Week 13, no vital information withheld

Sunset Sky

Sunset Sky, 1872, John Frederick Kensett

In the middle of last week, I rode my bike home to eat lunch, which I knew was going to be a small portion of beans left behind for me. I paired them with tortillas I’d made earlier that morning. It was about as simple as you can get, but/and as I was eating, my eyes watered, and I literally said, out loud, to no one: “Holy shit!”

It was one of the best lunches I’ve had in recent memory. Beans and tortillas. Nothing else.

When Kathryn got home I asked her, “What beans were those??” and she confirmed they were special indeed: a prototype batch from our friend Dafna who mostly makes jam but recently found a source of extremely fresh beans, just harvested in the fall. As of a couple days ago, these beans are available for purchase.

Unless you grow them yourself, it’s vanishingly rare to get beans this fresh. And please trust me—my tears of happiness, my “holy shit!”—when I tell you it makes a difference. Check out Dafna’s current crop beans. (She also makes the best jam in the country—no big deal.)

A print offering

My new short story is still developing over here and I don’t want to kick it out of the nest too soon, so, for March’s print offering, I have something a little different.

Many people have told me that a large part of the fun of these zines is not knowing what exactly they’ll receive, so let’s just lean into that! I will say that if previous print offerings have been very like, “text in columns,” this one’s a bit more playful, maybe even aggressive, definitely Risograph-y.

It’s fun. Get a copy here. They’ll ship on Friday.

Another one from the notes file, circa June 2018:

The eucatastrophe

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.

This week I’ve been reading books in the shin honkaku genre, which means “new orthodox.” In Japan, starting in the 1980s, there was a resurgence in classic mystery writing, patterned after English-language writers like Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr.

These are the kinds of mysteries that a clever reader can solve ahead of the detective, with

  • characters introduced fully and fairly,
  • a clearly circumscribed stage (think: snowbound chalet), and
  • no vital information withheld from the reader.

A few years ago I read one of the key shin honkaku mysteries, The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji; I wrote about it here. This week, I tore through The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko, and I’m currently midway through The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa. (All three of these are translated by Ho-Ling Wong, who might be the real hero here.)

It’s a delightfully weird genre, unlike anything I’ve ever read. That’s not only because of the clockwork mechanisms of the plot; it’s also because, so far without exception, each book has featured characters who are themselves obsessive fans of detective fiction, which gives the whole thing a meta, hall-of-mirrors feeling. There’s really no attempt to cloak these books in the guise of “this really happened”; they are transparent exercises in puzzle-making. Friends showing off for each other.

We have the tiny publisher called Locked Room International to thank for access to this genre. They’ve identified the key books, had them translated, commissioned helpful introductions, and made them available as e-books and print-on-demand physical editions, too.

Alongside Paul Dry Books, Locked Room International is another of my basically perfect publishers.

Beware, anytime you hear anybody talking about reading novels as self-improvement—because they “increase empathy” or something like that. A close cousin is when people say you should read science fiction because it “helps you imagine the future.”

Here is my proposed alternative: read novels because there are novels.

It’s like national parks. If someone told you they were visiting these awesome places in order to become a better person, something about that would seem a little… off, wouldn’t it? Maybe even a little sad. You go to national parks because there are national parks.

It’s unfortunately very common in the San Francisco of 2019, this quest for a deeper “because” that finds its foundation in self-improvement. Resist.

The Japanese edition of Sourdough will appear later this year, and I can reveal to you now the cover, illustrated by Skyemma, who also did the cover for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in Japan.


Look at the loaves

It’s worth clicking through to the full-res version so you can see all the details. Skyemma’s covers for both of my novels function almost as dramatis personae, juxtaposing the main characters in a little scene together. In this image, down in the pink light of the Marrow Fair, we see Lois, her Vitruvian robot arm, Horace Portacio, Lily Belasco… and there—I see Jaina Mitra with her sad little Lembas cakes. And Lois’s sourdough loaves! LOOK AT THE LOAVES!

