Friday, December 4, 2009

Finnish book club edition: November

The Finnish Book Club I go to has done me great good: it has introduced me to many authors I would never have read, either because of my prejudices ("detective stories?? Puhleeeeze"), or simply because I was so wrapped up in literature and nonfiction written in English that I didn't even think about giving Finnish literature a chance.

I know it's December already, but these are some of the books I either returned or borrowed from our November meeting. All good stuff.

38. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
OK, we also read literature translated into Finnish...

 First, a confession: for the longest time I have seen this title mentioned in various blogs that I read. For some brain-farty reason, I always thought people are talking about Middlemarch, and I was wondering why on Earth young generations seem to be finding such solace in this book... Duh.

This is one of those books that I would love to describe in the clichéd terms of "This is like authors X, Y and Z on drugs/in a rollercoaster together/having lunch in Sicily with old men", and only because I want to convince everyone that they should check this out! The style of writing reminds me of Love in the Time of Cholera, where things mundane and even grotesque were described so beautifully that you'd think you are reading about some magical event when, basically, you are reading about two really old people getting it on.

Eugenides takes a coming-of-age story, and deeming the genre's protagonists and their usual adventures worn out, he creates Calliopeia, an intersex person who, because of a doctor's error, grows up to be a woman in a man's body. The novel stretches back generations to explain why this genetic mutation happened, and it cleverly discusses the influences of nature and nurture in becoming a gendered person, while in the center there is Calliopeia, a tortured teenager without knowing the reason why. Also, it's simply a pretty damned funny story. Sad, too. Unfortunately, every synopsis I have read (and now the one I have written) don't do justice to the book. There's just too much... stuff in the book to summarize it well in a paragraph or two. There's Greek history, a bit of mythology, immigrant issues, some great love stories (with realistic-seeming outcomes) and the issue of growing up in the "wrong" gender, all in a neat and pretty package.

39. Kommentteja kaksoiselämään by Olli Nuutinen ("Commentaries on a double life")

Olli Nuutinen is a guru among Finnish teachers: he has written the first ever, Finnish-only Finnish textbook (that does come with small dictionaries in various languages). All my students know and love his books, especially because the situations in the books are sometimes just so memorable. In one of the books, a lot of the dialogue revolves around a young Finnish lady, who loves to go out and meet men and party...

I knew absolutely nothing else about Nuutinen. Nor did I ever think to read him up. I haven't read up on Fred Karlsson's personal life either, so why should I start stalking these linguistic celebrities?

Nuutinen wrote this book as a seeminly cathartic effort: being a homosexual in the 1960s, up until these days, in a country with very small circles, has not been easy. In the beginning of the book he states that he is not going to write about his love for languages and Finnish especially, because he has done that so many times already. Nor is he going to list the events in his life in a chronological order. The book seems more like little glimpses to the hidden and shameful life of an academic homosexual, who knows he is being surrounded by similar people, but also knows that what he is being and doing is illegal and, up until fairly recently, classified as an illness. His descriptions vary from romantic romps in Central European towns, to that sunken feeling on Monday morning at the teacher's lounge when everyone is talking about what they were up to with their significant others during the weekend--while Nuutinen cannot even wrap his arm around his lover while walking on the street, in fears of being found.

The only thing that bothered me with the book was sometimes his "facts", which he had taken from a book written by another academic homosexual, sometime in the early 1900s, or then from his own observations. Compared to Eugenides, who discusses various sides of the nature vs. nurture debate in forming a sexual identity (in fiction), Nuutinen states things such as  

I do not remember a single homosexual, who would've been interested in soccer. We think about it like women do. A hint for researchers: this is not because of nurture. 

Later he makes an exception: lesbians may like soccer, because they like manly things more. Nuutinen also adds, that because lesbians identify more with men, they also hang out more with their father than their mother when growing up. So, I would assume that in traditional family settings in the 1960s-70s, hanging out with the father would also mean going to more soccer matches or watching soccer than what you would do if you hung out with your mother (which Nuutinen states is the gay male child's preference).

With these statements in mind, the book comes out as Nuutinen wanted: a kind of a confession of a very confused man, who was able to hold hands with his partner publicly for the first time when he was already past his 40s. The sadness and bitterness of this burden, as well as the misinformation and confused feelings of what homosexuality really is, is well expressed in the book.

40. Baby Jane by Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksanen, Finnish literary scene's Lady Gaga, was introduced to me first via tabloids which, instead of discussing her work, focused on her "gothic" look and whether she was hot or not, and whether she would be hotter if she just got rid of those weird dreads. I wanted to see what English speaking readers thought of her work, but Googling resulted in similar stuff as the tabloids.

So, unfortunately she got onto my Prejudiced-list. I thought she must be all show and no content.

I was so, so very wrong, and this is my public apology. Sofi Oksanen's books are amazing. I have previously read Puhdistus (which should come out soonish under the title "Purge", IIRC), and Stalinin lehmät ("Stalin's Cows"), and both of them made a huge impression on me. Oksanen is Estonian-Finnish, and her subject matter in both of these aforementioned books revolves heavily around the history between these two neighboring countries. To those of you not in the know, Finns seem to think that Estonians are these cute mini-Finns, who speak a funny language. It's an oddly patronizing a relationship, especially when you add to that the other stereotypes, such as that all Estonian women are prostitutes and the expectation that Estonians know Finnish because they just must like us, the big brother... Oksanen reveals facts from history and present that the Finnish school history books do not want to talk about: Finns know embarrasingly little about Estonia, thinking that the country is only worth for cheap amusement. The books reveal a nasty side of Finns to Finns themselves (the disgusting treatment of Estonians, and immigrants in general)--which sure is healthy.

So, after reading these two very heavy books about history, eating disorders related to personal growth and confusion, I borrowed Oksanen's chronologically second novel, Baby Jane. Most people told me it's the worst of the three. I can see why: the subject matter is much, much lighter and less analytical and poignant than in the two previously mentioned books, but... Had I read this book as my first Oksanen, I still would've wanted to read more, because it felt like a breath of fresh air in the Finnish literary scene.

The novel is narrated by a woman with no name, the "I" of the story. She moves to Helsinki and becomes involved with the gay scene (I know, what is with me and these gay books today!), and begins to date Piki, a lesbian everyone seems to be familiar with and with whom nobody has any intents to mess with. Both the "I" and Piki suffer from depression, but in various degrees. It takes the narrator a while to realize the extent of Piki's mental problems, which also include panic disorder. To survive after the public health care system has tossed her out the door, she has created a crazy, abusive system with her ex-girlfriend Bossa, who enables Piki's problems for the privilege of still being able to control Piki's life. Also the narrator realizes how she has been lured in to enable Piki's disorders without even actually realizing it. Day after day she feels more constricted (also literally!), until something has got to give. To those readers familiar with old Hollywood movie classics, the title says it all.

Although drenched in sex and violence, the story is ultimately about mental disorders, and how those who have not experienced the disorders themselves are unable to recognize them, or relate to them. It is also about safety nets not holding for people with invisible disabilities. As per Oksanen's style, a rough read.

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