This was a book that I bought at a library sale I don’t know how many years ago. After falling in love with Walden in high school, the similar premise of this book (memoirs of living alone in the countryside) intrigued me. Yet somehow I never got around to reading it until I was going through my books to ship across the ocean. Out of all of the books I hadn’t read yet but really wanted to, this was at the top of the list. So I tore through it during my last days in Pennsylvania and up the highways to Albany, then ended up re-homing it to my friend and hostess in Maine.
Author: May Sarton
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.17 stars
Language scaling: B1+
Summary: May Sarton’s account of a year of living in the country
Recommended audience: Those interested in poetry and memoirs generally; those interested in queer writers specifically
In-depth thoughts: I could tell that I had started and stopped this book at least a few times: the first few entries were familiar to me, and I had dog-eared a page or two. Younger Me wanted to like this, or wanted to be the kind of person who liked this, but I guess she needed a few more years to be able to really get into it. Now Me couldn’t put this book down.
There isn’t much that happens, which is what you can expect from something titled Journal of a Solitude. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine, at any rate. There is also a directness and simplicity to her writing that pulls you along, and which is probably especially beneficial for English students. I think it’s exactly the kind of cozy book that makes for perfect winter reading.
I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.
Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor
Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.
Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology
In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.
I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.
What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.
As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?
ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.
I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.
The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!
I am . . .
Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.
Currently . . .
I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.
I love . . .
I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.
I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!
On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.
My favorite . . .
My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.
My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.
My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.
My current read . . .
Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations: Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.
My summer plans . . .
I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.
My buddy . . .
My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:
He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.
And now he’s getting married!
My blog/channel/social media . . .
The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.
The best . . .
The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.
I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book I read a few years ago.Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that’s largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn’t go into much detail about it. I didn’t think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March’s play These Shining Lives.
Author: Kate Moore
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars
Language scaling: B2/C1+
Recommended audience: Readers interested in the early 20th century American labor movement, women’s history, or the history of radium and radioactivity.
Content warning: While it’s only brief parts of the book, Moore does not mince words to describe the effects of radium poisoning on the women in question.
In-depth thoughts: I wavered between 4 and 5 stars for this book. The story is harrowing and written well overall, but at some points all of the information becomes more overwhelming than anything else. Moore also has a tic of spending a lot of time on the physical description of almost everyone involved; as someone who relates strongly to descriptions of aphantasia, it’s not surprising that I would not find detailed descriptions of people’s appearances compelling. Other readers will no doubt appreciate Moore’s dedication to making these stories as real as possible. Finally, the Kindle version had some display and formatting errors, mostly based around the small-caps font used for the newspaper headlines and photos (there weren’t any).
In the end I decided on 5 stars because I think my issues were with the formatting rather than the content, and because I think everyone should read this book.
I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That’s a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It’s one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman’s comp case take a few years. It’s another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you’re dying of cancer.
The radium corporations insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman’s compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn’t poisonous at all.
People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading. It serves as both an inspiration and a warning.
The posts here have been very book-heavy recently. While I don’t feel I should, exactly, apologize for that, I feel like I should at least explain it. I did a surprise burst of reading at the end of last year and have been trying to get on top of it now so that my posts for the rest of the year won’t just be catch-up or weirdly untimely (seems a bit pointless to have a GoodReads round-up post in March). The alternative is to not feature my reading here at all, but 1) I feel that my reading, both for fun and for professionalism, is relevant to what I do and 2) I like talking about books.
In that vein, here is the first book I finished in 2017.
Author: David Foster Wallace
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.85 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Pop culture junkies, word aficionados, recovering pedants, English nerds
In-depth thoughts: I received this book as part of my book club’s end-of-year book swap, which made for a very pleasant surprise in the mail! Anyone who pokes around my GoodReads profile can see right away that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers—a friend recommended him to me as we both (that is: both Wallace and I) were English/philosophy double majors in college, which I guess is a flimsy reason to like an author; presumably this friend also recommended Wallace because of his brilliant writing, which is a much more solid reason to like an author. Somehow, despite my near-obsession, I never got around to buying this posthumous collection for myself (or even learning of its existence).
More Flesh Than Not is probably more appropriate for English lovers than it is for English students. One can be both, of course, but you really need a borderline unhealthy love for the language to enjoy Wallace’s dense, complex, and sometimes highly stylized writing. Professional language regulators (that is to say: editors, teachers, etc.) might find “Twenty-Four Word Notes” of interest, where Wallace lets his inner pedant have full rein. “The Nature of the Fun” offers solace and something like comfort (maybe) to fellow writers. And anyone who loves reading—like maybe chronically, dysfunctionally, really really loves—will surely appreciate Wallace’s ability to get to the heart of a book in his reviews and to give works the serious look they deserve, from short-form reviews (“Mr. Cogito” and “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960”) to in-depth and quite frankly multidisciplinary framings (“The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama”), and anything in between (“Borges On the Couch” and “The Best of the Prose Poem.”)
Finally, this collection uses selections from Wallace’s own word list (assembled while he was working on the Oxford English dictionary) as something like illustrations? section breaks? between each essay. Whether you find that charming or a gimmick depends on taste, I suppose. I fall in the former camp. There’s something very intimate and personal about a glimpse into the words that someone found fascinating, confusing, or anything else necessitating a dictionary consultation. It’s an appropriate touch and I appreciate it.
A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!
On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.
1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman
Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.
2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad
The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.
3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*
The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.
4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*
In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.
5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)
*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.