Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.

How I Became a North Korean: Book Review

I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.

The cover of "How I Became a North Korean" by Krys Lee

 

Author: Krys Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.5

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.

Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.

Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors

In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: Book Review

I can’t imagine a title more attention grabbing than one about badass librarians. And for anyone who loves books, knowledge, or the written word, the story of how a modern Library of Alexandria tragedy was avoided is something that gets you right in the gut.

The cover of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

 

Author: Joshua Hammer

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.47

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.

Recommended audience: Those interested in current events; those interested in Malian history; anyone who still despairs over the loss of the library of Alexandria

In-depth thoughts: The title suggests that the book will focus on the manuscripts and the mission to save them. In reality, the focus is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. There are also fairly substantial histories both of Timbuktu’s history as a center of intellectualism and art and of Haidara’s treks across the Sahara to obtain these manuscripts, of course, but those feel a little more relevant to the topic at hand. I suspect that the lefthand turns into Al Qaeda’s takeover of Timbuktu are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish.

Gena/Finn: Book Review

Generally positive reviews of Gena/Finn were making the rounds through some of my favorite book bloggers and BookTubers (still not sure what the capital letters rule is for that one…), so I added it to my TBR and included it in my suggestions for my Discord book club. It ended up being our selection for August and like with My Real Children I decided to get ahead of the agenda.

The cover of "Gena/Finn" by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Author: Hannah Moskowitz, Kat Helgeson

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.37

Language scaling: B1+*

Summary: Gena and Finn are two fans of the same cop drama show, and become close friends offline.

Recommended audience: People who have made friends on the Internet thanks to fan culture

In-depth thoughts: I had really personal reasons for being interested in this book and for recommending it for my Discord book club. Most of my friends in high school were of the Internet variety, out of a group of fans of a particular TV show. Even though I was never really active in “fandom” as such (I don’t write or read fanfiction, I don’t hoard fanart, I’m not really interested in making the things I like the be-all, end-all of my identity), the way those friendships formed online were really important to how I grew up and where I ended up in life. I don’t think there are many books that really tackle the importance (and also weirdness) of online friendships; the last time I’d read about that sort of thing was in Pattern Recognition of all things, and that was just a brief aside in what was otherwise a cyberpunk thriller.

I was expecting a story that chronicled the kind of awkward budding friendships I was cultivating in front of the computer screen in high school, and what I got was something else. Those were the bits Moskowitz and Helgeson skipped right over in favor of the kind of melodrama that could happen between any two friends, regardless of where or how they met, but with a sprinkling of unrealistic lefthand turn plot points for good measure (former child actors! shoehorned romance! tragic deaths!).

And the nail in the coffin for me was reading the book summary after I had read the book.

Gena (short for Genevieve) and Finn (short for Stephanie) have little in common. Book-smart Gena is preparing to leave her posh boarding school for college; down-to-earth Finn is a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in the big city.

If I need the book description to tell me that Gena and Finn have nothing in common, and that one is “book-smart” while the other is “down-to-earth,” then you’ve failed in your writing. In the book they come across as quite samey, except that one of them has a history of mental health issues.

I wouldn’t recommend this for ELL readers except maybe ones who are already knee deep in fandom anyway (hence the asterisk in the language scaling). It seems the book I want to read about Internet friendships has yet to be written.

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I’m no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don’t have to wait for a respective book’s month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it’s not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Cover of "My Real Children" by  Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Patrician Cowan is living out the end of her life in a care facility for dementia patients. Unlike most dementia patients, however, she also remembers two lives. Which one is the truth? Which children are her real children?

Content warning: Some scenes of emotional abuse; a couple of uncomfortable, coercive sex scenes

Recommended audience: Alternative history fans, actual history buffs, people who are anxious over the life choices they’ve made, readers looking for LGBTQ+ historical commentary

In-depth thoughts: My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it’s not just Patricia’s life that’s different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that’s never entirely resolved: did Patricia’s choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia’s choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that’s because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There’s no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia’s memory, or why she’s drifting between two timelines (it’s most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing); it’s simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

Whether or not you want to consider it “proper” science fiction, My Real Children is a great option for ESL students: no weird alien races, no futuristic technological terms, no fantastical elements to try and keep straight. It’s simply two alternate histories that readers may already be familiar with, side by side.

Cowboy Pug: Book Review

This was another birthday gift for a student. I’d never heard of the series before, but this student likes pugs so I thought Cowboy Pug would be an appropriate enough gift. Again, I can hardly be expected to buy a book for a student and not read it first!

The cover of "Cowboy Pug" by Laura James

Author: Laura James

Illustrator: Églantine Ceulemens

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: A2+

Summary: Lady Miranda and Pug are set to be cowboys for the day, but first they need to find a horse…and stay on the right side of the law.

