Saturday, June 26, 2010

21. The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson 
Geoff Nicholson ties his own interest and motivations for walking together with great and zany historical walks in this semi-autobiographical book about, well, walking. Although such a basic human activity, using your feet as a method of transportation or going out for a walk for fun might get you odd looks in the United States. Walking is often done on treadmills, or then while wearing spandex--and then the motivation is to look good. Whatever happened to just aimlessly wandering down streets, wonders Nicholson. If you are wondering whether this will be yet another curmudgeonly book about "things ain't what they used to be" lamentations, you are happy to find that this is not the case. Nicholson does not tell everyone should be walking--heck, he lives in L.A. and knows that sometimes it is impossible to walk without being accosted by the police who think you are up to no good, strolling about like that. Instead, he talks about what he finds so enjoyable about walking, and in the midst of this narrative he takes some side steps into psychogeography, into people who walk streets in patterns, and he also looks at the history of professional walking and odd bets, such as "bet I can walk around the world while pushing a baby stroller and while I wear an iron mask." That sort of a thing. 

Walking is a wonderful activity; a cheap hobby that can be done at any age (providing that you have learned how to walk, or you are able to do it). Still, it should not be looked down upon: the author himself got his arm broken in a manner that puzzled surgeons, only because he fell over while walking. His mother's death was most likely also sped up by her insistent walk up a Sheffield hill during winter storm. 

The book is a fun and clever read about a simple aspect of human life, and the meaning of it for people, from Hollywood stars to street photographers and speed walkers. The only thing that made me suspect the author's cleverness was the point where he refers to "evidence" about what "really" was said between Houston and Neil Armstrong--the exchange Nicholson reports sounds oddly similar to this satire by The Onion.... And no, Nicholson does not seem to be joking, as he also states that who knows, maybe the evidence will turn out to be a hoax. Considering his writing style, had he been joking he probably would have mentioned the article by its name, or the publication, but this was just an unquoted reference to it. So. That was kind of sad. 

22. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda

Yagoda is trying to tackle an issue that is almost untackle-able: what is style in writing, how do we recognize good and bad style (is there objectively such?), and how do authors cultivate their styles. He knows that this is a crazy task, but still goes ahead with it, interviewing numerous authors from all walks of writing (journalists, novelists, even lawyers) and giving his personal opinion on all matters of style. Poor guy. He knows the answer already at the beginning: good style is whatever people appreciate. And different people probably don't appreciate the same styles. 

The best thing about this book is the extensive interviews of writers, who talk about their personal writing styles, who they look up to, and how they have cultivated their styles. I once tried reading a Bill Bryson book, and I got so annoyed with the whininess, the all-knowingness and the stuff he presented as "facts" that I could not finish it, and I have not touched his books ever since. After reading this book, however, I might give him another go, because he sounded like a sane, non-whiny person in the interviews, and talked about how the "I" in his books is not really him, but a very exaggerated character of himself. I might be able to read his books again if I think of him as a character who is pompous and ethnocentric to get you riled up...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Adventures in swampy lands of Finland and consumerism

19. The American Girl by Monika Fagerholm (read in Finnish, "Amerikkalainen tyttö")
Hazy and dream-like, the story takes place in a Swedish-speaking Finnish community in the 1960s, progressing all the way to the 2000s. Although the story starts off as a whodunnit when an American girl visiting the village disappears, and the murder suspects and accusers cannot handle the tragedy, it soon transforms into a coming-of-age story of two girls who meet through happenstance and begin to emulate this mysterious American Girl Eddie first through childhood games of dress-up and later, as the story of the missing American girl unfolds, in a more sinister manner and subconsciously.

All the people in the story are storytellers who are used to recounting their relationship with the missing girl to numerous strangers and friends throughout the years, up to a point where they are not even sure what is fiction and what is reality. I would love to talk about my reading experience on that more, but it would be spoilerish...

