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Contrepoint and The Braided Path

Content warning: CSA

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe now is the time for a spoiler alert?

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

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

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.

What I’ve Been Reading: Confinement Edition

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

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

Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

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

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

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

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

In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

The Emily Dickinson Museum

During my trip to Massachusetts over fall break, I spent one afternoon in Amherst, where I visited Amherst Books. But the main reason for my outing was to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists of the house Emily Dickinson lived in, her brother’s home next door, and the grounds between them.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Emily Dickinson, but I do remember pretty clearly an assignment (possibly an exam) in 11th grade AP American Literature for which we had to compare two poems about spiders, one by Emily Dickinson and one by Walt Whitman. The Dickinson poem was very compact and spare, like most of her poems, but what I remember so clearly is how, by reading the poem over and over and pondering the words, I found that its meaning unfolded, for me. That is, I discovered so many more possibilities for interpretation than I could see before. Now, maybe you’re thinking that’s just how textual analysis works; you have to go over the words again and again. And I would say that Dickinson’s poems, because of their compactness, require this kind of tenacity more than some other texts. But I remember genuinely enjoying this process of cracking the nut, if you will, and feeling like, because English class had made me, I’d gotten to experience this pleasure that I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wasn’t a huge poetry fan and didn’t read poetry for fun. It was like the difference between briefly looking at an old village church on the side of the road and walking on and spending a long time forcing the door and getting in and seeing the stained glass windows from the inside as a reward for your persistence. (I have no idea where that analogy came from.)

Despite that experience, I did not go on to become a diehard Emily Dickinson fan. Over the years, I have been mildly interested in Emily Dickinson the writer, this reclusive New England woman poet who never married. And not long before my trip, I heard about a new film, Wild Nights with Emily, which portrays Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law, Susan. So, finding myself in Western Massachusetts and not knowing when I might ever return, I decided a trip to the museum would be worth it.

The Evergreens

I arrived on a sunny afternoon, walking down Main Street past a park and an old stone Congregational church that I later learned all of Emily’s family except her attended. I first passed the Evergreens, the house her father built for her brother Austin so that he wouldn’t head west. That was where Austin, Susan, and their children lived. A little farther on was the Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and lived for most of her life. (During her late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, her family lived in a different house in Amherst because her grandfather lost the Homestead. The family later bought it back.) I walked up the drive, feeling a bit like I was intruding on someone’s home. There were workmen engaged in repairs of some type on the yellow house. I followed the signs around back and entered through the screened porch, and soon I had secured my spot on the 3:30 tour. (Twice while in Western Mass., once at this museum and once at Guild Art Supply in Northampton, I got discounts for being a teacher! I was always asked if I was eligible, and I didn’t have to furnish any proof.)

In the garden, with the Homestead in the background

I had about forty-five minutes before my tour, so I looked at the books in the gift shop, went out into the garden, and came back inside to explore the exhibit on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was a complicated affair involving, at different times, her sister Lavinia (a cat lady!), her friend and sister-in-law Susan, her niece Martha, her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and others.

Typesetting Emily Dickinson’s poems for publication

Our tour guide (whose last name was Shumway, like the composer Nehemiah Shumway in The Sacred Harp) found us in the exhibit; there were only two of us on this tour! One of the first things she asked us was whether we’d read any Emily Dickinson; she was to read us several poems during the tour.

She first led us into the parlors, where there was a piano like the one the Dickinsons had. Our guide told us Emily stopped playing the piano after hearing someone who played better than her! There was also a copy of the famous photo of Dickinson at age 16, looking extremey severe. But on the wall was a reproduction of a portrait of the three Dickinson children, in which Emily has very short (apparently red?) hair. Our guide told us she’d once briefly described her appearance to a correspondent and we can guess her height from the length of her coffin.

We crossed the hall to the library, where our guide told us about Emily’s happy childhood, going to parties and whatnot, and her schooling, including her one year at Mount Holyoke. We saw reproduced pages of an herbarium she’d helped make; the plant names were in her handwriting. Our guide also told us about her many correspondents, when she was an adult. It sounded like she just wrote to people who interested her, and if at first they didn’t reply, she persisted until they did.

We ascended the staircase to the second floor, where we visited Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, restored to look as it might have when she lived (and died!) there. It was cozy and sunshine-filled. There was a very small table set under one of the windows, where she presumably wrote her poems. Apparently the neighbors remarked to her father that there was often a light in her window very late into the night, and his response was, So, what? Though Emily’s life seemed reclusive, the museum and our guide emphasized that she still had lively relationships with her family, neighborhood children, the household servants, and her correspondents.

The Homestead, home of Emily Dickinson

The house Emily Dickinson lived in hasn’t been a museum for that long. At a certain time, it was faculty housing for Amherst College, so young professors could’ve lived there! I’d love to be able to say I lived in a house that had once been home to a great American poet.

