Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

The only reason I’m ever aware of the Nobel Prize in Literature is because a bookish friend of mind is the world’s biggest Ismail Kadare fan. Every year it seems like he’s short- or longlisted, and every year he seems to be denied. I haven’t read anything of Kadare’s, so I can’t really offer my own opinion on whether or not I think he deserves it, but I can be unimpressed with this year’s pick.

I’ve only read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro; it seems to be his most famous work, and it generally seems to be that an author’s most famous work is either their best or their worst. (The same is probably true for musicians and albums.) But it’s hard for me to take a book seriously when it has a plot nearly identical to campy 1970s science fiction/thriller movies, and in this case there was nothing about Ishiguro’s writing that elevated the plot beyond anything it was in Parts: The Clonus Horror. And at least Parts had Peter Graves in it! Even without reading any Kadare, I was rooting for him over Ishiguro.

Parts: The Clonus Horror Poster courtesy Group Films
Nobel Prize material, right there. // Image courtesy Group Films

Much like last year, where I was okay with giving the award to a musician on the strength of his lyrics (even though I was personally unimpressed with the musician himself), the academy has again left me underwhelmed with their choice. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m sure I’ll be rooting for Kadare alongside my bookish friend—again—only to be (most likely) let down again.

Friday 5: Payday

From whom did you receive your first real paycheck?

When I worked at Gilman’s/Lost River Caverns, where I also learned to love rocks.

Among board games involving the exchange of money, which have you enjoyed most?

Do you exchange money in Life? I think you do. I didn’t have anything against Monopoly, but I think I actually finished more games of Life.

 

PayDay is the name of a candy bar consisting of salted peanuts rolled in caramel surrounding a firm, nougat-like center. How does it sound to you if you haven’t tried it, and how do you like it if you have? Is there a similar candy bar you like better?

I don’t like nuts in my chocolate, nor do I like peanuts or peanut butter mixed with chocolate. (Unpopular opinions!) Anything with caramel, nougat, and chocolate without nuts is just peachy keen.

 

When did you last do something nice for yourself just because it was pay day?

I went out and bought new bras. Ladies, I recommend making sure that you’re wearing the correct bra size. (In other words: if you’ve been fitted at Victoria’s Secret, or you’ve used that bizarre “add an arbitrary number to your band measurement,” measure yourself again.)

 

What person with the surname Day are you most familiar with?

I had a really hard time parsing this question at first; I took it to mean “Person With the Surname Day,” as if there were multiple holidays we observe in honor of people with specific surnames. Like, I had to read the question two or three times to understand what they meant.

And my first answer is, of course, Doris Day!

Review: Freshwater

Continuing in my streak of NetGalley books taking precedence over books I read earlier in the year, I really want to talk about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater while it’s still, erm, fresh in my mind.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.41 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.

Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction

In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.

I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.

The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.

As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.

Thoughts on TinyCards: The DuoLingo Flashcard App

Students of mine and readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the flashcard app Anki. It’s powerful and flexible and can be a huge help in memorizing new vocabulary or grammar patterns.

The one drawback to Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to make your own decks. (This is why I’ve offered a few ready-made ESL ones here: phrasal verbs with “get,” a pronunciation deck with initial “H,” participial adjective practice, and phrasal verbs with “do” and “make.” More soon!) If you’re not the kind of person who’s already comfortable with markup language in other contexts, the card-creation interface might seem overwhelming. Even downloading pre-created decks can be a bit difficult if you don’t have good computer instincts.

The team behind DuoLingo has filled in that niche and set up TinyCards, which originally launched in iOS-only form in 2016. An Android version came out in April 2017 of this year, and I finally got around to trying it this week.

What is TinyCards?

TinyCards is a flashcard app from the same team behind DuoLingo. It’s available for iOS, Android, and in a web-based version. DuoLingo has released official flashcard decks for many (but not all) language trees on DuoLingo. (Availability might be tied to whether or not a particular tree is out of Beta.) You can also create your own decks, either for private use or to share with others. If you opt to share the deck you created with others, they’ll be able to see that you made it because your name and a small portrait of your user picture will turn up next to the deck when they search. (The official DuoLingo decks will have a picture of their mascot, Duo.)

Pictured are three official DuoLingo decks (Swedish, French, and Russian) and a user-created Korean one.

What do I like about it?

It’s very easy to create relatively flexible and information-dense cards. On one side you can include a word or picture; on the other side you include the target word and, optionally, extra information (referred to as “facts” in the creation tool).

TinyCards deck creation interface
Here are all the ways you can put together flashcards in TinyCards.

