I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo” from here on) every year since 2008. Granted, some years my participation has been better than others. And for the last few years I’ve certainly played fast and loose with the rules, such as they are (i.e. 50,000 new words of writing over the course of November). For 2015, 2016, and 2017 I spent NaNoWriMo revising the rough draft I wrote in 2014. This year I’m drifting even further from the standard and using the time to tackle a (for-funsies) translation project I should have finished ages ago but didn’t.
Some people juggle multiple projects at once; I tend to work one at a time. And while I do want to get that 2014 NaNoWriMo project done and dusted so I can move on to other writing, this translation project has drifted high enough in my priority queue that it’ll be easier to work on my fiction backlog once I get this translation thing out of the way. (Am I being fussy? Maybe.) For me, NaNoWriMo has become less and less about doing the actual thing of NaNo and more about harnessing a collective mania and drive to get my own creative endeavors done. Three months out of the year (if you include Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July) is a pretty hefty chunk of creative time, especially when you’re holding down other full-time work!
As usual, during NaNoWriMo the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup will be a weekly two-hour chunk of writing time you can count on, every Thursday from 6 to 8 PM. We have our own classroom in ABF, a great alternative for when cafes are too noisy and distracting. This week and next I’ll be helping people sign up on the site, answering questions, and providing some writing prompts to help you get you hyped up for your project. Join me, won’t you?
“Kilimanjaro rising like Olympus above the Serengeti” is one of the worst lyrics ever committed to record and yet it doesn’t ruin the song.
What’s a pretty good lyric from a song you dislike?
I refuse to give any song I dislike the satisfaction!
What’s a good non-Weird-Al-Yankovic lyric about food and drink?
“Alcohol” by Barenaked Ladies is a perennial favorite of mine.
What’s a good song lyric to describe your week?
I’m writing this entry far ahead of time, so I’ll have to do a bit of prognosticating here:
Sometimes I think sitting on trains
Every stop I get to I’m clocking that game.
Everyone’s a winner, now, we’re making that fame.
Bona fide hustler, making my name.
What’s a good song lyric about inclement weather?
I mean, it’s not the greatest lyric ever, but “thunder bolts and lightning / very, very frightening” deserves a mention. I guess the actual lyric about weather for its own sake I like best is from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”:
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing.
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came, it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck,
Saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in.
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”
With In the Land of Invented Languages, Austin, TX’s premiere feminist sci-fi book club took a lefthand turn into nonfiction for the month of September. Lucky for me! As a language professional, this sort of thing is right up my alley.
Author: Arika Okrent
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.08 stars
Language scaling: B2
Summary: Okrent travels the world and interviews several experts and nerds to shed light on constructed languages.
Recommended audience: Anyone interested in popular linguistics; aspiring fantasy or science fiction writers who really want to commit to the bit
In-depth thoughts: I actually read In the Land of Invented Languages over a month ago, and somehow never got around to writing about it until now, which makes writing any useful review rather difficult. All I can say is that I enjoyed it a lot. This isn’t any dense, academic paper; it’s a series of relatively short, surface-level essays on a variety of constructed languages. My favorites included the one about Esperanto (I was inspired enough to actually look up Esperanto groups and Meetups in Stockholm!), Bliss symbols, and of course the background into Klingon; the actual assigned reading for book club was the essay on a woman-centered language entitled (if I recall correctly) “to menstruate joyfully.”
What’s still clear, even now, is that creating a new language—at least one intended to be used in the real world—is an admirable endeavor, based in optimism, idealism, and no small amount of compassion. Every language that failed to take off broke my heart a little, even though the logical conclusion of their success would mean a different line of work for me. Constructed languages also raise interesting questions of intellectual property and usage. No one can own a natural language, but what about a constructed one? Does it belong to its creator(s) or to the people who speak it?
Okrent is writing for a popular audience, so there isn’t much in terms of specialized vocabulary or ultra-dense academic writing. In the Land of Invented Languages is a fun and breezy ready for language nerds of every mother tongue.
For almost the entire time I’ve had a GoodReads profile, under “favorite books” I’ve just put: “All of them. Except the ones you like, probably.” It was as true in May 2007 as it is today: I hate everyone’s super trendy, faddish fave, including Ernest Cline.
Enter Michael J. Nelson, my childhood comedy hero, and one of his RiffTrax writers, Conor Lastowka, and their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. They’ve turned their attention from mediocre movies to mediocre books—in this case, the oeuvre of Ernest Cline. (There is talk of continuing the podcast and branching into other books, but so far nothing has materialized.) And while the podcast is rooted more in humor than in dissecting bad writing, the humor does (inadvertently?) highlight some of the more subtle traits of weak writing. Until we get a podcast that’s a round table of editors picking apart an anonymized slush pile, this is the next best thing.
What regional colloquialism in your area would baffle people from elsewhere?
This isn’t one that I use personally (I’m Philly-adjacent rather than proper Philly), but jawn can have such a broad usage that you really need context to understand what any particular usage is referring to.