We left the Homestead and crunched across the leaf-strewn lawn to the Evergreens. Our guide had told us how Emily had written poems to Susan and how they were childhood friends. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? That was how it was for them. On the way to the Evergreens, she said Emily might have been a little jealous to have to share her best friend with her brother after they married. I’d been wondering whether the exhibit or the tour would touch on a possible romantic relationship between Emily and Susan, but neither did. Back in Emily’s bedroom, our guide had told us about her later-in-life romance with a friend of her parents, who was a judge from Salem. The judge wanted to marry her, and Emily apparently loved him, but she didn’t marry him.

The Evergreens is interesting because it’s still in a state very close to what it was when Austin Dickinson and his family lived there. His daughter Martha hired an assistant who came to live in the house with his wife, and his wife only moved out in the very late 20th century, and she hadn’t changed anything. The décor, furniture, and artwork were all original (and showed their age), and the kitchen hadn’t been modernized, so it looked very old-fashioned.

Our guide closed the tour with a last poem and an entreaty to check out more of Dickinson’s poetry. I’m very glad I visited the museum; it was a kind of literary pilgrimage, like visiting la Maison de Balzac. Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, I read about this new TV show about Emily Dickinson (but set in the present?), which seems to depict her as a much more interesting and complex figure than the conventional view of her. She was probably much cooler than I am!

 

 

Change Ringing in Boston and Northampton

This blog is 6 years old today, which means it’s my birthday! Anyway, on to the bells.

My fall break in Massachusetts was not entirely devoted to visiting bookstores. I flew into Boston on Saturday evening and spent the night with a close high school friend and her husband. On Sunday morning, I joined Leland and the Boston band for my first close encounter with change ringing. Here’s my non-ringer’s explanation for non-ringers: change ringing is ringing church tower bells with ropes, one ringer to a bell. Change ringing is not melodic, so the ringers aren’t playing a tune. Rather, the bells are rung in different orders/permutations. There are named patterns that consist of a specific set of permutations. Ringers learn these patterns, called methods, so when the conductor calls out a particular method, they know what their bell is supposed to do. It’s physical, mathematical, and very English. I thought I had some esoteric hobbies, but change ringing (like lined-out hymnody!) makes shape note singing look mainstream.

Church of the Advent

On Sunday morning, I first walked through Back Bay to the Church of the Advent. The sidewalks were paved in red brick, and the front steps of most townhouses were festively decorated for autumn/Halloween, with pumpkins and gourds galore (also, you know, the odd fresh grave in a little front garden). Advent is an Episcopalian/Anglican church, and from what I could glean it’s about as close as you can get to Catholic without recognizing the Pope. Veeery high church. When Leland and his partner, also a ringer, arrived, we ascended the narrow spiral staircase to an anteroom that gave onto the ringing room beyond. There were lots of signs about when to be quiet.

We were there for service ringing, that is, bell ringing as the current service was getting out, so the ringers had to wait for the right moment. Then they went into the ringing room; I was invited to come in too, as long as I did not touch or go near any ropes. The first thing the band had to do was ring the tower bells up (so their mouths were up; this is their rest position when ringers are actively using the bells). After this, I went back to the anteroom while different sets of ringers rang different methods on the bells. I picked up some change ringing jargon over the course of the morning (some of which I may get wrong in this post), but I have to admit that all the methods sounded the same to me. It’s kind of beautiful to watch, though, without even seeing the bells: the ringers’ movements are very fluid, and it all looks like this somewhat hypnotizing human machine.

Simon the church cat

After about twenty minutes of ringing, we went downstairs and around the corner for the fellowship hour. Advent has a resident church cat, Simon, who was very sweet! Possibly because he could butter people into sharing treats from the table with him.

Next we walked to Old North Church, of Paul Revere fame (he rang the same bells that the Boston band still rings!), for more service ringing. The ringing room of Old North felt a bit more rustic (all wood and brick), and I perched on the staircase that led to the upper stories of the tower to watch. When the bells rang, the whole tower thrummed. A few methods in, Leland and I went through the door at the top of my steps, climbed another staircase, and then climbed a sort of stair-ladder hybrid to a platform just overlooking the bells. From here, with ear protection, we watched the bells swing up and down as the ringers below handled the ropes for the next pattern.

The bells of Old North

The band rang at Old North for about an hour, and then we all had lunch at the Boston Public Market. I went back to my friend’s place to pick up my stuff and took the T to Cambridge to meet up with Leland again. At his partner’s apartment, we had tea, and then they brought out a set of handbells to try to teach me to ring some changes. The actual ringing technique is different from the technique I’m accustomed to from ringing in handbell choirs; there are two strokes, the way there are with tower bells. This was a little awkward, but much more difficult was trying to ring permutations. They’d given me the two bells that rang “symmetrically,” which was supposed to make the task easier, but as soon as the changes began, I found myself completely lost. It was like my brain had hit a wall; it was actually kind of impressive. We switched from six bells to five, and with only one bell, I was able to keep up a bit better, thinking to myself something like, This time through I ring in position one, this time through in position two…

Soon after the handbell ringing, Leland and I drove to Northampton, where on Monday evening I would get one more dose of change ringing in the tower of Smith College. The tower is not as pretty on the outside and not as atmospheric on the inside as the towers in Boston, but you do get to climb a ladder to reach the ringing room. The group here silenced the bells and rang using a simulator (that is, they were ringing the muted bells, and a computer played bell sounds synchronized to their strokes, because apparently not everyone around the tower loves listening to bell practice). I watched and listened for a bit (Leland gave me some things to keep my ear out for, which made the methods more intelligible), and then Leland gave me a lesson in handling a bell. Conclusion: it’s hard! And that’s just one part of change ringing because then there are all the methods to learn!

