I recognize that I should probably hate GoodReads. I’ll be the first to admit that its overbusy, hyperactive layout and tools are Not For Me. I don’t care what my friends are reading (sorry, y’all!) and I don’t need to see a constantly updated list of their ratings and reviews. I also don’t care about what the GoodReads/Amazon algorithms think I should read next, or what crappy and undeserving book has been voted the GoodReads Readers’ Choice. I care about keeping track of books I want to read (so easy to just send someone a link to my “to read” shelf!), keeping track of the books I have read, and motivating myself to actually get reading done—trying to keep pace with my GoodReads goal and the little thermometer on the homepage is the best way I’ve found to light a fire under my ass to actually finish books. I’ve been successful in all of them since I started officially keeping track, and I recall even using GoodReads to keep track of my annual book count as far back as 2009.
Which is why I’m posting about how it’s January 14 and I’m officially one book behind because I haven’t finished a single book out of the four I’m reading all at once. To be fair, one of them is Ulysses, another is L’étranger in the original French, and the third is a Swedish textbook. The fourth is Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, a book that’s been in my library since it was initially published but I seem really resistant to actually reading. Maybe I should grind that one out first, just to get something done.
This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.
I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!
This year was a weird year in books for me. It was the first year in almost a decade where I didn’t have a checklist of books I wanted to finish, so I was more adrift in my reading habits than usual. However, book clubs and the DipTrans recommended reading list provided some much needed structure, and they contributed a lot to my reading this year, in particular the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club.
I also want to document my favorite books of 2018, but this little widget is provides some interesting extraneous data not covered by a simple list of 5-star books. Not pictured in the screenshot above is my average rating for the year: 3.3. As it should be, statistically speaking.
I was already familiar with Akashic’s Noir series when a friend included Los Angeles Noir—completely unprompted—in a care package she sent me over the summer. After textbooks and thorny, hundred-year-old Swedish, I needed something light to take the edge off during the holiday. Noir short stories seemed like just the ticket.
Editor: Denise Hamilton
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars
Language scaling: B1/B2
Summary: A collection of noir short stories set in Los Angeles.
Recommended audience: Fans of crime and thriller fiction; people with a soft spot for Los Angeles
In-depth thoughts: Much as I’ve sung the praises of short stories elsewhere, they’re not my favorite genre to read. Nor am I much of a crime or noir fan. Still, there were a couple I really enjoyed.
My friend sent it in the care package on account of “Koreatown,” by Naomi Hirahara, which takes place primarily at a Korean-style spa, and probably equally for our shared love of Korean spas as for the story itself. (It was a good story. I didn’t see the twist coming and actually said, out loud, “Holy shit!”)
Otherwise, the only other stories I really liked, from beginning to end, were Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210,” a mystery behind a woman’s stolen, then found, jewels, and “Fish,” by Lienna Silver, about truth and friendship. There were moments “Golden Gopher” (Susan Straight) that really worked for me, but ultimately I liked the protagonist better than the plot. Some stories felt bloated and unwieldy; some were short and trim but too nihilistic for my taste (“That’s noir,” you can fairly point out, and you’d be correct); and some protagonists were just a little too anti-hero and unlikable (again: “That’s noir.”)
Still, as a collection of contemporary popular writing it’s perfect for EFL students. Learners with a penchant for crime writing would enjoy this, and might enjoy seeing if Akashic has a collection for a city they know well or want to visit.
I stumbled across Voodoo Histories when I went to the library back in October to finish up some reading. I have the great good luck to work a short walk away from Stadsbiblioteket, and I wandered into a study room to finish up another book I was reading when I saw Voodoo Histories in the recommended display. It left the library with me that night.
Recommended audience: People interested in politics or modern history
In-depth thoughts: Overall, Aaronovitch gives a thorough background on a variety of conspiracy theories that plagued the last hundred years or so. But it doesn’t really live up to the subtitle of the book: “the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.” The first chapter out of the gate is about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it’s a great blend of the details of the conspiracy theory and also highlighting exactly how this particular theory shaped history. But later ones, for example about the death of Princess Diana, are pure debunking that don’t really bring up how they affected geopolitical events.
The other fault with this book is that it was simply before its time. It was originally published in 2009; the latest edition came out in 2011. It was just in time to address the “birther” conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama, but the Spirit Cooking and Pizzagate controversies leading up to the 2016 American election would have fit in very well in this book (and frankly had more of an impact on modern history than Princess Diana).
Black Tudors is another random find from Stadsbiblioteket’s “recommended” shelf in the study room. Except it’s not that random, because I’d read reviews of Black Tudors elsewhere and had actually put it on my “to read” list last year. Why not pick it up when I had the chance, right?
Author: Miranda Kaufmann
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.79 stars
Language scaling: B2, though Kaufmann quotes heavily from original sources that are more like C2
Summary: Through the lens of the reconstructed lives of ten free black men and women in Tudor England, Kaufmann provides an important overview of England’s interactions and trade with with different peoples on the African continent.