I especially enjoyed the anonymity of many people and places: many of the characters are referred to only as generic titles or nicknames (the Black Sheep), and some even have invented names for themselves (Inget Herrman, which is quite obvious to anyone who knows a lick of Swedish). Houses are called by their geographical locations or how they look like, such as the "Glass palace" and "The House on the Second Cape" and of course, "The House at the Sludge Edge" (I have no idea how these are actually translated into English). This works perfectly in the storyteller-framework: obviously, someone called a Swamp Mother would not be a nice person, and The Glass Palace would be something to envy by the people at the House at the Sludge Edge. They are not just places and people who exist in this story, but they are places and people in the lives of each of us readers--we can just fill in the blanks.

The story is terribly tragic, but also terrifyingly beautiful. At least the Finnish translation was so masterfully done that I could have read the story merely for the language used in it. I know someone who has read the English translation, and she said she did not enjoy the translation very much. I'd be interested in checking it out, because this book is just amazing.

20. Retail Anarchy: A Radical Shopper's Adventures in Consumption by Sam Pocker
How do dollar stores cheerfully charge a dollar for a 25-cent pack of gum? How do you get an entire car full of pudding for free?

Reading this made me think of this yuckily clichéd phrase: Sam Pocker is the modern-day Robin Hood! Except for the stealing part. In this book, he completely legally gets stuff for free from stores (or even makes money by buying items), and then he donates his carloads of cereal, shampoo and teriyaki sauce to the needy. His motivation is not all that altruistic, though: he is a consumer with a vengeance, and he is out to get the Big Box retailers. After getting gradually more frustrated with Big Boxes convincing the consumer that he or she is a part of their "family" and then offering nothing else in return except the privilege to buy their overpriced junk, Pocker goes out to the stores armed with the knowledge that most stores are so badly managed that they don't realize that combining a manufacturer's coupon and a store coupon AND a rebate would make the store actually pay the consumer to get the stuff off their shelves. In one week alone, Pocker makes $200 dollars by simply using coupons that are out there for everyone to grab.
Some have commented on this not being fair--you should pay something for merchandise and not cheat the stores. To this Pocker counters with stories of how big companies are more than happy to lie to their customers to get them pay more for products that are available for less next door. Why should the consumer act fair if the service provider doesn't? And constantly Pocker reminds the reader: not once has he broken the law by using these coupons and he gives the products away to people who need them. Which is something you can't say of the QFC's Thanksgiving program.

That made me sick. Have you seen those brown bags at QFC around Thanksgiving? You take one to the cashier, they ring it up for $10 and it's considered food that you have bought for homeless people. Except that the store keeps the money, and the value of goods inside those bags is nowhere near $10. Once Pocker opened one of these bags to see what was in them, and was appalled to see that the value of the goods (straight out of QFC shelves) was about $3. In his mind, we'd be better off buying $10 worth of stuff and donating it to a homeless shelter, rather than letting the store give the shelters crap and make a huge profit out of it. Gross. Again, this book came out in 2007 so I just hope that QFC has changed their policy since and stocks the bags better.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot, although Pocker's coupon enthusiasm goes a bit overboard for me sometimes (such as when he abandons a whole cartful of orange juice in the parking lot because he got them for free with coupons, and only then did he realize that he cannot donate it anywhere), as did his usage of "lame", "slut" and other supposedly hip but derogatory language. Still, I got a kick out of it, and I think this book would be useful not just for people who try to save a penny, but for everyone: we should be more aware of how we are manipulated by advertising, and people should learn to do more price comparison instead of being blindly brand-loyal. I especially enjoyed the section where Pocker asks teachers why they don't give parents the supply list for next school year at the end of the previous school year, when notebooks and pens are about third of the price compared to the first week of school. The teachers had not even realized that there is a price shift (July/August: old stock is sold for cheap out of the way of the new stuff, which is then sold during the first week of school for lots more). And these same teachers were teaching kids how to manage their money and save it!

