Friday, May 28, 2010

Finnish cultural ambivalency; history of words

14. Maata meren alla by Riikka Ala-Harja ("Ground under water")

This is a glimpse into the life of Ida, a thirty-something Finnish woman who was adopted from Namibia--which was populated by Finnish missionaries at the time--by a staunch socialist factory worker, Kati. Scuba diving is her passion, and it is the only element in her life where she seems to welcome any excitement or fear. And who can blame her for desiring stability--as the only brown person living on the shores of Bothnian Bay, Northern Finland, raised as a Finn but never accepted as one, her daily routine consists of "stand out of the crowd today."
When long-time pen pal of Ida's mother--a fellow socialist--goes traveling and leaves her Berlin apartment in need of a house-sitter, Kati suggests that Ida go live in Berlin for a while. After fighting back, she gives in and goes, into an environment where she is out of her comfort zone.

The title of the book is a play on words. Although the movie version, from where the book's cover is taken, was translated as "Ground Under Water", the title literally means "Ground under the sea." It can also be read as "To lie under the sea." It reflects both Ida's desire to find her groundings, a place where she feels comfortable, and the almost-suicidal nature of scuba diving, where you consistently have to ask your diving buddy whether everything is OK by using hand signals.

The story has such great premise, but falls nevertheless flat. There is Ida, who has grown up in Finland but sticks out like a sore thumb because of her skin color but who is almost stereotypically Finnish: she hates talking about her feelings, hates conflicts and is scared of meeting her neighbors in Berlin and talking to them--except when she gets drunk at the bar.
Now, not many books have been written in Finland from the point of view of someone who experiences racism while being as Finnish as one can get, so it's great to read one. Although Ala-Harja's attempt was admirable, the end resulted in Ida being a character, who is constantly defining herself by her Namibian past; by a place, where she hasn't been since she was three years old. On the one hand I understand what the author is trying to say: when Ida does not feel at home in a country where she grew up in, where she got her education, and which is, well, her home, she might have the desire to define herself the same way others define her; the foreigner, the outsider. Yet, I could not help but think how many non-white Finns Ala-Harja interviewed for this book to really understand their experiences beyond having the usual racial epithets thrown at them. My guess would be: not that many.

Stylistically, the novel follows a stream-of-consciousness model, where conjunctions and full stops are the enemy and the comma rules the land. Ala-Harja underlines her analogies by marching them out time and again: you will get very familiar with the story of Zacchaeus from the Bible, as well as the thoughts of death combined with the lure of the sea, and the conflicts of socialism versus capitalism.

Although the story seems to be huge in scope and its underlying theme, I still felt as if nothing happened in it. Ida's time in Berlin is almost a secret to the reader, save for two notable events and name-dropping of some famous attractions. She has no more understanding of her life or her mother at the end of the story than she had in the beginning, although she decides to return to Berlin with her diving buddy after having an internal monologue about her mother. Although I feel that this should serve as criticism to the novel, it could be seen as praise, too: how much more life-like can a novel get?

15. Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz is a book that On the Dot wanted to be but instead, posed as something else (still bitter about that, yes). Semantic Antics goes alphabetically through the evolution of some choice words. The cover refers to the word 'meat', and how it used to simply mean 'food', but later evolved to mean, well, meat. The two most common ways a word evolves are amelioration, where people begin to use words with negative connotations in more positive contexts, thus making the word itself positive; and pejoration, where the opposite happens.

Although the writing gets a bit jarring after a while, what with most of the entries beginning with phrases such as "The word [repeat the word in the subheading] was first used as..." or "The word [repeat the word in the subheading] is nowadays known as X, but did you know that...", the history of these words is fascinating. Also, without explicitly meaning to do it, the book works as great teaching material for people who think they can use pejorative and insulting terms just because the words originally, about a hundred years ago, were neutral or had different connotations. And meat used to originally mean 'food', but nobody goes around saying that they should be allowed to call all food 'meat'. Sure, you're allowed to do that, but you'd sound stoopid, because that's not how the word is used any more.

