Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

The Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club kicked off the year with Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Cover of Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Kelly Robson

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: It’s a distant, post-apocalyptic future and the powers that be have just figured out time travel. Minh is an expert in rivers restoration and travels to ancient Mesopotamia to collect data that will help restore the Tigris and Euphrates river regions.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; geology and hydrology nerds might or might not enjoy seeing a future version of their science at the center of a story.

In-depth thoughts: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a pretty quick read. My only complaint is that it’s too quick: the beginning of the story sets up a lot of intrigue and possible plot points that are never really pursued or resolved. Given how abrupt the ending is, and how much is left unfinished, it feels like Robson left the door open for a sequel, but who knows if that will materialize. What’s there is fun, good writing — I just want there to be more of it!

Robson’s style and syntax itself is simple and uncomplicated, but EFL readers might trip over some of the more technical science and laboratory terms. (The story is about scientists, and the main thrust of the story is about them gathering samples, after all.) I’m a native speaker and it was hard to tell where the current-day science jargon ended and the future science jargon began. But if you can cut through some of the  academic-sounding vocabulary, it’s a fast-paced read.

Currently (Still) Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

Here’s my initial hot take of the first few episodes of Ulysses.

When we last left our heroine, she had bemoaned “too much interiority.” Naively, she thought that she had hit the densest, thorniest parts of Ulysses. That turned out to be misguided hope.

Current thoughts: the connections between the episodes in Ulysses and the chapters of The Odyssey often seem tenuous, if there are any at all. I’m less than impressed. Perhaps the connection has been overstated by Joyce scholars over the years, meaning Joyce himself isn’t to blame?

How much work can you reasonably expect an audience or a reader to do before really, the truth is you’re a garbage writer? I recognize that Ulysses isn’t up there with Finnegans Wake in terms of impenetrability, but nonetheless there are moments. Is Mrs Dalloway a deliberately better book and an eyeroll at Joyce’s pompous view of himself? Or is it a diet version of an artistic vision Woolf had that was similar in scope and density to Ulysses, pared down out of a stronger tendency to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and input than the default male assumption of “but of course my way is the best”?

If you need an annotated version and a podcast and extensive notes to make any sense of a book, maybe the author didn’t do that good of a job. Of course studying a text deeply and thoroughly can add layers of nuance and appreciation in addition to a surface-level enjoyment, but that shouldn’t be the only way to make it through to the other side with any meaningful understanding.

Speaking of notes, I’ve let re:Joyce fall by the wayside. It was to be expected; I hate podcasts. I might listen to a podcast hateread this sucker, though! Other wise, the only study tool I’m using for this is to read plot summaries of each episode beforehand (or after) so I have a mental framework of what’s supposed to be actually going on in the world.

 

My Favorite Books of 2018, According to GoodReads

Other years I’ve had to split my 5-star books into two posts, but this year I think they can comfortably be combined into one. Here were my reading highlights of 2018!

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

My criterion for rating a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads is that it has the potential for widespread appeal, or that it masterfully addresses a major social or everyday question. Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of outlining the historical context of early Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Cover of Rien où poser sa tête

 

Rien où poser sa tête

I stumbled across this thanks to the review of the English translation in Asymptote. Its chance rescue from obscurity mirrors, almost too well, Frenkel’s own brushes with death in Vichy France. Out of all my reading in 2018, this one was probably the most relevant to today’s events and politics.

Cover of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Proust and the Squid

I waffled on whether to give Proust and the Squid 5 stars rather than 4, but decided in the end to be generous. While the story of the brain learns how to read isn’t the same urgent issue as Nazis or Christianity, it’s something almost all of us do and whose complexity we should all appreciate.

Cover of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics

While Eisenstein might be more optimistic and naive than warranted, his explanation of economics, credit and inflation is the most cogent I’ve read and he dramatically shifted my attitude towards money and how I save and spend it. That’s what earned this book 5 stars from me, despite Eisenstein’s occasional lapse into conspiracy-adjacent tangents.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.

I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!

Amatka

Amatka was the last selection of 2018 for the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I read the Swedish original; the others theoretically read the English translation, but this year is such a busy time for everyone that I might have been the only one to read it.

Swedish cover of Karin Tidbeck's Amatka
Image courtesy Mix Förlag

Author: Karin Tidbeck

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.82 stars

Language scaling: N/A, read in Swedish

Summary: Vanja, a government worker, is sent to the distant colony of Amatka for a new project. Things are not what they seem, and language starts distorting reality in unsettling ways.

Recommended audience: Dystopia fans

In-depth thoughts: The first thing I did after I finished Amatka was to text my friend and fellow book club member in Austin: “Amatka was weird…thought I didn’t get some parts because Swedish, but nope. It’s weird. I’d love to rep Swedish baked goods and sci fi, but….not missing much maybe with this one.”

And that about sums it up for me. Tidbeck signals towards a very ominous past but never really clarifies it. I spent the majority of the book taking this to be a “real world” dystopia (based on real Earth and real history and set in this universe, more or less), but the ending makes it very clear we’re in an entirely different universe with very different rules, which then seems to defeat the purpose of it being a dystopia. In the end you’re left with a handful of powerful scenes (a librarian being ordered to destroy everything but the “useful” books; parents longing for affection from their communally raised children who clearly don’t seem to pay them much mind) that have no real skeleton connecting them, no unifying purpose.

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.