Monday, January 25, 2010

True metafiction

3. Pienin yhteinen jaettava  by Pirkko Saisio ("The smallest common denominator")

Pirkko Saisio is well-known for taking elements from her life and turning it into fiction-fodder with great results. My previous read was Elämänmeno, and after having read this Pienin yhteinen jaettava, a biographical account of Saisio's father's slow death and her coming to terms with it, I could tell how much Elämänmeno was also, in fact, an autobiography of sorts.

The almost schitzophrenic aspect of this book makes it so interesting: Saisio does not hide it that deep down, all authors are somewhat narcissistic. I'm not saying this as a bad thing - the usual maxim of writing is "write what you know about" - and for most it's something that they are passionate about, which in turn is very much tied into peoples' personas. Saisio, however, takes this one step further: she is describing events from the "I" point of view, when suddenly there is a paragraph break and she describes herself as a fictional character. At the same time, it's a terribly narcissistic yet an artistic thing to do; to create a fictional and an improved and more interesting character out of your everyday self. The book begins with the author awakening within the narrator:

I was eight years old when it happened for the first time.

It was November, a morning.
The street was black and shiny. It swelled behind sleety, wet windows.
I saw my reflection in the window. I was plump and irritated.
I was pulling too tight woollen socks on.
A button was missing from my vest. My mother dug out 5 marks from her purse.
I put it in my sock. 

And then it happened for the first time.

I wrote a sentence in my head: She did not want to wake up.
Then I fixed the sentence: She would not have wanted to wake up yet.
Then I attached another sentence to it: She was much too tired to go to school.
I improved the second sentence: She was much, much too tired to go to school.

I looked at my father triumphantly - he was wearing a t-shirt and reading Työkansan Sanomat newspaper and drinking black coffee.
Mother was applying lipstick from her lips onto her cheeks in front of the foyer mirror, and hummed Ilta Redillä.

Neither of them noticed, that I had become a she; someone under constant observation. 

(Saisio: 5)

Soon a pattern emerges. Saisio describes events from the "I" point of view when facts are laid out without too much emotion, but the "she" narration takes over when Saisio wants to make an additional comment, or seems to be too embarrassed about/scared of saying it in her own voice: instead she steps back and looks at herself as an almost fictional character. Another example:

It wasn't until evening when I called the Hämeenkatu apartment.
I waited long until the phone was picked up.
Father's voice was tired and depressed, again.
- Well it's just me here.

Her voice was soft, somehow sickeningly sweet.
She had begun to speak to her father as if to a child. 

She tells her father, "I came back about an hour ago". Then the next paragraph is just one sentence: Why was she lying?

It is almost like a study in language. "I" is the utterance without a context, an almost a blank slate, whereas "she" becomes the context and the meaning. 

Quite fascinating, I'd say. I can imagine that had I read this at any other point in my life, I would've found it too gimmicky. Why not tell a straight-forward story? But the story is not actually about Saisio's father dying and her getting slowly over it and her memories - it is about Saisio finding the story so difficult to tell that she needs to hire a fictional alter ego for her services. It is basically about how fiction and story telling is crucial to human lives, and how it may be therapeutical. This is Saisio's story, and she has all the right to tell it the way she wants to.

The Millennium story is over, boo.

2. The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (read in the Finnish translation, "Pilvilinna joka romahti", the castle in the sky that came crumbling down)

OK. Jebus. Phew. So.

The last of the trilogy does what such should do: tie the story together and come to a solution of some kind. Instead of using the entire book as a story that would nicely wind down, more heart-racing excitement is in store for those who pick this book up. Larsson is able to do this, as he has created characters that, even when they are extreme and go through "unrealistic" events, still feel very real. Which in turn creates the perfect set-up for a crime novel: in real life good people can get killed. Good people can be punished for what they have not done. It's not enough that the reader knows (by the third book) who the perpetrators are - society does not. And they might not believe the evidence either. The question hovering over this reader's head was thus, holy poop - will he really do it and kill his main characters/have them suffer, just to teach us a lesson?

Again, I feel like I can't go into too much details because it would be way too spoilerish, but the book continues with its line of criticism of media, the simple audience who buys anything that gets printed on paper, corruption and authorities. The main characters in the story are still Mikael Blomkvist and the financial magazine Millennium he works at and Lisbeth Salander, the Asperger-Syndrome-ish hacker. New characters and ones from previous books who seemed to be playing just bit parts are brought back to the final, epic battle. Surprisingly, some former major characters are barely mentioned and do not make an appearance, which also reflects the "life-likeness" of the character flow. Of course the story itself is massively fantastical, but it is awesome storytelling: Larsson has put all of his personal experiences in working with publishing houses and the police (such as Scotland Yard!) into this fictional story.

