What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 3

It’s Feminist Science Fiction Book Club day. Noah has a meeting with the alumni board of his grad school program, so Elizabeth and I get to spend quality time together. Quality time at the supermarket, even: one of my favorite places to go when visiting people. This time, though, not so much. Not because I’m with Elizabeth but because it’s no longer so early into my trip here and there’s no giddy anticipation of “oh, let’s get this!”; we’re just shopping for the essentials for book club brunch.

When we get back, I hop in the shower while Elizabeth poaches eggs in their tiny kitchen, and it smells divine when I get out. I get out the table dressings and fight the urge to use the Swedish particle verb that neatly encapsulates the meaning of “set the table” when I ask if she wants me to set the table. Maybe I’ve gone native ?

I curl up with more Ted Chiang stories until people show up. Noah is the first back, triggering a stream of other arrivals: Camille, who I met last night, and two others. The chairs come out now, including those fold-up canvas sporting event chairs with the cupholders in the armrests. Noah takes one of them between me and Elizabeth, and it’s the rare occasion where I’m taller than him—he is, easily, a foot taller than me.

“This is really freaking me out,” I comment. “I’m not used to you being so much shorter than me. Usually it’s the opposite experience.”

Discussion kicks off with the trials and tribulations of cat ownership, and then we get to Karen Memory, which everyone seems more or less equally lukewarm about for a variety of reasons, but we all agree that there’s a long stretch in the middle where nothing happens. Noah brings up that the introduction of the cast of characters feels like a diversity checklist and maybe directly in response to the Sad/Rabid Puppies debacle of however many years ago now, someone else doesn’t care for the dialect, and I make my nitpicky point about how the book makes a useless and offhanded mention of radium watch dial painting that’s maybe 30 years anachronistic, and that people didn’t well and fully realize radium was killing those women for another 10? 20? years after. The “it’s a steampunk alternate history” argument is made, to which I counterargue that yes, I’ll take that for the big stuff, but for small things that seem to serve as a signal of “I did research!” it’s jarring and frustrating because it didn’t NEED to be in there for the story and ruins the whole image of “I did research!”

Cover of Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory."
Image courtesy Tor

We also discuss The Dispossessed and whether or not it’s feminist, and whether or not it squares with actual anarchist experience. (One member of the book club has experience with real-life anarchists, or maybe real-life anarchist communes, and Noah wants to pick her brain.) Members drift out again, for other events, but one member (who disliked the dialect) remains and discussion unofficially continues for a few minutes more. I bring up The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage as a potential read, and we talk about how contemporary computer science treats Lovelace. The question of whether or not I think it qualifies as feminist is brought up, and I argue yes, based on the fact that the author comes down pretty explicitly in the “was Ada a genuine inspiration or just riding the coattails?” debate as being, to put it roughly, pro-Ada, which can be seen as a sort of feminist statement maybe? Other books tangentially related to feminist sci-fi come up, and then it’s time for the last member to make a graceful exit.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The next item on the agenda is a goodbye party for grad school friends who are leaving Austin by way of Mexico City for North Carolina. It’s not for hours, though, and Noah wants to head to the gym otherwise he’ll be bouncing off the walls. I suggest visiting Book People, which was a suggestion earlier in the visit that never manifested, and who can resist a visit to a book store? This works out—they can drive to the gym and leave me at a nearby bus stop for a route that goes straight there—and away we go.

I hole up in the bookstore cafe (one of the rare, not-all-purpose fooderies I visit; there is no beer and wine menu) with a hibiscus tea that’s probably 80% ice. I read through the first two trade paperback collections of Monstress. I briefly consider buying them, but err in favor of I don’t need any more goddamn books.

Noah and Elizabeth turn up much sooner than I’d expect from going to the gym, but I suppose they had a head start versus my wait for the bus and the bus ride here. We opt to hang out a while longer at Book People, since we all have reading: I’m still working on Monstress, Noah has picked up Conscience of a Conservative, and Elizabeth is reading a dense nonfiction book about one of the kings of France.

Once we’re sufficiently book’d and sufficiently hungry, we wander off in search of dinner, by way of the Lush store. Noah grouses about how so many of the bath items look like food (“That just seems like a bad idea!”) and a clerk overhears him and stops to chat about how they sometimes find items with teethmarks in them. We gab a bit more about shouldn’t context in the store make that clear, and then I think to ask if they have any stick perfume. I love my particular Korean brand and scent, but if Lush has something comparable it would probably be cheaper to get it from them than import it from Korea. I show her the container and she nods and leads me to a display where Elizabeth is talking to another sales rep.

