In lieu of magic, layers

“I’m not doing the pepparkakor this year, I can’t,” I said, and everyone in the family had different reactions. My mother asked if I wanted her to do them. (No. Dad and I were the only ones who ate them really, and I only ate one. Throwing away a batch of pepparkakor minus one would be so much worse.) But Timprov said, “But you’re still doing the lussekatter, right? I think we all need them.”

Yes. I still did the lussekatter.

We all still do need them.

We need them a lot this year.

It’s been unseasonably cold early here in Minnesota–we’ve had January-typical temperatures starting in November–which is the pathetic fallacy if I’ve ever seen it. It’s so much colder this year. The world is so much colder. Well. Yes. I’ve been standing in front of the oven when I take bread out, letting the residual heat dissipate directly into me. I’ve been wearing layers early–I think my long-sleeved shirts got about three days of time on their own before it was constant sweaters, fleeces, everything in layers.

Those of you who have been coming around a lot know that Christmas Eve day was always my time for just me and my dad. This year I’m making up a new bread recipe, an apricot chocolate babka, which is based on a plain chocolate babka that uses up basically every dish in the house and totally demolishes the kitchen, but with *even more* layers of decadent goodness. And effort. And mess. (Christmas dinner is not at my house.) I’m going to do that rather than having someone try to be Substitute Dad, rather than trying to recreate the old plans without Dad who was so central to them. So there are going to be two sets of special bread in this month, and I think I need both.

It’s a lot of work, though. Fighting through the dark in hopes that there will be light again somewhere if we just keep working for it hard enough is a lot of work. The rest of the world at large isn’t any brighter than it has been–in some places this morning quite a bit worse and I’m so sorry–but I’ve been writing these posts since 2006 and this is the darkest it’s been so far for me personally. When I preface wry or struggling comments with “Since my dad died,” I can kind of get people to remember that. When I don’t, I get pushback of the “I would expect you to be more cheerful!” kind. I get that a lot.

Because…grief doesn’t change the general shape of our relationships with people. So if the general shape is “we are mutually supportive friends,” there can be ebb and flow there, it’s all good. But if the general shape is “I provide light, you soak it up,” well, get with kneading that saffron bread, lady, that is your job here. That is what you are here for. Why are you not doing your job.

A lot of years I use these posts to be grateful for those who have brought light to me, and I am, oh, I am. I have needed some of those who have been there for me this year, and I know some of them have needed me too. We have clung together on this little raft when we expected to be on dry land. But…I feel like there’s a taboo around saying that some people have brought some of the darkness too, beyond what grief itself has brought us. Beyond what fear and political upheaval and all the other things have brought us, there are the people who treat us like commodities. Because we always fought to bring the light back before.

Well, and I’m trying to do it again. I’m burying my hands in the dough, I’m revising the words, I am doing the work. I am trying like hell to do the work. And to keep sorting out which bits of the work are really necessary and which bits I can just…let rest for a minute, a year. But I am not a commodity, I’m a person who is grieving. My mother is a person who is grieving. The answer we keep giving in this dark year, whenever anyone asks how we’re doing, is, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Today the best we can has to involve lussekatter. In a few weeks, an experimental babka. It also involves my current practice of reaching out to others who are grieving, ill, divorcing, or otherwise struggling–in general, but particularly when I’m angry at those few people who are not there for my mother in the ways they said they would be. That’s the best I can do: to not be them. To take their examples as an opportunity to do better, even when I am so very tired.

But also the best I can do today is say out loud: it is dark, and it was a lot of work making this bread, and I am really, really tired, and I could use some light. I need help with this. I can make the bread alone. (It rose enormously this year.) I cannot make this light alone. This darkness is a long road, and I am not out, and this bread is not magic. Neither are the words, “How are you? I’m thinking of you.” But until we get magic, we’re going to have to layer not-magic on not-magic until we’re warm enough to go on. They say it’s warmer if you keep moving. We can hope that’s right. We can stand by the oven and inhale the saffron and warmth and wait until it’s just barely cool enough to eat. Because this year we need this. Don’t forget we need each other.

