some with jade blades and turquoise inlay.

Three-legged wine vessel with spout, side handle, and lid, with a pattern of scales on its rounded body (11th-10th c. BCE)

The next two rooms were large, with many vessels on display. The first room’s walls were painted with mountains while the second room’s showed men and women seated indoors at a banquet (I think). In the second room, the floors and opaque walls of the display cases were red, and there was a soundtrack of clinking dishes and utensils. Some of the objects in these galleries had inscriptions in an early Chinese script.

Footed water vessel with dragon-headed handle (9th-8th c. BCE), with a ritual food vessel decorated with dragons and a water basin with animal-headed ring handles in the background

Covered vessel (5th-4th c. BCE)

Four-legged rectangular food vessel (fāngdǐng) with geometric designs, spikes, and bird figures (11th c. BCE)

Wine vessel with pattern of stylized, interlaced dragons (5th-4th c. BCE)

The next gallery was also large. In the center was a display of a large horse, several vessels, a goose-shaped wine vessel, and a few human figures, including a farmer, an ox, and a cart, all of bronze, made for a Han dynasty tomb and found in Sichuan Province. Also in this room were five bronze bells of varying sizes, placed on high shelves on the wall behind the horse, a series of gilt bronze belt hooks with glass, jade, or crystal inlay, a series of round mirrors with varied decorations and inscriptions, and assorted other objects, including mountain-shaped censers for burning incense.

Han dynasty celestial horse surrounded by vessels, with bells and mirrors in the background

Mirror (4th-3rd c. BCE)

The last room contained one display case with a mirrored floor. Inside were many different types of vessels, including a double-owl wine vessel (back-to-back owls), a large, round, Eastern Zhou wine vessel with gold, silver, and copper inlay, and a vase-shaped wine vessel depicting hunting scenes. Against one wall, a video projection showed slowly rotating close-up views of some of the objects in the gallery.

All in all, the exhibit was a fascinating opportunity to see pieces from the museum’s collection that often aren’t on view and to admire the intricate craftsmanship of Chinese bronzes made thousands of years ago.

Cats of Grinnell

A post on a Tuesday, look at that! I had to, because today is the last day of February, a month in which I have yet to post, and I’m stubbornly refusing to break my streak of posting at least once a month. And so today I give you an incomplete list of some cats of Grinnell.

Grinnell has many cats. From what I observe, overhear, and am told, not a few residents are feeding stray cats or wind up adopting cats that walked into or otherwise appeared in their lives. My personal experience of the cats of Grinnell derives mainly from the circuit I regularly walk around the center of town. Many cats have their usual haunts, and so I encounter them repeatedly and come to recognize (some of) them by their distinguishing marks. All of the cats except the first one on this list are pretty skittish and will flee if I come too close, so I’ll spare you the photos of blobs in the brush or grainy cats on windowsills. Without further ado, here is a partial dramatis personae:

Mama Kitty

Mama Kitty is a bar cat, specifically the cat of the bar around the corner from my place. Some friendly patron standing outside the entrance to the bar told me her name soon after I moved to Grinnell. She has a little cat house and dishes for food and water outside, and she spends a lot of time on or under the patio furniture against the bar’s façade or between the wheels of pickup trucks parked at an angle to the sidewalk in front of the bar. Mama Kitty is very sweet and friendly, and I try to say hello to her whenever I’m passing by.

Baby Void

Southeast of the historic downtown, two sets of railroad tracks intersect. A bit north of where they cross perpendicularly, there are some brick apartment buildings near the north-south railroad tracks. There are quite a few cats that hang out around these apartment buildings, probably in part because sometimes residents set food out for them. There are several black cats in this area, and I can’t tell them all apart (I know there are several because I’ve seen multiple black cats at once), but one cat I do know is Baby Void. (Note: Mama Kitty’s real name is Mama Kitty; otherwise, all these cats’ names were made up by me.) Baby Void was a little cat when I first identified him several years ago. By now, he’s no longer a baby, but the name stuck. Baby Void is all black except for a circle of white at his throat. It looks like a round tag on a collar, but after years of observation, I think it’s just a patch of white fur.

