An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender

An Invisible Sign of My OwnSoundtrack for this post: Pretty Little Head, Eliza Rickman

Published in 2000, An Invisible Sign of my Own is Aimee Bender’s first novel-length work. The story opens with a fairy tale which serves a controlling metaphor. In a town where nobody dies, the king orders each family to sacrifice one of its members in order to control the population. One family refuses. Instead, each member agrees to amputate a part of their body—a nose, an arm, a leg. However, the resulting change in the townspeople’s attitudes towards them drives the family out of town anyway. “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” the narrator, Mona, explains.

That same year, Mona’s father fell ill with a serious, but unnamed affliction. After that, she “started to quit,” pulling back from anything fun, interesting, or risky, or at which she excelled–piano, dance, dessert, movies, track, jobs, boyfriends. Like the family in the story, she made the decision to sacrifice parts of herself. Around the same age, she also developed a compulsive need to “knock on wood,” to wash herself, to eat soap–compulsions that help Mona to calm herself in moments of stress and anxiety.

The one thing Mona “loved but never quit…was math.” Her special relationship with numbers enables her to see each figure as multidimensional, fully formed, and deeply meaningful. Other residents of Mona’s slightly surreal hometown appear to share her fascination. A local man has a business making numbers for the addresses in town. Her former math teacher and neighbor wears small wax number signifying his state of mind beneath his clothes–an act of self-assertion that inspires Mona’s desire for her own “invisible sign.” The shapes and essences of numbers permeate the text: square roots, Pythagorean philosophy, and the way everyday objects seem to hold numbers within.

An Invisible Sign of My Own (hardcover)At nineteen, Mona is deeply pained by her father’s illness, trapped in rigid inertia, hemming in and controlling herself with a range of OCD-like coping mechanisms. Then, the principal of her former elementary school invites Mona to become the new math teacher. Through she accepts the position reluctantly, in interacting with her students Mona finds a new kind of satisfaction. For the first time she can share her appreciation for numbers with a receptive, even enthusiastic audience. She feels a particular kinship with her second graders, especially Lisa Venus, whose mother suffers from a terminal illness. Through her work she also meets Benjamin Smith, the new science teacher, with whom she begins a tentative relationship.

Mona’s internal struggle between rejoining the rest of the world and maintaining her distance at the cost of pleasure and human connection lies at the heart of An Invisible Sign. In one climatic moment, Bender splices fragments of Mona’s abandoned track career into a sex scene, driving this point home in no uncertain terms. In women’s fiction, TV and movies, we’re more used to seeing this particular story played out through an eating disorder–but it remains familiar when recast as a sibling mental illness, also related to control and self-determination.

Benders prose is–as always–dynamic, surprising, and beautiful, with the casual brutality of a fable, and a very high quirk factor. The Washington Post quote on the back of the paperback edition calls An Invisible Sign “unique as a snowflake.” Perhaps eighteen years ago this compliment may not have carried the backhanded sting it does today. It’s a simile that nevertheless holds true in its best and worst connotations. I was getting pretty sick of Mona’s eccentric struggles when a truly fantastic extended classroom scene redeemed the book for me.


I was utterly charmed by Aimee Bender’s debut short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998). I heard the author read the first selection, “The Rememberer,” about a woman whose lover de-evolves into a sea turtle over the course of maybe two pages, one night at San Francisco’s Makeout Room. I bought a copy on the spot. Bender’s selective unreality, with the rule-bound fanaticism of an old-world fairy tale is endlessly appealing in short form. In her longer works however, that magical quality can pall–something I hadn’t yet realized when I picked up this used copy of An Invisible Sign of my Own at Pegasus in Berkeley.




The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees cover

Soundtrack for this post: Oh, Susanna! The Be Good Tanyas

Another book down in my quest to read and destroyThe Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. A wonderfully distinctive narrating voice, a real heavy handed metaphor, and a good deal of repetition make this novel read like a prime candidate for a 9th grade book report. Which is pretty much the reason I never read it to begin with. Charming in the beginning, tedious by the end, ultimately not a bad way to pass a few hours in the sunshine.