Stuff I really enjoyed in the trilogy in general (no plot spoilers):

- everyone drinking coffee all the time. It was so... homey. "Oh hi, officer. I just poured some coffee for myself. Want some?" I just read some message board comments about the book, and so many (non-Nordic people) were complaining how annoying the coffee drinking was, and that it must have been an inside joke because nobody drinks that much coffee. Hello? Scandinavia and Finland are leaders in coffee consumption.  
- nods at other crime novels, even when I had no other idea of them except that "Ooh, this must be a reference to another crime author".
- The way people experienced relationships, especially the physical kind. It just seemed so... healthy. Really open communication between consenting adults. So... Swedish. Also, not as heteronormative as one would think of a best-seller all over the world.
- Characters. Not only did they feel real, they felt all very equal with their strengths and weaknesses. Which brings me to this...

Yo, Quentin Tarantino! If Hollywood sees the need to do a remake of the Millennium movies, you have to direct them/write the screenplay! Nobody else does the "a badly victimized woman decides not to just take it and have someone else revenge her/save her, but plans to get even with no remorse"-stories as well as you do. You get it.

- Back to the equality of characters. Larsson's private life work in anti-racist associations and in organizing a group that aimed to expose neo-Nazi groups in Sweden shows well. All characters are very Swedish, but they are not just the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed type. Mikael's sister is married to an Italian man. One of the police officers' last name is vaguely Spanish. Miriam Wu is Swedish-Chinese, and we don't find this out until the second book, when her last name comes up. There are immigrant workers who have Phd's but who can only mop floors because that's the only thing they are hired to do. There are police who use racist slurs (and thus set themselves up later for a verbal ass-kicking). The heterogenous future of Sweden is drawn out in a non-finger pointing way. It's just business as usual.

Now I understand my friend's statement upon me picking up the 2nd and 3rd books. "I am envious of you", she said. I asked her why. "Because you get to experience these books for the first time. I wish I could do it again." Yes. I already miss the feeling of getting to know these characters and being surprised, appalled and exhilarated by their behavior and the turn of events. I definitely want to read these a second time, but it won't of course be the same...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

No use in hiding it: I love Stieg Larsson.

1. The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (read in the Finnish translation, Tyttö joka leikki tulella).

I was very, very impressed by The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, even if the translated name annoyed me. I knew nothing about Larsson before reading that book, and no wonder: he died before these books that are now best-sellers all over the world were published! He left the manuscripts all at once to be published, and died of a heart attack. Mystery shrouds the author himself...

The second installment of the Millennium-series begins where it left off .This time, the title is translated literally and it also reflects the events in the novel accurately. The first novel was about Mikael Blomqvist, his personal vendetta and the case he was working on. In the second one it is Lisbeth Salander's turn to be the focus.

Mikael is working on a new case: he is collaborating with Dag Svensson, a freelance journalist who is writing an expose on human trafficking in Sweden and the reasons for why there are so little convictions in trafficking cases. His book is based on the facts his live-in girlfriend, Mia, has collected for her doctorate thesis on trafficking in Sweden - he has just gone a step further from academics and pulled out names and perpetrators who would rather not be named.

Meanwhile, the arrangements Lisbeth took care of in Book 1 are slowly falling apart. Her sadistic legal guardian strikes a deal with questionable parties in order to revenge Lisbeth's deeds (you will just have to find out what that was by reading the first book!), which in turn were a reaction to her guardian's abuse of his status. The guardian is not, however, the brightest bulb in the bunch, and he manages to lure out a character from Lisbeth's past whose intentions are to get rid of the girl, once and for all.The character seems to have a connection to Dag and Mia's work.

Lisbeth becomes the target of a manhunt, as her fingerprints are found in two crime scenes involving three murders. Mikael cannot believe that the person he worked with could do such a thing, but the media and the police are convinced otherwise. Or well, Mikael knows that Lisbeth could kill if she wanted to, but... why would she? He is shocked to hear that Lisbeth has been diagnosed with serious mental problems bordering retardation and that at age 25, she has a legal guardian--to him, Lisbeth is perhaps one of the smartest people he has ever met, albeit very, very peculiar. In no time, Lisbeth is painted in tabloids as a Satan worshiping retard lesbian, now hated all over the country for what she has done. It's Mikael's turn to try to find the truth in the matter and protect his former friend, whether she likes it or not.

