Book Review: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year’s. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don’t normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my annual goal of “read one book that you’ve owned for over a year but never read,” and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling’s Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year’s and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix

Author: Gillian Flynn

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.92 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: As a child, Libby Day’s testimony helped put her brother away for the gruesome murders of her mother and sisters. Fresh out of money and still traumatized by the memory,  Libby finally takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened that night at the behest of a group of armchair detectives who are obsessed with her case.

Content warning: Descriptions of violent, gruesome murders appear throughout, as well as a few scenes of a sexual nature; there’s also (dry, clinical) discussion of childhood sex abuse.

Recommended audience: Mystery and thriller fans; true crime fans (though it’s not a true crime novel, much of the story is centered around true crime enthusiasts); people interested in the “Satanic panic” that swept the US during the 80s; aspiring crime and thriller writers.

In-depth thoughts: Ultimately, I’m glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I’m still not much of a thriller fan, but there’s a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It’s worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you’re writing your own story in a similar genre.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 12 – 14: Bethlehem, PA to Albany, NY

My time at my parents’ is winding down, but I still feel like it wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Now that the books are sorted (FINALLY, FOR REAL) and packed up, it’s time to mail them. I also have some other things I’m shipping back to myself, mostly jewelry-making supplies and gifts for other people.  I run into the patriarch of one of the families I’ve known from church forever, who’s mailing a cell phone charger back to his son. We chat a bit, the way you do with people you went to church with your whole childhood.

I also get in a few good hours with Best Chemist Friend and her boyfriend at their place, catching up in real time and enjoying some (non-alcoholic, for me, since I’m driving) drinks and watching her cats.

When the time comes for me to leave, as in leave the Lehigh Valley, there’s a little confusion over how I’m getting to the bus—is Mom dropping me off? are both parents? is Dad around?—but it goes smoothly. I say bye to Dad, and the usual goodbye ritual:

Rub noses, touch heads, give a kiss, a hug, and the other side

Which we did every day when he left for work when I was little, and then we do every time I leave on a long trip (or just, um, leave these days; these aren’t “trips” that I’m taking abroad).

The last time I took one of these buses to NYC, there was a scheduling mishap and I ended up arriving hours later than I had planned. But this time the full bus actually radioed through and the overflow bus was there to pick us up just a few minutes later. Success!

I had messaged another college friend now in NYC about hanging out or getting lunch while I was in the environs, but between an international wedding, a work trip, and a death in the family, things didn’t hook up and that’s 100% fine. So I spend my morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, familiar and reassuring in its kind of grossness. I’m still reading Journal of a Solitude, though I also crib the free WiFi to putter around on Facebook and gchat.

I get bumped up from a layover bus trip to a direct bus, so I don’t have to mess around with changing at Kingston. As usual, the ride is ugly all the way through New Jersey and then gorgeous in New York. Sometimes I think about where I’d live if I had to go back to the US, and New England (and New England adjacent) is top of the list. Did I go to college there because I loved it, or do I love it because I went to college there? Hard to say.

My ride, an Internet friend from high school who grew up in the area, relocated to Arizona for a few years, and is now back in Albany, picks me up and gets some Swedish candy for her troubles, and we go out for really goddamn good Thai food before she drops me off where I’ll be staying in Albany, with two friends from college, L and A.

A delicious-looking Thai red curry on a funky square white plate.

Everyone is on a tightly choreographed schedule. My ride’s boyfriend will need the car soon, so there’s no chance to wander somewhere for dessert (cider donuts!) and give my hosts a little extra time to get the kiddos down; coming directly to their house from the bus station instead of getting dinner with my ride would have plopped me there at Peak Chaos. We’ve timed things juuuuuust right.

I knock on the door and L answers.

“Koba Commander! Your timing is perfect. If you had been here, like, ten minutes earlier, you’d have met a room full of naked men.”

(It’s bath time with L and the boys.)

I go upstairs to say hello, and I sit with L and and the oldest son (now 3?), and we read a few stories before bed. A sings the youngest to sleep in the other room, like actually for-real sings a lullaby. Kids to bed, the grown-ups sit in the living room with some tea. I dig out my thank-you gift: some Söderte, in bags because I figure busy parents don’t have time to mess around with tea diffusers and etc. The whole conversation is a weird overlay for me; I’m reminded of my parents’ college friends that we saw sometimes. They had kids around my age (and my brother’s age), and they were just over in Jersey, so it made sense for visits to happen and for the children to get shooed out to spend time together while the adults caught up.

