Vacation Reading List 2024, Part 1

Another visit back to the US this Saturday! What are my reading plans?

  • Back issues of Karavan and Historiskan for the journey.
  • I have La vengeance m’appartient by Marie NDiaye in paperback from the library and in Swedish (Min är hämnden) on my phone.
  • I also have digital copies of Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat by Hannah Proctor and The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry.
  • Last year I left my copy of David Graeber’s Debt at my parents’ house, so maybe I’ll pick it up a third time to see if anything more sticks.

Of course, now that I’ve written all that down, I will immediately get distracted by a library or bookstore and wander over to something completely unrelated. This is the way.

Litteraturmässan 2024: Konsten att läsa

Another Litteraturmässan has come and gone! What did I learn about the art of reading from the various talks and panels I attended?

1. Eight poets
Not much. I only dipped in after Somaya El Sousi’s reading and wasn’t particularly taken by what was on offer so I dipped out quickly thereafter. Instead, I bought a copy of her poetry collection and sat with it throughout the day. I’m left wondering if listening to her read would have made any difference. I’m also left wondering how to address the apparent gap in my Swedish where spoken poetry becomes just an incomprehensible wave of sound, why is that?

2. Missenträsk revisited
I wasn’t originally planning to attend this one because I don’t know anything about Sarah Lidman, but I got drawn into the discussion with Jennifer Hayashida as I was walking by the stage and stood and listened to nearly the entirety of it. While my own feelings about literary translation as a career constantly waver from “wow living the dream” to “too much pressure for me to handle,” I am drawn like a moth to the flame of literary translators themselves. Sometimes envious, always admiring.

3. What do we do when we read?
This was billed as a “phenomenological investigation,” and while I don’t think it was quite that deep, Nioosha Shams was also so engaging that I stopped in my tracks to listen. Fun to see the topic of bibliomancy come up at a serious academic event.

4. Renew your library card
The one talk that I had actually scheduled in my life after a concerted effort to finish Singulariteten, but like the two previous talks, Karam was so lively and charming I probably would have wandered into it anyway. The meaning of libraries for nerdy kids from decidedly non-academic families, how they should (and shouldn’t) be designed and supported.

5. Four poets
I had an easier time with this poetry reading. Maybe because this was a different genre/generation of poets, or maybe because this was the evening portion of the event at Musikaliska Kvarteret and I had started imbibing, who knows. That said, this is where I began to feel like a dinosaur even though the people in charge of putting on this event are (as far as I can judge these things) at least my age if not older. A young man in a t-shirt and jeans and slightly greasy (or maybe heavily stylized with product?) hair looked so nervous and out of place that I wanted to go up and say something friendly to him, but then he turned out to be one of the poets reading this time around. Everyone around me, seated either on the floor or a vintage fancy couch (how bohemian), exuded powerful art student vibes. Nike Markelius read poetry about her mother’s death set to a soundtrack and I got pretty choked up.

6. How to write a novel
Several drinks had happened by now. If you held a gun to my head and asked me to summarize the arguments made by either Stefan Lindberg or Jerker Virdborg, or the main points of  “Manifest för ett nytt litterärt decennium,” I would be well dead.

7. Hundra hästar (Maria Törnqvist med band)
Not sure what a musical act had to do with the art of reading, but maybe Maria Törnqvist expressed some of her academic work in the form of song and it just passed me by. The band slapped, at least.

And it was at that point, dear reader, I realized that I was too sleepy and too awkward to enjoy the rest of the night, so I went out on a high note and caught the subway back home.

Vacation Reading List: Debrief

Here was my original plan for this vacation. How have I done so far?