“In these tins. We had sticks like that before, but they got stuck a lot and customers complained about wasted product.”

I thank her and give the vanilla sample a smell, but it’s impossible to tell anything in the store. I dose up one wrist with the Korean and another with the Lush, and walk outside to compare the scents in fresh air, free from olfactory interference. No dice; the Lush one smells like ice cream, sickly sweet and not the same floral-vanilla I’ve come to love.

Treaty oak austin 2015

Elizabeth and Noah are quick to follow me out, and we continue to dinner by way of the Treaty Oak, whose story Noah relates to me as we walk. Eventually, we end up at a diner, where I do the thing I always do for lunch or dinner in a new diner and order a grilled cheese. Discussion floats around board games and mistakes our parents taught us and how good the milkshakes are here.

“They cost more than five dollars, actually,” Noah offers, when he sees me struggling.

“THANK YOU,” I reply. “And they don’t put no bourbon in it or nothing?”

“Nope.”

Now it’s finally time for the goodbye party, and to start with I feel a tiny bit miserable because it’s a large group at a picnic table that makes it hard to have a conversation with more than just a handful of people at a time. But conversations settle into place like wagon ruts; topics flit back and forth among death metal bands and bad movies and effective solutions for homelessness (since everyone at the table is some kind of policy wonk or another). Eventually the host gets ready to leave for the next stop, and Elizabeth and Noah decide to call it quits. Everyone brushes their teeth and says goodnight.

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

Armchair BEA, Day 2, Part 2

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

I’m continuing with the prompts from Day 2 of the event. There were actually two questions, and I got so carried away with the first question about what makes a good book that I had to save the second question for another day. That day is today!

The online book community has changed so much over the years. How do we keep up within our own book-sphere as well as within the community as a whole (i.e., libraries, bookstores, authors, publishers, etc.)?

Generally speaking, I don’t like to follow actual authors on social media. Not fiction authors, anyway. It seems like a marketing model best described as “the cult of personality” has taken over the fiction market, where you buy someone’s books based on how much you like them as a persona rather than how interested you are in their writing. But nonfiction writers seem to be followed more as a nexus of information, and that’s perhaps more relevant to their writing than how they perform their personalities.

There are three ways that I stay plugged into the book world at large. And the phrase “plugged into” suggests a deliberate intention that I don’t really have, so I should be clear. I’m not invested in the book news world in any serious way. It’s more like a happy accident because I like to talk about books and writing.

The first is through my annual(ish) participation in ArmchairBEA. The blog hops and the Twitter chats always bring a few books or book bloggers (who then recommend new books) to my attention. An introvert can handle being social once a year! 😉

The second is through NetGalley and Blogging for Books. I don’t think any of the books I’ve read through them have gone on to be huge splashes (except for the comics series Monstress), but they are by far my biggest source for new releases. Limited shelf space and the knowledge that we’re going to eventually move out of this apartment means that I have become very conservative in my acquisition of new (physical) books, but I’ll take all the free ebooks I can get!

But mostly I keep tabs on the book world through a few book bloggers and BookTubers (booktubers? bookTubers? I wonder what CMOS has to say about that) who seem to have tastes similar to my own. They’re like my psychopomps in the realm of new books. It’s worth it, because that’s how I end up finding out about books like A Tale for the Time Being. There are some new things under the sun!

So, to that end, I’d love to know what book bloggers or BookTubers you follow! Who do you recommend? Comment or Tweet at me: @KobaEnglish.

Armchair BEA, Day 2

Since I don’t have another book to talk about, I thought I’d continue with the blog prompts from this year’s Armchair BEA.

What makes or breaks a book? How do we rate the books, or determine if it is good literature or a good story? What do we want from an author event? How does diversity representation fit into all of this?

Is there any single thing that makes or breaks a book? Bad writing, I guess—by which I primarily mean the quality and readability of the prose. A multitude of sins can be covered by gorgeous language; likewise, the world’s most compelling plot or narrator can be irrevocably hampered by awkward, stilted, or just plain bad prose.

Then there comes the issue of story crafting, and how an author deals with things like plot, character, and setting, and I think all of those things end up being up to personal taste. The books I love best tend to be character-driven pieces where nothing much actually happens; the ones I put down are books that have bland, unappealing characters. Rabbit, Run and Revolutionary Road are great examples of this. And A Death in the Family, just for a title that doesn’t full of Rs.

