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: No-No Boy

I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori. As soon as he mentioned No-No Boy in one of his videos, I realized that I had never read anything about the Japanese internment camps. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother’s (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.

The second shout-out and thanks go to my friend Henny (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, including . . . No-No Boy!

Author: John Okada

Aside: the story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it’s hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished. Only a couple of years after his untimely death, No-No Boy was sort of rediscovered and quickly attained the recognition and praise it rightly deserved.

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world.

Content warning: Okada writes about the racial tensions going in post-WWII America, so dialogue can include terms that have since fallen out of favor (or flat-out racial slurs).

Recommended audience: Those interested in post-WWII American history or teaching/studying it in school; those interested in Asian-American authors; those who enjoyed George Takei’s stage show Allegiance.

Cover of the new edition of John Okada's No-No Boy.
Image courtesy University of Washington Press

In-depth thoughts: The title No-No Boy refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were required to answer, as a de facto test of patriotism/”Americanness.” The last two were real humdingers:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

Thousands of people answered “no” to both questions for a variety of reasons: misunderstanding the terminology, resentment at being asked to swear loyalty and serve in the armed forces of a nation that had ripped them out of their homes and sent them to detention centers, fears that they would be deported to Japan regardless and that a “yes” would come back to haunt them, etc. They became known as “no-nos” or “no-no boys” and served time in prison for their answers. Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is.
There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven’t already). Usually it’s because they’re really good, but this is one I think we should read because it’s important. Well, and it’s also really good and worth reading regardless—Okada takes the stream of consciousness style that really came to a head with the Beats and makes it his own. Here’s a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:

Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one.

Where (for me) novels like On the Road became self-indulgent and navel-gazeyNo-No Boy balances these deep dives with action and spreads them among multiple characters. We get to know Ichiro quite well, but we also spend time in the heads of the people around him, who have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.

I hope that whet your appetite! If you’ve read No-No Boy, I’m curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?

Reflections on Stockholms Litteraturmässan, 2017

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you had a lovely weekend. I spent mine (at least, my Saturday) at Stockholms Litteraturmässan. Last year I went alone, but this time, I managed to bring a friend along with me. This worked out for me—she very thoughtfully dropped by the panel on translation trends that I couldn’t make and picked up their rather snazzy-looking handout, so even if I missed the discussion I still have all of their data on translated literature. Not as fun as the discussion itself, but better than nothing.

The first thing I did was to hit the book market itself. While Stockholms Litteraturmässan has featured a wide range of salient conversations and presentations two years in a row now, it’s also clear that those presentations are directly tied to the promotion of at least some of the available books. Not that I want to fault them for making money; quite the opposite, actually. I grew up on a steady diet of Borders (RIP), Barnes & Noble, The Strand, and countless independent, local used bookstores all across the US: often large and almost infinitely browseable. Even in the age of Amazon.com they were doing well, or at least hanging on. For whatever reasons (economic, social, historical, geographical), such stores don’t exist here, by and large. (The English Book Shop and SF BokHandeln are notable exceptions and they have my undying loyalty forever.) For two days a year, the Litteraturmässan manages to fill that vacuum. Both times I’ve attended I’ve found something niche and fascinating (or just hard to come by) that I have yet to find anywhere else, and for that alone the event is worth it.

What makes Stockholms Litteraturmässan stand out, though, are the accompanying promotional-ish panels. The organization seems to cultivate an outward focus towards question of cultural intersections, politics, immigration, and global interconnectedness, both in the publishers and sellers featured in the market and in the books and writers they choose to promote. On the eve of the French election in a post-Trump milieu, these kinds of questions suddenly felt extra urgent.

The two panels I attended were the interview with Marlene Streeruwitz and the interview with Irena Brežna. Unlike last year, both of the panels I attended were conducted in English. A logical choice for an Austrian and Swiss-Slovak writer (Streeruwitz and Brežna, respectively) presenting in Sweden, but I should note that I didn’t deliberately gravitate towards the English presentations. 😉 I failed to take notes, so some general impressions.

Streeruwitz and Ihmels presented Smärtans ängel within the context of their new publishing house and organization writersreadwriters, which is coming out with other work aside from Streeruwitz’s that sounds exciting and vital. Their books are definitely going on my watch list. I failed to pick up Smärtans ängel at the event, but it looks to be available from Stockholms bibliotek. Good news for me!

The Swiss embassy seems to be very involved with this event. Their cultural liaison, Benita Funke, presented Brežna this year and was also a moderator in a discussion on contemporary women’s migrant literature from last year’s Litteraturmässan. It would be great to see other embassies join this project as well. Brežna herself was a warm and charming presenter.

Both Den otacksamma främlingen and Smärtans ängel are available from Stockholms bibliotek, so I look forward to reading them. As of yet, it appears that they lack an English translation, but I hope someone will come out with one soon! My German is a bit too rusty to tackle Austrian or Swiss German myself, alas.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

Book Review: The White Giraffe

Since today is White Day in South Korea and Japan, it seems like a good time to put up my review of The White Giraffe.

Author: Lauren St John

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.99 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Animal lovers

The White Giraffe by Lauren St John review
Image courtesy Dial 

Plot summary: When tragedy strikes, young Martine is sent to her grandmother in South Africa, who runs a game preserve. Her fascination with a mysterious white giraffe leads to the discovery of a fate greater than she could have ever dreamed.

Content warning: The book opens with a house fire scene that might be a bit scary for younger readers. There are also some representation issues when it comes to non-white characters.

In-depth thoughts: It’s clear that St John knows and cares a lot about animals, including the unique wildlife of sub-Saharan Africa. According to her biography, she grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe with a host of exotic pets, and frankly that’s a memoir I would read! It’s also clear that her background was a big influence on The White Giraffe. I just wish that her knowledge, passion, and background had faced a little more scrutiny and gone through a few more revisions before they ended up as The White Giraffe, as it falls a little too close to the White Savior narrative structure for me to be entirely comfortable recommending it for its intended younger readers.

I also admit that as an adult, I’m hardly the middle grade target audience, but a hallmark of good children’s writing is that adult readers can enjoy the book as much as younger readers. But in The White Giraffe, the writing felt a little flat and some elements of the plot seemed rushed or thrown in for the sake of . . . I’m not sure what.

The White Giraffe is the first in a series that includes (as of this blog post) four other books: Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard, The Elephant’s Tale, and Operation Rhino. Hopefully St John has found her stride and ironed out the above issues in The White Giraffe, as I think her passion for conservation and the natural world is one worth sharing and cultivating in young readers.

Book Review: Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.

Book Review: The Moviegoer

Finally, the reviews I post on my personal blog and the ones I post here are in sync! (Or is that in synch?) This should keep book posts moving at a much more regular pace. Maybe I’ll move to updating three times a week. Who knows?

The Moviegoer is a selection from TIME Magazine’s “Top 100 Novels of All TIME” list, which is a reading project I’ve had since around 2009. I have five books left to finish the list.

Author: Walker Percy

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.7 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in New Orleans, the American South, and Americana/Americana literature; readers who feel directionless and lost

In-depth thoughts: The Moviegoer wasn’t a book for me, but I can understand why others would relate to it. It’s not the most gripping story, and I wouldn’t recommend it straight off the bat for EFL students who want to dip their toes into English literature. But those who have already ventured into the field might like it. It periodically draws on some very America-specific pop culture touch points; as you can guess from the title, the story’s narrator spends a fair amount of time watching and thinking about movies, all of which date back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Towards the end of the story, there are also references to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions, which might be unfamiliar to some readers. Still, none of these references are essential to the plot. Overall, a solid, introspective read.

My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.

 

2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.

 

Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.

Novel

5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.

 

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company 

Author: Sherman Alexie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.

Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.

In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.

Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.

The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

 

A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.