Writers@Grinnell

After I blogged about a number of the fall Writers@Grinnell events, Dean Bakopoulos of the English Department invited me to do my own Writers@Grinnell event. It took place last month in the Mears Cottage Living Room. I was quite surprised–pleasantly so!–by the turnout. There were so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor behind the sofa where I was seated. There were a lot of students, most of whom I didn’t know (I did have one former student and one current student in attendance). There were some of my fellow speculative fiction reading group members. And there were some English Department faculty.

Hosting me was Paula V. Smith, also of the English Department. She gave me a lovely introduction and then revealed (to the audience and to me) that she had a surprise gift for me. It was a copy of Small CraftWarnings Vol. 1 No. 2, which she and her best friend had co-edited in 1981. Jonathan Franzen was also on staff at the time. Small Craft Warnings is one of Swarthmore College’s literary magazines; when I was there, I served on the editorial board for three years. The issue Paula gave me was one of the first under the magazine’s new name. I was delighted to receive it. The issue consists of poetry and photography, and a number of the poems are translations, from Chinese, Spanish, and French.

I spoke briefly about how Sparkers and Wildings came to be (the long journey for Sparkers and the much quicker crafting of Wildings), and then I took questions. They were all interesting! A couple had to do with my approach to writing specifically for middle grade readers: whether I thought about my audience or how I’d had to revise my books to make them suited to young readers (the political machinations can only be so twisty!). Someone asked about how to balance exposition and action when you have a lot of worldbuilding to do. Somehow the subject of what I’m writing next came up, so I gave away a couple of details about the project I hope will be my next book. My current student asked me about the languages in my fantasy worlds, and I explained that there were no full-fledged conlangs behind the languages in Sparkers and Wildings. But the language in my next book actually has a sketched-out grammar and a deeper vocabulary beyond what little makes it onto the page. Paula asked me about the names in Sparkers and Wildings, a topic I’ve thought about and get asked about relatively often.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, breaking out Isabelle’s stamp again, and chatted with a few students. One of them asked me about story ideas and length. That is, how do you generate enough stuff for a whole novel but not so much that it becomes too much? I wasn’t sure how to answer at first because I always write too long and then embark on epic word-cutting sessions. I’m not very good at writing short stories that are actually short. But upon reflection, I think it’s best, at least when drafting, to let a story grow to the length it wants to be, even if it’s awkward. Novellas exist! Then you can always revise, fleshing out bare bones or carving away excess until you have the story you intended.

Honolulu

Earlier this month I took a brief trip to Hawai’i, specifically to Honolulu, on the island of O’ahu. Almost exactly three years earlier, I’d visited Maui, which was the first time I’d been to Hawai’i. I enjoyed getting to go back, to a different part this time.

The weather was warm and sunny throughout my stay. I did a lot of clumsy stalking of birds, including zebra doves, spotted doves, cattle egrets, red-crested cardinals, common mynas, feral chickens and some adorable chicks, and a black-crowned night heron in the Ala Wai Canal (remember the one I saw in Central Park?). I got to wade a little on various crowded Waikiki beaches. I had hoped to walk a long ways along the ocean, the way you can walk from Santa Monica to Venice in LA, but there were a lot of barriers which made this impossible, so I alternated between beach and not-beach as I walked east.

I also got to taste a lot of good food, including a beet “poke,” ‘ulu (breadfruit, nicely starchy in the preparation I had), pohole (a type of fern, crunchy and tasty), and pa’i’ai (a type of pounded taro, a stage before poi). I ate an order of chocolate haupia pancakes, which were not bad and satisfied my taste for chocolate and coconut. Isabelle had introduced me to haupia (a coconut gelatin dessert), having learned of it herself from someone who’d been a grad student in Hawai’i. My last evening, I also had a sort of Hawaiian plate lunch, which I’d been hoping to try before I left.

Here are some photos:

Waikiki

Pretty fish!

Diamond Head, from Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park

The Ala Wai Canal

Dinner at Sam’s Kitchen: garlic shrimp, rice, salad, and potato salad (I was actually glad to get this because while macaroni salad intrigued me, I suspected I’d like it less!)

