The Best of Uncanny, Part II

Two weeks ago I highlighted some of my favorite stories from the first half of The Best of Uncanny. Now that I’ve finished this behemoth, I wanted to follow up with some personal standouts from the second half. I’m not going to use the words “favorites” this time because it actually doesn’t quite seem to fit. Poring over the table of contents again, I’m struck more by distinct impressions particular stories left on me than any kind of obvious ranking among the pieces. So consider this a collection of assorted thoughts.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine: I enjoyed the worldbuilding in this one, as well as the slightly twisted strangeness of the auction. I also liked being in this protagonist’s point of view, although I didn’t understand her ultimate motivation. This story reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read A Memory Called Empire for ages.

“An Ocean the Color of Bruises” by Isabel Yap: This one has a brooding, slightly unsettled atmosphere, with a tight-knit group of friends struggling a little bit with adulthood and its disillusionments. I liked the sense of magical friendship, although I felt like there was underlying anxiety about the preservation of those bonds post-college. The ending doesn’t exacerbate that anxiety, though. Rather the opposite, in fact.

“Those” by Sofia Samatar: This felt like a subversion of Heart of Darkness-type stories. There was a bit of a claustrophobic feeling throughout, but then the ending was beautifully empowering.

“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney: Very bizarre, but delightfully inventive, as well as humorous and vivid.

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard: I recognized this one as related to some of de Bodard’s novels, which again reminded me that I want to read some of her longer works (I’ve only read a couple of short stories). The setting was rich and intriguing and the main character sympathetic.

“The Words on My Skin” by Caroline M. Yoachim: A brief but still affecting exploration of a thought-provoking speculative concept.

“And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker: Okay, this one is a favorite! Imagine you were invited to an interdimensional conference for all the yous from across the multiverse. Hundreds of variations of you, some of whom made Choice X instead of Choice Y and whose lives diverged accordingly. I’ve also read Pinsker’s “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye,” and to me both stories share a flair for the bizarre and some satisfying Holmesian deduction. This story gets a little bit mind-bending and surprisingly philosophical. How does grief change you, and how far would go to see lost loved ones again?

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar: Isabelle first introduced me to this story, and it’s one of our common all-time favorites. I remembered the concept but not the ending, and on this rereading it ended sooner and differently than I expected. It’s still a lovely combination of fancifulness and warm human connection.

The Best of Uncanny, Part I

The blog has been quiet lately in part because I’ve been staying home, as one does during a pandemic, and not having any notable adventures. But I have been slowly reading my way through a doorstopper of an anthology, and since I’m just past the halfway point, I thought I could share some of my favorites thus far.

The collection is The Best of Uncanny, which brings together some of the best short stories (and poems) published in Uncanny Magazine, a dream market of mine. The book came out in 2019, and the editors, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, went on tour, visiting bookstores around the country. At these events, they were joined by local authors whose stories appear in the anthology. Back in February, when I visited Honolulu, flying in and out of the Twin Cities, Isabelle alerted me to the Minneapolis event at Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Alas, it was the night before I came back from Hawai’i, so I missed it. But Isabelle had heard there might be extra signed copies available at the bookstore after the event, so I decided I’d go check the day I returned from Honolulu. The book is gorgeous, but as a nearly 700-page hardcover it was also not inexpensive, so I decided to leave it up to fate: if I could snag a signed copy, I’d buy it, but otherwise I wouldn’t.

I was also glad of the excuse to visit Uncle Hugo’s because although I knew of it, I’d never visited (there are far too many Twin Cities indies I’ve still never been to!). I think I knew where it was, because it’s across the street from the Midtown Global Market, but I’d never been there. So the same day I got back from balmy Hawai’i, I drove over. It was a pretty cold afternoon, with occasional snowflakes swirling in the air. I think a bell rang when I entered the shop? I was immediately delighted; I mean, the bookstore looked like this:

It reminded me a bit of Raven Used Books in Northampton. Except Uncle Hugo’s specializes in SFF; in fact, it was the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the country. I poked around for a bit (and saw my first physical copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, another dream market), and then I saw it on a book cart: a single copy of The Best of Uncanny protected by a plastic sheath. I checked the title page: the book was signed by the editors and Twin Cities short SFF author Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. I was so pleased, and I left Uncle Hugo’s the proud owner of that copy.

