Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Another book year over, and a new one just begun...

2010 books...

1. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. 
2. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson. 
3. Pienin yhteinen jaettava by Pirkko Saisio. 
4. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.
5. Naïve. Super. by Erlend Loe
6. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
7. Doppler by Erlend Loe
8. Sopan syvin olemus by Anna-Leena Härkönen
9. Tatun ja Patun oudot aakkoset by Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen
10. No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
11. Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane
12. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
13. Distress by Greg Egan
14. Maata meren alla by Riikka Ala-Harja
15. Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz
16. The Art of Compelling Fiction: How to Write a Page-Turner by Christopher T. Leland
17. The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty
18. When You See an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda
19. The American Girl by Monika Fagerholm
20. Retail Anarchy: A Radical Shopper's Adventures in Consumption by Sam Pocker
21. The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson
22. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda
23. Bilingual: Life and Reality by François Grosjean
24. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch
25. Melua Mekossa by Leila and Annukka
26. Sen Pituinen Se by Leila and Annukka
27. Kutsuvat sitä rakkaudeksi by Arno Kotro
28. Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese
29. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Elster
30. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
31. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
32. Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris
33. Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama by Tim Wise
34. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
35. Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor
36. Colorblind by Tim Wise
37. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
38. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
39. Translation in Practice: a symposium edited by Gill Paul
40. Laulajan paperit by Anja Erämaa
41. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal
42. How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid T hem--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
43. Totta by Riikka Pulkkinen
44. Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich
45. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

...and then on to blather about them

I had set aside a pile of books to read during the holidays, but I ended up knitting more than reading. On the craziest knitting day I finished a pair of socks and two hats. Although I don't enjoy snowy conditions in Seattle, I do enjoy the ability to finally knit to my heart's content, and thus be dressed warmly when I go out. This just meant that I did not meet my on-and-off remembered goal of reading one book a week.

Looks like this year was spent reading nonfiction, and I know why: when I read one interesting nonfiction book, I have to check out all the other, interesting books that the author mentions. That's why I have a lot of books on language and writing style in the list this year. The authors just kept on mentioning other good books on the topic, so what could I do but get on the library website, place a hold on them and  read them as soon as they became available? Besides, most of those books were simply smart (and smart-ass) and laugh-out-loud funny, so I wanted to keep on going back for that fun-high I got while reading them.

Other trends are equally visible: I got really into the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, and somewhere along the way we began to watch True Blood and I consequently began to read the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are ridiculously entertaining snack reading between any other books.

You can also tell when I have been at the library and just grabbed a very random book from the shelf just because of the cover or a funny title. Among these is the Elephants on Acid book.

Although I wrote about them, I did not list any of the editing text books or knitting and crocheting books that I read: I figured that I had to read the editing books, so they did not qualify as fun reading (although they were so much fun), and I never read any of the knitting books from cover to cover. I usually just read the little blurbs about the projects, and left the majority of the book--pages and pages of instructions--unread. I know, my listing rules are very arbitrary.

I see alarmingly little science fiction on this list! For this I have the wonderful Finnish book club to blame: I have probably read more Finnish books in these past two years than I ever did in Finland, which is great. Unfortunately science fiction is not a big genre in Finnish literature, and it's still looked down upon over there as a kind of a "Space aliens and intergalactic wars" type of a pulp genre.

The other culprit is my work: as I've begun to move more and more toward editing fiction, it's natural that I would have read a lot about fiction writing and writing styles.

I do have a Damien Knight collection waiting for me, now that I have no books checked out from the library and can focus on books that are on our bookshelves. Then again, I know that one book that I have been eager to read will soon become active in my Holds list at the library. Unfortunately, library books with their deadlines trump the books at home.

To keep up another tradition, I also messed up the numbering in the entries. The list above has them fixed.

I hope that Santa brought everyone something good to read for the winter chill/balmy Southern hemisphere days. Happy New Year!



Monday, December 20, 2010

On eating meat

46. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case. (What assumptions did you make upon seeing the title of this book?)"


The Omnivore's Dilemma discussed how the age-old dilemma has changed after the emergence of factory farming and big-time operations: instead of learning from past generations what's good and safe to eat, now we learn from big marketing campaigns. And they are not always so truthful. The Dilemma urged people to be more aware of what they eat.

Safran Foer goes one step further in addition to discussing the health effects of eating factory-farmed meat. As Pollan pointed out in Dilemma and Safran Foer hinted at in the quote above, people probably would not want to eat meat anymore once they'd see what happens in massive slaughterhouses. Safran Foer then poses a question of ethics and conscience: after you have read this book, and all these stories from farmers (both factory and small-time, and their workers), from him visiting a variety of farms, from researchers, are you still able to eat factory farmed meat with good conscience?

In Safran Foer's view, the acceptable answers to this are yes or no. If your conscience is fine with eating basically tortured animals, then that's cool. At least you have had that dialog with yourself, and you have decided that the rights of your taste buds go beyond the rights of those animals. If your conscience is not fine with that notion, then that's cool too: you might want to start figuring out what would be a more conscientious way of eating for you. However, if the book moves the reader enough to start buying small-farm meat in order to assuage further animal suffering and risks of promoting world-wide animal-borne illnesses, but the same reader still ends up sometimes buying factory-farmed meat because it's more convenient in certain situations... to these people Safran Foer says, You didn't get my point. (He actually does explicitly say this.)

After reading the book, I felt I could hear Safran Foer's voice in each chapter: When I show you this, how does it effect your view on what you eat? Think hard now, because I don't want you to look away and ignore this. Made up your mind? Don't tell me the answer! OK, let's move onto the next case.

Like he says in the early pages of the book, this is not a clear-cut case for vegetarianism (although he is a vegetarian). This is a case for people making conscious choices about what they eat, and to be content with the choices they have made.

What I found especially enjoyable in this book was that Safran Foer gave a clear voice to people on different sides of the isle. There are little vignettes--some pages long--from all the people he met that read like letters: there is a vegetarian slaughterhouse builder, who tells us why he has chosen this path; there is a vegetarian hog farmer, who battles between her choice of giving people a more humane option of consuming meat while still condoning some of the inhumane practices that come with the territory; there is a factory farmer who understands where small-time farmers are coming from, but not how they are going to feed the whole world cheaply, and so on. Just when you  have read one of these letters and go "Yeah, that's a good point!" an opposing view is offered in the next letter. And not once is this used as a simple "good guys vs. bad guys" dialogue. The reader can relate to the concerns of everyone, even if he or she does not agree with everything they say.

I lived on a farm, so I have had to already negotiate with myself on eating meats. Then again, I lived on a tiny farm in a small country, where there are no feedlots or massive, massive slaughterhouses that employ illegal immigrants cheaply (at least there is no expose yet on that!). The negotiating I did was based on different factors than the ones I need to base my views on here in the United States. The book definitely made me feel uncomfortable about my eating habits, which is a strong case for pointing out that I am not entirely at ease with the choices I make.