My First Iowa Caucus

Iowa is, of course, famous for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, the subject of intense attention on the part of candidates and the media in presidential election years when multiple contenders are vying for a party’s nomination. Last year, when I accepted my current job at Grinnell, I realized I’d be an Iowan for the 2020 caucuses. And more generally, I’d be living in Iowa for the remainder of the presidential race.

Many candidates made campaign stops in Grinnell (and many downtown storefronts were converted to campaign offices), but I didn’t actually see any of them. Either I found out about their visit only when it was already happening (Pete Buttigieg), or I didn’t try to get into their CNN town hall on campus (Joe Biden, Tom Steyer), or I just didn’t try to go (Elizabeth Warren). Bernie Sanders came to our local coffee shop, Saints Rest, with Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal the Saturday before caucus night; I found out a few hours earlier on Facebook and later heard there’d only been room for 60 people inside. I kind of regret not seeing any candidate give their stump speech to an Iowa crowd, but ah, well.

I was looking forward to the caucus because I figured it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could participate in a political event that the eyes of the nation were glued to! (For the record, I don’t think it makes sense that Iowa plays this outsized role in the presidential nomination process, but that’s another discussion.) At 6:30, I walked the few blocks to my caucus site. Now, it had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to caucusing (as opposed to voting in a primary). I don’t really like talking to people I don’t know, especially about my political views. Consider this: I had contemplated going into the caucus uncommitted. When I arrived, a young campaign worker in a Pete t-shirt asked me who I was supporting that night, and I demurred, partly out of that lingering indecision and partly because I was not there to caucus for Pete. He immediately asked me what I was looking for in a candidate, and I started looking for the quickest way out of this interaction. I mean, the whole point of caucusing is to talk to your neighbors about why you’re supporting who, but I am clearly not meant for this type of gathering. But I at least wanted to witness it and be in the same room as people having those conversations. (Also, as far as I could tell, nobody was uncommitted in the first alignment at our caucus, so if I had been, I’m sure I would’ve been swarmed by representatives from every other candidate’s huddle, and that would’ve been an introvert’s nightmare.)

There were quite a few other new faculty in my precinct, most, if not all, of us caucusing for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It was gratifying that everyone respected one another’s choice. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about one’s vote being public; I mean, now we all know who supports who. I’m a pretty big believer in voter privacy. But respect for political differences is supposed to be a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses, I’m told, and I felt it was observed at my caucus. There were also some new faculty in the observer section; they must not be registered to vote locally. We were not in the same precinct as the college students, and I believe our caucus was smaller than at least a couple of the other Grinnell caucuses. I was definitely reminded I now live in a small town (like most Iowans): one of the check-in volunteers was a former president of the college who attends the same church I do and whose name is on the local public library, and I also saw my landlord. The other day, I stopped by the grocery store, and one of the clerks at my register looked incredibly familiar. I knew I’d seen her somewhere recently, but I couldn’t figure out where, until it hit me: she’d been the precinct captain for our candidate’s group at the caucus.

After the election of the chair and secretary, we all lined up to receive a preference card (and be counted). The chair announced that there were 132 of us caucusing, and so the number of supporters a candidate had to reach in the first alignment to be viable was 20. Looking around the room, only Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg looked to have that much support. Indeed, after the first alignment, they were the only candidates to have passed the threshold (Sanders: 48, Warren: 33, Buttigieg: 25). Next, each precinct captain made a one-minute timed speech in support of their candidate. They spoke for Sanders, Gabbard (literally one guy), Yang, Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg. Then everyone whose candidate was no longer viable had to find a new group. People in viable groups were not allowed to change allegiances. I thought it looked like most people flocked to Warren.

After the second alignment and a little math, our caucus was ultimately to send to the county party convention 5 delegates for Sanders, 4 for Warren, and 3 for Buttigieg. The chair was pleased to report that exactly 132 preference cards had been collected. Precinct captains recruited actual delegates and alternates, and then after a little business it was over. The whole thing had taken a little over an hour. We new Iowans left the caucus feeling pretty happy about our role in participatory democracy.

Later that night, national news outlets began wringing their hands: where were the results from Iowa? I was puzzled and a bit worried. Our caucus had gone so smoothly, so what was going on? I wasn’t too troubled, though, and I went to bed assuming I’d learn who the winner had been in the morning. Well. We all know how that went. At least the part about there being a winner.