I returned to Grinnell and left the book there when I went to France (it’s hefty, and I was already taking two thick books on the plane). Of course, I ended up staying in France for months, so The Best of Uncanny languished in my lonely Iowa apartment. Then, in May, while I was still abroad, Uncle Hugo’s burned down in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. I was stunned. I’d hoped to go back, to show it to Isabelle someday. Little had I known in February that my first visit would also be my last. At least for the foreseeable future: if you’d like to donate to help the owner recover and rebuild, you can do so here.

But this was supposed to be a post about my favorite stories so far! Now, none of the pieces collected in The Best of Uncanny would have been included if they weren’t already excellent, so here are my very subjective feelings about some of the stories that I enjoyed the most.

“Blessings” by Naomi Novik: I really liked Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver (I’ve vaguely meant to go back and read her Temeraire series). Anyway, this riff on fairy godmothers features a wealthy mother determined to secure some nice blessings for her newborn daughter, a very funny narrative, and a satisfying ending for the daughter when she grows up.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu: This novella is set in a fascinating future Beijing and has a sympathetic protagonist. Although I can’t really explain why, it also felt distinctly Chinese to me (I haven’t read tons of modern Chinese fiction, but I’ve read some), and it’s nice to read SFF with different sensibilities.

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad: I found this story hilarious and adorable even though I’m only fandom-adjacent, at best.

“Catcall” by Delilah S. Dawson: I hesitated on this one because I’m not sure “enjoyable” is the right descriptor. More like “horrifying.” But it was certainly memorable and raises questions about the limits of revenge.

“Wooden Feathers” by Ursula Vernon: This one has some beautiful and creepy passages, and I liked how the relationship between the two main characters was of a type we see less often (in this case, vendor-customer/younger person-older person/sort of apprentice-sort of teacher/sort of friends). Also, this sentence: “The moon was the eye of an ink-dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars.”

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong: A beautifully rendered setting (even if it’s a desolate one) and an intense platonic love story. I really liked this one.

“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear: I’d read this story before I bought this book because Isabelle had told me about it. The main reason I like it is for its depths of possible interpretation. You could spend a long time talking about it.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon: This one was so wholesome and sweet! Farming > fighting.

I’ll stop there for now. There were even more stories in the first half of the collection that I really liked, and this list probably could’ve been twice as long. Maybe by next week I’ll have finished the book!

 

Contrepoint and The Braided Path

Content warning: CSA

While I was in France, I read yet another short story collection, this one in French. Entitled Contrepoint, it was edited by Laurent Gidon, published by ActuSF, and distributed for free with the purchase of other books from the publisher. The idea behind the anthology was to showcase stories without conflict. That is, “stories in which there is neither war, nor conflict, nor violence” (my translation). When I first read this, I wondered about the editor’s definition of conflict, since I think most stories, even if they avoid violence or antagonists, involve some degree of conflict, if only internal (but maybe this is my Western bias). I suspected some of the stories would still qualify as containing conflict, according to my definition, but I was intrigued by the goal of the anthology. I was also amused by the fact that most of the author bios before each story talked about whether the author was accustomed or unaccustomed to writing the kinds of works that would fit this particular collection. The allegiances tended to be extreme: for one author, practically all her stories were conflict/violence-free while for another, this was his only story ever that could possibly fall into that category.

Now it might be that I’m not well-versed in French SFF (I haven’t read much more than Léa Silhol), but the stories in Contrepoint were some of the weirdest, most bizarre things I’d ever read. The first story, “L’Amour devant la mer en cage” by Timothée Rey, left me pretty bewildered, although the ending seemed sort of sweet. (What did these entities look like? What were they?) “Le Chercheur du vent,” by David Bry, I would say is a story without conflict, though for me that meant it wasn’t quite a story. “Petits arrangements intra-galactiques” by Sylvie Lainé was sort of cute, but I found the drinking of delicious orange fluid from the aliens’ popped boils to be just too weird and off-putting. “Nuit de visitation” by Lionel Davoust was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but I wouldn’t say it was without conflict, insofar as the main character wrestles with regret. (Plus, references to WWII?)