Recommended audience: Elementary and middle school students

In-depth thoughts: After Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Cowboy Pug was a refreshing, if vacant, little read. The story is a little dragged-out but cute. It’s apparently the second in a series, which would explain why I felt a little lost going in. (Why does this small child, Lady Miranda, have a huge house and servants and a sedan chair and apparently no need to go to school? Are we in a semi-fantasy world or the real one?) I can’t imagine the actual target demographic will be thinking much about that larger context, though. It’s a cute pug! In a rodeo!

Adults might not be so easily charmed (unless they love pugs or horses), but it’s innocent and imaginative fun.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Book Review

An appropriate book choice with Easter coming up!

I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
Image courtesy Random House

Author: Reza Aslan

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.83

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology

In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:

  1. The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
  2. The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
  3. The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.

Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.

That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

One of my younger charges is a fan of the Swedish translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His birthday is coming up, and I think he’s at the point where he can appreciate the English original. Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to sit down and read his birthday present before I wrap it up and give it to him.

Cover of Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Author: Jeff Kinney

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.97

Language scaling: A2+

Summary: Middle schooler Greg Heffley’s life and times.

Recommended audience: Elementary and middle school students

In-depth thoughts: Some children’s literature continues to hold up, even when you’re an adult. Other children’s literature seems to have a narrow appreciation window. Diary of a Wimpy Kid falls firmly in the latter camp for me. I imagine there’s some appeal to watching the snarky and frankly sociopathic Greg come up with plans and then fail horrendously at them when you’re still 10 or 11 years old—it’s a lot of the same kind of hijinks that make certain grating YouTube celebrities so popular with young fans—but as an adult there’s not much to enjoy.

The art is cute, at least, and you have to credit Kinney with inspiring a bunch of copycats. There’s also a few scenes of Greg’s dad being surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) adamant about Greg not having “girl toys” that Kinney could have done something with but just…didn’t. I’m not expecting a treatise on gender in a book for elementary school kids, and I’m glad he brought it up at all, but there was more that could have been done with it.

In the end, though, Greg is too unlikable for my taste, especially in how he treats his “best friend.” I think some parents might want to sit down with their young readers and talk about, for example, what kind of “friend” Greg really is and the difference between what’s funny in a book and what’s acceptable in real life.

Take This MOOC: Literature and Mental Health

Literature and Mental Health is actually a course I stumbled on thanks to Learning How to Learn (which I’ve previously reviewed here) and their weekly email newsletters. I was too late to sign up for it initially, but opened again in January and finished up the first week in March. (Don’t worry: these courses often repeat! Sign up now if you’re interested in taking the course in the future.)

Literature and Mental Health is another offering from FutureLearn, like Inside IELTS (see my review here, including some comments on FutureLearn). It’s presented by Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, and was developed by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick. As the name would suggest, Literature and Mental Health looks at how literature, particularly poetry, might be beneficial in treating mental illness. The course focuses on six particular issues related to mental well-being:

  • Stress
  • Heartbreak
  • Bereavement
  • Trauma
  • Depression and Bipolar
  • Aging and Dementia

Literature and Mental Health, like Inside IELTS, is presented only in English. The literature in question is English, and the course draws particularly from the British literary traditions. Nonetheless, the course seems to have been enjoyed by learners all over the world, judging by the comments in the course discussion.. There are transcripts of every video, which EFL students will no doubt find helpful. (There is the occasional hiccup in the transcripts, but for the most part they’re quite good.)

As I mentioned earlier, the course focuses almost exclusively on poetry. I am notoriously indifferent about poetry, and so I would have appreciated equal attention paid to prose throughout the course. Nonetheless, I appreciate that Literature and Mental Health drew from a broad scope of English literature, from the 1600s until today. The poems selected represent a lovely cross-section of the English language and how it’s developed over the last 350 years. EFL students might find some of those older poems intimidating, but you might be surprised at how how much you can take away from a poem, especially if you read contemporary discussion and analysis alongside of it.

There are no quizzes or other recall assignments involved. Instead, there are periodic, optional “activities” connected to literature-adjacent research: can reading poetry improve mood? what makes poetry easy or difficult to memorize? Students who find themselves stressed over MOOCs because of assessments or grades would do well to start with this one, as it’s incredibly low stakes.

Finally, the course draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Every unit includes interviews with other writers, poets, or British cultural luminaries. Additionally, a medical professional always anchors the initial discussion on the week’s focus, so that the discussion of the literature is always grounded in what the medical world knows about that particular condition. Even if you don’t get anything out of the poetry, you might learn something new about mental health!