The Spider King’s Daughter

The June selection for my Facebook book club was The Spider King’s Daughter, the debut novel by Chibundo Onuzo. I went in hoping that it would pull me out of the book slump brought on by RadianceHow I Became A North Korean, Gena/Finn, and the middle grade books I previewed for some of my students. The Facebook book club has the best hit/miss ratio out of all three that I’m in, after all.

 

Author: Chibundu Onuzo

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.42

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abike, the daughter of a wealthy (and shady) businessman, encounters “Runner G,” a street hawker with a tragic past, and the two begin a relationship. Things take an unexpected turn when Runner G takes a fresh look at his own history.

Content warning: The book opens up with a gruesome scene of animal cruelty, but everything else afterwards is fairly tame

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; YA fans looking for something a bit grittier; those interested in Nigerian literature

In-depth thoughts: Onuzo is an engaging writer and I hope she continues down that path. (Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, came out last year. Hurrah!) This was engaging at a time when nothing else I was reading could capture my interest and Onuzo deserves a lot of praise just for that.

My favorite parts of the book all involve spoilers. I will say this: what starts as a meet cute adolescent love story takes on an unexpectedly darker tone. Or maybe I should have been expecting that, considering that the book opens with Abike telling us about how her father had her beloved dog deliberately run over.

Most of the reveals were more or less obvious, but the book doesn’t rely on the shock of those reveals for impact. I think, even, Onuzo expects readers to already know the truth from the very beginning. It’s how the characters react to these reveals that’s engaging and unexpected.

The book switches between Abike and Runner G’s perspectives, with Abike’s in italics. Reading extended passages in italics is straining, at best, but Onuzo’s prose (and the short paragraphs) make it much easier than in other books (James Agee’s posthumous A Death in the Family, for example). At the book’s climax, when we switch between Abike’s and Runner G’s perspectives rapidly—at every line, for a short while—this typesetting choice proves very necessary.

Set in Lagos and with secondary characters from poverty classes with little or no education, there is a fair amount of pidgin English and Nigerian slang in the dialogue. Readers will be able to discern meaning from context in most if not all cases, but EFL readers might be a little disoriented at its initial appearance.

Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

How I Became a North Korean: Book Review

I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.

The cover of "How I Became a North Korean" by Krys Lee

 

Author: Krys Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.5

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.

Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.

Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors

In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.

Asymptote: April 2018

The cover of the April 2018 issue of Asymptote. A blue ink drawing of an urban landscape and a red ink drawing of a jungle landscape intersect, like a Venn diagram, in a purple tree with a bird sitting in its branches.
Image courtesy Asymptote

One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote.  It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!

Since I also think that short-form writing  is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!

Anyway, my favorites from the April 2018 issue!

There were two short stories I enjoyed a lot, Taklamakan Misdelivery (part of their special feature focusing on Korean literature) and Tick Constellations (part of the issue’s regular offerings).

As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunions made me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind how No Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.

And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: Book Review

I can’t imagine a title more attention grabbing than one about badass librarians. And for anyone who loves books, knowledge, or the written word, the story of how a modern Library of Alexandria tragedy was avoided is something that gets you right in the gut.

The cover of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

 

Author: Joshua Hammer

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.47

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.

Recommended audience: Those interested in current events; those interested in Malian history; anyone who still despairs over the loss of the library of Alexandria

In-depth thoughts: The title suggests that the book will focus on the manuscripts and the mission to save them. In reality, the focus is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. There are also fairly substantial histories both of Timbuktu’s history as a center of intellectualism and art and of Haidara’s treks across the Sahara to obtain these manuscripts, of course, but those feel a little more relevant to the topic at hand. I suspect that the lefthand turns into Al Qaeda’s takeover of Timbuktu are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish.

Gena/Finn: Book Review

Generally positive reviews of Gena/Finn were making the rounds through some of my favorite book bloggers and BookTubers (still not sure what the capital letters rule is for that one…), so I added it to my TBR and included it in my suggestions for my Discord book club. It ended up being our selection for August and like with My Real Children I decided to get ahead of the agenda.

The cover of "Gena/Finn" by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Author: Hannah Moskowitz, Kat Helgeson

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.37

Language scaling: B1+*

Summary: Gena and Finn are two fans of the same cop drama show, and become close friends offline.

