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.

Amatka

Amatka was the last selection of 2018 for the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I read the Swedish original; the others theoretically read the English translation, but this year is such a busy time for everyone that I might have been the only one to read it.

Swedish cover of Karin Tidbeck's Amatka
Image courtesy Mix Förlag

Author: Karin Tidbeck

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.82 stars

Language scaling: N/A, read in Swedish

Summary: Vanja, a government worker, is sent to the distant colony of Amatka for a new project. Things are not what they seem, and language starts distorting reality in unsettling ways.

Recommended audience: Dystopia fans

In-depth thoughts: The first thing I did after I finished Amatka was to text my friend and fellow book club member in Austin: “Amatka was weird…thought I didn’t get some parts because Swedish, but nope. It’s weird. I’d love to rep Swedish baked goods and sci fi, but….not missing much maybe with this one.”

And that about sums it up for me. Tidbeck signals towards a very ominous past but never really clarifies it. I spent the majority of the book taking this to be a “real world” dystopia (based on real Earth and real history and set in this universe, more or less), but the ending makes it very clear we’re in an entirely different universe with very different rules, which then seems to defeat the purpose of it being a dystopia. In the end you’re left with a handful of powerful scenes (a librarian being ordered to destroy everything but the “useful” books; parents longing for affection from their communally raised children who clearly don’t seem to pay them much mind) that have no real skeleton connecting them, no unifying purpose.

Gena/Finn: Book Review

Generally positive reviews of Gena/Finn were making the rounds through some of my favorite book bloggers and BookTubers (still not sure what the capital letters rule is for that one…), so I added it to my TBR and included it in my suggestions for my Discord book club. It ended up being our selection for August and like with My Real Children I decided to get ahead of the agenda.

The cover of "Gena/Finn" by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Author: Hannah Moskowitz, Kat Helgeson

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.37

Language scaling: B1+*

Summary: Gena and Finn are two fans of the same cop drama show, and become close friends offline.

Recommended audience: People who have made friends on the Internet thanks to fan culture

In-depth thoughts: I had really personal reasons for being interested in this book and for recommending it for my Discord book club. Most of my friends in high school were of the Internet variety, out of a group of fans of a particular TV show. Even though I was never really active in “fandom” as such (I don’t write or read fanfiction, I don’t hoard fanart, I’m not really interested in making the things I like the be-all, end-all of my identity), the way those friendships formed online were really important to how I grew up and where I ended up in life. I don’t think there are many books that really tackle the importance (and also weirdness) of online friendships; the last time I’d read about that sort of thing was in Pattern Recognition of all things, and that was just a brief aside in what was otherwise a cyberpunk thriller.

I was expecting a story that chronicled the kind of awkward budding friendships I was cultivating in front of the computer screen in high school, and what I got was something else. Those were the bits Moskowitz and Helgeson skipped right over in favor of the kind of melodrama that could happen between any two friends, regardless of where or how they met, but with a sprinkling of unrealistic lefthand turn plot points for good measure (former child actors! shoehorned romance! tragic deaths!).

And the nail in the coffin for me was reading the book summary after I had read the book.

Gena (short for Genevieve) and Finn (short for Stephanie) have little in common. Book-smart Gena is preparing to leave her posh boarding school for college; down-to-earth Finn is a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in the big city.

If I need the book description to tell me that Gena and Finn have nothing in common, and that one is “book-smart” while the other is “down-to-earth,” then you’ve failed in your writing. In the book they come across as quite samey, except that one of them has a history of mental health issues.

I wouldn’t recommend this for ELL readers except maybe ones who are already knee deep in fandom anyway (hence the asterisk in the language scaling). It seems the book I want to read about Internet friendships has yet to be written.

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I’m no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don’t have to wait for a respective book’s month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it’s not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Cover of "My Real Children" by  Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Patrician Cowan is living out the end of her life in a care facility for dementia patients. Unlike most dementia patients, however, she also remembers two lives. Which one is the truth? Which children are her real children?

Content warning: Some scenes of emotional abuse; a couple of uncomfortable, coercive sex scenes

Recommended audience: Alternative history fans, actual history buffs, people who are anxious over the life choices they’ve made, readers looking for LGBTQ+ historical commentary

In-depth thoughts: My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it’s not just Patricia’s life that’s different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that’s never entirely resolved: did Patricia’s choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia’s choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that’s because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There’s no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia’s memory, or why she’s drifting between two timelines (it’s most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing); it’s simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

Whether or not you want to consider it “proper” science fiction, My Real Children is a great option for ESL students: no weird alien races, no futuristic technological terms, no fantastical elements to try and keep straight. It’s simply two alternate histories that readers may already be familiar with, side by side.

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.

Book Review: Stone Butch Blues

It’s the end of January and I still haven’t finished reviewing all the books I read in 2017! There’s just one more after this, and then I’m back on the level (at least, as of this writing; by the time this goes up I may have finished another couple of books).

