Teaser Tuesdays: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About American’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Linguistics, race, and what is weirdly unique about the United States: I was drawn to this book for its subjects. It’s just a slim little thing, too. Here’s a teaser for you:

talking-back

When humans move, or are moved, in large numbers and have to pick up a language quickly, typically their version of the language is more streamlined than the original one. This is worldwide linguistic reality, not special pleading for the speech of black people in the United States. We know this from Modern English itself, as well as, if anyone asks, from Mandarin Chinese compared to other Chineses like Cantonese, Persian compared to languages related to it, like Pashto and Kurdish, Indonesian, Swahili, and many, many others.

There is some ambiguity in those final clauses: are we to understand that Indonesian and Swahili are similar to Persian, too, or just the Pashto-and-Kurdish phrase? (I think the latter. Maybe some semicolons would help!) But the overall point is well taken. It’s been an interesting & informative read; I hope you’ll join me.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Malin Persson Giolito

Following last Thursday’s review of Quicksand, here’s Malin Persson Giolito: A Small and Scattered World.


Malin Persson Giolito was born in Stockholm in 1969, and grew up in Djursholm, Sweden. She holds a degree in law from Uppsala University and has worked as a lawyer for the biggest law firm in the Nordic region and as an official for the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. She is now a full-time writer and has written four novels; Quicksand is her English-language debut. Persson Giolito lives with her husband and three daughters in Brussels.

photo: Viktor Fremling

photo: Viktor Fremling

Was it the crime that sparked this novel for you, or Maja herself, or something else?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime. But it’s quite a difficult subject to write about, especially if you want to write a book people actually enjoy reading. I didn’t get anywhere until Maja came along. And I think the reason I wanted to write about a school shooting was not particularly the crime itself but the environment, that is, the school. It’s a very closed kind of environment. I think the book is about situations that you can’t control, and closed rooms. Maja was the key to the story. The first idea was the school shooting, but I didn’t know what to do with it until Maja came along.

It’s quite funny: as a writer, you’re probably the least capable of talking about your novel. You don’t really know what you’re doing. For the longest time you’re doing this puzzle upside down, so to speak, and then when the book is done hopefully you will see what the puzzle looks like, or perhaps one of the readers will tell you. There is something about this closed room that must have intrigued me, because we have not only the school but also the courtroom and the neighborhood where she grows up, which is an upper-class, very closed neighborhood–they’re very isolated from other parts of the Swedish society. Also, being a teenager is being isolated. You live in your own world of black and white, right and wrong, love and hate… teenagers are lovely. I have two. But they’re also quite isolated in their own minds, in their own day-to-day world.

You write the voice of this teenager so convincingly.

I have a tendency to say this was the easy part, but that’s not really true. It took me a lot of time to get to her. But once I had her, that was the best part, just living inside her head, with her rage and her judgments. She’s an enraged teenager. She’s a very privileged teenager that has gone through this tragedy, and now she’s put in a place where she has absolutely no control over her situation anymore. And we learn that during the year that led up to these events, this tragedy, she also lost control of her life. So how does she react? Well, one of the reactions is this rage. She hates everyone. And funnily enough, that was when I liked her. I think there must be an enraged teenager within me.

I think we all can relate to this loss of empowerment when we look at the world around us right now. One of the things I really liked was that I didn’t have to be this thoughtful adult who sees the good in people–I could just let go of everything and just be her. Which is not the same as saying that I agree with her. Her way of judging people around her is not something that I necessarily share. But it was still surprisingly easy, once I was there, to just do that. Once in a while you just want to let it go, to quote a famous Disney princess. I really liked that with Maja.

One of the tricks, when you write suspense novels, is to use the unreliable narrator. And when I started writing I knew from the beginning I didn’t want that. I didn’t want her to turn out to be someone else, didn’t want her to wake up after having had an alcohol-related dementia, or whatever. I wanted her to be reliable narrator, in the purest sense of the term. But I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a teenager, and if you look up “unreliable narrator,” I think you’ll see a picture of a teenager. But she’s just her, and that was very important. That’s what made me really love her. She just wants to get through this. She’s a survivor, in more ways than one.

What in your background prepared you to write this story?

The fact that I’m a lawyer prepared me a little too well, I think. There are parts of courtroom procedure that interest a lawyer that are not interesting for anyone else. It’s easy to take certain things for granted, certain principles. But once I had Maja, this was an advantage. Because she could ask all those questions that lawyers are supposed to have moved away from. Maja’s first big question is, how can you say that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty? That is absurd. Either you’re guilty from the beginning or you didn’t do it. That’s not something that a court can change. Obviously this is a core problem. These are the Ten Commandments for a lawyer. Maja made me question my own Ten Commandments, which is fantastic.

