Eating and reading

on sauce and ink

KECAP, n. This week I made a recipe that called for kecap manis, which is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Kecap manis is not readily available in the groceries of small-town Kentucky, where I am this week and where I grew up. So I had to look it up to make an approximate substitute. (The cookbook I was using suggested replacing it with coconut nectar, another product I was unlikely to find at Kroger. So on the internet’s advice, I used regular soy sauce and brown sugar, although I think real kecap manis has a much thicker texture and I could have used molasses).

This is what I was cooking, by the way—fried tofu and broccoli. Both dishes are from Unmi Abkin’s Curry & Kimchi. The sauce on the tofu is her take on General Tso’s, a dish that is as multicultural/American as ketchup.

I didn’t realize how to pronounce “kecap” at first. C is probably the trickiest letter in the Roman alphabet, although x is a troublemaker too, and really, not a single one is reliable. (Well, maybe m.) Anyway, things only came together for me when I saw that “kecap” is also sometimes spelled “ketjap.”

That looks a lot like “ketchup,” I thought.

Two sauces with almost the same name couldn’t be a coincidence. Like a totally self-centered jerk, my first thought was that maybe the English word “ketchup” had given rise to kecap/ketjap, but it’s the other way around!

It turns out “ketchup” is a little bit of an etymological mystery. The following explanation is now my preferred theory, but I speak zero of the original languages involved and am half a world away from my area of expertise, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Or a dash of kecap manis.

“Kecap” used to be the Malay word for fish sauce, though in Bahasa Indonesia it now just means “sauce.” In addition to kecap manis (soy-based; manis = “sweet”) in Indonesian cuisine, there’s kecap asin (soy-based; asin = “salty”) and kecap ikan (ikan = “fish”).

The original “kecap” fish sauce was already an international commodity before European colonists encountered it. The English first tasted it in present-day Malaysia and Singapore in the late 1600s. The sauce had come there via seafaring Chinese traders (or pirates) who’d been inspired by the fish sauces of Vietnam (nuoc mam) and Thailand (nam pla). The Chinese sailors, who came from the southern coastal region of Fujian, called their sauce “kôe-chiap” or “kê-chiap.”

The English colonists took the idea home and transformed it into a fish-and-mushroom sauce. Slate offers this recipe from 1742:

To Make KATCH-UP that will keep good Twenty Years.

Take a Gallon of strong stale Beer, one Pound of Anchovies wash’d and clean’d from the Guts, half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, a quarter of an Ounce of Pepper, three large Races of Ginger, one Pound of Eschallots, and one Quart of flap Mushrooms well rubb’d and pick’d; boil all these over a slow Fire till it is half wasted, and strain it thro’ a Flannel Bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle and stop it very close …

Mushrooms (or walnuts) gradually became the main ingredient in the sauce. Apparently you can still buy “mushroom ketchup” in the UK. Tomatoes don’t enter the picture until the early 1800s, and sugar becomes an ingredient in US iterations in the 1890s. That’s how we get modern-day ketchup, which you can find at a Kroger in small-town Kentucky.

This week in Capital-R Romance, I made progress in Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s contemporary Congolese novel set in a fictional version of Lubumbashi, Tram 83, but didn’t finish. I did come across this great line of dialogue, though. It’s spoken by one of the many sex workers in Tram 83’s titular nightclub:

Pour moi les préliminaires, c’est comme la démocratie. Si tu ne me caresses pas, j’appelle les Américains.

For me foreplay is like democracy. If you don’t caress me, I’m calling the Americans.

And speaking of caresses, in small-r romance, this week I read:

That Kind of Guy (demi het m/allo het f, both cis, contemporary) by Talia Hibbert. A hallmark of Talia Hibbert’s writing is complex main characters whose lives—physical and mental health, family and personal history, careers and living situations—are richly explored. That sounds like something you’d find in every novel, but Hibbert brings such warmth and specificity to it. For example, one of the main characters in this novel has POTS, a chronic health condition that causes her to faint or become lightheaded if she stands up too quickly, and you learn a lot about her from the ways it intersects with her life. I also love how Hibbert develops the main characters’ friendships and family relationships in addition to the romance, so you get a real sense of community. Like all her books, this is a joy to read. Content warnings: sex, an emotionally abusive parent, divorce, an ace-spectrum character has done self-harm in the form of having sex he didn’t want.