I didn’t quite understand “Tammy tout le temps” by Laurent Queyssi, but I liked what seemed to be the love between the two characters. However, this story involved flashbacks of child sexual abuse, and it was hard for me to see how that didn’t count as violence in an anthology that was supposed to be violence-free. “Avril” by Charlotte Bousquet was simultaneously one of the strangest things I’ve read and another of my favorites in the collection. Cyborg falls in love with reanimated mummified woman? “Permafrost” by Stéphane Beauverger really confused me because the whole premise was about warring tribes, and even if those wars weren’t on the page, the story itself was definitely not violence-free. “Mission océane” by Xavier Bruce was the last of my favorites in the anthology; it was lyrical and mysterious. Finally, “Semaine utopique” by Thomas Day was…all about the narrator’s struggle to think of a story idea that could fit the anthology’s criteria. So, very meta. But also one of the first things the narrator thinks is, Oh, they said no violence, but at least they left us sex! So, yay, I guess? The narrator proceeds to describe a number of activities in his daily life that were very distasteful to me, so the whole thing left me pretty perplexed.

Anyway, while it was interesting to get a taste of a bunch of French SFF authors’ work, I was also interested in the concept of the anthology. What would stories without interpersonal conflict and violence look like? I was a bit disappointed by the execution in Contrepoint, but I went on to reread a beloved book that I think is a perfect example of what I believe the ActuSF collection was going for. This book is The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams. Isabelle had lent it to me a few years ago, and I’d loved it, and while in Paris I reread her copy.

The Braided Path is an expansion of the short story “Limits,” which you can read to get a feel for the lovely writing and wordlbuilding. The book is set mainly on a vertical world: a series of villages extending from near the mountaintop to the ocean below, connected by a single path that wends its way up and down a cliff face through different climes. There is exchange between the villages, but only barter, no money-based commerce. The villages are on a dialect continuum. In the higher villages, some consider the sea a myth, and in the lower villages, people hardly believe in snow. The main characters are Len, a widowed rope-maker who eventually journeys far lower on the world than what she thought her limits were; Cam, Len’s son, who never finds his limits and travels over the top of his vertical world to encounter new societies and languages; and Fox, Cam’s friend-turned-lover who gives birth to their daughter after his departure and formalizes a partnership with Len while she figures out her way in life.

Maybe now is the time for a spoiler alert?

To me, The Braided Path succeeds at what Contrepoint was trying to do: it is a novel where no one ever harms anyone else, where no one is malicious, where no one hates. That doesn’t mean there’s no conflict at all: all three main characters struggle with whether to stay or go, when they find themselves settled in a place but then a change comes along to disrupt the status quo. Fox isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life and sometimes feels restless. One thing I love about the world is that Fox is allowed to figure out what to do with her life at her own pace, even at her age (a young mother!). The people who love her will always take care of her (as everyone is cared for), even if she hasn’t settled on a vocation yet. I guess the world is utopian. When Cam and Fox are finally reunited, all isn’t rosy between them, and it’s clear they’re going to have to work through Fox’s anger toward Cam and the confusion each of them feels. But in general everyone always acts in good faith, and when conflicts, whether internal or external, do arise, loving people are around to encourage working through them in a healthy way. That sounds didactic, but it’s not; I wish I could convey how gentle and warm this whole book is.

Given how conflict-free The Braided Path is, you might think it would be boring, but it manages to be engrossing. And it’s also supremely comforting. If you want to read about good people being kind to one another and gradually choosing their paths in life–and embracing change and unimagined possibilities–without any harsh pressure or impatience from those around them, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Return from France

I returned to Minnesota this week after spending nearly 90 days in France. If you’d asked me in the winter how I thought my spring was going to go, I could not have envisioned what actually came to pass! But I feel very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire French confinement, as well as the first phase and a bit of the déconfinement, with Isabelle and Olivier outside of Paris.

A walk in the Forêt de Meudon

Writing-wise, I ultimately had a very good confinement. (This is not to promote any kind of if you haven’t learned a new language or launched an online business during quarantine you’ve failed at the pandemic sentiment. No one needs to do anything more than do their best to make it through.) I sank back into drafting what I hope will be my next book, and when it looked like the finish line might actually be in sight, I strove to cross it. I finished the rough draft (emphasis on rough) on my last full day in France. Toward the very end of my stay, I also made two short story sales within a week; I hope to have more to say about those stories soon.

I have returned, of course, to a country still grappling with COVID-19 and lit by a renewed uprising against violent racism and police brutality. I have returned to the city that sparked the latest protests. Like I said at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t already saying better. But we must all be doing the work. Here’s something I wrote almost exactly three years ago when the police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I think we need to be thinking seriously about what role, if any, police forces should have in our cities. What would it take to abolish the police? In the meantime, take care of yourselves, your family, your friends, and your communities.

