The Books I Read in 2020

In 2020, I read 69 books, down from 93 in 2019. I didn’t actually think it would drop by so much! Quite a few of those 69 were picture books and graphic novels, and in 2020 I also did a lot of rereading, which was enjoyable. Most notably, I reread Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, which I adore, and then I reread the first four books of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series in preparation for reading the final two books, and now I am a rabid fan. I was so sad when I didn’t have any more Return of the Thief to read.

Here are the books I read in 2020, rereads bolded, with links to any related blog posts:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Lisa See
A Treason of Thorns Laura E. Weymouth
Fireborne Rosaria Munda
Mission catiche! Aurélie Del Prete, Eliane Garmy, Valentin Mathé, Marie-Noëlle Schmitz & Fabienne Cinquin
This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Every Heart A Doorway Seanan McGuire
Down Among The Sticks And Bones Seanan McGuire
Beneath The Sugar Sky Seanan McGuire
The Downstairs Girl Stacey Lee
Northanger Abbey Jane Austen, performed by Flo Gibson
Possession A. S. Byatt
We Contain Multitudes Sarah Henstra
Last Seen Leaving Caleb Roehrig
Un Voyage Sans Fin Sang Miao, translated by Shaïne Cassim
everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too jomny sun
Tu m’attraperas pas! Timothy Knapman & Simona Ciraolo, translated by Alain Gnaedig
Le cimetière des mots doux Agnès Ledig & Frédéric Pillot
Quelle horreur! Claire Lebourg
Les petits chats sont comme ça Jan Pfloog, translated by Mireille Archambaud
Mon île Stéphanie Demasse-Pottier & Seng Soun Ratanavanh
The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
The Song Is You Arthur Phillips
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Débridée: Le monde vu par mes yeux chinois Siyu Cao
Difficult Loves Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver and D. S. Carne-Ross
La toute petite Olga Olivia Godat & Raphaëlle Barbanègre
Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone Sequoia Nagamatsu
Le chat qui n’aimait pas les croquettes Odrade
In the Forest of Forgetting Theodora Goss
Grimoire Noir Vera Greentea & Yana Bogatch
Animus Antoine Revoy
The Dam Keeper: Book One Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
The Dam Keeper: World Without Darkness Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
Decelerate Blue Adam Rapp & Mike Cavallaro
Conservation of Shadows Yoon Ha Lee
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen Lucy Knisley
Stargazing Jen Wang
Contrepoint edited by Lauren Gidon
The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
This Was Our Pact Ryan Andrews
The Braided Path Donna Glee Williams
The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
Journal d’un enfant sage Jean-Michel Maulpoix
The Best of Uncanny edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
The Scholars Wu Ching-Tzu, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang
The Question of Hu Jonathan D. Spence
So Far from the Bamboo Grove Yoko Kawashima Watkins
A Line in the Dark Malinda Lo
The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater
The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
Blue Lily, Lily Blue Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven King Maggie Stiefvater
La loi du rêveur Daniel Pennac
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly
The Magic Fish Trung Le Nguyen
The Midnight Bargain C. L. Polk
The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
The Thief Megan Whalen Turner
The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
Till We Have Faces C. S. Lewis
Binti Nnedi Okorafor
A Conspiracy of Kings Megan Whalen Turner
Thick As Thieves Megan Whalen Turner
Return of the Thief Megan Whalen Turner
Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Dominik Parisien, Nicolette Barischoff, S. Qiouyi Lu, & Judith Tarr
A Tale of Three Wishes Isaac Bashevis Singer & Irene Lieblich
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments Aimee Nezhukumatathil

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 63
  • Books in French: 13 (21%) (well, that was a jump, even if a lot of them were picture books!)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 39 (57%) (Like last year! Non-fiction/memoir: 3; Short story collections: 7; Graphic novels/comics: 12; Picture books: 10; Novellas: 7)
  • Books read in translation: 5 (7%) (English to French: 3; Italian to English: 1; Chinese to English: 1)
  • Books read for the first time: 50 (72%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 19 (28%)
  • Books written by women or non-binary authors (where at least one co-author, co-editor, or contributor is a woman or non-binary): 45 (65%)
  • Books by authors of color (obviously, how someone identifies can’t always be deduced from a name and an author photo, so this isn’t guaranteed to be 100% accurate): 24 (35%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 28 (41%); Young Adult: 21 (30%); Middle Grade: 9 (13%); Picture Book: 10 (14%); Indeterminate: 1 (1%)

