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.

My Favorite Books of 2018, According to GoodReads

Other years I’ve had to split my 5-star books into two posts, but this year I think they can comfortably be combined into one. Here were my reading highlights of 2018!

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

My criterion for rating a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads is that it has the potential for widespread appeal, or that it masterfully addresses a major social or everyday question. Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of outlining the historical context of early Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Cover of Rien où poser sa tête

 

Rien où poser sa tête

I stumbled across this thanks to the review of the English translation in Asymptote. Its chance rescue from obscurity mirrors, almost too well, Frenkel’s own brushes with death in Vichy France. Out of all my reading in 2018, this one was probably the most relevant to today’s events and politics.

Cover of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Proust and the Squid

I waffled on whether to give Proust and the Squid 5 stars rather than 4, but decided in the end to be generous. While the story of the brain learns how to read isn’t the same urgent issue as Nazis or Christianity, it’s something almost all of us do and whose complexity we should all appreciate.

Cover of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics

While Eisenstein might be more optimistic and naive than warranted, his explanation of economics, credit and inflation is the most cogent I’ve read and he dramatically shifted my attitude towards money and how I save and spend it. That’s what earned this book 5 stars from me, despite Eisenstein’s occasional lapse into conspiracy-adjacent tangents.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.

I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!

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).

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors is another random find from Stadsbiblioteket’s “recommended” shelf in the study room. Except it’s not that random, because I’d read reviews of Black Tudors elsewhere and had actually put it on my “to read” list last year. Why not pick it up when I had the chance, right?

UK edition of Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Image courtesy ONEworld publications

Author: Miranda Kaufmann

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.79 stars

Language scaling: B2, though Kaufmann quotes heavily from original sources that are more like C2

Summary: Through the lens of the reconstructed lives of ten free black men and women in Tudor England, Kaufmann provides an important overview of England’s interactions and trade with with different peoples on the African continent.

Recommended audience: People interested in African studies or English history; British citizens

In-depth thoughts:  Despite the title of the book, much of Black Tudors focuses on the life and history surrounding these people rather than, as the name would suggest, their actual lives. Tragically, this means that in a book called Black Tudors, the most ink is spilled over white people. But the records for common merchants and the peasantry are scanty, as you’d expect; I know that there’s not much for Kaufmann to go on and she does a remarkable job with the little material that’s available. Even if their personal struggles and triumphs and simply daily minutiae are lost to history, the ordinary lives of these people—a salvage diver, a trumpeter at the King’s court, a silk weaver, among others—are a great chance to explore what England’s foreign policy and trade actually looked like during the Tudor period, and what kind of engagement they had with the world beyond Europe.

What Kaufmann does exceptionally well is juggling the many names, dates, and events surrounding, say, a piracy expedition or evolving trade relations so that a reader with no previous knowledge can follow the broad strokes of the events and keep up with the story. The different lives then are a sort of framing device or focus for discussing a wide range of Tudor-era laws and customs, making what would otherwise be a disparate collection of facts and anecdotes easy to track.

Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning

I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.

Surfing With Sartre, Aaron James
Image courtesy Anchor Books

Author: Aaron James

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars

Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)

Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?

Recommended audience: Surfers, philosophers, socialists

In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.

Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)

James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.

That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

With In the Land of Invented Languages, Austin, TX’s premiere feminist sci-fi book club took a lefthand turn into nonfiction for the month of September. Lucky for me! As a language professional, this sort of thing is right up my alley.

Cover of The Land of Invented Languages

Author: Arika Okrent

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.08 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Okrent travels the world and interviews several experts and nerds to shed light on constructed languages.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in popular linguistics; aspiring fantasy or science fiction writers who really want to commit to the bit

In-depth thoughts: I actually read In the Land of Invented Languages over a month ago, and somehow never got around to writing about it until now, which makes writing any useful review rather difficult. All I can say is that I enjoyed it a lot. This isn’t any dense, academic paper; it’s a series of relatively short, surface-level essays on a variety of constructed languages. My favorites included the one about Esperanto (I was inspired enough to actually look up Esperanto groups and Meetups in Stockholm!), Bliss symbols, and of course the background into Klingon; the actual assigned reading for book club was the essay on a woman-centered language entitled (if I recall correctly) “to menstruate joyfully.”

What’s still clear, even now, is that creating a new language—at least one intended to be used in the real world—is an admirable endeavor, based in optimism, idealism, and no small amount of compassion. Every language that failed to take off broke my heart a little, even though the logical conclusion of their success would mean a different line of work for me.  Constructed languages also raise interesting questions of intellectual property and usage. No one can own a natural language, but what about a constructed one? Does it belong to its creator(s) or to the people who speak it?

