11 Sep

Icelandic Update, or Is It Really an Update If I Haven’t Told You Before Now?

Here’s the thing: I decided to start learning Icelandic in January of this year. I had every intention of writing about the process. As even a cursory glance at this blog reveals, I have not done so.

Somehow, I’ve been chipping away at a basic understanding of Icelandic for months, but it seems like it’s only started to coalesce in my brain in the last month or two. Like I couldn’t have corralled meaningful thoughts about it until maybe last week. What’s up with that? Brains, I guess.

Icelandic is the first language that I’ve learned totally on my own. I’m not in school and I have no plans to learn it in school. I’m also not in Iceland—I’m in Sacramento, which is probably the opposite of Iceland. I mean, it was 108 degrees yesterday. You know, in September. Enough preamble, here’s what’s up with Icelandic.

How I Am Learning

There is a surprising amount of free material available for Icelandic. I think there are a few groups working to spread the language and generate interest so Icelandic doesn’t die off. It’s not in danger, but there are only about 330,000 people in Iceland, and from what I understand, most of them also speak English.

I started out with the Colloquial Icelandic textbook. I even paid for the audio CDs that accompany it. This book is well scaffolded and had good explanations of the grammar. Each chapter has two or three long dialogues, which are the main material for the lesson. They’re not really that long, but somehow, these seem incredibly long to me. The hardest part of working with this book is taking the time to carefully go over each dialogue. I struggle with starting tasks. Once I start, I don’t want to stop for the next three hours, but knowing that I have a long dialogue to parse makes it hard to start working. I’m only on chapter 5 of this book. I got a little frustrated with it a few months ago, but I’m slowly getting reacquainted with it.

What I’ve really had success with the Icelandic Online course. This is a free online course from the University of Iceland. There are 5 levels, each divided into 6 chapters. The chapters are further segmented into 5 lessons, and each lesson has 3 section. I really like this course because it’s in small pieces. I can usually get through a section in the evenings after work, if I don’t waste too much time on the internet. I also like that it’s interactive. It has activities and a way to check if you get the answers right. The hard part about this course is that immersive—there’s no English. Luckily, Icelandic Online also has an online dictionary. I look up a lot of words, but for the most part, I am learning a lot.

The work part of learning involves a steno notepad and a flashcard app. I write down the words I find and some grammar notes in my notebook. Then, I use the Anki app to drill it into my brain. This is the first time I’ve incorporated as many pictures as possible into my flashcards. It makes things more interesting and I think I’ve been learning the words faster.

An image of the front and back of a flashcard for the word 'girl'.

One of my flashcards.

Why Icelandic Is Great

I knew Icelandic was going to be challenging and fun (because I find this kind of thing fun). I did not know enough about it when I started to know why it’s great. The thing I most like about Icelandic right now is that it is full of words made from smashing other words together. For example, remember that big-ass volcanic eruption a few years ago? The volcano is called Eyjafjalljökull. If you break this apart, it’s actually three words stacked together. Jökull means ‘glacier’, fjall means ‘mountain’, and eyja means ‘island’. This is literally the island-mountain-glacier volcano (the word for volcano, by the way, is eldgos, or fire + eruption).

Now that I’ve got enough words in my head as a foundation (about 1,000 words, if you’re wondering), I’m starting to notice how words combine. Some don’t really seem noteworthy from an English-speaking perspective, like hjólastígur (hjóla is ‘bike’ and stígur is path, so: bike path). But it still feels good to figure out a word based on its components. I’ve also started thinking about the components of words that might not seem to split apart (again, from an English perspective), like borgarbúi, ‘citizen’. Borg means ‘city’ and búi is ‘to live’. So, citizen is kind of like city-dweller.

Pulling words apart doesn’t always have the desired effect, however. I learned the word rafmagn (electricity). I looked up ‘raf’ and found that it means ‘amber’. I don’t think this has anything to do with electricity. It would be like saying that the ‘win’ in ‘window’ is semantically meaningful.

Why Icelandic Is Hard

Icelandic has four cases, which I guess isn’t that many, but they can be complicated. The declension of each word depends on its grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and whether it is singular or plural. Icelandic is particularly weird, because case isn’t necessarily derived from the role a word plays in a sentence. Case is dictated by a noun’s preceding verb or preposition. Some verbs are accusative, for example, so the object of the verb takes the accusative case. This is new for me. It’s tricky, but interesting.

Other Thoughts

It’s very cool to be learning a language in an age when we have the Internet. I can get multi-media instruction for free, have native speakers critique my writing, compile a playlist of music in Icelandic, and find tons of Icelandic text online.

I’m definitely more committed than I was a few months ago (I mean, I knew I was going to do it, but now I feel like I’m actually doing it). My current plan is to finish the first-level Icelandic Online course, and then take their “Plus” course for the second-level class. That costs around $300, but you get a tutor and more practice, which sounds pretty worth it to me. The long-term goal is to be able to read books and news in Icelandic, and to be able to use the language like a badass when I eventually travel to Iceland.

I am also going to write about what I’m doing more often. This post was long because it was long overdue. The next one will be more focused.

08 Jun

Things I’ve Been Meaning to Blog About: Roller Derby

I have been meaning to blog about roller derby for about two months now. Or maybe three months. In any case, this is the blog post about roller derby.

Yesterday, I tried out for roller derby with the Sac City Rollers. The try out is a first step; if I did well, then I can join the “bird” class, which is rigorous training for players looking to join an SCR team in the future. When I started rec league (a somewhat casual, basic skills derby course) eight weeks ago, I knew I would try out at the end, but I didn’t know that I might have a realistic chance of making it.