  • I have two copies of The Little Horses of Tarquinia checked out of the library, one in Swedish and one in French. I don’t normally like to take library books with me on international trips but I’m making an exception this time around. I’m on my way to finishing both of these before my trip is over, if I don’t get distracted by doomscrolling. These have been my steadfast companions during sleepovers and leisurely Amtrak journeys.
  • Back issues of Karavan that I can conveniently leave in airplane seat pockets or on buses without feeling guilty. Couldn’t have paced this better. I have maybe half an issue left, perfect for in-flight reading back home.
  • Rose/House for the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club (ebook). Finished!
  • There’s always The Essays of Michel de Montaigne I have at the ready on my phone. And yet, I don’t think I even opened it.
  • The Gray House was a free Kindle download on World Translation Day years ago. I was almost immediately put off by the book and had forgotten about it until it turned up as the Armenian entry in the Eurovision Book Contest, so I might give it another shot. Spoiler: I did not give it another shot.
  • A David Graeber paperback of some kind, though whether it’s re-reading Debt or branching out into The Dawn of Everything I have yet to decide. I went with re-reading Debt, and am nearly done that. Whatever I have left unread (un-reread?) will remain so; I brought it along specifically to pass on to my parents.

What did I read instead?

  • At the last minute I threw an Ester Blenda Nordström book in my bag, just in case I didn’t have enough to read. This was unnecessary. I haven’t even opened it yet.
  • In Seattle I acquired a copy of Gift From the Sea, which has been on my to-read pile since a friend had me read a selection from it at her wedding in 2015. (Or perhaps 2014?) I finished it on a bus somewhere between Des Moines and Chicago. It is now boxed up, waiting to be shipped to Sweden.
  • In Des Moines I acquired a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass, which has been recommended and reviewed by several people whose taste I trust. They did not lead me wrong here. I finished it on the bus from Chicago and released it into the wild at a Greyhound station in Indianapolis.
  • I also had an ebook copy of Severance for our Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I forgot to mention in my original list. I finished that, though I barely remember where or when.
  • While at my parents’ house I relaxed with a couple pieces of kid lit that I’d always meant to read but never got around to: Emil and the Detectives, Berries Goodman.
  • I also had a package waiting for me from a friend with assorted books. Out of those I finished a precious tiny baby volume of Kafka short stories (the Penguin Classics edition of “The Judgement” and “In the Penal Colony”) and Abraham H. Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences.
  • I made a pit stop to renew one of my library cards and immediately picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Out of the several boxes of books I was originally intending to mail to Sweden, I blazed through Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin and passed it on to a friend I thought would be interested in it. I love Stephen Jay Gould but there are other books of his that I’d rather have in my permanent collection.
  • Down in Austin I acquired a copy of The Barbizon, which has been on my to-read list since it was featured in LitHub back in 2021, and which I blazed through in a day and a half and was able to pass on to another member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club.
  • Bonus book read in Austin: We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Every time I travel somewhere, one of my most primal fears is that I won’t have enough to read. And yet this just goes to show that I will always have enough to read.

Vacation Reading List

This coming Saturday I’ll be in the US for six weeks or so, visiting family and catching up with assorted friends all over the country. So far my itinerary includes Seattle, Portland, Des Moines, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley, and very likely Austin. What portion of the book backlog will I be catching up on in all these places?

  • I have two copies of The Little Horses of Tarquinia checked out of the library, one in Swedish and one in French. I don’t normally like to take library books with me on international trips but I’m making an exception this time around.
  • Back issues of Karavan that I can conveniently leave in airplane seat pockets or on buses without feeling guilty.
  • Rose/House for the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club (ebook).
  • There’s always The Essays of Michel de Montaigne I have at the ready on my phone.
  • The Gray House was a free Kindle download on World Translation Day years ago. I was almost immediately put off by the book and had forgotten about it until it turned up as the Armenian entry in the Eurovision Book Contest, so I might give it another shot.
  • A David Graeber paperback of some kind, though whether it’s re-reading Debt or branching out into The Dawn of Everything I have yet to decide.

Beyond that, I expect I will wander into bookstores while I’m in the US—never mind what I might have left at my parents’ house—so I’m deliberately exercising restraint when it comes to packing books. And, of course, now that I’ve written up an aspirational list, I’ve all but guaranteed that I’ll read everything else except those!