A book I did not really read.


The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal

I can't really count this toward my read books, because I merely skimmed it. This was not because I did not enjoy the book: quite the contrary, I agreed with everything Crystal said, and I liked his often humorous style, too. I just already knew the arguments he was making (that often fall, unfortunately, to deaf ears), so I just ended up looking for bits that I was not familiar with yet.

This book is basically Crystal being puzzled at his friend and colleague Lynne Truss's surprisingly militarist view on language in Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The problem with being a prescriptivist like Truss is that other equally militant prescriptivists are going to tear you apart once they find even an itty-bitty error in your writing, and they will call your bluff for being any kind of an authority on language. And that's what happened to Truss in reviews: her book was ruthlessly taken apart by other militant linguists who pointed out that her comma usage was terrible, and that she often fell for the same mistakes that she accused others of. All that is left is people fighting about who is being most vigilant, instead of people fighting for clearly communicated language.

As Crystal points out, a lot of the times correct and incorrect English usage is based on simply arbitrary rules, created by someone who just harbored a personal grudge toward a certain writing style. As an example, Shakespeare often ended his sentences with a preposition and split his infinitives (because it makes sense in English, unlike in Latin from where this rule was adopted). Likewise a lot of other, great writers of the past. But if you bring this up to the language pundits, they have an answer ready for you: See, even the great writers make big mistakes. So really, you don't stand a chance to ever writing properly. Only if you read and read [the manual of my devising, nobody else's] will you become a better human being.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Humor time

45. Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich

This is a collection of short, humorous vignettes. I read it in the Finnish translation Kusiaistarha, and I think I need to read the original before I can really say how good a humorist Rich is: I often found myself translating phrases back into English to see, if the voice was more fitting in the other language. Still, the translator did a heck of a job, because most of the time the vocabulary used in it was simply hilarious. I especially enjoyed the very first story, Abraham's awkward soliloquy to Iisac after having tried to murder him, beginning with "Would you like to have some ice cream, Iisac?"


Also, the short exchanges about old-timey measuring units were fun.
- I'd like a suit.
- Great. How tall are you?
- Well... about one king length.
- Could you specify that?
- Not really.
- God damn it. 
- I also need gloves. My hand is... about one hand.
- Yeah I can tell.
(Apologies if this does not match the original text.)

The funny beginning soon turned to a mild disappointment, as some of the stories were just... blah. (Ooh, a little oblivious kid's point of view to the hockey players his slutty mom brings home... How predictable.)

Still, when the stories were not a rehash of an old theme they were fun.

There's one bone I have to pick with this book, though, and it has nothing to do with Rich or the translator. It's the publisher, Like. I have never in my life seen a published book that has its formatting so out of whack. I don't know what the hell happened, because Like books are usually good-quality stuff, although they come from a small publishing house.

I mean, look at this (red marks mine). And this is the least that happens in every single story where there is dialog: the first line is always fine, but then the rest are indented. It looks like someone could not turn off Word's auto-formatting, and just thought, Screw this. And it went through the publishing machine!



(I can envision only two situations where high school math would be helpful
Murderer: I'm insane. Solve this trigonometry puzzle or I'll kill you.
Me: Can I use a graphing calculator?
Murderer: Sure, of course. Oh yeah--and here's a list of all the formulas you need.
Me: Great, thanks. OK, let's see here... sin2x = 2cosxsinx?
Murderer: Correct. You may go.)

Sometimes, when bullets are used, it looks like this:
- Hi, how are you?
-   Hi, I'm good.

Wow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Of the narratives we create

44. Totta by Riikka Pulkkinen ("True")

I often read because I find the story intriguing, or because the book makes me laugh, or because the characters are interesting. Then, once in a while, there are those gems that I end up reading because there are just so many sentences that taste good in my mouth, and I wish to write them all down somewhere. In their simple appearance and unpretentious word choices they still hold secrets about the world.

This is one of those books. I did not wish it to end, because I knew I'd regret that I did not write all those sentences down and they would run out soon.

Pulkkinen's story is simple on the surface: grandmother Elsa, a renowned psychologist, is dying of cancer, and the rest of the family attempts to come to terms with losing her. During a wine-induced dress-up game with her granddaughter Anna a dress belonging to mysterious Eeva is found in the closet. Elsa decides she is too close to death to be harboring any more secrets, and confesses first to Anna, who becomes burdened with information that even her mother does not know. What's more, it is evident that her and Eeva's stories are going to collide, one way or another.

What unfolds is a love story, a thriller, or a psychological journey into how we form images of other people in our heads, and how their stories intertwine with our own so much that we can't even tell our personalities apart anymore. By projecting our own fears and desires onto the lives of people we do not know we become familiar with them, although at the same time we wipe the real people out of the picture and insert ourselves there instead.

Elsa, the focal point of the novel, steps back and lets everyone else use their voice, to commiserate, to grieve, to love and to interpret what others think of them. The reader has access to Elsa's thoughts only through dialog, whereas everyone else's thoughts are visited. But who does the visiting? Toward the end, the narrator begins to slip and the story unravels.

A refreshing unreliable narrator and beautiful language demand reader's attention and a second read as soon as the book covers are closed, just to see all the subtle hints that he or she might have missed. Just as with Pulkkinen's first novel, Raja, I hope that someone buys the English speaking rights to this quickly and gets it out into the wider world.

I'm looking forward to Pulkkinen's third novel to see if her theme that has been now been very prevalent in both of the previous books surfaces again; namely, that of an affair between a female student and an older man of a higher status (in the arts, in both cases).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Giggles all around!

43. How Not to Write a Novel. 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

"...if you have perversely refused to use the lessons offered in this book as we inteded, and instead avoided each of the mistakes we describe, perhaps you now find yourself a published author. In that case, our follow-up book, How Not to Make a Living Wage, will be indispensable."

Let that quote act as a word of warning: this book is a total smart-ass. And I love it.

Especially in the world of fiction the ground rules for what is proper and what is not, both grammatically and topics-wise, keep on changing. Back in the early 1900s you could only refer to a sex scene by having the characters disappear for a while and then return again. Now, that kind of a treatment would seem awfully prudish. Style-wise, if you try to write a work of fiction by following Strunk&White, you'll soon be in trouble. This book thus earns a tip of my hat: it acknowledges that there is a multitude of ways to write good novels, but there are only a handful of ways that will definitely have your prospective editor throw your novel out the window in disgust.

Also note: the authors are actual editors who have gone through piles and piles of terrible writing (and chucked them out), so they know what they are talking about.

