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Sue Burke
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Rachel Cordasco interviews me about the most fun and most difficult parts of translation, and about why I started studying Spanish in the first place. It's brief, so don't be afraid to click.


19th-Aug-2016 09:44 am - One month living on the Edge
Chicago flag
Olive oil and wine are a lot more expensive in the US than in Spain.

That’s one thing I’ve noticed after moving a month ago from Madrid to the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.

I’ve also been pleased to notice how there seems to be no dog poop on the sidewalks, unlike Madrid. How do Chicago dog owners manage to accomplish such a heroic feat? /sarcasm mode off/

However, my alley has been baited for rats. I haven’t seen a live rat yet (note the qualifier), but the upstairs neighbors say their dog (which they carefully pick up after) enjoys chasing and catching them in the back yard. Rats are said to eat dog poop. Are they the secret to poop-free sidewalks? Probably not, but Madrid: take note.

I’m still marveling at the humidity in Chicago, three times higher than Madrid. My skin is softer, but what would be a pleasantly warm day in Madrid – a mere 85º – can be a sauna here.

I’ve stopped pushing the wrong number in elevators and looking for light switches in all the wrong places, but I’m used to thinking in euros, not dollars. America seems more expensive than it is – although it is expensive.

I still miss the view from my Madrid apartment: the 7th floor with Retiro Park just up the hill, and then the wide sky. On a clear day I could even glimpse a bit of a mountain between the trees. Now I’m on the ground floor with buildings crowding in on either side and trees shading the back yard and blocking the sky. Beyond that alley abuts the “L” train station and tracks, up on their gradient. (Yes, the trains are noisy. But conveniently close.)

I saw no Persied meteors this week, in part due to the limited view. To overcome that, my husband and I walked down to Lake Michigan Thursday to try to spot some, despite the city lights, advancing clouds, and early hour. We knew it was probably futile, but sitting a while at the lakefront is never a waste of time. That’s why we’re in Edgewater: to live at the edge of the water.

Finally, I’ve gathered from news reports that Chicago and Illinois governments suffer from problems with budgets, efficiency, and corruption. The Madrid municipal and regional governments face the same problems. I feel very much at home in that way, although I wouldn’t have minded a change.

— Sue Burke

Let me see..
During August, Madrid holds its fiestas castizas. That’s hard to translate: “traditional” fiestas, perhaps, or “authentic” fiestas. They’ve been going on for at least a couple of centuries in one format or another, and they celebrate San Cayetano, San Lorenzo, and the Virgin of the Paloma. When I lived in Madrid, I always went.

I just moved from Madrid to Chicago’s Edgewood neighborhood, and the Edgewood Chamber of Commerce held Edgefest last weekend. I went with my husband. How do the two street festivals compare?

• Madrid’s fiestas start on August 1st and end on the 15th – two weeks! – moving from one old neighborhood to another on the near south side sloping toward the river. Some of the narrow side streets are elaborately decorated, and castizo fiesta-goers wear traditional costumes: dapper houndstooth vested suits for men, and fitted, flared long dresses with head scarves and embroidered shawls for women. This is ideally accompanied by a cheeky, streetwise attitude.
• Edgefest was held on August 6th to 7th – one weekend! – on a  mere two blocks of Broadway, and the wide street was decorated with a few banners on light poles. Dress was casual – some men even wore cargo shorts – and the attitude was typical Midwestern friendly.

• The Madrid fiestas seem to attract every single person who hasn’t left the city on vacation and even out-of-towners. The streets and plazas can be packed tight from one end of the neighborhood to another, and the noise can be deafening.
• Edgefest attracted people apparently just from the neighborhood, and while the turnout seemed good, the crowd was comfortably sized, several orders of magnitude smaller and not too loud.

• The Madrid fiestas might have a few activities in the morning or early afternoon, but nothing really gets started until 8 p.m. They end sometime long after midnight – I don’t know when for sure. Possibly sunrise. I never lasted much beyond midnight. Madrid is a late-night party town and always has been.
• Edgefest started at noon Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday, and ended promptly at 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday. Chicagoans might enjoy a party, but they’ll also let their neighbors go to bed at a reasonable hour.

• Madrid’s fiestas offer food, drink, music, and a few shows, with stages set up in various plazas and streets. There are also carnival games and big food and drink areas. In addition, bars on a street often team up to fill that street with amplified music to make it one big loud party. People drink a lot. Really a lot.
• Edgefest had music stages at each end of the block, and tents and booths between them offering food and drink, games, crafts, art, and promotions by local businesses and organizations. Wine and beer flowed freely, but drinkers seemed to be pacing themselves. Of course, closing up shop at 9 or 10 p.m. makes that easier.