When it comes to growing up in Djursholm–and it could be any rich neighborhood because they all more or less look the same, I think–I grew up there with a single mom who worked as a nurse. I’m not saying I had a hard childhood. I was privileged. But we didn’t have the economy of my classmates, so to speak. I think that the fact that I grew up there not as a rich kid has made me a good observer. Or I hope so. I knew that I wanted to write a story about the way that our society looks today, with all the differences and the inequalities, and the growing gap between the people who are the richest and those who have the least, and I knew that this was my angle.

A lot of people ask me if I’ve eavesdropped on my own teenagers, but I don’t think that you can. They helped with music, and Snapchat, and whatever, but I’ve tried to avoid naming all those things anyway, because they change so quickly. Obviously it helped that she was in isolation, in jail. It was good for many literary reasons, actually. If you want to write about the life of a teenager one of the problems is they have so many friends and they do so many things. I just said that their world is very small, but it’s also true that their world is very… scattered. And I didn’t have to worry about that while she was in jail.

You speak English very well. How does translation work when you are proficient in both languages?

I was lucky to be translated by Rachel; she’s absolutely fantastic. It’s one thing to speak a language–I can see that this is a very good translation–but I’m not an English speaker. We would have a discussion to find something equivalent or take it out entirely, which we did in a few instances. I think it worked very well. There are actually two versions, the same English translation, but one is more British. And maybe because I’m more Americanized than I am British, it feels strange to hear Maja speak British English. I don’t know why. I can see her as an American teenager. It doesn’t strike me as odd.

I’m involved, but more as an observer than as a translator. I can’t translate my own text, but I can applaud.

Is this novel a departure from your previous work?

Quicksand stands out because it’s Maja’s book, it’s so much just her, she’s the only voice that we hear. All of my previous three novels have lawyers as main characters. The first one is not a suspense novel; it’s about a woman who works in the biggest law firm in the Nordic area and she gets fired when she’s expecting her third child. And I wrote that novel, coincidentally, just after being fired from the biggest law firm in the Nordic area, while expecting my third child.

My third book is about a man that has been convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl, and he’s been in prison for 11 years when he gets a new lawyer–my main character–and she tries to get him off. That is more traditionally court-related, more like this one in that sense. The other is about a lawyer representing a seven-year-old boy who is cared for by the state’s social authorities. Very sad story. I have readers who say, do you ever write anything where children are not hurt? Nope. Always very depressing. I don’t know what it is. I always say to myself that the next one is going to be a fun, lighthearted, feel-good novel, but it never works.

What are you working on next?

I’m in that phase where still everything is possible, like I think that I can write the great novel that will reveal the truth about everything. I don’t know, I have this idea about trying to place the novel in Brussels, because I live in Brussels, but I also knew that I’m not going to write about terrorism. And writing about Brussels today without writing about terrorism, well–so I guess it’s going to be another feel-good, lighthearted novel about terrorism. I seriously don’t know. I think I know who it is about, which I won’t tell you. But I think that I’m onto something.


This interview originally ran on November 16, 2016 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, an odd and engrossing novel. And now I’m holding her next English-language release, Human Acts. Deborah Smith again translates from the Korean (and this time there’s a brief introduction by Smith, as well). Obviously I’m pleased.

human-acts
It begins:

“Looks like rain,” you mutter to yourself.

What’ll we do if it really chucks it down?

You open your eyes so that only a slender chink of light seeps in, and peer at the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office. As though there, between those branches, the wind is about to take on visible form.

Lovely language and picture-painting words. I’m intrigued by the second-person perspective, and wonder if it will last. I’m often a little skeptical of this literary trick, as it’s perhaps getting a little overused, but I trust Kang.

Come back to see what I thought of the whole; this book publishes in mid-January.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 16, 2016.


quicksand“It smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy and gray with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got even as much as a bruise.”

Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand opens with a tableau, featuring Dennis, a fat teenager from Uganda; Samir, an academic overachiever; Christer, the homeroom teacher; Amanda, “all cashmere, white gold, and sandals”; and the son of the richest man in Sweden, cradled in the narrator’s lap. “People like us don’t usually spend time together. Maybe on a Metro platform during a taxi-driver strike, or in the dining car on a train, but not in a classroom.”

