As is my end-of-year custom, I am looking at whether I met my goals for 2015 and considering goals for 2016. I like to set goals for the year because they seem more tangible to me than resolutions. Plus, New Year’s resolutions are just goals you plan to give up on by Valentine’s Day.
For 2015, my goals were to read a lot, keep going to the gym, learn Icelandic and maybe start roller derby. And that’s pretty much what I did this year. I’ve read 70 books so far this year (I’m going to post my annual book list this week). I went to the gym pretty consistently and tried a few different workout programs. Of course, the most interesting things this year have been Icelandic and derby. It took me a while to find my groove with the Icelandic, but I’m almost done with a low-intermediate course. I have learned quite a lot. As for derby, it’s already taken over my life. I did rec league in April and May, and moved up to the birds in the summer. Today I actually skated my first scrimmage outside of my home league. My team won and I even scored a few points.
Okay, so, what’s up for 2016:
I plan to keep learning Icelandic because I am enjoying it. I’m nearly done with the second of five online courses offered by the University of Iceland. I want to finish the first four courses and get to a level where I can start reading the news by the end of the year.
I’ve also decided to get my Spanish to the next level. I am okay at Spanish, definitely not fluent, but I read news and do alright. I want to push myself for fluency in Spanish. I think the main thing that I need is more exposure to different types of language. I decided to read the Harry Potter series in Spanish and go from there. After I get comfortable reading some middle-grade books, I should be able to get into more interesting novels. After that, it’s not even work.
For both languages, I am going to practice writing more. I made an account on Lang-8, a site where native speakers correct the writing of people learning their language. My goal is to write once per week.
Derby and Fitness
Probably the most important part of 2015 was starting roller derby. I think it’s great and I find it exciting. My goal for this year is to make it onto Sac City’s B team, the Folsom Prison Bruisers. We’re having team tryouts in January. It would be great to move up early in the year, but I hope to at least make it onto the Bruisers by the middle of the year.
In terms of fitness more generally, I want to work on heavy lifting. After I started derby, I stopped lifting as often. Last month, I started the 5×5 Stronglifts program and I think I’m going to stick with that for a while. My goal is to squat my bodyweight (which is currently about 285. I can squat a little over 200).
Reading, Writing, and Everything Else
I am, of course, setting a reading goal again. My minimum goal is 52 books. I would like to get to 100, but it’s hard when I do so many things with my time. In truth, my goal is to read more books than I did in 2015.
This year I am also setting a writing goal. I have been thinking a lot about maybe writing some short stories or a novel, but that is not going to materialize on its own. My goal is to write 500 words/day.
I also want to waste less time on the internet. This has been an unofficial goal for a while, but I’m putting it in writing this time. It’s too easy to idly browse the internet when I could be reading or doing literally anything else.
This is honestly a lot of goals. I think most of it’s possible, but I do have a tendency to try to do everything and stress myself out when I can’t do everything. So, I suppose my last goal for 2016 is to learn when to relax and let things go. We’ll see.
I last wrote about roller derby after bird try-outs. Because I’m the kind of woman who leaves you hanging for four months, I am only now coming back to writing about it. I think aspects of my life that focus on improving incrementally are difficult to write about. There’s no great climax like there is in a movie. In the end, it’s just a lot of practice. That is hard to turn into something interesting.
Anyway, I did make the birds. I have made the most of it, but in retrospect, I think I may have advanced prematurely. The first month or maybe month and a half of bird class was incredibly hard. I almost cried a lot of times (and one time I really did cry). I dropped out of the warmups (and I still do sometimes) because I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore or because my quads/back/calves were burning. Actually, I talked to my coach one night and she leveled with me and said that I probably wasn’t quite ready to move up, but my work ethic convinced the coaches to let me anyway. That damn work ethic, always making trouble.
I think in June I was not truly ready to move up, but I am so glad that I did anyway. After a month or two, I lost my “baby giraffe” skating style (an observation from a fellow skater) and a teammate told me she felt safe skating with me (the implication: I was unsafe until then). By August, I moved beyond being a hazard to myself and others. I am sure I made 100 times more progress by moving up to the birds than doing another round of rec league. And for what it’s worth, I went to a few rec league classes over the last few months too.
