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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Ancillary Justice

Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.

Image courtesy Orbit

Author: Ann Leckie

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.

Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”

In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)

While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.

 

2023: A Trilogy

I’m planning on doing a buddy read of Ulysses this year, and much as I love and patronize libraries, some books are impossible to read unless you own them and have access to them at your leisure. (How many times did I try reading a library copy of The Second Sex, for example?) I spent the afternoon in town browsing The English Bookshop, and while I ended up having to special order Ulysses from their Uppsala store, the chance to browse the random selection led to me finding books I wouldn’t have otherwise. 2023: A Trilogy was one of them.

Cover of "2023: A Trilogy" by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu

Authors: The Justified Ancients of Mumu, aka The Kopyright Liberation Front, aka Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.67

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A “found footage” type of story. At the most basic level, the story is a satirical sci fi dystopia/utopia where five corporations benevolently rule the world and a programmer named Winnie Smith might just have solved the problem of immortality.

Recommended audience: Anyone who thought the original Illuminatus! trilogy was too much of a slog, leftover KLF fans, anyone who enjoys meta and self-referential texts, pop music nerds, anyone nostalgic for the 80s and 90s

In-depth thoughts: A boy I had a crush on in high school thought the Illuminatus! trilogy was one of the best books ever written and so I devoted a summer to trying to read it. I made it halfway through and never finished, but it was enough that even years later I can recognize the countercultural significance of things like 23, 17, and fnords.

This is important because Drummond and Cauty have packed 2023 full of Illuminatus!  references (mixed in with the literary and pop music references). If I hadn’t been able to call back to those particular references, I might well have been too lost to appreciate the book.

It’s a fun read if you’re either in the know or thirsty for meta, slightly experimental satirical science fiction. Whether or not this would be a good read for English students depends on how familiar they are with the cultural references in question, and how willing they are to track different narrative levels. The language itself isn’t too difficult, but the allusions and the metanarratives might be too frustrating for some readers.

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.

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.