Delayed Gratification No. 52

One of the reasons that my book reading is taking a temporary dip is because I had some magazines to catch up on. Since I think those are just as important as books—and just as prone to otherwise getting lost in the void—I decided it was worth summarizing them. For posterity’s sake, and also to help me retain what I read.

Background: Delayed Gratification is a UK publication put out by an organization called Slow Journalism. It was recommended to me after I mourned the loss of the English language arm of the incomparable De Correspondent, a news project that is unavailable to me because I don’t read Dutch. De Correspondent features long-form stories focused on underlying causes or trends rather than rapid-fire news updates, and after a successful launch in the Netherlands they expanded into the English-language market as The Correspondent in 2019. Things went well until the economic fallout from the pandemic kneecapped their “pay what you want” subscription model, and rather than selling adspace or short shrifting the writers and graphic designers, they closed the project down. All of the English-language stories they published are still available on their website if you’re curious.

Enter Delayed Gratification! It scratches a similar itch and carries a mix of longer form journalism and shorter interviews/explainers (called “Moments that mattered”), along with more infographics than I really would care to read. Nobody’s perfect!

Every issue features a different artist on the cover, and opens with an interview as well as some of their other work. This quarter it was Robin F. Williams, with “Matched.” None of her other pieces are really a….match…for the painting featured on the cover (pictured above), nor was hers the most interesting or insightful artist interview I’ve read:

Starting a fire with a match requires precision, care and timing. It’s an individual action with the potential for a profound impact.

“Skill issue” was a friend’s glib response to that quote. “Grant for writers to take a wilderness basics course…”

Longer pieces

1. “Nahel Merzouk is buried amid riots in France.” The article by Rob Orchard highlights the work of French journalist Valentin Gendrot, who went undercover as a cop and wrote about it in the book Flic. French cops seem to resemble their American counterparts, is my takeaway, though perhaps they aren’t quite so heavily militarized (yet). Flic also ended up on my TBR: a French language and non-fiction two-fer!

2. “The coming storm.” Joint reporting by Matthew Lee and Rob Orchard on the bankruptcy crisis for many UK councils, whether current or looming. In some cases, poor decisions were made (going all-in on commercial real estate investment in the name of “development”). In others it’s just bad luck—shifting demographics is one reason highlighted in the article, where national funds are allocated to councils at the local level based on population data that is wildly out of date. Upon reflection, maybe that’s less bad luck and more “this is what happens when you kneecap actually-useful parts of bureaucracy.” Some areas are full to bursting with families with young children, for example, but not seeing the national funding to provide schoolingfor them because demographics statistics at the national level haven’t been updated.

3. “Metropolis now.” Marcus Webb, with photos by Nick Hannes. Projects to move national capitals: Egypt, South Korea, Nigeria, Kazakhstan. The people designing and paying for these new cities all gush about Dubai,  striving to emulate it in their city planning. This story, in combination with the previous article about bankrupt councils and a later one in this issue about rich people who want to live forever, is rich grist for the dystopian science fiction mill: wealthy, powerful people trying to build self-sustaining isolated little enclaves for themselves, away from unwashed masses, for all eternity.

4. “What lies beneath.” James Montague. Last July the loading ramp from the MS Estonia was pulled out of the Baltic, sparking renewed interest in assorted Scandinavian and Baltic conspiracy theories about why the cruise ship really sank. I didn’t know much about the topic going in, since it’s never come up in my life here—just that the MS Estonia had been a cruise ship that sank with absolutely catastrophic fatalities, and that there are a whole raft (if you’ll pardon the pun) of conspiracy theories about it. Montague interviewed several people with different relationships to the disaster: a Swedish survivor, a former Swedish politician from the Green party who remains convinced that Russian espionage was involved, the Estonian son of a couple who were lost in the sinking, and another young Estonian guy who was so fascinated with the sinking he grew up to become an expert in analyzing shipwrecks.

5. “Who wants to live forever?” Matthew Lee. This one touched a nerve with me. I can’t find the topic of “eccentric billionaires who want to live forever” interesting or entertaining—all I can think about is the tremendous exploitation and waste of resources involved. It also seemed clear that Lee doesn’t have the requisite background in science to really contextualize “longevity research.” (I’m directly quoting their language but I’m also making the scare quotes gesture with my fingers.) The project is painted in a mostly optimistic, friendly light and most of the people Lee interviews are of basically the same opinion. This is in contrast to the article on the MS Estonia, where Montague included a variety of perspectives that kept the speculation distinct from what could be asserted based on facts and data. To Lee’s credit, he also made sure to speak with a noted critic of the movement along with its cheerleaders, but the bulk of the article is concerned with the longevity research’s possibilities and proponents.