I Wanna Be Where You Are (m/f, both cis and het, young adult, contemporary) by Kristina Forest. I mentioned this book last week, since I bought it for a teen in my life. She gave it a rave review, so I picked it up from the library—see, Macmillan? I bought the book and I checked it out of the library—and read it myself. It’s wonderful. Totally engrossing. This book is also extra special because it’s harder than it should be to find contemporary fiction starring Black girls that isn’t about fighting against racism or some other big issue, or dealing with a family tragedy or the death of a friend. There’s nothing wrong with books about serious issues, of course, but the teen I gave this book to was already dealing with heavy stuff in her real life. I wanted to cheer her up, not make her cry or rage against injustice. Chloe and Eli, the main characters in this book, have loving, supportive families and are mostly concerned with how to follow their dreams after high school—and whether they’ll get caught and grounded for taking an unauthorized road trip. It’s adorable and so necessary. I recommend it to young adult and regular adult readers. Content warnings: a parent has died in a car accident, divorce.

Last week after I wrote about “calm up,” many of you shared words that small children in your lives have come up with, so here is a selection:

My friend Diane wrote, “I once told [my toddler] to behave, and he said, ‘I am being hǣve!’”

My mom told me that at around five or maybe six years old, I complained that my younger brother was “rumpeting around my room.”

And some excellent words from twitter:

And from the auteur of “calm up,” this insight:

I love it. I think we should all adopt this terminology.

This connection between eating and reading comes up often in articles about romance novels, which describe romance readers as “voracious” or as “devouring” books, since so many of us read avidly. Romance readers often find this metaphor insulting. The journalists who write the annual February 14th “look at what these freakish women are reading” articles don’t respect us. They don’t conceive of reading romance as anything intellectual or emotional; it’s a bodily process, and an animal, uncontrollable one at that. Nobody talks about dining or supping on romance novels. Nothing so civilized. It’s gluttony—and lust.

Even though I recognize the insult in the articles, I have an affection for the eating metaphor. Everything humans do, we do with our bodies. I like reading and I like eating and books are a kind of food to me.

And of course, there is this Mark Strand poem, “Eating Poetry.”

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Last week we were getting drunk on poetry, this week we’re eating it. Word Suitcase endorses romping with joy in the bookish dark, but not licking any non-consenting librarians.

And speaking of art, food, consumption, and any small children you may have in your life, here’s a timely and timeless reminder from Sesame Street: don’t eat the pictures when you go to museums.

Have a good week!

making a language where nothing stays

invented words (that's all of them), time, poetry, death

CALM UP, v. Last weekend some friends told me that their three-and-a-half-year-old says “calm up” in addition to “calm down.” Usually in the context of raising a video’s volume.

Everything about this is wonderful:

  • the kid’s close-but-not-quite intuition that “calm down” means “be quieter” (which is interesting because I think parents tend to use “calm down” as both “be quiet” and “sit still,” while internet commenters mostly mean “stop having so many feelings and opinions contrary to my own”)

  • and if “calm down” = “be quieter,” therefore there must exist a corresponding phrasal verb, “calm up,” that means “be louder”

  • (I stopped writing here to text my friend to ask her kid what he thinks the word “calm” means, just to be sure, and the answer was indeed “be quiet”)

  • the demonstration that kids learn language not only by repeating things they’ve heard, but also by forming new phrases that nobody has ever said to them

  • the native English speaker’s impulse, when forming a new verb, to add a preposition at the end, rather than a prefix like “re-” or “de-” (this newsletter has previously discussed prefixes in English and German)

You don’t have to add a preposition to make a verb. In English, you can rely on sentence structure to do the work for you. In the Talia Hibbert novel I was reading this week, but have not finished because this week has suuucked, one main character said to the other “I’m gonna fake-boyfriend you now.” A verb!

There’s this great Calvin and Hobbes strip that illustrates the same idea:

And as much as I love Bill Watterson, Hobbes is wrong about “mak[ing] language a complete impediment to understanding.” There’s no danger of that, which the comic itself demonstrates. We invent new words all the time—and if you go back far enough, all words were newly invented. “Verbing weirds language” is understandable, as is “calm up.”

This week in small-r romance, I read

A book I abandoned. Alas. At least it was a library book and not a purchase.

Snowspelled (m/f, both cis and het, historical, fantasy) by Stephanie Burgis. A totally charming romance in a Regency-esque fantasy setting. The love story is between a prickly, determined woman (yesss) and the man who’s still desperately in love with her even though their engagement fell apart (yesss!!). The worldbuilding details are delightful: women are politicians, men are magicians, and it is women who wield the power to “compromise” men into marriage. I look forward to the rest of this series.

I Wanna Be Where You Are (m/f, both cis and het?, young adult, contemporary) by Kristina Forest. Okay, technically I didn’t read this. I read the first couple of chapters and then I bought it for a teen reader in my life who has been feeling down. (This week, y’all.) This YA romance stars a young woman who sneaks out to go to a ballet audition while her mom is away, but her annoying(ly cute) neighbor demands to tag along on her road trip or else he’ll tell on her. The teen I gave it to really likes it so far, which cheered both of us up.