On my first day of rec league, I strapped on all the derby gear I had just purchased. I was terrified of getting up off the bench and joining the women warming up on the track. I had gone skating at a local roller rink once a few weeks before. The results were not inspiring. After Coach Skella (short for Skellawhore, of course) encouraged everyone to get out and warm up, I gingerly scooched my way out onto the track. I moved my skates, trying to emulate the videos I’d watched on YouTube before class. Most of the other skaters were confidently gliding around the track like they had been born with silver skates on their feet. I have never wanted to give up so much in my life as I did in the first 15 minutes of rec league.

Fortunately, the rec league class is designed for people like me, who have the skating abilities of a 95-year-old woman. The first day we learned how to fall and how to stop. I drifted about on my skates while we listened to the instructions, lacking the dexterity to stay in one place, but I did learn how to fall with grace. As nervous as I was, I felt so much better after the first class. Knowing how to fall meant that even if I had no idea what was happening, I could stop and hit the floor without dying.

In each of our weekly classes after that, I only felt more confident. The first few weeks were rocky, but after every class I knew I had improved a lot. After I finished getting my skates adjusted in week three or four (including putting in some insoles so wearing skates didn’t hurt and loosening my trucks), I was definitely ready to take on the skills we covered in the rest of the class, like jumping, hitting, and skating as a pack.

Trying to summarize eight weeks of roller derby practice is difficult. The classes were all two-hour sessions, in the heat of a warehouse that SCR rents here in Sacramento. There’s no air conditioning and the floor is coated in a grimy film. Despite the temperature and the dust, everyone is working their asses off to be a badass and you can feel that everyone wants everyone else to succeed. Everyone is chill. There’s no room for dicks in roller derby.

The individual drills like learning how to crossover or transition or skate backwards were alright, but the most fun parts of rec league came from group activities. We spent one night almost exclusively learning to be in close contact with each other. We skated circles around a partner and then formed a line hands-to-hips and made the person in the back push. We raced. I hauled more ass than I knew was possible.

The last—and best—night of rec league we had our first scrimmage. Each rec league skater was paired with an experienced skater. My partner, Moaning Lisa or Mo for short, was friendly and awesome. She skated up to me during our warmup, asked my name (“Stone,” she immediately nicknamed me), and then we raced around to gather up the rest of our team. Playing a full scrimmage, even with a skilled partner, was incredibly taxing. I have a long way to go in building the endurance to play properly. The scrimmage also made me realize that, even though I have improved a ton, I still have lots to learn. I spent a significant amount of the scrimmage wondering what the hell I should do to make someone stop hitting me.

Amid all this rec leaguing and scrimmaging, I have been getting more involved in the league. I started going to watch their bouts (the derby name for ‘games’ or ‘matches’) at the beginning of the year, but for the last few months, I have also volunteered. I help set up chairs, move people through the will-call line, and sell raffle tickets. I’ve even started introducing myself by my derby name, Rosetta Stone. It feels strange but cool.

So, back to try outs. I’m still awaiting the results. I feel like I did well—I did my best in any case. I’m dying to hear. I hope I made it so I can go on to get my ass kicked twice a week as a bird.

18 Jan

Testing the Waters of Modern Icelandic Literature

Book review: The Whispering Muse by Sjón

The Whispering Muse - Cover

The Whispering Muse – Cover

Because I started learning Icelandic this year, I decided it would be a good time to check out some Icelandic literature in translation. Most people are familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but there is a lot of modern literature coming out of Iceland too. I realized I could be reading Icelandic literature in a roundabout way. I had been reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The book mentions Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author who received the Nobel Prize for literature. I know, this isn’t a review about Laxness, as you’re undoubtedly thinking. Well, I did get a Laxness novel from the library but I read The Whispering Muse first because it is much shorter and I practice library triage. So, here we go.

The Whispering Muse takes the form of a memoir of an older Icelandic gentleman named Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson fills his time with running a journal about the connection between fish and culture–specifically that fish is the secret to Nordic superiority. Haraldsson’s memoir details the events aboard the merchant ship MS Elizabeth Jung-Olsen, where Haraldsson stays as a ‘supernumary’ thanks to the largess of Norwegian shipping magnate Magnus Jung-Olsen. The story takes place in the late 1940s.

Each night while onboard the ship, Haraldsson dines at the captain’s table with several of the crew and the paramour of one of the crew members. Haraldsson becomes increasingly horrified each night because fish, nor seafood of any kind, does not appear on the dinner menu. Several days in, Haraldsson takes it upon himself to go fishing (the ship spends most of the story docked at a paper mill in a Norwegian fjord). His catch is made into several meals, to Haraldsson’s delight and to everyone else’s skepticism.

After the evening’s repast, the second mate, Caeneus, recounts a part of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. To tell the story, Caeneus holds a woodchip up to his ear. Caeneus receives the tale from the woodchip and relays it to the group.

Haraldsson assumes that the business with the woodchip is some sort of conceit, but everyone else takes it seriously. Caeneus later reveals that the chip is a piece of the Argo itself, which is why it can tell him the story.

I’m not sure The Whispering Muse was really the right entree into Icelandic literature. I don’t really feel like I “got” the book, but I’m going to give it my best interpretation anyway because it’s just the internet, not a peer-reviewed literary journal.

The Whispering Muse is apparently a satirical take on a milquetoast Icelander who, preoccupied with the inherent superiority of his own people, cannot recognize true excellence when he sees it. Caeneus’ tales of the Argonauts feature excitement and heroics. In contrast, when Haraldsson has the opportunity to speak, he presents a rambling lecture on his fish and culture thesis. It is not well-received.

