Archives

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.

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!

Hello, Grinnell!

Last week, I announced I was leaving Los Angeles. Where am I now? Grinnell, Iowa! I’m a post-doctoral fellow at Grinnell College. I’ll be teaching linguistics, reacquainting myself with the Midwest, and discovering small town life in rural Iowa. Funnily enough, I visited Grinnell in high school, applied for college, and was admitted, but I chose to go somewhere else. Now here I am as a teacher!

All of my musical instruments made it with me!

Fare Thee Well, Los Angeles

After spending six years working toward my Ph.D. in linguistics, I have left Los Angeles a doctor, and I’m currently en route to my next home. We’ll be driving through the Southwest and the Rockies to…you’ll find out soon!

I tried to take advantage of my last weeks in Los Angeles. I lived there longer than I had in any other place other than the places where I grew up, and UCLA is the school where I was a student the longest. When I arrived for grad school, I had no particular opinion of Los Angeles. I neither dreaded nor looked forward to living there. But now that I’ve spent so much time there, there are many things I like about it (the diversity, the neighborhoods, the bookstores, the food), and I’ll definitely miss it.

In my last month or so in LA, and particularly in my last days, I:

  • Rode the Ferris Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier with Isabelle
  • Attended my fourth (I think) Obon at the West LA Buddhist Temple with Isabelle, her friend Alice, and Alice’s partner Quentin (I recognize all the taiko drummers now!)
  • Went to both free Shakespeare plays in Griffith Park, Pericles with Isabelle, Alice, and Quentin, and Twelfth Night with Isabelle and her partner Olivier
  • Ate at some of the most beloved restaurants in Sawtelle, many of which I will miss, including Killer Noodle, Marugame Udon, Seoul Tofu, and Tsujita Annex
  • Ate a last pupusa at the West LA Farmers Market

  • Finally achieved my goal of swimming in the Pacific when I went to the beach with Isabelle and Olivier (in the end, it wasn’t freezing!)

It’s funny how you can intend to check something off your list for months or even years and then not get around to doing it before everything is suddenly a whirlwind of moving preparation and you run out of time. Museum of Jurassic Technology, I’ll have to visit you someday! I also never did dare dance at Obon. Until we meet again, Los Angeles!

Kittens and Commencement

Earlier in June, Adam, Iara, Isabelle, and I visited the Tiny Beans Kitten Lounge, a summer pop-up offshoot of our local cat café, in downtown Los Angeles. The kitten lounge, just a few blocks from the Last Bookstore (which Isabelle and I stopped by beforehand), was very small and decorated like the bedroom of a small child who loves pastel colors, rainbows, unicorns, and cotton candy. It was also full of two- to three-month-old cats of every stripe and color. Some were playful while others just wanted to snooze next to our bags. Though I tend to prefer adult cats, I had to admit they were pretty cute. And since it was a Monday afternoon, the four of us had the lounge to ourselves.

Kitten

A few days later, I walked in the UCLA Doctoral Hooding Ceremony and graduated with my Ph.D. After 10 years of postsecondary education, I am no longer a student! It’s funny to think that, of all the schools I’ve attended, UCLA is the one I spent the most time at. My parents, brother, aunt, and cousin came to Los Angeles for the ceremony and met my committee.

Me, a newly-minted doctor, and my brother (photo by my aunt)

After commencement, we explored LA, visiting many of our now favorite haunts (the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, Topanga State Park, the Huntington). My parents and I went to the Griffith Observatory and saw Foucault’s pendulum and took in the panoramic views. With my family and a couple of friends, I also visited Mission San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach again.

A water lily at Mission San Juan Capistrano

My time in Los Angeles will be coming to an end this summer, and amidst all the busyness I hope to fit in some last firsts and bucket list items. The most interesting should find their way to this space!

Dissertation Defended

You know how I sometimes mention I’m in grad school? Well, yesterday I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation! It’s been a long, sometimes quite difficult, but also very rewarding six years. Here’s me and my lovely committee at the post-defense celebration. Happy May Day!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

2018 in Review

2018 has been quite a year. Do I say that every year? (I actually don’t, but I probably could.) Between the am-I-finishing-grad-school-this-year-or-not uncertainty (answer: no), the politics, the traveling, and the wonderful times with friends, it’s been a full year. Here are some highlights, not in chronological order:

In 2019, I will be dissertating and, I hope, writing and perhaps beginning a brand new adventure!

San Francisco II

Earlier in October, I went up to San Francisco for the weekend. The reason for the trip was to give a talk in the Berkeley Linguistics Department, but it was an excellent excuse to spend time in a city I like more and more. I arrived on Friday evening and met my friend Dustin for dinner. The place where we met was a stone’s throw from the Chinese restaurant where the banquet I went to before the premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber was held, but we ate at a different Chinese restaurant, which specialized in Sichuanese cuisine. We had mapo tofu and steamed fish over tofu with chopped chilies.

I made my way by BART and bus to the Marina District, where I was staying with my mother’s cousin and his wife, whose wedding in Maui I attended last year. They very kindly introduced me to some of their favorite places to eat. On Saturday, we went to the farmers market around the Ferry Building for chilaquiles (which I had never tried) and porchetta sandwiches. Then they took me to Lands End. Beyond the ruins of the Sutro Baths, the tide was very low, and gulls and cormorants crowded on the rocky outcroppings just off shore. Here by the ocean it was cloudy, and the wind-sculpted conifers stood tall and eerie on the hillside.

