Review: Play It As It Lays

I’m slowly closing in on my TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century goal. After this, just one book remains!

Image courtesy Farrar Straus & Giroux

Author: Joan Didion

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Plot summary: The life and breakdown of the fictional actress Maria Wyeth during the late 1960s.

Content warning: Lots of substance abuse and an overdose; off-screen (off-page?) domestic violence; abortion

Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in feminist literature; those interested in character studies; those interested in mid-century Americana.

In-depth thoughts: Play It as It Lays is an ideal book for EFL students: serious, compelling concepts are explored in short chapters of light, lucid prose. The net result is that you can pick up and put down around the book other things you might have going on in your life. Also, there’s a movie version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.

Many of the reviews I’ve read for Play It as It Lays call it “depressing,” even “terrifying,” but I largely suspect that response has to do with how squeamish you are about abortion (and how squeamish you are about women feeling, at worst, vague and ambiguous about getting abortions, rather than eternally regretful and emotionally destroyed). I liked Didion’s writing and was happy to hitch a ride with Maria Wyeth for a while to visit her gilded cage of a world, but nothing about it shook me to my core. (Maybe that’s how you know you’re depressed? Hm.)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Copenhagen and NYC

It takes forever to get out of the Copenhagen airport, or at least it feels like forever. My flight was supposed to arrive at 12:30; when I check the time on the surprisingly dingy subway, it’s already 13:40. Oops. I had grand, if brief, plans for my layover in Copenhagen: see The Little Mermaid statue, grab a smorbrod at Aarman’s, and top it off with a beer at Cafe Malmo. I chop the list down to Cafe Malmo (beer above all else). It pours down intermittently during my walk there, but by the time I find the basement bar (Cafe Malmo is emphatically NOT a cafe), the weather has broken for the better.

I take a seat right opposite the open door, enjoying the cool breeze and the blue-gray patch of sky projecting into the dark wood paneling. The fresh air is good because there are ashtrays everywhere and the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke—smoking in restaurants, a memory of a bygone era.

The exterior of Cafe Malmo.
The exterior of Cafe Malmo.

At the bar I struggle with whether to use English or Swedish. I switch uncomfortably between both, if finally skewing more towards the Swedish end of the spectrum. The bartender understands me just fine and truthfully I can’t tell if he uses Swedish or very slow and deliberate Danish with me in return. I know that I can read Danish okay, but trying to listen to snatches of overheard conversation is impossible. It’s all gargling.

Is it extra appropriate for a dive bar to have a nautical theme? I can’t decide. In one window, a copper(?) bathysphere is surrounded by potted cactuses. The duality of man, or nature. The wall opposite me features a collage of faded photos and the title “BUGISSTREET SINGAPORE” in that font used exclusively for saloons in the Wild West on crayon-bright yellow paper. The photos are of women, glamour shots and candids alike, and many feature exposed breasts.

The interior of Cafe Malmo.
The interior of Cafe Malmo.

The sign outside the bar promises live music, but I’m skeptical that you could comfortably fit the accouterments necessary for even your basic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter. There would be floor space between my seat and the door, but it’s dominated by a heavy five-pin billiards table. Or maybe the billiards table doubles as a stage as necessary?

While I sip my beer, the thought strikes me of “third places,” or maybe it’s called “third spaces.” The idea is that we crave places that are neither work (obviously stressful for most, or at least oversaturated, even if you like your job) and home (often its own brand of oppressive), so we go to places like bars, parks, and cafes. I suppose my third place of preference is bars; I’d like them even without drinks. Even the cutest, quirkiest cafe can feel performative and formal. But everyone relaxes in bars. Especially during off-peak hours, it’s a place to relax and be around-but-not-with other people. They have no expectations of me (except to, say, pay for my drink, not to leave a mess, etc.) and likewise I have no expectations of them. I have space to think.

