Tag Archive | Minneapolis

Star of the North: Minnesota English Country Dance Weekend

Star of the North is an English country dance weekend held in Minnesota. (What is English country dancing? It’s the kind of social dancing you see in Jane Austen films. That said, the tradition now includes tunes and dances written by contemporary composers and choreographers, and dancing can vary in style and energy, so if you think the dancing in the movies looks slow and staid, well, it’s not necessarily like that.) I may have attended a Star of the North dance or ball back when I was in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps; I can’t quite remember. But certainly I hadn’t gone in recent years. Over the summer, I accidentally discovered that the caller for Star of the North this fall was going to be Joanna Reiner, my very first dance teacher at Swarthmore. Essentially, Joanna taught me to do English country dancing (and Scottish country dancing, but that’s different!). I got very excited, and I think I noted that Star of the North fell on one of the weekends of my fall break so I could actually go if I wanted. Then I promptly forgot about it for months.

When fall break rolled around, it occurred to me to check out who the callers and bands were for the Saturday contra dances at Tapestry Folkdance Center when I’d be in town, and that was when Star of the North burst back onto my radar. It wasn’t too late to register! So I did, just for the Friday evening dance and the Saturday evening ball (no workshops for me). The musicians were Karen Axelrod on piano and Daron Douglas on violin, both eminent in the relevant circles; together they form the duo Foxfire, of which I was already a fan.

Both dances were lovely. All the individual dances were taught rather than just talked through. This was mildly surprising to me, especially at the ball, but it was nice since I hardly ever go English dancing these days and don’t know any dances by heart. Of course, the dances are also called, so with an experienced crowd there are rarely any problems or “very local variations,” as Joanna calls them. It was wonderful to experience Joanna’s teaching and calling again. One of the local dancers told me that he and his wife (both of whom I know through shape note singing, contra, Georgian singing, etc.) think that, in the English country dancing world, Joanna is the best there is. She chose some excellent dances with tunes I like very much (Easter Thursday, Saint Margaret’s Hill, Candles in the Dark), and the musicians were great.

The dance weekend participants were mostly locals, but others had traveled to be there, including one couple I was expecting to see. They’re from Ames, IA, and I met them the first and only time I went to dance camp at Pinewoods, the summer after I graduated from Swarthmore. They’re also Scottish dancers (and the camp we all attended was Harmony of Dance and Song). I didn’t really get a chance to talk to them or explain this at Star of the North, but when the husband and I were partners, I said something to the effect that I thought we’d met once a long time ago, and he was like, Probably! And I said I lived in Iowa too now. There was another, younger, dancer from Iowa who asked me to dance at the ball and said he’d heard from the wife of that couple that I lived in Iowa. He asked where, and I said Grinnell. He asked if there was much dancing there; I said no. At the end of the ball on Saturday, I got to chat with Joanna a bit, and then the young man from Iowa came over, and they both told me about an English dance weekend in Fairfield, IA (where apparently they’ve had shape note singing too?) that was in just a few weeks, right over my birthday. Bare Necessities, the doyen of English country dance bands, was playing (and in fact always plays the Fairfield dance weekend). Joanna and the Iowan said I should go, so when I got back to Iowa I looked it up, but it was, unsurprisingly, sold out. (The Twin Cities couple who think Joanna is the best did go this year, and apparently they’ve already reserved their spots for next year! I think this is a popular weekend.) 

Joanna always had the band play a bit of the tune before teaching each new dance, and at the Saturday ball, when it was time for the last dance, she told us we might recognize the music. Foxfire started to play, and the tune meant nothing to me, but a few other dancers made noises of realization. I still don’t know why Joanna thought we might know this tune in particular. I thought maybe they’d done the dance at the workshop, but it seems not, so maybe it’s just popular? In any case, the dance was Sapphire Sea, and it was a very fine dance–dolphin heys! I also loved the tune, so when I got back to Grinnell, I looked it up: it’s Tom Kruskal’s, by Emily Troll and Amelia Mason. Now I’m…kind of obsessed? I’ve played it on violin and cello already. I looked for recordings of Sapphire Sea online to listen to the music, and I found a good one from a ball that took place not far from Boston. At first, I just listened to the band, but at some point I looked at the video and was like, hey, I know those dancers! That’s par for the course when you have niche hobbies.