To quote a reviewer on, it's true that this book is merely a "short short short version of Oxford English Dictionary" (just like On the Dot and The F word are as well), but I do welcome these short versions of it if it means that more people are able to access the OED *pines after her free OED-subscription*.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

13. Distress by Greg Egan

I just read someone describe genre fiction (of which science-fiction is one representative) as an opposite to literature that discusses philosophical issues. I see the suggested Toni Morrison book and raise Distress
Let me digress for a bit. See, science fiction may be my favorite genre exactly because it often is so philosophical. I'm not a total nerd for gadgetry, so I don't read sci-fi because of the electronic inventions in them. After all, most of the time future and the inventions are used as a vehicle to discuss much larger issues. As an example, in my favorite book, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, gadgets are at the foreground: there are nanobots, and most importantly, the electronic book that  teaches its reader interactively and in an age-appropriate manner. Yet, it's not about how awesome horse robots or guns attached to your head are, or how cool that interactive book is; instead, it deals primarily with social classes, and how a class predetermines one's life. Also, it's a celebration of literacy as a tool to overcome obstacles. It's bordering on metafiction, and it's just a genius novel. 
Another reason why I love sci-fi is the social issues discussed in it. It sucks that you are reading a fantasy novel where people grow tails, do magic, ride dragons--and the only place a woman has in that story is to be some kind of a crutch for the male protagonist. Or, the characters are different "races": they share the same features and are basically one huge mass without any individualism. It's apparently easier to imagine flying dragons and elves than gender and race equality, you know? Not so with sci-fi. Say what you want about Robert Heinlein, but he basically wrote The Handmaid's Tale already in the 50s in Revolt in 2100.  Not to mention that only toward the end of Starship Troopers does he reveal that the main character is actually Filipino (yet another indicator of why Paul Verhoeven just didn't get the book). It's at the same time wonderful and utterly sad that only in reading sci-fi I am not annoyed by stereotypical portrayals of gender and race.
As an example, in Distress the world is at a state where you can choose your biological sex. If you feel like you are a man trapped in a woman's body, you can change that very easily, and vice versa. Also, if you don't think sex is a big deal at all, you can wipe out all of your genitals and become asex. From a linguistic point of view this is also done amazingly throughout the book: Egan creates third person pronouns for all people who do not fall into traditional he-she groups, and uses them throughout the book without any raised eyebrows from the protagonists. It's like... damn. Wish it was that easy, instead of people getting their bow ties in a twist when a guy has a sex change operation. Toward the end of the book, the main protagonist, Andrew, and an asex accomplice of his have a big discussion about it. Andrew does not understand how someone can be asex, and Egan uses him as a conductor of all the readers' possible questions as to why these different genders would exist in the future. 

Oh yeah, Distress...
Andrew Worth is a film maker, carrying his recording tools within himself. After an especially harrowing project where he set out to expose the perils of "frankenscience" (a derogatory term for science that meddles with human biology), he is ready to move on. When he hears about a gig to cover a conference focusing on the Theory of Everything (TOE), he convinces his boss to take the project away from his colleague and give it to him.
The project sends him to Stateless, an artificially built island where anarchists come to create their own destiny and rules. Stateless is the host of the year's conference, and Andrew has been advised to focus on Nobel Laureate, former child genius Violet Mosala, whose TOE everyone is waiting for with baited breath. Well, excluding groups such as the mysterious Anthrocosmologists, who believe that once the right TOE has been revealed, the universe will unravel itself and human kind will be destroyed, and the Mystical Renaissance movement who believes that life is such a mystery that it is better left uninvestigated. Their mouthpiece, Janet Walsh, is an expert in creating strawman arguments and bringing about irrelevant, knee-jerk reaction inducing "evidence" to undermine Mosala's intellect.  Hmm, I wonder if we could find a modern equivalent to her in real life...
Soon Andrew is tipped off about a plot on Mosala's life, and the story takes a quick turn straight into action-movie alley. Andrew does not know who to trust, or even what he thinks of "frankenscience" or TOE--his feelings go from loathing to fear to utilizing science the best he can. Will science be used for good in TOE, or will science blow us into smithereens?
If that does not qualify as philosophical pondering, then I really don't know what would.