That said, I don’t think about much. I just let the weird mix of classic American top 40 and European schlager I don’t know and Danish covers of American songs wash over me. There is a surprising amount of country music. Selections include:

  • A Danish cover of James Taylor
  • “Fly By Night”
  • “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”
  • A loungey version of “Revolution”
  • A country version of “O Holy Night”

Eventually other patrons appear, or maybe friends of the young busboy. They set up the five-pin billiards game. The box with the pins and the chalk for the scoreboard had been sitting on a shelf behind me the whole time and the thought had earlier occurred to me that one of the small, finely carved pins would have made a nice souvenir. Now I’m glad I didn’t pinch one. I watch a game play through, not understanding any of the rules, and then return to the airport for the most important flight: from Copenhagen to New York.

That flight itself is uneventful. I read a lot and sleep a lot. The real fun begins when I land at JFK and try to get to my lodgings for the night: King Sauna in Palisades Park, NJ. In the process I wrangle a cheap burner sim card and some allergy medicine (my hosts in Austin have cats), but getting to the sauna is more of an adventure than I would have bargained for. I get there nonetheless.

King Sauna is a Korean-American version of a jjimjilbang, a particular kind of sauna. There’s not really anything that’s different between one in Korea and one in the US except, maybe, context: in the US they’re a luxury and a reward; in Korea they are (or were for me) as a reliable part of travel as highway rest stops or Motel 6. In some neighborhoods they’re a place to spend a few hours with the family; in others they’re a cheap place to crash if you missed the last subway home.

In retrospect, my view of jjimjilbangs as the latter is maybe incompatible with the semi-luxurious status they enjoy in the US (would a hostel or AirBnB for the night be cheaper?), but there’s something to be said for 24-hour entry, saunas, and hot tubs when you trudge out of JFK at 10 in the evening.

Unfortunately, the “lagom” pool—not boiling hot, not tepid or ice cold—is drained to just a few inches, I guess for cleaning? So I can’t indulge in my favorite warm-cold-warm ritual, but I enjoy having a luxurious hot shower and sweating it out in the steam saunas.

The other nice thing about jjimjilbangs generally, and this one in particular, is the freely available computer access. Without that, it would have been impossible to get my budget sim card started. I could have flown into Austin semi-blind, relying on the crapshoot that is free wifi, but that would be cutting it a little close, even for me. I also take the time to order online NJ transit and airport shuttle tickets. Phone tickets. The future is now!

There were other intangible benefits to staying at the sauna, mostly related to sense memories. There’s a smell to jjimjilbangs—is it damp bamboo mats? tea?—that I will eternally associate with relief, safety, and relaxation. And the second it hits my nose, all the tension from traveling leaves my body.

Truthfully, my favorite jjimjilbangs in Korea were much more budget and much less luxurious than this one; basically places for drunk patrons to sleep it off. But I like the touches here: the delicate white-and-pink upholstered fancy chairs and matching tables, with intricate leaves and curves carved into the arms and legs; the overwhelming presence of flowers, real and artificial; vases, geodes, and crystals set in decorative tableaus (maybe for obscure feng shui benefits?). The net effect is one of repose in a fairy forest bower, and it’s surprisingly calming.

My original sleeping plan was to avoid the coed fairy bower area, to minimize the risk of encountering a pervert, but when I get exiled out of the private rest/sleep area in the women’s-only side for wearing the jjimjilbang uniform (“clothes outside!” the attendant tells me and the other woman in there), I notice that in the co-ed corner devoted to sleeping has little wooden barriers to cordon off “private” space—random dudes won’t be able to comfortably roll over and try to spoon with me. Satisfied, I put my glasses on a nearby shelf and set a series of alarms on my phone to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Austin.

Yours truly, sweating it out.
Yours truly, sweating it out.

As it turns out, I don’t need the complex series of wake-up calls. Whether it’s jet lag or anticipation, I only sleep for a couple of hours and wake up at around 4 am. I peek in the saunas to see if the lagom pool has been refilled yet, but no dice. I relax in a few of the different infrared saunas in the coed fairy bower section, then leave a little before 7 so I can get the NJ transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time.

Friday 5: Off-Balance

I’m a little annoyed that the post I had scheduled about being unavailable due to vacation somehow never went through, but on the other hand everything else I had prepared in advance did! Fortunately everything remained under control while I was away—I don’t need a vacation from my vacation or anything like that. On to this week’s Friday 5!

 

What most recently made you giddy?

Two things: dancing at a really good wedding, and watching the bats emerge at Natural Bridge Caverns. Those two memories alone are worth every penny I spent for this trip.

 

What most recently left you agog?

Sometimes the Friday 5 teaches me new words. I always took “agog” to mean “shocked” or “surprised”; I double-checked just now and instead it’s “full of intense interest or excitement.”

Pretty much my whole trip to the US had most recently left me agog, I suppose. I packed a lot into just three weeks of visiting!

 

What most recently left you aghast?

Despite all of the good vibes and good friends in my trip, there’s no denying I picked a tumultuous time to visit (which, welcome to the next three years). Neo-nazis demonstrating publicly, counter-protesters being injured or even murdered . . . and the worst part is I’m not even surprised.

A close friend of mine and his girlfriend are great admirers of James Tiptree, Jr. They saw me off from Boston with a copy of Her Smoke Rises Up Forever (though I think I left it in Albany, or possibly Old Orchard Beach), and one of the stories in there seemed all the creepier in light of contemporary goings-on: “The Screwfly Solution.”

 

What in your life is the most higgledy-piggledy?

Landing the next student or project is always higgledy-piggledy. Freelance life!

 

 What was your week a mish-mash of?

Maine, Massachusetts, Copenhagen, Stockholm. I was all over the place this week!

Review: Karen Memory

I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you’re reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!

Cover of Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory."
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Elizabeth Bear

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: C2

Plot summary: In a nutshell, Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper set in the Pacific Northwest, with international espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans

In-depth thoughts: The back of the book features the same summary I just shared above, more or less, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of “Johnny Mnemonic.” Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.

Elizabeth Bear’s writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that’s just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I’ve read by Bear and I’ll have to find more in the future. But there were a few things that tripped me up, which is why I didn’t give it a higher rating. (I suppose it’s nitpicking to expect the correct dates on radium watch dial painting in a novel that is very clearly a fantastical alternate universe, but it’s my job to be a nitpicker, so I’ll let it bother me.)

A more salient point for EFL readers is that while Bear’s writing and Karen’s voice are distinctive and stylistic, they may be too stylistic for many EFL readers. Karen’s voice employs non-standard grammar and slightly antiquated vocabulary that I can see as being confusing or off-putting (hence such a high language grading). But if you’re a very committed steampunk fan, it’s well worth the effort it might take to adjust to the language.

Friday 5: Let’s Get Physical

How confidently could you turn a cartwheel right now?

Not at all. I’m writing this ahead of schedule with a bum ankle, but that doesn’t change anything at the moment of you reading this, wherever and whenever you are. Gymnastics is not my thing.

How (physically) flexible are you?


I’m not a human pretzel, but yoga keeps me relatively limber. So I’d like to think, anyway. That said, I’ve let yoga fall by the wayside and that’s maybe a bad idea. The hardest part is always getting started again.

How are your Frisbee-throwing skills?

Pretty bad.


Which carnival game do you have the best shot at winning?

I actually won one of those “toss the rings on a bottle” games at Six Flags, when I was maybe 13 or so? And I won a HUGE stuffed orangutan. I won—on my first or second throw, to boot. Everyone involved was surprised: I obviously lost my preteen mind; the college-age park employee looked genuinely unprepared for this and awkwardly asked me to return the rest of the rings in my pile; my parents now had to figure out what to do with this huge prize.

Tang (that’s his name) is still in a closet somewhere, one of the handful of stuffed animals that I’m just too sentimental to get rid of. But since he’s much bigger than your run-of-the-mill teddy bear, it’s a little harder to take him with you to college, or across the ocean. His fate is thus undecided.

How good are you at toss-the-paper-in-the-wastebasket?

A champ. Why aren’t there Olympic Office Sports?

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Workflow

Other bloggers I follow will update with “DITL” (day in the life) posts once in a while. I don’t know how often I’d like to share those here myself (my days are kind of repetitive), but at least one is theoretically interesting, right?

7:30 – 8:00 AM

I usually wake up somewhere in this window. I roll out of bed and (if I remember) put on the kettle for the two of us. While the kettle is warming up, I catch up on email, blogs, and Twitter. I browse a few hashtags I like to participate semi-regularly in to see if anything interesting happened while I was asleep; email always includes news digests from The Guardian and The Correspondent, two news sources that I support with monthly subscriptions. I like to care of work emails in the mornings as well, if I have any. I like the work that I do, and I’m privileged to have extremely warm and kind clients, but I’m still averse to writing emails in general, so I try to apply the “eat a frog first thing in the morning” principle here.

8:15 – 9:00 AM

If I remembered to put the kettle on when I woke up, I pour myself a cup of tea. Otherwise, I put the kettle on now.

Then I meditate for around forty minutes: a twenty-minute guided meditation, and then twenty minutes of zazen, a technique I studied (somewhat shallowly) when I lived in the US. When I first studied zazen, I knew little about the possible health benefits; I just knew that it helped me be less anxious. Last year I finally hit critical meditation mass–it seems like every book I was reading or MOOC I was taking was pushing meditation–and started up a daily habit. I miss the trappings of meditating in a zendo, but nonetheless I feel that I reap the benefits.

9:00 AM or thereabouts

I enjoy my by-now room temperature tea (I like it that way!) or pour a hot cuppa, put on a special playlist I have for work, and get down to brass tacks. Depending on how I’m feeling and what my work schedule looks like, that might mean warming up with a blog post, jumping right into an editing project, or lesson planning. Recently, this is when I sit down and try to write a blog post or two, which I’ll either post immediately or schedule for later as a bulwark against dry periods. Other times, I use this time to work on my own writing projects. Sometimes I spend all morning on that kind of work; other times I only spend half an hour or so on this before I shift gears to editing.

12:00 PM – 1:00 PM

I take my first big break of the day sometime around here. I use the Pomodoro technique during the first work block (with one or one and a half hour working sessions and then ten or fifteen minute breaks). This break is longer, maybe around an hour. It’s when I have lunch and check in with my sambo (who studies from home). This is usually the first thing I have to eat all day; I’m not typically hungry enough for breakfast to be worth it (and whatever small appetite I have is probably dampened by all of the strong black tea I drink, thanks caffeine!). I make up for all of this with a big lunch, and I relax with some TV.

In addition to my freelance work, I run an Etsy shop on the side; I also have a network of friends around the world involved an informal tea exchange. Between these two, I have a lot of mail coming and going, and so this is when I might also take a walk to the not-a-post-office to pick up a package or mail one. Other times I have a library book to return or check out, so I’ll head into town.

2:00 PM or thereabouts

This is the second round of work, and it’s almost always editing. I’m awake, alert, and warmed up; this is my peak time for attentive and detail-oriented work. It’s also when I’m most likely to get sucked into the black hole of the comma mines and completely forget the time. Sometimes I punch out early, at around 4:00, because I have a social engagement in town and I need to look halfway presentable, or because it’s a run day. Other times it starts later than 2:00 because my errand in town took longer than expected, or I had a daytime social appointment instead of an evening one.

6:00 PM or thereabouts

I call it quits and go to the store to pick up whatever we might need for dinner. Then I check social media again while my sambo prepares dinner. If I have a lot on my plate (I mean editing, not dinner), or a deadline coming up, I might take one more trip into the comma mines. Otherwise I use my evenings to blog (casually), write, catch up on Facebook, or read. I should also confess to being an on-again, off-again gamer (some in the community might refer to me as a “filthy casual” and they wouldn’t be wrong), and my evenings are also when I’ll get sucked into a game. At the moment it’s Diablo III.

There you have it: my editing day, more or less! It is somewhat idealized, I have to admit, but it’s a pretty good rough outline. What does your schedule look like? I’m curious!

Friday 5: Mornings Are for Coffee and Contemplation

Why are waffles better than pancakes?

Are they, though? I’ll sit down to a stack of chocolate chip silver dollar pancakes anytime—plenty of fond childhood memories there. Of course, I also have fond memories of 3 AM Waffle House runs, but those aren’t the same kind of fond memory.

I admit, however, to liking Swedish pancakes better than American pancakes.

American pancakes // Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Swedish pancakes are essentially crepes, and an excuse to have dessert for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner…I don’t think they’re a solid breakfast food here?).

Swedish pancakes, basically. // Photo by andreeautza on MorgueFile.com

Swedish waffles are materially identical to American waffles, except in shape.

Swedish waffle, basically. //  Photo by Pietro De Grandi  on Unsplash
American waffle // Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

 

What’s something you remember about being 11?

Middle school? Sixth grade? Lockers? It’s a blur, truthfully.

What experience do you have with role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons?

Middle school is when I got started, though not with Dungeons and Dragons. Online play-by-post RPGs were kind of my thing; I didn’t play D&D proper until college, with a weird mix of people who were really into getting into character and people (like me) who were more meta-gamer about it. Player groups shuffled and changed and settled as social groups shuffled and changed and settled, and now when I spend time with the final line-up (so to speak), it’s not unusual to go for a casual one-shot, just for funsies.

How do you feel about carnival rides that make you go upside-down?

Not great? I don’t like carnival rides in general. They feel so pointless.

You’ve seen Matthew Modine in more films than you realize (which he famously admitted during his opening monologue when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1988) (filmography here). Which have you seen, and which was the best?

I might have seen him in more films than I realize, but that doesn’t mean I’ve seen him in a lot. The only movies I’ve seen in that list are Full Metal Jacket, The Dark Knight Rises, and Stranger Things (not a movie, but still). Those are all really good, but I think Stranger Things might be the best? And I’m not just saying that because these questions are very obviously based on Stranger Things.

Book Review: Kris

It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.

This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.

 

Author: Karin Boye

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: N/A

Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.

Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.

In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)

Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.

Armchair BEA, Day 3, Part 2

Every year at Book Expo, children and adult authors are featured during breakfast. Who would you dream of enjoying a meal with? Would it be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or simply coffee? What would your meal be? What would you discuss?

I hate that “who would you invite to your perfect dinner party?” question, because I have no conception of what a dinner party should be like, let alone what makes a good one. I appreciate the good people at Armchair BEA at least letting me choose the meal and venue (presumably!), making it a little more interesting.

Since it seems uncouth to want to sit and chat over a few beers with someone who struggled pretty seriously and openly with alcoholism, and a dinner would feel serious and intimidating, I would opt for a fika with David Foster Wallace. A conversation with him would be as interesting as it was intimidating, though I’d rather discuss the intersection of philosophy and literature than tennis and Alcoholics Anonymous.

I’d rather have a private meal with someone than a dinner party with a variety of guests. Still, I can see the appeal of a dinner featuring notable American expatriate writers: Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Patricia Highsmith, Paul Knowles, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and so on.

When it came time for beers, without a doubt it’d be a pub crawl with Simone de Beauvoir. I’d love to pick her brain about current affairs and to hear her thoughts on my favorite places and people.