Stöld

Stöld was another pick from the neighborhood book club, which I joined in order meet my neighbors and to ensure some kind of minimum Swedish reading level in my annual book consumption (25% I decided was a good, if arbitrary, goal).

Stöld by Ann-Helen Laestadius
Image courtesy Romanus & Selling

Swedish book club stayed on brand for this one: rather grim reading (animal cruelty and hate crimes) and literally dark, set as it is in the north of Sweden, largely during the winter. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly hyped for this selection, but in the end I came out enjoying it, or at least not angry that I read it.

Stöld focuses on Elsa, a young Sami reindeer herder, and her struggle to carve out a space for herself among Samis and Swedes alike. This struggle is centered in one particular conflict: that with the book’s antagonist, Robert Isakson. Isakson’s harassment of Elsa in particular and the Sami community at large is the arena where most of the story plays out and whence the smaller conflicts arise. Is it worth it for Samis to try to turn to the local police for protection? Should they take matters into their own hands? What kind of relationship should they try to have with Swedes? Differences of opinions here underscore smaller, gender-based conflicts Elsa has with her own community, one that expects her to eventually become a housewife when she loves nothing more than being out with the reindeer.

The book fell down for me in narrative execution. There are small things Laestadius does that are often used in other genres as tricks to build towards certain kind of plot twists or reveals—that Isakson is actually a red herring of a suspect, or that a key death in Elsa’s social group was a murder, or the result of criminal negligence, rather than a suicide—but everything is played straight. The bad guy is the bad guy. The suicide is a suicide. The result is that the story feels a bit hollow; a bit shallow. I suppose that’s my fault for coming into this with vague expectations of “Nordic noir, but with reindeer herders.”

Isakson in particular isn’t a particularly satisfying antagonist. Laestadius gestures weakly at how the same system that fails Elsa is failing Isakson as well, and at how toxic masculinity and small-town snobbery (where everyone knows every other family’s business, and has known it for generations) have robbed him of a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, it doesn’t account for the levels of sheer cruelty Isakson reaches, and as a result he feels a bit flat and mustache-twirling.

But what the story lacked, the writing made up for. Laestadius captured a mood very well, where the point wasn’t how predictable or tense the story would be (I appreciate that none of the chapters end on cliffhangers) but more to illustrate “here is a distillation of what this life is like, more or less.” And to that end, I understand why Stöld won Bonniers’ Book of the Year Award for 2021. I’ve certainly read worse, so I’m not mad.

Vänligen Bygg Ingen Berg

Remember Instapoetry?

My arch tone assumes that Instapoetry is dead, and I hope it is. No one seems to have written a thinkpiece about it since 2019—maybe I’m lucky.

My one-sentence review of Lina Arvidsson’s Vänligen bygg inga berg: Swedish Instapoetry about working as a supermarket cashier.

Cover of Vänligen bygg inga berg
Image courtesy Konsai Förlag

I read an interview with Arvidsson alongside one of the poems from the collection in a magazine who knows how many years ago now and thought, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” I never made any concerted effort to track it down, but the title stuck enough in my head that I recognized it in the library’s shelf of featured books. In other words, I was going into the collection more or less favorably inclined.

But what works as an individual poem quickly becomes monotonous in an entire collection. Part of the blame is maybe on me; maybe I should have read slower and tried to savor more. Maybe that would have stopped all of the untitled, open-verse, e. e. cummings-esque lowercase poems from bleeding into each other. At the same time, not giving any titles to your poems is also a choice, and not a useful one when someone wants to highlight a particular favorite. But I’ll do my best anyway, since it would be nice to end on a positive note.

Så kommer den natten när jag drömmer om dig.

Och det är inget hemskt du sitter vid
toaletterna
till höger om stämpelklockan
ryggen emot men jag ser direkt på håret att det
är du
Fanny
du hade alltid en perfekt page
När du vänder dig om ser jag: du håller på med
något en flaska
är det hallonsoda? rosa
ja
drinker vi ska ju dricka drinkar

Snacka lite
tjata lite

det är en förfest eller kanske är det det här
som är festen

man får väl inte dricka alkohol här? du ler
med hela ansiktet säger
det skiter jag faktiskt i

och när jag kramar dig är det verkligen du

jag hade aldrig fattat tidgare
men man behöver ju inte ben
eller fötter
närman är död

eller nacke
eller rygg
du har rätt

det gör man ju inte.

