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.
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 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: constantly invoking the image of heavenly choirs singing at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the days travels close the end of every day, and his constant companion The Shadow, a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?
If I were a Swede reading this, I feel like 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.
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.
It’s been my habit for a long, long while—even before I set up shop here on my “professional” site—to have book reviews written and ready to go on my blog on Wednesdays. This generally works out with few interruptions, as I average around 48 books a year. But since I’m juggling five books simultaneously (and two of them 600+ page doorstoppers), that means there’s going to be a bottleneck of reviews until I start finishing them all. Hence a stopgap measure: writing about a book I haven’t finished reading yet.
This model of book blogging also comes with a few benefits: I’m a social reader who likes to talk about what I’m reading, even if it’s a one-sided conversation with the faceless void of the Internet. And frankly, my standard review template is kind of inadequate for such overwhelming tomes, so these “thoughts along the way” can stand in for a final review post. Also, publicly logging my progress with the doorstoppers is a way to hold myself accountable for reading them. (However, psychology suggests that publicly displaying or discussing your goals in this manner has the opposite of the intended effect, so who’s to say?)
Doorstopper #1 is Ulysses, which I’m reading both because I’ve never read it and because another book friend wants to do a Bloomsday 2019 visit to Dublin. (I proposed a buddy read but I think I’m the only buddy actually reading it, but maybe he’s simply reading it on the sly and not mentioning it to me!) At this point I’m 376 pages in, or about four months in to my ten-month plan.
The first time I’d heard anything about Ulysses was when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, from a slightly-older teenager with whom I might or might not have been slightly enamored. He referred to it as “the worst book ever written,” so that’s the epithet I’ve associated with the book from my childhood, for better or for worse. I wish I remembered anything else about this childhood Internet friend, except that he once sent me a poem he wrote, without using any verbs, about the ampersand. I wonder what you’re up to today, Jay.
Anyway, on to Ulysses.
Current thoughts: Maybe I should have started with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man instead. But at least it isn’t Finnegans Wake.
I genuinely enjoyed the first two sections, but there is possibly such a thing as too much interiority and too much wordplay and too many references. I wonder how much easier it would be to track if I were an Irish contemporary reading this rather than someone removed by almost 100 years and however many miles. (The years, I suspect, make a bigger difference than the miles.)
At this point I mostly find myself nostalgic for re-reading Mrs Dalloway rather than actually enjoying the book in front of me, which is never a good sign.
I’ve been enjoying Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce podcast, but my listening lags far behind my reading and so I don’t know if I’ve yet outstripped the available episodes. I appreciate Delaney’s little five-minute lectures on the minutiae I wouldn’t otherwise catch, but despite all his enthusiasm I can’t find the same charm and fascination in the text that he does. I suspect this is how most people feel when I get sidetracked in a conversation and start talking about caves or Korea or grammar.
My knowledge of English playwrights, despite a four-year degree in English writing, is non-existent. Not entirely my fault; too often English literature, at least as it concerns the stage, is basically translations of ancient Greeks, two hundred years of Shakespeare, and then ex nihilo sprang the teeming multitudes of twentieth-century theater. (I seem to recall learning that Aphra Behn wrote for the stage, but I only ever read Oroonoko.) Fellow writer and fellow former teacher Bryan Stubbles is doing me, and all of us, a favor by creating Unknown Playwrights, a blog that highlights and reviews unknown playwrights. (W)Right what it says on the tin. He does a thorough and admirable job of digging up the biographical details as well as links to the works in question for the curious. Definitely of interest to all my fellow literary nerds who missed out on all of this because they weren’t theater or playwrighting majors!
One of the best decisions I ever made was to subscribe to LitHub. A recent newsletter tipped me off to the fact that The Verge was making The Internet of Garbageavailable for free, and minutes later it was on my Kindle app.
Author: Sarah Jeong
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.16 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: A brief history of contemporary Internet hate and death threat campaigns, as well as suggestions to mitigate them.
Recommended audience: Anyone who uses the Internet but doesn’t know what “doxxing” means
In-depth thoughts: Much of what Jeong reports on here isn’t new to me, but then again I’m a digital native with one eye constantly on the Internet hellscape. Many people aren’t, though, and so when cases of online harassment boil over to the point where traditional media outlets begin reporting on them, there is inevitably something lost in the explanation. The Internet of Garbage is an excellent 101 primer on the subject. And therein is my only criticism: it doesn’t go beyond the 101 level. But since the reason The Verge put out a free interim edition of the book is in anticipation of a forthcoming expanded edition; perhaps that new edition will have a bit more meat to it.
But again, it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve kept apprised of Internet hate campaigns from the beginning. For other people, this is exactly what they need. For EFL readers, the language is crisp and direct, with the most potentially confusing terms helpfully defined.
I’ve blogged here before about my participation in Simbi, an online bartering community. Sacred Economics is a book I found there; hardly surprising given Simbi’s raison d’etre and Eisenstein’s skeptical attitude towards currency, credit, and capital.
Author: Charles Eisenstein
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.25 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Eisenstein presents the history of economics and argues that we’re in the midst of a model shift from profit-based capitalism to community- and connection-based gifts.
Recommended audience: Anyone
In-depth thoughts: I read this alongside Sapiens, which was an interesting experience. It was the equivalent of hearing a history of humankind in stereo, in two slightly different arrangements. Some points are similar and mesh really well; some are contradictory and require further research and scrutiny.
I want to say, straight off the bat, that there are a lot of un-founded assertions and bizarre speculation presented here that I recognize immediately as such and, as someone amenable to Eisenstein’s larger thesis, that I regret made it in what appears to be the more or less latest edition of the book. If Harari was too much of a materialist for my taste, Eisenstein wasn’t enough of one: infinite energy inventions by Tesla and the like weren’t quashed by greedy capitalist pigs, they just never existed; the sun isn’t powered by human gratitude and isn’t less yellow than it was thirty years ago; homeopathy isn’t a viable substitute for evidence-based medicine*. It’s hard to tell if Eisenstein genuinely believes these assertions or if he’s presenting them as a rhetorical flourish on his larger point, but either way they damage his credibility.
On the other hand, Eisenstein makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Sacred Economics represents his own theory of economics. Instead of taking anything as a given, he makes a very solid effort to defend his theory (through his own arguments as well as copious amounts of research and quoting from others), rather than taking it as a fact and spending most of the book explaining human history.
Yellow suns and homeopathy aside, Eisenstein touches on a lot of important issues. I was torn between four and five stars for just that reason: I don’t want to endorse faulty reasoning or bad science, but I also think people need to reassess their perspective on money and where it comes from and what it does. That alone makes the book worth reading.
Eisenstein’s style is warm and personal, if somewhat rambly. It should be an approachable text for high-intermediate learners, though economics is a complex topic and even after multiple close readings I’m not sure I walked away understanding everything.
*For a fair, evidence-based look at the measured benefits of homeopathy (and there are some! but not the ones its adherents usually claim), I’d recommend Jo Marchant’s Cure. You can read more about it in my review from a couple of years ago.
I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.
Recommended audience: Humans
In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.
Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.
Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.
Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.
Author: Ann Leckie
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.
Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”
In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)
While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.