The last thing worth mentioning about this one is that one of the longevity companies Lee discusses is The Methuselah Foundation, and he makes a point of drawing the explicit (inoffensive and even vaguely favorable) connection between the foundation and its star backer, Peter Thiel. Yet nowhere does Lee see fit to mention this interest—not only longevity research generally, but Thiel’s participation specifically—has become one of the richest veins for Qanon conspiracy theorists to tap: tall tales about wealthy elites preying on children in pursuit of eternal youth, Thiel shooting up adrenochrome, God knows what else. Nor does Lee mention Thiel’s more unsavory, anti-democratic activities, which include limiting journalistic freedom as best he can. Is that relevant for a journalist to bring up in an article about longevity research? Do I just have a particularly strong personal antipathy towards Peter Thiel? Maybe it can be both?

6. “A wolf at the door.” Harriet Salem. The reintroduction of wolves to Europe is tricky going. Most frustrating seems to be that the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, could just unilaterally decide to undo years of wildlife preservation work by greenlighting wolf culls.

In absolutely, definitely, for sure unrelated news, der Leyen’s prize pony was killed by a wolf a few years ago.

The thing I noticed in this article was how many of the concerned farmers who want to bring back wolf culls are self-described “hobby farmers.” It reminds me a bit of Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid at Versailles, though to be fair, maybe hobby farming is how we slowly start to decentralize food supplies so that we have more food ready at hand. (But then maybe it’s more practical to grow grains, fruits, and vegetables than to raise livestock? In which case wolves are irrelevant?) Plus, left to their own devices with a normal mix of population, cattle (and I assume sheep) are a pack animal that have interesting strategies for surviving attacks from predators. There’s really interesting material about how cattle fared after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, which I don’t have the time to look up right now. Not to mention that, as Salem also points out, domestic dogs are more of a threat to livestock than wild wolves.

7. “Derna is a city drowning in sorrow.” Interview by Marcus Webb with photographer Mohamed Nabil, Zainab Chamoun interpreting. An on-the-ground look at the flooding in Libya. Hopefully they’ll put at least the photos from this story up and I can come back and link to them because I think it’s difficult to understand the scope of this flooding—especially considering other huge geopolitical crises going on at the moment—without seeing pictures of the damage.

Moments that mattered

1. “Lahaina is destroyed by wildfires.” Interview with Crystal Mitchell, Lahaina resident and business owner, by Matthew Lee. It seems that incompetence was a huge contributing factor into the fires becoming as bad as they were, as well as the scope of the damage. Unlike previous wildfires, the Mitchells (and many others) received no warning to evacuate and had no time to prepare. The escaped with their lives, but they lost two pets in the fire and Mitchell’s husband suffered pretty serious burns. Lots of events in the last few years, including the Lahaina fires, have me thinking about the inherent fragility of tourism-based economies.

2. “Luis Rubiales forces a kiss on Jenni Hermoso.” Interview with Verónica Boquete, former Spain women’s national football team captain, by Harriet Salem. A short summary of the state of misogyny in women’s football in Spain. Spoiler: it’s pretty awful.

3. “Azerbaijan takes control of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Interview with Laurence Broers, co-founder of the Caucasus Survey, by James Montague. Speaking of stories that get swallowed in huge geopolitical crises, how about this one? I had a vague sense of violence in Azerbaijan at some point recently but that was about it. This wasn’t a huge in-depth explainer of the history of the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but still informative. The major takeaway from me was how much Turkey’s support made a difference, especially as Russia’s presence in the region is basically nothing now that they’re caught in the quagmire of Ukraine.

Other

1. “Saddam and the supergun.” Marcus Webb with art by Carol Adlam. A sort of graphic novel visual narrative of the life of Gerald Bull. All the conspiracy theory talk with the MS Estonia and Qanon when there’s much more fertile (and likely) ground right here, with briefcases full of cash and assassinations and everything!

Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära

After I walked out of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov last October, I sent a joke about going to law school to a friend married to a lawyer. Her response was, “It’s OK, we all have intrusive thoughts sometimes.”

Not that I would actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I found a particular translation assignment appealing, of course. I sent the same joke to the lawyer husband of the aforementioned friend and he observed that legal texts will probably the least likely to get outsourced to machine translation, so not necessarily a bad career move. He’s certainly not wrong!

