Embassytown by China Mieville – Thoughts

Embassytown by China Mieville
Published by Del Ray, an imprint of Random House

I struggled with Embassytown when reading, and I’ve struggled over the past months thinking about it for a review. In lieu of a formal review, I am simply going to add a few of the thoughts that linger after all this time. For some context, here is the description from Indiebound:

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

  • The linguistics pieces were very interesting, perhaps the most intriguing part of the story. The interplay of language and truth, inability of the Ariekei to lie, or even express abstract concepts unless they had previously been made concrete was consistently interesting.
  • The descriptions of the more science fiction elements of the story, such as the complexities of space travel, the interstellar political systems, and the systems that kept humans alive on the Ariekei world fell flat for me. They seemed neither interesting, nor well enough explained. I am not sure if Mieville has other works set in this universe in which these things are better explained, but it didn’t work for me here.
  • I found Avice to be a thoroughly uninteresting and unsympathetic character. I didn’t care who she was with or what she did, and the rest of the plot was not compelling enough counteract that.
  • My other two experiences with Mieville have both been in audio, narrated by John Lee. I think that audio might be the best way for me to experience Mieville, because talented narrators like John Lee carry me on past these pieces that would otherwise bog me down.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Madre means mother, right? Well, technically. Madre may mean mother in Spanish, but it means a whole lot else besides that in Mexico. There is an extensive list of madre idioms, nearly all of which have negative meanings along the lines of disaster or whore. How can this be, when mothers traditionally hold a very high place in Mexican society, in a land where the Holy Virgin, the mother of Christ, is so venerated? What question could be more fascinating to a social anthropologist with an interest in linguistics and feminist leanings from the United States living in Mexico? It was this first question, in fact, that turned Liza Bakewell from a social anthropologist into a linguistic anthropologist with a particularly interest in madre and the intersection of gender and language.

“It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico. Underscored and italicized. His words would blow fire across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte, not only powerful, but really powerful. Like a match to gasoline, or a blow to the face.” -p. 47

Out of this fascination came Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun. The subtitle of Madre is really the best description of what this book is. Far from a strictly academic treatise, Madre is more of a travelogue/memoir combo by someone who is simply very intelligent and likes to think deeply about issues of language and society. In spite of this, the chapters are organized topically within the larger subject of madre: talking about piropo and albur, the grammatical dominance of maleness even in a room predominantly female, las mentadas de madre.

Perhaps this begins to explain the origins of the symbolic dilemma of madre in Mexico. The Church believes the bride, once married, is Eve, not the Virgin. -p. 175-176

Maybe it is just me, maybe I missed my calling as an anthropologist, but I think that the intersection of gender, culture, and language is a fascinating place to linger and observe, and I’m so grateful that Bakewell brought me to this particular intersection. Even better, she does not manage to lose a non-Spanish speaking, non-linguist on her journeys. It could be occasionally disconcerting to have the very personal style interacting with the linguistic and anthropological insights, but overall it worked very well.

A very interesting book, if the concept interests you, then I can recommend Madre.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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