She does not. Instead, she disappears.

An amazingly exciting book that continues to flesh out its characters from the previous story, and where (almost all of) the twists are surprising and fresh. I would love to write more about it, but that would result in me spoiling the novels! There is plenty of intrigue, computer hacking, old-world espionage, criticism toward media, mental health institutions, authorities, and what have you. And it's all so smartly done. There's even one hilariously twisted nod at American Psycho (just watch out for the part where Lisbeth furnishes her apartment), amidst all the allusions to Larsson's favorite detective stories.

By the way, these novels have been turned into movies! Can't wait to see them. Noomi Rapace looks pretty much exactly as I imagined Lisbeth to look like. The first one should be playing in the US in March, 2010.

Män som hatar kvinnor

Once I have finished the third book (halfway through!), I'll write more about why these supposedly simple crime stories have made such an impression on me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Books of 2009

This past year was interesting, book-wise. After moving to the U.S. it took me a while to start reading fiction again: the non-fiction shelves of the libraries and second hand bookstores just were too inviting. 2009 began and ended with fiction, and it was good to be in imaginary worlds for a change. Joining the Finnish book club also did me a world of good, as it introduced me to authors I had never read before, thanks to my prejudices about Finnish novelists.

Without further ado, here is the book list from 2009 with short synopses. Once again, I did not get to my goal of reading one book per week--let's see what happens next year!