Now I’m living the life I remember my parents living, kind of: I’m visiting with college friends who have just put their kids to bed. I’m just coming from a little farther away than Jersey. Adulthood. I forget what we talk about, but L ducks out the earliest while A and I keep talking about grammar and mathematics and things, but also a lot about friendship and how it changes over time and, naturally, assorted college memories.

“But like, that part of our lives is over now. We’ve been out of college longer than we were in it.”

A is an absolutely lovely person, and one of the things that’s lovely about her is that she has a combination of profundity, kindness, and no filter. She can get right to the heart of an issue, accidentally phrase it in the bluntest, gauchest possible way, and then realize how it might come across after the fact and feel awful and immediately apologize. When she goes on to say that her college friendships have become essentially dead and meaningless, she immediately catches the implications of what she’s saying.

“I mean, I’m happy to see you and I’m glad you’re here, Koba—”

“No, I know what you mean.” And that’s when I start thinking about Arrival and “The Story of Your Life” and my perception of time within friendships as being eternal and circular and many-layered, counter to what sounds like a very Zen approach (“I’m the person I am NOW, not eight years ago.”) that A has.

There is some irony in the fact that we are having this conversation about the ghosts of our past and the temporary whatever that was college with our mugs of tea resting on a cheap, wheeled table/drawer thing that L found while “suite shopping” (dormitory dumpster diving) to outfit the suite we had for our junior (A’s senior) year at school. Some things never change.

But sleep comes for us all, and since we’re the adults who will be in charge of a pair of little ones in just a handful of hours, eventually we have to pack it in. A goes upstairs and I collapse on the dangerously comfortable couch.  Never enough time; always too much to talk about.

Friday 5: One is Silver; The Other’s Gold

Gold and silver Victorian fascinators and lockets suspended from an unseen hand or display.
Image courtesy Alex Chambers

Who made you laugh most in 2017?

I guess my sambo, since I spent more time with him than anyone else.

What’s something you learned or discovered in 2017?

A friend of mine directed my attention to Ester Blenda Nordström, about whom there has been a recent spate of new media, including a documentary and a new biography.

In what way was 2017 better than 2016?

I think worse things might have happened in 2017, but they felt less bad (for those not directly impacted, obviously) because they were largely things we could see coming. The celebrity deaths in 2017 also seemed to have relented, at least a little, though my heart broke over Adam West.

What was your most pleasing purchase in 2017?

Houseplants! A humidifier! A stepstool! I’M A REALLY BORING ADULT, Y’ALL.


When in 2017 were you pleasantly surprised?

The way that people, especially in the US, have banded together against bigotry and hatred. Love always wins, but let’s help it win a little faster!

Book Review: Stone Butch Blues

It’s the end of January and I still haven’t finished reviewing all the books I read in 2017! There’s just one more after this, and then I’m back on the level (at least, as of this writing; by the time this goes up I may have finished another couple of books).

I’m in a few book clubs and lots of the books I read last year, especially towards the end, were book club selections. One of them is a bunch of random nerds on Discord and the theme is vaguely YA and SFF; another is the Austin Feminist Science Fiction club; the last one is a Facebook book club co-founded by one of my blogger friends. This one has no particular genre or focus, and so we tackle a pretty wide variety of books. Past selections that I’ve mentioned here include Madonna in a Fur CoatThe Road to Mecca, and Passing.

A cover of "Stone Butch Blues" by Leslie Feinberg, featuring a black and white portrait of Feinberg with their left hand on the side of their face, looking thoughtful.

Author: Leslie Feinberg

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Jess Goldberg, a young butch lesbian growing up in the McCarthy-era US, navigates gender, sexuality, and the labor struggles from the 60s up until the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Content warning: I’ll quote from the book’s introduction directly.

Dear reader:

I want to let you know that Stone Butch Blues is an anti-oppression/s novel. As a result, it contains scenes of rape and other violence. None of this violence is gratuitous or salacious.

