What shape is your mood today? Swings and roundabouts. Is that a shape? The replacement for my cracked smartphone screen is in sooner than I expected and I have work to help me pay for it, so that’s good. But our bed broke and there’s no way getting a new one is worth it, so that’s not so good. But our mattress is in fine shape, as are the wooden slats it was resting on, and have “pillow tops” as well (I think in Swedish they’re the parts that people call mattresses), so we can just live without a bed frame, I guess?
Back when I was a wee thing and my bed was upgraded in order to give my brother a “big kid” bed, I got to sleep on a mattress on the floor for a few days and I thought it was way better than sleeping on a mattress on a proper bed. The novelty hasn’t worn off entirely, so I could be in much worse mood about it than I am. It just sucks that we lose a bit of under-the-bed storage, but oh well. What snack comes in a fun shape? I guess those cone-shaped chips you can put on your fingers. Bugles? Yeah, Bugles.
Someone’s building your dream house, but it has to be in the shape of a letter of the alphabet. Which letter do you choose? For architectural purposes, something like H or I seems the smartest. I’m not vain enough to have my house be in the shape of my initials, definitely (and K seems like not a great shape for a house). C might be nice: you’d have a mostly-enclose courtyard that you could still enter and exit easily.
What’s a great song with a shape in its title or lyrics? “Circle”:
I was taken by the whimsical art and semi-cooperative game play of Dixit since I saw it reviewed on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop YouTube series. (Video at the link is nearly 30 minutes long; if you’re in a hurry, save it to watch another time!) I put off getting a copy for years—we don’t have room for enough guests for a proper game—but I finally relented and accepted it as a birthday present this year. My reasoning was that it would be a great tutoring supplement, and it turns out I was right!
I mentioned in a review of the graphic novel Light that having a collection of whimsical, kid-friendly imagery would be a huge boon for tutoring young learners. Dixit brings the same kind of advantage, with the wrinkle of completely non-sequential, unrelated images. It’s not better or worse than having a thematic set of images from a story; it’s just different.
First of all, students respond really well to the art (from my admittedly small sample size). It’s worth having a deck on hand just for that. Taking a break from staring at words and thinking about words and manipulating words to just drink in some visual art is relaxing, but you can also put that art to good (and fun) language practice.
I’ll admit that some of these cards lend themselves better to some activities than others; I take a specially curated Dixit deck to my lessons, with the images that seem (to me) the most interesting and dramatic, as well as the ones my students really respond to.
Choose a card from the deck and give the student a few seconds to look at it. Take the card from them and ask them to describe as much as they can from memory. (If they’re lower level or if you’re feeling kind, you can ask them simple questions instead.) Switch up the roles to have students practice asking questions.
There’s so much dramatic tension and otherworldliness in so many of the cards that they lend themselves to creative writing practice! Beginners might want to start out just describing a scene, but more advanced students can tell the story behind an image, or offer a prediction.
Ideally, you’ll need space to lay out all of the cards, but in a pinch you can allow students to go through the deck in their hands. Name a category (“food” or “winter”), and their job is to go through the cards and find all of the options that fit. You can be as concrete or as abstract as you like (more advanced students can try to convince why an anchor in the middle of the desert might be “empty,” for example).
One person has a card, which they describe to another person (who has to draw it).
The minimum number of people you need for a regular game of Dixit is three, but it’s surprisingly easy to adapt the game for two players. No one holds any cards in their hand; instead, the “storyteller” either goes through the deck or draws three random cards from the top and places them face-up. The storyteller then chooses one of the cards (privately) to be the winning card and gives a hint to the other player. If the other player guesses the winning card right away, they get two points; if they guess it on the second try, each player gets one point. Otherwise, no points. Play can continue until the deck runs out or until a set number of points.
Book Expo sparked quite the controversy a couple years ago regarding diversity in books and authors. Where are we now? OR, let’s take a different direction and explore the diversity of the format of a book. Do we judge a book by its cover and/or content (e.g.,, audio, digital, graphic, etc.)? Or, combine the two topics and discuss diversity found in alternative content (e.g., representation in graphic novels). Get creative and maybe even controversial!
I actually don’t remember this controversy. Did Sad or Sick Puppy types get upset about a stated commitment to diversity? Or was everything about Book Expo that year white as Christmas? Unsure. So I can’t comment on “where we are now,” either. Instead I’m going to talk about the upcoming movie version of one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time.