Queue Cassée

Another black cat I used to see in these same parts is Queue Cassée (Broken Tail), so named after I noticed a black cat whose tail hung somewhat stiffly behind him instead of swishing the way a cat’s tail usually does, however faintly. I think I’d probably seen Queue Cassée before he became Queue Cassée, but the state of his tail made him distinguishable from the other black cats. There was a sort of hump where his tail joined his body. Despite this apparent tail injury, Queue Cassée seemed to be getting along fine, and in fact I’ve seen no sign of him for ages, so maybe his tail got better on its own?

Mr. Floofy

Yet another black cat I see in this vicinity is Mr. Floofy, so named because he’s a long-haired cat. He also has rather short legs. I just saw him on Saturday, against a west-facing brick wall illuminated by the afternoon sun, in the company of another black cat. They both took off at my approach, though Mr. Floofy held his ground longer.

Other Railway Cats

This is my cat hotspot. In addition to the aforementioned denizens, there’s also a white-and-gray cat (who’s a she in my head for some reason), a stocky orange tabby with a white-tipped tail, and several large gray tabbies. I’ll often see some combination of these and the black cats lounging between the west side of a certain apartment building and the railroad tracks. They like to sit on the sills of the windows just above ground level there, and I believe someone sets food (and windowsill cushions?) out for them. On a couple of occasions I may even have seen someone interacting with the cats through an open window. And once I was coming up the road and noticed an odd silhouette/gait belonging to a vaguely cat-sized creature sidling along the building’s exterior wall. It was a raccoon! There were two of them! And they were eating the cat food while several cats sitting nearby looked placidly on!


All right, last cat. Tortie is a smaller (I think) tortoiseshell cat whom I’ve sometimes seen behind the chain link fence blocking off the empty lot by my apartment building. The space was formerly occupied by a Mexican restaurant that burned down before I moved to Grinnell. Now there’s a gap, and the ground is planked over with warped wooden boards. Tortie mysteriously appears in this vacant lot; I don’t know how she comes and goes. Through a secret underground tunnel? Over the roof of the building backing the empty lot? Tortie is usually sitting very tidily relatively far back from the chain link fence. She’s in a different spot every time, still and watching.

One more picture of Mama Kitty!

The Books I Read in 2022

I read 89 books in 2022. As I’d predicted, that was fewer than I read in 2021 (but still more than in 2020!). I served on the Kids All Iowa Reads committee again, which ensured I read a decent number of middle grade books. I still tend to be most excited for adult (and sometimes YA) SFF, though.

Here are the books I read in 2022, rereads bolded, with links to any related blog posts:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon Kelly Barnhill
The Night Country Melissa Albert
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai
Last Night at the Telegraph Club Malinda Lo
Starfish Lisa Fipps
The In-Between Rebecca K.S. Ansari
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For Veera Hiranandani
In the Serpent’s Wake Rachel Hartman
Too Bright to See Kyle Lukoff
How to Become a Planet Nicole Melleby
Front Desk Kelly Yang
Both Can Be True Jules Machias
Miosotis Flores Never Forgets Hilda Eunice Burgos
Beverly, Right Here Kate DiCamillo
Mira in the Present Tense Sita Brahmachari
Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi
Provenance Ann Leckie
George Alex Gino
Under the Pendulum Sun Jeannette Ng
The Tangleroot Palace Marjorie Liu
Doomsday Book Connie Willis
I Crawl Through It A.S. King
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
Maizy Chen’s Last Chance Lisa Yee
Sisters of the Neversea Cynthia Leitich Smith
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Maya and the Robot Eve L. Ewing
The Legend of Auntie Po Shing Yin Khor
Echo Mountain Lauren Wolk
Himawari House Harmony Becker
Skinny Donna Cooner
The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family Sarah Kapit
Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany D. Jackson
Séance Tea Party Reimena Yee
Grown Tiffany D. Jackson
The Golden Hour Niki Smith
Yummy: A History of Desserts Victoria Grace Elliott
And We Stay Jenny Hubbard
Eva Evergreen Semi-Magical Witch Julie Abe
Of a Feather Dayna Lorentz
Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight Aliette de Bodard
The End of Summer Tillie Walden
It’s Not the End of the World Judy Blume
Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life Zao Dao, translated by Brandon Kander & Diana Schutz
Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American Laura Gao
The Greatest Thing Sarah Winifred Searle
The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Shing Yin Khor
The Legend of Auntie Po Shing Yin Khor
Himawari House Harmony Becker
Displacement Kiku Hughes
Quatre couleurs Blaise Guinin
Shadow Life Hiromi Goto & Ann Xu
The Girl from the Sea Molly Knox Ostertag
NewsPrints Ru Xu
Spirits Abroad Zen Cho
Premier Amour Ivan Tourgueniev, translated by Michel-Rostislav Hofmann
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Iron Widow Xiran Jay Zhao
Exhalation Ted Chiang
Trail of Lightning Rebecca Roanhorse
Kindred Octavia E. Butler
Grass Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong
Coming Back Jessi Zabarsky
Indestructible Object Mary McCoy
The Whitsun Daughters Carrie Mesrobian
The Mirror Season Anna-Marie McLemore
Storm of Locusts Rebecca Roanhorse
The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue V. E. Schwab
Seven of Infinities Aliette de Bodard
An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon
The Sun Is Also a Star Nicola Yoon
American Street Ibi Zoboi
Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
Elatsoe Darcie Little Badger, illustrated by Rovina Cai
The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation edited and collected by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang
A Scatter of Light Malinda Lo
Paper Towns John Green
The Four Profound Weaves R.B. Lemberg
The Unbalancing R.B. Lemberg
The Bone Witch Rin Chupeco
All the Horses of Iceland Sarah Tolmie
Raybearer Jordan Ifueko
Le jardin des silences Mélanie Fazi
A Snake Falls to Earth Darcie Little Badger
Geometries of Belonging R.B. Lemberg
Disorientation Elaine Hsieh Chou
Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab Priya Huq
In the Wild Light Jeff Zentner