The book is written as a guide to how to never get published, ranging from examples of boring setups, flat or too perfect/too disgusting characters to airing out weird conspiracy theories with no connection to the plot or never doing any background work about the people or settings the author writes about. Each section begins with a brief description of the possible downfalls, and then introduces all of them via examples written by the authors. Which usually are, like I said, very smart-ass and full of bad writing beyond just the problem they illustrate. A beginning of one such example that made me almost spill my coffee:

Candida couldn't help but think that her condition was a mixed blessing...


Yup. You'll get a kick out of all the names and the misuse of foreign words in these examples. Their headings also gave me a chuckle. Some examples:
"Failing the Turing Test" (writing a character who shows no emotions)
"'And One Ring to Bind Them!', Said the Old Cowpoke" (about changing genre in midstream)
"The Gum on the Mantelpiece" (of course a reference to Chekhov's gun)

Also, there is a special section called "If There Must Be a Cat, Do Not for the Love of God Name It..."

I'd highly recommend this to any unpublished author for the insight it gives, any published author for double-checks and sighs of relief and finally, for everyone who just likes funny writing. Also, this should be required reading for anyone who tries their hand at the Bulwer-Lytton "It was a dark and stormy night... competition!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reading about reading and how we use language

42. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal.


 This is a well-balanced and coherent look at all the elements that are included in the concept of language. Crystal discusses these language elements in short chapters, more to give an idea what the issues are about rather than to take an in-depth look at them. For a language teacher the sections about physiological elements such as where sounds are formed in our mouths is always intriguing and a good reminder that although our letters look the same, we might produce them differently. This is something I learned while trying to teach American English speakers to roll an R by telling them to first keep on repeating meaningless babble with /d/ in it, such as "dadadadaaa dididiii," just to train their tongue to go to the right place in the mouth for a rolled r. Soon I realized, though, that the Finnish /d/ is produced somewhere else than the English one although it sounds very similar. Unfortunately, you need the Finnish /d/ to know how to roll an R if you are having problems with it... So we had to go back to learn a Finnish /d/ although the learners had already been producing wonderful sounding Finnish words with /d/ in them.

As this book works as a handy guide to what language really is, I admit to just skimming the parts where there is nothing to be disputed anymore, really: how words are formed, how we hear sounds, and what kind of language groups there are in the world and what their histories are. I found the chapters on more debatable issues more intriguing, such as the status of sign language and how non-signing people often have misconceptions about it; how and why was language born; how we give meaning to words and how we mean something else than what we say; and of course my favorite, the issue of what is "good" language, which is of course largely dictated by prestige and not any universal value of the language. Although I did enjoy Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves and I'm a grammar nerd, I had to nod in agreement when Crystal points out that such demonization as shown by Truss of people who do not follow an arbitrarily constructed model chosen by a prestigious class would not fly if it was applied to gender or race, but apparently it's fine in the realm of language.

Yes, Crystal takes prescriptivist to task. There is nothing wrong in writing or speaking good, understandable language, and we all should strive for making ourselves understood--which is where grammar and punctuation comes in to help us. The problem with prescriptivists is, however, that they apply their very strict rules even to situations where everyone understands the message. As a descriptivist, I agree with Crystal--which is not a surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog. Clarity in communication is important, but when someone begins to moan about how people collectively use a word wrong*, it makes me wonder whether these people ever heard of such a phenomenon as constant changes in language and vocabulary. Nobody is up in arms about the word "hilarious" now being used to describe something knee-slappingly funny and saying that we should go back to the old, Latin-based meaning of simply someone being "cheerful." But I'm sure at the point where people began to use the word differently the Trusses of the time were predicting the downfall of civilization.

Another issue that is closely related to "good" language is how we view dialects, and how one dialect always rises above others to be used as the standard (and we promptly forget that it's a dialect, too, and start mocking people who speak in another dialect or with another accent...)

The other sections I enjoyed were focused on bi- and multilingualism and how to protect or revive languages.

All in all, the book is a wonderful guide to all the issues you might encounter when you think about language: the way speech is produced, the way language is heard, the way we give meanings to words and phrases, and what we do with language in general.

A special Tut-tut to the editor: the book refers to African American English Vernacular (AAEV) for two pages, and then later on the correct usage, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), pops up. How did this error manage to slip through the cracks?

(*I may moan about this, too, when I am editing a text that is supposed to follow certain writing conventions or a style sheet. Or worse, when the person thinks that the non-standard way is the only right way to do it...)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two tiny books

40. Translation in Practice: a symposium, edited by Gill Paul

A wonderful booklet created from a translation symposium. It details the best practices for a fiction translator. I was already familiar with most of this information, but it was nice to get all the pointers and discussions on problematic translation issues within one book.
The symposium discussed issues that translators often run into, such as how to translate puns and jokes (if the equivalent does not exist in your target language, you should rather leave them out rather than confuse the reader) to how to deal with novels where awkward phrasing has been used for an effect (don't translate it into awkward target language--everyone will think you're a bad translator. Explain the awkwardness somehow). In addition to these problems and some dos and don'ts bullet lists for translators, the book also discusses the business side of translation, namely how to deal with the author of the novel, the acquiring editor and the editor/proofreader.

41. Laulajan paperit by Anja Erämaa

Let me preface this by saying that I do enjoy poetry every now and then. When I was in high school, I went on a real Pablo Neruda binge--I just loved his style (or rather, the style of the Finnish translations).

This poetry book by a small Finnish publisher, though, did nothing for me. The poems are in paragraph form, so they read like very short, one-page long stories. Except that the author uses very free-form, "poem" punctuation. Now, I understand than in writing prose the author has much more leeway in punctuation and style than in writing nonfiction. And that's fine. But some of the punctuation was just so random that when I encountered a spacing error it read to me more as if nobody had proofread or edited the book (even the author herself) than the punctuation being an artistic choice.

Reviews have described the poems absurd and ironic. I found them very self-conscious, especially when some of the rhymes seem to have been thrown in not for their meaning, but just because they rhyme and may sound funny to the reader.

With that said, there were a couple of poems that I really liked, where the author seemed to stop thinking about how she's a Real Poet who Writes Poetry Really Seriously, and where she was just being honest. No gimmicky language, just wonderful descriptions and fresh metaphors.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fictional psycopathy beyond Dexter

39. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I'm a sucker for books that instantly reveal a horrifying event, and the rest of the story is dedicated to tracing the steps that lead to the event. The thrill of the read is to find out how and why the characters get into a situation. And yes, I have begun reading John Dies at the End, which seems at first glance to be the most extreme example of this kind of storytelling--it's all given away in the title, for heaven's sake! I love it!