Leslie

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in the history of the labor movement in the US; anyone interested in the history of racial justice in the US; anyone who needs a “GLBTQ+ 101” reader

In-depth thoughts: This book was a heavy read, but somehow compelling. Even through the worst of what Jess experienced I felt pulled along; I needed to read more. Would she be okay? Would her friends, lovers, coworkers be okay? How would everything turn out? As we get to know Jess and her strength and determination, we also meet a wide variety of characters who move in and out of her life, from sympathetic union leaders to hostile coworkers to mentors and lovers and co-conspirators.

Centered as it is on the American gay and lesbian and black communities and the labor movement in the 60s and onward, the language includes slurs and slang that might not come up in EFL classrooms (or then again, they just might). Either way, Feinberg’s style is otherwise crisp and direct, so context should make things fairly clear. At the same time, to say that the book is centered only on social justice issues is unfair. Really, the book is centered on Jess. If it’s an activist novel, it’s also in at least equal measure a character-driven bildungsroman with the beating heart of a human being desperate for love, family, and contact.

If you’re interested, Feinberg made Stone Butch Blues available for free online. You can download a PDF from hir website at the previous link, or order a hard copy from Lulu.com.

Women in Translation

I think about gender a lot, and I’m a woman interested in translation. It’s surprising, then that I haven’t really thought about the impact of gender on translation (who is translated as well as how) until a number of articles conspired to appear in front of me at the same time. (Big shout-out to The Editors Association of Earth on Facebook; I think I came across these in there.)

Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job.

Ensuring women are not lost in translation.

Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own.

A stack of seven different bilingual dictionaries: Spanish, Russian, Romanian, and Slovenian. They're sitting on a brown table in front of a white clapboard wall.

This is all good reading. I want to highlight one fact, one piece of raw data, from the second article: three percent of the books published in English each year are translations, and just twenty-six percent of those translations are works written by women. This reflects the larger situation in literary publishing, where men still outnumber women in being published (but women outnumber men in being the ones to publish them–even at the executive level, surprisingly enough).

A culture gains things when it has access to art and literature outside its own language. An individual gains when they have access to the experiences and voices of someone completely different from themselves. If only three percent of published English literature is going to be translation (and we can quibble about what that percentage should be another time) then it seems the least we can do is ensure that a full half of that three percent is works by women.

Which is why, in 2018, I’m going into my pet translation projects with a renewed sense of purpose. Swedish is already underrepresented in English, outside of Strindberg and “Nordic noir” (or so it seems to me); if I can bring more Swedish to the English-speaking table while at the same time bringing more women, so much the better. Translations are first and foremost labors of love; ultimately, market forces are what decide if a translation is viable publishing material. I can’t guarantee that anything I produce will be of interest to an English-speaking audience. But I can’t try to publish anything without having something to publish first.

Friday 5: Seasons

Image courtesy Chris Lawton

 

What foods are most representative of each of the four seasons?

Summer for me is ice cream, strawberries, smoothies, and salads. Fall is apple EVERYTHING, and tea. Winter is chili and more tea, and also cookies. Spring is a trash fire of a season and I hate it.

What are good songs to represent each of the four seasons?




What would be good films to represent each of the four seasons?

I always watch The Big Lebowksi  on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know how or when or even why I picked up this habit, but there it is, so that’s my pick for winter. I also always watch Groundhog Day on, well, Groundhog Day, but I think that’s close enough to spring to count. (Again, spring is a garbage season and I hate it.) Alternatively, I always like to watch The Pirates of Penzance on Leap Day, which is that much closer to spring, so maybe that one? The Fourth of July is always a good time to watch something with explosions and punches and ridiculousness: “(Jason) Bourne on the Fourth of July,” for example. Or a Rambo marathon, or Independence Day. Any one of those will work. And with Halloween, fall is the perfect time for your favorite scary movie. I have a soft spot for mid-century horror movies, myself: spooky but not terrifying. The best of those isn’t even a horror movie, it’s a straight-up black comedy: The Comedy of Terrors. Vincent Price, u da reel MVP.

If you could divide the calendar year into four seasons some other way with some other theme besides weather or major professional sports, where would each seasons begin and end, and what would each be called?

