Review: Gösta Berling’s Saga

It’s a little presumptuous of me to sit down and review Selma Lagerlöf’s legendary debut novel more than 100 years after the fact, but since I want to keep a fairly accurate public record of the books I read, here we are!

 Like so many bookworms, I have a tendency to acquire  books faster than I read them. I try to make a concerted effort to focus on my book backlog whenever I can; I have a long-standing goal every year to read a certain number of books that I’ve owned for over a year. I picked up Gösta Berling’s Saga in 2008 at the very earliest and probably 2010 at the latest, so this one definitely counts. Good ol’ Dover Thrift Editions!
The Dover Thrift Edition of Gösta Berling's Saga
Image courtesy Dover

 Author: Selma Lagerlöf

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Silent film buffs; people interested in Swedish literature (who can’t read the original Swedish)
In-depth thoughts: This edition is a translation from 1894 (with a few chapters being a little later, 1918); there have since been two subsequent translations, one in the 1960s and another in 2009. I don’t know if it’s entirely the age of the translations that sometimes make this a hard slog so much as the age of the work. I don’t see why anyone who can read Swedish would prefer this edition over the original, or why anyone who prefers English to Swedish would choose this one over the later translations (except for comparison’s sake). My wallet loves Dover Thrift Editions, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this one as an introduction to Lagerlöf.
Outside the language, there are other challenges: there’s a huge cast of characters and the structure is more episodic than purely narrative so chapters can feel clunky and disconnected compared to how novels are written today. (I feel like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils holds together a little better, even if it has a similar episodic structure.) Still, once you get into it, it’s still worth reading over 100 years later. Unsurprisingly for a very feminist and pro-woman, pro-women’s rights author, there are a lot of women in this large cast of characters, well developed beyond witches, damsels, and bimbos. They do some awful things, and they also do some heroic things. Of course, most of these women have a tendency to fall in love with Gösta, but then again, he’s the hero.
 My personal favorite is the ostensible antagonist, Fru Samzelius. While she spends much of the book outcast from her farm and home, pitted against the cavaliers, she begins and ends the story with competence and dignity, and always does things on her own terms.
Doktor Glas, from around the same time period, has seen a modern re-imagining from the perspective of the antagonist, Reverend Gregorious. I want someone to do the same for Margarita Samzelius. She deserves her own book even more than Reverend Gregorious does.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius in the silent movie adaptation of Gösta Berling's Saga. Distraught and disheveled, dressed in piecemeal fur rags, she carries a torch, ready to burn her own home to the ground rather than hand it over to her enemies.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius.

Something like this just seems ripe for the miniseries pickings, to be honest. The episodic chapters would work just fine as standalone episodes, so the scripts would basically write themselves. Come on, Netflix!

Friday 5: October 6 Through 10

The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service?

Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.

People having a really good time at a noraebang in South Korea.
Noraebang! // PBS News Hour

Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.

 

The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting?

When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!


October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?

Okapi2

Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?

October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan  
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
                              och det som stänger.

Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider  -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra  -
svårt att vilja stanna
                              och vilja falla.

Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden  -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
                              som skapar världen.

What’s in your pocket?

Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!

Book Review: Kris

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.

ArmchairBEA, Day 1: Introduction

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!

I am . . .

Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.

Currently . . .

I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.

I love . . .

I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.

I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!

On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.

My favorite . . .

My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.

My least favorite . . .

My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.

My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.

My current read . . .

Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations:  Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.

My summer plans . . .

I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.

My buddy . . .

My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:

Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2009
Myself (center left) and a friend (center) at a company dinner party in Beijing for Lunar New Year 2010

He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.

And now he’s getting married!

My blog/channel/social media . . .

The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.

The best . . .

The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.

Reflections on Stockholms Litteraturmässan, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slipping, Halka, and How to Handle Ice

“Watch out! The stairs are slippery this morning.” A common refrain you hear on early winter mornings, at least in temperate climes.

Slippery and its sibilant initial consonant bring to mind (my mind, anyway) the smooth, easy (too easy) movement of feet or wheels; the squeak of rubber tires and soles on ice; the shhh-shhh of ice skate blades; the hisssss of a sneaky snake who slithers and slides on their belly. Overall, an appropriate sound for treacherous, untrustworthy conditions. Slippery invites a feeling of discomfort and the instinct to withdraw, avoid; to go on the defensive.

But in Swedish, the refrain is different. “Watch out! The stairs are halkig today.” And suddenly the half-formed images from the mists of my unconscious take an entirely different shape. It’s not the maleficent, ill-willed nature of the surface that hits me first, but the animated arm-waving of someone hailing a cab (which can be compared to the exaggerated gestures of a cartoon character on ice or an oil slick); an enthusiastic friend trying to catch my attention and yelling “halloo!”; the hearty guffaws of a “haw, haw, haw.” Suddenly, a halkig set of stairs doesn’t seem intimidating—merely comical, or at least well-meaning.

