Sunday, February 28, 2010


8. Sopan syvin olemus by Anna-Leena Härkönen ("The most profound essence of soup")

"This book is best suited for a person who loves food and is of the enthusiastic type. You may also be a beginner, but you cannot be uusavuton*. As an example, you should be able to construct a sandwich that has some kind of logic - all by yourself. And it wouldn't be bad to know how to make an omelet either. I do not own a mixer anymore because washing the various parts and tinkering around with them really did not appeal to me ... However, I am not at all against technology or progress per se."

Anna-Leena Härkönen is Finland's offer to the army of Gen X-writers: her novels often discuss the mundane life (relationships, mostly) but with an ironic twist. Not to mention that the topic is often dealt with by using copious amounts of black humor and sarcasm.

The cookbook she wrote is tiny, but hilarious. The cover says that the book contains "42 recipes and 687 thoughts", which is an apt description. The recipes are either found by Härkönen in some parts of the world and she is trying to reproduce them as simply as possible, or they are blatantly stolen from her friends because the recipes are so good. And simple.

Simple really is the key word to the book. Although a food lover, Härkönen immediately states that she is by no means a gourmet chef, nor can she cook anything without an exact recipe. She hates instructions such as "cook until beautiful brown" or "add just a touch of salt". "This kind of a communication method is a crime".

Her recipes vary from very simple and supposedly delicious (I have to try them to find out!) Finnish foods to attempts of replicating some amazing foods she has tried abroad. All of the recipes come with a description of how she encountered them, and that is what makes this little cookbook so enjoyable.
Also: who can resist such names as "Hangover pizza", "A Damned Good Sweet Roll" and "The Lazy Man's Lasagna". The latter refers to this myth in Finland that in order to make lasagna you need to make two sauces: one meat-based and one cheese-based, and you ladle them alternatively in between the layers of pasta. Hence, lasagna is made very rarely because it's so laborious. Härkönen introduces the mind-blowing (or, yawn-inducing if you're in any other country) idea that you only need one type of a filling!

Sometimes her writing is a bit grating: being sarcastic is fun to a point. Especially her sections where she talks about "foreign" food and how she has gotten better French food in Finland than in France were painful to read. Maybe because I just recently read discussions where, say, a white tourist tells a Mexican how to make "real" Mexican food instead of what she is making at home. To say that you have better French food in a country other than France just means that... you are not getting French food. You are getting French-style food that has been catered to your (ethnicity's) tastes. Or you are getting food items that people would not eat at a regular meal. This is why white Americans going to Mexico are puzzled at not finding "good" burritos there, or not finding General Tso's chicken in China. I'm also sure that anyone eating at a Finnish restaurant abroad will also be disappointed that, upon coming to Finland, people are not eating bear or reindeer in cloudberry jam, but instead pretty much every affordable place sells just pizza and pasta. Or then people just eat very simple stuff at home. I can just imagine these tourists saying "Wow, I've gotten much better Finnish food in my home country than in Finland - they just can't get it right over there."

Still, there was something endearing with the book's honesty: I'm not a great cook, but I can sweep people off their feet with these recipes ("or perhaps my husband and my friends are gluttons, incapable of any critical thinking"). I think everyone, no matter how neurotic in the kitchen, should be able to cook and take care of themselves.

Being someone who needs another person, or a cookbook, to hold her hand through cooking processes (I partly blame this on having been really stingy in the past and afraid of ruining perfectly good ingredients, so why bother trying...), I can get behind this book. I definitely want to try out some of the very simple sounding recipes that do sound delicious. I'll report back once I have some results.

*lit. "nouveau-helpless", referring to esp. young people who can't even boil an egg because they have been raised on fast food or someone else has cooked for them their entire life

Edited to add: In the past I've half-heartedly taken part in the meme of reading a book a week during a year. This year's half-hearted, themed attempt is to also try to read something by authors representing each of the alphabet! I saw this idea somewhere online and figured, hey, why not. So far the tally is unfortunately pretty sad, because so many of the books I have read (5!) have been written by an author whose last name begins with an L. Ack. I'll keep on adding into this list and link back once either the alphabet is full or the year is done. This should motivate me read some of the books I have waiting at home: they are written by authors whose alphabet I have yet to cover!