1. My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki. Japanese-American documentary maker struggles to find a narrative for a meat propaganda project she is hired for. The central question is: who is considered a "real" American?
2. Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi ("The Troll") by Johanna Sinisalo. Speculative fiction where trolls from Finnish fairytales cause as many tabloid headlines as wolves near peoples' homes.
3. Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs! by Bob Santos. Community organizer Bob Santos's history on the birth and development of the International District in Seattle.
4. Popco by Scarlett Thomas. Creative minds are brought together to create ultimate toys. Code writing, breaking, and criticism of marketing ensues (such a fun book!)
5. The Code Book by Simon Singh. Thomas referenced to this nonfiction book in Popco; it deals with the history of code writing and code breaking.
6. Ihanat naiset rannalla ("Wonderful Women on the Beach") by Monika Fagerholm. Bored middle-class, Swedish-Finnish women and men on the verge of a breakdown on a beautiful summer's day.
7. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Discusses the concept of "beauty myth", and in which ways it is a constant stress to women: if you are not beautiful enough, you are ignored. If you are beautiful, your success is explained away with you having used "womanly wiles" and that you cannot possibly be smart--why else would the statement "She's not only pretty; she is also smart!" exist, as if this was some kind of an anomaly...
8. I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, the Big Lebowski, and What Have You by Bill Green. A fan book for Lebowski fans.
9. How to Live in Small Spaces by Terence Conran. Design tricks for people who live in small apartments.
10. Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer. An insider's expose on the horrid life of the extreme Mormon community, FLDS.
11. He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know About by Jessica Valenti. A laugh-out-loud funny book on double standards that I think all women already know about. Nevertheless, Valenti provides humor and to-the-point arguments on why such double standards are absolute bull.
12. The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. An account of fictional characters that the authors deem influential to the everyday lives of people.
13. Dream Catcher by Margaret Salinger. J.D. Salinger's daughter's autobiography.
14. She's Such a Geek! Women write about Science, Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders. A collection of essays from women scientists and all-around nerds on becoming what they are.
15. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Short story collection on Indian immigrant experiences in the United States.
16. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. A classic, where teenaged girls were interviewed on matters that are having a great effect on their self esteem, success and life in general.
17. Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga. A dystopian novel about a salesman pitching and partaking in using a memory erasing pill.
18. Stolen Sharpie Revolution: A DIY Zine Resource by Alex Wrekk. What it says!
19. Fruits Basket vol 14 by Natsuki Takaya. One in the line of my fave manga.
20. No Logo by Naomi Klein. A classic from the late 90s exposing the ways in which brands make their money, and how branding changed the world of marketing from selling goods that help you to selling feelings and self-esteem.
21. Viimeinen kesäyö ("Last Summer Night") by Leena Lehtolainen. A collection of crime stories.
22. Puhdistus ("Purge") by Sofi Oksanen. The lives of an old Estonian woman and a young Russian sex slave are intertwined in a history of wars and abuse.
23. Viidakkolapsi ("The Jungle Child") by Sabine Kuegler. The daughter of a missionary family in a remote locatin relates her story among an Amazonian tribe in this autobiography.
24. Uutispommi ("The Bomber") by Liza Marklund. Swedish crime!
25. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen. Personal tragedies and the effects of 9-11 on the psyche of Finns and American immigrants in Finland.
26. Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell. A collection of essays ranging from stories about Vowell's eccentric father to a surreal, hipster-ly ironic trip to Disneyland.
27. Vaimoni ("My Wife") by Tuula-Liina Varis. A man wishes his obese, subservient and quiet wife would disappear. She does.
28. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A fun guide on how to write.
29. The Museum of Kitchy Stitches by Stitchy McYarnpants. A silly look at old knitted atrocities, with additional snark.
30. Nobelin testamentti ("Nobel's Testament") by Liza Marklund. Swedish crime, again!
31. The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. Accounts of great inventions by men such as Ben Franklin, through sheer curiosity and perseverence and, sometimes, luck.
32. Elinkautinen ("Life Sentence") by Liza Marklund. Swedish crime... I know, I'm a broken record!
33. Sankarit ("Heroes") by Johanna Sinisalo. Sinisalo's modernized take on the Kalevala, the Finnish mythology.
34. Ei kiitos ("No Thank You") by Anna-Leena Härkönen. A bleak look into the life of a middle-aged, frustrated German teacher whose husband rather sits in front of the computer than has sex with her. Trouble ensues.
35. Sinut ("You (object)") by Umayya Abu-Hanna. Vignettes from Abu-Hanna's memories on moving to Finland among one of the first brown-skinned people around, to language-learning hilarity and observations on the changing Finnish society.
36. Heikosti positiivinen ("Weakly positive") by Anna-Leena Härkönen. An autobiographical account of Härkönen's post-partum depression.
37. Kädettömät kuninkaat ja muita häiritseviä tarinoita ("Handless kings and other disturbing stories") by Johanna Sinisalo. A collection of sci-fi stories.
38. Veljeni Pentti ("My Brother Pentti") by Sirkka Garam. Pentti Saarikoski's sister writes about him.
39. Kilpikonna ja Olkimarsalkka ("The Turtle and the Straw Marshall") by Tuula-Liina Varis. Pentti Saarikoski's ex-wife writes about their relationship.
40. Baby Jane by Sofi Oksanen. Two lesbians hatch a plan to make money by selling dirty underwear to dirty men. Soon it becomes evident that this plan is just enabling a mental health problem.
41. Kommentteja kaksoiselämään ("Commentaries on a double life") by Olli Nuutinen. A beloved Finnish textbook writer discusses his life as a homosexual during times when it was far from being accepted, even in "liberal" Finland.
42. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The history and ensuing confusion of an intersex person. How much does nature dictate how we behave? How much does nurture affect us?
43. Elämänmeno ("The Way Life Is") by Pirkko Saisio. Working class life in the early 1900 Helsinki, where disappointments rather than expectations are met.
44. Raja ("Boundary") by Riikka Pulkkinen. A novel about what personal boundaries are, and what to do with the boundaries between life and death.
45. Luokkaretkellä hyvinvointiyhteiskunnassa ("Taking a class trip in a welfare society) by Katriina Järvinen and Laura Kolbe. Essays on class consciousness in Finland, where class is almost a taboo subject, yet still prevalent in the ways in which people are viewed. After all, acknowledgement of classes might make it sound like everybody is not equal after all...
46. Paikka auringossa ("A Place in the Sun") by Liza Marklund. Swedish crime!
47. Väärän jäljillä ("Chasing the Wrong One") by Liza Marklund. Swedish crime!
48. Miehet jotka vihaavat naisia ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") by Stieg Larsson. Um. Also Swedish crime, but less serial!

Oh, and I apparently have completely forgotten to write about one book:

49. Stalinin lehmät by Sofi Oksanen. Estonian-Finnish girl's trek in trying to find out her identity: in Estonia she hears Finns being derided as loud, drunk and stupid, while back at home Estonian women are called whores by Finns. Between these two expected identities and trying to hide them, the protagonist develops an eating disorder, which is the only thing she seems to be in control of.