This fiction offers the reader a chance to be an armchair psychologist. The mother of Kevin, a teenager who sits in jail for a school shooting, writes letters addressed to Dear Franklin, who is soon revealed to be Kevin's father. Eva, the mother, writes about her struggles in continuing with her life after the school shooting and about visiting Kevin in the prison, but the majority of any single letter focuses on retelling Eva and Franklin's history together, how they decided to have a child and then another, and how for Eva it was clear that Kevin was growing up to be a disturbed individual, whereas Franklin would dismiss Eva's concerns as exaggeration. In these letters Eva reveals secrets she kept from Franklin in order to either protect him, or to avoid confrontation. Or who knows why. For leverage, maybe. While it is obvious that Franklin is clueless and his behavior seems to worsen the situation with Kevin and only Eva sees Kevin as who he really is, Eva is unable to discuss her rearing methods and reactions to Kevin objectively--which leaves this job for the reader.

It is an absolutely thrilling a job to figure out what Eva thought the reasons behind Kevin's behavior were, and to also read between the unstressed, subtle and not-so-subtle cues of how Eva's behavior toward the child might have had an effect of some kind as well.

Also, I'm very much used to epistolary novels being used for romantic purposes (not their sole purpose, I just associate them thus), so the format of this novel was a great choice. It completely disagrees with the cold, calm, very unemotional tone of Eva's letters.

This novel is a real heart-pounder to the very end, where what we already know is going to happen happens. And yet the shooting is much more chilling than I had imagined. A wonderfully written book, if that adverb can be used for a book about multiple murders and other horrifying events perpetrated by a sociopath.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm bad at titles, so let's just say I've been reading nonfiction.

36. Don't Shoot the Dog! The New art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor

I saw a friend read this book on a camping trip, and at first sighting I bought it from a second-hand store. It's a wonderful book on positive reinforcement, and how it has longer lasting results in training than punishment or negative feedback which, according to Pryor, often leads the person who gives negative feedback to intensify it even when it is not needed. A good example of this is the mother who whines when her children are visiting her, "Why won't you ever visit me?"

And yes, the book is not just about training dogs and other animals: it's about how positive reinforcement works on rowdy kids or on a messy roommate. Some have criticized positive reinforcement as manipulative (because you can't tell your target that you are trying to reinforce him or her--if you do, they'll probably start acting exactly the opposite way just to show you who's boss), but then again, isn't negative reinforcement also manipulative? Or heck, isn't any other way of trying to make a change in behavior manipulative unless the person whose behavior is going to change is in a complete vacuum and decides him- or herself to suddenly change?

The most delightful bits in the book are Pryor's anecdotes about training "untrainable" animals such as hermit crabs and chicken to do a variety of things, simply through positive reinforcement. Also, she explains why people think that cats are untrainable--it's because punishment doesn't work on cats. They just don't really get the point of punishment as dogs do. But if you use a clicker and do any of the positive reinforcement methods mentioned in the book, you'll soon have a cat who thinks she has the power to make you use the clicker with her behavior. Yes, the cat thinks she's training you.

Oh, and the bits about the reinforcement game are also hilarious. Anybody want to play it?

I also enjoyed the comparisons of a multitude of traditional training or conditioning methods compared to positive reinforcement. Pryor of course acknowledges that there are times and cases where positive reinforcement might not work as well as some other methods, so she lists a variety of scenarios and the outcomes of them when you use different conditioning methods.

I'd highly recommend this to anyone with animals and people around them. Now I really can't wait to get a cat and a clicker!

37. Colorblind by Tim Wise

Just like Between Barack and a Hard Place, Colorblind is a small book that is stripped of any tangents or rambling. There is nary a spot in the book where the opponents of its message could refute it. If they wanted to, they would have to refute all the scholarly work and statistics that accompany Wise's thesis.

And what is that message? It's that post-racial liberalism, which relies heavily on the flawed concept of colorblindness*, is not merely just short-sighted in its attempt to solve economical problems, but in the worst case scenario it ends up promoting racism. By saying that eventually people of color (POC) will also see improvements in their living standards if we remain colorblind and help all poor and low-income families, regardless of race, we will eventually create negative sentiments toward POC if and when they still are not doing as well as white people from working classes or poor backgrounds. The only reason for their challenges is then thus in their race: there's something wrong with POC if they can't succeed like the white people can.

One of the strongest arguments for why this thinking is faulty is the idea of privilege and inherited wealth.
The G.I.Bill is one of the examples Wise gives. This bill provided education and unemployment benefits as well as loans for houses or to start a business for veterans returning from WW2. Except that black veterans were disproportionally denied the benefits of the bill compared to their white veteran counterparts. So let's say your imaginary average white grandfather was in the war, came back, and got a good loan to buy a house. Now he owns property. In addition to that, he got his schooling (whether college or vocational) paid by the government. Compare this to your imaginary average black grandfather, who came back from the war, did not get a G.I. loan and could not buy a house; the same person also could not collect unemployment money or get a college education funded by the government. Now, whose kids are going to have an easier time getting college education and monetary support from their parents?

This book is not out to guilt trip white people--even if you disagree with Wise, there's still a lot of food for thought there. The book attempts to open a dialog about race, and how we cannot afford to be colorblind. Colorblindness is just paying lip service to structural, societal problems that POC face every day, and ignoring a person's race is not going to help them get past problems that have been created by racism.

Problems do continue to exist because of racism. Wise goes on to discuss a variety of research done on prejudices, varying from psychological testing on people's reactions to various races to finding out that hiring practices in companies are still benefiting white people much more than any people of color (even if your friend is now the president of the United States it doesn't mean that on average POC are doing great). All the research points out to this: people love to say that they don't think about race, and that race does not matter--but it does. And if race does matter, we should then have an honest dialog about it instead of hiding behind colorblindness.

This book was written after Between Barack... and I felt like Wise had probably gotten people attacking his book for not being clear enough on some issues, because he revisits quite many of them in Colorblind, but this time with a lot more details.

(*Colorblindness: not seeing the color of the applicant, your student, your employer while dealing with him or her. Ideally this would mean that everyone is treated equally. But this is not what happens because people are biased, even when they say they are not (and this has been proven through research). What happens is that you will treat everyone as you would treat a person of your own race, or of your own background--which is bound to fail because your experiences are not the same as that person's who does not share your background. And then you are left wondering why that other person just doesn't get ahead in life the same way as you have.)

38. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

We happily spend 2 dollars for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but if we have to pay more than 2 dollars for a dozen of eggs, we are suddenly up and arms about it. When did food, which is so essential to our well-being, become an item that we must get as cheaply as possible? How did we become consumers who do not have any idea of how and where our food is raised or grown?

Pollan goes from the macro to the micro in his search for good food: at first he attempts to follow the path of a steer he bought, and to find out how the steer will end up as beef in the huge cogs of the meat industry machine.