This used volume, picked up by my mother at a library sale, and later foisted on to me, is now safely deposited in the Goodwill donation box.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project, US CoverSound track for this post: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones (What else?)

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion (2013), is a romantic comedy in the vein of As Good as It Gets and Silver Linings Playbook. A little quirkier, a little more human than other offerings in the genre, but ultimately delivering the feel-good romantic triumph that makes RomCom such a joy.

The enormously successful novel stars Don Tillman, a talented but socially-inept genetics professor with a rigidly logical approach to life. Unselfconsciously literal and immune to social cues, Don displays many signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. He schedules each hour the day, eats the same seven meals each week, and tackles each new task with focused precision and rigorous application of the scientific method.

The Rosie Project, Canadian coverAt 39, Don feels ready to marry but, as he explains in the first pages of the book, he has abandoned “the traditional dating paradigm…on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” (p. 3). Instead, Don applies his trademark rationality, and develops a questionnaire designed to identify the perfect partner.

Don’s close friends Gene, a philandering psychology professor, and his wife Claudia, a clinical psychologist, try to assist with Don’s “Wife Project,” but without much success. Until Rosie appears in Don’s office. When she explains that Gene referred her, Don mistakenly assumes that Rosie is candidate for the Wife Project and invites her to dinner. Sparkling screwball hi-jinx ensue.

The Rosie Project UK coverAfter their first memorable evening together, Don finds Rosie illogically appealing. She meets none of his requirements for a spouse, but, irrationally, he wants to see her again. So, he invents a reason. Don volunteers to use his genetics expertise to help Rosie identify her biological father. As the pair interview possible candidates and surreptitiously collect DNA, their relationship evolves. But can Don really win Rosie over?

It’s impossible not to like and root for Don. His inability to fully interpret social interactions makes his narration delightfully engaging, allowing readers a level of understanding Don himself lacks. His many missteps are entertaining, but his underlying sweetness and charm shine through. Don doesn’t have normal empathy. He does not cry at movies, or intuit other people’s emotions. What he does have is an earnest desire to make the people he cares about happy, and a willingness to do whatever it takes.

Its easy to imagine The Rosie Project as a Howard Hawks film (think Bringing Up Baby). The book has a distinctly cinematic feel. That’s no accident. As the author explains in his “Acknowledgements” The Rosie Project began as a screen play.

The Girls, Emma Cline

The Girls, Emma ClineSound track for this post: Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill

In her debut novel The Girls (2016), Emma Cline fictionalizes the events leading up to the Manson murders, recasting the story in Northern California.

In the summer of 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd meets sexy, bohemian Suzanne, who inducts her into the counterculture lifestyle of “the ranch.” There, Evie joins a group of young women, all worshipfully devoted to their leader, Russell. Greedy for Suzanne’s attention and eager to belong, Evie rebels against her upper-middle class upbringing. She shoplifts and steels from her mother, breaks into a friend’s home, has sex, runs away from both her parents. As the summer draws to a close, the utopian ranch community–such as it is–begins to fall apart, culminating in the most famous and grisly murders of the 20th century.

Though the plot is simple and well-trod, Cline’s style sets The Girls apart. Her writing is so beautifully exact, so astutely observed. Everyday objects are realized with the perfect turn of phrase–Chinese ribs have a “glandular sheen” (p. 76), cork sandals are “grimed with the ghost of my feet” (p. 166). Line by line, every passage is exactly right–evocative and convincing.

Cline’s characterization of Evie is similarly acute. Evie’s gender lies at the heart of her identity in an upsetting way that left me feeling both close to her, and embarrassed by the terrible familiarity of her anxieties. Cline illuminates the inner life of a teenage girl in a brutal, relentless way. Her depiction makes Evie’s indoctrination feel natural, like something that could happen to any young girl. The simmering unease of adolescence gives the novel tension, rather than the looming horror of the approaching murder.

Of course, I am predisposed to love The Girls. I was also a girl growing up in Northern California, and I sympathize with the author’s choice of subject. As a teenager my friends and I shared her fascination. Someone had a paperback copy of Vincent Bugiolosi’s Helter Skelter, which we read as a kind of group social activity. I remember my best friend describing Manson’s antics before the parole board, so this was probably around the time of his 1997 hearing–the one where he said he’d go “poof” if released. We would have been Evie’s age, thirteen or fourteen.