Finally, my favorite books of 2020 (no rereads, I again picked these on New Year’s Eve without thinking about it too hard and ended up with a lucky seven):

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
  • The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
  • In the Forest of Forgetting Theodora Goss
  • Conservation of Shadows Yoon Ha Lee
  • The Magic Fish Trung Le Nguyen
  • The Midnight Bargain C. L. Polk
  • Return of the Thief Megan Whalen Turner

2020 in Review

Well, 2020 was something, wasn’t it? Looking back on my previous year in review posts brings back lots of good memories, but also some lines that, in retrospect, are…interesting. In 2016, I remarked that “[a] lot of people have been saying that 2016 was awful”. I would bet that pales in comparison to what they’ve been saying about 2020. And last year, I said, “let me zoom back in on 2019”! Little did I know how much Zooming was to come (though in fact I personally have been doing very little Zooming, since my institution prefers other platforms).

2020 was admittedly a devastating year for my country, for much of the world, and for many, many people. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been sheltered from the worst ravages of the pandemic. I don’t blame anyone who’s not ready to look for the silver linings or who’s not interested in hearing about all the good things that happened to other people amidst a year of suffering and loss. Paradoxically, the pandemic gave me a marvelous gift I would never have otherwise had, so it’s impossible for me to say it’s been all bad.

I will say that 2020 has felt long. The things I did in January and February feel incredibly distant. But they belong to this year too. Here is the bird’s-eye view of my 2020:

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t imagine what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I wish you hope and connection in 2021.

AugurCon 2020

It’s been nearly a month since AugurCon, but I’m only now getting around to writing about it. Consider it a belated Solstice present! I took a bunch of notes during the panels I attended, and now I’m going to attempt to postify them. I’ll be mostly retelling, not editorializing, so if you want to know what happened, you might like this. (It’s long.) If you want to know my personal thoughts on allegory in spec fic, well, I haven’t really come up with any yet.

AugurCon was a conference (I think they were trying to keep it ambiguous with “con,” but I’d call it a conference?) held on the Saturday after (American) Thanksgiving and brought to us by Augur Magazine, a relatively young Canadian spec fic magazine. They put together a day of amazing-looking panels (not to mention workshops!), and I tuned in to two of them. Did I buy a ticket to AugurCon mainly because Amal El-Mohtar would be speaking and I am kind of a fan of hers? Quite possibly.

The first panel was “Problematic and/or Powerful: Allegory, Analogy, and Spec Fic,” moderated by Augur Magazine co-editor-in-chief Terese Mason Pierre and featuring panelists Daniel Heath Justice, Evan Winter, Amal El-Mohtar, and Amanda Leduc. The panel opened with a general discussion of allegory in relation to spec fic. Amal noted that allegory is one of the strengths of spec fic, but spec fic is often reduced to a tool for exploring real world problems when in fact it has much more expansive potential. She maintained that all fiction is the opposite of reality, which is inherently random and meaningless (an observation she attributed to Ken Liu), and so all types of fiction are subgenres of fantasy. Daniel said that allegory was great as a starting point but was not an endpoint of what spec fic writers do. Trying too hard to write an allegory will get in the way of doing justice to your story. While allegorical resonance makes sense to him, strict allegory doesn’t make for god storytelling. Amanda described using allegory as a tool, not as the entire backbone of a story. She said allegories work best when they’re soft and shifty, when you can’t tell where they begin and end. She made a comparison to chocolate cake with zucchini. Evan pointed out that literary fiction also uses allegory but maybe isn’t so much “accused” of doing so. Amal proposed an analogy: allegory is to story as rhyme is to poetry. That is, don’t let allegory constraint your story. Where it occurs naturally, it will contribute to what you’re writing. Daniel also said that if readers think they’ve picked up on an allegory, they’ll think they know what your story is about, and they’ll start applying preconceptions to it, which can be more troublesome for minoritized writers.