In summary, the Madrid fiestas are huge, noisy, and frenetic. Edgefest was small, friendly, and relaxed. And at Edgefest I could sometimes smell tobacco smoke, but there was none of the marijuana that can waft down the fiesta-filled streets of Madrid – sometimes even on non-fiesta days.

Madrid is a party town. Chicago might have a different focus.

— Sue Burke

3rd-Aug-2016 09:46 am - What’d I miss?
Sue the Chicago T-rex

I’m back in the United States – in Chicago to be exact. I moved to Madrid, Spain, in December 1999, and moved back to the United States not quite two weeks ago. I did visit the US from time to time, of course. And during those years the internet blossomed with all its social media, so I’ve been more in touch than ever with family, friends, and high school alums.

The internet also means I’ve heard all the news – as if the Trump-Clinton showdown doesn’t make headlines worldwide. But now I’m in the midst of the battle and the daily he-said-she-said. While I was gone, American politics took a strange turn. I must register to vote.

Some day-to-day things are now different, too. For example, grocery stores stock more variety, more pre-prepared food, and new brands to discover. The US seems to have turned into a nation of foodies, and I’ll be able to eat very well. Cracked pepper and olive oil Triscuits? Cool. (Spain is as newly obsessed with food, too, but more toward a return to tradition.)

Since I’m now located next to a great lake – an inland sea, technically – moisture fills the air and falls regularly from the sky. Chicago gets on average four inches of rain per month in July and August. Madrid, with one-third less humidity, averages .4 inch of rain each month, and an entire summer month without rain would surprise no one.

As a result, Chicago looks lush: green everywhere and flowers cascading with color in boulevards and lawns. Madrid’s government and citizens do their best to grow and lovingly care for trees and gardens, but they just can’t compete.

Also, I’ve moved into a lively neighborhood with a street festival coming up next weekend just a few blocks away. I’ll see how it compares to the August fiestas castizas of Madrid.

Meanwhile, I’ve had to deal with problems caused by a lack of a state-issued ID. Getting an Illinois driver’s license has become a priority, but as a very patient and knowledgeable man at the DMV explained, the application requires five different documents, one of which I need to acquire. He told me how to get it, and now that’s in process. Then I need to take the written driver’s test, vision test, and road test. I must brush up on my parallel parking skills.

Still, this should be a lot easier than getting my Spanish driver’s license. It’s just one of many “welcome back” complications to deal with.

Meanwhile, most of my worldly possessions are in a cargo container to be loaded this week on a ship to cross the Atlantic. I should see them by early September with luck, but luck is not guaranteed, since Homeland Security randomly inspects shipments, which could add to the wait and cost. I’m living with minimal possessions until then, sort of like camping out. It’s sad to go to those big American grocery stores, see all that fine food, and be unable to prepare so much of it until my cookware makes it to this side of the Big Pond. I’m drinking wine out of a housewarming gift coffee mug in the meantime.

Other than reading, writing, and translating, my big passion in life is cooking. So I’m three out of four this month – in a new city in my home country where I hear a lot of Spanish on the street, but with a Latin American accent. And where bit by bit I’m sure I’ll find out everything I’ve missed.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my website http://www.sue.burke.name

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The annual running of the bulls in Pamplona begins tomorrow, July 7, and continues until July 14. But how did they start doing that in the first place? I explain in this article at Las dos Castillas e-zine.


1st-Jul-2016 09:30 am - We're moving back to the USA
Sue the Chicago T-rex
City of the Big Shoulders. The Windy City. Hog Butcher of the World. Urbs in Horto. The City That Works. My Kind of Town. Chi-town.

That’s where my husband and I are heading. Spain’s economy, with 20% unemployment, shows no sign of improvement, and the Brexit will make things worse, so we’ve decided we have to return to the USA. We’re not the only ones driven out by the economy. Spain’s population is falling: a drop of 2.7% in 2015.

We don’t want to go. We love Spain. This is simply a question of money. We plan to live in Chicago to be near family in our home town of Milwaukee. Chicago has a lot of activity, good mass transit, and Obamacare if we need to get insurance on our own. We’ve rented an apartment, and if all goes well, we plan to move in the third week of July.

Since overseas shipping is expensive, we’re giving away a lot of books, furnishings, and appliances. Still, we’re busy packing – mostly books, files for our work, clothing, and household goods. Shipping time is about two months. This operation will take complex planning, and it will involve plenty of expenses, but we can’t afford not to go.

