I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.
Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor
Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.
Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology
In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.
I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.
What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.
As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?
It’s October and somehow I’m still not finished writing up all of the reading I did on my summer vacation (as well as what I did besides read on my summer vacation). This was a book I started and finished during my long weekend in Austin.
Author: Ted Chiang
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Plot summary: A short story collection including “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the movie Arrival
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; anyone who enjoyed Arrival
In-depth thoughts: The problem with reviewing short story collections so long (months) after you’ve read them is that it’s harder to keep all of the stories in mind. I know that I liked what I read a lot, but I struggle to remember exactly what it was that I read — except the titular story, “Story of Your Life,” which is definitely the strongest of them all.
After a quick refresher (as in, reading someone else’s review on GoodReads), my memory came back to me. The other stories I remembered enjoying were “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” and “Division by Zero.” Despite winning a Sideways award (whatever that is?), “Seventy-Two Letters” didn’t really appeal to me. Neither did “Tower of Babylon.” “Understand” was mildly interesting, in that it was probably the most “traditional” science fiction of the lot (what happens when people give themselves supergenius intellects?), but it didn’t have the same existentialist concerns or the same experimentation with form that characterized what I thought were the best stories. And, finally, “The Evolution of Human Science” is a clever and pithy little work and I enjoyed it in the moment I read it, but by the time I sat down to write this review I’d completely forgotten it.
“Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon” are steeped in Jewish lore (Kabbalah, golems) and Old Testament mythology, respectively, which might confuse readers coming from a different cultural milieu.
What I appreciate about this collection is one of the same things I appreciated about The Three-Body Problem:author commentary is included at the end. It’s interesting to take a peak behind the curtain and see the germ of an idea for a story (if I can mix my metaphors a little). Chiang has yet to produce a novel-length work, but I think many of the ideas in here have enough meat to become novels on their own. I look forward to any future work from Chiang, and I hope he tackles more long-form work in the future.
It’s Feminist Science Fiction Book Club day. Noah has a meeting with the alumni board of his grad school program, so Elizabeth and I get to spend quality time together. Quality time at the supermarket, even: one of my favorite places to go when visiting people. This time, though, not so much. Not because I’m with Elizabeth but because it’s no longer so early into my trip here and there’s no giddy anticipation of “oh, let’s get this!”; we’re just shopping for the essentials for book club brunch.
When we get back, I hop in the shower while Elizabeth poaches eggs in their tiny kitchen, and it smells divine when I get out. I get out the table dressings and fight the urge to use the Swedish particle verb that neatly encapsulates the meaning of “set the table” when I ask if she wants me to set the table. Maybe I’ve gone native ?
I curl up with more Ted Chiang stories until people show up. Noah is the first back, triggering a stream of other arrivals: Camille, who I met last night, and two others. The chairs come out now, including those fold-up canvas sporting event chairs with the cupholders in the armrests. Noah takes one of them between me and Elizabeth, and it’s the rare occasion where I’m taller than him—he is, easily, a foot taller than me.
“This is really freaking me out,” I comment. “I’m not used to you being so much shorter than me. Usually it’s the opposite experience.”
Discussion kicks off with the trials and tribulations of cat ownership, and then we get to Karen Memory, which everyone seems more or less equally lukewarm about for a variety of reasons, but we all agree that there’s a long stretch in the middle where nothing happens. Noah brings up that the introduction of the cast of characters feels like a diversity checklist and maybe directly in response to the Sad/Rabid Puppies debacle of however many years ago now, someone else doesn’t care for the dialect, and I make my nitpicky point about how the book makes a useless and offhanded mention of radium watch dial painting that’s maybe 30 years anachronistic, and that people didn’t well and fully realize radium was killing those women for another 10? 20? years after. The “it’s a steampunk alternate history” argument is made, to which I counterargue that yes, I’ll take that for the big stuff, but for small things that seem to serve as a signal of “I did research!” it’s jarring and frustrating because it didn’t NEED to be in there for the story and ruins the whole image of “I did research!”
