Review: Ancient, Ancient

This is another book club selection, this time for the feminist science fiction book club based out of Austin. (I guess I’m now an honorary satellite member?)

The cover of Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient
Image courtesy Aqueduct Press

Author: Kiini Ibura Salaam

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating:  3.89 stars

Language scaling: C2+

Summary: A collection of short stories in the speculative fiction genre

Content warning: “Rosamojo” includes some scenes of child abuse; the rest of the stories aren’t necessarily traumatic but involve a great deal of sexuality

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works

In-depth thoughts: There were a lot of cool ideas in this book that ended up suffering from overly workshopped, possibly way too abstract writing. (Hence the C2+ language rating.) In a lot of ways it reminds me of Freshwater, but where Emezi takes that abstraction and works with it until you get it, grounding it with concrete language and imagery and deliberate call backs to specific mythology, Salaam just leaves it all out there, confusing and weird in a world that seems to be entirely of her own creation but without any rules or explanation.

The stories are the strongest when Salaam remains more or less in this world: “Marie,” “Rosamojo,” and “Ferret” were probably my favorites, as well as a very short piece about ants whose title I can no longer remember and that no one else seems to mention in their reviews so there it is. A trilogy of short stories focus on moth-like aliens who can take a human form and who harvest nectar from humans, most often by seducing them. The premise is unique enough that it really deserved to be its own book rather than a handful of short stories. And unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t care much for the first story (“Desire”) or the last one (“Pod Rendezvous”). “Desire” is just too distracting, caught up as it is in what is (as far as my Googling can find) a fictional mythology and an unusual-and-completely-unnecessary narrative structure. The same can be said for “K-USH” and “Battle Royale,” though people tend to rave less about those two. (I wonder if people pick up the book, read the first and last story, and then declare that they’ve read the whole book?) “Pod Rendezvous,” like the nectar-gathering moth aliens, had so much in there that it should have been a proper novel rather than an overly long short story. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and “Pod Rendezvous” was definitely the wrong length.

Overall, a disappointing collection. It wasn’t bad, but I made the mistake of going in with impossibly high expectations.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 7 and 8: Bethlehem PA

Day 7

I took the bus from Best Chemist Friend’s back home and spent most of the day packing up books and running errands for Swedish friends (by way of being a taco sauce mule).

This day was a Wednesday, a day I usually spent at bar trivia with friends. But since it was probably canceled because of Musikfest, and because ex romantic entanglements made it potentially weird anyway, I stayed at home and went swimming with Best Chemist Friend instead, discussing outliving our heroes and becoming grimey hippies. Afterwards my mom took us out to dinner, since this was the first she had seen Best Chemist Friend (essentially an adopted daughter for her) in years.

There are so many new places to eat that didn’t exist when I was growing up here, or even four years ago. The restaurant Mom took us to was one had existed when I grew up, but was for sale when I left. Now it’s a restaurant again, with new owners and a new name but much of the same atmosphere (from what I can vaguely remember). I finally had my first Yuengling of the trip, and now I was really home.

Someone holding an unopened bottle of Yuengling lager, with an entire case in the background.
I pledge allegiance to the beer of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to the commonwealth for which it stands, because of its remarkable taste-to-price ratio, with lagers and black and tans for all. // Andrew Mager on Flickr

Day 8

My goal for the next day was to drop off a few boxes of books at the library, and then hit up  Musikfest with a friend and former co-worker. My go-to library for book cast-offs, the Quakertown branch of the Bucks County library system, wasn’t taking donations at the time, so I had to go on a little adventure to find a home for my books.

I thought, for a moment, of sending them to the huge thrift store in Hellertown, but I like to give books to “book places” before “generic stuff-unloading places.” I decided to try the Riegelsville library next, since it was closest to home and near a new cafe that’s supposed to be pretty good.

When my brother and I were still really small, my mom took us on a drive to try to find this same library. It’s easy to see from the main road, but then actually getting there isn’t exactly intuitive. (And, of course, she was doing this in the age before GPS and smartphones.) She drove around for a while before giving up, and from that point on she just patronized bookstores with us instead of the local library. I don’t remember this at all, though; it’s just a story she told me once when we were driving through Riegelsville for some reason or another.

I thought about that story while I drove around the back roads of Riegelsville, looking for the same library, wondering if I’m following the same random no-outlet residential streets Mom did when she was trying to do exactly what I was doing. I had been to this library twice before, for library sales, but years ago. My memory was dim, and this time there weren’t any helpful signs up or large crowds of people and activities going on. I pulled into the only non-church, non-residential parking lot around and then realized this was actually the library—it shares space with the all-purpose Riegelsville Municipal Building.