 

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

The Powers of Music

I’ve long enjoyed reading restaurant reviews and recipe articles in The New York Times’ food section, but since much of the world began locking down, there have been no Hungry City reviews of New York’s under-the-radar ethnic food joints or measured evaluations by Pete Wells. Instead, I keep stumbling upon Sam Sifton’s What to Cook newsletter, whose tone of late I feel can be summed up by sometimes you just want to eat meatballs/mac and cheese/insert comfort food here, and you know what, that’s okay, just go ahead and do it. Actually, maybe that goes for all the current food coverage.

Anyway. You thought this post was about music. Sifton has also been appending some non-food recommendations to his newsletters, and on Sunday he asked his readers to please read Alex Ross’s article in The New Yorker on grieving and Brahms. I dutifully clicked on the link (was I procrastinating? I mean, what do you think I was doing reading The New York Times food section in the first place?), and I was intrigued by the subhead about the “enormous sadness” “that glows with understanding” in Brahms. I’m not particularly into Brahms, but as I read the article I had a vague recollection that I liked his first symphony. I started listening to a recording of it, and while I recognized snatches of the first movement, it wasn’t until I got to the fourth movement that I thought, Ah, yes, this. I remembered that grand, noble theme, and I thought I’d studied the symphony in music listening (could we have only paid attention to the fourth movement?!).

While I was taken by Ross’s characterization of Bach as “music’s supreme companion of extreme distress” and Brahms as “the great poet of the ambiguous, in-between, nameless emotions” (including “pervasive wistfulness”), my favorite parts of his article were his quotes from Philip Kennicott’s book Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (which sounds intriguing too). The first was “I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power,” and when I read it, I thought, But wait, music is totally consoling! After all, hadn’t I turned to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 when Osmo Vänskä resigned as director of the Minnesota Orchestra during the 2013 musicians’ lockout and on the morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

But the next quote was, “Music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.” And this resonated. I don’t think it’s either/or: music can both console and make us more vulnerable, awakening and amplifying latent emotions. It can do one or the other and probably both together. Likely there’s some argument to be made about how music consoles precisely by “guid[ing us] through the complexity of [our] feelings,” as Ross put it.

Something made me remember MILCK‘s EP This Is Not The End and how I’d liked it, and so after Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 I went back to listen to it. I’m listening to it as I write this post too. I don’t know enough about Music These Days to know what genre MILCK sings (okay, Wikipedia says “pop,” which is what I would’ve guessed if pressed), but she’s best known for her song “Quiet,” which has a special place in my heart. I’m capricious in my non-classical (and non-folk/trad) musical tastes, and it usually takes special circumstances for me to like something in the pop/rock sphere. In MILCK’s case, those special circumstances exist (I mean, I saw her on a panel). Most of the time, I’d probably say a bit cynically that the reason pop songs seem to speak to your exact feelings and situation is because their lyrics are so vague as to be applicable to practically any situation, but honestly, when it works, it really does work. Some of the songs on This Is Not The End do that for me, and others I like for other reasons (like maybe they remind me of someone else). Maybe something music does is give us space to settle into complex feelings.

What I’ve Been Reading: Confinement Edition

I arrived in France with Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (a library book), which I read with great pleasure. Pullman is such a good writer. Before the volumes of The Book of Dust, his new trilogy, started coming out, I hadn’t read him in many years, but each time I’ve picked up one of these new books, set in a beloved world, I’ve felt like I’m in such good hands. I remember being twelve or so and finishing His Dark Materials and simply being in awe. I was convinced I would never write something as great.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about The Secret Commonwealth, though. Since exhausting my own reading material, I’ve been raiding Isabelle’s shelves, and I’ve been on a short story collection reading spree.

Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

This collection contains eleven short stories, each entitled “The aventure of an X,” where X is a soldier, a crook, a bather, etc. These were translated by William Weaver (whom I read in my translation workshop at Swarthmore), and apparently there were more of them in Italian! All of these adventures are love stories, in a way (sometimes a horrifying way), but I really liked many of them. Calvino writes in what could be painful detail about the minutiae of ordinary life, but he’s such a skillful writer that it’s enjoyable. In that way, he reminds me of José Saramago. Slightly ridiculous predicaments become suspenseful, and throwaway moments of everyday life become moving. “The adventure of a photographer” has thought-provoking remarks about the effects the desire to document one’s life has on actually living it.

This particular book also contained two novellas, Smog, also translated by William Weaver, and A Plunge into Real Estate, translated by D.S. Carne-Ross. I liked these much less than the short stories. They were rather depressing, and no one was a particularly sympathetic character. There were some darkly humorous aspects to the stories, I guess (construction never ends), but that was about all I took from them.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Inside this seafoam green book (the cover art is by Eric Fan, of the Fan brothers), there was a matching promotional bookmark, announcing an event at Magers & Quinn, that I think I picked up for Isabelle ages ago. It turns out Sequoia Nagamatsu went to Grinnell (!) and currently teaches at St. Olaf (!). As the bookmark says, these are stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. Some of them were of a rather novel (to me) brand of weird, and many of them dealt with a couple’s complicated relationship, sometimes with a child in the picture. My favorites were “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost,” which was funny and featured a great voice, and “The Passage of Time in the Abyss,” which had a connection to the previous story but was very different in tone. I found it rather beautiful.

In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I had previously read some stories of Theodora Goss’s, and I knew of her novels about “the daughters of literature’s mad scientists,” which intrigued me. I’d also appreciated the references to academia in some of her work, since characters in grad school are relevant to my interests. This book, collecting stories published in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, AlchemyStrange Horizons, and elsewhere, as well as two new stories, was wonderful. One of the stories, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, I had read before, but I no longer know where.

I really like Goss’s style, which strikes me as somehow traditional and old-fashioned in that the writing is lush and lyrical (isn’t beautiful language out-of-fashion in some quarters?), not experimental (for the most part). It feels like straightforward storytelling done very well, so that it’s extremely compelling. I feel like I’m unfairly casting her as unoriginal in some way because she does do interesting things with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. But I’m trying to describe something about her writing here. It’s not cerebral or too demanding of the reader (not that there’s anything wrong with being or not being those things); it revels in beauty and human emotion. And even as her stories feel traditional, they also feel fresh.

I was intrigued by Miss Emily Gray and her eponymous story because I seemed to remember a Miss Emily Gray in Goss’s story in The Starlit Wood. I checked; I was right. Then as I kept reading In the Forest of Forgetting, I came upon this character again in “Conrad,” and then once more in “Lessons with Miss Gray.” I liked how this immortal witch (?) kept making appearances through Goss’s body of work. I wondered about the recurrence of (different) characters named István and Eleanor (never terribly sympathetic, the Eleanors).

My two favorite stories–and they might be my favorites because they’re related–were “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” and “Lessons with Miss Gray.” The former was especially lovely, and in the latter I was happy to meet certain characters again and learn more about their lives. I also found the point of view in “Lessons with Miss Gray” quite interesting: the story is narrated in the first person plural, that is, “we,” but there is no “I”. Initially I thought I’d find out which girl was the individual narrator of the story, but there isn’t one: all the girls are referred to individually in the third person, but the narrator is still “we.” I liked this device because it gave a sense of a collective character, a sum of the four central girls.

That’s all for now. I’ve just barely started Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows.

 

Making Xiànbǐng

Recently Isabelle decided on a whim to make 餡餅 (xiànbǐng) for one of our confinement lunches. First, we made a dough out of just flour and water. Then we formed the dough into a log, sliced it into discs, and rolled each disc out into a circle, trying to keep the center thicker than the edges.

We spooned some filling–tofu, zucchini, and shallots–into each wrapper.

Then we pinched the edges of the wrapper together to form a bao.

Tada!

Here are a whole bunch. They reminded me of Georgian khinkali.

The bao are smushed, making them 餅 (bǐng), and fried on the stove.

Ready to eat!

Drypoint

These are strange, scary times, and I have little to say that others aren’t already saying with more thoughtfulness, eloquence, and authority. So I’m not going to wade into those waters. Suffice it to say that I am well, I feel lucky, and I’m currently confined with Isabelle and Olivier.

Back in the early days of the confinement, Isabelle let me make a print from her most recent drypoint plate. Drypoint is the latest printmaking technique she’s picked up (see our earlier adventures in linocut, screenprinting, and Gocco). In drypoint, you carve a design into a plate (Isabelle uses plastic ones), and the ink fills in the grooves. Thus what you carve is what is printed (vs. what you leave uncarved, as in relief printing). Apparently drypoint is etching, but without the acid.

Isabelle carved the plate; I just made a print. This design is called “Springtime frailty” (“Fragilité printanière”). I first smeared black ink onto the plate, filling in all the grooves. Then I used a bit of paper towel to rub away the excess ink.

Next I placed the plate ink-down on the paper.

I cranked the plate through Isabelle’s Cuttlebug, which we were using as an improvised press.

The completed print!

Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor@Grinnell

Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.

I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).

Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).

Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).

Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.

The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.