Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Another book year over, and a new one just begun...

2010 books...

1. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. 
2. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson. 
3. Pienin yhteinen jaettava by Pirkko Saisio. 
4. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.
5. Naïve. Super. by Erlend Loe
6. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
7. Doppler by Erlend Loe
8. Sopan syvin olemus by Anna-Leena Härkönen
9. Tatun ja Patun oudot aakkoset by Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen
10. No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
11. Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane
12. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
13. Distress by Greg Egan
14. Maata meren alla by Riikka Ala-Harja
15. Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz
16. The Art of Compelling Fiction: How to Write a Page-Turner by Christopher T. Leland
17. The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty
18. When You See an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda
19. The American Girl by Monika Fagerholm
20. Retail Anarchy: A Radical Shopper's Adventures in Consumption by Sam Pocker
21. The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson
22. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda
23. Bilingual: Life and Reality by François Grosjean
24. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch
25. Melua Mekossa by Leila and Annukka
26. Sen Pituinen Se by Leila and Annukka
27. Kutsuvat sitä rakkaudeksi by Arno Kotro
28. Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese
29. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Elster
30. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
31. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
32. Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris
33. Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama by Tim Wise
34. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
35. Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor
36. Colorblind by Tim Wise
37. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
38. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
39. Translation in Practice: a symposium edited by Gill Paul
40. Laulajan paperit by Anja Erämaa
41. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal
42. How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid T hem--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
43. Totta by Riikka Pulkkinen
44. Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich
45. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

...and then on to blather about them

I had set aside a pile of books to read during the holidays, but I ended up knitting more than reading. On the craziest knitting day I finished a pair of socks and two hats. Although I don't enjoy snowy conditions in Seattle, I do enjoy the ability to finally knit to my heart's content, and thus be dressed warmly when I go out. This just meant that I did not meet my on-and-off remembered goal of reading one book a week.

Looks like this year was spent reading nonfiction, and I know why: when I read one interesting nonfiction book, I have to check out all the other, interesting books that the author mentions. That's why I have a lot of books on language and writing style in the list this year. The authors just kept on mentioning other good books on the topic, so what could I do but get on the library website, place a hold on them and  read them as soon as they became available? Besides, most of those books were simply smart (and smart-ass) and laugh-out-loud funny, so I wanted to keep on going back for that fun-high I got while reading them.

Other trends are equally visible: I got really into the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, and somewhere along the way we began to watch True Blood and I consequently began to read the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are ridiculously entertaining snack reading between any other books.

You can also tell when I have been at the library and just grabbed a very random book from the shelf just because of the cover or a funny title. Among these is the Elephants on Acid book.

Although I wrote about them, I did not list any of the editing text books or knitting and crocheting books that I read: I figured that I had to read the editing books, so they did not qualify as fun reading (although they were so much fun), and I never read any of the knitting books from cover to cover. I usually just read the little blurbs about the projects, and left the majority of the book--pages and pages of instructions--unread. I know, my listing rules are very arbitrary.

I see alarmingly little science fiction on this list! For this I have the wonderful Finnish book club to blame: I have probably read more Finnish books in these past two years than I ever did in Finland, which is great. Unfortunately science fiction is not a big genre in Finnish literature, and it's still looked down upon over there as a kind of a "Space aliens and intergalactic wars" type of a pulp genre.

The other culprit is my work: as I've begun to move more and more toward editing fiction, it's natural that I would have read a lot about fiction writing and writing styles.

I do have a Damien Knight collection waiting for me, now that I have no books checked out from the library and can focus on books that are on our bookshelves. Then again, I know that one book that I have been eager to read will soon become active in my Holds list at the library. Unfortunately, library books with their deadlines trump the books at home.

To keep up another tradition, I also messed up the numbering in the entries. The list above has them fixed.

I hope that Santa brought everyone something good to read for the winter chill/balmy Southern hemisphere days. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

On eating meat

46. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case. (What assumptions did you make upon seeing the title of this book?)"

The Omnivore's Dilemma discussed how the age-old dilemma has changed after the emergence of factory farming and big-time operations: instead of learning from past generations what's good and safe to eat, now we learn from big marketing campaigns. And they are not always so truthful. The Dilemma urged people to be more aware of what they eat.

Safran Foer goes one step further in addition to discussing the health effects of eating factory-farmed meat. As Pollan pointed out in Dilemma and Safran Foer hinted at in the quote above, people probably would not want to eat meat anymore once they'd see what happens in massive slaughterhouses. Safran Foer then poses a question of ethics and conscience: after you have read this book, and all these stories from farmers (both factory and small-time, and their workers), from him visiting a variety of farms, from researchers, are you still able to eat factory farmed meat with good conscience?