I’m in a few book clubs and lots of the books I read last year, especially towards the end, were book club selections. One of them is a bunch of random nerds on Discord and the theme is vaguely YA and SFF; another is the Austin Feminist Science Fiction club; the last one is a Facebook book club co-founded by one of my blogger friends. This one has no particular genre or focus, and so we tackle a pretty wide variety of books. Past selections that I’ve mentioned here include Madonna in a Fur CoatThe Road to Mecca, and Passing.

A cover of "Stone Butch Blues" by Leslie Feinberg, featuring a black and white portrait of Feinberg with their left hand on the side of their face, looking thoughtful.

Author: Leslie Feinberg

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Jess Goldberg, a young butch lesbian growing up in the McCarthy-era US, navigates gender, sexuality, and the labor struggles from the 60s up until the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Content warning: I’ll quote from the book’s introduction directly.

Dear reader:

I want to let you know that Stone Butch Blues is an anti-oppression/s novel. As a result, it contains scenes of rape and other violence. None of this violence is gratuitous or salacious.

Leslie

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in the history of the labor movement in the US; anyone interested in the history of racial justice in the US; anyone who needs a “GLBTQ+ 101” reader

In-depth thoughts: This book was a heavy read, but somehow compelling. Even through the worst of what Jess experienced I felt pulled along; I needed to read more. Would she be okay? Would her friends, lovers, coworkers be okay? How would everything turn out? As we get to know Jess and her strength and determination, we also meet a wide variety of characters who move in and out of her life, from sympathetic union leaders to hostile coworkers to mentors and lovers and co-conspirators.

Centered as it is on the American gay and lesbian and black communities and the labor movement in the 60s and onward, the language includes slurs and slang that might not come up in EFL classrooms (or then again, they just might). Either way, Feinberg’s style is otherwise crisp and direct, so context should make things fairly clear. At the same time, to say that the book is centered only on social justice issues is unfair. Really, the book is centered on Jess. If it’s an activist novel, it’s also in at least equal measure a character-driven bildungsroman with the beating heart of a human being desperate for love, family, and contact.

If you’re interested, Feinberg made Stone Butch Blues available for free online. You can download a PDF from hir website at the previous link, or order a hard copy from Lulu.com.

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s time for another book from the Austin-based feminist science fiction book club!

Image courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

Author: Becky Chambers

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating:  4.18 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A young woman trying to escape her past joins the ragtag crew of The Wayfarer, a ship that creates artificial wormholes for interstellar travel.

Recommended audience: Fans of FireflySerenity, Babylon 5, and/or Farscape.

In-depth thoughts: I was incredibly frustrated with this book because it had a lot of great ideas about alien linguistics and cultures that were hampered down by a writing style that I would describe as “aggressively twee.”

From an editorial perspective, there is a lot of redundancy through showing and telling (rather than showing, not telling). That kind of writing is a symptom of two things. Either 1) you don’t have enough faith in your own writing and story-telling ability to get the point across “between the lines” or 2) you don’t have enough faith in your reader’s ability to infer. Maybe even both.

If you were to go through my previous reviews, you’ll see that I’ve mentioned (more than once!) that a particular book went over my head in parts, or completely, which impacted my ability to enjoy it. The other side of the spectrum isn’t good either, and the balance is different for different people. For my taste, this leans far too heavily on “let’s explain everything.”

From an EFL perspective, however, this might be a perk rather than a drawback. Repetition ensures that the reader has lots of chances to put pieces together, especially in a science fiction novel. A genre that necessarily creates new words, sometimes even new languages, can sometimes be hard to read and understand in a language that you’re not entirely fluent in.

Review: Freshwater

Continuing in my streak of NetGalley books taking precedence over books I read earlier in the year, I really want to talk about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater while it’s still, erm, fresh in my mind.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.41 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.

Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction

In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.

I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.

The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.

As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.

Review: Karen Memory

I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you’re reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!

Cover of Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory."
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Elizabeth Bear

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: C2

Plot summary: In a nutshell, Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper set in the Pacific Northwest, with international espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans

In-depth thoughts: The back of the book features the same summary I just shared above, more or less, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of “Johnny Mnemonic.” Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.

Elizabeth Bear’s writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that’s just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I’ve read by Bear and I’ll have to find more in the future. But there were a few things that tripped me up, which is why I didn’t give it a higher rating. (I suppose it’s nitpicking to expect the correct dates on radium watch dial painting in a novel that is very clearly a fantastical alternate universe, but it’s my job to be a nitpicker, so I’ll let it bother me.)

A more salient point for EFL readers is that while Bear’s writing and Karen’s voice are distinctive and stylistic, they may be too stylistic for many EFL readers. Karen’s voice employs non-standard grammar and slightly antiquated vocabulary that I can see as being confusing or off-putting (hence such a high language grading). But if you’re a very committed steampunk fan, it’s well worth the effort it might take to adjust to the language.

Book Review: Kris

It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.

This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.

 

Author: Karin Boye

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: N/A

Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.

Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.

In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)

Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.