But here’s where it got interesting for me. Despite being an Iowan on paper, I don’t actually think of myself as an Iowan. But I did caucus in Iowa last week, and I do live here. And suddenly it was really weird to me to be seeing all these opinion pieces in The New York Times about Iowa, mostly written, I believe, by columnists who haven’t actually been here, at least not for this caucus season. I had a bit of a What do they know? reaction, which should probably make me think harder when I read those same columnists on other parts of the country they may not have been to (I read The New York Times a lot). The caucuses were being portrayed in the media as a train wreck, with talk of the “debacle” and the “fiasco”; #IowaCaucusDisaster was trending on Twitter when I got up the next morning. And it was just so dissonant with my own caucus experience of orderliness, efficiency, and clear results. I’ve heard other Grinnell folks emphasize that the caucus process itself did work, and a lot of volunteers worked very hard to make sure it did.

My initial take was that the caucuses had gone just fine and it was the reporting that was the problem: an app that crashed and swamped phone lines. (Trying to implement the app without adequate training and testing was clearly a mistake.) But I didn’t think the rest of the country was making this distinction; from the headlines in the papers, they were probably concluding that the whole thing had been a horror show. And I knew from direct experience that this just wasn’t true. Moreover, there was a paper trail, so we’d know the real results in the end. I did think the reporting issues and the fact that there was no winner to report to a nation on tenterhooks was very unfortunate. I think it will undermine people’s trust in our electoral systems and make people more skeptical of and cynical about our democratic processes. And the last thing we need is for people to be discouraged from voting because they don’t think their vote will be counted properly. I was chagrined that the optics were so bad for Iowa when my caucus experience had been entirely positive, and I knew the Democrats’ nomination process was off to a very rocky start.

Later, I read a more worrisome report (yes, in The New York Times) about caucus numbers that didn’t add up or were internally inconsistent. If this report is true, that is bad. (The New York Times has since reported even more.) Caucus officers did have to report more sets of numbers this year, and I can imagine how this might’ve led to confusion. As far as I know, the caucuses are basically run by volunteers, many of whom probably have years of experience and are very competent. I would hope that there’s careful training and built-in safeguards to ensure that caucus results are reported accurately. I hope that the final Iowa results will express what happened on caucus night because with all the other flaws in our electoral system, at the very least we need well-run local elections.

Dangerous Instruments

Last Friday I went to the opening reception of the Stewart Gallery exhibit “Dangerous Instruments.” The Stewart Gallery, run by the Grinnell Area Arts Council, is inside the old Stewart library, now the Grinnell Arts Center, next door to the post office. The Arts Council runs all sorts of interesting activities that would probably be worth checking out. There’s even a pipe band. As in Scottish bagpipes. Am I missing my chance to realize my childhood ambition of learning to play the bagpipes? (Am I also missing my chance to learn to play viola da gamba through the Collegium Musicum?)

I digress.

“Dangerous Instruments” featured the creations of Eric McIntyre, hornist, composer, professor of music, and conductor of the Grinnell College orchestra. He built his musical instruments-cum-works of art from excavated pianos, horn bells, saw blades, axe heads, used munitions, bedpans, pitchforks, a tractor fuel pump, a mailbox, gun barrels, and more. Many of them were beautiful (with a certain rustic-ness) and elegant, and some of them literally had teeth.

A Dangerous Piano

The reception was crowded, and I think there was good representation from the ranks of the college orchestra. Gallery visitors were invited to play many of the instruments (gently), using little metal implements, beaters of various types, or giant washers. I tapped tentatively at a few things myself.

The Schlüsselspiel, one of the more melodious instruments

Around 7:00pm, the artist gave a little talk introducing all of his instruments and explaining how he’d made them. He goes to auctions to buy things like the equipment from an old sawmill. He performed on some of the instruments or demonstrated the kinds of sounds they could make. He seemed really interested in different types of resonances and showing how you could pluck or strum the tines of a pitchfork. He’d made a bow out of an old lightning rod and some bicycle part and used it to bow his “mailbox bass.” Honestly, I was not always particularly taken with the sounds these instruments made; they weren’t very musical to me (though I guess music is in the ear of the beholder). But other instruments had more delightful surprises: suspended wrenches and axe heads make surprisingly sweet bell-like sounds.