This week in Capital-R Romance, I’m about halfway through Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83, a novel about a nightclub in a Congolese city (called “la Ville-Pays,” the City-Country, in the text, and inspired by Lubumbashi). Like the nightclub, the prose is joyful, crowded, sweaty and alive. The text reads a little bit like a prose poem. It’s sometimes composed of long, overflowing lists and it’s shot through with the refrain “Do you have the time?” (l’heure, as in “what time is it?”), which is one way that the sex workers in the Tram 83 nightclub approach potential customers. The novel is also full of trains, since the City-Country is dominated by an unfinished 19th-century train station, a semi-functional memorial to the colonial past. The first scene is at the train station, at “seven or nine o’clock.” The trains “no longer know what time it is.”

So because of that, I’ve been thinking about the Charles Wright line “The subject of all poems is the clock,” which comes from this poem “Portrait of the Artist with Hart Crane” (The Southern Cross, 1981).

It’s Venice, late August, outside after lunch, and Hart
Is stubbing his cigarette butt in a wine glass,
The look on his face pre-moistened and antiseptic,
A little like death or a smooth cloud.
The watery light of his future still clings in the pergola.

The subject of all poems is the clock,
I think, those tiny, untouchable hands that fold across our chests
Each night and unfold each morning, finger by finger
Under the new weight of the sun.
One day more is one day less.

I’ve been writing this poem for weeks now
With a pencil made of rain, smudging my face
And my friend’s face, making a language where nothing stays.
The sunlight has no such desire.
In the small pools of our words, its business is radiance.

The subject of all poems is the clock, I think, or at least the clock (and getting the fuck free of it) is the subject of Baudelaire’s “Enivrez-vous” (“Get drunk”), which is good enough for me.

Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là ; c'est l'unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l'horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.

Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu à votre guise, mais enivrez-vous.

Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d'un palais, sur l'herbe verte d'un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l'ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l'étoile, à l'oiseau, à l'horloge; à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est et le vent, la vague, l'étoile, l'oiseau, l'horloge, vous répondront, “Il est l'heure de s'enivrer ! Pour ne pas être les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous ; enivrez-vous sans cesse ! De vin, de poésie, de vertu, à votre guise.”

A super quick and casual translation, because I know how to have fun on a Saturday night: translating a prose poem from 1869.

You must always be drunk. It’s everything; it’s the only question. To not feel the awful burden of time that breaks your shoulders and stoops you to the ground, you have to get drunk without stopping.

But on what? Wine, poetry, or virtue, whatever you want, but get drunk!

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, in the green grass of a ditch, in the bleak solitude of your room, you wake up, buzz already faded or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock; ask everything that flees, that groans, that rolls, that sings, that talks, ask what time it is and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will reply, “It’s time to get drunk. So you won’t be the martyred slave of time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, poetry, or virtue, whatever you want.”

And lastly, this week in things that are neither Romance nor romance, I really appreciated Malinda Lo’s essay “The Invisible Lesbian in Young Adult Fiction” (published in her newsletter, which is cleverly named Lo and Behold).

I also read a little more of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, the history and overview of the war(s) in the Congo by Jason Stearns, which is an incredible feat of writing. It’s gripping.

But due to the aforementioned shittiness of this week, there were enough bad things happening locally that I couldn’t handle reading about bad things happening elsewhere. Apologies for being so vague, but it’s not my story to tell. I am okay; it’s just hard to be adjacent to a tragedy.

Anyway, Saturday night, Sunday morning, or whenever you’re reading this, it’s definitely time to get drunk. And not on virtue. I don’t know what Baudelaire was talking about there. I’ll stick with an occasional glass of wine—and words, made-up and impermanent as they are.

Sorry for being kind of a downer. Here’s to a less bad week!

Cursed content

weird birds, superstitions, and, as always, romance novels

JINX, n., v. I started thinking about the word “jinx” today when a friend on twitter was surveying people about (1) whether they held with the superstition that it’s bad luck to talk about good things that might happen (in general, or specifically attracting the evil eye) and (2) whether they were Jewish.

While not a superstitious person in general, I am wary of talking about possible good things in the future without layers and layers of hypothetical statements. I had never thought of this personality quirk as Jewish—certainly we never talked about the evil eye in my very secular family. But it just feels right to me to keep in mind, at all times, that it’s a bad idea to talk too much about future good things. If you demanded that I explain this, I wouldn’t say anything about the evil eye. I’d say instead that if you talk too much or too openly about good things in your future, you might accidentally convince yourself they’ll happen, and then when something goes wrong, you’ll be even more crushed. Maybe this is a Jewish attitude either way.

The easiest example of Jewish attitudes about luck is that Ashkenazi Jews don’t hold baby showers. You don’t talk about your baby until your baby is born. Anything else is an invitation for catastrophe. You’ll jinx it.

Jinx is native to English, so the idea that talking about something good might prevent it from happening is not exclusive to Ashkenazim. Its origin is probably a type of Old World woodpecker called a “wryneck” or a “jynx,” a bird associated with witchcraft, and if you watch a video of these creepy little weirdos and their horrible snake necks, you’ll see why people thought they were cursed.

Seventeenth-century English also had the word jyng, meaning a charm or a spell, which is probably related to jinx. But contemporary usage doesn’t have much to do with these woodpeckers, no matter how eerily contortionist.

As a noun, jinx (or jinks) shows up frequently among superstitious baseball players from the 1910s onward, and it was probably in that context that it became a verb, although its verb forms don’t show up in writing until the 1960s. Before that, “Jinks” seems to have been the name of some incompetent or unlucky characters in 19th-century songs and Vaudeville shows, including one named “Jinks Hoodoo” in a musical called Little Puck. This musical seems to have survived only in dictionary entries about the word jinx, so perhaps it was itself cursed. (The use of “hoodoo” doesn’t make me feel great about the chances of the show not being racist!)

Other than a reluctance to talk about possible good futures with certainty, my main superstitious behaviors have to do with my own books. I walk around convinced that all of my books molder into embarrassments while I am not looking; the only good things I have ever written are the things I am actively typing. Perhaps you’re saying “that’s not superstition, that’s just regular old impostor syndrome,” but they reside in the same cobwebbed crawlspace of my brain.

This week I finished recording an audiobook for my novel Nightvine. It’s the second book in a trilogy, so it only makes sense to record the third book, Shadebloom, as well. I wrote Shadebloom in 2017 and early 2018, which as we all know was twenty years ago, so naturally I didn’t remember what was in it. Here is a list of what I recalled about the content of this novel, which is 439 pages long:

  • it ended happily

  • there were some scenes in caves

  • I used the word “thundering” in a way I’m still not sure about

  • a main character can’t tell how long she has been held captive, but she gets her period and that helps her determine how much time has passed (I remain proud of this detail—there should be more periods in books)

Most of the book was lost to me. I dreaded picking it up. There could have been anything in there. Whatever I found in those pages, I was going to have to read it out loud to another person. Talk about a curse.

I am happy to report that this one time, I have escaped unscathed. I opened my forgotten book and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the person who wrote it is into all the same shit as me. (There are, for instance, at least two minor digressions about the grammar of fantasy languages.) The urge to rewrite a sentence only seized me once or twice. A huge relief.

Does this mean the audiobook will be good? We can’t talk about that. I don’t want to jinx it.

I didn’t read any Capital-R Romance this week, despite intending to pick up Yuri Herrera’s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo again and receiving Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 in this very cool, heavily stamped package from France. (He’s a Congolese writer and I’m trying to learn about the Congo; more on that later.)

I did read a lot of small-r romance, though.

Two books I abandoned. Well, I resolved to dump books I wasn’t enjoying and I am adhering to my resolution. It makes me feel sad and guilty, but probably not as sad as I would be if I spent more time on books I didn’t like. I’m not quite sure how to handle my DNF books in this newsletter; my desire to talk about everything I read is at odds with my desire to be collegial with other writers, especially people I am likely to encounter online or at romance conventions. (Come hang out with me at NECRWA, y’all.) 

I am willing to speak freely about, say, the work of Oscar Wilde (dead, famous) or Lisa Kleypas (living, successful, widely adored), but reluctant to critique work by people who are writing from a more vulnerable position. I do occasionally express a mild criticism in this newsletter, but usually it’s one thing that frustrated me in a list of other things I loved, which I feel is acceptable. Partly because when reviews of my own work include some complaints mixed in with compliments, I’m pretty likely to look at the complaints and go, “yeah, that’s true.” This might not be a solid foundation on which to construct a review policy, but it is how I live.

Whereas if I abandoned someone’s book without finishing it, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say, etc. Reviewing—and reviewing critically—is important work, but I will leave the negative reviews to the real reviewers.

That said, I would like to write about why I abandon books, but I will have to think about how to do that in a way that doesn’t feel targeted or identifying.

The Liar’s Dice (m/f, both cis and het, historical, novella) by Jeannie Lin. This is as much mystery as it is romance, and it’s set in China during the Tang dynasty, specifically in the year 849 CE—in case you’re not up on your Chinese dynasties, as I wasn’t until two seconds ago when I googled it. Lin’s writing is great, tense and evocative, and this made me want to read the rest of her work. Content warnings: murder, cis characters crossdressing, a supporting character is pregnant, a supporting character has a gambling addiction.

Briarley (bi m/gay m, both cis, historical, fantasy, novella) by Aster Glenn Gray. This is a queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in England during World War II, and it is gorgeous. I think Beauty and the Beast might be the most commonly retold fairytale in romance. It’s just such fertile ground for tropes: hate-to-love/opposites attract, forced proximity, haunting atmosphere. I also really love Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood and the Beast (m/f, both cis and het, secondary m/m relationship, contemporary) and Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace (f/f, both cis and bi?, fantasy/sci-fi, novella), both wonderful and very different from Briarley and each other. I love this ship-of-Theseus game we play with fairytales and fanfiction: how many planks can you replace and still have the same vessel? In Briarley, the “beauty” is a middle-aged parson—he refuses to give up his daughter in exchange for his own freedom, and besides, she’s engaged in the war effort—and the text seamlessly incorporates his spirituality and the language of the Bible into the fairytale, so you understand why he feels called to help the “beast,” a sort of half-dragon. The whole thing is taut and emotional and also there’s a dog on rollerskates. Content warnings: war/bombings/fire, main character is twice widowed.

No Parking (f/f, both cis and bi, contemporary) by Valentine Wheeler. Full disclosure: Valentine Wheeler is my friend and I read an early draft of this novel. I love the fake Massachusetts town of Swanley where this story, a tale of two rival small business owners solving a real-estate mystery together, takes place. The story revolves around this very queer, diverse town’s local politics—the parking, the traffic, the independent bakery versus the Dunkin’ Donuts—and it feels a lot like where I live. I also love that the protagonists of this story are both around 60 years old, which is a rarity, and one of them is friendly with her ex-husband, also a rarity. This book has such a lovable community, the two women at the heart of it most of all. It comes out this month. Content warnings: divorce (long past and mostly amicable), a character’s father was a veteran with PTSD and depression.

Slave to Sensation (m/f, both cis and het, paranormal/sci-fi) by Nalini Singh. A reread. I’ve read… ten books in this series, I think? But it’s been years, and there’ve been more since. Nalini Singh is so good at worldbuilding—the scope of this series, my God—and pacing. I love her characters, too, although paranormal romance always feels like heterosexual camp to me. Maybe it’s the repeated insistence on the “maleness” of the hero or the “femaleness” of the heroine. It was fun to return to this, and I have immense respect for what Nalini Singh has accomplished in this series, but reading about “alpha” heroes makes me tired in a way it didn’t used to. Content warnings: murder/torture/rape by a serial killer (not described on the page), one protagonist’s parents have been murdered, the other protagonist has an emotionally abusive mother, the race of psychics in this world violently “rehabilitates”/institutionalizes or kills anyone who shows signs of emotion or mental illness and the psychic protagonist lives in fear of being discovered, sex.

In things that are neither Romance nor romance, I read a couple chapters of Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, which is a non-fiction history and overview of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The refugees I interpret for are from the DRC, so I want to understand more about what’s happening there. It is so complicated that you essentially have to read an entire book to even begin to grasp it. I certainly haven’t yet. Stearns is a great writer, and the book is gripping, but it’s so full of human cruelty and suffering and hopelessness that it’s a tough read.

Is knowing more about the DRC going to help me help the families I work with? I’m not sure. Most of the time, I visit one family and help them sort their mail, which I am pretty good at despite living in total ignorance of their country. Do I have a duty to educate myself anyway? I don’t know the answer to that, either.

On a more cheerful note, here’s Drew Magary with some writing advice that’s really about learning to love writing, which resonated with me. As is probably obvious from my superstition/impostor syndrome confessional above, my finished works cause me some consternation. I do also struggle with composition—am intimately familiar with the dread and the self-doubt and the staring-over-the-cliff-edge feeling where the cliff edge is the end of your draft and the unknown, potentially deadly fall is the 57,000 words you haven’t written yet—but I genuinely love it, too. I talk more about the struggle than the joy on twitter; the latter feels like barging into someone else’s somber conversation about their difficulties and going, “Oh, that thing you’re having a hard time with? I love it.” Unbearably rude.

And you know, as mentioned, I don’t always love it—did not love a single one of the 86,000 words of my doctoral dissertation—and I would hate for somebody to rub it in my face that their writing is going great when mine isn’t. Writers: we’re all touchy as fuck.

(If you’re a writer who’s having a hard time right now, just skip this next paragraph, okay? But the Drew Magary essay might still be worth your time.)

In this newsletter, which is more like inviting people to my house than making a speech in the loud, crowded public square of twitter, I will confide that most of the time I am having a ball. I love the inchoate note-taking part and the repetitive tinkering part. I love the gradual emergence of something publishable and readable from something private and illegible. I love writing this fairly rough, stream-of-consciousness newsletter and I love writing more carefully crafted fiction. I love that I get to indulge in all this almost every day—and on days when I don’t, I get melancholy and cranky. Because writing is my favorite thing.

You know what else is my favorite thing? Talking about what makes a really, really good sentence, as Christian Kiefer does in this close reading of Garth Greenwell’s work. I especially love this note about James Baldwin and rule-breaking:

And yet we find many instances in which great writers break all the rules of grammar, semicolons notwithstanding. James Baldwin, for example, loves run-on sentences, many of which (but not all) appear as comma splices. For me, these are instances where the writer is not so much breaking the rules as they are simply remaking them in the image of their own text. Baldwin isn’t making grammar errors; he is making a new grammar for himself. Remember that we are discussing grammar as a tool of meaning-making. (And I would argue that befuddling, confusing, obfuscating, and un-meaning-making are also forms of meaning-making.)

Hat tip to Kate Clayborn, whose tweet brought this essay and its surrounding conversation to my attention:

Romance novelists rarely get credit for our sentences.* Recently I’ve been delighted by posts like this one on Close Reading Romance, where my friend Charlotte applies her literary expertise to romance novels. (The linked post is about the opening of Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.) I think it makes a really good pairing with Kiefer’s essay, since they’re doing the same kind of work.

*I had to type and delete this sentence four times in order to make it say “our sentences” instead of “their sentences.” What’s my job again?

I wanna wish you all a good week but I’m feeling superstitious now, so all I’ll say is that if you see any weird-necked birds around, get the hell out of there.

Ladies can have little a ham sandwich, as a treat

"luncheon" (and, as always, romance novels)

DÉJEUNER, n., v. This French word, déjeuner, is made up of the same morphemes (units of meaning) as its English counterpart, breakfast. In French, the verb jeuner means “to fast” and dé- is a negative prefix, much like de- in English (defrost, debunk, decipher, etc.). So déjeuner is to de-fast, to stop fasting, to break your fast.

It’s funny—as an English speaker, I almost never stop to think about “breakfast” as its two component parts: break, fast. Neither does anyone else, and you can hear it in the way US English speakers pronounce the word [ˈbɹɛkfəst], which sounds very distinct from “break” [bɹeɪk] and “fast” [fæst]. The whole eclipses the parts.

If you speak French, you might be saying “but wait, déjeuner isn’t breakfast, it’s lunch.”

Lunch, according to Eugène Briffault’s 1847 survey of French food culture Paris à table, is an English invention. He includes the word luncheon in his text in italics because “le mot se naturalise difficilement en français” (the word is difficult to translate into French). Since 1789, the French, he claims, eat only two meals per day, déjeuner and dîner. Of the two, only dîner truly matters. Déjeuner is whatever you eat between waking and two o’clock in the afternoon.

In case you were wondering about that “since 1789,” Briffault says that in the days of the Ancien Régime, the French used to eat four meals per day, the other two being goûter (now usually translated “snack”) and souper (“supper”). Briffault asserts that “there is no more goûter” with no explanation, and my understanding is that souper only really counts if you eat it at a ball at midnight after dancing with a vicomte.

Briffault is not clear on whether luncheon is a good invention—he ranks the English below the French on the scale of civilization, as one might expect—only that one begins to see it in France. It started with Queen Victoria’s coronation, you see.

Toward the middle of the day, according to the accounts in French recorders, a movement rolled through this radiant crowd and all the blonde ladies were seen to draw, from the pockets of their dresses in silk, gold, silver, and velvet brocade, rosewood cases shaped like glove boxes: these small items held thinly sliced sandwiches, each containing a slice of ham between two slices of bread, which they bit into with the large white teeth that one sees on the other side of the channel. (Translation is my own. I have preserved Briffault’s italics.)

Can’t figure out if that teeth thing is a compliment or an insult. Still, I love this image of all the titled Englishwomen carrying ham sandwiches in special fancy rosewood boxes, and I also love that Briffault prints the word “sandwiches” in his French text (no italics) but then explains carefully that there are two slices of bread involved. The women also drank sherry, by the way. Briffault does not report what the men ate, and I think we can all agree that if they weren’t carrying their own rosewood boxes in the pockets of their brocade frockcoats, we don’t care.

He does report that all the French journalists envied the ladies their ham sandwiches, though. So I guess that’s the beginning of déjeuner meaning lunch instead of breakfast, which came to be called petit déjeuner and now, if you’re in a real hurry, petit déj.

