thoughtpinions

Thoughts: The Fall of Gondolin, by JRR Tolkien

So. Been a while. Moving on.

After frying my brain with Nnedi Okorafor in German, I tret myself to some pure comfort reading, going back to the start of my love affair with the speculative literary genres. When I was seven my dad gave me his copy of The Hobbit and that was that. When I was eleven I borrowed his satisfyingly fat copy of The Lord of the Rings and my mind was blown. That was it. I taught myself (incompetently) the elvish script in which to write all my secrets, and discovered The Silmarillion and invented fanfiction. I wrote terrible epic poetry and filled in gaps and spent altogether too much time thinking about Feanor’s sons (Maedhros 4 lyf, don’t @ me).

It’s probably important to point out that I’m the worst kind of reader – I loved every song in The Lord of the Rings. I would sit and memorise whole stretches from the Lays of Beleriand, which I found in our local library, now sadly gone. I could genuinely recite the whole bit where Sauron and Finrod have their rap battle, right up to And Finrod fell before the throne, which still gives me chills, and about which I could probably talk for hours.

I’m not much of a nerd compared to some, but I am exactly the kind of fantasy reader other fantasy readers think gives them a bad name. Sorry guys. It’s just who I am.

The Fall of Gondolin is a gorgeous illustrated hardback dealing with the end of the city of Gondolin throughout Tolkien’s work. It gathers the different versions of the event in various unfinished poems, putting together the fragments of a full story that was never quite told. The whole history of the writing down of these stories is almost as interesting as the stories themselves, how they were picked up and put down and fought for, and how Tolkien needed to fight against the world as well, the paper shortages after the war that remind us that stories and art aren’t only abstract things. They exist in the world, and to an extent have to abide by its rules.

It’s a book for people who are interested in the deep dive, in nosing around all the nuts and bolts and reading different versions of the same story, in which the most detailed and polished one is frustratingly incomplete. As an amateur writer I love reading drafts anyway, and seeing how someone’s ideas change with time, so if this is you, you might enjoy it. Some knowledge of Middle Earth is necessary, though Christopher Tolkien does a pretty excellent job of keeping it all straight and explaining name changes etc.

All in all I loved The Fall of Gondolin (sorry Gondolin), and I was aware all the time I was reading it that I was enjoying it. There were worthier and more challenging books I could have been reading, but I was too busy indulging that young me, feeding her love of fantasy and worldbuilding, inspiring her to keep fighting that long defeat because it’s all we can do. And maybe teaching my present self a thing or two about striving for excellence in my own writing and stories.

Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!

Bookthoughts: Die Entdeckung der Currywurst – Uwe Timm

Okay, it’s been A WHILE, and I’ve read SEVERAL BOOKS, but now it’s time to try to catch up. I was focused on writing at the end of last year, and this year I’ve been trying to submit things because I’m a glutton for rejection and disappointment, and that’s all been compounded by a rough January.

And now I come back to find that WordPress is totally different.

Whatever. On to the book. This is the first book I finished in 2019 – I’m going to catch up here and then go back to 2018, I think. It was given to us when we came to Germany, and until now has been a reminder of my less-than-great German. But I’ve been working on my German, and I finally decided it was time.

Warning, this won’t be a particularly long or insightful post, because the book is short and not in my native language, but let’s get stuck in.

The title of the novella translates to “The Discovery of Currywurst”, referring to the popular German street food of sausage in spicy ketchup-based sauce. There are tons of apocryphal origin stories for currywurst, and this one is decidedly fictional. The narrator is visiting the elderly Lena Brücker, self-styled creator of currywurst, in her nursing home to find out the story. She says quite early on that it was an accident, and if you’re wondering if one day curry powder accidentally falls into ketchup in a happy disaster, then, you know, congratulations, but that’s also not really the story.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst spends a lot of time flashing back to the last days of World War 2, when the rusted out flasks and old bullet casings the narrator went hunting for as a child were still shiny and in use. During an air raid, young (or not that young) Lena meets a soldier briefly stationed in Hamburg, they end up at her flat, and she inadvertently finds herself hiding him as he inadvertently deserts.

It’s not a story filled with drama and action. It’s quiet and tense, evoking a small community under the immense pressure of a losing war, the shortages from that war, and the psychological control of the Nazis policing everyone’s behaviour so well that people police themselves effectively instead. It drifts from past to present, narration to dialogue with little fanfare. It’s slow and strangely immersive, all these mundane daily details beautifully invoked – and of course living in a world where you have to make coffee from acorns and trade potatoes off the back of a wagon for a flask of petrol isn’t mundane to me.