These days with the internet, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with all the friends we’re leaving behind. I’ll miss them, and the food and wine and history and culture that makes Spain so easy to love. I’ll miss immersion in the language of Cervantes.

But I’ll keep translating and writing. Paris on the Prairie, Second City, the City by the Lake will be a great place to live and work.

— Sue Burke

Postage stamp
I’ve read all the short fiction finalists for this year’s Hugo Awards, and I have opinions.


“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor
The protagonist just happens to be able to solve all the problems of the story – too often by coincidence rather than by her own effort. She just happens to have a special artifact, and her cosmetic just happens to ... well, no spoilers. A dire predicament is solved too easily. However, her anguish at both her danger and her otherness is vividly portrayed, and her home culture proves to hold depth and strength to help her through her crisis.

“The Builders” by Daniel Polansky
A fairy tale about personified animals – but not for children. The body count is far too high and vivid for children, as is the cold, murderous greed and revenge that motivates the story’s mice, rats, stoats, owls, rattlesnakes, badgers, cats.... Kids would enjoy the jokes and comic asides, though. It might not be my favorite, but it may well be yours.

“Penric’s Demon” by Lois McMaster Bujold
Told with a spare style, generous with humor, low on tension and surprises, and rich with world-building and believable detail. Satisfying, except that it felt more like the start of a novel than like a complete novella.

“Perfect State” by Brandon Sanderson
This Gary Stu is about a brain in a jar “living” in a fantasy world where he is all-powerful and beloved. Then he is ordered to reproduce with a female (also a brain in a jar), and, although this reproduction would be fantasy, for some pointless reason it must be enacted in real-life-like bodies. The story also involves stereotyped women and, of course, a chance for Gary Stu to be a hero.

“Slow Bullets” by Alastair Reynolds
The plot twists back and forth as the survivors of a war disaster discover that they have in fact survived even worse multiple disasters and face grave responsibilities. My only tiny quibble is that the final twist should have been better foreshadowed at the beginning – otherwise, superbly told.


“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
A hyper-violent, grim, profanity-ridden love story crammed with more metaphors and similes than a classroom assignment executed by a first-year bipolar MFA student suffering a psychosis-level attack of mania. If I were the professor, I’d give it an A anyway: effective futuristic feel and setting, vivid characters, and compelling plot with a nice twist at the end.

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai
This story serves as a scaffold for a chronological recital of hardware, especially weapons, employed during a space alien attack, with a predictable plot and characters who exist mostly to activate said hardware. An O’Reilly® reference text, despite other similarities, offers more human emotion and surprises.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
The setting turns out to be one big, scary metaphor about current social problems – one of the fine things that science fiction can do best. The style feels a bit odd compared to standard Western storytelling (an observation, not a complaint). In the course of the narration, the idea of folding an entire city, and the reason behind it, becomes believable. Hao’s story enriches this year’s Hugo ballot.

“Obits” by Stephen King
A burgeoning journalist discovers he has a unique skill with obituaries. Compared to Brooke Bolander’s story, “Obits” feels tame and bland, and the protagonist is a feckless coward, so the story is shallow: the potential consequences of the skill are avoided rather than explored.

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke
The big surprise is obvious rather early on. One thing this story – and others like it – never explains is why aliens desperately want to conquer Earth’s solar system. What do we have that’s not easily available everywhere else without a fight? The writing is competent, but that isn’t enough to rank this story among the year’s best.


“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris
This is neither fiction nor a story – and an obvious insult unworthy of nomination or your time – but at least it is blessedly short.

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon
This story goes on too long for its content even though it’s flash fiction: a one-joke monologue from an alien invader who doesn’t understand human biology and is incapable of learning.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
It’s hard to be funny, but this story about a well-meaning, frustrated AI might make you laugh out loud. The story also examines human foibles and dissects our current obsessions, which is a noble use for science fiction. It was my choice for the Nebulas. If you haven’t read it, please do: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_15/

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao
Part of the There Will Be War Volume X anthology, like some other nominees, this story’s war begins as the Chinese – the unredeemably eeeviiilll Chinese – without a second thought prepare to engage in the largest genocide in history. A tale told artlessly and unconvincingly.

“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle
Not Hugo material, simply a gay erotic story with science fiction trappings. Lots of typos, too. This was nominated to demean the awards, but Mr. Tingle has handled the situation constructively, with grace and wit, and he deserves respect for that. And the story is not the worst of the nominees, not at all.

