The June selection for my Facebook book club was The Spider King’s Daughter, the debut novel by Chibundo Onuzo. I went in hoping that it would pull me out of the book slump brought on by Radiance, How I Became A North Korean,Gena/Finn, and the middle grade books I previewed for some of my students. The Facebook book club has the best hit/miss ratio out of all three that I’m in, after all.
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.42
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Abike, the daughter of a wealthy (and shady) businessman, encounters “Runner G,” a street hawker with a tragic past, and the two begin a relationship. Things take an unexpected turn when Runner G takes a fresh look at his own history.
Content warning: The book opens up with a gruesome scene of animal cruelty, but everything else afterwards is fairly tame
Recommended audience: Thriller fans; YA fans looking for something a bit grittier; those interested in Nigerian literature
In-depth thoughts: Onuzo is an engaging writer and I hope she continues down that path. (Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, came out last year. Hurrah!) This was engaging at a time when nothing else I was reading could capture my interest and Onuzo deserves a lot of praise just for that.
My favorite parts of the book all involve spoilers. I will say this: what starts as a meet cute adolescent love story takes on an unexpectedly darker tone. Or maybe I should have been expecting that, considering that the book opens with Abike telling us about how her father had her beloved dog deliberately run over.
Most of the reveals were more or less obvious, but the book doesn’t rely on the shock of those reveals for impact. I think, even, Onuzo expects readers to already know the truth from the very beginning. It’s how the characters react to these reveals that’s engaging and unexpected.
The book switches between Abike and Runner G’s perspectives, with Abike’s in italics. Reading extended passages in italics is straining, at best, but Onuzo’s prose (and the short paragraphs) make it much easier than in other books (James Agee’s posthumous A Death in the Family, for example). At the book’s climax, when we switch between Abike’s and Runner G’s perspectives rapidly—at every line, for a short while—this typesetting choice proves very necessary.
Set in Lagos and with secondary characters from poverty classes with little or no education, there is a fair amount of pidgin English and Nigerian slang in the dialogue. Readers will be able to discern meaning from context in most if not all cases, but EFL readers might be a little disoriented at its initial appearance.
Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.
Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.
Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans
In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.
If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.
Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.
The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).
There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.
Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.
I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.
Author: Krys Lee
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.5
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.
Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.
Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors
In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.
There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.
Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.
I can’t imagine a title more attention grabbing than one about badass librarians. And for anyone who loves books, knowledge, or the written word, the story of how a modern Library of Alexandria tragedy was avoided is something that gets you right in the gut.
Author: Joshua Hammer
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.47
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.
Recommended audience: Those interested in current events; those interested in Malian history; anyone who still despairs over the loss of the library of Alexandria
In-depth thoughts: The title suggests that the book will focus on the manuscripts and the mission to save them. In reality, the focus is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. There are also fairly substantial histories both of Timbuktu’s history as a center of intellectualism and art and of Haidara’s treks across the Sahara to obtain these manuscripts, of course, but those feel a little more relevant to the topic at hand. I suspect that the lefthand turns into Al Qaeda’s takeover of Timbuktu are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish.
A fortunate turn of events meant that a little over a week ago, I was able to finish my usual Saturday obligations earlier than usual and meet a friend in town to attend Stockholm Kulturnatt.
Even though Kulturnatt has been an annual event in Stockholm since 2010, this year was the first I’d heard of it. I’m glad I was able to make time this year, but I’m also a little disappointed at all of the years I’ve missed!
I didn’t know quite what to expect, except free admission to assorted “cultural events.” But I’d been thinking recently that I don’t really do enough to actually enjoy Stockholm (aside from my annual treks to Litteraturmässan), so Kulturnatten seemed like a good way to remedy that. I met up with a friend from Meetup, Thomas, with plans to meet other friends of his later in the evening. We queued forever, which seemed ridiculous since it was a free event.
“Maybe they’re counting heads for fire capacity?” I suggested.
“But the building’s huge!”
