I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.
Author: Sherman Alexie
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars
Language scaling: B1+
Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.
Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.
In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.
Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.
The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.
I’ve been a fan of graphic novels for a while, now. Fortunately they seem to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, making it easy to find something to suit your tastes. It’s not just tights and capes!
Moreover, graphic novels are a really great resource for EFL students. Especially ones that aren’t already bookworms to begin with. This One Summer is one that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the teenage section of my local branch of the Stockholm Public Library.
Author: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Jillian Tamaki
My GoodReads Rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.65 stars
Language level: A2/B1+
Plot summary: Rose and her family are on vacation in the lake town of Awago, something they’ve done since Rose was 5. Rose and her friend Windy watch slasher movies, go swimming in the lake, and watch teenage and adult drama unfold around them.
Recommended audience:This One Summer is marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I think there’s a lot in here for adults to relate to. We were all teenagers once! The language is relatively simple but there is a lot of slang, which might throw some readers off. There’s also some profanity. The story focuses more on characters than on plot, so it’s not for people who prefer a lot of action and story.
In-depth thoughts: I suppose I had certain expectations, and they weren’t really met. There isn’t a whole lot of plot or character development: Windy and Rose are just teenage girls watching the world around them: the stories happen for other people, not for them. I spent most of the time waiting for something to happen, and then nothing really did.
But the art is gorgeous. My favorite part—the freeze frames of all the slash-y horror movies Rose and Windy watch are drawn almost hyperrealistically, while all of the “real” world is fairly cartoony. I like little touches like that.
My family often stayed in a hunting cabin up in the mountains near Rutland, Vermont during the summers, so all of the “lake vacation” elements touched on some of my own favorite lake memories. That said, we didn’t really get to know the other residents and vacationers, so I never had a “lake friend” like Rose did.
No, not a lot happens, and I guess at the end of the day how you feel about character-driven stories will affect how you feel about this book. The good news is that you can pick it up from Stockholm Public Library and see for yourself if you want to buy it or not!
I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).
But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!
Author: Cixin Liu
Translator: Ken Liu
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars
Language scaling: B1/B2+
Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.
Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.
In-depth thoughts:The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.
A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.
Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.
Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.
Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.
*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.
Plot summary: Horrific nightmares lead Yeong-hye to become a vegetarian. The people around her struggle to understand this decision.
Recommended audience: The relatively short length of the story, as well as the clear language of Smith’s translation, make The Vegetarian a great book for EFL students, but some of the content means it’s best suited for teenage readers and older.
Content warning: Brief scenes of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In-depth thoughts: You might recall that I wrote about The Vegetarian a few posts back; in particular, I was impressed with the story of the English translator. I was lucky enough to get a copy from a friend a couple of weeks, so I sat down to read it right away.
As far as the translation goes, I can only speak to the readability of the English prose. Unlike the hiccups I noticed in The Invoice, The Vegetarian was an effortless read, free of distracting, inconsistent attempts at localization. Admittedly, my own closeness to Swedish may have been what kept me hearing Swedish in The Invoice, but here I could put aside idle thoughts about how a particular phrase or sentence was originally expressed and enjoy the story for what it is.
And what it is is a weird little book. I definitely felt drawn to keep reading and to see how this would all play out, but I don’t know that I enjoyed it. To be more exact: I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it, but I definitely didn’t understand it. But I don’t think I needed to?
The Vegetarian, like so many have pointed out, isn’t really about Yeong-hye becoming a vegetarian. It’s not even about the protagonist at all, which probably makes the appellation of “protagonist” kind of inappropriate. Even though Yeong-hye is the thread that ties all three sections together, we spend most of our time with her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law (her sister’s husband). Each is the main character of their own section; it is their innermost thoughts and feelings we experience, not Yeong-hye’s. In that way, Yeong-hye is as confusing and impenetrable for the reader as she is for other characters. Becoming a vegetarian is only the beginning of the story for Yeong-hye, and as things escalate you have to wonder: how much of Yeong-hye’s apparent madness was in her all along? How much was the result of her family’s refusal to grant her autonomy?
The Vegetarian was adapted into a 2010 movie of the same name. It’ll be interesting to see how the story turns out on the big screen, and how Lim Woo-seong chose to end it.
Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)
Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.
Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children
In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.
As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!
That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.
Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.
Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans
In-depth thoughts:The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.
I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)
Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House
Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.
By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.
The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.
It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?
My Favorite Books of 2015
I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).
February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.
What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic ofCancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.
May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.
In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.
Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.
Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.
A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)
If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.
December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.
We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.
December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between. Barabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.
Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.