— Sue Burke

1st-Jun-2016 11:34 am - The Holy Grail – found!
Let me see..
I’ve seen three Holy Grails – not that I was looking for them, but I got lucky anyway.

The Holy Grail, of course, is the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and which was used to catch his blood as he hung on the Cross. In medieval times, stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table recounted quests for the Holy Grail, and eventually belief in its existence became widespread – including the assertion that drinking from the grail conveyed immortality.

One magnificent grail is the agatschate or agate bowl on display in the Imperial Treasury at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. It measures 30 inches / 76 cm from handle to handle and was carved from a single block of agate. On the basis of beauty alone – still in perfect condition – it merits the status of treasure. Probably, it was carved for the court of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century and came to western Europe when Constantinople fell in 1204.

If you look at the bowl in the right light, you can sometimes see the letters “XRISTO.” This natural result of the veins in the agate for a time was taken as proof that this was the Holy Grail.

But isn’t a “grail” a drinking vessel? No. The word originally meant a serving dish, bowl, or cup.

Is it worth seeing? The bowl is housed in the House of Habsburg Imperial Treasury, which contains room after room of splendid secular and ecclesiastical riches including the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, made over a thousand years ago and still sparkling like new; important historic relics including wood from the True Cross; and the treasury of the Knights of the Golden Fleece. After my visit, I realized that never before and probably never again will I be surrounded by so much gold and so many diamonds, pearls, and enormous gemstones. Go – and be prepared to be dazzled.

Another candidate for Holy Grail is the Chalice of Doña Urraca made in the 11th century and on display at the Museum and Pantheon at San Isidoro Basilica in León, Spain. It is an agate chalice that was encrusted with gold and jewels on orders of Urraca of Zamora (1033 - 1101), daughter of King Ferdinand I the Great.

The princesses of the royal family were charged with the care, maintenance, and control of many of the churches and monasteries in the kingdom, and they often commissioned magnificent works to enrich and ennoble them. The cup and base of the chalice are made of agate pieces from Roman times, and Doña Urraca had them united and decorated.

No one seemed to think it was the Holy Grail until the appearance of a 2014 book, Los Reyes del Grial (The Royalty of the Grail) by Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega del Río, which claimed it was “the only chalice that could be considered the chalice of Christ.”

This would have been news to Doña Urraca. No records from that time – and we have quite a few – show that anyone believed anything like that. In fact, she lived just before the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table became popular, so the idea would never even have occurred to her. If it is the Holy Grail, it is so purely by accident.

Is it worth seeing? If you’re in León, by all means. Even better than the chalice and the many other church treasures in the museum is the Pantheon in the basilica’s crypt, which contains early 12th-century frescoes often called “the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art.”

Finally, there’s the Holy Chalice at the Cathedral of Valencia. This is another agate cup, and is believed to have been made in the Middle East up to a century before Christ. It was later mounted in gold, silver, and gemstones.

Tradition says it was taken to Rome by Saint Peter, eventually came to Spain, and later was given to King Martin of Aragon in 1399. His successor gave it to the cathedral.

Is it real? The cathedral argues that such a cup would have been used for Sabbath and Passover suppers by Jewish families in the time of Christ. It has the status of holy relic. If Jesus didn’t use this cup, he may have used one much like it.

Is it worth seeing? Since 1916 it has been lovingly housed in a special chapel of the medieval cathedral, which has other beautiful chapels and a museum displaying many items of art and worship, and amid the rich architecture of the cathedral. Take a look at these photos. There’s lots to see and do in Valencia, and this is one of the city’s main historic sites.

I didn’t set out on a quest for holy grails. I love history and went looking for that – and I found plenty of it. The grails came as a side note, anecdotes, traveler’s tales about a thread in European history that unites artifacts with faith and legend. Every artifact tells a story, and every story is itself a treasure.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website, http://www.sue.burke.name

22nd-May-2016 12:43 pm - Review of “Castles in Spain”

Rachel Cordasco writes:

“If you’ve been living your life thinking that you’ve already read some of the best speculative fiction out there, but you haven’t read any of the stories in this collection, then you’re just plain wrong. The stories in Castles in Spain are not just some of the best to come out of Spain’s “Golden Age of fantastic literature;” they are some of the best in the genre, period, stop, end of sentence.”

Read more here:

— Sue Burke

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Yesterday a webcam was installed on the roof of city hall to live-stream a stork nest. Alcalá de Henares is near Madrid and is famous as the birthplace of Cervantes and for its stork population.

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