Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

So…I accidentally skipped a week of posting for, I believe, the first time ever. Sorry about that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Things got, and remain, a little out of control.

In other news, I have just finished a most wonderful book! The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

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What a book! The moment I finished it I hopped on Goodreads, gave it 5 stars, and marked it as a favorite. I am psyched to read the next one, A Closed and Common Orbit. 

This was the first book that I’ve ever read on the Kindle app. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. It was handy to have the book constantly with me, but the screen just doesn’t fit enough words to make me feel like I’m making progress, which is why it took me an oddly long time to finish the book.

The Long Way follows the small crew of a ship that punches wormholes through space. It rotates POV quite often, and for once it didn’t bother me unduly. There wasn’t much about this book that I didn’t love, and I shall use a handy tool known as listing to highlight my favorite aspects.

  1. The worldbuilding. Holy lord, the worldbuilding. The alien species. Their history. The Galactic Commons. What a work of art. All alien species were suitably alien, and suitably fantastic. Down to fascinating biological and inter-species history, Chambers built an immersive, fantastic, bizarre universe.
  2. The romance. Interspecies romance done right is fascinating, and this book does it right. What was fascinating to me was how much Chambers was able to convey about the cultures of various species, exploring romantic compatibility and hangups with other species, in a relatively short amount of time.
  3. Non-human centric. Too often sci-fi smacks of human exceptionalism. Not so in this book–in fact, humans are kind of the runts of the Galactic Commons. Lots of musing on the nature of humanity from various points of view, human and nonhuman. Lovely.
  4. Ethics. Lots of discussions of the ethics of various species. Maybe this should fall under worldbuilding, but it stood out to me so strongly it deserves its own number.
  5. Lastly: THE CHARACTERS! By the end of the book there was not a character that I did not feel fondly towards, even the ones I hated at first.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet feels different from other sci-fi. The tone is lighthearted: it’s a book that’s serious, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. I can’t pinpoint the exact type of book or tone I feel like it is, but I can only hope it’s the start of something great.

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Travel Mania

I’m back from Ecuador! Man, it seems like it was just last year that I was getting back from Ecuador…oh wait, it was. It is 10 pm in the Quito airport as I write this, waiting for my 11:30 pm flight, to take me to my 14 hour layover in Fort Lauderdale (where my research partner and I will be spending a lovely beach day), then on to my 10 pm flight to North Carolina, preceding a 4 hour drive to my apartment, where I will rest for two days then drive 6 hours to visit my family in Tennessee.

Here’s a brief overview of my time in Ecuador:

Things I read in Ecuador: The Foxhole Court series in a three/four day binge (I don’t remember the exact dates, it’s all a little blurry). I have a lot of thoughts, positives and negatives, but that’s another post.

Things I wrote in Ecuador: A series bilingual English lessons (in Kichwa and Spanish). Translations of ten-ish English children’s books into Spanish, written in Sharpie in the margins.

Things I made in Ecuador: A language lab, complete with glass windows, a fresh coat of paint, an installed projector and computer, a small bilingual “library,”  English lessons, lesson user guides, and a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and miracles. It’s our baby.

It was honestly a miracle to complete in 30 days. More unpacking to come, when I’m less exhausted beyond all reasoning.

Reading in Spanish

My track record with reading in Spanish has always been up and down. I tend to get very sidetracked by every word that I don’t understand, every idiom I can’t quite parse. But looking up twenty words per page is practically a death knell to reading comprehension if you’re reading novels. You have to go and keep going, and get the gist of what you can. Also frustrating is the sheer slowness of reading in another language. Compared to my usual reading speed, it’s glacial, and it can be disheartening.

One thing I’ve found very helpful is to read books I’ve already read. As far as novels go, I’ve made a few attempts at The Sorcerer’s Stone and City of the Beasts in Spanish, only to inevitably stop reading every day because I’m going at such a slow pace. But this year I’m really trying not to fall into that trap. I’m reading Bless Me, Ultima in Spanish, which is both a book I have read previously and a rather more advanced novel than the last two. Surprisingly, it’s the best try I’ve had yet. I was reading a chapter a day before I got off track, but I’m determined to finish it by the end of July.

When I actually get through a chapter and discover I understand what occurred in it, if not every single word, it’s an amazing feeling. One that I want to keep pursuing. After I finish Bless Me, Ultima, I’ll go back to City of the Beasts.

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I picked this book up from a street vendor in Quito–it’s not a translation of an English novel, so it should be both a challenge and a really valuable read.

If things go according to plan, this should be my last scheduled blog post, so look forward to a more contemporary post next week!

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

Spanish Learning Tactics

So in the two weeks leading up to my trip to Ecuador I started cramming Spanish hardcore, and I thought I’d share my methods. This isn’t a strictly writing-related post, but, hey, language is part of writing!