We also discuss The Dispossessed and whether or not it’s feminist, and whether or not it squares with actual anarchist experience. (One member of the book club has experience with real-life anarchists, or maybe real-life anarchist communes, and Noah wants to pick her brain.) Members drift out again, for other events, but one member (who disliked the dialect) remains and discussion unofficially continues for a few minutes more. I bring up The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage as a potential read, and we talk about how contemporary computer science treats Lovelace. The question of whether or not I think it qualifies as feminist is brought up, and I argue yes, based on the fact that the author comes down pretty explicitly in the “was Ada a genuine inspiration or just riding the coattails?” debate as being, to put it roughly, pro-Ada, which can be seen as a sort of feminist statement maybe? Other books tangentially related to feminist sci-fi come up, and then it’s time for the last member to make a graceful exit.
The next item on the agenda is a goodbye party for grad school friends who are leaving Austin by way of Mexico City for North Carolina. It’s not for hours, though, and Noah wants to head to the gym otherwise he’ll be bouncing off the walls. I suggest visiting Book People, which was a suggestion earlier in the visit that never manifested, and who can resist a visit to a book store? This works out—they can drive to the gym and leave me at a nearby bus stop for a route that goes straight there—and away we go.
I hole up in the bookstore cafe (one of the rare, not-all-purpose fooderies I visit; there is no beer and wine menu) with a hibiscus tea that’s probably 80% ice. I read through the first two trade paperback collections of Monstress. I briefly consider buying them, but err in favor of I don’t need any more goddamn books.
Noah and Elizabeth turn up much sooner than I’d expect from going to the gym, but I suppose they had a head start versus my wait for the bus and the bus ride here. We opt to hang out a while longer at Book People, since we all have reading: I’m still working on Monstress, Noah has picked up Conscience of a Conservative, and Elizabeth is reading a dense nonfiction book about one of the kings of France.
Once we’re sufficiently book’d and sufficiently hungry, we wander off in search of dinner, by way of the Lush store. Noah grouses about how so many of the bath items look like food (“That just seems like a bad idea!”) and a clerk overhears him and stops to chat about how they sometimes find items with teethmarks in them. We gab a bit more about shouldn’t context in the store make that clear, and then I think to ask if they have any stick perfume. I love my particular Korean brand and scent, but if Lush has something comparable it would probably be cheaper to get it from them than import it from Korea. I show her the container and she nods and leads me to a display where Elizabeth is talking to another sales rep.
“In these tins. We had sticks like that before, but they got stuck a lot and customers complained about wasted product.”
I thank her and give the vanilla sample a smell, but it’s impossible to tell anything in the store. I dose up one wrist with the Korean and another with the Lush, and walk outside to compare the scents in fresh air, free from olfactory interference. No dice; the Lush one smells like ice cream, sickly sweet and not the same floral-vanilla I’ve come to love.
Elizabeth and Noah are quick to follow me out, and we continue to dinner by way of the Treaty Oak, whose story Noah relates to me as we walk. Eventually, we end up at a diner, where I do the thing I always do for lunch or dinner in a new diner and order a grilled cheese. Discussion floats around board games and mistakes our parents taught us and how good the milkshakes are here.
“They cost more than five dollars, actually,” Noah offers, when he sees me struggling.
“THANK YOU,” I reply. “And they don’t put no bourbon in it or nothing?”
Now it’s finally time for the goodbye party, and to start with I feel a tiny bit miserable because it’s a large group at a picnic table that makes it hard to have a conversation with more than just a handful of people at a time. But conversations settle into place like wagon ruts; topics flit back and forth among death metal bands and bad movies and effective solutions for homelessness (since everyone at the table is some kind of policy wonk or another). Eventually the host gets ready to leave for the next stop, and Elizabeth and Noah decide to call it quits. Everyone brushes their teeth and says goodnight.
I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.