A book I did not finish: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine
A really interesting title, isn't it? I was all antsy when I saw this at the library, especially after having read the Pocker book which was so much fun, and which had a really good point. So I was wondering, how on Earth did someone not shop for a year? 

Meet my arch-nemesis, the bad thesis statement. On page seven, the author states what she is set out to do: "Starting January 1, 2004, Paul and I will purchase only necessities for sustenance, health, and business--groceries, insulin for our diabetic cat, toilet paper, Internet access." (Emphasis mine)

What? Are you planning on cutting out anything? Even the toilet paper option becomes a debate: do we really have to buy the store brand instead of the really nice kind?

Although it's probably supposed to be witty banter, the chapter that debates whether wine, hair gel (of course their hair will be professionally cut despite the project) and olives constitute a necessity only managed to piss me off. This couple is so privileged with their two homes (one a large farm house in Vermont) and three cars that they cannot even imagine a year without paying for a movie, so the rationalization begins immediately: it might be OK to go see movies if they are (a) organized by a non-profit, local cinema and (b) if paying a ticket would be a donation, which then means they did not actually buy anything. I get it. If we can redefine what "buying" means, then this project is eeeasy! How insulting is that to people who actually have to save to buy necessities? Ugh. And it did not take too long for the author to rationalize why they absolutely need three cars, either.

Essentially, they are not even going to plan on cutting back enough to be inconvenienced.

Ms. Levine: Please change the title of your book to My Year Without Shopping Every Single Thing I See and Can Afford, and I'll get back to you. Nothing, save crappy writing, annoys me more about books than false advertising. I wanted to read a book about someone trying to not buy anything; not a book about someone debating whether wine is a necessity just because her boyfriend is Italian.

I might give it a better go at some point, but right now this book fell to the bottom of my reading list. I might glance through to see what happens in it. The premise in general sounded fine, and it sounded like there was going to be some righteous rage on the pages about mindless consumerism. Unfortunately, the first pages just seem like the rantings of a person who has no idea what "living without" actually means.

ETA: Haha! Wish I had read the Amazon reviews of this book before I started reading it and wrote my entry. They are hilarious, and pretty much everyone calls the author a whiny, patronizing yuppie. I'm so glad I read Colin Beavan's No Impact Man earlier: not buying stuff is possible, and it can be done with less flailing and having temper tantrums.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Still on the language-and-style bender

17. The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty
Isn't that the best author name ever? Mignon? Makes me think of these luxurious Easter eggs we used to have, made by Fazer: they were not merely chocolate eggs, but real egg shells filled to the brim with delicious chocolate, and sealed back up again. And they were called Mignon eggs.


Fogarty's idea is this: if there are so many devotional books, which encourage you to read one page per day to find some inspiration for your everyday life, why not have one for grammar? So, each teeny tiny entry (max. half a teeny page) is designed to be read on a certain week day. Most of the time Mondays are dedicated for punctuation, Tuesdays for vocab and spelling, and Wednesdays for word rock stars (such as the man who maintains the Language Log).

It's a really cute book, and the tiny entries are able to pack a lot of grammatical punch into them by explaining the rule in one or two memorable sentences (that usually have to do with the antics of an Aardvark and a snail called Squiggle...). Fogarty also takes style to task, and reminds the reader every now and then that although one usage of a word or grammatical issue is preferred or more prevalent, there are other options available that are not wrong--people are just told that they are. She suggests ways in which you may use a word without getting a lecture from either the prescriptivists or the descriptivists. Fun!

Apparently, she also has a podcast. I have to check it out.

18. When You See an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda

"In the end, it came down to two potential titles. Number one, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Number two, Pimp My Ride."

