Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.

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)_/¯

Tiny Moments of Joy: Aniara at Bio Rio

One of the books I read in my Modernist Swedish Literature course a million years ago was Aniara. Since we were still babies in the Swedish language, everything we read was an English translation. To this day I don’t know how The Swedish Program at Stockholm University managed to find enough copies—actual proper hardback copies, not dodgy spiral-bound printouts—of the English translation for all of us. These days the only English version available anywhere seems to be an ugly paperback edition that fetches a whopping $225 on Amazon.

Screenshot of the only English copy of Aniara available on Amazon. Priced at $225!
I wish this would go back into print so my anglophone sci-fi fan friends could afford to read it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite appreciate reading Aniara at the time. I love sci fi but I’m extremely unconvinced by poetry, so the whole thing left me tepid. Now that I’m older, I appreciate not only the weirdness of the project (an epic poem about a pioneer ship lost in space!) but the metaphorical aspect of the whole piece in the face of the threat of nuclear winter and environmental annihilation.

I only learned that there was an Aniara movie after I saw a poster for it at ABF after my writing Meetup. My timing was excellent: Bio Rio only has two showings and both of them are in February. There’s one more screening on 15 February, for those of you in Stockholm who are free at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday. I’m not, so I had to grab last-minute tickets to the evening showing this past Saturday. I also, at the very last minute, tracked down a copy of the Swedish original from the library so I could go into the movie with a refreshed memory.

Aniara the movie is a graceful companion to Aniara the epic poem, if not least to provide visuals that help anchor the story (as much as there is one). Specifically, the movie illustrates the sheer vastness of everything far better than words maybe ever could. Martinson gives some details—a ship with 8,000 people on board, 15,580 feet long and 2,923 feet wide—but it’s hard to really appreciate, on the emotional and intuitive level, what those numbers really mean. The establishing shots of huge milling crowds in a huge, outsized version of a Viking Line cruise ship, however, suddenly makes it crystal clear.  The poem also does very little to specify the actual specifics of the ship, aside from the fact that it has crystal-clear windows and walls over must of it. Thanks to a steady childhood diet of mid-century science fiction movies, I always imagined the interior of Aniara as a very minimalist, brushed chrome sort of space ship; the option to represent the ship as an opulent, futuristic echo of today’s booze cruises was an inspired one and provided a nice visual irony in the later years of the ship’s voyage.

References and quotations from the poem fit into the movie quite elegantly, whether in events and plot points or pieces of dialogue. The screenwriters opted to ground things in the particular story arc of the Mimarob—the employee who operates the Mima, which in the movie is the equivalent of the holodeck from Star Trek but in the poem is more like a fancy movie theater. The change works well; the vague nameless “we” in many of the poems is enough to track when you read, but in a movie it helps to have at least one central character we can follow throughout. The choice of the Mimarob for such a protagonist also makes sense; on the rare occasion a singular “I” turns up in the poem, it’s usually the Mimarob.

I didn’t finish re-reading Aniara entirely beforehand, so I can’t say whether some of the grimmer plot points were also alluded to in the poem or if they were added for dramatic purposes. But it doesn’t seem worth harping on grimness when we’re talking about an adaption of an epic poem where everyone ends up lost in space forever.

Like 2001 and Arrival, the film version of Aniara succeeds in complementing the original text it’s based on, so that instead of competing to tell the singular best version of an idea, both versions become one cohesive whole. Watch the movie and, if you can, read the book.

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.

L’Étranger

I read L’Étranger because I want to keep my French from slipping. I figured it would be a good choice because I’ve already read it twice—when practicing reading in a foreign language, a book you’re already familiar with is the best possible choice.

Cover of French edition of L'Étranger.
Image courtesy Gallimard.

Author: Albert Camus

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.97 stars

Language scaling: N/A (read the original French)

Summary: Meursault murders a man and finds his entire life put on trial.

Recommended audience: People who want to engage with “serious literature” (whatever that means) while they practice a foreign language.

In-depth thoughts: Something about mid-20th century French literature lends itself well to foreign language study. Okay, maybe not all of it. But this and Le Petit Prince are books I’ve read and enjoyed in a few different languages.