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 89
  • Books in French: 3 (3%)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 35 (39%–whoa!) (Graphic novels/comics, including non-fiction: 20; Collections/anthologies: 8; Novellas: 6; Verse novels: 1)
  • Books read in translation: 4 (4%) (Chinese to English: 2; Korean to English: 1; Russian to French: 1)
  • Rereads: 3 (3%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 32 (36%); Young Adult: 28 (31%); Middle Grade: 29 (33%)

The following categories are identity-based and therefore necessarily approximate. (They can also obviously overlap.) I can’t necessarily determine how someone identifies from a name, an author photo, or a set of pronouns, and not everyone chooses to identify publicly as anything, which is fine. Consequently, this isn’t guaranteed to be totally accurate; I’m just curious about my own reading habits. Take this only for what it’s worth. (For my purposes, “by” means at least one author, editor, contributor, or translator falls into the relevant category.)

  • Books by women: 69 (78%)
  • Books by self-identified trans or non-binary authors: 14 (16%)
  • Books by Black authors: 11 (12%)
  • Books by Indigenous authors: 6 (7%)
  • Books by other authors of color: 33 (37%)

And now, for my favorite books of 2022! I chose these on a whim (rereads excluded), and I ended up with 17, which is maybe too many? But who cares? Here they are!

  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club Malinda Lo
  • In the Serpent’s Wake Rachel Hartman
  • Provenance Ann Leckie
  • Echo Mountain Lauren Wolk
  • Himawari House Harmony Becker
  • Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight Aliette de Bodard
  • Spirits Abroad Zen Cho
  • The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Exhalation Ted Chiang
  • Kindred Octavia E. Butler
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon
  • Elatsoe Darcie Little Badger, illustrated by Rovina Cai
  • The Unbalancing R.B. Lemberg
  • All the Horses of Iceland Sarah Tolmie
  • Geometries of Belonging R.B. Lemberg
  • In the Wild Light Jeff Zentner

2022 in Review

Happy New Year’s Eve! I am not judging the “goodness” of years anymore, and anyway, you probably don’t come to this blog for news of the world. I’m sure you have at least some idea of what is happening, both good and bad, in various corners of the globe (can a globe have corners?). I hope your winter holidays, breaks, and vacations have been and are filled with warmth, light, and good company.