The Big Balloon (A Love Story)

I decided to get an early start on some classic New Year’s resolutions like decluttering and ending long-term toxic relationships by having an emergency gallbladder removal two days after Christmas!

Medical drawing of a gallbladder
This one does not spark joy!

It also left me with three and a half days of nothing to do but chip away at my ebook collection; I didn’t take my purse and its ever-present paperback with me to the ER, as I fully expected to return home the same day. Well, well, well. Fortunately my phone is a miniature library of obscure and half-forgotten ebooks and I could keep myself distracted in the long waits between ultrasounds and discussions with surgeons. Most of that time was spent with the back half of Rick Berlin’s The Big Balloon (A Love Story), which up to that point I’d been reading on my morning commute.

I’m not hip to the Boston art scene, I didn’t know who Rick Berlin was before I bought the book, I’d never heard of any of his musical projects. But he put out an ad for the book on one of my go-to podcasts and since the premise sounded unique, or at least interesting, I decided to give it a try. I feel that’s only worth mentioning because someone who’s either a fan of Berlin, or familiar with his artistic milieu, will probably have a different response to it than I did.

Out of every possible Pandemic Project or Pandemic Novel, The Big Balloon is maybe the only one I can imagine that will be at all tolerable to revisit in more normal times (if we ever have more normal times). Even though the book is the direct result of COVID-19, it’s never about COVID-19. The conceit is simply this: The Big Balloon is a collection photos of items around Berlin’s home and reflections, stories and reminisces related to each item. Each little essay is entirely self-contained, with no attempt to impose chronological or thematic order on the collection (aside from organizing it into chapters based on rooms). The result is like a literary version of a Cubist portrait, where different years of Berlin’s life and different aspects of himself are presented simultaneously—or as close to simultaneously as you can get in something you read. Something about using the limitations of lockdowns to open up a vast interior world, etc. etc.

The Big Balloon worked well for commute and hospital reading because each essay was never especially long, so I could dip in and out according to subway arrivals or morphine-addled focus. And that was precisely the intended effect:

There is no linear structure to this book. No over-arching narrative. Each entry is self-contained. One piece can relate to another, but it isn’t necessary to make that connection. The reader can pick it up, crack it open anywhere, read a section and put it down. The ‘chapters’ are just the rooms in my house.

It could be said that I chose this odd-ball format for bathroom reading. For those with short attention spans. On the other hand, much as I love the twists and turns of a full blown story, the Haiku simplicity of disparate entries exposes Berlin as if opening the paper window flaps of a Twelve Days Of Christmas holiday card in no particular order.

The highly personal nature of the material also, in a way, made up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. I wasn’t exactly starved for social contact generally, between the two other patients sharing my room and chatting with the nurses doing their rounds, but that’s not the same as time with your nearest and dearest in the darkest, coldest days of the year. The next best thing was Berlin plunging right to the depths of his own psyche to share with me, and the rest of his readership:

The Big Balloon is super personal. Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’d hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.

A creative not-so-little undertaking that makes me want to ask the same of my friends, or save up for a dry spell on the ol’ bloggo. “Choose ten things around your house and write an essay about each one of them.” Maybe make that an additional step in the KonMari method.

Happy New Year!

Three Weeks in Östersund

Despite being my longest vacation in a good long while, compared to other vacations I have the least to say about Östersund after the fact. This is hardly surprising; after all, I set out with the intention of making this trip as low-key and do-nothing as possible. It ended up being slightly more do-nothing than I maybe intended, seeing as I forgot that at least one of the museums I wanted to visit closed for the season in the middle of my trip, but no matter! I finished all of the books on my Östersund reading list, so I’m calling this vacation a win.

Boulders in front of a lake on a sunny day.

The most eventful part of the trip was dealing with my lodgings. I booked a loft apartment AirBnB close to the water for most of the trip, but for the first and last nights I wanted to stay in town so I didn’t have to stress about catching buses and all of my bags and so on.