ETA: Apparently using Chrome to update this blog creates double line spaces where only a single space should be. Hence the formatting this time. I'll look into it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More on language

Substance and Style--Instruction and Practice in Copyediting by Mary Stoughton. 
What the title says. It is an oldie, but a goodie, despite one or two issues that are not relevant anymore in copyediting. My teacher recommended this book because it has a lot of exercises. I've now done them all, and whooboy--what a task. Contrary to Einsohn's book, where the exercises gradually build up, here they drill one aspect over and over again in short paragraphs and at the end of the book, compile everything you have learned into one, gigantic exercise which needs you to perform multiple passes on it. 

I think the two books complemented each other very well; whereas Einsohn's was fun to read and more up-to-date, Stoughton's offers a larger variety of brain puzzlers. I ended up skipping the short sections that describe the problem and just diving straight into the exercises. One reason for this was that Einsohn had unashamedly borrowed from Stoughton (which Einsohn admits readily in the foreword), so there would have been repetition anyway.

On the Dot--The Speck That Changed the World by Alexander and Nicholas Humez
This book has a big, whopping dot on the cover. Its preface states, "On the Dot, as the title promises, is a book about dots--mostly, though not exclusively, the sort we use in print."

This must be the worst thesis statement I have ever read--and I used to teach students how to compose academic papers!

I'm almost done with the book, but I'm not sure if it's worth my time to finish it. I'm very disappointed with how all over the place this book is. Often, it seems that the dot is used as a mere vehicle for a rant about the Patriot Act, or a long litany of an obscure word's etymology--and only because the word happened to remind the author of the word dealing with punctuation (although its meaning might be completely different). Let me illustrate:

The first chapter, "Time and Chance--punctuality and coin toss", begins with the idiomatic expression "on the dot", meaning that something happens exactly at the time predicted. Instead of discussing why the word "dot" has taken the meaning of punctuality (pun intended), we are immediately transported to a discussion about how Greenwich Mean Time became the official 0 hour for nagivation. The authors bring us back to "arriving on the dot" by making this bizarre claim, "You might think that the French expression for arriving on the dot would be arriver a point..." Who, except people who have no idea of how language works, would think that just because the word 'dot' is in French point, an idiomatic expression would be a literal translation? Ah, I see--this just worked as a nice lead into the history of coin toss, and how it has been described in various languages. At this point I am all question marks: sure, coin toss, and the history of "heads or tails" is fascinating, but... what does it have to do with the topic of this book, let alone this chapter?

We get further away from the dot when the authors introduce different types of die people use, and even what type of other materials can be used to throw stuff in games. They even detail the various possible scenarios in the game "Pass the Pigs", and end up talking about the fuzzy dice hanging from a young driver's rear view mirror. The chapter ends up with the etymology of the word 'pile'--with absolutely no connection to the beginning of the chapter. What?

The chapter on bullets, or raised dots to mark lists, begins promisingly: all of three pages are dedicated to the usage of bulleted points (but again, no visible reason as to why people began to use the raised dot...). Then, there is a sudden twist in the narration : "Of course, real bullets ... nowadays do have points on them." The ensuing paragraphs are all about the etymology of--not bullets, as you would expect--but balls. And just because the French word for a bullet (from a gun) is balle. We also learn that the Latin word bulla means "bubble." Guess will this chapter also talk about bowling and bowls?

If I had given a subtitle for this book, it would have been "Using punctuation to come up with whatever random crap words remind me of." How else can a chapter titled "...and a half--Musical dots" talk about feminism and its fight against simplifying the world into binary oppositions already in its third page? It has absolutely nothing to do with music, or using punctuation. It has something to do with the idea of a "half", but... the title is not "How world views the concept of halves." This chapter is horrible, anyway. It talks about how it's awesome that the Greek have a word for pairs (which, apparently is an indication of a binary world view) by giving words such as duo and binoculars as examples--and conveniently forgetting that there are also words such as a trio...

What the heck is this book about? Not only is it also really verbose to the point that I want to smack the authors in the head, it's hard to find any coherence in it. If they wanted to write a book about the etymology of words that literally mean points and dots but are now used in a variety of ways, they should've just said so.

On the Dot is not a "natural history" of the dot, although that's what the book claims it to be. I probably would've been absolutely fascinated by this book if it was framed differently. I picked it up to read about the dot, how it revolutionized communication, and so on. I did not need to know how abbreviations are formed.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Textbook--a rare guest

So, I have been taking an editor's course, and a variety of books were recommended for further reading. As the lovely Elliot Bay Bookstore happened to have a copy of two of the recommendations in their shelves, I nabbed them. Here's the first one I have gone through.

