Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday 5: Know When to Fold 'Em

Four aces on a background of black playing card backs with a Wild West motif


What did you last place into a file folder?

Physically? Some hard copies of comments and revisions I got back from a critique group member. I have an accordion file folder for this project (I've been working on it since 2014) and each slot is feedback from a different reader. I should probably go through and clean it out. Some comments are about revisions I've since made, others are on sections that have since been discarded. It's not really worth it to keep that much of a record around.


What do you know how to fold a piece of paper into?

Not much. A paper airplane? And I could probably make a cootie catcher, still.


What’s your laundry-folding procedure like?

I don't fold laundry.


When do you next expect to invite someone into your fold?

Making friends in Sweden is hard. Maybe I haven't met the right Swedes, just, but all of the new friends I've made (if the word "friend" can even be applied) have been other immigrants and expats. I think this moment is coming soon, though; I have quite a few acquaintances on the periphery that I'm ready to befriend.


When have you slept on a foldaway bed?

Probably not since high school. One of my friends had a fold-out couch in her rec room and if I slept over, it was on that bed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What I Read: The Spider King's Daughter

The June selection for my Facebook book club was The Spider King's Daughter, the debut novel by Chibundo Onuzo. I went in hoping that it would pull me out of the book slump brought on by RadianceHow I Became A North Korean, Gena/Finn, and the middle grade books I previewed for some of my students. The Facebook book club has the best hit/miss ratio out of all three that I'm in, after all.



Onuzo is an engaging writer and I hope she continues down that path. (Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, came out last year. Hurrah!) This was engaging at a time when nothing else I was reading could capture my interest and Onuzo deserves a lot of praise just for that.

My favorite parts of the book all involve spoilers. I will say this: what starts as a meet cute adolescent love story takes on an unexpectedly darker tone. Or maybe I should have been expecting that, considering that the book opens with Abike telling us about how her father had her beloved dog deliberately run over.

Most of the reveals were more or less obvious, but the book doesn't rely on the shock of those reveals for impact. I think, even, Onuzo expects readers to already know the truth from the very beginning. It's how the characters react to these reveals that's engaging and unexpected.

The book switches between Abike and Runner G's perspectives, with Abike's in italics. Reading extended passages in italics is straining, at best, but Onuzo's prose (and the short paragraphs) make it much easier than in other books (James Agee's posthumous A Death in the Family, for example). At the book's climax, when we switch between Abike's and Runner G's perspectives rapidly—at every line, for a short while—this typesetting choice proves very necessary.

The Spider King's Daughter was engaging, it was readable, it was a diverting and fun read. I didn't love it, but I'm glad I read it. It certainly was a bad book combo breaker, and for that I'm grateful.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday 5: Vive Le Difference

Fried chicken in paper boxes.
Image courtesy Brian Chan at Unsplash


What’s a food that tastes completely unlike anything else you can think of?

This one is taking a lot of thought. I mean, lots of things have a relatively distinct taste, right? Even if everything also tastes like chicken.

I imagine surströmming is singular in its taste. (I say that having never tried it. I don't dig on fish.) I also have a hard time with the artificial sweetener Splenda: it leaves a distinctly coppery aftertaste that ruins anything it touches.

What’s a movie that’s completely unlike any movie you can think of?

Russian Ark  is a weird but surprisingly enjoyable artsy look at the history of the St. Petersburg Hermitage that's all one long 90-ish minute shot.

Who’s a musician or band you consider completely unoriginal but whom you still like?

I think it's a given that most popular top 40 bands and artists cleave to the lowest common denominator instead of doing anything groundbreaking, but most of the music on my phone is popular top 40 bops (and obscure international indie bands) because it's good workout music.

Who or what are two people or things you keep mixing up with one another?

To this day I still confuse Silent Hill and Resident Evil (the video games, not the movies). No doubt there are countless celebrities that I mix up as well, because I'm not good at keeping track of famous names and faces.

What’s something you’ll do this weekend that’s different from your normal weekend activity?

Not much, really. I might do a little more enthusiastic cleaning than I would normally. The apartment isn't in an awful state yet, but an ounce of prevention and all of that.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What I Read: Radiance

This was a selection for Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I picked it up on a whim from SF Bokhandeln when I was out during Kulturnatt because I'm weak (and because it was constantly checked out of the library).