A dock and breaker leading into the water, on an overcast day with a bench in the foreground.
I did a fair chunk of reading here.

My first hotel was an absolute pit—a “Best Western” I booked using grocery store customer loyalty points that bait-and-switched me into a run-down hostel that was pretty clearly a separate commercial operation altogether—and then on my second to last day I realized my booking at the same “Best Western” had never gone through. I don’t like booking lodgings at the last minute (it was too late to try to use more loyalty points), but on the plus side it was much nicer than the first place and not at a ridiculous cost. The same price, actually, I would have paid for my first room if I’d been paying in cash.

As for tourist attractions, I made a couple visits to Jamtli and also stopped by Frösö сhurch.

The interior of Frösö chuch, facing the altar. A copper chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the interior is decorated in a blue and gold motif.

In an unexpected turn of events, one of my Stockholm friends was also up for an overnight stay in Östersund for schooling related matters. That’s how our first in-person interaction in nearly two years ended up happening in another city entirely.

An askew view of two half-empty beers and a small blue bowl of French fries on a black table.
That hand is proof I wasn’t drinking alone at Bishop’s Arms.

Now it’s really properly fall. Lazy summer days are over and it’s back to the grindstone. I have a few months’ grace time to focus on my own studies before the high season kicks in at work, so I better make good use of it.

Paris: The Four Hot Takes

(I’m still in Östersund, so perfect time to talk about a previous vacation!)

Paris smells like piss, everyone smokes, and there’s ham in everything. That’s the second thing I noticed. The first thing was straight off airplane, thrust into the chaos of the RER line to Paris being serviced by a bus replacement: my French listening comprehension had dwindled to absolutely worthless. If it had ever been worth anything. That impression faded, however, while the piss, the smoking, and the ham were constants throughout the trip.

Fortunately for those of us who can’t stand ham, there are croque poulets in the world.

It was a singular moment to be in Paris. It was the best of times (midsummer!), the worst of times (Roe, a suicide in my sambo’s family), the weirdest of times (the Banksy art theft trial). Everything was very surreal. I thought a lot about Weimar Germany, especially at the cabaret performance we had booked on Wednesday night.

In addition to the cabaret, I had a full agenda for basically the whole trip, happy to cede the planning to someone else who had been to Paris already and was familiar-ish with everything. As a result, the trip was a good balance of The Hits (Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Shakespeare and Company, the Luxembourg Gardens, the catacombs) and slightly more offbeat destinations (aforementioned cabaret show, only a quick driveby the outside of the Louvre, a very specific crepe place).

We drank a lot of wine and ate a lot of cheese, but we also walked all over except for one metro trip and one Uber trip, so it didn’t feel particularly indolent. I certainly caught my fair share of sun.

By the end of my trip, it also dawned on me just how successfully Paris tourism has capitalized on its literary history. That was the fourth thing I noticed. You can visit Bar Hemingway if you’re lucky—there’s only 25 seats in the whole place. There’s a line down the block at Shakespeare and Company less than an hour after opening, even on a weekday. The same can be said for Les Deux Magots and Cafe Flore, which are now officially located at “Place Sartre-Beauvoir.”

Paris is a city that knows how to market itself, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it. I had a great time—there’s certainly more to do in Paris than you can do in a week—but there was nothing charming or romantic that even tempted me to fantasize about another, more Parisian life. Paris syndrome came to mind. Whether it’s romance or philosophy or jazz, people show up with this crystallized ideal in their head and then you realize that the clubs and cafes your favorite artists frequented are unnaturally, unnervingly the same as they were back then…and therefore different. They are fossilized and lifeless; today’s de Beauvoirs and Hemingways and Baldwins are in completely different clubs in completely different neighborhoods. The cycle continues and in another hundred years they’ll also be tourist destinations—assuming humanity makes it that long.