You can upload your own images, or you can search (in multiple languages!) a vast library that comes ready-made with TinyCards. I’m not sure what the source is: images uploaded by other users? Getty Images? whatever DuoLingo already has? An unexpected but very thoughtful feature is that within the card creation tool, you have the option to crop an image. That’s perfect if you don’t want to clog up your loading time with huge high-resolution pictures but also don’t want to manually resize images before you upload them.

It’s also easy to browse other decks and add them to (or remove them from) your own library as you like.

When you’re actually reviewing and using the decks, you have the option of selecting the “I was right” option to use if you get a technically incorrect answer, or of skipping a card you already know. The official DuoLingo decks also include the sound files from the DuoLingo course, so you get listening as well as reading. You also get hints if you struggle with a particular word (though who knows if that’s helpful or not). You also have the ability to report a card if it’s incorrect or inflammatory.

Since TinyCards is an offshoot of DuoLingo, it’s based on the same spaced repetition model, so it will visually signal to you how well you know a deck so you can decide when to review.

I’m doing pretty good in Korean Word Builder 1, but I need to work more on Korean Word Builder 2. And I’ve barely touched Russian.

That also means that TinyCards is free to use!

What don’t I like about it?

If you’re making your own deck, your only options are images and words. You can’t upload any of your own sound files (yet?), so if you want to study something outside one of the supported DuoLingo decks, you won’t be able to include audio. This is probably my biggest criticism. I find it immensely helpful to hear new vocabulary alongside seeing it.

To a lesser extent, if you want to use a deck that isn’t an official DuoLingo deck, you’re relying on the other user to actually know what they’re doing. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating. While you can easily report cards or even entire decks, I’m not sure what the protocol is on addressing reported cards or decks, especially since there’s no option for specific feedback or corrections. You can’t report decks on Anki at all, but shared decks can be reviewed and rated, so you can find out if a particular deck is broken or comes with mistakes.

The graphic for the spaced repetition review and learning new vocabulary (pictured above) is also ambiguous. I’ve studied all of the cards in Korean Word Builder 1; the yellow bar is telling me that I need to review. I haven’t studied all of the words in Korean Word Builder 2; the yellow bar is a progress bar. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have those two metrics combined into one graphic like that. Memrise, for example, will show you how well you know each lexical unit in a lesson, whether on the web or on mobile. TinyCards only addresses the “lesson” level, and each lesson can include multiple lexical units.

One of the most important features of Anki is that you can deliberately set how easy or a hard a vocabulary word was, which affects when it turns up again in the spaced repetition queue. The more difficult something is, the sooner you see it again. There’s no equivalent option in TinyCards: you either get it right or wrong. If you get something wrong a lot, you’ll repeat it in a practice session (and maybe even get hints), but I haven’t noticed words that I fail a lot repeating more often over the long-term. If there’s a secret sauce for bringing up the more difficult vocabulary more often, then it’s not working too well.

Verdict

For people who are too busy for Anki’s steep card-creation learning curve, TinyCards is an acceptable substitute. The simple, intuitive GUI makes it easy to create your own decks or to add other people’s decks to your own library, so you can get started right away. For people studying through DuoLingo, the official DuoLingo decks will feature the vocabulary from the lessons and help you retain the vocabulary that DuoLingo tends to brush over too quickly. But if you’re not using DuoLingo, or you’re already comfortable with Anki, TinyCards doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

Friday 5: I Don’t Get It Either

Twitch is an enormously popular livestreaming platform mostly for watching people play video games. It has more than 1.5 million broadcasters and more than one million visitors per month, and Amazon acquired it for nearly a billion dollars in 2014. Which of your computer activities would you livestream if there were a way to make some money doing it?

Y’all want to watch me write blog entries in real time, right? Right?

EDM (electronic dance music) is usually performed by DJs on stage in front of audiences, playing tracks they’ve mixed, right off their laptops. If you were a push-button DJ playing your tunes in a club, what would be your opening and closing songs, assuming everyone’s there because they’re into whatever sounds you’re into?

My opening song would be absolutely be “Gangnam Style,” or one of the infinite mashups out there. This one might be my favorite:

Or this one:

What can I say? 2012 might have been my peak year.

As for the end of the set, I think this is a good closer:

What’s a good Adele song, and why is Adele so popular?

I don’t know if I like this shade you’re throwing on Adele, Friday 5! I’m not obsessed with Adele but I like her voice.