Maja Norberg is on trial for her role in a school shooting that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead, among others. She has been waiting in isolation in a women’s prison for nine months. Media attention has been intense and frenzied: Maja comes from the privileged upper class of Djursholm, a wealthy suburb of Stockholm. She was a good girl, reasonably well-liked and a good student. She has been portrayed in the news as a poor little rich girl, self-centered to the point of disregarding the value of human lives.

In flashback chapters, Maja’s story slowly becomes clearer. Bit by bit, her relationships with her alleged victims are revealed. In two sections–one handling the trial and the other leading up to the shooting–Maja’s first-person perspective offers a shifting view of the world. “I read somewhere that ‘the truth is whatever we choose to believe.’ Which sounds even more insane, if that’s even possible. Like someone can just decide what’s true and what’s false?”

Quicksand is Persson Giolito’s fourth novel and her first to be translated from Swedish into English. Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles smoothly renders Maja’s voice, by turns cynical and yearning, hard-edged and vulnerable. Paired with a knack for deadpan dialogue, this voice presents a realistic impression of an 18-year-old woman, one charged with the most heinous crime in her country’s recent memory. The strength and poignancy of Maja’s nuanced voice command sympathy, even though she has–perhaps–done terrible things.

The central question of the novel is, of course, Maja’s guilt or innocence. Although the trial itself shapes the narrative, she is reluctant to make a claim about her involvement in the shooting, even in thought. Readers must follow along slowly in dual timelines, trying to determine the shifting truth for themselves. Meanwhile, Maja’s story imperceptibly expands to take on larger questions and issues: class and immigration, race and racism, criminal justice systems and the media, the consequences of wealth and leisure, love and obsession, what is owed by a parent to a child. The false dichotomy of guilt and innocence plays a central role. It is to Persson Giolito’s great credit that such weighty topics move smoothly through a plot that is taut and relentless, even as its protagonist passes monotonous days in a prison cell.

Because Maja’s traumatized, often apathetic perspective offers the reader’s only view of this story, characterization takes place slowly and leaves holes. Her family and classmates matter only as they matter to her. Dennis, her boyfriend’s drug dealer, is of little value. Amanda is both an intimate and an empty-headed cipher–Maja’s best friend, like a sister, but alternately familiar and remote. Maja has a real sister, too, who plays a very different role; her parents, unsurprisingly, are due for a certain amount of Maja’s scorn. Sebastian’s character is at the crux of the plot’s mysteries, standing in for all the contradictions implied by wealth, success and dissatisfaction. Maja and Sebastian’s romance begins with 15 days in the Mediterranean on a yacht almost 60 meters long, and she comments more than once on “the surreality of it all, that world of postcard-blue and sparkling sunshine and plink-plonk manicures.” This surreality drives home that sparkle and money don’t buy happiness. Maja will ponder that lesson and others as the trial progresses, as the reader gradually puts together the pieces of her story and as her fate looms.

Quicksand is a novel focused on a school shooting, but in no way feels hackneyed or dependent on its timeliness. In fact, it’s not really about a school shooting at all. It’s about larger abstractions, like loyalty and codependence, love and guilt, the incredibly complicated business of being a teenager, criminal justice systems (Sweden’s in particular, and as a concept), the role of the media and what a parent’s job entails. Expert dialogue and irresistible momentum make an all-too-realistic story come breathing off the page. It’s a novel that demands compassion, and an appreciation for the fine gradations of situations that tend to be treated as black and white. Part courtroom thriller, part introspection, Quicksand is pulled tight throughout by the suspense, not only of Maja’s verdict, but of the elusive “truth” of what really happened in the classroom that day.


Rating: 7 parties.

Come back on Monday for my interview with Malin Persson Giolito.

Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

otherwordlyWhat a perfectly charming little book.

Other-Wordly is fewer than 60 pages long, and its spreads are adorned with appealing illustrations, so that it is easily flipped through in no time at all. It invites the reader, though, to pause and explore. Vocabulary words from a wide range of languages are offered to satisfy us when we say, I need a word for that thing, you know when… I was delighted to find a word that a friend of mine has more than once looked for. How gratifying, to pass that along!

The words are great fun, and some will be useful (others merely fun). For example, check out Tartle (verb, Scots): to hesitate while introducing or meeting someone because you have forgotten their name. Or Nunchi (noun, Korean): the subtle art of evaluating others’ moods from their unspoken communications and knowing what not to say in a certain social situation. The illustrations are lovely, filled with personality and feeling, and I loved how words are grouped together with a drawing that serves to illustrate each in turn. For example, Sturmfrei (German, obviously), Cwtch (Welsh, perhaps just as obviously) and Abditory (English) share a young girl just peeking out from a door under a staircase, looking pleased with her hiding place. Yes, there are English words in here, too, but only three had meaning to me before reading. (Those were offing, inglenook and scintilla, if you’re wondering.) Other languages featured run from the expected European ones through Bantu and Yaghan (what is Yaghan?). The Japanese language seems to have a special knack for that there’s-a-word-for-it thing.

