What are the highlights of this weekend’s to-do list?
I have a rush editing job to finish. (I should really be working on that now, I suppose! But I’m warming up a bit with some blogging now that I have my main computer back.) I also have some items to drop off at the secondhand store, and an old TV to take to the electronics recycling hut.
Which current or upcoming movies are you looking forward to?
I’m really curious about Paul Feig’s adaptation of A Simple Favor. I love his comedy, so it should be interesting to see what he does with a thriller.
What’s something you meant to do this past week that will have to wait until next week?
Trips to the secondhand store and recycling the old TV.
What’s an unfinished project (unrelated to media consumption) you haven’t touched in at least a year?
Something can’t be unfinished if you never started it! But I had grand plans for a bunch of chainmaille gel electrophoresis bracelets and DNA bracelets in different colors years ago and then never did anything with it. The rest of my unfinished projects are less than a year old. 😉
I’ve blogged here before about my participation in Simbi, an online bartering community. Sacred Economics is a book I found there; hardly surprising given Simbi’s raison d’etre and Eisenstein’s skeptical attitude towards currency, credit, and capital.
Author: Charles Eisenstein
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.25 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Eisenstein presents the history of economics and argues that we’re in the midst of a model shift from profit-based capitalism to community- and connection-based gifts.
Recommended audience: Anyone
In-depth thoughts: I read this alongside Sapiens, which was an interesting experience. It was the equivalent of hearing a history of humankind in stereo, in two slightly different arrangements. Some points are similar and mesh really well; some are contradictory and require further research and scrutiny.
I want to say, straight off the bat, that there are a lot of un-founded assertions and bizarre speculation presented here that I recognize immediately as such and, as someone amenable to Eisenstein’s larger thesis, that I regret made it in what appears to be the more or less latest edition of the book. If Harari was too much of a materialist for my taste, Eisenstein wasn’t enough of one: infinite energy inventions by Tesla and the like weren’t quashed by greedy capitalist pigs, they just never existed; the sun isn’t powered by human gratitude and isn’t less yellow than it was thirty years ago; homeopathy isn’t a viable substitute for evidence-based medicine*. It’s hard to tell if Eisenstein genuinely believes these assertions or if he’s presenting them as a rhetorical flourish on his larger point, but either way they damage his credibility.
On the other hand, Eisenstein makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Sacred Economics represents his own theory of economics. Instead of taking anything as a given, he makes a very solid effort to defend his theory (through his own arguments as well as copious amounts of research and quoting from others), rather than taking it as a fact and spending most of the book explaining human history.
Yellow suns and homeopathy aside, Eisenstein touches on a lot of important issues. I was torn between four and five stars for just that reason: I don’t want to endorse faulty reasoning or bad science, but I also think people need to reassess their perspective on money and where it comes from and what it does. That alone makes the book worth reading.
Eisenstein’s style is warm and personal, if somewhat rambly. It should be an approachable text for high-intermediate learners, though economics is a complex topic and even after multiple close readings I’m not sure I walked away understanding everything.
*For a fair, evidence-based look at the measured benefits of homeopathy (and there are some! but not the ones its adherents usually claim), I’d recommend Jo Marchant’s Cure. You can read more about it in my review from a couple of years ago.
I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.
Recommended audience: Humans
In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.
Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.
Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.
So, yes, I’m not normally a big fan of poetry, either reading or writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize their usefulness. While originally Japanese, haiku and tanka have become something of a new tradition in English poetry and are nonetheless useful for learning English.
For a quick refresher: haiku are the short, three-line poems with a strict syllabic pattern (5-7-5). Tanka are a slightly longer form (5-7-5-7-7). There are other rules and traditions about “cutting words” and referring to the seasons, but that’s some next-level haiku-ing. In teaching, I focus exclusively on syllable count.
Forcing students to count syllables in words has a couple of effects. More than anything else, it makes them slow down, and as a result they pay closer attention to the word: how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, how it sounds. This can be especially useful with students who struggle with spelling; seeing how multiple letters can combine into just one sound can help cement some of the trickier English graphemes in their memory. It can also help build morpheme awareness, since students will be focusing on each individual part of the word.
Reading and writing haiku or tanka is also a great moment to talk about stress and emphasis. Even if stress isn’t important in haiku itself, a natural follow-up question to something like “How many syllables are in ‘refreshing’?” is “Where is the emphasis?”.
Moving to a higher level of language instruction, the short nature of haiku and tanka, and the puzzle-like aspect of fitting words together to fit the prescribed length, make them great writing exercises for students who are less inherently verbal or who normally struggle with what to say. If you go a step further towards a “genuine” haiku and require a student to use a term from the saijiki, the prescribed word list that references a particular time of year (link is an Archive.org link to an English translation), then you can even provide a jumping-off point to get them started. Not to mention using the saijiki is a creative way for novice students to reinforce new vocabulary related to the natural world: seasons, plants, animals, the weather, etc.