A Chilly Minnesota Spring

I’m in Minnesota for spring break just now, but it hasn’t been a very warm spring break, on the whole. At the very beginning, there was one balmy day, and I took advantage of the nice weather to walk around Lake Harriet. The ice on the lake is getting soft and slushy, and there are some patches of open water along the shoreline. Here are some Canada geese–scoping out nest sites?–as well as other fowl flying low in the sky.

One day, my mother and I had lunch at FIKA, the restaurant inside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. We had kroppkakor (potato dumplings filled with spiced pork) with crème fraîche and lingonberries and a semla (a cardamom-flavored roll filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream). They were both excellent.

Kroppkakor

Semla

Another day, we made an excursion to Keefer Court, the pre-eminent Chinese bakery of Minneapolis, which after all these years I’d still never been to. The side of the building is painted with a cute mural depicting birds and flowering trees.

Otherwise, life is busy! I hope to be back in April with some more exciting posts!

The Best of Uncanny, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Return from France

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

A walk in the Forêt de Meudon

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

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

 

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.

Summer’s End in Minnesota

At the end of my summer, which for the rest of the world is mid-to-late September, I went to Minnesota and brought Isabelle along. We visited the cats at Wild Rumpus in Linden Hills.

We stumbled upon the Highpoint Center for Printmaking on Lake Street and saw the juried print exhibition and Michael Kareken’s black-and-white watercolor monotypes of majestic forests in the Pacific Northwest.

With my brother, we visited Minneapolis’s first cat café, Café Meow! We met a very sweet cat named Oreo.

Photo by Isabelle

We saw Minnehaha Falls in its late summer glory.

We attended the second day of the 29th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, again at The Landing, and I led 547 Granville.

On our last day, we took a walk in my neighborhood and found this:

Qing Dynasty Treasures and Boundless Peaks

I am woefully behind on blogging about my adventures, but such is the way of things. In the last month or so, besides diligently writing my dissertation, I’ve returned to the aquarium, enjoyed a 4-hour “study session” at the new cat café in my neighborhood, and spent nearly three weeks in Portugal and France. This post, however, harks back to early May, when I was in Minneapolis with Isabelle for the 175th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. It was my first phonetics conference. We presented posters in the same session, and I met exactly the linguists I wanted to talk to about my somewhat perplexing study (one of them, from the University of Minnesota, lives practically down the road from my parents!). I also got to see a friend and fellow linguistics Ph.D. student I know from Swarthmore.

After our poster session, Isabelle and I had lunch on Eat Street and then walked over to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty. This exhibit was meant to weave objects and artwork from the Qing Dynasty into an immersive, sensory experience drawing on elements of theater. It began with ten minutes of meditation in a dark room. It was almost pitch black, but a vase placed high in one corner was illuminated. A piece by John Cage involving what sounded like pencils being dropped onto a stage played in the background. Several of the exhibit rooms included music, some of it rather strange. One of the rooms, featuring a carved wooden throne, had walls painted red with the image of a rather Western-looking dragon and a soundtrack of screams (possibly not all human?). The whole thing was rather unusual, but I liked the art.

IMG_1260

Look at those bats!

After emerging from the Qing Dynasty exhibit, we stumbled upon another temporary exhibit, Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki. Araki was a Japanese painter born in China who studied with Chinese painter Zhang Daqian. I was quite taken with his paintings, especially a monumental one covering several walls depicting mountains and trees.

Dancing with Zedashe

I talk a lot about my Georgian chorus at UCLA, but the first time I ever sang Georgian music was in 2013, when Zedashe, a vocal and dance ensemble from Georgia, came to Minneapolis. Their many events on their tour stop were organized by a couple I knew through folk dancing and shape note singing in the Twin Cities. I attended the choral workshop. On that occasion, we learned the song Shavlego and the chant Saidumlo Utskho Da Didebuli Vikhilet. I still have the sheet music for both tucked into my Sacred Harp.

Anyway, Zedashe is back in the U.S. for the release of their latest album, Our Earth and Water, and they kicked off their tour with a slew of events in Minneapolis. On Saturday morning, I went to the choral workshop in the gymnasium of the parish house of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral. This time, I was armed with a year and a half of Georgian singing experience.

The first song we learned was Amiranis Perkhuli, or Amiran’s Round Dance. Amiran was a great hunter, apparently. Unlike most Georgian folk songs, which are in three-part harmony, Amiranis Perkhuli only has two parts, which shows how ancient it is. It also has two choirs, which trade off singing the top part over the bass. One choir sings the same (I think nonsense) words over and over while the other choir sings the verses telling of Amiran’s exploits. And on top of that it has a circle dance which you do as you sing. We learned the steps and everything. You can hear the whole song and see some of the dance in this (at times weirdly staged) video:

After that, we learned the chant Ghirs Ars, which talks about Mary and cherubim and seraphim.

That same evening, I went to one of Zedashe’s three concerts. I’d never seen them perform before, just participated in their workshops, and it was impressive. There was more dancing of a very different kind, flashier, often flirtatious, with almost no touching. The nine members of the ensemble wore traditional clothing (minus the bandoliers of bullets for the men, which was kind of reassuring). And there were instruments! Drum and accordion, but also panduri, a Georgian three-stringed lute, and chiboni, a Georgian bagpipe with a huge bag that’s actually as big as a headless, legless goat.

Zedashe performed a version of Gaul Gaukhe, a war song I’ve sung with Datvebis Gundi, and a song called Parine. The funny thing about Parine is that I could hear it was essentially the same song as one Datvebis Gundi learned, except we called it Parina. And while we were told Parina was about some festival when one gives alms to the poor, Zedashe’s English title for Parine was A Handsome Boy’s Name! Somewhere, something got lost in translation…

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been reading a lot lately, at a rate of almost a book a day, which is probably not helping my summer research any, or the book I’m supposed to be writing. Then again, it is summer, and it’s not Tolstoy novels I’m gulping down daily.

Yesterday, I finished Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, which is most definitely a snow book. It’s also a modern fairy tale, a retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and it’s deeply rooted in Minneapolis, which I loved, because sometimes it’s nice to encounter a setting in a book that you don’t need to imagine because it already exists in your memory. From Linden Hills to the chain of lakes, it was all familiar and real to me. Even Joe Mauer, though goodness knows I don’t care about the Twins.

Even though the central story echoes “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs weaves in other fairy tales, especially those of Hans Christian Andersen, like “The Red Shoes” and “The Little Match Girl” (hmm, I suppose it’s not a coincidence the heroine’s name is Hazel Anderson?). Growing up, I had a Hans Christian Andersen collection, a big, old book with a worn spine and a drab cover and lovely illustrations. I think “The Snow Queen” was the very first story in that collection, and it was my favorite. I particularly remember the robber girl and her knife. There is no robber girl in Breadcrumbs.

In addition to the intermingling of fairy tales, there are references to the literary magical worlds that come alive for Hazel and her friend Jack. Hogwarts, Narnia, the planets in A Wrinkle in Time. I liked the strong conflation of the Snow Queen with the White Witch Jadis from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and was amused when, after Jack climbs into her white sleigh, she asks, “Would you like some Turkish delight?” and he says, “Huh?” and she says, “Just a little joke.” (But surely he got it, after a moment?)

The most thrilling moment, though, was when Hazel is reading a library book on the school bus:

“The girl in it was reading A Wrinkle in Time. She was best friends with a boy who lived in the apartment below. And then one day the boy stopped talking to her. Hazel closed the book.”

I thought, Aha! I know that book. It had to be When You Reach Me, the 2010 winner of the Newbery Medal. It was one of those gleeful Lemony Snicket I-caught-your-reference moments, but also, I was blown away by When You Reach Me, and there is a strong affinity between the two books.