At the end of the story, Haraldsson, confronted by someone truly superior, only f lees. An epilogue explains that he loosened up on his view about fish and Nordic supremacy after his stint on the Elizabeth Jung-Olsen. I also suspect it is intentional that Haraldsson is dwelling on Nordic superiority so shortly after World War II. The Germans adopted the Nordic myths and used them as part of their claim for racial superiority. It would be a little awkward to walk around talking about how great the Nordic people are so soon after the same myths were unfortunately used (in part) to justify atrocity.

It was interesting to read a novel translated from Icelandic because it offered some different word use than what we normally get in English literature. I have to thank both the author and translator for this one, since literature in translation is so influenced by the translator. This translation had some gems, like the phrase higgledy-piggledy. You have to wonder how that appears in Icelandic (This just in: Google Translate says it’s the same in both languages. What a buzzkill).

What to read next:

  • I think I have to recommend Halldór Laxness as a next read. Independent People seems to be his most famous work, but there are certainly quite a few options.
  • I guess I’m cheating a bit for both of these recommendations, but I’m going to recommend The Bone Clocks as well. I just finished it about a week ago. It was definitely worth reading. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that is so close to reality that you forget you’re reading something that is arguably magical realism.
08 Jan

2015: The Year Ahead

This post is a little bit late becuase it took me a while to figure out just what I wanted to say about the upcoming year. I feel like I accomplised a lot in 2014. I didn’t exactly accomplish all of my goals for last year, but I definitely did more than in years past. So, for 2015, my main goal is this:

Keep going.

I’ve been going to the gym 3+ times a week. I want to keep doing that. I’ve been walking a lot and I want to keep doing that too. Last year we went on a few camping trips and did some other outside things, which was fun. I started a new job that is actually someting I want to do. And, of course, I read 90 books, which is pretty great, especially since my goal was to read 52.

Other than “keep going,” I’m planning to read a lot again this year. I don’t know if I’ll hit 90 books again, but knowing that I can read that much is encouraging. I think I will probably read a lot.

I have decided to learn Icelandic this year. This I have already started. In the last week, I’ve studied the phonemes of Icelandic and started learning a few words and phrases.

I’m quite excited about Icelandic becuase this is the first new language I have started since graduating college. I considered doubling down on languages I already know something about, but I wanted a new challenge and I want something to look forward to–like visiting Iceland! So, Icelandic it is. I expect I’ll blog about the langauge learning process throughout the year.

This year I am also hoping to give roller derby a try. My local team, the Sac City Rollers does a newbie class. Once they start up again, I intend to participate. Soon I’ll be an Icelandic-speaking roller derby chic. Here’s to 2015.

31 Dec

2014: The Year in Books

Long story short: I read 90 books this year! I’m quite pleased because that is nearly double last year’s 46 books.

I made a more detailed list this year, noting whether books were from the library or not, digital or analog, or written by a man or a woman. Here are some statistics about my 2014 reading habits:

  • Page count: approximately 35,177 pages. I used the page count from each book’s LibraryThing page.
  • Library use: 55 of this year’s books I borrowed from the library. The other 35 are books I bought.
  • Female and male authors: I read 30 books by female authors and 59 by male authors. I read more than one book from some authors. In total, I read work by 26 female authors and 34 male authors.
  • Digital and analog: I read 39 books analog (also known as “dead tree”) books and 51 digital books.
  • Fiction and Non-Fiction: I read 23 non-fiction and 67 fiction books
  • Series: I tend to read a lot of series (the lot of a genre reader). I finished Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Vinge’s Zones of Thought. I read through all extant Dresden Files (that’s 14 books plus a volume of short stories), Leckie’s Imperial Radch as it stands so far, Butler’s Xenogenesis, the Jemisin’s Inheritance Triology, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Grossmans’ The Magicians.
  • Favorites: I think my favorite books this year were Ancillary Justice, Station Eleven, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, and The Girl in the Road. That said, I read a lot of really great novels this year. I think there are a lot of interesting, fresh stories coming from women in science fiction and fantasy right now, in particular.

Books read by month:

A bar graph displaying how many books I read per month in 2014

Here’s the full list of what I read in 2014:

  1.  Schooled: How the System Breaks Teachers by Dalton Jackson
  2.  The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkien
  3.  Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
  4.  MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
  5.  Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
  6.  A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  7.  From Asgard to Valhalla by Heather O’Donoghue
  8.  Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  9.  Makers by Cory Doctorow
  10.  Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
  11.  The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  12.  A People’s History of the United States: From 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn
  13.  The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  14.  Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
  15.  Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar
  16.  The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
  17.  Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler
  18.  Loki by Mik Vasich
  19.  Notes from the Internet Apocalypse: A Novel by Wayne Gladstone
  20.  In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon
  21.  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
  22.  The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff
  23.  The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente
  24.  Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley
  25.  Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
  26.  The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
  27.  Lexicon by Max Berry
  28.  City of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  29.  The Pilgrims by Will Elliott
  30.  Death Masks by Jim Butcher
  31.  Parasite by Mira Grant
  32.  Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  33.  Writing Effective Policies and Procedures: A Step-by-Step Resource for Clear Communication by Nancy J. Campbell
  34.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  35.  A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
  36.  Lockstep by Karl Schroeder
  37.  Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
  38.  Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
  39.  Jennifer Government by Max Berry
  40.  No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
  41.  Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
  42.  Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler
  43.  White Night by Jim Butcher
  44.  Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold
  45.  When We Wake by Karen Healey
  46.  The Waking Engine by David Edison
  47.  Small Favor by Jim Butcher
  48.  Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
  49.  Changes by Jim Butcher
  50.  Side Jobs by Jim Butcher
  51.  Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
  52.  Cold Days by Jim Butcher
  53.  The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich ENgels
  54.  The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  55.  The Girl in the Road by Monica Bryne
  56.  Skin Game by Jim Butcher
  57.  Supercapitalism by Robery Reich
  58.  Lock In by John Scalzi
  59.  The Bone Flower Throne by T. L. Morganfield
  60.  Dawn by Octavia Butler
  61.  Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler
  62.  Imago by Octavia Butler
  63.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  64.  The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  65.  The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin
  66.  The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
  67.  Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  68.  Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force by Radley Balko
  69.  The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  70.  Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
  71.  The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
  72.  The Queen of the Dark Things  by C. Robert Cargill
  73.  The Last Colony by John Scalzi
  74.  Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi
  75.  Vicious by V. E. Schwab
  76.  Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky
  77.  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  78.  When Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange
  79.  The Human Division by John Scalzi
  80.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  81.  God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  82.  The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  83.  The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
  84.  Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
  85.  Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
  86.  Revolution by Russel Brand
  87.  I, Q by John De Lancie and Peter David
  88.  The World Split Open (multiple authors)
  89.  WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding
  90.  This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