Next, Terese asked whether spec fic writers were pushed toward allegory in order to avoid the accusation that they were writing about political or social issues directly. Recalling Amanda’s zucchini chocolate cake, Amal said that there is a sense that writers have to get people to eat their vegetables, a notion which has its own weird politics (why are vegetables bad?). She drew a distinction between didacticism and pedagogy and used the example of Natalie Zina Walschots’ novel Hench (which apparently has difficult, thorny friendships? Ooh!). In Amal’s words, you don’t have to be convinced of the evils of late capitalist modernity to appreciate that the characters in Hench are having a hard time. Moreover, she said that reaching out to bigots through literature doesn’t appeal to her, but reaching people who may not know how to articulate their own oppression does. Evan evoked the labor of having to code switch in daily life, of having to make what he wants to say palatable to others. Allegory allows him to talk about things on his own terms. Amanda talked about the political context out of which magical realism developed as a way to criticize regimes in disguised arenas. She also mentioned how fairy tales are instrumental in shaping who we become as adults. She observed that today’s sensibilities seem to favor subtler allegory and consider older texts too obvious. On the other hand, Daniel noted that people can ignore allegory quite easily and take what they want out of the stories they consume.

Soon after, Amal said that although they were all using analogy and allegory interchangeably, there are in fact different kinds of each. She also saw two ways of treating fairy tales, which kind of do opposite things. There are fairy tale retellings, like those of Angela Carter, and there there’s building a secondary fantasy world around a fairy tale, creating fully realized characters instead of archetypes. She called this making fairy tales stand up to scrutiny, endowing them with emotional realism, logic, and catharsis. Evan and Amal then talked a little bit about the stories that get told and have an impact on the real world. Stories in the justice system, for instance, or about the police. Amal said that allegory, like any model, inevitably reduces the thing it’s intended to model, and different models are suited to different tasks.

There followed some discussion about the (in)completeness of allegories. Daniel said they don’t work when they’re being used to avoid the truth (e.g. to avoid a direct depiction of racism). If they’re being used to illuminate, though… Evan contended that allegory and analogy are not necessarily doomed to be incomplete; rather, it’s the points of view of the people who create them that are incomplete. Amanda said that analogy and allegory are inherently incomplete, but she saw that as a good thing. An allegory that is too complete is too pat and doesn’t have staying power. It may not involve enough work on the part of the reader. Amal, citing others, said that incompleteness is necessary in storytelling, but not being totally accurate to the thing you’re representing allows you to open up other things. Allegories can be too close, but perhaps they can also be too open, in which case they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Finally, Terese asked the panelists whether there was something particularly useful about allegory for marginalized folks. Amanda said that although she is a disabled writer, she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Daniel said that marginalized people already live lives very much impinged upon by dominant allegories, constantly coming up against existing scripts. He finds marginalized writers’ uses of analogy and allegory liberatory, but he’s much more suspicious of those who want to allegorize them from an outside perspective. Amal mused about the extent to which the lives of marginalized people (I think) are lived in an act of translation and how there’s an aspect of dislocation to that translating work. Riffing on T. S. Eliot, she suggested that SFF writers break reality into its meanings. She said that for her the recourse to fantasy was instinctive. Fantasy feels like a kind of native language. Evan agreed that something about fantasy did feel very much like coming home.

The other panel I attended was the Featured Conversation, also moderated by Terese, with Jael Richardson, Joshua Whitehead, and Larissa Lai. Early on, the panelists talked about what drew them to spec fic. Joshua said he was drawn to the ability to destroy. He evoked the indigenous perspective of needing to burn or deadhead to allow for future growth and said a lot of things needed to be destroyed to make way for rebuilding. Although Jael wasn’t immersed in spec fic as a child, she wanted freedom from the constraints of reality as she asked the question: what is it like to grow up in a world designed for your failure? Spec fic gave her a space to explore these questions without being tied to truth of a real time and place. Larissa said that spec fic was a space in which she didn’t have to explain herself to white folks. She said she came from a culture that doesn’t like to talk, that carries things in the body. When you don’t have a lot of concrete knowledge about your own history, a genre that doesn’t require factuality to tell the truth can really work for you. She said she took an interest in her own history and mythology because she wasn’t given them as a child. She has also lost her mother tongue.