Flera gånger ska jag komma att drömma om dig
och det är aldrig hemskt
du ler alltid ja man skiner ju upp

snacka lite bara
komma på besök

The Burnout Society

Three things happened over Easter weekend. First, my sambo remarked offhandedly that PewdiePie has started making YouTube videos about philosophy. Then I tried to start reading Cat Rambo’s You Sexy Thing, but after about ten pages was ready to throw the book across the room in revulsion. Finally, a friend of mine was in town over the weekend and wanted to meet for dinner in the opposite end of Stockholm.

These disparate events led to me picking up the slim but impactful Tröthetssamhället: I had a sudden craving for scholarly rigorous philosophy and meaty content, and the small book fit neatly in my purse.

Cover of the Swedish translation of The Burnout Society
Image courtesy Ersatz

The Burnout Society (German original: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) had probably been on my TBR for a year and a half by the time I saw it on the shelves at Söderbokhandeln in February. Han outlines his points in clear, direct language so it goes down smooth.

There’s not a whole lot in this essay that’s particularly revolutionary for anyone who’s familiar with Arendt, Foucault or Handke. Han’s comparisons and criticisms are certainly interesting, but not mind-blowing. For the layperson, The Burnout Society serves as an excellent introduction to a strain of academic philosophy that’s immediately relevant to their lives and concerns.

I have only one minor criticism. Han suffers from a problem specific to philosophers—attributing existential and abstract causes to phenomena that could easily have material origins and subsequently eschewing any reference to scientific research. There are two instances of this in The Burnout Society. One is only incidental to his claim, but the other is more closely tied with one of his central premises.

Right at the start, Han describes ADHD, depression, and borderline personality disorder as results of an excess of “positivity” in today’s society, as if there’s no underlying brain with its attendant neurological wiring and chemical (im)balances that come into play. However, he doesn’t claim that the prevalence of these conditions somehow irrefutably proves his point. Rather, Han seems to take them merely as examples of the problems he is discussing.

On the other hand, Han seems to build a rather large part of his argument on ideas about the differences between human and animal cognition (focus versus multi-tasking) that lack any reference to contemporary studies or research. It’s a metaphorical leap that I can accept because I’m sympathetic to Han’s ultimate thesis, but as a premise it requires more scientific backing.

At the end of the day, I’d love for Han to replace our current crowd of useless “public intellectuals” but life isn’t fair, is it?

The Space Between Worlds

I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.

The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions.  Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.

US edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
US cover, courtesy Crown

Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:

UK edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
UK cover, courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!

Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.

There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.

Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.

Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.

Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)

But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.

The Jakarta Method

Every year I make a concerted effort to dig through my TBR list and the books I already own. It never outweighs the books I read from elsewhere—at this rate, I’d have to spend the next ten years reading only books the TBR to catch up on that front—but without any effort at all it’s just a graveyard of aspirations.

The Jarkata Method was a relatively new addition to the TBR, after I heard it mentioned several times on one of my go-to podcasts. Apparently it only made it as far as the mental TBR, though, since I don’t see it on Storygraph, but I’m counting it since it’s been on my radar since at least 2019.

Swedish edition of The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins
Image courtesy Karneval förlag

I’m not the kind of reader whose review of this particular book will matter, because I’m not a historian or an expert in twentieth century geopolitics. Much of this was new to me, which I expect is largely by design within the US public education system. History more or less ended with the Vietnam War; anything afterwards was too new to be history but too old to be news. I graduated high school with an understanding that the Cold War was a thing that had happened, but not much beyond that, and I suspect that’s the case for a lot of Americans.  But that was over twenty years ago. Maybe it’s finally been long enough for older headlines like Nixon, the Cold War, Reagan, and the Gulf War to be lifted out of the weird memory hole of “news” or “current events” and inducted into the pantheon of “history.” (Hard for me to say. I’m not a high school student in the Year of Our Lord 2022.) For people like me, The Jakarta Method provided a much-needed nutshell version of a slice of American history in an international context you almost never get in US history classes.

The only thing I can note is that reading a Swedish translation of an English language book on US foreign policy is a trip; more than once I found myself thinking, “But what do you know about the US, asshole?” and then remembering who the author is. It’s certainly not like I disagree with Vincent Bevins on any point he raises in the book; quite the opposite, in fact. I just have an instinctive reaction to processing commentary on American politics through the Swedish language. An article I read once (I will have to update this with a link if I find it again) described Europeans’ understanding of US politics to be something akin to a celebrity gossip rag: everyone knows the events, few people understand the context, almost no one is speaking from any kind of personal connection or insider history.

