Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play for no other reason than I read it in high school and liked it better than Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet. It’s also the only Shakespeare play to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so that’s something.
When I learned that Dramaten was putting on a production of Hamlet, I conferred with friends, found what were maybe the last four seats (all together) for the season, and booked our nosebleed cheap seat tickets for March 3.
Because I’m pretty familiar with Hamlet, I thought a Swedish version would be a challenging test of my language skills and, in terms of translation, provide some food for thought. I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I was smarter than I realized to pick a play I already knew well, because my own background knowledge of the story was sometimes the only thing that helped me follow just what was going on despite the very modern language. (Though, sambo mentioned later that he also had problems following what people were saying, so part of it was certainly related to theatrical, dramatic elocution rather than to my poor Swedish. Part of it.)
The translation is a new one by Ulf Peter Wallberg, in the collectionDet blodiga parlementet. I might take a break from everything I’m reading now to dip into this and see if my reading comprehension fares any better than my listening.
If you were outside right now, what would you most likely be doing?
If I had answered this when I usually do (Saturday), I would have said “running.” But I woke up this morning to fresh snowfall so now the answer is “not running.” Good thing I dragged myself outside for a run on Saturday, at any rate! Monday’s not looking like a good possibility.
Right now, what’s a little too close to you?
Downstairs neighbor likes to play REALLY LOUD music every Sunday. But we’re leaving in a few hours to see Dramaten’s production of Hamlet so whatever.
Right now, who misses you?
Family and friends, I imagine.
Right now, what’s having its way with you?
The wifi all the way out to my “office” in the kitchen is absolute garbage, and the minute my sambo does anything online I’m stuck waiting for what scraps of bandwidth are available.
What do you most wish you were doing right now?
Nothing else in particular. My life at this moment in time is going pretty well.
Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.
Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars
Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)
Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.
Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)
In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).
LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.
Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.
Saturday was my first run of the year. Since I started 5K training in 2016, I’ve become so used to running outside that I don’t think I can ever go back to treadmills. During the winter I just don’t run at all, and yet the break doesn’t seem to take much of a toll on anything. My pace is always within just a couple minutes of what my average for the previous season was; my muscles aren’t any more sore afterwards. Still, this year I had big plans about intense yoga at home three days a week until the ice melted; instead I just slept in.
This is a miserable time of year for me. It’s nice that the sun’s back, of course, but now with the melting ice and snow means gray, sad trees and (in Stockholm) giant mountains of gravel and snow. Mostly gravel. Spring is lauded as a time of warmth and flowers, but in my experience it’s mostly just muddy and unpleasant. There’s two weeks of spring, maybe, that’s nice, and by then it’s practically summer.
Still, once you get out in nature, the thaw becomes a lot more attractive. And that’s exactly why I’ve been put off the treadmill forever.
This week’s Friday 5 has a Harry Potter theme and it’s killing me because I think the Harry Potter books are the trashy TV of the book world and are some of the most overrated books I’ve encountered. Also, Rowling keeps liking vaguely and not-so-vaguely transphobic posts on Twitter and it’s really off-brand.
At least the questions are interesting?
The Mirror of Erised doesn’t show a reflection of you at the moment, but of you and what your heart most desires. If you gazed into it today, what image would you see?
I would see SO MANY finished manuscripts. And I don’t know how you could visually convey linguistic fluency: I guess a library full of books in Swedish, Korean, French, Farsi, Russian, German…
Who’s really pissed at you right now?
There’s a couple people in Stockholm I definitely haven’t endeared myself to (and sometimes it feels like such a small city that I genuinely worry about running into them on the street or at an event), but I don’t know if they’re actually angry at me. Nor do I want to know!
What model vehicle would be great to turn into a flying car?
What item in your house could use a dose of magic, and what would extraordinary quality would you like to imbue it with?
Hell yeah I want my oven to just materialize food out of nowhere. It’s not that I mind that my dietary intake for the past few weeks has been peanut butter sandwiches, instant noodles, and pizza—I just know that I need a little more variety than that.
Among people you know, who is most likely and secretly born with magical ability?
If it could be anyone it might as well be me, right? I want it to be me.
One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.
Author: Kamila Shamsie
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.
Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know
In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.
The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.
The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.
The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.
But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.
There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.
I do things on the weekend now, I guess, instead of working. This weekend it was another movie: Shoplifters.
It’s a really good movie, but you don’t need me to tell you that; it’s already won a bunch of awards. More interesting for me is that the last time I tried to watch a foreign movie with Swedish subtitles—I don’t know how many years ago anymore, but several—I gave up about ten minutes into the movie and switched the subtitles to English. It was just too much to process at once. This time it was fine. Progress!
Editors are supposed to have an endless list of these, right? So the stereotype goes. We are the gatekeepers of language and so on and so forth. And I guess we all do, probably. But if you look at the layperson’s language pet peeves (“they’re/there/their”! “your/you’re”!) and the editor’s pet peeves, the overlap would probably be quite small.