After I found out I failed the legal translation portion of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov, the joke became a bit more serious. Again, I wouldn’t actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I failed a test… but if it was the legal text (and specifically, incorrectly using legal terminology) that knocked me out of the running, I could at least make sure to be better prepared. I found the reading list for an introductory course in business law and dutifully added the most relevant volumes to my TBR, including Christian Dahlman’s brief introductory text Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära.

This one might be even more niche than Den högsta kasten or Språkets myller so literally the only point to me noting it here is for my own recollection. It’s short and it’s nothing I didn’t already have in the back of my head thanks to a background in philosophy, especially since one of my intro courses was taught by a member of the philosophy department who specialized in law. Worth having the vocabulary in two languages, I suppose? Though I don’t think anything in here is the kind of terminology I need for Kammarkollegiet.

More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

Frère d’âme

I added David Diop’s Frère d’âme to my TBR by way of a review in the Karavan literary magazine, and to be honest I was a bit leery of it going in. The review was positive, but it gave the impression that the book was a gritty, grim, hyper-realistic portrayal of war, which is not a thing I’m usually into. I approached the book the same way I might approach eating a strange new vegetable: accepting that it might not be an enjoyable experience, but that it would at least be good for my (reading) health.

Frère d’âme is a wartime bildungsroman centered on the young Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French trenches of WWI. The book opens with the gruesome death of his best friend, adoptive brother, and “plus que frère” Modemba Diop in the battlefield, and from there on we follow Ndiaye through grief, trauma and regret.

That’s an incredibly pretentious way to describe the story but it’s the best I can do, I suppose.

Let’s get the content warning stuff out of the way first: there is plenty of frank description of gruesome wartime (and otherwise) acts. People are disemboweled, heads are blown off, and as a narrator Ndiaye doesn’t hesitate to describe all of this in detail, often repeating or lingering on the images.

But somehow the book is more dreamlike (if sometimes nightmarish) than gritty realism. The first-person narration keeps the reader in Ndiaye’s head rather than out in the action, and Ndiaye himself is so apparently unbothered by it that his descriptions of violence and gore become more surreal than anything else. Ndiaye’s language is also highly repetitive, not in a way to suggest that he lacks ideas or words but rather in a way that creates rhythm, like all of those iterations of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey. That rhythm also made it easy for me and my mediocre French to immediately get lost in Diop’s writing. There’s a certain musicality to it that draws you in. I bet the audiobook is a work of art.

I say “apparently” unbothered because the subtext is of course that Ndiaye is deeply traumatized by the death of his friend and by the brutality of war in general. The conversant tone in his language, along with the repetition and verbal tics (“je sais, j’ai compris” and variations thereof; “par la vérité de Dieu”), create speech patterns you might expect from someone talking to themselves; the deliberate attempt to shift the mind’s focus away from something painful.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that I’m of two minds about it. I’m not thrilled with the choice Diop made for the actual events, but I deeply appreciate the ambiguity he allows the reader for interpreting them. Are we watching Ndiaye have a mental breakdown, or is he genuinely possessed by the spirit of his dead friend? Why can’t it be both?

As with most of the French books I read, once I finished Frère d’âme I immediately picked up the Swedish translation (Om natten är allt blod svart). So far I’ve been pretty well satisfied with them, but this time around less so. Om natten isn’t a hatchet job on par with Stick or anything, but the rhythm is still…different. Here are the first three sentences:

“…je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Moi, Alfa Ndiaye, fils du très vieil homme, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Par la vérité de Dieu, maintenant je sais.”

“…jag vet, jag förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Jag, Alfa Ndiaye, son till den gamle, gamle mannen, förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Vid Guds sanning vet jag det nu.”

I have my own opinions about how I would translate the French into Swedish, but I’m not about to pop off here and potentially make a fool of myself. I couldn’t grab a hold of the English translation before sitting down to write this post, so I have no idea how that fared, either (except to note that it won the International Booker Prize). Hopefully at some point an ebook version will appear in one of my US library apps.

Overall, Frère d’âme is a great example of why I think the checklist approach of my reading goals is at least a good start. It’s not a book I would have encountered if I weren’t making a deliberate effort to seek out different things, and my bookish life is that much richer for having read it.

Språkets myller

I went on a small library binge at the end of 2023 to stock up on holiday reading. With my goals for 2024 already in mind, I walked out with one book off of my TBR pile and two books in French (plus one spontaneous selection).

More accurately, I picked a book adjacent to my TBR pile. The title I was after was Margareta Westman’s Språkets lustgård och djungel, which the Stockholm library website assured me was available at Stadsbiblioteket. Alas, it was nowhere to be found, but another book by Margareta Westman was readily at hand, so I took that one instead. Språkets lustgård originally ended up on the TBR after it was referenced in another Swedish essay collection on translation that I read, though if I had any other thoughts besides “Hm, that sounds interesting” they’re lost to me now. We’re talking six, maybe even seven years ago at this point. And since Språkets myller is, unsurprisingly, on the same topic of linguistics, I’m willing to count it as a win for my TBR goal.

Westman was a (popular?)* professional language nerd and, among other achievements, head of the Language Council of Sweden. She wrote a lot about the Swedish language, and after her death the Council decided to collect several of her essays into one place: Språkets myller.

It’s hard to get too excited about a collection where the average age of the  content is older than me (collected and published in 2000, but original publication dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s), especially when it focuses on a topic that evolves as quickly as language does. Westman’s ideas are interesting and expressed with lucid prose, but any of the chapters about how young people express themselves “these days” are now historical relics rather than au courant observations. Other topics are a bit more timeless, like thoughts on the purpose of writing instruction in the classroom and how to structure it, or reflections on shifts in attitudes towards linguistic norms and mistakes.

Overall, trying to review, summarize, or even just discuss Språkets myller in English was a lot like trying to do the same with Den högsta kasten: it’s simply too Swedish. What’s the point? But at least with Westman I learned a thing or two along the way—and I crossed a book off my TBR—which is a lot more than I can say for Rydberg!

*Since I’m not Swedish I have no idea how Westman’s reputation lands in the general popular culture: was she a popular and accessible language authority akin to Susie Dent in the UK? Or…I’m not sure who in the US, actually. Or is she a name for nerds? I queried a very unscientific sampling of Swedes around my age who are all to greater or lesser degrees interested in language. The first answer I got (from someone who had studied linguistics at the university level) about whether they were familiar with Westman was “no, not at all.” The same pattern emerged as responses rolled in from others.

Reading Goals for 2024

I’m already behind in my reading (result of reading several good books at once, not to mention a handful of magazines). Time for a filler post! Incidentally, I also realized that I’ve never really been explicit about what my reading goals are, so maybe it’s just as well I talk about them for once.

Numbers

First and foremost is just the total number of books. I’ve settled on 48 books per year for a while now and it seems to be a good and reasonable goal for me. I end up hitting it pretty comfortably, with an early surplus some years and a mad last-minute holiday reading binge in others. It’s a number that ensures that I’m reading regularly, and regular consumption of books is really important for keeping my mood up—especially in the winter, when everything skews naturally towards depression and darkness.

Language

I also try to make sure that a certain percentage (25%) of my reading is in Swedish. This figure got a bit gnarly once I decided to introduce French into the mix as well. Was it important for that 25% to be Swedish? Or was it enough to just be not English? I haven’t decided yet. But so far I’ve been pretty good about hitting that threshold. I think I’ve met it every year since I decided to start keeping track.

My French consumption, on the other hand, is dictated by a fixed number of books per year, mostly because I can’t read French as fluently. Do I meet this goal as consistently as with Swedish? Absolutely not! Out of the last four or five years, I only met it for the first time in 2023. Big ups to Marguerite Duras for that.

Content

One of my earliest grown-up life book goals, in addition to working my way through the TIME Top 100 Novels of All Time list, was one non-fiction book a month. Novels are great, but there’s a particular itch that only non-fiction can scratch. I’ve stopped making a deliberate point of this target, but a cursory glance through my Storygraph statistics suggests that I accumulate at least twelve non-fiction books per year basically automatically at this point.

Beyond that, I don’t have any genre or topic matter goals. What I’ve tried to do recently is to lump books about roughly the same topic together concurrently, so for example as I’m re-reading my AP European History textbook, I dip out of chapters and into other books that examine the historical periods in question (The Dawn of EverythingCaliban and the Witch, A Lenape Among the Quakers). Reinforcing the names and events is good, and the switch in perspectives and shift in focus helps paint a more complete picture of the topic in question.

I’m also not counting specific study guides or resources that I read in order to achieve other goals, meaning that I don’t need to make it a goal to read books like Essential legal English in context : understanding the vocabulary of US law and government because they’ll get picked up along the way to other destinations.