Happy Santa Lucia Day.












2007: and

2006: — the post that started it all! Lots more about the process and my own personal lussekatt philosophy here!

My year in writing review, 2019

Honestly this is a very weird one for me to write, because this year split down the middle for fairly obvious mental reasons. A major loss that changes your life will make it feel like you’ve had two very different years in one, so looking back and saying, “Really? that was this year?” Well, really, self: it was. I have really written two middle-grade novels and a novella this year, and an assortment of essays, poems (?! when did that happen?), and stories. I would give an exact count, but it’s only December 9, and the odds that I finish something else short before December 31 are fairly good, so let’s say…at least fifteen pieces of fiction shorter than a novella, as of right now.

If you said to yourself “throwing herself into work,” you would not be far wrong. But mostly it has been in a very good way, in a positive and inspired way. In a year when one of the things I wrote is my dad’s eulogy, I’m pretty proud of not just what I’ve written but the spirit I’ve written it in. I’m making myself a lot of revision work for the second half of the year and for 2020, but that’s all right too. (Even though I am also eager to write more new things. And have some clear ideas on that front.)

As for what’s been published, buckle in, it’s a list. On the fiction side, I got to continue to work with editors I have enjoyed working with very consistently before and also get familiar with a few new faces. Here’s what I was up to:

“The Thing, With Feathers,” Uncanny, Jan/Feb 2019.

“The Deepest Notes of the Harp and Drum,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019.

“Painting the Massive Planet,” Analog, May/June 2019.

“Wrap Me In Oceans Wide,” Strange Horizons, 17 July 2019.

“How We Know They Have Faces,” Nature, 24 July 2019.

“Purposeful,” Daily Science Fiction, October 2019.

“In the Ancestor’s New House,” Spirits Unwrapped, edited by Daniel Braum (Lethe Press).

“Filaments of Hope,” Analog, Nov/Dec 2019.

“Family Album,” Nature, 13 November 2019.

I also had fiction reprints in print and podcast format and translations into Chinese and Spanish. I appeared on podcasts. I got interviewed. I sang, I danced, I juggled. (Okay, I did not actually juggle. I sing and dance a lot. It’s a thing.) Meanwhile in nonfiction, in addition to this blog I continued to write a little more for other places, and I like it:

That Never Happened, Uncanny Issue 27 (March/April 2019).

Beyond Cinderella: Exploring Agency Through Domestic Fantasy,, 2 May 2019.

Beware the Lifeboat, Uncanny Issue 29 (July/August 2019).

I have a couple of things coming out in January, with more beyond that, and of course a lot of what I wrote in 2019 is either on submission or being prepared for submission. There’s a lot of momentum here, is what I’m saying. And that’s a good thing.

Happy reading.

Books read, late November

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea. This is a general history of a region that needs wayyyyy more than a general history. However, a general history is a start, and having some thoughts about, for example, fishing in the Black Sea in different eras, seems like a good thing. A brief intro to who the Greeks regarded as barbarous in the region and what line they drew is pretty instructive about what was considered barbarous elsewhere in the world in Hellenophile cultures. And so on: not a good last book to read on this, a pretty okay first book.

Daniel Braum, ed., Spirits Unwrapped. I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in, and I’m in this.

John Crowley, Reading Backwards. Discussed elsewhere.

Kameron Hurley, Meet Me in the Future: Stories. This is my favorite thing of Kameron’s in a long time–lots of different tastes of her range of style and topic. Some of it is heart-breaking, some of it is alarming, all of it is Kameron, what a great place to start with her work–or keep going, if you already started.

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. I don’t think Dan Jones writes his own subtitles, because this book was a lot more like The Plantagenets: Oh My GOD What a Terrible Idea the Monarchy Is. I mean, I came in with that baggage, but I really don’t think Jones is in any kind of disagreement with me. It’s kind of heartbreaking watching the English people stagger through “we’ve got a really good form of government now…no wait, it’s not working, try turning it off and turning it back on again…why is it…I’m pretty sure it’s ordained by God this time….” Full of good juicy stories especially when you’re clear that it’s about the Plantagenets, not the Plantagenet era. I mean, I’d prefer Mercians and Saxons, but you take what you can get in these troubled times.