As it turned out, the bottleneck that was leading to queuing was the clerk at the desk, explaining the evening’s program (a couple of lectures and a self-administered quiz) to visitors.
“Jesus, is this it? This is so awkward. Can’t we just walk past?” I asked no one in a low voice, but shuffled up to the desk to hear the presentation nonetheless. No ticket was given, no name taken, nothing. We smiled at the clerk and took the flyer and the quiz and then went on our way. A safe distance from the counter, we laughed.
“That was the entire reason for the queue. That was, literally, the most Swedish thing I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “People queuing because they’re too polite to just walk by. Oh, God. In Britain people would have figured it out and just walked past, given a little nod. Oh, Sweden.”
We had a wander around until his Couchsurfing friends showed up; a mutual Finnish friend of ours had been ahead of us in the queue and was off somewhere with her own friends. The Army Museum wouldn’t have been my first choice, so I didn’t pay too much attention to anything (though I still learned about the S-363 incident, so that’s something); I was pleasantly surprised to see placards featuring wartime literature (George Orwell, All Quiet on the Western Front, Bödeln). By the time the rest of the group arrived, Thomas and I had pretty much had our fill, so after confirming we’d missed the last lecture of the evening, we waited by the entrance for the Couchsurfers to finish the quiz.
The de facto leader of our little group, by virtue of her nerdy enthusiasm, wanted to go to the Nobel museum, so once she and the other Couchsurfer finished the quiz, off we went. Meanwhile, the Finn and her friends had since departed for the Finnish Institute without catching up to us—ships in the night. Thomas and I stayed with the Couchsurfing friends at the Nobel museum for just a brief moment; Thomas read the mood and came to the conclusion that the male half of the Couchsurfing couple was really interested in a date night with Excitable Nerd, so we broke off and made for SF Bokhandeln, with a pit stop at Storkyrkan.
“I’ve never been in here,” he commented.
“I don’t think I have, either.”
They were having a choral performance which I would have been happy to stay and listen to, but I also took the time to wander around a bit like a tourist. (I didn’t think to take any pictures, though. I guess not that much of a tourist.)
Such opulence and artistic finery surprised me in a nominally Lutheran church, and I said as much to Thomas.
“Yeah, that didn’t come until the Communists. They used to be Greek Orthodox or whatever before that.”
I thought of the occasional midnight Easter and Christmas services I had attended at my dad’s childhood Eastern Orthodox church, so much bigger and fancier than the Methodist church I had grown up with. “That explains it.”
We both had a chuckle over the prayer candles that now, in addition to (or maybe instead of?) the donation box, simply had a sign with a phone number where you could Swish your donation.
After a few minutes, we turned tail and headed for SF Bokhandeln. We were too late for any of their events, so we just browsed. I ended up picking up Hanabi, which I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. I also picked up a book for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I was having a hard time getting from the library. I’ve since started reading it and unfortunately I’m having a bit of buyer’s remorse. So it goes.
“I wonder how long it would take you, if you just sat down and tried to read the whole shop. Years?” Thomas wondered, picking up and putting down a generic-looking space opera book. “Like, this is the kind of stuff I want to have time to read, but I just end up reading the summary somewhere instead.”
“I mean, not all books are good books. Some are only worth the Wikipedia plot synopsis.”
Finnish friend had shaken her group and landed at a bar on Sveavägen and asked us to come join her. The weather was nice, so we capped off the night with a walk from Gamla Stan to Hötorget. So clear! So warm! Nothing like moving a few degrees’ latitude north to make you appreciate the shift in seasons. If this isn’t nice, what is? But it had been a long day for me (I was up at 6 am!), so after the walk, I bowed out of drinks and went home.
There were still lots of events that I wish I had attended (concerts, primarily), but for my first year at Kulturnatt and going in completely unprepared, I had a really good time. I’ll certainly be marking my calendar for next year’s, and hopefully a little more planning means I’ll get a lot more out of it!