The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn is organized well, from the most common problems such as comma placement and hyphenation to how to edit tables and the index in a nonfiction book. Each chapter ends with an editing exercise or two, and the answer key provides clearly stated reasons for the editing choices, along with most possible alternatives. 

The exercises were great: not only did they practice the subject of the chapter, but they gradually built up in difficulty. As an example, the first exercises were fairly mechanical, only dealing with punctuation. By the end of the book, you would have to pay attention to everything else that had come before and the topic of the chapter. So, even if the instructions asked you to pay attention to wordiness and how numbers are treated while making sure that the author's personal style was not messed with too much, you also had to remember to check punctuation, dangling participles, and run some fact-checking ("Is the tennis player's name really spelled like that?") Pretty neat. Also, there are some silly jokes embedded into the example sentences. Kind of reminds me of my Finnish syntax classes back in the day, where the teacher would, with a totally deadpan expression, give example sentences such as "The meat is infested with maggots." I guess her method worked, because I still remember that sentence very, very vividly. 

Also, I have been reading two other books within this same copy editing topic, and I gotta tell you.... There's no grammar book, or a style manual, that doesn't quote the famous Star Trek line as an example of the old, silly rule of thou shalt not split your infinitives. Don't make me write it out; you know what I mean. Nerd.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

12. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

So, Sofi Oksanen had to cancel her West coast book tour because of Eyfjallajökull. I still went to the reading, just because the two other authors making an appearance on behalf of the PEN World Voices festival, Tommy Wieringa and Christos Tsiolkas, were introduced by local celebrity, Sherman Alexie.

When I say "local celebrity", I do want to point out that for me, Alexie was mostly a familiar name from The Colbert Report where he has appeared as a guest, and from columns and poems people have been linking me to. After Avatar came to the theaters, people linked me to Alexie's poem How to Write the Great Indian Novel, which was published years before Avatar, but still seemed to ring oh so true. So, now that he was giving a reading and hosting the PEN panel a couple of blocks away from me, I figured I might as well go see him.

And I'm glad I did! His reading was hilarious, and the poems he had chosen were funny and poignant. I ended up picking up this book that night, as I had heard of it winning various awards. It is a Young Adult novel, which makes it a nicely quick read, but it does not mean it makes the subject matter any less complicated than ones in Old Adult's novels.

It's Junior's story, which is partly an autobiography: like Alexie, Junior is a hydrocephalic born in Wellpinit to a Spokane Indian reservation. And like Alexie, Junior decides to leave the reservation to attend an all-white high school, where the only other Indian is the horrifying "red skin" mascot. Instead of discussing the ensuing issues of marginalization of American Indians, white privilege and being poor as an academic brain exercise (which I would have also enjoyed), Alexie gives voice to his younger self, who comes to realize all of these issues through personal experiences--and often very viscerally.

It's a great novel for adults and kids alike, and it defies many stereotypical images of American Indians prevalent in books (often written by white people), while dealing with all the serious issues that American Indians face, such as alcoholism, poverty and early death; before Junior turns twelve, he has already been to forty-two funerals, and most of those deaths have been caused by alcoholism, directly or indirectly. How many white kids can say that? How does the prevalence of death affect a child?

 One major issue is the title's part-time reference: by attending a white school, Junior enters a world of in-between. In a cartoon he draws two versions of himself, one hated by people on the reservation and the other loved by people at the white school, and both of his versions display a thought balloon: "Who am I?!" Although gradually people begin to like Junior at his new school, he is still not exactly one of them. At the same time, his best friend hates him for leaving the reservation--even if he returns every evening--and for being "a traitor".

A basketball game between the reservation school and the white school is the climax of this dissonance: Junior is first absolutely ecstatic that he has helped his team kick the reservation team's butt, especially after all the booing and violence displayed toward Junior during the game. He comes down from his high quickly when he realizes that most of those kids probably have not had anything to eat that day, and are going to return home where alcoholism and a pretty certain beating is waiting for them. He remembers how he wanted something, anything positive to happen to him. He has achieved that, as the celebrated member of his basketball team; when are those other kids going to get their break?