Brief, informative, great fun, sweetly illustrated: a fine coffee table book and one I will pull out frequently. By all means. My only request now is more, please.


Rating: 8 Erlebnisse.

The Walking Dead: Compendium One by Robert Kirkland et al.

walking-deadIn a word – get ready, because you won’t hear this from me very often – the movie was better. (Okay, the series.)

I’ve had the three The Walking Dead compendia on my wish list for at least a year, because I’m a big fan of the television series by the same name. What finally inspired me to buy this first one was one of the early episodes this season (ahem), which has me worried that we’re about to jump the shark. And I guess also because I’m insatiable. I love this story, these characters, their plights and the way they feel like my own friends & family. And I thought, if I’m going to geek out, I may as well know the original.

I’m not the hugest fan of graphic novels/graphic works in the world, although I have dearly loved some (Alison Bechdel, the Maus series). But I’m not precisely a connoisseur. And this one claims to be more classic “comic” than “graphic novel”, I think, so maybe I’m missing some insider knowledge. These are my disclaimers, before I tell you why I didn’t love this book.

Series fans, be aware that the story is significantly different in the comic. There are a few characters added and taken away (famously: there is no Daryl Dixon in the comic!!), and several serious plot twists that differ: different couples hook up in the comic, and more couples hook up in the comic. (Mild, long-past spoilers follow)—— Lori survives delivery of Judith. Tyreese is romantically involved first with Carol, then with Michonne (what?!). Andrea and Dale are a couple. A certain three-way marriage is proposed. For those of us immersed in the series… wow.

That’s not a fair criticism, of course. To say the comic is not the series is no more relevant a complaint than to say that the movie is not the book. No, my disappointments with the comic as a standalone are these. The dialog is unrealistic and cheesy: manly men saying things to each other like “I can’t pretend like I know what you’re going through…” “You don’t have to say anything… I know you care. That’s something. That’s enough.” There is some odd emphasis in that dialog, so the above lines read “I can’t pretend like I know what you’re going through…” “You don’t have to say anything… I know you care. That’s something. That’s enough.” (Weird.) The plot has quite a bit of sex-and-jealousy, soap opera stuff, and it’s just not balanced with the kind of character development that would let me buy in. I guess I feel like it rushes through the action (and the sex-and-jealousy) too quickly, without enough time to get to know the characters. It’s too sensational. I get why that may sound funny from a fan of the zombie show, which could be described as sensational (!); but I think those of us dedicated to the show would agree that it’s the characters and relationships that make it. And that kind of investment is not bought in a day, or solely with blood, guts and nudity.

The art is good, and it’s a remarkable and promising storyline for sure. I guess I’m saying I see the potential for it to be something more, and I’m glad someone else did too.

I think I’ll skip the next two compendia of comics, and stick to the series. And if this is the season that we jump the shark, well, thanks for six years and counting of outstanding drama.


Rating: 5 propositions.

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories by Sheryl Monks

Short stories defined by their location offer a complex Appalachia filled with both light and dark.

monsters-in-appalachia

Monsters in Appalachia presents the short stories of Sheryl Monks in a collection that ranges over a region but offers a cohesive vision. United by their sense of place, these stories are compassionate and impassioned, often disturbing and filled with energy.

The dangers of coal mining strike the young and the experienced alike. A 14-year-old girl is encouraged by her mother and aunt to pursue men, but resists. A man searches for a dog he believes holds the key to better luck. An exchange at a small-town grocery drives home class inequalities and double standards. Factory workers consider devising on-the-job accidents to collect disability. And in the final, titular story, an old man hunts and captures monsters while his wife prays for punishment for the couple’s sins.

The monsters are in fact many and various, figurative and surreally literal. Monks’s characters are plagued by poverty, abuse, limited education and a shortage of resources and options–upholding some of the stereotypes of Appalachia–but in their choices, they prove more than their typecasts. Dialect and place-specific details establish settings like the mountains of West Virginia, where a panicked mother “can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain.” A stern, moody atmosphere is one of Monks’s strengths, although there are points of light in this dark collection. Monsters in Appalachia is often painful but always authentic, both muscular and sensitive.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 serpents.
%d bloggers like this: