Happy Birthday!

And right after Midsommar, there’s me. ūüôā Today was a quiet day, with kladdkaka, tempura, and alcohol.

Kladdkaka poses another interesting translation challenge. It literally means something like “gooey cake,” but I think we can agree that reading that in a description of a party would be distracting at the very least! A “gooey cake,” in my mind, is a half-melted Carvel ice cream cake. (Though of course we all know those things never melt.)

Image courtesy Erik Borläv
Image courtesy Erik Borläv

This is not the kladdkaka I had, of course. This is perhaps a bit too dry and fluffy to be truly¬†kladdig,¬†but it’s close enough.

Kladdkakor are also traditionally chocolate. But a chocolate cake isn’t necessarily a kladdkaka. Because an inherent aspect of a kladdkaka is the gooey nature of it; “kladdig” just sounds a bit more exotic and appealing than “gooey.”

A brownie cake, perhaps? A fudge cake? A brownie fudge cake? Whatever you call it, it’s my favorite Swedish dessert.

My Favorite Books of 2015, According to GoodReads

It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking.¬†One of my favorite record-keeping¬†tools is GoodReads.¬†Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify.¬†Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite¬†books in a given year? What did I read the most of?

My Favorite Books of 2015

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles

I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite¬†recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and P√§r Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).

February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across¬†Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.

What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart:¬†The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic of Cancer, and¬†Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature.¬†Under the Volcano¬†is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.

 

May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I think the only reason¬†A Tale for the Time Being¬†isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.

In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.

Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.

Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five¬†different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.

A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)

If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy,¬†A Tale for the Time Being is for you.

 

December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library.¬†“Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of¬†The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like¬†A Tale for the Time Being, I think¬†We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.

We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s¬†Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample,¬†you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.

 

December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between.¬†Barabbas¬†is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.

Barabbas is the story of¬†Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.

What were your favorite books that you read in 2015? Are you on GoodReads? If you like, you can follow me there.

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Conversation Classes

People having conversations.
Image courtesy Sascha Kohlmann.

Conversation classes are a popular genre of language courses. People are often insecure when it comes to spontaneous language production (i.e., speaking) and the bravest among them sign up for conversation courses to improve this aspect of their language.

For me, conversation classes are stressful.¬†I’ll be honest with you. As an introvert I have a rich inner life, full of thoughts and observations, but that does not always translate into engaging conversation.¬†In fact, conversation classes are where I’ve felt the most awkward and the least competent.

I’ve developed a method to combat this, but it’s a method that requires some level of student input. If you book me for a conversation class, here’s what will happen.

1. Before our first meeting, I’ll ask you to take a brief online assessment to rate your level within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages¬†and send me the results. “Online assessment” sounds scary, but the whole thing only¬†takes around 20 minutes.

2. Our first meeting will be something like a casual¬†interview. I’ll ask about your history with English, your general interests, and your language goals. Take some time before our first meeting to think about your thoughts on these topics¬†(write them down if you want!). Other follow-up questions may naturally occur, but these are the three areas I want to cover first. Specific questions I will touch on include:

  • How do you want me to address error correction? (As it happens? At the end of every lesson? Once a month?)
  • Are you trying to improve your social English? Interviewing? Business presentations? Traveling? Pronunciation?
  • What kind of work, if any, do you want outside of class?
  • Are you currently studying English elsewhere? If so, at what level? What material? What do you like and dislike about the class?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite classes in school? Why?
  • What hobbies and interests do you have? How do you like to spend your free time?
  • How are you currently using English in your everyday life? (E.g. reading blogs, watching movies, meetings with coworkers, etc.)
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of studying?

3. As someone who is not always a sparkling conversationalist, I base my conversation classes (especially in one-on-one classes) on short readings (one page or less). I make every effort to tailor these readings to your interests: beauty, science, health, etc.

Hot tip: you can contribute, too! This is the secret to English conversation class success: bring in material of your own that you felt was interesting, or that you found difficult or confusing. (The Internet is a great resource for English-language material about literally anything.)¬†Have questions prepared for your¬†conversation class¬†sessions, whether about grammar, vocabulary, or¬†just how they spent their weekend. Things are much less awkward that way, especially if you’re studying one-on-one.

4. I will periodically bring grammar or vocabulary exercises based on gaps in knowledge I’ve observed in our conversations. The idea of quizzes, worksheets, and tests can intimidate people‚ÄĒsome students opt for “conversation classes” because they find tests and assessments stressful‚ÄĒbut periodic testing is one of the most efficient ways to retain and remember new material. This also gives my introvert side a chance to be still and reflect for a few minutes. Don’t worry: the focus of a conversation class with me is still always on speaking and conversing.