He also performed on some of the instruments, playing a Saint-Saëns romance on a horn with a bedpan for a bell and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a double-belled horn built with the double barrels from an old rifle. He’d composed a piece for horn and these three motorized saw blade-and-bullet casings instruments, each of which made a perpetual tinkling sound.

New Story: Yet a Youth

My short story “Yet a Youth” came out on Monday in Issue 80 of Youth Imagination. You can read it here! This story actually originally appeared in almost identical form in the Spring 2010 issue of Small Craft Warnings, Swarthmore College’s oldest literary magazine (of which I was also an editor). So this story is at least ten years old! I’m still fond of it, though.

“Yet a Youth” is one of the rare stories I’ve written that has no elements of fantasy. Maybe I could even say it’s not speculative fiction, except that I hesitate to categorize it as historical fiction because it isn’t set in a real time and place. Maybe this setting could have existed or did exist somewhere in the United States of the 19th century, but I didn’t actually research it. So it might be alternative history. It’s also a little bit unusual for me because the protagonist and POV character is a boy. Most of my main characters are girls.

The inspiration for this story came from a verse in the book of Judges. There was a time about a decade ago when I decided to read the King James Bible straight through from Genesis onward, and I stumbled upon some verses that particularly struck me. I guess this was one of them. I didn’t want to name my main character Jether, though.

Fun fact: I entered “Yet a Youth” in Swarthmore’s William Plumer Potter short story competition, which was judged that year by Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding (who recorded a rendition of the shape note tune “Columbus”). While I did not win or even place, the judge gave public comments on all the entries, and he described “Yet a Youth” as Gothic.

San Francisco III

I’m not sure, but of all the places I haven’t lived, San Francisco and the Bay Area may be the city/region I’ve visited the most. I like San Francisco a lot and hope I will have chances to return.

Soon after New Year’s Day, I joined my mother in Palo Alto, where she and my father are staying for the first part of his sabbatical. We spent several days exploring new places, and I also met up with a few friends. Upon flying into San Francisco, I went straight to Berkeley to hang out with Andrew. We played a round of Welcome to Your Perfect Home, building suburban subdivisions (I won), went out for Burmese food, and chatted about the job market. Then my mother picked me up, and we returned to Palo Alto and the apartment my parents are staying in at the edge of Stanford’s campus.

On Sunday, we had Cantonese food for lunch at Hong Kong Restaurant on El Camino Real. Then we headed to 99 Ranch for some grocery shopping. It made me miss California. But this 99 Ranch didn’t have the beloved coconut milk drink that Isabelle introduced me to (although Magic Noodle in St. Paul does!). It did have a bakery, but alas, the egg tarts were a little lackluster.

Dungeness crab cakes at Pier 23 Café

On Monday, we drove up to San Francisco and had an excellent lunch of Dungeness crab cakes (and delectable garlic fries) at Pier 23 Café, with a view of the bay. Then we went to Lands End, where my cousins had taken me, but this time the sky was totally clear and the sun shining bright, and we walked some of the trails around the headland to take in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We peeked into Cliff House and, after a wander through the Visitors Center, caught the sun sinking into the Pacific just after 5:00pm. Afterwards, I went over to my friend Katherine’s to have dinner and meet her 11-month-old son.

Me at Lands End, with the Golden Gate Bridge beyond

On Tuesday, I tried to get some work done. In the afternoon, I walked from the apartment to a nearby shopping center on El Camino Real. Andrew had recommended Third Culture Bakery, makers of the Mochi Muffin® to me, and there was a Boba Guys in the shopping center that sold their baked goods. I assumed I was the only person in line not ordering bubble tea; instead I bought a mochi brownie, which was delicious. Slightly crisp on the outside, soft, chewy, and chocolatey on the inside, with an almost gooey center. I walked on to the downtown Palo Alto library, which was in a neighborhood of very nice houses and at least one bare-branched persimmon tree full of glowing orange fruits. In the evening, I had dinner with my friend Dustin at Pizzeria Delfina.

