It’s time for another book from the Austin-based feminist science fiction book club!
Author: Becky Chambers
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: A young woman trying to escape her past joins the ragtag crew of The Wayfarer, a ship that creates artificial wormholes for interstellar travel.
Recommended audience: Fans of Firefly, Serenity, Babylon 5, and/or Farscape.
In-depth thoughts: I was incredibly frustrated with this book because it had a lot of great ideas about alien linguistics and cultures that were hampered down by a writing style that I would describe as “aggressively twee.”
From an editorial perspective, there is a lot of redundancy through showing and telling (rather than showing, not telling). That kind of writing is a symptom of two things. Either 1) you don’t have enough faith in your own writing and story-telling ability to get the point across “between the lines” or 2) you don’t have enough faith in your reader’s ability to infer. Maybe even both.
If you were to go through my previous reviews, you’ll see that I’ve mentioned (more than once!) that a particular book went over my head in parts, or completely, which impacted my ability to enjoy it. The other side of the spectrum isn’t good either, and the balance is different for different people. For my taste, this leans far too heavily on “let’s explain everything.”
From an EFL perspective, however, this might be a perk rather than a drawback. Repetition ensures that the reader has lots of chances to put pieces together, especially in a science fiction novel. A genre that necessarily creates new words, sometimes even new languages, can sometimes be hard to read and understand in a language that you’re not entirely fluent in.
Appropriate that I decided to get back to my travelogues this week: the next book in the queue to be discussed here is what I read in the library that day: Murder in Retrospect!
Author: Agatha Christie
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.96 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Plot summary: A young woman about to marry hires Hercules Poirot to clear the name of her mother, who was convicted of poisoning her husband some years ago.
Recommended audience: Mystery buffs
In-depth thoughts: As I mentioned before, this book was a selection for my Facebook book club. I was surprised to learn that many of the members had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, or even seen one of the innumerable screen adaptations! I went through a huge Agatha Christie binge in middle school. This was about the same time I went through a big band jazz binge as well, so I guess I was a little old lady in a 13-year-old’s body.
Even during my pubescent enthusiasm, I never tackled all of the novels and short stories. (Our school library only had so many books, after all.) Murder in Retrospect (or Five Little Pigs, whichever title you prefer) was one that I hadn’t originally read, so I was excited to read it. I had a nice afternoon in the Bethlehem Public Library doing just that: reading. I finished it in one sitting.
I still love a good Agatha Christie novel, even today, but I have to admit that this one was a little disappointing. There are lots of recurring secondary characters that make a Poirot novel what it is—Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp—and none of them make an appearance. The nature of the mystery also means that the bulk of the book is everyone repeating their testimony of the same day. This is, of course, part and parcel of any mystery, but because this is a cold case (or rather, an already-closed case), there’s nothing else for Poirot to go on, nor is there any sense of urgency. Without any clues to inspect, without any banter with Hastings or Japp, and without the possibility of bringing the true murderer to justice, Murder in Retrospect is more repetitive and less fun than the Christie novels I read when I was younger.
If you’re a mystery buff, you can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie novel. Even a bad Christie novel is still pretty fun; I’ve always like Christie’s writing style just as much as her mysteries. The repetition in this story might be helpful for English students, but there is also the danger that outdated vocabulary might pose something of a hurdle. (I can’t recall anything particular as I sit down to write this, but with a book initially published in 1942, I’m sure there are a couple of outdated vocabulary choices.)
Overall, I’m a completionist when it comes to writers I like, so I’m glad I read it. I don’t think Murder in Retrospect will be a novel I pick up again, though.
Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.
Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.
Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction
In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.
I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.
The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.
As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.
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!”
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 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.
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?”
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.
I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.
Author: Italo Calvino
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.54 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Weary travelers at a castle and a tavern are rendered unable to speak, and so use a Tarot deck to share their stories.
Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in Tarot cards; fans of Italo Calvino.
In-depth thoughts: I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is “somewhere in the middle,” so now I don’t know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino’s epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he “retold” through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.
Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn’t hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’m not glad that I’m read it, but I’m not annoyed, either.
I’m slowly closing in on my TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century goal. After this, just one book remains!
Author: Joan Didion
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: B1+
Plot summary: The life and breakdown of the fictional actress Maria Wyeth during the late 1960s.
Content warning: Lots of substance abuse and an overdose; off-screen (off-page?) domestic violence; abortion
Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in feminist literature; those interested in character studies; those interested in mid-century Americana.
In-depth thoughts:Play It as It Lays is an ideal book for EFL students: serious, compelling concepts are explored in short chapters of light, lucid prose. The net result is that you can pick up and put down around the book other things you might have going on in your life. Also, there’s a movie version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.
Many of the reviews I’ve read for Play It as It Lays call it “depressing,” even “terrifying,” but I largely suspect that response has to do with how squeamish you are about abortion (and how squeamish you are about women feeling, at worst, vague and ambiguous about getting abortions, rather than eternally regretful and emotionally destroyed). I liked Didion’s writing and was happy to hitch a ride with Maria Wyeth for a while to visit her gilded cage of a world, but nothing about it shook me to my core. (Maybe that’s how you know you’re depressed? Hm.)