The “we” in the following two questions is implicitly the book blogger community, and I’m as far removed from that community as someone who (sometimes) blogs about books can be. So I can really only speak for myself here, rather than speculate on patterns within the book blogosphere.

When it comes to rating books, I’m sticking with the GoodReads 5-star framework:

  • 1 star: Didn’t like it
  • 2: It was okay.
  • 3. I liked it.
  • 4. I really liked it.
  • 5. I loved it!

To that extent, even though I think “a good story” and “good literature” aren’t always the same thing; the best “a good story” can do with me is 4 stars. I reserve my stingy 5-star ratings for books that I feel qualify as “good literature.” (Or, in the realm of nonfiction, books that are spectacularly written and touch on something I think everyone should know.)

Every book starts out as a 2-star book, and then it moves up or down depending on how things go. My biggest struggle is between 4 and 5 stars. What is “good literature”? How is that any different from “a good story”? And there’s plenty of “good literature” that have received miserable ratings from me.

Genre and media also represent issues. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, but at the same time I don’t think it’s necessarily a 5-star series, either. What would make it a 5-star series, though? Nothing I can really think of. And it feels a little petty to hold out on that last star just because of some ineffable “something” that’s missing (but that I can’t describe). I swing back and forth on giving that one 4 and 5 stars. (It’s currently sitting at 5, but I might go and change it after finishing this entry.)

I’m skipping over author events (most authors I like are either dead, noteworthy recluses, or both—”author events” aren’t really a thing for me) to go straight to diversity.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the classics I hate or can’t bring myself to finish (and that end up getting those 2- and 1-star ratings on GoodReads) are ones by (dead) white guys. I have notable soft spots in my heart for dead white guys with outsized reputations (Henry David Thoreau and David Foster Wallace chief among them), and certainly a shift in diversity doesn’t guarantee that a book will become a flawless masterpiece for me—I still think Native Son trades on base stereotypes and a pretty awful treatment of women, white and Black alike—but it does give a writer an edge in as much as they are more likely to have something fresh or interesting to say.

No-No Boy is about the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps and World War II in Japanese-American communities, but it’s also about the universal struggle of coming to grips with your ambitions in the face of what your family and community want out of, and expect for, you. The context of No-No Boy really bring those struggles into a sharp focus, precisely because of the stressful balance between Japanese and American cultures. The Fifth Season enriches the fantasy genre by taking up the issues of subservience, marginalization, and exploitation (issues that still plague the United States today, often falling neatly along race and gender lines) instead of/within the usual story of “fight the evil monster and save the kingdom” that we’ve all read a thousand times. And so on.

There was another set of questions for Day 2, but I’ll tackle those another week. Even with skipping the question about author events, these were questions that generated a lot of food for thought! Let me know what you think in the comments, or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish).

ArmchairBEA, Day 1: Introduction

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!

I am . . .

Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently . . .

I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.

I love . . .

I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.

I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!

On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.

My favorite . . .

My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.

My least favorite . . .

My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.

My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.

My current read . . .

Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations:  Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.

My summer plans . . .

I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.

My buddy . . .

My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:

Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2009
Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2010

He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.

And now he’s getting married!

My blog/channel/social media . . .

The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.

The best . . .

The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.

Book Review: This One Summer

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels for a while, now. Fortunately they seem to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, making it easy to find something to suit your tastes. It’s not just tights and capes!

Moreover, graphic novels are a really great resource for EFL students. Especially ones that aren’t already bookworms to begin with. This One Summer is one that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the teenage section of my local branch of the Stockholm Public Library.

This One Summer cover
Image courtesy First Second and Jillian Tamaki

Author: Mariko Tamaki

Artist: Jillian Tamaki

My GoodReads Rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.65 stars

Language level: A2/B1+

Plot summary: Rose and her family are on vacation in the lake town of Awago, something they’ve done since Rose was 5. Rose and her friend Windy watch slasher movies, go swimming in the lake, and watch teenage and adult drama unfold around them.

Recommended audience: This One Summer is marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I think there’s a lot in here for adults to relate to. We were all teenagers once! The language is relatively simple but there is a lot of slang, which might throw some readers off. There’s also some profanity. The story focuses more on characters than on plot, so it’s not for people who prefer a lot of action and story.

In-depth thoughts: I suppose I had certain expectations, and they weren’t really met. There isn’t a whole lot of plot or character development: Windy and Rose are just teenage girls watching the world around them: the stories happen for other people, not for them. I spent most of the time waiting for something to happen, and then nothing really did.

