A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.

Zooniverse

Wildwatch_KenyaAs the days get colder and the nights get longer, treat yourself to some beautiful, sunny vistas of the Kenyan safari. I can feel my blood pressure sinking with each photo, regardless of whether they include any giraffes or not.

Zooniverse is a site that features projects in need of crowdsourcing large amounts of data. Wildwatch Kenya, the one I’ve gotten particularly attached to, is tracking giraffes in a research project for conservation. They have thousands of photos taken by motion-sensor cameras. Most of the photos have nothing in them, being triggered by wind or a bug or something, but the scenery is gorgeous, and the excitement of finally seeing a giraffe, zebra, or elephant is a bit ridiculous.

There are dozens of other wildlife-photo-based projects, but I also got interested in transcribing historical documents. You know various novels, like Jane Austen’s, where some character is complaining about another’s handwritten letters? I’m now full of sympathy! The transcribing also gives such a realistic look into the time periods from a more everyday perspective than is usually shown in the history books.

I started with some letters from Boston Public Library’s Anti-Slavery collection, and while it wasn’t as historically inspiring as I’d hoped, it was actually pretty thrilling to read the more trivial and petty infighting among the famous abolitionists of the day. That particular project is currently being updated, so I switched over to transcribing handwritten surveys from soldiers in WWII, and it is also fascinating, but grimmer.

All of the projects are particularly addictive because they’ve taken the Netflix approach: when you’ve finished identifying a photo/transcribing writing and submit it, the next one just pops right up! I’ve had many late nights this past week trying to tear myself away from “just one more”.

Slade House

By David Mitchell

Slade_HouseKinsey has read a fair number of Mitchell’s books, but this is my first one, and the only way I was able to put it down at all was to try to stretch it out for longer, it was so good! It is also very spooky, so I recommend it for a good October reading, leading up to Halloween. (I realize I’m cutting it a bit close here.)

The story is broken into five chapters, which are all set in the same mysterious house but which each take place 9 years later than the previous one. That alone would be enough to get me, but what really sold me was that each chapter is told in first-person from people from a fairly wide variety of backgrounds and, of course, generations.

The first chapter is set in 1979, with a young teenage boy, clearly on the autism spectrum, accompanying his middle-class but social-climbing mother to an afternoon soiree at the prestigious Slade House. Because this first narrator doesn’t always see things the way neurotypical people might, the awareness that something is off about Slade House came to me gradually. Which, of course, only enhanced the spookiness!

Each chapter unlocks more about what is going on in the house, until the final climatic reveal, which takes a bit of an L from where it appeared to be going. This turned out to be a bit controversial in my household, where I thought it was an intriguing departure from the norm, and Rebecca thought it was lame (though she really enjoyed the rest of the book).

Other Media

Kinsey has mentioned this before, but in addition to reading, we also watch a lot of television and listen to podcasts. I have two very particular* recommendations that are bringing me joy in these extremely trying times:

The Dragon Prince

Netflix

TheDragonPrinceOh, The Dragon Prince! The first season of this cartoon just hit Netflix a few weeks ago, and it probably would have passed me by entirely except for a thread of kudos on twitter. And I absolutely loved it! It reminds me of my favorite cartoons from when I was a kid: character-driven and quest-oriented fantasies like The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn. Rebecca and I rationed ourselves and watched the nine half-hour episodes over three days, but were still real sad when we finished them.

About halfway through, I commented to Rebecca that in a weird way it made me think of Game of Thrones for kids. The world is split into multiple kingdoms that have been fighting each other for some vague number of years. A variety of characters from different lands and backgrounds must form and break alliances to strive for their own goals. And, of course, the violence is turned way down and the sex eliminated entirely. Dare I say I enjoyed it more?

Wolverine: The Long Night

Stitcher

TheLongNightIf The Dragon Prince is Game of Thrones, then Wolverine: The Long Night is True Detective (season 1, the only season). The Long Night is Marvel’s first authorized podcast and it is a beautifully done drama in the style of old radio shows like Dragnet and The Shadow. Now I love a classic radio drama to begin with, but I really think this is something special.

Also like The Dragon Prince, each episode of The Long Night is disappointingly short, only about half an hour. For the first five episodes, at least, Logan himself is very much a peripheral character: talked about briefly, but only showing up in person (in voice?) a very few times. The primary narrators are two FBI agents who have been dispatched to rural Alaska after a fishing boat is found with the entire crew slaughtered. Once the agents are in town, they discover that previous suspicious deaths had been hastily charged to bear killings, and that the whole town is a tangle of secrets centering around the one wealthy family.

The whole show does a wonderful job of creating atmosphere just through different tones of voice, and some light musical overlay. The writers manage to convey an impressive amount of information through dialogue without a lot of single-person narration or exposition. It just makes me so, so happy, and my only qualification is that there isn’t enough of it (yet), so it can be a bit frustrating.

*I say particular because while I love both of these, they are each for distinct fan-bases. Rebecca loved The Dragon Prince, as well, but doesn’t care for any radio dramas, and certainly wouldn’t like a noir-like mystery radio drama. Kinsey, a big podcast fan, is not super into cartoons, though it is possible that The Dragon Prince is charming enough to overcome that.