Also, I'll go the distance and use the Nordic alphabet. Anybody know authors whose last name begins with Å?

A. Alexie, Sherman. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
B. Bear, Greg. Mariposa, Beavan, Colin. No Impact Man.

C. Cochrane, James. Between you and I--A Little Book of Bad English.
G. Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink., Gasteier, Matthew. F U Penguin.

H. Härkönen, Anna-Kaisa. Sopan syvin olemus.

L. Larsson, Stieg. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Loe, Erlend: Naive. Super and Doppler.
S. Saisio, Pirkko. Pienin yhteinen jaettava, Sheidlower, Jesse. The F-Word

V. Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation, Vuorinen, Juha. Tuupovaaran tuijottaja


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Norwegian weltschmertz

7. Doppler by Erlend Loe

If you are at all interested in Loe, you should read Naive. Super first. It will prepare you for the following books, that seem to all be dealing with the same issues and styles: some privileged white dude in Norway becomes disenchanted with his life, and decides to get back to simple, cave-man like living in order to find the true meaning of life. The main characters are kind of like Scandinavian Holden Caulfields.

I don't know if I'm reading these books wrong (shush! an impossibility!, says the lit. prof.), but I imagine they are written with a ton of black humor instead of attempts at being critical at societies at large. In Doppler's case, we have a Norwegian family man called Doppler, whose father has died and this has thrown him off the track. To deal with his sorrow (and the existence of his massive, massive man-part), he escapes into the Norwegian forests, kills a moose and adopts its calf, onto which he projects a variety of human-qualities. He crafts a manifesto for living a better life: no life with obligations, children's repetitious TV shows, fast food. His ultimate enemy is Intelligence. To him, intelligence has brought nothing but sorrow as his main concern in life has become "What kind of tiles should we get in our bathroom?". Thus, kids should be taken out of school, too.

Funnily enough, even with this manifesto, he is unable to completely disengage himself from the world he so loathes: his wife says she is pregnant, and if he does not return from the forest they are going to divorce. Instead of agreeing to this, Doppler simply avoids making any ultimate decisions. He wants to live "freely", with a safety net waiting for him at home. One of his main agendas is to go back to economy based on the exchange of goods - he would be fine (as per his opinion) hunting and gathering, but he needs the Best Thing that Human Has Created: low-fat milk. To obtain this, he needs to visit the store every now and then and convince the storekeep that it's a great idea to exchange some milk to his moose meat. He even visits his daughter's school to inform them about this. Still, his dream of exchange economy is naive at best: he exchanges moose meat for fruit. That was bought by some other guy with money. The man did not grow or harvest the fruit himself. In other words, Doppler believes he is living his dream when in actuality, other people are simply enabling his unrealistic approach to life by entertaining his obsession.

His ranting of the World Gone Wrong-theory gets some followers in the form of a former enemy (the man he calls "the right winger") and his small son - and as soon as they move into the forest Doppler feels uncomfortable. Sure, everyone should be free to do whatever they want - but not on his backyard! It becomes evident that when Doppler says that humans should be free, he is mainly describing himself and his plight.

In the end, the book is about obsession: Doppler is obsessed with this new world order he has dreamed up after his father died; his son is obsessed with children's TV shows; his daughter is obsessed with Tolkien and speaks in Elvish. Other characters have their obsessions and one-track-minds, too. What connects all these people is the thought that if only their obsession was not just understood, but partaken, by everyone, the world would be a better place.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What our minds do when we are not paying attention

6. Blink. The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

Continuing my tradition of reading a book about a decade after everyone else, I picked up Blink from a second hand store nearby on a whim. I'd heard of it, and figured I'd give it a read - and it was definitely worth it. Gladwell writes about the snap decisions we make in a blink of an eye, based on not calculated, logical thinking, but feelings that we cannot transcribe into words. "It just felt wrong" seems to be the first reaction, but we hardly ever stop to think why something felt wrong. The reason for the book's existence is that sometimes we people would be better off if we trusted our first instincts - but then again, sometimes snap decisions can destroy lives for nothing. This odd vague thesis of Gladwell's book is a bit chafing at first, until I figured I'd just read it as an interesting summary of in what ways initial reactions work. What are the prompts for "feeling wrong" about something?

