Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What I Read: Burnt Shadows

Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I'll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.



The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it's not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it's easier to smooth the transition between "head hops" when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It's not up there with the dialogue in John Green's Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character's language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there's nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.




*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Friday 5: QotD

Image courtesy Adam Jaime on Unsplash


What kind of drunk are you?

Oh, so many different kinds! Chatty, aggressive, melodramatic. It tends to be, I think, whatever aspect of myself hasn't gotten a lot of air time recently. In vino (momentary) veritas.


What’s one of your language-related pet peeves?

This came up a while back, and I'll just say what I said then:
Editors are supposed to have an endless list of these, right? So the stereotype goes. We are the gatekeepers of language and so on and so forth. And I guess we all do, probably. But if you look at the layperson’s language pet peeves (“they’re/there/their”! “your/you’re”!) and the editor’s pet peeves, the overlap would probably be quite small.
My personal ones these days are The New Yorker's bizarre house style guide (coöperation? no thanks) and The New York Times' practice of referring to heads of state with honorific titles instead of, simply, their names.

What would be a good question to ask people you’ve just met, if what you really want to know is what they’re passionate about? You know, an alternative to “What do you do?” or “How do you know so-and-so?”

I like to ask people to name a movie they think is overrated and a movie they think is underrated. The reasoning in their answers is often revealing, and sometimes you get a good recommendation out of the question to boot!


When you get home super tired and super hungry, do you usually eat first or sleep first?

Food always comes first. Food above all else. All hail food.

You’re taking an exam. You aren’t sure about the answer to question 5, but you know it’s either “lions” or “tigers.” You get to question 11 and realize whatever the answer to 5 is, 11 is the other answer. Do you write “lions” as your answer to 5 and 11, thereby ensuring you’ll get one of them right? Or do you write “lions” for 5 and “tigers” for 11, risking two wrong answers but giving you a chance at two right ones?

Oh, this game theory realness! Before I did anything else I would reflect on the question, maybe work on other parts of the exam for a little bit, take a moment to let my wander off the topic entirely. But if I did all of that and I still didn't know, and didn't have even an inclination either way, I think I'd go for "lions" for both.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Movie Monday Instead of Music Monday: Aniara

One of the books I read in my Modernist Swedish Literature course a million years ago was Aniara. Since we were still babies in the Swedish language, everything we read was an English translation. To this day I don't know how The Swedish Program at Stockholm University managed to find enough copies—actual proper hardback copies, not dodgy spiral-bound printouts—of the English translation for all of us. These days the only English version available anywhere seems to be an ugly paperback edition that fetches a whopping $225 on Amazon.


I wish this would go back into print so my anglophone sci-fi fan friends could afford to read it.


I'll be the first to admit that I didn't quite appreciate reading Aniara at the time. I love sci fi but I'm extremely unconvinced by poetry, so the whole thing left me tepid. Now that I'm older, I appreciate not only the weirdness of the project (an epic poem about a pioneer ship lost in space!) but the metaphorical aspect of the whole piece in the face of the threat of nuclear winter and environmental annihilation.

I only learned that there was an Aniara movie after I saw a poster for it at ABF after my writing Meetup. My timing was excellent: Bio Rio only has two showings and both of them are in February. There's one more screening on 15 February, for those of you in Stockholm who are free at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday. I'm not, so I had to grab last-minute tickets to the evening showing this past Saturday. I also, at the very last minute, tracked down a copy of the Swedish original from the library so I could go into the movie with a refreshed memory.

Aniara the movie is a graceful companion to Aniara the epic poem, if not least to provide visuals that help anchor the story (as much as there is one). Specifically, the movie illustrates the sheer vastness of everything far better than words maybe ever could. Martinson gives some details—a ship with 8,000 people on board, 15,580 feet long and 2,923 feet wide—but it's hard to really appreciate, on the emotional and intuitive level, what those numbers really mean. The establishing shots of huge milling crowds in a huge, outsized version of a Viking Line cruise ship, however, suddenly makes it crystal clear.  The poem also does very little to specify the actual specifics of the ship, aside from the fact that it has crystal-clear windows and walls over must of it. Thanks to a steady childhood diet of mid-century science fiction movies, I always imagined the interior of Aniara as a very minimalist, brushed chrome sort of space ship; the option to represent the ship as an opulent, futuristic echo of today's booze cruises was an inspired one and provided a nice visual irony in the later years of the ship's voyage.

References and quotations from the poem fit into the movie quite elegantly, whether in events and plot points or pieces of dialogue. The screenwriters opted to ground things in the particular story arc of the Mimarob—the employee who operates the Mima, which in the movie is the equivalent of the holodeck from Star Trek but in the poem is more like a fancy movie theater. The change works well; the vague nameless "we" in many of the poems is enough to track when you read, but in a movie it helps to have at least one central character we can follow throughout. The choice of the Mimarob for such a protagonist also makes sense; on the rare occasion a singular "I" turns up in the poem, it's usually the Mimarob.

I didn't finish re-reading Aniara entirely beforehand, so I can't say whether some of the grimmer plot points were also alluded to in the poem or if they were added for dramatic purposes. But it doesn't seem worth harping on grimness when we're talking about an adaption of an epic poem where everyone ends up lost in space forever.

Like 2001 and Arrival, the film version of Aniara succeeds in complementing the original text it's based on, so that instead of competing to tell the singular best version of an idea, both versions become one cohesive whole. Watch the movie and, if you can, read the book.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Friday 5: Salt Fat Acid Heat



What are some very salty foods you enjoy?

Oh man, I try not to think about how much salt is in my favorite Korean ramen because it's...probably not great. But I get points for getting two or three meals out of the broth instead of just one, right?

What areas of your life could stand a little fat-trimming?

It's that time of the year again! Right around the new year, I go through the people I follow on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and decide who's not working out for me.

How acid-tongued are you?

When I interact with people? Not at all. When you get me drunk and talking about Jane Austen or Harry Potter? Whew boy.

What’s an interesting way you’ve burned yourself?

If I've ever burned myself, it's been in the usual, pedestrian ways.

What are your favorite everyday cooking implements?

My kettle is absolutely essential! (See above, re: ramen.) The microwave is also very, very important. When someone in this apartment actually cooks, the mandoline slicer and the garlic press get a lot of use.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What I Read: The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I'm cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.



My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right -- it was a bigger hit than the other books I'd brought in -- but my point here isn't how I'm awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven't grown out of this book.

I didn't remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you're a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters' mother apologize to another adult for being "bitchy." We don't have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children's literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn't as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you're reading in 2019.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Friday 5 on Sunday: Then You Begin to Make it Better Better Better Better Better Better Yeah



What’s something you hated as a teen but love today?

I've made peace with getting up (relatively) early in the mornings, running, and even the pop music of my youth.

What’s something you recently dreaded that turned out not too bad?

I actually haven't been dreading anything recently, so hard to say.

How do you feel about February as it compares to January?

There's more snow and more sunlight, so I'd say it's an improvement.

Who among people you know is really making the world a better place?

One of the founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club works with allocating funding to victims of violent crime and I'm super proud of him.

In what way is today better than yesterday?

Every day these days is a little lighter and a little closer to spring, so I'll take it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What I Read: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach

The Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club kicked off the year with Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. I had trucked through the weirdness that was Amatka and was hoping to start the new year off with something a little more straightforward, or at least more comprehensible.



Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach did not disappoint in that respect. 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. Things go wrong. (Of course, reading it in English instead of Swedish, like I did with Amatka, might have also made it clearer.)

Overall, 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!