On Wednesday, we hiked the Stanford Dish Loop Trail, just down the road from us and named for the large radiotelescope on one hilltop of this protected area. We saw some cute speckled ground squirrels that didn’t seem very shy of people. But then, as we were walking at a low point of the loop, a coyote came loping along the hillside ahead and crossed the paved trail. It wasn’t that close to us, but we could see it very well. It paused on the other side and ultimately crossed back over and disappeared around the hill. When we climbed that hill, we saw three coyotes together, below us and rather far away. I don’t think I’d ever seen a coyote in the wild before, and this was one of the more spectacular wildlife sightings I’ve ever had. Towards the end of the hike, we watched a white-tailed kite (identified later) flapping its wings to hover over a field, looking for prey on the ground.

On the Stanford Dish Loop Trail

On Thursday, we went to Filoli, a nearby estate with a century-old Georgian Revival house and extensive gardens. It’s a bit like the Huntington, sans library, but smaller and more intimate and more like being in the country (it’s surrounded by wooded hills and protected land). We first visited the kitchens to see the orchid show. The house’s silver and china were also on display, along with a 1948 cookbook that opened a window onto the cooking of another era (frankfurter crown filled with sauerkraut, anyone?). After lunch in the café, we walked through the rest of the house. A quite good violinist was playing Kreisler and Bach in the high-ceilinged ballroom. Many pieces of Asian art were displayed throughout the house. Outside, we wandered through the gardens. There were a few camellias in bloom, as well as fruiting strawberry trees. On our way out of Filoli, we drove past a large flock of wild turkeys.

The house at Filoli

In the evening, we went to an anti-war protest in Mountain View. We joined a crowd at a busy intersection of El Camino Real, held signs and candles, and inspired honks of support from passing cars. From the protest, we went to Hobee’s for dinner and then on to the movie theater to see Little Women. I quite enjoyed it. I’ve never actually read the book, and I have hazy memories of the 1994 film version (mostly Amy falling through the ice). I hardly ever see movies, but I’d actually been kind of interested in seeing this one, and it didn’t disappoint. I liked the metacommentary in portraying Jo’s rain-soaked reunion with Friedrich at the train station as possibly a fabrication to please readers eager for romantic endings, and the black woman telling Mrs. March she should still be ashamed of her country was a nice touch.

I had a lovely end of winter break trip, and now I’m back in the pristine snow in Minnesota, gearing up for the next semester.

The Books I Read in 2019

In 2019, I read 93 books, 19 more than in 2018 and the most books I’ve read in a year since 2015. I know this increase was driven by Isabelle’s and my coping strategy for the throes of late grad school: binge reading graphic novels, comics, and even picture books (we will never forget Trevor’s immortal line, “This is nice”) in between dissertation-writing sessions. I regret nothing. (I also continued to read SFF short fiction, and these days I usually tweet about stories I really liked.)

Here are the books I read in 2019, rereads bolded, with links to the occasional related blog post:

The Library Book Susan Orlean
Woman World Aminder Dhaliwal
Mimi and the Wolves Act I: The Dream Alabaster
Mimi and the Wolves Act II: The Den Alabaster
Mimi and the Wolves Act III: The Howl Alabaster
Starfish Akemi Dawn Bowman
Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border Francisco Cantú
Black Wings Beating Alex London
Along the Indigo Elsie Chapman
Emergency Contact Mary H.K. Choi
The Language of Thorns Leigh Bardugo
This is my letter to the world: The Omikuji Project, Cycle One Catherynne M. Valente
Half-Witch John Schoffstall
The Light Between Worlds Laura E. Weymouth
P.S. I Miss You Jen Petro-Roy
That Inevitable Victorian Thing E.K. Johnston
Tell the Machine Goodnight Katie Williams
Moonrise Sarah Crossan
Girls on the Line Jennie Liu
Nightlights Lorena Alvarez
Sleep Tight, Snow White: 15 Bewitching Bedtime Rhymes Jen Arena
The Lost Path Amélie Fléchais
Trevor Jim Averbeck
Tess of the Road Rachel Hartman
The Brilliant Death Amy Rose Capetta
The Afterward E.K. Johnston
American Panda Gloria Chao
The Female of the Species Mindy McGinnis
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Becky Chambers
Song of the Abyss Makiia Lucier
The Near Witch V.E. Schwab
Why Art? Eleanor Davis
Spiky Ilaria Guarducci, translated by Laura Watkinson
Aquicorn Cove Katie O’Neill
Anya’s Ghost Vera Brosgol
Witchmark C. L. Polk
In Real Life Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang
The Prince and the Dressmaker Jen Wang
Pilu of the Woods Mai K. Nguyen
The One Hundred Nights of Hero Isabel Greenberg
If You Want to See a Whale Julie Fogliano & Erin E. Stead
Espera, Miyuki Roxane Marie Galliez & Seng Soun Ratanavanh, translated by Pau Joan Hernández
The Witch Boy Molly Ostertag
Lou! #1: Secret Diary Julien Neel, translated by Carol Klio Burrell
Fish Girl Donna Jo Napoli & David Wiesner
What Do You Do With A Chance? Kobi Yamada & Mae Besom
You & a Bike & a Road Eleanor Davis
Koko Be Good Jen Wang
Spinning Silver Naomi Novik
How to Be Happy Eleanor Davis
Riverland Fran Wilde
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Sunday in the Park with Boys Jane Mai
Jane, the fox, & me Fanny Britt & Isabelle Arsenault
Drawing from Memory Allen Say
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant Tony Cliff
Dream Country Shannon Gibney
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling Tony Cliff
The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head David Gaffney & Dan Berry
Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules Tony Cliff
My Brother’s Husband Volume I Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii
Sadie Courtney Summers
My Brother’s Husband Volume II Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii
Gender Queer Maia Kobabe
Argonautika: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts Mary Zimmerman
Snotgirl Volume 1: Green Hair Don’t Care Bryan Lee O’Malley & Leslie Hung
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer
Snotgirl Volume 2: California Screaming Bryan Lee O’Malley & Leslie Hung
This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story Kheryn Callender
The Little Book of Life Hacks Yumi Sakugawa
Seconds Bryan Lee O’Malley
The Little Book of the Hidden People Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Authority Jeff VanderMeer
Bloom Kevin Panetta & Savanna Ganucheau
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Shadow Scale Rachel Hartman
Out Stealing Horses Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born
are you listening? Tillie Walden
The Shining Stephen King
I Curse the River of Time Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson
Ordinary Wolves Seth Kantner
Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke
To Be Taught, If Fortunate Becky Chambers
In the Dream House Carmen Maria Machado
The People on Privilege Hill Jane Gardam
Blood Water Paint Joy McCullough
Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado
The Power Naomi Alderman
Binti Nnedi Okorafor
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them Junauda Petrus
Lotus Lijia Zhang
The Raven Tower Ann Leckie

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 93
  • Books in French: 0 (Whoops)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 54 (58%) (Still leaping up every year! Non-fiction/memoir/miscellaneous: 5; Short story/folktale collections: 5; Graphic novels/comics: 32; Picture books: 8; Novellas: 2; Plays: 1; Novels in verse: 1)
  • Books read in translation: 7 (8%) (Italian to English: 1; French to Spanish: 1; French to English: 1; Japanese to English: 2; Norwegian to English: 2)
  • Books read for the first time: 87 (94%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 6 (6%)
  • Books written by women or non-binary authors (where at least one co-author, co-editor, or contributor is a woman or non-binary): 71 (76%)
  • 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): 32 (34%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 30 (32%); Young Adult: 31 (33%); Middle Grade or Younger: 19 (20%); Indeterminate: 13 (14%)

Finally, my favorite books of 2019 (no rereads, I picked these on New Year’s Eve without thinking about it too hard, and I think I was pickier than in some years past):

  • The Afterward E.K. Johnston
  • Witchmark C. L. Polk
  • Spinning Silver Naomi Novik
  • Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
  • Gender Queer Maia Kobabe
  • Out Stealing Horses Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born
  • The Stars and the Blackness Between Them Junauda Petrus
  • The Raven Tower Ann Leckie

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

What I’ve Been Reading: Christmas Edition

Merry Christmas! It’s the last Wednesday of the year, so if I was going to get in any more blog posts in 2019, it was going to have to be today. Here are a few things I’ve read and loved recently:

“Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey: This short story in Uncanny features a beautiful, tender, already established best friendship between two girls who understand each other and look out for each other in large and small ways and love each other deeply. Its triumphant ending shows how sometimes you can break free from self-imposed restrictions and dare to seize everything you want. I read it twice this fall, and I can see it being a story I return to again and again.