The love story at its heart is doomed, we know that. But for a while it’s in perfect balance. Right up until the war ends, and Lena doesn’t tell Bremer. Right up until Lena asks if Bremer’s married, and he says he isn’t. But for that short time…

My German is still not perfect – I had to look up a lot of the military words during the war – but even I could appreciate the way Lena’s voice was written, the way it shone through the text. It slowed my reading into her rhythms and made it feel like I was really being told a story. And not just a story about the creation of currywurst, but about luck and connection and what people need, about finding the means of survival and realising that they were inside you all along.

Thoughts: Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, by Shiri Eisner

This was recommended to me by a friend, possibly on CSD (though I could easily be remembering wrong). I was a little bit intimidated and a little bit excited, as I hadn’t given myself over to reading much LGBT theory for a long time, since I slunk out of the Shakesville blog, with the exception of some of Julia Serano‘s excellent work. And besides  these great blog posts, I’d never read anything really exploring bisexuality. (It turns out that Serano’s post links a post by Shiri Eisner, actually, which is an excerpt from the book I’m talking about here.) If you too haven’t read much dedicated to bisexuality, then this is a pretty good place to start.

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Thoughts: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

At first I was putting this off because I wanted to let the story sit for a while, and then I found myself putting it off because I didn’t want it to be over. How can it be over?! I know that Cixin Liu has given me more than I deserved. He gave me a whole extra book after the perfect ending of The Dark Forest! He took me to a time before The Three-Body Problem and then all the way to the end of the universe! He even gave me a sort of wink at the end to reassure me that my secret opinions about the choices of the characters were all correct.

Spoilers everywhere, as this is the last book in a trilogy!

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Thoughts: East Lynne, by Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood

So a few years ago I read Lady Florence Bell’s At The Works, a study on Middlesbrough life in the 1800s, because it’s local to me and no one ever talks about places local to me unless they’re blaming us for Brexit (which, by the way, is very misleading and pack that in, please). One question on the surveys of the Boro steelworking families was about their reading material, and a large proportion of them were enjoying Mrs Henry Wood*’s East Lynne, so out of a weird desire for connection with the past, I stuck it on the list.

And what a roller coaster it has been.

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Thoughts: La Nuit, by Elie Wiesel, translated by Marion Wiesel

(It was really difficult to find Marion Wiesel’s name as the translator of this edition – Elie Wiesel mentions in his note on the text that his wife translated it but her name seems to be nowhere in the Kindle edition. Publishers: name translators.)

Holocaust memoirs are a genre of writing that I never thought I’d ever be familiar with, so this is a very strange place for me to be in. I say familiar, but it never really becomes familiar in some ways. There’s always something new, everyone’s lives are different. Everyone’s lives were different, whether they got to share their stories or not. I read this one in French because I need to keep my hand in, and because the French version was published before the English, which was a good enough arbitrary reason for me to read it instead (the original was in Hebrew).

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Thoughts: The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma

From dense and serious to pure indulgence. Nova Ren Suma is quickly becoming one of my favourite weird authors. Her Imaginary Girls was unlike any YA spec fic I’d ever read, so everything else she’d ever written went on my list as soon as I was done (unfortunately, not enough to satisfy my endless appetite for weird. Why are the best ones never prolific? Kit Whitfield, another writer of totally off-the-wall premises, is the same). I had a lot of difficulty finding Imaginary Girls and was pleased to find that The Walls Around Us is just on Kindle. Hint hint. Nova Ren Suma is ridiculously underrated.

Spoilers ahoy.

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Thoughts: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

This is another book recommended by a friend, and I admit I was a bit wary about it at first, mostly because I read Freakonomics in the recent past and something about its overly friendly hip nerdness had… not exactly rubbed me up the wrong way, but made me suspicious, perhaps? I have of course read other non-fiction books on brains and intelligence of a different kind (notably The Mismeasure of Man and Intelligence: All That Matters) but for some reason I got a Freakonomics type vibe from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Which is all moot because I was totally on the wrong track.

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Thoughts: The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen

This is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. I enjoyed The Three-Body Problem, that weird grim sci fi tangled up with China’s Cultural Revolution, but I loved The Dark Forest.

More spoilers! Be warned!

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