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.)
It takes forever to get out of the Copenhagen airport, or at least it feels like forever. My flight was supposed to arrive at 12:30; when I check the time on the surprisingly dingy subway, it’s already 13:40. Oops. I had grand, if brief, plans for my layover in Copenhagen: see The Little Mermaid statue, grab a smorbrod at Aarman’s, and top it off with a beer at Cafe Malmo. I chop the list down to Cafe Malmo (beer above all else). It pours down intermittently during my walk there, but by the time I find the basement bar (Cafe Malmo is emphatically NOT a cafe), the weather has broken for the better.
I take a seat right opposite the open door, enjoying the cool breeze and the blue-gray patch of sky projecting into the dark wood paneling. The fresh air is good because there are ashtrays everywhere and the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke—smoking in restaurants, a memory of a bygone era.
At the bar I struggle with whether to use English or Swedish. I switch uncomfortably between both, if finally skewing more towards the Swedish end of the spectrum. The bartender understands me just fine and truthfully I can’t tell if he uses Swedish or very slow and deliberate Danish with me in return. I know that I can read Danish okay, but trying to listen to snatches of overheard conversation is impossible. It’s all gargling.
Is it extra appropriate for a dive bar to have a nautical theme? I can’t decide. In one window, a copper(?) bathysphere is surrounded by potted cactuses. The duality of man, or nature. The wall opposite me features a collage of faded photos and the title “BUGISSTREET SINGAPORE” in that font used exclusively for saloons in the Wild West on crayon-bright yellow paper. The photos are of women, glamour shots and candids alike, and many feature exposed breasts.
The sign outside the bar promises live music, but I’m skeptical that you could comfortably fit the accouterments necessary for even your basic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter. There would be floor space between my seat and the door, but it’s dominated by a heavy five-pin billiards table. Or maybe the billiards table doubles as a stage as necessary?
While I sip my beer, the thought strikes me of “third places,” or maybe it’s called “third spaces.” The idea is that we crave places that are neither work (obviously stressful for most, or at least oversaturated, even if you like your job) and home (often its own brand of oppressive), so we go to places like bars, parks, and cafes. I suppose my third place of preference is bars; I’d like them even without drinks. Even the cutest, quirkiest cafe can feel performative and formal. But everyone relaxes in bars. Especially during off-peak hours, it’s a place to relax and be around-but-not-with other people. They have no expectations of me (except to, say, pay for my drink, not to leave a mess, etc.) and likewise I have no expectations of them. I have space to think.
That said, I don’t think about much. I just let the weird mix of classic American top 40 and European schlager I don’t know and Danish covers of American songs wash over me. There is a surprising amount of country music. Selections include:
A Danish cover of James Taylor
“Fly By Night”
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
“Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”
A loungey version of “Revolution”
A country version of “O Holy Night”
Eventually other patrons appear, or maybe friends of the young busboy. They set up the five-pin billiards game. The box with the pins and the chalk for the scoreboard had been sitting on a shelf behind me the whole time and the thought had earlier occurred to me that one of the small, finely carved pins would have made a nice souvenir. Now I’m glad I didn’t pinch one. I watch a game play through, not understanding any of the rules, and then return to the airport for the most important flight: from Copenhagen to New York.
That flight itself is uneventful. I read a lot and sleep a lot. The real fun begins when I land at JFK and try to get to my lodgings for the night: King Sauna in Palisades Park, NJ. In the process I wrangle a cheap burner sim card and some allergy medicine (my hosts in Austin have cats), but getting to the sauna is more of an adventure than I would have bargained for. I get there nonetheless.
King Sauna is a Korean-American version of a jjimjilbang, a particular kind of sauna. There’s not really anything that’s different between one in Korea and one in the US except, maybe, context: in the US they’re a luxury and a reward; in Korea they are (or were for me) as a reliable part of travel as highway rest stops or Motel 6. In some neighborhoods they’re a place to spend a few hours with the family; in others they’re a cheap place to crash if you missed the last subway home.
In retrospect, my view of jjimjilbangs as the latter is maybe incompatible with the semi-luxurious status they enjoy in the US (would a hostel or AirBnB for the night be cheaper?), but there’s something to be said for 24-hour entry, saunas, and hot tubs when you trudge out of JFK at 10 in the evening.
Unfortunately, the “lagom” pool—not boiling hot, not tepid or ice cold—is drained to just a few inches, I guess for cleaning? So I can’t indulge in my favorite warm-cold-warm ritual, but I enjoy having a luxurious hot shower and sweating it out in the steam saunas.
The other nice thing about jjimjilbangs generally, and this one in particular, is the freely available computer access. Without that, it would have been impossible to get my budget sim card started. I could have flown into Austin semi-blind, relying on the crapshoot that is free wifi, but that would be cutting it a little close, even for me. I also take the time to order online NJ transit and airport shuttle tickets. Phone tickets. The future is now!
There were other intangible benefits to staying at the sauna, mostly related to sense memories. There’s a smell to jjimjilbangs—is it damp bamboo mats? tea?—that I will eternally associate with relief, safety, and relaxation. And the second it hits my nose, all the tension from traveling leaves my body.
Truthfully, my favorite jjimjilbangs in Korea were much more budget and much less luxurious than this one; basically places for drunk patrons to sleep it off. But I like the touches here: the delicate white-and-pink upholstered fancy chairs and matching tables, with intricate leaves and curves carved into the arms and legs; the overwhelming presence of flowers, real and artificial; vases, geodes, and crystals set in decorative tableaus (maybe for obscure feng shui benefits?). The net effect is one of repose in a fairy forest bower, and it’s surprisingly calming.
My original sleeping plan was to avoid the coed fairy bower area, to minimize the risk of encountering a pervert, but when I get exiled out of the private rest/sleep area in the women’s-only side for wearing the jjimjilbang uniform (“clothes outside!” the attendant tells me and the other woman in there), I notice that in the co-ed corner devoted to sleeping has little wooden barriers to cordon off “private” space—random dudes won’t be able to comfortably roll over and try to spoon with me. Satisfied, I put my glasses on a nearby shelf and set a series of alarms on my phone to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Austin.
As it turns out, I don’t need the complex series of wake-up calls. Whether it’s jet lag or anticipation, I only sleep for a couple of hours and wake up at around 4 am. I peek in the saunas to see if the lagom pool has been refilled yet, but no dice. I relax in a few of the different infrared saunas in the coed fairy bower section, then leave a little before 7 so I can get the NJ transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time.
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.
Every year at Book Expo, children and adult authors are featured during breakfast. Who would you dream of enjoying a meal with? Would it be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or simply coffee? What would your meal be? What would you discuss?
I hate that “who would you invite to your perfect dinner party?” question, because I have no conception of what a dinner party should be like, let alone what makes a good one. I appreciate the good people at Armchair BEA at least letting me choose the meal and venue (presumably!), making it a little more interesting.
Since it seems uncouth to want to sit and chat over a few beers with someone who struggled pretty seriously and openly with alcoholism, and a dinner would feel serious and intimidating, I would opt for a fika with David Foster Wallace. A conversation with him would be as interesting as it was intimidating, though I’d rather discuss the intersection of philosophy and literature than tennis and Alcoholics Anonymous.
I’d rather have a private meal with someone than a dinner party with a variety of guests. Still, I can see the appeal of a dinner featuring notable American expatriate writers: Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Patricia Highsmith, Paul Knowles, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and so on.
When it came time for beers, without a doubt it’d be a pub crawl with Simone de Beauvoir. I’d love to pick her brain about current affairs and to hear her thoughts on my favorite places and people.