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.


  1. Heh, I read Not Buying It--I'm sure I blogged it, too, but can't remember much of what I must've written... but yeah, there were frustrating things about the book! Like when she bursts into tears b/c it's spring & she can't buy any clothes for a new look. I think it was a powerful demonstration of how ingrained the desire to shop is, in certain segments of society, but... yeah, whiny!

  2. Maybe I can track it down from your tags!
    Based on your description, and the part at the very beginning where she is unable to go ski because she can't find her SmartWool socks, the book had potential of being an introverted look on how badly consumerism has affected us--especially people who freak over brands that much. But, what I now have read in reviews, she hardly recognizes the Crazy Consumer in herself, but instead readily places blame on others, makes fun of free entertainment like open mics, and randomly rants on the Bush administration. Now, I like to blame them for a lot, too, but incoherent rambling in a book is just not my thing... I liked the first chapter or so where she talks about how consumerism has gone overboard and I did like her declaration of cutting down on spending--and then I read that they have two houses, three cars, expensive clothes and I went... "Uh, not much of a sacrifice you're doing here." I guess I would've stayed with the book had it had a different title.

    One reviewer on Amazon said that this book was only good as a study on the ME-generation and in seeing, how some people can't live without things. Maybe I should read it from that point of view? :)