And by sheer luck Thursday was of the three days of the week that the library was actually open. With some help from the library staff, who were setting up an event in the community room on the first floor, I maneuvered a cart out to the car and unloaded the first round of boxes.

I stopped a while to wander through the nearby cemetery and look at the familiar landscape, and also snap some pictures. There was a driver here delivering other books to the library; I absentmindedly watched him take a photo of some butterflies hovering near the flowers. It was just a damn nice day.

A pyramid of small cannonballs, three levels high, sits on a concrete slab in a well-cut lawn. On the left is a small American flag and on the right is a placard explaining that this is a Civil War memorial.
A Civil War memorial outside the Riegelsville Public Library.

After I had my fill of sunshine and cemeteries, I stopped at the Someday Cafe.

The building that now houses the Someday Cafe and Roastery had been sketchy and abandoned for my entire life. It started life as a car dealership back in the 40s or 50s, then became a dance studio, but all of my memories of it were as a sky-blue vacant building that was perennially for sale. At some point, someone tried (and failed) to turn it into an antiques shop (despite there already being another antiques shop right across the street), so I remember lots of junk sitting in the windows.

It’s really gratifying and cool to see the empty, abandoned space I remember from childhood turned into something like this. And I would have killed to have this kind of not-at-home space during high school. It’s just three miles from my house; it’s not completely inconceivable that I could have walked there if I really wanted to, except that the roads between here and my house have no shoulder and are not at all made for pedestrians. But still.

A strawberry smoothie and a crepe in recyclable take-out containers at the Someday Cafe and Roastery in Easton, PA.
Also, the crepe I had was really, really good.

Not everything is better, of course. The abandoned paper mill across the street, which I’d always wanted to sneak into, is long gone. 🙁 So is my favorite used bookstore, which is now a bridal showcase, of all things.

After packing up a few more books, I meandered into Musikfest. This time I planned to spend the night (as opposed to accidentally doing so the last time I was here). I had my Musikfest mug in hand, complete with drink, and wandered around Main Street and the venues down by Monacacy Creek while I waited to meet up with Kelly and for SsingSsing to start. SsingSsing was the group I was easily the most excited to see at the festival. Glam rock + Korean folk music = WHAT THE HELL BUT ALSO YES.

This is the band warming up; it’s not an action shot.

Kelly and I enjoyed the show a lot, but unfortunately there was no merch table at all, so we couldn’t pick up an album or t-shirt or patch to sport our love. After show, we walked around for a little we disappear back to her place to use her bathroom and refill our mugs.

Back at the festival, Kelly grabbed some kind of cheese steak in a cup thing from a vendor and we sit and talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything. I love the work I do now, and I love the students I have now, but there is always a level of professionalism to maintain that isn’t the same as being coworker-buddies with someone. The conversations I have with my students are rewarding and interesting in their own ways—I learn so much about other cultures and traditions and food—but it’s hard to be someone’s teacher and be someone’s friend. Of course, I also have the privilege of dictating my own schedule and doing the vast bulk of my work in my pajamas, so you know, swings and roundabouts! Talking to her and then Best Chemist Friend is the perfect way to round out a day full of errands and music.

Friday 5: October 6 Through 10

The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service?

Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.

People having a really good time at a noraebang in South Korea.
Noraebang! // PBS News Hour

Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.

 

The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting?

When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!


October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?

Okapi2

Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?

October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan  
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
                              och det som stänger.

Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider  -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra  -
svårt att vilja stanna
                              och vilja falla.

Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden  -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
                              som skapar världen.

What’s in your pocket?

Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!

Review: Journal of a Solitude

This was a book that I bought at a library sale I don’t know how many years ago. After falling in love with Walden in high school, the similar premise of this book (memoirs of living alone in the countryside) intrigued me. Yet somehow I never got around to reading it until I was going through my books to ship across the ocean. Out of all of the books I hadn’t read yet but really wanted to, this was at the top of the list. So I tore through it during my last days in Pennsylvania and up the highways to Albany, then ended up re-homing it to my friend and hostess in Maine.

The black-and-white cover of Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton featuring a photograph of a desk illuminated by a lamp, as viewed through a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Author: May Sarton

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: May Sarton’s account of a year of living in the country

Recommended audience: Those interested in poetry and memoirs generally; those interested in queer writers specifically

In-depth thoughts: I could tell that I had started and stopped this book at least a few times: the first few entries were familiar to me, and I had dog-eared a page or two. Younger Me wanted to like this, or wanted to be the kind of person who liked this, but I guess she needed a few more years to be able to really get into it. Now Me couldn’t put this book down.