Recommended audience: People interested in African studies or English history; British citizens
In-depth thoughts: Despite the title of the book, much of Black Tudors focuses on the life and history surrounding these people rather than, as the name would suggest, their actual lives. Tragically, this means that in a book called Black Tudors, the most ink is spilled over white people. But the records for common merchants and the peasantry are scanty, as you’d expect; I know that there’s not much for Kaufmann to go on and she does a remarkable job with the little material that’s available. Even if their personal struggles and triumphs and simply daily minutiae are lost to history, the ordinary lives of these people—a salvage diver, a trumpeter at the King’s court, a silk weaver, among others—are a great chance to explore what England’s foreign policy and trade actually looked like during the Tudor period, and what kind of engagement they had with the world beyond Europe.
What Kaufmann does exceptionally well is juggling the many names, dates, and events surrounding, say, a piracy expedition or evolving trade relations so that a reader with no previous knowledge can follow the broad strokes of the events and keep up with the story. The different lives then are a sort of framing device or focus for discussing a wide range of Tudor-era laws and customs, making what would otherwise be a disparate collection of facts and anecdotes easy to track.
Amatka was the last selection of 2018 for the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I read the Swedish original; the others theoretically read the English translation, but this year is such a busy time for everyone that I might have been the only one to read it.
Author: Karin Tidbeck
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.82 stars
Language scaling: N/A, read in Swedish
Summary: Vanja, a government worker, is sent to the distant colony of Amatka for a new project. Things are not what they seem, and language starts distorting reality in unsettling ways.
Recommended audience: Dystopia fans
In-depth thoughts: The first thing I did after I finished Amatka was to text my friend and fellow book club member in Austin: “Amatka was weird…thought I didn’t get some parts because Swedish, but nope. It’s weird. I’d love to rep Swedish baked goods and sci fi, but….not missing much maybe with this one.”
And that about sums it up for me. Tidbeck signals towards a very ominous past but never really clarifies it. I spent the majority of the book taking this to be a “real world” dystopia (based on real Earth and real history and set in this universe, more or less), but the ending makes it very clear we’re in an entirely different universe with very different rules, which then seems to defeat the purpose of it being a dystopia. In the end you’re left with a handful of powerful scenes (a librarian being ordered to destroy everything but the “useful” books; parents longing for affection from their communally raised children who clearly don’t seem to pay them much mind) that have no real skeleton connecting them, no unifying purpose.
I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.
Author: Aaron James
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars
Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)
Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?
In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.
Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)
James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.
That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.
I try to make a point of reading Swedish magazines and journals when I can. Sometimes I only have the brain power to focus on something short and article-length, and it’s good to mix up my literary fiction reading with popular non-fiction.
One of the unintended benefits of this project is that I’ve collected numerous tips on Swedish authors to read. Historiskan always profiles an author or two in every issue, and Populär Historia put out a special issue earlier this year, dedicated to “pioneering women,” that was chock full of writers (or women who did exciting things and also happened to write about it). I have a list in my phone of all the names that have turned up so far in my reading, and if I find myself at the library without another book to get, I see if I can find what’s there.
Language scaling: N/A (read in Swedish; available in English as Men and Other Misfortunes in a collection entitled Stockholm Stories, translated by Betty Cain and Ulla Sweedler)
Summary: The daily struggles of four working-class women who share an apartment in Stockholm at the turn of the last century.
Recommended audience: People who liked the concept of Lena Dunham’s Girls but found the actual execution unappealing
In-depth thoughts: I didn’t remember much about Wägner when I checked this book out from the library, except that she was a suffragette and her name was on my list. But I did remember this photograph of her:
At the turn of the last century, there was something of a mass exodus of young women from the Swedish countryside into larger cities, leading to a social phenomenon of young women who could (more or less) support themselves and therefore weren’t as desperate to marry as they would have been in previous generations. Norrtullsligan is a quick survey of daily life of four of those women (the “league” referred to in the title). The day’s media addressed this civilization-ending phenomenon with the same breathless pearl-clutching that today’s media uses with Millenials, making Norrtullsligan something like the Swedish 1900s version of Girls. Except better.
The league (Baby, Eva, Emmy, and the narrator, Elisabeth) takes on headier issues of suffrage and worker’s rights while also dodging everyday headaches like insufferable relatives, sexual harassment from bosses, and heartache. Nonetheless, Norrtullsligan avoids being didactic and moralizing. The social commentary springs organically from the women’s lives and situations, rather than dictating plot points. Wägner’s prose is also a delight: 100 years old and somehow still fresh and contemporary in tone. Elisabeth is the best kind of narrator, wry and witty and ironic but with plenty of compassion. It’s a short book that reads quickly, yet still manages to address a wide range of larger issues. It’s like an explicitly feminist and infinitely more cheerful Doktor Glas.
The English translation is available on Google Books if you’d like a preview. I’m not entirely sold on it myself, though I appreciate the work that Cain and Sweedler did in bringing Norrtullsligan to the wider English-speaking world: Stockholm Stories is available via Xlibris, a self-publishing company, meaning that they probably invested a great deal of their own money into making it available. Something about the English translation, however, falls a little flat for me. Swedish speakers, even if non-native, would do better to just read the original.
Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.
I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.
One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.
Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.
Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.
I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.
The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.
As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).
I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.
The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.