It’s L’Étranger. You’ve either read it or you haven’t and there’s not much need for me to weigh in on my opinion on the book, except that I’ll be balancing my (re)reading of this with a novel by an Algerian author. If you spend too long thinking about how the non-white characters in the book exist as plot devices to put Meursault on trial and then in prison it leaves an uncomfortable taste in your mouth, and the best remedy for that is to broaden your own horizons.

Otherwise I’m already falling behind on my Goodreads Challenge for the year. The falling behind doesn’t bother me as much as the not reading bothers me. Whenever I’m in a bad way, my reading drops off—or maybe a drop off in reading leads to grumpiness and depression. Impossible to tell; I’ve never paid close enough attention to notice which starts first. The two definitely feed into each other, regardless. But now I’m off the blocks and hopefully my momentum (and mood) will pick up a little bit going into February.

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.

 

Los Angeles Noir

I was already familiar with Akashic’s Noir series when a friend included Los Angeles Noir—completely unprompted—in a care package she sent me over the summer. After textbooks and thorny, hundred-year-old Swedish, I needed something light to take the edge off during the holiday. Noir short stories seemed like just the ticket.

Cover of Los Angeles Noir
Image courtesy Akashic Records press

Editor: Denise Hamilton

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2

Summary: A collection of noir short stories set in Los Angeles.

Recommended audience: Fans of crime and thriller fiction; people with a soft spot for Los Angeles

In-depth thoughts: Much as I’ve sung the praises of short stories elsewhere, they’re not my favorite genre to read. Nor am I much of a crime or noir fan. Still, there were a couple I really enjoyed.

My friend sent it in the care package on account of “Koreatown,” by Naomi Hirahara, which takes place primarily at a Korean-style spa, and probably equally for our shared love of Korean spas as for the story itself. (It was a good story. I didn’t see the twist coming and actually said, out loud, “Holy shit!”)

Otherwise, the only other stories I really liked, from beginning to end, were Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210,” a mystery behind a woman’s stolen, then found, jewels, and “Fish,” by Lienna Silver, about truth and friendship.  There were moments “Golden Gopher” (Susan Straight) that really worked for me, but ultimately I liked the protagonist better than the plot. Some stories felt bloated and unwieldy; some were short and trim but too nihilistic for my taste (“That’s noir,” you can fairly point out, and you’d be correct); and some protagonists were just a little too anti-hero and unlikable (again: “That’s noir.”)

Still, as a collection of contemporary popular writing it’s perfect for EFL students. Learners with a penchant for crime writing would enjoy this, and might enjoy seeing if Akashic has a collection for a city they know well or want to visit.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

With In the Land of Invented Languages, Austin, TX’s premiere feminist sci-fi book club took a lefthand turn into nonfiction for the month of September. Lucky for me! As a language professional, this sort of thing is right up my alley.

Cover of The Land of Invented Languages

Author: Arika Okrent

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.08 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Okrent travels the world and interviews several experts and nerds to shed light on constructed languages.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in popular linguistics; aspiring fantasy or science fiction writers who really want to commit to the bit

In-depth thoughts: I actually read In the Land of Invented Languages over a month ago, and somehow never got around to writing about it until now, which makes writing any useful review rather difficult. All I can say is that I enjoyed it a lot. This isn’t any dense, academic paper; it’s a series of relatively short, surface-level essays on a variety of constructed languages. My favorites included the one about Esperanto (I was inspired enough to actually look up Esperanto groups and Meetups in Stockholm!), Bliss symbols, and of course the background into Klingon; the actual assigned reading for book club was the essay on a woman-centered language entitled (if I recall correctly) “to menstruate joyfully.”

What’s still clear, even now, is that creating a new language—at least one intended to be used in the real world—is an admirable endeavor, based in optimism, idealism, and no small amount of compassion. Every language that failed to take off broke my heart a little, even though the logical conclusion of their success would mean a different line of work for me.  Constructed languages also raise interesting questions of intellectual property and usage. No one can own a natural language, but what about a constructed one? Does it belong to its creator(s) or to the people who speak it?

Okrent is writing for a popular audience, so there isn’t much in terms of specialized vocabulary or ultra-dense academic writing. In the Land of Invented Languages is a fun and breezy ready for language nerds of every mother tongue.