Okrent is writing for a popular audience, so there isn’t much in terms of specialized vocabulary or ultra-dense academic writing. In the Land of Invented Languages is a fun and breezy ready for language nerds of every mother tongue.

Magiska Amerika Södern

Magiska Amerika Södern was a free choice I allowed myself at the library, despite a pretty heavy bookish agenda. (My book club roster now includes four different groups.)  What would a Swede make of the American South?

Cover of Magiska Amerika Södern by Daniel Svanberg
Image courtesy HOI Publishing

Author: Daniel Svanberg

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.33 stars

Language scaling: N/A (only available in Swedish)

Summary: Daniel Svanberg spends nearly two weeks traveling throughout the American South, singing the praises of Southern cuisine and musical history and asking people why they love America.

Recommended audience: Anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days before the 2016 election

In-depth thoughts: The first thing I realized, when I sat down to write this post, was that I don’t think I ever wrote about Amerikanskt here, which is a tragedy.

And the fact that my first instinct, with this book, is to think about another book pretty much says it all. Svanberg is often self-aware enough to recognize that he is a naive and wide-eyed wanderer (his own language, not mine) but he glosses over those moments in favor of enthusing over roadside diners, sweet tea, and the blues. You can’t blame him for that, of course, but the result is that the book tows a weird line. Svanberg seems like he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not really digging very deeply here, and yet he makes no comment at all on the lack of depth. There is engagement with the more brutal and inhumane parts of America’s history that played out in the South but it feels very pat and surface-level: glib statements about how terrible slavery and Jim Crow was, but no connection to the legacy that remains even today; an enthusiastic nostalgia for Americana and everything the “retro” vibe entails without considering the flip side of that coin.

There are a couple other conceits that run throughout the book: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and  “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.

If I were a Swede reading this, I think I’d be disappointed. The over-reliance on the above cutesy conceits takes up valuable word real estate; the resulting pictures painted are neither broad nor detailed. But I’m not Swedish! I’ve even done my own (shorter) road trip through the region from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and back, up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t need someone to tell me what it’s like; I’ve been there.

Instead, the value I got from it was the little Swedish observations, similar to comments my sambo would make during his visits over Christmas and New Year’s. (“The cars here are HUGE.” “Wow, that’s a lot of churches for such a small town.”) And that’s something you really have to actually be American to appreciate: having someone comment on the Tarantino-esque “little differences” you’d never notice yourself because it’s such an ingrained part of your existence. The cars have always been this size; there have always been three different churches in this tiny little village of only a couple hundred people. Why would it ever be any different?

My favorite that Svanberg points out is the little red flag on American mailboxes you flip up to indicate that there’s mail inside, either to pick up or to be delivered. Of course that’s different between the two countries; I just never would have considered Sweden’s lack of a little red flag on mailboxes something worth remarking on. I can say with 100% certainty that I never felt like it was something missing here. Only when someone else pointed it out did I realize “Oh, I guess maybe that would be something weird and noteworthy if you grew up literally anywhere else.”

Sadly, those moments were few and far between, and more ink was spilled on little metaphorical asides about The Shadow that I feel a little guilty for not enjoying because it seems like Svanberg was really aiming for pathos with them. Most of the time the book felt a little slow and draggy without really digging too deeply, even though the writing itself was pretty peppy and engaging. Other Americans might enjoy an outsider’s perspective on their own country, but at the end of the day, Amerikanskt is the better book.

The Internet of Garbage

One of the best decisions I ever made was to subscribe to LitHub. A recent newsletter tipped me off to the fact that The Verge was making The Internet of Garbage available for free, and minutes later it was on my Kindle app.

Author: Sarah Jeong

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.16 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A brief history of contemporary Internet hate and death threat campaigns, as well as suggestions to mitigate them.

Recommended audience: Anyone who uses the Internet but doesn’t know what “doxxing” means

In-depth thoughts: Much of what Jeong reports on here isn’t new to me, but then again I’m a digital native with one eye constantly on the Internet hellscape. Many people aren’t, though, and so when cases of online harassment boil over to the point where traditional media outlets begin reporting on them, there is inevitably something lost in the explanation. The Internet of Garbage is an excellent 101 primer on the subject. And therein is my only criticism: it doesn’t go beyond the 101 level. But since the reason The Verge put out a free interim edition of the book is in anticipation of a forthcoming expanded edition; perhaps that new edition will have a bit more meat to it.

But again, it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve kept apprised of Internet hate campaigns from the beginning. For other people, this is exactly what they need. For EFL readers, the language is crisp and direct, with the most potentially confusing terms helpfully defined.