In short, the book is about navigating your way in life when you have been handed pretty bad cards and can't use money or fame to buy a new set; it's trying to come to terms at a young age with the idea that some are more privileged than others, yet it does not mean that they are intrinsically more deserving of their privilege.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Is English capable of sustaining demagogery...?"

11. Between You and I. A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane

Recently my days have just been filled with minute details of language, from reading The Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover in an attempt of learning more about editing, to watching hilarious skits by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie about English language (hence, the title).

Saara recommended this book to me after hearing me rant about the million different ways people spell 'definitely', the worst being 'diffinantly'. Yet, this person probably can spell the word 'definite' just fine. Somehow, adding that little adverbial '-ly' at the end makes people lose any idea of correct spelling.

This book is not about the most common mistakes people make and making fun of them, har har har. This is about the mistakes people make because teachers, scholars and journalists have by example or more explicitly shown us what the correct version of writing is--even when it is totally wrong. The classic example is already on the book cover: "Between you and I." People are terrified of saying "between you and me", because for some reason it sounds... uneducated. As if the accusative case is somehow more uneducated than the infinitive. So, "between you and me" is actually grammatically more correct, but for some reason we have been scared into saying "between you and I", although we'd never say "they stood between you and he" (it would be "him"). Still, The Chicago Manual of Style states that both "you and me" and "you and I" are correct when used with "between". So... carry on! (Otherwise, a simple way to check this rule is to drop the first part and see, whether you would still say "I" or "me". Such as, "They told you and I a story" would be wrong, because you'd never say "They told I a story.")

The book is structured like a dictionary, going down the alphabet one offense at a time. Here are some choicest examples of Cochrane's writing:

Irregardless This clownish word is so well disguised as a sensible one that it quite often slips by unnoticed...

Literally Literally means... literally. If we [...] say, "They were literally glued to their television screens," then we are using the word in literally the opposite of its correct sense and committing a serious abuse of our language.

me, us him/her, them A strange disease is afflicting supposedly educated writers and speakers of English... It takes the form of extreme nervousness amounting almost to terror concerning the use of me, us, him/her and them...

moment in time, at this This is an example of what might be called "speaking on autopilot." The phrase this moment automatically triggers the follow-up, in time. But if a moment is not "in time", then what is it in? [...F]or ordinary mortals it is surely enough to say at this moment or even, simply, now.

Like I said, I'm reading through The Chicago Manual of Style, the editors' Bible, and I'm not even half-way down the book, but many of these issues from Cochrane's book have already appeared. Things have surely changed from when I was taught to compose an academic paper or any text in English, for that matter: no longer is split infinitives a bad thing--or rather, they never were. Somewhere along the lines teachers just adopted this rule, and thus generations of clumsy sentences were produced. Same with conjunctions--no longer is it considered bad writing to begin sentences with Ands and Buts (the latter is actually a preferred option for However).

As a descriptivist, I do think that written grammar rules should not completely dictate what is "right or wrong" in language. It is a mode of language that is preferred for writing, and the preference is highly influenced by the language of those who are in power, but as we hear every day, people get by communicating with each other without knowing how to use the gerund perfectly. Most of the time when people talk about "bad" English they don't mean cases where someone has written flaunt instead of flout (which is the kind of bad English this book is about)--most people think that bad English is whatever is non-standard, which then causes unreasonable prejudices against people who do not speak standard, textbook English. I think it would be better if kids were taught in school that there is a time and a place for all the language they use--but they just have to know that different registers work at different places. Text message language is gr8t 4 txt msgs, because it uses the precious 140 characters smartly. Still, it cannot be used to write your job application, because that requires a whole 'nother register. Likewise, you cannot talk to your grandmother as if you were talking to your academic peers (unless, of course, your grandmother is one!), and you probably should refrain from slangy expressions in front of a lecture audience, especially if you come from a different region. Not only would they maybe not understand what your slang expression means, they might chalk it down to you being an ignorant baffoon--when you most certainly are not that. It is unfortunate that mere word choices or sentence structures create such ideas, but that's how it is.

Here is, by the way, that skit I referred to. I love it!