On the other hand, An American in Paris still felt very much like an on-point tonal portrait of the city, even though it’s nearly 100 years old and even though Paris has seen some pretty tough, drastic history since then.

Memorial for Jewish children from the local neighborhood who died in the Holocaust.

And Paris is huge. Going from my little village suburb of Stockholm into the 6th Arrondissement was probably just as overwhelming as switching languages. So many cars, so many sirens, so many people. Even Gamla Stan, probably the nearest analogue Stockholm has, is calmer and quieter, the narrower streets making it hard for there to be all that much car traffic. Which bookends very nicely to the first thing I noticed: my French was shit.

Which again, shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I can negotiate daily life in Swedish without really any hiccups; in Korea I was there for a year at time, part of a larger system that included other NESTs and hagwon owners willing to scrounge up the occasional babysitter for tasks like visas and bank visits. Trying to operate in French was like trying to shift gears without a clutch, and I didn’t have the time to get the hang of it. Swedish, in comparison, was immediately lucid. Comprehension was instantaneous. I was surprised at how much of a relief it was to hear it again.

Imagine my surprise at meeting another Swede.

Borta bra men hemma bäst. There’s no place like home.

Reading List: Östersund

By the time you read this, I’ll have been in Östersund for several days. With any luck, I’ll have already finished one of the books on this list. Nothing like a long vacation to really dig into some tricky reading.

  • Rules for Radicals
  • Världen av i går
  • Dvärgen
  • La Gloire de mon père
  • Le Château de ma mère

I also have an issue of Karavan with me for train reading. Even though I randomly stumbled on the magazine several years ago, I only got around to subscribing last week. Goes to show where my head’s been, I suppose.

Forever Novels and the Terrible Trivium: Camp NaNoWriMo

Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about my Forever Novel, at least not here. It’s on brand, sure, but it’s a little too personal and a little too embarrassing. Would you trust an editor who had spent over eight years on a novel and didn’t have a completed, polished draft to show for it? Probably not. I don’t know that I would. Never mind the temptation to start talking about what my Forever Novel is actually about, which I’m both dying to do and which I would prefer never to do. But since I’d like to keep up my weekly-ish schedule here and I’m out of book reviews, and since I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I guess I have no choice except to talk about writing. (It dawned on me, in the middle of writing this post, that I could have just nattered on a bit about my trip to Paris, or short stories I’ve read recently, or the books I was going to read next, or the books I’m currently reading, but oh well.)

My Forever Novel

I wrote the first draft of my Forever Novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. I completed the sixth round of revisions on it last week, meaning that I won Camp NaNoWriMo by meeting my self-appointed goal of revising the last 25 chapters out of a total of 156. I then overshot my goal by immediately going back to the beginning and reading through the newly revised manuscript from the beginning and—as you do—immediately making further edits. For an idea of scope, we’re talking about just a hair over 80,000 words.

I’m glad I met my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo, not least because this particular round of revisions was unusually tricky and was where I made the deepest and most painful cuts. This is the revision where I figured out the skeleton of the whole weird thing. It’s nice to finally know what I’m dealing with.

But is it anything I want to deal with?

There was certainly a personal, emotional value in writing this Forever Novel, from the first mad NaNoWriMo dash in 2014 to this rather casual rounding off last week. The entire process was a surprisingly effective way of expunging a particularly dysfunctional friendship from my psyche. Anything I ever wanted to say to the other party in real life just got dumped into the novel. Approaching all of that from a writerly perspective helped me see how much was petty spite that really didn’t serve the story, and as I cut those elements out from the story, it also seemed to drain all of the petty spite out of myself. Or did the various drafts only reflect my own maturation back to me with each passing year? Hard to say. Either way, I’m now left with a weird, ambitious story and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my reach has exceeded my grasp.

