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.

The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road: A Comparative Reading

I purchased The Scenarists of Europe and 1 the Road concurrently, though this was unintentional on my part. Or rather, the only intention was: “Ah yes, there are several books I’ve been meaning to buy for some time now, let’s pick them up all at once.” A third book in this same frenzy of book-buying, A City of Han, might even claim a tenuous thematic connection to the other two, but that’s only if you’re really reaching. It’s still a book I want to talk about, but more on A City of Han in another post.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I were given the infinite resources (time, money, mental stamina, ability to decipher subtext) to pursue a graduate or postgraduate degree, or heck, even just pick up another bachelor’s. I have a couple topics picked out for English literature, and one of them would be travel writing. I love it on a surface level—living vicariously through the writer in other times and places, opening yourself up to novel (hah, hah) experiences from the comfort of your couch. But as an immigrant, and as someone who’s worked abroad, I also live for the self-conscious reflection that comes with navigating cultural differences, Othering, and living between two worlds.  I don’t think that was really on my mind when I bought these books, and yet it’s a shared characteristic.

Straight up, I didn’t entirely enjoy either of them. I am, frankly, too much of an illiterate peon to fully grasp what Judge was up to in Scenarists, and novelty only carries AI-generated text so far. But something linked them in my mind, and the books began feeding off of each other.

They are both novels deeply about place. 1 the Road is literally a travelogue. The movement in Scenarists is much more oblique, and perhaps more psychological than physical, but the focus is nonetheless on locations and environments (though these environments seem to be external manifestations of interior conditions). So much so, in fact, that I would have had a hard time placing the book in its proper historical context if I didn’t have access to the back-of-the-book summary, and that I still will refrain from using the “historical fiction” tag. What if the undeniably striking Imagist* prose of Scenarists had been pressed through the banal cheesecloth of times, dates, cities, local businesses that constitute the bulk of 1 the Road?

The introduction to 1 the Road highlights the typewriter, and then later the word processor, as tools that didn’t replace writing or render it obsolete but simply helped writers do more writing by removing a lot of awful tedium. The implication is that perhaps an AI** can do the same thing. What if an AI could help you work through your writer’s block, or generate a plot to play around with? Of course, at that point we’re discussing higher-level procedures than simply collecting random input and spitting it back out in more or less semantically intelligible English. That’s where things like perspective, themes, characterization, and description come into play.

Maybe the AI writing tool of the future won’t be one that generates anything for you. Maybe instead it’ll train itself on more books than you could read in a lifetime—all the books you meant to read but never did, all the ones that people and crit partners keep comparing your work to—and highlight the differences, whether it’s as granular as sentence length or as “big picture” pacing or as abstract as characterization.

Certainly AI isn’t going to replace writers, or human writing, at least not human creative writing. (After all, the AP is already using computer-generated writing for sports coverage, among other topics.) But I feel like if you gave a writer like Judge the building blocks generated by something like the AI at work in 1 the Road it would be interesting. The banal input of date and time might have been all it took to ground Judge’s surreal writing and turn the book into something my tiny brain could more readily grasp. Judge’s deft hand at visceral and discomfiting images would have had a field day riffing on some of the weird stuff a computer trained on Beat writers spits out.

Sometimes you read a book because you like it, and sometimes you read a book because it’s good for you—the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road, together, constitute an experience that I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time, but that months after the fact I’m glad that I had.

*Bro I know Imagism is term usually reserved for poetry but I don’t care.

**Bro I know “AI” is a vague term that doesn’t really capture what this was and also invites popular imaginations (HAL 9000, Skynet, the Matrix) that are far from the actual truth of things (machine learning, neural networks, training sets, etc.) but I don’t care.

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.