And no matter what the language level, the arbitrary syllable count restrictions force students to search for different words and different ways to express things than what just initially comes to mind. If they want a 5-syllable line to read “beautiful summer day,” that won’t work, but can they think of any synonyms for “beautiful” that are only two syllables long? If they really want to keep “beautiful,” then they’ll have to compromise on “summer” or even “day,” depending on what the rest of the poem is. How can they do it?
Finally, because they’re so short, writing tanka and haiku is just fun. It’s rewarding to be able to sit down and, a few minutes later, have a complete poem! It’s the perfect activity for when students (and teachers 😉 ) need encouragement or a bit of instant gratification.
I love pistachios! They’re delicious, but I also love the satisfaction of ripping them open and dislodging the actual nut. Most other nuts I’m pretty neutral on. I like peanuts, of course, but they’re not nuts.
What are your favorite and least favorite berries?
Strawberries are the best berries, and I love Swedish summer, when Swedish strawberries are in season. Oh, and bananas: they’re technically berries! Otherise I love most other berries, though, except for blueberries.
What are your favorite and least favorite tropical fruits?
What counts as a tropical fruit? I love mangoes and pineapple, and when I’m in the right mood there’s nothing more satisfying than a Jeju orange. I don’t think I’ve met a tropical fruit I didn’t like, to be honest.
What are your favorite and least favorite varieties of M&Ms?
Original is best, peanut is the worst.
What are your favorite and least favorite raisin-containing foods?
Raisins are a delicious treat on their own! I don’t think there’s much that’s improved by adding them. The worst is that oatmeal raisin cookie that looks, at first glance, like chocolate chip. BETRAYAL.
Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.
Author: Ann Leckie
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.
Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”
In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)
While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.
I have been extremely unprofessional lately and let the blog part of the website slide. With all due respect and love to Samwise the work netbook, he’s not cut out for doing much web-related work. And I’m a bad freelancer and don’t schedule too many posts in advance, all told. So we’ll see how many posts I have the wherewithal to write and schedule in advance when it takes me half an ice age just to find and then insert a good image!
Anyway, my assigned letter for this round of questions is C. It’s for cookie, and that’s good enough for me! (Insert joke about European privacy law update here.)
What’s a movie you love whose title begins with the letter?
As you might have surmised from a recent post here, Clerks.
What’s a popular tourist destination whose name begins with the letter?
Cambodia. I never made it there while I lived in Korea, but maybe one day.
What’s something whose name begins with the letter you do when you’re very happy?
I’m tempted to answer “color,” but I don’t save that for when I’m very happy. (I was into adult coloring books before it was cool.) The same could be said about “chatting with friends.” But if we’re going to focus on very happy, I would suppose “cry”?
What’s a frightening animal whose name begins with the letter?
Who’s a person you admire whose name begins with the letter?
There were a wealth of Katherines and Catherines among the radium girls, and I admire all of them for their strength of character and perseverance.
While at The English Book Shop looking for something else, I stumbled across The Helios Disaster. I’m obsessed enough with Linda Boström Knausgård to read or buy almost everything she writes (though not enough to keep up with new releases). I’ll have more to say on the available English translation after I’ve read and compared the two; at the moment I’ve only read the original Swedish.
Author: Linda Boström Knausgård
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.5 stars
Language scaling: N/A
Summary: A young girl in the north of Sweden realizes she’s an incarnation of the goddess Athena.
Recommended audience: Fans of Swedish modernism
In-depth thoughts: My first introduction to Boström Knausgård was Grand Mal, her collection of flash fiction. I’ve found that the longer her work gets, the more impact it loses. There are pieces in Grand Mal that have stayed with me years after reading them; their sparse minimalism is haunting and at the same time complete. Helioskatastrofen loses that minimalism, as the longer the story goes on, the more we necessarily learn about the world, and the more magic is subsequently lost. Still, there is something arresting and creepy about the worlds that Boström Knausgård creates, in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Back in June I organized a book swap for the Meetup I co-organize, The Stockholm Writing Group. I came away with a bunch of new children’s books for my work library, plus Carry On, Jeeves.
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.28 stars
Language scaling: C1
Summary: A collection of Jeeves short stories, including “Jeeves Takes Charge,” “The Artistic Career of Corky,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “The Aunt and the Sluggard,” “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” “Without the Option,” “Fixing It For Freddie,” “Clustering Round Young Bingo,” and “Bertie Changes His Mind.”
Recommended audience: Anglophiles
In-depth thoughts: Despite a life-long affinity for British pop culture and humor, Carry On, Jeeves was my first-ever exposure to P. G. Wodehouse. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t blown away, either. Certainly Wodehouse is a master of the plot, and has an impeccable ear for character voice, but there is an element of “privileged men getting to do whatever they please” that is unappealing in this day and age, at least for me, especially in combination with the rather dated, stereotypical women characters. I can see what makes the stories enduring classics, though, and they’re certainly diverting. I might have also been in a grumpy mood when I read them.
Advanced learners might enjoy Wodehouse’s prose, which is polished and distinctive. I wouldn’t recommend these stories for beginner or intermediate learners, however, who might find the old slang terms too much of a barrier of entry.