I’ve implied it earlier, but let me just say it outright: when it comes to book news, I’m very much out of the loop. I only found out that the movie was happening basically by accident. (Sometimes relaxing with trashy Hollywood gossip rags is a good thing!) I’ve seen this Entertainment Weekly slide show of promotional images, and that’s it. I’ve deliberately avoided searching the Internet for more information about the production because I don’t feel like finding out of there is an Internet brouhaha over the casting.
You see, a lot of the main characters are women of color. Mrs. Murry is Black, and so Meg (and presumably Charles Wallace, Sandy, and Dennys) are explicitly biracial. Mindy Kaling is Mrs Who, and Oprah is Mrs Which. Given how parts of the Internet reacted over casting for Rue in The Hunger Games, I’m assuming there’s similar outrage somewhere on the Internet. I don’t feel like finding out if I’m right, though. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.
And honestly, I’m perfectly fine with all of those casting choices. More than that; I’m happy about it. Women like my mom (who read the book so many times she had portions of it memorized) and me got to grow up with a white Murry family and got to have a nerdy, sensitive Meg Murry who was like us, inside and out. And now we have a version for all of the blerd women out there–now they can have a Meg Murry just like them, inside and out.
(And as for all of the Mrs characters? I mean, they’re aliens after all. Shapeshifting aliens at that.)
My only beef with the casting is actually with Mr. Murry. My book memory of him is a tweedy nerd, not a smoldering buff guy.
But hey, maybe if you give him a pair of glasses and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, he’ll look more the part. Maybe I’ll be blown away by his acting. I’m willing to be open-minded!
Movie (or television) versions of books are always fraught with frustration and controversy. When the actor on screen doesn’t match what you had in your imagination, it can be jarring. Changes are often made to the story, not always for practical concerns and not always for the better. Movies are complicated and expensive ventures, while books are (relatively) simple and fairly inexpensive–there is enormous pressure on a movie to make a return on that investment, and that pressure can make or break a movie.
Unsurprisingly, the usual bookworm attitude towards movies is intense skepticism. And even film buffs often decry movie adaptations, saying that it’s just another sign of the sad state of the film industry these days.
I get it. I’ve definitely been burned by a few bad adaptations. At the tender age of 10 I was excited to see childhood hero Harriet the spy on the big screen, only to walk out confused and disappointed. I pretend that they never adapted The Dark is Rising, and I’m still not sure what went wrong with The Hobbit. People keep trying to make movie versions of Lolita, but the dynamics of how real, live people have to interact make it a messy project, even if you get Nabokov to write the screenplay.
But when they’re done well, movie adaptations are fantastic. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and the best movie adaptations complement the story, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. They have the chance to smooth over blemishes or pitfalls in the original, and in the case of something like A Wrinkle in Time it’s the chance to present the same story through a new, updated lens, and to bring characters we know and love to a wider, more diverse audience.
Where were you forbidden (or too frightened) to go when you were growing up, and why? I wasn’t ever expressly forbidden from going anywhere, but I was always obsessed with a local paper mill that had stood abandoned my entire life. I can’t find a photo to share here, even though it’s prime urban exploration fodder, so I’ll have to make do with photos of a sister plant across the river in New Jersey.
What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done in the past couple of years? I totally bought a reduced fare SL ticket when I wasn’t eligible for it! More than once!
Under what circumstances have you gone into a place you knew you weren’t supposed to enter? I can’t think of any, actually?
Which aisle in your supermarket do you just about never go down? The pet food aisle. The baby food aisle. The canned-fruits-for-baking aisle.
Here’s one for the “little differences” department: canned fruits and vegetables were pretty normal for me growing up in the US. A couple of Green Giant cans of vegetables were always a side for dinner (unless our own vegetable garden was in season) and the little Del Monte tins of diced pears and peaches were a common packed lunch accessory. I didn’t realize that frozen vegetables were a thing until, well, probably older than I should have been. But in Sweden, the canned fruits live in exile with pie crusts and chocolate chips, and I don’t think canned vegetables even exist?
Not counting traffic situations, when did you last willfully disobey something you read on a sign? Like property demarcations, signs are something I’m pretty good at obeying signs. Apologies to the Five Man Electrical Band.
I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies
In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.
Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.
While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.
ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.
I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.
I’m continuing with the prompts from Day 2 of the event. There were actually two questions, and I got so carried away with the first question about what makes a good book that I had to save the second question for another day. That day is today!
The online book community has changed so much over the years. How do we keep up within our own book-sphere as well as within the community as a whole (i.e., libraries, bookstores, authors, publishers, etc.)?