I read another book set in Minnesota recently: Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian, who, like Anne Ursu, is a Minnesota author. Sex & Violence takes place on a fictional lake in a fictional county of Minnesota, so I didn’t recognize landmarks the same way I did in Breadcrumbs, but it still captured that atmosphere of being “up at the lake”. (Well, my family doesn’t have a lake cabin, so I don’t have tons of experience being “up at the lake,” but it felt right nonetheless.) Sex & Violence was a 2014 finalist for the Morris Award, which honors a debut YA novel. I’d heard lots of good things about it, so I plucked it right off the shelf when I spotted it at the library. It absolutely lived up to its reputation. And all I can say is I wish I knew of an island on a lake with an old mansion on it whose library and other rooms I could explore. That sounds fantastic.

I also read another 2014 Morris Award finalist, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters. It’s set in San Diego in 1918, against the backdrop of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. The strong-willed, scientifically-minded heroine arrives in southern California to stay with her aunt after her father is arrested for helping men avoid the draft in Portland, Oregon. There she finds herself hounded by a spiritualist photographer, the brutish brother of the boy she loves, who is in the trenches in France. I really enjoyed the historical details, in part because the setting of Sparkers, while fantastic, is modeled on this era, in terms of the level of technology. The book also illuminated for me the full impact of the flu and the level of panic it created. I knew the pandemic happened, but I didn’t realize that practically everyone was going around wearing gauze masks, that schools were closed, that people ate onions and carried around garlic in hopes of warding off the flu, that wagons of dead bodies rolled through the streets, and that people hung color-coded flags representing the dead from their houses. At least as depicted in the book, it was like the Black Death transported into the 20th century. This sense of impending doom brought on by a plague also made me reflect on Sparkers.

Even beyond the richly-rendered setting and the omnipresent fear of the flu, In the Shadow of Blackbirds impressed me. It was genuinely surprising: many of the characters had a complexity and ambiguity that made it impossible for me to predict the roles they would play in advance, and I never saw the identity of the ultimate villain coming. Maybe another reader would’ve guessed, but I didn’t. Also, the climax was truly horrifying and terrifying. Finally—and this might be spoilery so if you care about that sort of thing, maybe don’t read on—I have this rule that has generally served me well that says you never believe a character is really dead unless you see the body. The protagonist may think they’re dead, but if you don’t see the body, they’re probably not and will likely return before the end of the book. So, in this book, someone died, and there was even a funeral, but we never actually saw the body, so I was pretty convinced for a long time that he would turn up, safe and sound, by the end. Maybe the fact that he was appearing as a ghost to the protagonist should have tipped me off to his actually being dead, but I held out hope (and confidence in my rule) for quite a while. But no. He was really dead. He didn’t come back. And thus Cat Winters subverted my expectations, and I was pleased. Because I always feel vindicated when a purportedly dead character resurfaces, but it’s also a little disappointing to be able to see it coming from the beginning, so I appreciated being proven wrong.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. Next up is Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy.

Many Waters

First off, a bit of exciting news: Sparkers received a starred review from Kirkus! You can read it over there. I’m very happy!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

It’s rained about a foot in Minnesota in the month of June, making it the state’s wettest June since 1874. It was quite the change going from parched Southern California to practically underwater Minnesota, where lately the first question people ask upon running into each other is, “Is your basement flooding?” Too often, alas, the answer is yes. Or if not your basement, then your in-laws’.

Last Saturday, I attended the Minnesota Peony Society’s annual picnic (for which I served as Dessert Competition Registrar). It was held in a park where the line between land and lake had blurred:

Mallards

Mallards enjoying the swing set

Pier

Lake Cornelia Fishing Pier

Minnows

A school of minnows on a walking path

Then, on Sunday, my family went to see Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. The falls are on Minnehaha Creek, which flows into the Mississippi River. The creek reached a record high level last week, so the falls promised to be an awesome sight.

Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls, on Minnehaha Creek

A kayaker went over these falls on purpose a few days ago for a stunt. I heard he broke his nose.

Falls

The creek itself is looking equally impressive these days. It’s not the time to go canoeing.

Creek

Raging Minnehaha Creek, just downstream of the falls

Me and the Falls

Me and Minnehaha Falls