I’ve been told by college friends from elsewhere in the US that “water ice” is a weird name for shaved ice/Italian ice/snow cones, but it seems logical to me: it’s ice plus (flavored sugar) water. “Hoagie” might or might not throw people for a loop as well. I still retain the regional habit of using “anymore” to mean “these days,” but I imagine it’s pretty clear what I mean when I say, “I’m just so tired anymore.”
What’s something you call by a name that differs from what most people in your region call it?
My mom calls them pocketbooks and I call them purses. I don’t know which one of us represents the majority term in southeastern Pennsylvania, though.
What’s a normal food in your region that people in other regions might be weirded out by?
I’ll cheat on this one and take an international perspective rather than my upbringing: Swedes are 100% chill with fruit on pizza, and my American friends are unjustly horrified at this.
What’s something in your area with an official name almost nobody refers to it by?
The Globe/Globen is technically the Ericsson Globe but no one calls it that. The accompanying arena is also technically the Tele2/Friends Arena, but I just think of it as “The Globe Arena.”
I wracked my brain for Philadelphia but couldn’t think of one. I didn’t realize until I was getting an image for this entry that Love Park’s official name is John F. Kennedy Plaza.
What are the names of some convenience stores in your area?
Magiska Amerika Södern was a free choice I allowed myself at the library, despite a pretty heavy bookish agenda. (My book club roster now includes four different groups.) What would a Swede make of the American South?
Author: Daniel Svanberg
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33 stars
Language scaling: N/A (only available in Swedish)
Summary: Daniel Svanberg spends nearly two weeks traveling throughout the American South, singing the praises of Southern cuisine and musical history and asking people why they love America.
Recommended audience: Anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days before the 2016 election
In-depth thoughts: The first thing I realized, when I sat down to write this post, was that I don’t think I ever wrote about Amerikanskt here, which is a tragedy.
And the fact that my first instinct, with this book, is to think about another book pretty much says it all. Svanberg is often self-aware enough to recognize that he is a naive and wide-eyed wanderer (his own language, not mine) but he glosses over those moments in favor of enthusing over roadside diners, sweet tea, and the blues. You can’t blame him for that, of course, but the result is that the book tows a weird line. Svanberg seems like he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not really digging very deeply here, and yet he makes no comment at all on the lack of depth. There is engagement with the more brutal and inhumane parts of America’s history that played out in the South but it feels very pat and surface-level: glib statements about how terrible slavery and Jim Crow was, but no connection to the legacy that remains even today; an enthusiastic nostalgia for Americana and everything the “retro” vibe entails without considering the flip side of that coin.
There are a couple other conceits that run throughout the book: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.
If I were a Swede reading this, I think I’d be disappointed. The over-reliance on the above cutesy conceits takes up valuable word real estate; the resulting pictures painted are neither broad nor detailed. But I’m not Swedish! I’ve even done my own (shorter) road trip through the region from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and back, up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t need someone to tell me what it’s like; I’ve been there.
Instead, the value I got from it was the little Swedish observations, similar to comments my sambo would make during his visits over Christmas and New Year’s. (“The cars here are HUGE.” “Wow, that’s a lot of churches for such a small town.”) And that’s something you really have to actually be American to appreciate: having someone comment on the Tarantino-esque “little differences” you’d never notice yourself because it’s such an ingrained part of your existence. The cars have always been this size; there have always been three different churches in this tiny little village of only a couple hundred people. Why would it ever be any different?
My favorite that Svanberg points out is the little red flag on American mailboxes you flip up to indicate that there’s mail inside, either to pick up or to be delivered. Of course that’s different between the two countries; I just never would have considered Sweden’s lack of a little red flag on mailboxes something worth remarking on. I can say with 100% certainty that I never felt like it was something missing here. Only when someone else pointed it out did I realize “Oh, I guess maybe that would be something weird and noteworthy if you grew up literally anywhere else.”
Sadly, those moments were few and far between, and more ink was spilled on little metaphorical asides about The Shadow that I feel a little guilty for not enjoying because it seems like Svanberg was really aiming for pathos with them. Most of the time the book felt a little slow and draggy without really digging too deeply, even though the writing itself was pretty peppy and engaging. Other Americans might enjoy an outsider’s perspective on their own country, but at the end of the day, Amerikanskt is the better book.
Friday was a rough day for me for a couple of different reasons, but the news and commentary surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings certainly didn’t help. In my rage and frustration, I turned to my books (cheaper than therapy!) and pulled out Walden.
It’s a book I’ve loved since high school, and there’s always something comforting in going back to the books of your formative years. It’s like a hug from a loving parent, or your favorite comfort food. But more than that I needed a reminder of what I miss from America, what I’m proud of, to reorient my inner compass.
“Reading” is always my favorite essay in the whole collection. It has precious little to do with anything I was upset about on Friday, but still, it helped. I might even commit the entire essay to memory, so soothing is the act of reading it. For now, two of my favorite quotes:
The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.
And this one, which struck me the first time I read it. I copied it on to the notebook cover for my English binder immediately after I read it for AP English in the summer before 11th grade; if I were the artsy type I would cross-stitch it or write it out in calligraphy, frame it, and hang it on the wall alongside my bookshelves.
A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.