Generally speaking, I don’t like to follow actual authors on social media. Not fiction authors, anyway. It seems like a marketing model best described as “the cult of personality” has taken over the fiction market, where you buy someone’s books based on how much you like them as a persona rather than how interested you are in their writing. But nonfiction writers seem to be followed more as a nexus of information, and that’s perhaps more relevant to their writing than how they perform their personalities.
There are three ways that I stay plugged into the book world at large. And the phrase “plugged into” suggests a deliberate intention that I don’t really have, so I should be clear. I’m not invested in the book news world in any serious way. It’s more like a happy accident because I like to talk about books and writing.
The first is through my annual(ish) participation in ArmchairBEA. The blog hops and the Twitter chats always bring a few books or book bloggers (who then recommend new books) to my attention. An introvert can handle being social once a year! 😉
The second is through NetGalley and Blogging for Books. I don’t think any of the books I’ve read through them have gone on to be huge splashes (except for the comics series Monstress), but they are by far my biggest source for new releases. Limited shelf space and the knowledge that we’re going to eventually move out of this apartment means that I have become very conservative in my acquisition of new (physical) books, but I’ll take all the free ebooks I can get!
But mostly I keep tabs on the book world through a few book bloggers and BookTubers (booktubers? bookTubers? I wonder what CMOS has to say about that) who seem to have tastes similar to my own. They’re like my psychopomps in the realm of new books. It’s worth it, because that’s how I end up finding out about books like A Tale for the Time Being. There are some new things under the sun!
So, to that end, I’d love to know what book bloggers or BookTubers you follow! Who do you recommend? Comment or Tweet at me: @KobaEnglish.
I’m reading Karen Memory for an upcoming feminist science fiction book club meeting. (More on that in a later post.) Other, not-as-high-priority reading includes:
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a graphic novel (possibly adapted web comic?) that recounts the fictional adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in a pocket steampunk universe
Kris, my regular allotment of Swedish reading.
The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my own local critique group
The Origins of Totalitarianism, because it’s relevant
The Copyeditor’s Handbook for my own edification
Foxlowe, which I originally heard about via a book blogger I found via ArmchairBEA a couple years ago (speaking of ArmchairBEA)
What are you listening to?
While I copyedit, I typically listen to classical. I favor the Romantics and have listened through all of Beethoven’s symphonies a bunch of times by now, but I hop around the musical timeline a lot: Bach, Mozart, Copland, Alice Mary Smith . . .
I play video games in my spare time, mostly Diablo III, and that’s when I like to get in my podcast listening: Sawbones, The Adventure Zone, The History of the English Language, Adam Ruins Everything, Dirt Nap, (interesting and funny but very much NSFW), and Red Skirts(usually SFW) are all good.
I also go running three days a week, with what is probably an utterly unremarkable workout playlist. The more standout selections are from the now-defunct Music Alliance Pact, a monthly round-up of international indie music. My playlist also tilts a little heavily towards Korean music, specifically artists discussed on the Indieful ROK blog (Say Sue Me) or that I learned about while I lived there (Drunken Tiger/MFBTY/Tiger JK).
Anything amusing or strange happen to you recently?
Working with children is always amusing, though in small and unremarkable ways. It’s a good counterbalance to the almost-always private, solitary work that is copyediting. I don’t miss the stress of a classroom and the management that entails, but working with kids in small groups or one-on-one is the dream. Of course, working with adults has own its own set of rewards as well. But adults don’t have the same sideways perspective on things that lead to “kids say the darndest things” aphorisms or puns.
So much instant chicken soup. Guess who caught a cold during peak summer season. 🙁
What was your contribution to your most recent potluck?
I tried for stewed tomatoes but they didn’t turn out. (Protip: start making food a little earlier than 5 minutes before you’re due to eat.) (Other protip: learn to actually cook.)
My last successful contribution was a vegetarian adaptation of a Hungarian dish called turos csusza: pasta, sour cream, cottage cheese, and then crispy roasted onion instead of bacon. It went over okay, but I think next time I’ll add more roasted onion.
Since I don’t have another book to talk about, I thought I’d continue with the blog prompts from this year’s Armchair BEA.
What makes or breaks a book? How do we rate the books, or determine if it is good literature or a good story? What do we want from an author event? How does diversity representation fit into all of this?
Is there any single thing that makes or breaks a book? Bad writing, I guess—by which I primarily mean the quality and readability of the prose. A multitude of sins can be covered by gorgeous language; likewise, the world’s most compelling plot or narrator can be irrevocably hampered by awkward, stilted, or just plain bad prose.
Then there comes the issue of story crafting, and how an author deals with things like plot, character, and setting, and I think all of those things end up being up to personal taste. The books I love best tend to be character-driven pieces where nothing much actually happens; the ones I put down are books that have bland, unappealing characters. Rabbit, Run and Revolutionary Road are great examples of this. And A Death in the Family, just for a title that doesn’t full of Rs.
The “we” in the following two questions is implicitly the book blogger community, and I’m as far removed from that community as someone who (sometimes) blogs about books can be. So I can really only speak for myself here, rather than speculate on patterns within the book blogosphere.
When it comes to rating books, I’m sticking with the GoodReads 5-star framework:
1 star: Didn’t like it
2: It was okay.
3. I liked it.
4. I really liked it.
5. I loved it!
To that extent, even though I think “a good story” and “good literature” aren’t always the same thing; the best “a good story” can do with me is 4 stars. I reserve my stingy 5-star ratings for books that I feel qualify as “good literature.” (Or, in the realm of nonfiction, books that are spectacularly written and touch on something I think everyone should know.)
Every book starts out as a 2-star book, and then it moves up or down depending on how things go. My biggest struggle is between 4 and 5 stars. What is “good literature”? How is that any different from “a good story”? And there’s plenty of “good literature” that have received miserable ratings from me.
Genre and media also represent issues. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, but at the same time I don’t think it’s necessarily a 5-star series, either. What would make it a 5-star series, though? Nothing I can really think of. And it feels a little petty to hold out on that last star just because of some ineffable “something” that’s missing (but that I can’t describe). I swing back and forth on giving that one 4 and 5 stars. (It’s currently sitting at 5, but I might go and change it after finishing this entry.)
I’m skipping over author events (most authors I like are either dead, noteworthy recluses, or both—”author events” aren’t really a thing for me) to go straight to diversity.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the classics I hate or can’t bring myself to finish (and that end up getting those 2- and 1-star ratings on GoodReads) are ones by (dead) white guys. I have notable soft spots in my heart for dead white guys with outsized reputations (Henry David Thoreau and David Foster Wallace chief among them), and certainly a shift in diversity doesn’t guarantee that a book will become a flawless masterpiece for me—I still think Native Son trades on base stereotypes and a pretty awful treatment of women, white and Black alike—but it does give a writer an edge in as much as they are more likely to have something fresh or interesting to say.
No-No Boy is about the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps and World War II in Japanese-American communities, but it’s also about the universal struggle of coming to grips with your ambitions in the face of what your family and community want out of, and expect for, you. The context of No-No Boy really bring those struggles into a sharp focus, precisely because of the stressful balance between Japanese and American cultures. The Fifth Season enriches the fantasy genre by taking up the issues of subservience, marginalization, and exploitation (issues that still plague the United States today, often falling neatly along race and gender lines) instead of/within the usual story of “fight the evil monster and save the kingdom” that we’ve all read a thousand times. And so on.
There was another set of questions for Day 2, but I’ll tackle those another week. Even with skipping the question about author events, these were questions that generated a lot of food for thought! Let me know what you think in the comments, or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish).
What might you put in a small, pretty glass bottle as a romantic gift to someone? I imagine some kind of memento from a place that’s important to both of you, like some sand from the beach you went to on your honeymoon, or water from the stream you went fishing in for your first date, or a petal from their favorite flower. That kind of thing.
Someone you care very much for is leaving for a long time but will be back. What small object (not a photo) might you give him or her to remember you by? One of my best friends from college has a family tradition of using something white to wave goodbye to someone leaving on a trip. Anything white—when either of us have remembered to do it with each other, it’s usually a receipt from a wallet, purse, or glove compartment. Who doesn’t always have fifty million receipts hanging around?
But I don’t think I would really gift anyone leaving on a trip a proper memento. They’ll be back, right? So what’s the point?
If you were to leave a small mark in your current residence, as lasting evidence that you lived there, what would you leave, and where would you leave it? My family often vacationed at a cabin up in Danby Vermont, right on Tinmouth Pond. We always got at least one breakfast at Sugar and Spice, and my brother and I were allowed something from the gift shop. I almost always opted for a watercolor paint set. They came with maybe five or six thematic pencil sketches (kittens, natural vistas, etc.) for you to paint yourself, and one year I left one of my masterpieces propped on a beam in my loft. I hope it’s still there!
What would you like to toss into the fires of Mount Doom?
Microsoft Word’s spell check has saved my bacon on more than one occasion, but the grammar check tool is worse than useless. I’d like to see that one go the way of Clippy.
Those adopt-a-star things are gimmicky rip-offs, but if they weren’t, and someone gave you one as a gift, what would you name it? Probably after someone I care about. It would depend on who was on my mind at the moment I got the little certificate.