 

16 Dec

North Korea Is Not for the Faint of Heart

book cover: Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us

I saw Suki Kim on The Daily Show a few nights ago. Although I barely registered the content of her interview, I heard enough to decide her book would probably be interesting. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite is a memoir detailing the six months Kim spent teaching English in a covertly Christian university in Pyongyang. Luckily for me, the library had a digital copy of the book available, so I was able to pick it up immediately.

Without You, There Is No Us has a nice narrative flow (Kim notes at the end that she did rearrange the order of some events for the sake of storytelling). Despite the fact that there is no real climax, I was captivated by Kim’s description of life in North Korea and finished the book in about two days. The short version: North Korea sounds like it really sucks.

The first time Kim visits North Korea is as a journalist. She goes on a press trip when an orchestra from the United States visits North Korea. Although the trip was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and culture by most of the press, Kim disagreed. She became more interested in North Korea and eventually applied to work at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

PUST is a school with a strange mission: brining Christianity to North Korea. As you might expect, Christianity is outlawed in North Korea. The only religion is the state-sponsored Juche ideology, which is not so much a religion as the North Korean regime’s all-consuming cult of personality. Kim accepts a summer position at this Christian school that cannot teach any form of Christianity (as daring as they get is trying to show students the Chronicles of Narnia movie—such a strong Christian message!). To do so, she has to pretend not only to be Christian, but also to be a teacher. After the summer term, she ends up staying on for the fall, despite her reservations.

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Kim contextualizes the narrative by discussing her Korean heritage, discussing her own experience and that of her parents during the Korean War. Kim is from South Korea; her family immigrated to the United States when she was 13. She explains to readers that all South Korean families, or clans, if you will, have a home turf in Korea and a history—usually a history that explains how their family practically saved Korea. This is called bon-gwan. While the Korean War drove many South Korean families from their bon-gwan, many were still able to maintain a sense of kinship and managed to rebuild afterwards. But for North Koreans, Kim eventually realizes, the regime has completely obliterated the kinship system. North Koreans move where they are told to move, work where they are told to work. They no longer have ancestral ties to the land or strong family networks. She realizes that this is not only a division between two Koreas, but another method of control.

Just as Kim contrasts Koreas North and South, she contrasts her isolation with the relentless communal spirit surrounding her. Kim is essentially isolated and the reader can see how hard it wears on her, especially by the end of her stay. She has to work to represent herself as someone else to her colleagues and she has to appear to go along with North Korean rules. Her conversations and correspondence are monitored, so she draws deeper into herself. By the end of her second teaching term, Kim seems extremely depressed.

On the other hand, Kim’s students are a study in cohesion. In North Korea, it seems that no one goes anywhere alone. Her classes stick together, and are buddied up within the class groups. No one is ever alone. But, to Kim, their camaraderie reads as at least a little false. After the students class groups are reshuffled for the fall semester, everyone is suddenly best friends with their new classmates, the old apparently forgotten. As Kim puts it, “It was odd that I should have felt so in need of a human connection in this communal space.”

Perhaps “camaraderie” really is the right word for her students’ friendliness. Her class groups have a class monitor—and the Korean word they use for the monitor translates to “platoon leader.” The students march in formation, sing militaristic songs, and take shifts standing guard over their local shrine to their Glorious Leader. Everything the students do has a militaristic cast.

Of course the weirdest aspect of the book (and best, by voyeuristic standards) was reading about the weird gaps and limitations in North Korean education. Kim’s students were those of Pyongyang’s elite and attended what was, ostensibly, a school for studying science and technology. Yet, none had heard of the internet. The students ask Kim remarkably naïve questions like whether everyone in the world spoke Korean. Kim recounts, “[The student] had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in England, China, and America.” The students were also strangely fixated on North Korea being the best at everything. As Kim says, “They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ was strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used to frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.”

One of the things that occurred to me as I read this book was that here in the United States we do tend to use North Korea as the butt of a lot of jokes (look no further than The Colbert Report, or anywhere on the internet), but in reality, the people there are suffering. North Korea is a dictatorship that is a non-stop human rights catastrophe. It sounds insane, but to be candid, this is real shit.

kimjongun-cake

There is a lot more I could say about Without You There Is No Us because there are a lot of issues that Kim struggles with, especially in regards to her students. She constantly tries to push the boundaries of getting them to think without breaking the rules. I also appreciated her take on some of her Christian colleagues and their opinions on their “mission” in North Korea, but I think I will leave those ideas for someone else to review.