As that fails (because no large slaughterhouse lets outsiders to come in to view their practices--lest someone be appalled and/or gives their cows a disease of some kind in additional to whatever bacteria they are already carrying), he goes to a small farm where all animals are free-ranged, naturally fed and slaughtered, and where the farmer actually invites the meat buyers to see how their animals are raised and slaughtered. This they do partly so that the consumer can make an informed, ethical choice: do I approve of the way this animal was raised and slaughtered? We can postpone thinking about that when we see a vacuum-sealed, artificially tinted slab of meat at the grocery store.

Lastly, to minimize any middle man in the process of acquiring food, Pollan attempts foraging and hunting, and admits freely that he is pretty embarrassed by the flowery prose he comes up with for the imagery of hunting.

The title refers to the dilemma omnivores have: we can eat almost anything, but we have to find out by trial and error what it is that we can consume. The dilemma originally meant a simple choice between dying upon eating a mushroom or making a wonderful snack out of it, but now the dilemma is behind multiple turns in the road because we don't have direct contact with our food anymore. If I want to buy just cheap meat, am I willing to risk my health because feedlot cows spend their days ankle-deep in their own much, and are fed antibiotics so that they wouldn't get sick, which means that viruses might get more immune because of the amount of antibiotics that I unknowingly eat? By supporting the genetically modified corn industry, am I really willing to take the risk that the beef that was raised on purely corn and not grass (the food cows were evolved to eat) might be carrying E.Coli because its stomach's bacteria is all messed up?

These days the omnivore's dilemma also extends to the ethical treatment of animals (even if you didn't care about it much, you would care that the meat just doesn't taste as good and is not as healthy for you if the animal has been raised in terrible conditions), so in in addition to looking at the evolution of the American meat industry from small farms to humongous, mostly unregulated (health-wise) complexes Pollan also discusses the ethics of vegetarianism and veganism.

The book was a breeze to read, from all the historical insights to the food industry in the US to Pollan's personal experiences at feedlots, in killing chicken, and his mushroom hunting trips. The book does not promote a certain kind of a diet or a style of living: it promotes thinking about where your food comes from, and making eating decisions based on that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When your texts control your register

I've been playing around with predictive text input in various cell phones of late. In order to predict the word you want to create with just a couple of key strokes, the phone uses a frequency list of most common words in the language that the user has selected.

Most of these frequency lists come from written sources that are known to employ a wide variety of vocabulary: newspapers and magazines. And the top of the list usually reflects spoken language word frequency accurately as well.

Except in Finnish. The problem with Finnish is that it comes in at least three variants:

First is the so-called "book language," that only politicians and news anchors actually speak--otherwise, you'll see it only in written form in newspapers, magazines and novels.

Then, there is the "standard spoken language," which is fairly close to the book language, except for the variation in personal pronouns and the way verbs are conjugated. Also, some slangy expressions might be included. Listen to Finnish teachers speak: this is probably the diction they will use in a classroom. It's not as stiff sounding as the book language, yet it still retains an air of authority and a subtle indication about the speaker's level of education.

On top of that we have all the regional dialects.

In English, people might pronounce the word "I" differently, but it will be typed like that, regardless of where you are from. That's why predictive text works really well in English. In Finnish, the "I" can look like this: minä, mie, mää, or mä. All depending on the register the speaker is using. And in personal, written communication between friends and family members, people tend to use their dialects or some spoken variant of the language.

The problem with predictive text in Finnish is that there is not a single dictionary that is able to include all of these variants in it. If the dictionary memory was large enough and they could include all words, it would simply create a mess: instead of now giving you multiple alternatives of different words, the dictionary would offer you five different dialect versions of the same word--just because they might have only one letter difference in them. And as a South Karelian dialect speaker, I really don't need to see Savo dialect options pop up as my alternatives.


In the past I would never use predictive text: the words from either standard spoken language or from my dialect were not recognized by it, and even worse, the dictionary would throw me words that were not even close to what I wanted. I'd input, say, "Hello!" and the output would be "Closet!"

Why would anyone write in dialect, by the way? The answer is in being economical. Some Finnish words are damned long, so people simply cut the endings off when they speak. Also, in a country where most text messaging and phone calls are handled with a pay-as-you-go plan, you can save money on texts by cutting out as many characters from your text message as possible to keep your story within the character count of one text message. Dialects do this already for economical speaking.


A lot has changed in the past ten years, and the predictive outputs are really good these days. The dictionaries include standard spoken language pronouns, and even dialect pronouns in them. I actually enjoy using the predictive text now, as it gets me better than ten years ago.

There's however one but. As soon as I start using the predictive texting method, I stop using my dialect. There are two reasons for this. First, the frequency dictionary will most likely give me a "book language" version of anything else except some pronouns. Second, it will give me that word in a split second.

So, now I need to weigh typing shorter words which both saves me money and time (because I don't have to type for so long) against inputting only three characters and immediately getting the word that I want--except that it's just not in my dialect but instead in the standard that everyone understands. And this is because it comes from the frequency list that has been lifted from written language.

To save even more time, I may simply begin to write in the book language without even attempting my dialect version, just because I know that the dictionary will definitely get the book language form.

Everyone will understand me, but it's not anymore I who is writing the message; it's some very uptight person who is talking like a robot! Yet, because it is so much faster to compose the message by using a good, predictive method, I will most likely opt to using the frequency list dictionary, and lose my voice. It's just less of a hassle that way.

When authors began writing books in dialect and slang, people grew concerned: is this now the death of Finnish "book language?" Will dialects all take over and soon we will have no common language? As everyone above 7 years old has a cell phone in Finland (only a slight exaggeration, by the way...), and texting is a ridiculously cheap and a quick way of getting touch with everyone, I wonder if the opposite will eventually happen; that predictive texting will create a generation of kids who prefer using book language when they communicate with their friends or family in writing. How long would it take for book language then to seep into the spoken variants?

Will there be a time when, just out of being too lazy to type out words and we'll just accept whatever the dictionary gives us, Finns will begin to speak a very proper version of Finnish?

I suppose that would be a day when learners of Finnish would rejoice: finally, the language taught in the textbooks matches what they hear on the streets.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

34. Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama by Tim Wise

Tim Wise (a white American male) reframes the question heard often during the previous presidential elections, "Is America ready for a black president" as "Under what circumstances is America ready for a black president?" As the elections showed us, the black president needs to be someone who "transcends race" (read: does not behave black) and "moves beyond race" in his topics (read: does not bring up race because it would be unpatriotic, make people feel guilty or just annoyed). In other words, the black president should do his utmost to make people forget that he actually is black (and although he is biracial, he is still regarded as black and not white, nor biracial.)

This small and very to-the-point book is a perfect read for people who either think that we should stop discussing racism now that there is a black president, as if having one was evidence enough that minorities have an equal standing in America with the rest of the people, while also being the perfect read for people who might think that having a black president will somehow educate people more about tolerance and racial prejudice, and open the gates to a post-racial society--a word that was thrown around liberally during the presidential elections.

As Tim Wise describes it, Obama's presidency is problematic because he has had to be this "model black person." This might cause white people to hold all black people, regardless of their social status or background, to the same regard before they are given a time of day. It might make white people think that if Obama was able to become a president, then that black kid who can't even get a job interview because his name sounds black is just being lazy and should pull himself up by his boot straps. Obama did it--why don't these lazy bastards do it? 

After these initial questions, Tim Wise takes the reader on a short trip to the black American experience, including plenty of research and statistical evidence to back up his stories. Black high school graduates are less likely to be selected for a job than a white high school drop-out, even if they are exactly the same in manner, dress and qualifications. In fact, a black person needs to have 8 years more of work experience than a white person with same qualifications before he or she is treated equally; black people are more likely told to get a sub-prime mortgage than their white counterparts, even when they have the same income;  doctors are less likely to suggest heart surgery for black people than white people, although they complain of the same symptoms (one doctor said he didn't recommend the surgery because the "woman seemed lazy and would not have followed care instructions"--she was an actor who was instructed to act exactly the same way as the white patient).

It's like telling someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while handing the boots without any bootstraps on them.

Wise discusses two types of racism, which is the reason why we can easily say that we are now a post-racial society and still behave racist. There's Racism 1.0, which we all know: the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation, black people at the back of the bus, the openly-racist person who thinks minorities are worthless. That is a rarity, but that's what many think when they hear the word "racist." But then there is also Racism 2.0, which allows exceptional black people like Obama to succeed; it might even let people think they are not behaving in a racist manner. But whenever racism is brought up by minorities, white people are still eager to discredit another person's personal experience even when they do not have the experience themselves--"he probably didn't mean it… are you sure he's not just lazy… maybe he triggered that encounter somehow… aren't you being a bit racist yourself by suggesting that?" Racism 2.0 is thinking that now that cross-burning has ended and we all have the right to have schooling and jobs and a happy life, that the work of an anti-racist is done, and people really should just shut up about race already. Or even better, they think that black people have it too easy these days. They think it's hurtful for the national psyche to be reminded of the fact that the United States was built up by slave labor; an act that has left scars to all of its subsequent generations, either through using black people for medical experiments even until 1970s, to believing that a black person is not really as intelligent and hard-working as a white person with the same credentials. This triggers the bias effect, where if a person is told that they suck because they are X, they are not going to succeed in whatever they are doing as well as people who were told nothing like that (same experiments have been done with women, who performed better in math tests when they were not told "women are bad at math" before the test.)

I'd love to talk about this book more, but I'll let you read it yourselves. It's a quick read, and goes very quickly to the point. I have read Tim Wise's blog before, but none of his books. I should take a look at the other ones. 

 34. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Ya'll know already what I think of these book covers, so let's skip that rant. 

The third installment of the Sookie Stackhouse novels deals with the disappearance of Bill the Vampire, Sookie's boyfriend. In her search for Bill's captor, Sookie needs to cooperate with the slick vampire Eric Northman, and a werewolf whose ex-girlfriend--a human--has gotten engaged to a really bad-ass werewolf and is obviously taking vampire blood as a drug. Somehow the vampire king of Louisiana is also messed up with the werewolves, and he might just be the key to Bill's disappearance.

It's hard for me to keep these books straight, because I keep on getting the stories of the TV show and the books mixed up. The most recent season of True Blood dealt exactly with the storyline from the third book, but it ended up with events and a cliffhanger that are coming up later in the books. Which is why I just bought novels 4 and 5... 

These books are so much fun, and always quick reads. I guess Charlaine Harris is my Danielle Steele. 

Books that I have worked on but never finished 

The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations & a Variety of Helpful Indexes by Adam Thirlwell

I barely managed to read the title before I had to get it back to the library! I got it because I thought it would be an interesting look at how people translate books, and... in a way, it is. But at the same time, the book meanders from one story to another, from one author to another, and it takes a while before the first translators and their work is produced. The writing style is oddly dry compared to the promisingly witty title, and it just did not work for the current state of my attention span. Maybe another time!


The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors by Nicholas DiFonzo, Ph.D.

Again, a promising premise. I've been interested in rumors since I took a class on pragmatic linguistics, where we spent some time on Deborah Tannen's wonderfully pop-sciency books on communication between men and women, and especially on the topic of rumors. I was interested in reading more from a psychologist's point of view on why people believe even the bizarrest, sure-to-be-untrue rumors, and what is the function of telling rumors (Tannen: building rapport between people, in general.)

I did not get very far in the book as I got fairly tired to its pattern, which was this:
1. Author introduces a question about rumors, such as "But why do people believe crazy rumors?"
2. He gives an example of a crazy rumor, such as the "Paul is dead" rumor about the Beatles in the 60s.
3. The author says something akin to, "Isn't it crazy that people believe this??"
4. Does not really dedicate any space for answering or analyzing the question he has posed. 
5. Asks another question, "But how do rumors begin?"
and the same cycle begins again. 

Within the 30 or so pages I did learn many a rumor that has made the rounds in our inboxes, but no analysis on them. Even Tim Wise's tiny book gave a more analytical look at the crazy rumor about black people murdering and raping each other in New Orleans after Katrina (which turned out to be completely untrue, yet many people happily believed it, including news reporters--Wise discusses what allowed this to happen, DiFonzo just goes, "Crazy, huh?" Not a direct quote, by the way.)

I guess I'll just need to re-read that Tannen book.

EDIT: Ugh. This is the last time I compose these entries in a Word processing tool that Blogger apparently can't handle. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jet lag to the power of 2

32. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Lent to me by Wasabi Prime for a travel read, I had to occasionally lift up my head from the book and quietly chuckle at how appropriate the book was for traveling purposes: the mood of the book is hazy and often dreamlike, to reflect the protagonist's continuous and ever-worsening jet lag as she zips between Japan, Britain, the United States and Russia, both physically and mentally. So, to get the most of this book, try reading it while being jet-lagged yourself! It's quite a sensation.

The novel's protagonist, Cayce, makes a living by recognizing trends and evaluating how effective company logos are--a true 20th century occupation. Outside of her professional life she is literally allergic to logos and brands (breaking into sweats when even hearing the name Tommy Hilfiger), and she is obsessed with items that are clean of any branding. Which is probably why she is so wrapped up with mysterious, short clips of film of people barely in focus that are posted online. She and her fellow enthusiasts analyze and over-analyze these clips in an anonymous online message board, trying to figure out who the people in the clips are and who on Earth could be making them. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to the clips, which is what throws Cayce off and makes the clips even more intriguing to her.

