Tiny Moments of Joy: Hamlet at Stora Scenen

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.

Stora Scenen during intermission, view from the stage left balcony.
View from the cheap seats at intermission

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 collection Det 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.

 

Burnt Shadows

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.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

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 mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

The Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club kicked off the year with Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Cover of Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Kelly Robson

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: It’s a distant, post-apocalyptic future and the powers that be have just figured out time travel. Minh is an expert in rivers restoration and travels to ancient Mesopotamia to collect data that will help restore the Tigris and Euphrates river regions.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; geology and hydrology nerds might or might not enjoy seeing a future version of their science at the center of a story.

In-depth thoughts: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a pretty quick read. My only complaint is that it’s too quick: the beginning of the story sets up a lot of intrigue and possible plot points that are never really pursued or resolved. Given how abrupt the ending is, and how much is left unfinished, it feels like Robson left the door open for a sequel, but who knows if that will materialize. What’s there is fun, good writing — I just want there to be more of it!

Robson’s style and syntax itself is simple and uncomplicated, but EFL readers might trip over some of the more technical science and laboratory terms. (The story is about scientists, and the main thrust of the story is about them gathering samples, after all.) I’m a native speaker and it was hard to tell where the current-day science jargon ended and the future science jargon began. But if you can cut through some of the  academic-sounding vocabulary, it’s a fast-paced read.

L’Étranger

I read L’Étranger because I want to keep my French from slipping. I figured it would be a good choice because I’ve already read it twice—when practicing reading in a foreign language, a book you’re already familiar with is the best possible choice.

Cover of French edition of L'Étranger.
Image courtesy Gallimard.

Author: Albert Camus

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.97 stars

Language scaling: N/A (read the original French)

Summary: Meursault murders a man and finds his entire life put on trial.

Recommended audience: People who want to engage with “serious literature” (whatever that means) while they practice a foreign language.

In-depth thoughts: Something about mid-20th century French literature lends itself well to foreign language study. Okay, maybe not all of it. But this and Le Petit Prince are books I’ve read and enjoyed in a few different languages.

It’s L’Étranger. You’ve either read it or you haven’t and there’s not much need for me to weigh in on my opinion on the book, except that I’ll be balancing my (re)reading of this with a novel by an Algerian author. If you spend too long thinking about how the non-white characters in the book exist as plot devices to put Meursault on trial and then in prison it leaves an uncomfortable taste in your mouth, and the best remedy for that is to broaden your own horizons.

Otherwise I’m already falling behind on my Goodreads Challenge for the year. The falling behind doesn’t bother me as much as the not reading bothers me. Whenever I’m in a bad way, my reading drops off—or maybe a drop off in reading leads to grumpiness and depression. Impossible to tell; I’ve never paid close enough attention to notice which starts first. The two definitely feed into each other, regardless. But now I’m off the blocks and hopefully my momentum (and mood) will pick up a little bit going into February.

Currently (Still) Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

Here’s my initial hot take of the first few episodes of Ulysses.

When we last left our heroine, she had bemoaned “too much interiority.” Naively, she thought that she had hit the densest, thorniest parts of Ulysses. That turned out to be misguided hope.

Current thoughts: the connections between the episodes in Ulysses and the chapters of The Odyssey often seem tenuous, if there are any at all. I’m less than impressed. Perhaps the connection has been overstated by Joyce scholars over the years, meaning Joyce himself isn’t to blame?

How much work can you reasonably expect an audience or a reader to do before really, the truth is you’re a garbage writer? I recognize that Ulysses isn’t up there with Finnegans Wake in terms of impenetrability, but nonetheless there are moments. Is Mrs Dalloway a deliberately better book and an eyeroll at Joyce’s pompous view of himself? Or is it a diet version of an artistic vision Woolf had that was similar in scope and density to Ulysses, pared down out of a stronger tendency to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and input than the default male assumption of “but of course my way is the best”?

If you need an annotated version and a podcast and extensive notes to make any sense of a book, maybe the author didn’t do that good of a job. Of course studying a text deeply and thoroughly can add layers of nuance and appreciation in addition to a surface-level enjoyment, but that shouldn’t be the only way to make it through to the other side with any meaningful understanding.

Speaking of notes, I’ve let re:Joyce fall by the wayside. It was to be expected; I hate podcasts. I might listen to a podcast hateread this sucker, though! Other wise, the only study tool I’m using for this is to read plot summaries of each episode beforehand (or after) so I have a mental framework of what’s supposed to be actually going on in the world.

 

My Favorite Books of 2018, According to GoodReads

Other years I’ve had to split my 5-star books into two posts, but this year I think they can comfortably be combined into one. Here were my reading highlights of 2018!

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

My criterion for rating a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads is that it has the potential for widespread appeal, or that it masterfully addresses a major social or everyday question. Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of outlining the historical context of early Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Cover of Rien où poser sa tête

 

Rien où poser sa tête

I stumbled across this thanks to the review of the English translation in Asymptote. Its chance rescue from obscurity mirrors, almost too well, Frenkel’s own brushes with death in Vichy France. Out of all my reading in 2018, this one was probably the most relevant to today’s events and politics.