I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you’re reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!
Author: Elizabeth Bear
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: C2
Plot summary: In a nutshell, Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper set in the Pacific Northwest, with international espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure.
Recommended audience: Steampunk fans
In-depth thoughts: The back of the book features the same summary I just shared above, more or less, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of “Johnny Mnemonic.” Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.
Elizabeth Bear’s writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that’s just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I’ve read by Bear and I’ll have to find more in the future. But there were a few things that tripped me up, which is why I didn’t give it a higher rating. (I suppose it’s nitpicking to expect the correct dates on radium watch dial painting in a novel that is very clearly a fantastical alternate universe, but it’s my job to be a nitpicker, so I’ll let it bother me.)
A more salient point for EFL readers is that while Bear’s writing and Karen’s voice are distinctive and stylistic, they may be too stylistic for many EFL readers. Karen’s voice employs non-standard grammar and slightly antiquated vocabulary that I can see as being confusing or off-putting (hence such a high language grading). But if you’re a very committed steampunk fan, it’s well worth the effort it might take to adjust to the language.
It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.
This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.
Author: Karin Boye
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars
Language scaling: N/A
Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.
Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.
In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)
Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.
Book Expo sparked quite the controversy a couple years ago regarding diversity in books and authors. Where are we now? OR, let’s take a different direction and explore the diversity of the format of a book. Do we judge a book by its cover and/or content (e.g.,, audio, digital, graphic, etc.)? Or, combine the two topics and discuss diversity found in alternative content (e.g., representation in graphic novels). Get creative and maybe even controversial!
I actually don’t remember this controversy. Did Sad or Sick Puppy types get upset about a stated commitment to diversity? Or was everything about Book Expo that year white as Christmas? Unsure. So I can’t comment on “where we are now,” either. Instead I’m going to talk about the upcoming movie version of one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time.
I’ve implied it earlier, but let me just say it outright: when it comes to book news, I’m very much out of the loop. I only found out that the movie was happening basically by accident. (Sometimes relaxing with trashy Hollywood gossip rags is a good thing!) I’ve seen this Entertainment Weekly slide show of promotional images, and that’s it. I’ve deliberately avoided searching the Internet for more information about the production because I don’t feel like finding out of there is an Internet brouhaha over the casting.
You see, a lot of the main characters are women of color. Mrs. Murry is Black, and so Meg (and presumably Charles Wallace, Sandy, and Dennys) are explicitly biracial. Mindy Kaling is Mrs Who, and Oprah is Mrs Which. Given how parts of the Internet reacted over casting for Rue in The Hunger Games, I’m assuming there’s similar outrage somewhere on the Internet. I don’t feel like finding out if I’m right, though. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.
And honestly, I’m perfectly fine with all of those casting choices. More than that; I’m happy about it. Women like my mom (who read the book so many times she had portions of it memorized) and me got to grow up with a white Murry family and got to have a nerdy, sensitive Meg Murry who was like us, inside and out. And now we have a version for all of the blerd women out there–now they can have a Meg Murry just like them, inside and out.
(And as for all of the Mrs characters? I mean, they’re aliens after all. Shapeshifting aliens at that.)
My only beef with the casting is actually with Mr. Murry. My book memory of him is a tweedy nerd, not a smoldering buff guy.
But hey, maybe if you give him a pair of glasses and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, he’ll look more the part. Maybe I’ll be blown away by his acting. I’m willing to be open-minded!
Movie (or television) versions of books are always fraught with frustration and controversy. When the actor on screen doesn’t match what you had in your imagination, it can be jarring. Changes are often made to the story, not always for practical concerns and not always for the better. Movies are complicated and expensive ventures, while books are (relatively) simple and fairly inexpensive–there is enormous pressure on a movie to make a return on that investment, and that pressure can make or break a movie.
Unsurprisingly, the usual bookworm attitude towards movies is intense skepticism. And even film buffs often decry movie adaptations, saying that it’s just another sign of the sad state of the film industry these days.
I get it. I’ve definitely been burned by a few bad adaptations. At the tender age of 10 I was excited to see childhood hero Harriet the spy on the big screen, only to walk out confused and disappointed. I pretend that they never adapted The Dark is Rising, and I’m still not sure what went wrong with The Hobbit. People keep trying to make movie versions of Lolita, but the dynamics of how real, live people have to interact make it a messy project, even if you get Nabokov to write the screenplay.
But when they’re done well, movie adaptations are fantastic. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and the best movie adaptations complement the story, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. They have the chance to smooth over blemishes or pitfalls in the original, and in the case of something like A Wrinkle in Time it’s the chance to present the same story through a new, updated lens, and to bring characters we know and love to a wider, more diverse audience.
I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies
In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.
Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.
While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.