Speaking of 2012, I was also cheered to see that Adele was so popular with my Korean students. In a country that can be even more looks-based and body-conscious than the US, I hope that at least a few of my girl students realized that it’s possible for them to be talented and successful without looking like a typical K-pop star.

I listened to “Rolling in the Deep” a lot with those kiddos, so that’s probably my favorite Adele song.


The Walking Dead?

I don’t get this one either, Friday 5.


Every generation seems to arrive at a “They don’t write ’em like that anymore” attitude. Why does it seem like most middle-aged people lose interest in new music?

There’s actually a reason for this! I think it has something to do with the way your brain is still developing as a teenager versus how it is as an adult, and so music from your childhood and teenage years will always be more immediate and visceral for you than most anything else. In other words, nostalgia’s a helluva drug.

Review: Crossings

I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.

Cover for Crossings by Jon Kerstetter
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Author: Jon Kerstetter

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.24 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor

Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology

In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.

I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.

What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.

As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?

Big Words in English: Sesquipedalian

In honor of paraskevidekatriaphobia, I like to talk about long words every Friday the 13th. This Friday’s word is sesquipedalian.

It’s perhaps an especially appropriate word to discuss in a recurring segment on long words, as that’s exactly what sesquipedalian refers to. “Paraskevidekatriaphobia,” for example, is a sesquipedalian word: a unusually long word. You can even make sesquipedalian a little longer by turning it into a plural noun: sesquipedalianisms.

The emphasis is on the fourth syllable: ses/qui/pe/DAL/i/an. And there’s something fun about saying it, isn’t there? Maybe it’s that “qui” sound in the middle (“qui” like “queen” or “quite,” not like aqui). Or maybe it’s the hypnotic, lilting rhythm of the stress pattern.

You might have noticed ped/pedal in there, and recognized it from the classical stem word for “foot.” You’d be right; the sesqui– prefix is a combination of “semi” (familiar, hopefully, as meaning “half”) and “que” (“in addition”). Together, sesqui means “a half more again.” Together, something sesquipedalian is “one and a half feet long.” Its use in Latin dates back to Horace, who complained of sesquipedalia verba: words that were one and a half feet long. (Too long, in other words.) And while it can literally refer to anything that’s a foot and a half long, it’s mostly used to describe long words (perhaps thanks to that initial usage by Horace.) It can also refer to an overly and needlessly verbose writing style, rather than a particular word.

Language that describes language: it’s turtles all the way down!

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

It’s October and somehow I’m still not finished writing up all of the reading I did on my summer vacation (as well as what I did besides read on my summer vacation). This was a book I started and finished during my long weekend in Austin.

Image courtesy Small Beer Press.

Author: Ted Chiang

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A short story collection including “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the movie Arrival

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; anyone who enjoyed Arrival

In-depth thoughts: The problem with reviewing short story collections so long (months) after you’ve read them is that it’s harder to keep all of the stories in mind. I know that I liked what I read a lot, but I struggle to remember exactly what it was that I read — except the titular story, “Story of Your Life,” which is definitely the strongest of them all.

After a quick refresher (as in, reading someone else’s review on GoodReads), my memory came back to me. The other stories I remembered enjoying were “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” and “Division by Zero.” Despite winning a Sideways award (whatever that is?), “Seventy-Two Letters” didn’t really appeal to me. Neither did “Tower of Babylon.” “Understand” was mildly interesting, in that it was probably the most “traditional” science fiction of the lot (what happens when people give themselves supergenius intellects?), but it didn’t have the same existentialist concerns or the same experimentation with form that characterized what I thought were the best stories. And, finally, “The Evolution of Human Science” is a clever and pithy little work and I enjoyed it in the moment I read it, but by the time I sat down to write this review I’d completely forgotten it.

“Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon” are steeped in Jewish lore (Kabbalah, golems) and Old Testament mythology, respectively, which might confuse readers coming from a different cultural milieu.

What I appreciate about this collection is one of the same things I appreciated about The Three-Body Problem: author commentary is included at the end. It’s interesting to take a peak behind the curtain and see the germ of an idea for a story (if I can mix my metaphors a little). Chiang has yet to produce a novel-length work, but I think many of the ideas in here have enough meat to become novels on their own. I look forward to any future work from Chiang, and I hope he tackles more long-form work in the future.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 5: Austin, TX to Bethlehem, PA

The weather for my Monday flight out is appropriately dour and unpleasant: overcast, drizzly, and just plain “blah.” It matches my mood.