My 2022 was pretty good. Here is what the year looked like for me:

  • I taught my first three-course semester, including two new classes (Loanword Adaptation and Tone). In the fall, I taught yet another new course (Linguistic Typology). I secured another two years teaching in the Linguistics Concentration at Grinnell.
  • I curated (yes, Mom, curated!) a list of middle grade fantasy novels about fighting injustice for the book discovery website Shepherd.
  • I returned to Northampton, MA for my friend Leland’s very musical wedding. There were a number of linguists and Swarthmore acquaintances in attendance, and the wedding festivities included my first shape note singing since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • In June and July, I spent three weeks in Meudon with Isabelle and Olivier. Isabelle and I caught the Little Prince exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and we all went to l’Hôtel de la Marine and l’Aquarium de Paris (including the pop-up Japanese food terrace Hanami).
  • My family canoed and camped in the Boundary Waters again, this time returning to Hog Creek and Perent Lake, and I never got around to blogging about it!
  • My short story “Maghda’s Song” was published in Anathema!
  • In September, I drove to Chicago for a lovely (tasty and literary) weekend with my childhood best friend Hana and her dog Bertie.
  • This fall, I fulfilled my vague ambition of playing in an early music ensemble by joining the Collegium Musicum at Grinnell. I have acquired a rudimentary ability to play the bass viol.
  • Over fall break, I saw Malindo Lo and her Minnesotan editor Andrew Karre at Red Balloon Bookshop and danced to the calling of my original dance teacher from Swarthmore Folkdance Club at Minnesota English Country Dance Weekend.
  • I turned in a new draft of my hopefully-next-novel to my agent!
  • Finally, I had two brushes with fame. First, a photo I took of moon jellies at the Paris aquarium became my most-liked tweet ever (not that that’s saying much), and the president of the aquarium replied to it. Second, the experience encapsulated in this tweet and quote tweet led to my being interviewed by a Wall Street Journal columnist for this piece (I used to have a non-paywalled link, but it seems to have expired).

Happy 2023! Wishing you good health, strong community, and much joy!

A misty morning on Perent Lake

Star of the North: Minnesota English Country Dance Weekend

Star of the North is an English country dance weekend held in Minnesota. (What is English country dancing? It’s the kind of social dancing you see in Jane Austen films. That said, the tradition now includes tunes and dances written by contemporary composers and choreographers, and dancing can vary in style and energy, so if you think the dancing in the movies looks slow and staid, well, it’s not necessarily like that.) I may have attended a Star of the North dance or ball back when I was in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps; I can’t quite remember. But certainly I hadn’t gone in recent years. Over the summer, I accidentally discovered that the caller for Star of the North this fall was going to be Joanna Reiner, my very first dance teacher at Swarthmore. Essentially, Joanna taught me to do English country dancing (and Scottish country dancing, but that’s different!). I got very excited, and I think I noted that Star of the North fell on one of the weekends of my fall break so I could actually go if I wanted. Then I promptly forgot about it for months.

When fall break rolled around, it occurred to me to check out who the callers and bands were for the Saturday contra dances at Tapestry Folkdance Center when I’d be in town, and that was when Star of the North burst back onto my radar. It wasn’t too late to register! So I did, just for the Friday evening dance and the Saturday evening ball (no workshops for me). The musicians were Karen Axelrod on piano and Daron Douglas on violin, both eminent in the relevant circles; together they form the duo Foxfire, of which I was already a fan.

Both dances were lovely. All the individual dances were taught rather than just talked through. This was mildly surprising to me, especially at the ball, but it was nice since I hardly ever go English dancing these days and don’t know any dances by heart. Of course, the dances are also called, so with an experienced crowd there are rarely any problems or “very local variations,” as Joanna calls them. It was wonderful to experience Joanna’s teaching and calling again. One of the local dancers told me that he and his wife (both of whom I know through shape note singing, contra, Georgian singing, etc.) think that, in the English country dancing world, Joanna is the best there is. She chose some excellent dances with tunes I like very much (Easter Thursday, Saint Margaret’s Hill, Candles in the Dark), and the musicians were great.