Jael laughingly noted that her forthcoming debut novel, Gutter Child, is an alternate history, rooted in the past, while the panel was supposed to be about futures. But part of our problem today is that we’ve forgotten things that came before, so how can spec fic force us to make connections between the past and the present? Joshua talked about wrenching the past into the present and then breathing life into it for the future. In spec fic, we can craft the worlds we want and need. Referencing the pandemic, which may feel like the first time the world has ended for more privileged people, he noted that indigenous people already have primers for the apocalypse. Larissa said that when she started writing, there was so little out there on the Asian-Canadian front. It was important to just get some language on the page, and she was looking to make a place in story for young queer Asian women, for people like herself, but broadly construed. Jael observed that the more specific you get with who you’re writing too, the more universal your work actually becomes. Larissa added that writing to a non-mainstream audience can open things up for you.

Terese then asked how the panelists would like the publishing landscape to change in the future. Jael said that self-publishing has been the path of the marginalized for a long time and she would like to see a more comprehensive and respectful relationship between self-publishing and traditional publishing. She talked about support for self-published writers, paths to traditional publishing for those who want them, and space in bookstores and review systems for self-published works. She referenced fringe festivals in the theater world as a way of bringing the fringes close together and creating communities. Joshua said he wanted to see ethics in publishing, and he talked up small indie presses. I think Larissa joked about Jael’s pragmatism and said she herself had a pragmatic side she didn’t like to talk about. Then she said there’s a pragmatics in the dreaming and a dreaming in the pragmatics. Impossible dreaming is important; you don’t know what to make happen until you’ve done the work of dreaming.

Next, Terese asked about ways of connecting with other writers of color and marginalized writers and the potential for community building in spec fic. Jael characterized the Black community in the U.S. as very defined, even as it contains multitudes, while in Canada there’s more disconnection in the Black community. Black people are underrepresented in literature, and there is both a community disconnect and a disconnect between publishing and the community. There are opportunities to make more connections, but it’s a long game. Larissa felt that Canadian publishing wants realism from BIPOC writers. She’s found support from the feminist spec fic community in the U.S. and from the queer communities in Canada and the U.S. During the panel, I think, she got an idea for a hashtag #DecolonizeRealism. Joshua stated that nothing could be more real than the stories indigenous people share with each other. CanLit may want memoir and realism, but this stuff is real, however fantastical it might sound to a white audience. He was advised to remove dream sequences from some of his writing, but for him, dreams are very real. They’re grounded in the body and the community and are instructive.

Lastly, Terese asked whether the panelists had dealt with gatekeeping, perhaps even from people within their own communities who didn’t think they should be speaking for them. Jael wasn’t sure she’d experienced that from within the Black community, but she said that publishing has trouble seeing different kinds of stories. While she had “amazing white ladies” involved in her book, their experiences disqualified them in some ways from shaping certain parts of the story, particularly the ending. So she had to navigate that alone, as well as learn that gatekeeping would come at multiple levels/steps of the publishing process. Joshua said that most of the gatekeeping he’d experienced was on the part of older gay men who weren’t happy with his critiques of gayness. He also described the gatekeeping he’d faced as mostly from people who felt they’d been called out just by his existence or his story. Larissa said that yes, she had felt policed, differently at different times in her life. Some of the most painful forms had come from within her own community, but she didn’t want to bring those spirits into the room at the end of a beautiful festival! She said that “policing” at its best is accountability, and she might make a distinction between the two, citing some extraordinary experiences she’d had with sensitivity readers.

C. L. Polk in Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar

It’s been over a year now since I joined Twitter, and yes, Twitter is too often shiny and distracting, but it’s also brought me a growing number of lovely things, and this post is about one of them. About a month ago I’d been seeing lots of good buzz about C. L. Polk’s new historical fantasy novel, The Midnight Bargain, and I also felt like placing some orders from independent bookstores because *gestures at the pandemic*. So I ordered The Midnight Bargain from Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul (it was their 36th birthday yesterday!), and it came speedily to Iowa by mail.

Book mail! The Magic Fish is also an excellent graphic novel!