But the art is gorgeous. My favorite part—the freeze frames of all the slash-y horror movies Rose and Windy watch are drawn almost hyperrealistically, while all of the “real” world is fairly cartoony. I like little touches like that.

My family often stayed in a hunting cabin up in the mountains near Rutland, Vermont during the summers, so all of the “lake vacation” elements touched on some of my own favorite lake memories. That said, we didn’t really get to know the other residents and vacationers, so I never had a “lake friend” like Rose did.

No, not a lot happens, and I guess at the end of the day how you feel about character-driven stories will affect how you feel about this book. The good news is that you can pick it up from Stockholm Public Library and see for yourself if you want to buy it or not!

Book Review: Light

Author: Rob Cham

Genre: Fantasy (graphic novel)

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15

Language scaling: All levels / Not applicable

Plot summary: An adventurer looks for treasure in a fantasy world.

Recommended audience: Appropriate for all ages, Rob Cham’s art has something for everyone.

In-depth thoughts: I’ve talked before about the great potential graphic novels have to build confidence and bridge gaps in ELLs. By connecting words with pictures, students can more readily understand a story and increase their vocabulary. Books without words are another situation entirely. Purely visual stories like Rob Cham’s Light have a place in every library, particularly for teachers who work with young ELLs.

Image courtesy Rob Cham and Anino Comics/Adarna House.
Image courtesy Rob Cham and Anino Comics/Adarna House.

Many times, an activity calls for using or describing an image (this is why keeping a variety of magazines on hand can be a life saver); here’s an entire book with fantastic, child-friendly imagery you can pull out again and again. Each page is its own scene that invites imagination and wonder.

Of course, Light isn’t just a collection of pictures; it’s also a story. And in the tradition of classics like The Snowman, it’s very effective at telling its story without any words. But at the same time, the reader is free to create any story they wish. What happened in between each page? What are characters thinking? How are they feeling? All of that is up for interpretation and personalization, far more than in a conventional novel or graphic novel.

You can preview the first few pages of Light on Cham’s homepage. I quite like all of his work, though not all of it might be appropriate for children (a bit of nudity and salty language appear elsewhere). Light also has a sequel, Lost, which you can read for free online.

Finally, it might be worth pointing out that Cham is a Filipino artist. Do with that what you will: share Light with your Filipino diaspora or southeast Asian students (particularly those interested in video games or visual arts), include it in your #ownvoices or #diversebooks reading lists, or have a short geography/social studies lesson before or after reading.

I was provided with a free digital copy for review from NetGalley, but this in no way affected my opinion of the book. I will definitely be purchasing the hardcover version (which was just released a few days ago on October 4th) to use in my English lessons (and to enjoy myself!).

Graphic Novel Suggestions for ELLs

I’m a huge proponent of reading. I think it’s one of the best ways to acquire new vocabulary and to familiarize yourself with new language patterns. But sometimes making the leap from short sentences or paragraphs to full-length novels or even short stories is intimidating. Some students may have have a learning disability that makes it hard to focus on huge walls of text. In these cases, graphic novels can be a good stepping stone towards traditional novels—and they’re also just fun reading in their own right.

GetGraphic.org has an exhaustive list of graphic novels that might appeal to EFL students. They’re sorted alphabetically by title, and grade levels are given along with a brief summary. (Note: Grade 1 in the United States is typically 6–7 years old, and Grade 2 is 7–8, and so on.) Based on that list, and my own reading, I have a few recommendations.

For people who were or are cynical teenagers: Ghost World

The stress of college and an uncertain future lingers over outsider best friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer.

For people who love mythology and folklore: Fables

Beloved fairy tale characters have fled their homeland and try to make a new life in modern-day New York City.

For science nerds: Optical Allusions

From Jay Hosler’s own site: “Wrinkles the Wonder Brain has lost his bosses’ eye and now he has to search all of human imagination for it.” Eyes not your thing? Hosler also has graphic novels available on evolution and insects.

For history buffs: Boxers & Saints

This account of the Boxer Rebellion is told from two different fictional perspectives: a young Boxer and a Chinese convert to Catholicism.

For fans of the classics: The Last Knight

Comics giant Will Eisner takes on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

For people who feel like they don’t belong: Persepolis

The autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi and her youth in 1980s Iran. Volume 2 covers her years in Europe and return to Iran.

Do you have any favorite graphic novels? Share them in the comments or tweet me @KobaEnglish!