This was the year I joined all of the book clubs. My Facebook book club is still going strong (to be fair, I joined that one in 2016); this year, I’ve been tagging along with the reads for my friend’s Austin-based feminist sci-fi book club and I just recently joined a vaguely YA-ish book club on Discord. Roar was the first book I read for that one (though far from the actual club’s first book).
Author: Cora Carmack
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.0 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: A princess born without any apparent magical storm affinity that will protect her kingdom runs away on the eve of her marriage to take those powers from storms by force so she can save her kingdom.
Recommended audience: Fantasy and romance fans
In-depth thoughts: Considering that this is a book put out by Tor Teen, explicitly and specifically marketed as a YA fantasy novel, and that I’m a woman in my thirties, I know full well that I’m not part of the target demographic for this book. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that this didn’t really appeal to my fantasy snob sensibilities.
In fact, Roar might work better than your average contemporary YA fantasy fare: I will credit Cormack with not suffering from Ridiculous Fantasy Name Syndrome in her writing. In a native language, such naming conventions (“Princess Alysia of the kingdom Pherylovia”) can be annoying; in a foreign language it can become an impediment. Beyond that, since the magic is all based on storms and weather—something that we actually experience in the real world—there isn’t much fussing with special words (or regular words used in non-standard ways) to describe magic and spells and so on. So, even this book was very much Not For Me, I wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to people who like this sort of thing, or who want to practice their English.
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!
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.
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!
After I wake up from my late ‘fest night, I catch the LANTA bus like usual. I realize as soon as I get to the bus stop that I left my phone at Best Chemist Friend’s. Priscilla is also too old to run Google hangouts so I’m just kind of cut off from the world until I meet her for dinner with my parents later.
I read some more out of Her Smoke Rises Up Forever while I wait for the bus. The guy sitting next to me—probably in his 40s, has a pattern to his speech that suggests some kind of mental or cognitive disorder—sees my ‘fest mug and starts talking. I oblige but give him a fake name, and sure enough the question comes up:
“Are you single?”
“No,” I answer, shaking my head.
“Are you married?”
“Yes.” Technically correct; the best kind of correct. His interest immediately diminishes, but I still breathe a sigh of relief when he gets on a different bus.
It’s another day of cleaning and purging. I find an old notebook with details of part of a trip I took to Chicago back in 2009 and type it up, along with some travel notes from this trip.
With the books mostly whittled down, cleaning and purging now comes to the gifts and knick-knacks and things that I like and have had for years, but have to put through the “Do I want to pay money to ship it across the ocean?” gauntlet. More than a few things don’t survive that.
I drop off the bag of goods outside, then wander inside for the first time in four years (I never managed to drop in while I was home in October). I stay long enough to see if there was a belt that might really work with the dress I had for the wedding, but leave empty-handed.
The rest of the day is uneventful except for dinner with Best Chemist Friend and my parents, when I get my phone back.
Today I’m scheduled to hang out with blog friend Hillary at ‘fest. The weekend also is my last chance to visit the Quakertown Farmer’s Market for the next indeterminate amount of time, so after some more closet purging, I toss two garbage bags full of clothes into the car and drive to Quakertown.
I buy a cannoli and do a single circuit around. There are too many new shops and empty stalls for my liking, but it’s comforting to see some things remain: the sticky bun bakery, the “Korner Kupboard” (I don’t know why the K’s and maybe I don’t want to know), the hippie incense store (that expanded, for a hot minute, into another hippie pagan store that quickly closed), the movie/video game store, the low-rent Spencer’s-cum-secondhand store. In better news, the live alligator that had been living in a tank in the back of that store is no longer there; later Googling at home reveals that he’s been sent to an animal sanctuary, then literally the day before I sit down to type this up, Best Chemist Friend messages me on Gchat to tell me that Wally the Gator is dead and that there’s a memorial sign in his former tank.
“Our childhood is officially dead,” she says.
“Guess we’re real adults now.”
Some of the empty stalls have been converted to some kind of food court or meeting place, with plastic tables and chairs and bulletin board for announcements. There’s a jug band playing on chorus risers that serve as a low-budget stage, so I sit for a while to write and enjoy the music.
But even with that break, my walk around doesn’t take that long, mostly because I’m deliberately avoiding buying things because where will I put them? Do I want to mail them across an ocean? No! And it’s a good thing, because like a chump I decide to park at Musikfest and so I part with my money there instead. I definitely spent more time on the road to and from the farmer’s market than in the market proper, but that’s okay, because it’s also nice to drive again (until the novelty wears off). I also managed to drop off those bags of clothes in a collection bin on my drive to Musikfest so arguably it was even a productive trip.
I meet Hillary down by the Nintendo product tent, where her husband has been sucked into the void that is video games. I get some lunch at Johnny’s Bagels and we wander around and chat. There are a couple of consignment or secondhand or whatever shops on Main Street that I’ve never really stopped in but that Hillary’s eager to try, and I guess she’s my secondhand good luck charm because I walk away with a really cute pair of dress shoes (something I needed to buy at some point anyway) and a nice top to boot! We also watch the tail end and then the entire act of some street performers, then wander back off Main Street to get some food, pick up my final music purchase (an LP from Black Masala), see some shows, and meet up with some of Hillary’s friends.
We also run into cave coworker Kelly, our (as in Kelly and I) mutual friend Janine, and Janine’s new boyfriend, so that’s a pleasant surprise and we stand around and chat a bit. Janine is a bit deep in her cups but in a charming and friendly and hilarious way. But I’m a crappy mutual friend and fail to mention at the time that both Hillary and Janine work in special ed. Oops!
There is some massive issue trying to drive home. A car that might be a Papa John’s delivery car is blocking the box (so to speak) in front of the closest bridge to get out of town, with a couple of cop cars to boot; everyone is being diverted into a righthand turn instead of being allowed to go straight. I circle around and pull into a Wawa. I debate if it’s worth just taking another bridge out of town, but after I get some more writing done (and enjoying the bakery cookies from the grocery store that I can never resist buying) and listening to Black Masala, things have cleared up so I just take my regular route home.
There’s a paranoid parrot in the back of my brain who is convinced that I’ll get run off the road by some drunk fester or other, but obviously I don’t and I make it home fine, a little more sunburned and a little more sweaty than when I left. Mom and Dad are still up (not waiting for me; it’s just not that late yet) and I chat a little with them before I go upstairs.
This is the day where all of the tiki torch insanity goes down in Charlottesville. I don’t have data on my cheap-o plan but Hillary does and so I’m halfway apprised of what’s going on in the world while I’m seeing friends and listening to music and having a good time. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I catch up a bit on Facebook and all of that good stuff, then curl up in a ball and feel sad until I fall asleep.
It’s time for another book from the Austin-based feminist science fiction book club!
Author: Becky Chambers
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: A young woman trying to escape her past joins the ragtag crew of The Wayfarer, a ship that creates artificial wormholes for interstellar travel.
Recommended audience: Fans of Firefly, Serenity, Babylon 5, and/or Farscape.
In-depth thoughts: I was incredibly frustrated with this book because it had a lot of great ideas about alien linguistics and cultures that were hampered down by a writing style that I would describe as “aggressively twee.”
From an editorial perspective, there is a lot of redundancy through showing and telling (rather than showing, not telling). That kind of writing is a symptom of two things. Either 1) you don’t have enough faith in your own writing and story-telling ability to get the point across “between the lines” or 2) you don’t have enough faith in your reader’s ability to infer. Maybe even both.
If you were to go through my previous reviews, you’ll see that I’ve mentioned (more than once!) that a particular book went over my head in parts, or completely, which impacted my ability to enjoy it. The other side of the spectrum isn’t good either, and the balance is different for different people. For my taste, this leans far too heavily on “let’s explain everything.”
From an EFL perspective, however, this might be a perk rather than a drawback. Repetition ensures that the reader has lots of chances to put pieces together, especially in a science fiction novel. A genre that necessarily creates new words, sometimes even new languages, can sometimes be hard to read and understand in a language that you’re not entirely fluent in.