C. L. Polk’s first novel, Witchmark, was one of my favorite books of 2019, and I still want to get around to reading the rest of the Kingston Cycle. As someone Polk thanks in her acknowledgments put it, The Midnight Bargain can be pitched as “Pokémon, but make it Jane Austen.” I’d call it a Regency romance set in a world where those born with the gift of sorcery become mages by making bargains with spirits who confer wealth or luck or strength or knowledge in exchange for the pleasures of sensory experiences. This is a patriarchal world: while women can be sorceresses, unborn children are vulnerable to possession by spirits, and so married, premenopausal women are locked into warding collars that rob them of their magic and dull their senses. Our clever and gifted heroine, Beatrice, wants nothing more than to practice magic and become a mage in her own right, if only to help her family’s fortunes, but to stave off ruin, her heavily indebted family needs her to catch a husband in this year’s bargaining season. As Beatrice plots a way to escape this fate, she falls in love with a fabulously wealthy, handsome, kind, and even enlightened young man. But is he enlightened enough to be worth giving up her ambitions for?

I loved The Midnight Bargain. It starts off delicious, but then it wades into complicated waters, tackling pressing social issues even as the characters attend card parties and picnic basket auctions under the cherry blossoms. But this post isn’t actually supposed to be about the book itself. Last week I spotted on Twitter an announcement of a book event with C. L. Polk and Amal El-Mohtar. El-Mohtar is an author I deeply admire (her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” and her novella This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone, have deservedly been showered with honors), and she also seems like an utterly charming person. So I can tell you that I leaped on that registration link. In these times, an author appearance is often only a Zoom link away!

The event was hosted by A Room of One’s Own, an independent bookstore in Madison, WI. When I connected, there were thirty or so other attendees. After introductions, Amal El-Mohtar expressed her deep love for The Midnight Bargain and asked C. L. Polk about its origins. Polk explained that it had all started with a list she had drawn up of things she wished she was writing about (e.g. balls with social maneuvering) at a time when she didn’t want to be working on her current project. She found her element of conflict when she decided to write about women’s choices in society (even today), and ultimately she wrote the book very quickly. El-Mohtar said she found The Midnight Bargain very immersive and felt the prose was beautiful without calling attention to itself. She alluded to the current valorization of “transparent” prose, and she liked how Polk, in response to her question about the writing style, said she “let” the prose be gorgeous.

The conversation veered toward how fantasies of manners are one of El-Mohtar’s drugs of choice. Then when she named the clear parallels in The Midnight Bargain to real-world issues like access to contraception, there was a little interlude in which she and Polk, both Canadian authors, wished healthcare upon their beloved friends (and probably most of the audience) in the States. Oof. (At least the election was over, right?) Polk told us to ask Santa for healthcare, and a conversation was struck up in the chat about petitions to Canadian Santa and what cookies would most please him (answer: maple).

Coming back to The Midnight Bargain, El-Mohtar, who is fond of using “super” as an adverb, said she super appreciated the complicated friendships between women and relationships with men. She liked how Beatrice didn’t settle for “better than I expected” in Ianthe, the extremely eligible bachelor. To her, this felt like a challenge to the reader to not be satisfied with the beats of a usual romance. She found it satisfying that Beatrice and Ianthe argued. El-Mohtar is an advocate for books having more conversations in them and for having the plot be propelled by people having conversations to try to understand each other.

El-Mohtar asked Polk if she had a favorite Austen novel, and Polk said almost ruefully that her answer had to be Pride and Prejudice (I mean, who doesn’t love Pride and Prejudice?). Both authors said they’d first read it when they were too young to understand it.

Soon it was time for the Q & A, and El-Mohtar picked my question! (Not that it was competitive.) If this had been an in-person event, I think I might’ve been too timid to ask a question, so another 10 points to online events with chat features. Anyway, I was curious to hear more about siblinghood in the world of The Midnight Bargain, because there were several brother-sister pairs who were named things like Ianthe and Ysbeta, Danton and Danielle, Ellis and Eliza, it was fashionable for siblings to have matching outfits, and Danton in particular was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure his sister’s happiness. Polk had actually already talked a bit about thinking about, with Ianthe and Ysbeta, a brother and sister duo who were really ride-or-die for each other. In answering my question, she said she hadn’t done it on purpose, but she supposed that in The Midnight Bargain children were raised with the idea that their siblings would be who they would rely on first and foremost in life. El-Mohtar mused a bit more on the sibling relationships in the book (she loved the relationship between Beatrice and her younger sister Harriet, who first seems like a silly girl who’s read too many romance novels but quickly proves to be smart, pragmatic, and highly capable).