In Safran Foer's view, the acceptable answers to this are yes or no. If your conscience is fine with eating basically tortured animals, then that's cool. At least you have had that dialog with yourself, and you have decided that the rights of your taste buds go beyond the rights of those animals. If your conscience is not fine with that notion, then that's cool too: you might want to start figuring out what would be a more conscientious way of eating for you. However, if the book moves the reader enough to start buying small-farm meat in order to assuage further animal suffering and risks of promoting world-wide animal-borne illnesses, but the same reader still ends up sometimes buying factory-farmed meat because it's more convenient in certain situations... to these people Safran Foer says, You didn't get my point. (He actually does explicitly say this.)

After reading the book, I felt I could hear Safran Foer's voice in each chapter: When I show you this, how does it effect your view on what you eat? Think hard now, because I don't want you to look away and ignore this. Made up your mind? Don't tell me the answer! OK, let's move onto the next case.

Like he says in the early pages of the book, this is not a clear-cut case for vegetarianism (although he is a vegetarian). This is a case for people making conscious choices about what they eat, and to be content with the choices they have made.

What I found especially enjoyable in this book was that Safran Foer gave a clear voice to people on different sides of the isle. There are little vignettes--some pages long--from all the people he met that read like letters: there is a vegetarian slaughterhouse builder, who tells us why he has chosen this path; there is a vegetarian hog farmer, who battles between her choice of giving people a more humane option of consuming meat while still condoning some of the inhumane practices that come with the territory; there is a factory farmer who understands where small-time farmers are coming from, but not how they are going to feed the whole world cheaply, and so on. Just when you  have read one of these letters and go "Yeah, that's a good point!" an opposing view is offered in the next letter. And not once is this used as a simple "good guys vs. bad guys" dialogue. The reader can relate to the concerns of everyone, even if he or she does not agree with everything they say.

I lived on a farm, so I have had to already negotiate with myself on eating meats. Then again, I lived on a tiny farm in a small country, where there are no feedlots or massive, massive slaughterhouses that employ illegal immigrants cheaply (at least there is no expose yet on that!). The negotiating I did was based on different factors than the ones I need to base my views on here in the United States. The book definitely made me feel uncomfortable about my eating habits, which is a strong case for pointing out that I am not entirely at ease with the choices I make.

A book I did not really read.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal

I can't really count this toward my read books, because I merely skimmed it. This was not because I did not enjoy the book: quite the contrary, I agreed with everything Crystal said, and I liked his often humorous style, too. I just already knew the arguments he was making (that often fall, unfortunately, to deaf ears), so I just ended up looking for bits that I was not familiar with yet.

This book is basically Crystal being puzzled at his friend and colleague Lynne Truss's surprisingly militarist view on language in Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The problem with being a prescriptivist like Truss is that other equally militant prescriptivists are going to tear you apart once they find even an itty-bitty error in your writing, and they will call your bluff for being any kind of an authority on language. And that's what happened to Truss in reviews: her book was ruthlessly taken apart by other militant linguists who pointed out that her comma usage was terrible, and that she often fell for the same mistakes that she accused others of. All that is left is people fighting about who is being most vigilant, instead of people fighting for clearly communicated language.

As Crystal points out, a lot of the times correct and incorrect English usage is based on simply arbitrary rules, created by someone who just harbored a personal grudge toward a certain writing style. As an example, Shakespeare often ended his sentences with a preposition and split his infinitives (because it makes sense in English, unlike in Latin from where this rule was adopted). Likewise a lot of other, great writers of the past. But if you bring this up to the language pundits, they have an answer ready for you: See, even the great writers make big mistakes. So really, you don't stand a chance to ever writing properly. Only if you read and read [the manual of my devising, nobody else's] will you become a better human being.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Humor time

45. Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich

This is a collection of short, humorous vignettes. I read it in the Finnish translation Kusiaistarha, and I think I need to read the original before I can really say how good a humorist Rich is: I often found myself translating phrases back into English to see, if the voice was more fitting in the other language. Still, the translator did a heck of a job, because most of the time the vocabulary used in it was simply hilarious. I especially enjoyed the very first story, Abraham's awkward soliloquy to Iisac after having tried to murder him, beginning with "Would you like to have some ice cream, Iisac?"

Also, the short exchanges about old-timey measuring units were fun.
- I'd like a suit.
- Great. How tall are you?
- Well... about one king length.
- Could you specify that?
- Not really.
- God damn it. 
- I also need gloves. My hand is... about one hand.
- Yeah I can tell.
(Apologies if this does not match the original text.)

The funny beginning soon turned to a mild disappointment, as some of the stories were just... blah. (Ooh, a little oblivious kid's point of view to the hockey players his slutty mom brings home... How predictable.)

Still, when the stories were not a rehash of an old theme they were fun.

There's one bone I have to pick with this book, though, and it has nothing to do with Rich or the translator. It's the publisher, Like. I have never in my life seen a published book that has its formatting so out of whack. I don't know what the hell happened, because Like books are usually good-quality stuff, although they come from a small publishing house.