If there were any rhyme or reason or pattern to my Etsy sales, that would probably be a way to do it: busy seasons and off seasons. The same goes for editing. But whether or not I’m busy with those seems pretty arbitrary, at least for now, so…meh.


What’s something in your area that’s extra fun in the winter?

I guess if you like skiing, there’s that. But I don’t. There’s nothing really extra fun about winter for me.

Book Review: Foxlowe

I finished Eleanor Wasserberg’s Foxlowe in September 2017 but somehow failed to write about it here until now. This is not because Foxlowe is a forgettable or unremarkable book; far from it. The lack speaks more to how busy I was (or how poorly I managed my time) and to the backlog of reviews I had to plow through.

The cover of Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wassberg. A crumbling estate is flanked by leafless trees while a large orange sun (or full moon) sets behind the house in a white sky. Orange leaves flutter around the edge, as if blown off the trees by the wind, and everything is surrounded by dark blue and gray clouds along the edges. Everything is done an art deco stylized vector graphics style.

 Author: Eleanor Wasserberg
My GoodReads rating: 5 Stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.38
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: The decline and fall of the commune (or cult?) known as Foxlowe, as told by the young woman Green.
Content warning: There is some pretty serious child neglect and endangerment implied throughout, but Green’s voice and perspective keeps it from being sensationalized.
Recommended audience: Gothic literature fans; people interested in cults and fringe religious movements
In-depth thoughts: I might have seen Foxlowe appear on other book blogs here and there, but the one that tipped me to really wanting to read it was Juli’s review at A Universe in Words. The best way to get me interested in a book is to give me a little taste test of it; if the best idea in the world is executed poorly, I won’t be bothered, but if I like what I read I won’t let it go until I find it. So to that end, I appreciate that Juli always includes a little blurb from the novels she reviewed.
I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Wasserberg’s prose is. How do you write someone who grew up removed from society, who doesn’t have the same cultural frame of reference as everyone else, who lives in a world with Solstices and The Bad and no schooling and Spike Walks? How will they sound when they finally have to join the rest of the world? The voice that Wasserberg gives Green is a perfect balance of cultural ignorance and personal insight. Green might be uneducated and only semi-literate, but she expresses herself precisely and eloquently (if, sometimes, somewhat disconcertingly). It’s perfect for who she is and what she’s experienced.

At Foxlowe everyone has two names. One is a secret, meant to be lost. For most, it worked like this: first they had the one they came to Foxlowe with peeled away like sunburnt skin. Then a new name, for a new life.

I used to get jealous of the Family with their secret outside names, while I only had the one, like half a person. Sometimes an old name would slip, strangled at a syllable with a blush. This was a sign to watch for, in case someone might wish to be become a Leaver.

Now I am doubled that way, named twice, but for me, it’s worked in reverse: my new name came later, on the outside, like putting on that crusty old skin that should be lying on the floor.

 Needless to say I loved this debut from Wasserberg and I look forward to what she has to offer in the future!

Take This MOOC: Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts

My schedule was fairly hectic in 2017, so while I found room in my schedule for a good MOOC (Mindshift, from the same people behind Learning How to Learn), I didn’t find time to review it here. This year I’m managing my time a little better, and so I can sit down and give you my thoughts about Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts.

This course is offered on another MOOC website, FutureLearn. Like Coursera, FutureLearn offers courses for free but provides the ability to “upgrade” your participation, which includes a certificate of completion. Unlike Coursera, standard FutureLearn MOOCs aren’t available after their time runs out, even if you successfully complete them; for that, you need to purchase the upgrade. So a FutureLearn course is a little more time-sensitive than a Coursera course.

Inside IELTS is a well-organized, easy-to-digest look at the IELTS Academic test, one of the premiere international ESL tests. Many universities and employers use an IELTS score as part of their evaluation. (If you’re studying English to get into a university, this probably isn’t news to you!) Inside IELTS is a five-week program featuring video interviews, lectures, reading, and practice question. The material includes an explanation of the different assessment criteria and bands that the test evaluators will use as well as going through the test structure itself. The actual lessons break down into:

  • Academic Writing
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Putting It All Together

Inside IELTS is presented only in English; the course organizers recommend an English level of B1 or so to be able to understand the bulk of the material. However, all the videos are subtitled, and transcripts are also provided. The target audience is obviously EFL students, but instructors might also find it useful to go through to familiarize themselves with the IELTS test structure and format (if they aren’t already). Inside IELTS also goes over some test-taking tips that can be applied generally to any English test, rather than just the IELTS.