Naomi Kritzer, Catfishing on Catnet. Discussed elsewhere.

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond. This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s funny enough in spots that I laughed out loud (and usually I am an “I’m laughing on the inside” northerner), but the entire emotional and especially intellectual core of the book is profoundly sad despite all that. As much as I’m a gigantic fan of Macaulay’s work, and oh, I am, I wouldn’t put this very high on my recommendation list not mainly for that reason but also for the reason that I expect a lot of modern readers are less enthusiastic about dealing with mid-century Church of England missionaries and their inevitable prejudices in their pleasure reading, even if a great many of those prejudices are thoroughly satirized. There are beautiful things here, I just wanted to kidnap Macaulay and bring her to stay with people who do talk a great deal about good and evil but not primarily in an early 20th century Church of England framework. You could almost have gotten to that world, Rose my darling. It was over the next ridge. Oh Rose. Now I’m going to take a break from writing my book post and have a cup of tisane and try to get over not being able to have Rose Macaulay and George Eliot to my mother’s for Thanksgiving again. It’s an ongoing process.

Laurie Marks, Earth Logic. I came late to this series but am really enjoying what it’s doing with different cultures trying to coexist with varying degrees of success, and how that’s overlaid with different individuals with their personal kinds of thought trying to coexist. Being an air person doesn’t mean you will get along well or agree with another air person, no matter how much earth logic makes you want to throw up your hands; how human and how humane this series is, and how full of ramifications, and everyone knows how I love ramifications. I can’t wait to get to the later volumes.

Garth Nix, Goldenhand. This brings together previous threads in the series. Nix is good at monsters and creatures. I enjoyed it, but I don’t know that it’s a good starting place; I don’t think it’s meant to be. If you haven’t done the whole Sabriel series, probably don’t start here, but if you have, it’s worth the time.

Mary Oliver, Blue Iris: Poems and Essays. This is one of her more plant-specific collections, and where it’s not plants it’s nature. Short and pithy and worth reading.

Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England. This was a really lovely book about two queens of the early English period and the world and expectations around them. There was in-depth stuff about who worked for them and in what capacity, what they were called upon to witness and why…nerding out about medieval queenship, hurray.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas and for the last issue Michi Trota in the nonfiction spot, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 31. What a solid issue, oh, how good. It helps, of course, to have Elizabeth Bear’s novella “A Time to Reap” taking quite such a large percentage of word count instead of something worse–but there was also “Nutrition Facts” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires and Jenn Reese’s “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy” on the fiction side, and then Jeannette Ng’s “As You Know, Bob…” for nonfiction, just for the things that leapt out at me, so really, quite a lovely issue.

ConFusion schedule

Hurrah for advance planning! I am going to ConFusion in Novi, MI (Detroit suburban area) January 16-19, 2020, and here is the schedule of where you can find me there:

Managing and Overcoming Professional Burnout Friday 1:00PM Charlevoix The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It can affect people of all professions, but it presents particular dangers to creatives, whose work is often tied closely to personal identity. Our panel will discuss how to spot the signs of burnout, how to manage it, and how to overcome it. Marissa Lingen (m), Pablo Defendini, Ken Schrader, Kameron Hurley

Speculative Social Media in Science Fiction Saturday 5:00PM Charlevoix Thinly-veiled or even overt references to popular real-world social platforms are common in modern media–including in speculative stories like superhero tv shows and movies. But speculative worldbuilding often calls for a re-imagining of how humans interact–would the social media of the United Federation of Planets really look like ours? Or would a peaceful interstellar society be more likely to arise in a world where Google Reader never died? How can writers incorporate new visions of social media that reflect their speculative worldbuilding? Marissa Lingen (m), John Chu, Jennifer Mace, Annalee Flower Horne, Brandon O’Brien

Reading: Marissa Lingen, Tim Boerger, John Wiswell Sunday 10:00AM Saugatuck Marissa Lingen, John Wiswell, Tim Boerger