Recommended audience: People who have made friends on the Internet thanks to fan culture

In-depth thoughts: I had really personal reasons for being interested in this book and for recommending it for my Discord book club. Most of my friends in high school were of the Internet variety, out of a group of fans of a particular TV show. Even though I was never really active in “fandom” as such (I don’t write or read fanfiction, I don’t hoard fanart, I’m not really interested in making the things I like the be-all, end-all of my identity), the way those friendships formed online were really important to how I grew up and where I ended up in life. I don’t think there are many books that really tackle the importance (and also weirdness) of online friendships; the last time I’d read about that sort of thing was in Pattern Recognition of all things, and that was just a brief aside in what was otherwise a cyberpunk thriller.

I was expecting a story that chronicled the kind of awkward budding friendships I was cultivating in front of the computer screen in high school, and what I got was something else. Those were the bits Moskowitz and Helgeson skipped right over in favor of the kind of melodrama that could happen between any two friends, regardless of where or how they met, but with a sprinkling of unrealistic lefthand turn plot points for good measure (former child actors! shoehorned romance! tragic deaths!).

And the nail in the coffin for me was reading the book summary after I had read the book.

Gena (short for Genevieve) and Finn (short for Stephanie) have little in common. Book-smart Gena is preparing to leave her posh boarding school for college; down-to-earth Finn is a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in the big city.

If I need the book description to tell me that Gena and Finn have nothing in common, and that one is “book-smart” while the other is “down-to-earth,” then you’ve failed in your writing. In the book they come across as quite samey, except that one of them has a history of mental health issues.

I wouldn’t recommend this for ELL readers except maybe ones who are already knee deep in fandom anyway (hence the asterisk in the language scaling). It seems the book I want to read about Internet friendships has yet to be written.

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I’m no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don’t have to wait for a respective book’s month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it’s not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Cover of "My Real Children" by  Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Patrician Cowan is living out the end of her life in a care facility for dementia patients. Unlike most dementia patients, however, she also remembers two lives. Which one is the truth? Which children are her real children?

Content warning: Some scenes of emotional abuse; a couple of uncomfortable, coercive sex scenes

Recommended audience: Alternative history fans, actual history buffs, people who are anxious over the life choices they’ve made, readers looking for LGBTQ+ historical commentary

In-depth thoughts: My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it’s not just Patricia’s life that’s different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that’s never entirely resolved: did Patricia’s choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia’s choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that’s because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There’s no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia’s memory, or why she’s drifting between two timelines (it’s most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing); it’s simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

Whether or not you want to consider it “proper” science fiction, My Real Children is a great option for ESL students: no weird alien races, no futuristic technological terms, no fantastical elements to try and keep straight. It’s simply two alternate histories that readers may already be familiar with, side by side.

Stockholms Litteraturmässan 2018

Utställarhallen Hörsalen Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholms Litteraturmässa 2016
Image courtesy Kulturhuset and Stockholms Litteraturmässan

Another year, another successful Litteraturmässan! Or, at least, it was successful from my perspective. I guess it’s up to the vendors and the sponsors to decide if it was successful in a more typical sense. The panels I attended and my thoughts on them:

Vi minns Ursula Le Guin

It took me twenty years to get into Le Guin, but I made it eventually. Still, interesting to hear people talk about her who fell in love with her writing from the get-go. (The difference: half of the panel seemed to get into her via The Left Hand of Darkness, whereas my first attempt was either A Wizard of Earthsea or The Dispossessed.) Also weird to hear a discussion about Ursula K.  Le Guin in Swedish when English and Swedish pronounce the name of the letter “K” differently. (It’s the little things.)

Tema Fristad: Housam Al-Mosilli

Al-Mosilli was engaging and so was the moderator (interlocutor?), Kholod Saghir. Here’s an interview with him in English from Sampsonia Way.

Sveriges dolda historier

I don’t know if it was because I had a hard time tracking the discussion in Swedish or because the topic wasn’t as engaging as I thought it would be, but I confess to ducking out early of this one. It might have been better if I had read the books in question prior to the discussion: Aednan and Släpp ingen jävel över bron, both of which sound interesting in their own right.

Tema Fristad: Zurab Rtveliashvili

While I found the discussion frustratingly limited (John Swedenmark seemed extremely uncomfortable with silence and therefore didn’t allow Rtveliashvili as much time to answer as maybe he needed), the poetry readings and performances were engaging. Here’s a clip of Rtveliashvili reading a poem he also read at the panel (though without the instrumental accompaniment).