Returning to Helter Skelter as an adult, I was surprised by the book’s focus on trial evidence and testimony. As girls we skipped over all that to focus on what we saw as the interesting stuff–the ranch, the Beatles obsession, the messages on the walls of the LaBianca home, and the girls. I remember the folio of black and white photos at the heart of the book best. I can picture us, in someone’s living room during the nomad hours between school letting out and parents getting home, pouring over those pages.

At that age, the details of exactly what happened and why became tangled in my mind. I conflated facts with peripherally related cultural touchstones. Rosemary’s Baby (which I hadn’t seen) and devil worship; playing The Beatles backwards; Nazis and mind control and charismatic personalities; Trent Reznor’s haunted house. The whole story had an aura of black magic about it, eerie and unknowable.

And yet–there was a similarly infamous murder house in my own hometown–though not as famous as Cielo Drive. Horrific things could happen, close enough to touch you. Reading Emma Cline’s novel reminded me of that revelation, and the precariousness of girlhood.

Roasted root vegetable soup – A Made-up Recipe

roasted vegetablesMy personal obsession with my submersion blender continues…

This autumnal soup of roasted root vegetables is sweet and homey. It smells great while cooking, and is easily converted to vegetarian or vegan using the instructions below.


  • Carrots (16 oz)
  • Parsnips (3, pealed)
  • Garlic (3 cloves)
  • Sweet yellow onion (1/2)
  • Olive oil (3 tbs)
  • Butter (1 tbs)
  • Chicken broth (32 oz)
  • Bay leaf
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • OPTIONAL: Plain yogurt (1/2 cup)


  1. Place carrots, parsnips and garlic in a pan with about 2 tbs olive oil and salt to taste. Roast at 400 degrees for 1 hour, or unlit lightly browned and bubbling over the skin.
  2. Slice onion. Saute in sauce pan with 1 tbs butter and 1 tbs olive oil until translucent.
  3. Add roasted veggies to the onion and cover with chicken broth. Simmer until tender, about 10-15 minutes over low-moderate heat. Turn heat off.
  4. Fish out the bay leaf–seriously, this will fuck things up
  5. Blend vegetables and broth using a submersion blender, or transfer to external blender as needed.
  6. Optional: for a little extra creaminess blend in 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  7. Garnish with parsnip chips, croutons, toasted pine nuts or slivered almonsds


  • Vegetarian: sub out the the butter for an extra tbs of olive oil and the chicken broth for vegetable; skip the yogurt for vegans. Super good.
  • More veg: leaks,  red potatoes, rutabagas and celery root are great additions to the roast veg mix, and can be treated exactly like the carrots and parsnips. Just chuck them in there. A NOTE ON BEATS: A small amount of red beats will go a long way; be free with the golden ones. NO: fennel. I mean that.

Beet greens that actually taste good – A Made-up Recipe

recipe for beet greens
Photo credit: Larry Hoffman on Flickr

Beets are one of my favorite vegetables to cook with, especially in winter–rich, earthy, sweet–great in salads, soups, or chopped up with other root vegetables. But what are you supposed to do with the leafy green tops? They can be bitter and coarse, and they are easy to overcook–but a little extra prep, and whole lot of salt, they can also be delicious. This is my favorite easy recipe for beet greens that actually taste good.


  • Beet greens
  • 1/4 Onion (white or yellow, diced)
  • Garlic (2 cloves, diced)
  • Olive oil (2 tbs)
  • Salt
  • Red wine vinegar (just a splash)


  1. Wash greens and trim stems; chop into 1 inch slices
  2. Dice onions. Saute until just tender. Add garlic and saute 1-2 minutes more. Remove from heat
  3. Meanwhile, boil water with lots of table salt. When water is at a rolling boil, add greens; the water will briefly stop boiling. As soon as it boils again, remove from heat and drain.
  4. Add greens to onion, garlic, oil mixture. Toss, sprinkle with red wine vinegar, and cook about 2 minutes more on high heat.