Identities

Uh oh, identity politics! Whatever.

Unsurprisingly, back when the TIME Top 100 Novels list was my primary roadmap, my reading skewed really heavily towards men, and white men at that. Several years of participating in the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club (RIP) means that now the gender split in my reading is pretty equitable. To some extent, I think that torch has been passed on to the literary magazine Karavan, as most of the books I have read so far based on reviews or interviews there have been by women. (Not all, but most.) At one point I had to make a deliberate point to reach gender parity in my reading, but it seems now that gender parity, like my non-fiction consumption, happens automatically.

The larger umbrella of queer authors also turns up a lot thanks to the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club; however, that’s a tricky statistic to count because it relies on the author being out, and for a number of reasons authors might not want to be that public about their personal lives and information. I don’t think a fixed number is a good metric in this case, so the hazy concept of “awareness” will have to do.

Ethnicity and race is, if possible, stickier wicket, in part because of the overlap with geography. The two easiest filters I think about are 1) where authors are from, and 2) whether they’re from the dominant culture (class, ethnic, religious, racial, etc.) in that place. Again, hard to pin a number on this: is it perfectly logical and consistent for me, a white American, to use US census data to evaluate my reading because that’s the context of most of my upbringing and the source of my biases and errors in judgment? Or is it inappropriate to think about world population in terms of US categories and breakdowns?

However way you slice that, though, left unattended my reading list skews very heavily White and if there’s any active guiding principle to my reading at the moment, it’s that.

Location, location, location

The above identity discussion segues nicely into a slightly more concrete, quantifiable framework in consideration of filter number one: where are authors from? The pin-in-the-map model. Those pins would be pretty heavily concentrated in some parts of the world and few and far between in others. Once again Karavan to the rescue, with its focus on Latin American, African, and Asian literature in translation. Asymptote is also worth noting here; the problem is not the quality of their recommendations but my lack of follow-through on what I discover there. Now that reading for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club will naturally be winding down, it leaves room for me to fill my time with recommendations from various literary magazines. My long-term project? A pin in every country on the map. One new country annually seems like a start.

Declutter

Another goal I’ve habitually set for myself is to read a particular number of books that I’ve owned for at least one year. This will never stem the flow of new books into my library, but without a concerted effort at releasing some back into the wild they will accumulate at a rather alarming pace. And there are good things in my library that deserve to be enjoyed! Treasures like vintage short stories collections from my Dede or one of the local thrift stores. Sometimes what you’re looking for is right in front of your face.

I used to set the goal at just one book, then increase it incrementally: two books, then three, then five, then eight… (Fibonacci numbers are fun). Now I can track this through challenges on Storygraph. Last year I hit my goal of twelve, and this year I’ll aspire for the same.

Similarly, I’ve tried to actually chip away at my “to-read” list instead of just using it as a catch-all for anything that sounds even remotely interesting. I balance this with periodically reviewing the list and removing anything that no longer interests me, but even so it’s at well over 500 books by this point. That’s ten years of reading for me, assuming I never read anything new. I read seven of those books in 2023; I’ll try for a nice round ten in 2024.

Conclusion

So what do my reading goals for 2024 actually look like? In a nutshell, with bullet points?

At least 48 books, of which:
at least 4 are in French, and
at least 25% are in Swedish
at least 12 are non-fiction
at least 12 have been in my library for over a year
at least 10 have come from my to-read list (as of January 1, 2024)
at least half are by women or enby authors
at least 10% are by Black authors
at least 1 new-to-me country (as of January 1, 2024)

I look forward to returning to this post in December and seeing how I did!

A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

One of the things about living abroad is that you end up feeling more like you’re from a particular place than you did when you lived at home. Maybe it has something to do with the desire to distinguish yourself from other people from the US, maybe it’s homesickness, maybe it’s a lot of things.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that living in Stockholm has made me interested in filling in the gaps of my local history. The biggest gap is probably where the Lenape are concerned, so my reading started there. A reference to Hannah Freeman, or “Indian Hannah,” came up along the way and that’s how A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman ended up on my TBR.

The title (A Lenape Among the Quakers) and the subtitle (The Life of Hannah Freeman) pretty aptly describe the two parts and goals of the book. Author Dawn G. Marsh sketches out the events of Hannah Freeman’s life, interweaving it with the evolving (or maybe more accurately, deteriorating) relationship between Pennsylvania and the Lenape. Marsh is a professor of history at Purdue University, but the book is popular history written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly text. Still, it includes footnotes, a bibliography, and a small appendix with relevant historical documents, so there are avenues there for curious readers.