I spent part of the afternoon in Golden Gate Park catching up with my friend Katherine (alas, I did not get to see the bison paddock). Then in the evening my cousins and I went out for seven-course beef (bò 7 món), which I had also never tried (or even heard of). NO PHO, a sticker on the door of the restaurant proclaimed, and inside every table had ordered the specialty. The meal consisted of seven courses of beef in different forms, including a salad at the beginning and congee at the end, passing through various iterations of thinly sliced beef and ground beef sausages. Most of the meat was meant to be rolled in lettuce and/or rice paper wrappers with vegetables and herbs. It was fun and very tasty.

On Sunday morning, I went to church with Katherine. It was the Indigenous People’s Day Service, and the sermon was partly about the Nez Perce translation of the Gospel of John and the Nez Perce story of Coyote and his daughter. After church, my cousins and I drove to Berkeley, where we ate an Indian restaurant/market specializing in chaat. I had a mango lassi, and we shared a bunch of dishes served on metal trays. These included lamb biryani, masala dosa, puri, a puffed rice dish, fried fish, and bhature (a.k.a the big puffy thing), with a variety of sauces and accompaniments.

My cousins dropped me off at my friend Jesse’s place, and the next day Jesse and I went into the Berkeley department. I spent the morning at the Free Speech Movement Café and then returned to give my talk, which was on a couple of my dissertation experiments. Afterwards, I went out to lunch with some of the Berkeley folks, including my friend Andrew. Then I made my way back to the airport to fly back to Los Angeles.

Lisbon, Part I

In the second half of June, I went to LabPhon, a phonetics and phonology conference, in Lisbon. I had never been to Portugal before, and so when I and several other colleagues from my department were accepted, I decided to go to my first international conference. In preparation, I ordered a Portuguese phrasebook from France and proceeded to study European Portuguese extremely halfheartedly for weeks. It didn’t help that the phrasebook’s explanation of Portuguese pronunciation was abominable.

LabPhon itself was good. I presented my poster and had some fulfilling conversations with fellow linguists. It was also a good place to see friends from other universities. That said, I did skip a lot of the conference to explore Lisbon. Here are the highlights:

Tuesday

Isabelle and I met up in the afternoon and walked to the Terreiro do Paço, on the estuary of the Tagus. From there, it was a short walk to the Casa dos Bicos, or House of Beaks, a 16th century house whose façade is covered in pyramid-shaped protrusions reminiscent of beaks. It reminded me a little of the beaky portal of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Iffley.

Casa dos Bicos

Inside, on the ground floor, there were remnants of the Roman walls, and upstairs was the Fundação José Saramago, the museum of one of my favorite authors! The permanent exhibit featured hundreds of copies of his novels, translated into many languages, including Georgian! There was a lovely account of how after Saramago died, as the airplane carrying his remains took off from the island of Lanzarote, his neighbors read passages of his novels aloud, to bear him away, so to speak. And then when the airplane landed in Portugal, people waved copies of his books to greet it. It was rather moving. We also learned that Saramago’s ashes were buried under the olive tree we’d admired out front before entering the museum.

We then took a break, and I ate my first pastél de nata, bought at a fancy bakery earlier. This pastry is akin to the Chinese egg tart served at dim sum, but it’s thicker and richer. I’d heard of them long ago but never had one, and my first was delicious!

Next we visited the Igreja de Santo António, where mass was being celebrated (in Spanish…?). We went down to the crypt, where a sign indicated that St. Anthony was born HERE. Just up the hill was the Sé de Lisboa, the cathedral. We climbed one of the towers to get to the treasury and found you could walk through a narrow doorway onto the balcony at the back of the sanctuary. It was rather magical when it was just us up there.

In the evening, Meng and I walked around the narrow streets of the Bairro Alto and ate at a restaurant, where we got the bacalhau (salt cod) for two. It was also delicious.

Wednesday

This was the day I presented my poster. After the conference, Meng, Jeremy, and I walked up some very steep streets in what seemed to be a sort of Chinatown. We met up with Adam, Marc, and Jamie, all graduates of our program, and their partners on a bar patio overlooking the Tagus and shared some sangria. Then we went to a restaurant in the Alfama district, where I had rabbit in a plum sauce with couscous.

Thursday

After a day at the conference, I met up with my friend Andrew and two other Berkeley grad students to visit the Castelo de São Jorge. There were splendid views, as well as peacocks, peahens, and their babies. We had fun climbing around the castle walls.

View from near the castle

The castle

We had dinner at a restaurant downhill from the castle, and I had my second salt cod dish, bacalhau à Brás. It’s sort of like fish with egg and hashbrowns, all mixed together. It was tasty and filling. Two of the Berkeley students had bacalhau com natas, which looked a bit like a lake of cream with bits of fish in it (this is how I learned that nata means ‘cream’).

My bacalhau à Brás

After dinner, we kept walking downhill, enjoying Lisbon in the evening light of midsummer.

Azulejos in a little square near the cathedral

View from the square

To be continued!