Towards the end of the evening, Polk revealed, to El-Mohtar’s delight, that she was contemplating another book set in the world of The Midnight Bargain. She had ideas for a murder mystery centering Ysbeta or a book about Harriet’s bargaining season. El-Mohtar started talking about how she liked trilogies that widened the lens, which I must say sounded like an unsubtle hint to Polk to please write both books.

The last minutes of the event devolved into excitement and hilarity over a t-shirt depicting Gritty driving a Four Seasons Total Landscaping riding lawnmower. What started out as a joke turned into a major fundraiser for Georgia Senate candidates and voting rights organizations, but still, there was a certain 2020 absurdity about it all. Has this year made us punchy or what? On that note, we all signed off. 

New Story: A Burden of Transmuting Metal

Most of my blog posts lately have been about new publications! It’s true I’ve had a bumper crop this fall, but after this one you can expect a lull. I’m pleased to announce that my short story “A Burden of Transmuting Metal” came out on Sunday in Silver Blade. You can read it here. You will notice an accompanying graphic depicting a dramatic tornado; this has nearly nothing to do with the story.

Some of my stories are very much inspired by real places (“Lómr” is a clear example of this). Last fall, when I had just arrived in Grinnell, I somehow got the idea to write a story set at a fictionalized version of Grinnell College, my new place of employment. So this is a story of academia, and grad school. (It’s a pretty happy grad school story! I have another less happy grad school story that I’m still shopping.) I also wove in the Manchu class I took as a Ph.D. student. But most importantly, “A Burden of Transmuting Metal” is a portal fantasy that pays homage most explicitly to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

So last November I’m drafting this story about portals in college towns in rural Iowa, and one day I walk onto campus and see this:

IMG_5753

It was uncanny.

Almost one year later, the story is published, and the empty doorway is still on campus.

New Story: Mijara’s Freedom

My short story “Mijara’s Freedom” came out last Friday in The Future Fire, an online magazine of social-political and progressive speculative fiction. You can read my story here. Like “Yet A Youth,” “Mijara’s Freedom” actually originally appeared in print in slightly different form in a school literary magazine. In this case, it was the 2008 issue of Images, the literary and art magazine of Edina High School. So this story is pretty old! Also, it was titled “Parvana’s Freedom” then.

Pieces in The Future Fire are illustrated, and I feel so lucky to have beautiful artwork by Cécile Matthey accompanying my story. I haven’t seen my characters brought visually to life since the cover reveals for Sparkers and Wildings, so it was pretty magical. In fact, the way the artist imagined the protagonists was quite different from how I pictured them, but I love her rendering.

I wrote this story more than twelve years ago, so its origins are rather hazy now. But the action takes place against a backdrop of wildfires, and I seem to recall taking visual inspiration from a photo I saw in the newspaper. This fall, of course, devastating wildfires in the West are in the news again, and so “Mijara’s Freedom” might hit a certain way, although it is not a story about climate change.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi@Grinnell

Writers@Grinnell is back with quite the fall line-up! Earlier this month, I attended poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s roundtable with the Grinnell College community. Times being what they are, this was a virtual event, and it was my first time attending a virtual author event (although I have done virtual events myself, before they became an absolute necessity). I don’t know if Calvocoressi is just exceptionally good at setting the tone and making a mosaic of faces on a screen feel somewhat like an intimate gathering, but the roundtable was great.

They started off by asking everyone to write in the chat what they could see from their window. Or if there was no window, what they could see where they were. The responses started accumulating, and soon after Calvocoressi began reading the chat transcript as though it were a poem (you know, with those poetry reading cadences and intonation). As they read, answers were still popping up, but I was dithering about whether or not I wanted to participate. In my hobbit hole of an apartment, there is exactly one window on the outside world, and all I ever see through it is a square of sky (or, as I learned this week, workmen and their ladders on the roof). But then the responses stopped, and the poet was reading their way down, and I knew if I submitted my patch of sky now, it would be the last line of the poem, which sounded like way too much. So I never said anything. Maybe I was the only one! In any case, I thought this was such a neat idea: it was the first reading of the evening, and the poem was a collective act of creation, and now somehow we were all bound together by how magical and atmospheric they’d made the views from our windows sound.