The framing device of Freeman’s life is a great way to examine standard fare Pennsylvania history from another perspective and level some well-deserved criticism. In terms of A Lenape Among the Quakers, the book is pretty solid. The benevolence and moral authority of Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlers compared to some of the other colonies is part of the commonwealth’s identity and mythos; pointing out that they weren’t cutting fair deals with their Lenape neighbors, even when William Penn was still alive, is a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.

When it comes to The Life of Hannah Freeman, however, the book deflates. In the absence of a robust historical record, Marsh hypothesizes about what life might have looked like for Freeman and speculates on how she might have thought or felt about particular events. While these suppositions are always clearly marked as such, and based in fairly reasonable historical assessment, it still feels like a stretch. On the one hand it’s important to be reminded of the human face of history, but in the absence of anything like journal accounts or other primary sources it’s pretty slim pickings. Black Tudors, which is a similar project in structure with even scantier primary sources, nonetheless engaged in far fewer creative exercises. However, Kaufmann had the advantage of ten biographies to include in the book rather than just one; there was enough material for a book without too much creative license.

And while Marsh is justified in criticizing the myth-making of Hannah Freeman by Chester County residents and Pennsylvania historians, it’s not clear that what Marsh is doing in this book is necessarily anything different. The last chapter focuses on Hannah Freeman’s memorial in Chester County and the public pomp and circumstance surrounding it in two different ceremonies (the first one in the early 1900s and the second one around a hundred years later). The memorial boulder, Marsh points out, isn’t even where Freeman is (most likely) buried. And the dedication events both times around were, let’s say, clunky.  The original ceremony had a lot of romanticizing of “the Indian,” with poetry and dramatic reenactments based on the “noble savage” stereotype; the re-dedication ceremony in 2009 included a smudging ceremony carried out by a member of the Cherokee, rather than Lenape, nation. (I don’t know enough to know whether smudging is even part of Lenape spiritual or religious practice.) Marsh criticizes both of these as events that miss the point and that flatten Hannah Freeman into a symbol to serve a myth-making narrative instead of treating her as a complex human being.

Yet Marsh herself has spent all of the rest of the book “[moving] Native American women’s history away from a narrative of loss and victimization toward a framework of resistance and adaptation.” It’s one thing to invite readers to reflect on what this moment may have meant or felt like for a human fellow traveler—it might not have value as reportage of historical fact, but it does have value in reaffirming the complex humanity of historical figures to readers who usually just think of them as names and maybe a handful of pertinent facts. It’s also one thing to recognize the biases inherent in the available historical record and seek to correct them or at least adjust for them in your interpretations. But it’s another thing to set out on a project with the goal of elevating a historical figure to a symbol of resilience and entrepreneurship. It still reads like the same symbol- and myth-making Marsh comes to condemn in the memorial dedication ceremonies.

It’s a fine line to tow, in the end. If you want to write a biography of someone like Hannah Freeman, you know from the beginning that much of the scraps of primary sources you have will be biased against your subject, maybe even outright hostile to them. On one level because of their gender, and then an additional level because of their race. As a result, these firsthand accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems like Marsh set out to write the The Life of Hannah Freeman portion of the book to justify her own opinion rather than chronicle a life.

2023 Reading Wrap Up

Happy New Year! What did I read in 2023?

A screenshot from my Storygraph 2023 Wrap Up. I read 61 books this year, across 17,092. The first one was "L'elegance du herisson" and the last one was "Project Censored's State of the Free Press 2023."

I don’t bother reviewing the Project Censored collections here (though I recommend them on the whole, despite the over-the-top art). L’Élégance du hérisson feels like ages ago, maybe because the first time I read it was November 2022.

My reading mood graph for 2023. It starts out pretty dark and depressing from January through March, then lightens slightly for April through June, and then lightens further from July until the end of the year. Below the graph it reads: "You pondered thought-provoking themes, absorbed valuable insights, and dived into complex ideas."

I’m still not sure how it’s generating that commentary on my reading, with “thought-provoking themes” etc. Maybe it’s entirely random?

A line graph showing how many books and how many pages I read per month in 2023. Below that, a green progress bar reading 127% and some partying face emojis with the text "Congratulations on meeting your reading goal!" A bar graph showing the genres I read the most often in 2023. In descending order it's Classic (15) , Science Fiction (9), Philosophy (6), and then a tie for fourth between Short Stories and Literary with (4) each.