Edited to add: Looking at the list, I realize also that this is the first year when the majority of books I have read have been written by women: only 9 out of the 48 were written by men.  Compare this to the previous year, where 24 out of 38 were written by men. Good to have some variety - I have enjoyed pretty much every single book I have read and posted about here, so I'm very thankful for all the new author acquaintances I have met through recommendations this previous year! Now back to my Stieg Larsson...

The last book of the year 2009

45. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Original: "Män som hatar kvinnor") by Stieg Larsson

First off: I hate the English title of this book. The original, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates to Men who hate women (which is also the title of the Finnish translation which I read). That is what the book is about, from single, off-track instances in the book to the quotes provided by Larsson from statistics about domestic and extra-domestic violence, to the actual case at hand. It also creates this magnificently sinister air about the book.

What most annoys me about the English title, though, is that it makes one of the characters of the book the focus. If you read the book with the original title in mind, Lisbeth Salander is an equal character to that of Mikael Blomkvist, whose is the main point of view in this novel. Lisbeth is a woman whose thoughts the reader hardly ever finds out, and for a good reason: her character is there not to be a romantic object of any of the characters (which is not to say that there is no sex...), but she stands on her own, yet in the background. She is the kind of person who would hate to be in the lime light.

And that's exactly what the translated title of the book does to her: lifts her out of the cast of equal characters to be the focus. Which makes the reader subconsciously raise her story line above anyone else's, which I don't think was the point of Larsson's. In interviews, he describes Lisbeth as "one of the characters", not the  main character. Can't blame the translator, I guess: Lisbeth is very interesting.

OK, but what is the book about?

The first of the Millennium trilogy, where Millennium refers to a financial magazine, begins with the trial of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who has been critical of other journalists for letting Swedish big name economists and companies off the hook without much criticism. He ends up sentenced in a case of libel, where his facts about the criminal activites of Hans-Erik Wenneström and his corporation turn out not to be true -- or at least, so it seems.

After the jury has reached this verdict, Mikael is contacted by a representative of Henrik Vanger, an 80-something CEO of Vanger companies,  who is looking for someone to solve a mystery that happened a good 40 years ago: he is convinced that someone in his family murdered his favorite niece Harriet during a summer event at their island, and he wants Mikael to spend a year at the island to read through diaries, notes and to find evidence through interviews -- all in the guise of being a writer of the magnate's family biography. At the end of the year, Mikael will be rewarded with additional evidence against Wenneström to bring him down. Mikael is not convinced that any foul play has been involved in Harriet's disappearance, as it seems to be an impossible case of a closed room mystery: Harriet has simply disappeared from the island, which at the time was even cut off from the main land by an accident on the bridge. Vanger is however convinced that someone in the island has murdered Harriet, and as an evidence he produces a wall full of small framed flowers: he receives one every year for his birthday from a different location in the world, and is convinced that Harriet's murderer is toying with him.

At the same time, Vanger's representative contacts an agency that is specialized in digging up dirt about people. Their best employee is Lisbeth Salander, who is a 20-some woman with a photographic memory, antisocial tendencies, and the means to hack into every system and find out anything. She is first hired to find out if Mikael is reliable enough to be hired for his detective work, but once Lisbeth finds out more about him and the case he is working on, she begins to investigate on her own until the two meet.

There would be so much else to say about this book, but that would be too spoilery. The story is not just a straight-forward murder mystery, but it also takes jabs at journalism, big businesses, Swedish mental health care system and legal institutions. Mikael and Lisbeth do not remain one-sided, easily described characters: Mikael starts out as a fairly boring, everyday man with a mission, but soon the story fleshes him out to a believable and interesting a character. Lisbeth begins out as a weird, quirky and perhaps even a dangerous girl who is not even given a voice for almost third of the book -- she is just operating in the dark and being observed (and avoided) by others. The reader gets to know her the same way everyone else in the story does. Once the story takes a path to follow Lisbeth after work, the reader finds out more about her and can make his or her own judgements on whether the observations made by others are true or false, or just a game Lisbeth plays...

If you are going to read a crime novel in 2010, please read this. It is amazingly good, even if one part of the ending is fairly predictable... All predictabilities aside, it's just a fun story to read. Also, to read a detective novel of a sort that really has an axe to grind with real-life societal problems is refreshing, for sure.