The last month or so, I have started feeling more confident about my skating. I’m not a beast yet, but I think I have recognized that I have the potential to be a little fucking beast. The best thing has been discovering what I’m good at: not getting knocked down. Once I stopped skating like a newborn foal, I found that I am very stable. I credit this to the two years of weightlifting I have casually engaged in and to being a larger-than-average human. Now, anytime I find myself sucking spectacularly at something, I try to remember that no bitch on the track can take me out. It’s a small comfort.
The thing is, I do suck at a lot of things. I am starting to suck less at some of them. When I started the bird class, I thought my biggest problem would be speed. It seemed like I couldn’t keep up in any drill and I was always the slowest one out there. I think I am still relatively slow if we’re factoring in endurance, but I am getting a little faster. We recently tested how many laps we could skate in a minute. I managed to roll out 5.5 laps, which is actually a respectable pace. Can I do that for five minutes (or, okay, two minutes)? No, but it’s progress. The first time we did that test in rec league, I think I skated 1.5 laps. That means from April to September, my speed increased by 5 laps/minute. That will probably never happen again!
At this point, I think my biggest issue is actually stopping. I can stop, but not fast enough and not accurately enough. My current nemesis is the tomahawk stop, which rather than trying to explain, I will refer you to this video. Being able to stop and change directions fast is actually more important than just skating fast when you’re playing. Unless, perhaps, you are a jammer, which does not seem to be my calling right now.
Probably the most telling for me in terms of perspective and feeling like I’ve made progress has been skating with newer skaters. Last month the bird class helped out with the rec league scrimmage. And last week, a group of new skaters joined the bird class. I could see the difference between where they are now and where I am now. My stride is more solid, I can skate close to people, block, and stop without drifting halfway around the track.
Bird class is twice per week, but the title of this post also promises “derby life.” Derby has already begun to take over my life. I’m not fighting it though; I figured it would be one of those things that is a life commitment. I’ve been volunteering at bouts, usually with setting up the track. I recently learned how to set up a track without any guidelines on the floor, which is a handy skill. It makes me feel like I could play derby anywhere. I’ve also been helping out at bouts and scrimmages as a non-skating official (NSO), which involves tracking penalties, scorekeeping, etc. Everyone says that NSOing is a good way to learn the rules. I sort of doubted, but it is helping me learn the penalties and what to pay attention to during games. Last weekend, my league hosted a tournament and I spent the whole weekend alternately NSOing and making sure the track didn’t get fucked up. It was a full couple of days.
Another side effect of derby life is that it is making me more committed to being a badass in everyday life. Well, my own definition of badass. I started learning Icelandic earlier this year. It’s possible that I might have naturally become more serious about it over time regardless, but the last few months I have been studying like crazy. It’s fun and interesting to me. Plus, I want to be able to do justice to the name Rosetta Stone. I’m also going to the gym more consistently and eating a little healthier. For example, I always want to get a Slurpee after practice, but I know it’s not actually going to do anything for my body (and that the 7-11 near our practice area is probably unsafe, but, okay), so I don’t.
If you’re still reading this, you may wonder what’s next. Well, as my coach has reminded us, birds isn’t supposed to be forever. My next goal is to move up onto my league’s B-team, the Folsom Prison Bruisers. They just held try-outs for the Bruisers in September, but I didn’t try out because I knew I wasn’t there yet. One of our weekly practices is combined with the teams, so I have a fair idea of what I would be getting into. I still can’t make it through their warm-up. Although, I’m told that most everyone feels like they’re going to die and it’s not just me. A 25-woman paceline is probably enough to make most women want to fall over.
The next try-outs are (I think) in January. I am going to be tomahawking my fat ass off between now and then. I think if I can master that, and keep improving my other skills, I’ll have a respectable chance of moving up.
Hopefully, I’ll stop being ridiculous and write about this at least a little more often. I had been thinking about writing more lately. Yesterday I received the best “write more!” sign that I could ever possibly get. One of the rec league skaters told me after practice yesterday that she had read my blog and it made her feel better about trying rec league. I was surprised that she had not only found it and read it, but that she happened to be in the same practice with me. I was both stunned and pleased to have made a difference for a new skater. So, if you’re new and you’re reading this (and you made it this far), here’s the truth: roller derby is fucking hard and it hurts like a bitch. Just keep working and you will definitely improve. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. Now, go skate!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Here’s the full list of what I read in 2014:
Schooled: How the System Breaks Teachers by Dalton Jackson
The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkien
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
@LindseyHalsell What a beautiful review! You truly understood what I was writing. Details on Egyptian faith at my web site. THANK YOU!
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.