Genres are a bit fuzzy on Storygraph it seems.

My longest book was Philosophy in the Flesh (640 pages) and my shortest book was The Judgment and In The Penal Colony (55 pages). The average length of books I read for the year was 274 pages.

Philosophy in the Flesh is probably the 2023 MVP. The little Franz Kafka duology was a lovely gift from a friend, but two short stories don’t really warrant an entire blog post.

Bar graph showing the authors I read the most often in 2023. In descending order it's Marguerite Duras (5 books), Malka Ann Older (3 books), and Elmore Leonard (2 books). The average rating I awarded books was 3.6 stars out of 5.

Not pictured in that blue graph of authors is Pär Lagerkvist, who I read just as many times as Elmore Leonard.

Covers of the 5-star books I read in 2023. In roughly chronological order they are: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber; Dvärgen by Pär Lagerkvist (and English translation by Alexandra Dick); Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson; We Don't Know Ourselves by Fintan O'Toole; The Centenal Cycle (trilogy) by Malka Ann Older and We Have Always Lived in t he Castle by Shirley Jackson. A bar graph showing the ratings I awarded in 2023. Eight books received 2 stars, seventeen books received 3 stars, twenty-six books received 4 stars, and nine books (including one re-read) received 5 stars. February had the highest rating on average (4.4). March had the lowest (2.5). I read the most pages in August (2,359).

Was March the month I read Into the Drowning Deep? No! That was 2022. March was just a slow month with only two books: Terminal Boredom and Ixelles. And February performed so well thanks to double header of Dvärgen in Swedish as well as English, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, and the nonfiction anthology Axplock ur idéhistorien II.

A comparison of the books I read with how other Storygraph users interacted with them. The most popular (in terms of being listed as "read" or "want to read") was Educated, by Tara Westover. A total of 194,758 users included this somewhere in Storygraph. The most obscure book I read this year was Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination, anthologized by Philip Van Doren Stern. Only one other person has this in their shelves. The highest-rated book I read this year, according to Storygraph, was Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It has an average rating of 4.6 stars, I rated it 4.

In other words: Educated was the most often mentioned book on Storygraph that I read in 2023, while Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination was the most obscure, and Braiding Sweetgrass was the most highly rated.

I read 38 new to me authors this year, including Carina Rydberg, E. C. Smith and Lena George. Ten books I read this year were part of a series. Nine of the books I read this year were re-reads.

Not much worth noting here except the shoutout to my actual real-life high school classmate Lena George. Much as I want all of my author friends to succeed, reviewing their novels is a bridge too far for me? Somehow? So no entry here. But you should go see if She’s Not Home sounds interesting. Or for the neurodivergent, her nonfiction writing at The ADHD Homestead (link is to my own personal Top Tier #Relateable entries) and collected in the book Order From Chaos might be really helpful.

I successfully completed one reading challenge. (I read twelve books that I already owned for more than a year.) Compared to 2022, I read 13% more books, but 5% fewer pages. Below this is a pie chart showing my most popular moods. The top three are "reflective," "mysterious," and "dark."

The reading challenge I completed was reading twelve books in 2023 that I already owned. Sometimes very loose definitions of “already” applied, but on the other hand I acquired books like Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin or Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination in high school so statistically speaking it was a pretty deep cleanse.

I’ll be participating in the same challenge again in 2024, along with my usual reading goals (48 books, at least 4 books in French, at least 25% of my reading in Swedish, etc.).

Happy new year!

En japansk näktergal

My sambo has tremendous thrift shop karma, which is how I came to be in possession of this lovely hardback book, a Swedish translation of an English melodrama/romance by Winnifred Eaton writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna*: A Japanese Nightingale.

Cover of the Swedish edition of "A Japanese Nightingale" by Onoto Watanna

As a hardback book from 1907 with several full color illustrations, it seems like it should be kind of rare and expensive, yet the going price for this book on Bokbursen wasn’t anything more expensive than your standard new paperback release and there were several listings for it. I guess it just goes to show how much I don’t know about actual book collecting.

Full color illustration from "A Japanese Nightingale."
There were maybe half a dozen of these full page, full color illustrations throughout.
Pages from the Swedish translation of "A Japanese Nightingale" featuring pastel green illustrations behind the text.
My photography wasn’t the best here, but those green splotches are illustrations. Left: three figures singing or playing musical instruments in a tea house. Right: flowers in a landscape.