Cultural attitudes towards ice are different along similar lines, though I suspect that’s a mere accident of coincidence. In the US, sidewalks are thoroughly shoveled and salted; maybe not so much out of genuine concern for fellow beings as much as the fear of a negligence lawsuit. Whether it concerns physical or fiscal health, ice is most definitely a threat and treated as such. In Sweden, ice is a fact of life: a handful of gravel and some winter shoes with good traction (maybe paired with Nordic walking poles) is the national response to ice. Slips and slides aren’t threats, but as facts of life, mostly harmless and mostly comical.

Swedish, of course, has other near-synonyms for “slip” that also begin with a sneaky sibilant “S.” To smyga is to steal away like a creeping thief or a con artist*; to slinka is to sneak off like a guilty child hoping to avoid punishment. But it’s halkig (and its corresponding verb, att halka) that’s reserved for the trials and tribulations of trying to get anywhere after a winter storm.

Watch out! Those stairs are halkig!

 

*And can we all stop and appreciate smyga‘s close resemblance to Sméagol, the name of the hobbit who became Gollum? It might be mere coincidence, or it might be the result of Nordic mythology’s influence on The Lord of the Rings. (I should note, however, that Tolkien was much more enamored of Finnish, and to a lesser extent Old Norse, than he was of contemporary Swedish. So the most likely explanation is just pure chance.)

Things I Talk About With JV: Odyssey and Adventure

11I moved to Sweden to be with JV, my long-term, long-distance partner. (The agonization I have over that particular word choice [“partner”] is worth another blog post, but not today.) He’s fluent in English and Swedish, and something like conversant in Dutch and Japanese. We mostly use English together, and we talk a lot about words.

homer_bust_louvre_front

The other day the topic of 2001: A Space Odyssey came up. I forget why, or whether we were speaking English or Swedish, but he mentioned the Swedish title: 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr.

“‘Ett rymdäventyr’? That’s kind of a crummy translation. It’s not a space adventure. That’s like some Buck Rogers stuff. You couldn’t just use ‘odyssey’ in Swedish?” I thought it over for a second and hazarded a guess. “Odysseyen?”

“I don’t know. The original Odyssey is an adventure, after all.”

“Yeah, but it’s also serious? Dramatic? Epic? An adventure isn’t necessarily those things. When we call something an odyssey in English, it’s usually something epic, or at least long.”

“I guess so. Huh.”

I looked it up just now, and if Swedish Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that the movie is indeed called 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr, but Clarke’s novel is 2001 – En rymdodyssé.

spaceodyssey

Do you think there’s a difference between “adventure” and “odyssey”? How is 2001: A Space Odyssey translated in your native language? Is it like Swedish, where there’s more than one translation?

Translation, Editing, and Voice

I’ve written before about my secret dreams of becoming a translator. (I guess that makes them not so secret anymore.) Truthfully, there is some amount of translation that I do as an editor; many of the projects I work on are from EFL writers, and oftentimes in these cases, editing becomes the translation of the idea or concept that they’ve described into how a typical native speaker might phrase it. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts I work with are garbled messes. They are not! But there are levels of flow and idea organization that can be difficult to achieve in a foreign language–I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I look anything of at least some complexity that I’ve written in Swedish and think about how it would be translated back into English, the result is never a perfect alignment with what I originally had in mind. In fact, it’s often clunky and childish. The struggle is real.

The question is trickier when the English is not clunky or ambiguous; when it sounds like how a native or fluent speaker would actually phrase something; when not only the meaning but the stylistic intention is clear. Is this repetition of a word deliberate, or is it because the writer couldn’t quite reach for an acceptable synonym? Is this unorthodox usage intentional, or is it the result of a misunderstanding? (My Swedish friends will tell you that I default to menar (“mean” as in “intend”) instead of betyder (“mean” as in a neutral dictionary definition or logical consequence). While one could interpret this idiosyncrasy as a poetic attempt to give words or sentences souls and wills of their own, since that’s not entirely impossible to imagine, the truthful answer is that menar is just closer to “mean” and so that’s the one I hit upon when speaking.)

Generally speaking, I prefer to think of my editing as minimally invasive, especially when it comes to EFL clients. In my opinion, as long as your writing successfully communicates your intention, without ambiguity, unintended double entendre, or distracting word choices, then I will leave it untouched. I’m more than happy to recommend style guides and the like if you want to work on developing your English voice–but I want it to be your voice, not mine.

In my undergrad years, I took a fair amount of writing workshop courses. The final project in one of them was to re-read the entire corpus of work a given classmate had produced over the semester and write a little blurb on them and their style, as well as provide detailed, private feedback on their work overall (as opposed to the feedback provided publicly in workshop sessions). We didn’t get to pick our partners for this assignment; this was a mandate from the professor. To this day I’m not sure if it was a random selection or a deliberate pairing, or something in between.