Great Lakes and Inland Seas In Secondary Worlds Sunday 12:00PM Isle Royale It’s hard to really get a sense of the scale of the American Great Lakes if you’ve never stood on one of their shores. Those of us used to thinking of lakes as more akin to very large ponds are often surprised by the dunes, the waves, the wind, the distant horizon. Writers who know the lakes offer advice on how to incorporate great lakes and inland seas into our fantasy worlds–as a narrative setting, what separates lakes from oceans? What unique or surprising storytelling opportunities do lakes provide? Anthony W. Eichenlaub (m), Marissa Lingen, Phoebe Barton, John Winkelman

Reading Backwards, by John Crowley

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a mixed volume of essays and reviews, and the reviews are the kind of reviews that are more essay than straightforward booknote. While the topics vary, the trend line of Crowley’s personal life means that the personal essays tend to veer literary and artistic anyway–with the exception of those that focus on end-of-life issues, which in some ways are the strongest in the book, the most compassionate and the most able to step outside their own perspective.

Because perspective is both the strength and the weakness of this volume. Crowley is, as you know if you’ve read any of his novels, an extremely erudite writer with a fluid prose style. Reading his essays is a window into that person, and mostly that is an extremely relaxing and enjoyable experience.

The problem comes in when there are places where he has failed to consider perspectives unlike his own to a degree that can make some of them feel blinkered–for a sentence, perhaps, in some cases, or for entire passages–and then I wrinkled my nose, drew back, wished that someone, at some point in his long life, had suggested to him that his might not be the only point of view worth considering. From casual sexist asides (“mentrix,” really? snark about how people used to raise their own children?) to book summaries that ham-handedly put the onus for racism in entirely the wrong place, there are all too many moments where a broader perspective would have improved the work immensely.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the collection got better as it went on. I’m glad I got past Crowley blithely asserting that everything is basically handled for wheelchair accessibility in US cities (what, no, that is not true) and apparently having no introspection about what it might mean to have lied about his sexuality to get out of the Vietnam War considering what toll the reality of that sexuality took on actual friends of his, because he did have other things to say that were very much worth hearing. But if you find those early essays too high a barrier to entry and find somewhere else to look for discussion of end of life care or the works of Richard Hughes, I can’t say I’ll blame you for that either. This is a very mixed bag indeed.

Catfishing on Catnet, by Naomi Kritzer

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a personal friend.

This. This book is so good. It is so wholesome and so loving. Scary things happen in this book, but there is a constant stream of friendship and support–not flawless, but loving human support. And, not at all incidentally, loving inhuman support. Because this is a book about a young AI finding its place in the world, figuring out its possibilities and limitations. It is very much, very literally, a teen AI novel.

So. A young AI and a teenage human have formed strong internet friendships with some additional humans. They’re both dealing with a lot of stuff. The AI: what are the bounds of ethical interaction, how does friendship work, where can I get more cat pics. The human: ordinary high school stuff is far worse when your mom has kept you moving from town to town multiple times a year to keep your abusive father from finding you. Together they fight crime! Sort of! And also make art and friends and take care of animals and–

Look, this is a very hard review for me to write, because basically this book made me incoherently happy start to finish, and it is going to be SO HARD waiting to post this until a sensible time close to the release date instead of just collaring strangers at the bank and the post office and telling them to READ IT.


I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever encountered fiction that portrays the nature of close (core!) internet-mediated friendships this accurately before. This is an emotional reality of my contemporary life that feels completely untouched by most fiction. And it is so great.

Books read, early November

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 23. In which the unification of character arcs begins….

Marie Brennan, Turning Darkness Into Light. This is doing a thing I wish I saw more, which is telling more stories in the same world but in a different time period. I really like that, showing how a world can change in small and large ways, how there are always more stories–and this one is an academic’s story, albeit one with adventure around the edges, but the shape of it is very different than in the Lady Trent books. I had fun with it.