Without You There Is No Us is definitely worth reading for a glimpse into the lives of people in North Korea.

What to read next:

  • The Interpreter is Suki Kim’s novel. I can’t say I know a lot about it, but I liked Kim’s memoir and am interested in reading more of her work.
  • After this, of course, I wanted to read some more about Korean history and why there is such a divide between North and South Korea. One that looks good is The Korean War: An International History by Wada Haruki.
  • Unrelated to anything Korea, my last recommendation is God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I just finished it and I really liked it. It’s a future space planet with two cultures inhabiting Islam-inspired spaces. It has great characters and an interesting world.
09 Oct

Brotherhood and Modern Philosophy: The Great Glass Sea

Book Review: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

As I read this book, I was sure I would not write a review about it. The Great Glass Sea is a dense, complex story. It is stuffed with thick, filling imagery and, frankly, it took a long time to read. At first, I thought there would be nothing I could say that would add to the experience of this novel, but I let my thoughts percolate for a few days and I have decided to write.

I was excited to get this book even though I knew nothing about it. I received The Great Glass Sea for my first installment of Powell’s Indiespensible, a subscription service for hand-picked books accompanied by thematically-appropriate goodies (this book came with a water bottle and several sachets of tea, if you are wondering). Since I did not know what to expect, I also found it hard to start this book. The first few pages seemed compelling, but I got a little bogged down in the newness of the concept and the Russian names. However, once I got used to that, I definitely got into the story and the way the story was told.

The Great Glass Sea follows the lives of twin brothers Yaroslav (Yarik) and Dmitry (Dima) Zhuvov—not their entire lives, of course. That would be dull. Rather, Weil zooms in on what separates Yarik and Dima, what pushes their lives onto opposing trajectories.

There are hints of Yarik and Dima’s separation from the beginning of the story, from their childhood, but it was not until I neared the end that I realized that the seeds of their separation were sown so early on.

Most of the story focuses on Yarik and Dima as adults. The boys’ town, located in the north eastern reaches of Russia, the parts that get so little winter sun, is home to a mad engineering project: the Oranzheria (“greenhouse” in Russian). The Consortium is building a gigantic series of mirrors to reflect light into the city. The project invigorates the people of Petroplavilsk. Men work 12-hour days erecting the mirrors, working their way across the Petroplavilsk and the outlying area. Yarik and Dima used to work on the same crew, but that changed after they were found doing nothing all day while on the clock by the Consortium’s CEO. Afterward, the brothers are put on separate shifts. They only see each other on holidays and at the bus stop during the shift change each day.

A map

Where in the world is Petroplavislsk? Waaay out there.

This separation sets off a series of events that propel the brothers Zhuvov into separate orbits. Yarik becomes a “friend” of the CEO and the front man for the Consortium’s advertisements in Petroplavilsk. Because Yarik has a wife and two young children, he sees the importance of moving up and embracing the culture of work. Dima, in contrast, quits work not long after their separation. Dima decides he feels no need to work. He roams the city, falls in with various anti-Oranzheria groups and, for the most part, loses the will do to anything other than save up for a day when he can be together with Yarik.

Each brother shows a side of this modernized, capitalized Russia. This is a Russia dragged out of the Soviet Era, which the people of Petroplavilsk call The Past Life, and into a world infused with American-style capitalism.

What is interesting about how The Great Glass Sea illustrates these concepts—brotherhood, capitalism—is that each brother personifies a choice. What I really like about this is, in my view, that Weil did not make a judgment. Is the capitalism better than The Past Life? Worse? You decide, dear reader. From this portrait, it seems that there are both positive and negative consequences for either decision.

Dima represents The Past Life. He wants to purchase their uncle’s old farm (technically the farm belongs to a socialist collective, but the brothers Zhuvov are among the few who can now purchase it) and live there with Yarik and his family. To Dima, work is pointless if he cannot spend it with his brother. In fact, most of life is pointless without Yarik. Instead of working, Dima saves the money that Yarik gives him to take care of their mother. He sells practically everything not nailed down in the apartment he shares with his elderly, addled mom. Dima searches for meaning out in the world, rather than attempting to find meaning through work. However, the people of Petroplavilsk view Dima as a layabout at best and as a lunatic at worst. His indifference toward temporal needs hastens his mother’s death. His inability to connect with the rest of the world makes him an outcast and further separates him from his brother.

Yarik represents a work-focused, capitalistic viewpoint. He wants to provide a good life for his wife and kids, rejecting Dima’s bucolic vision. Although Dima remembers life with their uncle on the farm as some kind of paradise, Yarik recalls the miseries and the work involved with living off the land. At the Oranzheria, he ascends from laborer to foreman to manager thanks to his relationship with the Consortium’s CEO. While his progress is emblematic of the American Dream (permit me this; there does not seem to be a “Russian Dream”) his rise is actually not a reflection of a functioning meritocracy, but is a way for the Consortium’s CEO to get ahold of the farm that a bunch of old communists refuse to sell—the farm that Dima wants to buy. This relationship also puts Yarik in several ethically questionable and even dangerous situations. But on the upside, Yarik’s family has a computer and a car.

The Great Glass Sea intrigues me because it does not pick sides. Is The Past Life better than the Oranzheria’s present? I find it reassuring to find a work that depicts a dichotomy without taking sides. So very different from the current American trend of giving equal time to “both sides” of an issue, whether or not an issue is too complex to have “sides” like that.

Philosophy aside, there were other compelling elements to this novel. The Great Glass Sea is speculative fiction with the lightest of touches. I am tempted to call it science-fiction, but I am not sure I really can. The Oranzheria is science-fiction-esque in that humans built a contraption to redirect the light of the sun so that a Russian town does not have to endure darkness any longer. Despite that, the Oranzheria is more like a set piece than like something from science fiction. Maybe it is hard to call this science fiction because the people and the world are so starkly real.