“As You Know, Bob” by Jeannette Ng: There were many bits I liked in this Uncanny article about the place of telling (vs. showing) in speculative fiction, especially for authors writing from a culture their readers may not be familiar with. I particularly appreciated this line about how, say, writers of Chinese heritage may not be explaining things just for a Western audience but also for each other: “We don’t all have the same story, the same traditions, nor the same cultural touchstones, despite sometimes sharing a nominal sourceland.” This rang so true to me. I’m Chinese, and I have friends who are Chinese, but our Chinese cultural heritage is not always the same, and so I’ve learned many things from them. Similarly, what I write about being Chinese-American may not be familiar to all Chinese-Americans. I also like the part about how we often engage in telling not to convey new information but rather to build a story and a relationship. It can be lovely to reminisce with friends about past shared experiences, and families often tell the same stories over and over again, sometimes because people clamor to hear them once more.

“Windrose in Scarlet” by Isabel Yap (who I first read on The Book Smugglers): I loved this dark and violent and tender and hopeful fairy tale mashup in Lightspeed. It’s about finding love and fighting curses and taking care of each other and also just…recognition. I think I want to read this one again too.

The Stars and the Darkness Between Them by Junauda Petrus: I usually can’t resist YA novels set in Minnesota (Minneapolis, in this case), and I loved the vibrant community Petrus brings to life in her début. The families and the friends are so great. Also, I thought I saw this book described as a romance (maybe I’m mistaken?), but it didn’t really feel like one to me. It is about romantic love, sure, but what stuck out the most to me, in a good way, was the focus on all the gestures, small and large, of deep friendship. This book is partly about how to be there for someone through the worst days of their life. It will probably make you sad and happy.

Carmen Maria Machado at Prairie Lights

About a week and a half ago I ventured to Iowa City for the first time. One of my new colleagues at Grinnell lives there, and it seemed like a literary paradise, with readings practically every day at the evocatively named Prairie Lights bookstore. Iowa City is home to the celebrated Iowa Writers Workshop, after all, and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature. What finally convinced me to make a trip was Carmen Maria Machado’s appearance; I was seeing lots of positive press about her new memoir, In the Dream House, so I decided to make her reading my first excursion to Prairie Lights.

I made the one-hour-and-a-bit drive and had to wander around to find parking, but it turned out to be a good thing, because walking west toward Prairie Lights, I ran right into the Iowa City Public Library. I had lots of time before the reading, so of course I went in. They had my books!

And in the lobby, there was a Literary Kiosk: a machine which, at the press of a button, prints on receipt paper a piece of writing for your enjoyment. The concept and the machine were developed in France. At this kiosk, you could choose between World Writers and Local Writers. I chose Local and received an excerpt from “The Farm at Holstein Dip,” a memoir by Caroll Engelhart.

I hastened on to Prairie Lights, which I discovered boasts three floors and a café. I bought a copy of In the Dream House, checked out the children’s and young adult books in the basement, and then climbed to the top floor where I spent a long time in the SFF section. There I experienced a moment of despair contemplating how many more wonderful books there are than I have time to read.

The top floor began to fill up for the reading. I snagged a seat in the middle of a middle row of chairs, and my colleague later joined me when she arrived. By the time the event began, the place was packed the way Skylight Books was when I saw Roxane Gay there.

A bookseller and Writers Workshop student introduced Machado, who then read excerpts from her book. In the Dream House recounts her abusive relationship with a woman she met when she herself was a student in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Each chapter corresponds to a particular genre or trope, such as Myth, Spy Thriller, Second Chances, or Choose Your Own Adventure. I finished the book last week, and it is indeed dazzlingly written. I admired many a deft bit of figurative language. I liked the reflections on how archival silence can make people feel alone, and I was touched by the gestures of care offered by Machado’s roommates John and Laura and by her uncle.

After the reading, the author Garth Greenwell joined Machado for a conversation about her memoir and how it came to be. This part was great, but the moment that had the deepest impact on me was when Greenwell asked her what the role of friendship was in her life as an artist. (I’m always up for a good conversation about friendship.) In replying, Machado mentioned that her mother used to tell her she always made such good friends. This struck me as an excellent quality–an enviable quality–to have.