Gladwell has a multitude of examples, varying from the good to the bad. He recounts a celebrated event of an art museum purchasing an ancient statue which later turned out to be a fake. It was, however, such a good fake that many experts could not tell it was one. The ones who could could not put it into words. Instead, they would say things such as, and in paraphrase, "Seeing it I felt revolted for a brief moment", or, "The statue just looked off-putting". All the scientific evidence for its age was supposedly there, but these people felt that something was not right. Because enough people felt that something was not quite right, the statue was put under a more in-depth scrutiny. Then the evidence was clear - it could not have been as old as the seller purported. How could the museum still have bought it? The desire to own a genuine, old statue as this one overshadowed all of their doubts. They wanted to believe, and their eyes disregarded all other evidence to the contrary. Only the experts' gut feelings revealed the true nature of the statue.

Another favorite of mine was the long passage about a police scandal, where 3 police officers fired about 40 bullets at an unarmed man in the Bronx. In a job, where quick decisions are needed, these police officers were still too young to be correctly using their initial reactions. For them, a black man alone in the night, in the Bronx, had to be up to no good. When he saw 3 white guys in baseball caps (the police were undercover) pull up to him and start asking what he was doing, he began to run because his initial reaction was that they must be criminals. It was all a terrible conglomeration of misunderstandings based on stereotypes. Gladwell goes onto explain why police officers are nowadays required to patrol alone - when they are alone in a car, they do not make snap decisions. Most of the times inexplicable police brutality has been the result of a) more than one police man or woman in the vehicle and b) at the end of a chase. The chase, Gladwell and the supporting evidence state, raises the person's heart rate, and the higher the heart rate, the more the body gives resources to muscles to perform a fight-and-flight motions - the energy is not going into logical thinking. This is why police are told, after a chase, to wait for backup. Most of the beatings after a police chase have been the result of the chase hyping the police up so bad that they weren't able to think straight, and, being further hyped with fellow officers in the car, they have done some very stupid things at the heat of the moment. Logic gives way to stereotypes and passion in survival mode. (Gladwell kind of skirts around the issue of racial profiling at this point, but states that the police are not racist for committing acts that are prompted by racist stereotypes... Uh. So, I guess you can only be racist if you are one consciously? Sounded to me like he was trying to cover his back by trying to be very diplomatic).

Also the passage on married couples and predictions on whether they will still be married in 10 years was quite interesting. A scientist would film couples talking about something that vaguely had to do with their relationship. At first viewing, the couples might seem like they were in the middle of some witty banter and were coming along amicably. The scientist would slow the tape down, and describe all of their body language to the T, from the tiniest wrinkles at the side of the mouth to the quick eye-rolls. The thing is, we see all of these things and we process them, but we do not recognize them intellectually nor are we able to put them into words. The people who are used to interpreting very subtle changes in facial expressions and thus, in the person's mood, are usually people who have gone through a very traumatic, abusive childhood, where they had to learn quickly to interpret the abusive parent's/sibling's moods and act accordingly.  To compare, Gladwell follows the case of a high-performing autistic man, who cannot interpret social situations because he is unable to read "minds", ie facial expressions. His interpretation of the movie Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which revolves around human relationships and mostly facial actions, ends up being quite different from a non-autistic person's watching point.

The book was very pop-sciency, but fun to read. The scariest souvenir from this book was the notion that our concept of what our thinking is like is so faulty: we can change our sour mood into a happy one just if we hold a pen between our teeth, forcing our face to make smile-related movements. We think that we smile because we are happy, but studies show that the smile can already begin before our brain registers a happy feeling. A lot of facial expressions cannot be reproduced willingly, and a lot of them also are involuntary. The person in the book who has listed all of human facial expressions, and can describe any one person's expressions in acronyms and then replicate them, should be a rich man at this point, as he would be a better lie detector than any machine. A scary thought.