  1. Cut out English! I found some good advice online that to better memorize words and concepts, cut English out altogether so you aren’t translating, but rather thinking in your target language. Instead, use pictures, short phrases, or sentences with the word removed.
  2. Reading! I’ve been making my way through Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya in Spanish. It’s slow but not glacial, and is actually making me feel a lot more confident in my reading comprehension skills.
  3. Podcasts! I listen to Notes in Spanish Gold and Spanish Obsessed Advanced in the mornings.
  4. Strategic vocabulary! I’ve been slowly memorizing lists of the 1,000 most common Spanish words, as well as 650 or so necessary vocabulary words.
  5. Speak! This one is the hardest for me. I’m so self-conscious about my speaking abilities. But it has to be done.

These were my methods until I got to Ecuador. My methods are now: navigate Ecuador. Spanish is mandatory. Hopefully by the time I return, I will be speaking much more fluently!

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

Field Notes

In my last post about ethnographic writing I mentioned field notes, so I thought I’d devote a post to my field note methodology and how it’s changing.

What are field notes? Basically, any notes you take during your research in the field. There are at least two forms. Jots are taken on the go, as things occur, during any spare second you have to write down notes about what’s going on. These are shorthand and very messy. Later they are transcribed into a field journal, which expands up on your jots, describing the whole day and events that happened in excruciating, agonizing detail.

Are field notes fun? No.

Are field notes necessary? Yes.

Last year writing in my field journal was the bane of my life. This year I’m trying to be more free with it. I’m trying to make it something I look forward to doing. I’ve decided to angle them towards a more scrapbook format, pasting things in drawing, etc. With any luck it should stop being miserable drudgery and start being kind of fun.

But arduous as they are, field journals are the backbone of ethnographic writing. And detail is the backbone of any kind of writing, no matter if those nuances make it in to the draft or not–what matters is that you know them. These bits of information are there, backing your writing up, whatever form it is.

Writing in a notebook is a good exercise even if you’re not an anthropologist in the field. Jotting down things that stand out to you, interesting phrases and words, names, or whatever, can be a really good resource and source of inspiration. I’ve found it helps to pick out a really cool journal to do them in.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

Ethnography

So I’m in the Upper Amazon basin doing ethnography. But just what is ethnography? The study of insects? Close. Ethnography is both what anthropologists do and the writing they produce.

The thing that makes anthropology unique is method: while surveys, archival research, and interviews are still employed, participant observation is what anthropology is all about. In participant observation, one arrives at one’s field site and proceeds to live there for extended amounts of time (months to years, often returning) to come to know something as close to peoples’ personal experiences as possible. Languages are learned, detailed notes are taken, and relationships are forged. Participant observation has two parts, as you cold probably assume: you participate in everyday life, but you are also observing and learning rather than passively slipping into a new life rhythm. Notes and notes and notes are taken.

So what kind of writing comes out of this? Ethnography is, on the whole, thick, detailed, and precise. Details are backed up from field notes (which are copious) documents, recordings, videos. To pick up a well-written ethnography is to be immersed in a rich new setting, while also being slipped critical information through the narrative which the author will call your attention to later.

Of course, there is not just one way to write ethnography. It needn’t even be written. One of the last courses I took was titled “Experimental Ethnography,” in which we explored currents of experimentation and creativity within ethnographic writers.

Anthropologists often turn out to be good fiction writers, and vice versa, because of ethnography: both the writing and the method. In my opinion, it is not only practice at representing people in the written word, but the process of coming to know people so closely in the first place, that makes this transition smooth.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

Liminal Rest Stop

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Nothing exhausts you more than travel. Three days of driving 5+ hours, a four hour plane trip, and an hour taxi ride, to be continued tomorrow by a three hour shuttle trip. Insert that exhausted sweat drop emoji here. But regardless, it’s good to be back in Quito, Ecuador, at a most wonderful hostel, Hostal Zentrum. Though my research partner and I are staying in what appears to be the dungeon of the place, we are in La Mariscal neighborhood, a few blocks away from Plaza Foch, which has a lot of good restaurants and supposedly nightlife, though I’ve never experienced it.

For the last two, now three, years, Zentrum has served as our liminal space in which we take a breather from travel before we head to Shiripuno, which is a small town outside the city of Tena in the upper Amazon Basin. Pictured above is my favorite part about this hostel: a little green door. I don’t know what it is about that door that I love–the hobbitishness of it? The vibrant color? Regardless, I am determined that this door will show up in something I write in the future.

My research partner and I have a little over 24 hours to languish in our liminality before we head off again. Seeing as we’re both sick, most of that will be spent sleeping. So if nothing else, take this post as your daily reminder to pay attention to the liminal spaces in your life. What are they? What makes them so interesting? How do you feel in them? How do they work, and how can you make them work for you? I often find myself able to write easily in spaces of transit and flux. But more on that later, because I’m off to take a nap.