Tag Archive | Minneapolis

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

Northern Spark 2014

I am on vacation in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I arrived just in time for Northern Spark 2014. This is an all-night arts festival I’ve attended with friends for the past two years (I mentioned the 2013 festival briefly in my 2013 recap post). The first year I went, it was in Minneapolis, and we spent most of our time around the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi. Last year, it was in St. Paul, in and around the Union Depot railroad station. This year, it was back in Minneapolis, and it coincided with the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail train that connects the Twin Cities’ downtowns. The light rail line was in the midst of construction the whole time I lived in Beth Shalom last year, and whenever I walked down University Avenue to go to the library or to grab a meatball bánh mì, I would see the as yet unused rails and the empty stations and regret the fact that I would be leaving before the trains started running. In celebration of the opening of the Green Line, all Twin Cities buses and trains were free this past weekend–a public transportation fan’s dream! 

Saturday was rainy and blustery, so I did not ride the Green Line to St. Paul as I’d hoped. Besides, we were hosting a garden party at home, which ended up being indoors due to the weather.

Peonies

Some of my mother’s peonies

In the evening, as a thunderstorm rolled through, I took a (free!) bus to downtown Minneapolis and met some friends at the Convention Center for the opening ceremony of Northern Spark. After some taiko drumming and a welcome from Mayor Betsy Hodges, we headed to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis, perform Kevin Puts’s Symphony No. 4. It was my first time in Orchestra Hall since it was renovated, and for the most part it didn’t look that different. It was also my first time hearing the Minnesota Orchestra since the lockout ended. The last time I heard these musicians perform live, they were playing independently as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. And the last time I heard them at all was in October, in LA, when I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s live stream of Osmo Vänskä‘s last concert as conductor of the orchestra. Now the lockout is over, and Osmo is back! So it was really meaningful to be back in that familiar hall hearing this orchestra again. The symphony was accompanied by a light show against the cubes embedded in the wall behind the stage. Some of it was rather pretty, but it felt a bit superfluous to me.

After the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance, we prowled around Orchestra Hall and the Convention Center seeing what else there was to see. There was a trebuchet out in the street hurling water balloons containing LED lights in soaring arcs over the pavement. There were some musicians playing unusual instruments (bowed banjo?) in the Convention Center arcade. We dashed through the rain to this seesaw that was supposed to do something light/sound-related, but it was hard to tell what it was doing, exactly, and we were getting wet.

Eventually, we rode the new Green Line a short ways to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota and ducked into the Weisman Art Museum. This is where I knew the local Sacred Harp singers were holding an all-night Northern Spark singing. The people I was with were very good sports about singing with me for most of the hour between midnight and 1 a.m., and it was rather fun to make my reappearance among the Twin Cities singers in the middle of a stormy night. We sang some tunes befitting the circumstances, like The Midnight Cry and Showers of Blessings.

From the Weisman, we hopped from one U building to the next. The Gossip Orchestra was pretty cool, and in Northrop Auditorium we experienced the Fruit Orchestra, in which you hold an alligator clip in one hand and hit pieces of fruit (a banana, a lemon, a lime) with the other to make music. The tomatoes and cherry were in somewhat bad shape by the time we got to the Fruit Orchestra. (It strikes me that there are a lot of orchestras in this post.) Also in Northrop was a slideshow, projected on the wall, of the outlines of all the lakes in Minnesota.

As it approached 2 a.m., we decided we’d had enough of running around in the rain and exploring Northern Spark in wet clothes. For our final adventure of the night, we crossed the Mississippi using this former railroad bridge that I hadn’t known existed (according to Wikipedia, it is Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9) as the wind blew rain in our faces and thunder rumbled overhead.

One last thing! For helping to fund Northern Spark this year, I received this bit of plastic, which, believe it or not, is called a sparker (as are people who attend Northern Spark, apparently–that makes me a Sparker!).

Sparker

My sparker

Why is it called a sparker? Because it does this:

Sparks