Friday, February 12, 2010

5. Naïve. Super. by Erlend Loe (read in Finnish translation Supernaiivi)

I started counting my books when I was back in Germany. The reason for this was mainly my friend B., whose acted as my personal librarian and would shove a new armful of books at me during every visit. One of the books I read back then was this, and I remembered absolutely loving it. Somehow, it was exactly the book to read at that point in my life. Reading it now again, my reaction was different. I saw things in it that I did not recognize before, mainly because I did not have the experiences back then that I do now. Now I could recognize Loe's subtle irony in places where I used to think he was being in earnest and critical.

This is a book you'll read in a day, trust me. So you might as well pick it up and give it a go. It is a story of a disillusioned 25-year old Norwegian man, who one day just realizes that he is not excited about anything anymore. A simple game of lawn croquet with his brother which ends in aggressive competition and, subsequently, tears, reveals his state of mind. His brother gives him an offer: he is going to go away on business, so the narrator can stay in his apartment and take care of his mail. The narrator agrees to this, and decides to start with a blank slate: he sells almost everything he has, quits school, and moves in. He begins to take a hold of life in baby steps by making lists: things that used to excite him as a kid (he checks with his friend whether theirs are at all similar), listing animals he has seen (a competition between him and his 2-year old neighbor), and trying to figure out simple joys in life. Such as selecting a perfect ball to bounce against a wall.

Or, my favorite, getting one of these things:

I have no idea what that is called in English, but It's by Brio and called a "pounding bench", and it is well-known throughout Scandinavia as a child's favorite toy. The concept is ridiculously simple: you have a wooden board that is a bit elevated, and it is drilled with holes. The holes fit a peg each. With a little mallet, you hammer the pegs in, and once you can't hammer anymore, you turn the whole thing around and start again. It's genius, and after I read this book the first time I felt this sudden urge to get one for myself. I had one as a kid, and I remember loving to just bang it. There's just something very satisfying in the action, and oddly enough, Loe has managed to capture that feeling in the book.

With the narrator's new found "naivete", he decides to try to be naive in other ways, too, to see if that would help him feel less depressed and concerned about the meaningless of life.

It's an oddly depressing, yet comforting a book. There are hardly any details - just laconic statements from a person who is tired of thinking. That's why it's a wonderful snack read in between other books (I will come back soon with Greg Bear's Mariposa, which is killing my brain...).

Friday, February 5, 2010

The nice kind of snark

4. Assassination vacation by Sarah Vowell

The first time I saw/heard Sarah Vowell was in the They Might Be Giants documentary, where she just seemed like an all-around fun and smart person to hang out with while she expressed her undying love of nerdy rock (and she looked like my Mom's friend from school - weird!).

Little did I then know that although almost all of us have some kind of an obsession, hers would be of... not the most typical variety.

Assassination vacation chronicles her interest (fine, obsession), with American history and especially presidents. The dead kind. The assassinated kind. Convincing and bribing her friends to drive this driver's license-less journalist around, she hops from the Ford theater where Lincoln was shot to the Smithsonian, where curious articles from assassinated presidents are kept. And when I mean "from" I mean "pieces of their body". She ties in the stories of their assassins as well, explaining their reasons and often just pure craziness for their actions, and finally also draws parallels to the Iraq war under Bush administration at the time of her writing. And all with massive amount of deadpan hilarity. There is already something sadly funny with the idea that Abraham Lincoln's son happened to be present or nearby 3 assassinations, and started considering himself as a Jinxy McJinxter - everyone around him was getting killed! Even weirder than that, his life was once saved by a certain Edwin T. Booth, who was the brother of John Wilkes Booth - President Lincoln's assassin. Robert Todd must have been going bonkers with these coincidences.

This is what the Vowell book is about: we know the facts from tedious history textbook passages; now learn why this stuff really is interesting!

Like many of the younger generation journalist, she also ties her own personality and background strongly into her narrative, and does not shy away from the Gen X'ers favorite tools: irony and snark. However, what makes her more palatable than many other snarky writers is that hers just is not that mean-spirited, and often she ends up making fun of herself in the same manner as she does of others. It all ends up in a smart, poignant and funny reading experience that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Which is not perhaps the expected description of a book that is about horrid deaths and unfortunate circumstances.

Also, I think I might need to get this in audiobook, because it includes Daniel Handler as William McKinley, Conan O'Brien as Robert Todd Lincoln and Stephen King as his father, Abraham Lincoln. How awesome is that?