On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.

I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.

This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.

That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.

Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

The Crying Book

In one of life’s small serendpities, on the same day my mom let me know about a death in the family, a newsletter I subscribe to about mental health (Sanity by Tanmoy) featured a write up on  The Crying Book, which sounded all the more appealing as I scrolled, sniffling and snot-nosed, through my email. On a whim I spent the 10 kronor to put a hold on it at the library (no digital version available) and by the following Monday it had come in. It’s a short book, without any chapters but with very frequent section breaks, so I offered to read it out loud to my sambo.

I finished it in two nights, in two marathon reading sessions.

I walked away from it with mixed feelings. On the minus side, I didn’t always care for her style. Christle is a poet, which you can tell not only by her explicitly mentioning it fairly regularly, but by her writing. This kind of “assembled snapshots” brevity also gives the whole book a sort of Instapoetry vibe, even if Christle is a bit too old and a bit too establishment to go with that crowd. Needless to say, I don’t like Instapoetry. For every Nayyirah Waheed (good) you get a million Rupi Kaurs (less good). About a third of the way through, I also picked up that Christle had a very annoying tic of sandwiching long asides—entire independent clauses, sometimes—in between two em-dashes, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and all I wanted to know was why didn’t anyone notice this and edit a few of them down, or cut them entirely? To be fair, this might have only made itself apparent because I was trying to read the book out loud—you can imagine how that kind of writing would make deciding on the right cadence and intonation difficult, while reading silently you might more readily gloss over it.

On the plus side, I was very taken with the actual content. The book is something like a folk history of tears and crying, and the 200-odd footnotes at the end make it clear that Christle did a lot of research, which I appreciate. I also appreciate how seamlessly the personal reflections are intertwined with the historical subject matter—I enjoy that tack in popular nonfiction and I don’t think I’ve read anything that does it quite how how Christle does it. The first thing that comes to mind is Ålevangeliet, or in English The Book of Eels, which is on the surface about eels but is also about a bunch of stuff tangential to eels: the author’s childhood fishing (eeling?) expeditions with his father, the long and embittered scientific battle to find their reproductive organs, weird “facts” surrounding them from people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, our impending climate catastrophe, etc. The GoodReads reviews, at least in Swedish, seem frustrated with this approach (“I wanted to read about eels, not fishing with his father!” is the short version of a lot of them) but I really liked that kind of thematic meandering within and alongside a particular topic. The Crying Book does that but on a much smaller scale.

Finally, on the mixed side, I had mixed thoughts about the actual structure of the book. While there are several narrative or conceptual strands within The Crying Book, no idea is carried for very long: Christle discusses something for a paragraph or two, occasionally a page, and then moves on to something else.  There are no chapters organized thematically, but there is usually an interior logic leading from one brief section to the next and the resulting flow is very much akin to following someone’s train of thought in real time. This works really well to build a sort of tension with her personal trials and tribulations (her pregnancy, the suicide of a poet friend), and when it takes you to unexpected but nonetheless relevant places, the subversion is genuinely rewarding. On the other hand, this approach feels scattershot and confusing when it comes to historic personages and biographies, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alvin Borgquist; meatier, protracted narratives would have served that subject matter much better.

A quick read, all told, though at times unflinching and grotesque. Beneath the Instapoetry conceit there is a wealth of information and depth of thought.

Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.

Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

The Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club kicked off the year with Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Cover of Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Kelly Robson

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: It’s a distant, post-apocalyptic future and the powers that be have just figured out time travel. Minh is an expert in rivers restoration and travels to ancient Mesopotamia to collect data that will help restore the Tigris and Euphrates river regions.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; geology and hydrology nerds might or might not enjoy seeing a future version of their science at the center of a story.

In-depth thoughts: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a pretty quick read. My only complaint is that it’s too quick: the beginning of the story sets up a lot of intrigue and possible plot points that are never really pursued or resolved. Given how abrupt the ending is, and how much is left unfinished, it feels like Robson left the door open for a sequel, but who knows if that will materialize. What’s there is fun, good writing — I just want there to be more of it!

Robson’s style and syntax itself is simple and uncomplicated, but EFL readers might trip over some of the more technical science and laboratory terms. (The story is about scientists, and the main thrust of the story is about them gathering samples, after all.) I’m a native speaker and it was hard to tell where the current-day science jargon ended and the future science jargon began. But if you can cut through some of the  academic-sounding vocabulary, it’s a fast-paced read.

Currently (Still) Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

Here’s my initial hot take of the first few episodes of Ulysses.

When we last left our heroine, she had bemoaned “too much interiority.” Naively, she thought that she had hit the densest, thorniest parts of Ulysses. That turned out to be misguided hope.

Current thoughts: the connections between the episodes in Ulysses and the chapters of The Odyssey often seem tenuous, if there are any at all. I’m less than impressed. Perhaps the connection has been overstated by Joyce scholars over the years, meaning Joyce himself isn’t to blame?

How much work can you reasonably expect an audience or a reader to do before really, the truth is you’re a garbage writer? I recognize that Ulysses isn’t up there with Finnegans Wake in terms of impenetrability, but nonetheless there are moments. Is Mrs Dalloway a deliberately better book and an eyeroll at Joyce’s pompous view of himself? Or is it a diet version of an artistic vision Woolf had that was similar in scope and density to Ulysses, pared down out of a stronger tendency to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and input than the default male assumption of “but of course my way is the best”?

If you need an annotated version and a podcast and extensive notes to make any sense of a book, maybe the author didn’t do that good of a job. Of course studying a text deeply and thoroughly can add layers of nuance and appreciation in addition to a surface-level enjoyment, but that shouldn’t be the only way to make it through to the other side with any meaningful understanding.

Speaking of notes, I’ve let re:Joyce fall by the wayside. It was to be expected; I hate podcasts. I might listen to a podcast hateread this sucker, though! Other wise, the only study tool I’m using for this is to read plot summaries of each episode beforehand (or after) so I have a mental framework of what’s supposed to be actually going on in the world.

 

Los Angeles Noir

I was already familiar with Akashic’s Noir series when a friend included Los Angeles Noir—completely unprompted—in a care package she sent me over the summer. After textbooks and thorny, hundred-year-old Swedish, I needed something light to take the edge off during the holiday. Noir short stories seemed like just the ticket.

Cover of Los Angeles Noir
Image courtesy Akashic Records press

Editor: Denise Hamilton

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2

Summary: A collection of noir short stories set in Los Angeles.

Recommended audience: Fans of crime and thriller fiction; people with a soft spot for Los Angeles

In-depth thoughts: Much as I’ve sung the praises of short stories elsewhere, they’re not my favorite genre to read. Nor am I much of a crime or noir fan. Still, there were a couple I really enjoyed.

My friend sent it in the care package on account of “Koreatown,” by Naomi Hirahara, which takes place primarily at a Korean-style spa, and probably equally for our shared love of Korean spas as for the story itself. (It was a good story. I didn’t see the twist coming and actually said, out loud, “Holy shit!”)

Otherwise, the only other stories I really liked, from beginning to end, were Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210,” a mystery behind a woman’s stolen, then found, jewels, and “Fish,” by Lienna Silver, about truth and friendship.  There were moments “Golden Gopher” (Susan Straight) that really worked for me, but ultimately I liked the protagonist better than the plot. Some stories felt bloated and unwieldy; some were short and trim but too nihilistic for my taste (“That’s noir,” you can fairly point out, and you’d be correct); and some protagonists were just a little too anti-hero and unlikable (again: “That’s noir.”)

Still, as a collection of contemporary popular writing it’s perfect for EFL students. Learners with a penchant for crime writing would enjoy this, and might enjoy seeing if Akashic has a collection for a city they know well or want to visit.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

I stumbled across Voodoo Histories when I went to the library back in October to finish up some reading. I have the great good luck to work a short walk away from Stadsbiblioteket, and I wandered into a study room to finish up another book I was reading when I saw Voodoo Histories in the recommended display. It left the library with me that night.

The UK edition of Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Author: David Aaronovitch

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.57 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Aaronovitch debunks a variety of notable conspiracy theories from the last hundred years or so, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to McCarthyism to 9/11 truthers to the birther movement.

Recommended audience: People interested in politics or modern history

In-depth thoughts:  Overall, Aaronovitch gives a thorough background on a variety of conspiracy theories that plagued the last hundred years or so. But it doesn’t really live up to the subtitle of the book: “the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.” The first chapter out of the gate is about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it’s a great blend of the details of the conspiracy theory and also highlighting exactly how this particular theory shaped history. But later ones, for example about the death of Princess Diana, are pure debunking that don’t really bring up how they affected geopolitical events.

The other fault with this book is that it was simply before its time. It was originally published in 2009; the latest edition came out in 2011. It was just in time to address the “birther” conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama, but the Spirit Cooking and Pizzagate controversies leading up to the 2016 American election would have fit in very well in this book (and frankly had more of an impact on modern history than Princess Diana).