There isn’t much that happens, which is what you can expect from something titled Journal of a Solitude. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine, at any rate. There is also a directness and simplicity to her writing that pulls you along, and which is probably especially beneficial for English students. I think it’s exactly the kind of cozy book that makes for perfect winter reading.

National Novel Writing Month 2018

Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.

As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).

I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:

It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.

It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.

Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.

The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)

Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.

Friday 5: More Questions About Buildings and Food

Smorgatarta

What’s the best layered food?

Lasagna, for me, is basically the only layered food. I may be Swedish, but smörgåstårtar (pictured above) freak me out.

What’s the best rolled food?

There are so many options, aren’t there? Enchiladas (and I would say burritos count, too), cannoli, gimbap, California rolls, kanelbullar…the list goes on! But for nostalgia purposes, I’ll have to say it’s a tie between cannoli and gimbap.

Gimbap: commonly confused with sushi, but actually not.

What’s the most recent cuisine you’ve tried for the first time from an ethnicity not your own?

I had some Turkish pistachio candy at a student’s house on Monday.

What’s a food that scares you?

San-nakji: octopus arms. While the octopus is technically dead by the time it’s on your plate, octopus anatomy means that the nerves in the arms and tentacles are still doing their squirmy, moving thing by the time they’re on your plate. The Japanese puffer fish won’t kill you if it’s prepared correctly, but even if san-nakji is prepared correctly, the very nature of the dish makes it a potentially deadly choking hazard.

What’s something you eat solely because it’s good for you?

Even the healthy food I eat, I eat because it’s tasty. The only thing I consume purely for health reasons are vitamins.

Review: Murder in Retrospect, or, Five Little Pigs

Appropriate that I decided to get back to my travelogues this week: the next book in the queue to be discussed here is what I read in the library that day: Murder in Retrospect!

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

Author: Agatha Christie

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.96 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A young woman about to marry hires Hercules Poirot to clear the name of her mother, who was convicted of poisoning her husband some years ago.

Recommended audience: Mystery buffs

In-depth thoughts: As I mentioned before, this book was a selection for my Facebook book club. I was surprised to learn that many of the members had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, or even seen one of the innumerable screen adaptations! I went through a huge Agatha Christie binge in middle school. This was about the same time I went through a big band jazz binge as well, so I guess I was a little old lady in a 13-year-old’s body.

Even during my pubescent enthusiasm, I never tackled all of the novels and short stories. (Our school library only had so many books, after all.) Murder in Retrospect (or Five Little Pigs, whichever title you prefer) was one that I hadn’t originally read, so I was excited to read it. I had a nice afternoon in the Bethlehem Public Library doing just that: reading. I finished it in one sitting.

I still love a good Agatha Christie novel, even today, but I have to admit that this one was a little disappointing. There are lots of recurring secondary characters that make a Poirot novel what it is—Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp—and none of them make an appearance. The nature of the mystery also means that the bulk of the book is everyone repeating their testimony of the same day. This is, of course, part and parcel of any mystery, but because this is a cold case (or rather, an already-closed case), there’s nothing else for Poirot to go on, nor is there any sense of urgency.  Without any clues to inspect, without any banter with Hastings or Japp, and without the possibility of bringing the true murderer to justice, Murder in Retrospect is more repetitive and less fun than the Christie novels I read when I was younger.

If you’re a mystery buff, you can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie novel. Even a bad Christie novel is still pretty fun; I’ve always like Christie’s writing style just as much as her mysteries. The repetition in this story might be helpful for English students, but there is also the danger that outdated vocabulary might pose something of a hurdle.  (I can’t recall anything particular as I sit down to write this, but with a book initially published in 1942, I’m sure there are a couple of outdated vocabulary choices.)

Overall, I’m a completionist when it comes to writers I like, so I’m glad I read it. I don’t think Murder in Retrospect will be a novel I pick up again, though.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 6: Bethlehem, PA

After a busy weekend full of social activity and sight-seeing, I take it easy for the next few days at my parents’ house.  I spend my first morning back just putzing around the house and going through the books I had packed up four years ago (surprise, there are more that I can bear to part with!), and then I drive to Lost River Caverns to catch up with my old boss and coworkers and do some shopping. It’s busy, at least compared to what I would have expected mid-August, so my old boss tells me to just help myself. I must give off “I work here” vibes still; people ask me questions about how to get to the bathrooms or where things are.

The inside is all done up and it looks fabulous—so much better than when I was still working there—and I linger a while to talk to my old bosses and coworkers and some of the new shop ladies and guides. Everything is familiar despite the fabulous makeover and once again I miss my weirdo minimum wage retail job.

