Norrtullsligan

I try to make a point of reading Swedish magazines and journals when I can. Sometimes I only have the brain power to focus on something short and article-length, and it’s good to mix up my literary fiction reading with popular non-fiction.

One of the unintended benefits of this project is that I’ve collected numerous tips on Swedish authors to read. Historiskan always profiles an author or two in every issue, and Populär Historia put out a special issue earlier this year, dedicated to “pioneering women,” that was chock full of writers (or women who did exciting things and also happened to write about it). I have a list in my phone of all the names that have turned up so far in my reading, and if I find myself at the library without another book to get, I see if I can find what’s there.

Cover of Elin Wägner's "Norrtullsligan."

Author: Elin Wägner

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.65 stars

Language scaling: N/A (read in Swedish; available in English as Men and Other Misfortunes in a collection entitled Stockholm Stories, translated by Betty Cain and Ulla Sweedler)

Summary: The daily struggles of four working-class women who share an apartment in Stockholm at the turn of the last century.

Recommended audience: People who liked the concept of Lena Dunham’s Girls but found the actual execution unappealing

In-depth thoughts: I didn’t remember much about Wägner when I checked this book out from the library, except that she was a suffragette and her name was on my list. But I did remember this photograph of her:

Elin Wägner in front of the 351,454 signatures collected to support women's right to vote, a stack of binders half a meter taller than herself.
Elin Wägner in front of the 351,454 signatures collected to support women’s right to vote.

At the turn of the last century, there was something of a mass exodus of young women from the Swedish countryside into larger cities, leading to a social phenomenon of young women who could (more or less) support themselves and therefore weren’t as desperate to marry as they would have been in previous generations. Norrtullsligan is a quick survey of daily life of four of those women (the “league” referred to in the title). The day’s media addressed this civilization-ending phenomenon with the same breathless pearl-clutching that today’s media uses with Millenials, making Norrtullsligan something like the Swedish 1900s version of Girls. Except better.

The league (Baby,  Eva, Emmy, and the narrator, Elisabeth) takes on headier issues of suffrage and worker’s rights while also dodging everyday headaches like insufferable relatives, sexual harassment from bosses, and heartache. Nonetheless, Norrtullsligan avoids being didactic and moralizing. The social commentary springs organically from the women’s lives and situations, rather than dictating plot points. Wägner’s prose is also a delight: 100 years old and somehow still fresh and contemporary in tone. Elisabeth is the best kind of narrator, wry and witty and ironic but with plenty of compassion. It’s a short book that reads quickly, yet still manages to address a wide range of larger issues. It’s like an explicitly feminist and infinitely more cheerful Doktor Glas.

The English translation is available on Google Books if you’d like a preview. I’m not entirely sold on it myself, though I appreciate the work that Cain and Sweedler did in bringing Norrtullsligan to the wider English-speaking world: Stockholm Stories is available via Xlibris, a self-publishing company, meaning that they probably invested a great deal of their own money into making it available. Something about the English translation, however, falls a little flat for me. Swedish speakers, even if non-native, would do better to just read the original.

Tiny Moments of Joy: Say Sue Me at Landet

I thought I’d share a little peek behind the curtain today: what, exactly, do I do in my free time? When I’m not helping to organize the Stockholm Writing Group, Stockholm NaNoWriMo, or reading? Once in a while I go and partake in culture, like Busan-based surf rock group Say Sue Me.

Say Sue Me performing to a packed room at Landet Restaurang in Stockholm, 2018.

I took this photo during their encore, “Let’s Don’t Say Anything.” I don’t have any other pictures from the night, because I’m short and because I’d rather spend a concert listening to the experience rather than trying to document it.

Life is hard. I’ll take what tiny moments of joy I can get.

Friday 5: The Whole Trial is Out of Order!

What’s something in which you took first place?

God, not really much of anything. I used to joke that when I was a rich and successful adult I’d go back to my high school and set up the Katherine Koba Second Banana Prize Scholarship: for a student who hadn’t won any other award but still participated in a bunch of extra curriculars and did pretty well in almost all their classes. I’m not successful enough yet to be able to do so, but maybe one day!

What’s something at which you’d like a second chance?

I should have been less lazy about my musical studies. Not that I’m not well suited for the work I do now; I’d just like to be more competent at that particular hobby.

When did you last feel like a third wheel?

I suppose another friend and I were a collective third wheel during our Kulturnatt outing back in the spring, but that lasted all of maybe ten minutes before we peaced out and did our own thing.

What’s to look forward to in the fourth quarter of 2018?

My new job! Though by the time this goes up I’ll have been at it for a month.

Who had an especially good fifth film, fifth book, or fifth album?

Does anyone keep track of things up until the fifth? Wish You Were Here is a pretty good album, I suppose.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….

Den mörka portalen and NaNoWriMo

My Saturday was extremely literary! A member of one of my critique groups has, after years of hard work, self published the first novel in a planned trilogy. The release party was at noon at Marabouparken, and I stopped by to give my congratulations and enjoy a little bubbly to celebrate Den mörka portalen. It is surprisingly heart-warming and gratifying to see yourself appear multiple times in the author’s thanks.

Shot of the author's thanks (in Swedish)

Once under my own name, once as “Stockholm Writing Group” (the writing Meetup I organize), and (if I’m feeling generous) even a third time as a fellow redkatör and korrekturläsare, though I work in English and not in Swedish. Still, editor solidarity!nan

The venue was also lovely. When your park is named after one of the most famous candy companies in Sweden, it sets certain expectations (see: Hershey Park in the US), but it was actually quite understated. Dare I say…high brow, even?

A slate walkway and some statuary at Marabouparken on a rainy, overcast day.

As it turns out, Marabou no longer owns the property. It’s a bit of a misnomer.

After that I was off to help plan this year’s NaNoWriMo. Have you signed up yet? You should! And if you’re in Stockholm, you should come to the kickoff! We’ll have fika and pep and writing activities to get you all fired up for November. And, of course, my lovely face. Can’t wait to see you there!

Friday 5: Just Wing It

What’s something for which you are waiting your tern?

I’m not waiting my turn, as such, but we have some new purchases we need to make for a newer, bigger apartment, but you can’t just get everything at once!

What have you lately gone cuckoo for?

I’m incredibly excited to go thrifting for things we need for the new apartment!

What’s got you feeling down?

As of this writing, I’m incredibly nervous about elections in Sweden (and in the US). By the time this post goes up, I’ll either be slightly relieved or even more anxious. We’ll see how the Swedish elections go. (Or how they’ve gone, I guess.)

What’s something you acquired that was unexpectedly cheep?

We picked up a new-to-us LG TV for a third of the price a similar one would have been new, including door step delivery! Again: the power of thrift shopping.

What’s that fowl smell?

I should probably take out the recycling…

Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!

Beyond the Rice Fields cover
Image courtesy Restless Books

Author: Naivo

Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars

Language scaling: C1

Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore

Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.

Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature

In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French).  But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.

My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.

The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.

For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places;  among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:

A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.

But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.

National Novel Writing Month 2018: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard

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?

Friday 5: Lyrical Gangsta

A Caucasian hand holding a small sheet of paper with a typewritten poem.
Photo by Sarah Brink on Unsplash

What’s a stupid lyric from a song you like?

“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.”

 

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

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.

Cover of The Land of Invented Languages

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.