I remember the classmate I was assigned fairly well, and the general tone of his work (abstract, experimental). I might have used the words “ethereal,” “dream-like,” and “otherworldly.” But what I remember really well is what he said about my writing: that I had a really distinctive voice, and that even without looking at the name on the piece he could tell which submission was mine. He phrased it as a negative, and while at the time I was a bit miffed that he thought that was a bad thing, years later I finally understand that it’s rightfully a mixed blessing, especially when editing.

(That “distinctive voice” all but disappears when blogging; apparently I can only coax it out in the privacy of work that never has to see the light of day. As a result, I rarely feel like myself online. But anyway.)

The urge to go to town on a manuscript and move things around to how I would say them would be overwhelming if I ever let it out. In that respect, I’m like an editing Hulk. Or, more appropriately, when I edit, I’m Bruce Banner: by focusing purely on meaning and (sometimes) flow, I keep the HULK REWRITE urge at bay. I stay the mild-mannered word nerd and let your writing take the spotlight, for better and for worse.

Image courtesy Eneas de Troya

I have been known to let the Hulk out, but only after people have explicitly asked me to do so. I recognize that writing, especially creative writing, is personal. There needs to be a level of trust and openness between writer and editor before those kinds of changes should even be on the table. The best creative writing comes from places of vulnerability and uncertainty; if you can’t be vulnerable and uncertain, the writing will fizzle out.

Why I Still Study Foreign Languages

I’ve always been interested in foreign languages — my electives in high school were essentially all the music and foreign language classes I could fit in my schedule — so it’s not surprising that I would fall into teaching as a career.

I’ve made oblique references to studying Russian and Swedish elsewhere; I’ve also studied, in increasing order of fluency, Korean, German, and French. If you peek at my DuoLingo profile, you can see that I’ve also dipped my toes into Turkish. (It’s been a while with that one; I wouldn’t claim any kind of proficiency or knowledge.) While I’m just plain interested in languages, I think it’s important for language teachers to keep up their own language studies throughout their careers.

Image courtesy Hans Hillewaert.
Image courtesy Hans Hillewaert.

1. You can understand your students better.

If nothing else, when you have a better understanding of your students’ mother tongue, you can better understand where there might be L1 interference or confusion. My Korean students and friends, for example, often would use the verb “play” in a manner that, while not technically wrong, sounded odd, especially coming from someone older than 10. (“How was your weekend?” “It was good, I played with some friends.”) If I didn’t know any better, I would just be confused or annoyed by this persistent pattern in Korean English. But it’s an idiosyncrasy that’s a lot easier to understand because I know (a little bit) about Korean.

As it turns out, in Korean you can use the verb “to play” for everything from schoolyard games to company dinners (놀다) to just shooting the shit in the park, whereas in English we quickly outgrow it unless it’s in the context of a sport or a musical instrument. I hope that, if I taught my teenage Korean students nothing else, I got them to start using “hang out with” instead of “play with” when talking about their weekends.

2. You can remember what it’s like to be a student.

After a few years of pedagogical training and work, it can be really easy to fall prey to teacher hubris. Being a beginner again helps foster a sense of empathy with your students and their own struggles.

3. You can learn to be a better teacher.

This one is a little tricky if you’re not actually taking a class, but you can probably still be inspired by a good textbook or workbook. While there is plenty of EFL material written by plenty of highly qualified EFL experts, English isn’t the only language out there. The more you can branch out into other languages, the greater pool of inspiration you have to draw from. Maybe the worksheet you did for French is the perfect thing to adapt to your direct object lesson next week, and so on.

4. Your students can feel more comfortable with you.

Many argue for the immersive “target language only” philosophy; this is the approach I was taught when I did my CELTA. While I agree that the immersive (or faux-immersive) environment can be exactly the challenging situation that a lot of students need, and that it sometimes is the best practical situation (e.g. a class of international students who don’t all share the same mother tongue), I don’t think it’s always entirely appropriate. Some students are shy, or not quite confident in the target language–sometimes just knowing that they can ask a clarifying question or use a word in their mother tongue is the Dumbo’s feather that they need to take productive learning risks. The more languages you know at least a little bit about, the more students you can reach.

So I study languages for all of these reasons, but also just because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not the most diligent student, I’ll admit, but I still make an effort. I’ll get into my own study habits and schedule in another post. But for now, I’ll leave things here.

My Favorite Books of 2015, According to GoodReads

It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?

My Favorite Books of 2015

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles

I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).

February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.

What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic of Cancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.

 

May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.

In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.

Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.

Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.

A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)

If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.

 

December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.

We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.

 

December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far betweenBarabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.

Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.

What were your favorite books that you read in 2015? Are you on GoodReads? If you like, you can follow me there.