All-American wealthy playboy Jack Bigelow is in Japan for unclear reasons. While he is waiting for his mixed-race friend Taro to come join him, Bigelow marries Yuki, a charming and mysterious mixed-race geisha. Even as Bigelow reflects on Taro’s contempt for foreigners who take temporary Japanese wives, he lets himself be talked into just such a marriage. Still, their relationship is a happy one, except Yuki’s mood swings and constant requests for money. Bigelow acquiesces, though not without misgivings and suspicions.

Taro finally arrives and—here’s a shocker—Yuki is his sister! Taro is shocked and appalled, both at Bigelow’s actions and at Yuki’s condition. It turns out that Taro and Yuki are from a noble family that conveniently ran out of money while Taro was at university in the US with Bigelow, and rather than reveal the change in their fortunes Yuki began earning money to support her brother by performing in teahouses. When that proved insufficient, she agreed to be married off by a nakoda.

Taro and Yuki are stunned to see each other. Yuki runs away, distraught at her brother’s perceived disappointment in her. For plot-related reasons, neither Bigelow nor Taro immediately follow her, so she is allowed to slip away and disappear. In her absence, Taro falls ill and dies. Bigelow promises the dying Taro that he will spare no expense in tracking down Yuki. He wanders all over Japan, Yuki wanders all over Asia, but eventually they have a heartfelt reunion at their old house in Tokyo and swear to never leave each other again.

The end!

On its own, A Japanese Nightingale is very dated reading. Is it an improvement over Madame Butterfly, which it is theorized to be a response to? I…don’t know? How are we defining “improvement” here, anyway? The happier ending with a reunited Bigelow and Yuki seems to imagine better prospects for interpersonal relationships between white Westerners and Asians (or just Japanese) than Madame Butterfly, which makes sense given Canada-born Eaton’s English father and Cantonese mother.

But much of the book feels predicated on Orientalism and appealing to Western fascination with Japan, which I guess still happens today but not in the same way as in the years immediately following the Perry Expedition. There are didactic little asides about Japanese culture and beliefs and customs, but judging from her biography Eaton never visited Japan. She was also “rebuked” by maybe the only Japanese person she actually knew, the poet Yone Noguchi, for her “masquerade” (to use the language of that linked timeline), but I don’t have the Google-fu to dig that referenced article up.

All of that said, I think it’s ridiculous to go into a book like this with the expectations and standards we have for books today. And I don’t just mean expectations about race and Strong Female Characters TM and gender relations—I mean even just the construction of the narrative itself. Authors in 1907 were writing to meet different expectations than they would be today. One of the more obvious examples of this might be the shift in narrative distance that’s come to be regarded as acceptable in third-person narration, but also things like suspension of disbelief, the role of luck and coincidence in a plot, characterization, etc. etc.

The clues about Taro and Yuki’s relationship are there for readers to pick up on, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept that plot twist is a big ask. Taro’s death makes no sense on a surface level reading (he faints and hits his head  and then…wastes away from a mysterious illness?) and is equally baffling from a plot perspective, since there’s no action or realization it prompts within Bigelow. Nor would Taro’s survival have impeded Bigelow in any way in his quest to find Yuki. The whole episode feels like nothing more than a melodramatic flourish to no purpose. Omatsu, Taro and Yuki’s mother, appears for a while during Taro’s lingering Mystery Illness, and Bigelow swears to look after her like she was his own mother, but then she gets shunted off to her own parents and never appears again.

To a modern reader, all those aspects and more are enough to make A Japanese Nightingale stylistically passé, never mind how completely unappealing a character and hero Jack Bigelow is in the Year of Our Lord 2023 or whether or not the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters is ProblematicTM and if so to what extent. Even though the book was by all accounts at least moderately popular in its time (it was turned into a stage play, and then a movie), it’s so “of its time” that the appeal today is one of historical curiosity rather than rip-roaring good yarn.

Oh! This was a translation, after all. Is there anything interesting I can share about Hilda Löwenhielm?

Not really. She was a teacher and a translator and died in 1927. Never married, no children. Well, cool.

The story itself may be underwhelming, but it at least it was delivered in a singularly attractive package that can serve a much more aesthetically pleasing purpose as an objet d’art.

*Onoto Watanna, what a wonderful phrase! Onoto Watanna, it ain’t no passing craze! It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy: Onoto Watanna!