Whole-broccoli soup – A Made-up Recipe

Photo credit: mooste on Flickr

Broccoli is a perennial go-to vegetable–but I always feel a bit bad cooking the florets and throwing away the rest. I wanted to start using the whole broccoli.

You know those long, thick woody stalks no one likes? In this whole-broccoli soup, they’re fantastic.


  • Broccoli (3+ whole stalks)
  • Sweet yellow onion (1/2 large or 1 small, chopped)
  • Cheddar cheese (1-2 cups grated)
  • Garlic (1 clove, chopped)
  • Butter (3 tbs)
  • Flour (3 tbs)
  • Milk (2 cups)*
  • Chicken broth (2 cups)**
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Olive oil (2-4 TBS)

*Substitute cream or half and half as follows: 1 part water to 1 part half and half; 1 part cream to 3 parts water
**I use chicken broth, but any type will do


  1. Separate broccoli florets from stems. Chop florets into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside.
  2. Remove any leaves or branches from stalks. If you’re feeling ambitious, peal stalks. Chop the trunk into 1/4 inch slices. Place in cast iron pan or rimmed cookie sheet. Drizzle with 2 TBS olive oil, sprinkle with salt. Roast at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. Turn once or twice while roasting.
  3. Meanwhile, saute onions in olive oil ~4 minutes
  4. Add garlic and saute another 2 minutes
  5. Place onion, garlic, and broccoli stalks in sauce pan. Add 2 cups broth and simmer over low heat 10 minutes or until soft.
  6. Meanwhile, in a second sauce pan, melt butter, mix in flour to make a roux. Add pepper to taste.
  7. Add milk and simmer, stirring until thickened. Add cheddar cheese.
  8. Blend broth mixture til smooth, either in pan using handheld submersion blender, or in a traditional blender in two batches.
  9. Add broccoli florets and simmer till tender, about 5 minutes
  10. Add roux to broth and stir till combined. Eat!


  • Garnish with crispy bacon, croutons, or sliced green onion according to taste
  • Include potato, in almost any way — got leftover baked potato? Just toss it in the broth mixture and blend it up. Alternatively, boil potatoes till soft, slice and add with broccoli florets

Bone, Fae Myenne Ng

Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng
Original cover art for Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng

Soundtrack for this post: I wish I was the Moon, Neko Case

My most recent selection in the slow but dogged effort to purge my overflowing bookshelves of unread titles is Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng (1993).


Bone was required reading for my Spring 2003 Literature course, “Asian American and Pacific Rim Literature.” I purchased my copy used–and not just a little used, either. Five different resale stickers, three shades of highlighting, underlining in both pencil and pen. I never read it. Never even started it, as far as I can recall. I suppose I felt honor bound to keep this book, since I received college credit for pretending to have read it.


In the aftermath of a sister’s suicide, Leila Fu examines her family’s past in search of justification. With simple clarity, she narrates her experiences growing up with her younger half sisters, Ona and Nina, and their lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a city within a city, where she and her family are known to everyone. Her stepfather Leon emigrated from China, sponsored by a “paper grandfather” whose lost bones have been interred in Colma, instead of being sent home to China as he wished. Her mother was abandoned in San Francisco by her first husband, forced to tirelessly as a seamstress. In a bid for independence, the family opened commercial laundry. Its failure and dissolution proved a precursor to the partial dissolution of their family–Leila’s move across town to the Mission to live with her longtime boyfriend, Nina’s exodus to New York, and Ona’s leap from the top of a Chinatown housing project.

The narrative is structured like a tightening spiral, looping through time, but always anchored in grief and personal diaspora, loss and escape. The clean narration and corkscrew timeline create an effect that elevates the story above the simple facts it relates. It’s a fast, absorbing read. It was a special delight to read knowing the city. I work within a few blocks of the landmarks Leila describes. If I had read Bone as a college sophomore like I was supposed to, I would have missed that.

Final Disposition

Goodwill. (Success!)


Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse, Nicky Haram, Translator

Cover image for Snow and Shadow, by Dorothy TseSoundtrack for this post: 50 Words for Snow, Kate Bush

I was invited to review Snow and Shadow (gasp!). That means some poor assistant charged with scouring niche book blogs copy-pasted my url into a spreadsheet. This type of outreach was one of my responsibilities at my very first (paying) publishing job, so I was irrationally thrilled when in 2014, I received a digital copy for review. That’s right THREE YEARS AGO. Let me say it now: I’m so sorry.

I started reading immediately and finally finished over the weekend (again, SO sorry). The marketing campaign is of course long over, but archaeological evidence still remains: several blog reviews, posted as part of what must have been a major blitz, respectable coverage in more established outlets, an excerpt in the Guardian, another in The Margins (accompanied by a fairly literal piece of art), even a skeleton book site. (I was particularly charmed by this interview in which Tse, while gracious, essentially tells the interview, repeatedly, that they are mistaken, and/or asking the wrong sorts of questions.) Clearly, this was THE book at a boutique small press. I wish I still had access to Bookscan, because I’d love to see the numbers.

Snow and Shadow is not a direct equivalent to any Tse short story collection previously published in Chinese, but rather a greatest hits designed to introduce English-speaking readers to her work. The collection is an assemblage of dreamy, anti-moral parables set in the shifting topography of a surreal Hong Kong. Tse’s style is direct yet obscure, characterized by a loose physicality, impersonal, often iconic, characters, overtones of classic fairy tales turned in on themselves, and, as translator Nicky Harman notes, “a total absence of sentimentality.” Together, these elements create a sense of unreality that enables extreme violence with a minimum of true horror.

In the first selection, “Woman Fish,” a lying wife transforms into a sort of grotesque mermaid, her head and torso morphing into those of a fish while her legs remain human. The piece reminded me of  Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” in which a woman watches her lover devolve into a turtle. In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife” a suffering couple engage in an inverted “Gift of the Magi” scenario in which each competes to sacrifice more. In another selection a boy wakes without a head. “Monthly Matters” features these amazing, jarring, violent one-line descriptions of pregnancy, popping balloons, stabbing of pregnant women, discarded fetuses, a girl cut, like Riding Hood, from the belly of a wolf. In the final, title selection, Tse re-imagines Snow White as a brutal hall-of-mirrors story of doppelganger princesses and obsessive emperors, in a snowy country where dwarves and animals with surgically enhanced human features patrol the forests.

I found myself drawn to my favorite tale, “The Mute Door,” initially by the lyricism of the language in the introductory passages. In it, an anonymous pizza delivery boy known only as “the stranger” wanders the constantly shifting halls of a maze-like building, searching for an apartment that may or may not exist. Its an ominous, alienating piece, one of the most concrete, and, for me, “easiest” offerings in the collection.

Reading Tse isn’t, generally, all that easy. The experience reminded me how little I know of Chinese literature. I’ve read the stories of Lu Xun, and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales–but that’s more or less it. This collection eluded me on some level, not only because it is deliberately fantastic, but because I’m only catching about 30% of the references. I know just enough to know that I’m missing something substantial. Serious critics could (and in Chinese I’m sure they probably do) spend scores of pages unpacking each of Tse’s tales, but the criticism that has appeared in English, at least online, is of the thinner “review” type, like the above. These works seem to deserve a deeper, more formal, more contextualized inspection than I can offer.






Out of Sheer Rage…the blog is back

Sound track for this post: Dead, They Might Be Giants

“Write blog” has been on my personal to-do list for the past 8 months. Then, on January 3 I received an email from my hosting company suggesting that there had been some “suspicious activity” on my site, along with a list of affected files. Two weeks later I responded,  (“for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention”) to confirm that I’d removed the problematic items. I received an undeservedly prompt reply, indicating that I had not.

And so it goes. One message from me, suggesting that I might have got them all this time. One message from the most patient support person in the world, explaining that I didn’t. Finally I just wiped the whole thing and reinstalled it (incorrectly). Then Amazon S3 did whatever it is it did to break the internet. Also, I fucked up another element of instal. Whatever. Resident helpdesk miracle worker fixed all. I recovered the previous posts from the Wayback Machine.

Now here we are.


(That was rhetorical. I don’t know what next, but look for new posts.)