Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Native Tongue

Native TongueNative Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dystopia where women are legally inferior to men & the formally educated are useful scapegoats that advance Earth’s territory as interpretors & bargainers. Native Tongue follows the various women of “The Lines” as they attempt to navigate a society that devalues them but still relies heavily on their fertility & their usefulness as housekeepers.

Originally published in the 80s, this book is definitely a sci-fi classic worth revisiting. Not only is the world-building captivating, many of the class & gender fears Haden Elgin outlines are still worryingly real. While the story is not as severe as something like The Handmaid’s Tale, there are plenty of unexpected dark & sad moments. For example, something as innocuous as a crush becomes a lesson in verbal humiliation & degradation. Definitely worth picking up if you come across it.

P.S.: This is totally associative, but the last scene of the book reminds me of the chorus to Matthew Good’s “Fated.

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The Obstacles of Language

A small break from the typical mini-reviews I post here to share an interview I’ve been thinking about all morning.  This NPR interview with Jhumpa Lahiri discusses the reasons why she’s written her new book, the non-fiction memoir In Other Words, in Italian.  The now-trilingual Lahiri mentions that her new language has allowed her an artistic freedom that she felt she was unable to capture in Bengali or English.

I’ve been mulling this over for a few reasons.  First, her answers in the interview actually makes me reconsider the last book I read by her, The Lowland.  As a reader taken in by her stories, Lahiri has always had a distance to her writing that I thought was a sort of minimalism or other stylistic effect.  I had never considered that it was an indication of discomfort with the language.  This distance ended up bleeding into her characters in The Lowland, to the point that they were isolated & emotionally detached at the end of the story.  Again, I thought it was a comment on how certain choices could give an individual their freedom but cut them off from others in the process.  There’s a chance that this is still a valid reading, but now I wonder if Lahiri’s struggle to express herself fully in English unwittingly informed some of this theme.

I also want to be clear here–I use the words “struggle” and “discomfort” as a writer herself who finds the limits of my main language as difficult to overcome to express what inner thought seems unexpressable.  I extend that meaning to what I’m trying to say about Lahiri’s work also.

What I also find fascinating about this interview is that there is little mention about the alchemy of thought that occurs when one learns a new language.  To be a little less formal here, OMG, I’m totes jealous that she can speak 3 languages.  But seriously, I think back to when I was learning Spanish in high school & how the process of unraveling that language suddenly highlighted the structure and technicalities of English that seemed so boring & useless previously.  I can only take that memory & imagine what the experiences of having 3 languages & a sizable set of memories & thoughts shaded by all three must be like.  I wonder if this helped contribute to Lahiri’s newfound comfort with her “failures” and missteps with this new language.

I recommend you check out the interview if you are curious about how writers push themselves to find ways to share what they are trying to say.  I know that this peek into Lahiri’s process has inspired a new prompt for my writing group tonight.


Seeing the World In Code

So as I mentioned a few posts back, I’ve made my way through the online lessons at Codecademy, brushing up on my HTML & CSS skills.  As I was working through the last third of the ‘Make An Interactive Website’ course, there were a few beginning lessons on how to use JavaScript and jQuery.  These programs focused on how to handle user-end actions like clicking or pressing a key on the keyboard.  As I worked through the practice lessons, I was often reminded of Ellen Ullman’s novel The Bug, which is also about programming code.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Snow Crash

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My friend Justin recommended Snow Crash to me after a conversation about Infinite Jest. There are similarities, most notably the idea of an informational stimulant, delivered by a woman, that resets your brain. I was very excited about Snow Crash when I started reading it–there was a bit of Saunders-like corporate grotesque, the Metaverse was a cousin to Tad Williams’ Otherland series, and the idea of intel-as-commodity promised to go interesting places. The fact that the book was written in 1992 can be overlooked with the introduction of an alternate history. But as the book got further on, the plot turned into a straight-up adventure tale and Stephenson’s style of expositional word dump became more dense & tiring.

There’s a lot of ideas from the novel like “informational hygiene,” “rational religion” and “language as a virus” that I want to think on more, for sure. But I flat-out didn’t like how concepts of rationality & irrationality broke down (stereotypically) along gender lines (irrational = female, rational = male) or cultural ones (rationality = Abrahamic religions, irrationality = pagan religions). With that said, though, Stephenson keeps his characters from falling along those same cliché lines. Hiro Protagonist is biracial & while he is the main protagonist of the story, the novel ends on his equally interesting partner Y.T. There are a lot more interesting stories contained in Snow Crash that didn’t get told & it would have been interesting to see what would have happened over the course of a multi-book series. But, Snow Crash is what we have & is well worth checking out despite its flaws.

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Books, Thoughts

Wordy Word Feast

So, I’ve been inconsistent about posting lately.  Most of my writing energies have been directed toward the recent non-fiction seminar I took at WriterHouse.  Let me say quickly that WriterHouse is a great organization committed to supporting writers & building a strong community around word-craft.  If you live in Virginia, I urge you to check them out.

I thought I’d get back into the swing of blogging by talking about what I’m reading at the moment.  Most of the writers I’ve met or listened to at panels have stressed that good reading habits are key to building strong writing.  The most recent example I’ve run across is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories which suggests (strongly) that an aspiring writer should not only have scheduled writing time, but scheduled reading time as well.

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