Today I have eaten neither breakfast nor lunch but brunch, a meal Briffault would find even more foreign. It was delicious.

This week in Capital-R Romance, in addition to finishing Paris à table, I also read one whole chapter of a book in Spanish. I had to keep a dictionary by my side the entire time, but as you all may know from reading this newsletter, that’s how I live my life anyway. Reading feels pretty different when you’re not at ease with a language, but you don’t get to be at ease without putting in some work first. Here’s hoping chapter two of Yuri Herrera’s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo will be a little easier than chapter one, and so on. Some day I’ll actually write about the content of this book, I promise!

#amreading Yuri Herrera’s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo—very slowly and with a dictionary close at hand. (That sheet underneath is full of the doodles I made while evaluating my rough audiobook files.)
January 22, 2020

This week in small-r romance, I read…

The Governess Affair (m/f, both cis and het, historical, novella) by Courtney Milan. I love the rest of Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one, but I picked it up recently after encountering this insightful close reading and this discussion of its feminism, and God, what a masterpiece of a novella. Milan fearlessly confronts issues that so many other romance novels fumble or gloss over: the titular governess, Serena, has been raped and is now pregnant by her former employer, the Duke of Clermont. She stages a silent protest, sitting outside his home every day until he acknowledges her. The Duke—who is never treated as anything but a villain, which is unusual in a subgenre where “duke” is almost synonymous with “hero”—sends his man of business, Hugo, to deal with Serena without explaining what he has done. Over the course of his interactions with Serena, Hugo discovers his employer’s crime, and then the two of them work together in service of justice. The whole thing is deftly handled and very satisfying, and because it’s Courtney Milan, it’s also funny—miraculously so, given its subject matter. Hugo and Serena’s banter is delightful, and there is such respect and tenderness between them. Gorgeous. The Governess Affair is also free to download right now. Content warnings: rape (in the past, discussed but not described), pregnancy, a main character grew up in an abusive family situation, sex.

Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks (gay m/bi m, both cis, young adult, sci-fi) by Nathan Burgoine. This is so sweet and funny and full of heart, and the teenagers feel like real teenagers to me (granted I am not a reliable source here, since I no longer regularly interact with Youths), and I love how well it balances the sci-fi aspects, the romance, and Cole’s time with his parents and at school. Also, as an aside, Cole’s dad is an ASL interpreter and Cole dreams of being one some day too, so there is discussion of the work of interpreting, and it felt spot-on to me. I’m not a pro, and I don’t interpret ASL, but the parts about how sometimes, as the interpreter, you have to say awful things because it’s your job to repeat whatever was said? Whew. Close to home. A lot of things about this book feel close to home—Cole deals with his anxiety by making lists and bullet journaling. The recurring to-do lists in the book were such a nice character touch. A really enjoyable read. Content warnings: mentions of homophobia, a few minor instances of bullying, discussion of kidnapping.

And in things I read this week that are neither Romance nor romance, Daniel Lavery riffing on Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and acceptable werewolf behavior is great whether or not you’ve read the original.

Also potentially relevant to the interests of readers of this newsletter is this blog post about translation errors from English to Irish, “Even Racists Got the Blues.”

This week, thanks to discussion of what looks like a horrendously racist novel with a seven-figure advance, Book Twitter has been having a conversation about italicizing foreign words in fiction. Daniel José Older made this witty video on the subject a few years ago, and KJ Charles recently discussed it with Mina V. Esguerra in a blog post. I absolutely agree that there’s no need to italicize foreign words in the dialogue of code-switching characters.

I’m gonna continue to italicize words when I analyze them in this newsletter because I think it offers better visual clarity than using quotation marks for every word I discuss. The word portion of this newsletter is about highlighting these words and lingering over them, which is the opposite of what should happen when they’re used in code-switching dialogue in fiction, so I think these two positions are consistent with each other. And I got a real kick out of Eugène Briffault insisting that luncheon couldn’t possible be translated into French.

Have a good week!

Flukes and celebrity sightings

lucky accidents and, as always, romance novels

FLUKE, n. I saw whales for the first time ever this week. I also saw dolphins, and three coyotes while walking in Griffith Park, and that most Los Angeles of wild animals, a celebrity.

I don’t know why I’m being coy about this: it was Natalie Portman. She’s very pretty. I felt bad looking at her. She was just there to eat Thai food like the rest of us. She didn’t want to be looked at. I wouldn’t want to be, either. Happily nobody wanted to watch me shoveling brussels sprouts larb and fantastically spicy noodles into my face until I sniffled and blinked back tears, but obviously I still looked at her. Sorry, Natalie.