What followed was a sometimes meandering discussion, punctuated by poems and questions from the audience (“Gender, poetry, and God–are they friends or something else?”). Calvocoressi was always genuine and open and thoughtful. They talked about growing up in New England, raised with the rigidity of the Pilgrims (the first person to fall off the Mayflower was in their family). The inner Pilgrim was a recurring motif during the roundtable, a part of yourself that you know is wrong but that can still reprimand you and make you feel shame. Calvocoressi said the work of their life was to not be ashamed of themself all the time.

In recalling how they started writing, they talked about their writing coming from a place of silence. Their poems always start as fantasy and in daydreaming. And they compared writing poems to playing the saxophone (they’d played music for many years). Someone asked whether they kept a journal, and they said they kept a notebook but not a journal (and they use their phone a lot for poetry purposes!). They also like to draw and have a watercolor pad, and they find art very helpful to writing. They added that sometimes their brain is their notebook, as they have a better memory than they should. Someone else asked how to stop the stream of consciousness in writing a poem, and Calvocoressi said they actually use stream of consciousness a lot in their poems. They like a poem that feels like it never ends, that keeps leaping and leaping along associative connections, and the only way to get that is if the connections are really tight. Calvocoressi also teaches poetry writing and explained that they teach from a place of praise, which can be hard for some of their students. This is an approach they learned from their first poetry teachers.

They had some interesting things to say about revising poems too. They’ve tried to stop thinking of it as revision and to think of it as variation instead. What else does the poem seem to want to do? What are the other things the poem can do? One thing they’ve tried is making variations of a poem without changing any of the words, instead changing only the punctuation and seeing whether they can change the power dynamics or priorities of the poem.

Finally, I scribbled down a quote from towards the end of the roundtable: “I was hugely popular with the gravestones.” But to be honest, I’ve forgotten what this was about. Hanging out in graveyards? I suppose that’s a good way to usher in October.

Reprint: Lómr in Daikaijuzine

I’m pleased to announce that my short story “Lómr,” originally published in Cicada in 2018, has been reprinted in Daikaijuzine, an online magazine whose third release, Rodan (I don’t really know anything about kaiju), went live on Monday. You can read the reprint here. I’m excited to read the rest of the pieces in this issue.

“Lómr” was my first professional short story sale, and I’m still very fond of it. Cicada is also now sadly defunct, so I’m happy “Lómr” has found a new home on the web. Also, this is my first reprint! Well, if you don’t count “Yet a Youth.”

I expect to have some more short stories out this fall, so stay tuned!

Hello again, Grinnell!

First, here is a very nice review of Sparkers in French! To be clear, the review is in French; the reviewer listened to the English audiobook. There is no French translation of Sparkers, but I was delighted to discover a foreign language review I could read.

It’s been just over a year since I moved to small town Iowa from the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles. But although I have been an Iowa resident for a year, I spent almost half of that time away from Grinnell because pandemic. Recently, I returned for the start of the new academic year, and I’m wondering if there’s a word for the nostalgia you feel for a place upon coming back to it. I liked Grinnell well enough in my aborted first year here, but now I’m discovering a charm that feels more bewitching than before.

An old brick façade downtown

The water tower seen down an alley

The mural on the north wall of the Grinnell Railroad Club, beside the tracks

The setting sun illumating the stained glass windows of the Methodist church

The Boundary Waters 2020

My family spent last week in the Boundary Waters. It was my seventh (!) trip, fifteen years after my first, and my family’s fifth trip together. The last time we went was in 2016, when we canoed and camped on Isabella Lake. This year, we returned to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we’d gone in 2015.

We drove up on Monday, stopping in Duluth to pick up sandwiches for lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. We used to plan our Boundary Waters drives around meals at the New Scenic Café on Old Highway 61, but with the pandemic, things are a little different. The New Scenic Café is closed, and we ordered our sandwiches ahead and picked them up from a table under a tent on Northern Waters’ deck. My bagel with smoked salmon and scallion cream cheese was scrumptious.