I would perhaps like to categorize the book as magical realism, but I think that might be a stretch too. The Great Glass Sea is very real, very present. I would even classify it as literary fiction, but the book, like its characters, takes multiple views. I think that genre fiction fans will enjoy it, as will readers of “literary” or “regular” fiction (what is that even called? This may be a sign that I read too much “genre” fiction. So be it).

The Great Glass Sea brings Russian folklore into the fray as well. Although I love myth and folklore, it turns out I know nothing about Russian folklore. One creature that is mentioned throughout the book is the Chudo-Yudo. There is not even a Wikipedia page about this creature (in English at least). It seems to be some kind of dragon (but possibly a metal band, who knows?). Clearly, I need to read up on it.

The Chudo-Yudo

The Chudo-Yudo, terrifying yet adorable.

Finally, Weil’s prose, once you settle into it, is delicious. His descriptions are long and lovely. This does make the book slower to read, unlike a dialog-dense book that moves along at a brisk pace. It’s worth it though.

Here’s a sample of Weil’s writing style. This is a description of the Oranzheria—also called the zerkala coming into view:

In the last hour of nature’s light, as the planet rolled away from the sun, the zerkala rose off the eastern horizon, their refracted glow red as the sky in the west. People called it vooskho zerkala. Mirror rise. From then to dawn the satellites drifted overhead, a sliding swatch of stars, their mirrors ever angling to cant the sun’s light down on the same circle of earth. And as the first zerkala followed their path over the world’s western edge, the bank of mirrors behind them took up the task, and then the zerkala behind them, and behind them, all through the hours that once were night.

What to read next:

  • Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. Did you know the sequel to Ancillary Justice is out? Go read it!
  • In his acknowledgements page, Weil names a few books that helped him write this one. One is Russian Fairy Tales compiled by Aleksandr Afanasev. It sounds like a good entry to Russian folklore, which I am now interested in reading more about. The chudo-yudo! We must learn more of this strange beast.
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne is another book I read recently. It, too, has a starkness to it, but this novel has stronger science-fiction elements. Highly recommended!
12 Jul

Now with 100% More Civilization

Book Review: Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes is a book that seems to be based on the question “What if Egypt never stopped being great?” In Three Princes,The eastern hemisphere is ruled by a civilized, modern Egypt; the western by a fusion of the Incan and Aztec empires. The novel is apparently set in this alternate universe’s early 19th century. There is a bit of a steampunk vibe accompanying the strange melange of speculative fiction that Wheeler has committed to the page. The story itself is excellent, especially if you like espionage, but what I really appreciated were the books concept and its perspectives on gender issues and religion.

The titular three princes are Lord Scott Oken, Professor-Prince Mikel Marbuke, and Prince Viracocha. Lord Oken, the fourth son of a prominent family in the Britannic Isles, is the story’s protagonist. Although not originally from Egypt, he was educated in Memphis and became a part of the Pharaoh’s spy network. Oken is a memoryman—a person with perfect eidetic memory, trained to recall all—and student of and assistant to Professor-Prince Mabruke. Mabruke trains young spies for the Pharaoh and, as his cover, teaches university courses in aromatics. The Pharaoh calls upon Oken and Mabruke to investigate rumors that the Incas are building a craft to fly them to the moon. In the course of their investigation, they encounter the third prince, the good-natured Prince Viracocha, son of the Incan emperor.

Our princes face the rebellious Black Orchid Society whose mission is to bring down Egypt and replace her reign with that of Queen Victoria, at least one insane Incan prince, and various unnamed European nobility. Without giving too much away, I will say their plan for world domination hinges on a scheme to send the aforementioned moon-bound craft into space to rain explosives down on Memphis. The princes’ journey involves a delightful man-powered flying craft called quetzals (the Nahuatl word for feather), plenty of espionage (Egypt’s preferred way of doing business, talking is much more civilized than fighting, as they say), and lots of beautiful people.

a quetzal

A quetzal bird, yes that’s a real thing

I’m realizing that what really sells me on novels is the concept. I loved the concept of Three Princes and not just because I wanted to be an Egyptologist (but also because of that) when I grew up. Wheeler’s alternate universe is a rich one. She does not go into the world’s history or its various details except as the narrative requires it, but I enjoyed thinking through what could have lead to such a world.

Dear reader, if you would indulge me briefly: it seems that Cleopatra and Caesar formed a strong Egyptian-Roman partnership able to withstand time. Lord Oken explains that he is a direct descendant of both Cleopatra and Caesar and that apparently comes with bragging rights in this world. There is also a vast system of roads, presumably inherited from Roman empire-building. With the Egyptians cum Romans running the show, Europe and Saharan Africa were united. This stunted the formation of various European empires like those of Spain and England. This, in turn, either prevented expansion to or discouraged colonialism in the “New World,” allowing the indigenous empires to flourish. The Incan prince Viracocha states that the Aztecs and Incas fused into one mighty empire and he mentions the mysterious “Maya Lands.” In short, Egypt exerts a civilizing force over the entire planet.

I liked how Wheeler dealt with gender issues in Three Princes. The Egyptians, civilized folk that they are, wear kilts or skirts as a regular part of masculine dress. Egyptian men also wear makeup. Not only that, but wearing makeup is an essential part of looking civilized. At one point, the reader is treated to this humorous exchange between two male characters:

“Our makeup must be perfect in the face of disaster.”

“We are Egyptians, sir.”