I can’t tell you how happy this image makes me. I’m very lucky to have Skyemma drawing these covers.

I watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and you do not need me to tell you it’s great, but… I’m still gonna do it.

That greatness is almost entirely visual; the story is fine, but the same story animated in a straightforward way would be unremarkable. This movie’s success is its absolute disregard for the boundaries between dimensions. Nobody quite knew you could do this with a rectangle of pixels before now; it’s an aesthetic milestone.

Pixar headquarters is just up the street from me, and midway through Into the Spider-Verse, I found myself wondering what it felt like to watch it as a Pixar animator. Calm appreciation of a different approach? Sudden, gut-wrenching awareness of vast opportunities left on the table? The sudden ignition, fwoompf, of a new rivalry?

News from the Republic

One of my favorite email newsletters is The Prepared, Spencer Wright’s ongoing chronicle of how things are made and moved in the 21st century. He links you to the insides of far-off factories, shows you new machines that make new kind of manufacturing possible, glories in the viscera of the global economy. You hear about robots and ships and extruders and palettes. It’s everything that’s not virtual. It’s also punchy and well-organized—really, a perfect newsletter.

I think it’s a responsibility of a thinking human in the 21st-century to understand supply chains at least a little bit. There are so many forces that want to make manufacturing invisible; they benefit from the impression that products appear, poof, on the shelf at Wal-mart, or even better, whomp, on your doorstep. But of course they don’t. Behind the poof and whomp there is the grinding of gears, the whirring of conveyor belts, the sighs of workers.

The Reading the China Dream project, which I’ve discussed before, has a new translation of a piece by the historian Qin Hui in which he analyzes… the American economy before the Civil War!

For me, there’s something surprising and maybe even mildly uncomfortable about this, and both feelings are interesting to examine. The conclusions that Quin Hui makes here aren’t for the benefit of American audiences; he’s working to extract lessons entirely for the benefit of Chinese scholars and Chinese leaders. Here, America is the bug under glass. That’s not how Americans usually—ever?!—imagine themselves, or their history!

It’s my opinion that American observers rarely grasp the fact that conversations happening in other countries and/or cultures can be—and are— totally autonomous and self-sufficient. The American observer’s stance is a very often a great whining “what about meee?” (I don’t include historians in this assessment; I think they actually do grasp those qualities. Rather, I’m talking about the broad class that ranges from “smart policy writers” to pundits all the way down to dorks like me.)

So, Reading the China Dream continues to be a healthy antidote in this regard. There’s nothing else in English quite like it.


Sunset, 1872, John Frederick Kensett

(A nice persnickety “actually…” from the Met website: this painter worked on the East Coast, sooo these paintings are probably all sunrises, not sunsets.)

Listen to Caterina Barbieri talk about the difference between music that begins from silence—think of a quiet stage, a string suddenly plucked—and music that “is already there” and becomes audible only through subtraction—think of a drone that already contains all the notes a musician will play in their performance.

(That link goes to 7:30 in the video; skip ahead to 17:30 to see Cat’s terrific performance.)

I’ve never seen anything like this before. Errata is a font with three variants:

  • Errata Reader, for setting body text; cool.
  • Errata Typewriter, for tabular data, things like that; got it.
  • And then there’s Errata Author, with “looser spacing and more regularized character,” designed for the writing process. That’s the curveball!!

So, you use Errata Author in your text editor, and then the final result is set in Errata Reader. That… is a weird and cool idea!


Sunset on the Sea, 1872, John Frederick Kensett

Last weekend, I walked over to a terrific little printing studio in South Berkeley for a Risograph printing class. My goal was to learn a couple of slightly more advanced techniques, and learn them I did! Along the way, I produced a two-color print of the painting above, but as I type this, I’m away from the Murray Street Media Lab, where the print resides. Maybe I’ll snap a picture and share it next week.

The little studio’s Risographs were newer than mine, with some EXTREMELY appealing features. So now I’m contemplating whether to get a new one later this year…


March 2019, Oakland

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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