There are quizzes throughout, but they are low-stakes and aren’t tied to your completion of the course. You’ll also have the opportunity to evaluate sample responses yourself to get a feel for what the standards are.

Inside IELTS is five weeks long and, including the practice assignments, consists of three hours of work per week for a total of fifteen hours of instruction. The first week is already up, but it shouldn’t take long to catch up! Otherwise FutureLearn will send you an email when the course is ready to repeat itself.

Friday 5: Finding a Way

What’s something you’ve been unable to find?

Once in a while I get in a real sour mood over this or that weird obscure weirdo Soviet children’s book from my childhood that’s inexplicably gone missing. I’m kind of approaching one of those moods right now.

Lime green and yellow books on a shelf, backlit by daylight from a window.
“It was green?” is all I can remember. // Image courtesy Maarten van den Heuvel

 

How’s your sense of direction?

I’m really bad at actually having a sense of “which way is north” kind of direction, but I think I have a pretty good intuitive sense of my position and my direction relative to where I want to go.


How good are you at sitting still?

Extremely good. Probably too good.

 

What’s something your parents always said you needed to get better at?

Not being a space cadet. Can’t say I’ve improved much in that department. Sorry, folks.

 

In what way are you a better person today than you were ten years ago?

Ten years ago I was much more Internet edgelord adjacent than I am today. There but for the grace of God go I.

My Favorite Novels of 2017, According to GoodReads

I’ve already tackled the best nonfiction I read in 2017. Now it’s time for the best novels.

A cover of John Okada's "No-No Boy," featuring the title in large red sans-serif text on top of a charcoal side portrait of a Japanese man facing right, eyes downward, against a light blue background.
Image courtesy University of Washington Press

No-No Boy, John Okada. I don’t know how I missed this novel until now. Okada deals with the unique struggles faced by Japanese-Americans in the post-war years, which coincide with the universal struggle of children to live up to their parents’ expectations—or escape their influence.

A cover of Eleanor Wasserberg's "Foxlowe," featuring a monochrome illustration of a house flanked by two leafless trees with a large orange sun (or full moon) in the background. Orange leaves surround the image, as if blown off the trees, and dark blue and black clouds frame the entire thing.
Image courtesy Fourth Estate

Foxlowe, Eleanor Wasserberg. Another reason I do this annual round-up is to make sure I didn’t miss cataloging any important reads on the blog and somehow I missed talking about Foxlowe! A review is forthcoming, but the short version is that Foxlowe documents the decline and fall of a commune (or cult?) in a rambling old house called Foxlowe, from the perspective of a young girl who grew up in it and then finally left. I’d like to thank Universe in Words for bringing this book to my attention, because I don’t think I would have heard about it otherwise.

Cover of Akwaeke Emezi's novel "Freshwater."
Image courtesy Groove Press.

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi. For years, my reading has focused on classics I somehow missed or overlooked in my education, so I’ve been missing out on new releases for a while. Freshwater was the first bleeding-edge new release I’ve read in a long, long time, and it was worth it. A potent reminder that new classics are coming out every day.*

Cover of Meindert deJong's "The Wheel on the School" featuring a watercolor illustration by Maurice Sendak of five young boys and one girl in traditional Dutch clothing standing in front of a yellow wall, pointing and looking at a stork flying against a clear blue sky.
Image courtesy Harper Collins.

The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong. I haven’t reviewed this one here yet because I only read it on Christmas Eve. More specifically, I only re-read it on Christmas Eve. This is one of my favorite books from childhood, and it didn’t disappoint upon reading it again as an adult. (In fact, I’m sure I got much more out of it now than I ever did as a child.) What is, on the surface, a simple story about Dutch children who want storks to come back to their little fishing village of Shora is about so much more: about community and compassion and the importance of wondering and having dreams.

So that wraps up the best in reading for me in 2017. What were the best novels you read? I’d love to hear about them! Comment here or let me know on Twitter.

*indicates a book I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; the review was already posted elsewhere