There is nothing more Egyptian than looking good and turning in out regardless of circumstances.

Wheeler also shows the differences in how women are treated in Egyptian and Inca culture. Although the protagonists are men, there are many female supporting characters. Lord Oken, in particular, is a window into the Egyptian mentality on women. When Oken and Mabruke visit the Inca, they stay in rooms meant for a newly married couple. Mabruke asks Oken which room he would choose for making love to his bride. Oken responds, “Any place my lady pleases. Ever and always.” To which Mabruke comments, “Spoken like a true Egyptian.” They continue their conversation to observe that the women of the Inca seem singularly repressed. “Women as suppressed as these Andean lovelies are surely the weak point of their civilization,” Oken opines.

Later on, one of the Inca degrades his general by calling him a “fool” for taking orders from a woman. In another instance, in reference to childbirth, the Inca prince asks who would take a woman’s word for who the father of a baby is. This shocks the Egyptians who respond, “Who could know better than the woman herself?” The question belies a more progressive attitude than that seen in our society today and I will leave it at that.

The Egyptians see women as humans. Egyptian women attend university, and in fact, Oken and Mabruke accept their mission from the Egyptian queen. Their ability to see women as people is also what wins the day at the end of the story. Their escape from a fairly unhappy situation was made possible by several women whose talents they trusted.

Another cultural aspect I liked was that of religion. In the Egyptian mindset, all faiths are true. When the nefarious Black Orchid Society claims that they have the one true faith, Oken becomes confused, hardly able to understand the allure of a group making such a claim. He muses, “I mean, if all faiths are true, then this Black Orchid thing is true. But if it’s true, then every other is false, which means they’re all false, so this Orchid thing is false. It just doesn’t add up.” For me, as a non-religious person, I feel like it would be a little easier to accept religion if the prevailing cultural norm was “all faiths are true.” Why is one god and more believable than another?

Wheeler also demonstrates how one’s religion can be a civilizing force. When asked what his gods demand of him, Oken replies, “That I learn to be a decent, civilized human being.” Well, gods be praised, sign me up for that religion! A society’s gods say a lot about what the culture values. In the case of Egypt and its Naytures, civilization and being a decent human is foremost. In contrast, the Inca gods demand blood, which is quite specific and not open to interpretation.

Finally, I want to end with two small points that amused me. The concept of a memoryman made me think of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is some difference—mentats were meant to fill the gap created by humanity outlawing thinking machines. Memorymen have perfect recall instead in a world that has never seen computers. The end result is the mostly the same and, for someone like me who values knowing everything, is pretty enviable. The other thing that make me chuckle is that Oken likes to check the “Horus-scopes” for the day’s prognosis. Of course, this is a pun on horoscope. I actually looked up the etymology on this because it seemed a likely derivation, but no, our English word comes down from Greek for “a look at the hours.” I like Horus-scope better though.

In any case, Three Princes is certainly worth reading. I like to pick all the little concepts out of a book. The story is not all about people talking about religion and gender issues, but those are the aspects of a book I like to discuss. The plot advances well and there is plenty of intrique. I recommend it.

Update (from Twitter): Ramona Wheeler approves of this book review. I think that’s pretty cool!

What to read next:

  • Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley is a story about Cleopatra (yes, of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) turning into a vampire as the result of a malicious god and a botched summoning. The premise is kind of silly, but it was an entertaining read.

  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie is my next pick. Did you not read this book after I told you too? Well, here is your reminder. Even though Ancillary Justice is a space opera, what makes me feel these works are kin is that they both situate themselves at the heart of “civilization.” Civilization has fluid gender performance! That is what modern writers are telling us.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This is a sci-fi classic. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It is one of my long-time favorites.

05 Jul

Come at Me, NSA

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

book cover

Book cover: No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide is the culmination of a year’s worth of work with Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents. The author, Glenn Greenwald, is perhaps best known for his articles in The Guardian documenting national security abuses and the NSA’s surveillance programs. No Place to Hide gives context to the whole event and speaks in detail to the NSA’s actions, the problems with mass surveillance, and the complicity of the media in the whole affair.

What the NSA is doing …

The first section of the book reads a bit like a thriller novel. Greenwald receives an anonymous message from someone promising a major scoop, but the source won’t share the information unless Greenwald sets up some complicated email encryption. Although Greenwald was interested, he did not follow up with the source. Later, Laura Poitras, friend to Greenwald and the other journalist involved in the Snowden leaks (by the way, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work on this subject) encourages Greenwald to follow a lead that she has. The lead, of course, turns out to be from Snowden who was also the person trying to convince Greenwald to set up encryption Greenwald almost missed the most important story of the decade.

Both Greenwald and Poitras, along with another reporter from The Guardian (with which Greenwald was affiliated) to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. The set up for the meeting is elaborate—the reporters identify Snowden by looking for a man with a Rubik’s cube and exchange pass phrases. Eventually, they begin interviewing Snowden, barely beat The Washington Post to the story and have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry to avoid discovery.

I did want to hear more about the personal story of Snowden, Greenwald, and everyone else involved just because it seems like the kind of story that does not really happen in the modern world. Yet, it did happen. But No Place to Hide, while garnering the reader’s attention with this exciting tale, then turns to the real issue after this exciting introduction: NSA surveillance.

Greenwald reviews some of the major revelations from Snowden’s meticulously organized material. Snowden explained that one of the reasons he wanted to provide this information to a reporter, rather than dump it onto the internet, was that he wanted someone who could put the information in context and make it meaningful. I know that if I were to scan all the documents Snowden provided, I would not get a lot out of it. Fortunately, Greenwald helps readers understand the ecosystem of NSA surveillance, guiding the reader through some rather complex issues.