Once a coder finds a watermark in one of the clips, she is hired to find out the maker of the clip. She suspects that the motivation of her employer is anything but noble: clips that have millions of people waiting for them with baited breath should surely be harnessed for viral marketing and branding. Still, Cayce herself and her compatriots are eager to find out the origins of the clips, so with the money given to her by her employer, she begins to travel the world to find out what kind of a genius has such power over people with only a few frames of film at a time.

Branding, logos and viral marketing--as well as the female protagonist--made me think of Popco, which is a really cool book about code-writing and breaking and marketing, among other things. While Popco was a breeze to read, Gibson's run-on sentences and his comma-comma-comma-comma-comma-chameleon writing style was often just exhausting to read. William, we won't think of you as any lesser a writer if you'll use full stops every now and then!

This was the first book I had read by Gibson, and I did enjoy it. It obviously was also a cathartic writing exercise for him, as the novel ties in the events of 9/11 in a manner that somehow just did not seem to meld with the rest of the story, although the ending tries to make the most of it. It seemed like a topic Gibson needed to get out onto the paper, and used Pattern Recognition as a vessel for it.

When K. heard that I was reading a Gibson book, he asked, "Is there a character who is a disgustingly loathsome social outcast, has some kind of a neurosis or an eccentric problem, and preferably is a real genius hiding from the government?" All I could say was, "Does Gibson get extra points if he's also Russian?"

33. Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

(Ugh, the cover again. What's with this crap? When does Sookie even wear pants like that in this novel? Or ever?)

The second installment of the Sookie Stackhouse novels! Same old, same old--but in a good way. I could copy and paste my previous post about Harris here, because I had the exact same reactions to Living Dead in Dallas as I had to this one: the book has elements from the second season of the film version, but the film version completely took off with the manaead storyline, creating it an issue with Tara more than with Sookie, and leaving Sookie to deal with the case of the missing vampire that was most likely kidnapped by a church. A church that preaches peace and love, and getting rid of vampires by exposing them to the sun while they are strapped to a big cross. The cross-burning reference here is obvious.

It continues to amaze me how easily Harris intertwines the incredibly silly and the socially critical. This book was a very quick read partly because it is written in a fairly straight-forward manner, without any crazy bells and whistles, yet it still manages to make interesting points about prejudice, whether it is toward people or things we don't understand and fear, or toward people we deem of lower status than ourselves.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Unfinished business and detours into vampire land

I'll be most likely not updating this blog for the next month, because I'll be traveling. My travel bag has been supplied with books and zines, so I should be good--I just might not have a chance to update until I get back.

30. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Although I've read some Anne Rice and enjoyed The Little Vampire books as a kid, I was never a vampire-story fanatic. There are some genres that I will keep on reading even if I've had bad experiences with them, but vampires-as-a-genre was never my thing. Which is unfortunate, because my prejudice had kept me away from the Sookie Stackhouse novels.

Had we not started watching True Blood, series based on the Stackhouse books, I might have never given them a go. Especially after seeing that cover. My God, what is that supposed to be? A book about vampires for 12-year-old girls? Why is the vampire pictured as a stereotypical Bela Lugosi-creature wrapped up in a cape, when in the book Bill walks around in his Dockers khakis and is trying his best to "mainstream", to be like humans?

But to the book. I am completely hooked on the series, so it's hard for me to write about the book without comparing the two: although True Blood's Season 1 follows Dead Until Dark fairly faithfully plot-wise, Alan Ball went ahead and used some creative license in the screen version with the supporting characters and in leaving some issues from the first book to be handled in the second season. For once I feel like both of the versions work equally well. They both are still about Sookie Stackhouse, an ordinary waitress at Bon Temps, Louisiana. Except for that mind-reading part. Her town is one of the last places in the United States where vampires are now roaming around like any other human beings, which is not to say that they are tolerated. Although Harris draws comparisons between racial prejudice and the fear and hatred of vampires, the screen version is more heavy-handed in pointing out the parallels. And why not: while I read the book, I can stop and think of the words and implications more, whereas on screen the same treatment could be overlooked.

I was surprised to see that Tara is not in this book, and that some events that had a big effect on Sookie and Bill's relationship proved to be originally acts of other people, which meant that the story does not take us forward at the same speed as it does in the on-screen version. Also, Bill is much meaner and scarier in this book. I chuckled when the bookstore clerk told me I'd find the Harris books in the horror isle--now I know why! Although True Blood has plenty of blood and gore in it, Dead Until Dark was occasionally genuinely frightening when Bill seemed to be totally out of control. Alan Ball decided to save that for much, much later.

In both versions, Sookie Stackhouse's character is great. I've read so many portrayals of waitresses/barmaids that can fit only into two groups that it's getting tiresome: either she's an angelic girl who's just stuck at a waitressing job until something better comes along (because only uneducated, unambitious people are waitressing!), or she's the girl who's seen it all and slept with all, and who will either become the angelic girl at the end, or somehow get her comeuppance. So it's refreshing to read about Sookie, who is proud of being good at waitressing, of being able to flash a fake smile on for tips all the while reading people's minds and how they judge her as a piece of white trash and borderline retarded. She almost could fall into the first group of stereotypical waitresses, the angelic good girl who's just in bad company, if she just wasn't so horny all the time and prone to occasional temper tantrums. All of those features make her even more lovable--she seems like an actual human being! In her world, being modest and wanting to wear a sexy dress out on a date are not exclusive, and neither is being a good person and being someone who is ready to kick some butt.

Not only is the story fun, fast-paced and a refreshing look at the vampire mythology, the story is just written really well. Not once did I find myself rolling my eyes at word choices or storytelling (OK. Once, when Sookie makes the same Godfather joke twice within two pages). Which brings me to...

The book I did not finish this time. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This was recommended to me by an acquaintance who loves this book. I got it from the library, and I will need to return it before I leave on my trip, and I doubt I'll get it again. I have heard people talk about Murakami in awed tones, so I figured I'd give it a try.

The story itself did not seem bad at all: your usual Bret Easton Ellis-style fair, focusing on a college kid who is stuck in a rut like all other college kids, with the exception that he's really insightful and smart and has to alleviate his weltschmertz by having sex with all the girls he can. Did I say "exception?" I meant, the same old story since Holden Caulfield. This story is just set in Japan, so what I found most interesting was when the narrative veered from the usual "omigod he's so torn and smart!" and became tangled with Japanese values and mores (such as when an almost 30-year-old woman laments how she cannot be married off to anyone at that age, especially after having been in a mental institution).