This gif is turning up in a lot of my reviews recently.
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? (Did I only read that in January? Jesus, it feels like ages ago. The political climate really is aging us in dog years.) There is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but it all works to move the story forward. Could everything in the documentation have been written as narrative? Yes, probably, but the documentation is actually a pretty efficient way to set up the later events of the story. Conversely: every single scrap in there contributes something to the story.

I'll be real: I think I skipped about half of Radiance and yet that did not affect my understanding of what actually happened. Life is too short to keep reading books you don't enjoy; I find skimming to be an acceptable compromise when you want to know what happens but don't want to sift through a bunch of nonsense. I quickly sorted out the bits of Radiance 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 skimming.

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. Most tedious of all were the screenplays. Take, for example, the first extract from the "White Pages" section of the book (that is, very early on); the following quotes are taken from what's given as the "action" portion of any given screenplay. 

Open on the pristine streets of sunny Moscow, lined with popsicle-carts, jugglers, dazzled tourists. The streetlamps are garlanded with lime-blossoms, sunflowers, carnations. The joyful throng crowds in fierce and thick; the camera follows as they burst into Red Square. The splendid ice-cream towers of the Kremlin beam down benignly. The elderly TSAR NICHOLAS II, his still-lovely wife, and their five children, hale in their glittering sashes, wave down at the cannoneers standing at attention on the firing pad at the 1944 Worlds' Fair. The launch site is festooned with crepe and swinging summer lanterns, framed by banners wishing luck and safe travel in English, Russian, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Arabic.
So far so good, right? But then it continues.

SEVERIN UNCK and her CREW wave jerkily as confetti sticks to their sleek skullcaps and glistening breathing apparatuses. Her smile is immaculate, practiced, the smile of the honest young woman of the hopeful future. Her copper-finned helmet gleams at her feet. SEVERIN wears feminine clothing with visible discomfort and only for this shot, which she intends, in the final edit, to be ironic and wry: She is performing herself, not performing herself in order to tell a story about something else entirely. The curl of her lip betrays, to anyone who knows her, her utter disdain of the bizarre, flare-skirted, swimming-cum-trapeze-artist costume that so titillates the crowd. The wind flutters the black silk around her hips. She tucks a mahogany case—which surely must contain George, her favorite camera—smartly under one arm. All of her crewmen strap canisters of film, a few steamer trunks of food, oxygen tanks, and other minor accouterments to their broad backs. The real meat of the expedition, supplies and matériel meticulously planned, acquired, logged, and collected, was loaded into the cargo bays overnight. What Severin and her crew carry, they carry for the camera, for the film being shot of this film being shot.
It's hard to imagine 90% of this being included in any actual screenplay. Take, for example, The Matrix:


INT.  CHASE HOTEL - NIGHT 
The hotel was abandoned after a fire licked its way across
the polyester carpeting, destroying several rooms as it
spooled soot up the walls and ceiling, leaving patterns of
permanent shadow. 
We FOLLOW four armed POLICE OFFICERS using flashlights as
they creep down the blackened hall and ready themselves on
either side of Room 303. 
The biggest of them violently kicks in the door --
The other cops pour in behind him, guns thrust before
them. 
BIG COP
Police!  Freeze! 
The room is almost devoid of furniture.  There is a fold-
up table and chair with a phone, a modem, and a Powerbook
computer.  The only light in the room is the glow of the
computer. 
Sitting there, her hands still on the keyboard, is
TRINITY; a woman in black leather. 
BIG COP
Hands behind your head!  Now!  Do
it! 
She slowly puts her hands behind her head... 
The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a
bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know
they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs
and Trinity moves -- 
It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly
fast. 
The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose
explodes, blood erupting.  Her leg kicks with the force of
a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty
pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop
farthest from her. 
Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the WALLS, flashlights
sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a
leather-clad ghost. 
A GUN still in the cop's hand is snatched, twisted and
FIRED.  There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and
when it's over, Trinity is the only one standing. 
A flashlight rocks slowly to a stop.


Is Valente deliberately writing something narrative-like in the guise of a screenplay as a means to play with form? Or does she think she's writing a good screenplay? It's impossible to tell! On the one hand, Valente should know the difference, if her biography is any indication; she says straight up in the acknowledgments that her father was a filmmaker. Yet as the book continues, it's clear that Valente really only has one writing mode, or is choosing only one mode for this story, and that is overwrought. 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). So many people write breathlessly about Valente's amazing prose in reviews that I can't tell if I don't know what's good anymore, or if people are just confusing wordiness and faux-profundity with good writing. Maybe both?

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.

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

Friday, May 4, 2018

Friday 5: Aloon Again, Naturally

With which Looney Tunes character do you have the most in common?

I didn't care much for Looney Tunes as a kid. The physical humor that's inherent in the genre has never been my cup of tea. I'll cheat and say Shirley the Loon from Tiny Toons.

Who or what are your metaphorical Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?

I don't think I have a Wile E. Coyote (I hope not!). But we all have a Road Runner, don't we? Mine is a totally stress-free vacation. One day...

What’s up, doc?

That's all, folks!

When did you last hear some opera music?

I listen to a lot of classical music while I edit and translate. That doesn't usually include opera, since I find vocals distracting, but the Fidelio overture came up in my playlist yesterday.



What’s a good life lesson you learned from Looney Tunes?

You can't always get what you want, and often when you do, it's not as good as you hoped it would be.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What I Read: How I Became a North Korean



I've been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It's an "automatic read" category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years. That made it all the more frustrating when it turned out to be another dud!



The book summary promises a "found family" sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn't really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don't interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you're writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I'm not—I really only know "just enough to be dangerous," as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee's writing style is fluid, so it's a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.

Monday, April 30, 2018

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 19.5: Boston, MA to Stockholm

I say "19.5" because with a flight out of the country in the evening, this wasn't exactly a whole day in Boston. I spent a smidge over 24 hours in town, so should that count as two days?

I woke up a little before Diana's alarm and futzed around a bit on my phone. She showered and got ready for work, and I got dressed in my lazy bum traveling clothes and we were off.

My morning wasn't too eventful. I dumped my travel bag at the station, and then spent the rest of the time I had until burritos with Diana and Walter writing in Boston Common and then wandering through the botanical gardens.

The Massachusetts state legislature on a sunny day.
Much State. Very Legislature. Wow. So Government.



A plaque commemorating the dedication of the Boston Common, gold text on a black background set in a white marble facade.
I appreciate the bird photobombing but not dude in the fannypack.



A zebra on a carousel

A fountain in Boston Common on a sunny day.

It was SO. HOT. that day and I very much wanted to jump in any and every body of water I saw. Fountains, duck pond, the little kid wading pool...all of them.

All of this was right after Nazi demonstrations and protests and tiki torches and all of that good stuff. (I picked a helluva time to be back in the US!) It was a topic of discussion when we were at dinner in Old Orchard Beach. Seth (Walter's boyfriend) was amazed that Nazis would even dare to turn up and show their faces in Boston, of all places—the city is so progressive and liberal and etc.

I shook my head. "Nah man, what I've heard from non-white friends of mine who live there...it's a different experience."

There were leftovers of protests and rumbles on the Common.

"RACISM WILL NOT WIN" in pink and white chalk on black asphalt.
The text spraypainted on the ground reads "Racism will not win." We can only hope. =/

Close up of a monument to The Pilgrims in Boston Commons, with graffiti: "$ IS POWER X FREEDOM I$ RESISTANCE"
And on this monument to I guess the Pilgrims? "$ IS POWER XFREEDOM I$ RESISTANCE." I don't know if I hold entirely with that logic, protest artist. The first half, yes. But I don't know it's connected to resisting or freedom. Maybe "resistance is freedom"? Otherwise you're maybe putting the cart before the horse.

A Civil Mar memorial to white officers and black rank and file.
Civil War memorial to "white officers" and "black rank and file." It feels like a lukewarm attempt at Black History TM by throwing them in with the white officers but on the other hand if they fought together, shouldn't they be memorialized together?

I finished my writing and my photo-taking and wandered in the direction of the public gardens, because I guess that's what I do on vacations now?

A sign for the Boston Public Garden, founded 1837. City of Boston Department of Parks and Recreation. Martin J. Walsh, mayor.

Purple and pink roses in the Boston Public Gardens on a sunny day.

Overheard in Boston:

"The flowers are dyin' 'cause they don't water 'em."
"They do water 'em, every day."
"Why are they dyin', then?"
"'Cause of the sun."

Purple hyacinths and other flowers in the Boston Public Garden on a sunny day.

A pond in the Boston Public Gardens on a sunny day, lined with weeping willows. A duck boat tour is turning around a small island in the middle of the pond, and a goose and some ducks are swimming in the lower left corner in the shade of a willow tree.

More overheard in Boston:

"MOM! A duck bit my thumb!"

There were a couple buskers out in the park. An elderly Asian man playing what I think was an erhu, and then a hip young white dude with a tenor sax: "Careless Whispers," "What A Wonderful World," etc.

A tree with an interesting pattern in its bark on a sunny day.

I wandered over to the burrito place to meet and Walter. It was a take-out place for nearby young professionals, and since I was eating with young professionals, that meant there was no place to really sit or any time to really talk.

We said our goodbyes and I walked around the city a bit, despite it being SO. HOT., because I figured if I'm going to say that I visited Boston, I should have at least seen some of it? The other times I've been in Boston, I've been sequestered away indoors at anime conventions so I wanted to say that I had actually been in Boston. Or whatever.

Psychadelic-style street art on a utility box: guitar outlines with different stained glass-like images against a backdrop of abstract color swatches.

A light gray cupid and sun stenciled on white concrete. The cupid has the planetary symbol for Venus painted in black on its wing, and another alchemical symbol painted on its groin.

I was due to meet another friend, Amy, at a marketplace in the afternoon, though I turned up quite a bit early so I could browse around a bit and enjoy the air conditioning. I bought some yarn for one of my knitter friends back home, and picked up a business card from American Stonecraft. I love rocks, and I love New England, and this is exactly the kind of thing that my mother-in-law loves, so I'll probably buy something online for her birthday or Christmas present. (Probably a coaster or two.)

Pots of sunflowers at an indoor farmer's market.
Once in a green time a flower
Oh, fell in love with the sun.
The passion lasted for an hour
And then she wilted from her loved one.


A cash register with a sign on the tip jar that reads 'SCUSE ME WHILE I TIP THIS GUY and features an image of Jimi Hendrix shredding.
I appreciated the tip jar humor but was fresh out of any cash at all by this point. Nor did I feel like buying some nuts, even as the guy behind the counter was really friendly and offered me some free samples. Womp womp.

Amy did the very smart thing and brought GAMES because two people with low-key (and sometimes not so low-key) social anxiety need all the help interacting they can get! Or at least I do, even if meeting Internet friends is always less fraught than I expect it because it's not like I don't know them at all or anything. Although I was still a bit of a traveling mess—piecey hair, clothes chosen for comfort rather than fashion, indescribably sweaty—so props to and everyone else that day for spending time with my unattractive self!

After we got chocolate and chatted a bit and I saw some Andy pictures I hadn't before (ATTACK OF THE FIFTY-FOOT TODDLER!), we played a couple rounds of Hanabi, which I sucked at but enjoyed nonetheless and have since added to our small roster of games (Munchkin, Dixit, Magic: The Gathering).

After that it was off to the station to pick up my bag, which I had to pay some extra for by all of ten? fifteen? minutes. Ugh. Nonetheless, it was worth the convenience. I had a hell of a time finding the bus to Logan, and then the check-in line for Norwegian was FOREVER LONG. It wasn't as stressful as it would be if it were my flight going in—I had no pressing plans back in Sweden that would suffer if I got bumped back a few hours or even a day—but it still made me anxious. The family behind me, on the other hand, realized they had the wrong passports, and it was a rush of phonecalls and sending out teenage son to meet dad and etc. to fix it. So someone was having an even more stressful wait than I was!

We boarded on time, though, and everything went smoothly. My layover in Copenhagen was slightly shorter this time around, so I didn't try to do any more exploring. I just hung out at one of the terminals, charging my phone and letting my boyfriend know that I would be at Arlanda in a couple of hours.