Smith tower ringing room (upwards leads to the bells)

Later, I started poking around the shelves underneath the benches against the brick walls of the ringing room. There were stacks of books about ringing. Leland suggested one with anecdotes from the history of change ringing. There was a whole section on women and change ringing, including a rather hilarious excerpt from a letter or somesuch in which the writer said that the tower was one of the few places where men could experience friendship with each other, and with the presence of a woman it just wasn’t the same, so couldn’t women leave men this one thing?

When Leland first explained change ringing to me, years ago, he said that in his experience, when you first encounter it, “either you get it and it instantly seems like the most enjoyable activity imaginable or you don’t and it just sounds totally weird.” I think I rather regrettably fall into the latter category, but I’m glad at least to have seen and heard actual change ringing and to have stood in a tower watching Paul Revere’s bells sound at my feet.

 

Bookstores of the Pioneer Valley

Last week was fall break, and I spent most of it visiting my friend Leland in Western Massachusetts. The weather was mostly splendid, the fall color was glorious, and the bookstores were abundant. (In general, Northampton, where I was staying, affords many more delights than Grinnell. It probably helps that it has more than three times the population.) Here’s a little travelogue in bookstores:

On Tuesday, on my afternoon wanderings, I came upon a sandwich board for Raven Used Books. The shop was partway down a curved, sloping street and set partly below street level, so entering it was a bit like climbing down into a book cave. Inside, it was crammed with books, exactly as you’d wish. I first lingered in the Medieval section, where I discovered the Proceedings of the Pseudo Society (sample papers included “The Badman of Bossy-sur-Inept: Memoirs of a Medieval Peasant” and “The Lost Letters of Charlemagne’s First Wife, Autostrada, Also Called Desiderata or Desideria”). Then I went to Science Fiction & Fantasy, thinking there was a good chance I could find the next book for the Grinnell Pioneer Bookshop’s Speculative Fiction Reading Group. (The Drake Community Library’s sole copy was currently checked out.) Indeed, there were three copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, of which I bought one. (There was also a sex manual misshelved in SFF; I left it there.)

Raven Used Books

On Wednesday, Leland and I drove to the Montague Book Mill (“books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”), tucked away in a rural, woodsy region and perched over a stream. There’s no longer a mill, but in addition to the bookstore there’s a restaurant, a café, a music store, and an art gallery selling local artists’ work. The ground floor of the bookstore had a sort of cabin feel. Sunlight poured in the windows overlooking the water. I found a shelf full of copies of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and upstairs in the linguistics section there was Kenstowicz & Kisseberth’s Generative Phonology. There was also a shelf for Books of No Obvious Category. The rooms of the upper level reminded me a little of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in that there were little tables tucked under windows where people were sitting and working. Later, I found the paths down to the stream and its rapids. There were some old stone walls and a little brick building with green window frames. I dipped my hands in the water; it was cold.

The Book Mill

On Thursday, back in Northampton, I stepped briefly into Tim’s Used Books to look around. This store was just one room, but despite being small it had a nice children’s section. Then I went up the street to Broadside Bookshop, the first new bookstore (as opposed to used bookstore) of my trip. I spent a lot of time in SFF, which was on the right as soon as you entered, and then a little time in Fiction, where I spotted the anthology The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I know someone who has a story in there: Maddy Raskulinecz! Next I ambled over to the children’s and YA section. There are so. many. books. in the world. Also, The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, is hefty. Despite having read some worrisome things about it, I still want to read it, even if 20-year-old Lyra is going to depress me. (Side note: In that interview with Pullman I mentioned in my last post, I learned that the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass cut some material that was deemed overly sensual or somesuch, and I was betrayed. I looked it up too, and it was utterly harmless. I mean, compared to the big thoughts His Dark Materials might make you think…)

The lower level of Amherst Books

Later that day, I was in Amherst, and after visiting the Emily Dickinson museum (more on that another time!), I hung out at Amherst Books until Leland came to join me. Used books were in the basement, and I heeded the many dire warnings to leave bags upstairs. There were some excellent bookshelf ladders downstairs. Back on the main floor, I parked myself in the SFF section, where Leland found me. We exchanged recommendations for a bit. I could point to at least three books shelved face-out that I had heard good things about and wanted to read (I’m so behind on my to-read list). Then we walked down the street to have ramen.