Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning

I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.

Surfing With Sartre, Aaron James
Image courtesy Anchor Books

Author: Aaron James

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars

Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)

Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?

Recommended audience: Surfers, philosophers, socialists

In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.

Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)

James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.

That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.

Asymptote Fall 2018

Image courtesy Asymptote Journal

I usually like to take my time and savor each and every piece in Asymptote before I link to my favorites here, but between NaNoWriMo and work that is simply not going to happen. I made time for cursory reading, at least, and my work did not go unrewarded!

I love Antoinette Fawcett’s essay on Translating Bird Cottage. I don’t have the luxury of spending days, weeks, months to find the right word, to research women’s undergarments in the early 20th century, to do field studies—but I understand the drive to do so. There is always the attendant obsession with finding just the right word, but there is also (if you are translating a piece you love, for the sheer love of it and in the hope that you can bring a thing you love to people who wouldn’t experience it otherwise) the desire to connect with the writer, to walk in their footsteps, to live in the story, to be their companion (or maybe be them). It’s the same reason I had to visit Walden Pond last year, and the reason I carried America Day by Day with me while I was in New York in 2016.

Ana Amaral’s “The Odyssey” (translated from Portuguese by Margaret Costa) is sweet and charming, and a welcome respite from our trash fire world.

Abdelleh Taïa’s reflections on language and multilingualism as an escape (translated by Hodna Nuernberg) are brief but compelling, or they at least touch on things I’ve been thinking about recently.

For Swedish speakers interested in English, or English speakers interested in Swedish, you can listen to Ann Jäderlund read some of her poetry in Swedish while you read Joel Duncan’s translations.

Norrtullsligan

I try to make a point of reading Swedish magazines and journals when I can. Sometimes I only have the brain power to focus on something short and article-length, and it’s good to mix up my literary fiction reading with popular non-fiction.

One of the unintended benefits of this project is that I’ve collected numerous tips on Swedish authors to read. Historiskan always profiles an author or two in every issue, and Populär Historia put out a special issue earlier this year, dedicated to “pioneering women,” that was chock full of writers (or women who did exciting things and also happened to write about it). I have a list in my phone of all the names that have turned up so far in my reading, and if I find myself at the library without another book to get, I see if I can find what’s there.

Cover of Elin Wägner's "Norrtullsligan."

Author: Elin Wägner

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.65 stars

Language scaling: N/A (read in Swedish; available in English as Men and Other Misfortunes in a collection entitled Stockholm Stories, translated by Betty Cain and Ulla Sweedler)

Summary: The daily struggles of four working-class women who share an apartment in Stockholm at the turn of the last century.

Recommended audience: People who liked the concept of Lena Dunham’s Girls but found the actual execution unappealing

In-depth thoughts: I didn’t remember much about Wägner when I checked this book out from the library, except that she was a suffragette and her name was on my list. But I did remember this photograph of her:

Elin Wägner in front of the 351,454 signatures collected to support women's right to vote, a stack of binders half a meter taller than herself.
Elin Wägner in front of the 351,454 signatures collected to support women’s right to vote.

At the turn of the last century, there was something of a mass exodus of young women from the Swedish countryside into larger cities, leading to a social phenomenon of young women who could (more or less) support themselves and therefore weren’t as desperate to marry as they would have been in previous generations. Norrtullsligan is a quick survey of daily life of four of those women (the “league” referred to in the title). The day’s media addressed this civilization-ending phenomenon with the same breathless pearl-clutching that today’s media uses with Millenials, making Norrtullsligan something like the Swedish 1900s version of Girls. Except better.

The league (Baby,  Eva, Emmy, and the narrator, Elisabeth) takes on headier issues of suffrage and worker’s rights while also dodging everyday headaches like insufferable relatives, sexual harassment from bosses, and heartache. Nonetheless, Norrtullsligan avoids being didactic and moralizing. The social commentary springs organically from the women’s lives and situations, rather than dictating plot points. Wägner’s prose is also a delight: 100 years old and somehow still fresh and contemporary in tone. Elisabeth is the best kind of narrator, wry and witty and ironic but with plenty of compassion. It’s a short book that reads quickly, yet still manages to address a wide range of larger issues. It’s like an explicitly feminist and infinitely more cheerful Doktor Glas.

The English translation is available on Google Books if you’d like a preview. I’m not entirely sold on it myself, though I appreciate the work that Cain and Sweedler did in bringing Norrtullsligan to the wider English-speaking world: Stockholm Stories is available via Xlibris, a self-publishing company, meaning that they probably invested a great deal of their own money into making it available. Something about the English translation, however, falls a little flat for me. Swedish speakers, even if non-native, would do better to just read the original.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….

Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!

Beyond the Rice Fields cover
Image courtesy Restless Books

Author: Naivo

Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars

Language scaling: C1

Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore

Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.

Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature

In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French).  But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.

My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.

The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.

For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places;  among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:

A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.

But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

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.

Cover of The Land of Invented Languages

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.

372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back: Hate Reading for Fun (and Profit?)

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.

The cover of Ready Player One

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

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?

Cover of Magiska Amerika Södern by Daniel Svanberg
Image courtesy HOI Publishing

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 the 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: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and  “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.

If I were a Swede reading this, I think 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.

Instead, 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.

Bibliotherapy: Walden

A stone bench by Walden pond on a sunny day.

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.

The choicest of relics, indeed.

Currently Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

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.