The truth is, not every project has value. Or perhaps a kinder way to phrase that is: not every project has value in its completion. The only value this project might ever have is helping me process and discard a hang-up I’d been nurturing for fifteen years, give or take. If I feel obligated to see it through to completion, to the point of excluding other projects and losing that sense of play and exploration, is that really a good thing? Marcy Dermansky went for the jugular right in the opening paragraph of this essay for LitHub:

A lesser-known fact about me: In addition to writing my own novels, I am a developmental editor. I help authors improve their novels. Sometimes these novels get sold; sometimes—as one of my despairing clients knows all too well—they don’t. About a year ago, she came back to me wanting to work on a sixth draft based on the suggestions of an interested agent. “At this point,” she said. “I just want this novel to be over.”

There was true heartbreak in her voice—and also real animosity for her novel. It was clear to me that she had begun to hate the book she once loved, had been working on for years. And while the one interested agent’s suggestion to move the end of the novel to the beginning, forecasting the events to come, could work, it was more likely not a good idea. I could sense pure dread. All the joy, all the play was gone. “You can rework material to death,” I warned her, and honestly, she already had. “Why don’t you start something new. See what happens. Have fun. Play.”

When that essay appeared in my inbox, I instantly recognized myself in that despairing author. I was not at the stage of animosity or pure dread yet, but I could sense it as a distinct possibility. For the first time, I allowed myself to ask the question: what am I even doing with this project.

The Terrible Trivium

The truth is, I haven’t really seriously worked on any other fiction since 2014 because I’ve been so focused on my Forever Novel. I used to lament that majoring in writing was a pointless endeavor, that if you wanted to write you would; at this point in my life I have to admit that I can see value in having a two-week deadline to churn out new material or else risk failing a class. I might have hated writing short stories (as this blog post nears 1,000 words, you might have noticed I struggle with brevity) but I still wrote them within that rather narrow deadline. Without fail. They were an assignment, and I had to get them done, and so that was that. I have them all still today and I actually kind of like a few of them.

Now adrift in the real world, I don’t have to write short stories when I write. Great! But without the motivating factor of a deadline and a passing grade, it’s all too easy to fall under the spell of the Terrible Trivium.

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. “Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

Close-up of grains of sand
Photo by Dave LZ on Unsplash

On the one hand, I’ve certainly made progress in the Forever Novel. But if I just keep fussing with it forever—if, like Milo, I keep moving that pile of sand with a pair of tweezers—then I never have to do anything difficult. I don’t have to try any new ideas, I don’t need to worry about failing, I can just keep futzing around with this story for the rest of my life.

Thus, the $64,000 question. Am I doing the hard work? Or am I avoiding it?

Who knows?

Pandemic Vacation: Gothenburg, Day 3

I’d noticed on my walk that Göteborgs Stadsmuseum was just a block down from my hotel, so I figured a good last day activity would be just to meander through there and grab something to eat at the cute cafe across the street. Despite getting in late, I was still up early enough for hotel breakfast (pain au chocolat, my weakness!), though after I had my fill I let myself have a cozy lie-in; I finally left the hotel at about 11.30 or so.

By far the best and most interesting exhibit was the one on clothing and fashion, “Gothenburg’s Wardrobe.” I won’t bore you with all of the photos here, but the sign for the exhibit is a good indication of what it was all about.

The museum wasn’t quite as broad in coverage as the Cultural Museum in Lund, since it’s all still focused on the city and history of Gothenburg, but it was nice to get a little nutshell history of the city.

Around four in the afternoon or so, my appetite made itself known again and my legs were beginning to tire, so I decided to pay a visit to a nearby cafe, Brogyllen, for lunch and then retire to my hotel room for a proper break.

By now I’d passed the sign for Akademibokhandeln a couple of times, and I’d now finished two additional books, so I figured why not? There was also some discussion in the neighborhood book club group chat about the next book (To Kill a Mockingbird) so I figured why not pop in and see if they have it along with a book for a friend’s upcoming birthday. I was able to procure both, of course, and so I spent the rest of the night in my hotel room, finishing up the boxed wine and diving right into To Kill a Mockingbird so I could pass it along to anyone in the book club who might want it.