I mean, look at this (red marks mine). And this is the least that happens in every single story where there is dialog: the first line is always fine, but then the rest are indented. It looks like someone could not turn off Word's auto-formatting, and just thought, Screw this. And it went through the publishing machine!

(I can envision only two situations where high school math would be helpful
Murderer: I'm insane. Solve this trigonometry puzzle or I'll kill you.
Me: Can I use a graphing calculator?
Murderer: Sure, of course. Oh yeah--and here's a list of all the formulas you need.
Me: Great, thanks. OK, let's see here... sin2x = 2cosxsinx?
Murderer: Correct. You may go.)

Sometimes, when bullets are used, it looks like this:
- Hi, how are you?
-   Hi, I'm good.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Of the narratives we create

44. Totta by Riikka Pulkkinen ("True")

I often read because I find the story intriguing, or because the book makes me laugh, or because the characters are interesting. Then, once in a while, there are those gems that I end up reading because there are just so many sentences that taste good in my mouth, and I wish to write them all down somewhere. In their simple appearance and unpretentious word choices they still hold secrets about the world.

This is one of those books. I did not wish it to end, because I knew I'd regret that I did not write all those sentences down and they would run out soon.

Pulkkinen's story is simple on the surface: grandmother Elsa, a renowned psychologist, is dying of cancer, and the rest of the family attempts to come to terms with losing her. During a wine-induced dress-up game with her granddaughter Anna a dress belonging to mysterious Eeva is found in the closet. Elsa decides she is too close to death to be harboring any more secrets, and confesses first to Anna, who becomes burdened with information that even her mother does not know. What's more, it is evident that her and Eeva's stories are going to collide, one way or another.

What unfolds is a love story, a thriller, or a psychological journey into how we form images of other people in our heads, and how their stories intertwine with our own so much that we can't even tell our personalities apart anymore. By projecting our own fears and desires onto the lives of people we do not know we become familiar with them, although at the same time we wipe the real people out of the picture and insert ourselves there instead.

Elsa, the focal point of the novel, steps back and lets everyone else use their voice, to commiserate, to grieve, to love and to interpret what others think of them. The reader has access to Elsa's thoughts only through dialog, whereas everyone else's thoughts are visited. But who does the visiting? Toward the end, the narrator begins to slip and the story unravels.

A refreshing unreliable narrator and beautiful language demand reader's attention and a second read as soon as the book covers are closed, just to see all the subtle hints that he or she might have missed. Just as with Pulkkinen's first novel, Raja, I hope that someone buys the English speaking rights to this quickly and gets it out into the wider world.

I'm looking forward to Pulkkinen's third novel to see if her theme that has been now been very prevalent in both of the previous books surfaces again; namely, that of an affair between a female student and an older man of a higher status (in the arts, in both cases).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Giggles all around!

43. How Not to Write a Novel. 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

"...if you have perversely refused to use the lessons offered in this book as we inteded, and instead avoided each of the mistakes we describe, perhaps you now find yourself a published author. In that case, our follow-up book, How Not to Make a Living Wage, will be indispensable."

Let that quote act as a word of warning: this book is a total smart-ass. And I love it.

Especially in the world of fiction the ground rules for what is proper and what is not, both grammatically and topics-wise, keep on changing. Back in the early 1900s you could only refer to a sex scene by having the characters disappear for a while and then return again. Now, that kind of a treatment would seem awfully prudish. Style-wise, if you try to write a work of fiction by following Strunk&White, you'll soon be in trouble. This book thus earns a tip of my hat: it acknowledges that there is a multitude of ways to write good novels, but there are only a handful of ways that will definitely have your prospective editor throw your novel out the window in disgust.

Also note: the authors are actual editors who have gone through piles and piles of terrible writing (and chucked them out), so they know what they are talking about.

The book is written as a guide to how to never get published, ranging from examples of boring setups, flat or too perfect/too disgusting characters to airing out weird conspiracy theories with no connection to the plot or never doing any background work about the people or settings the author writes about. Each section begins with a brief description of the possible downfalls, and then introduces all of them via examples written by the authors. Which usually are, like I said, very smart-ass and full of bad writing beyond just the problem they illustrate. A beginning of one such example that made me almost spill my coffee:

Candida couldn't help but think that her condition was a mixed blessing...

Yup. You'll get a kick out of all the names and the misuse of foreign words in these examples. Their headings also gave me a chuckle. Some examples:
"Failing the Turing Test" (writing a character who shows no emotions)
"'And One Ring to Bind Them!', Said the Old Cowpoke" (about changing genre in midstream)
"The Gum on the Mantelpiece" (of course a reference to Chekhov's gun)

Also, there is a special section called "If There Must Be a Cat, Do Not for the Love of God Name It..."

I'd highly recommend this to any unpublished author for the insight it gives, any published author for double-checks and sighs of relief and finally, for everyone who just likes funny writing. Also, this should be required reading for anyone who tries their hand at the Bulwer-Lytton "It was a dark and stormy night... competition!