What would be a good question to ask people you’ve just met, if what you really want to know is what they’re passionate about? You know, an alternative to “What do you do?” or “How do you know so-and-so?”
I like to ask people to name a movie they think is overrated and a movie they think is underrated. The reasoning in their answers is often revealing, and sometimes you get a good recommendation out of the question to boot!
When you get home super tired and super hungry, do you usually eat first or sleep first?
Food always comes first. Food above all else. All hail food.
You’re taking an exam. You aren’t sure about the answer to question 5, but you know it’s either “lions” or “tigers.” You get to question 11 and realize whatever the answer to 5 is, 11 is the other answer. Do you write “lions” as your answer to 5 and 11, thereby ensuring you’ll get one of them right? Or do you write “lions” for 5 and “tigers” for 11, risking two wrong answers but giving you a chance at two right ones?
Oh, this game theory realness! Before I did anything else I would reflect on the question, maybe work on other parts of the exam for a little bit, take a moment to let my wander off the topic entirely. But if I did all of that and I still didn’t know, and didn’t have even an inclination either way, I think I’d go for “lions” for both.
One of the books I read in my Modernist Swedish Literature course a million years ago was Aniara. Since we were still babies in the Swedish language, everything we read was an English translation. To this day I don’t know how The Swedish Program at Stockholm University managed to find enough copies—actual proper hardback copies, not dodgy spiral-bound printouts—of the English translation for all of us. These days the only English version available anywhere seems to be an ugly paperback edition that fetches a whopping $225 on Amazon.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite appreciate reading Aniara at the time. I love sci fi but I’m extremely unconvinced by poetry, so the whole thing left me tepid. Now that I’m older, I appreciate not only the weirdness of the project (an epic poem about a pioneer ship lost in space!) but the metaphorical aspect of the whole piece in the face of the threat of nuclear winter and environmental annihilation.
I only learned that there was an Aniara movie after I saw a poster for it at ABF after my writing Meetup. My timing was excellent: Bio Rio only has two showings and both of them are in February. There’s one more screening on 15 February, for those of you in Stockholm who are free at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday. I’m not, so I had to grab last-minute tickets to the evening showing this past Saturday. I also, at the very last minute, tracked down a copy of the Swedish original from the library so I could go into the movie with a refreshed memory.
Aniara the movie is a graceful companion to Aniara the epic poem, if not least to provide visuals that help anchor the story (as much as there is one). Specifically, the movie illustrates the sheer vastness of everything far better than words maybe ever could. Martinson gives some details—a ship with 8,000 people on board, 15,580 feet long and 2,923 feet wide—but it’s hard to really appreciate, on the emotional and intuitive level, what those numbers really mean. The establishing shots of huge milling crowds in a huge, outsized version of a Viking Line cruise ship, however, suddenly makes it crystal clear. The poem also does very little to specify the actual specifics of the ship, aside from the fact that it has crystal-clear windows and walls over must of it. Thanks to a steady childhood diet of mid-century science fiction movies, I always imagined the interior of Aniara as a very minimalist, brushed chrome sort of space ship; the option to represent the ship as an opulent, futuristic echo of today’s booze cruises was an inspired one and provided a nice visual irony in the later years of the ship’s voyage.
References and quotations from the poem fit into the movie quite elegantly, whether in events and plot points or pieces of dialogue. The screenwriters opted to ground things in the particular story arc of the Mimarob—the employee who operates the Mima, which in the movie is the equivalent of the holodeck from Star Trek but in the poem is more like a fancy movie theater. The change works well; the vague nameless “we” in many of the poems is enough to track when you read, but in a movie it helps to have at least one central character we can follow throughout. The choice of the Mimarob for such a protagonist also makes sense; on the rare occasion a singular “I” turns up in the poem, it’s usually the Mimarob.
I didn’t finish re-reading Aniara entirely beforehand, so I can’t say whether some of the grimmer plot points were also alluded to in the poem or if they were added for dramatic purposes. But it doesn’t seem worth harping on grimness when we’re talking about an adaption of an epic poem where everyone ends up lost in space forever.
Like 2001 and Arrival, the film version of Aniara succeeds in complementing the original text it’s based on, so that instead of competing to tell the singular best version of an idea, both versions become one cohesive whole. Watch the movie and, if you can, read the book.
Oh man, I try not to think about how much salt is in my favorite Korean ramen because it’s…probably not great. But I get points for getting two or three meals out of the broth instead of just one, right?
What areas of your life could stand a little fat-trimming?
It’s that time of the year again! Right around the new year, I go through the people I follow on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and decide who’s not working out for me.
How acid-tongued are you?
When I interact with people? Not at all. When you get me drunk and talking about Jane Austen or Harry Potter? Whew boy.
What’s an interesting way you’ve burned yourself?
If I’ve ever burned myself, it’s been in the usual, pedestrian ways.
What are your favorite everyday cooking implements?
My kettle is absolutely essential! (See above, re: ramen.) The microwave is also very, very important. When someone in this apartment actually cooks, the mandoline slicer and the garlic press get a lot of use.