De värnlösa

Never a bad time to discuss Nazis and their nonsense. I picked up a copy of Lilian O. Montmar’s book (same title as the discussion panel) in the market for my sambo.

Tema Fristad: Basim Ahmed Jamal

An accomplished musician who sort of stumbled into opening Mosul’s first bookstore in the 1990s, Jamal was an absolute delight and maybe my favorite presenter. I may be biased because he also played some songs on the clarinet (an instrument I kind of, sort of play myself) to open and close the panel.

Flora Nwapa and African women in world literature

I didn’t get to see as much of this panel as I would have liked, but I liked what I saw. Heard? I hope that the library will get in more copies of Flora Nwapa‘s books in soon, because now I’m quite curious about them!

Tema Fristad: Tesfagiorgis Habte

Habte was perhaps the most at-ease speaker in all the panels I attended, or at least the one most willing to crack jokes. It helped that Sami Said was also a great interviewer: they had good banter and he allowed Habte time to answer questions. Habte spoke about his years in prison, but there’s only so much to cover in twenty-five minutes. His piece at PENeritrea touches on many of the things he talked about, and then some

Cowboy Pug: Book Review

This was another birthday gift for a student. I’d never heard of the series before, but this student likes pugs so I thought Cowboy Pug would be an appropriate enough gift. Again, I can hardly be expected to buy a book for a student and not read it first!

The cover of "Cowboy Pug" by Laura James

Author: Laura James

Illustrator: Églantine Ceulemens

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: A2+

Summary: Lady Miranda and Pug are set to be cowboys for the day, but first they need to find a horse…and stay on the right side of the law.

Recommended audience: Elementary and middle school students

In-depth thoughts: After Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Cowboy Pug was a refreshing, if vacant, little read. The story is a little dragged-out but cute. It’s apparently the second in a series, which would explain why I felt a little lost going in. (Why does this small child, Lady Miranda, have a huge house and servants and a sedan chair and apparently no need to go to school? Are we in a semi-fantasy world or the real one?) I can’t imagine the actual target demographic will be thinking much about that larger context, though. It’s a cute pug! In a rodeo!

Adults might not be so easily charmed (unless they love pugs or horses), but it’s innocent and imaginative fun.

National Poetry Month 2018: Nayyirah Waheed and Instapoetry

I actually stumbled across Waheed’s poetry last November, but since I’m always at a loss when it comes to recommending and enjoying poetry, I kept it under my hat until my annual National Poetry Month post.

As it turns out, poetry on Instagram–Instapoetry–is a thing. A popular thing. This is what I get for not being on Instagram, I guess? I first came across Waheed last November, when a member of my Facebook book club shared a link to the free Kindle downloads of Waheed’s collections, salt. and nejma. I didn’t realize that Waheed is part of a larger movement that includes New York Times bestsellers and international book tours and full-on celebrities.  As this take from the Guardian points out:

Despite their popular success, the Instapoets’ style of angsty heartbreak poetry and daily outpourings of emotion is not to everyone’s taste. Nor do they undergo the same rigorous revising processes of more conventional poets. Gregson has said he never edits his 17-syllable haiku – “because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time” – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft.

And while Instapoetry may feel insipid and bland at times, does poetry need gatekeepers? If Instapoetry is the poetry of capitalism, is that such a bad thing? Surely Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes would have been sharing early drafts of facile, ambitiously vague poetry on Instagram if it had been around sixty years ago? Are we only sneering at Instapoetry because young women like it?

I don’t know. I can only know what I like.

As someone who’s had a life-long fascination with patterns and structure and rhythm, it’s not really surprising that when it comes to poetry I am naturally attracted to closed verse, with its underlying regularity in meter and rhyme. No surprise, then, that I tend to prefer my poetry in the form of song lyrics.

Waheed’s poetry, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern: free verse, fragmentary, and with an interesting relationship to punctuation. Unsurprisingly, I was not consistently blown away at every page, but there are some gems in both collections.

As Rishi Distidar says in that Guardian article:

What makes you a poet is learning the craft, spending time reading other poets and bringing writerly tools to the emotions you are trying to convey. I think it’s great if people are enjoying poetry through social media but the next step would be to read more poetry and understand what else is out there. Contemporary poets offline are incredibly vibrant – it’s just directing people into that world.

However! Such short little bursts of language are perfect for EFL students to work with, in the classroom and outside of it. You can order paperback copies of her work from Amazon if you want copies for students to browse in your classroom, or you can follow Waheed on Instagram for little bits of poetry in your Instagram feed.