My goal in any conversation class is two-fold: to build up and maintain your confidence in speaking, and to provide you with tools that will enable you to speak more fluently and more precisely.

If this sounds like a conversation class that’s your speed, you can email me (in the right-hand column over there) and book a time. I hope to see you soon!

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Doors

I was an introvert before it was cool. It’s something I intuitively knew about myself almost from the beginning, though I didn’t find the word for it until a quiz I took in a glossy preteen magazine: “Are you an innie or an outie?”

open-sky
No one in sight? Finally, I can relax! (Image courtesy Ryan McGuire at Gratisography)

This means a lot of things for teaching in general and how I run my business specifically, but for now I want to touch on one of the smaller aspects of it: doors.

I bring all of my tutoring to you. That’s one of the conveniences of hiring a private tutor. And in my work I’ve been to a lot of apartment buildings, and all of those buildings have doors. Self-evident. Not all¬†of these buildings have the same philosophy about front doors. Not so self-evident.

Sometimes the front doors are unlocked when I come to visit, and I can just let myself in. (My own apartment building, for example, locks the front door at something like 8:30 or 9:00 PM.) Other times the front doors need a key code to unlock them. In this case, people give me the code ahead of time and I can let myself in as if it were unlocked. These are my favorite front door philosophies: minimal fuss.

Other buildings have no means of allowing a non-resident instantaneous access. This is where I start to sweat things.¬†Not because I¬†always have to contact a customer to get in‚ÄĒafter a few lessons, it feels as natural to text a customer as it does one of my friends. What sets my introvert nerves on edge is that¬†there is always the possibility for a wildcard factor to disrupt the routine: someone else trying to let me into the building.

Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions.
Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Dakota L.)

In this kind of front door situation,¬†the “let me in” text message functions as a sort of courtesy: “I’m here! Time to put your pants on and clean up a bit!” It quickly becomes expected (at least, it would feel that way for me, if the roles were reversed). Bypassing that courtesy and showing right up at the door feels a little…untoward. Unfair. But then ignoring someone holding the door open for me also feels rude, and simply telling them, “Nej, det √§r lugnt, tack.” opens up a whole possible conversation that I am not prepared to have. “Yes, it IS biting cold out, but the person I’m here to see will let me in soon and I’d rather she let me in on her own terms than I turn up randomly on her doorstep. Yes, she’s expecting me, but still.” So far, I’ve just said nothing and fiddled with my phone, like I’m waiting for someone to come meet me. It’s worked pretty well.

Every time I arrive at an apartment complex of this last variety I experience a small moment of panic: will I have those five or ten seconds to myself? Or will I have to navigate an imaginary conflict of manners over the door?

Why The Raven?

The logo you see on the site here and on Twitter is a silhouette of a bird. If you’re a birding type, you might recognize it as a raven. It’s a choice that can seem random and unrelated to English, but upon closer inspection makes sense on a couple of levels.

“Koba,” my family name, is a lot of things in a lot of languages; one of them is reportedly an old Slavic word for “raven.” (Not being an expert in Slavic linguistics, I can neither confirm nor deny this.)

But more than that, they are also intelligent and chatty little things. Did you know that they can be taught to mimic human speech? A quick search on YouTube will turn up pages of videos of talking ravens. By all measurable accounts, they also display theory of mind — a complex cognitive progress that requires fairly high-level, abstract thinking.

800px-Common_Raven_at_Byrce_National_Park
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Peter Wallack

But even before we started putting them in box experiments, humans seemed to understand that ravens were crafty. In Norse mythology, Odin’s two ravens (Hugin and Mugin, representing “thought” and “memory”) scoured Midgard and reported all the latest news and happenings back to him. In the American Indian tribes of the Southwest, raven is part of the creation myth, bringing light to humans out of the cosmos. Other nations see the raven as a clever trickster. In Greek mythology, before Athena kept the owl as her sacred animal, it was the raven. (Raven lost the job because he couldn’t keep secrets!)

Illuminating birds tied to communication, memory, and thought — all very appropriate for language-related endeavors, yes?

Koba English is Born

Welcome to the new home on the web for Koba English (that’s me!). While the important stuff, like editing rates, tutoring availability, and contact information, will stay on the static pages, this blog space will be for news and other transient things: thoughts on language, book recommendations and reviews, the occasional goofy photo. I’ll get the ball rolling with a goofy photo:

bloggerprofile

There I am, out visiting the sheep on a farm in Uppsala in 2010.¬†Tr√®s chic, n’est-ce pas?