The dance weekend participants were mostly locals, but others had traveled to be there, including one couple I was expecting to see. They’re from Ames, IA, and I met them the first and only time I went to dance camp at Pinewoods, the summer after I graduated from Swarthmore. They’re also Scottish dancers (and the camp we all attended was Harmony of Dance and Song). I didn’t really get a chance to talk to them or explain this at Star of the North, but when the husband and I were partners, I said something to the effect that I thought we’d met once a long time ago, and he was like, Probably! And I said I lived in Iowa too now. There was another, younger, dancer from Iowa who asked me to dance at the ball and said he’d heard from the wife of that couple that I lived in Iowa. He asked where, and I said Grinnell. He asked if there was much dancing there; I said no. At the end of the ball on Saturday, I got to chat with Joanna a bit, and then the young man from Iowa came over, and they both told me about an English dance weekend in Fairfield, IA (where apparently they’ve had shape note singing too?) that was in just a few weeks, right over my birthday. Bare Necessities, the doyen of English country dance bands, was playing (and in fact always plays the Fairfield dance weekend). Joanna and the Iowan said I should go, so when I got back to Iowa I looked it up, but it was, unsurprisingly, sold out. (The Twin Cities couple who think Joanna is the best did go this year, and apparently they’ve already reserved their spots for next year! I think this is a popular weekend.) 

Joanna always had the band play a bit of the tune before teaching each new dance, and at the Saturday ball, when it was time for the last dance, she told us we might recognize the music. Foxfire started to play, and the tune meant nothing to me, but a few other dancers made noises of realization. I still don’t know why Joanna thought we might know this tune in particular. I thought maybe they’d done the dance at the workshop, but it seems not, so maybe it’s just popular? In any case, the dance was Sapphire Sea, and it was a very fine dance–dolphin heys! I also loved the tune, so when I got back to Grinnell, I looked it up: it’s Tom Kruskal’s, by Emily Troll and Amelia Mason. Now I’m…kind of obsessed? I’ve played it on violin and cello already. I looked for recordings of Sapphire Sea online to listen to the music, and I found a good one from a ball that took place not far from Boston. At first, I just listened to the band, but at some point I looked at the video and was like, hey, I know those dancers! That’s par for the course when you have niche hobbies.

Malinda Lo and Andrew Karre at Red Balloon

My fall break happily coincided with the St. Paul stop on Malinda Lo’s book tour for her just-released YA novel, A Scatter of Light. (It’s set in 2013–does that make it contemporary or historical? :P) When I learned she was coming to Red Balloon Bookshop (where I had my release parties) and would be in conversation with her editor, Andrew Karre, I reserved my spot, well, on the spot. I’ve read nearly all of Lo’s books (which encompass fantasy and science fiction, contemporary and historical), and Karre is the editor of several other authors whose books I love, including Kristin Cashore and E.K. Johnston. Plus, he’s a Minnesotan!

The event took place on a brisk Sunday afternoon. I arrived a little early to pick up my preordered copy of A Scatter of Light, which Lo had already signed. Then Lo and Karre took the stage and launched into a discussion of how much art (and information about art) Lo had consumed in order to write her books. The protagonist of her earlier novel A Line in the Dark, which I’ve also read, is a comic book artist, and the heroine’s grandmother in A Scatter of Light is an artist and photographer. The main character also develops (oh, no, a pun) an interest in photography while she spends the summer with her grandmother in Marin County. Lo talked about how her research into art (for the grandmother character) led her to abstract expressionism, which she liked, and contemporary abstract art, and this special type of camera with two lenses that facilitates taking double exposures, and at one point she remarked that this was getting very esoteric, but I don’t think anyone minded.

Fairly early on, Karre made the comment that non-writers are frequently horrified to learn what an inefficient process writing a book is, and a lot of us laughed, possibly in partial commiseration. As Lo told us, she began working on A Scatter of Light in 2013. She wrote a great post about this book’s journey to publication that makes it clear it wasn’t just because writing books is an inefficient process that A Scatter of Light didn’t hit shelves for nearly a decade (basically, it was because the publishing industry wasn’t ready for such a book yet). But it was still sort of comforting to me as someone who is now revising a book whose genesis dates back to over a decade ago now! I’ve been working on it since before I wrote Wildings.

Lo joked that we should ask Karre all our hard questions about things like themes in her books because he had those answers. There was a funny moment where he was describing how the layout of the lesbian bar in Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Lo’s previous novel) mirrored the main character Lily’s experience: you first enter through this narrow passage, and then the space opens up to something much wider. Lo exclaimed that she’d never thought of that before, and Karre applauded her subconscious.