Author: Italo Calvino
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.54 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Weary travelers at a castle and a tavern are rendered unable to speak, and so use a Tarot deck to share their stories.
Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in Tarot cards; fans of Italo Calvino.
In-depth thoughts: I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is “somewhere in the middle,” so now I don’t know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino’s epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he “retold” through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.
Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn’t hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’m not glad that I’m read it, but I’m not annoyed, either.
I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. Incidentally, despite my struggles with brevity, I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing other people’s short writing. I have a friend on a short story kick who can attest to the extent of my cuts (and actually, you’ll blog-meet him soon enough). But the only way to get better at short-form writing is to read a lot of it, right? So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?
American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.
Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.
Author: Rick Bailey
My Goodreads rating: 2 stars
Average Goodreads rating: 4.22 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Recommended audience: Those interested in short-form nonfiction writing, whether for its own sake or for the sake of improving their own.
In-depth thoughts: Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love! But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no “surprise” or “sublime” for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was “For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation,” which touches on one of his “non-traditional” (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn’t hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation, Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here’s the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:
“I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?”
It’s my turn to laugh. “Patrick Swayze?”
“In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation.” She gives me an embarrassed look. “Did you ever levitate?”
Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.
There’s probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen’s thoughts about it, and Bailey’s memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey’s own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?
I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.
I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.
While I might be tempted to point to one of these essays if I ever tackle personal essays or memoirs in a lesson, American English, Italian Chocolate was just not my cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to EFL students.
I’m slowly closing in on my TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century goal. After this, just one book remains!
Author: Joan Didion
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: B1+
Plot summary: The life and breakdown of the fictional actress Maria Wyeth during the late 1960s.
Content warning: Lots of substance abuse and an overdose; off-screen (off-page?) domestic violence; abortion
Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in feminist literature; those interested in character studies; those interested in mid-century Americana.
In-depth thoughts:Play It as It Lays is an ideal book for EFL students: serious, compelling concepts are explored in short chapters of light, lucid prose. The net result is that you can pick up and put down around the book other things you might have going on in your life. Also, there’s a movie version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.
Many of the reviews I’ve read for Play It as It Lays call it “depressing,” even “terrifying,” but I largely suspect that response has to do with how squeamish you are about abortion (and how squeamish you are about women feeling, at worst, vague and ambiguous about getting abortions, rather than eternally regretful and emotionally destroyed). I liked Didion’s writing and was happy to hitch a ride with Maria Wyeth for a while to visit her gilded cage of a world, but nothing about it shook me to my core. (Maybe that’s how you know you’re depressed? Hm.)
I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you’re reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!
Author: Elizabeth Bear
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: C2
Plot summary: In a nutshell, Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper set in the Pacific Northwest, with international espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure.
Recommended audience: Steampunk fans
In-depth thoughts: The back of the book features the same summary I just shared above, more or less, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of “Johnny Mnemonic.” Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.
Elizabeth Bear’s writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that’s just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I’ve read by Bear and I’ll have to find more in the future. But there were a few things that tripped me up, which is why I didn’t give it a higher rating. (I suppose it’s nitpicking to expect the correct dates on radium watch dial painting in a novel that is very clearly a fantastical alternate universe, but it’s my job to be a nitpicker, so I’ll let it bother me.)
A more salient point for EFL readers is that while Bear’s writing and Karen’s voice are distinctive and stylistic, they may be too stylistic for many EFL readers. Karen’s voice employs non-standard grammar and slightly antiquated vocabulary that I can see as being confusing or off-putting (hence such a high language grading). But if you’re a very committed steampunk fan, it’s well worth the effort it might take to adjust to the language.
I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.
Author: Sydney Padua
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars
Language scaling: B1 / C1
Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.
Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.
In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.
If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.
It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.
This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.
Author: Karin Boye
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars
Language scaling: N/A
Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.
Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.
In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)
Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.
I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies
In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.
Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.
While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.