We reached Seagull Outfitters on Sea Gull Lake early in the evening. We were spending the night in the bunkhouse. At the outfitters, we heard there was a bear active on the western edge of the lake; four campsites on the adjacent Alpine Lake had been closed, and we were advised to avoid the western side of Sea Gull. The bear wasn’t afraid of people, which is bad news for everyone, bear included. (Also, there were possibly multiple bears?) This was a bit concerning. I’ve never seen a bear in the Boundary Waters, and while it’d be cool to see one from a distance, I have no desire to encounter a bear that isn’t deterred by human noise.

The next morning, one of the owners of the outfitters told us she’d avoid Sea Gull Lake altogether because of all of the bears and go north to Saganaga Lake instead. This would require a 38-rod portage at the outset, but just paddling after that. So we decided to do it and not spend four nights wondering if bears were approaching our campsite.

We left on Tuesday morning and returned to Seagull Outfitters on Saturday. In many ways, it was an ideal Boundary Waters trip. It only rained once, the last night we camped, and it didn’t start till after we’d gone to bed and stopped before we got up. (Of course, between the thunder and lightning and somewhat leaky tent fly, we didn’t sleep all that much, but still!) The bugs were remarkably tolerable; I didn’t put on bug spray once, even if in the evenings around the campfire the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears were a little bothersome. We had one particularly windy paddle, but I still got my canoe back to our campsite landing spot without the waves driving us into the rocks. I brought several extra layers I never wore because it didn’t get as cold as I’d expected. Saganaga allows motorboats, and some of the surrounding area is built up, with cabins, so it felt a little bit less like the wilderness than on past trips, but it was still beautiful. From our campsite, it was just trees, rocks, sky, and water as far as the eye could see.

We’d originally expected to stay on Sea Gull Lake, so portaging hadn’t been part of the plan. But the 38-rod portage through the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End campground was actually one we’d walked back in 2015, on the day we left Sea Gull Lake. We’d explored the falls and gotten a family photo taken in front of the rock face at the southern end of the portage. This time, of course, we actually had to portage our canoes and gear, and though the trail wasn’t very long, it was steep in places, with many rocks and tree roots. Just north of the portage, there were some rapids, and since we were going downstream, we managed to shoot them. (On the way back was a different story, but I’m proud to say we got our canoe up the rapids first, after making “only” two mistakes.) After the rapids, we reached Gull Lake, and from there we paddled north through some narrow channels to Saganaga.

Saganaga Lake straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, so half the lake is in Canada. In other words, we spent this trip at the very edge of the U.S. And we made two day excursions pretty much to Canada. On our first full day in the Boundary Waters, we decided to canoe to the point marked Canadian Customs on our map. We were camping on the southern end of Loon Island (a lovely campsite), so we paddled up past Munker Island, Voyageurs Island, the Blueberry Islands, and Horseshoe Island, till we could see Canada. (It looked exactly like our side, except that in Canada there were houses on the lake.) Then we spotted a white building with signs around it, and as we got closer, we confirmed that this was the customs checkpoint. There was a small wooden dock with a No Trespassing/Passage Interdit sign at the end, a bilingual notice about everyone having to report for border inspection, and around a slight bend, a big sign proclaiming Canada! But the whole place was deserted. We could’ve just gone ashore, but we did not.

The next day, we paddled farther, to Saganaga Falls, which turned out to be rather small (kind of like the falls we’d portaged around to get from Sea Gull Lake to Gull Lake). There was a portage here, but we just left our canoes out of the way on shore and walked the trail to go see the falls. We were on the American side, but the other side of the stream was Canada, and we could see a green sign that said La Verendrye Boundary. (Later I learned that this is named for Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, which is kind of a mouthful.) We watched a party of three men and a boy canoe up from the north (where we’d come from too) to the rocks on the Canadian side and start fishing. One of them actually caught two fish, a very little one and a rather small one, both of which he released. As we were leaving in our canoes later, there was a group in a motorboat that caught a decent-sized fish in a net.

I felt I had particularly good luck taking photos of wildlife this trip, and it was my first time using my phone instead of a digital camera. This made it harder to get good pictures of distant bald eagles or loons, but the amphibians and butterflies were pretty cooperative. The sunsets seemed less spectacular than average (perhaps because the weather was better than average?), but the stargazing got better every night until the night it rained, and we saw the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

If you didn’t know, I published a short story set largely in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago. It’s entitled “Lómr” and appeared in Cicada, and you can read it here.