As usual, I do not want to summarize in any great detail because the book is available to those who want to read it. The overall theme that I took from Greenwald’s descriptions of the NSA’s programs was that the scope of these programs is much, much larger than the average person realizes. The goal of the NSA is literally to collect everything. That is not hyperbole. Greenwald includes slides from various training presentations in the book and the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude is prevalent. The NSA has multiple programs, plus collaborates with the other “Five Eyes” countries (the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to gather everything about everyone.

Metadata is one of the critical pieces of the NSA’s program. As someone with a degree in library science, I know what metadata is without asking. When we talk about phone records, metadata is information about when you make calls or send texts, who you call, and how long you stay on the phone. Most people dismiss metadata collection as a minor issue. Greenwald points out that, using metadata, an expert can get a strong sense of how you spend your time. An analyst could determine when you normally sleep, what religion you are (do you make a lot of phone calls on Christmas?), your social network, and a lot more. In fact, metadata can be more informative than the content of a call.

the exterior of the NSA headquarters in Maryland

NSA Headquarters

Another startling issue was what tools the NSA uses for surveillance. A lot of people heard about PRISM, the program that uses technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook to collect people’s information. What I found more alarming was what the NSA does with hardware. Greenwald writes, “For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices post a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.” So, so much for quitting specific websites to avoid being spied on.

The reason all this is a problem, Greenwald explains, is that mass surveillance limits our freedoms. People behave differently when they know they are being watched. They self-censor, limiting possible choices because they know they need to behave within a certain range of social norms. This is problematic in fields such as the arts. If authors or film-makers are censored (like during the McCarthy Era Hollywood Blacklist), they don’t make things that they know will not be published or produced. They create works that are within the realm of social acceptability. People become afraid to speak out even if no one is being punished (yet). The fact that they are being observed and that there may be repercussions for deviant behavior is enough to stop people from creating dissident works or otherwise speaking out against the government.

Finally, Greenwald calls out the media, the “fourth estate,” for failing us. The main criticism is that the media has become a comfortable part of the political establishment. Reporters are no longer the outsiders they were in the mid-twentieth century. Greenwald describes the media as courtiers to the throne of American political power, “eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.” He also rails against so-called objectivity, which, for the media, is “nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

and what you can do about it

After reading No Place to Hide, I realized what is really insane about all of this: the scope of it. The fact that the NSA intercepts shipments of hardware like routers, outfits them with their spyware, then sends the shipments on their way. That is insane. Even if you delete your Facebook and stop using Skype, there is no way to get around someone snooping in your internet pipes unless you quit the internet entirely. And who would do that?

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but I think that educating people on the issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is an important starting point. The fact that my boss thinks it is a good idea to say things to me along the lines of “I would rather be safe because of my children!” or the classic “It doesn’t bother me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

a man dressed as Elvis talking to another man

A man impersonating a dangerous terrorist icon

Well, this bothers me because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking the law. I’m not selling drugs or supporting terrorism (domestic or otherwise). The problem with mass surveillance is that whoever is doing the surveilling has the power to decide what is wrong. What if you read about anonymous? Elvis? Are tracking a package? Curious about satellite phones? You need to look at your life and look at your choices, you potential threat to national security! Those are all topics on the NSA’s list of words that flag you as a potential threat.

If you think it’s insane that your email discussions about encryption or the dictionary might be of interest to the NSA, you are not the only one. The site Hello, NSA generates keyword-rich phrases based on the NSA’s wordlist. In 2013, RedditGifts had an anonymous gift exchange called Now Sharing Absurdity – the NSA Gift Exchange, which encouraged participants to theme their gifts around subjects in the NSA word list.

I am glad that there are other people who find the NSA’s behavior ridiculous, but unfortunately, a lot of people with decision-making power are not among them. The secret FISA court has made this type of warrantless spying permissible. Greenwald writes that Snowden hoped that the Obama administration would “change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror … ‘but then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses.’”

Right now the only method that seems like it will be effective in curbing these “abuses of national security” is putting pressure on legislators to make changes and voting for people who are not committed to the status quo. One positive outcome is that the House of Representatives voted in support of an amendment that would “prevent intelligence agencies from using the funds to force software companies to build back doors into their products,” according to an article in The Daily Beast.

I wish I had more ideas for how to do something, but I do not. My biggest advice is to vote. Don’t just vote for anyone, but cast an educated vote. Follow organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in digital space. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of having an unpopular opinion if your opinion is based on the facts. Edward Snowden said that his biggest concern with leaking his trove of NSA documents would be that no one would react and nothing would change. The least we can do is read up on the issue and move forward with our eyes open.

What to read next:

  • I started working my way through the original articles that Greenwald wrote for The Guardian about the Snowden leaks. I did not read many of them as they were coming out; most of my news on the subject came from Democracy Now. I am interested in seeing the progression of the leaks. Also, Greenwald is not done yet, there is at least one more major article set to release soon, as of this writing. Greenwald is now writing on a site called The Intercept.

  • When Greenwald and Laura Poitras met Snowden, they asked why he did what he did. Snowden cited the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell as one of his influences. I found this interesting because I had already checked it out from the library. Campbell wrote prolifically on comparative mythology and the role of myth in our culture. I enjoyed his book The Power of Myth, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

01 Jul

Articles I Wrote at ALA Annual Conference 2014

I attended the 2014 American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas. Becuase I am not content to just sit and listen to everyone, I signed on to work as a stringer for American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association. I wrote articles about the sessions I attended and submitted them to the American Libraries
“The Scoop” blog.

In no particular order, here are the pieces I wrote while at the conference: