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)_/¯

Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!

Beyond the Rice Fields cover
Image courtesy Restless Books

Author: Naivo

Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars

Language scaling: C1

Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore

Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.

Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature

In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French).  But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.

My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.

The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.

For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places;  among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:

A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.

But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

This was another selection from one of my three book clubs, this one based on Discord and more generally YA focused. The earlier book I read with them was Roar.

 

The cover of "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Author: Mackenzi Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: On the eve of his entry into adulthood, Henry Montague is going on a tour of Europe with his sister and his best friend and love interest, Percy. What starts out as a sedate tour of arts and culture ends up being a cross-continental treasure hunt.

Recommended audience: 19th century adventure novel fans; those interested in GLBTQ+ literature

In-depth thoughts: This was a book that I was really excited about. I watch a couple of Booktubers now and again, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had come up in a lot of their videos. The concept sounded interesting and these were people whose tastes I trusted, so when my Discord book club chose this book for February I was glad that, for once, I was going to read the new release I was interested in fairly close to release. (This doesn’t happen often! Too many books!)

Once, as a kid, I took a sip from a cup without looking and expected apple juice. It actually had milk. The moment of confusion where my brain tried to sort out expectations versus reality meant the drink didn’t really taste like anything, at least anything I was familiar with. It was just uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that moment in book form. I think I was expecting a subtle, more character-driven slow burn romance; when it turned out to be a Return the MacGuffin adventure story I was disappointed and slightly uncomfortable for the remainder of the story.

Additionally, Henry (or “Monty,” as he’s known for most of the book) takes a breezy, ironic tone that feels anachronistic, too modern for a book taking place in pre-Revolutionary France. Confession: I love 19th century adventure novels, as racist and sexist and issue-laden as they are. And The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t read like one of those at all. This wouldn’t be a problem except I think Lee wants this book to be a more inclusive version of exactly those books.

To her credit, Lee gives a very thorough accounting of all of her research and inspiration for a number of aspects of the books (the Grand Tour, European politics, queer history, race relations) at the end. When it comes to Henry, she cites the journals of James Boswell as inspiration. This has made me rather keen to read them. His diaries about his own Grand Tour are a little hard to come by, but his account of traveling to the Hebrides is available for free on Kindle.

While my expectations may have soured the book for me overall (apple juice and milk), it’s still a good book that, thanks to the narrator’s unusually modern voice, can be a great choice for EFL students.

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

 

A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.

Book Review: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Genre: Literary fiction

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Language scaling: Advanced (C1+)

Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans

In-depth thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.

I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)

Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House

Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.

By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.

The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.