After Lo and Karre talked back and forth for a while, it was time for audience questions. The first was from an English teacher sitting in the front row who wanted to hear more about themes because she asks her students to talk about the themes the authors had woven into the texts they read all the time. Something in the way she asked her question made me think, Oh, no! because there was an implication that students had to look for the meaning that the author had put into the work, and this was a stumbling block for me in English class. My junior year of high school, I somehow reached the epiphany (possibly thanks to my teacher!) that it didn’t matter what the author had intended; the reader could discern meaning in the text, and this meaning was real whether the author meant to put it there or not (assuming the reader could point to some textual evidence). All of a sudden, literary analysis made sense to me and actually seemed potentially interesting, worthwhile, and exciting (I still never wanted to be an English major). Anyway, coming back to the book event, both Lo and Karre gave excellent answers with which I agreed wholeheartedly. Lo said she never thought about themes or what lessons she wanted the reader to get from her books when she wrote them, though she allowed that some writers might consider these things. I think she also said that what the author intended or meant didn’t matter once the book was out in the world. Karre said he believed that authors crafted “pattern-rich spaces” within which readers created their own meaning based in part on their own experiences. I thought this made a lot of sense. I think it was Lo who said that what her perspective as an author was didn’t mean that English teachers couldn’t ask their students to talk about what they thought a text meant or was doing.

The next questions were from Shannon Gibney, a Twin Cities author I was pretty sure I’d spotted in the audience at the beginning of the event. She was curious about Lo’s approach to genre, given how many she’s written in, and also about what it meant that A Scatter of Light was called a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club. With respect to genre, Lo said that once she determines the genre of the book she’s writing, she does think about the conventions of that genre and what readers’ expectations of that genre are, just so that she can adhere to or subvert these conventions and expectations in a conscious way. Essentially, she does practice genre awareness for a given project.

Lo and Karre both said that the companion designation was a publishing term or a marketing strategy. I interpreted this to mean that labeling A Scatter of Light a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club was meant to capitalize on the success of the latter–fans of Telegraph Club will be on the lookout for more of what they loved, including familiar characters! We’re told that in A Scatter of Light we’ll find out stuff about Lily and Kath 60 years later. Plus the books do have other elements in common: first love, queer coming-of-age, etc. Karre added (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that adolescents’ tumultuous lives don’t realistically lend themselves to pat endings and he doesn’t like it when YA novels tie things up too neatly, but at that same time, readers kind of want to know what happened to the characters! So if you can give a glimpse of how someone’s story turned out in another book, that can be a very nice touch. Lo made reference to Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, which she grew up reading and which feature a large cast of characters who walk in and out of one another’s stories.

Another audience member said she’d loved Lo’s first novel, Ash, as a teen and loved her more recent books too and was curious how Lo felt her writing had changed over time (I think?). Lo talked about genre again and how as she switched from fantasy to conteporary sci-fi/thrillers, she had to adjust her prose style. Similarly, switching from a third person to a first person POV necessitated adjustments too (e.g. inhabiting the character’s voice). But she still thinks all her books have something in common because they were written by her.

What I believe was the last question was more of a comment: someone shared their theory that Aunt Judy from Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lily’s aunt and a computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, was gay too. Lo and Karre were both struck by this; it didn’t seem to have occurred to either of them before, but they were game. Also, somehow the topic of grandmothers came up again (and I might be misplacing this in the chronology). Lo said that her grandmother (not sure which one) was amazing and had written a book (I think) about the family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and had gone on PBS, something Lo herself has not achieved. She said she thought her grandmother would have been flattered to be compared to Aunt Judy (and maybe another character?) but that after thinking about it for a while she’d have said she wasn’t anything like her.

After the Q & A, we could get our books personalized; I’d brought my copy of Last Night at the Telegraph Club for Lo to sign in addition to my newly acquired copy of A Scatter of Light. I told her I was looking forward to reading about a mixed Chinese American protagonist in this newest book because I didn’t encounter a lot of them. She said she didn’t either! As soon as I finish reading it, I’ll add it to my (non-comprehensive) list of books with mixed Asian main characters.

Trip to Chicago

This past weekend I took a mini road trip to Chicago to visit my first and oldest friend. Hana is a professor of history and Asian American studies on the East Coast (check out Campu, her podcast on Japanese American incarceration!), but she’s spending the month doing archival research in Chicago, which is not so very far from central Iowa. I left Grinnell on Friday afternoon and drove east on I-80 (it was only my second time doing so; the first was on my single visit to Iowa City). At one point, I noticed a billboard for the World’s Largest Truckstop, but I didn’t think much of it. Eventually, I was getting a little low on gas, and I saw a sign for plentiful gas stations, so I decided to get off at the next exit. Only when I was on the ramp did I realize I was arriving at the World’s Largest Truckstop. It was practically a campus. I filled my tank and nipped into the nearest building, which housed a vast gift shop and a food court. I’m sure there were many amenities, but there were a lot of semis, and I made a mental note not to stop here for gas on the way back.

