The Internet of Garbage

One of the best decisions I ever made was to subscribe to LitHub. A recent newsletter tipped me off to the fact that The Verge was making The Internet of Garbage available for free, and minutes later it was on my Kindle app.

Author: Sarah Jeong

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.16 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A brief history of contemporary Internet hate and death threat campaigns, as well as suggestions to mitigate them.

Recommended audience: Anyone who uses the Internet but doesn’t know what “doxxing” means

In-depth thoughts: Much of what Jeong reports on here isn’t new to me, but then again I’m a digital native with one eye constantly on the Internet hellscape. Many people aren’t, though, and so when cases of online harassment boil over to the point where traditional media outlets begin reporting on them, there is inevitably something lost in the explanation. The Internet of Garbage is an excellent 101 primer on the subject. And therein is my only criticism: it doesn’t go beyond the 101 level. But since the reason The Verge put out a free interim edition of the book is in anticipation of a forthcoming expanded edition; perhaps that new edition will have a bit more meat to it.

But again, it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve kept apprised of Internet hate campaigns from the beginning. For other people, this is exactly what they need. For EFL readers, the language is crisp and direct, with the most potentially confusing terms helpfully defined.

Sacred Economics

I’ve blogged here before about my participation in Simbi, an online bartering communitySacred Economics is a book I found there; hardly surprising given Simbi’s raison d’etre and Eisenstein’s skeptical attitude towards currency, credit, and capital.

Author: Charles Eisenstein

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.25 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Eisenstein presents the history of economics and argues that we’re in the midst of a model shift from profit-based capitalism to community- and connection-based gifts.

Recommended audience: Anyone

In-depth thoughts: I read this alongside Sapiens, which was an interesting experience. It was the equivalent of hearing a history of humankind in stereo, in two slightly different arrangements. Some points are similar and mesh really well; some are contradictory and require further research and scrutiny.

I want to say, straight off the bat, that there are a lot of un-founded assertions and bizarre speculation presented here that I recognize immediately as such and, as someone amenable to Eisenstein’s larger thesis, that I regret made it in what appears to be the more or less latest edition of the book.  If Harari was too much of a materialist for my taste, Eisenstein wasn’t enough of one: infinite energy inventions by Tesla and the like weren’t quashed by greedy capitalist pigs, they just never existed; the sun isn’t powered by human gratitude and isn’t less yellow than it was thirty years ago; homeopathy isn’t a viable substitute for evidence-based medicine*. It’s hard to tell if Eisenstein genuinely believes these assertions or if he’s presenting them as a rhetorical flourish on his larger point, but either way they damage his credibility.

On the other hand, Eisenstein makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Sacred Economics represents his own theory of economics. Instead of taking anything as a given, he makes a very solid effort to defend his theory (through his own arguments as well as copious amounts of research and quoting from others), rather than taking it as a fact and spending most of the book explaining human history.

Yellow suns and homeopathy aside, Eisenstein touches on a lot of important issues. I was torn between four and five stars for just that reason: I don’t want to endorse faulty reasoning or bad science, but I also think people need to reassess their perspective on money and where it comes from and what it does. That alone makes the book worth reading.

Eisenstein’s style is warm and personal, if somewhat rambly. It should be an approachable text for high-intermediate learners, though economics is a complex topic and even after multiple close readings I’m not sure I walked away understanding everything.

*For a fair, evidence-based look at the measured benefits of homeopathy (and there are some! but not the ones its adherents usually claim), I’d recommend Jo Marchant’s Cure. You can read more about it in my review from a couple of years ago.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.

Image courtesy Harvill Secker

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.

Recommended audience: Humans

In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.

Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.

Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.

Asymptote, Summer 2018

Image courtesy Asymptote Journal

The 2018 summer issue of Asymptote is out, and once again I’ve curated my favorites!

From short fiction:

“Anna O.,” by Ricardo Lisias (translated by Laura Norgaard)

The tension in this one is palpable, and the twist ending is rewarding.

“Listening In,” by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Short stories don’t have a lot of space for in-depth characterization, but Gundar-Goshen manages to accomplish exactly that for not one but two protagonists.

 

From non-fiction:

2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago,” by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker)

A fascinating mediation on an equally fascinating art project.

“Stories From the Barbershop,” by Nikola Popović  (translated by the author)

This is probably my favorite piece in the entire issue. I love when huge pieces of history intersect with quotidien slice-of-life.

 

Proust and the Squid

My ongoing self-directed professional development in the field of translations sends me deep into the academic and coursebook stacks at Stockholm University, most often within the linguistics section. On my last visit, Proust and the Squid caught my eye—what a title!—and, after just a moment’s hesitation, I added it to my stack.

The UK version of Proust and the Squid
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Author: Maryanne Wolf

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8

Language scaling: C1

Summary: Wolf sketches a short history of reading and the written language within a neurological framework, and hypothesizes about the neurological basis for dyslexia and other reading disorders.

Recommended audience: Elementary school teachers; special education teachers; book lovers; dyslexics

In-depth thoughts: I wasn’t expecting Proust and the Squid to be as good as it was, and I went into it expecting to enjoy it. Wolf manages to make complex neuroscience accessible to the layperson.

I debated whether to give this 4 or 5 stars. For anyone who works with young learners, this is a solid 5 stars. Wolf’s approach to typifying reading disorders and pinpointing what seems to be happening in the brain in these situations will no doubt prove useful for teachers, tutors, or parents with dyslexic children. I imagine it would be interesting to special education teachers as well, though maybe much of what Wolf touches on here would be covered in even greater detail over the course of a special education degree. Adult dyslexics might also appreciate understanding the neuro- and physiological foundations of reading and what’s happening in their brains in particular.

For the general public, I would say it’s only 4 stars, only because while the history of reading and the brain is fascinating for me, its immediate relevance to everyday life is more oddity than urgent. Wolf is largely accessible when writing about the hard science, but she tends towards to err on the side of obscurity rather than simplicity. It’s largely for that reason I would consider this a difficult book for English students (unless they were particularly motivated.) I’ll certainly have to read Proust and the Squid a few times to really appreciate it. It’s also been over a decade since the initial publication. I’d love to read an updated edition and see if there have been any new breakthroughs.

Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions

This was my second selection from the DipTrans recommended reading list. Leppihalme takes a look at allusions (within the context of English to Finnish translations) and different strategies for their translation.

The cover of "Culture Bumps" by Ritva Leppihalme

It’s maybe an obvious thing that I kind of already know, but one of the more important things I took away from this was just how much of the Swedish canon (so to speak) I have yet to read. Leppihalme included all kinds of examples of English allusions in all kinds of books in the corpus for her study and helpfully reproduces them within the text, along with quantitative data on how often Finnish readers were able to pick up on them.

English speakers forget, maybe, that despite the pervasive reach of English, there are lots of anglophone concepts that never pick up international traction. This always trips me up, because I’m never sure which Americanisms have taken root in Sweden and which haven’t. Going through the qualitative data, there were lots of “but surely that’s a pretty obvious one!” moments, which in turn invited reflection: what would the Swedish equivalent be? Would I recognize it if I read it in a novel? I thought about all of the Swedish I still haven’t read: a great deal of Strindberg (and none of it in the original Swedish), The Emigrants, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, most of the Beck movies and all of the novels, Snabba Cash. Or Swedish translations of cultural touchstones like the Bible, Shakespeare, and Aristotle.

Leppihalme examines different strategies regarding translating allusions in the target text from a descriptive rather than prescriptive framework (though always noting when a particular translation choice deviates from the original, whether through loss or addition of nuance). The book is in no way a manual or how-to text; it’s simply an examination of current practices and noting how often they’re used and where.

The downside is that this is a relatively old text that hasn’t been reissued in a new edition. It predates the broadband Internet almost-everywhere era. Would her quantitative results today be different than they were back in 1991 when she was polling students? In an era when almost the entire sum of human knowledge is at your fingertips, are translators given less leeway when it comes to correctly understanding cultural allusions? Is it easier for them to look up expressions and phrases they suspect might be allusions or references? All of this is material ripe for updating, but it is anyone working on it?

 

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 19: Walden Pond and Escape Room in Boston

We hit the road early the next morning, while Theophanes’s brother and his girlfriend and her nieces were still asleep. First order of business: a picture of this thrift store sign, which caught my eye even on the delirious and sleep-deprived drive up in the middle of the night. Unless Mildred Wymen was really into Stephen King? Orthography is hard!

Then breakfast at a greasy spoon and we were off to Concord!

I was originally going to bus down from Maine to Boston, but Theophanes  volunteered to drive and do Boda Borg with me and my hostess with the mostess in Boston, Diana. I broached the subject of stopping by Walden Pond on the drive down, since it wasn’t too out of the way and I didn’t know when I’d be in New England again. (I mean, I’m sure I will be—I just don’t know when.) She puzzled it over in the GPS and agreed, since it wasn’t ridiculously out of the way. It just would have been a little far for a day trip from the cabin.

It’s really hip these days, at least among the people I like and admire, to hate on Thoreau and Walden. And I guess I get it—he was only able to stay at the cabin as long as he did because of the good graces of other people and he was an obnoxious houseguest to boot, he’s maybe (even inadvertently) the foundation of modern American libertarianism, he was kind of a pompous ass, etc. etc.—but for a weird, thoughtful kid in high school to read about this dude being weird and thoughtful by himself in the woods was reassuring. Even as I drink tea and continue to use a doormat.

I was surprised to see so many parents of very small children trying to do the educational, dutiful thing and go through the assorted signs and the replica cabin and whatever tourist center is also on-site (we didn’t visit it, though). Maybe I’m underestimating kids, but I don’t think a 6-year-old is going to be super interested in, or at least appreciative of, someone living by themselves in the woods. I’m pretty sure they just want to go swimming in the damn lake.

I have to admit, sometimes a cabin out in the woods sounds like the most appealing thing I can imagine. We peeked inside and it was easy to imagine me holing up in such a space for the rest of my days. Maybe in a place a little bigger, only because I’m less stingy than Thoreau when it comes to books worth holding on to.

It was then very weird to see that the plot of land where he went to live simply, away from people and society, so filled with people. In addition to all of the signage and statuary and sites associated with Thoreau, the pond itself is now a local swimming hole. The sound of people talking and laughing and splashing in the water was the background sound for most of the trip. Incongruous, but at the same time, maybe it’s better that such a spot be appreciated by the general public rather than forgotten.

(I still did my best to get this picture of the lake without any people in the shot, though.)

There were also these assorted illustrations from some kind of Walden ABCs book where I’m not sure if it’s actually for kids, or a kids’ book for adults (a la Go the Fuck to Sleep), along the assorted paths. This was by far the reach-iest one of them all:

and I, when we saw the first one (“C” or something), started speculating as to what they’d do for the trickier letters. I thought “X” would be for “fox,” but no. “Z” either was or should have been “zephyr.” I was right, though, that “Q” would of course be “quiet.”

If the pond and the museum-type stuff was relatively packed and full of people, the site of the actual cabin was mercifully quiet. Theophanes pointed out that many of the trees in the area were fairly young, so one wonders what happened to the patch of forest between when Thoreau was here and when the site was discovered in 1945. (Or perhaps it was never actually discovered; perhaps that’s just a random spot along the lake that they decided to declare Thoreau’s Cabin in order to give visitors something concrete to experience.)

People also left little stacks of stones next to the cabin. For me, this is something people do in Korea (maybe East Asia?). I saw this all the time, especially in temples; from my understanding, it’s part of a folk Buddhist tradition that has to do with making wishes or requests. (Do ones this small still count as cairns?) For example, here are some I saw by Cheonjiyeon falls in Jeju in July, 2012:

And an anonymous Korean woman building one at Bulguksa in Gyeongju, January, 2010:

And yet maybe last year or two years ago, my crunchy granola friends started sharing articles like this one, as if making those tiny towers had suddenly become a widespread Thing in the US as well. It was certainly a Thing at Walden, anyway, and I left my own, because it’s a way for me to connect my time in Korea with the places I visit elsewhere.

Other people left messages or drawings on stones, which I hadn’t seen in Korea. (Though at temples, you can buy a roof tile for X amount of won and leave a message on it.)

The weather was warm enough that by the time we were back at the lake I was regretting leaving my bathing suit in the car; Theophanes as if reading my mind, said, apropos of nothing, “I’m going to take off my shoes and dip my feet in.” I followed suit. The rocky shore of the lake made the barefoot journey less than appealing, but the payoff was worth it. The water was ice cold and stung pleasantly at the myriad mosquito bites I had acquired at the wedding (open-toed shoes and a knee-length dress means lunchtime for bugs). We stood in silence for a while and watched some small fish come and dart around our ankles. I splashed some of the water on my arms and face and filled up a tiny pocket of my heart with the experience to draw on later, when I feel like garbage. I also picked up a white piece of something (quartz? marble? I’m a bad junior geologist, guys!) as a souvenir.

When we used to visit Emerald Lake State Park as a family, I (and maybe my brother?) would always want to take home a rock or two from the bottom of the lake. Dad, a former Boy Scout and adherent to the “leave it better than you found it” ethos, would always make us put them back: “What if everyone took one? There’d be nothing left!” (I totally managed to get one out with me once, still, when I was maybe eight.)

The thought crossed my mind as I washed the grime off the rock and dried it with my shirt: “What if everyone took one?” I’m an adult now, and that means I get to violate Boy Scout prescriptions on nature preservation whenever I want!

Diana had been anticipating watching the eclipse with us (this was the day of the eclipse), but we ended up spending it at Walden instead, which I’m kind of okay with. Spending a significant astronomical event at a site that’s personally meaningful is a pretty okay way to spend it, in the end.

Another friend from the wedding, Walter, wanted to meet up in Boston once he knew that’s where I was going, but he couldn’t make it out in time for Boda Borg, so it ended up being just me, Diana, and Theophanes. This was probably for the best—they say “up to five” in the groups, but anything more than three people would have been cramped, really. It was my and Theophanes’s first escape room and I suppose we did OK, although the first room we picked was obnoxious and we couldn’t get it. Fortunately, it seemed to be way harder than many of the other rooms, and we still managed to solve a few puzzles and pick up a few stamps.

Before Boda Borg was Vietnamese food and introductions. Afterwards was boba tea and farewells. Theophanes was off to her mother in Rindge, not super far from Boston (certainly closer than the Maine cabin). and I spent the rest of the evening with Diana watching The French Revolution episode of The Supersizers Eat and talking about stuff. I left most of a six-pack of Yuengling (I am trash and love my regional PA trash beer that would be prohibitively expensive and thus pointless to acquire here) and the last of my roadtrip music (Black Masala, Gangstagrass, and I think also Galactic?) in exchange for an autographed stand-up album. Before we hit the hay, I solidified plans with people the next day: lunch with Diana and Walter, then later meeting up with a blogger buddy  before the long flight home.

And like the other Maine parts of my trip, Theophanes also wrote about it. There are a lot more pictures of Walden and some more details about Boda Borg over on her blog.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Book Review

An appropriate book choice with Easter coming up!

I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
Image courtesy Random House

Author: Reza Aslan

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.83

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology

In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:

  1. The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
  2. The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
  3. The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.

Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.

That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.

Book Review: Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

I make the best effort I can to read at least one non-fiction book every month. I think there is always benefit and enjoyment to be had in learning about the world around you (or, in the case of history books, the world before you), and it also is an important part of maintaining my chops as an editor, something like unofficial continuing professional development.

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.
Image courtesy Yale University Press
 Author: Daniel E. Sutherland & Georgia Toutziari
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33
Language scaling: C2+
Summary: The biography of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the modernist painter James McNeill Whistler and the woman in the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1., known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother.”
Recommended audience: Those interested in art history, nineteenth century American history, or feminist history.
In-depth thoughts: Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler’s Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.
Like other, more historical non-fiction I’ve received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it’s from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna’s own correspondence. This is part of the reason I would grade the language as highly as I do: this is correspondence that is 150 years old, give or take a decade.
But for anyone with a committed interest in the subjects I mentioned earlier (art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens), it may be a read that is worth the work.
*in exchange for this review