I’m up half an hour before everyone else, so after I triple-check what small amount of luggage I have, I sit out in the living room with the cats and read some more James Tiptree, Jr. while the rest of the household wakes up and does their thing around me. Things move quietly and efficiently until Noah gets the text alert that my ride to the airport’s arrived. I say my goodbyes at the door, but then an idea hits Noah.

“I’ll come out with you. I just realized that the driver will probably be looking for me, since I called for the ride.”

I’m reminded of our goodbye in NYC last October, when it was Noah disappearing into an Uber to the airport and I was the one left behind. On that equally gray morning, after hugging out our goodbyes, I had hung by the open door and watched him disappear down the stairs with our host, only for him to dart back at the last minute for a last hug. This time it’s me vanishing into an Uber for the airport.

We meet my ride at the curb, a cheerful woman in early middle age. I swing my larger bag in the back of the car. Noah pulls me in for one hug then, and then the “one more hug” trick again right before I step in the back passenger seat. After that, he lets me go for real, and I get in the car.

It’s the price you pay to pull up stakes and move to another country. Facebook and Skype and email help, but they’re not the same. And some people translate better online than others. Noah is markedly worse than others. That’s probably what makes our goodbyes so heavy.

On the plus side, I have a pleasant ride to the airport. It’s weird talking to human beings for no reason again; it’s weird how comfortable I am doing it (after stony silences in cabs and Ubers in Stockholm and NYC). Is this my inner American coming out? Is this who I’ve been all along?

No, it’s probably just being in Texas. Extroversion acquired via osmosis.

We talk about music festivals: how much money people can make off of SXSW, how busy it can get, how small Musikfest (on my to-do list during this trip) is by comparison, even though both festivals have been running for about as many years.

Musikfest 2013. Image courtesy the official Lehigh Valley Flickr account.

I check in at the airport without a problem and see again that I’ll be among the last board. Whatever. I make it on board and text Noah and my mom to let them know that everything went according to plan.

The weather in Newark is equally crummy and I’m convinced that we’re going to hydroplane into the back of a tractor trailer or get sideswiped or anything else on the way home. I’m no longer used to car rides on the highway in inclement weather; is this a small sign of my own de-Americanization?

Obviously we make it home just fine. I get Priscilla, my indestructible-except-for-her-hinges laptop, up and running (how many months of updates do I need to install? too many), check in with my sambo on Google Hangouts, and then begin the long work of culling my library yet again. I work on the project off-and-on for the next few days; eventually I’ll have five(!!) boxes of books for the Riegelsville library.

Riegelsville library

I take a break for Jeopardy!, because I’m a nerd, and then decide on my course of action for tomorrow: library and ‘fest.

Friday 5: What Ails Ya

How do you treat a bad case of the Mondays?

When you’re a freelance tutor, you don’t really get “the Mondays.” People often have the most forgiving schedules on weekends, so that’s when the bulk of your tutoring happens. Couple that with spending the work week on editing and other work-related tasks, the answer is that I don’t get “the Mondays” because I don’t have Mondays or weekends. My downtime comes in small chunks throughout the week and then periodically in longer breaks for vacations.

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

How do you fight off a case of the blahs?

I check in with what I’m doing. Usually I feel the most “blah” when I’m sitting at the computer and compulsively checking social media just for the sake of checking it. If I can stop that cycle and do something else (write, read, listen to a podcast while I play Diablo III), I usually feel better. I also recognize that I’m more prone to the blahs during the winter months, which I try to counter by lighting the apartment with full-spectrum bulbs and making sure to take a multivitamin with plenty of vitamin D.

The other thing I do is clean. Stuff tends to accumulate around me: papers get piled up, projects I intend to finish “soon, really soon” float around on my desk, things like that. Sometimes I feel “blah” because I’m surrounded by a mountain of unfinished things; when that happens, I take a day to clean up and organize. (The last time I did this, I found a year-old piece of unopened mail from Skatteverket.)

How do you deal with a bad hair day?

Ponytails and dry shampoo.

What’s your strategy for FOMO?

I don’t know if I suffer from a “fear of missing out,” specifically. On bad days I can be a fairly compulsive smartphone user (check Facebook! check Twitter! check your emails!), but for me it isn’t an anxiety about missing out on something cool or exciting. It’s about not knowing: not being able to answer that head-scratcher right away, not knowing what that email from a friend says, etc. I’d say that I have FONK (Fear Of Not Knowing) more than FOMO.

My strategy for FONK is non-existent. I can get sucked up into it really easily. If I notice what I’m doing, I’ll switch out of email or Facebook and read something on the Kindle app instead, but I don’t always notice.

How prone are you to Instagram envy?

Not at all, since I don’t use Instagram!