“Why did you even bother reading this in Swedish, then?” I hear you say. Because that’s what the library had available. Besides, anything in Swedish is a win for my yearly goal of 25% book consumption in Swedish.

I have no complaints about the Swedish translation of The Jakarta Method. Stefan Lindgren did a fine job, as far as I’m able to tell. Unfortunately there are at least two Stefan Lindgrens working in translation, so I can’t be sure who to thanks. I think it’s safe to credit this particular Stefan Lindgren, despite his age (wonder if I’ll still be working at 70!), since the topic matter seems to be adjacent to his other work, but he doesn’t seem particularly active these days. Who knows!

Into the Drowning Deep

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Cover of Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan Maguire, writing as Mira Grant.
Image courtesy Orbit Books

So I won’t be saying anything at all about Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, except that the quality of writing on display in this book makes her childish Twitter tirade in 2017 about the awful (“awful”) job her copy editor did even more cringe-inducing.

Shoutout to Storygraph, now my preferred choice over GoodReads, for allowing me to give a full-on 0-star review.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

The cover of the UK edition of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, featuring a blue box of tissues and a glass of water against a bright yellow background.
Image courtesy Scribe

Most years I participate in an online card and gift exchange community. Starting in November or so, people post their wishlists and people send whatever cards and gifts they have the means to send. I received Maybe You Should Talk to Someone as part of this exchange (they saw it was on my GoodReads “to read” shelf), and there’s no faster way for a book to climb to the top of my reading agenda than to be either a library book or a gift. It turned out to be the kind of lighthearted easy read that works well in the post holiday blahs. Maybe it says something about me that a book about people in therapy, including parents who lose a child in car crashes and a dying cancer patient in her early 30s, feels like a “lighthearted easy read.” Gottlieb does an excellent job of conveying other people’s stories with respect and kindness, balancing the very serious and heartbreaking parts of life with the ones filled with beauty and joy.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone focuses on three areas: a few of Gottlieb’s patients, Gottlieb’s own biography, and Gottlieb’s experience as a patient when she starts seeing a therapist after a difficult breakup. Everyone will get something different out of it, of course, but for me the most interesting parts were the behind-the-scenes looks at Actually Being A Therapist, like the philosophy behind how offices are set up and how other people approach and treat their therapists.

I say “other people” because I also see a therapist, so the natural inclination is to compare how they interact with their therapist to how I interact with mine. Lots of people, it turns out, leave voicemails for their therapist between sessions? Or send emails with random “hey this is cool” links? Even Gottlieb does this with her own therapist at one point so I assume she doesn’t think this is weird.  But I find it incredibly weird—my therapist is obviously supposed to be compassionate and supportive and all of that, but it’s not her job to be a friend—but maybe I only find it weird because I’ve had exactly three sessions in as many years. (Thanks Covid!)

My only complaint about the book is that I feel like Gottlieb (or maybe more specifically, the publisher, since I don’t think authors control the marketing or the back-of-the-book blurbs) hypes up how unconventional her therapist, Wendell, is. In practice it just seems to be that he has his furniture arranged slightly differently, whereas I was expecting a therapist version of, like, Patch Adams or Dead Poets Society. But that’s not really the point of the book so it’s minor complaint that I’m willing to put aside at the end of the day. The more important thing is that this is the book that gently nudged me towards booking a long-overdue appointment with my therapist, and that will hopefully help normalize and destigmatize therapy.

The House by the River

Cover of The House by the River, by Lena Manta, translated from Greek by Gail Holst-Warhaft

I’m glad that Lena Manta isn’t my mother.

That’s really the only takeaway I have from this book. It seems to be a novel-length riff on “your mother will always love you and be there for you no matter what, also she was right all those years ago but she’ll never say I told you so because she’s just such a saint, but maybe she’ll write a novel instead.”

Theodora meets a much older man when she’s twelve, falls in love a few years later, and then marries him as soon as she turns eighteen. They have five daughters and then her beloved husband dies from stepping on a rusty nail and refusing to have his gangrenous leg amputated because he definitely has some PTSD from fighting in World War II that includes an abject, if poorly articulated, fear of amputation. This is the only remotely interesting piece of characterization in the book.

Theodora raises her daughters as a single mom and doesn’t consider for a moment remarrying (because she’s too old….at the ripe old age of 34). All of her daughters grow up to be breathtakingly beautiful (of course), leave home and in one way or another meet terrible tragedies and eventually come home, chagrined and heartbroken. The daughters who tried to have careers and interests outside of Blissful Domesticity are duly punished, whether it’s a career or an affair (or, in one case, both), but no one comes out of things unscathed. The ones who got married followed in their mother’s footsteps and married older (in one case, much older) men.

It’s possible to distinguish one daughter from the other in the beginning of the book, when they’re still young, but that’s perhaps mostly a function of the narration being fairly distant. As adults, when things switch to a closer third person perspective for each daughter, they become interchangeable. Even as they live somewhat different lives, their internal monologue is indistinguishable from the other because the writing is robotic. Not terse, not sparse, not subtle. Robotic. Robotic and repetitive. I think literally every single sister is described as a “volcano” during their first formative sexual experience.

Each sister has a tragic, melodramatic chapter about their life outside of the village, setting them up for the inevitable fall that will send them back to their mother who loved them and only wanted to protect them, after all. Of course, how stupid they were for thinking they could ever leave home! Their mother had been right all along! Structurally it feels like the book is trying to build a story about resilient women and the power of sisterhood, but it never rises beyond mere melodrama. All of this is why I’m glad Lena Manta isn’t my mother because I expect I would get a lot of guilt tripping over not calling enough, not visiting enough, why don’t you have some more food, when are you going to give me grandchildren, etc.

The only highlight in this book, and the part that was interesting enough that I actually slowed down to savor the reading, was the part of the book that took place under the Nazi occupation of Greece and the subsequent civil war. A whole book about Theodora trying to raise her family and keep things together would have been far more interesting, particularly in a novel by a Greek author of an age to have parents who lived through that history. Instead Manta breezes over that in favor of melodrama that swings between merely uninteresting (oh no, an affair!) or outright cringeworthy (egregious White Saviorism; hamfisted Mafia tropes).

Like so many other people, I got this book for free on World Book Day, so I suppose I can’t complain. You get what you pay for.

Caged

I didn’t intentionally set about to read Caged for Black History Month, but I suppose that’s kind of what happened.

Cover of the play Caged by the New Jersey Prison Theater Cooperative
Image courtesy Haymarket Books

I read it in two sittings over the course of a single weekend. The play is distilled from scenes and dialogue written by 28 members of a literature course at a maximum-security prison in Newark, New Jersey. They then sifted through that material and refined it, working together to bring to the fore the story and struggles of protagonist Omar Moore, trying to protect his little brother Quan and provide for his son Zaire, until he gets put away for 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

The thing that comes to mind while organizing my thoughts about this was the small dust-up eight years ago over Cuts Through Bone, an award-winning new detective novel that caused a minor dust-up over the fact that the author, Alaric Hunt, was incarcerated, serving a life sentence for murder—in a bid to distract the police from a jewelry robbery, he set a fire that took the life of a young grad student.

Another thing that comes to mind is Annie Dookhan, the lab tech who falsified untold mountains of evidence in drug cases. The astonishing thing in all of that is the sheer volume of her fraud—how many lives have gone down a similar track as the New Jersey Prison Collective, or Omar, or any of the other characters in Caged, because of her actions?

And the final thing that comes to mind is the absolutely worthless hew and cry being raised over the ludicrous idea that people want to censor Joe Rogan. Here’s the thing: Joe Rogan gets to be a media figure and have a show and be a “voice” in “the conversation.” Even if Spotify took him off their platform he’d turn up somewhere else, like a bad fucking penny, and we’d still be stuck talking about him. He’d get to live his life as a free man (how much weed has he smoked in his life that was up until very recently not legally obtained?) and, I don’t know, write a book or go on speaking tours or whatever else. None of that is censorship.

Contrast that with how we (in the US, anyway) treat and talk about the incarcerated. I’m not trying to imply that there is a conspiracy to keep their voices out of the conversation; my point, rather, is that cultural norms mean there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. It happens of its own accord. Because most of us operate under a “just world” fallacy and because the lives of middle-class suburban Americans aren’t usually touched by the kinds of crimes, life circumstances, or bad luck that send someone to prison (and when they are, they do their best to hide it), the unexamined belief we carry for most of our lives is “people who commit crimes obviously choose to commit them, so prison is what they deserve, and as a whole they’re a subset of the population that’s not worth thinking about and that doesn’t have anything worth saying.” That’s the most powerful censorship of all—not banning someone’s ideas or burning their books, but structuring society so that everyone else forgets that some 2.2 million Americans even exist.

We’ve always been at war with Oceania.

Caged was a good play. I would love to see it performed because I would love to see the set direction as it’s described in the text. But I think the most important thing about it is how it has found a way around that internalized censor and put the voices of the incarcerated out there for public consumption, to speak directly about their experiences and life in a system that has tried to erase them.

 

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.