Cover of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Proust and the Squid

I waffled on whether to give Proust and the Squid 5 stars rather than 4, but decided in the end to be generous. While the story of the brain learns how to read isn’t the same urgent issue as Nazis or Christianity, it’s something almost all of us do and whose complexity we should all appreciate.

Cover of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics

While Eisenstein might be more optimistic and naive than warranted, his explanation of economics, credit and inflation is the most cogent I’ve read and he dramatically shifted my attitude towards money and how I save and spend it. That’s what earned this book 5 stars from me, despite Eisenstein’s occasional lapse into conspiracy-adjacent tangents.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.

I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!

Los Angeles Noir

I was already familiar with Akashic’s Noir series when a friend included Los Angeles Noir—completely unprompted—in a care package she sent me over the summer. After textbooks and thorny, hundred-year-old Swedish, I needed something light to take the edge off during the holiday. Noir short stories seemed like just the ticket.

Cover of Los Angeles Noir
Image courtesy Akashic Records press

Editor: Denise Hamilton

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2

Summary: A collection of noir short stories set in Los Angeles.

Recommended audience: Fans of crime and thriller fiction; people with a soft spot for Los Angeles

In-depth thoughts: Much as I’ve sung the praises of short stories elsewhere, they’re not my favorite genre to read. Nor am I much of a crime or noir fan. Still, there were a couple I really enjoyed.

My friend sent it in the care package on account of “Koreatown,” by Naomi Hirahara, which takes place primarily at a Korean-style spa, and probably equally for our shared love of Korean spas as for the story itself. (It was a good story. I didn’t see the twist coming and actually said, out loud, “Holy shit!”)

Otherwise, the only other stories I really liked, from beginning to end, were Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210,” a mystery behind a woman’s stolen, then found, jewels, and “Fish,” by Lienna Silver, about truth and friendship.  There were moments “Golden Gopher” (Susan Straight) that really worked for me, but ultimately I liked the protagonist better than the plot. Some stories felt bloated and unwieldy; some were short and trim but too nihilistic for my taste (“That’s noir,” you can fairly point out, and you’d be correct); and some protagonists were just a little too anti-hero and unlikable (again: “That’s noir.”)

Still, as a collection of contemporary popular writing it’s perfect for EFL students. Learners with a penchant for crime writing would enjoy this, and might enjoy seeing if Akashic has a collection for a city they know well or want to visit.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

I stumbled across Voodoo Histories when I went to the library back in October to finish up some reading. I have the great good luck to work a short walk away from Stadsbiblioteket, and I wandered into a study room to finish up another book I was reading when I saw Voodoo Histories in the recommended display. It left the library with me that night.

The UK edition of Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Author: David Aaronovitch

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.57 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Aaronovitch debunks a variety of notable conspiracy theories from the last hundred years or so, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to McCarthyism to 9/11 truthers to the birther movement.

Recommended audience: People interested in politics or modern history

In-depth thoughts:  Overall, Aaronovitch gives a thorough background on a variety of conspiracy theories that plagued the last hundred years or so. But it doesn’t really live up to the subtitle of the book: “the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.” The first chapter out of the gate is about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it’s a great blend of the details of the conspiracy theory and also highlighting exactly how this particular theory shaped history. But later ones, for example about the death of Princess Diana, are pure debunking that don’t really bring up how they affected geopolitical events.

The other fault with this book is that it was simply before its time. It was originally published in 2009; the latest edition came out in 2011. It was just in time to address the “birther” conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama, but the Spirit Cooking and Pizzagate controversies leading up to the 2016 American election would have fit in very well in this book (and frankly had more of an impact on modern history than Princess Diana).

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors is another random find from Stadsbiblioteket’s “recommended” shelf in the study room. Except it’s not that random, because I’d read reviews of Black Tudors elsewhere and had actually put it on my “to read” list last year. Why not pick it up when I had the chance, right?

UK edition of Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Image courtesy ONEworld publications

Author: Miranda Kaufmann

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.79 stars

Language scaling: B2, though Kaufmann quotes heavily from original sources that are more like C2

Summary: Through the lens of the reconstructed lives of ten free black men and women in Tudor England, Kaufmann provides an important overview of England’s interactions and trade with with different peoples on the African continent.

Recommended audience: People interested in African studies or English history; British citizens

In-depth thoughts:  Despite the title of the book, much of Black Tudors focuses on the life and history surrounding these people rather than, as the name would suggest, their actual lives. Tragically, this means that in a book called Black Tudors, the most ink is spilled over white people. But the records for common merchants and the peasantry are scanty, as you’d expect; I know that there’s not much for Kaufmann to go on and she does a remarkable job with the little material that’s available. Even if their personal struggles and triumphs and simply daily minutiae are lost to history, the ordinary lives of these people—a salvage diver, a trumpeter at the King’s court, a silk weaver, among others—are a great chance to explore what England’s foreign policy and trade actually looked like during the Tudor period, and what kind of engagement they had with the world beyond Europe.

What Kaufmann does exceptionally well is juggling the many names, dates, and events surrounding, say, a piracy expedition or evolving trade relations so that a reader with no previous knowledge can follow the broad strokes of the events and keep up with the story. The different lives then are a sort of framing device or focus for discussing a wide range of Tudor-era laws and customs, making what would otherwise be a disparate collection of facts and anecdotes easy to track.