Some of the animals we saw didn’t want to be looked at, either. The coyotes and a few of the whales were indifferent to our presence, but a few of the whales swam away from our boat as fast and discreetly as possible. The dolphins, on the other hand, loved being looked at. And they loved looking at us! They followed our boat, playfully chasing us and leaping out of the water to show off. It’s rare and sort of flattering to encounter a wild animal that wants your attention. A chance outcome that’s difficult to repeat—a fluke.

While we were on the boat watching whales, I thought it must be the case that “fluke,” as in a whale’s tail, is related to “fluke” as in a chance outcome. Certainly, I felt lucky every time we saw a fluke. But no dictionaries have substantiated my hypothesis.

The oldest meaning of “fluke” is a flatfish, which can be traced back to Old English floc and eventually all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root meaning “flat.” Then the word “fluke” transferred to parasitic worms (rat kings, butter shit, parasites—this newsletter is delightful every week, I know) based on the similar shapes. That’s probably also the reason that “fluke” can mean the flat end of an arm of an anchor.

“Fluke” as in a stroke of luck or a chance hit is maybe, possibly related to whale tails. Whales use their flukes to swim fast, and apparently sailors used to say “to go a-fluking” meaning “to go fast.” “Fluke” as in a chance hit seems to have come from 19th-century English slang about billiards, and I guess… billiard balls go fast? The connection is a stretch, and both Wiktionary and the OED only say that lucky “fluke” is of uncertain origin.

Interestingly, for both J and myself, the word “fluke” can also mean a chance outcome that is bad. All the dictionaries I looked at only recorded the meaning in terms of good luck, but that’s not the case for the two (2) native speakers I have polled. I know this doesn’t count as data yet, but it might indicate the beginning of a shift in meaning—another cool thing to observe in the wild.

The fluke of a California gray whale in front of Anacapa Island off the coast of California, photo credit to J

This would have been a great, thematically appropriate week to start reading Moby-Dick, but I didn’t. Instead I read a few small-r romances.

Open House (m/f, both cis and het, contemporary) by Ruby Lang. I love this series, I love New York City, I love main characters Magda Ferrer and Tyson Yang, I love the enemies-to-lovers trope deployed to perfection—Tyson, along with a group of old ladies, has reclaimed an abandoned lot on 135th Street and turned it into a garden, and Magda is the real estate broker charged with selling the lot—and most of all I love the scene of seduction via dumpling in this book. Ty brings Magda dumplings as a peace offering at one point and the description of the food is completely gorgeous. There’s another scene between them in the garden that is laugh-out-loud funny, but I can’t describe it for fear of ruining the joke. This book is a joy from start to finish. My only complaint is that it does not come with a box of dumplings. Content warnings: grief over the death of a parent, sex.

The Prince of Broadway (m/f, both cis and het, historical) by Joanna Shupe. Another book set in New York City, but this time in the Gilded Age. Clay, raised in a tenement, runs an illegal casino in the city. Florence, raised uptown in obscene luxury, goes to him for lessons so she can start her own illegal gaming business—for women. Clay hates and wants revenge on Florence’s father, which he discloses immediately, so the set-up is tense and delicious. I’m really impressed with how this book kept the emotional conflict between the two main characters evolving throughout the middle, instead of reiterating the same problem over and over. They fight and make up a couple of different times over a couple of different issues.

The setting is great, and I loved fearless troublemaker Florence, but I found her repeated insistence that gambling is perfectly harmless and shouldn’t be illegal a little too pat. People get addicted to gambling just like they do to alcohol and drugs. It’s not entirely innocent. She’s fine with bribing the police and the city officials, but she never fully examines the life-ruining potential of casinos. I realize this is maybe a little bit ridiculous as a nit-pick: I’m totally into her running a criminal empire, I just want her to do it knowingly.

But anyway, this is good fun and I do cherish that rare historical heroine who doesn’t want marriage or babies. Content warnings: a character has lost a young sibling in the past, sex.

“Penhallow Amid Passing Things” (f/f, both cis and lesbian?, historical, fantasy, short story) by Iona Datt Sharma. This is a lyrical and magical short story about a smuggler and a revenue agent teaming up to right a wrong.

Here is a bonus photo of some dolphins enjoying themselves in a safe-for-work way. The friendly volunteer naturalist on our boat who was wandering around our boat answering questions informed me and my companions, in a gleeful and conspiratorial stage whisper, that these dolphins have sex ten times a day. I’m happy for the dolphins who seem to be living their best lives at all times, and also I’m thrilled for that volunteer because some day I too will be a dirty old lady.

Have a good week!

Loading more posts…