A mural at the World’s Largest Truckstop

I-80 in Illinois was quite pleasant (fewer big rigs). There was a big slowdown on the freeway into Chicago (typical rush hour, probably), but I finally arrived at Hana’s building in the South Loop. After dropping off my stuff and briefly meeting her dog, Bertie, I drove us to Avondale so we could eat dinner at Staropolska, a restaurant one of Hana’s friends had recommended. We ordered the Staropolska salad (with dried cranberries, goat cheese, and pickled beets), the potato pancakes, and the potato and cheese pierogi. The salad and potato pancakes were delicious; I found the pierogi a bit dense, though they tasted good. We shared the apple cake for dessert. It was more turnover-like, with sliced apples cooked between layers of pastry. There was cream on top, as well as scattered grapes and a dusting of powdered sugar. It was also very good.

On Saturday morning, we headed out toward Printers Row. We stopped in an Asian bakery called Sweet Bean just to look around, and then Hana grabbed a pistachio doughnut next door at Stan’s Doughnuts (unrelated to the Stan’s Doughnuts by UCLA, which, alas, has apparently closed!). We stumbled upon the Printers Row farmers market, which had lots of intriguing stands (tamales, honey, a savory pastry called “the love child of a sexy empanada and a hot muffin,” bean pie, and more). Then we visited Sandmeyer’s Bookstore. It was a nice shop with hardwood floors, ample natural light from large windows, and a single spacious room for all the sections. I ended up buying The Way Spring Arrives: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation. I recognized the cover from Twitter because I follow one of the translators. Sandmeyer’s SFF section wasn’t that extensive, but they had this!

We walked north toward our next destination, but we were on the lookout for something quick to eat. We stopped in a coffee shop called Happy Monday and bought Texas-style kolaches with egg, spinach, and feta. (Iowa is full of kolaches too. They’re a food of Czech immigrants, and multiple vendors at the Grinnell farmers market sell them, in a variety of fruit flavors. I haven’t found the ones I’ve tried to be particularly impressive. Our savory kolaches were filled buns, not flat, danish-like pastries like the sweet kolaches in Iowa.)

We arrived at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in what seemed to be the theater district, right on time. We’d come to see the film 80 Years Later, a documentary about two Japanese American elders who were incarcerated during World War II and their intergenerational conversations with their children and grandchildren. The showing was a partnership with and benefit for Chicago’s Japanese American Service Committee, which was founded to help with Japanese Americans’ post-war resettlement and today offers a range of services and cultural opportunities. The movie was under an hour long. Its central figures were Kiyoko Fujiu and Robert Tadashi Shimizu, who lived in Chicago and Cincinnati, respectively, after their incarceration. Kiyoko and Robert are first cousins. While the film did touch on their experiences and those of their parents during the war, it was very much not a Japanese American incarceration 101 story. Instead, it focused more on their coming to terms with what they endured, the experiences of their often mixed race children and grandchildren, and the reverberations of that traumatic history through the generations. 

After the screening, a local professor moderated a panel with the crew and cast of 80 Years Later. The crew members included the film’s director, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, who is Robert’s daughter-in-law. The Chicago cast members were Kiyoko, her daughter Jean, and two of her grandsons. The moderator had a few questions, and then she took several questions from the audience. Hana asked the last one, about something Kiyoko had said in the film, namely, that when she was forcibly incarcerated, she felt rage that she couldn’t express because it wasn’t safe to do so. Hana wondered how she had come to a place of expressing it. In her answer, Kiyoko referred to a conversation she’d had with Mary Oliver, the poet! This answer aside, it was rather sobering to hear Kiyoko speak. She’s 97 years old, and she acknowledged that there’s a lot to despair of in the world (for instance, how the international community has handled a global pandemic). She more or less said she didn’t expect to live to see things get a whole lot better. But it wasn’t all hopeless. Another interesting thing she said was that she’d like to know what the impact of her telling her story to various audiences was. What happens after? How are people changed, and what does that lead to?