Already that had me in stitches, and the book had barely even started! Yagoda's wry humor and observations really carry this wonderful book on style. It tackles style of speech one part at a time (adjectives, nouns, interjections, adverbs--the whole lot is there), and tries--much like Fogarty--to build a bridge between descriptivists and prescriptivists. Yagoda just has a different approach: he rather likes to point out why both of the sides are wrong and way too extreme. I like it! Also, I have to like anyone who takes a stab at Dan Brown at every possible turn just in the name of giving examples on bad style*, and who refers to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as a notable source for linguistic trickery.

Instead of going on lengthy lectures, Yagoda occasionally selects a punchier approach for bringing the point home. As an example, he counters the old "Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition" silliness with a couple of jokes (among the more obvious reasons for why this is a silly rule). Here's one:
"A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?'"

The title is attributed to Mark Twain. Oftentimes, adjectives are not encouraged because they make a writer lazy: it's easier to say that a character is angry, instead of showing the signs of anger in the character. Or it's easier (and thus much more vague) to say that someone is old, instead of writing how the age shows in the character. Although Yagoda also has his criticism toward adverbs, he makes a case for why they and adjectives are sometimes needed. Additionally, he talks about a bunch of words that are adverbs but that are often used by the same people who abhor adverbs--they just don't happen to end in the classic -ly.

My favorite bits were in the interjections section, where Yagoda ponders about the versatility of those short utterances. He quotes a popular Internet meme among military folk on the Marine utterance "hoo-ah", whose meaning ranges from "Sir, yes Sir!" to "that is enough of your drivel." It's pretty amazing that one word (or rather, an utterance), can have such variety in meaning, and we all seem to be able to get those nuances. If "hoo-ah" is too foreign, think of the word "hey", and in how many ways it can be used.

I would love to quote this book here endlessly, but I'll just leave it at this vague, adjectival description: it's a really fun book to read, overall.

*The first of the at least four jabs I noticed: Yagoda writes about how great American novels often begin with the definite article, the, instead of the more British tradition of a.

He lists some great American novels, and ends the list with "...The Color Purple, The Corrections and The Da Vinci Code. (Just kidding about that last one.)"

Haha! This foreshadows the later chapters, where Dan Brown is taken to task more than once for his horrid writing style.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On writing

I have read a few books on writing before. I think fondly of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, which is an absolutely wonderful guide for writing--not that I know anything of writing fiction. It was just a delightful read.
We were at Value Village the other day, and I grabbed this book just on a whim: I'm a translator, but I have never translated fiction. I would love to expand into fiction, but I also know that in order to be successful, I will need to know how to create fiction myself. How else is one able to either copy styles over into another language, or the feelings the original author is trying to convey? Creative writing is also recommended for editors, who would like to become fiction editors. So I figured, why not?

16. The Art of Compelling Fiction--How to Write a Page-Turner by Christopher T. Leland
This book is more than ten years old, but a fun read anyway. The chapters each deal with one issue, and the chapters end with a handful of exercises that the writer can do, from studying his or her favorite books and recognizing certain elements in them, to analyzing the writer's own material and choices and then writing a story about a character that never seems to appear in the stories. Leland gives an example of a man who always wrote stories about 20-something surfer dudes who had a lot of play in the world of women. Those characters were well-rounded, but whenever he tried writing female characters, he could only produce flat, stereotypical creatures. So, he ended up choosing a character as far away from his usual style as possible to practice: a retired, single woman named Gloria.
I also liked the bit about letting characters speak in their own voices, and become central figures if that feels right. I do believe this is what happened with the TV show House. Originally, it was supposed to be about Wilson, House's friend and colleague, but in the progress of writing the script, House was just too delicious a character to give only the occasional appearance. Luckily the writers listened to that nagging voice of giving House more space, et voila: success.
Because the author is a fiction author himself as well as a teacher of creative writing, he has a lot of anecdotal evidence on his personal failures and successes (and those of his students'), which all prove his points.

Also, I have to admit to liking anyone who thinks that Holden Caulfield is, although an iconic character, also "obnoxious." Hehe.