Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

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.

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!

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.

Ancillary Justice

Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.

Image courtesy Orbit

Author: Ann Leckie

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.

Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”

In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)

While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.

 

2023: A Trilogy

I’m planning on doing a buddy read of Ulysses this year, and much as I love and patronize libraries, some books are impossible to read unless you own them and have access to them at your leisure. (How many times did I try reading a library copy of The Second Sex, for example?) I spent the afternoon in town browsing The English Bookshop, and while I ended up having to special order Ulysses from their Uppsala store, the chance to browse the random selection led to me finding books I wouldn’t have otherwise. 2023: A Trilogy was one of them.

Cover of "2023: A Trilogy" by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu

Authors: The Justified Ancients of Mumu, aka The Kopyright Liberation Front, aka Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.67

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A “found footage” type of story. At the most basic level, the story is a satirical sci fi dystopia/utopia where five corporations benevolently rule the world and a programmer named Winnie Smith might just have solved the problem of immortality.

Recommended audience: Anyone who thought the original Illuminatus! trilogy was too much of a slog, leftover KLF fans, anyone who enjoys meta and self-referential texts, pop music nerds, anyone nostalgic for the 80s and 90s

In-depth thoughts: A boy I had a crush on in high school thought the Illuminatus! trilogy was one of the best books ever written and so I devoted a summer to trying to read it. I made it halfway through and never finished, but it was enough that even years later I can recognize the countercultural significance of things like 23, 17, and fnords.

This is important because Drummond and Cauty have packed 2023 full of Illuminatus!  references (mixed in with the literary and pop music references). If I hadn’t been able to call back to those particular references, I might well have been too lost to appreciate the book.

It’s a fun read if you’re either in the know or thirsty for meta, slightly experimental satirical science fiction. Whether or not this would be a good read for English students depends on how familiar they are with the cultural references in question, and how willing they are to track different narrative levels. The language itself isn’t too difficult, but the allusions and the metanarratives might be too frustrating for some readers.

Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

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 Power

I first heard of The Power thanks to the half-dozen book bloggers I follow. A while ago, I started using GoodReads’ “to-read” function as a storehouse for all of the books I heard about that sounded really cool but that I would otherwise forget after a couple days. Then the universe aligned: I received a free copy of The Power from a New Year’s book club exchange buddy, and then my feminist science fiction club decided on it for February’s book.

The UK edition of "The Power" by Naomi Alderman, featuring a geometric Art Deco design in black red, and white.

Author: Naomi Alderman

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.93

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: One day, women around the world develop the power to produce electricity out of nowhere. Everything changes.

Content warning: There are some gruesome scenes of violence and sexual assault throughout.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans

In-depth thoughts: The Power posits that if you gave women the ability to produce electricity out of nowhere thereby making them all walking weapons, within less than a decade you’ll see an entire global culture shift. That’s really the point that the book turns on, and how much you enjoy the book is probably based on how much you buy into Alderman’s thesis. Less central to the story is that it’s pure power (hah, hah) that drives sexual objectification and sexual entitlement. Still, if you disagree with Alderman’s implied stance on this, there will be moments of characterization that fall flat for you.

Speaking of characterization, this is another book with an ensemble cast, a total of five major perspective characters (plus asides here and there). I’m not entirely convinced that all of those characters were entirely necessary to the story. And while Alderman included a graceful nod to the complexities of biological sex with how inconsistently the physiological source of the power manifests (i.e. some men have semi-developed skeins, and some women don’t have skeins as developed as other women), the absence of any trans characters or an examination of what this development would mean for them is notable.

Despite these issues, The Power is a quick and snappy read with a lot to say about women, sex, and power (hah, hah) in society. Grounded as it is in real life (as opposed to distant post-apocalyptic futures or even more distant space-faring ones with dozens of new alien races and languages), The Power is a solid choice for EFL students who are also sci-fi fans.

Book Review: The Sky is Yours

We should all know better than to judge a book by its cover, but when I saw The Sky is Yours in my NetGalley menu, with the neon dragons in the ouroboros pattern against a brick wall backdrop, I was instantly intrigued. The premise only further cemented my interest, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy.

The cover of The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

Author: Chandler Klang Smith

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.53

Language scaling: C2

Summary: A estranged betrothed couple and a feral girl try to make sense of their lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, which ends up having city-wide ramifications.

Content warning: It’s a borderline anarchic apocalypse so there’s low-key brutal violence throughout that doesn’t happen entirely off page, plus some sex scenes here and there.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans, 19th century novel of manners fans

In-depth thoughts: Sometimes I read a book and even if it’s not entirely my cup of tea, I stand in awe of the craftsmanship. So it is with The Sky is Yours. Smith’s world building is par excellence and the way she incorporates elements of our present and past is seamless and, of course, entirely plausible. Small things like: one character happens to find a book of poetry by her father and notes in the copyright page that it was “print on demand.” Her immediate thought is that he must have been a writer of incredible renown, to have his book so constantly in demand. Or another character suffering “affluenza” that needs the occasional administrations of an inhaler.

What kept me from rating it any higher is how much of it there is. Smith includes a lot of asides and multiple perspectives, which results in a complex and gritty world that feels very real, even though there are a pair of dragons flying around and laying waste to New York City. The multiple voices are handled deftly, so that you can always tell which character with you’re with. It’s an altogether big project and Smith pulls it off well. Nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other hand, much of it doesn’t serve the plot in any significant way. I don’t think plot should be the be-all, end-all of novels, but there’s a fine line between complexity and getting lost in yourself. There are bits and asides here and there that mostly seem to be written for the sake of a gag or two, and whether the payoff is worth it will always be a subjective issue. Not all of the characters Smith chooses to develop in their own chapters are interesting enough to warrant the attention, either. (Spoiler alert: some of them end up dead pretty quickly, so there’s not much point in getting to know them.)

Serious students of writing will be interested in the pineapple-on-pizza quality of genre mash-up at work here: post-apocalyptic dystopia plus classic novel of manners sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does—and well, at that. Sci fi fans and 19th century literature fans might well enjoy it, to the extent they feel The Sky is Yours draws on their respective genres. EFL readers might want to approach with caution: there is a combination of faux-archaic English, portmanteaus, in-jokes, and puns that forms the bedrock of the book, so I would only recommend it for fairly advanced speakers.