I was, unfortunately, unable to see past the horrible writing. Or maybe it was the English translation? I hoped I could read Japanese so I could see whether it really was Murakami who wrote like this, or whether it was the translator. There was a lot of this:

First page:
"Just feeling kind of blue." Kind of, huh? Well, that's forgiveable--it's a line the narrator says, and that sounds like something a person would actually say. 
But by page 4, the things and the hedging words were killing me.
"It almost hurt to look at that far-off sky."
"Memory is a funny thing."
"I never stopped to think of it as something that would..."
"Scenery was the last thing in my mind. Now, though, the meadow scene is the first thing that comes back to me."
"...these are the first things that..."
"How could such a thing have happened?"
Page 5:
"I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them."
"...like all the other things she used to spin..."
Page 6:
"...the image of a thing I had never laid eyes on became..."
Naoko and the protagonist talk what it would be like to fall into a well and die:
"Things like that must actually happen."
"The best thing would be to break your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you couldn't do a thing."
(from the first paragraph on page 7:) "Somebody should find the thing and build a wall around it."

AARGH. And it doesn't stop. Everything is a "thing." And once I started paying attention to "things", the "kind ofs" started popping up, too, although the line from the very first page should have warned me about it. He was kind of tall but kind of shy and kind of cute and the sky was kind of blue and the sex was kind of good but the alcohol was kind of better... Stylistically, this book is the hedgiest I have tried to read in a while. I don't oppose to using the word "thing" in general, and sure, people talk with "things" a lot, I just find it's very sloppy work to have one word be repeated so damned often that it can take a reader out of the story and wonder, "Do I know anyone who is as vague or 'thingy' in his or her speech as all these characters? No, I don't."

My bet is on a translator who went on a literal translation spree without thinking of how to rephrase the sentences. What kind of an author would not change The best thing would be to break your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you couldn't do a thing into at least "It would be for the best if you broke your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you wouldn't be able to do anything" to avoid repeating the same expression so many times on a single page? Even if this was a calculated move by the author (or the translator), it still does not sway me to finish this book because I was so bored by the style. Maybe someday I'll attempt to overlook it and find out what happens in the story itself.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The oddest experiments; attempting to define "bad" writing style again

28. Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

The cover and the title should give you an accurate feeling about the book: the experiments in the book are truly bizarre, they are often described fairly shortly so that you can use this as handy bathroom reading (chapter 8 is specifically designed for this), and headings are in a bubble-gum purple hue.I think the typesetter/designer wanted to really get the readers into the acid mood.

I was afraid the book would be way too quirky--or just stupid--for my tastes, but I found I was unable to put it down. The bizarre experiments drew me in, and Boese's writing style balanced well between the humorous and trying-too-much-to-be-witty. Although I ended up reading most of his final sentences in in my head in the puts on sunglasses -style, the punchlines were not annoying enough for me to give up this book.

The experiments range from the well-known ones (the terry cloth mom experiment with monkeys; the severed dog head that continued living; trying to raise a chimp as a human child to see if it would begin to behave like humans, etc.) to the more obscure (testing LSD on elephants, testing whether a tapeworm learns new stuff if it is fed a piece of another tapeworm with the knowledge, and so on).

My favorites were among the human psychology and sociological experiments. I heard of the Stanford prison experiment the first time when I saw Das Experiment (insert obligatory <3 Moritz Bleibtrau)which is loosely based on the real experiment. It freaked me out in a way that made me want to know more about the exam. By the way, I got that movie poster as a gift from a friend, and it was so depressing I could never put it up on my wall. Onward!

Originally, the experiment was to see what factors lead to prison abuse. Is it because people working in prisons are naturally violent and nasty, is it because the inmates are naturally violent and nasty, or could the environment affect their behavior? Completely normal and mentally stable men were chosen for the experiment, where half were given gowns to wear with no underwear (the prisoners) and the other half were given khakis (the guards). The only instructions for the guards were that they should not use violence and they should not let the prisoners escape. Although during the first day of testing the "prisoners" were simply sitting and playing cards, chatting about the experiment, within a couple of days the guards had put them in isolation chambers for punishment, made them pee in buckets and leave the buckets in their "cells" and forced them to do humiliating acts (such as sexual acts). The experiment that was supposed to last for two weeks was canceled after six days, because the "prisoners" were facing such abuse and psychological stress from their "guards." Even their yells, "This is just a simulation!" would not calm the guards the eff down. 

I find this absolutely fascinating, just as the Milgram experiment where completely ordinary people ended up giving electric shocks they thought were deadly to people, all just because a man in an authoritarian position told them that he'd take the blame, and the subject was simply obeying his orders. When asked whether they could ever kill a person, they would probably have answered--as all of us non-psychopaths would--with a no. These experiments just show us that there is a lot about ourselves that we don't know or understand. These experiments--although the results are shocking and appalling--should help people in designing situations where people's behavior would not be allowed to escalate so easily into abusive situations. Unfortunately, the results also give an idea of how easy it is to manipulate a person to behave against his or her will.

The book is a fun read, but I did not say it was a light read! 

Speaking of fun...

29. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Elster

If you want to read a book on style, please read any of the other ones I have written about. This mentions all the old hats of proper English usage as they do, but in addition, the author barely hides his loathing toward spoken varieties of English. He begins by stating that this book is for writers, whether you write for newspapers, blogs or you just write emails. But every now and then, he slips in snide comments about the bad ways people speak English (when the "bad" is actually just a vernacular of some type, or a shorthand). Elster, your agenda is showing.

Sometimes the author simply sounded like an old curmudgeon.He has a big chip on his shoulder (and he would slap me for that cliché) about blogging: the multitude of insulting terms he has come up with for bloggers is quite astounding, and he rarely forgets to mention that he came up with those terms all by himself! What a guy!

He takes swipes at Mignon Fogerty because whoever wrote her grammar book's dust jacket copy described the book as--wait for the dry heaves from Elster--a "fun book." (You can't use "fun" as a regular adjective, he mutters between his spew-covered teeth.) His disgust toward lexicographers is hard to avoid: Elster's descriptions make them seem like a bunch of namby-pambies who allow anything to be printed in dictionaries. I'm fairly sure I used the word "namby-pamby" wrong there, and he would make ruthless fun of me.

Elster seems to believe that dictionaries should act as teaching material on what proper language is like. I think that dictionaries should reflect language as it is used. Our views on language are fundamentally different. He is absolutely right with many of his examples, such as the ones where people don't get it that the idiom is toe the line, not tow the line (because the latter makes no sense--not that idioms are always sensible). But every now and then he seems to forget that language develops and evolves constantly, and if majority of people nowadays think it's OK to use "fun" as an adjective to describe objects, then protesting against it will only make you sound like someone who thinks that the English from a decade ago is something we should try to preserve, whatever the cost.

So, if you think that there is only one way to speak and read proper English (and that English must be from somewhere well post-U.S. colonization, pre-...now), then this book is for you!