Next stop on the agenda is the Bethlehem library. I don’t bother driving in during Musikfest; I just wait for the bus (have I gone full European native?) and meander towards the library from the parking/bus hub. There’s no Amerikaplatz next to the library anymore, which I don’t like (fond memories of Tea Leaf Green and Royal Noise Brigade at that stage), but I suppose the library employees appreciate the new-found quiet. I pick out a book—Murder in Retrospect, or Five Little Pigs, which is my Facebook book club’s August choice—and sit down and read, and alternate my reading with checking Facebook and talking with friends on gchat.

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

After I finish the book, I wander through Musikfest, grab a “Marga-mead-a,” and head down to Volksplatz to wait for The Skatalites. I sit through The Hillbenders, a bluegrass act, and enjoy them enough to buy an album as roadtrip soundtrack/thank-you gift for my ride up to Maine. I totally sneak a preview listen later and the album is way more straight country, and kind of worse, than their live performance. 🙁 For me, the highlight of that show was probably a high-energy cover of MGMT’s “Kids.” I had spent the whole day being sad and moody over leaving Austin, and that moment was the point where I started to maybe feel like not everything was a total garbage fire.

Then, after time to change sets and move the first rows of chairs out of the way, The Skatalites come on, and I dance my heart out. They do their cover of the James Bond theme and I get a powerful hit of high school nostalgia. I had listened to their version of the incomparable movie theme a lot in high school, but this was in the days of Napster and people being really ignorant and slapdash with labeling artists (“Wish You Were Here” by Oasis? Really?), so I was never sure if it was actually The Skatalites. I went into the show with zero expectations I’d hear that song, so it’s a nice surprise to hear that opening bass riff.

Later in the set they also do the theme from “From Russia With Love” and I wonder: is that a coincidence or a political statement? Other covers include “A Message To You, Rudy” and “Three Little Birds.”

I ducked out in the middle of an encore to make sure I could get a bus home, only: surprise! The late bus I thought was running wasn’t, so I dropped in at a friend’s instead. Not the most gracious way to make an entrance from across the ocean (“I can’t read bus schedules, Tesia, can I crash your guest bed?”) but friendship is magic! And I’m stopping by home to celebrate Tesia’s PhD, after all.  It’s not super late, but I still conk right out.

Friday 5: Dear Old Golden Rule Days

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

when did you last raise your hand to be called upon, to get someone’s attention, or in response to a “how many of you…” question? or heck, for any reason at all?

I probably did it to get the moderator’s attention at the last English Debate Club meeting I attended a few weeks ago.

When did you last have to do anything akin to homework?

Around a year ago, for Academic Swedish. Unless lesson planning counts, in which case: all day, every day.


when did you and your friends last go outside to play?

Me and friends? I guess the last time I was at a picnic, which was probably sometime last year. Me by myself? On my run yesterday.

how’s your penmanship nowadays?

Pretty good. Teacher skills, etc.

among stuff you periodically eat, what reminds you most of your lunches in the school cafeteria?

I don’t remember school lunches much except chicken nuggets and “French bread pizza.” The laziest, easiest thing I eat is boiled pasta with a dollop of creme fraiche and some roasted onions. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

Friday 5: Nonstrosity

What’s a good movie for October that has nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

Back when I worked in South Korea, I spent a few months at a hagwon that was not a good fit for me. At all. I started in June, and by August I was starting to fantasize about tragedy befalling my family so I would have an excuse to leave early and go back home.

For real.

So for the first time in my life, I quit a job. And for the last two weeks of October, I was between jobs, free to wander around Seoul as I liked.

In honor of those weeks of freedom (and the amazing job I was able to take instead because I quit that one), I would say Little Miss Sunshine. Watching it with a friend was what convinced me to carpe diem and quit the damn job.

What’s a good couple of songs for October that have nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

I kind of want to continue on my “two-week knockabout in Seoul” theme, so here are some selections from Korean indie musicians that I really, really like.

Danpyunsun and the Sailors, “Yellow Room”
Hyun Lee Yang, “Is Help on the Way?”
Floating Island, “Parade”
Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans, “Seven Year Itch”

What are some reasons to love October?

The foliage is gorgeous, but it’s not quite the grim winter wasteland that is November or December. There’s a nice balance between “still enough daylight” and “cozy weather.” Also, apples are in season! Apple crisp, apple pie, apple cider…

Radio stations sometimes call this month Rocktober, doing special playlists or giveaways in celebration of rock music. What would be a better rhyming name for this month, and how might it be celebrated?

I’m fine with it being Rocktober, but celebrating geology and rocks and minerals as well as rock music. Second to that, Schlocktober, and you celebrate by watching terrible movies.

What would be a good holiday to establish in October for those U.S. states not commemorating Columbus Day?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems a perfectly acceptable alternative.