On our way out, Hana and I picked up some JASC swag (stickers and magnets, with their pretty lotus logo). Then we made our way a little bit east and south. We saw the famous bean from outside Millenium Park. We walked over to Lake Michigan to stroll along the water, toward the Field Museum. (When I was in high school and our Quiz Bowl team went to nationals in Chicago, we walked a similar path! And when I came to Chicago to accept the Friends of American Writers’ Young People’s Literature Award for Sparkers, I stayed near Grant Park.) The color of Lake Michigan’s water in Chicago is always so pretty.

Sailboats on Lake Michigan

Next, we visited another bookstore: Exile in Bookville, inside the Fine Arts Building (which appears to house at least four or five luthiers!). This shop had very high ceilings and bookshelves that extended far above our heads. That and the fact that it comprised three smallish rooms gave Exile in Bookville a different feel from Sandmeyer’s. The selection was great, and we browsed and talked about books we’d read (or not) for a while. 

For dinner, we got takeout from Nepal House and ate it with Bertie (he wasn’t sharing the food) on the terrace of Hana’s building. We had butter chicken with rice, vegetable momos, naan, and mango lassis. Then we returned to her apartment to eat dessert while watching a movie. We’d ordered rasgulla and kheer (rice pudding). I’d never had rasgulla before, and the texture was unexpected and not quite to my liking. I enjoyed the kheer. We decided to watch Clueless to remedy a glaring gap in the list of cult movies I’d seen. It was entertaining (and I knew what the Valley was!). We also tried the Ovomaltine chocolate bar my Swiss second cousin had given me the previous weekend. After Clueless, Hana had me watch the first episode of A League of Their Own, about women baseball players during World War II. I liked it a lot, but it still won’t prod me into actually starting to watch TV.

On Sunday, we headed to Chicago Chinatown for dim sum at MingHin (which is a chain). There were no carts; instead, we checked what we wanted off a picture menu. We ordered har gow, radish cake, shrimp crepes, chicken and dried scallop steamed buns (which also had shrimp in them), sesame balls, and, obviously, egg tarts. (The menu had all the typical dishes I’m familiar with, as well as some that were new to me.) The har gow and sesame balls were both excellent. The radish cake was also great; it had much bigger chunks of radish than I’m used to, but it made the dish more vegetable-y. The egg tarts were perfect. We drank only tea.

After brunch, we explored the rest of the little mall the restaurant was in. We looked at the pastries in the Asian-style French bakery and peeked in a Chinese bakery too. There was a square with statues of all the animals of the Chinese zodiac, so we read the description for those born in the Year of the Horse, which Hana and I both are. It was similar to what’s on those ubiquitous Chinese restaurant placemats, and I’ve never thought it fit me very well. We crossed the street and went into an Asian grocery store. It looked like a convenience store from the outside and was fairly cramped, but there was a lot crammed inside, including fresh seafood. They were also selling discounted mooncakes. I didn’t get any mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival earlier this month, so I was interested in finding some in Chinatown, but the grocery store only had boxes containing four large mooncakes each, which was too much.

We walked under the Chinatown gate and down Wentworth Ave., which seems to be the neighborhood’s main commercial street. (One interesting thing about Chicago Chinatown is that there were a lot of Chinese flags flying.) We went into several more bakeries, most of which were selling similar items. One of them seemed to be a hangout for elderly Chinese men. Something that stood out to me was that most of the bakeries sold two kinds of egg tarts, one just called egg tarts and the other called Portuguese tarts (these looked more like pastéis de nata, with the blistered surface). I’m used to Asian bakeries only having one kind of egg tart, though they can vary in type, from the Cantonese dim sum ones to the more “deep-dish” ones I’d get at Taiwanese bakeries in LA. Anyway, Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum had miniature mooncakes, so I bought one with lotus seed paste and also got a 粽子 for good measure.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to Hana and drive back to Iowa. I ate my 粽子 for dinner on Monday; it had mung beans, pork belly, Chinese sausage, and a salted egg yolk. I had the baby mooncake for dessert, and it was delicious too. Chiu Quon was cash only, and I think it must have been there that I picked up two shiny 2022 quarters I later found in my wallet. These brand new coins depict Wilma Mankiller, a former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and they have a couple words written in the Cherokee syllabary on them!