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster. Carter is writing about his grandmother here, so there is a lot more focus on who Eunice Hunton Carter was as a person and less on the trial with Lucky Luciano than I expected. It was still an interesting biography and well worth reading as a portrait of a woman doing things that were unusual for her time but not unheard-of.

Aliette de Bodard, Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight. I loved the elements of family relationships and melancholy that threaded through these different settings. Though they were not all related stories, there was a cohesive feel to reading this collection that I really enjoyed.

K.A. Doore, The Impossible Contract. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Krueger, Steel Crow Saga. This was a giant brick of fun. While Krueger’s media influences are written in the blurb on the front–Pokemon! Avatar: the Last Airbender!–they are jumping-off points rather than elements he’s going to copy whole-heartedly, and the way he’s thinking about magic and culture is not exactly like anything else I’ve read. These elements definitely ramify in his characters in ways I liked a whole lot–the length felt like a feature, not a bug.

Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun. Ramification and consequence and the end of a trilogy. The plot twist in how this particular end is accomplished was pretty cool once I got to it, and also the protagonist having to live with fallout in multiple ways.

Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James Devlin, LaGuardia. This comic features alien plants and human families and immigration law and all sorts of cool things. And I actually did appreciate the art, yes, even me, even non-visual me.

Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whisky Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts. You know how people talk about some books and shows and etc. as competence porn, enjoyable just for watching someone do what they do well? This…is the opposite of that. This is a true crime book that is staggering for how few people do anything even remotely competently, and how it just…keeps…going. There is a semi-pro hockey player criminal in the wreckage of immediately post-Communist Hungary and…how did any of this keep working? Lack of resources is a hell of a trip, wow. Wow. What even happened here. Train wreck. No literal trains wrecked but that may be the only thing that didn’t get screwed up. I am aghast. And yes, I kept reading.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities and Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters. Two essay collections, separated by over a decade–the latter is the newer one, and it’s still struggling toward hope. Both of them are dealing with hope as a struggle, and I needed them both. Both brief, both filled with thoughtful, pithy takes. Reading them back-to-back was interesting, too….

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a beautiful novel about the effects of PTSD on three generations of a Vietnamese immigrant family. Brace yourself and read it when you’re in a good place if you’re going to read it at all–it’s incredibly well done, and I’m glad it exists, but it was a gut punch.

Peter Watts, Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor. Discussed elsewhere.

Visible in the wilds

I’m done with professional travel for this year, but I still have at least one more public appearance for fiction-related stuff: a week from today–that is, Thursday, November 21–at 7:00 p.m., I’ll be doing a reading at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, with Naomi Kritzer and Sue Burke.

Naomi and Sue and I each plan to read a short selection, and then we’ll have conversation and questions from the audience (if any). Should be a good time! Come on out if you’re around!

Present Writers: Robin McKinley

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey , and Greer Gilman.

There’s a lot of pressure for sequels in this world. Robin McKinley basically doesn’t do sequels. Sometimes this makes those of us who have been her fans since we were staggering around the grade school thinking big dragon thoughts tear our hair and scream. Sometimes it leaves us with basically part of a story, waiting to see if the promised sequel ever comes. That way lies madness, friends. It might. But you can’t actually wait for it. That’s not what she’s doing.

What you can do–what you should do–is enjoy what’s here. Because what’s here is delightful. What’s here is its own thing in all sorts of explosively different directions. I don’t know of any other author who can write two retellings of the same fairy tale and have them feel as completely different as McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings that they can feel so utterly non-repetitive. The same author did something as sweet as The Outlaws of Sherwood and as dark as Deerskin–and fairly close together, too. The two Damar books are listed as related to each other, but they are such different views of the same land as to be completely transformative of it. What is Damar, what are its customs and mores, what do its people mean and think and do? Utterly transformed things over time–and yet connected, related. I could have–would have–read a dozen books about Damar. If you’d asked me, when I was a tiny child who had just finished reading about Narnia, I would have expected to. And instead I got Sunshine and its bakery and the way that it tells a vampire story when I thought I never wanted another. What else will there be. I can’t begin to guess, but McKinley’s body of work has taught me to appreciate what there is, and that is itself such a gift.